Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why Bob Rae Should Lead the Liberal Party (in his own words)

From today's Toronto Star

Why I should lead Liberal party
Nov. 30, 2006. 01:00 AM

I am offering a candidacy that is based on experience, sound judgment and a vision that is focused on our priorities, not divisive debate.

In this campaign I have been talking about a style of leadership that promotes the best traditions, values and aspirations of Canada, at home and on the world stage.

1 - I know and love this country. I have Canada in my bones and have been fortunate to have so many opportunities both in and out of public office to serve over the years.

For almost 30 years in public life, I have had a chance to work on many of the major public policy issues of our time. From Burnt Church to softwood lumber, terrorism to education, the Constitution to federal-provincial relations, I have been forced to think of practical, workable solutions to difficult problems.

Every project has introduced me to more Canadians, taught me about what is meaningful to us, and shown me who we are as a people.

2 - My experiences have taught me many lessons and prepared me to do and offer more. It is incumbent on a leader to demonstrate that he or she has the experience and the insight to deal with the most critical issues and the rigours of leadership.

I know what it means to be a leader, run a government and work constructively on the national stage with First Ministers to build a better Canada.

I am the wiser for my experience in public life and believe that we must apply the lessons derived from the early 1990s, which were a difficult time for Canada. I also believe I bring more than a little political experience to the arena, something that can help guide a party through the rapids of electoral politics.

I have been elected eight times to federal and provincial Parliaments and public opinion shows that Canadians know me and know what I stand for.

I bear, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, the scars of having fought in the arena. But the arena is where one learns how to fight for what one believes in — and how to win.

3 - Finally, there are the beliefs that motivate me to win, fundamental beliefs about what we owe each other as Canadians: a commitment to the public good; to making Canada more than the sum of its parts; to sharing opportunity and prosperity, especially with the most vulnerable; to helping Canadian students and workers to be competitive in a global economy; and to being a constructive presence on the world stage.

I have learned from hard experience the costs of the ideology that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives want to impose on Canada.

I am running for the leadership of the Liberal party because I have learned that Canada needs a party that is committed to change, that is open to all Canadians, and that understands that politics and governing are about making life better for one's fellow citizens.

It is about bringing people together with a common purpose. It is not about theories or divisive ideologies.

The Liberal party is optimistic, builds on hope, not fear, and believes in opportunity for everyone.

The Conservatives are attempting to take us down paths that do not reflect our strengths or speak to our most pressing challenges.

On foreign policy, Canada's voice has gone missing under the Conservatives. Most Canadians support Kyoto, child care, and rights for minorities. They want to see us investing in education, health care, and research and innovation. Canadians want and deserve an alternative that is hopeful, generous, dedicated to building prosperity and sharing opportunity.

I want to lead this party in shaping that alternative so we can get Canada back on track.

Bob Rae is a former NDP premier of Ontario. He was the first chairman of the Forum of Federations, a position he held for seven years.


Smearing Candidates by Alleging They're Smearing Candidates

Rumors are flying that supporters of various candidates are pulling dirty tricks against other candidates.

Some of the so-called dirty tricks don't sound so dirty to me, like the infamous memo that states, "If you are having second thoughts about your candidate - Don't vote on the first ballot" which has now morphed into rumors that so-called Stop Iggy groups are urging Ignatieff delegates to go into the voting booth and yell at the top of their lungs that they hate Ignatieff.

Lots of allegations are being made with no proof. This is just a tricky way to smear the person you're accusing. If you have proof, give it. If you have no proof, I'd say you should be very careful who you accuse.

Here's an example. Posts like this one are outrageous, and the guy doesn't even allow comments. Not only does he provide no proof, but he claims that organizers are doing this. In fact, he implies that Bob himself is directing this. Come on. Supporters might get up to shennanigans on their own, but Rae organizers have stated publicly and very clearly that they do not want their supporters to do anything dirty.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Time to Heal Divisons is NOW

We all know what happens when we exit a leadership race with hard feelings about the outcome. We suffered the effects of 1990 for a long time. Some good Liberals (like Sheila Copps) left politics because of the bitter rift. Some people are still caught up in it, arguing against a current candidate because they have supporters on the Chretien side or the Martin side.

Right now we have some bitterness going on. As an example, the CBC web site is reporting that "Ignatieff's supporters suggested rumours of delegates spoiling their first ballots have been invented by opposing camps to bring down the frontrunner." After one person wins and seven people don't, supporters who believe this sort of allegation may believe they were cheated out of victory.

Other examples of bitterness can be found in the comments to this web site, many of which attack me and the candidate I support with a lot more vitriol than thoughtfulness. Libnews virtually gave up reporting on the leadership race because, in their words, "The Liberal blogs have turned into a partisan brawl."

My message to leaders is: Do you want delegates to switch to you on the nth ballot? Do you want to really address the issue of party renewal? Do you want to win the next election? Then make up with each other - publicly. Ensure we are a united party. This means going beyond telling your supporters to not do any dirty tricks. These means sincerely healing rifts and making up.

Update: After seeing a picture of the flyer that's circulating at the convention, I don't see that it's so bad. It's a plain white piece of paper with the words, "If you're having second thoughts about your candidate - Don't vote on the first ballot." If that's really allowed, then I don't see the problem with it. It could apply equally to all supporters.


Setting the Record Straight

Perfect economic storm sunk Rae ship of state

Jordan Grant
Special to The Windsor Star

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A continuing sideshow of the federal Liberal leadership race has been the spectacle of Bob Rae being boxed about the ears over his economic record as premier of Ontario. But a little history please.

In 1989-91 a "perfect storm" of federal initiatives under Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney swept across the land:

- The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement set off a half-decade-long major restructuring of Canadian business.

- The introduction of the GST triggered a seven per cent inflationary surge.

- The Bank of Canada launched a single-minded quest for zero inflation, raising the prime interest rate to an eight-year high of 14.75 per cent. The four per cent spread over U.S. rates pushed the loonie up almost 30 per cent to a five-year high.

This high interest rate-high dollar combination just as the border opened up spelled disaster for Canadian industry. Our manufacturing plants could no longer compete with U.S. producers that quickly scaled-up to become the North American suppliers of everything from appliances to toothpaste.

Job losses from this industrial restructuring were foreseen -- in 1988 Mulroney promised "the finest adjustment and retraining programs that exist anywhere." Instead, the federal government cut billions in unemployment benefits and social and regional programs targeted by the U.S. as unfair trading practices.

The Ontario government would soon be faced with swelling welfare rolls and hard choices. Then-premier David Peterson saw the bad news coming, and called an early election. To everyone's surprise, Bob Rae landed in the hot seat in September 1990.

By the time Rae took office, both the federal and provincial deficits were soaring. In its first budget, the NDP government attempted to cushion the recession by raising welfare rates and fast-tracking capital projects such as Highway 407 and subway expansion.


This added $2 billion to an inherited $8-billion structural deficit. But within a year Rae realized that a provincial government alone had no hope of countering such powerful economic forces.

Rae's government had taken office with an agenda to narrow disparities and improve ordinary people's lives. But with revenues collapsing, it had to focus on measures that would not strain provincial coffers: enhanced environmental standards; labour legislation that, despite initial controversy, contributed to a period of sustained labour peace and improved productivity; a forward-thinking new Planning Act; streamlining Ontario Hydro; and helping to save and restructure critical companies such as Algoma Steel and the Bombardier aircraft plant.

It's remarkable that the government accomplished as much as it did when "every cabinet meeting was dominated by the agenda of even more spending reviews and cuts."

Rae worked to win the confidence of the business community. He discarded some policy proposals (such as public auto insurance) and reached out to understand the business perspective. The government introduced a "market-led" industrial policy focused on enhancing the competitive fundamentals -- education and training, infrastructure, sectoral networking, export promotion, R&D and innovation.

"I was trying to move the party closer to the centre, to accept the market as a fact of life and to understand the need to work out a lasting understanding with business."

This lost Rae the support of some NDPers and was part of a philosophical journey that would eventually lead him to the Liberal party.

With the deficit still ballooning, the premier realized that more drastic spending restraint was needed. Most provincial spending ultimately goes to pay the almost one million people who deliver public services. Rae was faced with equally unpalatable alternatives: let the deficit grow even further and/or raise taxes significantly; or chop services and drastically cut the size of the public payroll.

To his credit, Rae devised a middle strategy termed the "Social Contract." Rather than devastate the lives of tens of thousands of families and drastically impair public services through layoffs, he asked everyone in the public sector to share the burden. Setting out a requirement to save $2 billion a year, he gave all public sector employers and unions an opportunity to find their own means of achieving their share of the savings. The guidelines were: Maintain services, minimize job losses, no general wage increases and protect the income of all employees earning less than $30,000.


Private sector unions had shown a creative flexibility during restructuring negotiations to keep their employers afloat, trading off lower wages or working hours for job security and future benefits. Disappointingly, many of the public sector unions dug in their heels and rejected the Social Contract on principle. For those who couldn't reach agreement, the government imposed up to 12 days a year off without pay (popularly known as "Rae Days").

The Social Contract was a typically Canadian and Liberal-type of creative compromise, but further distanced Rae from the NDP's political base. He regrets that he didn't do more to persuade others of "the necessity and logic and fairness of what we needed to do." From this experience and later mediating many difficult disputes he says, "I have learned the need to listen, to show respect, to accommodate, and to persuade."

Over the next couple of years through attrition and early retirement, the public service shrank substantially and program spending dropped. With a Liberal government in Ottawa shifting monetary policy to support broader economic objectives, the Ontario economy was well on the road to recovery. By 1994 it was leading the country in new investment and economic growth.

But Canadians were still angry about the damage wrought by the recession. They expressed it any way they could -- defeating the Charlottetown accord, turfing not just the NDP in Ontario but the Liberals in Quebec and punishing most other provincial governments. Notably, while Rae's NDP was reduced to 17 seats, Mulroney's Tories lost all their Ontario seats.

Rae has responded to jibes about his economic record with restraint and dignity. Let the facts speak for themselves -- they throw a bigger punch than the hooks and jabs of his detractors.

Jordan Grant is president of Seaton Group and in the 1990s as chairman of the Bank of Canada for Canadians Coalition, provided macro-economic advice to the Chretien/Martin government.


Recap: Why Bob Rae Should Be the Next Liberal Leader

Here are posts I have written over the course of the leadership race about Bob Rae:

Toronto Star Endorses Bob Rae
Ontario Prefers Bob Rae Over Any Other Leadership Candidate
On the Subject of Fighting Back...
Carolyn Bennett Drops Out of the Race to Support Bob Rae
The Big Mo
Thoughts on Recent Doin's
Bob Rae's Record of Governance
Playing to Win
Should Canada Recognize Quebec as a Nation?
Bloggers Talk to Bob
Where Will We Be On December 3?
Why I Left the NDP
Why I Endorse Bob Rae as Federal Liberal Leader
Trash-Talking a Leadership Candidate
Bob Rae on the Muslim Chronicle
What Our Leader Needs to Do


Toronto Star Endorses Bob Rae

Some quotes from today's Toronto Star editorial, Rae Our Choice to Lead the Liberals:

"Bob Rae stands out as the best choice to lead the Liberals because of his vision, progressive policies and experience."

"Giving shape to his activism, Rae has put forward a wide range of progressive policy proposals. Within the context of a balanced federal budget, he would increase grants and loans for higher education, invest in research and development, make better use of immigrants' skills, invest in "green" power, reinvest in cities, increase income tax credits and child support for needy working families, expand employment insurance and bring in catastrophic drug coverage. On Afghanistan and Mideast policy, he has taken sensible stands. And on the Quebec-as-nation issue, he only grudgingly went along with the misguided parliamentary consensus, saying that it was a debate he would not have initiated."

"He offers the best prospect of renewing the party, moving it boldly forward in a socially progressive direction and giving Canadians the government they deserve."


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ever-Evolving English

I was just reading a review of the new James Bond movie in an American publication and noticed a new (to me) spelling. The review described the two women in the movie as a blond and a brunet.

My first thought was that Americans are deFrenchifying their language. That might be true. However, this article says the change is part of the degenederification of English - that blonde/brunette were feminine forms and so are now considered sexist.

(My humble o is that referring to people by their hair color (or any other body part) is sexist, as it is only done with women and is an objectivization.)


The Non-Military Solution

President Bush has convened a committee to try to figure out an exit strategy for Iraq. (Most people do this before invading, not three years later, but we'll leave that for now.) The options that the committee has reportedly come up with are: Go long, Go big, Go home.

First, a small point: this American political sloganeering that's become so popular under Bush is really counter-productive and they should cut it out. Everyday politics are being turned into an endless election campaign.

More importantly, if the committee sincerely wants to solve the mess caused by invading Iraq they need to think about Iraq, and not focus so completely on what is essentially a US domestic concern - how many troops will be there for how long. The timeline of military involvement is an implementation detail and a US election issue, not a solution to the mess caused by the US invasion.

These are the sorts of things they should be discussing:

Benchmarks for rebuilding Iraqi social infrastructure:
- electricity, petrol supply, potable water
- schools, hospitals, government facilities
- roads, public transport
- public security

Benchmarks for creating stability as a state:
- constitution, federal government
- local governments
- civil society (indigenous NGOs)
- free press

Benchmarks for repairing the economy:
- oil industry
- rebuilding small business
- unemployment, poverty

Righting the wrong that was done:
- deal with the issues above
- truth and reconciliation commission (see Exit Strategy) or at least congressional hearings into wrong-doing by US government
- commitment of funds to repair what the US blew up
- apologize!

I'm sure the Great Big Heads on the committee could fill out this list more comprehensively than I can. The point is that these are the sorts of thing they should be talking about.

As to a military timeline, I think the probable best course is to pull out US troops in short order, but to replace them all (at the US expense) with trainers, social workers, analysts, etc - as well as police and security forces - who are Iraqi ex-pats, Arabs, from the UN, or at least from countries that did not support the invasion.

When you hear the figures of 50,000 Iraqis killed directly as a result of the invasion vs 600,000 Iraqis having died who would not have died if not for the invasion, the difference is largely all the people who have died from disease and from lack of shelter, drinkable water, electricity, medical facilities, etc. The US bombed electrical plants and water treatment facilities in 2003. They could have repaired them very quickly. However, repair would have involved local workers. The US chose to hire American contractors to rebuild the facilities, and that meant years during which Iraqis suffered. This is the sort of problem they must reverse. It's the right thing to do, and it's the only way to avoid decades of anti-western revolt in the Arab world.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Rolling the Dice Again

I'm still shaking my head over what transpired over the last month. Three guys playing politics, scheming to get ahead, and all three showing themselves up as bumbling, irresponsible know-nothings who are playing with our country. They are:

1. Ignatieff who started this mess.
2. Harper who took the stakes up a notch.
3. Kennedy who played into Harper's hands.

I watched the coverage of the House of Commons on CPAC and CBC Newsworld tonight, and the thing that really got me was that none of its supporters has come up with a benefit of recognizing that the "Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." Harper went on about how "it's time for national reconciliation." Others in the House said that the motion will "reconfirm our commitment to Canada and to Quebec" and "allow Quebec to grow and to fluourish... and achieve its full potential." But that is all just rhetorical nonsense.

The effects of this piece of idiocy go beyond Quebec flexing its muscles to get more money out of Ottawa. There is also a toll taken on the rest of Canada to be put through another constitutional crisis, even a phony one like this one. Doing this has long-term repercussions, and they're not good.

So who possibly benefits? Ignatieff made a play to look like an important statesman. Harper made another stab at winning votes in Quebec, and had a little fun messing up the Liberal leadership convention, which starts the day after tomorrow. Kennedy gets a couple of days in the sun at a crucial time before the leadership vote.

But I can't help but think that all three of them acted in their own self-interest and not in the interests of Canada.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Clinton, Obama and Gore

We're fast approaching the protracted period during which US presidential candidates are chosen. Early indications are that there will be a higher caliber of candidate than the 2004 season brought out. Or maybe I should phrase that more personally and say - there will be more candidates who I support or am interested by.

The last presidential primary period was excrutiating. The Democrats had something like ten contenders, and I wasn't thrilled by any of them. I think Wesley Clark most closely matched my opinions on policy (in fact, I just filled out a survey on the Presidential Candidate Selector and found that we are in 100% agreement) but none of them inspired me.

Now we have exciting candidates gunning for both the Democrat and Republican tickets.

On the Republican side, there's one guy I like - John McCain. I might not even be unhappy if he won the presidency. Rudolf Giuliani is not, to my mind, a strong candidate - his career was in tatters on September 10, 2001, and he revived it by making some good speeches in New York City, but he still has a poor history of leadership. Perhaps the best thing about the list of Republican hopefuls is that there are (so far) no social conservatives or theo-cons.

But the Democrat side is where the stars shine brightest. If only we could avoid the giant line-up that dooms debates and keep the list to three - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Al Gore - what a primary that would be!


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Should Canada Recognize Quebec as a Nation?

On Wednesday, Harper shocked the country by saying he was asking the House of Commons to approve a resolution recognizing that the "Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." - Toronto Star

Alas, we have someone who hasn't been living in the country for most of the past 30 years to thank for this new "crisis from nowhere." ...It encouraged the Quebec federal wing of the Liberal party — the sponsors of the sponsorship scandal — to think that this "nation" formulation would revive their fortunes. ...Confident in his skills as a strategic thinker, Stephen Harper has tried to one-up both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois by recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada. ...How will this all turn out? It will either fizzle or explode. - Nelson Wiseman

It seems to be a semantic debate that doesn't serve any purpose. - Steven Harper in June, 2006 (from CBC radio)

When Stephen Harper announced that he intended to introduce a motion in the House of Commons declaring that Quebec constituted a nation within Canada, this seemingly profound gesture was more about political tactics than about setting right historic wrongs. Harper deftly inserted himself between the Bloc Quebecois and a divided Liberal party on the eve on its leadership convention with his sudden initiative. - James Laxer

I'm not going to oppose the motion. ...we've been through this soap opera for long enough and if it can be brought to an end with something that has no great legal or constitutional consequence, then that's one thing. But I think we all need to reflect on what's happened and how these things can get more complicated than they really need to be. would seem that some people are interpreting it to mean something quite dramatic and other people are interpreting it to be much less, which is one of the reasons why these symbolic debates can be so difficult. - Bob Rae

It's an unnecessary step on a slippery slope... But since it says Quebeckers, not Quebec, because it implies no constitutional consequences, and mostly, because it allows us to move on and deal with bigger issues, let's use it to close a door that was foolishly opened. - Justin Trudeau


Friday, November 24, 2006

Review of Isabel Bayrakdarian (Waterloo Entertainment Center, Nov 23 2006)

Canadian Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian performed with her accompaniest husband, Serouj Kradjian, at the new Waterloo Entertainment Center on Thursday night. As part of a program to pair opera stars with young up-and-coming singers, mezzo-soprano Erin Lawson appeared in the second half.

Ms. Bayrakdarian's choice of music was inspired. Although she has made her name as a Mozart singer, in this concert she sang a series of little songs, mostly by little-known composers. The program included the English translations and the house lights were left up so we could read the lyrics. As well as a pure, beautiful voice, Ms. Bayrakdarian has an expressive style and a wide vocal range; this format showed off her considerable talents.

I was charmed throughout, but the ending went to new heights, from the two women singing Sull'aria... Che soave zeffiretto from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro through Rossini's Cat Duet (done with hilarious hamminess) and the famous Flower Duet from Delibes' Lakme.

Here's one of the songs she sang, a Spanish folksong by Fernando Obradors:

Chiquitita la novia
Chiquitita la novia
Chiquitito el novio,
Chiquitita la sala
Y er dormitorio,
Por eso you quiero
Chiquitita la cama
Y er mosquitero.

which is translated as:

Teeny-tiny the bride
Teeny-tiny the bride,
Teeny-tiny the groom,
Teeny-tiny the parlor,
And the bedroom;
For this reason I want
A teeny-tiny bed
And a mosquito net.

Review in KW Record
Profile of Isabel Bayrakdarian in Waterloo Chronicle


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Don't Ask Questions, Just Vote!

The London, Ontario by-election is shaping up to be a strange beast. Tory "star candidate" (and former London mayor) Dianne Haskett is refusing to talk to the voters. She was booed at an all-candidates meeting and since then has refused to attend any other all-candidate events. She also refused to answer a questionnaire sent to all candidates by City Council, as well as questionnaires given to candidates by other groups.

According to the London Free Press, even long-time local Conservatives are upset by her campaign. "The problem with her lack of response is it shows disdain for city council and the citizens of London," said deputy mayor Tom Gosnell.

I don't know what this all means, but I hope the voters of London don't let this woman win.

This is a particularly mean-spirited by-election, since it can hardly be a coincidence that Harper called it so that the vote occurs just before the start of the leadership convention... meaning that two of the leadership candidates, Kennedy and Rae, both of whom were rumored to be considering a run in this by-election, were unable to do so.

Update: After receiving a comment that some stuff I said about Haskett's platform was untrue, I removed the untrue stuff rather than publish the comment. I wrote this in something of a rush and I'm afraid I didn't think through my vitriol. ;-) Thanks for correcting me.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Harper Rescues Ignatieff?

With mere days to go before the Liberal leadership convention, Conservative Prime Minister Steve Harper comes to the aid of the floundering front-running leadership candidate Mike Ignatieff by agreeing with his stance on Quebec nationhood.

That's what just happened, right? I'm not really sure... I tuned out the latest "Is Quebec a nation or is it just a distinct society" debate, woke up with a fright when Ignatieff proposed to re-open the constitution, and then attempted to ignore the whole topic.

But it seems that the big story here isn't whether we use this word or that word to describe a province. It's whether Harper's speech is the turning point in what - just this morning - the Globe referred to as Ignatieff's "sputtering engine" heading into the convention. Timing is everything.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Troubled Berlin

Several years ago I visited two civil rights museums, in Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. Both are excellent museums, but very different. The Birmingham museum has a wealth of information about the oppression of Afro-Americans in the US South, but it is an optimistic place that seems to want to bring racial groups together in harmony. The Memphis museum, by contrast, is an angry place. Located in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down, it confronts racism and condemns it.

I was thinking of those two museums when I was in Berlin this week. Berlin's Jewish Museum is another great museum. Housed in a remarkable building designed by Daniel Libeskind, it provides a fascinating view of two thousand years of Jewish history in Germany. As I moved through the chronology approaching WWII, I grew increasingly apprehensive, waiting for the whammee of information about the holocaust. It didn't come. There was the lead-up to the holocaust, and then there was the aftermath. The holocaust itself was barely mentioned.

This is in stark contrast to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, which is almost too much to bear. At the end of the exhibits there is a meditation room that I needed to use to recover before leaving the building.

Berlin's recent history is troubled, to say the least, having been the center of the Third Reich until just 60 years ago, and then an occupied territory - divided into sectors that were run by the Soviets, Americans, British and French. There seems to be a general lack of trust in the populace - at least, there wasn't a lot of smiling or friendliness. It's a beautiful place and I'm not sorry I spent a week's holiday there, but it feels alien (unlike Frankfurt and Weisbaden, where I spent the previous week).

My experience at the Jewish museum got me wondering about how Berliners cope with their history. That history is still raw, despite the 60 years since the end of the war. I saw many buildings that had poorly patched bullet holes from World War II. The Kunst Bibliotek (attached to the Gemaldegalerie, an old master's museum) is a mess of bullet holes. The bombing at the end of the war left many buildings patched or reconstructed. (Evidence of the Soviet era is found in the museums of the old East Berlin, which are full of reproductions. My guide book would diplomatically say, "This piece was misplaced during the period following WWII. The original is on display in Moscow.")

After my experience at the Jewish museum, I decided to make a search for public acknowledgement of World War II. My guide book told me of a place called the Topography of Terrors, built on the site of Gestapo torture chambers, but it turns out that public controversy has kept the building from being constructed. There is a temporary open air site (with not even an awning); tellingly, the parts dealing with WWII are in German only, and the parts dealing with trials held after the war are also in English.

There is a small modest memorial to Berlin Jews at Gedenkstatte Grosse, but it contains no information, just a statue.

I visited the Holocaust Memorial, and it is big - a small city block - but there are no signs or any words whatsoever, just hundreds of coffin-shaped concrete rectangles. There is not even a sign saying what it is. While I was there, kids were playing hide and seek among the rectangles.

I went away and did some more research, finally discovering that the Holocaust Memorial has an underground interpretive center. I went back to the site but had some difficulty finding the entrance, and eventually found it only because a school group was gathering at the entrance - which was nothing more than a small hole in the ground and steps, with no signs.

The interpretive center is very impressive. It chronicles the Holocaust by year, and then provides personal information. It details what was done to Jews, Roma, disabled people and political opponents. It tells of the development of the gas chambers, first used on the handicapped. One room contains letters written by victims, some thrown through the slats of boxcars. One contains brief slide shows of dozens of towns in Europe, telling how many Jews lived there in 1933, what happened to them, and how many were left in 1945. It is strange to find this huge archive of material hidden underground.

Coming from a slave-owning Southern family, I have first-hand experience of people being defensive about the horrors perpetrated by their ancestors, and I can sympathise with Berliners to an extent. Most of us have blood on our hands. The colonial era ended just 40 years ago, with horrors perpetrated by colonial powers. Our great-great grandmothers were denied human rights. Our ancestors fought many bloody wars, both for their countries and their religions.

But the negligible public acknowledgement by Germany's capital city of the world's greatest atrocity seems irresponsible and unhealthy. It's troubling. It fits with many other things: war reparations being paid so late, war criminals left unprosecuted for decades. While I was in Germany I read an article about the largest archive of Nazi prison camp records, which has only just been opened to researchers, despite decades of pleading by holocaust victim's families to learn what happened to their loved ones. One sad tale among the millions is of a Dutch man who was arrested for owning an illegal radio. His family, now all dead, was never able to get the archive to give them information about him, despite the archive having his personal effects and a first hand account of his fate.

When we say "never again" to the Holocaust, we should also say "never again" to the way we handle the aftermath.


Nobel Not Noble

What's with this Nobel prize for economics, anyway? It provides a huge dollop of public legitimacy to some pretty dodgy characters.

I'm thinking of Milton Friedman, recently deceased at the age of 94. Friedman was a bad guy who had a bad influence on the world. Ideologically, the guy was a complete nutbar. A libertarian, he opposed all forms of government "interference". He opposed taxation, public education, driver's licenses, the minimum wage and unions. He thought the regulation of doctors caused unnecessarily high medical costs and should be abolished. And so on and so on.

Friedman's great legacy was in shaping the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet. Some legacy. He was also a public propagandist. His influence was in the encouragement of prosperity at all costs without concern for the effect on individuals. And what did it all come down to? - Tax cuts for the rich, more income disparity, more pollution, a smaller social safety net, higher crime, a meaner world.

I'm not arguing that the guy wasn't smart, or that he wasn't a good economist. He was a frickin' genius. So, probably, was Hitler. Had Hitler waited a few more years before invading Poland, maybe the Nobel committee would have given him a prize.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

We Don't Get It

Earlier this week the British government released a devastating analysis of the effects of global climate change. The report does not derive from the usual environmentalist perspective - Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank and current head of UK government Economic Services, wrote the report at the behest of the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. (You can find the full report here.) His bottom line: climate change caused by soaring greenhouse gas emissions is going to:

- cost the world 7 trillion dollars
- displace 200 million people because of flood or drought
- make large areas of the planet uninhabitable
- hit developing countries first and hardest
- cause a worldwide drop in GDP of 5-20%
- cause an economic catastrophe greater than WWI, WWII and the Great Depression combined

Europe gets it. European countries have been leading the way for decades on alternative energy sources, better transit, urban planning for the carless, and on and on.

Canada and the US don't get it.

One small example of our disastrous public policy: It was reported today that the US has strong-armed international organizations into allowing US farmers to resume use of methyl bromide, a pesticide that is banned internationally because of its potent ozone-destroying effects.

Canada and the US are now both out of Kyoto. Our record is pitiful and our greenhouse gas emissions are soaring. Prime Minister Stephen Harper just cancelled a European summit because he feared his environmental record would be publicly criticized, even though British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel just reached out to the US and Canada on environmental issues in the most positive, friendly and diplomatic way possible. (The statement said things like, "there's a real opportunity to make progress" and "there are signs of hope here.")

Why don't we get it? I mean this as a personal question too. Why am I not outside right now carrying a placard to protest the Tory's "environmental inaction" legislation?

The number one reason has to be that we enjoy such low oil prices. Europe has paid over $2 a liter for gas for decades, and that changes everything. I keep saying this - all apologies to Joe Clark, who lost his prime ministership because he tried to institute an oil tax - but we must raise gas prices. This initiative has to come from the public. We can't expect another government to commit suicide by trying to do the right thing and institute a gas tax. We have to let them know that we want to pay a higher price at the pump.

Another reason is historical. Back in the 70s there was a huge movement to convince the public that nonrenewable resources were running out. Gaining popularity just when the oil cartel created a worldwide gas shortage, there was widespread panic at the belief that everything from oil to copper was going to be gone well before the end of the century. I still have my well-thumbed paperback copy of The Limits to Growth around somewhere. It didn't serve us well.

Also, we've been talking about this for so damn long and not getting anywhere. Oh, we've done lots of other good things. Canada has a brilliant recycling program that is reducing the cost of garbage disposal. But the average gas consumption of cars keeps going up in North America, consumer packaging keeps getting bigger, we keep buying bigger houses with bigger applicances, blah blah blah.

A big part of the problem is the enormous amount of misinformation we in North America receive through our media and the internet. It doesn't help to have conservative politicians say that climate change is bunk. I read a blog recently that argued that it doesn't matter what we in Canada do because of the enormous environmental disaster coming in China, where economic growth means more cars and industry, and where environmental regulations (according to the blog) are lax. In fact, environmental regulations in China are orders of magnitude better than ours. Their limits on car emissions are better even than California's. We can't pass the buck on this. It's us - North America - that's screwing the pooch. It's us - Canada and the US - that needs to get it together and start playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

See also: Earth Day


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Let's Not Americanize Canadian Politics, Please

I felt bad a couple of posts ago when I said "Sometimes politicians slip up and tell the truth" because I really meant "Sometimes American politicians slip up and tell the truth." (But I thought the extra word detracted from my prose's elegance... er, whatever.)

I think by and large Canadian politicians are straight shooters. Sure, they do interviews as all politicians do: ignore the questions and say what they want to say, and what they want to say is usually a lot less than we want to hear. But generally the level of fact and candor in Canadian political discourse seems a lot better these days than it is in the US.

Why is this? In recent decades the Republicans have become such masters of the sound bite and talking point that it's caught on with the Democrats too. But the Repubs in particular have perfected the use of the pithy three-word sound bite repeated over and over until it's taken on a reality of its own and everyone starts saying it as if they'd just thought of it. (Jon Stewart makes great fun of this by showing rapid-fire clips of politicians saying exactly the same three-word phrase ad nauseum.)

Now Canadian politicians are starting to dumb down their political style a la Americaine.

Today I saw a news clip of Michael Ignatieff giving a speech about the new tax on income trusts, and Ignatieff kept repeating the phrase "bait and switch." As a copy of the American sound bite it was sort of pathetic, because he didn't use it in context and because it doesn't have the immediate meaning that phrases of that type need to have. It just doesn't carry the punch of "cut and run", "weeks not months", "stay the course", and so on. (Bait and switch? How does that apply exactly?) Also, Ignatieff didn't seem to mean it: he kept his eyes down on his notes as he spoke. He really seemed to be dialling it in - maybe he was embarrassed by the speech he was delivering (he should have been).

Yesterday I endured a few minutes of the federal Minister of Indian Affairs, who has apparently been tasked with smearing Ontario's Liberal premier. This idiot federal guy, whose name I have wiped from my mind, kept using the phrase "political grandstanding" over and over to describe Premier McGuinty. I wasn't counting but I'd say at rough guess that he used the phrase 14 billion times. It got so bad that the interviewer started saying it too like some sort of hypno-zombie. You could tell that the whole thing was bullshit because the guy had nothing to say to support his claim and so filled the brief interview with constant repetition of this stupid phrase.

Then I read about the Ontario Liberal Party hiring American politico James Carville to speak at our recent AGM on the subject of effective election campaigns. Carville got $50,000 to give an 18-minute speech in which he told us that political messages must be simple, relevant, and repetitive. He said that political communication is the only endeavour that you multiply by subtracting, and that this means that politicians must "keep it simple and keep saying it".

Can you hear me howling NOOOOOOooooo!!!


Income Trusts

1. Income trusts were a tax loophole that needed to be closed. The Harperos did the right thing.

2. A lot of investors are losing money because of this new tax. Harper gave some tax relief to retirees and he softened the impact with a gradated implementation. It is still a going to be a financial loss for a lot of people.

3. There would not be this big a loss if Paul Martin had done something about income trusts back in the fall of 2005. Had he done this then, there wouldn't be such a mess now.

4. The stock market is a risky, risky place. Increasingly in recent years we have been sold the line that we should rely on the stock market (including mutual funds) to save for our retirement. We don't have a lot of options now that pensions are a luxury enjoyed mostly by civil servants. We need to revisit this whole area and start to think of regulations to help non-rich people who need a secure retirement fund.

5. Good government does not mean blindly following every campaign promise. Situations change (in this case, a flood of companies moving into the tax loophole of income trusts); people learn new facts (especially when they move from opposition to government); and opinions evolve. Good governance means being pragmatic and open-minded.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sometimes Politicians Tell the Truth

He says he meant to say the joke as it was written by his speech writers: “Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”

But what he said was: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

His apology went like this: “As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loves ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop. I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member or American who was offended.”

Why did Kerry make the slip? My guess: he's a combat veteran and so he knows that soldiers in Iraq are mostly poor people who didn't do well in school and have limited options. Sometimes politicians slip up and tell the truth. The scandal should be the plight of the American underclass, not the politician who accidentally made reference to it.