National Post Letter

Hmm, seems like newspapers only want to publish the shorter letters to the editor that I submit.  Anyway, you can read the latest, on the subject of Thomas Mulcair’s dual citizenship, in tomorrow’s National Post.

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Dr. Harper’s Health Care Prescription

English: Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister

Where should progressive decentralists stand on Medicare in Canada?  Should we resign ourselves to the much-dreaded vision of a patchwork of provincial systems, or should we insist that universal health care trumps the virtue of dispersing political power far and wide?

Stephen Harper has contended recently that health is solely a matter of provincial jurisdiction, that he wants the federal government to provide transfer payments with no strings attached.  I will admit that I like the idea of fewer federal standards imposed on the provinces.  Just because I happen to favour a fully public health care system with no user fees — and I do — that does not mean that I should be able to force all my preferences on Manitobans or Nova Scotians.  But there is a difference between fewer federal standards and no federal standards whatsoever.  To receive quality medical care wherever you are and regardless of your ability to pay ought to be considered a basic human right.  This could potentially manifest itself in many diverse forms in the provinces, but Harper is making it ever more apparent that he is unwilling to protect so minimal a right at all.

Furthermore, while I believe in decentralization of decision-making within limits, I also believe in centralization of funding.  In a country with regional economic disparities, robust federal funding is necessary to ensure that all provincial governments have the ability to implement health care systems of their choosing, and to respect the basic rights of their residents.  Some might argue that having one group of people provide the money while another decides what to do with it is a recipe for unaccountable spending, and there is some validity to that.  But let us not overstate this concern.  Provincial governments are, after all, accountable to provincial voters.  It is a little known fact, but there happens to be a sizable overlap between provincial voters and federal taxpayers, and they have an interest in ensuring that their tax dollars are well-spent.  As far as I’m concerned, substantial federal spending on provincial projects optimally combines the principles of decentralization, equity, and accountability.

And what does our Prime minister have to say on the subject?  Harper has unilaterally announced a plan according to which federal health transfers to the provinces will continue to increase, but at a lower-than-accustomed rate.  On top of that, he has decided to change the funding formula to an equal per capita allotment for every province.  Previously, poorer provinces had received more funding per person than rich ones on the grounds that their revenue-raising capabilities were more limited.  Under the new formula, however, the rich (i.e. Alberta) will get richer at everyone else’s expense.

So does the recent series of health care announcements by the Harper government pass the — okay, my — progressive decentralist test?  The answer is an emphatic “no.”  The funding that Harper promises is neither sufficient nor fair, and it is unclear just how close he will come to sacrificing the human right to health in the name of provincial jurisdiction.  Too close for comfort, we may reasonably project, given his well-established distaste for social programs.

Dr. Harper’s cure, in other words, appears far worse than the disease.  Back to the prescription pad!

Short Story in Zouch

Sulky chimpanzeePlease see the fiction section of Zouch Magazine & Miscellany, an online Canadian source of literature and commentary, for a short story I wrote called “The Assembly of Equals.”  Originally published last year in The Montreal Review, this epistolary piece is about an idealistic primatologist who creates a democratic assembly composed entirely of chimpanzees.  Hilarity and poop-throwing ensue.

On Floor Crossing

The interior of the House of Commons of Canada...In the wake of the defection to the Liberals yesterday of Quebec MP Lise St-Denis, elected last spring as a New Democrat, we can expect a minor upswell in the off-and-on national debate over the ethics of floor crossing.

By my rough calculations, there have been fifteen cases of sitting MPs changing parties since 2000 (not counting those who sought an electoral mandate before doing so or those who chose to sit as and remain independents).  In ten of those cases, the individuals moved from the opposition benches to the governing party, and in only two cases did they go in the opposite direction.  These numbers belie the commonly voiced claim by floor crossers that their actions represent a sincere change of heart or a principled matter of conscience and integrity, and confirm the sneaking suspicion felt by many Canadians that they instead exemplify the lust for power and political opportunism that define Ottawa.

Admittedly, St-Denis cannot be accused of such nefarious motives, having jumped ship from a large opposition party to a smaller one (O, how our beloved “natural governing party” has fallen!).  But her move still amounts to a betrayal of voters.  According to a NANOS poll last year, 78 percent of Canadians are most influenced by party or party leader when deciding how to vote, while only 12 percent are most influenced by the local candidate.  And who can blame them?  For better or for worse (for worse, in my opinion), individual MPs are virtually powerless in the web of slavish party discipline that suffocates the House of Commons.  To vote on the basis of the local candidate, more often than not, is to waste one’s vote.  And for an elected representative to switch parties after the election is in effect to tell voters: “You know that party whose whip I told you I would be bound by?  Well, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve decided to let all my Parliamentary votes be dictated by another party whose candidate you didn’t vote for.”

For these reasons, the NDP’s longstanding call for a ban on floor crossing (except for those who choose to sit as independents) makes sense to me.  While I favour a reduction in this country’s draconian party discipline, it is one thing to alter an MP’s power in relation to the party leader, and another thing altogether to alter it in relation to voters.  To require our Parliamentarians to seek approval in a by-election before changing parties is simply a matter of respecting voters’ wishes, and is integral to the very logic of democracy.

Santorum Soaks Caucuses

Deutsch: Zwei Elefanten im Zoologischen Garten...I didn’t think it could happen.  Even with his much-hyped surge in the polls, I didn’t think it would even be close.

Rick Santorum came within an astounding eight votes of winning the Iowa Republican Caucuses.  Thankfully, Mitt Romney squeaked in ahead of him after a close night of seesawing results.  But Santorum has truly defied expectations.  This fringy, homophobic, zealously pro-life, socially conservative ideologue (please, take my word for it, no need to Google him) came a hair short of winning the first battle in the race to become the 2012 Republican nominee for President. This will be sure to inject some momentum into the campaign of a man long ago dismissed as an also-ran.

From my perspective, either one of his two main rivals in Iowa would be a better choice.  Romney, just barely the evening’s victor, seemingly the only candidate to maintain respectable polling numbers for longer than five minutes, has consistently flip-flopped on everything from health care to abortion.  Given the genuinely frightening nature of today’s Republican Party, his unprincipled willingness to change with the political winds is quite comforting.

Ron Paul, finishing a close third in the caucuses, is something else altogether.  The proud libertarian opposes the War on Drugs and the Patriot Act, and is a sparkling example of that political rarity, the anti-war Republican.  The entertainment value of his contending a Presidential election — in all his cranky-old-man glory — would also be a treat.  But these positive points do not detract from the sad truth that he is, for lack of better terminology, certifiably batshit.  He is hostile to the very existence of income taxes, the Federal Reserve, foreign aid, the United Nations, and, inexplicably, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Paul even expresses half-serious support for the idea of abolishing UNICEF.  Despite a few redeeming qualities, a Ron Paul Presidency would be truly disastrous for the United States and the world.  But at least he, unlike Santorum, seems disinclined to intrude into people’s bedrooms (except on abortion — what is it with Republicans?).

And what of the other candidates?  Newt Gingrich, only recently considered a national frontrunner, has been relegated to a distant fourth place in Iowa.  In effect, his campaign is likely over, which I think is too bad.  He is in some ways the safest bet.  As Ann Coulter notes, his rhetoric is abrasive and smacks of extremism — a feature likely to turn off many voters in a general election.  But when it comes to substantive policy proposals, he leans towards the moderate end of his party’s spectrum (whatever that means).  Coulter urges Republicans to vote against him for these reasons, but for a lefty like me, that makes him an ideal, win-win candidate.  In fact, Coulter’s opposition only encourages me to put yet another mark in the pro-Gingrich column.  (A general rule of thumb: whatever Ann Coulter says, do the opposite.)

So what will we see over the coming months as the caucuses and primaries go on?  The whims of voters are notoriously fickle and hard to predict.  It is fair to say that Romney — long assumed to be the “natural” frontrunner — has neither gained nor lost very much from Iowa’s mere fulfillment of prophecy.  But Paul and Santorum have greatly improved their prospects — especially Santorum, which is precisely what worries me.  So I beseech you, O Republican primary voter, please, in the name of our common humanity, against your better judgement, do the right thing:

Vote Gingrich!

Oh my God, did I just write that?

Update 19/01/2012: According to the newly released final tally, Santorum has now finished 34 votes ahead of Romney in Iowa.  However, Republicans are not declaring an official winner on the grounds that some of the votes are missing.  American democracy at its finest!