Cleaning Up Gordon Campbell’s Mess

Christy ClarkAccording to every poll and every projection by every firm and every commentator, Christy Clark and her Liberal Party are about to be handed an unbalanced ass-whooping of the sort we British Columbians seem to enjoy dishing out to governing parties once every decade or so. Naturally, when this happens, I will be singing and dancing as much as the next person. But allow me to qualify my unencumbered joy thusly:

The impending Liberal defeat is not Christy Clark’s fault.

Well, not primarily. She certainly hasn’t helped. “Ethnicgate” does not reflect well on the Clark government, but this present ordeal is not particularly different from the “very ethnic” mini-scandal that failed to put a dent in the Harper Conservatives during the last federal election. People are outraged at the BC Liberals now because we were already predisposed to feel outraged. “Ethnicgate” provided a focus for what was always there.

So why don’t we like the Liberals? All arrows point to Gordon Campbell, that ghostly spectre whose past misdeeds will no doubt haunt the upcoming campaign. Clark is simply paying for her predecessor’s mistakes, and while she has committed her own fair share of blunders along the way, not even the charismatic lovechild of Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama could have prevented the SS Gordo from sinking. The Liberal Party’s fate was permanently sealed one summer day in 2009 — only two months after the last election — when the Campbell government announced its plan to introduce the dreaded HST.

Let me qualify my point once more. The Harmonized Sales Tax, which will finally meet its end next week, is not all bad. Nor is the old Provincial Sales Tax, which will replace it, all good. As far as consumption taxes go, value added taxes like the HST are undoubtedly more efficient than cascading taxes like the PST. And it may even be the case that businesses would have passed on all their HST savings to consumers through lower prices — eventually. (But then why was the business community so in love with the HST? Never mind.)

So what is wrong with the HST? I can’t speak for all British Columbians. Surely, the sneaky, underhanded way in which the government introduced the tax plays a big part in explaining why people don’t like it, and understandably so.

As for me personally, the main reason I signed the anti-HST initiative and voted against the new tax in the subsequent referendum is that I am not a fan of broad-based consumption taxes in general — be they HST, PST, or GST. Such taxes are notorious for taking a bigger bite out of the incomes of the poor than the rich. And while I realize that it is unrealistic to eliminate both the HST and the PST all at once, I came to the conclusion during the HST debate that the only proposal I could support would be a conscious effort to shift taxes incrementally away from consumption and towards more sensible tax bases. In other words, lower the sales tax — whatever form it takes — and recoup lost revenue by raising income taxes, corporate taxes, or carbon taxes (a more targeted consumption tax).

Of course, neither the Campbell nor the Clark Liberals gave any indication that they were willing to engage in a profound conversation of this nature. All I can do is hope that the incoming NDP government will be more open to such an exercise. In the meantime, I happily count down to election day and await the long overdue demise of the Campbell era — more than two years after he stepped down as Premier.

Of Petrostates and Patriotism

Alison RedfordIf Alison Redford gets to define Canadian patriotism, then I don’t want to be patriotic.

The Alberta premier yesterday accused federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair of “a fundamental betrayal of Canada’s long-term economic interests” after the latter took a trip to DC in what is being widely interpreted as an effort to convince the Americans not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta.

Other Conservatives at the federal level have adopted the same rhetoric. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — of “foreign-funded radicals” fame — implied that the Opposition leader was unfit to govern, stating, “Governing means standing up for Canada’s interests and Canada’s jobs.” Heritage Minister James Moore taunted, “It’d be nice for once if the NDP leader could put the country ahead of his own ambition.” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, meanwhile, went for the trifecta, accusing Mulcair of “bad mouthing Canada,” “trash talking Canada,” and “running down Canada.”

The message is clear: because he is not quite as keen on expanding the tar sands and exporting bitumen as the red-and-white Tories of Edmonton and Ottawa, Thomas Mulcair is nothing but a Canada-hating socialist antichrist.

Patriotism is usually defined as love of country, but fossil fuel enthusiasts prefer to conflate the notion with love of whatever the government happens to be doing on the international stage. This redefinition, historically, is a common one, eagerly leapt upon by all who agree with the government line and seek an easy way to demonize their opponents.

Others take a different approach, conceiving patriotism as something more akin to identification rather than unquestioning acceptance. A true patriot, in other words, identifies with her country to such a degree that she feels proud of its accomplishments and, equally, remorseful for its wrongdoings. A patriot believes he shares responsibility for all that his country does in his name. A patriot refuses to stay quiet when her government puts climate stability and the well-being of future generations at risk. By this definition, protest is patriotic. Critical thinking is patriotic. Dissent is patriotic. Under some circumstances, even civil disobedience is patriotic.

In the words of Ralph Nader, “A patriotism manipulated by the government asks only for a servile nod from its subjects. A new patriotism requires a thinking assent from its citizens.”

It is clear which kind of patriotism Alison Redford et al. stand for. How about you?

Thoughts on the New Israeli Government

KnessetOn the same day that the world erupted in joyous, teary-eyed celebration following the selection of a new pope, a slightly less climactic breakthrough was reached thousands of kilometres away as four Israeli political parties, nearly two months after elections, quietly decided to form a coalition government. Right away, the deal seemed like it might fall apart overĀ a last-minute dispute regarding deputy prime ministerial appointments, but two days later, all differences have been ironed out and the coalition agreement signed.

The chances were never exactly high that Israel would bend far enough to conclude a successful peace agreement with the Palestinians any time soon. However, what little optimism I had gained after January’s elections has now dissipated almost entirely.

The most noteworthy feature in the new centre-right government is the complete absence of ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in years, enabling the coalition partners to commit to ending draft exemptions and other privileges for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. In itself, this is a good thing and should be celebrated by all who value secular government.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In the Israeli political system, the settler movement has no greater friends, and the peace movement no greater enemies, than the secular and moderately religious right-wing nationalist parties, like Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, which dominate the incoming government.

After the elections, there was some hope that the surprisingly strong showing by the centrist Yesh Atid party, with its relatively moderate views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might push the government towards compromise. But Yesh Atid never prioritized peace talks as highly as it did domestic issues, and during coalition negotiations, party leader Yair Lapid aligned himself firmly with Habayit Hayehudi’s far-right rejectionist leader Naftali Bennett.

Also, one of the terms of the coalition agreement involves a plan to increase the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset from the current two per cent up to four per cent. This will likely reduce the amount of time necessary for post-election negotiations and allow for greater government stability. But all this will come at the expense of the small Arab parties which could quite possibly be shut out from all future Knessets. Raising the electoral threshold may have the effect of even further marginalizing the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The greatest hope for peace in the incoming government lies in its smallest coalition member, Hatnuah, a new centrist party composed of former Kadima and Labor members, which has made the renewal of peace talks its number-one issue. In addition to gaining a seat at the cabinet table, party leader Tzipi Livni will be made the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

It is worth remembering, however, that when Livni was foreign minister in a previous government, Israel killed 1400 Gazans in Operation Cast Lead. For her to be the new government’s strongest voice for peace is perhaps the most depressing development of all.

Whipped Votes, Floor Crossing, and the Perils of Party Discipline

whipIn Ottawa’s latest uptick of political drama, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair called on MP Claude Patry to resign his seat Thursday, after the latter joined the Bloc Quebecois. Noting that Patry, while still a New Democrat, voted with the rest of the caucus last year to ban the practice of floor crossing, Mulcair said, “We call upon him to have the courage of those convictions, to step down from his seat in Jonquiere-Alma, and run in a by-election if he thinks the people of his riding support him.”

In principle, I happen to agree with the NDP position on this issue — it is simply a matter of respecting voters — but it is also a bit rich for Mulcair to be pontificating about Patry’s obligation to live up to his clearly expressed principles. Are we supposed to ignore the fact that the NDP floor crossing vote in question was whipped? That as a matter of course, party leaders every day deprive their caucuses of the freedom to decide for themselves how to vote?

For me, this episode serves to highlight the suffocating spectre of party discipline that blights Canadian democracy. Such a rigidly authoritarian phenomenon subverts the very logic of Parliamentary sovereignty and responsible government, according to which cabinet must maintain the support of the House of Commons. Not a particularly tough sell when cabinet is permitted to crush all dissent and coerce its MPs into supporting the party line. The result of this tradition in Canada and other Westminster democracies is the absurd spectacle of unthinking parliamentarians saying what they’re told to say, voting how they’re told to vote, and displaying lockstep unanimity of a kind that would earn envy from election rigging dictatorships the world over.

Democracy would be better served by reversing the current practice and making whipped votes the exception rather than the rule. I can understand if party leaders might choose to tighten the leash a little when basic rights are at stake (and here I am inclined to include certain environmental questions too), but most Parliamentary votes do not fall into this category. Even budget bills and other confidence measures do not really need to be whipped. After all, what is so perverse about the idea of forcing a government to negotiate with its backbenchers and earn their support?

Admittedly, reasonable arguments do exist in favour of party discipline. Deprived of the stern authority of party elites, individual MPs might be emboldened to make all sorts of frivolous demands of the government, to place their constituents’ local interests ahead of the national interest, or to sell their souls to nefarious, deep-pocketed lobbyists. Our increasingly dysfunctional neighbours to the south, where party discipline is far more relaxed, serve as a cautionary tale on all counts.

There are no easy answers to these objections. At the very least, legislation limiting the mixture of money and politics must be vigilantly protected — indeed, expanded — and this is true with or without any reduction in party discipline. Aside from that, the freer and more deliberative system that I envision simply demands a lot more of voters. If the authority of parties is diminished, it must be a principled and engaged citizenry, not big money or narrow parochialism, that steps in to fill the vacuum. There is no way around it; we have to be the ones to hold our representatives to account.

And what about the issue of floor crossing that prompted all the above reflections? How can I wish to loosen the iron grip of party discipline while at the same time making it more difficult for parliamentarians to switch parties? The answer is that increasing the autonomy of MPs is not a good in itself, but only a vehicle for raising the influence of the electorate. While rank-and-file members of party caucuses must become more powerful on average, this power should come at the expense of their leaders, not their constituents. Voters deserve the opportunity to determine both which individuals and which parties represent them in Parliament.

So, Mr. Mulcair, demand that Mr. Patry step down from his seat if you must. Frankly, I agree with you. But insisting that your caucus members demonstrate the “courage of their convictions” rings hollow unless you allow them freely to form and express those convictions in the first place.