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?

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.

A Taxing Debate

Tax

The gloves came off yesterday on Parliament’s first day back after its summer break, with Stephen Harper dealing the NDP what he evidently considers a fatal insult. According to the synchronized taunts of the Prime Minister and his Conservative minions, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition wants nothing more than to impose upon our struggling economy — brace yourselves, gentle Canadians — a carbon tax!

Boo?

Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats played their part flawlessly in Harper’s script by denying the government’s charge, pointing out they actually prefer another form of carbon pricing known as cap-and-trade. But, according to the impeccable logic of a Conservative Party “fact check,” “A ‘price on carbon’ is a tax on carbon. That makes it a carbon tax.” Never mind the commonly reported inconvenience that as recently as 2008, the Conservatives too favoured a cap-and-trade system.

So what exactly is the difference, if any, between these two carbon pricing mechanisms? They both seek to limit carbon dioxide emissions, and they both require emitters to pay for the privilege of emitting. The difference is in the order. With a carbon tax, government starts by setting a price, and in response to this economic incentive, polluters reduce their emissions. By contrast, under cap-and-trade, government starts by setting a cap, a maximum level of aggregate emissions, but polluters are free to buy and sell their emission permits amongst themselves for whatever price the market demands.

Both systems have their advantages. Cap-and-trade has the benefit of certainty. After all, the goal of all climate policy is to reduce carbon emissions — something which cap-and-trade does directly by dictating what the overall level of emissions must be, thereby eliminating the guesswork involved in setting a carbon tax. However, carbon taxes have the strength of being generally more broad-based than cap-and-trade. For logistical reasons, it is difficult to set up a cap-and-trade system among any but the largest of large polluters, meaning that most emissions will probably not be covered. By contrast, there is nothing easier than levying a tax. Carbon taxes therefore have at least the potential of applying to 100 percent of emissions.

In my opinion, the advantages of carbon taxation are stronger than those of cap-and-trade, but the devil is in the details. I would take a well-designed cap-and-trade system any day over a poorly designed carbon tax. The effectiveness of each policy depends on how high the tax is set, or how low the cap.

Falling right into Harper’s trap yesterday, Mulcair claimed he preferred cap-and-trade because carbon taxes are “regressive.” This is a common myth. The truth is that all measures to combat climate change — whether they take the form of a tax, emissions trading, or traditional command-and-control regulation — result in higher energy prices at the retail level. No matter who pays directly, businesses will always pass on as much of the cost to consumers as they can possibly get away with. The solution does not lie in making false promises that only “big polluters” will have to pay and no one else. Rather, it lies in offering tax credits or other forms of compensation to people with low and moderate incomes. I have written in the past about progressive carbon tax proposals which use the revenue generated to ensure that the poor are better off than they would be in the absence of such a tax. It is no less incumbent upon cap-and-trade advocates to design their plans in such a way that the burdens are distributed justly.

In conclusion, despite the similarities, cap-and-trade is not a carbon tax, and the Conservatives are wrong in their boastful chorus of accusations. Nevertheless, New Democrats are advised to grow a pair and not let Harper define the debate. We all need to recognize that a well-designed, progressive carbon tax could do the planet a hell of a lot of good.

And the Winner Is . . .

Thomas Mulcair

Well, I guess I won’t be turning in my laptop to make my living as a fortune teller. Contrary to my deliberately unconventional prediction, it was Thomas Mulcair who won the NDP leadership race yesterday.

Congratulations, Mr. Mulcair. I wish you the best, and hope that your positive attributes (i.e. charisma and environmental consciousness) rather than your negative attributes (i.e. temper and centrism) shine through.

Reading the NDP Tea Leaves

Peggy Nash

Any good pundit (for is that not what I aspire to become?) must dispense with caution and modesty from time to time and, in godlike fashion, attempt to predict the future. It is a virtually risk-free enterprise. If my prediction turns out wrong, no one will notice or care, because the political commentariat never gets these things right anyway. If, however, my prediction is borne out, I will be showered with fame and fortune as a prophet and soothsayer, notwithstanding the laws of statistics which dictate that even the unlikeliest of occurrences is bound to be correctly guessed by some clueless schmuck somewhere.

So here goes: I hereby forecast that on March 24, Peggy Nash will become the next leader of the NDP.

“But Song of the Watermelon,” I can hear my twos of readers asking, “isn’t the smart money on Thomas Mulcair?” No, for while he may win a plurality of votes on the first ballot, he is sure to be the second choice of almost no one. Some purveyors of conventional wisdom peg Nathan Cullen supporters as Mulcair’s kingmakers on the grounds that both contenders are pragmatists (where for Mulcair, “pragmatist” is code for centrist, and for Cullen, “pragmatist” actually means pragmatist). I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Yes, they both tend to anger NDP traditionalists (for different reasons) and they both share greenish leanings, but Cullen’s heavy focus in his leadership campaign on cooperation with the Liberals and Greens makes him somewhat of a wild card. The votes of his independent-minded supporters will likely scatter about unpredictably once he inevitably (and sadly!) fails to make the cut in the final rounds of voting at the convention.

Peggy Nash and Brian Topp, and to a lesser extent Paul Dewar and perhaps even Niki Ashton, are the true kindred spirits. They are the ones left competing for the far more fertile ground of the NDP’s left wing. Ashton will probably end up with less support than Cullen. Dewar won’t get far either despite recent speculation to the contrary (caused in no small part by one of his campaign’s internal — and therefore thoroughly unreliable — polls). At the end of the day, New Democrats eager to hold onto their gains in Quebec are unlikely to choose as their leader a candidate with such poor French.

Not long ago, Topp — with his high-profile endorsements and apparatchik credentials — was considered the one to beat. In recent weeks, however, his campaign has lost momentum. The best he can do now is deliver second- and third-preference votes to the winner.

Which leaves us with Peggy Nash. (And with Martin Singh, but on what planet does he have a shot?) Nash’s campaign has been a bit vague at times, but she appears to have what it takes to please as many NDP members as possible. And as I’ve made clear in previous posts, even for a non-New Democrat like me, she is most certainly one of the better ones.

Although normally an eternal pessimist in all matters political, today I judge my crystal ball to be half full. So make way as I spike said crystal ball in celebration and make a mess with whatever it was half full of. Whereupon I dance.

Go Peggy!

My NDP Picks

Nathan CullenWith the March 24 leadership convention for Canada’s New Democratic Party fast approaching, I am now finalizing my endorsements. (Sorry to keep you waiting, New Democrats, I know you’re on the edge of your seats for a Green’s friendly suggestions.) What follows are my (tentative) choices, from first to last, in accordance with the preferential vote that the NDP will be holding:

1. Nathan Cullen

Three things about Cullen. First, he is the easiest to get excited about. He has this strange tendency to speak like a real person rather than a politician, and is more comfortable cracking jokes during debates than any other leadership contender. Don’t underestimate a sense of humour in politics.

Second, in a field of candidates with admittedly impressive environmental proposals, Cullen appears to be prioritizing the planet like no other. In his words (as reported in Now Magazine): “To me, when my team forms up, I say the Green lens comes in front of every policy and you drive it through that lens. We’ll release environmental planks but every plank should be environmental. I think the Prime Minister should be the environment minister.”

And third is the centrepiece of his campaign: his proposal that NDP riding associations be given the choice of cooperating with the Liberal and Green Parties by holding joint nominations in Conservative-held constituencies. Every other candidate in the race is opposed to this strategy, but as I made clear in my last post, I think it’s the best chance of defeating the Conservatives. Plus, it would be nice to see a little cooperation and consensus in our otherwise combative political system.

(On the downside, Cullen has a history of opposing Canada’s long-gun registry. Nobody’s perfect.)

2. Peggy Nash

Nash is a New Democrat’s New Democrat. Unassailably progressive, this former trade unionist has a strong activist background both locally and globally. Under her leadership, the NDP is unlikely to drift to the centre as part of the regrettable pattern set by so many other social democratic parties around the world. Nevertheless, her past experience demonstrates a willingness to negotiate and work constructively with others. What’s more, her environmental credentials are significant enough to have earned her two Sierra Club of Canada awards. Also, it’s 2012. Shouldn’t we have more women in politics by now?

3. Brian Topp

Topp is no Jack Layton. The reputed frontrunner suffers from something of a charisma deficit. But he knows his stuff policy- and strategy-wise. Furthermore, to his great credit, his strongly progressive fiscal proposals show that he is not afraid of raising taxes — especially on those who can most afford to pay.

4. Thomas Mulcair

I am somewhat uneasy about Mulcair’s centrism. The presumed second-placer supports free trade, is weak on Palestinian rights, and has attacked Topp’s tax policies. Also, given that his temper is the stuff of legend, his ability to serve as a consensus builder is questionable. That being said, he is probably the party’s best hope of consolidating its electoral gains in Quebec. For that reason alone, I hope whoever wins decides to keep him on as deputy leader. Furthermore, he shares some of Cullen’s plain-talking charm, and is fairly strong on the environment. With the emphasis he places on carbon pricing, I would not be surprised to see him some day pull a Stephane Dion and embrace carbon taxation. At the moment, however, he, like the other candidates, prefers cap-and-trade, which seems to be good enough for climate scientist Andrew Weaver, who has endorsed him.

5. Niki Ashton

To some, Ashton comes across as confident. To me, she is robotic — exactly the opposite of a Cullen or a Mulcair. She’s probably smart, and she tries to focus on the future and to speak on behalf of the younger generation. I suppose the party could do worse.

6. Martin Singh

Singh’s French is passable, but not great. In the debates, he can be forceful at times. He is a pharmacist and speaks more than the others do about a national pharmacare plan.

7. Paul Dewar

Dewar’s French is worst of all. Aside from that, he does not make an impression.

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.

Some Thoughts on the NDP Leadership Debate

Yesterday’s debate between the nine NDP leadership hopefuls did not provide much in the way of surprises.

Thomas Mulcair came across well in that he demonstrated his ability to speak like a real person rather than a robotic, awkwardly gesticulating politician.  (This does not automatically make someone a more suitable choice for prime minister, but it is a relevant consideration in party leadership races, because it impacts a candidate’s electability.  In other words, it shouldn’t matter, but it does.)  Mulcair also said nothing to jeopardize his environmental reputation, but I am still uneasy about his rightward leanings on issues like trade.

Brian Topp, the perceived front-runner, came across mostly as capable but uninteresting — with the exception of his perplexing attempt to shake things up with Paul Dewar.  During one brief exchange, he relentlessly accused Dewar of planning to dramatically increase government debt in order to pay for promised spending, without acknowledging Dewar’s pledge to raise revenue by reversing recent corporate tax cuts.  It is true that these party leadership contests often wind up looking more like love-ins than debates, so good on Topp for trying to do something different I guess.  But the way he did it came across as a bit petty.

I had some hopes for Romeo Saganash, given his impressive background and his status as the only First Nations person to seek leadership of a major federal political party in Canada.  Unfortunately, he came across as a bit too nervous, and I cringed slightly when he dismissed the idea of raising income taxes.

So far the candidates who impress me most in this race are Peggy Nash and Nathan Cullen.  Nash has strong progressive and environmental credentials, which I thought stood out subtly in a debate in which not much was noticeable.  And Cullen, like Mulcair, had a natural way of speaking (even cracking a few jokes), which might be advantageous during a general election.  Futhermore, he had already begun to distinguish himself prior to the debate by staking out unique positions in favour of joint nomination meetings with the Liberals and Greens, and a referendum on ditching the monarchy — both positions that make sense to me.

So at this early stage in the race, even though I am a member of a different party, Nash and Cullen are the New Democrats I’m rooting for.  At any rate, they are certainly worth keeping an eye on.