Thursday, November 28, 2013

Worth Reading - November 28, 2013

Over time one of the ideas that I have come to embrace is that there were not such distinct, polarizing cultures between Canada and the United States, but several cultural regions. Basically, people in Chicago and Toronto have more in common than people in Toronto and Vancouver. This week the Atlantic Cities shared some studies of regional dialects in the United States, which I found quite interesting. Soda, pop or coke? 

The company responsible for the coal slurry now making its way through the Athabasca-Peace watershed is ordered to clean up the mess. Obviously the question is how much of the damage can be contained.

Another tidbit out of Brampton politics: The Brampton Guardian reports on how two city councillors spent their budgets. A significant portion seems to have been spent on personal expenses.

Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) has been trying to seize Jack Layton’s mantle. Brad Lavigne, recent author of “Building the Orange Wave” and former Layton advisor sets Trudeau straight

Related to the previous, Alice Funke reflects on what the by-election results from Monday might suggest about the future of cooperation

Another piece from Pundits’ Guide argues that despite the incumbent parties winning in the respective ridings, a great deal actually changed

Andrew Coyne in the National Post discusses this week’s by-election results and how it reveals a serious setback for Conservatives

With the release of documents from the RCMP investigation of the Duffy Affair there is little doubt that the Prime Minister knew more than he let on in his statements to Parliament and the public. 

This is a fascinating piece from New Socialist. I am unfamiliar with this group, but whatever. The author Todd Gordon takes a very nuanced and interesting analysis of Rob Ford’s base of support that you are unlikely to read elsewhere. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shallow Politics: Canadian Politics and Media

In the back of my mind on Tuesdays I am always thinking about what I am going to write. Sometimes the news of the day just doesn’t provide me with the materials I want to work with. Today I saw these tweets on Twitter from a Toronto-based journalist:

You can follow Ms. Csandy at @AshleyCsanady. I highly recommend it.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been pleased with our media, on balance. They have done a good job at holding our dysfunctional politics to some form of account. At least the grubs under the rock are being exposed and we have to deal with it.

However, our media and politics, one must admit, are burdened with an incredible shallowness. Before I take both out behind the metaphorical woodshed, I should add that the public may be largely to blame in this. Politicians and media are serving us, they do not perform this twisted theatre for their own amusement.

Media outlets are hungry for eyeballs, and politicians live and die on their ability to draw attention. These (should be) self-evident truths, but both groups have learned an important lesson in the modern era: emotion is more valuable than reason. I should probably couch that claim in that it is as old as the Age of Reason itself. Ironically we are re-learning it with disastrous consequences for public life.

I recently finished reading Sasha Issenberg’s book The Victory Lab. One of the key discoveries is that people seem to be rarely swayed from their political positions. Political campaigners used to believe that with the correct policies voters could be won over. From my understanding this was particularly prominent problem among the Democrats. However, people are not interested in marginal tax rates and infrastructure programs, they are interested in values. It is a more complicated concept than I explain in a paragraph, but basically emotional factors and whether or not a voter feels connected to a candidate has far more to do with a candidate’s likelihood of success than policy. Policy can reflect this values, but it seems the latter informs the former, rather than vice versa. This was famously captured in the “who would you rather have a beer with?” question. With fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy and the world voters were often more split on a question of personal comfort.

Combine this with realities of new (and old) media and you start to get a rather unsettling picture of what our public discourse may one day become. Consider Ms. Csanady’s tweets. If evening news programs decided to lead with the recently introduced Conservative crime omnibus bill and framed it as a dispassionate discussion of the impact of criminal charges to cable thieves (or another nail in our parliament’s coffin) I sincerely doubt many outside the hardest of political junkies would have stayed tuned in.

Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) is a strong embodiment of this problem to my opinion. His strong name recognition and (inexplicable to me) public appeal means that any story that features him would attract disproportionate part of the political-news audience. By invoking the name Jack Layton, a politician that many Canadians have at least a passing affection for, and setting Trudeau loyalists against New Democrats you have set the stage for meaningless conflict that has great appeal.

The Rob Ford saga presents a similar problem. Often elements of the story that were more salacious made headlines and grabbed attention. The lewd comment Ford made regarding an alleged incident of sexual harassment is a perfect example. In the very same interview Ford confessed to drinking and driving. A crime that most Canadians take very seriously, but because sex and the embarrassment of his wife was involved that was buried. It returned in the later coverage, but it is still an important symbol of what is valued in the current culture.

I sincerely doubt that the politicians from years gone by who we praise could survive in such an environment. The inability for only the most cursory of labels of issues to permeate and the inability for sustained discourse on issues of importance means that our public life is facing a breakdown. Democracy is dependent upon an informed electorate, yet our electorate cannot (or will not) make decisions based upon information. Post-modernists would point out that this fantasy of the rational citizen never really existed. Everyone is burdened with their own peculiar set of bias and dispositions; there is no dispassionate evaluation of policy choices.

Debates and elections are no longer battles of ideas, but battles of personality. In such a shallow measure it should not be surprising that those with more persona than sense rise to the top and those bookish politicians who prefer to concentrate languish in obscurity. As a trend it is hard to imagine it changing any time soon, if at all. There is rarely great thoughtfulness or eloquence in 140 characters or a 10 second sound-bite. In a system where power is often bestowed to he/she who can hold the spotlight longest is it any surprise things begin to look more and more like a circus? 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worth Reading – November 21, 2013

A lot in here about Rob Ford this week, but I feel the columnists have enough distance that they are starting to say something more interesting than a recitation of the day’s events.

From the Chronicle Herald, a former-politician reflects what the death of the Red Tories has meant for Canada

Andrew Coyne takes a crack at the Ford issue and suggests that short-sighted populism is the culprit for the Ford dilemma.

Andrew Coyne followed up with a piece calling for Ford to be removed from office

The Globe and Mail reported that Rob Ford was reduced to “mayor in name only” as his powers were stripped away by Toronto City Council. 

Mayor Susan Fennell of Brampton is facing mounting criticism over her office’s spending. City Council has ordered a forensic audit of her expenses. 

An interesting article from Hepburn of the Toronto Star, where he suggests that the scandals and crisis in Ottawa and Toronto may fuel greater democratic participation.  I really, really hope he’s right. I can imagine how it might encourage some to get involved, but I also assume an equal or larger number is turned off.

Students from Deninu School in Fort Resolution have been learning photography. Here is a selection of their work

Michael Den Tandt writes that Rob Ford’s appeal makes him incredibly difficult to deal with and a powerful and lasting force in Canadian politics. Basically, Ford has a huge mass appeal, which in a regulated political fundraising environment is critical to obtaining funds.

This is a great piece posted on Samara’s blog. A campaign volunteer for Linda McQuaid’s campaign in the Toronto Centre by-election speaks about being engaged in politics and dealing with stereotypes people have about her

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Faith in the Water

Through either experience or observation I have come to distrust the fossil fuel industry. It’s not that I think the people who work in fossil fuels are bad, but the track record of environmental catastrophes and damage to communities is troubling. My favourite documentary series to date is Gasland and Gasland Part 2 by filmmaker Josh Fox. His expertly produced film, putting a human face on the mismanagement of large fossil fuel companies and impotence of government to regulate them fairly well summarizes my concern about this industry.

The knee jerk dislike of so-called “big oil” is something that bothers me about myself because it feels like it is motivated more by emotion than hard fact. One of the things that concerned me about moving to the Northwest Territories was the focus on natural resource extraction here and in northern Alberta. I even casually checked to see if Fort McMurray was downriver from Fort Smith to see if the carcinogens that are produced there might appear in my adopted town’s drinking supply. I comforted myself, but I had misread the map. The water from there flows due north to where I am now.

An abandoned coal mine in northern Alberta suffered a breach and toxins/heavy metals are leaking from the site into the Athabasca River system. The Athabasca River flows into Lake Athabasca and from there north in the Slave River to the Great Slave Lake. The department of Municipal Affairs and Environment are monitoring the situation carefully. This could be one of those situations where ‘mercury levels four times above the regulated amount’ still would not harm a house cat, but it is still unnerving. I wonder if northerners and Canadians in general have disrespect for stewarding the environment because the vast, relatively pristine land surrounds us offers a false comfort.

The idea that it would be possible to poison or damage such a vast area is really difficult to imagine. Disasters such as the Deep Water Horizon causing the contamination of the Gulf of Mexico are basically unfathomable. The operations in western Canada are far less vast, but I am concerned sure dangers are involved we do not fully understand.

Reading northern newspapers it did not take me long to learn that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas was hot button issue. However it seems momentum has built behind those interested in pursuing fracking in the Sahtu region. It seems within the short future ConnocoPhillips will be drilling into the Sahtu’s shale layer, breaking it apart in pursuit of gas and in the end perhaps poisoning the water table as Josh Fox endlessly demonstrated in Gasland.

I do not know of many wealthy cities or countries built upon toxic land. The list of nations that have built a solid foundation upon a cesspool is brief. My fear is that jurisdictions are mortgaging their future for the short-term benefits. Substantial investment in local communities is attractive, but the extraction industry is not sustainable and it will vanish in time. While I write I saw this article pop up. Toxins from the coal mine have reached the Athabasca River. The old coal mine is not the same as fracking or the tar sands, but it is a powerful reminder that decades after these operations are abandoned they can still profoundly affect the regions left behind. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Worth Reading - November 14, 2013

Dear God, this week was as close to madness as one could reasonably expect when it comes to news coverage. The self-immolation of Rob Ford is as disturbing as it is fascinating. With that said though I constructed a list of OTHER stories that came out this week that may interest you.

This is a sleeper story that will bother anyone concerned with progressive urban development. Years ago the McGuinty government of Ontario set in place a Green Belt to control the sprawl of the 905 suburbs. However, according to this Toronto Star articles the measure has been entirely ineffective because the province refuses to enforce it. About a decade has been lost now and sprawl has produced worse urban form and cost billions of dollars.

Just before Remembrance Day David Frum wrote in the National Post on the important of forgotten or overlooked Canadian contributions in World War One. Frum posits that Canadian contributions may have ultimately been a greater cause of German collapse than the American entry.

A little bit of northern issues. According to the Arctic Institute neither Canada nor the United States are ready for an active Arctic shipping lane

Former Premier Bill Davis spoke at an event celebrating TVO, an institution he founded, and offered some pointers and harsh pointers for today’s provincial leaders

Brampton is finally beginning the Bovaird expansion of the Züm bus rapid transit program. I wish they had this up and running when I was still in the city, it would have easily cut 45 minutes from my commute.

From the Fort Smith based Northern Journal, Dene leaders in the Northwest Territories mark the anniversary of Idle No More

Also from the Northern Journal, Northwest Territories MLAs ignore changing electoral boundaries at the risk of a major court challenge. It’s interesting trying to offer representation in such a massive area.

From TVO’s The Agenda blog, the hypersexualization of girlhood

Samara had a great article this week about how to reinvigorate civic participation. Three cheers for these six ideas.... is that three cheers then, or eighteen cheers? ...

From 308 Blog, changes in polling numbers for the provincial parties means there is a great deal of uncertainty, particularly the surge in the ONDP numbers, bringing them to 31%. 

From Chantal Hébert of the Toronto Star, Trudeau is making rookie mistakes that create a bad contrast for Liberals between him and the NDP. 

Again, I talked about this video in my Tuesday post, but if you skipped over it I invite you to watch. Andrew Coyne offers a speech titled, “The Alarming State of Canadian Democracy”. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coyne: The Alarming State of Canadian Democracy

A friend of mine had the distinct pleasure to attend the Merv Leitch Lecture at the University of Alberta. This year’s speaker was Andrew Coyne, oft cited journalist on this blog, from Post Media. With the possible exception of Steve Paikin, Andrew Coyne is my favourite journalist in Canadian media at the moment. This might sound distinctly odd for a person of the self-declared left such as myself, but I like smart people who make compelling arguments who disagree with me. I’m not sure if it’s the weight of arguments over time or my own political evolution that has seen my position reform, but I find we are more often than not in agreement.

Below is the YouTube video of his speech. The speech itself is about an hour when you skip the introduction and the audience questions.

One area where Mr. Coyne and I are in lock-step is the issue of democracy in Canada. The title of his speech was the “Alarming State of Canadian Democracy”. He lays out an impressive case. Evidence mounts that Canada is slipping towards a “largely ceremonial” parliament, and journalists feebly maintain any form of check on power, while politicians are long neutered. Is it alarmist? No, I don’t think so. Perhaps we are only a generation away from living in an illiberal democracy. I sincerely doubt that in Canada we’ll ever seen the jackboots in the street, or secret arrests or government monitors of telecommunications... okay I can imagine government monitors, but it’s the gradual erosion of ourselves as self-governing peoples that frightens me, to paraphrase Mr. Coyne.

He does not offer hope for his audience. There are no green shoots of promise to hold on to, but he does offer solutions. Most importantly he offers a first step.

As I have talked about previously in this blog, the tight reins of party leaders over their caucus is the ultimate albatross around the neck of our democracy. A first step to freeing up our democratic freedoms is to free up our Members of Parliament. Right now leaders hold a defacto veto over MPs because to run as a party’s candidate the leader must sign your nomination papers. Displease the leader and you may be blocked from seeking re-election.

Party nominations at the riding level should be determined by riding associations. This change would encourage grass-root activists and incentivize parties to strengthen them to ensure good candidates and a solid process in nominations. From this one action more reforms could flow. MPs could demand the right to be able to remove leaders from power, committee leaders could be selected by caucus, and the ambition of electoral reform might be all the easier to reach.

This won’t happen as things are though. MPs cannot, or will not, take the risk. Mr. Coyne concludes by saying it is only through public pressure will things change. In a polity that can barely raise interest on issues or war and peace, the environment, the budget, infrastructure and healthcare, how are we suppose to get people to care about this?

After watching Coyne’s speech I felt inspired and that it’s not enough to want change, you have to push for it. I started scribbling notes for a group called “Citizens for the Restoration of Parliament.” The group would have a simple aim, repair constitutional parliamentary democracy in Canada and help reverse the abuses.

Then the practical realities set in. I have more time than most, but I do not have the financial resources to start a “movement” such as that. Would anyone care over such a small issue, even if it matters so much? I leave it to my readers. I’d like to know if it is something they would get behind, though obviously I have only a vague idea how to execute it. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Worth Reading - November 7, 2013

Polls and events in Ontario might mean an election is on the horizon. Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West-Glanbrook) has attacked the ONDP, and it might mean a split in the opposition

David Akin, journalist with Sun News, writes in his blog about the media focus on the Liberals over the NDP. It is filtered through Brad Lavigne’s new book about the 2011 election. It definitely seems the case that the status quo of ignoring the NDP is strong.

The PMO is closing ranks around itself, so much so that it is not kicking out high profile members of its own party. Andrew Coyne suggests that these actions are creating more enemies

Hurray for our weak-mayor system! Even if Rob Ford hangs on as Toronto’s mayor the city council can contain him and govern the city. To be honest, it’s not as though they were following his leadership before.

My hometown of Brampton and neighbouring Mississauga has begun to confront serious budget constraints. I suspect we are seeing the fiscal issues the organization Strong Towns ( discusses, and the Ponzi scheme of growth.

Related to the above, a Globe and Mail article about the cost of sprawl

Emmet MacFarlane writes in the Globe and Mail that Rob Ford reveals a flaw in our democracy, the inability to impeach politicians

On a lighter note, the Washington Post writes about Ford in a satirical piece as though he was a politician in a banana republic, or developing nation.

Last week I shared something about the exceedingly generous compensation the mayor of Brampton gets. This week the Brampton Guardian breaks down the $800,000 spent by council

Brent Rathgeber (IND – Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) writes on his blog how the dismissal of the three Senators has been a terrible abuse of the rule of law

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ford, Wallin, Brazeau and Duffy: Satisfying the Mob

I am a pretty nerdy guy. This much is evident for regular readers of this blog. One of my favourite things to nerd-out on is history. Recently I have been reading about republicanism and the French Revolution. The French Revolution is definitely one of the more interesting chapters of human political history, in my opinion. One of the things that makes it interesting is the contrasts between it and the American Revolution which occurred short years before. One factor that existed in the French context that never materialized in the American was the importance of public opinion, commonly referred to as the mob.

Mob justice or the calls from the public for blood is as old as human society itself. I do not understand the anthropological/sociological reason why, but maliciousness and cruelty emerges from people when you put them in a group, disguise their individuality and confront them with controversy. Watching the fallout from Mayor Rob Ford’s revelations about drugs and alcohol to the world, literally, was paired against the discordant gleeful chirps, snarky comments and catcalls from the public galleries of radio, Facebook, Twitter and wherever else.

Anyone who reads what I have written about Rob Ford knows that I am no fan of the mayor of Canada’s largest city. I would never have voted for the man, nor have I supported him in office very often, but I take no pleasure in the public disgrace he now finds himself. I am embarrassed by Rob Ford as a person from the Greater Toronto Area. I think he makes my region, province and country look bad and that we deserve a substantially better caliber of mayor at city hall. I believe he should resign, but I cannot side with those that seem to take such heart in the man’s downfall, nor cheer while it happens.

When the news broke that Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were being suspended from the Senate without pay I was in first in favour of the action. However, as time passed I realized they were being pushed out to cover up the abuses that they and their party masters had participated in. The revelation by Senator Duffy definitely reinforced this perspective. However, when the Conservative government in the Senate made this motion I saw a live poll on CBC that suggested that over 60% of viewers wanted to see them turfed out.

For those who transgress against us we want to see them suffer. Bring them to the public guillotine where there bright lights and cameras hum and let’s see a little humiliation and suffering to satiate our anger. As I suggested this isn’t a recent phenomenon. Bev Oda’s, former Conservative MP for Durham, $16 orange juice pales in comparison to millions misspent by Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement (CPC – Parry Sound-Muskoka) in his own riding that was earmarked for border improvements. But the abstract is less likely to rile up a mob than the concrete.

Everyone I mentioned I believe should have resigned and then be quietly allowed to exit public life (or sit as an MP, depending on their error). It’s the public reaction and the call for blood that I find difficult to stomach. Mike Duffy has a documented heart condition and it is understandable why he hid behind it once the storm began. It is ironic that with the massive number of professional and citizen journalists, media outlets, Twitter and bloggers that our discourse seems only able to focus on one story at a time. Why is that? I suppose an answer might be found back in that mob in the streets of Paris; despite the many peering eyes there can only be one speaker and the mob answers with the din of a single voice.

What do these public witch hunts (which has uncovered witches) communicate about public life? What member of the business, academic, intellectual elite would look at the events of the past week and embrace the chaos and thrust themselves into it? The optics are terrible. Ford and his supporters believe the man never had a chance and he was hounded by the media, destined to fail. Can anyone expect a fair trial in the court of public opinion? Once a story breaks opinions solidified and politicians forced to deal with the consequences, even if they are ultimately vindicated.

French Revolutionaries soon learned that the mob hungers for blood and that there is no true end. I wonder now if we are struck in a mob fueled by scandal and we eagerly ferret out the next controversy until someone gives. It seems an unhealthy way to run a democracy or a government regardless of the mob’s satisfaction.