Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hillary Clinton and “The Base”

Progressives have perfected a lethal poli-sci-sounding complaint about their right-wing opponents: they pander to their base—and, gosh, with a base full of small-minded bigots, it’s little wonder conservative leaders can’t be intelligent about the oh-so-complex challenges facing governments today.

After the Great Depression, conservatives—both the aloof elitists and the faux populists—toiled at marketing-pleasing labels for themselves. Nixon’s “silent majority” and John Diefenbaker’s “un-hyphenated Canadians” were especially successful; conservative politicians stopped being seen as incompetent WASPs.

In this new century, however, conservatives have largely suffered profitably in silence.  

Letting their opponents describe their supporters in almost lurid terms has helped keep that base militant. However, it complicates things for conservatives stuck in opposition or, in Stephen Harper’s case, without anywhere near enough votes to win in October.

Representing a militant base doesn’t win the center. Independents in both countries avoid cell groups and movements; they don’t vote for bigger government or for throwing civil servants living just next door out of work. They leave the unpleasant stuff to elected governments.

The qualifier for conservative and progressive politicians who want to win national elections is to serve a broader purpose than redressing the grievances and florid dreams of their most righteous partisans. 

The center isn’t smarter than the wings, who care the most. Its hot buttons, however, are different. The center wants presidents and prime ministers who are strong enough to represent them without having to hit the streets and make as much noise as the extremes.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t have an experience problem—or advantage. She’s spent all her quality time, all her life, with smart people, she ran for president before, and thrives in Manhattan. She doesn’t need training wheels and is given no slack for gaffes or innocent mistakes. 

Yet she’s already put her savvy and her character in doubt on a test no president has failed since the 1920s: free trade verses protection.

Her decision to oppose last week’s fast-track legislation to allow Barack Obama to complete the negotiation of a free-trade agreement with American allies and market economies next to China kept her “base” content—last week.

But last week’s pander won’t be her last. Her “base” didn’t kill the trade negotiations, negotiations that she helped launch. Instead she’s generated sticky questions about her political judgment, policy smarts and integrity. She has a lot more bowing to do.

Did her endlessly calculating machine figure out what she’ll say when Congress does, in fact, give Obama a second chance and, when he does, in the end, secure the TAPP free-trade agreement?

Will Clinton remain opposed? And if so, has she figured out how to confront China without allies who trust her?

Will she end up pressured to support Obama? If so, what happens to the family conceit of being smarter and tougher than the lame duck family in the White House?

Has she concocted a bold, courageous, original idea to wipe clean the impression today that she can’t stand up to the most reactionary elements of her “base” and Senator Bernie Sanders, an opinionated windbag from Vermont?


Centrists in the US and in Canada don’t see themselves as trade or diplomacy experts but they worry about the global economy and China. And they will likely not vote for leaders who worry more about the sensibilities of their “base.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Rachel Notley: Don’t overvalue diffidence

Alberta’s new Premier can’t bank on an extended honeymoon just because she’s the first un-conservative to take office since the Great Depression. There’s nothing especially  attractive about watching yet another social democrat mature in office. The conventions on dancing to the left of Conservatives and Liberals without being too “socialistic” are time-tested and tiresome.

It’s all so Canadian: They grow politically when they accept that most of their time will be spent graciously—and promptly—addressing other people’s messes.

The Alberta electorate was emphatic. Abacus Data’s survey of post-election attitudes confirms that the vast majority of Albertans are pleased that they have a new government. That same majority, however, doesn’t want to change Alberta very much, nor downsize its expensive expectations as tax-paying workers and clients of her government.

Alberta’s economic circumstances are far less certain than the demands of its people. The foundation of its exceptional wealth hasn’t been low taxes, seasonal tourism, superior public infrastructure and a flexible labor force—but robust external demand for its abundant fossil resources. Right now, the profitability and access to continental and world markets of those resources are deteriorating. "Next Year Country" isn’t inspiring much hope right now.

It’s smart in opposition and in think tanks to blue-sky the other side of the road; diversifying resource economies is always desirable. But that isn’t what landlocked Prairie governments are first obliged to do. And telling oil executives, developers, investors, and staff to not be afraid of Notley and her cadre of Eastern sophisticates is presumptuous. They have much bigger things to worry about.

Performance metrics for the Notley government are settling in against a decade of lower prices.

The urgent challenge for Notley is not to strike the proverbial right balance as a social democrat but to embrace the bracing legacy of Peter Lougheed and reassert the Alberta and the Prairie’s core imperative: equitable support for, and treatment of, its landlocked resource industries. 

To be taxable, to be able to afford cleaner technologies and standards and to be able to pay off waves of white-collar lobbyists, ravenous "social license" holders and NIMBYs of various stripes, the Alberta oil industry must make a handsome profit selling crude oil at prices buyers set thousands of miles away.

It was harmless politics in the campaign for Notley simply to shrug that the Keystone oil pipeline and the Gateway Project had been fatally mishandled by insensitive right-wingers.  Being stoical about past failures, however, isn’t what Alberta Premiers are elected to do.

Without Keystone, the most advanced and economic line to meet new oil production already approved, Alberta will stop being a competitive place to invest and that means lower employment and personal as well as public income.

There is no doubt that powerful and influential shallow forces in Washington, BC, Ontario, and Quebec would find it less displeasing and less politically expensive to burn another barrel of “Notley Alberta Oil” than another barrel of Stephen Harper’s. Fair or not, that’s the Alberta “advantage” today—and she’s obliged to play it.

Notley can surely get a second hearing of Alberta vital interests. The only question is where she is prepared to assert them.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Canada’s cranky old-men syndrome

Quebec’s giddy new separatist leader describes Canada as an “imaginary” country, and Michael Den Tandt, one of the country’s best abstract thinkers, goes ballistic—it exists legally, he writes and, besides, it’s more popular than Pierre Karl Péladeau’s ethnic nationalist alternative. Den Tandt’s response is as familiar and as chronically seductive as spring tulips in Ottawa.

Clearly, Canada and the way things are done in Canada are hardly imaginary. Indeed, the awesome inertia of bearable second-best, not logic, is the status quo’s best friend.

Other amateurs as well as PKP raise their hands and say the damnedest things. Unify the tiny, near-insolvent Maritime provinces? Impossible. Abolish or create a full house of elected Senators? Impossible. Create a currency union with the US? Inconceivable. Give up our national border and let Quebec have one? Nonsense. A continental carbon tax? Road tolls in Toronto? I should live so long.

The classical liberal response to PKP’s primitive nationalism is: Yes, Canada was imagined. The union was assembled and sustained as an idea by persuasive men and women, not God or blood. And, so, it can be played with, altered and replaced through peaceful debate and democratic decision-making.

That was the promise Quebec heard Pierre Trudeau make in the first referendum debate. Wouldn’t it be lovely that if in two years we aren’t just picnicking and boasting about being around for 150 years but are actually engaged in at least one glorious argument over the way we organize ourselves?


Let’s try to act generous and young again.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Iraq intelligence: how hawks repent

Two repentant Iraq War hawks will probably be on the final ballot for the next president of the United States. Both Hillary Clinton and the cluster of plausible Republican nominees finesse their support for a very bad war by insisting that they were seduced by the “intelligence” community (that benign cyst on Washington’s body politick) and that, if elected, each will be better brief-readers than George W. Bush.  

Canadians, French intellectuals and Senator Rand Paul interject that they weren’t much impressed by the public arguments and testimony offered before the war even started. Still, repentant hawks insist that the private briefings about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program and, I suppose, his suicidal character profile were compelling. The war was all about the “intelligence.”

It’s easy today to not be George W. Bush in 2002. But confessing it isn’t terribly informative. Knowing Iraq’s history—and its dogged experts—inside out won’t tell her or him what to do or not do—there or anywhere else in the world. A better-briefed hawk won’t necessarily do what’s right or what works.

Fortunately, there are other benchmarks for assessing the candidates that would update the race and, hopefully, avoid making the future more dangerous than it already is: for instance, the temperament of each candidate and their distance from the temperament of the incumbent, Barack Obama.

Being against the Iraq War now is meaningless. Being against Obama’s conduct abroad is noteworthy.

Obama knows more now about America and the world than he did in Chicago when he came out against launching a second war with Iraq. Most recently, he opted for being called a hypocrite rather than going to war with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. He’s not generous with his country’s resources merely for the sake of his legacy.

Intelligence will keep accumulating to support the next president, but modesty doesn’t grow naturally in Washington. There is every chance that the next president will have a good mind and be as ruthless as Barack Obama. It would be reassuring, however, if even a couple of the front-runners embrace rather than run away from his sense of limits.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Alberta, yes you can elect a new Government

Those who’ll decide who wins Alberta’s election next week will be holding their noses for change or holding their noses to keep the status quo. Political change, as well as corruption, always smells. But you should try it now. Long ago, it was good for Alberta and, if any place can afford it today, Alberta can.

Danielle Smith isn’t the least bit concerned and she knows a thing or two about political experimentation. Your credit is fantastic, your wealth-generating capacity is enviable and resilient, you have built up a superior public service, and your divisions are not bitter.

Admittedly, Ontario isn’t a popular place from which to dare Albertans to take the plunge. We’ve been a pain for decades about Alberta’s “advantage” and fiscal choices. Also, as eastern cosmopolitans, our competence now is to advise on a fee-for-service basis, in private. Nevertheless, Ontario has clearly led you on one thing: our relatively recent experience at throwing out an ancient regime should steel your nerves and challenge your pride.

Ontario Progressive Conservatives won 12 elections and then were eased out in 1985. Alberta Progressive Conservatives won their 12th election in 2012, and are still in power. Stopping them now won’t be the end for the PCs, our Alberta’s brand.

Alberta incumbents are acting the way the Ontario ones did 30 years ago. Ridiculously long-serving regimes don’t simply use scare tactics in elections—they are scared. They actually believe that their lovely government can’t carry on successfully without them.

Call it patriotic hysteria, if you wish.

Ontario has experienced three changes in government over these last 30 years. Certainly that’s plenty. The times have not been as easy for Ontario as they were in, say, the '50s and '60s. It has been riding the business cycles of an open, diversified, mid-continent jurisdiction. However, the provincial governments since the days of the Big Blue Machine haven’t irrevocably altered Ontario’s underlying characteristics, one way or another. We’ve discovered that our brand remains appealing and is not the property of any one party.

Winning in the midst of a resource recession, of course, isn’t ideal. However, Alberta politics and government would be refreshed by either a Wildrose or a New Democratic minority government.

Either would have to pass a budget and avoid making big mistakes. So, they’ll have to listen intelligently to professional public servants and voters who voted, hopefully, for positive change.

First, Wildrose ministers wouldn’t owe the Alberta public service any thanks and that would be scary—for public servants. However, each Wildrose minister would fight to keep all program dollars and staff resources that they would discover were necessary to provide popular public services.

Second, as a national contender in this fall’s federal election, a win for the New Democrats in Alberta could have greater political significance.

An indisputably left-of-center government would finally have to manage and champion a great, troubled resource economy.

Representing almost exclusively consumer-oriented voters in political opposition for decades has rusted thinking in the NDP and the credibility of the left across Canada. They have found it too easy to be green. If they win power next week, they’ll have to figure out how to be credible taxers of Alberta resources, competent environmental regulators, and champions of oil and gas investment and transportation. If they’re reluctant and fail at these tasks, they’ll be quickly thrown out.

The NDP wouldn’t get to wreck Alberta, but they could make or break Thomas Mulcair this fall.

There are plenty of incentives for a new Alberta government to behave and launch successful reforms. This would be good for Alberta’s democracy: it would give the PCs a nice pause to think outside of briefing sessions in government; and it would challenge briefers in government service to do their very best for a strange new crowd sent to them by the people.