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)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A year of play in politics


I had an epiphany last week while waiting for a decent chicken lunch in the concert hall of the iconic Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto. The pre-lunch speaker, CNN and Reuters entertainment asset and peer-respected thinker Dr. Mohamed El-Erian was addressing my urgent question: Is the global outlook so fraught that I should vote strategically this year and sell my ridiculously overvalued house?

Through the last third of his presentation, however, I concentrated on the growing stacks of silver serving pallets discreetly steaming in the corner.

El-Erian insisted that if I’m going to make it through these exceptionally uncertain times, I must, above all, be adaptable. Yet he didn’t tell me what to do with my semi, or even suggest that any single approaching election, caucus, primary, summit, budget or central bank interest rate meeting will disturb my enviable status quo. He didn’t even acknowledge that Toronto voters must decide Canada’s fate in October.

It seems that for now, we’re free to not drag our families and friends into adult conversations about any one big problem on the move out there. Indeed, El-Erian shrugged knowingly that the American economy will keep growing smartly and that China will experience a “soft landing.”

My goodness, the base is safe.

So why must we keep saying we’re appalled about the shallowness of contemporary political discourse? Or be squeamish about spending hours in the "entertainment room" following current affairs. After all, the "fundamentals" are nicely grazing out there, without a shepherd and without a wolf in sight. 

The entertainers in our political capitals do know what they’re doing; they know it’s safe to play around. So let’s enjoy the show.  

As a primer, here are phenomena that can be taken seriously or not:

*Barack Obama admits US is so powerful that he can “test” new relationship styles with significant others, including Iran and Cuba. Note the ways his playful doctrine—and its disciples in the NSA and the state department—keep upsetting leaders in Ottawa and Berlin without harming US interests?

*Republican leaders insist we don’t know what Iranians are doing in their caves so we can’t tell them to stop them doing it. Yet do any of them actually know whether the Brits, the French and Israelis still have nuclear weapons? Why not put our ignorance about nuclear proliferation to use for peace and fiscal prudence; why not simply imagine that Iran and Saudi Arabia and Ireland already have them and treat everyone carefully?

*Canada’s catch catch-22: we’ll get another multiyear national inquiry into the victims of Canada’s ancient and notoriously corrupt Aboriginal Reserve system if the "activists" beat the "conservatives" in the October election.

*Political panels in Ontario will name Jim Prentice the Canadian politician of 2015 if he wins an anti-recession mandate to impose some 50 new taxes on Albertans.

*This year the UN will deliver its best climate change deal so far because its most influential negotiator, the US, will not be bound by treaty or legislation to implement it.

Remember, the ways we spin don't matter.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Unite the Canadian left? Please do.

A quarter of a billion potential voters in the world’s only democratic superpower will likely give a majority mandate to the next president of the United States. The 18 months of Democrat and Republican campaigning will entertain, offend and alarm sensitive people everywhere. This year, nestled just north, a relatively agreeable electorate of some 24-million potential voters will merely handicap an insider’s power game among the leadership of, possibly, five registered parties.

Canadians think Americans are too stupid to see that money makes their decisions. Instead, if all goes as progressives hope, Canadians will demonstrate their European sophistication by letting Canada’s professional politicians decide—after the October election—who best represents their unexpressed best intentions.

The Canadian Way, the Westminster Model, relies on two recognized pathways to 24 Sussex Dr.: 

Option 1: a one-party majority of elected members of parliament bound to support their leader
Option 2: an ad-hoc post-election coalition of parliamentary caucuses that provides one name for the blessing of the Governor General—an unelected gentleman whose qualifications for a ceremonial job most impressed the incumbent prime minister

The laughably obvious, most transparent option of simply tweaking Option 1 and Option 2 by creating a formal one-party, pre-election alliance on the left to take on the one-party, pre-election alliance on the right is, well, laughable. The leadership on the left hasn’t had the talent to pull it off since Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Some columnists insist in whispers that fancy “cultural” differences keep the center and the left apart. Do they really think Harper’s center-right alliance has no center? That a conservative today must only look for friends, conversation, mates and lovers out in the wilds of the “base”? Do they think that only Barack Obama holds together the Democratic Party alliance of knuckle-draggers in Jersey and kale-eaters in San Francisco?

The New Democrats and Greens at least admit to the dreamy idea of negotiating within a left coalition, if no single party wins a majority.

Laurier sunny heir Justin Trudeau just isn’t interested. Also, many loyal Liberals think he can still win the old way: with the greatest number of seats and a modest plurality of votes—without the bother of winning a center-left electoral majority. 

Besides, don’t Liberals get along with others by being empathetic but apart, with the center to themselves?

Actually, inertia sustains the status quo.

The Liberal Party will campaign hard on the proposition the Harper Government is a threat to our Constitutional liberties, that he’s an embarrassment with war-like, fascist-like tendencies. But he’s not quite bad enough to have to confront him shoulder-to-shoulder with those “socialistic” Dippers.

There’s no reason to worry that carrying on with a less open, less decisive, less democratic system than America’s will harm our brand among anti-American friends in multinational agencies.

Nevertheless, it contradicts the center-left’s platform handwringing about participatory democracy and the menace of right-wing extremism.

The most constructive way to energize new voters is by being believable about who actually is the alternative to Stephen Harper.


And the surest way to inspire the Conservative Party to keep and recapture voters in the center is by giving the centrist voters two choices rather than a precious party label of its own. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ambassador Heyman: Powerless Ottawa’s personnel narratives

Being in politics without power used to drive good men to drink. Today they settle for storytelling. They feed and write narratives. Because they live in the capital of the One Big Country that decided to nestle beside, and not inside, the center of its own civilization, they read Globe and Mail stories about personalities and their chemistry in Ottawa.

Today’s front-pager “The U.S. ambassador who got left out in the cold” by Campbell Clark reports darkly that Ambassador Bruce Heyman is not being entertained as a valued friend by the amateurish Harper government. Unfortunately, he buries a wonderful observation, demonstrating how more sophisticated governments used to work on U.S. ambassadors:

“Former deputy prime minister John Manley noted the Chrétien government figured only one person in the U.S. administration woke up every day thinking about Canada, so they’d better get close.”

Ambassadors from Washington exist in Ottawa to permit men and women in elected positions of power in Washington to concentrate on anything but Canada. They service networks within Ottawa; they deliver messages and bits of gossip.


If we need powerful American politicians to wake up thinking about Canada, we’ll have to send them to work in Washington as our representatives.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Justin Trudeau apes dad

Pierre Trudeau’s reputation as a battling liberal intellectual is an impregnable pan-Canadian memory. It will outlast Montréal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and is as imposing as Mount Pierre Elliott Trudeau in British Columbia. It has been a spur and, often, a crutch for a generation of Liberal politicians.

Now his son will try something Dad never tried: run an election against a conservative incumbent on behalf of liberty.

Justin Trudeau’s prepared speech for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada asserts immediately that it’s “time Liberals took back liberty” and concludes 40 minutes later on an optimistic note: “If we resist the urge to impose our personal beliefs upon our fellow citizens … we get back Canada in return.”

Only a Canadian Liberal, in third place, could suggest that Canada has gone missing, that liberty can be both the brand of Canada and the brand of his political Party as well.   

Most high-minded speeches are diminished by partisanship. This speech is propped up by its extravagant hostility toward the government of the day. Pundits report in whispers that the speech was in the works for months and that it reflects intense electoral calculation as well as Trudeau’s rising personal alarm about the vulnerable state of liberty in Harperland.

That Trudeau’s accusations are taken seriously isn’t a tribute to the morning logic of his beautifully written speech but the bile within our politics and punditry toward the Harper government. As he spoke, Trudeau ducks any discussion of legislation that does affect our liberties, legislation that is actually being worked on in committee, by working MPs. According to the same quality of dot-connecting employed by paranoids on the left now as well as the right, Harper’s hidden agenda, apparently, isn’t neo-liberal but neo-fascist.

The notion that successful applicants for Canadian citizenship should show their faces at their citizenship ceremonies is a betrayal of Canada’s brand and is unleashing dark impulses in the citizenry worthy of a drama class but nowhere else.

Our globally renowned liberal Constitution does grandfather Aboriginal treaty rights and certain regulated educational rights for Catholics. However, it doesn’t favor any god, cult, collectivity or tribal practice. We are—and we are seen to be—a rather godless sectarian country by friends and foe alike.

Surely, Muslim immigrants aren’t coming here to enrich their faith. They expect to enjoy, yes, reasonable accommodation. And they keep applying for residence and citizenship by the tens of thousands on that basis.

Plausibility applies in “core value” elections as well as elections decided on such pedestrian grounds as middle-class concerns about the future and executive competence.

Pierre Trudeau, by the way, won his three majorities by promising to be tough on disruptive Western decentralists, weak-kneed federalists, and Quebec nationalists and separatists—and, lest we forget, by promising to not raise taxes on gasoline or introduce wage and price controls. His opponents were caricatured as wobbly and less competent, not less committed to liberty than he was.