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)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Being ‘not normal’ after the election of Donald Trump

I know this is no time to complain about the blahs. Life on the planet altered last week. People are disoriented; nauseated with fear; or in a rage. Meanwhile, I just want to be left alone to clean up the kitchen.

My social and, indeed, my domestic life demand that before uttering his name I repeat: “I detest Trump, his court of bigots, and all the low-lifers that poison US politics.”  All of it I’ve said, sincerely, before offering harmless, even old-hat comments about reports on post-election mental activity.

But, surely I don’t have to keep sounding-off like a hairy old radical from the Sixties before speaking freely in this mellow country. After all, what would be the point of Canada without its signature mellow ways?

My fellow Canadians insist on remaining separate from the US because they prefer our less important, calmer politics. After he first visited Ottawa nearly 8-years ago, they weren’t thrilled, as I was, by the idea of actually voting to re-elect Barack Obama. But let’s not dig up that old bone! Sarcasm is a dead weapon in the age of Twitter.

Until I watch the Senate hearings on his Cabinet nominees and hear old Red’s Inaugural Address in January, I will admit to only one common pain with you: Barack Obama was an abnormally careful and trustworthy president. But, there was never going to be a third act. So, we’re all being hurled forward into an old world: a dangerous time, without a great American in the White House.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Do we need to be big to be cosmopolitan political animals?

The just society has been restored. Best intentions, disciplined by fact-checkers, motivate our institutions. When we’re not on Netflix or vicariously fighting US elections, Canadians ponder Canada’s singular original flaw: being good, but too small. Canadians simply can’t shake the feeling that Canada could do so much more to save this troubled word if only it was bigger.

Happily, this problem has a gently impactful, re-calibrated century-old solution: a population target of 100 million bona-fide Canadians by 2100. Its champions most surely already own real estate in downtown Toronto and Vancouver, studied and vacation in Europe, and can’t stand America’s cussed indifference.

After putting up with more than a century of being less appealing to global risk-takers and mistreated minorities than the great happiness lady to the south, we’re now a first love, not a rebound destination. So, that old itch to be great too has found credible voices in our national politics.

Andrew Coyne gives the idea a cleared-eyed pass in his excellent column: “Increased immigration is good for Canada — and the reasons aren’t only economic”.

The target isn’t a leap of faith and wouldn’t require that much of an additional increase in annual immigration annually. We can micro-manage (high-grade) the admission of individuals keen to embrace Canada’s governing values. Coyne doesn’t try to argue that immigration will solve the emerging burden of grey dependents or increase real incomes per-capita by magically increasing our productivity. He settles on a classic liberal assertion, and a Machiavellian one:

“Ambitious countries want to grow, but growth also makes countries ambitious.”
“Second, it (population target) would add to our clout in the world. We would be growing at a time when our peers are shrinking. At 100 million, current United Nations projections suggest we would be second only to the United States (it is forecast to grow to 450 million) among the G-7, vaulting past Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.”
Since half of new Canadians settle now and will continue to settle in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and a fourth city, depending on shifting regional job prospects, Coyne is a hundred percent, half right: by 2100 Montreal and Vancouver will have joined Toronto as eminent, brutally ambitious centers of western creativity, commerce and civilization.
Having the talent and problems as big as New York’s and Los Angeles’s, it is reasonable to expect that Toronto will discover in its midst truly exceptional, cosmopolitan political leaders. Visitors will study how we run things as a giant city and we’ll be more entertaining than the Fins and Norwegians.
However, Canada as a nation-state and the public service in its national capital Ottawa won’t have more “clout in the world.” To put it personally, your choices of future prime ministers won’t give you added or less voice as an unregistered ‘citizen of the world’, let alone North America.
This is not a good thing or, happily, the way it must always be.
As a child of the Sixties, I still believe “clout in the world” is a constructive, indeed a healthy ambition--others out there will not stop seeking to have it and, often, in order to do less good. 
However, Machiavelli would only be amused at the thought that the nicest suburb on this continent wants to be a significant political force on its own. Indeed, as an Italian cosmopolitan--who’d see instantly that secret ballots in primaries, caucuses and general elections have the real power--he might ask: why do you follow US political gossip, passionately day-after-day, and reject any form of political participation?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Is Justin Trudeau’s ‘carbon price’ too good to oppose?

Some short speeches are worth taking nearly a year to write. Justin Trudeau’s you price carbon or I will declaration to the provinces may be one of them.

It respects the ancient rules of Liberal incumbency: it honors international commitments, has the sympathy of most go-to policy analysts, won’t touch the middle-class, ever so gently, for years. Best of all, it has a black-hat cast of detractors, right-wing deniers, left-wing dreamers, and even a prim prairie premier leading the charge.

Its weaknesses are also its strength. There will be two years for bureaucratic brainstorming with the three biggest Liberal provincial governments before Trudeau must decide whether to bring down the hammer, starting with a puny nationwide $10-per-ton tax on carbon. And, as a largely incomprehensible war cry, a “carbon price can be defended as one of those good whatevers smart people like and paranoids oppose. Being a euphemism for another consumption tax only makes it that much smarter.

With all this easily grasped by every opposition wordsmith with a security pass on Parliament Hill, why then are New Democrats and Tories (with the exception of that high-minded lone-wolf Michael Chong) not going along? Are they being too partisan too pass that life-or-death, good-citizen-of-the-world, common-sense test that is demanded by swing voters from coast to coast?

Duh. No.

In Canada, you can’t be dumb in public about a global threat as serious as climate change. But, you can, in fact, sound smart parting company with Justin Trudeau’s bold plan, and the qualified support of Andrew Coyne, for that matter, and be likeable by openly not liking Trudeau’s carbon tax plan.

First. Federal New Democrats are not honor-bound to keep up with the Liberals when they bully provinces and appropriate elements of a conservative market mechanism to fight a global problem. Furthermore, in opposition, they’d be crazy to support any tax increase that has to hit workers and families in energy-intensive ridings the hardest.

The left, of course, is free to outbid the Liberals with promises to raise taxes on those two exotic minorities: big business polluters and the rich.  However, they haven’t before and needn’t now help the Liberal Party’s indecently popular leader raise taxes on voting blocks that social democrats have solicited for generations.

Trudeau, on the face of it, has designed and intends to actually implement a carbon mitigation plan well to the right of Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. New Democrats are free to leave him out there.

Second. Conservatives can survive being called hypocrites by Liberals.

Yes, Trudeau’s carbon “price” is less harsh and isn’t the federal government-money grab that was proposed by Stephen Dion. His “Green Shift" was soundly rejected in the 2008 election and Liberals learn from their mistakes. Nevertheless, Trudeau’s less rambunctious carbon tax plan will not be an alternative to inferior regulatory alternatives, but another add-on. His Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna has repeatedly assured lobbyists and provinces that they can keep bulking up subsidy and regulatory interventions.

Trudeau declared with great care that his carbon tax plan is “revenue neutral to the federal government.” Provincial governments will get every cent raised from their business and individuals. Nevertheless, its essential rationale and its inescapable impact on carbon consumers can’t be “neutral.”

The only way to leave energy-intensive users whole would be to provide matching rebates against each consumer’s carbon tax bill. But leaving them whole would contradict the whole point of Trudeau’s tax.

(Ontario Premier Wynne’s pre-election electricity rate rebate to hard-pressed electricity customers offers a real time example of trying anyway.)

It needn’t be supported today by scientifically literate and ambitious New Democrats or Conservatives.

The Trudeau government reply, of course, is that New Democrats are first to insist that Canada honor multilateral agreements and should, therefore, be first to back a carbon “price” plan that is sincerely designed to meet the climate change targets agreed to at the UN conference of all nations in Paris. The Trudeau government would also reply that the Tories have no right to complain because (1) they don’t care about climate change and (2) are not licensed to care about people. Sadly, both parties are too petty (as I am now) to hold hands and help Canada be seen to do its part to save the planet.

At the very least, the opposition—loyal, cynical, or otherwise—shouldn’t offer support, in advance, to the dark and sunny sides of a comprehensive carbon tax without (in concert with the provinces) full disclosure on how it would be applied.

In the meantime, let’s bear down on what the world truly needs: affordable technology alternatives to fossil power and a declaration by the next US president that she’ll propose and champion a substantive carbon tax or an alternative, verifiable form of American sacrifice worth Canadian sacrifice as well.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Want your Senate to answer to you or be ‘independent’?

Canadians are sensitive to the corruptive power of hot patriotic rhetoric in American politics. We’re unmoved by flag-waving braggarts. Instead, we’re soft on a sedative: the proposition that our decision-makers serve us best, ever more intelligently, when we’re not in their face.

An extra measure of independence for legislators and public executives is presented to us as time-tested good housekeeping—a virtue that sets Canada above the more tactile and demanding politics to the south.

The Americans inherited the slave industry and we embedded in our political culture a British constitution of limited democracy and the good citizen’s general willingness to go along. 

Yet, any morning, in every public institution, from the PMO down to every crown agency and regional government outpost, those who hold power are reminded in little, unpleasant ways that they hold that power at our pleasure. Their unease about their professional mortality is palliated directly by obsessive market surveys, focus groups, and waves of fetching press gallery spinners, bureaucratic neologisms, and incomprehensible ‘accountability’ data dumps.

Also, there’s the confusing verbiage of our constitutional monarchy—a magical system of government that hides in every legal statute who exactly is the boss. On the outside, popular public intellectuals also write papers shoring up the credibility of independent decision-making and the impossibility of improving on the democratic reforms secured in the 1980s.

 A House Undivided: Making Senate Independence Work by former Senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal is a classic, bringing nuts-and-bolts authenticity to the task of trying to organize Justin Trudeau’s new Senate of 105 un-elected, free-thinkers into a workable legislative assembly.  

There will be, they proposed to the Public Policy Form, weekly Senate caucuses of the four regional power blocks that formed British North America back in 1867. To give Justin Trudeau greater latitude in guessing who would best represent these regions, the age limit of 30 and the property minimum of $4,000 for Senate appointments will be eliminated. Necessarily, the PM’s freshman Senate existentialists will need to meet regularly “in conference” to sort out their differences with the less sober, rather harried elected politicians from the people’s House of Commons.

(The Senate’s own reform committee outdid Kirby and Segal by recommending that the Senate allow their debates to be televised. Idle masochistic Canadians surely can’t be satisfied watching only unaccountable US Senators indifferent in what they think.)

Some sandboxes should be for the children or sent to the museum of civilization.

Trying to make a Canadian law-making institution less offensive by reforming its appointment procedures and business practices is, at best, a sincere waste of time.

Placing our upper house beyond electoral redress by the people has not, as Victorian authoritarians told us, led to more “sober second-thought.” The Senate is illegitimate today because, time and again, we’ve seen that informed adults voting are superior guarantors of durable progress than organizations of aloof worthies.

Yes, too much democracy—via plebiscites, recall of legislators, and too frequent elections—could drive us into a ditch. And with that concern very much in mind, the US constitution evolved a democratic balance: elections every two years for the people’s assembly and every six years for its Senate. They accepted that scrambling for money and voter approval shouldn’t go on constantly. They didn’t go so far, however, as to eliminate elections for the US Senate altogether.

Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal were superior Canadian senators. And they are listened to in Ottawa today. Lyndon Johnson, Ted Kennedy, Robert Taft, and Evert Dirksen, however, made political history, and did so, in large part, because they could win big elections and scare presidents.

Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected shortly; and neither will be subdued by The Guardian or The Globe or the UN. To govern, however, the winner must regularly secure majorities and super-majorities in a separately elected US Senate.

Will Justin Trudeau’s government ever be subdued or driven off course by the Senators Justin Trudeau appoints to the Senate? Against that test, our $90-million-plus Senate is more bling-bling than a check on the awesome power of the PMO.

Democracy’s catch-22: for an effective Senate to be independent of the PM of the day, its Senators must first be empowered by being elected and, along with the PM, obliged to answer regularly to the people.