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)

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 PĂ©ladeau’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.

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.