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)

Monday, March 2, 2015

Assisted suicide: argument for federal legislation

Canada’s parliamentarians have been offered two distinct arguments to excuse doing nothing in the wake of the Supreme Court’s instruction to decriminalize assisted suicide within 12 months. A number of law professors and ethicists suggest (1) it’s a health concern and thus it’s provincial and (2) as a liberal society, with a liberal Charter, we can leave it to individual choice.

Canadians, along with their Supreme Court, prefer to put the individual first. So, should assisted suicide be delegated to those who are suffering and their doctors? Or do we, through Parliament, have a collective obligation to set binding national conditions on how the crime of assisted death is withdrawn?

We provide universal health care nationwide to relieve suffering, require seat belts and vaccinations, and harass smokers from coast to coast because we carry a bearable obligation to support the well-being of fellow Canadians. We interfere collectively with other people’s “security of person” when, after public consideration and democratic consent, we decide it’s for their own good.

Accordingly, we only permit our delegated professionals (MDs) to prescribe drugs when they believe the drugs may do more good than harm.

Therefore, before a doctor helps a patient end his/her life, shouldn’t that doctor, as our delegated "brother’s keeper," also have to believe — and document — that the patient would be better dead than alive?


Surely, traditional liberals and social conservatives can start their deliberations by agreeing to address this un-simple imperative.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Western Canada not yet “in” where it counts

Possibly, the nicest slogan a protest party ever invented in Canada — if not clear across the English-speaking world — was the Reform Party’s 1987 plea: “The West wants in!” Its loquacious leader Preston Manning didn’t want to alienate patriotic Canadians who were already fed up with Quebec’s separatist movement; he hoped that open-minded voters, with enough time to hear his case, would make him Prime Minister of Canada.  

The gentleness of his slogan, however, didn’t protect him from old-line party adversaries who branded his movement as a radical un-Canadian front for US-style evangelical illiterates. Manning did destroy the national Progressive Conservative Party but never won Parliamentary seats in Eastern Canada, an absolute necessity to win power. Today, in retirement, his consolation is ready access to the Globe’s op-ed page and near-universal appreciation that he’s nicer than that fellow Westerner who did get the job.

The West is now “in” in Canada — and, so, enjoys great influence within Canada’s federal government. Demographics, resources, young immigrants and wealth, it’s assumed, will acquire for the West ever more influence in the centers of power. The rest of us will keep thinking of the West as the country’s flytrap for extremists and oddballs. But no one expects to hear again their old disruptive alternatives to the Canadian federation.

The Reform Party’s slogan has been effective; now it’s everybody’s property, a bland iteration of the status quo. “In” points east, obviously. But is that the end of the story?

If only to reduce the boredom of Canada’s hamster-in-a-cage politics, let’s exhume a few dormant thoughts about the West’s external relations.

The term “Western separatism” persists as an insult in the East but never was credible, strategically, in the West. Western Canadian visionaries didn’t see the West as "exceptional" as storytellers do in Quebec, Newfoundland, and Cape Breton, for instance. Rather, they worried, above all, about their province and the West’s economic vulnerability and relative powerlessness.

Getting “in” was the original family response of the Manning, Lougheed, Douglas, Roblin, Bennett, and Diefenbaker cadres of Western reformers. However, they weren’t single-minded as we almost mindlessly are today. They were outward-seeing, not simply Ottawa-seeing.

When they thought about and lobbied about infrastructure, banking, trade, immigration, and taxation, they looked for ways to escape the claustrophobic post-Confederation status quo, not merely catch a "fair share."

The least obsequious, most successful, and controversial Western reformer of our time was Premier Peter Lougheed of Alberta. The 70s and 80s inspired big thinking and he offered plenty. Pierre Trudeau centralists, severe recession, and uncertain commodity markets spurred Lougheed to secure whatever powers the West needed to reduce the West’s exposure to political whims in the East and political barriers to export markets.

He was a political as well as an economic diversifier. Free trade and resource sovereignty for the provinces, crucially including unobstructed access to the US market, would translate into less economic policy interference from Ottawa.

He joined alliances with other federalists to keep Quebec “in,” but in return he secured trade and constitutional powers for the West.

His victories in the 80s seemed to work. The West generally thought it had secured tariff free trade with the US and constitutional authority over its resources. Also, many presumed that eventually an elected and effective Senate would exist — making the West’s interests even more secure in the Canadian union.

However, has having a prime minister, more Cabinet ministers, MPs, and senior appointees today provided the West any more power in the world — even necessary access next door? Or did outward-looking strivers like Lougheed, Manning, and Stephen Harper only effectively win greater executive authority over a progressively powerless "national" economy?

Immediately, a Barack Obama Presidential rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline would most hurt Stephen Harper. We shouldn’t be surprised, however, if Western voices join this blog in asking not only whether our impotence as a trading nation is tolerable, but whether, to a great extent, it was our choice.

Western Canadians inherited a border that’s managed by a foreign superpower and, unlike Arizonians and North Dakotans, have no vetoes or votes where the commercial destiny of this continent is shaped.


Westerners, traditionally, face up to fundamental structural barriers to their interests. (Status quo political cultures prefer to double down on diplomacy.) The substance of the slogan “The West wants in!” struck a nerve because they felt marginalized and didn’t like the feeling. Within this year, certainly before this decade grinds to a close, they’ll be feeling that way again. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Have fun by playing politics with the Senate

Prime Minister:

We who scurry for attention have chosen to cast your every grudging utterance as another grudging investment in your year-long re-election campaign. Accordingly, this Aide memoir is tailored to excite your dark side — a missive to a predator.

Let’s start with a little flattery.

Along with your designated threat Justin Trudeau, we note that you like the company of suburban Canadians far more than you like the company of exceptional Canadians in Ottawa. This preference, even as a long-serving prime minister, has offended active and retired Guardians of Canadian Harmony. However, not being agreeable — actually, being sarcastic — makes you more interesting and can make your detractors less lovable at the same time.

Your toss-away shrug last week about normal Canadians not pestering you to pick "their" next sixteen senators was inspired. With perfect economy, you disrespected the Senate’s new Speaker, Liberal and New Democrat premiers, constitutional experts on the timeless wisdom of Canada’s founding deal-makers, and those pundits who insist that Canada’s flawless democracy was completed, in full, a generation ago, by Justin’s father.

(Even Toronto’s rebellious National Post sided with the status quo, editorializing: Fill the Senate seats, Mr. Harper)

Being mean when playing politics is forgivable, if you’re having fun — and upsetting the other side. Canada’s laughable unelected Senate shouldn’t be your dark cloud, but theirs.

Your campaign’s humorless advisors may feel that your outburst was an irreverent distraction. You clearly know better. Simply repeating for the next eleven months “I fixed the economy, stupid” is a stupefying prospect. That will do nothing to encourage anyone to see you differently. And, besides, venturing off the economy occasionally should, in fact, raise new, lucrative questions about the center of gravity of your exotic opponent.

First, a picky caveat on message crafting:

(You don’t have to retire as a Senate reformer merely because the Supreme Court didn’t support your legislative attempt to democratize an expensive aristocratic affectation, but your next moves — below — must pay attention to the court’s decision, if not the arguments of those politicians who are hiding behind it.)

Proposal: during your visits outside of Alberta, where Senators are already elected, try playing with these statements:

*I’m short 16 representatives in the PMO Senate, where you have none. And I’m still offering my vacancies to you.

*I’d prefer that the PMO Senate was immediately turned into the People’s Senate, but I’d settle for second best. I’ll appoint automatically any qualified individual formally submitted to me by the Premier and Cabinet of your province.

*Hopefully, they’ll consult at least with their legislatures. I’ll leave it to you to judge the transparency and representativeness of whatever process they use.

*Informal, indirect Senate nominations are as far as we can go without arousing 19th-century interests in this country. However, what I’m suggesting would at least place our two feet in the 20tcentury, if not the 21st.

Despite the court’s Pollyanna regard for the architecture of the BNA Act of 1867, the court didn’t criticize or disallow Alberta’s impudent practice of consulting with Albertans directly on who they’d like to represent them in the Senate, and it didn’t instruct you to not tease, annoy, or embarrass the other provincial governments and politicians generally who don’t want to replace status quo.

Yes, all those front-row law students are right, Prime Minister, you can’t force Canadians to be aggressive democrats or change the Senate permanently without formally amending the Constitution, with the provinces. 

And, as with other controversial initiatives, future governments can reverse what you accomplish with individual premiers.

That’s the beautiful part.

Can you imagine your opponents insisting that the premiers of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, B.C., and Manitoba daren’t nominate senators? My goodness, your offer could be popular and then might temp normal Canadians to go further.  For heaven’s sake, we could — in your lifetime — end up making the Senate their institution.


Surely, you’re not afraid of Justin Trudeau’s campaign to save the PMO Senate by appointing a Blue Ribbon nominations advisory committee?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Will Ontario stick with Barack Obama?

Never before has the White House emerged as the principal protectionist actor in a trade dispute with Canada. Other presidents have been negligent or looked the other way when legislators or state politicians growled: “America First!” Yet here we are, after 25 years of mutual progress under a comprehensive free trade agreement, facing a President entirely free — and seemingly inclined — to disrespect the American logic and agreed rules of the biggest bilateral trade treaty in the world, not in concert with but in defiance of both houses of the US Congress.

Not since the cocky final year of Jack Kennedy’s presidency has a US president come as close to getting personal — and nasty — toward his Canadian ally.

Could Obama’s looming inclination to kill the Keystone XL oil pipeline defeat Harper in next year’s election? Could Obama actually scratch his seven-year itch?

Excuse me; I’m getting personal.

Sure, I’d be dismayed if my favorite conservative Democrat sided with the Save-the-World-from-Canada capitalists in California and the Tea Party Democrats who think gumming up markets generally is a progressive idea.

The mystery of the moment, however, is whether Obama is prepared to humiliate Harper and whether Harper must look the other way or should personally start building a decent line of defense, especially in Ontario, against a well-liked lame duck President.

One decision that giant Ontario can’t avoid is deciding who wins Canada’s next election. Prime ministers usually come from elsewhere but they’re all made here. And as attentive followers of American tastes and power politics, Ontario’s influential voices want to be seen as favoring prime ministers that don’t irritate America’s giants, especially presidents without Southern accents.

(Questioning the soundness of White House Texans has helped elect prime ministers. On the other hand, being dismissed by Obama’s White House could have cost Harper his majority in 2011. Happily, on every dangerous file from spying on fellow citizens to fighting the Great Recession and using military force overseas, Harper’s been Obama’s helpmate — a leaden Joe Biden, who also knows he has no votes of his own.)

Changing the subject has been Harper’s preferred way of responding to trouble, but will it do if Keystone is formally rejected? Must the old rules against an aggressive Canadian Prime Minister be honored in this case?

Failing big in front of the world on a “no brainer” isn’t what competent leaders do. Harper must already see that the likeable Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and the idling Laurentian machine will place all the blame on Harper, the Climate Denier who’s now doing to Canada’s brand what Rob Ford did to Toronto.

Harper would be well advised to more vigorously and persistently defend Canada’s position in speeches and in interviews here, and, in the United States, attack the new protectionism swarming around the President. Shrugging that Obama won’t be President forever won’t reduce the damage; it won’t diminish Obama’s now-inflated credibility in Canada.

Obama can’t open US national parks to oil and natural gas fracking projects, permit soaring US coal and oil exports, promise to keep prices down at the pump, and, at the same time, precipitate a possible energy investment recession in Canada to pad his green presidential legacy — unless Canada turns the other cheek.


New York Times columnist David Brooks hints at what’s happening to Barack Obama’s reputation within the burgeoning moderate center of American politics. If moderates in America’s leadership are openly questioning Barack Obama’s moderation, surely moderate Ontario will give their Prime Minister a hearing as the champion of a trade union under assault in the White House.