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)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Is the Quebec drama over?

Standing in the ruins of ancient Rome, you don’t appreciate that the drama in our civilization is also dead. Then I cross the street, order a caffe, and go online. Suddenly, I’m reading that nothing big will ever change across the "English-speaking civilization" and also in the "French-speaking civilization" of Quebec.

The evidence is trending: Scotland could vote yes or no for independence and still keep the Queen and £; either another Bush or another Clinton will return to the White House in 2016; and an overwhelming majority of Quebecers say they like the "status quo."

Andrew Coyne has found it “impossible to overstate” the tectonic significance of federalists winning a clear majority in Quebec’s latest provincial election. Coyne divines that, since Quebecers “rejected secession without being offered any special inducement to do so,” they think Canada is not so bad, that they are happy with the "status quo."

Quebecers have settled for an unlovable impasse. The Canadian federation’s prime minister is wildly unpopular. Quebec federalists are tainted by scandal and, as well, are uniformly uncharismatic. Neither on the stage nor in writing do they offer positive change. Quebecers cherish their democracy but accept that the Clarity Act and Canada’s Supreme Court have made separation “unavailable.” The choice is only “the status quo or the status quo” — and, still, 75% of eligible Quebecers bothered to vote.

To begin with a technical problem:

The "Canadian status quo" — along with generalizations like the "Gilded Age," the "Trudeau Years," and the "Quiet Revolution" — is but some writer’s invention (usually employed as an insult). In any event, it doesn’t exist. Even as expressed opinion it only exists for an instant. And happy crowds only last in pictures. You invent; you don’t see agreement even on the smiling faces in Kim Jong Un rallies in North Korea. Votes decide who governs but they don’t tell us what those voters were thinking and will be thinking next.

The Quebec-Canada "status quo" was not endorsed on Monday night and wouldn’t be any safer today if 100% of Quebec adults had turned up to vote.

Much has been made of the poor showing of the Parti Quebecois — its worst performance since 1973. Yet I’m not aware of anyone suggesting that Stephen Harper is a better advocate for Canada than Jean Chretien, Pierre Trudeau, or Brian Mulroney. Apparently, Quebecers only spent their evenings reading scary stories about the Clarity Act and the hardhearted monetarists in Ottawa who would never let Quebec keep the Canadian dollar.

But what about the role of "personality" in the outcome? After all, it is politicians, not abstractions, that we reject or embrace when we vote.

Was Quebec’s election night about something bigger than the unappealing prospect of re-electing Pauline Marois? Has the PQ and its founding vision ever been so poorly represented?

In the two debates, hour after long hour, she complained about being questioned in a snap election that she called. On the cause dearest to her heart — Quebec nationhood — she insisted that the citizens of Quebec weren’t “ready” to discuss it. As if that discussion would be hard, unpleasant work, as if she found managing the status quo exhausting enough.

When witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Francis Fukuyama asserted that as a contest of ideas we had come to “the end of history.” Big politics in Berlin may be crowded out for now by building cranes and tourists. But big politics is still busy elsewhere, around the world and in Germany.

The thesis that Canada’s governance is settled won’t fly indefinitely in Quebec and certainly not in Western Canada. 


The "status quo" — never having to think about the constitution again — may be an attractive proposition. But is it sustainable? Old shoes that pinch are wearable — but only for a while and only until you try on a better pair.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Gone Roman, April 2014

March 28th, Friday departure:

* Next week, I’ll let everyone know where we are. Toronto will be livable again; winter will have been forgotten; and they’ll have an election on public morals and Toronto’s promise to get excited about. Then I can tell them about what’s bothering me in Rome.
* Leaving downtown Toronto at 3 p.m. on Friday is the Canadian equivalent of fleeing a warzone. Blockades are everywhere and the plane is on time! The world’s "city of communities" can be hell when you’re trying to get away. (Still, Rob Ford’s excuses about his “boom city” would work brilliantly for an incumbent south of the border.)
* Travel points got us priority sleeping pods, but their seats are too high. Do I belong up here?

Saturday morning, Frankfurt terminal:

* A vast fitness center designed to provide generous breathing space for planes; city blocks of grey-green marble corridors, pinpoint lighting, and giant travelers with small silver suitcases swoop across your path like sparrows.
* A businessman carefully organizes his belongings in exact parallel lines in three baskets on the security conveyor belt — the way I organize my new desk when I can’t think of what to write. We’ll stick with him if we get in trouble.   

Sunday, Rome:

* Something smells. Spring is early: The trees are greening; the Tiber already splashes sidewalks along its banks; the sun actually burns. Tourists and Roman Catholic pilgrims are about in significant numbers. Young people still appear delighted to be alive. Yet, many of their fathers are still dressed for bitter weather.
* I’m beginning to find it interesting that old men aren’t all alike. Many, for instance, still struggle if not to get even, at least to not become invisible.
* They take great care to appear ready for adventure; they dress for exacting appointments: an interview with another banker for additional financing or lunch with a total stranger with a big name. In Rome, men in their 60s — with means without ends — dramatize the past and don’t try to lie about the future.
* They wear lumpy jackets of dark browns, blue-blacks, and purples, corduroy and black slacks, loose wool vests, thick shirts and scarfs. The big items accentuate grey hair, weekend beards, and worry lines. In one hand, they carry a serious newspaper. (No purses this year.)
* Their purchasing power is only hinted at in the quality of their shoes and belts, without salt stains or the stress of aging on a careless old man.
* Aristocrats disguised as peasants slipping through a revolution! Young men look meaner; these men display experience.

*Can Rome’s boomers make surviving interesting? They're gregarious, not content with gated communities and golf courses; they still want to gather where fewer and fewer younger Romans can afford to go. But is surviving a Roman winter through the birth and death of another government any more testing than surviving another year in Toronto where nothing but the chill factor catches you off guard?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reform Act: Canada’s way to confuse an effective democracy

There isn’t a Member of Parliament that publicly embraces the 18th-century limited government ambitions of the American Tea Party. Some MPs must be republicans and others must think that Canada’s federation is too centralized. But none of them would say that a fraction of Parliamentarians should see it as their proper place to severely weaken the executive branch of the federal government or that, after each election, the winning caucus should mull over who they want as prime minister.

Not one of them would quote the Tea Party. Nevertheless, a well-intended, reactionary proposal is enjoying a ridiculously gentle reception in the Canadian press and with too many Members of Parliament.

On behalf of a 19th-century precept that puts elected and unelected British parliamentarians in charge of who ran Britain’s government, Conservative MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act proposes that a faction of each party caucus (15% to 20%) should, by statute, have the power to force a leadership review and that a clear majority of each caucus should be sufficient to fire their leader.

Cutting to the chase: Chong’s bill would trim the powers and legitimacy of prime ministers who win majorities. Here’s how a Globe and Mail editorial puts it:

“It’s reasonable to debate the right figure or mechanism; the principle is what’s most important. And that principle is that party leaders, including prime ministers, rise out of the body of MPs, and are something less than the MPs’ lord and master.”

The bill’s core principle, in fact, is the problem.

With all due respect to the wit and intrigues of the Disraeli and Gladstone parliaments, prime ministers in Canada today don’t “rise out of the body of MPs.”

They lead registered national political parties. And because they lead winning national election campaigns, with constituency candidates representing that party, prime ministers stand well above others in Parliament. This isn’t arbitrary or fueled by patronage. It expresses the way the people believe their democracy works; it informs how they vote and drives them to the polls. And, as important, it’s that contract with the person that makes surefooted public administration possible.

It is breached by MPs in dire circumstances, but it isn’t a corruption of the way things should normally work. It only offends a bygone era of serial governments and powerful scheming backbenches.

For the opposition, Chong’s bill offers another dandy opportunity to fuel their ballot question: Do you believe we still need to be bossed around by Stephen Harper? For numerous Conservative backbenches, it helps separate them from Harper and identifies them with "grass-roots democrats" who believe representative democracy was once actually more accountable to the people.

The alliance that could pass this bill — like most political alliances — is fragile. Opposition party leaders Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau will live with it if they think it will get them closer to power. After all, destroying a popular prime minister would be inconceivable for Liberals, and having a popular prime minister is hardly a disciplining objective for New Democrats.

So, like making promises to balance a budget in seven years or to cut the emission of greenhouse gases in 10 years, what’s the harm? It doesn’t force me to do anything. For a moment, for fun, however, let’s imagine hiring and firing prime ministers became normal caucus business.

In the "dysfunctional" American legislative system, Congress can block, amend, and defeat the president’s legislation, budgets, treaties, and executive appointments. A super majority can throw the president out. And none of these powers requires that US legislators secure the consent of the voters who sent them to Washington.

However, in return for all that power over the Executive, they must deliberate and vote in public and respect the written terms of their constitution. And unless he’s impeached, he keeps his job and all the awful power and legitimacy that that office provides to help him fight back.

Does Chong envision Canada’s Parliamentary caucuses holding these revolts and exercising their new statutory powers in public, or in the grand ol' fashion of colorful leaks to CTV’s Craig Oliver and the Post’s John Iverson?

For conservatives who want to implement controversial changes, for liberals who are concerned that the Executive maintains fiscal powers and the flexibility necessary to manage the economy in emergencies, and for social democrats who wish to legislate comprehensive new national programs, the bill makes zero sense.

Even for no-name democrats who want to encourage more people to vote in federal elections, the bill makes no sense.

American election data provides decisive evidence about what happens in national elections that elect legislators and not also the president. US voter turnout shows that approximately another 15% of eligible voters don’t bother to turn out. Indeed, having the presidency at stake in the 2012 election pulled out 40 million voters who didn’t bother to vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

Mr. Chong may believe he pulled his vote, won his election, and represents his voters. Those notions may inspire him to be a superior MP. But they are not and have not been true for nearly a hundred years. His prime minister also won in his vote and is privileged and obliged as well to try to represent them.   


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rhetoric: Living in the Age of Bluff?

Even on this lucky continent, resourceful politicians must learn how to survive periods of constrained resources. There are many tested ways to perform on the cheap: For instance, amend commercial, consumer, and environmental regulations; update the criminal code; make a solid impression at international conferences; and assign blame to others, those who aren't liked by most of their voters.

This new century’s signature ploy may be the bluff, hints of heroic intention that fall well short of heroic action.

Here are a few familiar subjects worthy of heroic treatment: climate change, Russian military aggression, the middle class’s disappearing American Dream, nuclear proliferation, Iran, and North Korea. And here is an eclectic, short list of active practitioners: Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, William Hague, Hillary Clinton, Chrystia Freeland, and all Western neocons and recent premiers of Ontario.

Here are a few illustrations (If you laugh spontaneously, they’re flops. If they remind you of Sir Winston Churchill — out of power — they work):

William Hague, foreign secretary of the most literate and shrinking English-speaking power, declares that the crisis in the Crimea represented the “gravest security threat of the 21st century.”  

Chrystia Freeland, Member of Parliament for Rosedale, calls for sanctions against Russia that “bite.”

Stephen Harper suggests that Russia be kicked out of the G-8.

Barack Obama’s applies the cold war Domino Theory to Crimea.

Hillary Clinton calls for a “mass movement” to stop global warming.

At first glance, I was most impressed by Hague’s alarming historical framework. He implied that brave action by everyone must be taken, that failure to act will haunt us in the history books. But the record of this busy century quickly gets in the way. Is today’s Crimea crisis actually more dangerous than 9/11 and global terrorism, the Iraq War, the Great Recession and the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone, and all that’s looming in Iran, China, and North Korea?   

Only Hillary Clinton’s radical sounding exhortation has staying power. Her heroic challenge won’t be taken off the public agenda merely by behind-the-scenes diplomacy. It has awful staying power. More importantly, her statement in no way leaves her accountable. She can make a fortune giving speeches about a terrible problem or, conceivably, become America’s third president waiting for "mass" encouragement to exercise responsible leadership.

Is bluff always dangerous or bad for us? Not necessarily.

In the '80s — when his declaration was meant have effect — Ronald Reagan’s belligerent declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” struck many as irresponsible, a charge best made by a bishop, not a president in a nuclear cold war.

Even-tempered Barack Obama is not good at bluffing — fortunately.

His “red line” assertion about Syria was taken seriously by the Economist, Senator John McCain, and, allegedly, by factions in Syria’s civil war — but not across America. Consequently, when his line was crossed, America didn’t have to get into another war to preserve its honor and another president’s credibility.

Defiant American and Canadian rhetoric about effective sanctions on Putin’s Russia, however, are probably doing more harm than good. The more we "own the podium," the less that affluent Europe has to sacrifice for its own security.

Finally, should we be embarrassed about our tolerance for and today’s promiscuous use of the bluff? Not this year, for sure.

The year 2014 is the hundredth anniversary of a slaughter that was caused and sustained not by bad intelligence and the stresses of rapid change, but by leaders and peoples seduced by hateful myths about their neighbors and ridiculously extravagant rhetoric about honor.

Better to be alive now — in an age of comics and cynics. Our political leaders can still be persuasive, but we’re not as easily taken in or enslaved by their bluffs.