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, June 1, 2012

Pipeline politics: de-legitimizing a majority Government

One of the noisy consequences of fixed terms in US politics and majority governments in parliamentary democracies is the rhetorical freedom they provide to the losers—the unfettered expression of extravagant hostility and near-paranoid accusations.

Obama’s opponents can—for four years—raise tens of $millions questioning his provenance, love of country, respect for the constitution, and entry-level competence as president without having to convince the general electorate.

In Canada, Harper’s opponents know they have another three years now to say whatever they want without worrying about whether they can make it stick in an election. They are joyously stretching their wings.

(With minority governments, opposition forces must always be careful. If they say the prime minister is an autocrat, for instance, who’s transforming the country into toxic dump or neo-conservative work camp, they can fix the problem: they can vote no confidence and liberate the country in a national election.)

There are no “birthers” in Canada; we’re too cosmopolitan. Instead, Canadian activists eagerly adopt the language of those with truly desperate claims against the state.

We are urged to “resist” the Harper government. Thousands claim to be unable to sleep not knowing “where he’s taking our country.” The most ubiquitous accusation, however, is the insistence that his government and many of its recent initiatives are “illegitimate.”

The charge has a mainstream ring. It doesn’t go so far as to say the government has no right to govern or that its proposals are illegal—just tainted. However, being tainted, there is no need to even consider swallowing what it says.

Legitimacy is a subtle, subjective term, but it’s derived from that blockbuster word "illegal." Consequently, it’s used to get attention by white-collar consultants as well as street demonstrators. 
Judy Tanguay, a former public servant and now an Ottawa public affairs consultant, reportedly said this about the National Energy Board’s (NEB) hearing on the highly contentious Northern Gateway project.

"The whole process has been delegitimized. We know what the decision will be; [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has made it clear that he desperately wants this project to proceed."

This is newsworthy nonsense.

Tanguay prizes the “court-like” integrity of the NEB and, at the same time, prejudges the outcome.

Does she suggest that the 4,000 organizations and individuals who have registered to speak at the hearings release their consultants and lawyers?

Nevertheless, Tanguay claims that the prime minister will move Alberta oil to market “whatever it takes”—that the NEB can’t do its job unless it is left with sovereign authority to decide on whether the proposed pipeline across British Columbia will be built.

The Harper government has set itself up for serious trouble in its political base in British Columbia. However, it is unfair to imply that it has corrupted the NEB or that it is proposing legislation to “gut” either the NEB or the Canadian environment. Proposing to Parliament in Bill C-38 that the government take the final decision on proposals of strategic importance is not inconsistent with regulatory practice or theory—in clean democracies, including Canada.

Sometimes economic regulators have the last word; sometimes Cabinets do. So long as the regulator is required to come to a conclusion publicly and its processes remain subject to court appeals, either model can elicit rigorous, balanced deliberation.

Harper and the pipeline proponents, however, may discover that he’s asking for powers that will be too painful to exercise.

Indeed, the pipeline’s prospects might, in fact, get a more favorable verdict from the NEB than from Harper’s Cabinet on the eve of the next election. (Ask the Keystone Pipeline proponents what they think of President Obama’s authority to approve trans-boundary pipelines.)

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