Is Harper Really the Devil?

Here’s something at least 60% of Canadians seem to agree on. Harper is the worst PM in Canada’s history and he’s single handedly destroyed our country. Everything bad today can be laid at his feet and once he’s gone the good times will undoubtedly return.

Bullshit.

How easy is to just blindly accept such non-thinking answers. After all, putting all the blame into one person means we don’t have to examine policy, or the role played by other parties in creating our current mess, or the responsibility ordinary citizens and voters bear for our problems.  Anytime someone criticizes government, you’ve got to remember, more people voted for them than anyone else.  Remember when Jim Prentice told Albertans to look in the mirror for the explanation for Alberta’s economic mess?  Well, he was right.  His remedies were wrong, but he had it right.  It was Alberta voters that kept electing his stupid party, believing the oil money would always come in, they could have low taxes and services.

The blame given to Harper really should be put into three different categories to make it easier to answer just how much blame he deserves. I suggest that it’s worth looking at the effects of Harper on our democracy, on social/environmental policies, and on the economy.

On Democracy:

Critics often blame Harper for an erosion of our democracy, citing prorogation, omnibus bills, muzzling of scientists and watchdogs, excessive partisanship, standoffishness with the media and above all, an obsession with centralizing all power in his own hands. Many of these are true but need some context and comparison to understand better.

Its true no other PM in recent history has used prorogation for such blatantly partisan purposes, or rammed through so much legislation in omnibus bills, or sought to silence all criticism. But its also true that for the first five years it was in power as a minority government with no real allies.   Majority governments under Chretien and Mulroney never used such tactics because they didn’t have to. They had a majority of seats and thanks to party discipline, could pass whatever they wanted without resorting to tricks. I’m not saying these tricks are ok, they’re not. I’m just saying that other governments never had to use them.

As for excessive partisanship or concentrating all power in the party leader/PM, these are nothing new to Canadian politics. In fact, Harper’s political success has led the other parties to imitate his methods in an effort to win like he has. They too have increased their partisanship, and have also concentrated all power in their parties in the hands of their leaders and their inner circles. Under Jean Chretien Canada was referred to as a ‘friendly dictatorship’, while Pierre Trudeau also had a reputation for tight control of all aspects of government.

However, I think there is a strong case that Harper made a lot of these problems worse. Previous governments and parties seemed content to win by the rules, whereas Harper seems determined to win at any cost. I’ll cede the point that Harper has had his own distinctive, negative impact on our democracy.

On Social Issues and the Environment

Well, he definitely hates feminism and multiculturalism and the environment. There’s no mistake about that. But he’s also too much of a pragmatist to open various debates that social conservatives favour such as abortion or the death penalty. I think he’s relished the opportunity to attack select targets when he feels he can get away with it, such as closing the Status of Women offices or cutting funding to social justice groups.

But lets consider the ways in which governments support social justice, women’s rights, multiculturalism or the environment. Sometimes their support is symbolic, but usually it involves spending money. Governments can support such causes by refraining from harming them, such as granting the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry by striking down restrictions on marriage. But more often than not the way that government seeks to fix inequalities in our society involves spending money.  It means funding programs or organizations that fight inequality or protect the environment. And in this way, the Harper government’s attacks on social policy and the environment are connected to the ongoing fiscal crisis of the state.

Lets go back to feminism and the closure of those Status of Women Canada offices. There actually used to be a pretty great organization for women’s rights in Canada called the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, or NAC for short. It was created in 1971 and for years received government funding to fight gender inequality. But as government debt mounted, it saw its funding cut again and again, first by the Mulroney Tories, but then also by the Chretien Liberals, until it basically folded due to staff layoffs, shrinking capacity and mounting debt.

As our tax base shrinks due to the lack of good jobs, lower consumption, and difficulty of taxing corporations (affecting income, sales and corporate taxes, respectively, the three main sources of government revenue), programs aimed at fostering equality or protecting the environment get sacrificed by the left and the right. I don’t doubt that Harper enjoyed closing those Status of Women offices, but my point is that funding for women’s groups and other progressive causes was already being cut long before Harper came into power.

Which Brings us to the Economy

On the economic side, it is tempting to throw the accusation that all this poverty and inequality we have in Canada is also Harper’s fault. After all, it was largely during the Recession that we noticed these problems and Harper was PM then.

This ignores that things were already getting bad long before Harper was even party leader. Homelessness, poverty, inequality and declining quality of jobs were all on the rise in the 90s and early 2000s under the Chretien Liberals. They were the natural outcome of Free Trade/Globalization, begun under Mulroney and continued under Chretien. Canada lost jobs to the US after the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, then to Mexico after the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement, and then it really lost jobs (over half a million manufacturing alone between 2000 and 2007) when China entered the WTO.

Certainly Harper has pushed oil and natural resources as the sole objective of government jobs and economic policy, giving subsidies and tax breaks to tar sands companies. But the idea that this killed our manufacturing and led to a loss of jobs is silly. The ‘Dutch disease’ argument put forward by Thomas Mulcair a few years ago no longer holds. The dollar fell and manufacturing (what little is left) continues to fly out of Canada. Simply put, “It’s the wages, stupid.”

Once you open the doors of your economy and say any company can sell us anything from anywhere without any requirement to employ a single Canadian, jobs are going to fly overseas where wages and other production costs are lower. With information technology and rising third world education levels, now services jobs are being offshored too, especially to India. When those jobs go all we have left are natural resources. So much like with social and environmental policies, while I think Harper is biased towards oil, I hardly think he single-handedly transformed Canada’s previously balanced economy into one all about oil.

In short, much of the negative trends people associate with Harper are far longer-term than his own time in office. He hasn’t even been PM for a decade, and over half of that was under a minority, when his freedom was constrained (or should have been). Chretien had three majorities and Mulroney two, and it was these PMs that laid the groundwork for much of our current problems.

Finally, placing all the blame on Harper also gives the opposition parties a free ride. How are they different? Is it because they are proposing different policies from Harper? Or is it simply because they aren’t Harper? There’s a fair bit that is different, but when it comes to the economy, they’re largely the same, particularly when it comes to Free Trade, the single biggest cause of government debt, the decline of the middle class, unemployment, etc. And if you accept my argument that government revenues have been undermined by Free Trade, then much of the social and environmental policy cuts made by Harper will largely be the same under other governments. Maybe not as bad, but as government revenue dries up as globalization sucks wealth out of the country, these programs are getting cut one way or another.

There’s too much personalization of politics.  Too much leadership cult.  “Harper is bad and everything bad is his fault, but our saviour (Trudeau or Mulcair) is good and all we need to do is elect him and everything will be better.”  But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe as soon as either Trudeau or Mulcair form government this fall things will immediately get better, right? Cuz if its all Harper’s fault, we just have to get rid of him, right? Right?

Partisanship is the Cancer of Democracy

Partisanship is a strong attachment to a particular party, making one biased in favour of that party and prejudiced against all others. It’s one of the biggest problems facing our democracy today.  A benign annoyance in good times, partisanship becomes a major problem in difficult times as it twists honest debate about policies into a vicious ‘us vs. them’ game.  In short: “Everything we do is good. Everything anyone else does is bad.”

Take the recent fiasco with the federal NDP using public money and staff for partisan campaigning. They insist they’ve done nothing wrong. When the Conservatives use public money for obviously partisan advertising, they complain like hell. What’s the difference? It’s a blatant double standard and it only serves to increase cynicism and disengagement in politics.

Partisanship hollows out political debates, replacing serious policy debates and distinct visions with empty boasts and vicious attacks. Objective, unbiased consideration of policy or issues cannot coexist with excessive partisanship, since partisans are guaranteed to support their party’s position no matter what it is.

Ordinary members are expected to keep quiet, donate money and be cheerleaders. When they volunteer they are told to stick to pre-written scripts when talking with voters, so the whole party can ‘stay on message’. Even local candidates are told to follow the talking points provided by the central office. Why even bother with debates if all the candidates are simply reading from a script?  This is where robocalls really come from, the desire of the party leadership to make all their communication the same.

By far the worst , the absolute worst, are the ‘signposts’. Party supporters who willingly hold a sign in the background of their leader or candidate’s photo op. Turning individuals with their own brains into props to mount some pithy statement written not by them but by some PR consultant, such as ‘strong leader’, or ‘change we can believe in’. I remember watching professional wrestling in the 90s, and all the fans made their own sign with their own words. I’m sure these fans felt more engaged than your average party activist.

wrestling fans
Party supporters vs wrestling fans. Who do you think is having more fun? Who looks more embarrassed? Who the heck says things like “What leadership is” or “Security and Opportunity”?

ont-election-20140502

Partisanship allows parties to get away with offering very similar platforms, since it creates artificial differences in place of real ones. Where partisanship is based on distinct visions or ideologies then I can understand it. But where the parties all advocate similar policies (as is currently the case with economic issues) partisanship mostly just becomes a matter of rooting for your team, simple because, it’s your team.  Like Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about sports fans rooting for the clothes, partisans root for their favourite colours.

In good times, perhaps empty partisanship might make for a good spectator sport. But when the economy isn’t doing good, parties advocating the exact same solutions (tax cuts) while viciously attacking each other as having it wrong turns democracy into a farce. Imagine Coke attacking Pepsi for selling a sugary, unhealthy drink, not because Coke has anything else to offer, just because Coke hates Pepsi.

As cynicism with parties and politics grows, the number of people engaged with politics shrinks, leaving only partisans remaining. Reasonable, open-minded people are driven out by a climate of vicious partisanship, which only increases cynicism in a vicious circle.

Party activists, seeking to engage non-members and bridge the divide between partisans and non-partisans, find that the whole world is pigeonholed into party loyalties. They are given data-entry sheets and told to keep their conversations with voters brief, just long enough to find out which number to mark a person as: 1 for supporters, 2 for potential supporters, and 3 for opponents (because that is what democracy is all about, data management).

Liberal canvass script
This is a Liberal script. Instead of numbers they use letters but you get the idea. Engagement with voters and inspiring people with a vision for the country is being replaced by data management

But people are more than just a series of numbers. It’s dehumanizing, and it’s not what our country needs. We need honest and open-minded debates about solutions to the problems we face, in particular how we can bring back the good jobs.   It reminds me of the saying

Nationalism = Racism?

I consider myself a nationalist. I believe in Canada and want to see it do well. I don’t get all choked up about flags or symbols, as George Carlin said, “I leave symbols for the symbol minded.” For me, there its all about the people. Are the people doing well? Are they leading happy, secure lives? I’m also an economic nationalist. I want Canada’s economy to provide a good, middle class life for its people. Barring any sort of social revolution, the best way people can obtain a good, middle class lifestyle is through a good job.

Problem is, good jobs, or any jobs, are becoming harder and harder to find in Canada. Many have gone overseas to Third World countries where wages are lower. Now foreign temporary workers are brought in to Canada to work for lower wages than Canadians. There simply aren’t enough Canadians employed in the Canadian economy anymore.

But you have to be careful in criticizing these things, because arguments against offshoring or foreign workers often fall pretty close to downright racist views about ‘foreigners taking our jobs’. Poor workers in Third World sweatshops or Foreign Temporary Workers aren’t capable of taking our jobs.   They’re just trying to make a living, feed their families, just like you or me. Most of them have things way worse than we do. In China, for example, where a lot of our jobs went, you can’t even complain about the government without the risk of going into a prison labour camp. The uncomfortable truth is that foreigners didn’t take our jobs. Our own government and businesses gave them away.

It was democratically elected Canadian governments that signed Free Trade Deals and Canadian and Foreign-owned businesses operating in Canada that took advantage of these deals to move jobs overseas. It was our own government that set up special programs to allow businesses in Canada to hire foreign workers for a fraction of our wages. Its easy to beat up on poor foreign workers who have no power or rights in our country, but these people have no real control over the policies and programs that cost Canadian jobs. If we really want to change things we need to place blame where it belongs.

jobs given away

Can there be a nationalism that doesn’t resort to racism and hating foreigners? I believe there can be. Its not a nationalism based on race or religion. Its based on a shared commitment to the country we all live in. As far as I’m concerned, a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, no matter their colour, religion, ancestry or how long they’ve lived here. I don’t care if you hyphenate your Canadian identity.  I don’t care if you weir a veil.  If you’re a citizen, if you live here, pay taxes here, vote here, raise your kids here, then you’re a Canadian.

canadian is a canadian

That said, I do think it’s the responsibility of a government to put its citizens first. I feel bad for foreign workers but I think their struggle for a better life begins in their own country, just like our struggle is here. It just doesn’t make sense to have Canadians unemployed while Canadian jobs go overseas or are done by Foreign Temporary Workers. We can’t employ the entire world. But I think there’s a big difference between wanting to see all Canadians employed and hating foreign workers for a situation they didn’t create.

How the Conservative ‘Surge’ Could Produce a Liberal Majority in 2015

Again and again recent polls show the federal Conservatives and Liberals essentially tied. We’re heading into the home stretch before this fall’s election with a very different dynamic than the past two years of Liberals leading by 5-10%. What does this mean for the next election?

The Conservatives have been trying very hard to change the channel recently, from the economy, their former strong point, to terrorism (and anti-Muslim prejudice more generally). I’m not sure this will work in the long run, but it might have been enough to give him a bit of a boost recently.

harper frown
“Only my party can safeguard Canada’s growth as an oil economy superpower. Hang on, I just have to read this economic update. As I was saying, only my party can safeguard Canada against the threat of terrorism.”

But probably more so than any other issue, more than the economy or terrorism, the next election is likely to be about Harper himself. He’s a polarizing figure. Those that like him, like him (note I didn’t say love), and those that don’t like him just plain hate him. This means that the next election will really be a contest between Harper and whoever is seen as having the best chance of defeating him.

So who is that? I think some of the shine has worn off Trudeau recently. Too many dumb comments and too many cynical moves that contradict his ‘different politics’ brand.  But the Liberals are still ahead of the NDP by over 10%, so they could still be seen as the best shot for those who want Harper out.  In actual fact, the NDP could end up doing very bad if the Conservatives remain competitive.

trudeau
“As the party that brought Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is very important that we vote against these very rights and freedoms. That is why we’re voting in favour of Bill C-51.”

Consider the 1993 election. Seriously, you should look it up, because it was an historic election in Canada’s history, a game-changer that saw the rise of two new parties and two established parties get almost wiped out.

But first, some background. The previous two elections were won by Brian Mulroney and the old federal Progressive Conservative Party. Mulroney contributed three lasting legacies to our national politics, none of which could be described as very popular. The first, which I complain endlessly about, was Free Trade. No need to go into that here, suffice to say, IMO it was a disaster for Canada and set us on a long downward slide. The second was the GST, a federal sales tax that I don’t really think was so bad, but which anti-tax crusaders on both the left and the right hate. Yeah, yeah, I know, ‘taxes bad’. Whatever.

mackey
“Taxes are bad, mmkay? So don’t raise taxes, mmkay? Cuz taxes are bad, mmkay?”

The third was his constitutional efforts. When Trudeau Sr. brought our constitution home in 1982, Quebec refused to sign on. Mulroney, an Anglophone Quebeccer with a strong base in the province, was determined to bring Quebec in. So he pursued two constitutional amendments, the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, both of which failed and both of which seemed to piss just about everybody in Canada off.

Given this legacy, it should come as no surprise that the Tories were REALLY unpopular by 1993. On top of this, their main support bases in the West and Quebec were undermined by two Reform and the Bloc Quebecois. Mulroney jumped ship and left poor Kim Campbell in charge.

Isn’t that ironic? Canada gets its first ever female Prime Minister, but only as a sacrificial lamb. Campbell’s Tories got the worst defeat in Canadian history. They went from a majority of 156 seats to just 2. NO TYPO, THEY LOST 154 SEATS. To be fair, their support didn’t decline as much as their seat totals, that’s just the magic of our highly un-proportional electoral system.

Mulroney Campbell trap

But the PCs weren’t the only ones to suffer that night. The NDP went from what at the time was their best ever showing of 44 seats to only 9. Neither the NDP nor the PCs won enough seats to qualify for official party status. While the unpopular Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae and the rise of Reform in the West contributed to NDP losses, they also lost a lot of support to the Liberals through strategic voting against the Tories.

Which brings us to 2015, where I see a strong possibility for history to repeat itself, at least for the NDP. Even though Trudeau is doing himself no favours lately in winning over leftwing voters (i.e. voting for Harper’s new anti-terror bill), anti-Harper voters may still swing behind the Liberals just to get Harper out, producing a Liberal majority government and an NDP rump more like its pre-2011 days than their currently projected 62 seats.

Favourite Prime Minister

Surprisingly, it’s a Conservative, our 13th Prime Minister, John George Diefenbaker.  Although this might seem surprising, it also bears mentioning that this was a different era, when politics as a whole was to the left of our current political culture. Conservatives back then were still called ‘Progressive’.

dief
The Rt. Hon. John George Diefenbaker (1895-1979)

Diefenbaker was born in Neustadt, Ontario, but moved to Saskatchewan at age 8 where he grew up to become a lawyer before entering politics. Though his early political career was marked by many defeats, both provincially and federally, after 15 years of trying he was elected as MP for Lake Centre in 1940.

neustadt
I used to go through Neustadt with my parents on the way to visit my grandpa in Hanover. I would deliberately mispronounce it Neudast.

Despite strong support in Saskatchewan and reputation as an inspiring public speaker, Diefenbaker’s repeated bids for party leadership faced stiff opposition from Ontario members, especially Bay Street Tories who disliked his prairie populism. It was not until 1956, on his third attempt in 14 years that Dief won leadership of his party. He would go on to win a minority government from the complacent Liberals in 1957, followed by what remains proportionately the biggest majority in Canadian history in 1958, before rapidly losing popularity and power in 1962 and 1963.

dief munster
I always thought Deifenbaker looked a little like Grandpa Munster. Something about the hair…

Despite his short term in office, Diefenbaker the Prime Minister left a lasting impact on our political culture. Owing to his upbringing on a poor prairie farm, Dief introduced extensive support for farmers, and helped sell prairie wheat to China, an important diplomatic recognition at the time.

He also began a Royal Commission that would eventually produce public healthcare, increased pensions and began an ambitious national development program, aimed primarily at the North but also including the Maritimes. While committed to trade with the Commonwealth, he was wary of American control over the Canadian economy and expressed a strong economic nationalism.

Having faced racism due to his German background in his political career, Dief was a firm believer in the equality of all Canadians and all people around the world. While an opposition MP during WWII he opposed the internment of Japanese Canadians. As PM he appointed the first woman and first Ukrainian Canadian to cabinet and the first Aboriginal Canadian to the Senate. He gave Inuit and First Nations the vote, and opposed English-French dualism as making all other Canadians second-class citizens. Internationally, he supported the independence of non-white Commonwealth countries, and succeeded in getting Apartheid South Africa kicked out of the Commonwealth.

He was also a strong believer in civil rights, including freedom of speech, belief and association. Despite the tense politics of the Cold War, he successfully blocked a campaign from his own party to outlaw the Communist Party of Canada, and as PM refused to join in on US anti-Cuba hostilities. He also introduced Canada’s first Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech and equality rights, over two decades in advance of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But perhaps most of all, I like Diefenbaker the best because of his reputation for being a passionate speaker that never lost sight of the common person. He could inspire people with his words, and in the 1958 election regularly filled venues both big and small with average people come to hear him speak. He had a vision for Canada, and was never shy about sharing his beliefs. In this day and age of talking points, ‘staying on message’, or consulting the polls and strategists before any major policy move (i.e. the NDP’s recent opposition to Bill C-51, which should have been immediate like Elizabeth May, not delayed over two weeks), the honesty and passion of politicians like Diefenbaker, or of Tommy Douglas, strikes a chord in me.

I want my politicians to inspire with a vision for a different Canada, not read from a teleprompter about ‘practical, affordable change’. Are these days gone? Are there no more men and women of integrity who aren’t afraid to speak their mind, no matter what the political consequences are? Maybe, just maybe, they could provide the spark to ignite a movement to bring real change, and inspire some of the 40% of Canadians who don’t vote.

Rebuttal to Yvon Godin’s “Voters face a stark choice”

Yesterday, NDP MP Yvon Godin sent a letter to the Globe and Mail outlining how the NDP was not moving to the centre but was offering real alternatives to the Conservatives and Liberals:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/in-2015-voters-face-a-stark-choice/article22943667/

This is really just a press release dressed up as a proper article, but I will attempt to dissect it as it is basically a counter argument to the reasons I left the NDP. Cutting out the fluff, vague generalities and talking points, we get the following ways in which the NDP says it offers an alternative:

“While Mr. Harper has proposed another round of tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 per cent, Mr. Mulcair has proposed a plan for quality, affordable childcare that will cost families no more than $15-a-day.”

Fair enough, though I think the 8 year implementation is pretty unambitious. What if you don’t get that second term?

“Where Conservatives have allowed fast-food chains like McDonalds to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than Canadian workers, the NDP has proposed a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage.”

The $15/hour minimum wage sounds good until you do a little research and realize it only applies to a small part of the Canadian workforce, and most of these already earn more than that. Furthermore, as with daycare, this is a longterm goal, phased in over four years. I’d be more impressed if it was an immediate increase. Inflation is likely to eat up much of this over four years.  This is more symbolic than substantive.

Also, what is the NDP’s position on Foreign Temporary Workers? If its such a bad program I”m sure they’d either abolish it or at least seriously reform it?  Uhhh, hello? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQFEY9RIRJA)

“While Mr. Harper makes it harder for Canadians to retire, Mr. Mulcair plans to roll back OAS eligibility to 65 years.”

This is good but it bears pointing out that the increase in age isn’t slated to begin for another 18 years, so its also more of a symbolic move. That’s five elections away and alot could happen between now and then.  How about raising the currently low rates for OAS and CPP right now so no more Canadians retires into poverty?

“While Mr. Harper plans to cut health-care transfers to the provinces, Mr. Mulcair defends our universal health care as a core value.”

Vague generality – are you going to give more money to the provinces, crack down on private clinics or what? This is a talking point, not an actual policy difference.

“Mr. Harper has given a blank cheque to the oil and gas industry, he’s ignored every other sector of our economy and put us all at the mercy of falling oil prices. He’s heaped tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks on the boardroom tables of the most profitable corporations – even as small businesses have struggled and hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

Mr. Mulcair wants to reduce taxes for small businesses – not just the biggest, most-profitable corporations. He wants to jumpstart manufacturing by helping companies invest in new equipment.”

Lets start with the economic/jobs portion. In contrast to the Conservative corporate tax cuts, the NDP is going to give tax cuts to smaller businesses. This move has been criticized from both the right and the left as benefitting the rich more than struggling small businesses (see here and here). I would add a further criticism that they don’t work – governments of all stripes have been doing this for decades now and we’ve still lost jobs. Also, you can’t argue the NDP is different for offering tax cuts to create jobs because THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THE LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES DO.

Next there’s tax policy. The Conservatives are criticized for their corporate tax cuts. OK, so what’s the NDP position on this? They have said in the past they’d raise corporate taxes to pre-Harper levels, aiming for combined federal and provincial corporate tax rates equal to the American rate of 40%. WHY NOT SAY THIS? I’ve also heard them talk about cracking down on tax loopholes and evasion. Is this still on the table? Instead of repeating talking points and criticizing the other parties, just tell us clearly what you would do different.

“And Mr. Mulcair wants to build a more balanced, sustainable economy by ending subsidies to oil companies and making polluters pay for the pollution they create.”

Ending subsidies is a good, clear point. Making polluters pay needs clarification. Are we talking Carbon Tax, Cap and Trade or what?

Left out are a host of other big issues such as First Nations, foreign policy, education and other social funding, equalization payments, etc.  But two I’d most like to see dealt with are Trade and Taxes.

What is the NDP’s position on Free Trade? It used to say it was bad and agreements like NAFTA should be renegotiated. Is that still the case. I think there’s a large chunk of Canadians who (rightly IMO) see Free Trade as costing Canada jobs. These lost jobs reduce government revenue and make social programs like EI and Welfare more expensive, playing a big part in ongoing fiscal problems. Free Trade encourage a ‘race to the bottom’ where Canadians have to compete with Third World sweatshop wages (not to mention Temporary Foreign Workers). The ability of companies to move their operations overseas also makes taxation and regulation problematic. Its been said countless times, Free Trade undermines our sovereignty. Why not talk about trade?

Taxes are sort of talked about, but its mostly to criticize other parties. “Their tax cuts for business haven’t created jobs, but ours will”. That’s stupid. Even where the NDP has a clear position, they don’t talk about it, as if they’re afraid. They’ve ruled out income tax increases and have shown they’re against sales taxes in the past, so I guess it wouldn’t do any good to mention these if the point is to show how you’re different from the other parties.

Given that your party has ruled out two major revenue streams, just how do you plan to pay for National Childcare? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the NDP talk about increased health care funding and major investments in infrastructure to stimulate the economy. Thats a lot of new spending. Raising corporate taxes, ending oil and gas subsidies and (maybe) cracking down on tax evasion are good, but I’m not sure they’re enough. I’m not a fiscal conservative (they wouldn’t spend the money at all), I say do these things, just make sure you raise revenue to match new spending.

Ultimately, this letter is more interested in scoring points against the other parties and talking in vague generalities than laying out clearly the differences that set the NDP apart. The reason why its so hard for Mr Godin to identify differences is because his party HAS moved to the ‘mushy middle’.  This forces them to hold up whatever small differences they have left (or in the case of their ‘jobs plan’ pretending a similarity is a difference) and shout all the more loudly. Leaving out taxes and trade, two issues that affect virtually all other policy areas is immature and cowardly. The NDP are so afraid of being labelled ‘tax and spend socialists’ or ‘Free Trade deniers’ that they refuse to debate these things. Rather than offering true leadership in troubling times they merely offer to tweak the status quo and spin such tweaks as ‘stark choices’.

Eve Adams, Terror Laws and Why Trudeau is Blowing It

Well, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about why Justin Trudeau and the Liberals were leading the polls.  Just to prove me wrong, he has proceeded to screw up that lead pretty badly in the past couple weeks.  Admittedly, the Liberals were already slipping when I wrote that, most likely based on the bump that terrorism gives the Conservatives, but Trudeau ain’t helping himself with a couple of really, really stupid moves.

The first is voting in favour of Harper’s new anti-terror bill.  You know, the one that basically turns CSIS into the KGB.  This is a bad bill, as numerous commentators have pointed out.  It defines terrorism very broadly, including defending terrorism, or undermining the economic or financial stability of Canada.  It empowers CSIS to spy on and detain people before they’ve committed a crime, without even charging them.  Given the Conservatives history of labeling environmentalists terrorists, using Canada Revenue to attack left-leaning charities and in general criminalizing dissent, this bill is very scary.

That the Liberals under Trudeau would vote for this is not only disappointing, but also a stupid move politically.  Part of Trudeau’s strategy is to siphon off progressive voters from the NDP.  All he has to do for this is to essentially occupy the same mushy middle the NDP currently occupies: leftwing social policy with rightwing economic policy.  Voting against civil liberties is bizarre for a party that proudly boasts of the legacy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Maybe I’m just not familiar with the Liberal base, but alot of them strike me as caring deeply about rights and freedoms and are very critical of the way Harper has criminalized opposition to his own narrow view.  I don’t know if this move is enough to drive these voters away, but it will certainly make attracting NDP voters harder no matter how much they hate Harper.

To their credit, the NDP has pledged to vote against the bill, though their criticism is muted by the same fear of being seen as ‘soft on terror’ that intimidates the Liberals (C’mon Mulcair, what happened to the guy with the guts to call the Parliament Hill shooter a criminal, not a terrorist?).

The other stupid move is welcoming former Conservative MP Eve Adams as if its something to be proud of.  Taking her in is one thing, but to hold a press conference and sound off about values and morals is ridiculous.  So what if she comes with a key former Tory strategist, her husband Dmitri Soudas?  Both her and her husband were dumped by their party because their ethics weren’t up to Conservative party standards.  Just take a moment to let that sink in.  The party that has become synonymous with hardball, win-at-any-cost tactics dumped her for her lack of morals.

Trudeau built the first two years of his leadership, and a considerable lead in the polls, on inspiring people that he was different.  It wasn’t based on much, but hey, it worked.  Well, lets just throw all that away and act like any other party.  We’ll vote against rights and freedoms because we might lose votes by taking a principled stand consistent with our party’s history.  Lets take in a mean, opportunistic defector and pretend like its a moral victory.  This is the kind of crap that non-partisans, you know, real people, hate. Believe it or not, there are people who aren’t totally cynical about politics, and I think they really believed Trudeau was different.  I’m not sure he’s totally ruined his image (and face it, his image is basically all he’s got) but the cracks are starting to show.

Thing is, this year’s election is really about Harper.  Aside from NDP, Liberal and Green partisans, most people who hate Harper are likely to vote strategically for whoever has the best chance to get him out.  If the Liberals keep pulling moves like this he risks narrowing the gap between themselves and the NDP.  They might still be able to gather the anti-Harper vote to themselves, since they still lead the NDP by over 10%, but they really need either some bona fide progressive policies or to recapture that  inspiration Trudeau used to have.

NDP Job Strategy = Tax Cuts for Business, WTF?

Last week the NDP announced its strategy for job creation that will be the economic centerpiece of its 2015 platform.  What is this great strategy you might ask?  Tax cuts.  No seriously, that is their strategy.  The “leftwing” NDP is going to help create jobs by offering businesses tax cuts.

Specifically, they would cut the small business tax rate from 11% to 10% immediately, with another 1% reduction when the fiscal situation allows. They would extend the Accelerated Capital Costs Allowance, which allows businesses to write off investments in equipment.  This is actually a policy currently in place under the Conservatives, so how this represents any kind of alternative to the current jobs strategy is beyond me.  Finally, they would introduce an Innovation Tax Credit for businesses investing in research and development, at a modest cost of $40 million per year.

Wow.  That’s it.  Is there anything in this package that you couldn’t also see the Liberals and Conservatives offering?  It’s a rightwing strategy for politicians who prefer to shrink government and its revenue, based on the assumption that the free market will produce jobs naturally (instead of the opposite, which is what we’ve been seeing for the past decade.

Within days of the announcement national news articles were quoting both a rightwing economist from the University of Calgary and a leftwing economist from the Centre for Policy Alternatives that such cuts predominantly go to wealthier businesses while not helping either employment growth or struggling smaller businesses.

I wouldn’t mind so much if such tax cuts actually produced jobs, but governments have tried this for decades and it doesn’t work.  Take the London area: Ford Canada used government money that was supposed to keep its St Thomas plant open to upgrade its Oakville plant, closing St Thomas anyways. Stephen Harper did a photo op for his ‘jobs-creating tax cuts’ at Electromotive in 2008, promising that these tax cuts would keep jobs safe.  Three years later the plant closed after employees refused a 50% pay cut demanded by the same company that raked in millions from such tax cuts.  Kelloggs received over $14m for its Ontario operations and still closed its London plant.

PicMonkey Collage

All these factories and more were bribed with public money and they all left anyways.  Because at the end of the day, after all the write offs and tax credits and investment funds and no-interest loans, it’s STILL cheaper to move to where the wages are lower, since other governments offer just the same or better bribes.  How about you just give the money directly to the workers, don’t funnel it through some company that’s just going to fold up in a few years anyways.  At least then they’d benefit directly.

The NDP should be an alternative to the failed policies of recent Liberal and Conservative governments.  Instead they offer the very same failed policies.  The sheer lack of imagination, of vision and of courage is depressing.  Where exactly is the good side to this strategy of moderation, because I can’t see it.  They’re selling out their values, not offering solutions that Canadians need AND THEY’RE STILL IN THIRD!

Mulcair

Why Trudeau is Winning

Pity the poor NDP.  From an historic breakthrough in 2011 they’re now firmly back in third place.  Probably the biggest annoyance is who’s overtaken them: Justin Trudeau.  Dippers rage on and on about how he’s inexperienced, doesn’t talk policy, is not as good an opposition leader as Thomas Mulcair, etc.

I think the NDP underestimates just how much 2011 was due to Jack Layton’s charisma.  Hating Trudeau for this same quality is pretty ironic.  Sadly for the NDP, Mulcair ain’t no Jack.  He may be a good politician, but he doesn’t inspire people.  Trudeau does, not through policy or speeches but by the same kind of charm Jack had.

If there’s anything a decade and a half of studying Political Science has taught me, its that politics ain’t no science.  A lot it is just plain irrational.  Symbolism and unconscious emotional reactions are important, especially when people crave change.  For Canadians sick of Harper, Trudeau appears as more of an alternative than Mulcair.  He isn’t really proposing much that is different, but then neither is the NDP.  But Harper and Trudeau themselves appear so incredibly different they could star in a remake of the Odd Couple.

Remember that not everyone follows politics that closely, so their impressions aren’t always based on watching CPAC or reading op-eds from dedicated Ottawa journalists.  To them, Harper and Mulcair appear similar: smart, angry old white men. Trudeau, by virtue of his youthful, upbeat personality, physically symbolizes change.

He also doesn’t come across as just another politician.  Consider Rob Ford.  This is not a smart man.  He wasn’t good on policy.  He wasn’t coherent.  Or sober.  But he could tap into people’s emotions and establish himself as a real person, someone his core supporters, ‘Ford Nation’ could relate to.  It may have been like watching the ghost of Chris Farley in some weird sequel to Black Sheep, but he won in 2010 with almost 50% of the vote, and in 2014 he was in contention until he switched with his brother.   Everyone knew he smoked crack. Everyone saw his drunken antics on YouTube, and he still outpolled Olivia freakin’ Chow!

What Trudeau and Ford both have in common is that they have this ability to come across as something other than a politician.  When they speak, for all the ‘bozo eruptions’, it seems like you’re hearing an honest opinion instead of carefully considered talking points. This honesty helps them connect with people cynical about politics.

Only 61% of voters voted in the last election.  Now, some people just ain’t gonna vote.  Some are too busy, some don’t see anything worth voting for, some want to punish a party or candidate.  And there is definitely a large chunk that are just like, “Fuck politics, it’s boring.”  I’d give a conservative estimate of around 15% of voters ain’t gonna vote no matter what, since we’ve never even gotten 80% turnout in a federal election.

But that would still leave 24% of the 39% who didn’t vote in 2011 up for grabs.  Trudeau’s inspiration may be shallow, but it might be enough to win back some cynical non-voters who don’t follow politics, especially young people.  What this country really needs right now is to believe things can be different.  Different from Harper’s style of government, different from chronic underemployment, different from constantly feeling scared of terrorism or losing your job.

Trudeau speaks off the cuff, and for all his mistakes, this endears him to a public cynical about politicians.  He also smiles more than Harper or Mulcair.  Remember Jack Layton’s nickname, “Smilin’ Jack”?  Mulcair can smile, though he doesn’t do it that much.  Harper can smirk, but when he smiles it’s just so godawfully unnatural it frightens babies.

Now, personally, I’d like to think that cynical non-voters could also be inspired by visionary policy that gives people hope that their lives could get better.  Say like what happened in Greece just recently.  But in the absence of any real alternative, can you blame Canadians for pinning their hopes on nice hair and a friendly face?  Simply by coming across as different from Harper (and Mulcair), Trudeau has tapped into this desire for change.  Without actually promising anything different, he gives off a sense that things under him could be different.  And this, in my opinion, is why he’s fighting Harper for government while the NDP fumes on the sidelines.

James.

Low Loonie = Job Growth?

Whoaaaah!  Big news item this morning.  The Bank of Canada has cut its interest rate by .25%. That’s quite significant as it’s the first time it’s been cut in about four years, going all the way back to 2011. Thing is, it was already REALLY low, at 1%, so now it’s at 0.75%. Economists were mostly expecting it to be raised sometime in the next year, but that was before oil prices started sliding.

poloz
“We’re actually considering a NEGATIVE interest rate, say around -0.25%. That means you would actually receive an extra quarter for every dollar you borrow. That’s just how crappy our economy has gotten.” Stephen Poloz, Bank of Canada Governor, speaking in a made-up, satirical interview.

Personally, with all the debt I’m carrying (student loans, mortgage, credit card) I’m happy about this. There’s some noise from economists about how this could worsen household debt, encouraging people to borrow more, but what are us poor working schmucks supposed to do? I really don’t think household debt is being driven up by frivolous purchases. Certainly in my house you don’t see any big flatscreen TVs, we have one car, barely bigger than a golfcart, certainly not a luxury car, we take no trips, we don’t go out, etc.  Our debt is the product of just trying to put a roof over our heads and paying the bills, and I think it’s the same for a lot of us ordinary Canadians.  The middle class dream used to be pursued through education and work, but now has to be put on credit. Education doesn’t pay off and there’s no more jobs.  Unless these economists and politicians are willing to do something to bring the jobs back then the debt will just keep piling up, because there’s really no other option for the working class to maintain any decent lifestyle anymore.

credit cards

Immediately after the interest rate was cut the Canadian dollar dropped almost two cents, down to about 80 cents against the US dollar. Reminds me of my crazy punk rock teenage years, when I was always ordering records from the US. The Loonie was super low back then too, I can tell you, as I actually had a US Currency chequing account so I could write cheques to all these little independent American record labels.   I used to lose like a third of my dollar to the exchange rate.  My grandparents stopped spending their winters in Florida because the Loonie was so low.

There’s a lot of talk about how the low dollar will help bring manufacturing back to Ontario, but I’m not holding my breath. I think those jobs left more for the wage differences than the exchange rate, though that might have also been a factor. But that doesn’t explain why manufacturing lost over 270,000 jobs between 2000 and 2007 when the Loonie was still relatively low, ranging from about 70 cents US to 90 cents US over that time. The Loonie experienced its highest growth between 2007 and the onset of the Recession in 2008/09, before falling with the recession and then shooting up again in late 2009. Obviously we also lost a lot of manufacturing jobs during that time too, over 200,000 in the space of just two years, almost as much as in the previous 5 years.

BUT, my point is that why should we expect manufacturing to bounce back because the dollar is at 80 cents US when we lost over a quarter of a million jobs when it was in the same price range in the 5 years before the recession? Same thing goes for people who say Ontario is losing manufacturing jobs due to its high electricity costs. Hydro rates are higher, but that is such a recent development that it can’t explain manufacturing’s long decline over the past decade.

Its WAGES. That’s why manufacturing and all the other jobs left. WAGES. You can pay workers in China a fraction of what you have to pay Canadians. Even if Canadians abandoned unions and all took minimum wage, it’s still cheaper to use Third World sweatshops and ship your product across the globe. Now, with oil prices tanking (tankering?) it will be even cheaper to ship goods.

A lot of economists and defenders of Free Trade might point out that Canada actually didn’t do so badly in the first decade of Free Trade with the US and then Mexico. The 90s were actually a time of economic growth in Canada, something Liberals point to as evidence of their great economic management under Chretien and Martin. While Canada did experience some initial job losses after the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade agreement, and then some more under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, we did have a very low dollar during that time which did help hold off pressure on companies to move production offshore.

All this changed in 2001 when China entered the WTO. That was when you saw a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs to China to take advantage of its far lower wages (even lower than Mexico under NAFTA) and less costly regulations on things like worker safety, the environment, etc. That is why China became the fastest growing economy in the world in the early 21st century. That is why they are now the biggest economy in the world, having overtaken the US this January. That is why China’s middle class is growing and ours is shrinking. A similar trend occurred in India and other fast-growing Third World countries. Jobs exported out of the Developed world of North America, Europe and Japan are causing a boom in these countries. It really doesn’t take an advanced degree in global economics to notice the pattern.   The countries losing the jobs are going down and the countries gaining them are going up.

milkshake
Low wages are a very long straw, and they’re being used to drink our milkshake.

So, while I hate to yet again rain on the parade, don’t count on either low interest rates, low oil prices or even a low Canadian dollar to cause a revival of Canadian manufacturing and other jobs over the past 15 years. The reasons we lost those jobs have much more to do with wages and production costs than exchange or interest rates. Until such time as Canada grows enough of a spine to start protecting its own jobs, to stand up against globalization and Free Trade, don’t expect anything to change.

Sources:

Currency values over the past 15 years obtained from:  http://www.cdhowe.org/the-seductive-myth-of-canadas-overvalued-dollar-globe-and-mail-economy-lab/22141

Manufacturing job losses from 2000-2007:  www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-402-x/2011000/chap/man-fab/man-fab-eng.htm

And manufacturing losses during the recession: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2009112/pdf/11048-eng.pdf

Comparative wages China vs Mexico:  http://tacna.net/mexico-vs-china/