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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Canada's heart will go on...and on: Justin Trudeau's national vision

When Justin Trudeau, back in October of last year, began his campaign to lead the once great, once natural governing party of Canada, the Liberal Party, he did so with a vision statement that is worth returning to, now that he is the party's leader, if we wish to really understand what he represents in our politics.

Easy to deride in parts, it began with some genuine groaners such as:
So I’m here to ask for your help, because this road will be one long, Canadian highway. We will have ups and downs. Breathtaking vistas and a few boring stretches. And with winter coming, icy patches.
But we will match the size of this challenge with hard, honest work.
Because hard work is what’s required. Always has been.
It also had the broad strokes of rhetoric, which many see as his hallmark, that say much less than they at first seem to as with:
The Liberal Party was their [Canadians] vehicle of choice. It was the platform for their aspirations, not their source.
When we were at our best, we were in touch, open to our fellow citizens and confident enough in them to take their ideas and work with them to build a successful country.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from our party’s past it is not where we landed but how we got there. We were deeply connected to Canadians. We made their values our values, their dreams our dreams, their fights our fights.
Who Trudeau means when he says "Canadians" is made abundantly, indeed almost absurdly clear throughout the speech with its constant repetitive reference to the middle class; a class that is set up as the beating heart of Canada and as its "hard working", no nonsense, moral compass.

We need to get it right. We need to open our minds to new solutions, to listen to Canadians, to trust them...
...Solutions can come from the left or the right, all that matters is that they work. That they help us live - and thrive - true to our values.
Because middle class growth is much more than an economic imperative.
As if this was not enough, Trudeau goes on to assure us that "It is the middle class, not the political class, that unites this country. It is the middle class that makes this country great."

The middle class, that amorphous, apparently vast group is not simply the backbone of Canada; in Trudeau's vision it is Canada. Its class needs, ideals and prosperity are what should be the primary needs and ideals that will ensure Canada's prosperity and they should be the frames of reference of its governance.

Trudeau wants not only to fight for the middle class, he wishes to embody it politically. And embodying a class so disparate that it lacks any kind of cohesion ideologically or even in terms of mutual interest, other than an overwhelming consumerist impulse to equate personal material milestones like owning a house or two cars with the "public interest", is an impossibility if one is unduly specific as to policy.

This has, understandably, led Trudeau to be seemingly vague on this front and has led his opponents to label him as a "lightweight" or to contrast him unfavourably with his father. Both the NDP and the Conservatives, as well as many political pundits in the media, have written him off saying that once the public has seen him bested in both ideas and in policy debates by Mulcair and Harper, and they feel it is inevitable that this will happen, Trudeau will come crashing back down to Earth as the "fashion dandy", empty-headed pretty boy who is only where he is due to the fortune of birth.

He will fail as all he ultimately has are platitudes.

Yet, one has to ask, what if that is, in fact, the strategy? What if Trudeau's politics are intentionally devoid of ideas and of substance?

Policy wonks, political junkies and party partisans like to think that, at least to some degree, citizens pay attention to and care about the details of the daily goings-on on Parliament Hill and in committee rooms as they themselves do. They are also certain that citizens will eventually fixate, in making their voting choices, on the increasingly minor differences that exist between the parties in terms of program ahead of factors like image, personality or the ability to inspire.

But politics in Canada has been dumbed down for a generation now already and both the Tories and the NDP are keen to appear "moderate" to those wings of the electorate that they feel might vote for them. These are different wings, and thus their appeal to "moderation" is different.  In the case of the NDP it is renouncing publicly its already largely meaningless connection to its distant socialist past and desperately trying to prove to everyone that they are "ready to govern". In the case of Harper it is to convince the public, in spite of all the evidence, that the unbridled lunatic social conservatives in the party are not anxiously trying to pry open the closet door and create the Republic of Gilead.

Into this race to jettison outward differentiation comes a likable and attractive figure who promises to people that he will reflect back to them in his leadership the best things they feel about themselves and wax poetic to them about the great things that can be achieved through positive thinking and believing in yourself, the middle-class and the country.

Trudeau is only seemingly devoid of substance, despite what his opponents say. It is this apparent emptiness that is his ideology. He is aiming at inspirational banality that looks to appeal to those tired of the harsh reality of Harper and tired of what they have been led to believe is the  "harsh tone" of a politics where often relatively little seems to change when the government changes

Thus, going back to his speech above, he states:
To millions and millions of Canadians, their government has become irrelevant, remote from their daily lives, let alone their hopes and dreams. To them, Ottawa is just a place where people play politics as if it were a game open to a small group, and that appeals to an even smaller one.
He is not really wrong. Government has become increasingly irrelevant under neo-liberalism. Maybe "hopes and dreams" are the new "bread and circuses" of democratic discourse. Trudeau is especially talented at conveying these in a suitably Obamaesque fashion.

During his campaign for leadership, he disavowed any fixation on the deadweight of policy, which is always a proverbial "buzzkill", with  a call to others to do the thinking for him:
This campaign is about conversations, not one-way monologues...We believe that good ideas can come from any corner, and that Canadians deserve the opportunity to share their concerns and offer up their ideas.
In his acceptance speech after his coronation he lashed out at the supposed politics of division, while invoking the memory of a Liberal Prime Minister dead so long that only fifteen history nerds somewhere could take exception:
We are fed up with leaders who pit Canadians against Canadians. West against East, rich against poor, Quebec against the rest of the country, urban against rural...
Canadians are looking to us, my friends. They are giving us a chance, hopeful that the party of Wilfrid Laurier can rediscover its sunny ways.
And, of course, his first foray in parliament as leader led off with a lament for the poor middle class. "The fact is when middle-class Canadians go to a store to buy a tricycle, school supplies ... or a little red wagon for their kids they will pay more because of a tax in this government's budget."

His is a politics that is aimed squarely at the all-encompassing middle class. This inevitably has a vacuous, "what about the children" quality to it, as what else can it have? If your aim is to pander, then one has to distill what is felt to be what your target audience wants to hear  and release uplifting statements that are slightly less complex and slightly dumber than that. Trudeau is highly adept at this.

Trudeau has made a calculation that the winning strategy for him and the Liberal Party is eloquent vapidity.

In the end this makes him the Celine Dion of Canadian politics. His rhetoric, like her music, is soaring, emotional, seemingly inspirational, sometimes almost moving, and basically meaningless and hollow in any lasting sense.

Celine Dion, not unlike Trudeau, is held in complete contempt by her many critics. She is also the best selling female musical artist of all time. Whether Trudeau can do the equivalent in the political arena with pleasant superficiality remains to be seen. But given the obsessively image driven, sound-bite based political culture the parties have created, there is little reason to think it is not at least possible.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Requiem for a preamble: A lament for a socialist ideal

The New Democratic Party believes that the social, economic and political progress of Canada can be assured only by the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs.
The principles of democratic socialism can be defined briefly as:
That the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people within a sustainable environment and economy and not to the making of profit;
To modify and control the operations of the monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning. Towards these ends and where necessary the extension of the principle of social ownership;
The New Democratic Party holds firm to the belief that the dignity and freedom of the individual is a basic right that must be maintained and extended; and
The New Democratic Party is proud to be associated with the democratic socialist parties of the world and to share the struggle for peace, international co-operation and the abolition of poverty.
It was a real vision, wasn't it? This preamble, soon to be gone, was a call to action. A direct contrast to our appallingly unjust society, made by those who really meant to be in opposition to a system, to capitalism, as opposed to being in "opposition" to a government, while enjoying all the perks, financial and otherwise, that a job as an MP brings.

This was a statement that made it clear that this party, the New Democratic Party, whatever tactical steps it might take, whatever short-term compromises it might make, was an opponent of the basic idea of capitalism. That it sought to remake society to eliminate the injustices that this system, by its very nature, inflicted on millions of Canadian citizens, and that it sought, once-and-for-all, to end the barbaric and entirely socially created "institution" of poverty.

It was a vision that understood that the context of any given short-term media spin cycle was not the context that the party fought in. That power was not an end, but a means to an end. And that that end was the reworking of how society functions.

But in a process that began many years ago, and that was consolidated under the leadership of Jack Layton and now validated under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, the NDP has become little more than an ideological clone of what it once most despised (and continues to out of habit), the Liberal Party of Canada. A party driven by a desire to govern. A party that is "progressive," and that is, indeed, quite different from the Conservative Party, but that accepts that things fundamentally are as they are, and that they will basically remain so.

Thus we hear from the Huffington Post, in an article talking to the NDP's National Director Nathan Rotman:
Several top New Democrats told HuffPost that this weekend's convention will reveal whether the party’s membership is ready to accept the challenge of governing.
In 2008, when Layton told reporters he was campaigning to become prime minister, few took him seriously. Now, the party believes it has a real chance of forming government in 2015 — if it can convince Canadians the party is ready for the responsibility.
The first task, Rotman suggested, is highlighting to the party’s membership the importance of winning.
“We need to bring our people along and say, here are some of the great things we can do (if we have power),” he said.
For a long time, many New Democrats were content with being the “conscience of Parliament,” he said.
“We are still the voice of principle — I don’t want to make it sound like those principles alter — but you need to think about how you govern for all Canadians. You need to think about what happens when disaster strikes, when the economy goes south, when the economy goes north and how we can build a strong sustainable economy, and how we can support small businesses, and what a Canadian New Democrat government will look like,” Rotman said.
The language here is fascinating. Talking of bringing "our people along" and whether or not the membership will "accept" the challenge of governing, juxtaposing this, as they are, with the notion of standing on principle. Implying that leftists should no longer be content to be the "conscience" of parliament, as if this was a bad thing. As if this did not, as it did, actually change Canada by the threat that the conscience driven NDP posed to the existing political order.
Now, according to the new preamble:
New Democrats belong to the family of other progressive democratic political parties that govern successfully in many countries around the world. In co-operation with like minded political parties and governments, New Democrats are committed to working together for peace, international co-operation, and the common good of all - the common good being our fundamental purpose as a movement and as a party.
A totally meaningless statement that says the NDP belongs to a "family" that includes two of its three primary political "opponents", the Greens and the Liberals.  Are they not "progressive" and "democratic"? Do they not seek to work for the "common good of all", whatever this means? Including, of course, business people and the upper middle class.
And the new (proposed, though we all know it will pass) preamble also states:
New Democrats seek a future which brings together the best of the insights and objectives of Canadians who, within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions, have worked through farmer, labour, co-operative, feminist, human rights and environmental movements to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada within a global community dedicated to the same goals.
A pleasingly inclusive statement that is also subtly dismissive. Removing as it does the commitment to end poverty, a fundamental trust that a socialist party has with the poor. It is also like those people that all leftists have met, at parties or meetings,  who go on about how left wing and radical they once were, and how much they still admire that, but how they had to "grow up" and "mature" and become "responsible" in their thinking. It is always a condescending and particularly unoriginal way of justifying "selling out", and it remains so here.

Yes, we were socialists once, but that was a long time ago. Now we need to get elected. For Canada and, presumably, future generations. Or whatever.

But now, on the eve of its dismissal, let us take a moment to lament the passing of what made the NDP something different in the United States and Canada.

The cynic, largely correctly, will point out that the NDP has been irretrievably lost to a crass form of diluted and empty parliamentary careerism for many of those involved for at least a decade. And it is also true that retaining the original preamble, in light of the victory  of Mulcair and the Layton right-shift, would be little more than a token and entirely symbolic last grasp at the memory of how profound what the party used to stand for was; but somehow I think that would still be a powerful if unfulfilled beacon.

It would be a memory and a constant reminder to those who now hold the reigns that it was not always so, and that so many sacrificed and struggled for an ideal very much apart from the hegemony of today. It would be a memory and reminder of Tommy Douglas fighting the War Measures Act despite public opinion polls because it was the right thing to do. It would be a memory and reminder of the inspiration that the idea of socialism once was to the oppressed, the workers and to those who felt that they had no future, and that it could be today to those whose futures are dying on the alter of grotesque inequality, runaway climate change, and triumphant corporate state capitalism.

It would be a tiny echo, if nothing else, reverberating in the ears of those who now hold the reigns in the NDP, reminding them of the promise of the New Jerusalem that lies just over that receding horizon of the possible. A promise that without which the future is nothing other than a discussion among the loyal parliamentarians of the state as to how to divide up the leftovers. A promise that, without which, poverty is no longer something to be eliminated, but rather "mitigated". A promise that, without which, the idea that the workers can one day own the factory is simply a fantasy.

So, while there is no real reason to mourn the passing of a preamble that was in practice already tokenism, there is an important symbolic one.

When this preamble passes into the mists of history this weekend, so too will the ghost of the NDP of Tommy Douglas. The NDP of socialism and principle.

The NDP that mattered.

The perils of populism: Andrea Horwath, taxes, road tolls and the 'war on the car'

History is ripe with irony, though the irony is generally lost on those in the midst of it.

Today we have the irony of an Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) running on a "pocketbook"-driven right-wing populist platform that is antithetical to the founding principles of their own movement, and doing so with seemingly no sense that they are, in reality, engaging in the final sacrifice of these principles on the alter of the moral false god of power.

Recently, in the Toronto Star, Trish Hennessy and Hugh Mackenzie argued very persuasively that austerity, the lack of economic growth, and tax cuts are inextricably linked (as I have previously, among others, argued on the pages of rabble)  and they outlined a list of entirely responsible changes to taxation policy that, sadly, absolutely no one at Queen's Park is remotely interested in implementing.

In the present context of neo-liberal austerity and ideological consolidation, and this is very specific to this context, there is not a single case or situation in which advocating for tax cuts is "progressive" let alone left-wing. In fact, in the present context, any calls for tax cuts are inherently reactionary and enabling of the forces, like the Hudak led Ontario Tories, who have been successful in making Canadians believe that the very notion taxation is burdensome and somehow damaging to a "middle-class" lifestyle.

All tax cuts, including cuts to consumption taxes, benefit the austerity agenda and aid in perpetuating the growth of our culture of extreme inequality. This is due to the fact that taxes, socially speaking, are redistributive in the present context by definition.  The "bottom" 50 per cent (if not more) of income earners will always get far more out of increased or maintained taxes (in terms of services, health care, social security, etc,) than they put in.

Hudak has outlined a plan of tax and service cuts that, if implemented, are nothing short of an attack on the very foundations of the Ontario economy and that would guarantee a U.K.-style economic collapse.

The Liberals, being Liberals, have coasted through their years of power by being Mike Harris with a human face; cutting taxes and, until 2008, evading the consequences of it due to the fortuitous situation of a global economy firing on all cylinders.

New to the game is the ONDP, who have only recently become certified tax fighters, and so-called "consumer activists" on the backs of the environment as well as the actually poor and "working poor". As the ONDP (and the NDP in general) is fixated on the notion of power, they have embraced the underpinning of a consumerist culture with a zeal that is, even now, rather surprising.

They have adopted the Ralph Nader like "consumer protectionist" values of American "progressives" in the era just prior to the rise of neo-liberal forces and replaced formerly held notions, however vague, of class with a non-ideological version of them.

Thus they eschew, when it matters, (such as when holding the balance of power as they have since the last election) issues such as welfare (which they allowed to be cut, in real terms, in the last Ontario budget) or programs related to poverty and instead emphasize making life more "affordable" for the middle-class; a class that is seemingly very large given that the ONDP has only advocated raising personal taxes on the top third of Ontario's "1 per cent"... those making over $500,000 a year!
Beyond the silliness of centring a supposedly leftist or progressive agenda around policies such as "rewarding job creators" (namely small business, the worst employers in the economy) through tax cuts (which is what the ONDP is proposing for incorporated "small businesses"), one has to begin to question the zeal with which the ONDP embraces that retrograde symbol of '50s Americana: the car.
Horwath's unwillingness to discomfort the "middle class" at all in the aim of changing personal behaviour  to aid obvious budgetary and environmental goals has already been demonstrated by the entirely wrong-headed, pseudo-populist campaign the ONDP has led against the HST on home heating.

The campaign is driven by a desperation to appeal to middle-class and upper middle-class home owning consumerists. Most tenants, for example, do not actually pay for home heating. So they already pay no HST. Much worse, the HST cuts would apply to everyone, including Bridal Path mansion owners. Apparently Conrad Black needs a home heating tax cut. If helping low-income citizens, as opposed to attempting to appeal to the upper middle class, was the actual goal, the ONDP could offer rebates capped at a certain amount per year of home heating consumption (say $500-1000)... thereby excluding rich people, the upper middle class and those indulging in unnecessary gas consumption. They are not doing this.

Given the very pressing need to see middle and upper income citizens alter their consumption patterns, an across the board HST cut on home heating is outright reactionary.

The ONDP is on the wrong side here. David Suzuki was right about that.

Even worse, Horwath and her caucus are almost Rob Ford like in their enthusiasm to end the "war on the car."

Thus we find Horwath virtually completely rejecting a recent proposal by the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) to raise revenues to fund transit and road infrastructure by implementing a variety of new taxes, including:

-  A regional sales tax.
-  A $1 a day parking space levy.
-  A 10 cents per litre regional fuel tax.
-  High-occupancy toll lanes in which drivers of single occupancy vehicles would pay 30 cents a kilometre.

She does so by stating "I've said all along that the solutions have to be found, but when the solutions are simply putting the burden of the costs on families who are already struggling, I'm concerned." She then claims that none of this should even be discussed until the government has closed a variety of unspecified "corporate tax loopholes" that she implies would allow for the funding, a claim that is as manifestly and easily proven to be false as were Ford's claims of being able to fund his platform by ending the "gravy train". While the loopholes should be closed, given all the things that need to be covered in the Ontario budget, these loopholes amount to a minuscule addition to the revenue stream. Any revenue generated by them would also unquestionably be more than lost through the implementation of the tax cuts the ONDP advocates.

Her position is even more astounding given that investment in transit infrastructure will directly benefit those Ontarians who are most "struggling" in Toronto, those who rely on public transit.  They have carried the financial burden of subsidizing the car-culture-driven lifestyle of suburbanites for a very long time. Apparently Horwath wishes to extend this.

While the TRBOT proposals are, of course, self-serving and do not go nearly far enough, (as they exclude the obvious need for increased personal taxes, something neither the ONDP or anyone else is advocating for either), they are not wrong. In fact road tolls and transit focused taxes such as those they are advocating for are long overdue.

As a society we desperately  need to shift people out of cars and onto mass transit. It is the morally and environmentally correct course. It also directly benefits our lowest income citizens in entirely obvious ways.

This is not the first time that Horwath has sacrificed environmental and transit concerns for suburban car owners. Back in 2011, as Martin Regg Cohn noted:
 Andrea Horwath’s love affair with the car is also boundless -- she made lower gas prices a major campaign plank, promising to shave a few pennies off the HST at the pump. And her antipathy to tolls prompted a stunning public rebuke of star NDP candidate Paul Ferreira, who was trying to win back the seat in York South -- Weston.

Ferreira’s crime was to call for an adult discussion on gridlock: “I think we owe it to voters, to residents, to citizens to have mature conversations on topics like that. Should there be road tolls?” he asked in a CBC radio debate on GTA issues. “I am proud to say that in 2006, when I ran for city council in this city, I proposed levying a toll on the DVP and the Gardiner Expressway.”

Horwath did not find his musings amusing.

“Definitely no tolls!” she told reporters the next day. “I’ve been pretty clear about that so I was quite surprised to find that this is something Paul said during a debate. He knows very well that that’s not in my plans. If he’s trying to do that then it will stop at my desk."
Of course Ferreira was right and Horwath wrong.

But it would seem the "mature conversation" is no more likely to be had within the ONDP now than it was then. And transit users, environmental policy and lower income Toronto residents will pay for this.