Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Taxpayers Association Practices Politics of Division in Greater Sudbury

I’ve been observing with growing interest the emerging campaign to influence public opinion in Greater Sudbury. Mostly, this campaign is being waged through traditional and social media sources. While there has been a lot of focus on specific issues in our community, the goal of the campaign appears to be much broader in scope: to win over the hearts and minds of Sudburians to what can only be described as a right-wing neo-liberal cause in advance of the next municipal election in 2014.

This campaign is being waged by what appears to be a small group who are at the head of a new not-for-profit organization in our community, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association (GSTA). The GSTA recently incorporated last fall, after a number of headline-grabbing pronouncements on issues which the GSTA executive deemed to be of importance to Sudburians.

Up until yesterday, the GSTA appeared content to rail against a number of individual municipal councillors (those that appear not to share their neo-liberals values) and against municipal staff. Yesterday, the GSTA broadened their attacks by dredging up a three-year old issue involving United Steel Workers Local 6500 related to tipping fees waived by our former municipal council after arsonists burned down the former Steelworker’s Hall in 2008. The story was covered in both the Northern Life (“Union should repay tipping fees: taxpayers’ association”, published online January 24 2012) and the CBC (“Pay back tipping fees, taxpayer group tells union”, published online January 24 2012).

USW Local 6500 and Tipping Fees

On the surface, the tipping fee issue appears to be a strange avenue for attack by the GSTA. However, as part of an orchestrated campaign to influence public opinion in our community, this latest salvo by the GSTA makes a lot of sense.

Council’s decision to waive tipping fees for USW Local 6500 back in 2008 raised some eyebrows in the community at the time, as it was estimated that Local 6500 would have been on the hook for approximately $100,000 to dispose of debris from the demolished Steelworker’s Hall. By voting to waive those fees, our municipal Council decided to forego this revenue. I recall reading comments from anonymous posters at the Sudbury Star’s UR Sudbury website that Local 6500 would not have been on the hook for these fees in any case, as it was assumed that the Steelworker’s insurance policy would have covered these costs. I don’t recall whether there was ever a definitive answer to the question about insurance coverage, which may be why this issue continues to have some resonance in the community (if anyone can point me in the direction of a definitive answer regarding Local 6500’s insurance coverage, I’ll gladly update this blogpost).

Later this week, USW Local 6500 will be officially opening their new home on Brady Street. The former Steelworkers Hall was considered to be a focal point in our community for decades, and its loss due to arson was tragic not just for current and former Steelworkers, but for our larger community. It is hoped that the new Hall can reoccupy some of that lost sense of place.

So it’s likely not a coincidence that the GSTA chose this week to publicly call for Local 6500 to repay waived tipping fees, in a cynical attempt to tarnish what otherwise might be a feel-good moment for the union. Keep in mind that the City of Greater Sudbury has never asked that this matter be revisited, and that this issue has been completely off of the public radar shortly after it was resolved through a vote of Council. In fairness, it did resurface during the 2010 municipal election, as those bent on unseating former Greater Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez were eager to use this decision of Council in an attempt to paint the former Mayor as being in the pockets of the Union. But no motions have been brought forward at Council to request repayment of waived tipping fees.

It would appear, then, that this issue is coming out of nowhere and being advanced by the GSTA for its own purposes.

A good question to ask then is what purpose is served by dredging up this old issue?

A Polarizing Media Campaign

The GSTA, through an aggressive media campaign, which involves press releases and press conferences, has inserted itself into conversations about a number of local municipal issues. These issues have mainly been the sorts of things which one would expect a taxpayer’s association to express concerns about: municipal spending and accountability. However, the GSTA often pursues a very provocative tone in its discourse, one which appears to be designed to foment anger, rather than to inspire collaboration. Indeed, the GSTA has already become a force for polarization in our community. Yesterday’s attack on USW Local 6500 will only up the ante.

Greater Sudbury has not been a stranger to municipal controversies since the creation of the amalgamated City back in 2001. Since the GSTA’s own recent creation in the fall of 2011, it has called for the resignation of Greater Sudbury’s CAO Doug Nadorozny over his perceived role in what the GSTA refers to as the “fraud case” involving a former vendor of transit tickets. The GSTA has also been outspoken on something called “the Healthy Communities Initiative”, which they (and others) have compared to being an unaccountable slush fund available for the use of municipal Councillors for re-election purposes. The GSTA and its supporters have also been publicly critical of Councillor Terry Kett (Ward 11) over the municipal budget, and of Councillor Ron Dupuis (Ward 5) over the process of naming of Workers’ Memorial Park (which in part has been another issue involving USW Local 6500, given that USW head Leo Gerard’s name was the one to be attached to the Park).

What appears to be a partial list of press releases is available to the public on the GSTA’s website (although nothing has yet been posted about yesterday’s tipping fee announcement).

The GSTA lists its organizational objectives on its website.

-maximize the value of every tax dollar spent;
-keep tax increases at or below the rate of inflation;
-ensure the focus on City council is on core services;
-promote transparency in all aspects of Municipal Governance;
-promote the positive aspects of a smaller municipal government.

On the surface, there may not appear to be a lot which would be considered problematic with these objectives. Once you start digging a little deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that these objectives are largely in keeping with an ultra-right wing neo-liberal agenda.

The Neo-Liberal Agenda

I’ve been using the term “neo-liberal” a lot more often in my blog over the past several months, but perhaps its best to explain the idea a little more fulsomely here. Neo-liberalism is an economic theory which suggests that economic problems can best be solved by removing barriers which restrain businesses operating in the market (such as environmental regulations), and promoting the need for investment as the highest priority. You may be familiar with the term “trickle-down economics” (made popular in the 1980s by U.S. President Ronald Reagan), and I believe that’s a good starting point in understanding what neo-liberalism is about, which is the notion that everybody’s lives are improved as a result of rich investors creating growth.

To a point, and with a few significant caveats, I believe the theory generally works. The first significant caveat, however, is that the system can only work with the right type of local investment, that being places which employ workers who provide goods and services needed within communities. Unfortunately, with globalization, what neo-liberals have accomplished has been to outsource jobs from existing communities, in pursuit of maximizing profits. This has left once-stable communities twisting in the wind of the global economic cyclone, and has attributed to a hollowing out of North America’s manufacturing sector (something we here in Ontario are very familiar with).

The second caveat is that the entire economic system on which neo-liberalism depends requires growth. That hasn’t been much of a problem in the past, save for a few recessionary hiccups, but it’s certainly going to be a problem in the future with resource depletion. Constant economic growth is not sustainable on a planet of finite resources, and I believe that we are already running into some of these natural barriers to growth.

The third caveat has to do with how much of the investment success has really trickled downwards. Clearly, our economy has continued to expand, as evidenced by rising GDP. The average person appears to be better off today than an average person was several decades ago, at least in terms of personal income (when you add debt levels into the equation, though, it might come out as a wash). What is clear, however, is that while its arguable whether or not everyone has gained from a neo-liberal economic approach, what can not be denied is that a very small percentage of individuals have gained significantly more than the majority of us. These rich elites, branded the “1%” in 2011 by the Occupy Movement, have seen a seriously disproportionate amount of created wealth accrue to them. So while the average person might arguably be marginally better off today than 20 years ago, given the explosion of wealth which has been created in that time period, the distribution of that wealth has largely been consolidated in the hands of a very few.

However, even though I concede that some wealth may have trickled down to the 99%, the fact remains that neo-liberalism as an economic ideology poses a clear and present danger to the vast majority of society, including the middle class. Neo-liberals, in the form of an ultra-right wing political agenda encompassing political movements and established political parties, promote the interests of the rich at the expense of the rest of us. Neo-liberal political organizations practice a particularly repugnant form of politics, given their propensity to subvert our democratic institutions in the pursuit of their agenda.

The success of neo-liberals in politics, though, is apparent. In the United States, with the rise of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and the astroturf movement known as the Tea Party, neo-liberals have seized control of the Republican Party. Here in Canada, Preston Manning’s western-based protest party, the Reform Party, eventually annexed what remained of the Progressive Conservative Party. Although Republicans in the U.S. and PC’s in Canada have tended to historically occupy the right of the political spectrum, today’s “conservative” parties don’t bear much resemblance to the Republican Party of Richard Nixon (which gave the United States the Environmental Protection Agency) or even the PC Party of Brian Mulroney (who introduced regulations on industrial emitters to fight acid rain).

The impact of neo-liberals, however, has not been limited to just the Republicans in the U.S. and Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in Canada. Indeed, massive deregulation of financial institutes occurred under Democratic President Bill Clinton in the United States, and Liberals Jean Chretien and his Minister of Finance Paul Martin downloaded significant federal responsibilities to the provinces at the direction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For more about the role which the IMF has played in promoting the neo-liberal agenda, I sincerely urge you to read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, which is a real eye opener (to put it mildly).

Here in Canada, neo-liberals are now firmly entrenched at the federal level, and with a false majority delivered to the Conservative Party through an archaic electoral system which distorts the will of voters, Stephen Harper has essentially free reign to apply the neo-liberal agenda with impunity for the next few years. And now, here in Greater Sudbury, the same forces appear to be at work.

Core Public Services

Organizations referring to themselves as “taxpayers associations” have been on the rise throughout Canada in the past few decades. What most of these organizations have in common is a desire for smaller governments and a return to what they believe to be “basic services”. The Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association is no exception. Of course, one of the first noticeable issues with this approach is the identification of what, exactly, in a municipal context, constitutes basic, or “core services”?

Taxpayers associations like to define core services as those services which benefit businesses and land owners in a municipality, with maybe a little lip service paid to the perceived interests of renters. Generally speaking, the propositions advanced by taxpayers associations actually impede the quality of life aspirations of a majority of City residents, especially those who are less well off from an economic standpoint. However, the middle class is often impacted too, although that’s not always as apparent initially, as the mantra of lower taxes has a certain appeal to all hard-working individuals. In the long run, howeer, where taxes are cut, so cuts to public services often follow, and often those cuts can directly impact quality of life experiences for middle class families. Indeed, neo-liberal successes at all levels of government have relied on co-opting the middle class to vote against its own interests.

The definition of “core services” tends to include such things as road maintenance, waste disposal, and policing. There is recognition of the need for some minimum level of bureaucracy. Essentially, though, neo-liberals believe that the market is best suited to handle the delivery of most other services which have in the 20th century accrued to the public realm. Of course, it’s clear that for some forms of service delivery, such as those related to homelessness, the market simply isn’t the right vehicle. For neo-liberals, that’s where the role of charity comes into play.

The Cost of Service Delivery

Now, that leaves a pretty broad list of services currently being delivered by our municipal government, on the table to be potentially handed to the private sector or axed all together. In Greater Sudbury, the sale of Pioneer Manor, a municipally-run home for the aged, has recently been brought up as a service which would be better removed from the public realm. In Toronto, public libraries, educational facilities (such as zoos), children’s programs, immigrant settlement services, bike lanes, and (of course) environmental initiatives have all been under attack by neo-liberal politicians.

One of the biggest targets of neo-liberals are the municipal public sector unions which often deliver our public services. Neo-liberals argue that unionized employees are impediments to cost-efficient service delivery. Just as private corporations have outsourced manufacturing jobs to the lowest bidder (usually one located on another continent) in order to maximize their profits (and at the expense of the economic health of their domestic employees, who overwhelmingly lost their jobs), neo-liberals would like to see public service delivery put into the hands of private enterprise.

This approach to outsourcing public services has been implemented in many parts of the world, and has certainly made inroads here in Canada (think about who picks up your curbside waste for example – in Greater Sudbury, it’s not a municipal employee). This outsourcing can save money, but it does come at a cost; sometimes, that cost is in the form of reduced service delivery capacity, or higher user fees where private corporations have decided to further maximize their profits in monopoly situations. Certainly the loss of good paying jobs and employment security for some residents is an inherent cost.

But those sorts of costs tend not to trouble neo-liberals, who are far more focussed on their narrow interpretation of the “bottom line” (and I say “narrow” because neo-liberals are infamous for failing to include externalities into their equations – things such as environmental costs and social costs, such as those related to healthcare. Indeed, the holy grail of neo-liberal economic indicators, Gross Domestic Product, actually puts a positive economic value on such things as oil spills, due to the jobs created to clean up the spill! Its no wonder than neo-liberal governments, such as George W. Bush’s in the U.S. and Stephen Harper’s here in Canada, tend to be the worst managers of the economy and run up the highest deficits).

Rather than looking for a healthy balance in terms of costs and service delivery, neo-liberals are motivated by increasing private sector profits. Rather than wanting to build better communities for the benefit of all citizens, neo-liberals want to dismember existing structures and redistribute wealth from the hands of the many (the public) and into the hands of the few (the private sector). The history of the past 30 years is rife with examples of these actions. Once a service or good exits the public realm, it’s almost impossible to return it. And that’s why neo-liberals are dangerous when they are handed the reigns of power.

The Small Government Manifesto

Here in Greater Sudbury, we are witnessing the opening moves of an orchestrated campaign by neo-liberal elements and their supporters to gain influence with decision-makers, and likely to replace existing decision-makers. Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford has only been able to achieve his successes due to the presence of his allies on municipal council. As a result, Torontonians will be experiencing cuts to services (such as transit), and a loss of public sector jobs. And its true that these cuts may lead to smaller tax increases for property owners, but at what overall cost to the community?

Look, I’m absolutely not an advocate of big government, as I believe that big government usually ends up being yet another kind of impediment to democracy. But I do believe that our governments have a strong role to play in creating the circumstances which lead to an enhanced quality of life for all residents, and not just those amongst us who may be paying the most in taxes. I believe that each government should find the best size and approach to meet its own specific circumstances. A slash and burn approach of the sort advocated by neo-liberals is the sort of one-size-fits-all solution that we can no longer afford to make.

Our tax dollars are scarce resources, and the elected officials whom we entrust to spend them should do so with careful consideration, and with the express interests of the community in its entirety at the heart of any decision. Decisions regarding revenue expenditures at the local level are only going to become more important as the world moves away from the clearly failing economic experiment known as globalization. The neo-liberal approach, which requires growth at all costs, is no longer sustainable. As a result, our collective future is going to become much more locally-focussed. And that’s why neo-liberal efforts which seek to slash and burn public services in the name of “small government” and a focus on “core services” represent a clear and present danger to communities such as Greater Sudbury.

Again, to be clear, I am not at all suggesting that a big government approach is the answer. What I am suggesting is that it is important that our local democratic institutions become as healthy and robust as necessary to suit local circumstances, with an eye towards responsible and accountable decision-making, for the benefit of the community. We are living in a time of increasingly scarce resources. As a result, we can no longer continue to afford to subsidize the special interests of the rich elites at the expense of the rest of us.

In Whose Interests?

While some of the concerns raised by the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Federation are important issues which deserve a public debate, many in this community have already begun to question in whose interests this association is speaking, given their apparent desire to foment change by issuing divisive press releases, rather than actually working with decision-makers, municipal staff and other community stakeholders to find a collaborative solution. It’s hard not to compare the tactics of the GSTA to those we see at work in the Republican Presidential nomination process, where it has become more important to engage in personal attacks than to discuss the issues. Certainly the GSTA appears to have an axe to grind with USW Local 6500, and are eager to point out what they perceive to be ties between the union and elected officials in our community, such as former Mayor John Rodriguez. In that context, the union-baiting press release regarding tipping fees certainly makes a lot more sense.

When I first heard about the formation of the GSTA, I was initially optimistic that this association would be acting in the interests of the community, and working towards creating real and sustainable change. But instead, what this organization appears to be is a group of largely unknown individuals with a very specific right-wing agenda, purporting to speak on behalf of not just its members, but indeed of all taxpayers in the City. And instead of engaging in a collaborative process to work towards real change, the GSTA seems to have chosen to engage in the politics of division.

I’m certain that USW Local 6500 is now aware of what’s going on in our community. It’s time that more of us question in whose interests the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association is speaking. Although I share a number of their concerns, I can tell you as a citizen of the City of Greater Sudbury who pays taxes, they are not speaking in my interest.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

Monday, January 9, 2012

It’s Official: The Harper Regime has Declared War on the Environment

Earlier today, Federal Natural Resources Ministers Joe Oliver released an open letter to Canadians through the Globe & Mail (“An open letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver”, January 9, 2012) regarding the proposed Enbridge Northern Gate Pipeline. In his letter, Oliver directly equates those involved in environmental causes as being “radicals”. Needless to say, Oliver’s letter in the G&M, and comments made by Stephen Harper on Friday of last week about environmentalists funded by “foreign money” hijacking the Canadian Environmental Assessment process for the Northern Gate Pipeline have created a bit of a media firestorm.

Up until recently, the primary controversies around the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) processes have had to do with the anticipated timing for wrapping up the review. With over 4,000 public delegates expected to speak on the proposed pipeline, which will see tar sands bitumen flow from Edmonton, Alberta, to Kitimat, British Columbia, those involved with the Environmental Assessment (EA) have indicated that the process likely won’t come to a conclusion until late 2013. This late date for a decision hasn’t sat well with Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, which had previously hinted its concerns to EA administrators.

However, with these lastest remarks about “foreign interference” and by equating Canadians who are concerned about our environment with “radicals”, it seems that the phony war which the Conservatives have been fighting against the environment has finally become official, with these comments intended to separate Canadians into two camps: one which is in favour of runaway development and exploitation of the tar sands, trade and job creation; and other which is occupied by ideologically-motivated radicals and extremists on the take from foreign governments bent on destroying Canada’s oil industry and impoverishing Canadians.

The Politicization of the Environment

Let’s take a closer look at what’s been going on with Northern Gateway. First of all, the CEAA process is not a political process. While the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is an Act of parliament, it sets out a process which is followed by an appointed hearing body, free of political interference. I was originally concerned about the potential for political interference with the Northern Gate EA process when I first heard Harper and other cabinet Ministers complain about timing. Normally, these processes take as long as they need to in order to facilitate true public discussion and the review of technical documents. While timelines are built into the process, they are often flexible enough to accommodate the specific complexities of any matter under review.

The fact is, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline will cross through a number of jurisdictions, including two provinces, federal lands, and lands claimed by a number of First Nations. It will traverse forests and rivers where vibrant wildlife and fisheries exist. And, when bitumen arrives at Kitimat, it will be loaded onto ocean-going tankers, bound for Asia or elsewhere. These tankers must traverse the narrow confines of B.C.’s rugged coast, long known as a graveyard for ships, due to its shallow waters and frequent bad weather (including fog).

Simply put, the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal is about as complicated as a proposal subject to the CEAA can get, both from a jurisdictional and an implementation point of view. And that’s not even mentioning the significant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions which processing some of the world’s dirtiest oil will add to the atmosphere. In large part, it’s those emissions which have captured the attention of the rest of the world, and which has led to Harper declaration of war.

All About Climate Change

Canada has become an environmental laggard under successive Liberal and Conservative governments which have continually put the interests of the oil industries ahead of Canadians, and quite frankly, ahead of the rest of the world. Although Canada ratified the Kyoto Treaty with a promise to reduce our emissions, our federal government balked at playing a leading role as facilitator to take up the Kyoto challenge. Instead, the federal government left it up to the Provinces to tackle reducing emissions, with my home province of Ontario carrying out the bulk of that work by promising to close coal-fired generating plants.

Of course, Ontario’s contribution to reducing emissions has likely been more significant that the provincial government would like to admit. Indeed, due to an oil-inspired rising Canadian dollar, hundreds of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs have left the province. Matt Price in the Huffington Post refers to upwards of 600,000 jobs being lost, mostly in Ontario, as manufacturing companies have found that their exports simply can no longer compete in a global market with a sky-high Canadian dollar (“Canadian Jobs Lost to the Tar Sands”, The Huffington Post, January 5 2012).

And make no mistake, the rising Canadian dollar has had everything to do with increasing the capacity for oil production in Alberta, which has been a national priority of both Liberal and Conservative governments. Canada has done more than simply not acting to rein-in greenhouse gas emissions: we have made increasing our emissions a national policy to be celebrated. And now, under the Harper regime, Canada has upped the ante even further.

Before Christmas, to Canada’s international shame, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada would be withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord. This announcement came hot on the heels of the United Nations conference on climate change, held in Durban, where it appears that Canadian government delegates negotiated for a new Kyoto commitment period in bad faith, negotiating while knowing that the government was getting ready to withdraw from the treaty. This kind of overt sabotage at Durban wasn’t a new role for Canada, however.

Indeed, since Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, Canadian negotiators have been fiercely travelling throughout the world trying to sabotage international and bi-national agreements on climate change, including the recent challenge to the European Union’s initiative to tax petroleum produced from dirty oil at a higher rate than petroleum produced from conventional sources, due to the higher carbon emissions associated with dirty oil.

After U.S. President Barack Obama made the decision to stall the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (the approval of which Prime Minister Stephen Harper had notoriously suggested would be a “no brainer” for Obama), the Harper regime has been very keen to move forward with the Chinese-backed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. You see, without pipelines to move bitumen out of Alberta for processing, there will be no need to ramp up further production in the tar sands. The creation of pipelines is essential for the oil industry to expand its production before stricter environmental standards can be imposed on it by a new government which might adopt a “go slow” approach. This is why there has been such a rush on to move forward with pipeline construction.

Whose Interests are Being Served?

Look, tar sands bitumen isn’t going anywhere. It’s only because the oil elites want to make as much profit as they can in the shortest amount of time possible that there is now a push on for pipeline construction. The oil industry sees that the writing has been on the wall for some time now, as the international community is destined to get its act together and finally get serious about climate change. The tar sands, of course, when in full production, will be a significant global contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the future, developing tar sands bitumen will be less profitable, due to carbon taxes or the need for industry to purchase carbon offsets. We’re not there yet, but we will be there in another decade. Just as industries which used polluting sulphur dioxide could see that they needed to clean up their acts when a new regulatory system was being proposed in the 1980s, the oil industry today understands that changes are afoot. That they are fighting those changes tooth and nail, rather than working with governments to improve the health and well-being of citizens indicates to me, anyway, what their priorities really are.

However, it’s one thing to say that the interests of the oil industries have been to put their own profits ahead of human well-being. But what of the Canadian government? Shouldn’t our government be looking out for the health and welfare of Canadians and our social, economic and natural environments in which we inhabit? Well, I always thought that was the role of our government, but clearly the Harper regime in Ottawa is putting the interests of oil industry profits ahead of the social, economic and environmental well-beings of Canadians. And they are doing it in such a way that they are actually eroding our democratic rights in the process.

And here’s where the latest front appears to be opening up. Based on Minister Joe Oliver’s open letter, we may end up with changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act which deliberately shuts out opportunities for participation in the EA process by Canadians who may share a different set of priorities than does our government. Clearly, the Harper regime has stated in the past few days that international trade and opening up the tar sands to multi-national oil companies for runaway development is more of a priority than protecting and thoughtfully managing Canada’s non-renewable resources, the exploitation of which will lead to the creation of more greenhouse gases and a bigger contribution on the part of Canada to global climate change.

For those who think that we would be putting jobs at risk by not allowing runaway development of Alberta’s tar sands, I invite you to further explore the anticipated impacts of a global rise in temperature of just 2 degrees Celsius. Take a look at how such a rise in temperature will impact jobs and the economy. When the Harper regime talks about “jobs” what they really mean are oil industry profits, because if they were really interested in jobs, they would be doing a lot more to preserve existing jobs and laying the groundwork for a low-carbon economy.

The Declaration of War, which seems to be supply the Harper regime with its speaking points about Northern Gateway, has already suggested that anybody associated with an environmental organization which has received funding from “foreign” sources should not be allowed to publicly participate in the Environmental Assessment process. Remember that list of 4,000 speakers? It’s that list which is being targeted by Harper for being too long and therefore delaying a decision. And many of the speakers on that list are, in fact, from local environmental organizations, some of which may have received funding from non-Canadians.

The fact that non-Canadian organizations have been assisting Canadian environmental organizations with funding has turned into a circus for the neo-liberal oil interests over the past few months. They have claimed that “foreign interests” are dominating the Canadian environmental agenda, and have outright questioned the patriotism of Canadians who may be concerned about climate change and curbing rampant tar sands expansion. In 2011, Canadian grandmothers and university students, some of whom are from my home town of Sudbury, Ontario, were blasted by EthicalOil mouthpiece and Sun Media columnist Ezra Levant as being anti-Canadian “extremists” for their participation in a fence-scaling exercise in civil disobedience. Levant’s own criticisms were then parroted by a number of cabinet ministers (see my earlier blog: “Who are the Real Extremists?“, October 4, 2011). is engaging in hypocrisy of an extreme sort through their calls to ban Canadian environmentalists from the Environmental Assessment process simply because an organization to which they belong may have received a financial contribution from a non-Canadian. Many environmentalists are volunteers and receive no compensation for the work in which they engage in. Those that do receive compensation tend to champion the values and the interests of their organization, just as anybody speaking on behalf of any organization might. And that’s the point which makes EthicalOil’s position so incredibly hypocritical.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal will directly benefit multi-national oil companies through higher profits. Billions of dollars will be made by opening up the tar sands to runaway exploitation. These dollars will end up in the pockets of some of the richest foreign corporate executives in the world. Yet isn’t leading the charge to shut those multinational corporations out of the EA process. Why is that?

In their black-and-white world, EthicalOil likes to distinguish between job creators on the one hand and job killers on the other. Multinational corporations are the job creating heros in their narrative, and environmentalists out to kill Canadian jobs are the villains. Increasingly, it appears that this narrative is being adopted by our government, especially with the recent and disturbing statements about environmentalists being job-killing radicals. What has yet to be determined is whether our government will change the Environmental Assessment process to shut out legitimate points of view being heard.

Exploding the Myths

The fact is, we live in a global society, and what happens here in Canada will have an impact on the rest of the world, especially as it relates to anthropogenic climate change. That Canada has wilfully committed to a course of action whereby we are determined to be the biggest per capita polluter in the world is reason enough for others to be concerned about the actions of industries operating here, particularly related to the exploitation of non-renewable resources. And the actions of our government to facilitate pollution should not be immune from international scrutiny simply because the oil industry is viewed as a “job creator”. As a result, we can expect to hear more about environmental tariffs being imposed on Canadian export goods as a result of our emissions intensive policies. And that’s further bad news for Ontario’s manufacturing sector, even though Ontario is actively striving to reduce energy derived from non-renewable resources.

Again, we here in Ontario know firsthand that the tar sands are not the ballyhooed job creator that EthicalOil and the Harper regime would have us believe. We’ve seen manufacturing jobs leave the province due to a high dollar, driven up by oil industry revenues. With the price of oil expected to continue to climb over the next decade, we can expect that uncontrolled tar sands development will only drive the value of the dollar up further, leading to an unsustainable situation in Eastern Canada with regards to job loss. There’s a very good reason why the Conservative Party of Canada’s real base of power is in the Alberta heartland. That Conservatives in other parts of Canada fail to see the damage which Harper’s out-of-control oil policy is inflicting on regional economies is maddeningly frustrating to me.

Some Good News (for a change)

There may be some good news coming out of these new attacks on the environment and the patriotism of Canadians who might simply be concerned about the pace of development of our non-renewable resources. If there is any good news at all, it’s that I expect this latest gambit will backfire on the Conservatives over the next few years. By committing to this kind of hyper-partisan rhetoric, there is no longer a way for the Harper regime to back down from their position. They’ve drawn the lines in the sand now between themselves and the oil elites on the one side, and Canadians who may be concerned about the environment on the other. Make no mistake: along with officially declaring war on the environment, the Harper regime has also declared war on moderate Canadians. Ultimately, this approach will backfire as it continues to become increasingly clear to Canadians that environmental issues (and particularly climate change) can no longer be ignored by Ottawa.

That the Harper regime might have completely destroyed long-established environmental legislation and assessment processes in the interim will be something which future, responsible governments will have to address when Harper is finally deposed. The destruction to our economy and our environment which the Harper regime’s short-sighted and greedy war will cause will not be so easily undone.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, January 6, 2012

At a Crossroads: One Green's Hopes for The Liberal Party of Canada (Part 2 of 2)

(continued from Part 1...)

Candidate Appointments / Protections

Liberals are also considering doing away with the Leader’s ability to appoint candidates to run in specific ridings, rather than leaving it to local members to nominate their own candidates (which is what usually happens). I once lived in a riding where the Liberal leader decided to appoint a candidate, one who had lost his seat in the previous election in a different riding. This parachute candidate from a riding in a different city was left to carry the Liberal’s banner in my riding, much to the chagrin of the local Liberal riding association, and to other local Liberals who were considering contesting the nomination. In this case, the perception of having a lack of legitimacy really hurt the parachute candidate, and many in his own party actively campaigned against him, leading to an unsuccessful showing on election day. I certainly did not vote for him.

It’s high time that Liberals get rid of the leader’s ability to appoint candidates. Now, I understand that this appointment provision exists ostensibly so “star” candidates who might otherwise not seek a local nomination (at risk of losing, especially to another popular local with a strong organization on the ground) can get the nod more easily, and that it’s used as a mechanism to attract candidates who are perceived as having more heft. However, it is often used for patronage situations as well. Either way, why not allow local grassroots members to have the (almost) final say in who they are going to try to elect to represent their community’s interests?

I say “almost” final, because the Liberal leader would still continue to have the ultimate say over whether a nominated candidate can run on behalf of the Party by signing (or not signing) nomination papers. That’s a more appropriate use of a leader’s powers.

If Liberals decide to rid their leader of the power to appoint candidates and circumvent local nomination processes, they will be moving towards a circumstance which the Green Party of Canada has long followed.

At the riding level as well, Liberals are considering getting rid of provisions which protect incumbent MP’s from facing nomination battles in their own ridings. These protections may prove to be a little more controversial for Liberals, because the theory here is that a sitting MP already has an electoral advantage over any rivals, and further, why should an MP have to battle for a job they’re already occupying? Riding-level nomination battles are also distractions from taking on candidates from other parties.

That being said, though, some other political parties allow for challenges at the riding level, and sometimes challengers are successful in getting the nod from local members in preference to sitting parliamentarians. In Ontario this past year, we saw just that situation arise when long-serving Progressive Conservative MPP Norm Sterling was ousted by local PC members in favour of Jack MacLaren, former President of the radical right-wing libertarian Ontario Landowners Association. Former Ontario Premier Ernie Eves was vocal in his opposition to the decision of local members to oust Sterling in favour of a “tea party-style” candidate. But MacLaren did go on to win the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills in the October provincial election.

The Green Party too does not shelter its candidates from nomination challenges at local levels. For Greens, this is an elementary position. If a political party really believes in the value of democracy, clearly it can’t shelter candidates for purely partisan political reasons, no matter the quality of those candidates. What happened with the PC’s in the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills is illustrative of local democracy in action, despite the scorn heaped upon the process by Eves and others. Look, I’ve always been a big fan of Norm Sterling, and I clearly don’t have much respect at all for the Ontario Landowners’ Association, but the fact is that local members in C-MM didn’t want Sterling to represent them any longer, and dumped him in favour of a preferred candidate, likely one whose ideology may be more in keeping with their own. They also took a big political risk in doing so, by deposing a known quantity in Sterling and replacing him with someone who many perceived as less-electable. What’s important here is that the Party members in C-MM had the chance to seize control of local democratic processes, and I believed that the interests of democracy triumphed over politics in C-MM.

This kind of exercise in local democracy played out in the Green Party recently as well. When Green Party Leader Elizabeth May decided to run in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, her nomination as candidate was opposed by another party member. As a result, Greens in SGI had to vote for May to represent them. Now, that happens all the time in most ridings, but when it’s the Leader of the Party, it’s very rare for the Leader to be challenged. And currently, in the Liberal Party, the leader has the power to make sure that such a situation never arises, by appointing themselves as candidate!

Politically, appointing candidates and sheltering them from nomination challenges may be a smart political play for a Party, but in terms of democracy, it’s just not right. The LPC should end these practices.

Electoral Reform

Liberals will also be considering national electoral reform at next week’s convention, which is very interesting, given the sorts of internal electoral reform that they are considering implementing inside of the Party (primaries with open votes from non-members; removal of appointment provisions for MP’s; allowing for challenges of sitting MP’s at the riding level). Internally, Liberals will be asked to consider sweeping changes to the way in which member’s democratically engage within the Party. Nationally, the Liberals are taking a much less ambitious approach to electoral reform.

The only resolution on the ballot for national electoral reform calls for moving towards a preferential balloting system. On the one hand, preferential balloting would lead to a substantive change in the way in which MP’s are elected, but on the other hand, the Liberals appear to be engaged in a cynical political ploy rather than tackling the issue of true democratic reform head-on.

A preferential ballot would see a voter’s choices ranked first, second, third, and so on. After counting all of the first place finishes, if a candidate did not receive 50% of the vote, those counting the ballots will then count all of the second place finishes as well, and add the two scores together. This process continues until a single candidate emerges with 50% of the votes. Under this process, it’s possible that a candidate could be elected MP without a plurality of first place votes.

Interestingly, Liberals acknowledge their own cynicism in the preface of the Resolution itself. The Resolution speaks to both the NDP and Green Party’s support of Proportional Representation, in order to contrast their political rival’s position to the less-ambitious reform of instituting a preferential ballot. Strangely, the Resolution indicates that NDP and Greens would stand to benefit from a proportional representation system, which appears to be a stretch since the NDP has now found itself in the role of the Official Opposition.

Also, as Liberals believe that they occupy the middle of the left/right political spectrum, there is some belief that Liberal candidates would be the primary beneficiaries of second place voting choices of both Conservative and NDP voters.

Either way, the modest electoral reforms brought about by a preferential ballot clearly don’t go far enough towards real electoral reform, in my opinion. The election of representatives to our parliaments should be a true reflection of the will of all voters. While a preferential ballot is clearly better than the system we have in place right now, it will do little for Canadians who continue to support others points of view. Rather than electing the parliamentarians which we want, we’ll end up electing the parliamentarians which we don’t want, but who are mildly more acceptable to a majority of voters.

Only proportional representation fully captures the will of voters, and will lead to a parliament which is a true expression of that will. Hopefully, the Liberal Party will come to understand this self-evident truth before the next federal election, and join the Green’s in our call for true electoral reform. As an aside, many may remember a telling question put to Party Leaders during the 2008 English language televised Leaders’ debate. The question was about what the most important issue was for each leader. When it was Elizabeth May’s turn, I think that most people expected her to talk about the need to combat the climate crisis as being the number one issue. She didn’t say that (although ultimately her answer, if implemented, would have been a great assist with taking real action on climate change). May talked about the need for electoral reform to better improve democracy within our country. Some said later that her response was self-serving for her Party, as Greens clearly would benefit from a system of proportional representation. However, so too would all Canadians, as through proportional representation, Canada would end up with a parliament which is a true reflection of the will of voters. When you look at the parliament which emerged after the 2011 election, with the Conservative Party having received a majority of seats without receiving a majority of the votes, it’s clear to any casual observer that our current electoral system isn’t serving Canadians well. And that’s likely one of the reasons why so many Canadians choose to stay at home rather than cast a ballot at election time.

But let me be clear: I hope that the Liberals do decide to adopt the preferential ballot resolution (and then take the ability of their leader to decide policy out the leader’s hands), because I would love for the Liberals to campaign on the basis of a preferential ballot electoral system in the next election. And I say that because I, as a Green, would very much like to test the Liberal’s hypothesis that their Party would be the recipient of a majority of those second-place votes.

Co-operation with Other parties

Finally, Liberals won’t be voting on any resolutions which speak to the need about co-operating more fulsomely with other political parties, but I can guarantee that Liberal delegates nonetheless will be doing a lot of talking about working with other parties.

Recently, NDP leadership contender Nathan Cullen proposed to his Party that it’s time Liberals, New Democrats and Greens considered implementing a system where members of each Party could jointly at the riding level choose to get together and nominate a single candidate to oppose sitting Conservative MP’s in the next election. I’m not sure that this is the best approach (although I haven’t made my mind up, and I am intrigued by the idea), but at least Cullen is thinking ahead to the future, and he, along with members in all of those parties, realize that greater cooperation may be necessary to beat the Conservatives in the next election.

Clearly, the Conservatives have begun the process of stacking the electoral deck of cards in their own favour. The Conservative Party of Canada isn’t letting anything stand in their way of turning Canadian democracy on its head. We’ve already seen the CPC break its own fixed election date law by cynically calling an early election in 2008 (which deprived Blair Wilson, Canada’s first Green MP, to sit in the House as a Green, and which led to the Broadcast Consortium’s original decision to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from participating in the televised Leader’s debates, on the grounds that the Greens had no MP’s sitting in the House). The CPC then went on to break election financing laws through the “in-and-out” scandal. Now, with a false majority situation in the House, the Conservatives have begun to phase out public subsidies to political party, which means that parties will increasingly be beholden to monied special interests and elites for electoral success. There are already calls being made within the CPC to allow corporations to donate to political parties in order to off-set the loss of public subsidy.

Some also believe that the addition of new ridings in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. will also increase the chances of electoral success for the Conservative Party in the next election. While that may likely be the result, the fact is that these new ridings will be created in locations which have lately become under-represented, due to population growth. And I’m not willing to concede that a majority of these new ridings will actually elect Conservatives in the next election, although I do acknowledge that it’s possible.

I believe that Liberals, New Democrats and Greens need to start paying better attention to this emergent threat to Canada’s well-being: the transformational nature of the Harper Conservative regime. The Harper regime represents a clear and present danger to Canadian society and democracy within this nation. It is not representative of a values system which is embraced by a majority of Canadians, although it is currently operating with impunity, imposing its own values on the face of our society.

It is easier to tear down than to build up, and we have already begun to see how the Conservatives are starting to tear down cherished and valued Canadian democratic institutions, such as parliament itself, and the rule of law in our society. That may seem like an unsupportable statement to some, but I urge all to take a very close look at the insidious way in which the CPC has chosen to operate both within government and outside of it.

To combat this latest crisis in democracy, which has been clearly brought on by the neo-liberal Conservative Party, despite my own concerns about what I consider to be misguided and in some cases dangerous policy positions taken by the Liberals and NDP, I believe that the moment has nevertheless come for the opposition parties to begin working with one another for the time being to face a common and greater threat to our national interests, and for the good of Canada.

Next week, when Liberals get together for lunches and dinners and at hospitality suites, I hope that they will be having those discussions too. The Liberal Party of Canada finds itself in a unique position at the moment, as it debates resolutions which may transform the Party and lead the Party to take a different direction in the future. Liberals have an opportunity to once again demonstrate real leadership in Canada should they choose to walk through the door which some Liberals themselves are trying to open. Liberals must begin to articulate what their shared values really are, and to implement those values throughout their organization. Further, candidates and their Leader must embrace and defend those values at all costs (even political costs) in order to stake claims to legitimacy. As a final aside, I sincerely hope that NDP leadership contenders decide to go down a similar road, as in my opinion, the NDP long ago sacrificed its own values on the alter of electoral expediency, and has become a party of spin over substance. That too must change if we are to address the bigger threat to Canada, that being the neo-liberal transformation of our beloved nation.

If instead Liberals choose to remain mired in the past as a middle-of-the-road political animal, rather than as a conscientious values-based organization which offers a real alternative to Canadians, then I urge disaffected Liberals currently within that Party to take some time to reflect on whether the Liberal Party is headed in a direction which is consistent with your own values. There is no shame in moving away from an organization which is no longer representative of your values. If Liberals find themselves in this situation, I suggest that they give us Greens a look, because I know that they will find themselves in good company.

Either way, there is too much at stake right now to maintain the status quo. Action is needed.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

At a Crossroads: One Green's Hopes for The Liberal Party of Canada (Part 1 of 2)

Next week, the Liberal Party of Canada will be hosting its biennial policy convention in Ottawa. At this convention, Liberals will be making a number of decisions regarding the Party’s future direction. Along with electing a new Party President (prediction: it’ll be Sheila Copps), Liberals will be voting on a number of electoral reform initiatives which seek to open the Party and, in some cases, radically change the way in which leaders and riding candidates are elected, and what sort of power they might have within the Party.

These proposals have been put forward in an effort to spark the debate amongst Liberals about how best to reinvigorate Canada’s oldest political party (and I’m not just referring to the fact that the Liberal Party of Canada has been around since 1867 – I’m also referring to the current demographic composition of the Party). Politicians, pundits and grassroots party members all seem to agree that it’s high time for the Liberal Party to get its act together.

This past summer, I wrote about a possible way for the LPC to reinvent itself (“A Door Exists for the Liberal Party. Will Liberals Step Through It?”). In that blogpost, I discussed the Liberal’s on-again, off-again relationship with combating the climate crisis, and suggested (essentially) that the Liberal Party should become more like the Green Party. Interestingly, with the sorts of resolutions which will be discussed at next week’s convention, the Liberal Party of Canada might find itself on the way to doing just that.

Before we take a close look at some of the proposals which will be on the table for Liberal delegates at next week’s convention, it’s time for a little disclosure. I’ve actually had the pleasure of attending an LPC policy convention in Ottawa in the past, when I was a member of the Liberal’s Willowdale riding association, back when Jim Peterson held that riding, and was Minister of International Trade. The LPC was riding high back then, and it was certainly interesting to be an observer in the trenches at the height of the Chretien-Martin war within the Party. I had a great time at the convention. It was only after leaving Willowdale and relocating to Sudbury that my association with the LPC came to an end, after an incredibly dismaying meeting with the local Liberal riding organization which pretty much told me point-blank, “We don’t want your help, but we do want your money.”

It was only after Elizabeth May won the leadership of the Green Party that I joined the Sudbury Greens. What led me to both join and stay with the Green Party for the past 5 years now has been the Green Party’s bold articulation of policy in a document known as Vision Green, which is based on policy approved by grassroots Party members. I write about this not to promote the Green Party, but because I’ll be coming back to the concept of member-approved policy in a little bit.

So, despite being Chief Executive Officer of the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association, I guess it’s fair to say that I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Liberal Party of Canada. My Doctor says that there’s nothing that she can do about it, and hopefully it’ll go away with changes to my diet and exercise.

The Green Party of Canada, of course, has drawn supporters from all other parties, so you needn’t be so very surprised that I was once involved with another political party. Here in Sudbury, I know of Greens who once belonged to the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives. It’s not unusual for people to take a close and critical look at the organizations to which they belong, and to assess whether or not they can continue to support those organizations, especially when an organization appears to be heading in a direction which might conflict with one’s personal values. In politics, however, those in the public eye are too often vilified for having the audacity to “change their minds” about a particular issue, or to be critical of their own parties. And that’s one of the reasons why, in my opinion, Canadian politics has found itself in the sad state that it’s in today.

And clearly that’s one of the reasons that I continue to remain involved with the Green Party. Admittedly, this is my own opinion, but I have been one of my Party’s biggest critics over the past several years, with regards to the direction which the membership has taken on a number of policy initiatives, and, at times, with the actions of Party Leader Elizabeth May. I can tell you, however, from personal experience that I have never been chastised by anybody in the Party’s administrative apparatus or governing Council, or by May herself (which might simply be reflective of the level of importance that staff and decision-makers within the Party ascribe to my rants). And that’s because the Green Party really is unlike any other political party. We tolerate and encourage discussion, and dissenting points of view are respected. Goodness knows if you put three Greens in a room, you’ll end up with 6 or more different ideas about any specific issue! Yet, somehow we manage to make it work through a consensus-driven approach to decision-making.

And the Liberal Party of Canada might soon find itself in a similar circumstance.


First, let’s take a look at the most media-hyped resolution that the Liberals will be discussing, and that’s the idea of opening up nomination processes for the Party Leader to non-members. While joining the Liberal Party isn’t particularly cost-prohibitive for prospective members, it does come with the baggage of having to self-identify as a Liberal. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

Well, with the concept of Primaries, someone wouldn’t have to become a member in order to take part in decision-making. As I understand the concept, both LPC members and others would be able to cast their ballot for a leadership contender. Non-members would simply have to sign a pledge which affirms that they share “liberal” values, and that they are not members of another federal political party.

This is somewhat similar to what we recently saw happen in Iowa earlier this week, when Iowans turned out to vote for a Republican presidential nominee of their choice. Most of those who participated in the selection were registered Republican voters, but many weren’t; they were either Democrats, members of other parties, or “Independents” (those not affiliated with any political party).

Liberals will need to come to terms with whether opening up their electoral process to non-members makes sense for the Party. There certainly would be trade-offs to consider. In the “pro-primary” column, one could certainly suggest that a primary would likely attract new blood (potential voters and supporters) to the Liberal Party, by involving people traditionally outside of the nomination process in Party decision-making. While most who cast a ballot probably wouldn’t stick around, the fact is that some will, and the Party will certainly benefit by increasing the size of their list of contacts to hit up for donations. Those points alone might be enough to sell the idea of primaries to a Party which is growing increasingly concerned about its number of members and the amount of cash which the Party has been raising.

There’s also been the suggestion that a Primary process might engage the mainstream media to a more significant extent than a more traditional approach to selecting a leader. Personally, I’m not sure that I buy that argument, as Liberal leadership conventions have always generated a lot of media hype. However, watching the NDP’s leadership selection process has been like watching ice melt, and so far, the NDP aren’t generating a significant level of interest amongst Canadians. That may yet change (the NDP had better hope that it changes) the closer we get to the day in which leadership ballots are counted.

And now that the Liberals are the third place party, there may be less media emphasis on the outcome of a traditional leadership convention. Again, I’m not certain that would be the case, given the way in which the LPC selects its leader through a delegated convention process. Let me be clear about this: watching TV coverage of live action from a convention floor, including speeches of leadership contenders to delegates is infinitely more interesting than watching reports on membership ballots being counted at 40 different locations. Contrast media coverage of the LPC leadership convention of 2006 which elected (surprise!) Stephane Dion to coverage of the 2009 Ontario provincial PC election which saw Tim Hudak elected after counting a number of preferential ballots (*yawn*).

Some Liberals are also concerned that, despite signing pledges about liberal values, partisans from other parties might turn out with enough numbers to potentially sabotage the leader selection process. Clearly, that’s more of an issue at the riding level, and Liberals could find mechanisms which would assist in curtailing those kinds of partisan opportunities.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the Primary process for either the election of leaders or, as some have suggested, riding-level candidates. Maybe I’m just hung up on the notion that membership should have its privileges, and one of those privileges is to be a part of the decision-making process regarding representation. I’m not sure that a candidate elected by non-members, whether it be the leader or (especially) at the riding level can claim to have the same level of legitimacy as a party representative as one elected entirely by party members can. And in politics, having acknowledged legitimacy is incredibly important.

In Sudbury, one need look no further than to the recent provincial election, in which many NDP supporters refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a nominated candidate, due to the fact that both he and his supporters were deemed to be too new to the Party by the old guard, who then shied away from assisting with the campaign. The NDP will deny this, of course, and certainly the NDP’s chosen candidate ended up running a decent campaign which almost toppled a provincial cabinet minister. But, nevertheless, from what I’ve heard, there was a perception by some members that the candidate wasn’t “NDP-enough” (or, as I’ve heard it, “enough of a dip”). And that perceived lack of legitimacy hurt the campaign. If the Liberals flirt with a primary process, they risk opening that same door x 308.

If Liberals do decide to support a primary process, they will find themselves in a unique situation in Canadian politics, and I have to admit, it will be an interesting situation to watch unfold. Maybe they’re on to something here after all, even if I’m not a fan. Certainly, give the Liberals credit where it’s due: this is the sort of bold new idea which the LPC should be debating right now.

The Leader’s Authority

The outcome of this resolution is the one which I’ll be watching most closely. Right now, the expressed political will of the membership of the Liberal Party of Canada can be over-ridden by a decision of the Leader of the Party. You see, along with all of these electoral reform resolutions being discussed at next week’s biennial convention, Liberals will also be voting on policy initiatives, which have worked their way through a process initiated at the riding level. At the convention, Liberals will determine whether they are ready to adopt some of these new policies (I see that one has to do with the legalization of marijuana, for example).

Right now, however, in the Liberal Party, a decision of the leader can simply render the Party’s policy process moot. This also happens in the Conservative and New Democratic parties (although it’s probably fairer to characterize the NDP’s situation as being one of neglectful omission, rather than an actual decision being made by a party leader). It does not happen with the Green Party of Canada; our leader is beholden to the Party membership to support membership-approved policy, no matter whether the leader agrees with it or not.

Now, it’s true, this kind of approach can create some difficulties for a leader, who may have to find themselves explaining why they are in favour of a certain initiative which they might not actually believe in. But guess what? These sorts of political pretzels are offered up for our consumption all the time, and especially when backbench MP’s are whipped by Party brass to vote in a certain way. Sometimes, MP’s will stay away from the House when they may be forced to cast a conflicted vote. Other times, they’ll vote with their conscience, and suffer the wrath of their Party (as two Northwestern Ontario NDP MP’s recently did when they failed to vote as they were told to do by NDP interim Leader Nycole Turmel and her Party’s Whip).

Now, some might say that there’s a difference between backbenchers and a party’s leader. I suppose that’s right, but the distinctions have a lot more to do with Canada’s media obsession with leadership. In the Green Party, for instance, the Party’s constitution does draw a distinction between the Leader of the Party on the one hand and every single other member on the other hand. Yes, there is a member-elected Council which oversees Party operations, and there is a leader-appointed Shadow Cabinet which monitors policy initiatives (and is usually comprised of riding candidates), but when it comes to the development of policy, all members are created equal, including the Leader. In fact, in the Green Party, the role of the Leader is defined simply as being a “party spokesperson”, who, as Leader, has but a few administrative and political powers in appointment processes (appointments to Shadow Cabinet; signing candidate nomination papers). But when it comes to policy, the leader is beholden to the membership.

And now the Liberal Party of Canada will be debating whether or not it will be appropriate to constrain their own leader in the same way.

There are pros and cons to this approach again, but for me, taking away the leader’s ability to determine the policy direction of the party is a sensible and progressive move for Liberals to make. Yes, it’s true, such an approach needs to be balanced by having flexible mechanisms in place to allow the leader some latitude to speak out on current issues which may have ill-defined or no membership-approved policy directions (example: Canada’s participation in NATO-led intervention in Libya; I doubt any party’s members had adopted a policy about that, prior to taking a position on it). Finding this balance may prove to be a challenge for a Liberal leader. Greens, at least, besides having a multitude of member-approved policies on which a leader can draw on, also have the advantage of an expressed set of values which can be relied upon by the leader to inform a decision.

I keep hearing about “liberal values”, but I don’t know that they’ve ever been codified in the same way that Green values have. If Liberals do indeed move forward with adopting this resolution to constrain their leader on policy matters, they may wish to explore the concept of exactly what the Party’s values are. As an active member of the Green Party, I can tell you that it’s refreshing to belong to a political party which operates in a values-based paradigm. And that’s again unique amongst Canada’s political parties.

Certainly if the LPC wants to demonstrate that it’s going to take listening to its members seriously, adopting a resolution which constrains the leader’s ability to determine the Party’s policies will go a long way. I mean, I have to say, as a former Liberal, I simply never understood what the point of going through an entire membership-driven policy approval process was when the leader of the Party can simply say “no” to any approved policy.

I realize I trot this example out every time I want to make this point, but it’s a point worth making. Back in 2009 at the Liberal’s convention, LPC membership reaffirmed a commitment to championing their carbon tax policy. Former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion made the carbon tax one of the centre pieces of the Liberal Party platform and campaign in the 2008 election, and many pundits believe that it may have been the biggest loser in terms of issues which contributed to the Liberal’s electoral losses. Be that as it may (and I think there’s some merit to that analysis, btw), the fact is the membership of the Party in 2009 reconfirmed its commitment to the policy – only to see newly elected leader Michael Ignatieff indicate on the same day that he would unequivocally not support a carbon tax. So much for the wisdom of the members. And why should one member’s opinion about policy outweigh the cumulative opinion of the membership, just because the one member is leader? Sorry, but that’s a completely elitist approach to democracy. The LPC would be much better served by following the Green Party’s progressive model.

(continued in Part 2...)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012 Crystal Ball Blog, Part 4: The End of the World

I caught last night’s edition of TVO’s “The Agenda with Steve Paikin”. The topic under discussion was the End of the World, and the panel was fantastic. Paikin kicked things off with references to the global hype around the Mayan calendar’s seemingly abrupt end on December 12, 2012. None of the panellists were prepared to offer their agreement regarding the proposed date of the end of times.

All of this got me thinking that I seemed to have missed out on prognosticating about December 21st, 2012, and the end of the world, when I was writing my earlier Crystal Ball Gazing blogposts. Cue palm-to-forehead.

Look, the end of days is of significant interest to me. I mean, who can’t help but be fascinated by the end of the world? Apocalyptic prophecy today continues to inform so many decisions which are being made at the highest levels of government, it’s hard for a political junkie like me to ignore. Smiley-face.

I mean, if you’re going to get into the game of political predictions, it seems entirely appropriate this year to make the call for December 21, 2012. After all, any amateur can predict the winner of the Stanley Cup (which I did in Part 3 of my recent series, and which I’m already starting to regret, given that the Dallas Stars are currently sitting two points out a playoff spot in the West right now), but it would take a real Nostradamus (or a better-than-the-real-Nostradamus) to call the exact date of the end of everything.

Given my past successes with predictions, really, I have little to lose by making the call about the end of the Mayan calendar. So, in this the fourth (and final) instalment of my Crystal Ball Gazing blog series, I’m giving you my frank forecast for December 21, 2012. Can I get a drum roll please?

(…Drum Roll…)

Cloudy, with a chance of showers.

(opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and should not be considered to be in keeping with those of the Green Party of Canada)