Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Harper

Where’s Sir John A. When You Need Him?

- November 3rd, 2013

 

“Ain’t I the old devil though?”

— Sir John A. Macdonald responding to a blistering Liberal attack on his political mistakes

 

 

Stephen Harper has been accused of a lot of things during his time as prime minister, but one thing he can never be accused of is being a riveting, charismatic speaker.

 

He proved that conclusively this weekend during the gathering of the Conservative clans in Calgary.

 

Even if he’s not really worthy of walking in Sir John A. Macdonald’s shoes, Harper has certainly learned one lesson well from the political playbook of the foremost founding father of Canadian Confederation and the Conservative Party of Canada: Never, ever admit your mistakes.

 

(Of course the man who took that political operating mantra further than even Macdonald could conceive was a Liberal: Jean “I know nothing” Chretien.)

 

The general consensus of the anointed political pundits seems to be that the current Senate “scandal” is the biggest threat yet to Harper’s iron-fisted rule and actually holds the tantalizing possibility of bringing down the great stone-faced leader.

 

Fuggedabowdit. Not going to happen.

 

The only weak link in Harper’s chainmail is Nigel Wright, the cheque-writing former PMO chief of staff and current pincushion. And Nigel Wright ain’t talking. No matter how many nasty things the Prime Minister of Canada says about him in public. Nigel knows what the deal is. He knows what he signed up for and he’s going to walk the line as long as there’s a line to walk. He’d rather take the cyanide pill than rat out the Prime Minister of Canada (if that is actually what he would be doing by opening his mouth).

 

So, from my point of view, Harper’s great “crisis” isn’t such a big deal. In fact it’s a rather small, nasty — one might say cheap and tawdry — affair about a bunch of (should one say “possible?”) cozeners and trough-feeders who apparently just didn’t know where the cut-off point was for the acceptable level of normal Senate chiseling and grubbery.

 

At least it would be small and cheap (it’s still nasty and tawdry, no matter what) if that boneyard of arrogant self-entitlement and useless pomposity known as the Senate didn’t cost Canadian taxpayers more — lots more — than $100 million a year.

 

So the Senate “scandal” is a mildly interesting sideshow, but barely scrapes together the qualifying requirements to be a bona fide scandal. The real scandal is that the Senate still exists, $100-million year after $100-million year, doing nothing except serving itself second and third helpings of foie gras and Taittinger (figuratively speaking).

 

Now that we’ve cleared that deck, let’s talk about a real scandal. And a real prime minister.

 

Sunday, Nov. 3, marks the 140th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s defiant, soaring, final attempt to save himself and his government from the “Pacific Scandal” with what biographer P.B. Waite has called “the speech of his life and, in a sense, for his life.”

John_A_Macdonald_1870

Sir John A. Macdonald about the time of the Pacific Scandal.

Sir John A. (bless his complicated, inebriated, funked-up soul) had gotten himself in a serious mess, though it was definitely not a case of petty, personal corruption.

 

And he came close to talking his way out of his big trouble.

 

It was a truly grand speech, grand in every sense of the word.

 

Grand in terms of time: Macdonald held the floor for almost five hours of non-stop talking (with various interruptions and exchanges).

 

Grand in terms of its scope: Macdonald gave a remarkable, moving history lesson on the birth and building of Canada and the immense forces trying to tear the fragile, experimental Confederation apart from its very beginning.

 

Grand in that Macdonald was a magnificent orator, nimble-witted and able to tie common experience together with epic aspirations.

 

And grand in the response it evoked: When Macdonald finally sat down — more collapsed in exhaustion than sat — the House of Commons (or at least the half sitting in the government benches) erupted in a five-minute frenzy of applause and cheering. Tory MPs tumbled over chairs and desks to pound Macdonald on the back and shake his hand.

 

It’s a speech that every Canadian should read at some point in his or her life. It makes you understand what an against-all-odds miracle the creation of Canada was and just how much we all owe Sir John A. Macdonald for making it happen in the first place and then keeping it alive through its first two trying, traumatic decades.

 

I’m not going to drag you through the whole marathon right now but here’s a link to the Hansard record of Macdonald’s magnificent speech on the evening of Nov. 3, 1873. (It starts on Page 119 and goes to Page 141.)

 

Parts of the oration can be difficult to follow because some aspects of that particular time are unfamiliar to us today.

 

The key thing to know is that, to entice British Columbia to join Canada in 1871, Sir John A. had promised the West Coast colony he would build a railway linking B.C. with the eastern provinces via an all-Canadian route.

 

North America’s first transcontinental railway, the Union Pacific (which had its own political payoff scandals), had already begun operation in the U.S. in 1869. The Union Pacific terminated in San Francisco, but branch lines snaked up into the Northwest and other railroads linked it to Winnipeg.

 

And a second transcontinental American railway, the Northern Pacific, was already under construction close to the Canadian border. The main backer of the Northern Pacific was Jay Cooke, known as “the financier of the Civil War” because his Philadelphia bank had successfully marketed most of the bonds the Lincoln administration floated to pay for the union war effort.

 

So Macdonald knew he had to build a transcontinental railway on Canadian soil or concede the development and eventual takeover of the Canadian Northwest to American interests and see the colony of British Columbia eventually drawn into the American orbit as well.

canadian-pacific

Because of deep-seated Canadian resentment against real and perceived abuses by the U.S. and fears of American expansionist designs on Canada, there was absolutely no chance in the world that American financial interests would be allowed to control — or even participate in — the proposed Canadian railway. This huge project would have to be done by Canadian and (hopefully) British investors.

 

That was the intention and public face of the venture, anyway.

 

Because of the enormous expense and risks involved (much more via an all-Canadian route than anything faced on the easier American routes) there were few British takers.

 

Canada’s money men quickly coalesced into two groups — a Toronto group led by banker and railway tycoon David Lewis Macpherson in the form of the Inter-Oceanic Railway Company and a Montreal group led by steamship magnate Hugh Allan calling itself the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.

Hugh-Allan

Sir Hugh Allan 

Macdonald tried desperately to get the two groups to merge into one corporation representing the united interests of both upper and lower Canada before the federal election of 1872. Even in the middle of the election campaign, with his own Kingston seat in jeopardy, Macdonald was in Toronto trying to get the Macpherson camp to bend just enough to allow a merger.

David_Lewis_Macpherson

David Lewis Macpherson

(Macdonald was willing to let the Toronto group have the majority of seats on a combined board of directors, but he insisted on Hugh Allan being in charge, in part out of loyalty to his dying friend and Quebec ally, George-Etienne Cartier, and mainly because Macdonald felt he could control Allan better than he could handle Macpherson.)

 

But Macdonald failed to forge a united Canadian railway company. And almost lost the election in the process. And both for the same reason: The very large behind-the-scenes presence of American money and influence.

 

Jay Cooke (remember him from the Northern Pacific Railway in the U.S.?) was determined to control the new Canadian railway — either to meld it with the Northern Pacific or to sabotage this Canadian competitor to his American railroad.

Jay-Cooke

Jay Cooke

Cooke had secret dealings with both the Montreal and Toronto groups and pumped huge amounts of money into the Canadian political process to try to influence the outcome.

 

When it became apparent that he would not be able to control Hugh Allan and the Montreal group to his satisfaction, Cooke shifted his support to the Inter-Oceanic Railway bid and also ordered his operatives to do their damnedest to scuttle both the Canadian Pacific Railway and Macdonald’s Conservatives.

 

“The American work has to be kept dark for the moment and there is no hint of the Northern Pacific connection, but the real plan is to cross the Canadian Pacific over to the United States at the Sault Ste. Marie through northern Michigan and Wisconsin to Duluth, then build from Pembina up to Fort Garry and by and by through the Saskatchewan into British Columbia. The Act will provide for building a North Shore Road (i.e. an all-Canadian route along the more-difficult north shore of Lake Superior) to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) merely to calm public opinion, but it will provide for consolidation with other roads, so that the Michigan portion of the Northern Pacific clear to Duluth can be blended with the Canadian Pacific and the bonds sold as such in London. We will have a straight route from Duluth to Montreal. This is all confidential. The parties have now gone to Canada to get the legislation for it …”

— Jay Cooke’s confidential correspondence to a colleague in 1872

 

Chief among Cooke’s henchmen in Canada was a Chicago (and previously Prince Edward County) hustler named George McMullen, who pumped large amounts of Cooke’s money into supporting opponents of Macdonald’s Conservatives in the 1872 election.

 

Macdonald himself estimated that the Liberals had received upwards of $2 million in financial backing from the Americans. That was a very large amount of money in a time when a dollar was worth 25 times what it is today, when Canada’s entire population was only 3.5 million and when votes were cast in public with everyone knowing where you stood.

 

In other words, most of that American money was being used to buy votes for Liberal candidates — a relatively common practice but never before done on anything approaching the scale of the August 1872 election campaign. Historian Alastair Sweeny has called it “easily the dirtiest (election) in Canadian history.”

 

To counter that influx of American money, Macdonald hit up his Canadian financial backers for every cent he could wring from them — again mainly to buy votes, the principal election expense of a mid-19th Century Canadian political campaign.

 

And chief among Macdonald’s financial backers was Hugh Allan, head of the Canadian Pacific consortium. Later estimates put the amount Allan contributed to Macdonald and the Conservatives at $360,000 — nickel-and-dime stuff compared to the millions being pumped into the campaign by American railway interests.

 

The money had its effect: Macdonald held onto his seat but Cartier lost his and the Conservatives barely clung to a majority.

 

(I should point out right here that party discipline was not as strict in 1872 and 1873 as it is today. Also, there were some strange anomalies: Some Conservative candidates ran as “Liberal Conservatives,” a throwback to an Ontario coalition designation of the 1850s. Sir John A. Macdonald, in fact, ran as a “Liberal Conservative” candidate in both the 1867 and 1872 elections. Despite the name, “Liberal Conservatives” were full members of the Conservative governing party and most would drop the confusing “Liberal” add-on by the 1874 election, the same election that introduced the secret ballot. The last “Liberal Conservative” MP left Parliament during World War I.)

 

The 1872 election results returned Macdonald to government with 102 seats in the 200-seat House of Commons: 63 Conservatives, 36 Liberal Conservatives, two Independent Conservatives and one Conservative Labour member (from Hamilton).

 

In opposition were 98 MPs: 95 Liberals, two Independent Liberals and one Independent (Louis Riel from Manitoba).

 

Once the Conservatives appointed a Speaker from their caucus, they had the slimmest of majorities in the House — 101 to 98. Any prolonged illness or wavering loyalty could spell doom for Macdonald.

 

And once Cooke’s operatives failed to buy the election, they turned to other dirty tricks to try to trigger that doomsday scenario.

 

The most effective gambit by George McMullen was to bribe a clerk in the office of Hugh Allan’s lawyer to steal confidential papers about the Canadian Pacific Railway from the office safe.

 

The hottest document was a copy of a (supposedly) confidential telegram sent from Macdonald to Hugh Allan just six days before the 1872 election: “I must have another $10,000. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today.”

 

McMullen actually tried to play a double game, at least according to Sir John A. Macdonald, who said McMullen offered to sell him some of the documents — “blackmail” was the word Macdonald used — but was rebuffed.

 

I somehow doubt that Macdonald would have let that incriminating telegram slip through his fingers if he had known McMullen had it and if McMullen actually offered to sell it to the prime minister.

 

In any case, the telegram and other supporting stolen documents from the safe were passed on to Quebec Liberal MP Lucius Seth Huntington (a sleazy Eastern Townships dog who was already the bought-and-paid-for servant of the Vermont Central Railroad).

 

Huntington in turn began making accusations about political payoffs in the Commons in April 1873 and had the purloined documents published in two strongly Liberal newspapers — the Toronto Globe and Montreal Herald — on July 4, 1873.

Montreal-Herald

And then the Liberals went on the attack. After fending them off for a while, Macdonald prorogued Parliament and appointed a Royal Commission of three judges to investigate the allegations of corruption and influence-peddling in August 1873.

 

I’m not sure what he hoped to gain from the Royal Commission except a little more time. (NOTE: I’ve since seen suggestions that the governor general at the time, Lord Dufferin, forced Macdonald to institute the Royal Commission as the price for proroguing Parliament and getting the opposition off his back for a little while.)

 

When it came time for Macdonald to testify, he simply said he was raising campaign funds for the party in the usual way and was far less at fault in that regard than the Liberals:

“I got pecuniary assistance where I could. In Canada we have not the same organization that they have in England … to manage elections, and the leaders have to undertake that for themselves. I found, as the contest went on, that it was getting more severe; representations were coming to me from all parts of Ontario (saying) that the Opposition, to use a general expression, had two dollars to our one.”

But the telegram was damning evidence and the Commissioners, although vague, seemed to hold Macdonald responsible in the report they issued that October. Public reaction was strong and, when Parliament resumed on Oct. 23, the prime minister found many of his backbenchers wilting under pressure from their constituents to censure Macdonald — or face the consequences themselves.

Macdonald-cartoon-1873

 

Political cartoons in 1873

pacificscandalpie

So that was the situation the prime minister faced when he entered the House of Commons on Monday, Nov. 3, 1873, in a last-ditch effort to firm up wavering support and defend himself and his government.

The House began sitting about 3 p.m. and recessed for supper in the early evening. About 9 p.m. Sir John A. took the floor — and talked for the next five hours.

 

Macdonald started weakly, according to those who were there, appearing ill and worn out by months of relentless crisis. But as he spoke, the witnesses said, he grew stronger and more vociferous, fueled no doubt by the steady supply of carafes of gin and water Commons pages delivered to Macdonald’s desk.

 

Macdonald defended the honour and integrity of himself and his government in awarding the railway contract, he expounded on the constant, shifting balancing act required to put Canada together and hold it together, he vilified Liberal conceit and deceit, he attacked his severest critics like the aforementioned hound Huntington (who had refused to testify before the Royal Commission), he ridiculed Liberal party organs like the Globe newspaper, and he sparred with and baited members of the opposition who took offence to what he said. And he did it all in a most entertaining way.

 

Like I said before, it’s a speech well worth reading. Here again is a link to the transcription of Macdonald’s speech and the debate, starting on Page 114.

 

Finally, in the early morning hours of Tuesday, Nov. 4, Macdonald concluded with these words:

 

Can any one believe that the Government is guilty of the charges made against them? I call upon any one who does to read that (Pacific Railway corporate) charter. Is there anything in that contract? If there is a word in that charter which derogates from the rights of Canada; if there is any undue privilege, or right, or preponderance given to any one of these 13 Directors, I say, Mr. Speaker, I am condemned. But, Sir, I commit myself, the Government commits itself, to the hands of this House, and far beyond the House, it commits itself to the country at large. (Loud cheers.) We have faithfully done our duty. We have fought the battle of Confederation. We have fought the battle of Union. We have had Party strife setting province against province, and more than all, we have had in the greatest province the preponderating province of the Dominion, every prejudice and sectional feeling that could be arrayed against us.

 

I have been the victim of that conduct to a great extent; but I have fought the battle of Confederation, the battle of Union, the battle of the Dominion of Canada. I throw myself upon this House; I throw myself upon this country; I throw myself upon posterity, and I believe that I know that, notwithstanding the many failings in my life, I shall have the voice of this county and this House rallying round me. (Cheers.) And, Sir, if I am mistaken in that, I can confidently appeal to a higher Court, to the Court of my own conscience, and to the Court of Posterity. (Cheers.)

 

I leave it with this House with every confidence. I am equal to either fortune. I can see cast the decision of this House either for or against me, but whether it be against me or for me I know, and it is no vain boast to say so, for even my enemies will admit that I am no boaster, that there does not exist in Canada a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or more of his intellect and power, such as it may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada. (The right hon. gentleman resumed his seat amid loud and long continued cheering.)

 

And the House went crazy, at least the Conservative side of the House. They  cheered and clapped and stomped and whooped and pounded the drained Macdonald on his back and jeered the opposition.

 

Then they all dragged themselves off to beds or taverns.

 

The next day Macdonald took stock of where things stood — and realized he had lost. He had not recouped enough support from those wavering Conservative backbenchers to hold off a Liberal vote of non-confidence.

 

So on Wednesday, Nov. 5, Macdonald went to the governor general and handed in his resignation as prime minister. He also offered to resign as leader of the Conservative party but was convinced to stay on by the vast majority of Conservative MPs still loyal to him.

 

Liberal Leader Alexander Mackenzie was appointed prime minister and promptly called an election for January 1874. The Liberals won a landslide victory and Sir John A. Macdonald was apparently consigned to the slag heap of history as a failure and venal abuser of power.

 

But history’s a funny thing — you can never depend on it to do what you expect.

 

Being bounced from office in November 1873 may have been the best thing that could have happened to Sir John A. Macdonald.

 

Because just as Alexander Mackenzie was taking the reins of power, the world was tumbling into a deep depression that lasted the better part of a decade. It began with the Panic of 1873 but became known as “the Great Depression” until an even greater depression in the 1930s stole the title.

 

By the time of the next Canadian federal election in 1878, Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberals were blamed for leading the country into such a sour economic state and Macdonald returned to power with as great a landslide of support as the Liberals won when they disposed of him in 1874.

 

Back in office, Macdonald got the moribund Canadian Pacific Railway project back on track with a new consortium of solid, experienced Canadian financial backers. And all thanks to Jay Cooke.

 

What? How did Jay Cooke get back into this?

 

For starters, Jay Cooke played a large part in starting the Panic of 1873 that triggered the Great Depression.

 

Cooke had overextended his bank in financing the Northern Pacific Railway. When the bank collapsed and Cooke was forced into bankruptcy, it caused a chain of other bank closures and the temporary shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange.

 

Much like the 2008-09 financial crisis, the bank failures coincided with a number of other contributing meltdown factors — continuing post-war inflation, a tightening money supply, a plunge in the price of silver and bad speculative investments (in railways) in the U.S. combined with the effects of the Franco-Prussian War and the failure of a number of Viennese financial institutions in Europe — to plunge the world into a long depression.

 

Then …

 

A couple of smart, successful cousins from Montreal bought Jay Cooke’s shares in the Northern Pacific Railway for pennies on the dollar and turned the American rail company into a roaring success before selling it for five times what they paid for it a few years later.

 

Then…

Cousins George Stephen and Donald Smith turned around and put together the syndicate that became the new Canadian Pacific Railway, chosen by John A. Macdonald to finish building the transcontinental rail link to B.C. And the cousins were smart enough to hire another hot-shot, go-getter U.S. railwayman, William Cornelius Van Horne, to get the job done — six years ahead of schedule.

Canadian-Pacific-locomotive

 

As for Jay Cooke, he regrouped, built a new fortune and died a wealthy man in his palatial mansion in 1905 at the ripe old age of 83.

 

And Sir John A. Macdonald? Old Tomorrow, the architect and builder of Canada, remained prime minister from his re-election in 1878 to his death at home in Ottawa in 1891. He was elected Prime Minister of Canada six times between 1867 and  1991.

Now that’s a Prime Minister, with a capital P and a capital M. And a scandal worth its salt.

What Canada-EU Free Trade Deal?

- October 20th, 2013

Canada-Europe

HAMBURG — Sorry, Canada, Europe’s just not that into you. In a commercial sense, I mean.

 

Most Europeans still have a dewy-eyed puppy love for Canada as a romantic idea (an emotional state which, surprisingly, is often reinforced by an actual visit to the place).

 

But moose-and-mountain-land as a major economic partner linked to Europe by a multi-billion-dollar/Euro free trade pact? That just does not compute over here. It’s like comparing iPhones and, er, BlackBerries.

 

Not only does it not compute, it barely ruffles the surface of public consciousness in Europe — despite Stephen Harper calling Friday’s announcement of a Europe-Canada free trade pact-in-principle  “historic” and “a big deal.”

ceta-logo

Well, it’s neither if you ask the average informed European. I’ve asked quite a few in Britain and Germany over the past couple of days about this supposed “big deal” and not one of them had an inkling any kind of “new era for the European Union and Canada” (quoting EU President Jose Manuel Barosso) had been brokered.

 

(Since much of the EU trade with Canada, apart from cheese and wine, involves either Britain or Germany, those are the countries most likely to be aware of any big international trade news.)

 

Granted, the whole thing still has to be debated and approved by Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories and by all 28 individual member states of the European Union and the European Parliament — a process expected to take a minimum of two years, probably longer — before the free-trade pact supposedly comes into effect in 2015. And it will be at least a decade before all the proposed clearing of trade tariffs and investment impediments is finished.

 

But still, for something that’s being heralded as the second coming of NAFTA in Canada, you’d think it would warrant more than a ho-hum passing notice buried in the business section on the BBC website (below “Fire burns tonnes of sugar in Brazil”) or a four-paragraph squib in Frankfurter Allgemeine.

 

The “big deal” doesn’t even make it onto the front pages of the UK, France or Deutschland editions of Google News.

 

The Brits are more interested in stories with headlines like “Monkeys take turns in conversation” and “Vote for Scottish independence is act of self-belief.” (So am I, come to think of it.)

 

As for France, Google Actualités is all about L’Affaire Leonarda, Quentin Tarantino and “Nice plonge l’OM dans le doute” (which seems to be about football rivalry between the neighbouring cities of Nice and Marseilles, not about a nice cleavage). Nary a mention on the homepage about “Cherchez le fromage Oka” or “Vite,  vite, wheat, wheat.”

Jian-Ghomeshi

Currently getting bigger play than the free-trade deal in German newspapers is a DPA news-service profile of CBC host-interviewer Jian Ghomeshi, who is dubbed “Superstar” and “der Coolster Kanadier” — the coolest Canadian. Ghomeshi’s civilized but firm showdown with über-jerk Billy Bob Thornton is cited, and his sympathetic but penetrating interviews with the likes of Drake, Joni Mitchell, J.K. Rowling and Woody Allen are lauded.

 

Stephen Harper would kill — and I mean that almost literally, he really might kill — to get such fawning, high-falutin’ praise in the German press. But Harper just isn’t getting the same love. Not by a long shot.

 

If you want to know what the Belgians, Czechs and Greeks think about the Canada-EU “big deal,” you’re going to have to look it up yourself. But I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find nothing — nada, rien, niente, niets, rud, zero, sifar, wala, zippity-do-dah, nothing — on their Google News pages either.

 

None of this shows ignorance or lack of awareness on Europe’s part: It simply reflects the reality of the situation.

 

While Harper trumpets that the European Union is Canada’s second-largest trading partner (far behind the U.S., of course, but a solid step ahead of China), it’s not an equal equation for Europe.

 

Canada is not the EU’s second-largest trading partner (China is, with the U.S. being No. 1), or third-largest (Russia) or fourth-largest or fifth-largest trade partner (Switzerland and Norway, which aren’t members of the EU).

 

Hell, we’re not even in the top 10 like Brazil and India.

 

We are … wait for it … the European Union’s 12th-largest trading partner, getting only 1.6% of Europe’s international trade attention.

 

Canada is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Singapore? Little, unforested, non-agricultural, mineral-free, non-BlackBerry-producing city-state Singapore did $65 billion worth of business with the EU in 2011, not that far behind the $74 billion worth of trade carried on between Europe and big, resource-rich, BlackBerry-producing Canada in the same year.

 

No wonder Europe was in no rush to cut a major trade deal with us. No wonder Stephen Harper had to bend and buckle so much to get his “big deal” pushed through while it still serves his purposes.

 

If you want to be an optimist — or Stephen Harper’s flack — you can look at this as providing a huge opportunity to gain market share: The sky’s the limit. If you want to be a realist, you can say Europe gets most of its wood from Scandinavia and Poland, most of its oil from Russia and the Mideast, and most of its wheat from France and Germany.

 

(Really. Canada is now a relative pipsqueak in terms of growing wheat, only the seventh largest producer of wheat in the world. France produced far more wheat than Canada in 2012, Germany produced almost as much, and the European Union as a whole produced five times as much wheat as Canada did in 2012. Did you really think all that Italian pasta you buy was made with Canadian wheat? If we didn’t have hockey-playing beavers and moose and mountains and American movie stars in Muskoka, if we didn’t have poutine and polar bears and Mayor Rob Ford and elephants in the Toronto Zoo [of course Rob Ford's not in the Toronto Zoo, silly ... but then neither are the elephants], we’d be almost bereft of a national identity these days. Oh, and BlackBerries, of course. We must never forget our BlackBerry heritage.)

hockey-playing-beaver

Of course, CETA (as those artful nerds and hipsters in the know call the free trade deal) will make some kind of difference to the Canada-Europe trade balance. But don’t be too sure that shift will be in Canada’s favour.

 

Europe already sells Canada a hell of a lot more stuff than it buys from us. Once BMWs and Volkswagens and Soaves and Cote du Rhones and prosciutto hams and Nike runners and Rolex watches and Kinder Surprise eggs (which are actually Italian, not German) and Birkenstocks and Prada diapers become cheaper on this side of the Atlantic, that imbalance may shift even further in Europe’s favour. Then, with all those extra loonies and toonies in their pockets, the Europeans can come over to Canada for cut-rate holidays and buy up any extra mineral-exploration and potash-producing companies and telecoms (hahahahahaha!) the Chinese and Singaporians have left lying around. Oh yeah, and it looks like they’ll be able to buy up Canadian water and infrastructure under the CETA deal, too.

 

The best thing about the deal, from my particular point of view, is that it will — theoretically — make European wines and cheeses more affordable and more widely available in Canada.

Wine_and_Cheese

That doesn’t make Canada’s vintners and dairy farmers very happy, but there is, after all, only so much Quebec cheddar and Niagara VQA baco noir you can consume before you shout, “Enough! Give me a wedge of Italian pecorino and a glass of Spanish tempranillo before I expire from ennui!”

 

Even when the Canada-EU deal is noted in Europe, very little mention is being made in the media of increased trade in wheat or potash (or pecorino or tempranillo) or the increased opportunities for Europeans to buy up Canadian corporate and natural assets. No, what’s really making the Europeans’ mouths water (if they know about the deal at all) is increased access to … Canadian steaks. Yep, they’ve got a real hankering for more — much more — of Alberta’s AAA prime beef.

Rindfleisch

“Wo is das Rindfleisch, Kanadier?” — “Where’s the beef, Jian Ghomeshi?” — Germans shout at me as I drive by with tiny, diplomat-sized Maple Leaf flags fluttering from stanchions on the front fenders of the Hispano-Suiza.

 

I just wave regally and make a great show of ripping up publicity photos of Billy Bob Thornton to vast, heaving swells of applause and cheers. Then I throw out free samples of surplus BlackBerries to sudden, oppressive silence.

Billy-Bob-Buffoon

Canada and Europe, friends forever, a united front — if only in our profound dislike of Billy Bob Thornton and sourness toward the BlackBerry. As for the trade issue, that will sort itself out in due course. It’s really not such a big deal.

Why Trudeau’s Alberta Comments Just Don’t Matter

- November 24th, 2012

Justin-Trudeau-handout

It was nice of Justin Trudeau to apologize for comments he made two years ago in a Quebec TV interview that “Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda. It doesn’t work.”

 

Of course, he wasn’t actually apologizing to Alberta (which wouldn’t really accept an apology from a guy named Trudeau anyway). He was apologizing through Alberta to voters in B.C. and Ontario and elsewhere who were hurt that nice young Justin would show any signs of divisiveness or latent (or not-so-latent) regional bigotry.

 

So he had to apologize if only to show everybody outside Alberta that he’s really a good guy and just sorta misspoke himself, saying “Alberta” when he meant to say “those rednecks in the Harper government (and their supporters).” I know, I know — it’s just a semantic difference (a third of Albertans don’t vote Conservative), but words hurt and Justin Trudeau had to show he’s not that kind of intolerant bully, kicking oil sand in poor little Alberta’s face.

 

Ostensibly, Trudeau’s apology (made in B.C., not Alberta, of course) was supposed to recoup some of the damage done to the supposedly surging campaign of Liberal candidate Harvey Locke in the Calgary Centre byelection being held on Monday.

 

Despite the little-engine-that-could storyline being promoted, it was doubtful Liberal Locke could pull off an upset over Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt — even before Dalton McGuinty’s evil brother David put the shiv in by telling oil-sands-shilling Tory MPs they should “go back to Alberta” and stop pretending to work for the interests of all Canadians in Ottawa.

 

Such towering tempests. Such tiny teapots.

 

Look, even if Liberal Locke managed to pull off the upset, it would give the Grits a grand total of ONE MP in Alberta. Couple that with the ONE MP the Liberals currently have in Saskatchewan and the ONE MP they have in Manitoba and you understand how completely irrelevant the Canadian landscape between the Ontario and B.C. borders is to the Liberal Party’s hopes of climbing out of the parliamentary root cellar in the next federal election (tentatively scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015).

 

No matter what happens over the next three years, the Liberals will be hard pressed to win more than five or six of the 56 parliamentary seats up for grabs in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in that election. The future of the Liberal Party of Canada will be fought for and won or lost on different battlefields than on those Plains of Stephen.

UPDATE: Because of redistribution based on the 2011 census, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will have 62 seats up for grabs in the 2015 election, not the 56 in play in the last federal election. More about this a little later, but the redistribution doesn’t change the basic electoral landscape.

 

It’s pretty much the same situation faced by the federal NDP, which I described in a blog post at the beginning of the summer entitled “Why NDP Leader’s Oil Sands Attack Is Smart Political Strategy.”

Tom-Mulcair

Thomas Mulcair had come under vicious political and media attack at the time for daring to suggest that the Harper government was mollycoddling the Alberta oil sands industry, was giving it an easy ride on carrying the full financial burden tied to the environmental legacy of oil sands development and was hurting other elements of the Canadian economy with an unrealistically strong Canadian dollar caused by the Alberta oil industry’s thusly discounted production costs.

 

All those points sound like the screeching of satan’s spawn to Albertans but could well find a receptive audience in other parts of Canada if the economic benefits of the oil sands are not felt strongly enough in non-Alberta regions of the country come October 2015.

 

Did I mention that the NDP currently has a grand total of THREE MPs in all of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba? The socialists have almost as little to lose as the Grits in the Prairies.

 

Given the audiences Mulcair will actually be trying to reach during the 2015 election campaign, an all-out attack on rich, arrogant, selfish, isolationist, unneighbourly Alberta and its  swamps of oil is probably an excellent strategy. With polishing and refinement, it will certainly be some part of the NDP election arsenal.

UPDATE: Electoral district redistribution based on the 2011 census will increase the number of ridings in the 2015 election to 338 from the 309 in last year’s election. The redistribution will give Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta more seats while leaving Atlantic Canada, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the territories with the same number they currently have. Ontario gets by far the biggest upward bump; Quebec the least. B.C. and Alberta each get six more ridings. I’ll give you the new numbers — with the current numbers in brackets — but the changes don’t affect the main thrust of the next few paragraphs which use the old numbers: 1.) The Liberals and NDP would like to increase their representation in the Prairies but both could still theoretically form a majority government without a single seat from Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba, and 2.) Ontario, more than ever, will be the battleground where the 2015 federal election is won or lost.

Here are the numbers: Atlantic Canada 32 (32), Quebec 78 (75), Ontario 121 (106), Manitoba 14 (14), Saskatchewan 14 (14), Alberta 34 (28), B.C. 42 (36). The three territories will continue to have 1 MP apiece.

 

When push comes to shove, Alberta’s 28 federal ridings will have absolutely no impact on how either the Liberals and the NDP fare in the next election.

 

B.C., by comparison, has 36 seats. Even if you add Saskatchewan’s 14 seats and Manitoba’s 14 seats to Alberta’s 28, the combined Prairie total of 56 seats hardly compares to Quebec’s 75 seats and is barely half of the 106 seats in Ontario.

 

The 32 seats in Atlantic Canada will likely split much as they did in the 2011 election (14 Conservative, 12 Liberal, 6 NDP) but even a strong surge one way or another won’t make a significant difference to the final standings.

 

The real battle for control of the Canadian government and for the future of Canada (and the future of the Liberal Party of Canada, for that matter) will be fought in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

 

So you can comfortably ignore the doomsayers proclaiming that Justin Trudeau has (perhaps) fatally wounded his Liberal leadership hopes by insulting Alberta. Alberta is meaningless to Trudeau’s fate in either the party leadership race or the general election of 2015. As I said before, he just has to make nice with people who hate his family name for the optical benefit of his real supporters elsewhere in Canada.

 

What Trudeau was actually doing in that 2010 Tele-Quebec TV interview was not Alberta bashing but sucking up to Quebec. Don’t forget: in 2010, Justin had only been an MP for two years, was still generally thought of as a green, elitist, protected boy by many political pros and voters inside Quebec and elsewhere.

 

That interview was part of Justin’s low-key, folksy campaign to prove himself a real Quebecois, a native son of Quebec and a regular guy able to joke around and take a tumble down a flight of stairs without missing a beat. Here’s another bit of that same interview on YouTube. It worked: Trudeau is now one politician most Quebecers would like to go out and share a beer and bowl of poutine with. After establishing his bona fides in Quebec, Justin took his genial charisma show on the road and has done an excellent job of charming the rest of Canada … even Alberta (or at least the third of Alberta that doesn’t vote Conservative through thick and thin).

 

The Liberal party machine is still in terrible disarray in Quebec, but Les Rouges have a much better chance of bouncing back with Justin Trudeau as their leader than with anyone else. They do have such a long way to go, though, with a sad little rump of only eight Quebec MPs now — almost as few as the Conservatives and Bloc (and the Bloc’s disastrous finish in the 2011 election just shows how quickly political fortunes can change).

 

Quebec is also going to be a major test for the NDP. It will be impossible for the socialists to hang on to the 58 Quebec seats that miraculously fell into their laps in 2011. How far they fall there will determine whether the NDP can challenge to be seen as a party capable of governing or whether they will be thrust back down to perpetual third-party status.

 

But (of course) Ontario is the greatest battleground with the greatest prizes to be won — or lost. With only 11 MPs in Ontario now, the Liberals fell the furthest but also have the most potential for making a huge rebound in 2015.

 

The real problem for both the Liberals and NDP is the vote-splitting that allowed the Conservatives to come up the middle in so many Ontario ridings.

 

So don’t worry about Justin Trudeau and his Alberta “problem.” He’ll do just fine, whatever Alberta thinks of him.

 

 

As for apologizing, I don’t recall ever hearing Stephen Harper apologize for his 2001 open letter to Ralph Klein urging the then-premier “to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”

Stephen-Harper-Grey-Cup

The future prime minister of Canada had so many nasty things to say about the federal government back in 2001:

 

In our view, the Chretien government undertook a series of attacks not merely designed to defeat its partisan opponents, but to marginalize Alberta and Albertans within Canada’s political system.

 

If the government in Ottawa concludes that Alberta is a soft target, we will be subjected to much worse than dishonest television ads. The Prime Minister has already signaled as much by announcing his so called “tough love” campaign for the West.

 

… a misguided and increasingly hostile government in Ottawa …

 

(T)he government in Ottawa will be tempted to take advantage of Alberta’s prosperity, to redistribute income from Alberta to residents of other provinces in order to keep itself in power.

 

Now read Justin Trudeau’s 2010 comment again:

 

“Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda. It doesn’t work.”

 

I really don’t see why Justin Trudeau should be apologizing for his remarks (he also said Quebecers make better prime ministers than Albertans — a funny, funny line) if Stephen Harper never apologized for his much harsher attack on All Parts Of Canada That Aren’t Alberta.

 

But then Justin Trudeau is a genuinely nice guy  — and knows some fights are just a complete waste of time and energy. Trudeau, me’thinks, has bigger fish to fry.

 

 

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

 

Here is the full text of the open letter Stephen Harper and five other Alberta academics and policy wonks sent to Ralph Klein demanding “firewalls” to protect Alberta from the heathen hordes of Other Canadians at the gate. I’ve boldfaced the sections from which I took the previously used quotes

“An Open Letter To Ralph Klein”

(published in The National Post on Jan. 24, 2001)

 

Dear Premier Klein:

 

During and since the recent federal election (Ed.: Jean Chretien won his third majority in the Nov. 27, 2000 election), we have been among a large number of Albertans

discussing the future of our province. We are not dismayed by the outcome of the election so much as by the strategy employed by the current federal government to secure its re-election. In our view, the Chretien government undertook a series of attacks not merely designed to defeat its partisan opponents, but to marginalize Alberta and Albertans within Canada’s political system.

One well-documented incident was the attack against Alberta’s health care system. To your credit, you vehemently protested the unprecedented attack ads that the federal government launched against Alberta’s policies – policies the Prime Minister had previously found no fault with.

However, while your protest was necessary and appreciated by Albertans, we believe that it is not enough to respond only with protests. If the government in Ottawa concludes that Alberta is a soft target, we will be subjected to much worse than dishonest television ads. The Prime Minister has already signaled as much by announcing his so called “tough love” campaign for the West.

We believe the time has come for Albertans to take greater charge of our own future. This means resuming control of the powers that we possess under the constitution of Canada but that we have allowed the federal government to exercise. Intelligent use of these powers will help Alberta build a prosperous future in spite of a misguided and increasingly hostile government in Ottawa.

Under the heading of the “Alberta Agenda,” we propose that our province move forward on the following fronts:

• Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan to create an Alberta Pension Plan offering the same benefits at lower cost while giving Alberta control over the investment fund. Pensions are a provincial responsibility under section 94A of the Constitution Act. 1867; and the legislation setting up the Canada Pension Plan permits a province to run its own plan, as Quebec has done from the beginning. If Quebec can do it, why not Alberta?

• Collect our own revenue from personal income tax, as we already do for corporate income tax. Now that your government has made the historic innovation of the single-rate personal income tax, there is no reason to have Ottawa collect our revenue. Any incremental cost of collecting our own personal income tax would be far outweighed by the policy flexibility that Alberta would gain, as Quebec’s experience has shown.

• Start preparing now to let the contract with the RCMP run out in 2012 and create an Alberta Provincial Police Force. Alberta is a major province. Like the other major provinces of Ontario and Quebec, we should have our own provincial police force. We have no doubt that Alberta can run a more efficient and effective police force than Ottawa can – one that will not be misused as a laboratory for experiments in social engineering.

• Resume provincial responsibility for health-care policy. If Ottawa objects to provincial policy, fight in the courts. If we lose, we can afford the financial penalties that Ottawa may try to impose under the Canada Health Act. Albertans deserve better than the long waiting periods and technological backwardness that are rapidly coming to characterize Canadian medicine. Alberta should also argue that each province should raise its own revenue for health care – i.e., replace Canada Health and Social Transfer cash with tax points as Quebec has argued for many years. Poorer provinces would continue to rely on Equalization to ensure they have adequate revenues.

• Use section 88 of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Quebec Secession Reference to force Senate reform back onto the national agenda. Our reading of that decision is that the federal government and other provinces must seriously consider a proposal for constitutional reform endorsed by “a clear majority on a clear question” in a provincial referendum. You acted decisively once before to hold a senatorial election. Now is the time to drive the issue further. All of these steps can be taken using the constitutional powers that Alberta now possesses. In addition, we believe it is imperative for you to take all possible political and legal measures to reduce the financial drain on Alberta caused by Canada’s tax-and-transfer system. The most recent Alberta Treasury estimates are that Albertans transfer $2,600 per capita annually to other Canadians, for a total outflow from our province approaching $8 billion a year. The same federal politicians who accuse us of not sharing their “Canadian values” have no compunction about appropriating our Canadian dollars to buy votes elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Premier, we acknowledge the constructive reforms that your government made in the 1990s – balancing the budget, paying down the provincial debt, privatizing government services, getting Albertans off welfare and into jobs, introducing a single-rate tax, pulling government out of the business of subsidizing business, and many other beneficial changes. But no government can rest on its laurels. An economic slowdown, and perhaps even recession, threatens North America, the government in Ottawa will be tempted to take advantage of Alberta’s prosperity, to redistribute income from Alberta to residents of other provinces in order to keep itself in power. It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.

Once Alberta’s position is secured, only our imagination will limit the prospects for extending the reform agenda that your government undertook eight years ago. To cite only a few examples, lower taxes will unleash the energies of the private sector, easing conditions for Charter Schools will help individual freedom and improve public education, and greater use of the referendum and initiative will bring Albertans into closer touch with their own government.

The precondition for the success of this Alberta Agenda is the exercise of all our legitimate provincial jurisdictions under the constitution of Canada. Starting to act now will secure the future for all Albertans.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen HARPER, President, National Citizens’ Coalition;

Tom FLANAGAN, professor of political science and former Director of Research, Reform

Party of Canada;

Ted MORTON, professor of political science and Alberta Senator-elect; Rainer KNOPFF, professor of political science;

Andrew CROOKS, chairman, Canadian Taxpayers Federation;

Ken BOESSENKOOL, former policy adviser to Stockwell Day, Treasurer of Alberta.

 

* This letter represents the personal views of its authors and not those of any organizations with which they are or have been connected.

Why Trudeau Is The Smartest Man In Canada

- September 27th, 2012

justin-trudeau-reuters

 

I swore to myself I wasn’t going to write about Trudeau — probably ever, certainly not now in the run-up to his coronation as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

 

So many other people are writing so many words about him right now — hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people writing millions of words — that I felt there was no need for me to write any words at  all. All would have been said before I got my two cents in.

 

I lied. To myself, of course, because I never actually told anyone else I wasn’t going to write about Trudeau. But it’s just too hard to resist. Everyone I’ve talked to in the past two days has some opinion — usually strong and sometimes multiple, contradictory opinions — about Trudeau.

 

So I’m writing about him for the same reason that everyone is talking about him at the moment — he’s interesting. His (unannounced) candidacy for the Liberal leadership is the most exciting thing to happen to Ottawa since St. Jack Layton led the NDP to the Promised Land — the Official Opposition — in the last federal election.

 

There is a buzz and electricity about Trudeau at the moment that no other politician in Canada currently has. You can’t buy that or manufacture it or negotiate it or finagle it. It’s there straight-up or it isn’t. And Trudeau has it in spades.

 

He hasn’t always had it (at least we haven’t been aware he’s had it). It’s something that has grown and developed in the past 17 months since the May 2011 federal election put what seemed like the final nail in the coffin of the old, worn-out Liberal Party of Canada.

 

Even during that election, Trudeau was seen by most people as the charming and handsome but lightweight and inexperienced heir to the most polarizing political family name in Canada.

 

Of the many disparaging tags tied to Trudeau since he first ran for Parliament in 2008, my personal favourite is “Teenage Jesus.” It nicely summed up the whole package of negative opinion about him — young, privileged, earnest but a little goofy, shallow and basically just a slacker getting an easy ride because of his family name and connections.

 

But things have changed.

 

If, in May 2011, I had written the name “Trudeau” almost anyone reading that word would immediately think of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the 15th prime minister of Canada. His sons and his ex-wife might trail along as afterthoughts.

 

In this entire piece I have not so far used the name “Justin” once, only “Trudeau.” And I’m willing to bet the mental image that most people have had in their minds when seeing the word “Trudeau” is now Justin, the son, not Pierre, the memory.

 

Justin Trudeau has come of age. He’s taking over the family business — and name.

 

Win or lose in the next federal general election on (theoretically) Oct. 19, 2015, he’s making the right decision by running for the leadership of the fading, confused, broken Liberal Party of Canada now.

 

Why?

 

Because now is Trudeau’s time. Because there will be no Liberal Party of Canada left to lead after the next election if the Liberals don’t turn the tide of decline that’s gutted them in the past decade. (If the Liberals flatline again in 2015, the NDP will eventually take them over much as Reform took over the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada after the PC debacle of the 1990s.)

 

And because Trudeau has nothing to lose either. Most people (even his ardent supporters) expect that Trudeau will be chewed up and spit out in parliamentary debate by that heartless, steel-eyed Machiavellian schemer Stephen Harper. Whether they verbalize it or not, most people expect that a Liberal Party led by young, green Justin Trudeau will be outmanoeuvred, out-organized and out-dirtied by the well-oiled, ruthless, veteran Conservative Party war machine.

 

Don’t count on it — in either case.

 

A big step in the changing public perception of Justin Trudeau came with his surprise victory in a charity boxing match against Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau on March 31 of this year.

 

We learned that he could take a punch and also dish it out. He won on a TKO in the third round. It was an unexpected conclusion and elevated many people’s assessment of Trudeau’s guts and stamina even though it was just a charity punch-up.

 

More telling than the outcome, however, was Trudeau’s analysis of the situation going into the confrontation.

 

Here’s what Trudeau told Maclean’s magazine writer John Geddes back in February 2012  as he was preparing for the fight against Brazeau:

 

“We actually weigh pretty much the same. My reach is significantly larger than his. The way things have been set up is everybody is convinced that this black belt in karate (Brazeau) with massive arms is going to clean up the pretty boy (Trudeau), because he grew up in the mean streets of Maniwaki and I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, you know? That’s what everyone says, right? So as it stands I can’t lose. Even if I do actually lose I know I will have gone in and people said, ‘Well, there wasn’t a chance anyway.’

 

“Neither of us have ever actually been in a boxing match before. I’ve trained in boxing all my life, my dad taught me how to box early, and through my twenties I trained at various sorts of rough gyms in Montreal, mostly as just a way of keeping in shape. I even boxed out in Vancouver for a while. But I never stepped it up to full-on sparring, or even a real bout. Pat’s been talking quite openly about the fact that he plans on taking me down early. I expect him to come in very hard, very fast. I plan on allowing him to, because I can take a lot, and use my jab to try and keep him at a distance, and out-think him.”

 

All in all, it was an astute assessment of the situation and a game plan that ended in an upset victory. Perhaps even more tellingly, it’s a good indication how well Trudeau is served by his opponents underestimating his ability, determination and intelligence.

 

Justin Trudeau freely admits that he doesn’t have his father’s ferocious intellectual fire: He acknowledges that he often leads with his heart. But he is smart, perceptive and engaged.

 

He’s also been in Parliament substantially longer than his father was before PET became Liberal leader and prime minister in 1968. As with many other aspects of his resume, Justin Trudeau’s “inexperience” is overplayed by his condescending critics — including me.

 

And he really does have charisma. Not the flukey brand of Trudeaumania his father rode into the PMO in 1968, although that could come over the next two years.

 

Justin Trudeau is a genuinely warm, appealing and very likeable person. People are drawn to him and enjoy his company immensely, no matter what their party affiliation.

 

He has decided that now is his time, despite the daunting odds facing the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Much like his fight against Brazeau, Trudeau has decided he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

 

And it’s a very freeing position to be in. The various factions and power bases of the Liberal Party of Canada know they are probably screwed in the next federal election without a major dynamic shift. The disasters of the Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff eras have ensured that Trudeau will pretty much get to call his own shots once he wins the leadership.

 

It’s probably impossible that anyone named Trudeau can ever again become prime minister of Canada, given the undying animosity against the family name in Western Canada and the divisive legacy of his father’s fight against separatism in Quebec.

 

But a Trudeau as leader gives the Liberal Party a fighting chance in Ontario and the Maritimes and a solid base in Quebec, all things that might not be true if a Trudeau wasn’t leader.

 

If he continues to surprise his friends and confound his enemies, Trudeau could actually pull off some kind of Rocky triumph. If that happened, I think Justin Trudeau would probably be an unmitigated disaster as prime minister. But that’s so far away from happening, I think we should just enjoy the ride for a while and see where it takes us.

 

The biggest pitfall that Trudeau has to face is the length of time until the next federal election in 2015 and the length of time until the next leader of the Liberal Party is formally chosen in April 2013.

 

That’s a long time in which we can all get mightily bored of Justin Trudeau.

 

The good thing is that I think Trudeau can stand up to the scrutiny and mind-numbing repetition of a long-haul political process, whether it be a leadership race or an actual election as leader.

 

The more we see and hear of Trudeau, the more he steps out from his father’s shadow, the more he takes chances and pushes boundaries, the more I think we’ll like him.

 

He may not be the saviour of the Liberal Party of Canada, but he’s no longer “Teenage Jesus.”

 

And Trudeau as Liberal leader makes the whole political process fun to watch again. It was getting kinda grey and monotonous. I can’t wait for the first time Justin Trudeau calls Stephen Harper a “piece of sh–” in the House of Commons.

Stephen Harper Is A Druid

- March 25th, 2011

Of course he isn’t (he’s not, is he?) and that’s the point I’m trying to make.

I don’t know Steve’s religious affiliation (although I’m going to take a wild flyer and guess some Protestant denomination, maybe with a whiff of evangelism, maybe not). I doubt most Canadians know — or really care — what religious hook Harper hangs his hat on either.

Same goes for Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe and Elizabeth May.

Unlike the United States, politics and religion are not irrevocably intertwined in Canada.

A U.S. politician could never be elected president without espousing a deep and abiding belief in (some form of) a Christian God, although a surprising number of Americans seem to believe Barack Obama´s Christian church-going is just a beard for his inner Muslim.

I can’t place my hands on it at the moment, but I know a survey was done in the past decade that determined a majority of Canadians would vote for a proclaimed atheist as prime minister if they supported his or her socio-political agenda. Would not, could not happen in the U.S.

Here´s where this whole thing is going:

A study presented this week to a meeting of the scientific body American Physical Society looked at a century´s worth of census data from nine countries — including Canada — that have been collecting information on residents´religious affiliation during that time frame.

Along with Canada, the other countries examined in the study by researchers from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University are: Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

The point of the study was to use a mathematical model to determine the role religion played/plays/will play in the social dynamic of those countries´past, present and future.

The conclusion: God may not be dead, but organized religion is certainly dying in all those nine countries.

I think we all sensed that, to one degree or another, but this APS study draws an even more dramatic conclusion, mathematically speaking:

“The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction,” the study said.

The driving force in all this is, apparently, “What´s in it for me?”

The more important role religion plays in society (the broader and deeper its reach into the daily practices of society), the more people see a real personal benefit in belonging to that religion and publicly identifying with it.

Historically, political, social and religious power have always intermingled.

The Egyptian pharaohs found it useful to declare themselves gods on earth; medieval European nobility saw  little difference in being princes of the church or of the court (and both left just as many children behind them); rulers have always said that God made them kings or told them to kill the kings; and 100 years ago you couldn´t do business on Bay Street, Main Street or in the mayor’s office unless you were also doing your business, so to speak, in the church presbytery, synod, Knights of Columbus or Masons. Let´s not even get into Iran´s current theocracy.

As the temporal benefit of religious affiliation has declined over the past century, so too have the numbers of people declaring a religious affiliation on their census forms in the nine countries studied. And as the overall numbers — and influence — decline, there is increasingly less inclination among the unaffiliated to join the crowd. Or more inclination to join the unaffiliated crowd: “No, no, I´m hip, really. Religion? Wot dat?”

That’s the thesis, anyway, and it seems to be borne out in the study.

“We tried to quantify . . . that the perceived utility of non-affiliation is greater than the perceived utility of belonging to a religion,” said Richard Weiner, one of the chief authors of the study. “That effect is enough to start driving people to the group that’s non-affiliated, and then as more people become non-affiliated, that makes the (non-affiliated) group more attractive … People no longer see the slate of benefits as being as great as they probably did 100 years ago. It’s become less socially useful.”

So religion is dying on its feet — at least in the nine European and Western countries examined in the census study.

I like the comment posted by one reader of the BBC’s online coverage of this story:

“I don’t see the decline of religion to be a particularly bad thing. And I say this as a Born-Again follower of Jesus. To me, relationship with God is so much more.

“Religion implies strict rules and rituals which must be followed in order to gain some kind of benefit or reward at the end. This may appear a good thing but history has proven all too often that religion is an excuse to fight.”

Personally, I don’t  think religion is so much dying as it is diffusing and defusing (despite the incindiary nature of fundamentalism, which ebbs and flows in different religions at different times).

Human beings need — and enjoy — ritual and, within bounds, rules. Whether it’s a Santa Claus parade, a royal wedding, a new dance move or texting etiquette, we like to have some formalized structure in our lives, something bigger than ourselves but still a part of us, something expansive that we can understand, practice (and practise) and can share with others.

For my part, I think it matters far more that God — if there is one — believes I exist than it matters whether I believe He/She/They/It/Thou exists.

God bless and good luck, earthlings.