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Final Judgment is Always History’s to Make

14 Sep

The most memorable moment of Martin Scorcese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York” – generally not one of the acclaimed director’s most memorable films – comes in the final minute before the closing credits.

The film – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis – mostly takes place in the now-gone Five Points slum of Lower Manhattan during the time of the American Civil War. It depicts the vicious and gory turf wars between “nativist” Protestant and Irish Catholic immigrant gangs in the unrecognizable pre-metropolis New York City of that long-ago era.

The story culminates in a violent battle among gang members set against the backdrop of the bloody New York Draft Riots of 1863, during which hundreds of people were killed, many buildings were burned to the ground, racial violence flared, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sent in troops to bring the city under control.

At the very end of the movie, as one character’s narration describes how the city was born of “blood and tribulation” and laments how everything he once knew had been swept away and he and his confrères forgotten, the camera lingers on a shot of the graves of two other characters in a cemetery across the East River from a burning Manhattan.

In a series of time-lapse shots lasting less than 60 seconds on film but representing the passage of almost 150 years, we watch the gravestones deteriorate and disappear, the cemetery transformed into a barren field, and the city in the distance grow into the familiar modern metropolis we recognize today.

The scene is a poignant depiction of the power of time to blunt memories and to turn powerful events that seem of great importance to those living through them into hazy half-forgotten historical footnotes.

At the end of the movie, the twin towers of the World Trade Center are briefly glimpsed on a spot where a minute earlier, smoke swelled from the 1863 riots. The film was made not long after the 2001 attacks that brought the towers down, so seeing them in this context is striking.

This month, the tenth anniversary of the 9 / 11 attacks has provoked countless reports, memorials, and public and private thoughts about the meaning of the event, and how it changed our world and defined our era.

There is no question that 9 / 11 did those things. All of us old enough to remember that day will forever remember what we were doing when the airplanes hit the towers. And so many of the major international developments of the past ten years have origins in the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.

It feels odd that it has already been ten years since then, because the attacks still have such a visceral resonance to so many of us who remember that day, how it unfolded and what came after.

In the broad sweep of history, though, there is no way for us to know now what its resonance will be. It all depends what happens next and what happens after that, and so on and so on. That’s how history works.

Will 9 / 11 be seen as a major turning point in world history or will it fade from memory in centuries to come as did the New York Draft riots of 1863? None of us will be around long enough to know, but it is worth contemplating.

Another example, closer in memory and certainly a Canadian – rather than a worldwide – historical event: The death from cancer of NDP Leader Jack Layton this past summer.

If Layton had passed away half a year before he did, it would have been no less tragic – a dynamic and prominent political leader taken down too young. But it was surely how he lived out the final months of his life – whether or not he had any definite sense of his looming mortality – that provoked the mass outpouring of genuine grief and lament for what could have been in the days following his death.

However you viewed his politics, there is no doubt Layton went out with a bang, almost singlehandedly altering the dynamics of Canadian politics by taking the party he led for eight years from fourth place in the House of Commons to Official Opposition and ending the generation-long dominance of the Bloc Québecois in Quebec federal politics.

But it’s too early to judge whether or not those final months of Layton’s life changed Canadian history in a lasting way. Only history itself will be able to judge that.

Election Matters… Elections Matter

4 May

Do you remember, just before the recent federal election, when I predicted – on this very blog – the following scenarios?:

* I predicted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would run a plodding, repetitive, bubble-like campaign, highlighted by an almost daily parade of negative news headlines and mini-scandals, in which he would answer almost every question posed to him with a rote warning that the country faced dire consequences unless voters elected a stable, secure, national, majority Conservative government. I wrote that on Election Day, Canadians would give his party exactly what he asked for, thanks mostly to voters in the Greater Toronto area.

* I predicted that NDP Leader Jack Layton, fresh from hip surgery and a bout with cancer, would fire up the imaginations of voters with the sheer force of his personality and with campaign speeches that spoke of the “winds of change”. I foretold that those winds would carry him right into the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, thanks mostly to the province of Quebec, which would elect almost 60 neophyte NDP MPs to the next Parliament – more than half of the NDP’s new caucus, and more seats than they had ever won before.

* I predicted that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would run a high-energy but ultimately fruitless campaign that would lead his party to its worst-ever electoral result, that it would be reduced to third party status in the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history, and that Ignatieff would lose his own Toronto-area seat and resign as leader the morning after the election. In fact, I predicted that the Liberal Party would lose most of the Toronto-area ridings that it held for six election campaigns and almost two decades.

* I predicted that after two decades dominating federal politics in Quebec, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe would run an increasingly desperate campaign that would lead his party into political oblivion, that the Bloc would be reduced to a rump of four seats, lose official party status in the House of Commons and that Duceppe would also lose his own seat and announce the end of his political career on election night. I also noted that the Bloc’s historic defeat would likely come at the hands of a New Democratic Party that had never had more than a single Quebec MP in the House of Commons at any one time, and whose successful candidates would include a 19-year-old university student and an anglophone Ottawa bartender who spent more of the campaign in Las Vegas than in her rural francophone riding.

* Finally, I predicted that – although her party would earn a smaller percentage of the popular vote than it did in the last election, and she would be excluded from the televised leader debates – Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would make history by becoming the first-ever member of that party to win a seat in the House of Commons, that she would unseat a veteran cabinet minister, and that she would be returning to Ottawa as the MP for Saanich – Gulf Islands, British Columbia.

I predicted all of these things. I really did.

You saw that old blog post of mine, didn’t you? I must have lost the link…

If not, you’ll just have to take my word that I saw everything coming all along.

Or maybe you should take note of the short sentence that opened up John Duffy’s 2002 book, “Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada”.

“Elections matter,” Duffy wrote.

When the 2011 federal election began, nobody could have foreseen what the results would be, even though many people – myself included – figured the most likely outcome would be roughly the status quo: A Conservative minority government, a Liberal official opposition, a few dozen NDP MPs, the Bloc continuing its hold on most Quebec ridings, and the resumption of what had been almost seven years of volatile minority political wrangling, machinations, and brinkmanship.

What happened instead was the biggest sea change in Canadian federal politics in recent memory. In one night, for better or worse, Canadian voters put Stephen Harper into the history books as one of the most successful and longest-serving Conservative Prime Ministers in history (assuming he serves out his full mandate), gave the NDP an unprecedented influence, probably destroyed the Bloc Quebecois entirely, and put in grave doubt the future of the Liberal Party of Canada – the most successful 20th Century political party in the Western democratic world.

Elections matter indeed.

Election drumbeats and flag waves

24 Jan

This past weekend, inside an Ottawa convention centre, the Prime Minister of Canada stood in front of the biggest Canadian flag this side of Canada Day, at a podium bearing a placard with a single word in large white letters:

“Canada”.

To a crowd of hundreds of supporters waving smaller Canadian flags, there to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his government’s first election victory, Stephen Harper spoke of the people “who are the foundations of Canada”:

“The truck driver. The bank teller. The pensioner. The salesperson. The farmer, the fisherman. The entrepreneur, the autoworker. The tradesperson and the soldier… Whoever has the honor to lead them must care about them and must love Canada as much as they do.”

No mention of Canada-loving college professors or patriotic performance artists. But never mind…

The same weekend as Harper was giving his anniversary speech, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was wrapping up an 11-day tour of 20 ridings across Canada that his party thinks it can win from other parties.

“Canadians are entitled to ask, ‘are you better off than you were five years ago,’ “ Ignatieff said at the outset of his tour. “Is the economy stronger and is Canada more respected in the world? And I think the answers to all of those questions is no.”

NDP leader Jack Layton was on a cross-country tour of his own.

“If an election comes, New Democrats will be ready to go,” Layton said in Vancouver. “But until then, we’re asking Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to work with us to get some results for Canadians right now.”

To underline the election-readiness half of that double-barreled message, the NDP offered reporters a “sneak peak at their new cutting-edge election headquarters” in Ottawa. A few days earlier, a reporter obtained and published an internal NDP memo declaring the party “prepared to wage an aggressive federal election campaign at any time”.

Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal parties released campaign-style attack ads.

The two Liberal ads were both aimed at the Prime Minister, painting him as more interested in fighter jets and corporate tax cuts than in the concerns of ordinary Canadians, and asking “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s?”

The Conservatives had several different ads attacking each of the other major party leaders, although Ignatieff was targeted more than others.

“Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you,” declared the Conservative ads, which described the Leader of the Official Opposition as a tax-and-spend liberal with a dubious commitment to his home country, similar to earlier attack ads that claimed Ignatieff was “just visiting” Canada after many years abroad.

So… are you ready for an election campaign? Or maybe you kinda feel we’re already into one.

Or maybe you’d rather not even think about it even a little bit. If that’s the case, you’re probably in the majority.

And maybe you won’t really have to think about it at all. Because it all could be a bluff.

In a minority Parliament, parties are always in election mode, ready to hit the campaign trail at any moment. And we’ve now had minority Parliaments in this country for more than 6.5 straight years. That’s a Canadian record, if you’re keeping score.

Over that time we’ve had a number of near-elections. Remember Belinda Stronach crossing the floor to help save Paul Martin’s minority government? Remember Stéphane Dion repeating over and over again how he had the power to pull the plug on Harper’s government… until finally Harper decided to pull it himself? Remember when Ignatieff announced, “Mr. Harper, your time is up?”

Ignatieff’s announcement came more than 17 months ago. No, there hasn’t been an election since then.

If there is an election this year, it likely will be triggered by a defeat of the federal budget sometime before the end of March. Any later than that and a federal election will come up against a number of already scheduled provincial elections, including Ontario’s.

Of course, all it will take to avoid an election will be a single opposition party deciding it is in its interest to prop up the government for another while longer.

But if this latest not-quite-an-election period is any indication, we already have a sense of how the next real campaign will unfold:

It will get personal. There will be flag waving. And if poll numbers (which have remained relatively consistent in the five years since Harper’s first election victory) don’t move much during the campaign, then we’re looking at many more record months of minority Parliament.

The NDP: What Might Have Been…

12 May

In the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics, we are into the fifth month in power of the current coalition government, led by that most unexpected of Prime Ministers, Stéphane Dion.

The reviews are mixed. The controversial way the government took power has divided Canadians along geographic and partisan lines. It’s also still unclear how well its fiscal plan will help alleviate the country’s economic crisis. But on the foreign affairs front, Dion’s good relationship with like-minded American President Barack Obama has had a positive effect on our country’s relations with the United States, with new bilateral agreements in the works.

Of course, the government has been helped immensely by the complete chaos on the opposition benches. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is facing open internal revolt over his leadership, after letting power slip from his hands into those of Dion, mere weeks after the Tory election victory. The Official Opposition has been giving the government a much freer ride than expected, as it sorts through its own divisions and ponders its newly shaky future.

For their part, Bloc Québécois MPs have been absolute pussycats, content to bask in the glow of their success in helping to bring this new government into being, and showing no sign of breaking the agreement that will keep the coalition in power – and the Bloc in its influential kingmaker role – for many months to come.

As for New Democrats, they have never been in a better political position, experiencing Parliament from the government benches for the first time in party history. NDP leader Jack Layton, Dion’s prominent Industry Minister, is up every day in the House of Commons answering questions about his sweeping auto industry bailout. Layton is enjoying unprecedented influence in Canadian politics and heightened attention from news media, while the NDP learns lessons about the discipline of power that will serve it well in election campaigns to come.

Okay… it’s not called the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics for nothing.

Back here in our own dimension, things have unfolded quite differently over the past few months. Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister and maintains a firm grip on the Conservative Party, despite that party’s precipitous drop in the polls.

Stéphane Dion is long gone, replaced as Liberal leader by Michael Ignatieff, who put the kibosh to the coalition and saw his party’s popularity rise above the Tories’.

As for Jack Layton… well… what happened to Layton anyhow?

To some extent, every party leader rolled the dice somewhat during the coalition drama last fall. But it was the New Democrats who arguably had the most to gain – a place in government for the first time ever – and who also took the biggest risk in pushing for a coalition.

The idea, in fact, was hatched by the NDP, and Layton was its most emphatic proponent.

“Prime minister, your government has lost the confidence of the House,” Layton said on the day the coalition agreement was signed, “and it is going to be defeated at the earliest opportunity.”

That, of course, wasn’t to be.

In the fallout from the coalition’s collapse, some observers say the NDP has become somewhat marginalized in national politics. It is down in the polls, with a diminished role in Parliament. This despite the fact that Ignatieff has moved the Liberals farther to the right, theoretically leaving more room for New Democrats on the left side of the political spectrum.

“The New Democrat caucus tried to do a big thing – tried to replace the government. And it didn’t happen,” said NDP strategist Brian Topp in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. “Undertakings that don’t succeed don’t build support.”

So what will rebuild support for the New Democrats? Some suggest a return to the party’s more traditional role as a principled opposition voice from the left. The eternal conundrum for NDPers, of course, is to what extent they should play the political game at the expense of compromising their principles. In the last election, Layton played power politics, explicitly running for Prime Minister.

But despite Layton’s modest electoral success in comparison to his predecessors, some think the party has been more influential as a kind of pressure group from the opposition benches, rather than as a pretender to the throne. There are even some whisperings that for the party to move forward, Layton may have to step down.

It’s a far cry from the alternate universe that might have been, where flowers grow high, the sun always shines, and New Democrats sit in cabinet.

The Legend of Iggy the Liberal

28 Apr

A long, long time ago, not far from a river, close to a park, in a great big house called Stornoway, there lived a tall, thin man named Stéphane. He was the Leader of the Liberals.

It was a nice big house. It had a beautiful yard for his dog, Kyoto. And lots of closet space. And a cook. But Stéphane wanted to live down the road, in an even bigger house, with an even bigger yard, even closer to the river.

So he asked the people of the land to vote for his party. And for something called a Green Shift. And if all went according to plan, and if enough people liked him and his shift, and voted for his party, Stéphane would soon be packing up his bags and his dog, and maybe even his cook. And he’d be heading down to that bigger house by the river.

But the people didn’t really understand Stéphane’s Green Shift. They didn’t always really understand Stéphane himself, truth be told. Not nearly enough people liked him and his party. And not nearly enough people voted for him.

So he called a press conference and announced he was leaving his house for a different, smaller house, and he would let someone else from his party come live in Stornoway. But not for a long, long time.

Soon enough, though, Stéphane made one last risky bid for a move into the big house by the river. With the help of a shorter, balder, smiling man named Jack, and the support of another tall man named Gilles, Stéphane made an unexpected grab for power. And if it wasn’t for that meddling Governor-General, and a wonky video camera, it just might have worked.

But it didn’t work, and the people weren’t happy with Stéphane. They told the pollsters of the land that they liked his party even less than before. And the Liberals weren’t happy with Stéphane, and they convinced him to take his dog and banish himself from Stornoway forever.

The cook stayed behind to make meals for Stéphane’s replacement. It was another tall, thin man who hoped to move into the bigger house down by the road near the river. The new man was called Iggy,

Everyone knew Iggy wanted Stéphane’s job for a long time. He had been the runner-up to Stéphane in the last contest for the leadership of his party. But back then, Iggy was seen as too new, too divisive, too prone to gaffes, too snooty, and too unfamiliar with the land he wanted to lead because he had lived for many years in another kingdom far, far away over the sea.

But times had changed, and maybe Iggy had, too. He had developed a more common touch. He had become more adept at playing the games of politics. He had tasted a lot of rubber chicken and shaken a lot of hands in every fiefdom across the land.

Rivals for the succession – a sandy-haired man named Bob and a stocky young man named Dominic – stepped aside and gave Iggy a clear path to the leadership, not to mention the front-door keys to Stornoway, with its vast closet space, and its big yard, and its short distance from that bigger house down the road.

Soon, it grew darker across the land. Tradesmen began losing their jobs. Commerce became more difficult to practice. The treasuries faced great challenges. The Prime Minister of the land – who lived in that bigger house so coveted by Stéphane and Iggy – grew more and more unpopular.

The people told the pollsters of the land that they liked Iggy more and more. Soon he was just as popular as the Prime Minister himself.

But questions remained:

Was Iggy’s party really a national party anymore – did people all across the land support it enough, or was it only popular in select fiefdoms?

Were Iggy’s leadership and the Prime Minister’s fumbles enough for the party to rebuild, or was the prospect of power preventing the Liberals from conducting serious reflection about what they stood for?

What did Iggy stand for? His critics said he stood for whatever the last voter he spoke to wanted him to stand for. And then he stood for other things when he spoke to other voters.

The people across the land reserved judgment. The Liberals remained hopeful. And Iggy sat in Stornoway, plotting his next moves, and keeping his eye on the bigger house down the road by the river.

Anything can happen in Canadian politics… who’da thunk it?

3 Dec

So how’s it going to end?

Will the Conservative government fall and be replaced by a Liberal/NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québecois?

Will Stephen Harper manage to prorogue Parliament and live to be Prime Minister for a little while longer?

Will we end up with our fourth election in 4.5 years and our second in three months? Or will a best-of-five coin flip decide on who gets to govern?

Or maybe Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will declare “off with their heads” and end up ruling by decree…

Here’s something to contemplate:

Anything can happen in Canadian politics.

That’s not a sentiment you hear too often from too many quarters. But after five days of things happening in Canadian politics that no one would have ever predicted, and with the prospect of another five days or five weeks or five months or so of unpredictable things happening in Canadian politics… well… that’s something to contemplate…

Here’s another interesting thing. Yesterday was exactly two years to the day that Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

And those two years may go down in history as some of the worst two years ever experienced by a leader of a major federal party in Canada.

They seemed to have culminated in a disastrous campaign and election loss this past October, which seemed to have sealed Dion’s fate as leader.

Here’s how I described it last month:

“Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills…”

Shows how much I know.

Well, I was probably right on the political skills part. But I may have been wrong on the second chance.

My crystal ball is as bad as anyone’s who claims to have one, but it looks as if Dion has about a 50-50 chance of shedding his likely epitaph of “Only the second Liberal leader in history never to become Prime Minister” and gaining one that reads “23rd Prime Minister of Canada”.

With an asterisk, of course, because he will be gone as Liberal leader next May whether or not he is also PM.

And then there is the matter of the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada.

As I write, Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, and is using “every legal means at his disposal” to keep from losing the job. Will he succeed? People have lost money underestimating the man.

But no matter what happens to Harper going forward, this entire incident may have critically wounded his political career, the success of which depended on a reputation for competent management and serious purpose.

The wound was self-inflicted.

When Harper won a second minority mandate following an election this fall that many thought was unnecessary, his marching orders seemed clear:

Drop the extreme partisan shtick and get down to the serious work of governing this country through a looming economic crisis.

That’s what he said he was prepared to do on election night. And his statesmanlike tone continued into the opening of Parliament.

But on the major challenge of the day, the international economic crisis, he dropped the ball in what could be a history-changing way.

An economic update to set the agenda for dealing with the crisis instead became an opportunity for partisan political gamesmanship, which only succeeded in uniting opposition parties against the government.

And so an economic crisis begat a political crisis, which begat a constitutional crisis, which may have begat a national unity crisis in both Quebec and the West.

Harper may survive in the short term. But he will come out of this one way or another as a weakened leader, his political future uncertain in a way that was unimaginable just a few days ago.

***

Programming note: If you are looking for a more in-depth look at all of the twists and turns of the ongoing Canadian political crisis, you could do worse that have a look or listen to an hour-long televised discussion I co-produced on Monday night. But you should tune in soon. At the pace that developments are developing, what gets discussed one night may be out of date by the next morning.

 

 

Kicking Ass in Post-Partisan Politics

11 Nov

A friend of mine used to be a major partisan of a major political party.

Come election time, there were few lawn signs bigger than his. He would tirelessly canvas for his chosen candidate and take it pretty hard if that candidate did not triumph. The ebbs and flows of his party’s fortunes would influence his own frame of mind.

He would socialize among fellow members of his party, enthusiastically devote large chunks of free time to party activities, and view most public issues through a partisan lens.

Although I never asked him this question, I’m reasonably certain if someone had told him to state five adjectives that best described himself, one of those adjectives would match the capitalized name of his  party.

As a journalist, I zealously follow partisan politics, and have covered it for many years. But I’ve never been a member of – or loyal to – any political party. Although I find party politics fascinating, and admire the passion and commitment of many of its practitioners, I’ve never quite been able to understand what it’s like from the inside. Or what it’s like to want to be on the inside.

From my comfortable perch as an outside observer, I can see a parallel between the fervor of party members and that of … say… sports fans. A potent brew of dedication, single-minded enthusiasm, hope and faith seems to drive both groups of people. Is the Toronto Maple Leaf fan whose perennial belief that his team is finally going to win the Cup any different in temperament, loyalty and optimistic outlook than the NDP partisan who believes Jack Layton will become the next Prime Minister?

Just as dedicated Leaf fans will have trouble appreciating the talent and superior appeal of the Montreal Canadiens, so too will partisans have a tough time conceding that any other party may have a better approach than their own on any given issue.

That element of partisanship is the double-edged sword of political life. It helps parties to mobilize, focus and compete for power. Unapologetically partisan Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella titled his guide to doing all of the above “Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics” because he argued that doing so is a necessary precursor to implementing the vision that brings anyone into politics in the first place.

On the other hand, the hyper-partisanship of political parties is probably one of the root causes of voter cynicism, apathy and low election turnout in the population at large.

Recently, my once-partisan friend started a new job that requires him to be unaffiliated with any political party. During last month’s federal election campaign, there was no lawn sign in front of his house. I asked him if he found it hard to stay out of the fray, and was surprised to hear him say he didn’t.

His job keeps him engaged with political issues and the political process, but he said that being outside partisan politics gave him a perspective he didn’t have before. Now, when he hears party members react to any given issue in a fiercely partisan way, he smiles and thinks “I used to be like that”.

Is my friend onto something? Certainly in the recent American presidential election, one of the big buzzwords was “post-partisanship”. The victory of president-elect Barack Obama was not only historic because he is set to become the first African-American president in history, but also because of the way he achieved his triumph.

He mobilized voters and contributors like no one else had ever before, through grassroots efforts and over the Internet. Most notably, he appealed to younger voters with his inspiring talk of hope and change, and his unwavering message of unity across party lines and demographic groups.

“There is no red state, there is no blue state, there is only one United States of America,” Obama thundered at campaign rally after rally. The message resonated with post-partisan young voters. Early indications are that voter turnout among youth was higher than in any other American election except that of 1972, the first election after the voting age was lowered to 18.

Does Obama’s win mean we’re in a new political era? Hard to say. Obama himself muddied the waters when he appointed as his chief of staff congressman Rahm Emanuel, who has a reputation – say his opponents – as one of the most hyper-partisan Democrats in Washington.

An acknowledgement, maybe, that even in a post-partisan world, there are still political benefits to kicking ass.