Thinking about Paris

The next time any of us go out to a restaurant, to a sports event or to a music venue will be imagining what it would be like to be suddenly confronted by ISIL Jihadists shooting at us with machine guns? In all likelihood we will. And we should, because every Western nation involved in illegal wars and regime change in the Middle East is a target for such attacks.

But simply imagining such an attack does nothing to increase our understanding of the Paris assault not does it lead us to a place where we can begin to examine our own government’s role in the Middle East and what kind of role we might play instead – a role that would actually lead over the long term (nothing will change in the short term) to a stable, just peace in that region.

While we are reflecting on the horror of the attacks in Paris we have a responsibility to remember and reflect on the fact that literally everyday at least 129 Muslim men, women and children die and hundreds are injured in conflicts initiated or worsened by our governments. How many people sitting in thousands of French, British, American and Canadian restaurants, stadiums and music venues tonight know the history of the hideous destruction of Iraq, the illegal and brutal regime change in Libya (creating a violent failed state from which ISIL operates with impunity), our support of totally corrupt regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, our carte blanch for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, the encouragement of Syrian opposition groups five years ago to take up armed struggle against a regime they whose brutality they were acutely aware of and whose strength they underestimated?

Citizens in Western democracies have not only the responsibility to know what their governments are doing in their name but they are uniquely able, given their democratic rights, to demand of their governments that they end their arrogance and imperial hubris, quit giving Israel everything it asks for in destabilizing the Arab world, and acknowledge that a major reason behind Western military interference in the Middle East is the apparently limitless greed of American and European oil giants.

ISIL’s evil genius in the Paris attacks was to precisely attack ordinary citizens going about their ordinary activities and the fact they chose Paris is especially significant: the City of Light, the symbol of the enlightenment, where Western civilization can be said to have reached its pinnacle.

It is highly unlikely that ISIL saw these attacks as a way of waking up French citizens to the illegal actions of their government in the regime change in Libya, or to send a similar message to other Western citizens about their governments. But surely that is a message we need to take anyway. When suicide bombers say they are killing us in revenge for what we are doing to their countries, why don’t we believe them?

We can continue to enjoy our exceptional freedoms and outsized standard of living and declare that we are not interested in “politics” as we head to the shopping mall for our newer model big screen TV.

But unless we wake up and wake up our fellow citizens will we begin to avoid shopping malls for fear that the next bomb will go off there?

Pacific Trade Deal Will Test Trudeau’s Resolve

Justin Trudeau has proven to be much more bold in his first couple of weeks than almost anyone imagined. Unlike Jean Chrétien and his 1993 election Red Book, Trudeau actually seems to be intent on keeping many of his promises.

Most importantly he has done what no other premier or prime minister in my memory has ever done. He has put numerous people in ministries who actually have a passion for their portfolios: a doctor in charge in health care, a potato farmer in charge of agriculture, an Aboriginal former treaty commissioner in justice, a former CIDA staff person in charge of international development. Prime ministers who want to exercise executive control don’t do this. Trudeau, it seems, genuinely wants to run a government by cabinet.

But the real measure of how bold Trudeau will be is how he deals with the economy. After all it is the economic ministries — finance, the treasury board, international trade most prominent among them — that are most directly responsible for managing capitalism, something every federal government has to do no matter what their ideology is. The Liberals have always been a Bay Street party and any move away from that tradition seems unlikely. The biggest test Trudeau will face on this front is right on the top of the issues pile: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

First off, let’s be clear that these “trade” agreements are only nominally about trade — they are actually, as economist Jeffrey Sachs says “investment protection agreements.” And for every Canadian government starting with Brian Mulroney’s the almost exclusive economic policy for this country has been a focus on attracting international investment. Former finance minister (and later prime minister) Paul Martin made this explicit — and set out to attract foreign investors by lowering the cost of doing business with labour flexibility programs, slashed corporate taxes and a 40 per cent reduction in federal social spending. Stephen Harper never saw a trade/investment deal he didn’t like — no matter how bad the terms were for Canada.

But after literally hundreds of such bi-lateral deals have been signed, countries around the world are finally waking up to the fact these corporate rights agreements are at the root of many of their economic and social problems because they systematically undermine national sovereignty and the capacity for democratic governance. The two deals the European Union has been negotiating with Canada (CETA) and the United States (the TTIP) may never come to pass as EU civil society, and several national governments (Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and Greece), are pushing back hard. And perhaps Trudeau might ask himself and Canadians: if Europeans are moving in the direction of rejecting two agreements similar to the TPP what do they know that Canada doesn’t?

The Europeans have finally figured out that these agreements have little to with trade and have a lot to do with empowering global capital. Two of the most important aspects of these deals which explicitly undermine democracy and are their investor-state dispute settlement provisions, which many Canadians are already familiar with, and the privileged role that large corporations are given in the legislative process once these agreements are signed. Investor-state dispute settlement provisions allow corporations to sue governments directly for any new laws or regulations that reduce their future profits.

But what many Canadians may not know is that the TPP and other such deals allow corporations to intervene directly in the process of making new laws and regulations that may impact them. Article 26.2 of the TPP (“Publication”) states that any proposed new measure must be “made available” to corporations “in a manner that enables interested persons [corporations] and parties [governments] to become acquainted with them… and provide interested persons and other parties with a reasonable opportunity to comment on those proposed measures.”

Not only will these provisions cause a chill effect (where governments simply don’t pass laws they know will be challenged), but corporations will also be given privileged access to influence new laws — something no other sector of society is given.

Unusual suspects raise alarm

None of this is new. These anti-democratic measures have been exposed over and over again by civil society groups in countries around the world. But now there are some unusual suspects raising the alarm — some of them otherwise strong promoters of globalization. Among them: Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, the United Nations and in Canada Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Research in Motion. If Justin Trudeau really wants to be bold and refuse to sign the TPP deal negotiated by Stephen Harper he has some pretty powerful and influential allies he can point to.

Sachs, one of the world’s most prominent economists, a Columbia University prof and a director of the Earth Institute. He has denounced the TPP: “These proposed agreements are mostly investor protection agreements… investor protection of property rights of investors, of prerogatives of investors, of IP [intellectual property] of investors, of the regulatory environment of investors, and so forth.” As for the TPP’s investor-state dispute settlement provision, Sachs states: “… it creates an extra-legal venue for arbitration that has proven in many investment treaties in recent years to be highly deleterious for basic government regulatory processes and especially around issues of health, safety, environment and other issues.”

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz is equally blunt: “The real intent of these provisions is to impede health, environmental, safety, and, yes, even financial regulations….” He gives a compelling example: “In the future, if we discover that some other product causes health problems (think of asbestos), rather than facing lawsuits for the costs imposed on us, the manufacturer could sue governments for restraining them from killing more people.”

A recent United Nations report on the promotion of “democratic and equitable international order” similarly lambasts these agreements for inviting foreign corporations to intervene and sabotage laws and regulations, citing numerous Canadian examples.

Said one former government official quoted in the report: “I’ve seen the letters from the New York and [Washington] D.C. law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation…. Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day.”

And in Canada there is Jim Balsillie, apparently the only prominent Canadian business figure with the guts to defend the national interest — while also defending the interests of the innovative industrial sector of the economy. His conclusion on the TPP: “I think in 10 years from now, we’ll call that the signature worst thing in policy that Canada’s ever done.” He predicts that “troubling” rules on intellectual property rights will cost Canada billions in wealth creation and “make Canada a ‘permanent underclass’ in the economy of selling ideas.”

More calls for bold action

If Trudeau wants to be bold he not only has these allies. According to auto industry spokespersons, Harper misled them regarding how much they will lose. Those concerned about the potential abuse of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program are also alarmed at the provisions governing the “movement of persons.” And Trudeau has to know that if he is really planning to take an international leadership role in confronting climate change, provisions in the TPP (like investor-state dispute settlement) will make such leadership extremely difficult: any initiative involving new regulations or restrictions on future tarsands development could trigger multi-billion dollar investor challenges.

Trudeau should also be aware that the OECD’s forecast for international trade show a long-term decline suggesting that he would be better off focusing on enhancing the domestic economy, which accounts for almost 70 per cent of Canada’s gross national product.

One of Trudeau’s first acts was to join the Japanese PM is praising the TPP. His Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has said “free trade” is critical to the prosperity of the middle class.

And even a cursory reading of the history of Liberal governments and their relationship to big business has to make us highly sceptical about the possibility that Trudeau will actually reject the TPP.

But given that, his (and Freeland’s) repeated promises to consult widely and have a full debate in the House of Commons is curious. So, too, was Trudeau’s visit to the offices of the Canadian Labour Congress this week (the first PM to do so since 1958) — where he repeated his promise of listening to labour’s TPP concerns.

If Trudeau intends to sign off on the TPP he is pursuing an odd strategy: encouraging civil society groups to criticize the TPP and raising expectations about his response. In any case he has thrown down the gauntlet. The obvious group to pick it up? The Leap Manifesto.

Let the contest begin.

Want democratic reform? Let’s start with the country’s newspapers

Observing the cathartic effect of the end the Harper regime reveals just how traumatized millions of Canadians were by nearly 10 years of rule by this vindictive prime minister. The analogies and metaphors keep coming: like getting out of jail, like waking up from a nightmare, like the end of an occupation.

This election will provide students, pundits and authors with career-building opportunities to dissect the results. Part of that analysis will, of course, examine the unprecedented assault on democracy carried about the Conservatives. As it should, because undoing the damage must be the litmus test for the new Liberal government and Parliament.

However, while it is critical to track these efforts, the other democratic institution which needs renewed attention is the media and in particular the newspapers in this country. Regrettably, we have adapted to the outrageous concentration of newspaper ownership in Canada, greater than in any other developed Western nation.

But the newspapers perhaps did us a favour in the last week of the campaign with their inane endorsement of the Harper autocracy for yet another four-year term. Postmedia and the Globe and Mail actually managed to write editorials justifying the re-election of a man turfed from office by a tsunami of voter revulsion.

The Globe and Mail and the National Post editorials both declared their support because of Harper’s economic record — but ignored all the actual evidence. The Globe declared: “The key issue of the election should have been the economy and the financial health of Canadians. On that score, the Conservative Party has a solid record.” And the National Post: “Harper’s commendable record in office cannot be dismissed. Our economy is in good shape…”

These declarations are infuriating because the exact opposite was recently meticulously documented by Unifor economist Jim Stanford, who co-wrote an analysis of all the prime ministers back to 1945 using 16 separate indicators. It wasn’t even close: Stephen Harper’s government had by far the worst economic record of any government in 70 years: “For 13 of the 16 indicators, the Stephen Harper Conservative government ranks last or second last among all postwar Prime Ministers. And its average ranking across all 16 indicators is by far the worst.”

It should come as no surprise that the National Post and the Globe should rank the Harper government as having a “solid” economic record. They don’t mention in their assessment the many aspects of the economy that are not solid — aspects that affect ordinary people: unemployment, growth, job creation, youth employment, job quality, real personal incomes, inequality, or personal debt.

Those who run the country’s daily newspapers reveal themselves as concerned only about “the economy” in the narrowest sense, using it as a code word for the corporate elite, the one per cent — not the economy of ordinary wage and salary earners. They throw their support behind a government that simply facilitates economic growth by getting out of the way of business, by signing “trade” deals, gutting corporate and wealth taxes, and driving down wages.

There was a time when the outrageous concentration of newspaper ownership was an issue, but it has become the new normal. Even when Conrad Black took over most of the dailies in the country in the 1990s, the commentators missed the most important feature of the media coup. While Canadian newspapers had always been pro-business, they had never before been strategically harnessed to accomplish an ideological purpose: to systematically roll back the activist state and the benefits it delivered to ordinary Canadians.

But that is why Black bought (and subsequently gutted) all those papers. He was in lock-step with the Reform Party cum Alliance Party and shared an identical objective.  When we talk of democratic reform, we absolutely must include the reform of the newspaper. There is little point in reforming parliamentary institutions if the instruments of civic literacy have been turned on their heads to produce precisely the opposite result.

Running a newspaper in a democracy should be seen as a privilege as much as it is a right. It is not like running a clothing store or a car wash — it is fundamental to the health of society, to how we decide to live together, to how our values are reflected back to us. When the news media are so completely out of touch with how a large majority of people feel about their country, there is something wrong with the state of human affairs.

News as a public good  How do we fix that? It is worth going back in history to two periods when there was an appetite for reform — the 1970 Davey Report and the 1981 Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers — both publicly established federal examinations of media concentration and its impact on Canada. (This overview is a must read if you want a reminder of a time when genuine public discourse was the norm.) Their recommendations, read in today’s context, sound positively revolutionary. Had they been implemented the history of the country may well have been altered.

Today we can take some solace in the fact that the same demented “free market” ideology that continues to play havoc with the real Canadian economy (the 99 per cent) is helping to weaken the newspaper industry in Canada. While there are many factors in newspapers’ decline, the fall in readership suggests a growing disconnect with Canadian values. Newspapers that continue to ignore the wave of contempt that swept the Harperium from power will deserve their fate.

And indeed they are dying a slow and painful death. Postmedia, the owner of the National Post and 45 other dailies (having swallowed the Sun chain’s English language papers) recently reported out on their steady decline: “Canada’s largest newspaper chain saw advertising and circulation revenues tumble at a faster pace. The owner of the National Post and numerous major city dailies reported a loss of $140.8 million… in the three months ended May 31.”

Reading the Postmedia papers is a demoralizing experience, given that nowhere do you find Canadian values reflected in their reporting or opinion pieces. But when you learn that the National Post’s paid subscribers (2014 numbers) total 83,671 out of 24 million plus eligible voters, it sort of lifts your spirits (though they do get an additional 100,000 digitally).

One answer to the democratic deficit created by media concentration (and ideological bias) is the idea of publicly subsidized newspapers — not unlike the CBC model and models in Europe. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post writes: “We have public universities and public centers for disease research and public firefighting departments… Why should news be different?” In a democracy, the news is just as important: “What if we could create a funding source that recognized the news’ role as a ‘public good,’ …What if, in other words, we subsidized it?”

Another possible model is a for-profit newspaper owned and operated by a foundation willing to put the profits back into the paper rather than shareholders’ pockets. More on these possibilities in a future column. But when the next Canadian daily approaches its demise, perhaps local citizens and a few enlightened millionaires could buy it up and model it on the assumption that a robust, investigative news department and a variety of provocative commentators are first order reforms critical to our country’s democracy.

Contemplating Post-Harper Healing

Stephen Harper, the most anti-democratic prime minister in our history, may have done democracy a favour by mandating the longest election in Canadian history. One-month elections only exposed the breakdown of our so-called democratic system for a relatively short period. It didn’t last long enough for us to really sicken of the spectacle, and then we focused on the lies, manipulations and corporate sell-outs of those newly elected to run the country. But this time we have experienced what amounts to full-immersion baptism in our truly absurd and pathologically unresponsive system of “representative democracy.”

Of course part of that absurdity is rooted in the anachronistic first-past-the-post system which regularly produces executive dictatorships with less than 40% of the vote (and just 24% of the eligible voters). It finally seems that we might now get a change to some form of proportional representation for the next election. But promises (especially Liberal ones) are as easy to break as they are to make and a post-election mobilization of the disillusioned multitudes will be required to seal the deal.

But at the risk of being cynical about such a change before it even happens let’s not be too sanguine about the overall impact of a change in the voting system. Even the best election rules are not going to solve our democratic deficit unless we dramatically increase the level of civic literacy and citizen engagement.

The desperate need for proportional representation has to some extent distracted us from just how inadequate and unresponsive the rest of the system is. It has taken the likes of Harper to actually push the other parties to suddenly call for change when they have for decades supported first-past-the-post because executive dictatorship is an attractive form of governance to those who run political parties.

Given this history it is hard not to conclude that political parties themselves are the biggest barrier to genuine, participatory democracy. Parties have with rare and short-lived exceptions have always acted in their own interests whenever faced with a choice between that goal and working for the country. That has always been true of the two Bay Street parties and now that the NDP has drunk the we-can-win kool aid, they join their ranks adopting a strategy that replaces principle with opportunism.

There is still a chance however slim that the party can recover from its new and catastrophic direction established by Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair. That new direction entailed accepting the rules made by the big business parties – rules that suited their style, their access to money, their privileged position in the media, their control of the bureaucracy and their deep connections to elite influence and power. It is painfully obvious that the more the NDP adopts the machine politics invented by and for the Liberals and Conservatives the more it becomes like them in terms of policies, ethics and political strategy.

If the current election-machine NDP wants to win an election it will have to do so as a liberal party that has reached an accommodation with globalization and finance capital. Little by little the adoption of Liberal and Conservative political strategy has corrupted what remained of a social democratic party. By the time they win an election on this basis they will be completely indistinguishable from the Liberals they are determined to replace.

But if they want to win as a renewed and principled social democratic party then they can only do so through a commitment to a long term redefinition of the rules of the political game, rules designed to benefit a genuinely democratic party that engages the population in a program of civic literacy – equipping people to deal with modern communications techniques that are used to manipulate them. By doing so and actually mobilizing the tremendous appetite for progressive change in a majority of the population, the NDP could actually begin to force other parties to play by its rules. When they did that in the 1960s the rewards were considerable and included Medicare, still the principle legacy of the progressive Canadian state.

The Liberal/Conservative mode of doing politics doesn’t suit a political party that wants to change the political culture. Such a party cannot achieve change unless it becomes part of the community it claims to share values with and that is exactly what the NDP has been moving away from. This is why the party consistently underestimates the desire for change in its support base and miscalculates its response to the politics of opportunism. If the NDP is confused about whether it’s a party of change or just another competitor on the field, it’s no wonder its potential supporters are confused.

But when it comes to promoting civic literacy and building values-based communities civil society groups are not much better. To date they focus on two political themes but pay scant attention to the question that ultimately matters most. The first focus (this is the one I am most guilty of) is to pile up the list of political crimes and misdemeanors of the Harper government. Close to a dozen books have now raised the alarm. The trouble is the same alarm has been ringing for 10 years. Harper is a still a threat.

The second theme – and at least this breaks from the left’s almost pathological attachment to the negative – is to describe what is possible. Imagine (as the Leap manifesto has done)what we could have in this country if we hadn’t experienced fifteen years of massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations – somewhere between $40 and 60 billion a year has been pilfered from our collective, community coffers to feed the greed of the powerful.

But listing all the good things we “could” have “if only” things weren’t as they are is just an exercise. It isn’t politics, it isn’t organizing and it doesn’t address the reality that prevents people from going into the street and demanding the change we claim is doable: they see nothing on the horizon that suggests any of these things that they want will ever come to pass.

The really important theme that the left devotes virtually no time to intellectually, or strategically is the question of agency. That is the term given by political theorists to the process by which change is actually made: if you truly want change who will be the agent of that change? In other words it is not so much what is to be done (make your own list) but what model of organizing can begin to accomplish it. Change doesn’t just happen because millions of people say they want it. Post-election this will be the critical task of all progressives – take what we know is possible and use it to rebuild community, reclaim the commons and build a broad based social movement with the power to challenge the status-quo.

Rise up precariat! Cheap labour is over.

Just three weeks before the federal election comes a report from Morgan Stanley  that should remind everyone, especially the parties running for office, that it’s still about the economy. The the message of the paper is as unambiguous as it is surprising: the era of cheap labour is over. It all has to do with demographics, which are changing, and public policy which so far has not.

I have written more than once over the years about the devastating impact of so-called “labour flexibility” policies – devastating to employees, families, productivity, equality, communities, the birth rate (yes, the birth rate) and the economy as a whole. What is stunning to me is that almost no one in the Canadian media, and few in the labour movement seems to have a clue about to its importance.

For all the talk about what will grow the economy – and leaders’ debate on the topic was worse than useless, it was embarrassing – the key component to future economic growth is rising wages and salaries. We are programmed to dismiss such claims as “far left” nonsense but that handy epithet doesn’t work when the observation is made by the likes of co-author Charles Goodhart, a former member of the Bank of England’s rate-setting committee.

Goodhart argues that a dramatic decline in the size of the labour force, caused by “…the greying population may reverse three long-term trends: a decline in real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates, a squeeze on real wages and widening inequality.”

The percentage of the global population who were working experienced a huge increase in the last three decades of the twentieth century due to the post-war baby boom in developed countries and the entry of China and Eastern Europe into the capitalist system. That abundance of working age people created the conditions for the cheapening of labour and the reduction of its bargaining power. That, says Goodhart is already ending. “…population growth in the rich world, which was 1% a year in the 1950s, has fallen to 0.5% and should drop to zero by 2040.”

Governments eager to advance the interests of large corporations took advantage of this labour surplus by developing convenient theories to justify a broad assault on wages and salaries – and unions. Things like labour standards, generous Unemployment Insurance and poverty reducing welfare schemes made labour “inflexible” the argument went – by which they meant uppity workers demanding their fair share.

It was left to Liberal finance minister Paul Martin to implement the grand plan in the mid-1990s. Insisting that inflation greater than 2 percent was a threat to the economy, Martin used high interest rates to actually suppress economic growth and deliberately create high levels of unemployment. Few people recall that under Martin’s reign unemployment hovered around 9 per cent for most of the 1990s – higher than at any time following the 2007-08 financial collapse.

Artificially high unemployment was perhaps the most powerful weapon, but Martin also hit workers with draconian cuts to EI eligibility and the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP). The CAP transferred money to the provinces and was targeted specifically at establishing a minimum national standard for welfare. With its cancellation the provinces were free too radically reduce social assistance rates. The provinces also began cutting back on the enforcement of labour standards – things like time-and-a-half for overtime, disallowing back to back shifts, unpaid apprenticeships, notice of dismissal, sexual harassment, etc. Added up it meant a dramatic reduction in the power of labour to bargain with employers.

Of course part of the “flexibility” agenda was directed at unions and with more and more part-time and temporary positions in low-wage, high turnover jobs organizing became increasingly difficult. One experiment in well-funded anti-unionism was called Canadians Against Forced Unionism (CAFU). It was a creature of the National Citizens Coalition, the right-wing lobby group headed by Stephen Harper in the late 1990s. The president of CAFU was none other than Rob Anders  the extremely right-wing Calgary MP who managed to retain Harper’s loyalty through multiple controversies.

The effects of the attack on workers’ incomes and rights, on productivity, and on private investment mirror exactly the results that the Morgan Stanley report details. Canadian employers, ever eager to take the easy road to profits, reflected the broad trend. Goodhart writes  “Easy hire and fire is at the cost of organisational learning, knowledge accumulation and knowledge sharing, thus damaging innovation and labour productivity growth.” Canadian productivity growth has been moribund for twenty years, largely as a result of corporate reliance on low wages, facilitated by Liberal and Conservative governments.

The twenty-five year pursuit of cheap labour across the developed work has resulted in what has been called the “precariat” – those working in precarious, low-paying jobs with little or no protection from ruthless employers. Paul Martin’s anti-labour crusade (continued by Stephen Harper) has given Canada the dubious honour of having the third highest percentage of low paying jobs in any of the 35 nation OECD countries  – with 22 percent it is third behind Ireland and the US( at 25 percent). The average is 16 percent.

What effect would rising salaries and wages have on private investment? It’s a critical question for Canada given that large corporations are currently sitting on over $600 billion in idle cash. The Morgan Stanley report states: “As for investment by firms, rising wages will encourage companies to substitute capital for labour. Corporate investment could rise.”

The relentless squeeze on workers’ pay (the net real increase in average Canadian income between 1980 and 2005 was $52) and deteriorating working conditions are at the root of the looming labour shortage. According to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada: “Employees who are already overloaded…are less likely to add to that overload by having children (i.e., more likely to say that they have decided to have fewer children/no children).” As if to underline the issue Statscan just reported that for the first time ever people aged 65 and over in Canada outnumber those 14 and under.

The creation of the precariat was rooted in the untested assumption that a strong safety net (EI, social assistance, labour standards) added up to a “disincentive” for workers to work hard. It turns out that the precariat has demonstrated in response that if you treat people like crap they don’t actually work harder – they work less. A Delft University study  concluded: “A flexible workforce needs an expanded management bureaucracy to oversee it. Because precarity damages trust, loyalty and commitment…it demands more management and control. An entire generation of free-market workers has begun to act according to the factory adage of the old Soviet Union: ‘We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.’”

The Morgan Stanley paper contains a warning to employers – that if they continue to mistreat and underpay their employees they will pay the price with an increased militancy as labour shortages kick in and workers’ bargaining power increases. Goodhart recommends that employers get out ahead of the curve: “The synergies are stark: if the global economy needs a return to higher-paid work, then attacking precarity is the quickest way of achieving that.” I can’t see that happening any time soon and personally I’d like to see a little militancy for a change.

But surely there are politicians and labour leaders out there who in the interim can fight to make life better for workers and actually grow the economy at the same time. The NDP has dipped its toe in these waters with its $15 minimum wage promise and child care pledge. But we need much more: a movement, led by unions, for a return to strongly enforced (and enhanced) labour standards, a robust EI program where (once again) 70 percent qualify for benefits, the elimination of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, social assistance that lifts people well past the poverty line (or perhaps a Guaranteed Annual Income) and, for good measure, the public shaming of employers who abuse their workers.

Come clean, Ms. Green

The Green party and its leader Elizabeth May continue to promote the fantasy that the political “contest” on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast is a fight between the NDP and Green Party. A recent “householder” (a political mass mailing) featured this claim: “The Conservatives will not form the government after this election, and on Vancouver Island, we are in a position to elect six more Green Party MPs…” That would mean electing Green candidates in virtually every Island riding. There is no truth to either of these claims.

To back this startling declaration the Party quotes the results of a single island-wide (and North Island-Powell River) Insights West poll. The poll found that 39 percent of voters would choose the NDP, 32 percent the Green Party while the Conservatives and Liberals would be tied at 15 percent each.

But no one except May – including pollsters – is categorically claiming the Conservatives “will not” form government given that all polls suggest a dead heat – and with the more “efficient” Conservative vote they would get the most seats.

National and even province-wide polls are notoriously unreliable when you try to apply them to individual ridings. But the Green Party has been able to rely on this kind of ambiguous polling because there have been no surveys done in individual ridings.

That is, until now.

Both the Dogwood Initiative and LeadNow organizations, have now done these individual riding polls in support of their strategic voting programs. Strategic voting asks voters to vote for whichever party’s candidate has the best chance of defeating the Conservatives.

The polls show the Green Party is running fourth in several of the ridings that it is still claiming it will win. LeadNow has published an Environics poll for North Island-Powell River – interviewing 556 people, resulting in a poll that has a margin of error of 4.2 percent. The poll shows the NDP at 41 percent, the Conservatives at 27 percent, the Liberals at 18 percent and the Greens at 14 percent. The poll was conducted on September 18th and 19th.

One July 31st Elizabeth May told the Powell River Peak Newspaper: “There is no chance of a Conservative winning in this riding. It’s either going to be a Green or an NDP member of parliament in this riding.” May did not cite any evidence for her claim and it is now clear that there was no such evidence. The Greens are running fourth.

The Green candidate has clearly improved the party’s showing over 2011 when it would have received about 5 percent of the vote using the current riding boundary. But the improved showing effectively supports what those supporting strategic voting claim: that running strong candidates in unwinnable ridings, the Green Party risks electing the Conservatives.

Two recent polls reveal the second choices of Green Party voters. A Nanos poll showed that 48 percent of Green voters’ second choice would be the NDP and 32 percent would vote for the Liberals. Just 10 percent of Greens had the Conservatives as their second choice. An unpublished Ipsos poll showed almost identical second-choice results: The NDP, 43 percent, Liberals, 32% and Conservatives 10 percent. Both polls contradict May’s repeated assertion that disaffected Conservatives are flocking to her party.

By doing a mass mailing suggesting there is no danger of electing Conservatives the Green Party can obviously increase its vote count – but to what end? Despite running an expensive campaign in North Island- Powell River the Greens are still in fourth place, actually worse than they would have done in 2011 with the current boundary – when they would have tied with the Liberals for third place. (The Liberals have tripled their vote this time around.)

But let’s assume the Greens do even better on election day. Half the additional votes they get will come from former NDP supporters – lowering the NDP’s lead over the Conservatives whose numbers will likely rise given their deep pockets and strong get-out-the-vote plan.

What about the other island ridings Ms. May says the Greens can win? A Dogwood sponsored Insights West poll in Courtenay-Alberni shows very similar results: the NDP at 39 percent, the Conservatives at 33 percent, the Liberals at 13 percent and the Greens running fourth at 12 percent. Given the recent rise in Conservative support this is a dangerously close race. Half the Green votes would otherwise go to the NDP – increasing their lead from 6 percentage points to 12.

In Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, which the Greens claim is theirs for the taking, Dogwood’s Insights West poll reveals they are in a three-way tie for second – with 19 percent of decided voters compared to the NDP’s 39 percent. And in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, another alleged sure win for the Greens, the Environics poll done for LeadNow shows the NDP with 34 percent, and the Conservatives and Greens tied for second with 24 percent. Again, if the Greens goal was really to defeat Conservatives they could be running a modest campaign providing the NDP with another seven to eight percentage point spread over the Conservatives. Or they would just withdraw.

It was inevitable that the mainstream media would finally catch up with the Green party’s deliberate deception. On the CBC morning show out of Victoria host Gregor Craigie challenged May on her assertion that the Conservatives “will not” form the government. I have never heard Ms. May sound so uncomfortable or unconvincing as when she responded to Craigie’s persistent probing.

After trying to justify the declaration with reference to a host of national polls, May finally gave in: “If that one sentence had not been on a flier and was more nuanced and had a much more detailed analysis as to why that’s true, condensing it to one line is probably something I wouldn’t have said myself but it’s absolutely defensible and explainable.”

As any party leader knows it doesn’t wash to blame an underling for a major piece of election literature. Would she use the same argument if she were prime minister? But then having said the statement was “absolutely defensible and explainable” she failed completely to defend or explain it.

It just got worse for the usually calm and commanding Green leader. Trying to build a case for using a year’s worth of polling to justify the claim, May stated: “I would never believe in one isolated poll that was an outlier.” But that is precisely what the poll that accompanied the statement was: an isolated, “outlier” poll that, given the Environics and Insights West riding polls. And May knows this – or should know – because she told Craigie that the party has been doing “..a lot of its own polling.”

Yet even the face of the individual riding polls May is sticking to her grand deception, saying to Craigie: “Right now there isn’t a riding on Vancouver Island where the Conservatives are in a position to win a seat..” and “…when they’re mired at 12 – 15 percent they aren’t coming up anyone’s middle.”

In a last desperate effort to justify the misleading flier, she offered this rationale: “What we’re saying is what we believe…” But that’s not politics, that’s religion. May then tried to distinguish her flier with a comparison to a nasty Conservative flier in her own riding: “It’s definitely in the category of dirty tricks when you send out a mailing that says your opponent stands for something that’s not the case at all…”

Well, yes, we can all agree with that. But how is it fundamentally different from telling people voting strategically that they don’t have to worry their pretty little heads – just vote Green.

It doesn’t wash Elizabeth. Fess up. Take former Tyee editor David Beer’s advice: withdraw “no-chance” candidates in ridings where they might help elect a Harper Conservative. The Green Party is supposed to be the party responding genuinely to the enthusiasm of young people, the party of principle. In this election it is dishing up cynicism and dirty tricks.

The roots of Stephen Harper’s refugee conundrum

Most government leaders would look at the refugee crisis in Europe and see it as an opportunity, especially during an election, to appear on top of the issue – with some combination of statesmanship, leadership and intuitive grasp of their own population’s sensibility. But Stephen Harper is not most politicians and the refugee crisis turns out to be one of the most intractable and complex issue he has to deal with – which is why he looks so ham-handed over a week into the refugee catastrophe unfolding across the Atlantic. It has shone an extremely unwelcome light on one of the dirty little secrets of the prime minister’s old Reform Party political base: it is chock-a-block with racists and others who simply don’t like non-European immigrants.

Harper and his political machine have done a remarkable job of massaging the huge contradictions in the Conservative Party’s political strategy regarding ethnic communities. They have managed to bleed traditional Liberal support from those communities by spending oodles of time and energy playing to the (conservative) traditional family values of those communities, to their suspicion of big government and their entrepreneurship. Only rarely does the strategy go sideways and expose the party to the anti-immigrant sentiment of their traditional political base.

One example was the rapid Conservative response to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program scandal of last year. The program was incredibly popular with small and large (tar sands) businesses and there was real anger with this chunk of the Conservative base when Harper (and Jason Kenny) made radical changes to their lucrative scam. While there was little reference to it in the coverage of the issue I have no doubt that Harper and Co. knew that rank and file party members, especially in the West and rural Ontario were not happy with their government giving preference to Asian workers over their white Canadian counterparts. When it came to choosing between business owners and the old Reform Party base there was no real debate. Business would just have to suck it up.

Not much is written these days about the nature of the Conservative base post-merger of the old PC Party and the Alliance Party (formerly Reform). But the base is largely the same today and in my book Preston Manning and Reform Party I documented just how dangerous the immigration issue was for Manning and his then-policy Chief Stephen Harper. No other policy issue took up as much time on the political massage table as this one – with Manning having to use all his persuasive powers to neutralize the alarming resolutions coming the famous “grass roots” of the party.

Leading up to 1991 policy convention, the most important the Reform Party ever held, there were eighteen riding resolutions on immigration. Every one of them was considered by Manning and Harper as extreme in one way or another: imposing various restrictions on immigrants, settlement in remote regions, demands for “ethnic balance,” the deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions, etc. None of them made it to the convention floor, replaced by the Party Policy Committee by three more moderate ones.

But in explaining this purge to the affected riding associations the party was very careful in the language it used to criticize the resolutions. As I wrote in my book; “They were rejected because they were open to ‘misinterpretation,’ ‘unenforceable,’ or ‘created administrative problems’.” The reason for the kid’s glove approach wasn’t hard to find – extreme views were actually encouraged by the party because they wanted to build their core membership. Manning and his policy chief Harper were confident they could manage the extremists.

One way they attracted the anti-immigrant vote was through the promotion of the writings and speeches of William Gairdner, one of the party’s most popular key-note speakers. In his book, The Trouble with Canada, Gairdner (in a chapter called “The Destruction of English Canada…”) spoke of “invading cultures” and proposed quotas on “non-traditional” immigrants (those not from the UK, USA, NZ, Britain or white South Africans). Gairdner warned “…in two hundred and fifty years Canada could become a Chinese nation.”

Harper’s precise role in building this anti-immigrant core is not known but he was one of just two people Manning trusted with key decisions – the other being pro-Apartheid activist and Senator, Stan Waters. But we do know that when Harper chose to leave politics in 1997 he became the Vice President (and then President) of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) the most virulently right-wing political group in the country. Among its many well-funded campaigns (against the Canada Health Act, fair tax reform, unions, and restrictions on corporate political spending) was an hysterical campaign against acceptance of the so-called “boat people” – the 1978-79 wave of refugees from post-war Vietnam. The NCC took out two full-page ads in the Globe and Mail warning that the government’s policies would lead to ”…at least 750,000 [Vietnamese] in the not too distant future.” The actual number was 60,000.

Of course Stephen Harper was not involved in that campaign but ten years later when he was helping Preston Manning found the Reform Party he found in the NCC the closest of fellow-travellers. There was a huge overlap in membership and policies between the Party and the NCC which claimed (from an internal poll) that 60 percent of its members were also Reform Party members.

Given Harper’s penchant for focusing laser-like on strategy it is difficult to tell how he feels personally about immigration – it’s just another issue to be massaged for maximum benefit and minimum damage. But he did once let slip a controversial opinion in the January 22, 2001 issue of Alberta-based newsmagazine The Report where he stated: “You have to remember that west of Winnipeg the ridings the Liberals hold are dominated by people who are either recent Asian immigrants or recent migrants from Eastern Canada; people who live in ghettos and are not integrated into Western Canadian society.”

Given the controversial history of the immigration question in Stephen Harper’s background no one should be surprised at the present-day Conservatives tying themselves in knots over the moral issue of Middle Eastern refugees and what Canada’s responsibility should be. With increasing numbers of Canadians saying they want a change (Abacus Data says the number this week is 76 percent) the Conservative campaign has once again been knocked off-message. To preserve their 30 percent base they have to successfully play the security card to resist increasing the numbers of refugees. But in doing so they risk alienating the already limited pool of voters who say they would consider voting Conservative.


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