Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Falling Way Behind

I've been derelict in my upkeep of this space lately, and I apologize for that. With preparations for my upcoming move and catching up on things after the cruise, I haven't spent as much time on current events as I should, so I feel like a fish out of water.

Over the last day or so I've been reading through some blogs and sites that I used to check out regularly, to put my finger on the pulse of cyber-opinion. There is lots to talk about with the recent election victory of Hamas, the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the Oscar nominations for Brokeback Mountain and Bush's SOTU address. And I may or may not get to discussing any or all of those over the next several days. But tonight I want to talk about the aftermath of the Conservative minority victory.

Surprisingly, conservative Canadians commenting on blogs haven't been celebrating the Harper win as much as they've been bellyaching over the fact that they didn't win more seats, particularly in the big three cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Talk about sore winners. While I sympathize with the sentiment that the Liberals didn't deserve the amount of support they got, some of the commentary has been downright mean. The fact that voters who selected the NDP or Greens are lumped in with those who voted Liberal is just plain ignorant. There has been much discussion about immigrants voting as a bloc for the Liberals, which brought to mind Jacques Parizeau's lament about "money and the ethnic vote" after the 1995 referendum. One of my favourite posts was from this intellectual giant. The best part was this nugget: "Generally, Ontario displayed a collective mindset that they no longer embrace an inclusive equitable democratic multi party state." Really? Three different parties won significant numbers of seats in Ontario. Meanwhile, in the author's beloved Alberta, the Conservatives ran the table in the federal election, and occupy three quarters of the seats in their provincial legislature. So which is the monolithic province again? I have a feeling that the most uncomfortable place in Canada to have a dissenting voice isn't Ontario.

That is the kind of stuff that gets the hamster wheel turning again. But there's a big blogosphere out there that deserves attention. And I'll try to highlight a post or site from time to time that isn't necessarily on my topic of discussion. Today, I urge you to visit Open Letter to Chris Matthews. That site will help dispel any myth that Matthews is a serious journalist, or worse yet, the myth that he's some kind of liberal Democrat because of his past ties to Democratic politicians. As the site proprietor stated, "Chris Matthews is as much a Democrat as Ronald Reagan. Both men were Democrats years ago, but that had no bearing on their politics since that time." (For more on Matthews, see here too.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Meet the New Boss...

The election results are rolling in, and we will have a new prime minister of Canada. Stephen Harper's Conservatives will have a minority government, although with a slimmer margin than recent polls might have indicated. This is about the result I foresaw a couple of months ago when the Liberals were leading in the polls and even Conservative commentators were fearing doom for their party (and the country), so I'd like to consider myself an official pundit now.

Above all, it was another great day in the exercise of democracy. It's always a thrill for me to cast a ballot, and not something I take for granted. I like our no-frills method of voting - take a paper ballot and a pencil, mark an X, fold the ballot and slip it in the box. No hanging chads, no computer glitches, no counting of ballots by secret programming code. I voted for my NDP candidate in Don Valley West, who finished a distant third, but I'm proud to have contributed that extra $1.45 in federal funding to the party for the next election.

So who were the winners and losers? That question is usually based on expectations. The Tories probably expected a stronger result, but at the end of the day they won the election and will form the new government, so they are big winners. The NDP look like they'll pick up about a dozen seats in Parliament - again, not as many as they would have hoped considering the collapsing Liberal support, but still a good result for a party that wants to consider itself on the rise. The Liberals lost, but weren't blown out of the water. Hopefully they'll soon have a new leader (UPDATE: Paul Martin has announced in his concession speech that he will be stepping down as Liberal leader), and won't be as far into the wilderness as their supporters feared. So the biggest loser of the night was the Bloc Quebecois, who only pulled in about 42% in Quebec and lost seats. The rise of the Tories in Quebec as another federalist alternative might have taken some steam out of the separatist engine, so that's one of the silver linings of this election.

Let us hope that the Conservatives' minority position will force them to govern in the centre and work with the progressive federalist opposition and not sell their souls to the Bloc. I wish our new prime minister well, as country must always trump party. I don't think the sky will fall because of this election result, but we must not take our eyes off the ball. And let us hope we can one day conduct elections based on values and ideas rather than ethics and corruption.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Cruising Life

I have just completed my first cruise experience aboard Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas. As you might imagine, I'm feeling like a beached whale right now after eight days and nights of feast and indulgence. Because of various activities, I don't think I gained any significant weight. But I've already started my detoxification program, and a week without meat or sweets should get my blood fat and sugar levels back to their regular state. Well, maybe a little bit of meat. But no midnight crepes. What remains to be seen is how long it will take to stop feeling like I'm on a rocking ship.

There are many people who swear by cruises as the best possible vacation experience, and most of the people on board were multiple cruisers. Prior to the cruise I wasn't really sure how I would enjoy staying on a boat (sorry, a ship) for that long, but I've been won over. The ship has everything you could possibly want from a vacation resort, and what you don't find on the ship you'll get at the shore stops. There's nightly entertainment, planned activities all day, and plenty of facilities to use at your leisure. You never go hungry, and your room is always clean - with a chocolate on your pillow every night. And if, like me, you're not much of a drinker, it's really quite affordable. But if you need to wet your whistle to get prepped for those karaoke contests, be prepared to be sobered by the bill.

There was one part of the experience that left me uneasy. Maybe I'm overly modest about such things, but I didn't feel totally comfortable with the high level of service I received. This is a crazy thing to say, seeing how this kind of service is what draws people back to cruise ships time and time again - and what they are paying for. Perhaps the greatest appeal of cruising is that people who aren't particularly wealthy can afford to experience luxury and pampering. But I'm not a limousine liberal by nature, and the class separation between myself and the people serving me made me feel uncomfortable. I don't envision myself living in an "Upstairs, Downstairs" world, but that is, essentially, the cruise ship experience. For a lot of the people who work on cruise ships it's a tough life, living in the bowels of the vessel and working for months without a day off. As Nellie McKay put it, "I don't think Fritz Lang was a fantasist. Metropolis exists." Don't get me wrong - I realize that it's a choice, and that many of them are able to make a decent living over time, and a better living than working elsewhere. But I'd be lying if I told you I'm comfortable being treated like a master and being called sir all the time. Having said that, it's very easy to get spoiled by the service and the decadence. Fortunately, having only been on one cruise I haven't been spoiled by expectations.

Now my vacation is over, and it's back to work. And winter. And a diet. And an election tomorrow. You didn't think I'd be able to get through this post with bringing up the e-word, did you?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Sinking Ship

Tonight was a historical event in Canada. It was likely the last time we will have seen Paul Martin on national TV as Prime Minister, save for his concession speech on the 23rd. Tonight was the last debate, and the mighty PMPM went out like a lamb. To be fair, he performed about as well as could be expected, but his body language said it all. It was quite apparent that the balloon was leaking. (No reference to CPC ads intended.) He was also talking about what Stephen Harper "will" do as PM, rather than "might". It was a non-concession concession. In the post-debate media scrum, Harper was relaxed and smirking like the cat who swallowed the canary. The fat lady is done with her rehearsals. It will be a Conservative majority government, and probably by a fair margin. I know that thirteen days is an eternity in politics, but if I were to give odds on this right now I wouldn't get any takers.

As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. To this extent, Martin and the Liberals are following conventional wisdom. In my job, I am in a position to see the TV ads by the both the Liberal and Conservative parties before they air. Yesterday I saw twelve new Liberal ads attacking Stephen Harper that can only be described as desperate. At least one of them they finally decided not to air, although it was distributed to stations and posted online. Out of respect for my employer and our clients, I won't discuss or link to the content - there is plenty of buzz about these ads both in the MSM and the blogosphere. There isn't a hope in hell that these ads could do anything but backfire on the Liberals - and they were already in deep trouble. Of course, Martin also threw up the desperation flag with his surprise announcement about his new Notwithstanding Clause policy in Monday's English debate. Did the Liberal Party suddenly lose any sense of how to run campaigns? To paraphrase HL Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the Canadian public. We've finally found an exception to that rule.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Still Wagging

About a year or so ago, I borrowed Wag the Dog on DVD from a co-worker, and never got around to watching it. Now, as I am preparing to move and sorting through all of flotsam and jetsom in my apartment, I came across this DVD and decided that I better watch it and return it. So I checked it out today.

For those of you who have not seen this movie, the synopsis is quite simple. When the U.S. president finds himself in the middle of a sex scandal two weeks before election day, his spin team hires a Hollywood producer to create the perception of a war going on with Albania to distract media and the public from the scandal and to win re-election by creating a patriotic fervor. Hilarity ensues. Little did the people behind this movie realize that the real life president was about to be embroiled in a sex scandal, and that their film would be referred to when he launched attacks on Iraq and Sudan. No hilarity that time.

While the similarities with the Clinton administration are uncanny, the brilliance of the movie is that its themes are universal. The messages about power and manipulation, as well as the willingness of the press to unquestioningly run with a "good story", apply as much now as ever. The film's protagonists needed a hero, so they dragged out Old Shoe. They could just as easily have used Jessica Lynch. Ever since Vietnam, the images of war have been so tightly controlled by the military and administrations that it is almost impossible to verify them independently. Embedded journalists could only see what their unit would let them see. The ones who worked independently often ended up dead. But the media have also been willing partners in manufacturing the message of power over the years, from Hearst's creation of the Spanish-American War to Judith Miller's creation of WMD.

The lesson one can take from all of this is to not be gullible. As Ronald Reagan once said, "trust but verify" - and be careful about the trust part. The internet is terrific in that there are so many new sources of information available, but those have to be checked closely as well. It kind of works like a jury in our confrontational legal system: If you allow yourself to be bombarded by many different messages with many different agendas, maybe you can start to decipher some truth. Then again, O.J. Simpson got to walk. And I know that was the most important thing in the world, because I saw it on TV.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

...And Tightens Some More

The news appears to be getting better for the Conservatives. As the Liberal government is more and more exposed over the course of the campaign, the polls have definitely tilted in the other direction. The ominous number for the Liberals is that they only have a 3 point lead in Ontario - a statistical tie. That could spell big-time trouble for them on election day.

Here is how Ontarians would vote (percentage change from a Dec. 20-22 poll in brackets):
Liberals: 37 per cent (-10)
Conservatives: 34 per cent (+1)
NDP: 21 per cent (+5)
Greens: 8 per cent (+4)
As I said yesterday, it isn't Conservative support but rather NDP support that will do them in. Ontarians aren't buying the Tories as much as they are abandoning the Liberals for alternatives on the Left, as you can see by the gains for the NDP and Green Party. (The relatively strong support for the Greens in Ontario and BC is great news for the Tories, and a thorn in the NDP's side.)

Now that the campaign is really heating up, the parties are stepping up their dueling promises. None of them will tell you how they will pay for their initiatives, but why let details get in the way of a strong message? Because the ideas are great in principle. Both the Grits and Tories want to cut or eliminate the immigration landing fee. Who could argue with that? The Liberals want to invest more in making college and university accessible to all Canadians. I believe that should be a given, because that is the definition of "equality of opportunity". Nobody should be denied the realization of their full potential because they weren't born into the right family, or because they didn't want to endure a lifetime of debt. The NDP has proposed a new prescription drug subsidy plan, which might be a key carrot for their support of a minority government. And all parties want to put more money into health care to reduce waiting times. The question is how the bills will be paid. Even the best of Liberal plans have to be taken with a grain of salt, since they didn't bother to propose anything of the sort of the past twelve years in power and when they had the surpluses. Now they want to cut taxes and increase spending, so you do the math. But the Tories plan to do the same, although with different tax cuts and different spending, and it still doesn't add up.

I really believe that given the right kind of services, Canadians are willing to pay a fairly steep tax rate. But the parties are trying to have it both ways. I guess that's what makes them politicians. I think my abacus will be working overtime the next eighteen days.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Noose Tightens

After tuning out of the election campaign, for the most part, over the last couple of weeks, I'm now starting to get interested again. The plot has certainly thickened over the budding income trust scandal, and the subsequent tightening of the polls. As the calendar marches toward January 23, my initial prediction of a Conservative minority government is looking better and better.

I have mentioned before that I do not endorse the Conservative Party agenda, and will not be voting for them. I also believe that power corrupts, and any party that stays in power for an extended period of time will be plagued by scandal and corruption. But by Canadian standards, the Liberals of the last twelve years have just about taken the cake, to the point where their hubris has allowed them to perpetrate their monkey business in broad daylight - as if they thought the spiked income trust activity would go unnoticed. The Liberal government's overall legacy is a mixed bag, nowhere near as gloomy as Conservatives and their lackeys would tell you, but with much promise unfulfilled because of energies focused on self-serving ventures. Their boldest initiatives have only come under threat of defeat. I think the Canadian people are slowly wising up to this, and I think the rank-and-file Liberals are as well. The only way to straighten out the LPC is to give them a few years in the wilderness. And while I'm not prepared to call the Conservatives the lesser of two evils, I'd like to believe that the other evil can be exorcised.

The election will probably boil down to NDP support. If the NDP base and progressive voters who want to send the Liberals a message vote NDP, the Conservatives will win and the NDP will have a very strong presence in Ottawa. But if those who would vote NDP decide to vote Liberal just to keep the Conservatives out, all of us will end up losing. I don't fear the prospect of a Conservative minority. They can't govern too far to the Right and have any hope of getting opposition support, much less re-election. But if they can implement some of their "good government" plans, that would be a positive development. (Some Conservative politicians and bloggers would have you believe that the Liberals are the only party with corporate friends.) A Conservative majority would be a different story, because I really don't believe either the membership or leadership of that party is as moderate as their current platform. That eventuality, however unpalatable, is a risk that must be taken by progressives who want a cancer-free Liberal Party. Better a Conservative minority for the next few years than a Conservative majority for the next few decades.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year, Same Story

I hope everybody had a great "holiday season", whatever holidays you celebrated. And all the best for the upcoming year to everybody. Because it was that time of the year, I decided to lay low from blogging, and enjoy the freedom of not having deadline pressures for the past week and a bit. Maybe that was a bit decadent of me, since I'll be on a boat for a week later this month and certainly not blogging, but the rest was nice. For now, I'm back to the grind.

Unfortunately, the year has started with more bad tidings from the city in which I reside. It didn't take long for the first gun murder of 2006, after an especially mean 2005. The year ended with the shooting death of a 15 year old girl, an innocent victim of gang shootings in the middle of a busy downtown street on Boxing Day. That was an incident that everyone in the city took to heart, and had everyone wondering when this would end.

My fear is that a culture of gangs and guns is like an infestation of cockroaches - you never totally get rid of it. There are no easy solutions. Stiffer sentences? We've seen from our friends to the south how that isn't a pancea. I have no problem with violent criminals getting tougher punishment, but that in itself won't reduce the frequency of gun violence, which is what we want to achieve, and could lead to increased racial tensions if not properly implemented. There has to be more than just that. Meanwhile the Liberal government wants to ban handguns, as if that will keep guns out of the hands of criminals. It's time for them to work on real ideas rather than knee-jerk symbolism.

Despite what my political leanings might lead you to believe, I'm not a big gun control guy. If somebody wants to have a handgun or ten to protect themselves, that should be their right. It's the military-style assault weapons that ought to be controlled if anything, because nobody can claim that an AK-47 is an instrument of self-defence. But a ban on handguns will work about as well as prohibition of alcohol, and will create a new level of criminalization that will clog our already-congested law enforcement and legal infrastructures.

Really, this has little to do with guns and everything to do with gangs, who account for just about all of the increase in gun murder over the last couple of years. And while trying to crack a larger, organized crime structure higher up the food chain doesn't provide the same kind of instant gratification you get from cracking a few skulls on the street, it's the only way you can hope to get the gangs to disappear. In the meantime we'll deal with the individuals involved, and they will be replaced by others. (There are plenty of parallels with Islamist terrorism.) And the cesspool will continue to flourish. I sure hope I'm wrong about that.