Sunday, September 26, 2010

Amusing Ourselves to Death

This week in Quebec we were treated to an extraordinary performance of political theatre and the media's role of reducing politics to spectacle.

This week, the parade of the witnesses in front of a national audience watching the televised proceedings of the Bastarache Commission investigating allegations of political meddling and influence peddling in the nomination of judges in Quebec could not have been better.

First off was the statesman like grandfatherly figure of a former member of Quebec's National Assembly and Deputy Minister corroborating the nature of the allegations of influence peddling against the current Quebec government, followed by the testimony of the two principal Liberal fundraisers, and then an extremely rare event, the testimony of the current Premier of Quebec.

The week began as expected. The principal actors performed well. The critics were satisfied and we were all looking for the dramatic showdown between the Premier and the lawyer charged with grilling the Premier with a pointed counter-interrogation that would surely force the presiding judge to intervene repeatedly to bring order to what promised to be a series of heated exchanges.

Then the unexpected happened. The fireworks fizzled. The fiery exchange never materialized. Instead, the horror, the two men actually engaged in a relatively polite debate on a substantive matter concerning the role of the Premier in the process of nominating judges as prescribed by the law and the norms surrounding the process of political appointments.

What a let down. We can't end the week that way after all the hype we pumped.

Fortunately, in a brilliant scoop, Maclean's magazine came out with a provocative cover for its extremely well-timed weekly publication that stole the show and shifted the entire narrative that had been built up and then lost into something much more entertaining and potentially cathartic for a population in the process of realizing how pathetic its democratic institutions had become, the emotionally laden topic of Quebec bashing.

I couldn't believe it. The Maclean's cover actually bumped the Premier's testimony. On both Radio Canada's and TVA's nightly newscasts, the two leading televised newscasts in Quebec, the top story featured the Maclean's cover that said Quebec was the most corrupt province in Canada and appropriated the Quebec Carnaval's mascot for the visual image

I was flabbergasted. As someone who works in strategic communications, I had predicted that the lawyer leading the counter-interrogation would purposely push the presiding judge to shut him down, and then he would walk out and make a public statement lambasting the Commission for being blatantly partisan.

The intervention from Maclean's was totally unexpected and it made for great political theatre.

As could be expected there was little if any sympathy in the media being directed towards the Premier, despite his stalwart performance on the witness stand, with regard to the possibility that he might have been wrongly accused. Instead, the strongest emotional statements came from the Carnival of Quebec, who were outraged that their mascot had been defiled.

Intrigued, I set out early this morning to buy a copy of Maclean's magazine at Gatineau's largest newsstand, but to no avail. They were sold out. Undeterred, I crossed the river into Ottawa to buy and read the latest edition.

Having read the article, I found it to be pretty even-handed, not at all the Quebec bashing that Quebec politicians made out to be. However, the real power and the absolute brilliance of this edition, aside from the masterful timing of its publication, emerge from the headline and artful use of an iconic image on the magazine's cover.

To come out and actually say that Quebec is the most corrupt province in Canada took the prevailing political discourse out of its analytical approach of trying to tie credibility with performance on the witness stand and placed it squarely in the emotional minefield of Canada/Quebec relations. In short, this simple, bold assertion was like a kick in the crotch to Quebec's collective psyche, forcing it to attend to a disturbing state of affairs at an emotional level instead of trying to determine rationally which of the two political rivals is telling the truth.

Second, and more importantly, the image of the mascot holding the valise overflowing with cash symbolizes to me what is the real political malaise in Quebec.

In my opinion, the situation at hand is not a result of the obsession with sovereignty or the excessive growth of the state.

Political pundit Pierre Foglia correctly identified the nature of the problem in his column Saturday by noting that despite an intense week on the political front, the revelations of the Bastarache Commission and the Quebec government's u-turn on the question of charging user fees for health services, the story that was getting the most mileage in Quebec during the week was the lastest performance of the Montreal Canadiens goaltender, Carry Price.

Without question after two referendums on independence, Quebecers have become weary of politics. Participation rates during elections have plummeted.

Unfortunately, we are no longer paying much attention to politics and we certainly are not as politically engaged as we once were. As a result, given the amazing success of our cultural industries, we have replaced the passion of politics with the pleasure of being entertained. To use Neil Postman's method of analysis, we are amusing ourselves to death.

In other words, having failed to asserted our collective identity through political means, we have chosen to do so through our support and participation in cultural activities that strengthen our bonds to a linguistic community. On a daily basis, those bonds are reinforced whether following les Canadiens, watching our favorite television programs, listening to music on the radio, laughing with our comics, going to the movies to see the latest Quebecois film, flocking to the salon des livres, attending festival after festival. The list goes on.

In some ways, we have become political victims of our own cultural success. While we are being busily entertained, there are those who make off with more than their fair share of our common wealth and this has serious consequences.

It means that we let things pass that we shouldn't let pass. It means that we remain passive spectators when we should be active participants. It means that we settle for second rate education and second rate healthcare. It means that we are going to pass on an unmanageable debt to our children and our grandchildren.

If anything the image of Bonhomme Carnaval walking off with the cash tells us that we need to manage our affairs better. It's time to re-engage in the political sphere. Indeed, we need to let go of our previous terms of political reference and redefine the nature of our political community so that we are up to meeting the challenges of our common future.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Economic Apartheid Runs Rife in America

Last week's release of the US Census Bureau's report: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009 caused quite a stir. The emerging image is quite bleak.

In summary, nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is 14% of the population, one in seven adults, one in five children. That is in an increase of 4 million people over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years, and the highest number in more than a half-century of record keeping.

Median Incomes were 5 percent lower in 2009 than they were a decade earlier, and as Harvard University economist, Lawrence Katz points out, "this is the first time in memory that an entire decade has produced essentially no economic growth for the typical American household."

Race continues to play a huge factor in poverty and income inequality. Median per capita income for non-Hispanic whites was $30,941, down 0.8 percent from a year earlier. Among blacks, median per capita income was not quite two-thirds that, at $18,135.

When looking at household income, the widest racial gap is between black and Asian households. Black-led households make less than half the median income that Asian households do.

In some ways, these figures are not all that surprising given that the United States is a nation founded on the genocide of its indigenous peoples, who by the way aren't considered important enough to make it into the official statistical portrait, and the enslavement of African Americans. It is doubtful that these types of historic income disparities can ever be erased.

Yet, the greatest income disparities exist within the white population where we find an almost complete decoupling of economic trajectories between the superrich and the rest of white America.

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes.

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that's "higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the 'roaring' 1920s."

Beginning in the economic expansion of the early 1990s, Saez argues, the economy began to favor the top tiers American earners, but much of the country missed was left behind. "The top 1 percent incomes captured half of the overall economic growth over the period 1993-2007," Saez writes.

So how does less than one percent of the population maintain its privileged status in a nation that prides itself on having free and fair democratic elections? The answer: it engages in populist politics and plays the race card.

First, it should be remembered that the superrich don't give a shit about the well being of the average American regardless of the color of his or her skin. Therefore, the trick to be turned is to tie together a political package that includes preferential policies that benefit the rich with emotionally laden social issues that appeal to an the increasingly disenfranchised white population.

It's as if as long as the political agenda contains the familiar political rhetoric: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-gun control, lower taxes, smaller government, and increased military spending, it doesn't matter that economic policies are tilted to favor the rich at the expense of the average American.

Moreover, the presence of colored people allows the rich to use them as scapegoats in order to fend off any claims that might be made against them. For example, if unemployment is a problem it isn't because the middle class jobs have been transferred off shore, it's because those damn immigrants are taking your jobs.

Playing to xenophobic fears is at the foundation of a divide-and-rule strategy. It is very effective and it is at the heart of the Republican strategy of regaining control of the US congress in 2010.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dark Days for Evidence-Based Democracy

As we know all too well, politics can get bogged down in ideological mud slinging. Each side, prisoner of its own political discourse, slings mud at the opposing side. One way out of this impasse is to look at what the evidence tells us about the issue at hand. That way, we can examine the veracity of the claims made in the presentation of arguments proposing a particular plan of action.

Here in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, we see concerted efforts to reduce the capacity of citizens to engage in informed political debate by either reducing the capacity of government organizations to collect, analyze, and report on pertinent data, or, in the case of Quebec, set ridiculously short time lines for the tabling of an environmental report, thereby preventing valuable studies from interfering with what appears to be the Quebec government's premature decision to go ahead with the exploitation of the province's immense shale gas reserves.

At the federal level, much ink has been spilt in protest of the government's decision to shelve the long form census, a move that triggered the resignation of Statistic Canada's chief statistician. As well, it was revealed that head of the Parliamentary Budget Office, Kevin Page, will not seek to renew his mandate, which is most assuredly related to the fact that his agency's paltry budget has been significantly reduced.

In both instances, these decisions will probably reduce the availability of timely information that could inform the citizenry, but as we would expect having an informed citizenry would actually reduce the capacity of a political/financial elite to impose its political agenda upon the nation. Like many, I find this state affairs unacceptable, but hey my vote never counts for anything other than awarding a pittance to the party I voted for during a federal election, and perhaps even this last remaining incentive for me to go out to vote will disappear.

In Quebec, given the Charest government's pathetic low level of support and its minimal chances of surviving another general election, it appears that the Quebec government has thrown caution to the wind and is proceeding at warp speed to put in place a perfunctory regulatory framework that would allow fortunes to be made at the expense of the health of the population before its term runs out.

Even the most rudimentary environmental scan on the subject of the safety hydraulic fracturing should raise grave concerns. In fact, to date no peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrates that the process does not create substantial health hazards. To learn more, consult a recent report of an 18 month Propublica investigation.

What I find truly deceitful is the behavior of Quebec's Vice-Premier, Natahlie Normandeau, who is now making regular public appearances saying that moving ahead with confidence is just a matter of communicating the facts. As someone who works in the communications field, I can't help asking myself, "what facts is she referring to?". She makes it sound as if there exists a consensus in the scientific community that fracking is safe. This impression that she is so desperately trying to give is unmitigated bullshit.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has been given more than two million dollars to investigate the safety of the fracking process through its entire lifecycle and has until 2012 to complete its report. In Quebec, the Office for Public Audiences on the Protection of the Environment gets chump change and a four month deadline report.

I guess as a citizen it is moments like this that makes me realize that living through a fin de regime the quality of governance often sinks to the level of the banana republic.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Have the Quebec Liberals Lost the Moral Authority to Govern?

The Westminster parliamentary system is often called a crown-in-parliament system of governance. In effect, the powers of the monarch are transferred to the Prime Minister of the confederation and to the Premier of each province. So, what happens when the population of a province no longer trusts its Premier? As well, if a breach of trust has occurred between the Premier and his citizens, does the ruling party have the moral authority to continue governing with the said Premier in office? These are the questions that Quebecers should be asking themselves.

Needless to say, when approximately 70% of those surveyed believe the version of events put forward by former Quebec Minister of Justice, Marc Bellemare, as opposed to the meagre 12% who believe the Quebec Premier's Jean Charest version, there exists a crisis of confidence and credibility, and it is not as if that the crisis is going to disappear when the Bastarache commission files it report concerning Mr. Bellemare's accusations.

In some sense, this crisis has been in the making for years. In short, many if not the majority of Quebecers have the distinct feeling that they have been repeatedly lied to.

Beginning in 2003 with the electoral promise to lower taxes by one billion per year during five years that was never kept, claiming that healthcare was the Liberals number one priority when no significant progress was made with regard to wait times and access to a family physician, calling a general election during the height of the Great Recession and then maintaining that there was no prior knowledge of the 40 billion dollar annual loss in the state-managed pension fund, and refusing to hold a public inquiry into the link between the construction industry and the financing of Quebec's political parties despite a series of revelations and public opinion that indicate that such an enquiry is badly needed, it should not come as a surprise that the majority of Quebecers no longer have confidence in Premier Charest and want him to step down.

So, where do we go from here?

Already, another controversy has emerged in the way the Liberal government is handling the exploration and the potential exploitation of Quebec's huge deposits of shale gas. There are some very serious and well-documented concerns with the safety of the extraction process, hydraulic fracturing, the most serious is that this process will contaminate the ground water in the surrounding areas around the gas wells. Moreover, given the importance of the publicly-owned Quebec Hydro, the largest producer of hydro electricity inn North America, it is odd that within the context of Quebec politics, a public debate has not occurred with regard to the ownership of this extremely important natural resource. In fact, it has been just revealed that a number of individuals with close ties to the Quebec Liberal Party have recently moved on to take on key positions in the gas and oil industry.

Having imposed a ridiculously short time period for the province's environmental review agency to produce a report (4 months) on complex issue where the intergenerational stakes are extremely high in order to quickly adopt a law which will establish the parameters for the oil and gas industry, the Charest-led Liberal government gives the distinct impression that the fix is on, leaving ordinary Quebecers that they are once again victims of an abuse of political power.

Indeed, in response to the population's desire to have a public enquiry into the endemic problem of influence peddling, we get the Bastarache Commission looking only at the question of the nomination of judges. In a similar vein, instead of getting a thorough environmental review of the proposed extraction of shale gas, the population receives a half-assed, short and speedy assessment of something that cries out for a slow a prudent process of examination.

So, the question arises can the Charest-led Quebec Liberal government be trusted to manage the affairs of the state in a fashion that protects and promotes the interest of the population at large. In my opinion, the answer is an overwhelming "No!"

Unfortunately, the Quebec Liberals have a mandate to govern Quebec for at least another three years. This does not bode well for a population that has already lost confidence in its democratic institutions. We are like the proverbial lobsters caught in the trap of a dysfunctional political system without the wherewithal to escape.

The only ones that can presently rectify the situation are the members of the Quebec Liberal Party. To continue on with Mr. Charest at the helm until the end of the present mandate is to risk having the same misfortune fall upon the party as that as their federal Liberal cousins, to have the Liberal name become a toxic brand for a least a generation to come. Hopefully, the plans for Jean Charest's graceful exit from the office of the Premier are already in the works.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Real Choice in the Next Federal Election is Between a Conservative Minority Government and a Progressive Liberal Coalition

Canadians, in particular our political class, need to face up to the fact that single party majority governments are a thing of the past. Take a look at comparable nations in the commonwealth. The UK is governed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, and negotiations are underway in Australia for either the Labour Party or the Liberal-National Coalition to enter into a governing coalition with the four independents and the single Green member of the lower house.

Let's face the music. The Bloc Quebecois is not going to disappear anytime soon. As a result, neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives can form a majority government on their own.

So, what are we left with? Successive single party minority governments that govern under the continual threat of an impending federal election. This state of affairs does not give us good government. In fact, what we get is a perpetual game of chicken in which introducing legislation that is consistent with the governing party's electoral mandate is compromised as is the opposition parties capacity to oppose. In short, what Canadians get is not a coherent vision guiding the country. Instead, they get a series of enacted bills that represent the lowest common denominator of what the political parties in Parliament can live with.

Elections are about choices. Who do we want to govern and with which political agenda. In simpler times the choices were straightforward: you vote for either the red or the blue team and you were stuck with the collective choice of who would govern until the Prime Minister decided it was time to go the polls.

Over the last twenty years, however, Canadian society and its political realm has morphed into something else. The old poles of attraction no longer hold the population captive. There has been a multiplication of varied interests, perspectives, beliefs and values. So much so that the traditional parties can no longer marshall sufficient numbers into their big tents. The population no longer allows itself to be dominated and controlled by a ruling oligarchy. This is a significant social transformation that slowly working it's way through the political sphere.

Already the political banter has started around single majority governments and the possibility of forming an "evil" coalition with the dreaded separatists.

In response, I would like to point out that in the latest Ekos poll neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals garnered the support of 30% of those who responded, which means that if you factor in a participation rate of 60%, it leaves each party with the support of less than 20% of the electorate. So, why are we even talking about the formation of a majority government? Current seat projections give each party somewhere between 100 and 110 seats.

Consequently, somebody is going to have to be the adult here and actually say what is on a lot of peoples's minds. Look, if the polls indicate that the Liberals have approximately 30%, the NDP 16%, and the Greens 13% of the vote (in total almost 60%), there is considerable support for a progressive/liberal coalition that would not need to be propped up by the Bloc.

So quit engaging in this magical thinking that a single party majority government can be had. Drop the pretenses and give us some straight talk that we need to evolve towards a consensual form of government and leave behind the days of domination and control.

Concretely, this means that the Liberals come out and say yes we are ready to share power and the NDP comes out and says that our price is a referendum on changing the voting system that gives the voters the choice between either the single transferable vote or a mixed-member proportional system. This would open up the door to having Greens taking their rightful place in Parliament. After all, approximately a million voters opted for the Greens during the last federal election. These voters have the right to effective representation.

Canadian society has evolved and it's time our democratic institutions do likewise.