Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Markers: 2008

It's nearly the end of the year, and some of us seem to be compelled to say something about that, as though there were something materially different about the change of day when it's from December 31 to January 1.

There isn't. The foofaraw is a bit like the noise created by dimestore prophets as they made their forecasts about the new millennium. These temporal crossing-points are all artificial marks, borders, conventions. They have no independent ontological status. They can be a hell of a good excuse for a party, though.

And a year is a good arbitrary chunk of time about which we can take stock, assess, then promise to do better, and hope for the best. So here's another artifice--the list of ten highlights and lowlights of that chronological territory called 2008, cheerfully non-chronological. Do with them what you will.

  • Ineffectual Liberal leader steps down. I was genuinely embarrassed for Stéphane Dion, whose obvious lack of people skills--and a serious language barrier--provided so much fodder for the image-makers and spinmeisters who create "politics" today. A decent and intelligent man with an unyielding moral compass, in the wrong place at the wrong time, Dion finally got in touch with his core during his last few days in office. But it was too little, too late, and an appallingly amateurish video sealed his historical fate.

    We are not at the stage yet, and may never be, when we deconstruct the notion of "leader" and re-define what we mean by "politics." In the current context, Dion, whatever his gifts, was unable to deploy them to any effect. His d
    émission, long overdue, was a good thing for his party--and, I suspect, for him and his family.

  • Brenda Martin released from Mexican hell-hole. A Canadian citizen in Mexico is swept up by that country's corrupt and impossibly complex judicial process, and spends two years in the clink without a trial. Public and media sympathy (excepting certain right-wing commentators) helps to keep this case on the front burner. Some back-stage manoeuvering by Foreign Affairs officials and the government achieves her repatriation after a face-saving "trial" by a Mexican judge finally finds her guilty of something.

  • Harper apologizes to the Native people of Canada. An apology to Canada's Aboriginal people for decades of ill-treatment is finally delivered, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The words were unsparing, and the apology was well-crafted.

  • More government accountability promised. Well, that was actually in 2006, with the passage of the Federal Accountability Act, but a seasoned public servant, Kevin Page, was appointed this past March as Canada's first-ever Parliamentary Budget Officer. Mr. Page brings to this office years of experience, first at Finance Canada, then in the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board, and the Department of Finance.

    His job is to be a demanding one:

    The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (OPBO) provides authoritative, non-partisan financial and economic analysis to support Parliament and parliamentarians in exercising their oversight role over the government's stewardship of public funds and in ensuring budget transparency.

    The OPBO’s primary mandate is to support the work of parliamentary committees, including the Senate National Finance Committee and the House of Commons Committees on Finance, Public Accounts, and Government Operations and Estimates.

    Based on feedback from parliamentarians and best practices of peer organizations, the OPBO will use an open and transparent operating model. Specifically, this means that its analysis and advice will be published and subject to stakeholder scrutiny to ensure rigour in the methodology and impartiality in the advice.

    Nay-sayers claimed that his $2.5 million budget is too small to permit him to be effective. But Page disagreed:

    I think the resources that are set aside are reasonable, they are prudent and, you know, down the road one can look back at it, but I think just from looking at the resources set aside and having worked in some economic and fiscal shops, in central agencies, there is a lot that we can do with the resources that have been set aside to support Parliamentarians in my role as Parliamentary Budget Officer.

  • Dr. Henry Morgentaler is awarded the Order of Canada. And about time. This dedicated humanist put his body on the line for Canadian women for decades, enduring imprisonment, judicial injustice and assault. Henry not only believes in a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, but has assisted many of them in that choice, opening and operating abortion clinics throughout the country.

    Public opinion has shifted from the dark early days: a call for people to return their OoC medals in protest resulted in a tiny handful of the snowflakes, many from dead people. Public opinion polls (other than one inept "massive poll"), indicated a solid majority in favour of the award.

  • Harper wins a minority. The hope was, of course, for a majority government. Suddenly we were presented with an absurdly unconvincing "new Harper," a hockey dad with a blue sweater-vest. His wooden and over-scripted television performances, dumb mistakes by aides, and Canadians' endearing capacity not to be fooled all the time, kept the brass ring just out of reach.

    "Stay cool," he warned his rank-and-file at the Conservative convention in Winnipeg. The Long March was nearly over. But then, as we know, he failed spectacularly to take his own advice.

  • Barack Hussein Obama is elected. This election was not about Obama himself, a fairly conventional right-liberal American politician. It was a focal point for symbolic clashes of perspective and ideology, some of which have marked US politics since the American Revolution.

    A Black man is elected to the highest office in the land. The possibility
    of a "post-racial" politics--far from realized, of course--offers a way out of the racially-charged American political culture.

    Two parties means that binary thinking at its most excruciating will invariably come into play, and it did on this occasion. Daft talk of a Manchurian candidate and a closet Islamist, if not par for the course, was uncomfortably close to the mainstream. Obama, it seemed, was either a water-walker or the anti-Christ. His opponent John McCain was forced to assume the burden of the dark side, although he at times found it too heavy to bear.

    Obama's electoral triumph means that a corner has been turned in the all-important US political realm of symbols and images. And that was why I, with no stars in my eyes about the man or his politics, bought a round for the house when his victory was announced in a downtown sports joint.

  • The bar stays high on freedom of speech. It was no surprise to those of us not self-brainwashed: complaints brought in various Canadian human rights jurisdictions by offended Muslims were not upheld.

    Looking back on it, the rough-and-tumble blogosphere has taught me that being offended is an inevitable consequence of active citizen engagement in politics, and my own views on the speech question, therefore, have moderated over the years. I'm not yet ready to jettison hate speech provisions in our various human rights acts, unless such provisions in other legislation were to allow easy accessibility and the promise of enforcement.

    As Professor Richard Moon pointed out in his report to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, complaints that have been upheld under Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act would have met the test for conviction under our Criminal Code. The problem, as he points out,
    is that the more formal procedures in that venue are not user-friendly.

    The procedural issue is confounded by the fact that hate speech has its defenders, and their defence isn't always principled. Campus anti-choicers comparing abortion to the Holocaust? Sure. Students wanting to set up a free-thinkers' club, defend Palestine or speak out for inclusiveness? Not so much.

  • The death agony of capitalism. We toldja. I know, I know. We'll bottom out, we'll survive, we'll avoid the Big D. But only by adopting socialist measures, like nationalizing banks and pouring massive amounts of government money into the economy. Greetings, Comrade Bush--better late than never. :) But about those top-hatted CEOs...

  • A new era of coalition politics. Coalitions in most industrial democracies are a fact of political life, and, with proportional representation, tend to create stable legislatures and a more collegial political atmosphere. In Canada, the notion that the folks elected by 60%+ of the population should agree to form a government was presented as virtually a treasonous act.

    Our PM and his media allies, trading on the average Canadian's abysmal ignorance of our political system, talked of coups and separatists and (horrors) back-room deals and cabals. A flowering exercise in political democracy was made to look so scary that Canadians got worried. A PM that they never elected was about to be toppled by three other parties, one of them separatist. (Never mind that the fear-monger in question made his own deal with the devil in 2004, and his then-party the Canadian Alliance tried the same thing back in 2000.)

    So the PM bolted, the Governor-General acquiesced, and Canada, by the time Parliament resumes in late January, will have gone nine months or so without passing a single piece of legislation. The coalition lost its momentum as soon as Harper padlocked the House of Commons, but coalition talk was heady stuff while it lasted--a wonderful glass of political Dom Perignon.
  • Ineffectual Liberal leader steps down. And who has replaced him, with no intervening election by his party? Why, that gentleman scholar and US ex-pat Michael Ignatieff, a man constitutionally incapable of the common touch, a blue-blood whose ability to connect with ordinary Canadians is, for different reasons, as shaky as Stéphane Dion's.

    Want a coalition? Be careful what you wish for. Because with Iggy at the helm it just might just be a Conservative-Liberal one.

  • Brenda Martin released from Mexican hellhole. And it was indeed heartening to see the Harper government jump to. But this merely throws into relief the stubborn refusal of that same government to act when our marooned citizens are of a different colour. Abousfian Abdelrazik and Omar Khadr come immediately to mind. And the active complicity of Foreign Affairs officials to keep the latter from returning home is, or should be, a national scandal.

  • Harper apologizes to the Native people of Canada. Words are just fine, and many find them soothing. We Canadians like apologies, and indeed they can be meaningful. It's not the utterer--the words carry their own mana.

    Yet there is something odiously hypocritical about Harper weeping crocodile tears while his government was one of only four that voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, joining three other settler-states, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

    The kids in Attawapiskat still don't have their school. An openly racist Minister of Indian Affairs remains in place. What about an apology in the form of deeds, not words, Mr. Harper?

  • Morgentaler is awarded the Order of Canada. And this has opened the door to a gaggle of anti-choice quacks and loons, from Harper's dominionist buddy "Dr." Charles McVety, to Alan Bruinooge and his throbbing "massive poll," to his brother Conservative MP Rob Bruinooge's secret Parliamentary cabal. (As CC notes, some secret cabals are apparently more acceptable than others.)

    Somehow micromanager Stephen Harper failed to still Bruinooge's shrill voice. Which, in itself, is worrying. He subsequently re-locked the front door, but the back door is still ajar.

  • More government accountability promised. Kevin Page, as it turns out, hasn't been faring so well in his new digs. He actually performed in his job, and the government was not pleased. Remember that meagre $2.5 million that the nay-sayers were on about? That was roughly what the current interim $1.9 million budget was to rise to next year: and even that paltry amount is now being slashed. Don't mess with the mafia.

  • Harper wins a minority. Which, alas, means that he's still in power. OK, he overplayed his hand a little, and provoked a political crisis. But we got a good look at that hand, didn't we? No surprises there. He took off the too-tight sweater-vest and it was the same old, same old: a mean-spirited, vengeful, petty autocrat, who has bade Parliament adieu.

    And what's waiting for us down the road a spell? More anti-abortion initiatives disguised as concerns about pregnant women. The gutting of pay equity in the federal public service. A likely change of heart on the Afghanistan pull-out date of 2011.

    And the Liberals will find ways of supporting it all. Business as usual in the House of Commons--order has been restored.

  • Obama is elected. From symbol to reality: Obama has filled his Cabinet with Clintonians, turned his back on the GBLT folks who campaigned hard on his behalf, promised a troop surge in Afghanistan, and, even before the election, returned to the Senate to vote in favour of FISA. As I've said before: Change, I can believe in. Not much change so far. Maybe Iowahawk was right.

  • The bar stays high on freedom of speech. Well and good, of course. And that means more divisive, hateful, plain stupid talk infecting the public discourse. Yup, it's the price of freedom and democracy, but we don't have to like it.

  • The death agony of capitalism. We toldja. But besides feeling some latter-day self-justification, we obviously need to organize and build a new politics that can replace the old: a socialism for the people, not for the rich in hard times. People are being badly hurt. Golden parachutes for all of us, I say. But until we figure out how to do all that organizing, and what a new politics would actually look like, we're stuck being "progressive" in an unprogressive world.

  • A new era of coalition politics. An era in which the very idea of a coalition has been tainted in the minds of Canadians who are at the same time sick to death of the antics in the Sandbox on the Hill, and nearly half of whom don't even bother to vote. We'll get, instead, the de facto Liberal-Conservative coalition we have been living with for two years, but far more artfully and professionally done this time.

    We dared to dream, and for a few days it looked as though democracy might erupt in our midst. Alas, 'twas not to be--for now.

Oh, well. Happy New Year to all of my friends, and to you other folks, too. 2009 promises to be a busy year for all of us. Party on.

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