The voice is soothing, but the words aren’t clear

March 31st, 2011

When Jack and Gilles (Layton and Duceppe, respectively) lined up to support Stéphane Dion for Prime Minister in 2008, Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament. Until now, it was seemingly the closest that Canada has come to forming a coalition government. In the first week of the current campaign, Harper has been focusing much attention on the idea of coalition and how awful it might be for the country, most recently at a stop in Halifax, NS. (A recent post discusses why Ignatieff might regret scoffing at the coalition option so early in the campaign.) Harper has every right to do this, but he also has the obligation to be truthful, which he has not.

As a CBS news report last Tuesday succinctly explained, the Bloc would not have been in government had Dion become Prime Minister. There would have been a cabinet of 24 members, 18 from the Liberals and six from the ranks of the NDP. Of course, the image presented to the public in a show of opposition unity was the three leaders (Dion, Layton and Duceppe) signing an agreement, but this was not an agreement for government. The only item signed by the three, including Duceppe, was a program for an economic stimulus package. A different draft agreement for government was signed by Dion and Layton, and not by Duceppe. Let’s be clear: Duceppe or any other Bloquiste would not have had a seat at cabinet and had only agreed to bring down the Harper government, not to become part of a new one. As I mentioned before, it makes no sense for the Bloc to formally become a part of the state from which it is trying to detach itself.

But Harper is presenting the 2008 tri-party agreement as one through which the Bloc would have become part of government. In doing so, he is attempting to justify the prorogation of Parliament that year by saying that he could not let separatists get into power in Ottawa. That might be a legitimate argument if it was ever true, but it never was and most likely never will be.

The sooner this historical revisionism is shown up for what it is, the sooner the country can have a good debate on possible coalitions, past, present and future.

Let me take you down, ’cause we’re going to the Plateau

March 28th, 2011

It’s about time this page showed some of the delights of Plateau-Mont-Royal, mon quartier. There’s some pretty amazing street art and a lot of the cafés and shops have delightful paintwork outside.

The above two photographs are from Patati Patata, a sort of fast food joint with a twist on the corner of Rachel and St Laurent. Apparently it only has 13 seats.

These ones are from Avenue Duluth Est near the corner with St Laurent.

I like this one a lot. It’s from a shop called Utopia on Duluth. The whiff of weed inside is very strong!

A Montreal dépanneur, Plateau style.

I love this one from the corner of Duluth and Ave l’Hotel de Ville. Her hair is like fire flicking around the corner.

This is Chez José, a café on Duluth and l’Hotel de Ville. It does a fine breakfast. I was in here once, reading a book about Canada with a mug of tea, when the young man who worked there ranted at me for a good five minutes about how much he hated Canada. He’s an anglo Montrealer.

Home sweet home.

Couldn’t agree more fella.

Got a good reason for taking the easy way out

March 27th, 2011

Are Liberals the new Conservatives? Now that Michael Ignatieff has ruled out coalition as a means of forming a government, it seems that the Liberals are getting used to the opposition benches. Macdonald and Harper aside, Canada’s political history has generally been a case of Conservatives being too comfortable with losing, and now it seems that Iggy is catching that same disease. On the other hand, leaving policy aside for a moment and concentrating solely on political tact, Harper has clearly been reading the Liberal playbook.

“Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government,” said Ignatieff this week. If the party that won the most seats formed the government in Ireland, for example, Fianna Fáil would have been in power without a single break from 1932 to 2011. ”That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land,” he went on to say. Not so. Those are the conventions of politics in Canada, not the laws. If that was constitutionally the case, he would not have had to answer questions about coalition. It would seem as though Ignatieff has failed to take into account some fundamental shifts that have taken place in Canadian politics over the last couple of decades:

Firstly, Canada looks bound to minority government for the foreseeable future. One of the underlying aims of the Bloc Québécois on its creation twenty years ago was to prove that the Canadian Confederation was ungovernable by making minority government a permanent fact of life in Ottawa. This was delayed by the Conservatives’ stupefying defeat in 1993 that led to a Liberal majority, but minority government now appears to be a permanent fixture. With a first past the post electoral system, the Bloc can take around 50 of the 76 Québec seats with only 40% of the vote in the province, about 9% nationally. This requires any other party to take close to two thirds of the remaining seats in order to form a majority government which, this time around, is just not going to happen. And it won’t happen any time soon. There is no Trudeaumania or Mulroney sweep about to happen, nor a Kim Campbell around for any party to capitulate.

Secondly, and with the above point in mind, federal politicians need to see the permanency of minority government not as a hindrance but as a challenge to be accepted, perhaps even enjoyed. Minority government and coalition (and remember that with such a large, diverse country any successful parties must be  coaltions in themselves) ought to be seen as utterly Canadian. This country is a compromise, not a monolithic state where one faction dominates. Rather than presenting traditional conventions as consitutional “laws of the land”, Ignatieff and the Liberals need to embrace the idea that the country, founded largely on principles of compromise, is greater than their party or any other party.

If Ignatieff goes through the motions and does not begin to think more radically or progressively, he will lose and a third Harper-led government will ensue.

I don’t want to spoil the party

March 24th, 2011

Some thoughts on the imminent Canadian federal election.

Stephen Harper is a highly intelligent man whose detractors often make the error of thinking that he is not.  Like John A. Macdonald, Harper’s goal is to build a national coalition within one party and then stay in power for as long as possible, but Harper has managed to do this by balancing the wishes of former Reform Party supporters and Easterners while attracting the odd independent or Liberal by throwing a centrist curveball into the policy mix. His aim is to keep his party’s poll number somewhere north of 30%, knowing that this is likely to keep him in office. That is his overarching policy to which everything else is secondary. As I have mentioned in previous posts, however, the Conservatives are sometimes given to small outbursts of emotion, and this week it is Harper himself who may have put his foot in it with his very own Jocasta moment.

That Globe and Mail article says this: ‘Harper said Wednesday that while the Bloc Québécois remains popular, it no longer has a real mission. He predicted that Quebec will soon understand that the Bloc has given up hope on achieving sovereignty and voters will begin looking for an alternative.’

Remove ‘achieving sovereignty’ and you have a pretty good summary of Harper’s own position. As I see it, however, voters will not look for an alternative just yet. If there is a change in government, it will not be as a result of a significant change in the number of seats won by the four parties but rather by the NDP and Liberals agreeing to some sort of coalition with support from the Bloc. I don’t think the Bloc will formally enter a coalition; its whole raison d’être is to be a caretaker opposition party until its own success makes its entire existence unnecessary. To form part of the government of the state from which it is trying to detach itself would then appear absurd. Hence, my money is on a third consecutive Harper-led Conservative minority government.

On CBC News tonight I saw Michael Ignatieff respond to a question about the possibility of a coalition. He said that there’s a blue door and a red door and those are your only real choices. This tried and, for some reason, trusted method of presenting a false choice to the electorate will probably not work precisely because it is a false choice. Of course, the red door (the Liberals) is meant to represent peace and fairness, but, be that as it may, those ideas have not been communicated as well as they could have been by Ignatieff. By presenting the choice in this way, Ignatieff does not represent change in any meaningful sense of the word.

For change, voters might look at the NDP and Jack Layton, who would do his prospects of an increase in seats no problem at all if he answered questions on his health (Layton has been diagnosed with prostate cancer). Like Charles Kennedy, Brian Cowen and John McCain before him, Layton is at some stage going to have to deal with this issue so that he can start dealing with questions relating to policy.

I’m looking forward to this campaign and will be writing about it quite often. Keep stopping by!

How to get a tan from standing in the English rain

March 4th, 2011

The “brave” Irish were not meant to do this. They were supposed to be “plucky” and “whole-hearted”, but not win. Yesterday the Ireland cricket team beat England at the Cricket World Cup in Bangalore, India. It was the first time that the Irish had beaten the English at this sport and the first time that England beat Ireland at begrudgery.

With most of the game having been played England were in complete and utter control - at one stage bookmakers were giving Ireland a one in 400 shot of winning. That means that if at that that moment you decided to place a $1 stake on Ireland to win, you would have been $400 richer soon after. At around this time, a man called Kevin O’Brien took his position as Ireland’s next batsman. This is what the Daily Telegraph online live commentary said at the time: “The formidable (not really, he’s just a bit porky) Kevin O’Brien is the new man.”

What was being said here is ’ok here’s an overweight Irishman, probably had a few pints last night after a big dinner, let’s just do what we’re doing and before you know it we’ve won.’

There have been some very useful overweight cricketers down the years; off the top of my head I can think of Graham Gooch and Inzamam ul-Haq. Their “porkiness” was seen as advantage. O’Brien’s “porkiness”, on the other hand, is seen as a hindrance. It’s there in black and white: “formidable (not really)”. It is clear that a large section of the English sports media does not treat the Irish as they would the established cricket nations. Never lacking in bravery or pluckiness, whatever that is, but rarely will you hear or read that such and such an Irish player is actually able to compete in terms of technique or intelligence, only endevour. O’Brien won the match by mocking England not with words but with skill, intelligence, effort and, perhaps most importantly, humility. In the post-match interview, former England captain Michael Atherton asked if he would celebrate with “a few pints of Guinness” after “chancing his arm”. Old mentalities die hard. Or not at all.

That same motif carried into the next day on cricinfo.com, the most viewed cricket site on the internet. In an article that referred to the fact that Ireland will most likely not be allowed to compete at the next World Cup in 2015, Brydon Coverdale wrote: “the Irish players could be watching the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand from a pub in Dublin, with pints of Guinness in hand.”

When Russia failed to qualify for the football World Cup, did journalists write ‘well they’ll all be at home necking bottles of vodka’? Or when the US don’t qualify for something, do we read that they’ll find solace in a corner of McDonald’s? Or how about when Iran is not present at some sporting event? Do journalists write that at least they’ll be able to take part in a public stoning? Of course not. But it’s perfectly alright to call the Irish team overweight, unfit and too fond of the drink.

A common accusation from many English media outlets is that, like the football team of the early 1990s, this Irish cricket team is a bunch of has-been and never-will-be mercenaries from the southern hemisphere. Out of the 11 Ireland players yesterday, 10 were Irish-born. Out of the 11 England players, four were born in South Africa and, had Eoin Morgan been fit, 11 Irish players would have played and only six English. It’s Hungary and 1953 all over again. Only the names have changed, the attitude stays the same.