He was a working man, Great White North way, now he’s hit the big time in the USA

April 11th, 2011

“You’re it!”

“No, you’re it!”

I’m certain you remember playing tag or chasing back in the day, though these days I’m sure they have tag on Xbox. Adults can play too; you only have to see the accusations between Harper and Ignatieff that one and the other are “un-Canadian”. Conservative blogger ‘BC Blue’ gives the standard party line that Ignatieff ”lived the previous 34 years out of Canada before coming back just to be Prime Minister,” with the Liberal leader seen by many as some sort of Anglo-American rather than a pure Canadian. (And these slurs are often made by the same people who berate pure laine québécois for being ethnocentric and small-minded . . . pot, meet kettle).

A few days ago, Ignatieff himself accused the Harper/Conservative team of being “un-Canadian” following the removal of a woman from a Conservative rally in London, Ontario because she was found to have ‘liked’ the Liberal Party on Facebook.

All of this has triggered some thoughts and questions for me. Firstly, if I am an Irishman living in Canada, am I less Irish than if I spent these months and years in Ireland? This had never occured to me before. I don’t believe so, but perhaps in the eyes of others I have become less Irish. I find that kind of spooky. In case the insinuation here was not obvious enough, I don’t believe that Mr Ignatieff is any less or any more Canadian for having lived about half his life abroad.

Secondly, and slightly off topic, the whole issue has made me a realise a certain paradox going on south of the border. More conspicuous than charges of un-Canadianness (or maybe it’s because they say it louder), slurs of so-and-so being “un-American” are made so often it hurts, usually, but not always, spoken or written by those on the right against big government-progressive-liberal-commie-nazis, or whatever label they wish to throw up. The United States, land of the first amendment and Tom Paine. If someone says something “un-American”, this is by definition a contradiction in terms. In fact — and here’s your paradox — the only un-American thing that one can do is to accuse another of being un-American! It’s millions of Oedipuses all running amok with loudspeakers.

Moving back up North now, and Ignatieff would do well not to engage in charges of Harper, the Conservatives or anyone else being un-Canadian. It cheapens debate and brings him down to their level. It’s not un-Canadian, it’s just uncool.

Oh dirty Lizzie May, they have taken her away!

April 5th, 2011

May Day came a month or so early this year. Or maybe that should be May Week. After last week’s inter-party tweet wars between Harper and Ignatieff  simmered down with the release of the Liberal platform and a welcome return to focusing on policy, the question of Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s participation in the leaders’ debates remains open. As it stands, she will not be invited to the debates on April 12 and 14 after television networks told her to do one as her party has no representation in Parliament.

On Friday’s CBC news, Peter Mansbridge asked Chantal Hébert and Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne what they think of all this (the issue is raised 8 minutes into that clip). With a degree of trepidation in her voice, Hébert said she agreed that May should not be invited, mainly because of her performances in 2008 which “did not highlight the Green Party and turned it into more of a gang of four against one,” but also because the party has “become a machine to elect Elizabeth May” and the criteria for invitation must include Parliamentary representation. Coyne was more sympathetic, noting that the Greens consistently poll somewhere in the 7-10% range and May should be present on that basis.

Perhaps he did not mean to do it, but for this non-Canadian observer Coyne and Hébert had just summoned a rather giant elephant about the size of Canada itself into the room. The House of Commons of Canada has 308 members and the Green Party attracts about one vote out of every 12 cast in recent federal elections, yet the party does not have a single seat. Hébert is probably right in saying that representation in the legislature should come before participation on the debate and Coyne was probably justified in floating the commonly-held belief among voters that the Greens are not just another fringe party. They were both right, yet they disagreed.

And so the elephant sat there in silence, present but never spoken of. Any electoral system in which a party with 7-10% of votes cannot get a single seat in a 308-seat legislature must be seen as deeply flawed. It is only natural that with support spread a mile wide and an inch deep — the exact opposite of the Bloc, as I discussed before — the Green Party is focusing on a small number of ridings where it feels it can achieve success. With May herself going up against Defence Minister and former PC leader Peter MacKay in Nova Scotia, however, it looks like the Greens will draw another blank in terms of electoral success. They will then point to their popular vote of around one million and see it as a moral victory, but there is a limit to how many times moral victories can be seen as an adequete substitute for real success.

But what is “success” for the Greens? The long-term goal must be for the party to draw up or influence policy. In the medium-term, it must be to have a number of MPs in Ottawa, beginning with at least one in this election if possible, so as they can hold government to account and use its weight of seats to influence budgets. In the short-term, the goal must be to push for a change in the electoral system away from First-past-the-post. Without a change in how elections are done, the medium- and long-term goals are just dreams.

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.

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.

“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”

February 28th, 2011

It’s been over a week since my last Gaddafi-related post, and things have moved on since then; largely in the right direction in the eyes of most people. A large proportion of news reports over the past week have naturally dealt with the effort to evacuate non-Libyans, among them Canadians and Irish, from what appears to be a rather epic endgame. Operation G.T.F.O. is well underway.

One of the stories coming out of Ireland is the case of a German pilot taking a group of Irish teachers from the horror of Tripoli airport (and having been there, I can vouch for its dreadfulness) to relative sanctuary in Istanbul. Every news report seems to lead with his nationality as if his very Germanness led him to indulge in these wonderful acts like a latter-day Moses. Whatever the case, the story reminded me of when I was three years hold and lost on a packed Killiney Beach in South County Dublin on one of those hot mid-summer days where everyone within two hours’ drive of the coast (i.e. everyone in the country) seems to load up the car and hit the sea. I walked, crying and semi-naked, up and down the beach searching for my Dad’s unique gait or the distinctive pitch of my Mother’s voice.

The Germans rescued me. Two of them, female and goddess-like. I have been told since that they were teenagers but to me at the time – in the way that when you’re three everyone over the age of six is ancient – they were grown ups. One of them put me on her shoulders and we strolled around between rock and sand searching for my family. We found them in the end.

Germans, I salute you.

You never give me your money, you only give me your funny paper

February 22nd, 2011

It used to be that if you needed a job, apartment, car or toaster you would look in the classified ads in the newspaper. If a newspaper could build a city- or region-wide monopoly on classified ads, this became the proverbial license to print money for media outlet owners. People knew that the paper was the place to look. Hence, papers had three revenue streams: unit sales, commercial advertising and classified ads.

When the latter started to move online about ten years ago, it dealt a massive blow to the former two. The most used classified ads site in North America is craigslist; it is so pervasive that it has now joined facebook and google in the list of nouns that are also used as verbs. As a young journalist one might think I would resent the existence of online classified ads sites, but no, I do not. In the past two weeks I have bought a microwave, a lamp, a tea pot and a couple of air mattresses off such sites, and I’m still hunting for speakers, a bass guitar and another lamp. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup

February 14th, 2011

There is a hilarious short scene in an old Simpsons episode where Bart is interviewing Homer for a school project. ‘Dad’, asks Bart, ‘do you wear boxers or briefs?’ The assumption is of course that every man wears one or the other. Homer looks into his pants and says ‘no’.

I use this reference by way of introduction due to a text message that I received from somebody in Ireland yesterday. It read: ‘How is Ireland – in its current state – viewed by your average Canadian and also by the press?’. The assumption in this instance is that the press here actually has a view of Ireland. But it does not.

On the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, National Post and Toronto Star websites, only one article dealing primarily with Irish political, economic or social life was published during the last week and a half. Other than that, the only Ireland-related articles were on the plane crash in Cork airport four days ago. In ten days the Republic of Ireland will hold a general election, an election in which a party that has won a plurality of the popular vote in every election since 1932 will be heavily walloped. If ever Ireland is to be newsworthy outside of Europe, it is now. Egpyt might have had something to do with a lack of international news about Ireland, methinks.

Let’s start with the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest-circulation national newspaper. On their very user-friendly and comprehensive website, the freshest non-plane crash stories to be found are from February 1. One is titled ‘Irish PM dissolves parliament, calls early election’ and the other ‘Next Irish government faces dire economy’. Stories that made it into the paper this week ahead of anything related to Ireland included: ‘Prince Harry to be best man, Pippa Midleton maid of honour’ and ‘3 women honored in Italy for best letters to Juliet’.

The National Post, a more overtly conservative publication than the others, has an AFP sourced article dated January 24 with the headline ‘Ireland in tatters as coalition falls apart’. The word ‘tatters’ is so ubiquitous at the moment that a group of my friends has taken away a syllable so that it becomes ‘tats’ (for example – “my car’s brakes are in tats”). Another article published online on January 24 is titled ‘Stagflation looms for Ireland’. There is perhaps no more scary verb in the English language than ‘to loom’; almost always used in a negative context, it gets the idea across that the sword of Damocles is hovering just above the scalp, ready to be released by some malign agent. Stagflation is the free market supporter’s idea of hell, the nadir of possible outcomes.

The Toronto Star’s most recent non-plane crash Ireland story is dated January 22 and comes with the headline ‘Irish prime minister resigns, plans to stay government (sic) until next election’. The fact that the paper missed the word ‘in’ in the headline probably shows how long it spent on the story. Stories that made it in this week ahead of the Irish election included: ‘Google unveils ‘Map your Valentine” and ‘First photograph of Prince Philip revealed’.

The only newspaper of the four to carry a story on Irish politics and economics was the Ottawa Citizen, which two days ago published an article titled ‘Irish parties pledge to re-negotiate EU-IMF bailout’. The article is accompanied by a rather sad, frustrated and lonely looking Brian Cowen.

And there you have it. Ireland really does not matter much at the moment. Our election is probably seen, if at all, as either boring or insignificant. Hence, it does not ‘make good copy’, as they say.

Tomorrow never knows

February 11th, 2011

Sent my article to the Irish Times yesterday. I had to keep it to 800 words, which is quite short for a feature with plenty of interviews. After the first draft it was 996 words long, but I managed to tighten it down to 810. I don’t know if it will be published. And if it is published, I don’t know when you might be able to see it. Given that the deadline was Thursday morning, I reckon that if it is published it will be in Saturday’s weekend section.

Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble…

February 8th, 2011

In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.

First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack.  Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national.  And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”

So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?

The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.

The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.

That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.

You know my name (look up the number?)

February 4th, 2011

As mentioned in my previous post, I made three pitches in one to the features editor of The Irish Times. It turns out that while fighting for crumbs off the table I managed to find an entire cookie; the editor liked one of my ideas and wants 800 words by Thursday morning Irish time. There’s not much point in me going through the other two, but the one that stuck is this: at Concordia University, one of the two large English-speaking universities in Montréal, there is a department of Canadian Irish Studies where, among other pursuits, a load of Quebecois and other nationalities are learning Irish. Some of these fine people have never been to Ireland.

Last night at one of those generic Irish pubs that are so popular everywhere save Ireland itself there was a ‘Networking and Integration evening’ for recently arrived Irish immigrants. I made it my business to find someone from Concordia as soon as I got there. I struck gold, finding not only the director of the Centre for Canadian Irish Studies but also an Irish teacher from Spiddal, Co. Galway. I’m meeting the director, Michael Kenneally, at his office in about three hours. I asked for his number but he said I should just show up; “It’s on the ninth floor and you turn left,” he said. Aoife, the teacher, was more forthcoming with her digits. She’s also allowing me to sit in on a class this Tuesday where I will get a chance to interview some students.

Unfortunately, my Olympus voice recorder gave up the ghost this week. Some moisture seems to have infiltrated it on the journey from Dublin to Montréal via London. I’ve looked up a replacement on craigslist – the online hub of many a transaction in North America – but can only meet the seller over the weekend. Hence, when I meet Mr. Kenneally today I will be recording him using a Blackberry that I got last week. Let’s hope I don’t mess up the recording. As a back up, I think I’ll use the traditional pen and paper format too.