Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Log 340 Jan 29 2013 : Getting Rid Of Harper: 4: We can learn a lot from the coalition experiences of Sweden, both of right and left

Harold Wilson, UK Labour leader, at a meeting ...
Harold Wilson, UK Labour leader who was congratulated by Erlander  on his immense majority of four seats out of 630 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Svenska: Tage Erlander vid en tv-debatt 1967. ...
Tage Erlander during a TV debate in /sweden in 1967, two years before his retirement (Photo credit:Svenska: Tage Erlander Wikipedia)

My original intention, in writing this piece, was to draw attention to the positive results, for the left, of the Swedish coalition experience; but on closer examination, I find that the political Alliance formed seven years ago by four right-wing parties with the intention of dislodging the Social Democrats from power also holds a lot of lessons for our own Left parties.

Let’s take these two aspects one by one:

First, I was present when, a few months after Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won the 1964 election by a majority of  four seats out of a total 630 seats in the House of Commons, the party held its annual general conference, to which came Tage Erlander, the Swedish Prime Minister, to deliver a fraternal address.

Erlander had been Prime Minister of Sweden since 1946 --- 18 straight years --- and the first thing he said was that he wanted to congratulate the British party on their immense electoral victory. He himself, he said, had never had an overall majority.

Yet, by the use of coalition governments with various small parties --- at first the Peasants, later the centre, and still later the Left parties ---  he had steered Sweden through its most prosperous years ever, and --- what is even more to the point --- had in the process managed to create within Swedish society a consensus for the left-leaning measures, for creation of the world’s most successful welfare state, for its unique collaborative system of dividing the wealth between labour and capital, which transformed the future of his country, and made it at once one of the most-admired and (in right-wing United States circles) one of the most detested of nations.

This surely is the complete answer to the constant nagging about the probable instability likely to follow the adoption of any form of proportional representation that the right-wing trot out as their major argument for the anti-democratic status quo.

It was not until just before he left office in 1969 that Erlander won a slim majority of seats to hand on to his chosen successor Olof Palme, who was cut down so cruelly by an assassin’s bullet a few years later.

 This brings me on to the second Swedish lesson that should be of relevance to our NDP, Liberal and Green parties as they plot how best to overthrow the unrepresentative Harper government.

In 2004, tired of Social Democratic governments that had ruled Sweden for all but nine of the previous 70 years, the four rightist parties --- the Moderates, the Liberal People’s Party, the Centre party and the Christian Democrats --- held a number of meetings aimed at beating the Social Democrats at the 2006 elections.

Their objective was, collectively, to win a majority of seats  and form a coalition government. They decided to issue common policy statements and to have a joint election manifesto. (This is one of the hangups of our current anti-Conservative pretenders to the throne, and one that, it seems to me, they have to get over, but quickly.

In addition each individual party retained its own manifesto and policies. The Alliance produced working groups for six policies, foreign policy,  education, the welfare state, employment and business  (traditionally linked in Social Democratic economic policies), and policing.

This Alliance succeeded in ousting the Social Democrats at the 2006 election and they are still in power, with members of each of their four parties holding positions in their Cabinet. They have done this, even though the Social Democrats are still the leading party in terms of the popular vote, although they have many fewer voters than was normal during their governing years.  This is almost an exact replica of the present Canadian House of Commons, except that Sweden is a country with a democratic system of government compared to Canada’s sclerotic first-past-the-post system. It is worth emphasizing this: under a democratic system, a minority of seats cannot be  the automatic route to governance.
I am relying on Wikipedia for this information:
An example of this policy cooperation was the budget proposal that the Alliance parties put forward on 2 October 2005. The core proposal was a tax cut of 49 billion Swedish kronor,  which is 1.9% of GDP and 3.3% of the total income of the public sector in 2005. Each individual party also proposed its own policies in addition. For example, the Liberal People's Party want to spend 1bn kronor extra on tertiary education and the Christian Democrats want to have more benefits and tax deductions for families.

Can this sort of compromise really be beyond the powers of our NDP and Liberal parties, if they really want to replace the Harper government which, according to what they say, is changing Canada fundamentally in a direction that a majority of Canadians have never given them a mandate to do?

An interesting example of the spirit of compromise is the effort of the four Alliance partners towards the Social Democrats’ expressed opposition to extension of nuclear power in Sweden: the Centre Party opposes nuclear power, the Moderates and Christian Democrats support its continuing operation while the Liberal People's Party want to build more reactors.

Their joint proposal is that no more reactors are to be built but the nuclear phase-out law will be repealed and all forms of energy research will be legal and able to receive state grants (research on nuclear power is currently forbidden in Sweden). An Alliance government would also grant any applications to increase the output of the existing plants, provided that it would be safe to do so. This has been hailed as an historic step, although  the Centre Party and the Liberal People's Party have not changed their fundamental positions on nuclear power.

It seems to me that if the three Canadian parties of the centre-left (as they would be called in Sweden) can manage to get together in this way, a definite possibility exists for the establishment, over the coming years, of a humanist, gently left-leaning consensus --- from which Canada is not very far even as we speak --- that would immensely improve the conditions of life for every Canadian far into the future.

We have the resources to pull this off: all we have to decide now is whether we have the will.

This reminds me of one of the most pertinent political comments I ever heard in my career as a journalist  which occurred in London after one of the many Commonwealth conferences that discussed how to deal with Ian Smith’s rogue government in Southern Rhodesia as Zimbabwe was then called.  The question we reporters put to the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, as he left for home was, “Should the Commonwealth intervene militarily in Rhodesia?”

Mr. Lee smiled his enigmatic smile and said, “Whose who have the will do not have the means; and those who have the means do not have the will.”

We have the means to get rid of Harper. But do we have the will?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Log 339 Jan 17 2013: Getting Rid of Harper: 3: Social Democrats have little to lose from coalition, having already surrendered their original socialist policies

James Keir Hardie was an early democratic soci...
James Keir Hardie was an early democratic socialist, who founded the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Plaque recording the location of the formation...
Plaque recording the location of the formation of the British Labour Party in 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Social Democratic political parties around the world were established with the radical intention of transforming (by non-violent means) our entire economic, social and political systems.

Most declared their intention to redistribute income on a more equal basis, by using such measures as public ownership of (to quote the British Labour Party programme) “the commanding heights of the economy”, through creation of a welfare state to support  lower-income people, progressive taxation, backing  unionism and a whole raft of other measures that could be gathered together under the rubric of  “socialism.”

Most of these parties were established and at first led by the working class, or the unions, but it has been a common experience that by the time these parties succeeded in gaining office, they had jettisoned most of their original policies.

The British Labour Party was founded by the unions in 1900; their first taste of power came in 1924, when Ramsey MacDonald became prime minister with the backing of the Liberals.  This government granted recognition to the Soviet regime in Russia; the Geneva Protocol for security and disarmament (approved by the League of Nations Assembly on Oct. 2, 1924) was initiated; and they averted threat of violence in Ireland, all positive measures for the time, but the government fell eventually and Labour did not take power again until 1929. Macdonald was not up to dealing with the global depression, so he formed a national government in which only two of his Labour colleagues were willing to serve. As a result of this betrayal he was expelled from the Labour Party, but he continued as Prime Minister, essentially leading a Conservative government,  until 1935.

 Macdonald was a working class politician --- he left school at the age of 12 --- but he is generally held in left-wing circles to have fallen or “the embrace of the duchesses.” Similarly, the Labour parties of New Zealand and Australia were at first led by working class politicians who obtained their political education in the union movement, but eventually, like the British party, they came  under the control of a university-educated elite that was only too ready to accept the negative view of socialism propagated daily by the capitalist-owned press. And so the great retreat from socialism as an objective began , working through such figures as Attlee, Bevin, Gaitskell, Crosland, Healey in Britain, Curtin in Australia, and Fraser in New Zealand.

These parties could still be classified as “of the left”, but they have all fallen far short of their original support for socialism. For example in Canada, no one would ever describe the various NDP governments that have ruled provinces from time to time as “socialist”; rather, they have been moderate reformers, concentrating on good and honest government.

I remember interviewing both M.J Coldwell, and T.C. Douglas when they were in their political prime, and the impression they gave me was they would rather drop dead than allow the word socialism to pass their lips.

However, at the federal level, the continued existence of the NDP has proven to be of major importance to Canada as a nation: they have kept alive in the everyday political discourse notions of equity, fairness, and so on, that are common to the social democratic view of the world in a way that they do not exist in the federal politics of the United States.

This is not something that anyone should jettison lightly by agreeing to subsume the NDP with the Liberals in some sort of Lib-Dem arrangement, such as a merger.  On the other hand, there is not that much difference between the policies of the New Democrats and those of the more liberal elements of the Liberal party, so in the current crisis --- which is to get rid of Harper and his Conservatives --- it is certainly within reason to propose some kind of electoral pact that would result in the majority opinion within Canada from taking power after the next election. It has been proposed that such a pact could have as its centrepiece a joint agreement that electoral reform should be part of the committed platform.

I don’t think those of us who still believe in a real socialism as a desirable future need worry that we would lose too much: after all, the current programme of the NDP cannot be called socialist, and it would still be open to real socialists within the party to continue to struggle for a toughening and sharpening of their welfare and public interest policies.

Next: Coalition government as a means to creating a national consensus: the example of Scandinavia

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Friday, January 25, 2013

My Log 338 Jan 25 2013: Getting Rid of Harper: 2: Combining the anti-Harper forces

English: Stephen Harper, despotic ruler of Can...
English: Stephen Harper, despotic ruler of Canada and Borg Centurion, assimilating resistors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Effigy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the...
Effigy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament protest on Parliament Hill. Ottawa, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Ever since I have been a sentient being I have been a Labour Party guy. That is, politically I have always been on the left, supporting  working class politics,  unions and unionism, and public ownership, which has gone along with being death on Conservatives, Liberals, and all their status quo supporting ilk.

I have never voted for a Liberal or Conservative, and have vowed I never would. But the current condition of the country surely must prompt everyone to reconsider what would be the best way forward, and I have come to the conclusion that the first step forward must be to get rid of Stephen Harper and his appalling government.

You can imagine, I hope, how reluctantly I am dragging these words out of myself.

But the situation demands it; the facts dictate it.

Just look at the figures for the three elections that have resulted in the elevation of this Conservative party to government.

First, 2006:
* 23,054,000 voters, 23 per cent of whom cast their votes for Stephen Harper and his crowd.
*14,374,000 people voted, and of these 36.3 per cent, or 5,374,000 voted pro-Harper.
*The combined vote of the Liberals, NDP and the Green  parties, not to mention the many other voters who were anti-Harper, was 7,733,000, or 52.2 per cent, a majority over Harper’s total of 16 per cent.
* In other words 2.4 million more people voted for these three parties than for the Conservatives. 
*Result, following the habit in Canada’s past, the Conservatives formed a minority government.

Second, 2008

*23,677,000 voters, of whom 22 per cent voted for Harper.
*13,929,000 cast ballots, and of these 5,209,000 or 37.7 per cent voted for Harper
* The combined vote of NDP, Liberals and Greens was 7,086,000, or 51.4 per cent, a majority over the Harper vote of  13.7 per cent.
*So, 1,877,000 more people voted for these three parties than for Harper.
*Result, following the habit of Canada’s past, the Conservatives formed a minority government.

Third, 2011

*24,257,000 registered voters of whom 24 per cent cast their votes for Harper.
* 14,823,000 cast their ballots, and of these 5,835,000 voted for Harper, or 39.6 per cent.
*The combined vote of the NDP, Liberals and Greens was 7,867,000, or 53.4 per cent of the votes cast.
* So, 2,032,000 more people voted for these three parties than for Harper.
*Result: although still supported by a small percentage of the total voters, Harper got to form a majority government, from which the country is already suffering massively, with more blows promised.

In each of these years, the plurality of Canadians supporting the three opposition parties has so far exceeded that of the governing party that it would, normally, be described as a landslide vote against the government.

These facts surely speak for themselves. Although it cannot be supposed that if some sort of electoral arrangement were concluded between the three parties in question every vote would be cast as in the past, surely the expectation has to be that such an arrangement would lead to a change in government for the better.

It seems, therefore, to rest in the hands of the leaders of these three parties as to whether they are ready to subordinate the interests of their respective parties in the interests of the nation as a whole.

They had the opportunity once before when the NDP and Liberals declared their willingness to work together to overthrow the government, and, with the support of the then-powerful Bloc Quebecois, to form a government.

Unfortuantely, at that point the Liberals decided to overthrow their leader Stephan Dion with Michael Ignatieff, who had so little stomach for the political race that he rejected the Prime Ministership thus offered to him, and declared the coalition proposal null and void.

The folly of this decision is now clear to everyone. Fortunately Ignatieff is no longer with us, politically speaking.

With the coming election of his successor, the Liberals and NDP should be in a position to enter another such agreement behind a platform that would evidently, be headed by a promise from their coalition or partnership, of electoral reform in the direction of proportional representation.

This is the form of government that is used in most democracies in the modern world, except for Britain, the United States and Canada.

It surely cannot be long delayed in Canada, for it would provide the ideal solution to the current sclerotic voting patterns that have served only to divide the country.

Everyone must remember the days when the Liberals, though winning 25 per cent of the vote in Western Canada, managed to elect only one member west of Winnipeg. Similar results have occurred in provincial elections --- for example, in the first years of the Parti Quebecois in Quebec, that party won more than 20 per cent of the vote and elected almost no members.

So, Mr, Mulcair Ms May, and Mr X, whoever you are likely to be --- time for you to get your thinking caps on, to work out a common platform and establish the electoral act that would sweep this benighted government out, once and for all. You owe it to the nation to do this.

Next: To the NDP faithful: arguments in favour of the recommended course of action.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

My Log 338 Jan 21 2013: The Master, a strange, hard-to-understand portrait of a cult leader and his follower

Joaquin Phoenix
Cover of Joaquin Phoenix
 I bow to no one in my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s marvellous film, There Will Be Blood in which Daniel Day Lewis gave one of his astounding portrayals, that time of a predatory, ruthless pioneer of the American oil industry.

That movie was based on the first few chapters of a book by radical novelist Upton Sinclair, and it was such a riveting movie that, even when I later happened upon it two or three times on TV, my interest on each occasion was immediately caught by whatever scene happened to come up, and I was unable to drag myself away until the end.

I am unhappy to have to report that I cannot work up a comparable enthusiasm for the same director’s new movie, The Master, which has been said to have been loosely based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard in creating the cult of Scientology.  Far from being an account of Hubbard’s life, even loosely translated, this movie is actually an account of the relationship between a war-affected ex-serviceman, an unstable drifter with a tendency towards violence, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and the man who became his Master, played by the amazing actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just what accounted for the closeness of this relationship is never adequately explained to the audience, nor is the basis of their friendship. 

A batch of reviews handed out by the Cinema du Parc, where I saw the movie, suggests that critics have been united in only one thing, which is their puzzlement over the meaning of the movie.  Te method of telling the story is so disparate, so disjointed, that it was  difficult to follow what was actually happening.

For myself, I thought I was watching a rather too sympathetic accunt of the life of an unscrupulous cult leader, of whom his son said, at one point, “he is making it up as he goes along. Can’t you see that?” But my friend with whom I saw the movie saw it as an account of a love affair between the Master, leader of the cult, and this violent, attractive drifter. That never occurred to me, to tell the truth, but I cannot dismiss it as completely unreasonable.

What does puzzle me is the opinion expressed by a good number of the leading film critics in the United States (and elsewhere) that the movie was so puzzling that probably in the future it will emerge as a masterpiece. /several of them had already seen the movie two, and even three times.

Although how they could have borne sitting through it ---- two hours and twenty minutes of it --- three times leaves me almost as baffled as what the move was about .
My Log 338 Jan 21 2013

The Master, a strange, hard-to-understand portrait of a cult leader and his follower

I bow to no one in my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s marvellous film, There Will Be Blood in which Daniel Day Lewis gave one of his astounding portrayals, that time of a predatory, ruthless pioneer of the American oil industry.

That movie was based on the first few chapters of a book by radical novelist Upton Sinclair, and it was such a riveting movie that, even when I later happened upon it two or three times on TV, my interest on each occasion was immediately caught by whatever scene happened to come up, and I was unable to drag myself away until the end.

I am unhappy to have to report that I cannot work up a comparable enthusiasm for the same director’s new movie, The Master, which has been said to have been loosely based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard in creating the cult of Scientology.  Far from being an account of Hubbard’s life, even loosely translated, this movie is actually an account of the relationship between a war-affected ex-serviceman, an unstable drifter with a tendency towards violence, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and the man who became his Master, played by the amazing actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just what accounted for the closeness of this relationship is never adequately explained to the audience, nor is the basis of their friendship. 

A batch of reviews handed out by the Cinema du Parc, where I saw the movie, suggests that critics have been united in only one thing, which is their puzzlement over the meaning of the movie.  Te method of telling the story is so disparate, so disjointed, that it was  difficult to follow what was actually happening.

For myself, I thought I was watching a rather too sympathetic accunt of the life of an unscrupulous cult leader, of whom his son said, at one point, “he is making it up as he goes along. Can’t you see that?” But my friend with whom I saw the movie saw it as an account of a love affair between the Master, leader of the cult, and this violent, attractive drifter. That never occurred to me, to tell the truth, but I cannot dismiss it as completely unreasonable.

What does puzzle me is the opinion expressed by a good number of the leading film critics in the United States (and elsewhere) that the movie was so puzzling that probably in the future it will emerge as a masterpiece. /several of them had already seen the movie two, and even three times.

Although how they could have borne sitting through it ---- two hours and twenty minutes of it --- three times leaves me almost as baffled as what the move was about .

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

My Log 337 Jan 17 2013 Getting rid of Harper: 1: Joining the campaign

Front cover of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of...
Front cover of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Mi...
President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hold a joint press conference in the East Room Thursday, July 6, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It has been no secret that this blog lacks a strict focus. It was never intended to be focused on any one subject, having been started in 1996 as a personal Web site in which I could sound off on anything that took my fancy.

A couple of days ago I began to wonder if it couldn’t be put to a better use. Like, for instance, in working to get rid of Harper. Possibly the impetus for that came from my having (at last!) read Naomi Klein’s remarkable book, Shock Doctrine, the sort of work that is likely to drive even a well-adjusted person completely bonkers.  In 561 meticulously researched pages she totally destroys whatever pretensions the right-wing might have to claiming that they work in the interests of the ordinary person. In fact, she shows that the global economy has been dominated at least since the 1970s by an unholy alliance between the torture techniques perfected at the instance of the CIA by Dr Ewan Cameron in Montreal at the Allan Memorial Institute, techniques that have been used ever since by right-wing torturers in the name of enforcing through domestic terror a secular religion  called Pure Unadulterated Market Forces, propagated at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman, and transmitted by his pupils to one country after another. Klein’s thesis is that this religion can be imposed only in conditions of national shock and trauma, and she even argues that those at the command centres of the movement are willing to create shocks if no natural shocks exist --- tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, floods, terrorist bombings, all manner of shocks are grist to their mill, paving the way for application of their terribly destructive doctrines. Klein says many tens of thousands of people have died in this unholy campaign, which has not only ruined one national economy after another, but has also come to within a whisker of bringing down on the entire world the worst economic depression in history.

Okay, let’s get back to where I started: although Canada can never be said to have suffered from the more extreme applications of the shock doctrine, nevertheless, we have in power here a Prime Minister and government, elected to an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons by a tiny proportion of the eligible voters, a Prime Minister  who, as far as one can tell, is positively aching to put into operation some of the negative aspects of shock doctrine economics.

Everyone I talk to seems to agree with the proposition that Canada’s major priority should be to, somehow, get rid of this government before it  completely ruins the delicate balance between private and public ownership that has made this country one of the most admired throughout the world. By global standards, Canada has a fairly advanced welfare state, its legislation creating the publicly-funded health service standing at the peak, in most Canadians’ minds, of Canada’s achievements.

In preparation for this article I googled Getting Rid of Harper, and came up with an astounding 314,000 links which revealed that all across the country desperate people have been thinking about what to do to get rid of this pest. Unfortunately, most of the entries date from 2010 or 2011 --- there seems to have been some drop off in the intensity of Harper-hatred in the last 12 months.

Still, the arguments mobilized against him are formidable, and create a veritable catalogue of bad government.

I had thought of creating a catalogue of the Harper government’s misdeeds; but such lists have been published many times by dissident groups, and I thought it perhaps better to simply say in what way I find Harper and his attitudes inimical to the best of Canada’s values. In my view --- and this is an opinion shared by many thoughtful foreign observers of Canada --- this is a country distinguished by a certain moderate open-mindedness, capitalist, to be sure, conservative to a certain degree, but with a tendency to keep asking questions, as if everything is not yet known, as if new paths lie ahead to be trodden, as if there is a certain collective interest among Canadians in constantly pursuing a path that will result in every person having the opportunity to develop his or her talents to the best advantage.  Some may think that to write this is to damn with faint praise: would that one were able to write it of many other countries, of class-ridden nations like Britain, of rigidly militaristic and business-oriented nations like the United States, of authoritarian nations like any number one could name. In fact, this moderate stance taken by Canada and Canadians has been manifest for many years in Canada’s moderate foreign policies --- at least until Harper began to dictate them --- in Canada’s essential role in peacekeeping, as distinct from war-making, which distinguishes the United States, manifest also in the creation since the 1960s on a social system designed to support those who are less well-off than the average.

To me, an underlying value of most Canadians was illustrated when the CBC a few years ago held a contest to establish who, in the opinion of Canadians, was the greatest Canadian ever: to my intense surprise, the chosen person was Tommy Douglas, the former Premier of Saskatchewan and later leader of the CCF and NDP, who brought into Canadian politics the concept of a single-payer, universal health care system; and events indicated that these values I have described appear to be embedded into the attitudes of a majority of Canadians. Not that it would be easy to get most people to admit them (a symptom of Canadian modesty.).

Okay, into this nation has been catapaulted as leader Stephen Harper, whose attitude towards the country he now governs he once described vividly when he was leading something called the National Citizens Coalition, an extreme right-wing group to which he had gravitated after trying out as a Reform Party Member of Parliament from Alberta, and giving it up in disgust.

In a speech delivered in the United States he said this:

"Canada is a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it", and he added, for good measure, a note of contempt for his fellow-citizens when he said: "if you're like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians". Just to make sure anyone thought he had any admiration at all for his country he added that   "the NDP [New Democratic Party] is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men."
Latter, in  2000 Harper transferred his contemptuous attitudes towards Canada into concrete political policies when he wrote something called the Alberta Agenda, in which he suggested that “firewalls” should be built around Alberta in order to stop the federal government from redistributing its wealth to less affluent regions, and as a measure of defence against Canada’s publicly-funded health care, and Canada Pension Plan.  Later that year, Harper wrote that  Canada "appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country".
These are just outliers, suggestions as to the terrible government he has provided us with during his  seven years in power. The worst of it has been since May 2011, when he won a majority of seats in the House of Commons, although by no means a majority of voters were on his side.  In fact, the number of voters who have supported him in any of the three elections in which he has been declared victor, has never risen above 40 per cent (and has been quite a bit below that, with 36,3 per cent of cast ballots in 2006, 37.7 per cent in 2008, and 39.6 per cent in 2011.
 In countries with a proportional representation system of voting, where coalitions are the norm, it would not have been automatically accepted that since the Conservatives had the largest single bloc of voters, they would therefore be given the chance to form the government. In fact, Stephen Harper himself recognized this was not an immutable rule of Canadian politics when in 2004 he joined with the leaders of the Bloc Quebecois and New Democratic parties to sign a letter to the then governor-general, Adrienne Clarkson, which said: “We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.”

The three party leaders held a joint press conference at which they expressed their intent to ask that the Governor General consult  them before deciding to call an election, in the event of Harper’s defeat in the House. At the news conference, Harper said "It is the Parliament that's supposed to run the country, not just the largest party and the single leader of that party. That's a criticism I've had and that we've had and that most Canadians have had for a long, long time now so this is an opportunity to start to change that." 

A measure of Harper’s unquenchable hypocrisy is that in 2008, when the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois proposed to form a coalition government, should Harper be defeated on a motion of no-confidence, which was due to be voted at the beginning of the following week, Harper asked for, and received, for the first time in Canadian history, a prorogation of Parliament which enabled him to escape the suggestion that in the event of defeat (which was staring him in the face) the governor-general might ask the other parties to form a government  The inexperienced governor-general Michaelle Jean, granted the prorogation, and  meantime the Liberals changed their leader, and their new leader Michael Ignatieff decided he didn’t have the stomach to become Prime Minister immediately, and the opportunity to get rid of Harper was lost.

Harper’s willingness, in 2004 to be part of a combined coalition to overthrow the Liberals, evaporated when his own government was the target, and he conducted a disreputable campaign suggesting that somehow the opposition parties were proposing to undermine the whole system of Canadian government.

Anyway, we all know Harper’s record as Prime Minister, his excessive secrecy, his love of brute force (indicated by his “tough on crime” legislation, even though crime has been reducing in Canada for several years), his slavish kow-towing to the U.S., his mean-spirited closing down of such things as the grant to citizens to pursue cases under the  Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his slaughtering of environmental regulation established by previous governments, and so on and on.

So this is Article No. 1 in my intention to join the campaign to get rid of Harper by whatever means are necessary within the confines of civilized behaviour.

More will follow.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Log 336 Jan 8 2013 Indigenous peoples have learned the first lesson: they should stand proudly on their inherited rights and titles, refuse to extinguish these rights, insist on their capacity to govern themselves.

Cree (Photo credit: Evan Prodromou)

 When one has been writing about indigenous peoples for more than 40 years, one becomes familiar with patterns of behaviour among the non-indigenous as they try to relate to the problem of these mysterious people living among them.

Every now and again, for example, there is a flurry of interest among academics and journalists who write sometimes long and detailed accounts of the problems, and usually end up by producing their prescriptions of what is needed. This happened around the development of the Reform party a few years ago. Headed by Tom Flanagan, a Goldwater republican from the U.S. who became a close adviser to Stephen Harper, the right-wing academics and journalists suddenly began to trumpet their newly discovered solution to the problems of the indigenous: all they need to do is to assimilate to the dominant society, to forget their inherited values and beliefs, and to face the facts of life just as if they are any white Canadians, scrabbling for an education that would fit them to make a living, and going out there into the labour market to get a job. Tom Flanagan wrote two books on the subject without ever having set foot in an indigenous community in Canada. Unfortunately, they all ignored that it was the Canadian policy of assimilation, their very solution,  that has ben government policy for at least 200 years and that has landed the indigenous in their present unhappy condition.

The indigenous are as a community, so poor that even to organize to have a political voice, they have had to depend on the federal government providing the money to back their organizations.  This has set up a conflict of interest that has for many years bedevilled relationships between the indigenous and the dominant society.

Any native leader worth his salt has chaffed under this conflict of interest, especially when his freedom of action is restricted against the threat of withdrawal of funds, something that happens all the time. So flagrant is this conflict of interest that the federal government’s management of the funds entrusted to it is not something that can exposed to examination. When David Crombie was minister of Indian affairs many years ago, he asked 64 questions of his officials, all of which had to do with the federal management of its trustee funds: Crombie was removed from office by Brian Mulroney (under pressure from his officials) before they had time to answer any of those questions (which remain unanswered to this day.)
We are in the midst of yet another of these flurries of interest, and as I sit here thinking about this, flashes of things I have seen over the years keep coming back to me:

*When I began in 1968 I went to the small town of Armstrong in the roadless tract of northern Ontario, north of Lake Superior, where I found two groups who depended for their support on the federal government. At one end of the town the staff of a Mid-Canada corridor tracking station, living in comfortable houses, eating the best food money could buy, their every need catered to by a grateful government employer; at the other end of town, huddled in a handful of miserable huts, a community of Ojibwa who had moved in desperation from their reserve on the shores of Lake Nipigon during the war, and were now trapped in the most abject poverty, their every need ignored by an indifferent government which was supposed to be concerned with their welfare.

*Four years later, when the James Bay Cree went to court in 1972 to contest the Quebec government’s decision to fill their traditional hunting territories with dams and mile after mile of dykes, and huge reservoirs, and vast electricity generating stations, whose production was to be sold to consumers in New York and other New England states, I listened to the lawyers for Quebec argue that they really didn’t have a case to answer because the concept of Aboriginal rights and titles in the land the Cree had always occupied was totally illusory, did not exist in any recognizable legal form, and would not occupy them for more than a couple of days, if that.

*Nine months later, Judge Albert Malouf, in a memorable judgment, declared that interference in the way of life of the Cree population threatened their very existence, and he ordered Quebec to stop trespassing on the Cree land and halt all work on the project. This judgment sent a shock wave through the legal profession in Canada, for was not the law in place to defend property rights, and was not this land the property of the Quebec government? Malouf, to put it mildly, cast doubt on this.

*Within a week the exhaustive inquiry carried out by Malouf over more than six months of hearings was set aside in a two day hearing of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which declared the balance of advantage favoured the state-owned company that was already doing the preliminary work on the project. And so, after a lengthy negotiation, the Cree, gun held at their head, signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, implementation of which occupied their lawyers almost non-stop for the next 25 years until the Cree, worn out by the struggle, gave up and accepted money in return for their agreement to add their cherished homeland river, the Rupert, to the list of rivers that Hydro-Quebec has dammed and diverted.

Enough of these snippets. I had seen enough to realize that the first and essential step in rehabilitation of the life of Canada’s indigenous people was for them to rediscover their pride, their values, the beliefs instilled in them by their ancestors, in other words, to base their revival on the concept of Aboriginal rights and title, a concept and practice that far preceded even the arrival of European invaders in the seventeenth century, a concept that they call today their inherited rights and title to this land known as Canada.

How often, over these years, have I met young indigenous people in their twenties who have told me how ashamed they were at the age of 13 or 14 to be Indians, and how they had suddenly awakened to the fact it was nothing to be ashamed of, their shame was willed on them by the dominant governmental powers, but that on the contrary their  race and heritage should be a matter of intense pride?

 So here we are today in another of these flurries of interest. The same old tiresome clichés are being trotted out to portray the indigenous as sort of half-witted, trapped in their meaningless concepts from the past. Probably Canada’s leading political columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, of the Globe and Mail, this week, in a shameful article, has consigned all of the indigenous past into a sort of dream-palace, as he describes it, into which most indigenous people in Canada have retreated as they wallow in poverty and backward conditions, utterly out of touch with reality, hoping the federal government will keep them alive with its contributions. 

But is there something different this time around? Have the indigenous peoples at last got themselves together to stand proudly on their Aboriginal rights and title, as guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution of 1981? In 2008 a group of indigenous leaders got together, calling themselves the Defenders of the Land, and issued a manifesto dedicating themselves to creating “a fundamental movement for indigenous rights.”

Among other things they declared:
“We have the right and responsibility to look after our lands and waters. No development can take place on our lands without our free, prior, and informed consent. ‘Self-government’ that does not include control of our lands is no self government at all. A ‘duty to consult’ that does not allow us to say ‘no’ to development is meaningless.
 “We reject the extinguishment of Aboriginal title through treaty, and any interpretations of historical treaties that falsely claim, against the united voices of our Elders and ancestors, that we have extinguished title to our traditional territories. We reject any policy or process that aims at extinguishing Aboriginal title, including contemporary treaty and comprehensive land claims processes.
 “The Indian Act is a fundamental injustice and the product of racism and colonialism. It has no basis in any treaty and has been imposed on our peoples by Canada without our consent. It imposes on us a foreign system of government in which accountability is to masters in Ottawa and not to our peoples. It denies us our freedom to define for ourselves who we are and who are the members of our nations. Only Indigenous peoples have the right to make these determinations.”

Now, the Defenders of the Land have welcomed the Idle No More movement, also a movement that rejects the government-imposed system of indigenous governance.
This movement is standing on the proud heritage of the beliefs and values handed down from their elders and ancestors, who formed self-governing nations, capable of governing themselves, conducting trading relationships, and defending their lands, before the arrival of the Europeans, and the subverting influence of Christianity came among them.

Prime Minister Harper will need to step very carefully when the meets the chiefs and the leaders of Idle No More, with Defenders of the Land also in attendance, at the end of this week.

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Friday, January 4, 2013

My Log 335 Jan 4 2013 Guy Borremans, a brilliant cameraman who shot my first film, Job’s Garden, in the very first days of the James Bay hydro construction more than 40 years ago, dies at the age of 78.

Longue Pointe, on James Bay
 James Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 It is in the time-honored tradition that one does not speak ill of the dead that I comment on the death this week of Guy Borremans. He was the cameraman on the first film I ever made, for the Indians of Quebec Association, back in 1972. It was an impossible project, achieved without enough money, requiring all of us to work in almost inexplicably dreadful conditions, but it was Guy who had to work in the worst conditions, and he pulled it off triumphantly.

He wasn’t, shall we say, an easy guy to work with. But the obituaries written of him this week have described him as the best Quebec photographer of the 20th century, and other extravagant praise. He was a brilliant cameraman, and no matter that one might finish a job with him muttering that he was an impossible son of a bitch, one nevertheless had to honor him for the brilliance of his work.

The film, which somehow or other got finished, was called Job’s Garden. It originated in the fact that when the Indians of Quebec Association tried to deal with the Quebec government about their claim to their traditional land, they discovered that the government would not take any information they produced seriously, because --- well, simply because it came from Indians, and they seemed to believe that Indians didn’t know anything about the land of Quebec, even though they had been living on it, and making their living from it for generations untold.

So, they decided to gather a group of sympathetic scientists and send them north on a three week flash tour of the James Bay region so that they could produce some information the government would at least bother to read. They established a task force under the leadership of Dr.John Spence, an Irish scientist who worked at McGill, and someone in the association came round and asked if I would be interested in making a film about the task force.

As it happens I had not long before quit my job as a daily journalist, and was looking for work; and so had my friend Jean-Pierre Fournier, with whom I had been working on and off in the newspapers since the late 1950s. He like me, thought we should seize the opportunity to make a few bucks, and we decided to embark on the project, even though neither of us had ever made a film, and, not to put too fine a point on it, hardly knew one end of a camera from the other.

We didn’t know too many cameramen, either. But we both knew Guy --- he  and his wife had looked after my four small kids for a couple of weeks while my wife and myself went on holiday to Mexico, and the main thing he left behind from that experience was a superb picture of our four children that we still cherish. We knew he was usually looking for work, just as we were. So we went to see him, explained the deal as far as we could --- which wasn’t very far --- and he agreed to take part in this mad adventure. My innocence of film-making was so profound that I had no idea that an assistant cameraman was needed, and urged Guy to try to do without one, something he agreed to reluctantly (because he needed the money so badly).  Only later as shooting got under way, did I realize how ridiculous this gap in our team was, how impossible it made effective work, how foolish we were to undertake the job without this essential member of the team, whose primary concern is to keep the film magazines loaded at all times so that, when one magazine was exhausted, a new magazine could be clicked into place with the minimum delay.

Nor did we have a sound man, but we took care of this by having Jean-Pierre take a ten minute lesson in use of the Nagra tape-recorder from his brother Daniel, who was a professional soundman, and who sent us on our way with many expressions of dismay at what we were undertaking.

The vicissitudes that afflicted our unlikely triumvirate, going into the northern wilderness to make a film on a subject we had not decided upon, with the minimum of hired equipment, and with only one member who had any idea of how to make that equipment work --- all that is far too complex to describe here. I have described it in my book, written twenty-five years after the event, The Memoirs of A Media Maverick, but since this book sold only about 300 copies, and quickly disappeared from the small number of shops it ever got into, readers are unlikely to ever find a copy in these times.

On our first shoot, a meeting of the Fort George populace to hear what the scientists were proposing to do, we blew the lights of the village hall within minutes, Guy, bless his heart, developed a fever and stomach pains, and had to go to hospital, and we were immediately faced with the likely failure of our whole project, right off the top.  Fortunately, Guy’s  physical problems were not of lasting quality: apparently he had a tendency to be physically affected in this way whenever he started shooting a new film. So we survived that.

Within a couple of days we had decided to forget the scientists and to build a film around a local hunter and his wife, Job Bearskin, who promised to collaborate with us in the interest of making known the attitudes and opinions of his people about this massive project being built in their hunting grounds, entirely without their consent.

We took a trip up the La Grande river in a couple of canoes, Job leading the way and giving us the benefit of his superb knowledge of every rock and eddy on this magnificent river. Guy was euphoric when we reached the first rapids on the La Grande, a traditional meeting place for the community, who came up to net whitefish which came in from the sea every year to spawn beneath the rapids.  The neighbouring forest was open, permeated by an incandescent sort of light, and sent Guy into reveries of pleasure, exclaiming that he had to come up there and live with these people. He managed to take some lovely shots of these forests, and others  of uneerily beautiful quality, of Job going out into the river to check the nets he had put out the previous evening.  But it was all too much for him: he returned from all this filming by throwing down his camera, saying it was impossible without an assistant cameraman, he had no time to consider the shots he was taking or should take, and he just couldn’t work like this anymore.

One could hardly blame him: but once again we were saved by the bell, a young Cree who had been trained in the Indian film crew at the National Film Board and had returned to his native village, Gilbert Herodier, now stepping forward to undertake the essential work of assistant.

On our return from that trip our project reached its lowest ebb: Jean-Pierre had been viciously bitten by mosquitoes and could scarcely see, so swollen was his face; I had entirely lost my voice; and Guy was oppressed by the lack of proper food --- we had been reduced to scrabbling around for food in the kitchen of the student residence in which we wee billeted.

Jean-Pierre unexpectedly had to return to Montreal to take care of his pregnant wife, leaving me to act as soundman --- undoubtedly the least able and worst prepared soundman in the history of film-making, whose sound --- which was supposed to be in sync with the pictures --- was totally out of sync, and the syncing up of which occupied almost half of the precious three weeks we had available for editing the film.   In later stages of the project Jean-Pierre saved our bacon by using his excellent contacts in the Radio-Canada TV network to obtain a commitment from them to screen our film, and he also arranged for our outs to be sold to TVO, the Ontario government’s educational network --- both of which deals enabled us to struggle through the completion of the film without going into too drastic a debt. (The TV screening never took place, Radio-Canada submitting to pressure from the Quebec government not to screen the film. They did, however, honour our fee.)

Guy’s often splendid photography was the groundwork on which the film was based; and I played some small role in that by acting as assistant to Guy, carrying his camera through the bush after he made his shots and keeping him working in spite of all the discouragements of his terrible conditions of work.

So, somehow or other we got the film made. And the happy ending comes from the fact that even today Job’s Garden is immensely cherished by the Crees of James Bay, probably, I think, because one of Guy’s finest sessions of shooting came when Job Bearskin, having been up the river, gathered his old friends around a fire in his teepee, and they expressed what they thought of what was being done by the white men up the river. The faces of these men, behind the slowly drifting smoke from the fire, created a spectacle that I have never forgotten. And for me, that sequence alone --- one of the most moving ever shot  as these magnificent old men  expressed their opposition to the hydro project, can stand as Guy Borreman’s epitaph.

A son of a bitch he may have been at times, a difficult man to work with, but through it all he had the spirit and feeling to put on record the vast experience and deep feeling of these wonderful old men, who had lived their entire lives along the La Grande river, and to bring it forth so that those of us outside could begin to understand the human issues at stake. 

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Log 334 Jan 1 2013 David Lodge novel a classic satire on the incestuous world of academia, as they instruct people on how to run the world.

Cover of "Small World"
Cover of Small World
In my last entry, which mentioned in passing my failing memory, I promised to write about a book I have been reading (if I could remember the title). I have found a fairly lively reaction to my comments on failing memory, especially among those of my acquaintance who are in their seventies, not so much commiserating with me in my own failings, but rather welcoming me to the club.

Meantime I have discovered some facts that throw a light on what we consider to be our failing memories. As I mentioned yesterday, no human mind can handle the amount of information we force into our brain day by day, where it is rapidly forgotten.

I began to take notes on my reading and watching in mid-December, and yesterday I discovered that in 12 days I had watched some 18 films, or extended TV shows, and had read five books. Already, the memory of most of these has begun to fade.

But one that is still fairly lively and ticking over for me is a book called Small World, by a writer called David Lodge, a hilarious satire on the world of academia and its habit of spending its summers at academic conferences. This is right up my street, for there is, hidden away deep in the far recesses of my mind, such as it is (one might call this the dark underbelly of my thinking), a belief that we have too much education. This has led to my persistent suspicion of universities and their brain-washing function, by which they prepare their students, from whatever background they might arise, to undertake the governing functions in our society, but always in such a way as to serve the interests of the wealth-owners, whose creatures the Gods of academia are. Okay with this in mind, Lodge’s book is a barrel of laughs that should appeal to almost anyone, except those --- hundreds of thousands of them at any one time --- who have a vested interest in the university system.

Lodge creates and follows a rich variety of academic characters, spread around the globe, but they are people who meet frequently because they are always going to the same conferences. People like Persse McGarrigle, a naïve young Irishman who is one of three tutors in English at a poorly-funded university in Limerick, a man so naïve that even in the overheated world of academia where professors are always finding each other as love partners, or screwing their senior students, Persse remains strictly virginal. His specialty is the influence of Shakespeare on T.S. Eliot; but in a moment of madness, when under stress, he mentions that he specializes in the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare, which brings one of the academic publishers who attend such conferences to his side, whispering that it is a very interesting concept, and he would like to see it when Persse is finishing developing the idea, with a view to publishing a book on the subject.

Persse is not really at home in the world that takes seriously Chaucerian metrics, or the universality of sexual symbolism, or the influence of continental theorizing on the English novel, all of them samples of the sort of subjects discussed at the endless conferences in Norway, or Tokyo, or Darlington, England, or Rome, or wherever. But when a beautiful  American blonde that he runs across at the beginning of the book expresses a profound interest in symbolism, and tries to inveigle Persse into attending a lecture on “Animal Imagery in Dryden’s Heroic Tragedies,” Persse finds himself hopelessly in love, and spends the rest of the book desperately trying to catch up with her as she circumnavigates the globe, from conference to conference, always just out of his reach.

Then there is Phillip Swallow, who was rumoured in a previous year to have had an affair with the wife of Morris Zapp, as Morris had concurrently with Mrs. Swallow. Both are now divorced, and Morris, a cigar-chewing American, has the ambition to become the highest paid English professor in the world. Long behind him are his philandering days. Now he marches up and down across the platform, chewing on the cigar, and apologizing for his mistaken and abandoned belief that the goal of reading was to establish the meaning of texts.  “You see before you,” he declaimed, “a man who once believed in the possibility of interpretation….I used to be a Jane Austen man…..I think I can say in all modesty I was the Jane Austen man. I wrote five books on Jane Austen….” His aim now to comment on Jane Austen so exhaustively than there would be nothing further to say on the subject.

“To understand a message is to decode it,” he said, coming to the nub of his current outlook, “Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding….”

With this hilariously meaningless mantra, he was now out to demolish his competitors as they all struggled to catch the eye of the German professor who was to make the choice for the occupant of the newly-establish UNESCO Chair of Literary Criticism, which  promised to be the sinecure to end all sinecures, located in no one city, requiring no specific work, hugely paid and monumentally influential. The trouble seemed to be that the arbiter of this appointment was an expert in Rexeptionsasthetik and not everyone could meet that obscure standard, or even understand what it was.

I hope readers have got the picture. The book is a reassure-trove of jokes satirising the pretensions of academics and their often overblown meaningless concepts. At one point Morris is kidnapped by Italian terrorists, but when they get in touch with his divorced wife Desiree, with their demand for $100,000, her response is, “How much do I have to pay to make you keep him?” He is eventually released for a pittance: he just wasn’t worth much to anybody.

The book ends with the biggest conference of all, the annual beanfeast of the MLA, the Modern Language Association of America, that attracts no fewer than 10,000 academics, doing their stuff in 600 separate sessions on such subjects as “Readability and Reliability in the Epistolary Novel of England, France and Germany,” or “Problems of Cultural Distortion in Translating Expletives in the work of Cortazar, Sender, Baudelaire and Flaubert.”

This is meat and drink to them, and only the occasional academic contemplates suicide in face of his or her inevitable failure.

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