Archive for May, 2010

Brian Lee Crowley: Moving Out of America’s Shadow?

It’s the classic tale of hopes dashed through craven failure to heed a hero’s words. Wilfrid Laurier said that Canada would own the twentieth century. It didn’t happen.

As Brian Lee Crowley, Jason Clemens, and Niels Veldhuis tell it, Canadians failed to claim their place in the world because they abandoned Laurier’s economic program (Canada’s Century, Moving Out of America’s Shadow, published this week by Key Porter for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Policy Studies). But we may yet prevail!  Laurier envisaged this country as an “economic out-performer,” they argue; “a land of work for all who want it, of opportunity, investment, innovation, and prosperity.” We have only to gather up our courage.

The prime interest of this book lies in the comparison of Laurier’s policies with economic reforms of the 1980s that were introduced equally by political parties of the right, left, and centre at both levels of government in an effort to reduce deficits and strengthen the Canadian economy. I will leave the discussion of these reforms and the comparison with Laurier to the economists, noting only that while the book has a strongly nationalist bent – the authors’ hope is that Canada will move out of “America’s long shadow” – the reforms said to exemplify Laurier’s wisdom and Canada’s hopes are typically neo-liberal. It used to be received wisdom that the Canadian way of life was preferable to the American because it was less individualistic and less materialistic. Crowley, Clemens, and Veldhuis argue that the Canadian way – Laurier’s way, as they convince us – is superior because it respects individual freedoms, rewards individual effort, and generates wealth for all.

It’s an inspiring project. There’s one point that need clarifying – needs, I would say, sober second thought. The authors propose a joint committee of Congress and Parliament to determine Canadian-American issues. They write:

“By creating a formal joint body, composed of equal numbers of members from both national legislatures, co-chaired by a Canadian and an American, required to meet regularly and frequently, and empowered to hold hearings, summon witnesses and issue reports to the two originating bodies [Parliament and Congress] we move continental issues into the heart of [policy-makers’] decisions. We engage senators and representatives by giving them a forum to voice their concerns and get their issues on the table. Creating a body where important policymakers get to know one another and learn to cooperate across the border to advance their issues builds relations that can only advance Canada’s interests. (See Canada’s Century, pages 167-169, or the excerpt from Canada’s Century in the National Post, Thursday May 27, A19).

Whoa! A continental legislative committee? I can’t see all the ramifications. Would all political parties be represented? Our four Canadian parties plus their two? What’s the view in the Canadian provinces about this idea of an American-Canadian committee of legislators? The authors suggest that the joint body should meet “regularly and frequently.” Will that mean that members will sometimes be absent from their national legislature on vital matters? Will they sometimes be absent from Parliament and Congress when Canadian-American matters come up at home?

The Canadian Parliament is a national institution, representing all Canadians. Each Member of Parliament speaks for her/his home constituency and also for the country of Canada from coast to coast to coast. The great strength of a parliament is that in law each member must debate national issues with his home constituency in mind, and matters of importance to his constituents with the nation in mind. It’s not an easy thing to do as Edmund Burke knew and as every Canadian MP and Senator knows.

Will a continental legislative committee take us out of America’s shadow? Or effect a continental political integration?


The Glorious Revolution: A Non-Event?

In 1988, I wanted to attend the Tercentenary of England’s Glorious Revolution. In the texts I was reading – Lord Durham’s Report (1839); Pierre Bédard’s political journal, Le Canadien (1806 to 1810) – the Revolution of 1688 was the fons et orgio of all that is best in the English Constitution.

I had no invitation and at that time, no money. Poor, colonial Janet, stuck on the other side of the ocean, out of the game.

Now I learn from Steve Pincus, 1688, The First Modern Revolution (Yale University Press, 2009), that the Tercentenary was a quiet affair, hardly a celebration, at which the assembled scholars agreed that 1688 had been “restorative and conservationist in effect,” not revolutionary and not glorious.

As his title suggests, Pincus holds  a different view. Indeed, his opinions resemble those of Durham and Bédard.

In a back-cover tribute, Bernard Bailyn writes: “Pincus challenges the orthodox view that the Glorious Revolution was moderate, peaceful, and conservative and reveals a violent transformational event that revolutionized England’s state, church, and political economy, and political economy and introduced political modernity.”

Neo-Colonialism and Afghan Detainees

In Imagine Democracy (Stoddart, 2000), Judy Rebick argued that the West could be learning from the various societies in the developing world. “Instead we have brutally imposed our ideas about how society should work on them.”

The West’s supposed commitment to individual rights and our boasts about democracy are said to be little more than a cloak for our true objective, which is to maintain control of the economy in former colonies. We are “neo-colonists.” In Transforming Power (Penguin, 2009), Rebick takes a further step. What we in the West should be learning from the developing world are “new ways of achieving political goals by emphasizing co-operation and consensus.”

I don’t know what Rebick herself is saying about the Afghan detainees. But not a few of her colleagues on the political left are now demanding stricter adherence to Western laws and values. It is said that Afghans suspected of crimes or acts of terror, and Afghans held in prisons, are entitled to the guarantees for life, liberty and security of the person entrenched in the British common law, the American Bill of Rights, and the Canadian Charter.

Few are recommending “co-operation and consensus.” The Canadian Army cooperated with Afghan nationals. There was a consensus. The wisdom of cooperation and consensus is what is being called in question.

Rex Murphy on Human Nature

“Those in government, with rare exceptions, neither trust nor admire those whom they govern. They see themselves as superior to their electorates.” That’s Rex Murphy’s view (National Post, May 8).

He goes on: the majority of Western politicians are “play actors, manipulators, main-chancers, entranced with their power and prestige, hop-scotching in and out of Davos, the G20 summits, Copenhagen this week, Huntsville the next, chatting up their fellow touts on hotlines and secure BlackBerrys, cocooned above and out of the play of ordinary life, and above all so superior and damn sure of themselves.”

What an outburst! (Murphy was describing Gordon Brown’s reaction to the Labour Party lady who had a question about “immigration.”)

But he’s right! You’ve got it right, Rex. You’ve just left out one thing. We are all like that! You’re describing human nature. We all want endless approval, and “reinforcement;” we want to be admired above other persons. And we also want to disguise this endless craving. We want to be more modest than anyone else. First in the category of modesty. (But occasionally we’re discovered. We leave the microphone open.)

Thomas Hobbes pictures human nature in this fashion. You and Hobbes are two of a kind, Rex. And to repeat: you’re right. So pity the poor politicians: they have so many more opportunities to entertain the universal fantasy: “I’m admired. I’m first. I’m just great. And so delightfully modest about it.”

The institutions of liberal democracy were devised expressly to secure us from the worst effects of that universal craving for pre-eminence among the talented men and women who take up careers in politics. Hence the contestation of political parties for office; the safeguards for free parliamentary speech, especially speech opposing the party in office; periodic elections, and the requirement that deposed politicians return to the general populace to live with the laws that they have made.

And of course – and not least – a free press. Thanks, Rex.

Chris Moore on The Heave and Gordon Brown

Historian Christopher Moore famously approves of “the heave,” the parliamentary convention, or practice, which allows members of a party’s parliamentary caucus to depose their leader, to give him or her the heave-ho. In Moore’s opinion, the practice is preferable to selection of the leader at a party convention, because it curbs prime ministerial high handedness.

Thus he says in a recent blog:

“… surely the Labour Party caucus would have removed Gordon Brown from the leadership before the election. Now, days after he goes to the electorate as party leader, he decides he will step down. The party will not have a leader until next September, and that leader will not be accountable to the Labour MPs just selected by the voters.

“Poor Britain. What’s happening there is not the Americanization of the political process but its Canadianization. It used to be that Canada was the only parliamentary democracy dominated by autocratic leaders chosen by self-selected mobs in arenas, accountable to no one, and always staying on far beyond their time. Now we see the same situation in Britain.

“British Labour, it’s true, has long been somewhat Canadianized in this regard. Extra-parliamentary factors have long had some influence on leadership selection… resulting in a long run of unelectable leaders (Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown) and the occasional charismatic tyrant (Tony Blair). But now it’s taken over the whole system.” (Christopher Moore’s History News, May 11, 2010)

And here’s Moore on Warren Kinsella’s suggestion that Mr. Harper kick Senator Nancy Ruth out of the caucus:

“Where does this crazy notion come from, that leaders kicking people out of caucus is a good idea? In functioning parliamentary systems, party leaders are part of caucus and subject to its discipline just as other caucus members. The idea of party leaders as unaccountable dictators free to end the career of parliamentarians not slavishly loyal to them personally is anti-parliament, anti-democratic, and deeply dangerous. Nothing is more worth encouraging than the freedom of parliamentarians to say unpopular, inconvenient, even foolish things, free of censorship by the party Central Committee and its spin doctors.

“… nothing damages Canadian political life more than the rarely challenged assumption of Canadian party apparatchiks that the absolute power of unaccountable leaders is not merely a good thing but a thing beyond discussion or reconsideration.

“If the Senate Conservative caucus collectively thoughy it necessary to censure Senator Ruth, that’s one thing. But if the Conservative leader attempts to send Senator Ruth to Siberia, the Senate caucus should tell him to shove it.” (Christopher Moore’s History News, May 4, 20/10).

Thanks Chris. Accuse me of stealing your thunder if you like. Or take it as a tribute.

William Thorsell’s Senate

In an article slamming Stephen Harper’s proposals for reform of the Canadian Senate (Saturday’s Globe and Mail), William Thorsell pulls out all the stops.

Harper’s elective Senate would “encourage delay and obstruction of legislation by factions with Senate seats (separatists, religious groups, [and] cantankerous individuals beyond the discipline of a caucus in the House of Commons).”

“Separatists, religious groups and cantankerous individuals!” Well, no right-thinking person would want to turn the government of Canada over to separatists and cranks. But who is Mr. Thorsell really talking about when he speaks of members “beyond the discipline of a caucus in the House of Commons”? He is talking about what is usually called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

It is famously said about the British Parliamentary system that its most precious feature is the security it affords the opposition. Thorsell is calling for the opposition’s suppression. In his peculiar vision, parliamentary government is supposed to keep the stream of legislation rolling along with less “delay.” More laws! More laws! Less “obstruction.” Less noise from all opposed.

John A. Macdonald put the case for the parliamentary opposition this way. He was speaking in the debates of 1865 on the Quebec Resolutions. “[We] … enjoy the privileges of constitutional liberty according to the British system … We will enjoy here that which is the great test of constitutional freedom – we will have the rights of the minority respected. In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty and safe from the tyrannies of a single tyrant or of an unbridled democracy that the rights of minorities are regarded.” By “the minority” and “minorities,” Macdonald meant the political groups and parties on the opposition benches, the groups and individuals that disagreed with the governing majority.

It’s truly surprising how little understanding Thorsell has of the Westminster system. The Senate or Upper Chamber – call it by whatever name – has a vital role to play in querying, stalling or vetoing legislation when a prime minister attempts to use his clout in the Commons to ride roughshod over dissenters.

The importance Macdonald attached to the Senate’s obligations in this regard is shown by his reluctance to countenance appointment of additional senators to break a deadlock between legislative houses. (There was no provision for appointment of additional senators in the Quebec Resolutions.) He said:

“No ministry in Canada in the future can do what they have done in Canada before – they cannot, with the view of carrying any measure or of strengthening the party, attempt to overrule the independent opinion of the upper house by filling it with its partisans and political supporters.”

Macdonald was the leader of the majority party in the provincial assembly. He was in his prime. He could expect to lead the Conservatives, the province, and if all went as expected and hoped for, the new country, for years to come. Yet here he in the debates on the new constitution defending the rights of the opposition parties, that is, the Independents, the Liberals, and the Rouges. And to secure those rights he wants the new nation to have an effective upper house, with powers secured by the law.

Thorsell tries to spice up his argument with a little anti-Americanism. An elected Senate “would import much of the American political dynamic (or disease).” But it’s a dreary essay. He is looking forward to the Senate’s demise.

The Spinster of Arts

I read in Wikipedia: “Janet Ajzenstat is a Professor Emerita …”

“Emerita”! Why the feminine form? Beats me.

Janet graduated from the university as a Bachelor of Arts. Should we now be referring to her as a Spinster of Arts?

She has an M.A. What’s that in newspeak? “Mistress of Arts”? Well, that sounds interesting!

She’s held fellowships. Sisterships? “Womanships?” The Jules and Gabrielle Léger Womanship?

It’s all very amusing. But dear friends, we don’t speak of poetesses any more. Or waitresses. The women who used to be called actresses are now actors  – except on awards nights. There are still seamstresses, I admit, but the sculptresses are gone. And it’s been a very long time since we had an aviatrix.

Let me appeal to the Emeritae!  (“Professors Emeritae”!) Move with the times. Claim the title. Become Professors Emeritus.