Sunday, November 27, 2011

(Somewhat, kind of) Ethical Oil?

This morning I awoke to find a fair bit of chatter on Twitter among the #cdnpoli crew about "ethical oil." The catalyst for the discussion was this excellent article in the Edmonton Journal by Trish Audette.

Reading the article got me thinking more about whether proponents of the ethical oil argument were being too limited in their definition of the word ethical.

At its heart, the word ethical relates to morals and principles which are commonly held. In effect, it speaks to the notion of right and wrong.

The ethical oil camp has rightly suggested that democratic principles, the treatment of women and broader support for human rights are areas where "ethical distinctions" can be made between states. So far so good.

However, their definition of ethical seems to suggest that environmental issues are secondary to notions of conflict and human rights; that environmental "rights and wrongs" do not warrant equal consideration when we ask ourselves whether the oil sands are ethical.

This is the same type of limited thinking that is used when one is asked to make a choice between jobs and the environment. The argument often boils down to "well, dealing with climate change will kill jobs." It is a form of mutual exclusivity which has thus far impeded real action on what is a global challenge.

If defined more broadly, the concept of ethical oil can serve as a useful guide to influence decision-making - by governments, businesses, and consumers. What is needed is a definition which is not designed to reach a specific conclusion; something which the current one often seems intended to do.

For Canadians to participate in this debate, we should strive for a definition which takes a balanced look at what ethical means in the context of an increasingly integrated 21st century society. One which equally considers rights, security, democracy, health, environmental footprint and climate change.

Until we come up with that definition, we should use caution when we describe our oil sands production as ethical. "Somewhat, kind of, ethical oil" might make more sense.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The long, slow death of Parliament

The end of 2011 will bring to a close a year during which the theme of death seemed to come up in our political discourse with increasing frequency. Whether it has been real death (the tragic passing of Mr. Layton), apparent death (the fall of the federal Liberals), or policy death (party subsidies, the wheat board) the concept of demise has been prevalent.

As we look towards 2012, the question I find myself asking is whether Parliament's obituary will be the next one written.

A lot of ink has been spilled and characters typed over the past several years about the decline of Parliament. Many chart the beginning of the decline to the centralization of decision-making in the Prime Minister's Office under Mr. Trudeau - something which continued through successive governments.

However, since 2006 this decline has accelerated. Minority Harper governments resulted in greater centralization in order to ensure consistency in messaging. It became increasingly about control.

At the same time, prorogation was used as a tool of convenience; a means of cutting off Parliamentary debate in order to avoid accountability. It was used first to avoid a confidence vote and a year later to avoid debate on the disclosure of documents. Finally, weak opposition and fears about elections exacerbated the problem as parties opted to bicker rather than debate.

These developments on their own are worrying enough. Unfortunately, there is more.

The standard of debate in Parliament has also been declining, and again the pace of that decline has accelerated. To anyone watching, the spectacle that has become our democracy is off-putting to say the least.

Obfuscation has been taken to new levels, insults are used with more vigour and intent, and personal attacks are no longer surprising anyone. All the while, real debate on the very important issues of the day doesn't take place.

And here's the thing. I don't think the government minds this decline at all.

In recent years, the Harper government has mastered the art of talking over Parliament. An argument can be made that the government made frequent efforts to circumvent it, and then used the resulting dysfunction as part of their pitch for a majority. Well they have that majority now and things have only gotten more toxic.

Using the argument of an electoral mandate, the government is doing all it can to push through its legislative agenda. However, this argument ignores the fact that the majority of Canadians chose other parties - a reality the Conservatives would be quick to point out should the situation be reversed.

So the vicious cycle continues with the opposition getting more desperate, the government taking greater license, and the institution looking less and less relevant as more and more decisions are taken and implemented far from its glaze.


This year our politics has seen tragic death in Mr. Layton's passing, and apparent death in the Liberal's fall. Are we also witnessing Parliament's death?

Every day that a Parliament does not work is a day a government can avoid accountability. This is what we are seeing today. Canadians need to reflect on Parliament's decline and ask themselves whether this is in their interest.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Role Reversal

Once upon a time there was a majority government that was prone to episodes of arrogance, and which would frequently demonize its opponents. When necessary, hardline tactics were used to end debate. They could be ruthless when necessary, capitalizing on the missteps of their opponents to secure victory.

At the same time there was an opposition. A collection of MPs, many of which shared similar views even if they did not share the same party affiliation. They were spirited, divided and frustrated. They did not consistently give the appearance of being a government in waiting.

This was the scene a decade ago. The government was Liberal and the opposition was the divided right (along with the NDP and the Bloc).

Fast forward ten years and the roles have been reversed.

The Conservatives are united and have their majority. They are a government which regularly faces accusations of arrogance and fear-mongering.

The progressive vote is now very much divided, with the NDP as the official Opposition and the Liberals trying to define themselves. Looking at the front benches of either, one struggles to see the makings of a full Cabinet.

While there are obvious differences to between the two eras, there are nevertheless interesting parallels that can be drawn - particularly for the opposition. I am going to focus on two: the pressure to merge; and the opportunity to influence.

1. The pressure to merge

In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was growing pressure for the parties of the right to merge. In the end, it took three things to make it happen. Mr Harper's leadership (with Mr. Mackay's acquiescence), the push from the conservative establishment, and the fear over what a (pre-sponsorship scandal) Martin government would do to the right in an election.

Looking at things today and we do not see the same pressure points, yet. Permanent leadership among the NDP and Liberals is needed for a real dialogue to occur. The absence of the election around the corner also means that the parties are not feeling that same level of fear Conservatives had when it was widely assumed Martin would take power and immediately seek his own mandate.

Finally, the progressive vote is only now starting to see what a Conservative majority looks like. Over the next 12-24 months - and two budgets - the answer to the question "what will a Harper majority look like" will be answered. Depending on that answer, the progressives may start to see greater impetus to merge.

2. The opportunity to influence

During the late 1990s, the conservative right gradually came to have some influence on policy. Deficit reduction and clarity act are the two big examples where their influence could be seen.

This is not to say that they drove these policies or exacted them out of the government. However, the fact that views they were expressing were shared by many Canadians helped move the Liberal government to act. Put another way, they were on the right side of the argument. This had the effect of allowing more Canadians to see the right as being able and ready to govern.

Looking at things today, the progressive opposition would do well to find similar such opportunities to get on the right side of the argument. They need to develop cogent positions which mirror the public mood and try to influence.

The first opportunity will come over the coming months as the government prepares what promises to be an austerity budget. This budget (and the next) will introduce sharp contrasts between the conservative and progressive views on the role of government. In other words, there is a great opportunity to do more than oppose - they can present an alternative.


The Conservative government isn't going anywhere for the next few years, and are well-positioned for the next decade. Those are the facts. However, the same could be said of the Liberals during much of their 13 years in power. The lesson - everything changes, so be prepared.

The progressive parties have time to prepare. Part of that preparation should include a meaningful discussion on merging. It should not be simply ruled out. They also need to use the coming months to start to develop policy positions which both reflect and influence how the public views the role of government.

In other words, they need to start down the path of looking like a viable alternative. It will take time, but it has to be done if they want to see roles reversed again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Everything's changed and nothing is different

Taking a break can be instructive. You can learn a lot just by stepping back, and not getting so immersed in the things which typically hold so much of your attention. For me it was not about breaking out of the Ottawa bubble - after all, this is my home. No, it was more about stepping out of the politics watcher bubble.

Call it a personal prorogation.

It was needed. 2011 has been an intense year for a politics watcher. A federal election in the spring, and a series of provincial elections in the fall. Lots to watch and digest. Which brings me to today and where things stand on the federal stage.

Roughly eight months on from when the federal writ was dropped and everything has changed.

- A minority is now a majority, and the Conservatives have complete control over both houses of Parliament.

- The NDP has become the Official Opposition, but are now (tragically) leaderless.

- The Liberals have fallen to being the third party in Parliament, and are in the midst redefining themselves and finding permanent leadership.

- The Bloc is in the process of fading from memory.

I would bet that back in the spring when Mr. Harper asked for his strong, stable majority his wildest dreams would not have looked like things do today.

And yet re-emerging from my personal prorogation, it feels like nothing has changed.


The tone of our politics has continued its slide downwards. The hostility among MPs is on the rise, with personal attacks popping up with greater frequency. The government has looked smug and dismissive; the opposition desperate and frustrated.

The loser in their war of words? You, me, debate and public policy.


Just when you thought Parliament could not look any less relevant to those outside the bubble, et voila. This is particularly frustrating.

Looking in from the outside, it often appears that many people worked tirelessly to get elected to Parliament for the sole purpose of showing that it can't work.

We have limited debate. Closure and other tactics are invoked quickly. MPs of all stripes continue to favour the embarrassment game in place of substance.


Whether it is a "tough on crime" approach that ignores all evidence that demonstrates it won't work, or a gun registry position that ignores the views of law enforcement in the name of the "base", the government insists on using its majority to play on the margins of what is significant and meaningful.

I get playing to the base - there is a time and place for it. It is part of politics. However, I am not certain this is the time. Particularly when I see what is happening in the world.

If ever there was a time to look like a government and not a party, this would be it. But this doesn't seem to be the case.


The federal election may have changed the landscape, but not the view. In many respects, it would appear that the Harper government got everything it wanted, so that it could do everything it was doing before.

If the stakes weren't so high, it would be laughable. Sadly, it is not.

Every day the world reminds us how interconnected we are, how fragile things can become, and how much more we accomplish when we work together. Canada and its politics need to heed this lesson.
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