Jack Layton’s hissy fit

The Canadian Parliament is back in session, and the Conservatives have just tabled a budget. Michael Ignatieff (Liberal leader) says the Liberals will support it. The headline takeaway is, The coalition is dead.

And Jack Layton (NDP leader) doesn’t like it. Not one little bit.

Ignatieff has asked for one concession:  that the Conservatives report back to Parliament “no later than five sitting days before the last allotted day in each of the supply periods ending March 26, 2009, June 23, 2009, and Dec. 10, 2009.” Ignatieff says,

Accountability is something that Stephen Harper has always said is important. I agree with him.

But this budget does not include one word about accountability.

We will require regular reports to Parliament on the budget’s implementation and its cost — one in March, one in June and one in December.

Each of these reports will be an opportunity to withdraw our confidence should the government fail Canadians.

Layton, who specializes in bristling with outrage, is bristling with outrage:

Mr. Layton, visibly angry, declared Mr. Ignatieff’s conditions a “fig leaf” for caving in to the Tories.

“What you and I heard today is that you can’t rely on Mr. Ignatieff to oppose Mr. Harper,” Mr. Layton said. “We have a new coalition: Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff.”

Therefore the NDP will oppose both the budget and the Liberal Party’s amendment to it.

Jack Layton, pool hustlerNDP leader Jack Layton

But here’s the thing. Jack Layton had an informal coalition with the Conservatives which lasted for two election campaigns (when the Liberal leader was Paul Martin). And that coalition was a very cynical manoeuvre, considering that the NDP is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Conservatives. (The NDP are often derided as “socialists”, although that’s an exaggeration of their policy positions.)

At the time, the Liberals were bleeding support. The NDP and the Conservatives were both vying for disillusioned Liberal voters. And so Canadians were treated to a bit of tag-team wrestling:  the Conservatives and the NDP took turns pile-driving the Liberals.

Relatively speaking, the Liberals and the Conservatives are not so far apart. Not since Stéphane Dion (decidedly left-wing in his views) was replaced by Michael Ignatieff (who is centre-right). And not since the Conservatives’ near-death experience in December led them to surrender to the deficit-spending-economic-stimulus craze currently sweeping the globe.

It seems a tad hypocritical to me that Layton, who was prepared to sell his soul to the Conservatives for the opportunity to gather Liberal voters into his basket, is now working himself up into a mustache-quivering lather because Ignatieff is going to support the Conservative Party’s economic stimulus budget.

And here’s the other thing. As I’ve already mentioned, the NDP are going to oppose the Liberal amendment to the budget. But the amendment calls for the Conservatives to report back to Parliament. How can the NDP justify voting against accountability to Parliament?

In sum, Jack Layton threw a hissy fit yesterday. I guess it’s not too shocking, given that his pool trick has misfired.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives say they will support the Liberal amendment:

By 4 p.m., the government, relieved that the conditions did not require more substantive concessions, accepted the amendment, saying that providing updates to Parliament and facing votes wasn’t really a new burden.

“This is nothing new. … We always report back to Parliament,” Government House Leader Jay Hill said.

“The amendment just states the obvious, so we’re very pleased to comply with it as we move forward.”

Hence the budget will pass. The Conservatives have survived last month’s crisis, and they will continue to govern for the immediate future.

Meanwhile, Canadians will get their economic stimulus package. Now we don’t have to feel like we’re missing out on the goodies every other Western nation is receiving from its government.

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Why would any student choose York University?

Teachers at York University have been on strike since Nov. 6. That’s 81 days and counting that students have been denied the education they paid for.

OK, strikes are sometimes justified. But York University experiences more strikes than your average institution of higher education:

York University has a history of faculty/TA strikes. In 1997, there was a faculty strike by YUFA that lasted seven weeks. At the time, this was the second longest strike in Canadian University history. Key issues in the strike included retirement, funding, and institutional governance. In 2001, TAs and contract faculty went on strike for 11 weeks, when the university broke its own record.

York has now broken its own record again. (News media have inaccurately described this strike as the longest strike at a university in Canadian history. In fact, it’s the third longest, according to studentactivism.net.)

I was briefly a student at York in 1981-82, and I remember that classes were disrupted by a strike then. Chris, a commenter at CTV.ca, says, “I went to York from 1981-1986 and 4 of those” were strike years.

If memory serves, there was another strike sometime between 1987-1991. Add those strikes to the ones mentioned by Wikipedia, in 1997 and 2001. Now factor in the current strike, and it’s safe to conclude that the faculty at York University don’t give a shit about providing students with an education.

The provincial government has introduced legislation to order the York faculty back to work. I don’t agree with that decision:  I don’t regard a university as an essential public service.

(Here in Ottawa, we’re enduring a transit strike that has continued for a month and a half, with no end in sight. I think OC Transpo provides an essential public service and, in this case, drivers should be legislated back to work. The whole city has been disrupted, and a transit strike hits the working poor hardest of all. People in low-paying jobs may have no choice but to walk to work, no matter how long the walk, or they’ll be fired. And yet the government fails to act.)

In future, students should think twice about enrolling at York. Look at the history, guys and gals:  you stand a very good chance of having classes disrupted by a strike at some point in a four-year program. Maybe for as long as three months.

A university is not an essential public service, and teachers shouldn’t be legislated back to work. But students should enroll elsewhere:  let York University suffer the consequences of its appalling labour relations record.

The page turns

The Bush Administration prisoner, torture and rendition apparatus was effectively dismantled today with four pen strokes.

That’s Marc Ambinder, commenting on the orders that President Obama signed yesterday. I’ll continue to follow Ambinder’s account, except that I’ve reformatted it.

  1. prisoner:
    President Obama convened a panel to determine how to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison within a year. […] He ordered the government to give the International Committee of the Red Cross immediate access to detainees. All CIA “black” [i.e., secret, hidden] detention facilities will be closed.
     
  2. torture:
    He ordered that all intelligence gatherers limit their interrogation techniques to the published Army Field Manual, revoking Executive Order 13440, the now infamous Bush administration gloss on the Geneva Conventions. […] He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy.
     
  3. rendition:
    Renditions to countries that are known to torture prisoners will be stopped.

In relation to torture, I love this point:  He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy. Ben Smith supplies a direct quote:

The Order also prohibits reliance on any Department of Justice or other legal advice concerning interrogation that was issued between September 11, 2001 and January 20, 2009.

I don’t know how this plays in the USA, but it will definitely receive two thumbs up from the international community.

Beware politicians who warn of a crisis

We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime, a crisis that has only deepened over the last few weeks. […]

Now, I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible. […]

There is no doubt that the cost of this plan will be considerable. It will certainly add to the budget deficit in the short term.

But equally certain are the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all, for that will lead to an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes, and confidence in our economy.

It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth. But at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that is crippling our economy.

Barack Obama, in an economic statement Jan. 9, ten days before he takes office.

When politicians use the word “crisis”, it makes me nervous.

We’re just saying goodbye to eight years of crisis talk by the Bush administration. To be precise, seven years and four months:  from Sept. 11, 2001, through to the last days of the Bush presidency.

To paraphrase Obama:  a crisis justifies government in taking dramatic action. Right away!

At least he didn’t add, If you don’t support the government’s plan, you’re a commie faggot terrorist-sympathizing elitist anti-American enemy of freedom!

The p.s. is a paraphrase of President Bush, of course. Aggressive rhetoric was Bush’s standard tactic to suppress political opposition and democratic debate. And for a while, it worked. President Bush’s crisis talk produced a compliant population and a compliant political opposition.

Hence the title of this post:  Beware politicians who warn of a crisis.

We’re just saying goodbye to eight years of crisis talk by the Bush administration, and President-elect Obama is preparing to take office with some crisis talk of his own. It’s worrisome.

I’m an Obama supporter and I think there’s good reason to trust him. There seems to be a consensus among economists that a big stimulus package is the right medicine for this economic, uh … crisis.

The LA Times says that Keynesian economic theory has been discredited, but I don’t agree. What has been discredited is the tendency of certain governments to run massive deficits in times of prosperity. Take another bow, President Bush:

The federal government had a modest budget surplus when Bush took office in 2001, but ran a deficit — funding itself to a significant degree with borrowed money — of 4.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2004 and 4 percent in 2005, even as the economy was growing at a healthy pace.

Moreover, the fact that a bunch of hard-right Republican types are crying foul, and demanding big tax cuts for the wealthy instead, only strengthens my conviction that Obama has the right idea.

But when governments engage in crisis talk, the public needs to become exceptionally alert. The public should have been less credulous post 9/11. We should have grown suspicious when the administration kept changing its rationale for the invasion of Iraq. We should have paused to consider whether it was wise to divert attention to another theatre of war while Osama bin laden was still on the loose. We should have asked whether the prediction that American troops would be greeted as liberators, with flowers, was absurd and utopian. And when things went badly awry, the public should have demanded a change in leadership and a change in strategy — the sort of change that was finally introduced to Iraq only in 2006.

In a word, the public should have been more sceptical.

We shouldn’t forget this lesson now, just because Barack Obama is riding a wave of good will. He has impressed us greatly so far, and we all want him to succeed.

But that doesn’t mean we should avert our eyes, and let him run the show however he chooses. We should consider alternative points of view — unless the alternative prescription is to continue the very policies which have proven disastrous.

In fact, one of the reasons I trust Obama is because he engages with dissenting points of view instead of suppressing them. That may be the single most important metric to monitor. If Obama is engaging with his detractors, transparently and respectfully, we can take considerable comfort in that.

But if a time should come when Obama begins to belittle his political opponents and dismiss their suggestions reflexively — that would be a huge warning sign.

The general principle is, Beware politicians who warn of a crisis. Obama certainly deserves our trust as he takes office — but he deserves our scrutiny, too. That’s how democracy works.

Turning the page on torture

Remember: even the Pentagon concedes that a dozen prisoners have been tortured to death by US interrogators. Human rights groups put that number at close to a hundred. Most of the techniques we saw displayed at Abu Ghraib were authorized by the president and vice-president. And they monitored the waterboarding sessions very closely.

Andrew Sullivan

On Tuesday, Barack Obama will become the President of the United States of America. I strongly supported his candidacy, in part because he forthrightly opposed torture.

That’s a big change from the current administration.

Obama remains steadfast on this point, even though he’s no longer running for office. Here he is on Sunday, on ABC’s This Week. The discussion of torture is kicked off when Stephanopoulos quotes Dick Cheney at 1:33.

I’m not thrilled to see Obama waffle on the CIA’s “special” program. But he sounds all the right notes when he refers successively to the rule of law, the U.S. constitution, international standards, and America’s core values and ideals.

President Bush pays lip service to those concepts, too. He insists that all of the interrogation techniques his administration employed were lawful — even waterboarding. (Beginning at around forty seconds here.)

Obama is a constitutional lawyer; he knows what the law actually says. And I’m prepared to trust him when he says that his administration will act within the law.

America’s first black President? — that’s wonderful!

A President who will not torture? — that’s downright priceless!

Art masterpieces on Google Earth

Google Earth has partnered with the Museo del Prago to bring some of the world’s greatest art into your home:

Viewing a Velasquez or a Rembrandt in a place like Spain’s Prado museum is a unique experience. Now you can use Google Earth technology to navigate reproductions of the Prado’s masterpieces, delving even deeper into the Prado’s collection. In Google Earth, you can get close enough to examine a painter’s brushstrokes or the craquelure on the varnish of a painting. The images of these works are about 14,000 million pixels, 1,400 times more detailled than the image a 10 megapixel digital camera would take. In addition, you’ll be able to see a spectacular 3D reproduction of the museum.

To try it out for yourself, click here.

Battleground Ontario

The Liberal Party of Canada now has more electoral support than the Conservatives in Quebec and Ontario, according to a new poll. Not coincidentally, the Liberals have a new leader, Michael Ignatieff:

The Liberals have moved into a statistical tie with the governing Tories, according to the Nanos Research survey provided exclusively to The Canadian Press.

Liberal support stood at 34 per cent, one point ahead of the Conservatives and up eight points from the Liberals’ dismal showing in the Oct. 14 election under the leadership of Stéphane Dion.

The Tories slipped almost five points from the election to 33 per cent while NDP and Green support was virtually unchanged at 19 per cent and seven per cent respectively.

The Liberal resurgence was particularly pronounced in Quebec, where the poll indicates the party vaulted into the lead with 39 per cent support to 29 per cent for the Bloc Québécois, 17 per cent for the Tories and 14 per cent for the New Democrats. […]

[Mr. Nanos] said the poll could foreshadow a return to a more traditional two-party, east-west dynamic in federal politics, wherein the Tories dominate the West and are competitive with the Liberals in Ontario while the Grits are strong in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

“If the Liberals do manage to pick up support in Quebec, we’re actually going back the way Canadian politics was a decade ago,” he said.

According to the survey, Liberals expanded their lead in Atlantic Canada (44 per cent to the Tories’ 28 ) and regained a narrow lead in Ontario (39 per cent to the Tories’ 35 and the NDP’s 16).

The Conservatives continued to dominate western Canada, with 44 per cent to the Liberals’ 24 per cent and the NDP’s 23 per cent.

Regular readers will know that I predicted this development two months ago — before the abortive Liberal/NDP coalition, and before Michael Ignatieff was installed as Liberal leader. I wrote:

Canadian voters are waiting for Liberal Party to clean up its act. The other parties had two opportunities, in 2006 and 2008, to supplant the Liberals as Canada’s “natural governing party”. It didn’t happen. The Liberals have been given another opportunity to regroup.

Before long, Conservatives will be looking over their shoulders at a revitalized Liberal Party. The Bloc Québécois, the NDP, and the Green Party will be growing increasingly anxious, too — with good reason.

Mind you, it’s early days yet. I also commented, “The Liberals have a big rehabilitation project ahead of them, aside from merely choosing a new leader.”

In Quebec, the Liberals may be leading in the polls, but they still lack an effective political organization (a hang-over from their collapse following the sponsorship scandal). Without that organization, it’s impossible to turn poll numbers into votes.

And of course, Ignatieff could be enjoying a honeymoon with voters. Political honeymoons (just like marital honeymoons) can turn abruptly frosty.

But there has been a big change in media coverage. When the media discuss the economic crisis, they give prominent coverage to Ignatieff (e.g. here and here) along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

From the perspective of media coverage, we’ve returned to a two-party system:  the Government and the official opposition — a kind of government-in-waiting. The other three parties are relatively marginalized.

If the Liberals can deliver those seats in Quebec (where Ignatieff’s personal popularity is very high), Ontario would then become the electoral battleground. Whichever party wins in Ontario will form a government.

That is, whenever the next election comes around. Ignatieff will want some months to rebuild organizationally before the Liberals will trigger the fall of the Harper government.

As I said in November, we’ve entered an exciting time in Canadian politics.

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