2015 Canadian Election, a guide for rookie MPs

Welcoming Rookie MPs
Welcoming Rookie MPs. Image from The Hill Times

There is nothing quite like the euphoria that a newly-elected MP feels after the grind of a nomination and then a demanding election campaign. What a privilege it is to be chosen by your constituents to serve them and our country.  However, your life as an MP will likely be less glamorous than it might at first appear. Continue reading 2015 Canadian Election, a guide for rookie MPs

Climate change and Canadian churches

Climate change: adding an ethical perspective
Climate change: adding an ethical perspective

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its most recent report. The blue ribbon group of scientists concluded that is 95 percent certain that global warming is occurring, that it is caused mainly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we will see more violent weather and rising sea levels as a result. Scientists never talk about absolute certainties, but clearly, they are as confident in their predictions about climate change as they are that cigarettes cause cancer.

The cigarette analogy is appropriate here. For years, some people insisted that there was no proof that cigarettes caused cancer. But as it turned out, some self-proclaimed experts and front groups were financed by the tobacco industry, itself, just as some of the climate change deniers are financed by the carbon industry today.

As for the rest of the climate skeptics, they simply won’t believe the scientists no matter how much proof of global warming they provide.

In Canada, as Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes, the government is part of the problem. The Conservative caucus contains a “disproportionate number” of individuals who believe that climate change is not occurring, or if it is, that the causes are natural events and not human behaviour. Those MPs are representative of their political base — many of whom also deny climate change and its effects on our cities, towns, farms and oceans.

As Simpson points out, the government made no effort to provide a reasoned response to the IPCC report. Rather, it issued a brief news release praising its own efforts and making partisan attacks on other political parties. The government’s own figures, however, indicate that Canada is far behind in its promise to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Conservatives are also committed to rapid development of the carbon-polluting oil sands in Alberta, which will make it impossible for Canada to keep even the modest environmental promises it has made.

The complex issue of climate change is an especially challenging one for our political and economic system. Politicians think in terms of years — usually four — rather than in centuries or millennia. Similarly, corporate executives tend to think of the next quarterly or annual report to shareholders.

In October 2011, more than 60 faith community leaders signed a document called the Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change.  Those leaders called on Ottawa to support an international agreement aimed at limiting global warming. But unfortunately, we walked away from that (Kyoto) agreement later in 2011. The leaders also called for national carbon emission targets, a national renewable energy strategy and the provision of public funds to assist the poorest countries in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Indeed, people of religious faith have a chance to influence the global warming debate in a way that respects creation and its inhabitants, especially the poor; and in a manner that takes the long-term view of our existence. After all, it’s something that our politicians have seemed incapable of doing.

This article appeared in the United Church Observer on October, 10, 2013.


Jack Layton’s legacy to the NDP

Jack Layton received a fond public farewell from Canadians genuinely saddened by his untimely death. Now, the focus has, inevitably, begun to shift as members of his party contemplate next steps and the NDP’s opponents ponder with trepidation what the flood of public affection toward Layton might mean for them. Some NDP MPs and others in the movement are pondering a run at the leadership, an essential move now that Layton is gone. On the political right, some of the nasty people who write columns for newspapers such as the National Post, along with the more churlish of their readers, have now come out of hiding to ask what all the fuss was about anyway, to say that Layton was overrated, or to denounce Stephen Lewis for saying in Layton’s eulogy that his deathbed letter was a clarion call for social democracy.

Behind all of this flux is the reality that something extraordinary has happened. The NDP, and the CCF before it – so often the repository of hard work but dashed hopes – has been chosen by Canadian voters to be the official opposition in parliament. The party won 103 seats (59 of them Quebec) and 30.6 per cent of the popular vote on the May 2 election. The party came second in another 121 ridings and has, temporarily at least, supplanted the Liberals as the government-in-waiting.

Less than four months after that May election Jack Layton received a state funeral – it was a noble gesture by Prime Minister Harper. Members of the RCMP dressed in their ceremonial red tunics carried Layton’s casket to and from the halls of parliament. Here is the great irony. Those who have led the CCF-NDP have long been the recipients of affection and respect from individual Canadians but they and their party have been feared and loathed by the establishment.

Spying and dirty tricks

Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill has discovered that predecessors of those same red-coated men who carried Layton’s casket spied on CCF-NDP leader Tommy Douglas from the late 1930s until shortly before his death in 1986. They listened in on his private conversations, examined his links to the peace movement and probed his every public remark. During that time, Douglas a Baptist minister, served as premier of Saskatchewan and later as leader of the federal NDP. The RCMP (almost certainly with the knowledge of various solicitors-general) decided that Douglas was a threat to Canada, but it was he who was later chosen, posthumously, as the “greatest Canadian” by those voting in a contest sponsored by CBC TV in 2004.

In the 80 years since the CCF founding convention in Calgary, social democratic values emphasizing economic and social equality have taken root among many Canadians, but those values have remained anathema to the business, political and media elite. The party was increasingly popular in the post war 1940s, when it won power in Saskatchewan, became the official opposition in Ontario and at one point topped a national opinion poll, but then it fell back.

John Boyko writes in his book Into the Hurricane, that the growing popularity of the CCF in the 1940s prompted a Who’s Who among Canadian business to initiate a well-financed front group called Responsible Enterprise to discredit the party. There was a deliberate campaign to associate the CCF with communism, even though the party and its leaders, including J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and others were committed democrats. These tactics were effective during an era dominated by the Cold War and the party fell on hard times in the 1950s. To be sure, the CCF also suffered from its own shortcomings and inconsistencies but the red-scare tactics organized by its opponents played a significant role limiting its success.

When the CCF joined with organized labour to create the New Democratic Party in 1961, Tommy Douglas (still under RCMP surveillance) became its first leader. By that time the party had shed its utopian desire to replace capitalism and had assumed the more pragmatic role of using politics to regulate and humanize the market. The constant refrain since the creation of the NDP has been that the party is the creature of a labour movement whose interests are contrary to those of most Canadians. That criticism remains incessant even today in Canadian newspapers, right wing talk radio programs and among television commentators such as Kevin O’Leary on CBC TV.

Nation builders

The rise of neo-conservatism, personified in leaders such as Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney led to a decade or more of market triumphalism, in which any contrary ideas were treated with contempt. The Globe and Mail newspaper was prepared to name Ed Broadbent as its Nation Builder of the Year in 2005, and Stephen Lewis was in the running for the same award in 2008 – yet the newspaper would never have considered supporting their party. The NDP was seen as antiquated and irrelevant. It was accepted, at times, as the conscience of the nation, nice people to have around, but never to be trusted with power.

But a string of recessions, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and 2000, not to mention the most recent financial meltdown that began in late 2008, have shaken Canadians’ confidence in business and politics as usual. Jobs have disappeared, salaries have stagnated and pensions have evaporated. People appear to be open to some alternatives.

Layton’s legacy

Jack Layton arrived in federal politics in 2003 after Alexa McDonough had brought the NDP back to party status. Layton, who had long experience in Toronto civic politics, had superb organizational, strategic and inter-personal skills. He refused to write off Quebec as some previous NDP leaders had been forced to do and his persistence paid off in the May 2 election. And yes, he showed remarkable courage and stamina in the face of a daunting illness during and after the 2011 election. People who a year earlier had been calling him Taliban Jack and a publicity hound were forced to consider how he had become a politician for the ages.

Many in the media point to difficulties ahead for the NDP in maintaining discipline and focus in a new caucus with (for the first time) more than half of its members from Quebec – without their charismatic leader. That is one way of seeing it. But after decades in the wilderness, this is the greatest opportunity that social democrats have ever had in Canada. We’ll see what they can make of it.

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election

By Dennis Gruending

Stockwell DayOn day 12 of the federal election campaign Stephen Harper was in Markham, Ontario wooing immigrant voters. That same evening in Ottawa several hundred people gathered at a church called the Peace Tower on Bronson Avenue not far from Parliament Hill. There they pledged fealty to the state of Israel and praised Stephen Harper as that country’s Canadian benefactor. The event, called Canada Celebrates Israel, was one of four that occurred in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver within a few days in early April. The rallies featured three Israeli politicians who are members of the Israeli Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, as well as a cast of fundamentalist Christians from Canada. The four events received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media but an Ottawa-based student newspaper did a look-ahead piece in March. In that story one of the tour’s organizers said it was an outreach effort to Jewish and Christian communities to show support for Israel, but it certainly was not political.

Perhaps. But the Conservatives happened to be well represented. Jim Abbott brought greetings on behalf of the federal government. Abbott was the longtime Reform, Canadian Alliance and later Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia but has chosen not to run again in the 2011 election. Stockwell Day, the recently retired minister of the Treasury Board, had been billed as a guest speaker at the Ottawa event, but instead he provided a message on videotape. Day was available in person at the Canada Celebrates Israel event in Montreal on the previous evening. The Canadian Jewish News reported on it and described Day as giving “a strongly pro-Israel speech” which earned him a standing ovation. The newspaper described part of his speech as follows: “Day earned wide applause when he said Israel, as a Jewish state, has ‘an aboriginal right to exist’ and that the Hebrew scriptures, written as far back as 1,000 years BCE, provide historically accurate evidence of the Jewish presence in what is now Israel.” Continue reading Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election

Make climate change an election issue

By Dennis Gruending

'Politicians are not serious about about a carbon tax'I was in an Ottawa church basement along with about 80 other people a few days after the election call listening to three church leaders on a panel called Environment & Climate in Peril. The frustration was palpable. “Climate change is the key moral and ethical dilemma of our time and we have to engage it,” said Rev. Lillian Roberts from the United Church’s Ottawa presbytery. “We are facing a developing crisis and there is a need for an urgent response, but you won’t hear about it on the leaders’ debates,” said David Selzer, Executive Archdeacon, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.

Sadly that is probably true. American economist William Nordhaus says that any politician who will not support placing a price on carbon is not really serious about slowing climate change. This pricing can come in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which allows companies exceeding set carbon emission limits to buy credits from companies that create less carbon pollution.

In Canada, the whole issue was sidelined after the 2008 election when the Conservatives launched a devastating attack against Stephane Dion’s Green Shift plan to tax carbon polluters and use the money collected to reduce personal income and other taxes. The Conservative mantra was that no tax is a good tax and that Dion’s proposals would ruin the economy. The Harper government promised to introduce intensity-based pollution targets for industry but they are a joke. They might slow the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions somewhat but would still allow them to rise for many years to come. Continue reading Make climate change an election issue

Stephen Harper and the long gun registry, facts and fiction

By Dennis Gruending

Haper's Conservatives and the Canadian gun registry.

Stephen Harper announced on April 4 that a re-elected Conservative government would scrap Canada’s long gun registry. That hardly comes as a surprise.  The Conservatives hate the registry. They tried in the last parliament to do away with it and have all of its records destroyed but they lost the vote narrowly in the House of Commons in November 2010. The Conservatives habitually use the registry as a wedge issue that they hope will dislodge votes from NDP and Liberal MPs in rural and small town areas. For a long while it looked as though the politics of division was working, but prior to last fall’s vote there was a growing chorus in support of the registry from police chiefs, emergency room physicians, nurses, people who run women’s shelters, labour unions and others. The Conservative bid to divide and conquer could well backfire in this election.  Continue reading Stephen Harper and the long gun registry, facts and fiction

Harper’s hypocrisy on coalitions

By Dennis Gruending

Stephen Harper's 2004 letter to the Governor General of CanadaStephen Harper used the first days of the 2011 election campaign to demonize the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois as plotting a coalition to replace him following an election in which he might win the most seats but form a minority government. It was both a scare and a smear tactic meant to place the other parties on the defensive before he moved on to making his first policy announcement a tax cut for families that won’t come into effect for at least four years. The three political parties did get together late in 2009 with a plan to dump Harper’s minority government and to cooperate on replacing him. He saved his skin by convincing Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to shut down parliament for several months. Harper said then and says now that it somehow borders on treason for parties representing a majority of voters to attempt to replace a party that does not. Continue reading Harper’s hypocrisy on coalitions