Trudeau’s honeymoon, he over-promised and under-delivers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo by Art Babych
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo by Art Babych

Our usually hard bitten media pundits are predicting that Justin Trudeau’s political honeymoon may continue for many months, but I believe that it’s time to begin holding the Liberals to account.

Admittedly there has been a significant shift in tone for which Trudeau deserves credit. He is far more open than was Stephen Harper and he has, for example, met with the premiers, Indigenous leaders, the labour movement and many others who mostly received a back of the hand from the Harper government. Continue reading Trudeau’s honeymoon, he over-promised and under-delivers

UN climate conference in Paris, no magic fix but signs of hope

25,000 participated in the 100% Possible March in Ottawa on Nov. 29, 2015.
Participants in the 100% Possible March in Ottawa on Nov. 29.

The UN Climate Conference in Paris (COP21) will not produce a magic fix to curb the emission of greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels.  Given the number of countries and competing interests involved, that is not a surprise. The world’s political leaders have been negotiating since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992 yet carbon emissions have continued to rise.

Cooperating fully

On the other hand, the Paris talks have shown an improvement over previous negotiating sessions. The question is whether human societies can find ways to cooperate fully and quickly enough to stave off a disaster which is already being felt in droughts, wild fires, increasingly violent storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels.  The world’s climate scientists have been telling us with growing urgency that we are on track for temperature increases of four or more degrees Celsius by the end of this century, and that would produce catastrophic results.

Leaders accept science

One promising sign is that most political leaders now accept climate science and know they have to act. For example, China was previously determined to grow its economy on the basis of carbon consumption no matter what the environmental costs. However, choking smog caused by emissions and the startling rise of coastal sea levels have sobered the Chinese. In just a few years they have become the world’s leader in a various green energy technologies, including wind and solar.

Barack Obama also understands climate change and wants to do something about it. For years, the Americans were stuck with leaders such as George W. Bush who showed little or no interest in the issue. For the most part, Republicans said either that climate change did not exist, or if it did that it was not caused by human activity. The subsidies to big coal and big oil continued unabated in the U.S. Unfortunately, the Republicans are now warning that Congress may negate any promises that Obama makes in Paris. The American people must not allow that to happen.

Canada’s record

Canada has been a leader both in pledging to lower greenhouse gas emissions and in breaking those promises. This began with Jean Chretien’s government blithely promising at Kyoto in 1997 that it would reduce emissions but then putting no plan in place to do so. The Liberals were replaced by Stephen Harper who was at first a climate change denier. Later he switched to promising environmental regulations that never materialized.

Canada’s new federal government says that has all changed now. Rhetorically, that is promising but a vigilant citizenry must hold political leaders to their word. Tens of thousands of Canadians did just that by marching on Sunday, November 29 to call for a carbon free future.

Deniers discredited

Another hopeful sign is that the cadre of climate change deniers has been discredited and is shrinking.  Be vigilant, however. The state of New York is investigating Exxon Mobil for allegedly funding groups that deny climate change even as the company’s in house scientists warn executives about the consequences of those changes.

Moral and ethical sphere

A final sign of hope has the debate moving beyond the technical to the moral and ethical sphere. Much of the credit must go to Pope Francis who produced a climate change encyclical called Laudato Si in June 2015 in which he accepts climate science and thus further inhibits the deniers.

The pop says that climate change affects the world’s poor disproportionately and much of the problem rests with the consumerism of the affluent. He says also that changes can and must occur at both personal and political levels.  There is at least a chance that religious faith may influence behaviour in a way that cold, hard facts have failed to do.

A shorter version of this piece appeared as a United Church Observer blog on December 9, 2015.

Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and the challenges ahead

Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Alex Guibord
Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Alex Guibord

As Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau stood before an election night crowd in Montreal on October 19, he quoted former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, saying: “Sunny ways my friends, sunny ways.”  Referring to his Liberal party’s convincing upset victory in capturing 184 seats, well beyond the 99 for the Conservatives and 44 for the NDP, Trudeau said, “This is what positive politics can do.” Continue reading Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and the challenges ahead

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

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

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

Best books 2010, Harperland:The Politics of Control

By Dennis Gruending

[This brief piece was published in the November 22 edition of The Hill Times newspaper in Ottawa. The paper asked a number of us to choose a political book that we liked in 2010].

Pulpit and Politics UpdateJournalism is commonly called history on the run. Often it is filled with events but no one really connects the dots. Harperland: The Politics of Control, Lawrence Martin’s book on Stephen Harper’s first four years in power does a good job of making those connections. What emerges about the prime minister is his enduring pattern of flinty, hard-core conservatism and his mania for control. Of special significance were Martin’s interviews with people such as Tom Flanagan, who are, or were, close to the PM. They are starting to talk. The Conservatives dismiss the book as the work of a Liberal sympathizer but Martin’s two volumes on Jean Chretien were not hagiographies either. What likely rankles Conservatives is that Martin is one of the few columnists in the mainstream media who writes from anything approaching the left side of the political spectrum.