Walrus


Appeared in Sept 2006 issue of The Walrus Magazine

If the British North America Act were being
written today…natural resource ownership
would most likely remain with the federal
government.

– “Policy Options,” October 2005.

It should have been a love fest.

Leading up to the March 30, 2006 Alberta Progressive Conservative Annual General Meeting polls declared Premier Ralph Klein the most popular man in the province, and for good reason. As an expert panel appointed by the former Liberal government, provincial governments, and even the Governor General, all recommended that Alberta share its bountiful riches with the rest of Canada, the tough-talking premier said, essentially, ‘over my dead body.’ It was classic Klein. For years, the premier had been Alberta’s chief defender and his record was impressive. He led the PC Party to four consecutive majority governments, enjoyed over 90 percent approval ratings each time he faced a leadership review, and could boast of a series of accomplishments envied by all other provinces. In 1993, Klein inherited a government bleeding $3.4 billion a year and with an accumulated debt of $23 billion. Thirteen years later, Alberta is Canada’s only debt-free province, the operating surplus for 2006 hovers around $10 billion, and the populist premier can justifiably lay claim to creating “the Alberta Advantage.”
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Originally appeared in March 2006 Walrus Magazine

Under the cover of normalcy, on July 7, 2005, the heart of London was bombed and dozens of people were killed by young Muslim men who had grown up in the same environment as their victims. The process of acculturation – at British schools, and, one presumed, local pubs or Soho restaurants – had failed, and Britons were left to wonder how a cluster of radicals dedicated to terrorism and to distant ideologies could grow out of the soil we all share.

In another sign that all is not well in our diverse cities, four months later the outskirts of Paris erupted in spontaneous violence. On the night of October 27th, French police chased a group of teenagers who had ventured out of their Arab neighbourhood into the leafy suburbs of Livey-Garzan. Two of them were electrocuted while attempting to hide in a power generation facility, and within twenty-four hours this tragic accident turned the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois (and adjacent communities) into a cauldron of violence. In a scene reminiscent of Detroit or Los Angeles during the 1960s race riots, over 9,000 cars and 200 buildings were torched and France has been on edge ever since. An orchestrated attack by a terrorist cabal had besieged London, but in France something equally ominous had occurred: entire neighbourhoods comprised of poor and alienated immigrants protested their sense of isolation through wanton destruction.

Then, six weeks after the French riots, half-way around the world roughly 5,000 white Australians took to the beaches of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, to attack people of Middle-Eastern origin locally referred to as “sand niggers.” Organized through text messaging and the Internet, this was a planned assault by aggrieved whites demanding, essentially, a return to Australia’s “whites only” immigration policy. The country had abandoned this openly racist approach to immigration in 1973 and today, together with Canada, Australia has the most aggressive per capita immigration targets in the world. Indeed, prior to last November’s outbreak of sectarian violence it also had a growing international reputation for peaceful integration. The thugs who descended on Cronulla, obviously, did not endorse this national self-image.
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The recent Liberal and Conservation Party National Conventions left me with a sinking feeling. After days of policy deliberations, I looked at the end product and wondered ….what if the chorus of lamentations (mine appearing among them in this very magazine – “How to Save Democracy”; October, 2004) bemoaning falling voter turn out, cascading political cynicism and mounting examples of civic disengagement, had completely missed the point? What if, these trends were not the product of a slothful, anomic electorate, more interested in the results of The Amazing race than the welfare of their communities and neighbours, but were indeed rational responses to a political process that has run out of ideas? Could it be that voters had been persuaded that politics is uninspiring and irrelevant, because most adult Canadians cannot cite one inspirational or relevant thought or initiative that has emanated from the political process?

The leadership and delegates of both Conventions emerged from their gatherings declaring great successes. Sadly, the measure of success however seemed to be that both parties had averted (predicted) political disaster rather than generated any new policies that might propel us along a path to a better Canada.
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Pierre Trudeau tried to stop a cycle of blackmail, where one province held up the national interest by bargaining solely for its own parish. Paul Martin’s new health accord is an invitation not just for one blackmailer, but for ten.
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The system is ailing and the disease is cynicism. Perhaps the time has come for a radical new treatment

Over the course of tracking public opinion for twenty years, the private polls I conducted for my political clients showed that the number of Canadians who held at least a “somewhat” positive view of politicians fell from 60 percent to less than 20 percent. Today, Ipsos-Reid reports that a grand total of 9 percent of Canadians describe politicians as “extremely trustworthy.” How is it that the people we choose to lead us are now routinely considered venal and unworthy of our following? And what does it say about our ability to choose our representatives when these are the dominant characteristics we ascribe to them?

Forget already disgraced figures such as former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, or Public Works Minister Alphonso Gagliano. Even the much revered and iconic Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, can’t pass the test we have set for public office-holders. Why, in the fiscal year 2002–2003 (the last full year for which complete information is available), would a government official whose responsibilities are exclusively domestic jet off to Europe on two separate trips? The answer – in both cases to attend meetings directly related to her work – is lost on those determined to reduce a stalwart defender of the public interest to just another free-spending public servant.

But the core problem is that our cynicism cultivates fertile soil for more cynicism, and if we are to save democracy, we must make a concerted effort to reverse this trend, using new methods that, to date, have been unconsidered.

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