Senate Redux

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The Senate of Canada was not much discussed during the recent election – despite Tom Mulcair’s impossible pledge to abolish it if he won. As it turns out, he didn’t and neither did Stephen Harper, who had become positively pouty about the future of the Senate given the ruling of the Supreme Court and his own self-made scandals in the Red Chamber. Only the newly elected PM Justin Trudeau seemed to have a positive approach to reforming the place – though what that approach may be is still a mystery.

This morning, Senator Jim Munson was on the Ottawa radio talking about the possibilities. He has no more insight into Trudeau’s thinking than anyone else but he was sure that changes could be made that would return the Senate to its original purpose as a largely non-partisan house of ‘sober second thought.’ Although the Senate has long had partisan elements – it has never quite been what the media portrayed: a place of reward for past party service and a den for party bagmen. The radio host seemed dubious and suggested that Senator Munson was being overly optimistic that the current Senate could be made to work. His response was: why not? People clearly voted for optimism and ultimately politics is the art of the possible.

In fact, having worked in the Senate for the past 14 years, I can attest to the ability of most Senators to transcend partisan lines, as least on some issues. My boss, a Liberal from the Northwest Territories was able to find plenty of common ground on aboriginal issues with Senator Gerry St. Germain, a Conservative from BC and one of the key architects of the merger of the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. There are few men more partisan than St. Germain, yet common ground could be found and positive work was done across party lines.

My own observation is that a lot of Senators arrive in the Senate with sharply honed fighting instincts – ready to take on the enemy, only to discover that those across the floor are not enemies but colleagues or as Trudeau put it in the election campaign, not enemies but neighbours.

Still, there is much to be done. Not all the Conservatives may be willing to give up their partisan ways – though the decidedly less partisan approach of the ‘liberated’ Liberal senators suggests that there is hope that many of them will be willing to work collaboratively with the new government. I certainly can’t see the Senate blocking significant amounts of legislation in the face of the mandate Trudeau received from the public just 10 days ago.

I also suspect that some Conservatives will welcome the opportunity to be less partisan. While a few relish the fight, others have seemed frustrated and even embarrassed by the imposition of party talking points. With the substantial reduction of the central party apparatus (no ministers’ staff, no PMO), many may take the opportunity to become more statesmanlike, more Senatorial in their approach. Some may even declare themselves to be independent or to hive off into separate caucuses. I suspect some may even chose to resign and do something else.

Meanwhile, the hard work of creating a new appointment process that further reduces the partisan nature of the Senate will be an early priority of the new PM. And in the Senate a serious discussion of the rules – started this week in a bi-partisan meeting of Senators – will be needed to make the relationship to government clearer and ensure that the Senate committees can function and the Chamber’s legislative functions can proceed.

Who knows? If our Senate can get over its partisan wrangling, maybe it will be a model for other dysfunctional upper chambers elsewhere in the world (I’m looking at you, Washington) but more of that later.

Because that’s ten minutes. (P.S. 10 minutes may – or may not – take a two day break while attending a SF convention In Ottawa this weekend, but I’ll definitely be back on Monday).

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Homecoming

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I love to travel. It is enlightening and enlivening. When you go to a new place, it can be challenging and even a little scary in the ‘horror movie’ kind of way. It seems dangerous and risky but you’re pretty sure you’re going to survive it and come out just fine on the other side. Travel can broaden your perspective and enrich your understanding of life.

I love to travel but, after a while, I love to come home again. The sense of familiarity makes it easy to just be yourself; you don’t have to be cautious or concerned about the impression you’ll make. You can talk politics freely without risking starting a riot, an international incident or a term in a Turkish prison.

Coming home is also eye-opening. Even in ten days, a lot can change. The leaves fall from the trees; your balcony garden has dwindled to the last few cold-hardy plants. There is even a new layer of dust on all your things. And of course there is the mail to open – yes, I still get relevant things via Canada Post – and the contents of the fridge to explore (cautiously).

On the first day back, we all say the same thing – ‘do you realize that just 24 hours ago, we were walking on a beach in Cuba or listening to the call to prayer in Istanbul. After a week, it all begins to blur – the best parts standing out as shining moments and the worst acquiring the patina of wild adventure. A trip is never better than it is in memory.

Still, if you do it right, remain open to new ideas and tastes and concepts of beauty and cultural value, a trip, whether for pleasure, for business or for learning, can be an almost endless string of singular moments, that, while they are happening, have a sense of eternity. A journey, I suspect, is the only kind of heaven that would be worth dying for.

Back home, the demands of routine return. There are bills to pay – including those impulse purchases we often make on our last day abroad, desperate perhaps to extend out stay just that much longer, by having something special to unpack. Work soon beckons, whether it’s the day job or a publishing business that demands your attention or that story that needs to be finished or marketed. You chide yourself a little for not getting more done while travelling but you know in your heart that you don’t regret your preoccupation with people and place one little bit.

Still, it is great to finally lay your head on your own pillow and let the familiar sounds of your own home and your own city drift you off to sleep. In a month, you’ll say, that was such a great trip. Remember when… Or you will say as you look at a favorite souvenir or photo, oh, that was such a perfect day…

In three months, you’ll say: darn, we never have any fun. And start planning your next trip and your next homecoming.

And that’s ten minutes.

Turkish Hiking

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If you ever go to Uchisar in Turkey, you must spend part of everyday, hiking down one of the many valleys that cover the land. With names like Pigeon Valley, Love Valley or Rose or Swords, the choices are myriad. The walks are pretty arduous and, therefore, good for you and the vistas are spectacular. But of course the real reason you must walk them is, it is the only way to work off the tremendous amount of food you will eat.

Breakfast in Turkey is always sumptuous but at our hotel in Uchisar – the Sakli Konak – it was spectacular. You arrive when you like between 7 and 10 and take a seat at one of the large breakfast tables. Soon a young man will bring you a tray with nine kinds of cheese on it. Surrounding that will be five kinds of olives, several slices of deli-meat or perhaps sausages in tomato sauce. A basket of bread, of course, is provided (more if requested – you pig) with 10 types of homemade jams as well as peanut butter and honey still in the honeycomb. Had enough yet? Would you like an egg prepared, any style? Have some fruit – melon one day, slices of apple and orange wedges the next. But wait, there’s more. Some eggy fried bread perhaps or crispy fried pita with cheese in the middle. Don’t forget your coffee and orange juice. And what would breakfast be without a tomato, cucumber and pepper salad? And to fill up the corners, a few chunks of delicious nutty halva.

Now you walk. For three to four hours or so, scrambling up and down steep slopes and along narrow ridges, taking pictures every ten steps or so because you can’t believe the next fabulous magical view. And the reward on the other end? A nice cold beer and lunch on a lovely rooftop terrace with more spectacular vistas to look at.

It doesn’t matter what you order, they always start you off with a free appetizer. On our last day it was fresh baked bread which you dip in oil, spices and crumbled feta cheese. Delicious. Then we had hot hummus (the edges were still bubbling when they served it) topped with beef bacon. For our mains we shared dry roasted lamb neck with rice, potatoes and grilled vegetables. And we had worked so hard on our hike that we deserved a dessert of yogurt with honey plus some thick Turkish coffee (with a few pieces of Turkish Delight thrown in as ‘thank you for your business’ treat).

I’d like to tell you we then walked back up the hill to Uchisar (some 8 km away) but we took a cab. We needed to rest up for supper.

And that’s ten minutes.

Life on the Fringe

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Have you ever chaired a meeting of the Anarchist Party? No? Well, neither has anyone else. Anarchists, by their nature, argue with everyone, including, I suspect, themselves. When I was involved in left wing politics in university, the old joke was – what do you get if you put two Trotskyites in a room? Three political parties.

Such is life on the fringe of politics. In Canada, like everywhere else in the world, there are literally more than a dozen political parties (currently there are 23 registered with Elections Canada). Most of these parties never elect anyone to Parliament; most of them barely qualify as parties, struggling to retain members or even leaders. Made up of mostly iconoclasts, they seldom have a coherent party platform let alone a strategy of gaining seats.

One of the great bugaboos of proportional representation is that it will lead to a proliferation of small parties and permanent minority or coalition governments. While the latter is often true (though not always, stable majority coalitions of similar parties is often the rule), the former is not particularly a disease of PR systems. Majoritarianism which isolates specific communities or interest groups can lead to the creation of a multitude of regional parties that succeed in gaining seats if not power in first past the post systems.

In Canada, we have the example of the Bloc Quebecois – formed by those in Quebec who feel their interests are not met in a united Canada. The heavily Western based Reform party was no different – a regional party of people who felt alienated by the policies of the central government.

In the United Kingdom, there are now 11 political parties with seats in Westminster. This is the same number as found in Israel and two less than in the Italian Parliament. When you count in parties represented in local governments, there are as many parties in England as there are in any other democracy in the world. The difference is, of course, that despite the fracturing of the vote, the vast majority of seats go to the few parties who gain a significant number of votes. For example, the Conservative party gained a majority in the last election with a mere 36.9% of the vote. The Labour party, with just over 30% gained far more seats than all the other parties combined (who had nearly 33% of the vote).

The situation in the UK now is that the government can safely ignore the interests of the majority of citizens and still get re-elected. First Past the Post has created a virtual dictatorship.

This is, of course, a fairly recent phenomenon, created by the increasing ghettoization of national and economic interests. As British communities grow more divided on religious and ethnic lines, they are likely to see more political fragmentation rather than less. Protest parties – with no interest beyond their sense of grievance – will become the norm and the UK may well become ungovernable as a result.

Hopefully, matters will never come to such a head in Canada. A sensibly designed proportional representation system – with minimum cut-offs for representation in Parliament – will permit regional and other interests to have a real voice in government without overwhelming Parliament with a proliferation of disparate and angry voices – as is now the case in the mother of the Westminster system, England.

And that’s ten minutes.

NDP — Back to the Future

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Like all political parties, the NDP has its factions. I spent twenty years active in the party, running twice and serving as a Vice-president of the Nova Scotia wing back in the 1980s. Even then there was a continuous tension between those who wanted to concentrate on seeking power and becoming government and those who preferred to be consistently leftist and try to influence other governments – notably Liberal though sometimes Conservative as well – through rational argument and moral suasion.

For most of the time and in most parts of the country, it was the latter branch of the party that held sway – though as much from necessity as from any victory over the more pragmatic centre. The NDP, and CCF before them, only consistently held power in Saskatchewan (where they have been largely extinct for the last ten years) and occasionally in Manitoba. Single term governments had been formed in Ontario and BC (and much later in Nova scotia) but for the most part, the NDP was in opposition and often the third party.

On the national scene this was the case through the sixties and seventies. While NDP policies — like Medicare – were often adopted and implemented by other parties, again mostly the Liberals, direct influence was rare, though it did occur from time to time as in the Trudeau minority of 1972.

However, gradually the faction that was tired of being the social conscience of Parliament gained sway and there was no doubt that Ed Broadbent had a long-term plan to moderate the party and gradually supplant the Liberals. They had survived the Mulroney sweep of 1984 in good shape and finished a mere ten seats behind the devastated Liberals. Just before the 1988 election, the NDP were leading in the polls and it appeared they would be the main opposition to the Tories. Then Free Trade happened. Trade has long been a weak point in party policy and when it became the centre piece of the campaign, John Turner – for whom trade was a natural issue – took the lead as the opposition.

The failure of the party to rise above third place brought down Broadbent and returned the party to a more social activist movement. Given the fractured political scene of the 1990, the party under first Audrey McLaughlin and later Alexa McDonough, struggled to survive. Still, they did provide a strong voice in Parliament and had some influence over the Liberal governments of the day.

The government seeking wing came back under Jack Layton and many think that if the 2011 election had been two or three days later, Layton might well have headed up the first NDP federal government in Canada. As it was, he easily supplanted the Liberals and wiped out the Bloc Quebecois to become the first NDP leader of the Official Opposition at the federal level. His untimely death brought Tom Mulcair to the fore.

The results of the 2015 election must bring back bitter memories for long-term party stalwarts. Leading in the polls at the start of the campaign, they looked like the strongest party to supplant the Conservatives. Yet by the time the vote arrived, they had fallen once again to third place, with the Liberals sweeping past them into a majority government. This time the issue was more subtle – as an agent of change, Mulcair too closely resembled – at least in the public’s eye – the man he wanted to replace while Trudeau looked genuinely different. Whereas Layton needed a few more days to win, Mulcair would have benefitted from a few fewer weeks.

Now the party is back where it began – having failed twice to achieve government precisely when it seemed the stars had aligned for them, will they now go back to the future and once again be the social conscience of Parliament and the birthing place of new progressive ideas, as was always their strong point? Early indications are that the new PM is open to working with other parties – even when he doesn’t have to. And with electoral reform on the horizon, the NDP may have a new role to play as permanent junior partners in a long-term progressive government.

And that’s slightly more than ten minutes.

Conservative Futures

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Twelve years after it was formed, the new Conservative Party of Canada is facing the future without the only leader it has ever known. One wonders if it will remain stable or if it will, like Yugoslavia after Tito, gradually disintegrate into its component parts.

Already, criticisms of the existing party culture have been expressed by several re-elected MPS. One young female politician from Calgary says that her chances of being taken seriously in leadership race are dim – but suggests ‘just not ready’ is no longer a viable criticism. Another claims he always disapproved of bill C-24 which gave the government the power to strip dual nationality citizens of their Canadian citizenship. Still another has complained about the high handed an classless behavior of Jenny Byrne, the outgoing PM’s former chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Joe Oliver believes that the last election was not a matter of rejecting the Conservative agenda but a matter of ‘tone.’ All that’s needed is a shift in perception to squeeze a few more percent and return to power. This coming from a noticeably tone-deaf Finance minister who thinks people who care about the environment are terrorists and that investment bankers are decent human beings.

A lot will depend on what electoral reforms are made by the new government. Any change in first past the post will place considerable strains on the uneasy alliance that exists within the Conservative caucus and party. Without the glue that a return to power applies to the cracks (the Conservatives have little chance in the near future to gain a majority except with FPTP), one wonders whether they can continue to work together.

While the so-called progressive wing was largely expunged or co-opted (Belinda Stronach and Peter McKay respectively) and has been virtually destroyed with the losses in Atlantic Canada and Toronto, there remain other factions within the party. While united on the idea of lower taxes and smaller government, the libertarian wing of the party has little else in common with the social conservatives who would use what was left of government to tell others how to live their lives. Their pro-life, anti-gay, Christian roots mostly rankle those in the party who believe, along with the new PM’s father, that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.

If Canada adopts a preferential ballot, the pressure on the party to move to the centre may be too much for the extreme right wing. A resurgent progressive conservative movement might well cause a Reform rump to hive off. On the other hand, proportional representation might split the party in three – libertarian, religious right and a moderate remnant with ideologues preferring to trade purity for any real power. Railing against the unjustness of the universe has an appeal to a certain type of politician.

The more likely route may be a divisive leadership race with one faction gaining control and, if the new leader is sufficiently nimble, maintaining unity through a combination of concessions and bullying. The biggest danger for the party’s future is if they make the mistake that seems to be dogging their Ontario cousins – the urge to replace one untried and failed right wing leader with one who is even more conservative and equally inexperienced.

Unless the Conservatives can transcend their current bickering – perhaps by articulating a clear and principled conservative vision – those on the right may have to accept a very long period of Liberal rule.

And that’s ten minutes.

Turkish Carpets

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It is always interesting to visit a city or a country for the first time. No matter how many guidebooks or travelogues you read, the reality is always different. The first day or so is spent recovering from jet lag and learning the rules. And it always takes a few marginal – hopefully not bad – experiences to really let you start to figure things out.

Wednesday was our third day in Istanbul and was the transition point when we went from bumbling foreigners to semi-confused tourists. The previous day was forecast to be the last sunny day so we had gone down to Princes’ Islands on the ferry. It was glorious but on the way back we misread a map and got off at the wrong ferry terminal. We were dropped in the middle of the busiest night life of the city – at a bus terminal in the dark. It was a wakeup call of sorts, a reminder that this is not home and we are strangers here.

The next day we decided to stay closer to ‘home’ and went up to see the Blue Mosque. On our way we were accosted by a friendly fellow who greeted us warmly. Being Canadians we responded politely and soon we had a boon companion. He was very clear – he would help us out and we would visit his shop later on. And, in fact, he was very helpful. He advised us that we had arrived too late for the Mosque –it closes at lunch – and suggested we go to the Hagia Sophia instead. He got us past several queues and gave us good advice as to what to look for. Ninety minutes later there he was waiting patiently by the exit in the rain.

What else could we do but follow him? We went to his shop – not his at all but his ‘family’s business’ – and then the hard sell began. We were given a fifteen minute history of the evolution of the Turkish carpet along with explanations of how much work went into them and all the rules governing the sale and export of heritage rugs. Then the display – carpets rolled out across hardwood floors and flipped artistically through the air to show off their colors. There was talk of government set anticipatory prices and discounts to be had. This one was $2000 and that one only $1200. Though we expressed a desire to see something smaller and more modest (we live in a small place, we explained), the hint was never taken. Oddly, if they had shown us something nice for $750 we might have bought, but I guess the margin wasn’t high enough. In any case no sale was made.

Our friend was waiting outside – disappointed no doubt that he would earn no commission. He gently asked for a small tip for his time. It wound up being 50 lira ($25), not bad given the show we had received. We made our escape before he could guide us to his favorite ‘family’ restaurant and spent the rest of the day in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts but that’s another story.

Lesson learned in any case – don’t respond to friendly offers with anything more than a smile and shake of your head.

And that it ten minutes.