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Is this it, then? John Lorinc has speculated that if Stephen Harper wins again, the go-for-broke legacy program he hits us with is going to make the last few years feel like a warm bath.
And even if Harper loses, so what? Justin Trudeau isn’t going to fix anything. C-51? He’s fine with it. The G20? Bill Blair is one of his star candidates, and they both seem to think we should all just STFU about it, because after all, it was five years ago. Free trade? That’s just part of the destructive legacy of Chretien/Martin.
Tom Mulcair? Well, even if he has a genuinely progressive agenda, does anyone really think he’ll be allowed to implement it? How much juice does a popular mandate carry nowadays anyway, in the face of coordinated opposition from Bay Street, international finance, the media noise machine, and Serious Responsible People™? We’ll spend a few twitchy years watching the Masters of the Universe using him for a piñata despite his best efforts to seem “moderate” and “reasonable,” and nothing will really change.
Sure, maybe we can have debates over policy, but what are they going to mean when we’ve allowed the scope for public policy to be so profoundly diminished? If we can’t enact laws to protect our environment, our health-care system, our online privacy, our food-safety system, or any other aspect of the public sphere for fear of being sued in secretive supranational tribunals by investment vehicles seeking to recoup lost profits, then what’s the point of even talking about public policy in the first place?
Well … shit. This may be the year we come face to face with it: we’ve lost any semblance of functioning democracy, and we don’t even care because we’re too worn down / frightened into compliance / distracted by sideshows. The election is there to provide the illusion of popular input, but the fundamental direction of the country isn’t going to change no matter who wins. The choices have already been made for us by people we’ll never meet, whose names we’ll never know, whose functions and surreptitious string-pulling we’ll likely never perceive or understand. All we’re doing on election day is picking a brand of toothpaste and kidding ourselves that it really matters. If this isn’t like a malignant cancer, then I don’t know what is.
Let’s be honest. The fabric of society, the whole post-war deal that sustained the so-called “middle class,” has been under concerted attack since the days of Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s. With each year, each cut, each act of violence to the social contract, they’ve managed to chip away a little more of the foundation. A small minority takes more and more while everyone else has to make do with less and less. Can anybody point to a successful effort to push it back since then?
Roll back the goalposts? Fat chance. We’ll be lucky if we can even slow the bleeding.
As a couple of friends have pointed out, some of my recent blatherings about voting may seem inconsistent with my “brand.” You know, civic engagement, the responsibilities of citizenship, the obligations we have to society and to each other … yawn.
Can’t be too surprised that that’s not a huge part of the conversation these days. There’s a lot invested in making sure it isn’t, and that shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. The more people are all wound up and angry and yelly and distracted, the less energy and attention they have to focus on the underlying stuff. Fill the window with dead cats and all that.
But once again, maybe we step back and look at this within a larger historical context (dear god, I’m going to hit myself in the head with a hammer — ed.). Let’s reframe this over the course of the last 20 or 30 years. What’s been happening?
The gutting of the public sphere.
The devaluation of civil society.
The emasculation of public institutions.
The dismantling of the social safety net.
Austerity, privatization, deregulation, outsourcing, yada yada yada, all served up with noxious sides of deficit hysteria and tax cuts, and the attendant kneecapping of government’s ability to act.
All predating Stephen Harper, nasty though he is. Again, think back a few decades. Brian Mulroney. Jean Chretien. Paul Martin. Running through it all, like a river of toxic slime: the successive implementation of the same agenda. “Free trade” regimes that concentrate more and more wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Nods to the knuckle-draggers aside, Harper’s just peddling more of the same. Seriously, can anyone point to a substantive change in the country’s direction over the past few decades?
All of this has been encouraged and paid for, of course, by the CEOs, the international investor class, their flunkies, and their cheerleaders in the corporate media, along with the Serious and Responsible People who guard the parameters of conversation and gaslight everyone else into thinking that whatever’s left of the “middle class” shares the same values and interests as the business elites. And always with the same themes: need to compete and obey the diktats of the market. Trade barriers need to come down. Labour flexibility. Capital mobility. Safeguard the rights of investors lest they take their money elsewhere. Anything that interferes with the accumulation of private profit becomes a target.
And what’s the effect? Well, what happens to anything that’s consistently attacked, demeaned, belittled, stripped of resources, and corroded? Gradually but steadily, the fabric of society wears away because the things that hold us together and allow us to act with common purpose are systematically undermined. We are isolated, exhausted, and/or distracted in the face of economic precariousness. What’s the point of acting collectively? What can we accomplish in the face of impersonal global forces which, we’re told over and over, are inevitable and irresistible?
Is it any wonder that the notion of citizenship starts to mean less and less? Is it a coincidence that the avenues for meaningful engagement are closed off while we’re distracted with the latest shinyshiny?
I’m not necessarily suggesting there are no differences among Harper and the opposition leaders in terms of policy or commitment to democratic ideals. But I do fear that the sustained assault on the things that hold us together has gone on for so long, and that the damage to our body politic has been so profound, that it may be too late to restore it.
This has been going on for decades. Does anyone really think a mere change of government is going to fix it?
Haven’t really crystallized this into a coherent argument yet, but I can’t remember feeling this disheartened about a federal election since 1997. Ever since then, there’s been a growing malignancy in our body politic — a malignancy that goes beyond partisanship.
Successive governments since then have, for whatever reason, surrendered more and more policy tools, and more and more of their innate capacity to advance the public good, in the face of supranational trade and investment regimes. Regardless of who’s been in power in Ottawa (and provincial capitals, for that matter), we’ve been watching the gradual but unmistakable enfeeblement of government, to the point where it may well be irreversible. As awful as Harper’s been on so many files — environment, the war on women, civil liberties, First Nations, the economy, health care, immigration, housing, veterans, integrity in government, climate change — this didn’t start with him.
What I still don’t understand is, why? Why is government, of whatever stripe, voluntarily abandoning its role? Free Trade, NAFTA, MIA, CETA, FIPA, TPP, whatever. Why are public institutions consenting to, and even participating in, their own enervation? Why are we, through our governments, surrendering our ability to protect ourselves and act in the national interest in favour of a few multinational corporations and allowing them to sue us for notional lost profits? Who benefits from this? Who’s looking out for the common good here?
And that doesn’t even begin to address the glaring faults in our current electoral system. The disfiguring effects of our antiquated, necrotic First Past The Post system have already been discussed, but if there’s any sustained discussion of alternatives or efforts to reform the voting system, or the so-called “Fair Elections Act,” it’s barely being heard above the manufactured controversies and distractions. The conversation’s being dragged into the sewer, and that’s no accident either.
It’s why I’ve been wondering, perhaps at odds with my arguments about the responsibilities of citizenship, about the efficacy of voting. If civic engagement is reduced to casting a ballot every few years for choices that have, in truth, been set out for us, then are we really participating meaningfully in our own governance? Is voting, even if it manages to end the Harper era, going to undo decades worth of damage to civil society? Is it going to put an end to this misguided fetish for austerity? Is it going to reinvigorate the notion of an activist government committed to using the power of public policy to cultivate the greatest good for the greatest number? Is it going to re-assert the primacy of the public sphere in the face of “free trade” regimes and investor-state protections? How likely is it that any government, even the best-intentioned, will move to roll back the damage in the face of the inevitable backlash from international finance, the small coterie of Serious and Responsible people who decide which ideas are “realistic” and which are “lunatic,” and their amplifiers in the media?
I don’t want to sound facile, but doesn’t it come down to the kind of government we want and the kind of country we want to be? Do we want to be governed by the people we elect, or by a small global oligarchy of unaccountable string-pullers? And is the simple act of choosing a brand on polling day going to affect that?
So I’ve been watching a BBC mini-series from 1988 called A Very British Coup. There’s an understated but powerful scene wherein the Labour cabinet is debating its spending proposals; at one point, a frustrated and beleaguered Chancellor of the Exchequer declares that there’s little point in further discussion. The Prime Minister, wonderfully portrayed by Ray McAnally, gently admonishes him: “Democracy takes time. Dictatorship is quicker, but too many people get shot.”
Lord knows, I’ve been known to go on about civic engagement and the responsibilities of citizenship. But they’re becoming an even bigger challenge nowadays, and the underlying reasons reflect not just on this or that facet of governance, but on the nature of democratic society itself.
I know, I know — “democratic deficit” has become one of those overused terms that gets thrown around so frequently and so carelessly that it starts to lose its impact. At some point, however, certain events or patterns can bring it back into focus.
Exhibit A: Toronto City Council voted, this week, to reverse an earlier decision and reject the notion of ranked ballots, in a pronounced FU to notions of accountability, representation, and years of effort and outreach by local activists. From what I’ve heard, the discussion lasted about a minute and a half. I’m not going to rehash the details here: my friend Daren does a far better (and angrier) job over at his place. Go read.
What does it say about democratic culture, though, when people supposedly charged with stewardship of the public good can blow off their responsibilities in such a cavalier and thoughtless manner, and face little or no political consequence?
Let’s chew on that a while, and then move on to Exhibit B: the cesspool currently masquerading as our national conversation in the context of the federal election campaign. Let’s forget about the Islamophobia, the manufactured controversy over the niqab, and the coded messages in expressions like “old stock Canadians” for a moment, and focus on something even more basic and troubling.
What if, on reflection, you’re not convinced that the current system really offers any meaningful choices? What if none of the established parties hold out any hope that they’re going to address things that actually matter to you? What if the current conversation isn’t speaking to you? What if, with all the sound and fury, you still don’t feel represented?
Is it so unreasonable to point out the arbitrary exclusion of certain viewpoints? Is it irresponsible to observe that the parameters for Serious and Reasonable Ideas are set by a very small, privileged, and insular class of people?
What if there’s no popular mechanism influencing whose voices matter and whose voices get shut out? What if the manufactured narratives in the corporate media aren’t resonating with you? What if all kinds of questions aren’t discussed in any detail because of an apparent tacit agreement among the major parties and media outlets?
Is choosing among a handful of pre-packaged brands on polling day really comparable to meaningful popular input? By the same token, if you’re not convinced that any of those brands are going to undo the damage of the past few decades, is refusing to participate in the charade really so unreasonable?
I don’t have any easy answers. Over to you, internetz.
So I had a chance to observe City Council this morning, consumed as it was by the Uber/taxi debate and the attendant seas of yellow and blue T-shirts.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not taking sides on this. I haven’t followed it closely enough to craft an informed opinion, and I’m not particularly invested in either side, except to the extent that I want whatever emerges from the process to advance the public good. (For a particularly trenchant viewpoint, however, I’d recommend following Karen Geier on the Tweeter.)
That the Uber/taxi debate is controversial and complex isn’t news. It’s not going to be resolved here, or elsewhere on this site, or over the course of this council meeting. No, what I took away from this morning’s deliberations was more general: the importance of acknowledging and engaging with complexity.
Easier said than done, of course. The council chamber was filled to capacity (particularly notable were the yellow-shirted taxi partisans), and there was a sizeable overflow crowd in the city hall foyer. Every few minutes, a remark from the council floor would trigger a roar audible from downstairs. In a situation like that, it’s easy to just play to the galleries.
I don’t like clichés, but calling it a charged atmosphere seems fair. (As long as we’re talking about clichés, though, I’m told some smartypants suggested that we take a drink every time someone said “level playing field.” I thought I also heard someone say “skin in the game.”) It was particularly hard not to sympathize with Municipal Licensing/Standards Executive Director Tracey Cook, whose report on the city’s taxi industry formed part of the background for the deliberations. At one point, she responded to Frank DiGiorgio with a wry suggestion that if she’d had the crystal ball he was apparently demanding that she consult, she might have thought twice about taking the job. It wasn’t the only eyeroll-prompting question she had to field.
Indeed, one has to respect the demands public servants are required to meet. They have to balance impartiality with their professional obligation to deliver the best possible advice in helping their political masters make good decisions. When that has to take place in an atmosphere of hyper-partisanship and demagoguery … well, remember Gary Webster?
The complexities of the Uber/taxi debate need more room than I’ve got here, but among the factors councillors need to consider are:
And I’m not pretending for one second that this is a comprehensive list. The task for city council, with the assistance of Ms. Cook and her staff, is to find a balance among these competing interests, and craft a revised regulatory structure that achieves the greatest good for the greatest number.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that while sound decisions should be based on the best possible information, that’s a particular challenge in this case. How much can we rely on data collection, and who collects the data? I drove a taxi in Toronto a couple of centuries ago, and while I’m sure technology has evolved, it’s hard to imagine how drivers are supposed to record, categorize and analyze data on top of everything else they’re doing.
Now contrast the insistence on hard data with more reliance on anecdotal, non-quantifiable, lived experience. It’s no less important, but it raises its own set of questions around whose experience gets taken into account and how much weight it’s given.
Again: I’m not taking sides on the Uber/taxi debate. But pretending they’re exactly the same thing, as was evident in one exchange between the current Chief Magistrate and his predecessor, displays a rather limited grasp of the complications inherent in making policy – and of one’s own responsibilities as an elected official.
Ultimately, things turn on your approach to governance. You can’t reduce things to wishful thinking, unsupported assumptions, or misleading comparisons, and you can’t just repeat slogans. Maybe it’s trite to repeat this, but: Public Policy Is Not Simple. Pretending otherwise does no one any favours.
Back in business, at @HuffPostCanada. An excerpt:
… there’s more: Critical thinking, civic engagement, respect for the meanings of words, the role of government, the language of the market, but the overarching theme here is, or ought to be, the common good.
As we head into a federal election this fall, then, can’t we resolve to make this our touchstone? To the extent that we hear coherent positioning and messaging from any of the contenders, let’s ask ourselves: will this enhance the public good? Will this build a sense of community, of common purpose, of commitment to the greater good?
Divided against each other and manipulated, or resolved to combine our efforts? I know which way I’d go.
“You’re bloody well right, we need to tax and spend. We’re living with the results of decades of NOT taxing and spending, and what have we got? Buses that don’t arrive. Chunks of the Gardiner falling on our heads. Crumbling infrastructure. Poisonous inequality. Epidemic levels of child poverty. It’s way past time we fixed this, instead of embracing the failed policies advanced by the austerity advocates and other mouthpieces for the far right.”
What I’d love to hear from progressive candidates, not just in the municipal arena, but almost any other context. Stop letting the flimflam artists of the Right use “tax and spend” as a smear. Things cost money. Taxes pay for things. Socialist, left-wing, progressive, whatever. Morans and poo-flingers can call it whatever names they want. A fella can dream.
That @cityslikr fella is onto something, as usual.
We’ve gone over this before, and we’ll no doubt go over it again (can’t you just get to the point? Jeez … — ed.), but in light of the themes that seem to be dominating the conversation, it bears repeating: to what extent does “conservatism,” as currently defined, bear on sane and sound fiscal policy?
Recall our recent wankery on The Public Good. One of the consistent messages, I hope, was that government is not a business, and should not be run like one. Several goals, some more achievable than others, I admit, but here’s one: let’s banish market fetishism and the language of the business school from any and all discussions of public policy. Government is here to serve the public good and advance the well-being of the community and its citizens. It’s not here to make a profit or enhance the brand or increase shareholder value. Any talk of deficit reduction or debt reduction needs to be evaluated in that light.
That’s lecture 1. Lecture 2 is, once again, about the meanings of words, and reclaiming the conservative tradition. I can’t stress this enough: reduced to its essence, what is conservatism other than Respect For That Which Has Gone Before? If you’re a true conservative, doesn’t that mean you work to identify and preserve what your predecessors have built?
And in the context of Toronto / Ontario / Canadian politics, doesn’t that include a generous social infrastructure? A series of programs, policies, and commitments that underpin the entire fabric of community? A wholesome ethic of mutual support, common provision, and a sense that we’re all in this together, greater than the sum of our parts? A narrative that ties it all together?
That’s essential to the Canadian character. That’s what makes us who we are. It’s one of those things that you have to respect and preserve if you want to call yourself “conservative.” You don’t get to attack it with chain saws and flaming arrows while screaming about Teh Deficit and still be in the club.
Are you stuck in traffic?
Waiting for a streetcar or bus that may never arrive?
We didn’t get here by accident, of course, and god knows there’s plenty of blame to go round. While the current mayoral administration bears particular responsibility for its consistent lies and pandering to an ill-founded sense of entitlement and manufactured resentment, allied to a transparent and patently destructive divide-and-conquer strategy, it did not do this damage all by itself. It’s had plenty of help, from the province and Ottawa, and from provincial agencies theoretically mandated to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the first place. From the Harrisite barbarians spitefully filling in a tunnel that had already been started, to the provincial Liberals’ initial decision to turtle on the shit-canning of Transit City, to the more recent nod-nod-wink-wink reactions to extravagant and undeliverable signals in the context of provincial by-elections, much of the blame can properly be laid at the doors of Queen’s Park as well. As John writes:
… we can — and should — ask what the orchestrated gutting of the $8.4 billion LRT master agreement, signed by Metrolinx, the City of Toronto and the TTC in November, 2012, will ultimately cost Toronto residents. And we can ask whether the Liberals, in effect, bought a Scarborough by-election last summer by agreeing to bankroll a subway while side-loading well over a billion dollars — the actual sum is unknown — in surplus cost to Toronto residents.
To re-cap: Between the feds, the province and the city, governments have committed $3.05 billion to a three-stop subway that will cover less ground and take longer to complete than the $1.8 billion, seven-stop Scarborough LRT.
Really, take a few minutes and read through the entire series. It isn’t pretty. Staff recommendations, expert advice, and evidence-based warnings all ignored. Public servants kneecapped. Persistent and calculated misrepresentation and lying. Well-considered and fully funded plans torn up for temporary political advantage. Millions of dollars down the toilet. Why, it’s as if we’d left essential matters of good governance in the hands of petulant four-year-olds!
And you’d think, what with us being in the middle of a provincial election, we might have a chance to discuss this intelligently. Yeah, well. Given the current state of public and political discourse, you might not want to hold your breath. I’ve tried, without much success, to get the #FactyEvidencyTransitStuff hashtag trending on the Tweeter, but a guy can dream. (What can I say? Perhaps I don’t have as much of a future in vaudeville as I’d hoped.)
But really, John’s already said it. We’ll return to this theme in the larger context of peak oil and the putative War On The Car, because this is just one symptom of a much more widespread social, political and discursive dysfunction, but at the end of the day, where has all this gotten us? Millions of dollars deeper in the hole and no further ahead on transit. How does this advance the greatest good for the greatest number? How does this represent pooling of resources, combination of expertise, or harnessing of collective efforts?
It’s hard to see how this serves The Public Good.