Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Benefits of a Minority Government

The Liberals have been soundly trounced. Not the wholesale slaughter that the Kim Campbell Conservatives experienced eons ago (where they were virtually wiped out) but a sound thrashing just the same. Judging by both the popular vote and the huge loss of seats, it is clear that Canadians have not been satisfied with Liberal performance of late.

According to the CBC coverage on election night, minority governments have an average lifespan of fourteen months so it may not be too long before we go through the whole spectacle again.

Before then, however, we should see further developments in the criminal proceedings surrounding what is now generally known as “adscam” and that might whet the public’s desire for a change in governance in the next two years. Also in the meantime we will see who the Liberals name as the new Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada as well as how they deal with the fallout following the notoriously flawed Marriage Reference that is due to be argued this fall before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Will they begin to show some real sense and consider, for example, “civil unions” rather than continue down the road of forcing a “trump rights” conception of same-sex marriage on the population? Better the State out of the bedrooms of the nation, which means looking at financial dependency not “sexual relationships” as the key for federal benefits.

For the moment, the Liberals are just hiding their heads in the sand and pretending that “same-sex civil marriage” is something that the Charter requires when all they have to do is get out of using a “marriage” category to give benefits. But such forward thinking would not suit the radicals that want “same-sex marriage” and the Liberals have lacked the imagination to do anything about this. They did not add “civil unions” as a possible category to the Marriage Reference and, by failing to do so, are simply perpetuating an ugly future of litigation amongst Canadian communities who will never agree about the acceptability of “same-sex marriage.” Too bad that.

I, for one, welcome the fact that, at long last, there will actually have to be some compromise and “deal making” amongst the political parties since the Liberals no longer command a majority position.

What sorts of deals the NDP and the Bloc want to make in exchange for their support of the Liberals, however, will have to be watched closely and it will not be lost on the Liberals that tenuous hold on several seats in the West and a strong Conservative showing in Ontario mean that they will have to tread carefully.

Paul Martin has shown himself to lack strong convictions on “social issues” - - if his flip-flop on the use of the notwithstanding clause in relation to same-sex marriage (originally he indicated he was in favour of using the clause then, latterly, against it) is any indication of how easily he can be shifted by his handlers in response, no doubt, to polling results.

Once again the Liberals resorted to “scare tactics” during this campaign and portrayed, it would seem successfully, the Conservatives as “scary.” Their fear of strong Conservative poll results led them into wilder and wilder portrayals of the “scary” nature of the Conservatives. It just insulted ones intelligence.

When will Canadians learn that such tactics just treat them as fools? Mind you, if the electorate responds to such tactics then what is to stop certain kinds of politicians from “negative politicking?”

Some excellent M.P.’s made it through from various parties and I for one was glad to see many excellent returning candidates. Returning are M.P.s:
Jason Kenney (Conservative)
John McKay (Liberal)
Bill Blaikie (NDP)
David Kilgour (Liberal)
Bev Desjarlais (NDP)
Diane Ablonczy (Conservative)
Maurice Vellacott (Conservative)

The above survive to continue to make some sensible and necessary arguments in Ottawa. We are particularly glad to see some who have attended Centre events in the past

One hopes that the Liberal M.P.’s will show greater respect for democracy than the NDP has done historically and refuse to be subjected to the indignity of “block voting” rules within their party. Should a few strong M.P.’s stand up to attempts to “toe the party line” then this will be one of the more interesting Parliaments in Canadian history.

Goodness knows, Canada has had, for far too long what Conrad Black, in another context, has referred to as “the hermetically sealed echo chamber” of Canadian politics. Now, thankfully, it looks as if there will be some other voices added to the cacophony.

CENTREBLOG Volume 33
Iain T. Benson ©

Friday, June 25, 2004

If Every Desire Becomes a Right, Then Real Rights are Devalued

The Liberal candidate in Mount Royal, Irwin Cotler (who is also the minister of justice in the Martin government), has chastised Stephen Harper for his stand on same-sex marriage. In his comment, published in the Citizen Wednesday ("The Charter is here to stay." June 16), he throws in everything but the kitchen sink in what is purported to be a defence of the Charter.

Three statements in his tract are quite puzzling. It would appear that Mr. Cotler believes that appellate court judges are infallible, that the majority in the House of Commons is nothing but an expression of whims, and that the notwithstanding clause is not a normal way to assert the prevalent authority of Parliament in a democracy.

The fact that appellate courts in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have struck down a piece of legislation is in no way a final judicial stand on any issue. Before we have an opinion from the Supreme Court of Canada, nothing is final. So it is difficult to understand why the Liberal government has not simply referred these judgements to the Supreme Court to determine if the notion of traditional marriage is indeed in violation of the Charter.

To the best of my knowledge, this is what Stephen Harper wants to do: Get an opinion from the Supreme Court about the existing law rather than concocting another law that makes same-sex marriages legal and submitting it to the Supreme Court for pre-approval.

It is well known that a large number of lower court judgements in Canada are not upheld by the Supreme Court. It is not impossible to believe that since marriage is reserved for the partnership between a man and a woman in some 180 countries, the Supreme Court might regard it as quite acceptable and non-discriminatory in a free and democratic society. This need not oppress gays and lesbians in any way, or bar them from entering into civil unions which are not second-rate option except in the mind of the zealots. There could be different way (in full respect and dignity for all) to formalize different sorts of unions.

But even if the Supreme Court were to uphold the decisions of the lower courts, this need not be accepted by Parliament. Irwin Cotler's view that Parliament is a whimsical mob, and its decisions rooted in uninformed whimsicality, is quite surprising. Mr. Cotler, as a human rights lawyer, is so intent on limiting the damages that the tyranny of a majority may inflict on minorities that he lyrically defends the tyranny of the minorities and falls into an idolatry of rights as if they were sacred. As Michael Ignatieff rightly underlines, "we need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates a basis for deliberation." Rights are not a set of trump cards to bring political disputes to closure.

Parliament is the place of last resort for deliberation about all governance issues in a democracy. The idea that Parliament is not to be trusted, and that judges as super-bureaucrats are like shamans who cannot be contested, is anti-democratic.

The Charter is a creature of Parliament. Rights have been defined by Parliament; as Mr. Ignatieff says, they are a "tool kit against oppression" and one should not automatically "define anything desirable as a right" because that would erode the legitimacy of core rights. Courts are not infallible in interpreting the Charter. And there is nothing sinister, in a free and democratic society, in Parliament's using the notwithstanding clause to suspend the application of a decision by the courts that does not pertain to oppression and with which the majority of freely elected parliamentarians does not agree.

To allow minority groups to obtain everything they would prefer to have as a matter of rights, and to make rights into a secular religion and the courts into its only authorized clergy, would take us into dangerous territory. And for a minister of the Canadian government to trivialize Parliament as a whimsical mob is not reassuring.

Maybe Mr. Cotler was only speaking as the Liberal candidate in Mount Royal. In such a case, he is allowed to entertain any pragmatic doctrine that is likely to foster his re-election. He even has the right to disinform.

CENTREBLOG Volume 32
Gilles Paquet©

(Gilles Paquet is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. This column first ran in The Ottawa Citizen , Friday, June 18, 2004, p. A13.)
Reprinted by permission.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Section 33 is NOT "Anti-Charter"

It was interesting to watch the Canadian English language leadership debate on June 15th. The four party leaders squared off in what was obviously a tightly scripted "debate" of issues deemed by someone to be important to this election. They all read their carefully prepared notes and tried to fit within the tight time-frames to make opening and closing statements and some key points in their set-pieces - - debates between each person and one of the other parties. It had all the spontaneity of a well-choreographed ballet but little of the grace.

The spectre of the Bloc Quebécois leader squaring off against the NDP leader was amusing to say the least since they had as much in common, in terms of political interest, as a hot air balloonist does in discussing navigation with the captain of a submarine. In fact the presence of the Bloc was strange in itself and one only wonders whether, one day, we shall see leaders of other regional parties in dialogue with federalists?

Before I get to the substantial points below, it is worth noting on of the more amusing things said all evening. It came in the form of a rather hysterical blooper from the mouth of NDP leader Jack Layton. Trying desperately to get in a feminist lick (so to speak) he ended one exchange with Paul Martin by saying "we need more women in government because they could clean up".

None of the coverage picked up on this extraordinary statement and I imagine several hundred of the NDP die-hards who heard this must have just about croaked (as we used to say).

Also amusing was Paul Martin's obviously scripted attack on the NDP leader (who strikingly resembles, incidentally, ice-hockey pundit Don Cherry) later on when he said "did your handlers tell you to talk all the time". Layton, like Martin himself, appeared to have a serious case of what the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Michael Ramsay once referred to as "the fatal facility of continuous utterance".

Layton responded well to this obvious piece of strategic rudeness. Truth is that, of the four of them, it was Paul Martin who talked like a person on pep pills trying to win the Guinness Book of World Records non-stop talking award. He talked on and over everyone and the result was, on occasion, a cacophony not unlike feeding time in a parrot cage.

Whatever anyone felt about the content of the debate, the award for pugnacity goes to Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebécois who continually attacked Mr. Martin for not answering the questions he was posing him in relation to adscam and corruption within the Liberal Party. Indeed, Mr. Martin won, hands down, the "blob of mercury" award for his ability to stay one micron ahead of the fingers that tried to tack him down.

Class act was Stephen Harper who spoke more or less when spoken to, listened to his interlocutors and generally seemed both more knowledgeable and capable as the comments from several of the viewers following the CBC event showed. He had more manners than the others but one wonders whether manners matter anymore in politics.

The tactics of "scary" perfected last election by Warren Kinsella for the Chretien Liberals were dusted off again by the Martin Liberals as they attempted to suggest that a "women's right to choose" and "gay rights" would not be secure under a Conservative government. Harper said continually that he would not be introducing legislation to limit choice (that great euphemism for the killing of small, geographically impoverished humans) and limited his moral concerns to "child pornography" and said that it was in reference to that and "maintaining the traditional definition of marriage" that he would use the notwithstanding clause of the Charter.

Here was the moment at which a serious blunder occurred in Paul Martin's logic. He purported to be a strong believer in the Charter and tried to attack Stephen Harper about his willingness to use Section 33 of the Charter and suggested such use was "anti-Charter". There are two reasons why this criticism is nonsense. First, Martin himself has said that he would use Section 33 of the Charter to protect the rights of religious communities to refuse to marry same-sex couples if the law goes that direction. That is an error of hypocrisy.

Second, the use of Section 33 is not in any way "anti-Charter" as that Section is a key part OF the Charter. It is WITHIN the Charter so its use can hardly be said to be "anti-Charter". Since Martin would also use Section 33 the best response Stephen Harper could have used, but didn't, is that Section 33, far from being the enemy of the Charter is IN the Charter - - and is a key Section of it.

So the difference is not one of "pro-Charter" versus a supposedly "anti-Charter" perspective but, rather, when the Section should be used not whether it should be used.

Section 33 is, in fact, the enemy of an over-reaching judiciary not of democracy and its presence within the Charter was the reason we have the Charter at all. I am so sick of the kind of silly rhetoric Martin employed here in his attempt to nail Harper. Does he take ordinary Canadians to be morons?

Human rights are precariously balanced within democracies and as much damage to them can be done by judges that over-reach the subtle balances between developing rights recognition and culture as can be done by majorities that refuse to acknowledge rights at all.

Remember that with a Section 33 declaration a government has to defend its reasoning at the polls before long and could, in fact, be un-elected if the reasoning of the people has changed on a key point to culture. And the judges and the notoriously liberal media will give the government a public pasting to ensure that the liberal progressive positions will be publicly driven - - of that we can all be sure. It is then a question of time, debate and patience.

This short term "solution" of getting a big judicial win is amazingly short-sighted as it will, as the old language used to have it "bring the administration of justice into disrepute".

One more thing: weren't the Liberals the very people who used a majoritarianism (majority vote) to deny Catholics and other Christians (Pentecostals etc.) the right to continued constitutional educational protection in both Newfoundland and Quebec? You bet they were! It would have been better for them to have declared their domination of denominational education rights openly and in a way which could make them accountable. So much for accurate analysis of the Charter from Paul Martin.

The journalists who were given the task of firing questions at the debaters did a fairly good job of things and we, as viewers, were not told whether the candidates had the questions ahead of time. There seemed to be no surprises.

Following the debate, however, things took a distinctly biased twist. The so-called "reality check" woman on CBC television who followed up the debate gave a blatantly biased spin to the suggestion that Paul Martin might himself use Section 33 of the Charter. She suggested that Martin would not have to use the Section 33 provision to protect the rights of religious communities not to marry same-sex couples since "religious rights are already protected under the Charter."

There is one word to say here. Wrong. There is every reason to suspect that, following from recent decisions, a court could determine that various aspects of religious autonomy have to give way to the furtherance of the equality of gays and lesbians. There are many ways (and we have already seen some such as the attack on Catholic Schools to have their distinctive teaching about same-sex behaviour in the Durham School Board "high-school prom" case) in which religion can be attacked following a decision that marriage should include gays and lesbian couples.

So, overall, it was another example of scripted debate in which each side tried to score off the other by talking over them, obfuscating, avoiding the questions and posturing. Perhaps only Duceppe and Harper seemed to have genuine capacity for open leadership though it is impossible to tell from one two-hour debate of this sort. Time will tell and the respect that Duceppe and Harper appeared to have for each other gave this reviewer, at any rate, a glimpse into how things might shape up in the future.

CENTREBLOG Volume 31
Iain Benson©

"Canadian Values” are Meaningless

My friend, columnist John Robson, has just written a wonderful column in the Ottawa Citizen (June 11, 2004) dealing with the current phobia about morality in politics. It would not be possible to write a better piece on the subject so I want just to bring it to our reader’s attention. We are pleased to have that article reprinted on our blog site here with permission of the author.

I want to focus, not on the moral phobia that plagues Canadians generally and their leaders in particular, but on a similar problem about what could be called our value-philia - - or claim to love the category of “values.” In election after election, it is as if each party and candidate tries to show how much he or she affirms “Canadian values” without ever spelling out precisely what these are or why they matter.

And please note that every side of every question uses “values” to support their side of the debate. On abortion there are those Canadians who value the “right to life” and another vehement group who support “the right to choose.” Both cite these mystical “Canadian values” or, perhaps, the other term that accompanies it, “Charter values” (and often the same Charter value – the bungee cord of “equality”) to prop up their missing metaphysics.

Canadian elections nowadays when everyone avoids the key issues (same-sex marriage, abortion, poverty, the collapse of public education and ethics) to focus on generalized bromides seem more and more to be just an exercise in which group can out-shout the other about their love of “Canadian values.”

WE STAND FOR CANADIAN VALUES seems to stand for something real, clear and substantive. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Values language” as I am (almost) tired of pointing out, is, as the late Canadian philosopher George Grant once said in an interview with that paragon of CBC journalism, David Cayley, “an obscuring language for morality used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.” Let’s look at that for a moment.

An “obscuring language for morality?” Let’s see. “You have your values and I have mine?” This phrase is recited everywhere in public discussions. Is it true? Then, what could “Canadian values” mean? Any answers out there? We all know, don’t we, that it is inappropriate, wrong or bad taste to “force your values on someone else.” So values cannot be moral absolutes like the killing of the innocent. But, wait; don’t I want (even if I lament it) to kill the innocent as part of my values when I affirm the “right to choose” as the trump card in the abortion issue - - -? Of course I do. Welcome to Canadian values, the perfect language to obscure morality and it can be used by anyone, rich, poor, capitalist, socialist, religious, non-religious etc. etc.

Let us look at the second aspect of that pregnant insight from George Grant: values language he says, is “used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.” Is that accurate? Do we have a sense of “shared purposes?” Yes. What might that be? Well, for most, the shared purposes are a commitment to - - you guessed it - - “Canadian values.” So the dizzy values affirming puppy roars around in circles chasing his (or her) own tail. We didn’t even notice that by substituting meaningful discussion about shared human purposes with the confused language of “values” we were playing into the very destruction of “purpose” that many of us lament. “Gotcha” says the language of values.

So the next time you hear a politician (or educator or judge) say that they believe in “Canadian values”, ask the person what they mean by using the term “values?” Does she mean a moral truth that he or she believes everyone should acknowledge or merely something he or she feels is personally important like a matter of personal taste or opinion?

If it is an objective moral truth that all human beings share by their nature (a “purpose” for us all) then what practical steps should be taken in education or perhaps law, to ensure that the moral truth is furthered in society?

If you try this kind of blowing away of the smoke of “values language” (as I have on occasion) you will find two things. First, that the person has never thought about it before and hasn’t a clue what she means by the term “values” or, second that even if he or she thinks that the value is an objective principle, they are unsure about what should be done to further the application of the principle because they are usually paranoid about “forcing” something on others even if they think it is a principle that everyone should respect.

For when our education is (as ours has largely been in Canada for many decades now) based upon “values” confusion, and our debates supposedly turn on them, we are just exchanging windy words that serve to air our collective confusions but not a whole lot more.

Out, out, damned “values” and pity those who are led by people who think they matter for the common good.

CENTREBLOG Volume 30
Iain T. Benson©

Friday, June 18, 2004

Politicians Struggle to Evade the Taint of Morality

Apparently we're not supposed to discuss moral issues during an election campaign. Which only leaves immoral ones, I suppose. Or perhaps amoral. Would it be wrong to ask why?

Once, politicians feared the taint of immorality. Now they fear the taint of morality. It's not completely clear to me whether they're trying to persuade us that they don't know right from wrong or just that they don't care. But they do seem determined to convey that in any event it's not going to matter; when politicians in any party are caught holding moral views they hasten to assure us they wouldn't dream of acting on them.

It's not completely clear what a moral issue is either. A headline in Monday's Citizen said "'Moral' issues blow Liberals, Tories off track," and the scare quotation marks suggest the headline writer wasn't sure. At first I thought it meant sex, since the story started with the topics of abortion and gay marriage. But then it threw in the death penalty, so we had the end as well as the beginning of life. And when it added bilingualism into the mix, I became completely confused.

Then I derived inspiration from marijuana. Indirectly, I hasten to add: I read a news story about a Fraser Institute study by economist Steve Easton arguing that if marijuana were legalized governments could rake in a cool $2 billion a year in taxes. As indeed they might. But I'd rather see the issue discussed primarily in terms of whether, first, the community is morally justified in using force to protect people from harming themselves and, second, if it is, whether marijuana meets the threshold test for sufficient harm to trigger intervention.

My opinion is no and no, so I would legalize it. You need two yesses for a principled ban on the stuff. Yet Anne McLellan, who opposes legalization, recently said the suggestion of counselling women on abortion "as if we are children, as if we are not able to make our own decisions about our health and our bodies, is to me, at the beginning of the 21st century, profoundly disturbing and, dare I say it, very frightening."

Let those women seek to inhale pot smoke into their own personal lungs, or just agree to work where there's second-hand tobacco smoke, and see how much Ms. McLellan respects their right to make decisions about their health and their bodies at the beginning of the 21st century. How do you reason with such people?

Then it struck me that the Fraser Institute study was speaking precisely the government's native language by putting aside principle and dangling a sack of cash in front of it. At which point I saw that what unites the banned "moral" issues is negative: None allows politicians to attract support from a broad spectrum of likely voters by promising boodle from the treasury. They require debate on what's right or wrong rather than what's lucrative. Not fun.

Even the Conservative Party is campaigning on spending promises even more lavish than those of the Liberals, claiming they've detected a huge bag of money in Ottawa that the Liberals are dishonestly hiding because they're meanies who don't want to spend. Which frankly insults my intelligence as well as my morals. But this campaign is not about me, it's about directing the last available tax dollar to the last available suburban swing voter.

Please don't think I'm one of those dolts who considers wealth immoral. When people talk about mere money or mere things I wonder how long they think they'd last without mere food, mere water or mere air, a material mixture of some 78 per cent nitrogen, 21 per cent oxygen, nearly one per cent argon and traces of other chemical elements made of shabby protons, neutrons and electrons. Jesus said man did not live by bread alone, not that he did not live by bread. If you think combining material substance and moral purpose was a silly way to design the universe, you'll have to take it up with a far higher authority than me.

My concern is whether the material things will be put to good use or bad. And so I'm all for people being paid what they have earned. (I wish everyone who doesn't think it should happen to doctors could be forced to earn their own living exactly as they would require medical professionals to earn theirs.) But I'm against people taking money they haven't earned, whether through armed robbery or through politics. You see, I think it's wrong.

Evidently that's the sort of question we're not allowed to discuss. Which suggests an uneasy conscience about how the discussion would go if we were.

CENTREBLOG Volume 29
John Robson ©
(John Robson is a writer and broadcaster based in Ottawa. This column first ran in The Ottawa Citizen June 11, 2004, p. A14.)
Reprinted by permission.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

The Senator Changes Parties

Oh that Canada had more politicians like Senator Anne Cools! Alas, we do not.

She became a Senator - - the first black Senator, as a matter of fact, on the recommendation of then Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1984.

One wonders if the late Prime Minister had a clue what sort of Senator she would become?

Principled, out-spoken, courageous, tireless in work and equally tireless in her campaign against some of the more dangerous currents of the day, she continues to outrage and delight by turns.

This week she threw the Liberal party, currently treading water in an attempt to avoid sinking between the electoral waves, a large rock when she resigned as a Liberal and decided to endorse the Conservative party and its leadership hopeful, Stephen Harper.

Now had Senator Cools not been the primary opponent of the recently passed Bill C-250 that added “sexual orientation” to the “hate speech” sections of the Criminal Code; had she not upset so many feminists by her work on behalf of fathers who have been shafted during divorce proceedings; had she been shifting from the Conservative party to the Liberals and not the other way around; then her shift of parties at this time in an election race would have been all over the media and she would have been fêted as the darling of the chattering classes.

As it is, dropping the Liberal party because she can no longer stomach their politics, and asserting that the governing party has wasted billions of dollars in the sponsorship scandal and the gun-registry would seem to be the kind of thing to give scant attention to today: at least judging by the media’s response to it.

Whether the current strength of the Conservatives in the polls, a strengthening that occurred after Senator Cools left the Liberals, ends up ushering in a new era in Canadian politics or not, it is clear that one of the most hard-working and genuinely brilliant of Canadian Senators has made a strong and clear statement and bolsters the Conservative voice in the Upper House.

Long after the issues of the day have settled (one way or other) her speeches in support or against a particular measure are usually marked by extensive research (invariably her own) and a deep understanding of Canadian Parliamentary history and tradition.

She has often lamented the passing of those who really care about the proper processes of the House and Senate.

Such statements of genuine principle are rare in Canadian politics and no matter what party we think ought to triumph in the weeks ahead, we would be wise to note the implications of Senator Cools’ stance. She is one of a handful of politicians in Ottawa that command respect and will, I am sure, get that respect from history even if she does not get as much as she deserves from our own times.

CENTREBLOG Volume 28
Iain T. Benson©