Three big issues emerged in the past week in Canadian politics — and in my opinion, the government struck out on all three: the Supreme Court’s ruling on Senate reform, the controversy over the Foreign Workers’ program, and Ottawa’s so-called “Fair Elections Act.
In Canada, the Senate is treated something like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody (well, almost nobody) does anything about it.
The Supreme Court spoke on Friday, answering a reference on several questions it had been sent by Prime Minister Harper. He asked if parliament alone could abolish the Senate, as well as questions on holding elections to determine Senate nominees, and limiting the terms of Senators (now to age 75).
In essence, the Court said, “No, no, and no again.” You can’t do any of these, the Prime Minister was told without unanimous or near unanimous agreement of all provinces, plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. The decision marked about the sixth time in recent months that the Court (made up of mostly Harper appointees) has slapped down the government.
So what does it all mean? Mainly, that it’s time to get the Senate back to its original purpose — as a chamber of sober second thought, with the duty of protecting Canadians against the excesses of a government emboldened by a Parliamentary majority..
The only action we’ve seen so far that would move in that direction is Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to cast Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus and require them to sit as independents — even though they still call themselves Senate Liberals. Trudeau would have future Prime Ministers make non-partisan appointments from a list of names drawn up by a special committee. The idea is to get outstanding Canadians into the Senate, not just party hacks and bagmen as is currently the case.
Even that proposal could run into trouble with the Supreme Court, if it required the PM to limit himself to those choices. Can’t interfere with any of the present rules of the Senate, the Court said, without revising the constitution . That’s something most Canadian politicians are loathe to attempt. Perhaps a saw-off would let the PM make his own choices while also picking from a select list of recommended appointees.
Conventional wisdom has it that it would be impossible to get the agreement of all the provinces to any particular change in the status of the Senate. Why so? Why not try? Why not put a referendum to the people, asking if they want to abolish the Senate? If it passed by a majority in every province — a very likely possibility — surely no premier would dare stand in the way of the people’s will.
The Foreign Workers’ mishmash
A mishmash it is, with increasing evidence that some employers are using the scheme to bring in cheap foreign labour while freezing Canadians out of jobs. Especially in the restaurant industry. Employment Minister Jason Kenney says the government wants the restaurant industry to raise wages, provide better working conditions, and do more to train workers. Traditionally, pay rises when jobs become hard to fill. Not under this scheme. The Foreign Workers’ program as it now operates provides no incentive to do any of the above. To the contrary, it is an encouragement to make NONE of these reforms. According to the C.D. Howe Institute, which studied the effects of the program in B.C. and Alberta, it has caused a rise in unemployment in both provinces.
And it’s not just the restaurant industry. We’ve seen examples of Canadians being phased out in favour of temporary foreign workers in both the information technology industry and banking. To say nothing of the shift of jobs to offshore locations.
Minister Kenney has put a freeze on the restaurant industry’s use of the program. For now. Perhaps the whole program should be put on hold while an independent inquiry looks at how it could be improved.
A Climb-down on the “Fair” Elections Act
The navigator of this bill, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, had called it “perfect.” Like the late and unlamented Charter of Values in Quebec, it was intended to solve problems where none exist. Such as assumed election fraud by ineligible voters being allowed to vote after being vouched for by a neighbour. Now, after weeks of controversy and almost unanimous condemnation by election experts, the media, and the opposition parties, the Harper government says it will accept some key amendments.
It was suspected all along that the main purpose of the bill was to make voting more difficult for transient groups such as university students, aboriginals and low-income people — most of whom would be expected to vote some way other than Conservative.
The climb-down, if it turns out to be indeed that, shows that even a majority government where the Prime Minister has quasi-dictatorial powers, can be forced to listen to public opinion.
A single strand has run through the Quebec separatist movement almost from the day in 1967 that Rene Levesque left the Liberal party to establish the Parti Quebecois as the vehicle by which sovereigntists hope to ride to independence. It is their contempt for Canada.
That contempt was well summed up by former leader and Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, who said “Canada is not a real nation.”
Canada was and is, however, a “real” enough nation to have guaranteed the continuance of the French language, religion, and civil law after the British victory at the Plains of Abraham. It is further “real” enough to have become a bilingual country under that son of Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and to engage in a massive tax transfer that since the 1950s has benefited Quebec to the tune of some $146 billion. Without the $4.5 billion the province will receive from equalization this year alone, its deficit would be twice the shortfall announced by Premier Pauline Marois.
But numbers aren’t the real issue.It’s contempt that hurts.
This sentiment sank to a new low over the weekend (of March 9) when Premier Marois announced that Pierre Karl Peladeau, the controlling shareholder of Canada’s biggest newspaper chain — Quebecor Media — would be a candidate for the PQ in the April 7 provincial election. Quebecor’s properties include the Toronto Sun and Sun Media chain, plus the Sun News TV channel.
Peladeau, whose wealth is drawn from a variety of newspaper and TV holdings in a business established by his father, declared “I am a sovereigntist” and said he was running so that his children could live “in their own country.”
While the law would require Peladeau, if elected, to put his shares in trust, he is reported to have said that he would not sell them, even if ordered to do so.
As one wag observed, Peladeau is the first billionaire to join the PQ. Aside from illustrating his contempt for all the Canadians who have done business with his papers and helped to enrich him, this sets up some interesting dichotomies which Quebec separatists are going to have to deal with.
Premier Marois touted Peladeau’s candidacy as evidence that the PQ will have a strong grip on the economy — previously a weak spot in the party’s armour. He’s seen as a “star candidate,” his candidacy hailed as a “game-changer.” It remains to be seen how Peladeau’s well-known pro-business — and anti-union — stance will go down with party supporters. The PQ is a social democratic party, and most of its followers. besides being Quebec nationalists, stand well left of centre.
The Peladeau adventure also has to set off alarm bells in the executive corridors of the National Hockey League. He’s been a prime mover in the scheme to build a $400 million, publicly-financed, hockey arena in Quebec City. The idea was that the NHL would bring a team to the city once the stadium had been built. The steel frame is already up. But the Peladeau connection is sure to be seen as a negative by many NHL owners.
Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is asking some interesting questions about Peladeau’s influence over Quebec media during the electi0n campaign.
It is too early to make predictions on the outcome of the Quebec vote, although the PQ apparently has an edge in the key francophone vote. Overall, according to a poll by CROP, the Liberals and PQ are tied at 36 per cent.
Premier Marois refuses to commit herself to holding a referendum if the PQ wins a majority. But neither does she rule it out. That could scare off nationalist voters who don’t want to see Quebec plunged into a third, and more divisive then ever, referendum.
But it’s Pierre Karl Peladeau’s contempt for Canadians that will count for most people outside Quebec — and many inside, too. He’s used our freedom of the press to gain control of a vast media empire that has given him power and profits.
Will Canadians be much longer interested in subscribing to or supporting Quebecor Media papers, knowing that profits will conti9nue to accrue to Peladeau through his controlling interest?
We have laws in Canada against foreign ownership of news media. Peladeau should think about this when he campaigns for an independent Quebec.
We’ve been waiting for Justin Trudeau to make the big moves of which we know he’s capable. This morning (01/29/13) he took an important first step by cutting all Liberal Senators loose from the parliamentary caucus, thereby committing himself to a non-partisan Senate.
For those of us who have regarded the Canadian Senate in its present form as a useless and costly appendage, Trudeau’s decision represents a dramatic break with the past. Not as good as abolishing the Senate entirely, perhaps, but at least it’s a formula to create a more meaningful, respectful, and effective “chamber of sober second thought.”
Under Trudeau’s proposal. future Senate appointments would be made from a process similar to that used now to award the Order of Canada to distinguished Canadians. Gone would be the days of filling the Senate with tired party hacks, bagmen, and assorted creatures obliged to follow the Prime Minister’s orders.
Of course, the Conservatives don’t see it this way. They say they’d like Senators to be elected, but as Trudeau points out, that’s virtually impossible without getting involved in a long, tiresome, and potentially pointless Constitutional negotiation between Ottawa and the provinces. The Supreme Court is now hearing Ottawa’s referral on Senate matters but whatever it decides, it’s unlikely the Court will find any magic formula to shake up the Senate in a painless and effective fashion.
That’s why Justin Trudeau’s proposal is so exciting.
“I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan,” Mr. Trudeau said at his news conference. “Composed merely of thoughtful individuals representing the varied values, perspectives and identities of this great country. Independent from any particular political brand.”
“I challenge the Prime Minister to match this action,” said Mr. Trudeau. “As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”
So who could we expect to see in the Senate if Justin Trudeau were to become Prime Minister and have the opportunity to implement his reform plan?
There’s no shortage of excellent candidates. Here I offer up a few suggestions:
- Chris Hadfield, Canada’s thoughtful and smart ex-commander of the International Space Station
- Jack Diamond, the brilliant Toronto architect who understands the connection between city-building and saving the environment
- Margaret Atwood, author and advocate of progressive ideas
- Prem Watsa, the brilliant chief of Fairfax Holdings, a man clued into the need to build world-class Canadian tech companies
- Heather Reisman, who’s running the big Chapters-Indigo book chain
- Marc Carney, ex-governor of the Bank of Canda (now at the Bank of England)
- Kirstine Stewart, ex of the CBC, now head of Twitter in Canada
- Pierre Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier, the train and plane builder
- Mike Lazaridis, far-seeing co-founder of Blackberry
Imagine what a Senate made up of these personalities and others like them would look and sound like! Freed of the obligation to follow orders of the Prime Minister. Equipped with the long-standing Senate authority to review Parliamentary legislation, and suggest changes where it sees fit.
Perhaps we’d then get serious discussion of important issues — like how to educate Canadians for the 21st century, how to reduce the wastage of lives trapped in our prisons, or how to reclaim Canada’s position in the world as a tolerant, fair-minded, progressive contributor to the family of nations. Ideas on how to renew Canada.
In the short term, it will be instructive to see how the 32 former Liberal Senators conduct themselves in the Red Chamber. More significantly, Justin Trudeau’s proposals represent a break with the traditional tired politics of the old Canada. A first step toward renewing this great country to make it capable of facing the challenges we see ahead.
Trudeau’s new idea should play well with voters. He has put forward an innovative policy in a positive, forthright manner. Just as he has called for the legalization of marijuana, he is breaking new ground while answering critics who have derided him for not putting out policy ideas.
Justin Trudeau’s proposals offer a welcome contrast to the tired, personality-driven dirty politics so cleverly practiced by the Harper government. Perhaps he really has found a way to do politic differently.
A few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Information Agency produced a commemorative film, Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. The narration concluded with these words:
Some day, there will come a time when the early 1960s will be a very long time ago.”
In 2013 the world will note the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death — November 22, 1963 — and today, the early 1960s are truly a very long time ago.
And people still ask: What would the world be like today if Kennedy has escaped death on that fateful day in Dallas?
Writers of “virtual history” – where the what ifs of history are examined to find alternative outcomes to real events – have produced books envisioning a world where the Nazis won World War II, and an America where the South won the Civil War.
On the wall of my office hangs the papier-mâché matrix from which the front page of The Toronto Telegram was printed the day of the assassination. The headline reads, KENNEDY SHOT, DIES. Each time I glance at this now historic artifact the thought is renewed in my mind: “What if Kennedy had lived?”
The pursuit of this thought led me into the arena of virtual history, and has resulted in my new, short e-book, “Kennedy After Dallas: JFK’s Return to the White House for an Epochal 2nd Term.”
While I am admirer of John F. Kennedy and revere his memory, I have not attempted to portray an idealized version of the man, free of faults and absent of mistakes.
In speculating on what might have transpired had Kennedy not been killed, I have built on the historical record of his administration to project the logical outcome of policies set in motion by JFK before Dallas.
For example. JFK had shown considerable skepticism about the wisdom of U.S. military policy and had expressed his apprehension about the consequences of another Bay of Pigs or Cuban missile crisis.
For example, there was the time when he walked out of a meeting of his National Security Council as it debated the merits of a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union. “And we call ourselves the human race,” he said later to his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.
If Kennedy had lived, history would have unfolded differently. Our narrative sets out the alternative reality that would almost assuredly come to pass had fate allowed JFK to return to the White House after Dallas.
Across a range of areas — foreign policy, civil rights, civil liberties, outer space — JFK set in motion attitude and ideas that would after his death come to be accepted as conventional wisdom.
“The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city.” he says in Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. It was a recognition of an unwelcome truth in a demonstration of realpolitic that has been unmatched by any succeeding president.
Vietnam, of course, was the greatest challenge of the Kennedy years and those that followed. Would he have done things differently if he had lived?
Vietnam was already a divided country when Kennedy took office in 1961. The old French colony of Indochina had been cut in half – communist and non-communist – at the Geneva peace conference of 1954.
In a debate in the Senate that year, young Senator Kennedy set out the view that would guide his future presidency. It would be “dangerously futile and self-destructive,” he declared, “to pour money, materials and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory.”
Less than three months before his death, Kennedy told newscaster Walter Cronkite: “In the final analysis it’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors but they have to win it. The people of Vietnam against the communists … I don’t think the war can be won unless the people support the effort …”
There was a quicker and cheaper way out of Vietnam than that which was finally followed by the United states. I am convinced JFK would have found it, and Kennedy After Dallas describes how it might have come about.
A reviewer of my book has challenged me on what Kennedy would have done to inquire into the attempt on his death. The reviewer suggests he would have gone all out to find out who was behind the actions of Lee Oswald Harvey, and suggests it might have been Lyndon B. Johnson. I do not accept that judgement, not because I think Johnson incapable of leading such a murderous mission, but because I believe Kennedy’s commitment to the sanctity of the American political system would have deterred him from seeking such an earth-shaking explanation.
Kennedy had a strong fatalistic streak. On the day after the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis, he told his brother, “This is the night I should go to the theater.” He left on his desk a slip of paper on which he had written a line from a prayer of Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God – and I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”
The Canadian flag may be raised or lowered at the Quebec National Assembly, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that some good things have come from the election of the Parti Quebecois. Here are two worth considering:
First, the Harper government’s decision to quit backing asbestos mining, which occurs only in Quebec.
Second, the withdrawal by Lowe’s, the American hardware giant, in its bid to take over Quebec-based Rona Inc.
The new Premier, Mme. Marois had promised to withdraw the guarantee the provincial Liberals had offered for a $50 million loan to start up asbestos mining again at Asbestos, Que. (The name says it all.) And she made it clear the PQ government would do everything in its power to stop the take-over of Rona.
If you agree it is time that Canada stopped exporting asbestos to third-world countries (having banned its use in our own construction), you will be pleased with Ottawa’s action to no longer oppose adding asbestos to the global list of hazardous substances. Also, if you believe boards of directors should have the power to reject unwanted takeovers, then you’ll take comfort in Lowe’s withdrawal of its cash-rich take-over bid.
Neither of these things would have come to pass without a PQ government in power.The fact they did adds further weight, I think, to the argument that Quebecers chose exceedingly well when they voted on September 4.
They clearly had no wish to go down the sovereignist path, and so accordingly made sure the PQ did not get a majority. But they did want change, and the social democratic policies of the PQ met with the same high level of support that New Democratic candidates enjoyed in the last federal election.
In both the asbestos and Rona cases, it’s significant that the Quebec government had no real power to stop either of the projects. What Ottawa says in foreign affairs is solely Ottawa’s business. And the Rona take-over, if it had proceeded, would have been determined by federal authorities under Canada’s federal investment review policies.
During the election campaign, Mme. Marois promised to pick fights with Ottawa. Her strategy was that Quebec couldn’t lose. If Ottawa gave in, that would prove the heft of the sovereignist threat. If Ottawa didn’t buckle, that would show there’s no place for Quebec in Canada.
We can take comfort in the fact that the first two big consequences of the election go against both these stratagems. Instead, they demonstrate that practical realities — and policies that are responsive to the public good — will usually achieve the desired results. Any Quebec government could have taken the stance the PQ did in these instances, and the outcome would have been the same. Proving once again the irrelevance of separatism.