RIP John Turner, Canadian democratic politician of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s

Posted: September 20th, 2020 | No Comments »
John Turner as collegiate track star at the University of British Columbia in the late 1940s. PHOTO BY POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES.

RANDALL WHITE, TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 20, 2020 : John Napier Turner (June 7, 1929 – September 18, 2020) sat in the Canadian House of Commons for the Montreal electoral district of St. Lawrence-St.George, 1962–1968, for Ottawa-Carleton, 1968–1976, and finally for Vancouver-Quadra, 1984–1993.

He served as Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs in Lester Pearson’s Liberal cabinet, 1967–1968, and then as Solicitor General, 1968, Minister of Justice, 1968–1972, and Minister of Finance, 1972–1975 in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet.

John Turner was subsequently leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, 1984–1990, and during this period served briefly as the 17th Prime Minister of Canada, June 30, 1984 – September 17, 1984.

The CBC News site piece on his death in Toronto two days ago is headlined “John Turner, PM and Liberal leader who battled free trade with US, dead at 91.”

This strikes me as somewhat misleading. I did the media rounds promoting a free trade history book in the late 1980s, and I recall several interviewers’ noting privately that “everyone knew” the Bay Street business lawyer John Turner was not altogether serious in his opposition to Canada-US free trade.

L to r : Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, PM Lester Pearson, Jean Chrétien, 1967. Calgary Herald.

What someone on TV yesterday (Robert Bothwell perhaps?) did more aptly stress, I think, was Turner’s concern for Canadian political sovereignty in any Canada-US trade deal. (A problem at least significantly mitigated, it could be argued, with the North American Free Trade agreement, which included Mexico.)

I was most struck, however, by some TV punditry yesterday from the NDP commentator Tom Parkin. He recalled seeing John Turner on the Toronto subway. Parkin was with one of his children at the time. He pointed out that in our Canadian democracy the former prime minister was riding the subway just like everyone else!

This reminded me that I know others with stories about chance encounters with John Turner of this sort. One friend remembers seeing him in Yellowknife in the early 1960s. My wife saw him at Lake Louise around the same time.

John Turner and his wife, Geills, at the funeral of Pierre Trudeau in Montreal, October 3, 2000. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / OTTAWA CITIZEN.

I myself have three similar public sightings of Mr. Turner that stick in my mind. The first was on a now vanished staircase to the Queen subway station in Toronto, not long after Mr. Turner’s defeat in the 1984 election that ushered in Brian Mulroney’s government. I looked at his face, and thought he looked at mine. He seemed to recognize I had recognized him, and I had the no doubt wrong impression that the look on his face was a kind of apology.

I next saw John Turner in public several years later (possibly the mid 1990s?) at an annual mass militia bands concert to which my brother and I had been given tickets, as a memento of the world in which we had grown up. I was intrigued that Mr. Turner would attend such an event.

My final sighting took place only several years ago now, at my Toronto dentist’s office. (Strictly by chance I had an accomplished dentist with a number of such eminent patients.) By this point John Turner, in his late 80s, was using a walker. But no one was helping him. His attitude was “don’t bother about me : I’m fine.” But he also seemed concerned not to take up too much space with his walker in a cramped facility.

John Turner at 90 with PM Justin Trudeau, June 2019. Photo by Sam Garcia.

In some respects John Turner was an unambiguous member of some kind of Canadian establishment. His three sons attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. His stepfather was a Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. In his younger years he had some kind of brief involvement with Princess Margaret. And he once rescued former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker from some strong surf at a Barbados resort.

At the same time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement “on the death of John Turner” yesterday noted that “Mr. Turner was a humble man with a strong social conscience … deeply committed to the law and democratic process, bringing about much needed reforms to the Criminal Code.”

In his own unique way he was an authentic man of the people — which is why people like myself and my wife and my friend who met Mr. Turner in Yellowknife (and Tom Parkin and no doubt many others) have the memories of him we do. His career finally reminds us that you can make important contributions to Canadian democracy, even if you don’t serve as prime minister for any great length of time. Getting the top job is not finally what it’s all about.

Premier Higgs gets majority in New Brunswick election (while BC Premier Horgan and PM Trudeau are watching?)

Posted: September 15th, 2020 | No Comments »
“Premier Blaine Higgs arrives with his wife Marcia to vote in the New Brunswick provincial election in Quispamsis, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan).”

UPDATED SEP 21 RE BC ELECTION CALL : Premier Blaine Higgs, Progressive Conservative leader in New Brunswick, called Canada’s “first election during the COVID-19 pandemic,” after the province’s opposition Liberals declined to support a plan that would have allowed his minority government to “stay in power until October 2022 or the end of the pandemic.”

Premier Higgs’s strategy in the election held yesterday (September 14, 2020) was to try for a Progressive Conservative majority in the provincial legislature, that could carry on without help from any other party or parties. It is now clear that the strategy worked.

The Conservatives have won 27 seats in a 49-seat parliament (where a bare majority is 25 seats) with about 39% of the province-wide popular vote.

(The New Brunswick Liberals managed just 17 seats with 34% of the vote. The Greens took 3 seats with 15%, and the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick managed 2 seats with 9% . The provincial NDP won no seats with somewhat less than 2% of the province-side vote.)

“Deep Space” by Toronto artist (and sometime New Brunswick resident) Michael Seward, September 2020.

With somewhat more than three-quarters of a million people, New Brunswick is Canada’s third least populous province, on the Atlantic coast next to Nova Scotia. It nonetheless enjoys distinction as Canada’s only officially bilingual province (as opposed to the officially bilingual institutions of the federal government, coast to coast to coast).

The large francophone minority concentrated in northern New Brunswick — which descends from the ancient French North American colony of Acadia that began in the early 17th century — tends to vote Liberal. The anglophone majority concentrated in the south is much more Conservative. This 2020 election was no exception.

Meanwhile, so far New Brunswick has had only two COVID-19 deaths. Some might say this makes the province a too-easy test for a coronavirus election. But the results did come in promptly this September 14 — which could encourage supporters of a provincial pandemic election in BC next month, and even a Canada-wide federal election sometime this fall.

Lighthouse of Grande Anse on Acadian coastal drive in northern New Brunswick, where visitors are welcomed by Acadian flags.

In both the BC and federal cases as in New Brunswick, there are current minority governments that would also be happy to win legislative majorities in fresh elections. Premier Higgs’s success in doing just that yesterday may encourage similar thoughts elsewhere (even if New Brunswick’s circumstances are rather different from the BC and federal cases).

Whatever finally happens by way of further COVID-19 elections in Canada, it remains increasingly distressing to read such stateside headlines as : “Apocalyptic ‘hellscape’ of San Francisco glows with fire” ; or “Trump has shown blue states don’t have a president …. @GOP insults blue states … If there is not a blue wave, blue America needs to secede.”

Ultimately the September 14, 2020 New Brunswick election may remind some of us up here in We the North just why the late 19th and early 20th century Indigenous Canadian Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson (aka Tekahionwake) long ago advised : “The Dutch may have their Holland, the Spaniard have his Spain / The Yankee to the south of us must south of us remain.”

UPDATE SEP 21. From today’s Global News report : BC’s NDP Premier John “Horgan has asked for the BC Legislature to be dissolved and Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin has accepted his request. Election day will be October 24 — ahead of the next scheduled election on October 2021 … A recent poll from the Angus Reid Institute suggests … 48 per cent of decided voters would choose the NDP, 29 per cent would vote Liberal, and 14 per cent would opt for the Greens.” At the same time, some observers think voters might finally punish Horgan’s present NDP (+Green) government for calling a strictly-speaking unnecessary election in the midst of a global pandemic (and smoke from wildfires to the south of us). Premier Horgan and his advisers may think that (except for quite as much smoke from wildfires) the same objections could be raised against New Brunswick Premier Higgs on Canada’s Atlantic coast. And Premier Higgs did win his majority government when the votes were counted. Still others might note that COVID-19 is a bigger local issue in BC than in New Brunswick. It will be very interesting to see just what does happen in Canada’s Pacific Province on October 24.

Waiting for the Canadian federal Throne Speech on September 23 (which may or may not lead to an election this fall??)

Posted: September 7th, 2020 | No Comments »
“Melancholia Dissecta” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, August 2020.

QUIKNOTES FROM THE DESKTOP(S) OF THE COUNTERWEIGHTS EDITORS. SAT/SUN/MON, SEP 5/6/7, 2020. Canadian federal politics — at least trying to compete for attention with the serious world-historical circus next door — is now tilted toward the Trudeau Liberals’ “better-life-in-the-new-future” Throne Speech on September 23, 2020.

Meanwhile there is a new Conservative leader, who is at least not as unpopular as the old leader. And the NDP leader has had (in the words of one pollster) “positives edging upward over the summer to 37%, the highest positive number we have ever registered for Mr. Singh.”

Tale of two polls

The immediate result seems to peer out from the latest two polls — by Angus Reid in Vancouver and Abacus in Ottawa. Both show a suddenly more competitive race between Liberals and Conservatives (and Liberals and New Democrats!) than (eg) the not-so-long-ago August 12 Mainstreet Research poll with the Liberals at 41%.

Angus Reid has its Canada-wide numbers for August 26–September 1 at Liberals 35% , Conservatives 35%, and New Democrats 17%. (We’ll keep the BQ and Greens out for simplicity for the moment.) Abacus rather similarly has, for August 28–September 3, Liberals 33%, Conservatives 31%, NDP 18%.

There are some intriguing regional differences between the two polls. Angus Reid has the Liberals about tied in BC (33% Lib, 34% Con), and still 7 points ahead of the Conservatives in Ontario. Abacus has Liberals 16 points ahead of the Conservatives in BC, and just 2 points ahead in Ontario. (All of which may just reflect the volatility and uncertainty of the smaller regional numbers in cross-Canada samples.)

Whatever else, it is hard to see how these two latest polls alone can sustain those Liberals who now seem to be arguing that their minority government in Ottawa should just accept a confidence-vote defeat over opposition-party disagreements with the innovative new Throne Speech on September 23, and go to the country in a fresh election.

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Late August 2020 : Universal Basic Income, Conservative Party of Canada, and climate-change wildfires in California

Posted: August 25th, 2020 | No Comments »
Amazing photographic capture of the authentic President Donald Trump at RNC 2020? Tks to The Hill in Washington, DC .

FROM CITIZEN X ON STAYCATION IN EAST YORK CONDO. TUESDAY, AUGUST 25, 2020. 10:45 PM ET/7:45 PM PT. We do live in uncertain times. Just as I was stumbling across welcome news that some Canadian New Democrats are contemplating a workable Universal Basic (or Guaranteed) Income, I also stumbled across less happy evidence on the concept’s current unpopularity in the USA.

On the welcome news, this past Sunday morning former Ontario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo retweeted Everett Coldwell’s tweet on the new UBI trial study in Germany with “Need a #UniversalBasicIncome now!

Just a few hours later on Sunday afternoon Christo Aivalis tweeted his recent podcast interview with current Manitoba NDP MP Leah Gazan, who has “introduced a historic motion to implement a Basic Income Guarantee in Canada.” (And on this see M-46 GUARANTEED LIVABLE BASIC INCOME, seconded by BC NDP MP Paul Manly.)

On the less happy story stateside see René Bocksch at the frequently fascinating statista site, on a “new survey from Pew Research Center” which “shows 54 percent of US adults either strongly or somewhat oppose a UBI of $1,000 to all adult citizens.”

Two possibly redeeming findings are that “two-thirds of those between the ages of 18-29 … favor … a $1,000 UBI,” as do “73 percent and 63 percent of Black and Hispanic Americans.”

Still more redeemingly, an Angus Reid survey this past June 2020 found that 59% of Canadians support a Universal Basic Income (and at any of $10K, $20K, $30K annual funding levels).

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Morneau resigns .. Freeland new finance minister .. Parliament prorogued until Sep 23 .. Canada outside Ottawa still on holiday

Posted: August 18th, 2020 | No Comments »
Results of latest Mainstreet Research federal poll, released August 17, 2020. LPC=Liberals, CPC=Conservatives, GPC=Greens.

[UPDATED AUGUST 21]. COUNTERWEIGHTS EDITORS’ CURRENT ISSUES NOTE. TORONTO, ON. AUGUST 18, 2020. 11 PM ET. Like others, it seems, we were somewhat surprised by Bill Morneau’s resignation as Canadian federal finance minister last night.

There had been reports that Mr. Morneau and Prime Minister Trudeau were having disagreements about the future of public finance in Canada.

But the prime minister had also earlier stressed his confidence in his finance minister. Mr. Morneau had recently basked in the glow of Canada’s AAA credit rating from S&P Global — the only G7 country apart from Angela Merkel’s Germany to be so honoured.

Yesterday we learned as well that an August 12 Mainstreet Research federal poll found Liberals 41%, Conservatives 29%, New Democrats 16%, Bloc Québécois 6%, Greens 5% — numbers which could mean a Trudeau Liberal majority government if another election were held today!

Direct Fiscal Response to COVID-19’s stress on national economies, as % GDP. SOURCE : Reserve Bank of Australia, August 2020.

So … as best we can make out, Justin Trudeau did not need to get rid of his finance minister, as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the WE Charity controversy. Mr. Morneau’s own story is that he never intended to run in more than two federal elections (which he has now done), and the PM at this juncture needs someone with a longer-term commitment.

The news that Chrystia Freeland has subsequently been “sworn in as Canada’s new finance minister today, becoming the first woman to take on the powerful role,” may also suggest that there is something to reports on how Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau have disagreed about the next few years of Canadian public finance.

A chart from the Reserve Bank of Australia’s August 2020 Statement on Monetary Policy, eg, shows the Trudeau/Morneau Liberal Canada as number one in public spending to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, among 14 of the most prosperous national economies in Asia, Europe, and North America.

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The latest Governor General controversy — have we already had our conservative revolution in Canada?

Posted: August 11th, 2020 | 2 Comments »
Canada’s allegedly controversial Governor General Julie Payette in an earlier incarnation (centre), with her astronaut colleagues.

TELEGRAM FROM RANDALL WHITE. GANATSEKWYAGON, ON. It is no doubt only to be expected that strange things will happen during such historical eras as the COVID-19 global pandemic — in public as well as private life.

That any rate strikes me as the most sensible context in which to view the summer 2020 controversy over the 29th “Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada,” Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette.

The controversy can now be traced back several weeks to, eg : “Gov. Gen. Payette has created a toxic climate of harassment and verbal abuse at Rideau Hall, sources allege.”

Some would say the state of the art today is reflected in “Trudeau government refuses to support Gov. Gen. Julie Payette while under scrutiny … ‘Canadians absolutely have the right to look carefully at how we spend Canadians’ money,’ Freeland says.”

For the “scrutiny” here see (to start with) : “The Privy Council Office, a bureaucratic operation that supports the prime minister and cabinet, said last month it was launching an independent review of the allegations. Payette said she welcomed the probe.”

“Awake at Night” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, August 2020.

As someone who has been at least vaguely following the office of “Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada” for a few decades now, I have also been especially struck by a CBC News opinion piece from Aaron Wherry, posted just this past Saturday : “Julie Payette’s controversies could be a big problem for Rideau Hall.”

A number of things Mr. Wherry says about the office of Governor General in our “country and its democracy” strike me as altogether apt and well worth underlining, regardless of your partisan political sympathies or broad political philosophy.

Other things he urges about Governor General Payette’s latest troubles, and how they relate to the 21st century future of the office in Canada, strike me as lamentable reflections of just how almost mindlessly conservative the mainstream media has become on this and related Canadian issues, in the more recent past.

This particular trend, it seems to me, largely began with the Stephen Harper Conservative government in Ottawa (2006–2015). For whatever reasons, it has largely carried on under the Justin Trudeau Liberal government, to the present day.

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Why “Gone Fishing” still seems the most sensible response to the midsummer madness of the WE imbroglio in Ottawa

Posted: July 31st, 2020 | No Comments »
Marie-Danielle Smith (centre), receiving an EU-Can Young Journalist Award in October 2017. Her fellow winners are Megan Devlin (l) and Jennifer Ackerman (r).

EMAIL FROM CITIZEN X, OLD SANDY COVE, ON : Marie-Danielle Smith at Maclean’s has published two different accounts of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unusual appearance before the Finance Committee of the Canadian House of Commons yesterday.

One — the more drearily conventional (and overly rhetorical) — is called : “Three key takeaways from Justin Trudeau’s testimony.”

The other — to me an ultimately much more honest and accurate satirical account — bears the headline : “Prime Minister, how much broccoli did your family eat? In detail!

I have also recently been encouraged by undeniable evidence that I am not the only ordinary Canadian voter who profoundly fails to see the point of the deep attention the federal opposition parties, and so much of the mainstream media, are devoting to the so-called WE Charity controversy. (Or “WE Scandal” if you’re seriously just trying to stir up the dust.)

On July 27 the Angus Reid Institute reported : “ One-third of Canadians, mostly CPC supporters, but also one-in-five New Democrats, say We scandal will have a major impact on Liberal govt. Two-thirds say it won’t leave much of a mark.”

“As I Make This Journey” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, July 2020.

I am certainly among the two-thirds here. Even so, the most distressing thing to me is that Canadian political culture does have a long and still too potent “scandal tradition.” It goes all the way back to the Pacific Scandal that brought John A. Macdonald’s (and George-Etienne Cartier’s) founding government of the 1867 Canadian confederation down in 1873.

In much more recent memory, it was to no small extent the so-called Liberal sponsorship scandal that finally led to the first minority government of Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada in 2006. And then last year it quite arguably was the SNC-Lavalin affair that demoted Justin Trudeau’s majority government of 2015 to his current minority government of 2019.

So in at least one sense it is all easy enough to understand. The opposition politicians are still playing this increasingly crazy game because it still seems to work — at least well enough to win enough followers among political activists, journalists, and even managing editors of blogazines.

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Blue Jays 2020 — one part of major-league sports in the time of COVID

Posted: July 25th, 2020 | No Comments »
Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz in the NBA, who tested positive for COVID-19 “days after mocking the virus and touching all the microphones at a press conference.”

SPECIAL FROM ROB SPARROW, HIGH PARK, TORONTO. JULY 24, 2020. The sporting world, like most everything else, stopped earlier this year on March 11 when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz became the first athlete to test positive for COVID-19. In many ways the shut down of the NBA, and the other sports leagues that quickly followed, was the proverbial canary in the coal mine, signaling the rapid spread and pernicious nature of the virus to the general public. Now after months of suffering, loss, turmoil and delays caused by the pandemic, the North American sports landscape is set to resume with baseball kicking it off this weekend.

Unlike the NHL (Toronto/Edmonton) and NBA (Orlando), Major League Baseball has opted not to go to the hub-city structure in its Return to Play plan. The notion of finding one or two locations to handle 30 teams of 60 players each with medical and coaching staffs, as well as umpires and other officials sounded like a good idea, but it just wasn’t feasible. The players made it clear that the hub-city plan was not something that they were comfortable with. Compounding this were the plans that had the players going to spring training sites in Arizona and Florida — two states that have recently seen significant spikes in positive COVID-19 tests.

In terms of play, one advantage MLB has over other major North American pro sports leagues like the NHL, NFL and NBA is that baseball is not a contact sport. Social distancing is easier to achieve in baseball, and following the guidelines set out by health authorities to further prevent the spread of the coronavirus is less of a chore for baseball players. They won’t sweat or breathe on one another, nor will players be making much contact with other players on the field; interactions in close proximity are pretty limited in the game.

Baseball fans were allowed back in Japan on July 10, 2020 — up to 5000 fans or 50% of stadium capacity.

The success of baseball returning in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan shows that the virus can be somewhat managed. The question is whether major league players will be able to maintain the same level of discipline as the players in Asia, while living in a US environment where cases have spiked and most people are not nearly as disciplined. Containing the virus within the clubhouse and dugout will be critical, but more important will be the decisions players make away from the ballpark. They will go a long way toward keeping the game on the field.

Yet we should ask, with the pandemic ravaging throughout the US, is baseball at this time a good idea? “The virus is not going on a summer vacation,” says Dr. Bill Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt. Baseball does not exist in a vacuum; studies have shown the average player will have approximately 100 different contacts during a typical day of the season. The sports reopening will thus add tens of thousands of interactions, each carrying a level of hazard every day.

The prospect of teams traveling in and out of highly infected areas acting as super spreaders may in fact cause more harm than good. And with a prospective second wave expected later in the fall, many believe that baseball has a zero chance at crowning a champion in 2020. Why then begin at all?

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WE Charity—why such fuss about what won’t happen? Try fixing the Mounties instead? No, it’s back to Crazy Town—to prove Canada’s just as bad as USA!

Posted: July 18th, 2020 | No Comments »
“Evolving, the Open Road” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, July 2020.

UPDATED JULY 24, 2020. (Click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll down to “BACK TO CRAZY TOWN CANADA” below). CW EDITORS : The real “embarrassment” in parliamentary ethics committee calls for such things as receipts from Trudeau family WE charity speeches ultimately focuses on far too many of the 338 elected members of the Canadian House of Commons.

We are living in a time of unique political, economic, and cultural stress virtually throughout the global village. But so many of our MPs can apparently think of no more urgent public business than inside-baseball complaints about a public policy that has already been abandoned, in response to earlier vague objections about possible perceived connections with the families of the prime minister and minister of finance.

(And btw on Twitter you can also hear that, eg, both current frontrunners in the Conservative leadership race, and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, have had their own interesting involvements with the WE charity organization — as no doubt have vast enough numbers of other people in our vast country.)

MP Michael Barrett, Conservative party ethics critic, claims to be worried about “who was responsible for putting WE forward for the deal” (again now abandoned). As he went on to explain, the house ethics committee needs “to pin down all of the facts as soon as possible so we can assure Canadians that Parliament is exercising its function as a check against the executive branch of government.”

From the summer 2020 city-life photo collection of Toronto artist Michael Seward.

To start with, there is (hopefully) a growing highly justified cynicism about all such essentially deeply partisan political rhetoric, among we mere voters or “people of Canada.” And then Mr. Barrett also seems to suffer from the illusion that Canada has the same kind of political system (currently not working very well at all) as our big brothers, sisters, cousins, and other family and friends next door in the United States.

As noted in the preamble to what we now call the Constitution Act 1867, Canada has a “Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom” (not the United States). And as explained at about the same time by the Walter Bagehot [1826–1877] who wrote the classic survey of The English Constitution, the kind of “Parliamentary Government” we are still supposed to have in Canada “is essentially a Government by discussion.”

As the Indian economist and political commentator Prabhat Patnaik has much more recently explained, in connection with the work of Amartya Sen, the “idea of democracy being ‘government by discussion’ really belongs to John Stuart Mill [1806–1873], though this particular phrase was coined by Walter Bagehot.”

In any case (and without going into any more fascinating historical and philosophical detail), “government by discussion” — when it is working properly — is supposed to be rather different from the “separation of powers” system in the United States (under which the concept of the legislature as a “check against the executive branch of government” is most warmly embraced : see, eg, Bagehot’s chapter eight, on “Supposed Checks and Balances” in the US and UK systems).

From the summer 2020 city-life photo collection of Toronto artist Michael Seward.

In our kind of parliamentary democracy the concept of government by discussion means that parliament itself is ultimately part of government, if not quite “the government” in the sense of prime minister and cabinet. (So one secret of our system, at least some have said, is not the separation but the cabinet-induced “fusion” of legislature and executive that gets things done — attenuated as it is in minority governments.) And democratically elected MPs at least ought to take a leading part in what Bagehot called the “constant speaking and writing” by which “a public opinion is formed which decides on all action and all policy.”

It is also true enough that the differences between the “presidential-congressional” political system in the United States and the more fluid “parliamentary democracy” in the United Kingdom are in some degree changing in our time. And for current examples of how Walter Bagehot’s old constitutional verities do not actually seem to be helping the United Kingdom itself lately, see “Superman Falls to Earth … Ferdinand Mount on Boris Johnson’s first year.”

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The Palace Letters in Australia 1975 — a big boost for the republican cause down under in 2020 (and in Canada too)!

Posted: July 15th, 2020 | No Comments »
Australian historian Jenny Hocking with some of the 1975 Palace Letters at last in July 2020. PHOTO: Rick Rycroft/AP.

SPECIAL FROM GREG BARNS. HOBART, MELBOURNE, BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA, 14 JULY 2020. The 11th of November 1975 is a date etched into the collective mind of the Australian body politic. It was the day that the Queen’s representative, Governor General John Kerr, dismissed the elected Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and commissioned Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser to form a caretaker government. Mr Fraser’s centre right Liberal-National Party coalition government went on to record a thumping victory in a general election a few weeks later and remained in office until 1983.

And now in July 2020, after a four year battle for historian Jenny Hocking, which went all the way to the High Court (equivalent to Canada’s Supreme Court), Australia’s National Archives has this week unlocked 1975 correspondence between Kerr and Buckingham Palace. What it reveals is that while the Queen was not informed by Kerr he was going to sack Whitlam, she and her Private Secretary Martin Charteris overstepped the mark in encouraging Kerr and implicitly approving Kerr’s actions which were based in part on his fear Whitlam would sack him first.

Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam meets with Mao Zedong in Beijing, China, 1973.

For Australians and Canadians the Palace Letters, as they are being called in the media here, amply demonstrate the lack of independence each nation labours under by refusing to cut the apron strings to London.

The sacking of the Whitlam government occurred because the opposition parties had determined to block Supply in the Senate. Unlike its Canadian counterpart in Australia the Senate is a fully elected chamber and it has the power under the Australian constitution to reject a government’s budget. Whitlam and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) he led, had been elected in 1972 after 23 years of conservative government. Like his Canadian counterpart Pierre Trudeau, Whitlam was a well educated and erudite politician who wasted no time in embarking on a large-scale reform program that included introducing government health care, no fault divorce laws, a more independent foreign policy, and greater control over Australia’s vast mineral and energy resources. By mid 1975 his government had been battered by the world oil crisis and rampaging inflation. Senior ministers were forced to resign after they sought petro dollar loans through a shady middle man called Tirith Khemlani. By September that year the newly appointed and politically ruthless Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser determined to force Whitlam to an election, two years before it was due. Fraser’s tactic was simple. The conservative parties, that had a majority in the Senate, would block the Supply Bills which grant authorisation for the government’s budget spending.

The Queen with Australian Governor General John Kerr in the 1970s. Getty Images.

Kerr as Governor General watched events unfolding closely, knowing that he might be asked to intervene to resolve the fast moving constitutional crisis. Whitlam had suggested holding an election for half the senate to resolve the impasse. The Palace Letters also reveal that Kerr, and Buckingham Palace were also of this view, could enact the Supply Bills into law, bypassing the Senate. Whitlam, a formidable lawyer before entering parliament in 1955, would not sanction such an action arguing it was unconstitutional. Kerr turned to the Chief Justice of Australia Garfield Barwick who had been a minister in the conservative government during the 1960s and who was known to be hostile to the Whitlam government. The issue was whether what are termed the “reserve powers” of the Queen’s representative, to sack a government that cannot command supply, could be invoked.

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