Holiday news update .. last half of December 2005

Dec 28th, 2005 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Quick notes on … TORONTO SHOOTINGS AND CANADIAN VOTERS … CANADIAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN AT THE HALFWAY POINT … TROUBLE ON THE BORDERS IN NAFTA … CANADIAN ELECTION DEBATES … KARLA HOMOLKA MOVIE … BC AND THE CANADIAN ELECTION … IRAQ ELECTION … MARK CRISPIN MILLER ON DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA TODAY …

TORONTO SHOOTINGS AND CANADIAN VOTERS. After a brief pause, the Canadian federal election campaign has resumed. It has also been grimly punctuated by a teenager who stabbed a cab driver to death in Halifax and gang-war shootings that murdered an innocent bystander in downtown Toronto. On the Toronto shootings, John Ibbitson has written in the Globe and Mail that “Stephen Harper, Paul Martin and Jack Layton are competing to see who can best exploit the carnage at Yonge and Dundas. Politics is that grisly.” But you could also say that such disturbing public issues ought to be discussed in an election campaign.

Ibbitson guesses that in Toronto itself the shootings could give a more aggressive “right-wing approach” to getting “the scum off the streets” fresh traction – as in the 1995 provincial election that first brought Conservative Mike Harris to office in Ontario: “If this story is still being talked about in the news and around the dinner table a week from now, the Liberals are going to have a problem.” Others are guessing almost the opposite. As hard and unfriendly as the urban struggle for existence can certainly be, no one who lives in any part of Toronto nowadays has an excuse for shooting and killing in the crowded downtown or any other place. Whatever else, the city must face up at last to just getting rid of the mindlessly murdering thugs. They have placed themselves beyond redemption – and are equally as dangerous as terrorists anywhere. But …

(1) To start with, as Ibbitson also notes, along with Conservative leader Stephen Harper: “Surprisingly, NDP Leader Jack Layton also released a statement heavily freighted with law-and-order rhetoric” in response to the Toronto shootings. The same could be said of the Mayor of Toronto, David Miller, who may be a New Democrat who sometimes votes Liberal, but is certainly no Conservative.

Toronto’s alleged age of innocence as the safest big city in North America may have ended a while ago. But in the city itself the Boxing Day 2005 shootings that took the life of Jane Creba, 15, may at last focus almost everyone’s attention on the strictly law and order side of the issue – regardless of political partisanship. Who can now deny that the time has come to do something in a very practical and immediate way? For a while at any rate the Conservatives will probably not be enjoying a monopoly on “law-and-order rhetoric” (and hopefully some actual strong action too).

(2) At the same time, beyond strict law and order questions, there are still many Torontonians who remember when Stephen Harper’s Conservative friends were last in office provincially, under Mike Harris. Mean-spirited cutbacks on social policy spending did take place – without really solving the province’s continuing financial problems. What has happened to the city since can also be read to suggest that this has something to do with the latest largely unprecedented wave of menacing gun violence in Toronto the Good.

Even the former hardline law-and-order Toronto police chief Julian Fantino nowadays acknowledges that: “Certainly we have to look at all of these socio-economic issues and considerations.” The former Toronto chief (and current head of emergency management for the province of Ontario) also stresses that “at the end of the day, we’re still dealing with a hard-core (group) of young people who are pre-disposed to violence, afraid of nothing and accountable to no one.” But he like others would now agree that this is an issue where public policy should move on several fronts at once.

(3) You could almost argue that each of the three main political parties outside Quebec is saying something about dealing with this issue seriously at last that makes sense. Here as elsewhere, as some voters sense, the trick is to formulate policy that blends almost all solutions on offer – and then actually act on the policy, effectively.

Some sides of Toronto opinion might interpret this to mean that it’s time for a change back to the Tories who brought Mike Harris. But a better guess could be that many Torontonians nowadays will just think it’s time for a few more New Democrats in Ottawa.

Especially when the CBC News website is describing Jack Layton’s reaction to the 2005 Boxing Day shootings this way: “NDP Leader Jack Layton condemned the “senseless shootings” and the “reckless criminals who perpetrated them” … But Layton also took a jab at Martin’s handgun-ban policy … Since it would appear that these crimes were committed with handguns, it is almost certainly true that all of the weapons involved are already illegal already banned,” Layton said. “So it is important for Canadians not to be diverted by election rhetoric.” … Layton said the government must focus on getting illegal handguns off the streets by bringing in tougher border controls, tougher sentencing for weapons offences, and tougher anti-gang policing, prosecutions and sentencing.”

(4) In this case, John Ibbitson could still be right, partly at any rate: “the Liberals are going to have a problem.” But it will not be quite as big a problem as it will be if the issue stiffens Toronto support for the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper from Calgary, who also grew up in the old Toronto suburb of Leaside – in the old age of innocence, that has now long since passed by.

CANADIAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN AT THE HALFWAY POINT. Santa Claus has now interrupted the Canadian federal election campaign big time. Many Canadians are still not paying a lot of attention. But at least the initial phony war phase of the struggle has come to an end. The current big question seems to be what happens next? Will the politicians, after a few days’ rest, all shift into more noisy high gears in the new year – and finally give their own political masters the “fierce battle” predicted by the People’s Daily Online in China three weeks ago?

As yet there does not seem any firm new movement in the so-called ballot-question numbers. (See the latest update of the CBC News “Poll Tracker,” e.g.) But those who have been paying attention to the first half of the campaign in the media have reasons to believe that Conservative leader Stephen Harper has gained some more subtle ground. Especially just before and after the first December 15 and 16 TV leaders’ debates from Vancouver, Mr. Harper’s long-rumoured strengths as a policy wonk have begun to surface at last. Especially with recent pronouncements on such issues as open federalism, Senate reform and Quebec’s role in 21st century Canada, and strengthening the military defense of Canadian Arctic sovereignty, he has almost started to show a new Conservative vision that is not just George W. Bush’s troubled right-wing philosophy applied up north.

Time for a change? Some are saying that the apparent increasing popularity of the old “time for a change” theme in Canadian politics ought to be especially worrying Paul Martin’s Liberals – who still do lead somewhat in the ballot-question polls (just as polls seem to suggest that Mr. Martin still did best in the December debates).

Mr. Martin has “said Canadians must also consider exactly what kind of change the Tories have in mind for Canada … Stephen Harper and I have different value systems; we have very different perspectives on the role of government … Canadians have really got to say change, yes, but change for what?'”

As the new year dawns Paul Martin may find that he has to do more than just raise this question. Stephen Harper has actually started to talk a bit more seriously about “change for what” in Canada today. Mr. Martin may have to start doing this himself. (And “child care” does not really seem to be the issue here – change for what has to mean something a bit stiffer than that.)

It of course still could be as well that it is not just Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that the Martin Liberals have to worry about. Quebec is apparently going to sit out the Canadian federal election of 2006 by giving the lion’s share of its heart to the Bloc Quebecois, even more than in 2004. But elsewhere Jack Layton’s New Democrats (and even the Green Party) are working increasingly hard to turn “time for a change” protest votes against the Liberals into something somehow more constructive, across the country.

Who is the winner when no one gets a majority? Who knows? But there are a few encouraging signs of maturity in the apparent new political fact that no party is pretending it seriously expects to win any version of a majority government by itself on January 23 (even if some Liberals still seem to be hoping against hope?). This could make the next full-battle-dress phase of the campaign a bit more interesting?

(And the counterweights editors are almost tempted to reprint John Ibbitson’s nicely sharp-edged December 23 column, on just how interesting the new year could become for shrewd Canadian voters – for the benefit of those who do not subscribe to the online Globe and Mail, or otherwise somehow purchase the hard copy of the paper the old-fashioned way. But that would probably be a little too ethically suspect in its own right – fair free-market commerce still being the important Canadian value that it is.)

In any case, at more or less the halfway point, with Santa himself clearly moving into the immediate limelight, you might say that the past three weeks or so has been a phony war which has nonetheless seen some quiet movement – and won a little fresh attention and even respect, at least from those paying attention. And it has not been all that nasty or annoying to watch, so far. Stay tuned to discover just how whatever will be, will be, in the new year.

TROUBLE ON THE BORDERS IN NAFTA. It must say something about the current administration in Washington (and some of its domestic supporters) that, as the year 2005 draws to a close, it is having acerbic spats with both its lesser North America Free Trade Agreement neighbours, north and south.

Many Mexican officials are outraged by a new Washington scheme to effectively wall Mexico and its northbound migrants off from the continuing harvest of plenty between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel.

The current Canadian federal election campaign has generated a parallel blip of cross-border verbal abuse, between certain partisans of the Great Republic and continuing defenders of the still youthful new democracy, in the former first self-governing dominion of the Greatest Empire Since Rome.

In the Mexican case things are definitely more serious, for both Mexico and the USA. Nowadays even such a resolutely heartland place as Kansas City, MO has surprising numbers of public signs in English and Spanish – intriguing parallels to the English and French signs familiar in certain parts of Ontario, New Brunswick, and other Canadian provinces outside Quebec.

In the Canadian case most of the cross-border verbal abuse has been soap-opera nonsense, on both sides. Except that if the mindless pundits of the right-wing conspiracy in the USA today really “don’t even know what street Canada is on” (as Al Capone much more amusingly put it long ago) how come they hear what the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada says so quickly?

In any case, the current trouble on the borders in NAFTA does make you think that Richard Viguerie was dead wrong in 1981 – when he first published his influential book, The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead.

CANADIAN ELECTION DEBATES. The Friday, December 16 Canadian election debate in English was, almost everyone seems to agree, at least more lively than the French debate the night before. But in both cases the party and other demonstrations on the street outside in Vancouver were more interesting to look at.

Inside on December 16 all four main party leaders sounded good and performed credibly. The restrained format made for a kind of civilized debate. It still wasn’t all that lively, however, and it’s hard to see how any of it can have changed the so-called “stasis” of the regionally fractured electorate in any big way.

In one intriguing moment Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe said that he thought English Canada was starting to have a nation-building debate, brought on by the challenges of globalization. The people of Quebec, he claimed, were more comfortable having their own debate of this sort. It would be interesting to hear more about both these debates in the current federal campaign.

KARLA HOMOLKA MOVIE. As the year-end holiday season drew nearer, Paul Bliss at CTV in Toronto set up “Canada’s first preview screening” of the Hollywood movie Karla – based on the gruesome Southern Ontario sex-killing spree of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, back in the early 1990s. The preview, it seems, was intended to probe the reactions of “a small general audience – no reporters, no film critics.”

One viewer “thought the film depicted Homolka more as a victim than a murderer … I think she was much more involved than they showed her to be.” Another found it “profoundly disturbing … I wish I hadn’t seen it out of respect to the parents, the familiesit’s not worth it.”

Even though Tim Danson, “lawyer for the victim’s families, successfully argued for scenes of nudity to be removed,” Karla is apparently “still very graphic.” Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has urged the people of the province “to boycott the film,” when and if it arrives in local theatres for the consumption of paying customers.

What the less directly affected world outside Ontario will make of Karla remains unclear. Laura Prepon from That 70s Show is said to present a quite forceful portrait of the leading lady – even if the few clips also shown on Canadian TV do make you wonder how true it is to Ms. Homolka’s cunningly twisted personality, as suggested by her own television appearances.

Meanwhile, a Quebec court has now released Killer Karla from the year-long conditions first imposed at the time of her release from prison this past summer. Just what justice does or ought to mean in such a case is both an interesting and a disturbing question. Which is no doubt why the issue keeps cropping up in the news, more than a dozen years later. For people who do live in Ontario, Premier McGuinty has almost certainly said the right last word on the movie.

BC AND THE CANADIAN ELECTION. The rumour that there is still some room for all three main parties outside Quebec to contest seats in BC (and even the fourth Green Party too?) continues to grow. A new poll puts the Liberals slightly in the lead on Canada’s Pacific Coast. But a historical analysis of federal seats won in the province by Will McMartin suggests that the Liberals shouldn’t be getting their hopes up too high.

Alternatively, if the Liberals do pull off something bigger than usual in BC, that will be one sign that things really are changing in Canada today. And you will no doubt be able to say the same thing if the Conservatives, e.g., actually do sweep Southwestern Ontario.

Soon enough the holidays will be tuning almost everything else out, no doubt. And political campaigning as usual will only seriously resume in the New Year. So far the December 15 and 16 debates do not seem to have launched any new phase of the campaign themselves. But for the record, according to one immediate poll released on TV Sunday night, 31% of those Canadians who watched thought Paul Martin won, while 20% gave what contest there was to Stephen Harper and 17% to Jack Layton. M. Duceppe was of course nolo contendere, as they say in court.

IRAQ ELECTION. George W. Bush’s beloved people of Iraq had their own first election for a new and hopefully somewhat permanent democratic government on Thursday, December 15. According to the International Herald Tribune, it will “take at least two weeks until final results are announced.” But: “Preliminary results might be available in less than a week.” (And by late December some controversy about the preliminary results had begun to surface inside Iraq.) So stay tuned.

The “election commission did not provide any figures on how many of Iraq’s 15 million voters cast ballots, but officials estimated that turnout could have been as high as 70 percent.” Meanwhile, Bulgaria “started withdrawing its 400-member battalion and will transfer its military responsibilities in the city of Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, to government forces.”

(And of course you wonder, regardless of what some US politicians keep saying: is this just the start of a more general gradual scaling-down of outside “Coalition” forces in Iraq, that will gain momentum if, as, and when the newly elected permanent democratic government shows signs of seriously settling in? Especially when December 22 brings hints of US troop cuts in Iraq, from no less an authority than Donald Rumsfeld.)

On a related front, the “International Mission for Iraqi Elections, based in Canada, said in a Friday news release about 320,000 ballots were cast among Iraqi expatriates voting for the country’s new parliament.” This constitutes “a significant increase in voter turnout” among Iraqi expatriates “casting ballots in 15 countries across the globe.”

MARK CRISPIN MILLER ON DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA TODAY. Back on Tuesday, December 6, 2005 the New York University professor and contemporary American social and political critic Mark Crispin Miller appeared on the Report on Business TV cable channel in Canada. In the first place he was promoting his latest book, Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They’ll Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them).

As Mr. Miller urged, he manages to get on TV in Canada but not in the US, because he is saying some very critical and cutting things about the state of politics in the USA today. In particular, e.g., he is saying that the US electoral system has now been corrupted, by a potentially lethal combination of late 20th century high technology and high finance, to a point where democracy in America itself is at quite serious risk.

History, said the St. Louis-born conservative T.S. Eliot, “has many cunning passages.” And ironically enough democracy in America is faltering at the same time that Bush, Cheney, and Company are supposedly fighting foreign wars to nobly extend democracy in the global village. The key to this contradiction, Mark Crispin Miller seems to be saying, is that the Bush-Cheney firm has come to appreciate how in the latest new age of high technology democracy can be very conveniently manipulated by vast concentrations of corporate wealth – at least insofar as democracy means winning elections to the extent that the Bush-Cheney Republicans can be said to have actually won the US presidential elections of 2000 and 2004.

There is one somewhat Luddite-like strain in Mr. Miller’s analysis. He has come to believe that, among other things, democratic elections should be all about good old-fashioned paper ballots counted by warm human bodies – and altogether untouched by assorted new-fangled electronic voting machines, inevitably open to interference by aggressively corrupted political players. (As any computer-savvy teenager can show you nowadays, e.g., it is really very easy to corrupt online opinion polls, in the interests of various worthy and unworthy causes.)

Mark Crispin Miller makes a number of other and arguably more profound criticisms of the present US electoral system. But, perhaps inevitably given the current sound-bite culture throughout what currently passes for the civilized world, it was his point about paper ballots and warm human bodies that came through the strongest in his December 6 appearance on Report on Business TV in Canada. And it is also easy enough to dismiss this kind of criticism as no more than sour grapes from the losers. ROB TV co-anchor Kevin O’Leary (whose work some counterweights editors much admire) wound things up by asking Mr. Miller why the world shouldn’t just see him as a disgruntled Democrat?

Miller’s final quick reply was that he was ultimately just as critical of the Democrats as of the Republicans in the USA today. The current troubling illness of democracy in America transcends political parties. But he might have added as well that much of his kind of critique has already been given a memorable airing a while back now, in the eminent US publication Business Week.

Several months before the 2004 US election – and just a few weeks before the Canadian election of the same year, soon to be repeated early in 2006 – Business Week published a “special report” called “Does Your Vote Matter?” (June 14, 2004). And even this hardly rabid left-wing source reported that “something is amiss in the land of Madison and Jefferson. In some very basic ways, the delicate mechanism of our democracy has come unsprung. It is time to take an unblinking look at our political landscape – and assess the growing symptoms of dysfunction.”

Business Week did not, it is true, embrace Mark Crispin Miller’s current passion for paper ballots counted by warm human bodies. But it did recommend some new “smart thinking about security standards for the coming age of e-voting.” It did stress “our scandalous system for funding campaigns.” And it concluded the introduction to its special report with: “Unless we want to continue on the path we’re treading … reform isn’t an option. It is perhaps the most urgent priority facing the republic as it lurches into the harsh light of a new century burdened by a political system that seems less democratic by the day.”



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