2013 will be a year of reckoning for Liberals

Published Jan. 7, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The year 2013 promises to be a definitive year for Liberals in Canada as the memory of past glory collides with the hard reality of the present.

Canadian Liberalism use to be described as the most successful political movement in the Western democracies. Much of the reputation was earned by the federal Liberal party and its succession of governments in Ottawa, but some of it rubbed off on provincial Liberals, too.

That was in the olden days, the 20th century. Today, Liberals are a third choice in Ottawa and an afterthought in most provinces. If the universe continues to unfold the way it has been, the once mighty Liberals could shortly be reduced to just one of the 11 governments in Canada – in Prince Edward Island.

It is always a mistake, though, to write off the Liberals. Readers with longer memories will recall how quickly the Grits rose again after being obliterated by John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives in 1958. Four years later, they were competitive; one year after that, they were back in power.

On the other side of the political coin, the Tories were given up for dead following the Mulroney years when they won just two seats in the 1993 federal election. It took the rise of the Reform party, the birth of a reconstituted Conservative party, the arrival of Stephen Harper – plus the Liberal sponsorship scandal – but 13 years after the disaster of 1993, the Tories were back in power. Five years later, they had a majority government.

All it took on both sides of the political coin was time and a willingness to renew their party (the Liberals in the 1960s and the Tories in the 2000s).

It may be too late to save Christy Clark’s Liberal government in British Columbia. It is consistently behind in the polls, and a provincial election is scheduled for May 14. It may not be too late, however, in Ottawa and Queen’s Park where impending leadership conventions offer the opportunity – and impetus – for renewal.

The Ontario Liberals will choose a successor to Dalton McGuinty on the last weekend of this month. There are seven candidates, but the race has developed into a surprisingly desultory affair, almost totally free of clashes over policies or personalities. The absence of passion is odd, given that the prize is the keys to Canada’s largest and (still) most important province. (It’s as though the fable of the tortoise and the hare has been recast into a saga of seven tortoises with no hare.)

Nevertheless, the winner will inherit a minority government, and, with the grace of the NDP, will have enough time to start the renewal of the government and Liberal party. As long as the polls show Tim Hudak and his Tories in the lead, the NDP will be anxious to avoid forcing an election.

At the federal level, having burned through two leaders since 2006 (Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff) and one interim leader (Bob Rae), the Liberals are set to try again. The deadline for entries is this coming Sunday with the leadership vote set for April 14. As of the moment, there are seven candidates. Barring late entries, it will be a race between one hare and six assorted tortoises.

The hare, of course, is Justin Trudeau. He has led since October when he entered the race. An Ipsos Reid poll last week asked respondents (not just Liberals) who they expected to win. Sixty-nine per cent named Trudeau; 19 per cent chose former astronaut Marc Garneau; no other candidate got more than 5 per cent.

Another poll, by Angus Reid, reported that 42 per cent of decided voters said they would vote Liberal if Trudeau were the leader. That’s 20 points higher than the party’s current standing in the polls. The other candidates didn’t move the numbers.

Choosing a high-profile leader would not transform a third-place party into a government party, but it could jump-start the process of renewal.

The case for gun control

Published Dec. 24, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Let me start this Christmas Eve with a confession. I am, and always have been, a firm believer in gun control. This began long before the senseless massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School this month, at Virginia Tech in 2007 or at the Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, among other atrocities.

I have never understood why a supposedly civilized society, one that is truly concerned with the safety of its citizens, permits some of them to walk around with weapons with which they can kill children, students, teachers, co-workers and other fellow citizens (or kill themselves). If I were advising the prime minister – which, don’t worry, won’t happen in a million years – I would urge him to ask Parliament to ban the private ownership of firearms, and to implore Washington to adopt a similar ban in the United States.

In my capacity as unpaid and unwanted adviser, I would recommend that Parliament, having imposed a blanket ban, then craft a series of careful exemptions and controls for legitimate civilian gun users – for farmers, hunters, perhaps target shooters.

None of this is going to happen, alas. The Harper government appears to be in the thrall of the gun lobby and the Obama administration is terrified of the National Rifle Association and its Second Amendment followers. Barack Obama has talked a tough game since Sandy Hook, but his “initiatives” have been weak-kneed. He is simply asking Congress to reinstate an ineffectual earlier ban on the manufacture of assault weapons.

Even if he can get Congress to act, which is by no means certain, his half-measures will do nothing to address the gun culture in the Unites States – a country where, it is estimated, there are more firearms than there are people.

Let tell you a personal story. Twenty years ago, I moved from Toronto to Tampa, Florida. One of my coworkers there was a Canadian woman who was married to an American whom she had met and wed in Toronto. When I arrived in Florida, they invited me to dinner. After dinner, the husband took me aside to say: “Look, the first thing you need to do is get yourself a gun. This is not Canada. Down here, you have to protect yourself and your family.”

“What?” said I, the naïve Canadian, “You have guns?” He had seven of them, he replied, in his home, office and car, including two in the bedside tables of the master bedroom. “Any (expletive deleted) who tries to break in will be dead before he gets through the door.”

A few days later, he took me to a gun show in the Tampa armouries. I had never seen anything like it: table after table laden with everything from revolvers to submachine guns to bazookas, and creepy-looking customers in camouflage garb wandering around with automatic rifles slung on their backs.

Gun shows were – and are – a major source of illegal firearms. Knowing this back then, the state of Florida had introduced a pair of controversial measures that angered the gun community. It required purchasers of weapons to wait a day or two for a background check. And it changed the rules for itinerant gun dealers. Previously, they could sell weapons and ammunition out of the trunk of cars at gun shows; now they were required to have an address, although a hotel room would do.

Matters are not likely to deteriorate to this extent in Canada any time soon, but there are worrying signs. The government listens to an advisory committee that is dominated by gun lobbyists. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Harper was forced to intervene when the committee proposed to loosen controls on ownership of prohibited weapons.

Last week, his government, having already done away with the firearms registry, quietly scrapped regulations that would have required gun dealers to, among other things, notify the police before they hold a gun show.

I hope it’s not the start of a slippery slope.

After the F-35, there are options for a jet fighter

Published Dec. 17, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record

Now that the Harper government has “hit the reset button,” as they say, on the acquisition of new jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force, what happens next?

That’s not at all clear – transparency not being a hallmark of the Conservative regime. What we do know, because the government told us this much, is that an “independent” panel will review the evaluation process to replace the aging CF-18s. How independent the panel will actually be is also hard to tell, although some of the experts named to the panel seem to be free from entanglements with the military establishment or the warplane industry.

That’s good. But will the government actually pay heed if the “evaluation process” recommends an aircraft other than the one that got it into this mess in the first place: the absurdly over-priced F-35 Lightning stealth fighter made by Lockheed Martin in the United States.

Just about every country that was proposing to acquire the F-35, including the U.S. itself, is experiencing buyer’s remorse and is either reconsidering or reducing its purchase plan. Canada finds itself, along with Australia, in the vanguard of this parade of the disillusioned.

To have credibility, the new process needs to be separated from the bureaucrats and politicians who were involved in the decision to buy the F-35 without looking at any alternatives. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, new to the F-35 file, should be good to go, but not Peter MacKay, the embattled defence minister, who led the Tory cost cover-up for the past 2 ½ years.

Let’s take Ambrose at her word when she said last week: “[We] are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available options.”

Options do exist. There is no perfect aircraft for Canada. But there are a few candidates. We can exclude the new generation of jet fighters manufactured and marketed by Russia and China, because there is no way, politically, that Ottawa will go there.

That leaves the Typhoon, a multi-role fighter built by a European consortium, the French Rafale, the Gripen (built by Sweden’s Saab), and the American Super Hornet, made by Boeing. Each has limitations, as does the F-35, but each would cost significantly less than $48.5 billion – that’s the latest estimate for 65 F-35s (the original price, remember, was to be a “mere” $16 billion for the planes and a maintenance contract). Each of these other aircraft is already in service somewhere, unlike the oft-delayed F-35.

The simplest decision for the government would be to stick with the aircraft and supplier with which it is most familiar. That would be Boeing and the F-18 Super Hornet, the new version of the CF-18 Hornet, which has served the Canadian Forces reliably for three decades.

The Super Hornet does most of the things Canada needs. It does not have the same  “stealth” capacity as the F-35 to evade enemy radar, but it has adequate range and with two engines is better equipped than the single-engine F-35 to police long coastlines and vast Arctic spaces.

The Super Hornet is not cheap; no modern warplane is. Calculating the cost of military aircraft is a mug’s game, as the Harper government discovered. But as nearly as I can figure, if the base price of one F-35 works out to $88 million (that’s for the plane only without maintenance or any of the related expenses), the comparable figure for one Super Hornet is just over $55 million, or 60 per cent of the F-35 cost.

A betting person would wager that the government will take its time. It’s already been seven years since it decided the F-35 was the plane for Canada. It will take time to undo that decision. The evaluation process will take a year or two, then the bureaucracy will have to review the recommendation, and the cabinet will have to ponder a decision.

The next election, due in October 2015, will be safely in the history books before anything happens.

Close, but an edge to Obama – and maybe to Canada

Published Nov. 5, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

If Canadians could participate in tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election, their votes would surely go overwhelmingly to Barack Obama.

This notwithstanding the fact that his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has closer ties to this country – both as a native of the border state of Michigan and as the leading member of a family that has vacationed for 60 years in a pretty white cottage on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. (It was to this cottage at Grand Bend, Ontario, that Mitt and his family were heading in 1984 when he strapped their Irish setter in a crate on the roof of the car – a travel option that does not sit well with dog lovers in either country.)

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Compared to Romney, Obama is relatively popular among Canadians, even though he has not done much in his four years to make Canadians enthusiastic about his administration. His relations with Stephen Harper are cordial but not warm. The two leaders are too different in personality, philosophy and approach to governing to enjoy more than an arm’s length relationship. But they work together when they need to – to bail out the auto industry, for example.

The two governments tend to be more in sync when their leaders hail from the same end of the political spectrum (witness Liberal Jean Chrétien and Democrat Bill Clinton or, earlier, those “Irish eyes” soul mates, Conservative Brian Mulroney and Republican Ronald Reagan). Relations can be distant, even testy, when the leaders come from different ends of the spectrum (Liberal Pierre Trudeau and Republican Richard Nixon, for example, or Chrétien and Republican George W. Bush, who resented Chrétien’s refusal to enlist in his war on Iraq).

Overall, the Canadian electorate tends to be more liberal (or moderate) than the American one, hence a preference for Democrats to Republicans – and for Obama rather than Romney. But I’m not convinced the outcome on Tuesday will make much difference here.

Romney takes a more muscular approach than to foreign policy and military issues than Canadians may be comfortable with, even if the “muscle” seems to be mostly rhetoric for campaign consumption. Romney’s abiding faith in private enterprise is touchingly quaint to Canadians who are accustomed to activist governments, while Obama’s interventionist approach to health care and direct government involvement in the economy are closer to the Canadian tradition than Romney’s strategy of federal disengagement from social programs.

Aside from pipelines and energy exports, bilateral Canada-U.S. issues have been almost entirely absent from in the presidential campaign. Everyone knows or assumes that, whoever wins, TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline will get built and oil and natural gas will continue to flow south in copious quantities.

It looks increasingly as though Obama, having survived a scare of his own making, will manage to hang on to his job. He can thank Hurricane Sandy for giving him a reason to return to the White House where he could be seen to be acting presidential in the face of a natural catastrophe.

Whatever the reason, his slow slide in the polls came to a halt last week.  A week ago, Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates the major national polls, had Romney ahead by 47.9 to 47.0 per cent in the popular vote. As of yesterday, Obama had moved into a tiny lead – 47.5 to 47.3. The size of the lead matters less than the trend. In crucial Ohio, the trend is clearly to Obama where he now leads by nearly three points in the aggregated polls.

In Columbus, Ohio, the Dispatch newspaper published its final pre-election poll yesterday, showing Obama with a two-point lead. That was enough, in the newspaper’s view, to give Obama a precarious “firewall” to hold Romney off from victory in the Electoral College.

As for Canada, an Obama victory would enable the country to continue to fly below the Washington radar in a relationship that would remain close without being too close. There are worse outcomes than that.