May 30, 2005


French voters have decisively rejected the new EU constitution, dealing a blow both to the EU and to the faltering government of President Jacques Chirac (read President Chirac's brief remarks here.)

With fellow EU-founder the Netherlands likely to reject the constitution next week as well, some analysts say the project will at best be set back by a few years as the enlarged EU grapples with this political crisis.

Posted by anatole at 01:24 AM | Comments (3)

May 29, 2005

Not our proudest moment.

Mike pointed out today* that I had been a little bit quiet about the political intrigue in Ottawa since the Liberals survived the non-confidence vote on Thursday.

Indeed I have been, not having posted anything since my semi-tongue-in-cheek grandstanding about the Stronach-crossing prediction.

A lot of words have been written about the current political situation, and a lot has been said (those two don't always go hand-in-hand). So I'll keep this brief (for me ...) and do my best not to simply re-hash old news and old views.

I've been watching along with everyone else as the tension has built in Ottawa, and it has all made me feel rather squeamish, to be honest. Somewhere between the appalling behaviour of those implicated in the sponsorship scandal and the circus show that has been Parliament for the past few months, this is not exactly a proud moment to be Canadian.

In a way it was only fitting that something as dramatic as Belinda Stronach's floor-crossing and the vote of cancer-stricken independent MP Chuck Cadman would decide the final result. After months of escalating rhetoric and outrageous claims, it couldn't have been easy to cut through the noise and cause some excitement.

It's hard to know what to make of Belinda Stronach's move. I'm not convinced that this was a purely power-grabbing stunt (no more than I am convinced of the indignant outrage of all those politicians who purport to be shocked by such power-grabbing). It should come as no shock that Stronach was not happy with the direction in which Stephen Harper was taking the party. The groundwork for her defection was laid -- deliberately or not -- with subtle and not-so-subtle signals dating back to her leadership campaign, of course, and more recently to the Conservative Party convention.

Yet the mess of accusations is partly of Stronach's making. Even if you give the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn't ask for the Cabinet post, she should have declined what we would then assume to have been Paul Martin's offer. Her conscience-inspired crossing story would be a lot more credible if she had. And, let's face it, she could still have known that a plum Cabinet appointment -- probably one better than HRSD -- would be hers come election time. It also didn't help that she attended a Conservative campaign strategy session on the weekend that she was debating her move. Maybe it would have been odd if she hadn't shown up? Too bad. She should have called in sick.

Does this even make sense as a power-grabbing move? If her goal is party leadership and Prime Ministership, she is unlikely to get it with the Liberals. But if her goal is a senior cabinet post, she may have been banking on the fact that Stephen Harper was soon to go down in flames, possibly putting off for a few years any hope of a Conservative government and the Cabinet appointments to go with it.

I'm not sure we'll ever know the true mix of motives (for it was unlikely to be any one, pure reason) that led Belinda Stronach to cross the floor. Either way, she was subjected to ridiculous and offensive attacks that ultimately said a lot more about some of her critics than they did about her decision. Even if you disregard this cheap, locker room behaviour, it is hard to get past the stunning hypocrisy of the more serious cricisms of her move. Many of her current detractors rallied around one Peter McKay when he blatantly reneged on his signed agreement with David Orchard -- the one which effectively handed McKay the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party -- in merging the Progressive Conservative party with the Alliance. At the time, McKay and other supporters of the move claimed it was for the good of the country and democracy. How quick they are to reject any similar claims by Stronach today.

It will be telling to see how Stronach does in the next election, facing the riding that elected her as a Conservative. You can bet the Liberals with throw a lot of resources behind that particular battle, whenever it comes.

The intrigue surrounding Stronach's defection serves as a microcosm of the big picture politics unfolding in Ottawa these days. Forget the official notion of confidence and who got the one or two votes needed to tip them over the edge. There is no definitive judgement to be found in a confidence vote these days.

Turn your attention instead to the notion of trust, which is right scarce in Ottawa -- and across Canada -- these days. The politicians don't trust each other, and the electorate doesn't trust the politicians. I'd wager to say the politicians are feeling a little leery of the electorate, too, so the feeling is mutual. Sadly, many Quebecers are probably getting the sense they can't trust anyone -- including themselves! The message is clear even from our friends down south, via the venerable New York Times -- don't trust everything you hear about Canada. How we have fallen from grace.

Yes, forget the unanimously-passed veterans' bill a couple of weeks ago, forget the "bon mots" spoken about and by NDP MP Ed Broadbent on his retirement, and dispense with any feeling of relief you had in thinking that we might be able to catch a breather after the govenment survived the recent confidence vote. Everything you need to know happened in the 30 seconds immediately following the vote, when Paul Martin rose to half-heartedly pronounce a truce, and then Stephen Harper rose to give Paul Martin the verbal equivalent of the finger**.

There is no truce. As crazy as it sounds, the opposition has stated that it still has its finger on the non-confidence trigger.

So expect more political theatre (a.k.a. grieving man, with dog, on farm), more rhetoric, more vitriolic debate. Just don't expect any real confidence. There isn't even basic trust.

[*] Wednesday, when I started writing this entry. Oops.

[**] Even wading into the dangerous territory of speaking of a "united" opposition, reinforcing views of a Tory-Bloc love-in.

Posted by anatole at 10:57 PM | Comments (0)

On the physical accessibility of our public institutions.

Playing Ultimate on the lawn of the Supreme Court, Ottawa
I really value the fact that you can have a picnic, hang out, or play sports on the grounds of our public institutions like the Parliament buildings or, here, the Supreme Court.
Ottawa, Ontario [view large]

Posted by anatole at 08:28 PM | Comments (1)

Old and New

Old government building reflected in new office tower, Ottawa
On a sunny day, you can catch a lot of these pretty reflections of old buildings on new on Wellington St.
Ottawa, Ontario [view large]

Posted by anatole at 08:01 PM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2005

... hello, Belinda.

Well, it's no surprise to anyone this late in the day, but Belinda Stronach has "crossed the floor" and joined the governing Liberal caucus.

Now, I don't mean to be smug here, but I actually called this about a week ago. Admittedly, I would be way cooler if I had called it publicly somehow -- for example on this blog. I didn't -- such is life.

But I think I should get some sort of bonus points for having called it in a conversation with one of her political staffers. In a reasonably wide-ranging discussion about the current political situation, I suggested to said staffer that Belinda would make an excellent candidate for crossing the floor to the Liberals. Said political staffer vigorously denied that this would ever happen.

So put another one down in the "never say never" column of life, and just be glad that you don't work for Stephen Harper today, because you probably would have had a very, very bad day.

Posted by anatole at 12:47 AM | Comments (0)

May 12, 2005

So long, decency ...

This entry has been updated several times.

The daily spectacle -- or "farce", as my co-worker put it today -- of our federal Parliament is truly out of control.

A few weeks ago, it looked as though we might be spared some of this. For a fleeting few days, Paul Martin seemed to have pulled a Jean Chrétien. How so? He appeared to have bought himself some time, something Chrétien had done with his "don't worry, I'll retire in 18 months" ploy. Martin's prime-time televised speech, while much-maligned (no surprise there), achieved that critical feat in politics -- he had retaken the momentum. Stephen Harper's protestations notwithstanding, the tide seemed to turn. The Liberal slide in the polls slowed, and Harper's name was -- relatively speaking -- absent from the headlines for the next few days, making room for some Liberal "announceables".

Jack Layton's latest olive branch had been accepted, with the Liberals tacking on some $4.5 billion in NDP-flavoured spending to their budget. Not surprisingly, this incensed Stephen Harper even further. Somewhere between that, continued Gomery testimony, and the cancelling of opposition days, the Conservatives and the Bloc decided not to let up on toppling the government.

And so here we are today, in quite a sad and pathetic state. It's hard to say who looks worst in all this -- the momentum now shifts day to day, and each time I think "wow, these guys have really blown it", the "other guys" go and blow it even worse.

Harper is so eager to be in power that he's practically drooling every time he gets in front of a camera. He sounds petty and petulant and can't shake the zero-charisma mantle. He's also got a catch-22 in terms of his agenda. People still distrust him because they suspect he has a "hidden agenda." But his actual agenda is unlikely to curry favour with the majority of Canadians (as was widely noted around the last election, 70% of voters selected a non-right option, and that was already in the midst of the sponsorship scandal). To win what would in all likelihood be a minority government, he'll have to sustain an election campaign almost entirely on the sponsorship scandal. He'll also have to explain his about-face on the budget. For some inexplicable reason, he heaped praise on the budget before the Budget speech was even over, leaving himself little room to maneuver when he later sought to oppose it, even NDP additions aside.

Martin looks as desperate as Harper looks bloodthirsty. His speech looked desperate, his billions in handouts over the past few weeks look desperate, and his attempts to prolong this entire episode -- whether legitimate or not -- look desperate. And he still can't shake the dithering label. How the mighty have fallen. I can only hope that the Liberals believe they will win the non-confidence vote next week with the support of the three Independents. Otherwise, it seems like astounding folly to prolong this agony just to fall on the budget. I can't imagine anyone will care during an election about the technicality of whether they fell on a non-confidence motion or on a budget vote. Either way the Liberals will say that the opposition refused to make Parliament work and pass a Budget that was good for -- and desired by -- Canadians, and either way the Conservatives will say the Liberals had lost the authority to govern, had lost the confidence of the house, and had a lousy budget to boot, with its extra NDP provisions.

Gilles Duceppe ... well, don't get me started on Gilles Duceppe. Jack Layton may be the only one coming out of this looking even remotely sane. I thought his response to Martin's speech was terrible, but as far as political strategy goes, he's having a good run of things the past couple of weeks as the reasonable peacemaker pursuing the best interests of Canadians in trying to make Parliament work.

The rhetoric inside and outside the House is ludicrous. During Wednesday's shenanigans, Harper gave a speech that includes this precious clip:

Spending taxpayer money without parliamentary approval, cancelling opposition day debates, ignoring majority votes in the House, filibustering its own legislation and ignoring calls for the government to resign is not the behaviour of a democratic government. None of it is consistent with the spirit and the principles of parliamentary democracy.

This is the kind of abuse we hear about periodically, not just in dictatorships but in countries with democracies that are struggling. We have seen it in recent years in countries like Venezuela and Russia where the executive, although elected, is willing to run roughshod over the democratic procedures of their legislatures.

A year ago the Prime Minister was promising to slay the democratic deficit. Today he is threatening to slay democracy itself.

As the Conservatives and Block work to bring the House and its committees to a standstill in protest of the Liberal delays of a confidence vote to next week, one has to wonder what would be left for -- without diminishing the significance of the sponsorship scandal or the arrogance and sins of the Liberal party -- a real crisis of democracy. I can only imagine that Harper is swallowing his pride and calling up ex-NDP leader Alexa McDonough to ask for one of her (in)famous orange suits to launch his own Orange Revolution*. We'll be seeing a tent camp on Parliament Hill in no time.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of days we hit the lowest of the low with the parties fighting over the confidence vote and the attendance of several MPs who are currently receiving treatment for cancer. Two Conservatives and suddenly very popular independent Chuck Cadman are critical to the math of what could end up a tied no-confidence vote, with the tie-break going to Speaker of the House Peter Milliken. The two Conservative MPs were asked to attend the purported non-confidence vote earlier this week, which the Liberals declared to be procedural.

So now the Conservatives accuse the Liberals of waiting for their MPs to fall too ill to attend, while the Liberals are accusing Harper of misleading the MPs in summoning them to Ottawa for a non-confidence vote. Lost in all of this is these are actual human beings being treated for serious disease. For the love of decency, figure something out. There is a common precedent for these types of situations and it is called pairing **. Two Liberals could agree not to vote to allow the two Conservatives, at least -- who will vote predictably -- to not attend. No doubt the parties are doing the math on this 153-153 voting scenario, and it has even been suggested that it may be the Conservatives who do not want the pairing (they currently have at least an element of surprise in when their full contingent is available.) I don't really care. There has to be some reason, and it seems to be unnecessary in this scenario to force cancer patients to travel against the advice of their oncologists. But then, it has been so long since either of these parties has taken the high road that I doubt they would even recognize it now if they came across it.

Don't be fooled. Twice, recently, it looked as though the high road was being taken. On the way back from VE day ceremonies in Europe, the four party leaders put the finishing touches on a veterans bill and sped it through the House -- unanimously! -- upon their return. Happy days are here again? Well, not exactly. Within a day the bill, now in the Senate, was subject for political fodder. The Liberals claimed the Conservatives would kill the bill by bringing down the government, while the Conservatives claimed the Liberals were holding up the bill in Senate so that they could use this argument. And so on.

The other moment of apparent civility came as Ottawa Centre NDP MP Ed Broadbent announced his retirement to take care of his wife, who is ill. Leaders and senior members of all four parties said some kind words. What I found most interesting, however, was what Mr. Broadbent, a longtime figure on the political scene, had to say:

"If members will excuse me, I want to say in this context that I was asked not long ago if during my absence Parliament had changed somewhat, with all the lapses that come with increasing age about accurate memory and the inevitable propensity to romanticize the past.

When I was elected here Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada and Bob Stanfield was the leader of the Conservative Party. I am not going to try to sort out the reasons for today, but it is my impression, having been here since the last election, that the tone and substance of debates have in fact changed, as has question period.

I will not attempt any kind of causal analysis of this, but the structure of our Parliament, depending upon our seating, tempts us into thinking all virtue, wisdom and truth lies on the side one happens to be on and all its opposite qualities happen to be on the other. This does contribute in some way to this kind of institutionalized conflict and causes us to forget many times.

I said in the past that, historically, Quebec is the heart of Canada. I am convinced that Bloc Québécois members, my dear colleagues from la belle province, agree with me that, for 75% of the issues, we are on the same side.

We share as members of the House; for 75% of the issues, we are on the same side or we would not be living in a liberal democracy. So often, because of the structure of this institution and particularly question period, we forget that. We tend to think that the 25% of issues that divide us, and seriously and appropriately divide us, are only what matters. What is more important in many ways as a civilized, democratic, decent country is the 75% of things we have in common.

It is a terrible thing to be both a politician and an academic, two terrible professions for wanting to give advice to others. I conclude with this thought. Those who will remain after the next election, whenever it may be, should give some serious thought to the decline in civility in the debate that has occurred in the House of Commons and which occurs daily in question period. If I were a teacher, I would not want to bring high school students into question period any longer.

There is a difference between personal remarks based on animosity and vigorous debate reflecting big differences of judgment. They should see what can be done in the future to restore to our politics in this nation a civilized tone of debate. A tone of debate, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, acknowledges the human decency and dignity of all other members of the House who recognize this. However we may differ, we are all human and we all have the right to have our inner dignity respected, especially in debate in the House.

Ah, human decency and dignity. I remember you well.

[*] All those recalling the highly democratic process by which the Alliance gobbled up the former Progressive Conservatives is kindly asked to, um, well, just ignore that.

[**] Update: Reports this Friday morning say that the NDP has offered to pair off with the Conservative candidates. No definitive response yet from the Conservative camp, which is apparently considering the offer.

[***] Another update: I should have been a little more careful in describing "en masse" the tributes to retiring MP Ed Broadbent. As Julie points out, the emphasis should be on "some" in "some kind words" when it came to the Conservative Party's turn. Stephen Harper was absent (the only party leader not to speak), leaving John Reynolds to deliver some appropriate sentiments sadly mixed up with, in the words of Jon Stewart, some "partisan hackery". Read Julie's comment for a couple of the choice quotes from Hansard -- one of them just mean-spirited and the other just plain silly in light of the NDP's current support of the Liberal party.

Posted by anatole at 11:18 PM | Comments (3)

May 10, 2005

The World Needs More ... Tulip Photos?

Tulip colours abstract, Ottawa
More from the Tulip Festival, including something a little abstract. Parasol notes that not nearly enough people are paying photographic attention to the tulips this year. ;) Indeed, indeed.
Ottawa, Ontario [view large]

Red tulip among yellow, Ottawa
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Many-a-tulip, Ottawa
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Tulip solitaire, Ottawa
Not too exciting, but I liked the glow from the light.
Ottawa [view large]

Parliament buildings in distance behind tulips, Ottawa
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Posted by anatole at 11:51 PM | Comments (6)

May 08, 2005

One hell of a thank you.

Yellow tulip close-up, Ottawa
The Tulip Festival kicked off this weekend. The Tulip Festival has its roots in the Netherlands' Queen Juliana's 1945 gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada "in appreciation of the safe haven which Holland's exiled royal family received during the Second World War and in recognition of the role which Canadian troops played in liberating the Netherlands" (from the Tulip Festival website, linked above).
Ottawa, Ontario [view large]

Lots o' tulips, Ottawa
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Blur of tulips, Ottawa
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Yellow tulip reprise, Ottawa
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Posted by anatole at 02:17 AM | Comments (4)

May 05, 2005

Get your election on

The U.K. votes today, with the expectation that Tony Blair and the Labour party will win a comfortable (if not quite as overwhelming) -- and historic -- third majority.

BBC election coverage
The Guardian election coverage
The Independent election coverage


Aven commented:

But the BBC election site is super-cool... I wish they did the website for CBC's election coverage, too. Fun with graphics and charts...

Indeed, elections often bring about some pretty creative data visualization work. Here are a few that have been making the rounds for the U.K. election:

  • The BBC's "swingometer" (once you're there, click on the tabs above to also see the "seat calculator" and "poll tracker")
  • The Guardian's own (somewhat phallic, according to some) swing-vote-type effort.

Have you seen some other interesting / novel / intelligent / misleading / appalling / etc. election-time data representations? Leave me a comment and I'll try to compile some sort of list here. And don't feel you have to restrict yourself to the current U.K. election.

Posted by anatole at 10:41 AM | Comments (1)

May 03, 2005

Not the Comedy Show

Stacks of chairs, Distillery District, Toronto
O.k., so not all of the Distillery District was about colours. Can you spot the hidden message in this photo? ;)
Toronto, Ontario [view large]

Posted by anatole at 11:19 PM | Comments (0)

Recurring Annoyance

I got one of those poppy coins today, and it made my blood pressure go up a little bit. This happens every time I get one of these coins. Why? Because, as has been widely reported, the red ink totally comes off, leaving a coin whose central image bears little resemblance to a poppy.

The official release from the Royal Canadian Mint, who produced the coin in cooperation with the Royal Canadian Legion, claimed the colour would hold up:

To meet the engineering and design challenges entailed in producing the world's first- ever coloured circulation coin, the Royal Canadian Mint perfected a high speed colouring process that will generate 30 million coins. The process ensures that the colour adheres to the metal and is resistant against wear from daily use or from exposure to common household products and detergents. With normal wear and tear, the colour should remain for one to three years, but can be removed with harsh chemicals or friction. A permanent poppy has been struck on the coin which will retain its full value, even if the red colour has been removed.

But it didn't take long after the (also controversial Tim Hortons-near-exclusive) release of the coin for complaints to start coming in:

Though the coins have been out for less than day, it didn't take long for the lustre to wear off. It appears that the red colour on the poppy is easily scratched off.


Indeed, the colour does not hold up well at all. Forget harsh chemicals or friction ... try routine handling and pocket wear-and-tear. Worse yet, the "permanent poppy" is kind of hard to spot under the faded (but not entirely gone) colour, with its special dye-gripping (ahem) texture. To add insult to injury, the coins didn't look perfect to begin with. In most of the ones I've seen, the colour wasn't well-aligned with the "permanent poppy."

So what the hell happened? Well, the Mint most certainly did not "perfect a high speed colouring process". Nor is this just the degree of defects that come with any large-scale (30 million units) manufacturing process, as David Dingwall, President and CEO of the Mint, would like to have had us believe.

This is one of those things that frustrates me deeply (no, really!) because it really shouldn't have happened like this. Yes, this was the world's first colour circulation coin. Fantastic, and kudos to the Mint for being leading-edge and for good intentions. But sometimes it's not just the thought that counts. When it comes to a coin designed for remembrance, the much-written-of irony of a symbol that fades away hits home just a little too hard. Again and again.

Posted by anatole at 08:52 PM | Comments (0)