Is Miles Davis really running Ottawa?

We face the future without a plan, with laws that mean nothing. It’s kind of like jazz.


Is Miles Davis really running Ottawa?

So much has changed.

The government of Canada stands for nothing. The Liberals have therefore agreed to support it. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, has issued a stern warning: if the government starts standing for something, the Liberals will cut it loose. This has won Ignatieff plaudits for his spine, and indeed his stance really is different from Stéphane Dion’s. The difference can be measured with certain sophisticated instruments.

Dion used to say the government was awful and he would vote against it. But he kept finding magical ways to vote against the government without slowing it down. Ignatieff is impatient with the government. Disappointed in it. He furrows his brows and it is like watching two elk huddle for warmth. He will vote with the government. For now. But one peep out of Stephen Harper and it’s straight to your room without any dinner, young man.

The upshot: Harper was able to implement his 2007 budget without difficulty. As for his 2008 budget, that one passed without difficulty. But his 2009 budget! Ah-ha! Well, he’ll be able to implement that one without difficulty too. But Ignatieff will make him feel bad about it. This is the difference leadership makes.

It is true that the new budget is a risible claptrap that hoses money around randomly without any semblance of a plan for the future. You say that like it’s a bad thing. In fact it took the combined efforts of the three opposition parties, known as the Coalition, to produce this result. Two of the Coalition partners, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, are therefore voting against the budget. Before voting for this Coalition budget, Ignatieff first had to abandon the Coalition. When foreign diplomats stationed in Ottawa sit down to write reports about Canadian politics for their political masters back home, they first rock back and forth for a few minutes, weeping silently.

The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador is upset about the budget. The premier of Quebec is upset about the budget. “The situations are not the same,” Ignatieff told reporters about the two situations, which are the same. Ignatieff is treating them differently. His Newfoundland MPs can vote against the budget but not his Quebec MPs. Nobody likes it when federalism becomes a straitjacket.

Every now and then, Dion’s MPs would threaten to vote against his edicts, but they never did stray. This won him a reputation as a weak leader. Ignatieff is letting his MPs vote against him, i.e. with the Coalition, i.e. against the budget. This is winning him a reputation as a wise and flexible leader. The situations are not the same.

The capital is in a tizzy because Barack Obama is coming to visit. The new U.S. President can’t get congressional Republicans to support his economic stimulus. (This is because the congressional Republicans aren’t led by Ignatieff, although for a while there anything was possible.) Obama can’t get the congressional Democrats to drop their protectionism. His cabinet appointees keep running into problems with the taxman. Of all the world leaders who are ignored by their own party, snubbed by their opponents and unable to build a cabinet, Obama is surely the most powerful.

We cannot yet confirm whether Obama will have a private audience with Ian Brodie when he arrives in Ottawa. Brodie, you’ll recall, was Harper’s chief of staff last year. He got in some trouble when he assured reporters that Obama’s protectionist rhetoric on the primary campaign trail was meaningless. People were upset because Brodie’s remarks seemed to be politically motivated. They should have been upset because his remarks were wrong.

Eventually Brodie left the goverment. There was just no room at the top for a guy whose predictions were so wildly off base, or at least not if Jim Flaherty was going to be sticking around. Brodie eventually fetched up at Hill and Knowlton, in a much nicer office than he used to occupy as a university professor. Among Brodie’s qualifications for the Hill & Knowlton gig: he helped pass the Accountability Act, which promised to end the days when political staffers could land cushy jobs because of their influence and access. There is suddenly a team of lawyers hovering over my shoulder, so I need to emphasize here that nothing Brodie did contravenes the Accountability Act in any way. This tells us a few things about the Accountability Act. For instance, it tells us why my other name for the Accountability Act is “The Fixed Election-Date Act.”

So much has been fixed. Election dates have been fixed, so elections now appear at random intervals. Taxation of income trusts has been fixed. Twice. Health care wait times are now guaranteed: if you want health care I can guarantee you will wait. We have fixed the Senate. It looks just as spritely and youthful as ever. Canada’s role in Afghanistan? Fixed. Our deployment will end unless it doesn’t. Two years ago Flaherty declared the era of federal-provincial bickering was over, and his word has proved to be precisely as reliable as it ever was.

So now we face the future, secure in the knowledge that nobody has a plan and you can’t take laws or words at their face value. It’s kind of refreshing. Like jazz. Because that’s who you want running the country when it’s plummeting into recession while it struggles through its bloodiest shooting war since Korea: a jazz band. I hear the Prime Minister is quite a pianist.


Is Miles Davis really running Ottawa?

  1. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

    What is with lefties and their love of plans? I know, lets demand our governments start implementing five year plans. They worked wonders in the USSR, we should have them here as well.

    I know I am happy/amazed if our government makes it from one budget to the next without any major changes in between. And not to get too zen-like, but why can’t the absence of a plan be considered a plan.

    • Yes, Wells is such a lefty. You can tell because he’s done nothing but heap praise on the Opposition parties in this piece.

      The absence of a plan is not a plan. It is a strategy perhaps, but not a plan.

  2. The absence of a plan is one thing, jwl; it even is itself potentially a plan (“Let’s do the least damage possible while we’ve got the keys to the joint.”). But the absence of any coherent position worthy of defense is unforgiveable.

    • “But the absence of any coherent position worthy of defense is unforgiveable.’


      I think Harper/Cons are adrift because they decided to dump conservatism and behave like Libs. They have lost their moorings which means that Cons are incapable of putting together a decent budget for a one year period, so I see no reason to encourage them to think even longer term.

  3. Paul:

    Don’t you perhaps think you are being a bit disingenuous ?
    Remember…like any good dance ,it takes’ two to tango’…or as in the case of Cdn. politics; at the very least a substantial amount of the opposition on a substantial number of bills before the house.

    With all the partisan bickering ,quest for power at any cost by those banished to the political hinterlands etc; its not a wonder that our country and our parliament are in a shambles.
    Can anyone get anything done in Bedlam?

    Canada needs a good geo-political overhaul and some of the dissenters sent packing to start their own federations on their own dime!

  4. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a LONG time!

  5. jazz: “if I have to explain you’ll never understand”

  6. HAhahaha, FIXED! Bon mot.

    But Miles Davis played the trumpet,. not the piano.

    • so does that mean Thelonious Monk is running Canada?

      • Well Miles could play the piano. He even was the pianist on some recordings like Sid’s Ahead because he and Red Garland had an argument.

  7. Paul Wells makes another great pronouncement on the happenings in Ottawa. Ignored again and if the P.M. is aware of it smile again at the foolishness of the pronouncesment and returns to the task at hand which is to continue the dimishment of the self satisfied. Their life of ease becoming a greater fact in the diminishment of the the establishment suck ups.

    • Kody. Is that you in there?

  8. Shorter…

    Paul Wells goes “full retard”…

    • Can’t agree more with you, all slag – all the time. No one is protected from his malevolent wit. Too bad it’s of so little help.

  9. Not Miles Davis, surely, but Ornette Coleman.

    • I just cranked up Miles Runs the Voodoo Down. Seemed appropriate.

      • Man, if only our government worked like that!

  10. Would we have this gong show if not for the string of minority governments which has resulted in one long degenerative strategy session? It has resulted in many of the logical contortions Wells has listed. Not all though.

    This makes me think that Coyne’s yearning for proportional representation, which would result in even more minorities, is not the way to go.

    • Except that PR would remove the incentive to be in perenial election mode. PR or failing that back to majorities and the pols all drinking together again is the only way i can see out.

      • How would PR remove the incentive for perennial election? That makes no sense.

        If anything, the folks at the top of the smaller parties’ lists would be happy to run an election every second month.

        • Under FPTP small movements in the polls offer a significant incentive to go to the public. Even a small swing may offer you a shot at that majority. PR offers no such incentive as the movement in the polls have to be much more significant. Witness the Harper govt being in constant election mode, as indeed were Dion’s liberals. This doesn’t apply as much in a majority situation, of course.

        • KC is right, Mark. Take a look at Germany with its MMP system. Coalition governments in Germany are very stable. Part of the reason is the 5% minimum rule: if your Party gets less than 5% of the popular vote, and your List gets no seat in Parliament (though an individual candidate could still win in a Riding if s/he gets a plurality). Actually, for Canada, I’d even say 7% rather than 5%, to prevent too much splintering into small parties. 5% is almost too low a hurdle. But it works in Germany.

        • kc – I’d suggest the opposite is true – a small movement in the polls gives opposition parties – particularly smaller ones – every reason under PR to pull the plug, and keep trying to bring down a government every week as they could double their seats based on a 3% swing. Under our current system, they actually have to win ridings instead. Furthermore, the Opposition MPs would presumably always be at or near the top of their own party lists, so they’d have very little fear in facing voters at the polls. You’re argument simply makes no sense to me. FPTP has its ills, I don’t dispute that, but your prescription of PR as a remedy for everything is a little hard to swallow.

          • I don’t think PR is a remedy for everything. There are a number of different systems. I would probably pick the one that did thebest job of keeping the locl constituency set-up intact.Look at the post above. He/she does a better job of explaining how PR works than me. But you have the small swing in the polls entirely backwards. In a minority situation there’s every incentive to go for broke. This doesn’t apply in PR as you need a much bigger swing, ie: 3% swing only offers the same or similar change in seat numbers. The same swing in our system might give you a considerally greater number of seats.

  11. Miles Davis?! Blaspemy, Paul. You dare!

    I say Schoenberg…

  12. Great column, but maybe it’s courage that’s missing not plans or agendas. Our Prime Ministers: Dief, Pearson, Trudeau, should have been PM Stanfield, even Clark, Mulroney, and Chretien have all had courage. Seems to be missing with these two. But the guy who did have it was Dion. Oh well.

    Harper looks miserable, like, I wasn’t planning on this, I don’t want to be PM through this!

    Of course Obama is in the same boat, not having planned for this when he announced his bid for President. He’s reacting with a lot more enthusiasm for the task ahead.

  13. This government is more Luis Buñuel than Miles Davis. Without the art, that is.

  14. “The govt stands for nothing, the libs have therefore agreed to support it.”
    Great post PW. But i suggest you position yrself a litle nearer the free drinks cart, or pull down one of those yellow oxygen thingies and threaten to bite anyone who interferes, the next time you compose as you fly. You’re clearly flying too close to the sun. This kind of article should be marked : “Beware, opening may cause you to laff until you die or stop voting or both.” I find that starting everyday by chanting Pierres dictum [ “the universe is unfolding as it should” ] over and over helps until about noon, then i usually start laffing again, while resisting an impulse to plead with EC to burn the voters register.
    I now understand why Obama is only coming for a coffee. ” Man we got problems, but those guys are certifiable – %$#@ the environment just make sure you keep the car running.”
    Jazz works as a metaphor, but you’re too fair and unfair – to Miles that is, when he played i believe i could occassionally glimpse god’s plan for the universe. The mad hatter’s tea party also fits. More tea anyone? There’s lots more tea!

    • Obama’s administration is even more nuts, by a WIDE margin. Ayers, Wright, Blagojevitch, Geithner, Richardson, Daschle, Killefer, Solis. Scandal, scandal, scandal.

      In Obama’s tax-the-rich democratic party, four of his own appointments have been exposed as tax cheats. He is close friends with a convicted terrorist, a lunatic reverend, and the senate seat he vacated was offered as a bribe.

      And he was just inaugurated!

      • He is close friends with a convicted terrorist, a lunatic reverend, and the senate seat he vacated was offered as a bribe.

        This is dumb and old.

        • Yeah, at less than four months old, almost an eternity!

          • It’s also false.

            Ayers was never convicted. All charges against him were dropped by the government. Wright served with distinction in the military and yet when he marched in the civil rights movement he had human feces thrown in his face in Georgia during a march. I defy anyone to live through that kind of hatred and not come out bent at the other end. Yeah, he’s a kook, but there’s a reason he’s a kook – he’s lived a lifetime seeing racism first hand, up front.

            As for Blago and the rest … give me a break.

            Obama has to fill a few hundred positions in the first few weeks of office. Like ANY President, he has a vetting process but because of the volume of positions to be filled and the shortage of manpower, they can only investigate so much. At some point, you have to trust people at their word and many of these people he’s only met at Democratic conventions or governor’s balls. He’d met Richardson a whopping five times before asking him to serve in Commerce. Stands to reason that a Senator from Illinois and the governor of New Mexico wouldn’t know each other too well, but I guess you nuts think that Democrats from across the country are all just good buddies with each other.

            This is a normal part of bringing in a new administration. Every single President went through this as they named people to office.

          • Marcus
            Gd pt about Rev Wright. Too many people feel free to judge that man without having walked a mile in his shoes.

      • Clearly taxes are way too high down there!!! Am i going out on a limb here if i conclude that you aren’t a fan?
        Personally i would welcome a bit of scandle here, not only is it a distraction but it might even be an indication that these guys don’t really believe their own bs. I yearn for the days when opposition pols all went out for a beer together after the works siren had gone. I used to complain then too. But I liked it better when the pols just petended to run the country. Now that they’re rilly, rilly serious i am starting to worry, whereas before i was not too concerned by their foolishness as i could see they weren’t either.

        • Well, it’s true I’m not a fan, but even if I were, I sure hope I wouldn’t be so naive and blind as so many of the hopenchangers out there.

          I believe that politicians repond to voters’ desires. Voters vote for people who claim to be running things. No matter how silly that claim may be. If a politician claims to make the sun go up and down, and there are voters naive enough to believe it, then that’s a winning plank for the platform.

          As an aside, I see the same thing at work. People who claim to make things happen, no matter how silly the claim may be, and make lots of noise and bluster as evidence, those people are promoted. The humble, the honest, and the modest go nowhere. Human nature.

      • Oh dear, where to begin. Yes, his tax cheat nominations show a lack of vetting that is surprising.

        Close friends with a convicted terrorist? Can you see Russia from your house? I had coffee at a function Gerard Kennedy was attending once, and I can now say we are definitely close friends. I call him Gerry. Or just “Ger” if I’ve smoked a doob…

        Last night I got up from my seat at a party and it was offered by my friend to someone else who was standing (though not for a bribe)– surely that reflects solely on me and my own character.

        Lunatic reverend. Well, I’m a white boy so I can’t judge. Dyspeptic perhaps, but lunatic?

        • Vetting? Are you kidding me? Appointing tax cheats is not a problem with vetting. It’s a problem where you happen to be appointing people who are tax cheats. The type of people you choose to run your administration are the types of people that cheat on their taxes. When it’s our different people, I don’t think vetting is the primary concern.
          And well, if your whiteness is holding you back from judging people who are not also white, I’d say you should try to get over your racism.

          • Hey SF, sorry to take so long getting back to you on this. First, I must say this is a bad day for me here at Macleans as for the second time this eve I may be taking seriously what is in fact meant as extremely dry humour. But as my boyfriend insists on watching American Idol and I can’t bear to be in the living room, I’ll stay here online and take your reply seriously.

            Organizations are made up of human beings. Sometimes humans beings, while charming or hard working, can disappoint you and be dishonest and cheat on their taxes. This rightly would disqualify them for taking high ranking/sensitive political jobs. The people in charge of nominating them to these positions (because to repeat they are smart or charming or work hard) should properly research, or VET THEM, so that they are not found out to be cheats and thus not able to qualify. It is surprising that Obama and his team did not do this thoroughly enough. Spare the sanctimonious “they’re the type that cheat on their taxes and Obama’s team should be psychic” crap. As for “when it’s our different people, I dont’ think vetting is the primary concern,” well, what does that mean? It doesn’t make sense as an English language sentence, so…. yeah, don’t have a response there…

            My whiteness is not holding me back from judging Reverend Right. I called him dyspeptic. His dyspepsia is clearly illustrated by “GOD DAMN AMERICA!” and so forth. He lacks nuance. But you called him lunatic. He’s a black evangelical preacher in a poor black US inner city neighbourhood. As a white guy who grew up in middle class protestant small town Ontario, I feel I CAN criticize his communication skills, but CAN’T judge where he’s coming from. In calling him a lunatic, you clearly feel you can judge him this way. Congratulations on your lack of racism SF, I wish I could be more like you.

  15. I should point out that I didn’t write the headline. I should also point out, in fairness, that I wouldn’t want to have to write a headline for a column as weird as this one. I would have no idea what to call this thing.

    • I thought you only wore the helmet when you were zinging somebody.

      • I don’t drop the role til the DVD commentary comes out.

        • Maybe Kody could fill in for you while you’re away? Ya know, let the loonies run the asylum for a bit.

  16. Perhaps the lesson for SH is: don’t think because incoherency is yr default or even chosen position for whatever tactical reason that this wont prevent others from following yr example. Remembr imatation is the sincerest form of flattery. Or better yet, the children are watching. If i’m being a little too arch, then let me put it like this: Yr the leader, so frigging well lead!! Or we just might decide to prorogue you one of these fine days!

  17. So what about that theory that some were throwing around a while ago that Harper really wants the Federal Government to fail and prove itself ineffective? That’s the game plan, no plan, no agenda, no success. Wasn’t my theory, just throwing it out.

    • I think that one lost it’s validity when it started to look like he wasn’t even competent. It’s a lot harder to make a charge of evil genius stick when…well…yr not one anymore.

  18. “It is true that the new budget is a risible claptrap that hoses money around randomly without any semblance of a plan for the future.”

    You are perhaps thinking that these politicians are generally well-meaning and humble public servants who really want to fix the economy but – gosh darn it – for no discernible reason are acting completely irrationally.

    I can’t read their minds or determine their IQs or see into moral makeup by looking at soundbites on TV, but there’s one thing that I do know. Wasting billions of dollars on porkbarrel projects and thus helping to ruin the economy benefits these politicians. It channels money into the pockets of their friends in the short term, which helps them win elections in the medium term, and in the long term the recipients of the money will help feather the politicians’ retirement nests by offering them consulting and lobbying jobs, legal contracts, corporate directorships, public speaking gigs, and so on.

    And most importantly, a ruined economy is the very thing which government needs in order to keep on expanding. An expanding government is what will allow future generations of politicians to make their names – by creating new bailout/welfare/stimulus schemes – and to feather their own nests. And an expanding government has a greater and greater number of people dependent on it, which makes people even more docile, which makes the economy even feebler, which gives the impetus to expand government even more.

    But the pork spending can never be “fair”, because it’s really just theft wrapped up in economic mumbo-jumbo. So you’re also going to hear people squawking, “Where’s MY bailout?” This again benefits the politicians, because some of them can get elected by pretending to be outraged defenders of regional interests, and some of them can get elected by pretending to be firm defenders of centralized federalism. They pretend to disagree and fight with each other, and finally they “compromise” by taxing, borrowing, printing and spending even more billions of dollars than anyone thought was possible.

    So you see? There is a plan. The dissonance is just part of the show. Listen closely to the politicians. Harmony prevails. They’re playing “The Bad Ass Blues” in the key of ‘F’ with alternating choruses of “Mmm Mmm Got Me Some Sugar Pie”.

    • Some good lines in your post here, Al Heck (“bad ass blues”, “got me some sugar pie”), but there’s an undercurrent of conspiracy-theorist paranoia here. Are governors really trying to set things up to wreck the economy in order to bequeath future generations of politicians with Even More Government? Give me a break. That’s just not how it works.

      Here’s how it really works:

      1. Politicians don’t really know what the f**k they’re doing, especially on economic policy, an abstruse subject made all the more difficult by being clouded by obsessive ideological filters. So they just kind of wing it, and more or less do what their staffers tell them. What happens next depends on some mix of the implicit ideology of the staffers and, far more importantly, on the day-by-day exigencies of interest brokerage.

      2. Most politicians aren’t even all that interested in public policy. There’s no Grand Plan. They’re attention-seeking narcissists who deeply crave recognition and applause. They learn to repeat the talking points of whatever Party they’ve joined in their effort to get some of that sugar pie (for most of them, it’s not about money, it’s recognition, status and applause).

      3. Visionary politicians are rare, and they have an especially hard time getting ahead in Canada, where we are all deeply suspicious of visionaries — especially if we sense they really mean it. A clear and determined vision is threatening to the status-quo paradigm of vaguely muddling through. It’s threatening to short-termist interest-brokerage. Genuine visionaries don’t do well in the battles for advancement within Canadian political parties. Maybe it’s just as well: history is littered with the millions of corpses left in the wake of political and religious visionaries whose visions have been krrazy..

      It doesn’t matter much what Party our parliamentary lads and lasses belong to. There are slight differences in policy emphasis based on various actors having slightly different clienteles, but interest brokerage prevails. Might as well stop mistakenly thinking politics is about “ideas”, calm down, and either join in the game to promote an “interest” of your own, or just ignore the whole thing and get back to working on your bossa nova skills.

      • “Are governors really trying to set things up to wreck the economy in order to bequeath future generations of politicians with Even More Government? Give me a break. That’s just not how it works.”

        I did not claim that they consciously try to do this. I cannot read their minds. They must be judged not on their good or bad intentions, but on their actions.

        They wreck the economy with their interventions. The greater the intervention the greater the damage. This should be abundantly clear to anyone with eyes – the most interventionist states have always been the biggest murderers. It is also indisputable that greater government intervention in people’s lives and jobs leads to greater wealth and personal power accruing to people in government, and to their cronies. More taxing, borrowing, inflating and spending leads to bigger departmental budgets, more “responsibility” (meaning more power), more promotions, higher salaries, more bonuses, more travel and conference perks, bigger headcounts, bigger contracts … do you get the picture?

        The question of their conscious motivations is moot. The observable facts are this: (1) They directly and personally benefit from expanded power and control over other people. (2) In the long run, their interventions cause more harm than benefit (for example, when Ponzi health care and pension schemes demographically implode). (3) The more harm they cause, the more this is interpreted (by them) as a signal that even greater interventions are required. (4) Every major political party has a platform based on the proposed expansion of government. And (5) virtually every bureaucrat advocates the expansion of government.

        These facts can be hard to deal with, because they lead to the uncomfortable feeling that one’s leftie socialist assumptions about the wisdom and benevolence of Big Brother, based on a lifetime of absorbing government propaganda, are based on nothing but false premises, exaggerations and lies. One must grow up, intellectually, and face the bare truth that government elites are not wise, humble and selfless servants but something quite different. It’s a Santa Claus moment, but there’s a lot more at stake … your entire life and future.

  19. Good concept, interesting read, too bad you’re knowledge of Miles and jazz in general doesn’t fit the theme. If you’re going to draw a parallel do it with something you know. A few of your commenters understand. Ornette Coleman or Luis Bunueal would have been far better examples.

    • Yeah this “jazz” stuff is completely foreign to me. Accordions, right?

      • And Luis Bunueal played bass for Tito Pueante, right?

        • I do love the bass line on “The Severed Testicle From Ipanema.”

  20. Your pessimism has struck a chord. It has generated variations on a theme of helplessness. We are suffering from arrangements without orchestration. Our politicians have no idea how to conduct themselves. Our economy is heading over a clef, but the coalition would only treble our trouble. The only positive note is the crescendo of popular counterpoint.

    (I’ll go take my medication now.)

  21. Inkless redux 2003-06: “The Prime Minister sucks because he has too many priorities”
    Inkless redux 2006-09: “The Prime Minister and everyone else suck because they don’t have any priorities.”

    • “A point in every direction is like no point at all”

      Wells has been consistent.

  22. What a decision for the next election. If your party of choice is not pretty near guaranteed to get more than 50% of votes cast a gang up of the loser parties forming a coalition is going to run the so called country of canada. I call it that because I feel that canada started to deteriorate from the time trudeau got elected.how many parties will we have for the next election? 5-6-7-8-9 or more. it is a perfect time to start little rump parties as anyone with even a seat or 2 could be the tipping point to hold the balance of power in a coalition.love them or hate them the odds are at least a minority of conservatives being the result of an election and then the stew gets to form a coalition. the message I get is vote conservative.a vote for any other party is a vote for a coalition goverment. and who knows what direction the loser parties will take us. but maybe I worry too much about it. the country basically is dysfunctional already in any case.

    • Two words, Donovan:

      Electoral reform.

      • I think the problem is that in order to win a majority since 1980, you need to build unsustainable coalitions of the electorate. The problem is the collapse of Canada’s initial political cleavages: language (French vs. English) and regional economic interests (free trade or protectionism). The rise of separatism has made politics in Quebec about separatist vs. federalist, while the end of the trade debate has made English Canadian politics more ideological, while the old regional identities persist. Canada has many parties because it has many cleavages – some of which are regional (in first-past-the-post, only regionally concentrated cleavages can create effective parties).

        Thus, Trudeau’s basic coalition fell apart in 1984 when Quebec nationalists got a better deal from Mulroney. Mulroney’s coalition fell apart when he couldn’t reconcile the interests of Alberta and Quebec, after free trade was no longer a major issue. Chretien’s winning coalition could only win majorities in the wake of Mulroney’s collapse (if the right were united, Chretien would likely have had minorities in 1993 and 2000, while the right could have won in 1997).

        I see a few ways to fix this:
        1. Ideology may ultimately become the main cleavage in Canada, moving the country towards a 2 (or 2.5) party system. Parties that do not fit that mould will die out through mergers or electoral attrition. The Green party needs to die – it offers no unique policy alternatives under Elizabeth May (this is in contrast to the Ontario Greens), and is a sort of upscale NDP. Similarly, the death of the working class makes one wonder what the need for the NDP is. Indeed, even the Bloc fought the last election largely on ideology (“stop Harper”), rather than invoking Quebec nationalism. That is a long-term problem for them – if the Liberals are a better option to “stop Harper” in future polls, the Bloc’s own logic would have people voting Liberal. Coalitions in our electoral system are more easily managed within brokerage parties, rather than between brokerage parties.

        2. Harper may succeed, through micro-targeting, in building a sustainable Conservative majority coalition. Harper’s approach differs from Mulroney’s (and Diefenbaker’s) in that he has moved slowly and focused on adding small groups of people to the Conservative fold – Northerners, immigrants, and Quebec city. That may result in a more manageable coalition of interests than the two previous Conservative super-majorities faced. Yes, Harper might have courted Toronto or Quebec separatists in one fell swoop, but doing so would produce a government likely to fail.

        3. Fundraising reform can help considerably. Chretien’s reforms unleashed the centrifugal forces of Canadian politics in dramatic ways by increasing the viability of small parties (both by capping total election spending, introducing the subsidy and the donation cap). In one fell swoop, he revived the Bloc, saved the NDP and enabled the Greens to make their sort-of breakthrough. I actually think his aim was to prevent a merger on the right (the reforms would have helped the always cash-strapped PC’s), but obviously that didn’t happen. If fundraising reform (no subsidy, no caps on election spending) happened, the Bloc would go broke, the Greens would wither and die, while the Liberals and NDP would face a financial crisis forcing either electoral defeat, considerable reforms or a merger.

        4. Electoral reform is unlikely (it is rare for a party to win through FPTP without being the beneficiaries of the system), but it could happen. PR could make coalition governments workable in Canada. The trouble with coalitions under first-past-the-post is that they are inherently unstable – small shifts in the polls change the incentives of coalition members dramatically. If December’s menage a trois (I hear those kinds of analogies are a surefire way to get a senate seat these days) was successful, and say, polls had the NDP way up, you can be sure they would manufacture a crisis and end the government – as Premier Peterson did in Ontario. With PR, poll shifts have fewer implications – indeed, you can lose support and still remain in government (or gain seats and remain out of government, a fate that long befell the New Zealand National party). On the other hand, Australian model is, I think, more compelling – able to produce strong majorities led by parties of grand national consensus.

  23. I think Wells needs a vacation. The article is fun but he seems to given up on trying to see the forest and is just counting all the confusing trees. I have given way to cynicism about our current political scene from time to time, but this seems like too much. And, anyway, I rely on Wells and his ilk to make sense of all this mess.

    The big political Canadian picture makes some kind of sense.

    1. Harper has been forced into a stimulus package by political weakness that he does not like, so he has manipulated it to fund some of this favorites, reward some friends, bribe some voters and avoid creating too many new permanent spending commitments.
    2. Ignatieff can’t afford to bring Harper down, so he is huffing and puffing and beetling his eyebrows, and trying to build some credibility.
    3. Layton and Duceppe have nothing to lose by opposing this budget (probably not much to gain either) so they see this as a free pass to bash on Harper.

    I am sorry for an disappointment about Obama, but that is no surprise to me. As for Brodie – who cares.

    • Bill Simpson might be surprised to learn my own opinion of this column is pretty close to his. It’s very much a “trees” column, not a “forest” column. Partly that’s frustration with the current Ottawa moment — I might make sense of the mess later, but for the moment, hey look, it’s a mess — and partly an attempt to provide a pleasant contrast with Colleague Coyne, who’s been writing a series of very good What It All Means columns, and partly just wanting to be funny, because there’s value in that too.

      Probably I shouldn’t write about how I write columns, because that becomes a bit too much like Ed Greenspon’s old Page 2 column in the Saturday Globe, but here goes: I’m just not interested in saving the world every week. I wish I could remember the name of the big-band trumpeter who, on his first night in some famous orchestra, got up and poured everything he knew into an eight-bar solo. He sits down, red in the face, and the old-timer sitting next to him says, “You know, you’re going to get another solo tomorrow night.”

      I don’t think I need a vacation, though. This column was actually my attempt to give the readers one. The next column will be, almost literally, my attempt to save the world, and it will be so earnest you could plotz. See?: another solo tomorrow night.

  24. “The difference can be measured with certain sophisticated instruments.”

    -I didn’t know measuring tape was considered sophisticated.


    You guys are rich now, and we Ontarians are poor, so gimme money! Yeah our main industry is dying, its because of uh… the Spanish. Moreover, if you don’t give us money, there will be an Ontarian diaspora to places with jobs and economic growth, ie. Newfoundland. And you don’t want that, because central Canadians are assholes, bad drivers and lack charming regional accents. Don’t think of it as equalization payments, think of it as insurance from invading mainlanders.

  25. What a shocker Macleans bashing Harper and praising the “suppose 2nd coming to Canada” known as Iggy!

  26. “He furrows his brows and it is like watching two elk huddle for warmth. ”
    Paul, I can hardly believe you would write that. Really irresponsible of you. Now, everytime I see a picture of the man, I’ll be thinking Michael “Two Elk” Ignatieff.

  27. Paul, one of your finest. It takes a surreal pen to capture the surreality of Ottawa.

  28. It is often said: “Nothing in Politics happens by accident” and my question to the MSM is why did “The Elite” of this world allow it all to happen …… I do have some strong suspicions but hey what do I know?

    Think…… who really is Big Brother Anyway?

    In 1913, prior to the passage of the Federal Reserve Act President Wilson’s The New Freedom was published, in which he revealed:

    “Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men’s views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the U. S., in the field of commerce and manufacturing, are afraid of somebody, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.”

  29. Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out.

    My question is, what will Ontario be called once all the other provinces have separated? Will we ditch the name Ontario in favour of Canada? That’d be okay–we can be called “Canada” but be made of three provinces: Greater Toronto, Eastern Ontario, and Southwestern Ontario (Northern Ontario having left to join the country of Albsaskitoba.

    • You may not be far off the mark wings ….. I am waiting for Danny Williams to move on separation, Quebec could in a heartbeat, Nova Scotia never really wanted in and the Western Coalition is alive and well. Perhaps Western, Central and Atlantic Canada, but wait we do we not have those names now ….. lets just ditch Ottawa Derek …… all Canadians know all these fat cats have never heard the word recession in their life ….. I was there once during the recession of the 80’s and asked if the item was on sale ….. some smart fart sales person told me if I wanted a sale …. go to Montreal!

  30. You know, out of all of these comments the one that strikes me most is the fact that Harper seems unhappy about his new role.

    Even when I respected Harper, I never saw him as anything more than the vanguard of his ideology. Which is fine, and they seemed to need a captain, but he’s that far more than someone who was aspiring to Lead The People. In the old quotes in the first few chapters of Right Side Up, it’s clear that his central concern is bringing conservatism back – showing people that it’s viable, better than the alternatives, a better theoretical basis from which to run a country however he can. It seems exactly what you don’t want to be concentrating on once a country starts coming off the rails a bit and needs some actual leadership. Thrust in the driver’s seat for some unplanned off-roading, I don’t think he expected to have to ever do this. (Insert unimpressed reference to Economics degree here.)

    One thing about jazz – you have to be able to keep up.

  31. The jazz comparison is really interesting, but that metaphor to me speaks of the danger inherent in what is happening right now in Canada.

    Jazz was invented in the US, which is neither here nor there, except that jazz was the product of a rich musical heritage colliding complex social dynamic, and one just one of four major musical movements founded through the American-African experience, others being blues, rock and roll, gospel. (Country, I would argue is where the Canadian experience gets some credit, as it is an off-shoot of the Appalachia, French-American experience, but I digress …)

    Jazz in Canada is admired, played, respected, adored, but it is hardly indigenous to us.

    I would argue that jazz, in that sense, is the like the US political system.

    My limited understanding of jazz is that it is a search for balance among imbalance, that it is the combined structure of individual approach, that is is not the product of one architect, but many architects, each having checks and balances over the over, each with its own power. Sort of like the US constitution, with its separation of powers and its balance of power.

    And the US political system, like jazz, is admired, played, respected and adored, but it is hardly indigenous to us.

    And so, I would go a little further that Paul “Miles” Wells, and say that that it isn’t just the executive that is mired in jazz, but the whole political system, as our minority government is essentially becoming a government of separated powers (PBO, parliamentary committees etc., where one party controls the executive, but doesn’t control the legislature).

    Problem is that our Westminster system is designed to operate like a marching band with dependable melodies, with only the occasional variation on a theme.

    While our federal system may be jazz, we do not have the instruments to make the jazz work. Instead, Ottawa is a marching band playing jazz, which means it is at best a novelty, but mostly it just sounds weird. (with the exception of new orleans funeral marches ….)

    And when you sound weird, you are one of two things – brilliant (like Miles in Bitches Brew) and ahead of your time, or you are just weird, and fade from novelty, to curiosity to irrelevance.

    So, if a Canadian government decides to go jazz, it had better be ready for the consequences, which in my opinion, are two fold. A) irrelevance, but more scary for the Canadian federal system, B) Canadians getting a greater exposure to jazz government, might eventually wonder why they have to have this weird, fake jazz, and maybe they should just try to go for the real thing down south, and ditch the federal ensemble all together, and join a much bigger, more relevant, and jazz ensemble much more pleasing to the ear.

  32. “But Canadians like minority governments.”

  33. “We face the future without a plan, with laws that mean nothing. It’s kind of like jaxx.” Brilliant assessment. Here’s an example of jazzy government:
    Natural Resources Canada once had an excellent lab developing better quality concrete that would be resistant to serious weather conditions. The research was so good that it had a national and international reputation. The concrete lab was shut down just at the time that the concrete posts of a bridge in greater Montreal fell apart and killed people. The cry went up across the country that bridges and other structures everywhere were in a weakened condition.
    The Harper government’s recent budget is pouring millions into infrastructure, apparently in the belief that the best concrete will not be necessary for bridges, buildings, sewers etc. etc. Perhaps they think that climate change will reduce stress on concrete or that weather is the same all over Canada Who knows?


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