Canada, Politics

“The middle of the road is only good for horse shit”

That’s funny. And often true. And it makes for a great headline.

More often than not, the status quo sucks, I believe.

It’s been a busy few days on the election-front, so on that note and in lieu of addressing some of the specific campaign promises being made by the parties, I want to stop and do some big-picture wondering.

I’m wondering right now as to what qualifies for middle of the road in Canada these days?

It’s a clichéd truism that governments campaign to the left and right of their party lines, but govern from the centre. To be sure, whatever governing Stephen Harper’s been doing these past few years, it has definitely at times felt to me like we’ve been dragged waist-deep through a pile of horse dung. Or is that Grade-A Canadian moose dung?

If the past five years have been reflective of Canadian centrism, then I want nothing of it.

What can we assume “Middle of the Road Canada” to be? Is there even such a thing? If there is, is it a good thing? Is it something like Middle-America? Turns out the exact middle of Canada is somewhere near Arviat, Nunavut, and my guess is that not a lot of electoral attention is being focused there. So is there an “average” Canadian that the parties are trying to appeal to?

I don’t think so. Sure, polling data suggests certain tactics, phrases, and campaign styles that resonate with the electorate, but that doesn’t mean there’s a singular typical voter.

I don’t think there’s a true “Middle of the Road Canada,” or a “Middle of the Road Canadian.” But there is a status quo and there are those that perpetuate it. I recently lamented that there’s been a dearth of inspiring Canadians as of late. I still think this is so. But we are still the country that gave the world insulin, the telephone, duct tape, walkie-talkies, Standard Time, and Superman, dammit! These things didn’t come about from embracing the status-quo or moseying on down the middle of the road (covered in shit, no less!).

The only “Middle of the Road Canada” that exists, I believe, is one where little gets done, boringness is a virtue, and apathy reigns supreme. Sound familiar? The “Middle of the Road Canadian,” then, is that apathetic voter (or non-voter, as it very well may be) that keeps this status quo churning. Little surprise, then, that the Conservatives are appealing exactly to this sentiment: Harper’s primary fear-based campaign tactic is indeed one of the necessity to “stay the course”.

I’m tired of staying the course. Staying the course means we get to keep on trudging through a pile of steaming horse shit. Staying the course means it’s less likely we’ll come up with the next insulin, the next duct tape, or the next Superman. Props do go to Jim Balsillie for proving the exception when it comes to the next telephone. But it’s a boring phone, and is still number five…

So right now, I’m interesting in finding which political party is doing its best to keep us out of the shit-covered middle of the road:

Harper’s Tories (sans platform) are running a locked-down, uninspiring campaign that has not yet presented any bold new ideas for Canada or Canadians.

Ignatieff’s Liberals, in their platform launched today (more on that, soon), have indeed presented some bold new ideas and governing policies.

And Layton’s NDP (no platform from them yet) are maintaining their own internal status quo.

It’s only a week and a half into the election and I haven’t cast my vote yet. I haven’t yet evaluated the parties on fully equal ground, since it’s only the Libs who have put out a platform (which says something in and of itself).

But if you’re planning your trip down the not so metaphorical Trans-Canada Highway, it’s often beneficial to take a look at a map before you leave. And right now, the Conservatives’ map is just going to get Canadians dragged through a whole load of horse shit again. The NDP’s map – as spiffy and Web 2.0 as it may be – has a tendency to malfunction, and I don’t particularly want to get lost in Biggar, Saskatchewan.

Right now – at this point in the campaign – if you’re judging by how much shit you want to avoid on your journey – which seems as good a reason as any to pass judgement – it’s the Liberals that have the best roadmap for Canada.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. These guys do. And so do these. And hey, even these guys kind of do (but probably not for long).

As an aside, a wise musician friend of mine once laid some wisdom on me with a charge to remember that “what you think is the status quo is always changing.”

So I will not be so myopic as to mark my ballot yet. Lord knows the Grits have been covered in their share of horse shit over the years. But at this point, it is getting easier to see where my big “X” might go.

Canada, Israel, Politics

A valuable and desirable passport

In the winter of 2004 while travelling in Israel, I was robbed in a taxi in Jerusalem. I tell people that it happened at gunpoint, though I can’t be certain because I never got a good look at what the driver was pulling out of the glove compartment before I bailed on the car. But I tell people this because it makes for a more dramatic story. It also has the added effect of making me appear bad-ass, a character trait that I assume isn’t normally assigned to me.

In any event, as I explained in broken Hebrew to the police that night, then again to the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv, and repeatedly to friends and family in the days following, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was robbed. I looked like a worn out traveler at the time, certainly with nothing of great monetary value on me.

Except my passport.

If it was clear to the driver that I wasn’t from Israel – and the fact that I asked him to take me to the airport may have had something to do with it – then he likely assumed that I had a foreign passport on me. And that is desirable and valuable.

I share this story now not because I particularly enjoy reminiscing about how I spent four days at the mercy of the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv. I don’t. And while we’re at it, the word “Embassy” is a stretch to begin with, since Canada’s pied-a-terre in the Holy Land consists of a few floors of fluorescent-lit office space in a Tel Aviv high-rise.

I share this story as a reminder of the value of a passport – a document with great literal and figurative power and privilege contained in its pages.

So it was with great delight when I read today of the Liberal Party’s proposed higher education initiative, dubbed the “Learning Passport.” In short, the proposed program would automatically give every Canadian high school graduate $1,000 per year to use towards their university or college education. And it would give $1,500 per year to students from low-income families.

That this is the first policy set forth from the new Liberal platform is impressive. That it’s not a partisan vote-buying gimmick is more-so. That in setting it forth, the Liberals have also budgeted the funds for the program is most impressive.

Where would the money come from to fund the Learning Passport? It would be fully funded by rolling back corporate tax cuts that were extended by the Conservatives. Say what you will about fiscal responsibility, but even Harper admits out of one side of his mouth that we’re weathering the global economic crisis well. As the Globe and Mail notes in their editorial:

“Higher education is the single best guarantee of higher earnings and future success; now is a good time, as other countries struggle with crippling debt loads, to make further investments in people…”

What continues to strike me most – beyond the honourable subastance of the program – is the title the Liberals gave the program. It drives strong and meaningful points home: higher education gets you somewhere. Like a passport, it lets you cross otherwise impenetrable barriers. And like carrying the woven bilingual pages in your pocket, a uniquely Canadian pride and privilege comes with attending a Canadian university or college.

For those keeping track, this already addresses one of the items on my personal party platform. So, well done, Grits!

Canada, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Politics

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.

Canada, Politics

You’re invited to join the Jesse Party

While I’m a paying member of a certain Canadian political party, and while my personal political ideology is firmly grounded, I think it’s appropriate and responsible to not just blindly vote from the gut. As the election starts, I’m going to lay out the issues upon which I will evaluate the candidates and parties to decide my vote. Call it the political platform of the Jesse Party. I’m also including detrimental political tactics that I don’t want the parties to engage in. As election day approaches, I’ll do some sort of formal evaluation here, which will help determine which party I’m going to vote for.

And here we go:

1. Integrity and Ethics
Transparency. Respect for the institution of Parliament. Aversion to proroguing. Strong leadership skills among MPs. Respect for truth and justice.

2. Environmental & Energy Policy
Formulating a strong and reasonable policy on reducing carbon emissions. Instituting a carbon tax. Transitioning to renewable and low emission energy sources.

3. Health Care
Investing in new medical facilities, attracting doctors and health professionals to Canada, reducing wait times. Not privatizing the system.

4. Domestic Economic Policy
Combating poverty. Tax-cuts for the lowest income earners. Reasonably and proportionally increasing taxes for the wealthiest earners and businesses.

5. Investment in Education
Funding universities and colleges. Reducing tuition fees. Investing in curricular materials in public schools. Creating a National Day Care program.

6. Investment in Arts & Culture
See here, here, and here.

7. Foreign Policy
A mediated and strategic end to combat duty in Afghanistan. Fostering bipartisan peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, including encouraging an end to settlement building by Israel and a strong dismantling of terrorist infrastructure and enforcement of civil law by the Palestinians. Strict standards as to who we ally ourself with and when we interfere in foreign domestic conflicts.

* * *

And these are the tactics I hope not to see. If a party engages in them, it will make it harder for me to vote for them:

1. Labeling a potential coalition as an evil, illegal, or otherwise bad thing

2. Ethnic vote buying

3. Ad-hominem attacks where inappropriate (sometimes it’s absolutely legitimate to call into question a candidate’s character when it comes to leadership skills, but I am put-off by otherwise personal attacks on a candidate)

4. Referring to the NDP pejoratively as “socialists,” as if we’re living in 1950s America

5. Pretending that the economy is Canadians’ #1 issue, when polling clearly indicates it is not

6. Ignoring or hiding from the fact that the Conservatives are the first government to be found in contempt of Parliament

Canada, Israel, Politics

Identity Politics

Where was the Toronto Star three months ago, when I needed them to back me up? Now, after facing a small amount of backlash for my repeated arguments that the Conservative Party of Canada was able to win in my riding of Thornhill by attracting the votes of Jews who would vote for whichever party looked like they supported Israel more, Thomas Walkom – National Affairs Collumnist – has penned an article on ethnic voting and identity politics that backs up the very arguments I postited. Here’s an excerpt:

…In a world where no single party can command a majority of MPs, individual ridings become even more significant. And among some voters in some ridings, support for Israel is a make-or-break issue… Identity politics predates Confederation… In ridings where there is a significant Jewish population, this matters. Kent, for instance, may back Israel as a matter of deeply held principle. But if he did not, this might well hurt him in Thornhill, a riding that he narrowly won last year…

While this is pretty much a closed issue that I hadn’t intended on revisiting, the situation in the Israel and Gaza has brought it to light again. So thanks, Thomas. I couldn’t agree with you more!

Canada, Music, Theatre

“Stephen, the arts is the economy, stupid…”

So says Karl Pruner, president of ACTRA Toronto to PM Stephen Harper. Well said, Karl.

In the midst of Harper’s sniper fire at Canadian Arts and Culture, it is easy to forget that arts and the economy are greatly intertwined. See what I mean here and here and here. And especially here. Or maybe if you want a clear visual of the inseparable ties between the arts and the economy, just whip out your wallet. Find a twenty dollar bill and take a look at the back of it…

Harper and the Conservatives have created a black and white scenario where it’s arts and culture vs. the economy. This is typical conservative polarizing at its worst. But let’s pretend just for a moment that this is actually how life works… The Arts vs. The Economy… What would you choose? Actress Leah Pinsent, has this to say:

“We don’t visit Rome, Japan or Africa to learn about their economies. We go to experience their culture… It is culture, not economics, that truly makes a nation. If we as Canadians are left only with other people’s stories .. then what can we be proud of? There will be nothing left to be proud of…”

The only thing that Pinsent misses is that the arts are part and parcel of the Canadian economy. And yes, the economy should clearly be of paramount importance. But arts and culture – like every other industry – are entitled to be supported by the very government and country that they themselves support. Canadian music and theatre are no more part of a niche industry than the Ford auto plant in Windsor is. Pruner bluntly evokes the question that I’ve been pondering:

“Why is it we talk about investing in the auto sector, investing in the energy sector, and handouts to the arts? Are we tired of this? I think so.”

So while Harper would like you to believe that “ordinary folks don’t care about arts,” (his words) let’s stop pretending that arts and culture aren’t intermingled in the genetic makeup of Canada’s economic infrastructure. Let’s stop pretending that this is a black and white issue and that Harper’s already made the right choice for us. And while we’re at it, let’s stop pretending that there’s such thing as an “ordinary” Canadian. Because there isn’t, anymore than there’s such a definable thing as “Canadian arts” or “the Canadian economy.”

Mr. Harper: Canadian arts, the economy, and Canadians themselves are complex things, not reducible to single lines in a budget as you would have the electorate believe. Try expanding your mind a little.