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Small Earthquake in Canada, Not Many Hurt

6 December 2008

Small Earthquake in Canada, Not Many Hurt

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Small earthquake in Chile, not many hurt” is legendary in journalistic circles as the most boring headline of all time. Well, there has just been a very small political earthquake in Canada, leaving no visible casualties at all. So why did 77 percent of Canadians who were polled on the subject last week say that they were “truly frightened” for the future of the country?

Canada is the safest country on the planet. It is best placed of all the G-8 countries to weather the coming recession: its governments over the past decade consistently produced small budget surpluses and paid the national debt down. It is far enough north to be largely immune to the negative effects of climate change. It has no dangerous neighbours, and no borders under pressure from refugees. Maybe Canadians were just bored.

The man who shook Canadians out of their boredom and gave them the opportunity to be outraged and scared is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a politician so hyper-partisan that he is widely believed to lie awake at night dreaming up new ways to humiliate and crush the opposition parties.

Harper has never actually persuaded Canadians to give his Conservative Party a majority in parliament, but in government he has always behaved as if his minority were a majority, defying the divided and under-funded opposition parties to unite against him and risk an election they would probably lose. Last October he forced an early election himself, and sure enough the Conservatives increased their seats in parliament – but not enough to form a majority government.

Nothing daunted, Harper ignored the parliamentary mathematics and launched a headlong attack on all the opposition parties at once. In an “interim budget statement” late last month, he announced that he was cancelling the federal subsidies, calculated on the basis of how many people voted for each party, that keep the opposition parties in business.

The Conservatives, like the Obama Democrats in the United States, have perfected the art of raising funds directly from their supporters, and have little need of federal subsidies. Perhaps the other parties should have done the same, but they didn’t. If the subsidies were suddenly withdrawn, they faced insolvency. It was typical of Harper’s aggressive tactics, but untypical in its sheer stupidity.

By threatening the three opposition parties with political extinction, Harper forced them to unite and take him down – which they had the parliamentary numbers to do. Within days the Liberals and the New Democrats had formed a coalition and got a pledge of support for eighteen months from the Bloc Quebecois. (The BQ did not join the coalition since it is a nationalist party that is dedicated to taking Quebec out of the Canadian federation, but BQ leader Gilles Duceppe promised to support the coalition on money bills and other confidence measures where defeat would bring it down.)

At this point Harper tried to pull out of his kamikaze dive, withdrawing his plan to end subsidies to political parties and several other proposals that had deeply annoyed the opposition parties, but it was too late. Asked if Harper’s concessions would make him reconsider his support for the coalition, Gilles Duceppe replied tartly: “If my grandmother had wheels, she would be a tractor.”

Having been scorned and brutalized by Harper for years, the opposition now had the bit between their teeth, and insisted that they would vote the Conservatives out as soon as parliament reconvened. So Harper refused to reconvene parliament, first postponing it for a week until December 8 and then persuading or bullying Governor-General Michaelle Jean into “proroguing” (i.e. adjourning) it for almost two months. Liberal MP Justin Trudeau compared it to “pulling the fire alarm before going into an exam you know you’re going to fail.”

Harper will spend the next two months waging a demagogic propaganda caampaign damning the ‘unholy” Liberal alliance with the “socialist” New Democrats (most of whom would fit comfortably into the left wing of the Democratic Party in the US) and the “separatist” Bloc Quebecois (which never mentions the word separatism these days, since that option is virtually dead in Quebec).

He may succeed in poisoning the wells as he retreats, but he still faces a parliamentary confidence vote in late January or early February. If the coalition does not break up in the meantime, he will still lose. Which matters scarcely at all.

Canada is not in an economic crisis. Its economy is still growing (unlike that of the United States), and the Bank of Montreal recently predicted that unemployment would only rise to 7.5 percent next year (from the current 6.2 percent). Any emergency economic measures that are needed will merely be to align the Canadian response with that of the incoming Obama administration in the United States, Canada’s biggest trading partner. They would be about the same whether the Conservatives or the new coalition were in power.

It is a very small earthquake, and nothing has been hurt except people’s feelings. Still, it will help to keep the blood flowing during the long Canadian winter.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (Canada — bored”; and (“At this point — tractor”)

Extreme Climate and Extreme Politics

4 September 2007

Extreme Climate and Extreme Politics

By Gwynne Dyer

“How are our children going to survive in a land that is dead?” asked a survivor of the wildfires that seared much of southern Greece during the last week of August. Six thousand homes and four million olive trees burned, half the forests of Greece gone, and sixty-four people dead is a huge loss, and in the carbonised landscapes of the Peleponnese it is hard to imagine that people will ever live there again. But what nobody saw coming was the political fall-out: this may be the first time that a government falls because of climate change.

When the centre-right government of Costas Karamanlis called an early election last month after only three years in office, it had a comfortable lead in the opinion polls and was cruising towards a certain victory. The fires changed all that, shaking people’s trust in the competence not just of the government but of the established parties in general. In the last published opinion polls (Greek law bans polls in the last two weeks before the September 16 election), neither Karamanlis’s New Dermocracy nor the centre-left opposition party, PASOK, had even forty percent of the vote.

The beneficiaries were the extreme right Laos party, a normally marginal group preaching nationalism, hatred of immigrants and Orthodox Christianity (its posters urge all Greeks to unite as “one fist”), and the equally fringe party of the hard left called Syriza. Neither party is represented in the present parliament, since they could not clear the legal threshold of three percent of the popular vote.

They are both very likely to be in the next parliament — and if the two major parties end up more or less tied, as seems probable, extremists of one sort or another will be able to extort a high political price in return for agreeing to support a coalition government.

Obviously, we can’t just extrapolate from this single example and say that climate disasters lead to a polarisation and radicalisation of politics, but this is a phenomenon that warrants attention. After a week like the Greeks had, there was bound to be a political reaction, but does it mean anything for other places?

First of all, were these fires really caused by climate change? After all, there were fires of a similar scale in Greece about a century ago, and of course the land did turn green again after a few years. But uncontrollable “megafires” are ceasing to be once-in-a-century events. Another one burned about a quarter of the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands this summer.

There have been comparable megafires in the past few years in France, Portugal, Canada, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil. In the United States, where a forest fire that burned more than 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) was relatively rare twenty years ago, in the past decade there have been more than 200 megafires that burned at least ten times that area. Six of the past ten years have seen the previous US record for the amount of land devastated by forest fires broken.

If this isn’t climate change in full costume dress, it is certainly its first cousin. Temperatures in Greece this summer hit 46 degrees C (115 degrees F), unheard of even ten years ago. In a Mediterranean climate where almost all the rain falls in the winter, this virtually guaranteed massive forest fires.

There is a prima facie case for seeing this as a manifestation of climate change — so what about the political reaction in Greece? It has been ugly on every side.

Karamanlis’s government, having made few preparations for coping with massive fires despite the speed with which the problem has grown in recent years, was slow to respond to the crisis, and then tried to shift the blame for its failures by claiming that the fires were set by arsonists, saboteurs and terrorists. Its spokesmen rambled on about “assymetrical terrorist threats” and an “organised plan” to destabilise the country, but those Greeks paranoid enough to believe such claptrap did not forgive the New Democrats for their sins. Instead, they promptly shifted their votes to the extremists who promised to “crack down hard” on something or other.

It hardly matters what they crack down on. Minorities and immigrants are usually favoured by the far right, which will probably be the main beneficiary of these events in Greece, but it’s pure symbolism, so the actual target doesn’t matter. Any outsider or foreigner will do.

Now envisage a world where climate change is really hitting hard. The Mississippi delta, various Pacific islands and a good deal of Bangladesh are disappearing beneath the waves. The Amazon is burning, the monsoon has failed for the third successive year in the Indian sub-continent, and Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey are turning into deserts. Will people and governments be sweetly reasonable, seeking collaborative ways to cope with a shared international disaster?

Sure they will. Just as soon as they have shot down all the flying pigs.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“If this…fires”; and”It hardly…do”)

NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: “Pigs may fly” is a common English expression meaning something that is extremely imptobable.