The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

Budget 2016: A First Step

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IN ONE OF THE FUNNIER EPISODES OF THIS MANIC BUDGET WEEK, host Ellen DeGeneres aired a segment showing Canada’s response to the threat of Americans moving up here to escape Donald Trump, titled, “We’re nice, but we’re not that nice.” You can view it here.

The reality is that we might be even nicer at the moment. During an American election season revealing far deeper divisions in the electorate than many realized, this week’s federal budget couldn’t set a more different tone. It was breathtaking in its own way, covering everything from deep investment in Indigenous Peoples to seasonal Employment Insurance programs, from tackling nagging infrastructure shortfalls to invigorating benefits for children and seniors, from beginning to make right the abiding gaps in veteran’s care to opening a new front on fighting climate change. Yes, it has its detractors, but even they were energized by its comprehensiveness.

It’s scope was made possible by the government’s willingness to go into deficit by almost $30 billion to pay for it (almost three times more than the Liberals campaigned on). Many voiced alarm at such a significant dip into the red, but, as this graph points out, we have been in worse situations before. CeMDjJGUYAA3AdK

Following a decade of austerity, many Canadians are hoping for more investment in our social way of life. While both the Conservatives and NDP ran on balanced budget platforms in the last election, Trudeau’s Liberals put it out there that they believed the time had come for some deficit spending in significant proportions. Those who didn’t take to that outlook nevertheless had to come to terms with a Liberal win, empowered by over two million more voters who agreed with the approach.

Just as our neighbours to the south flirted with a less tolerant future, Canada was banking on more inclusiveness. It’s not the first time we showed a certain economic defiance. When in the 1950s we refused to link our currency with the U.S. dollar, as other nations were doing, alarms bells sounded across the nation as we permitted our currency to float independently. We not only survived; we thrived. And when the great rush to deregulate banks helped to drive forward the global austerity agenda, Canada refused and was able to escape the worst of the Great Recession as a consequence.

Whatever opinion one might have of this budget, there is no question that it represents a clear departure from the same old, same old economic policies of recent years – policies that implied we couldn’t afford to strive for our greatest ideals. It was a rationale used by both previous Liberal and Conservative governments to rationalize some of our greatest social and economic ills like lackadaisical environmental reforms, growing poverty, high unemployment, and deep infrastructure decline. Trudeau didn’t just reason that Canadians were tired of underperforming; he ran on that hunch in his election platform, receiving a clear mandate in the process. Rather ironically, it was the very kind of investment plan that even the once draconian International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been supporting.

In many ways were are staking a claim, investing in ourselves and some of our deeper instincts of fairness and equity. The government believed we were ready for it and presented a budget largely to match.

There is just one problem. The budget is one country’s attempt to somewhat swim against the current of a greatly dysfunctional global financial system. All that was wrong with global inequities still remains in place both before and after the Canada’s recent budget. Trudeau is banking on growth to eventually pay back our deficits, but it will take more – much more. Canada must assist the rest of the world, not by mere example, but by articulate and dynamic financial leadership to reverse decades of elitism and the kind of globalization the placed the free market system and not democratic citizenry at the helm of human advancement.

A number of years ago, then Senator Joe Biden made a revealing observation: “Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” This week the Trudeau government did exactly that. But it’s only the beginning. Changing the very nature of our global economies is now the next great step.

Can Canada Afford Its Dreams? Follow the Money

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IT’S BUDGET DAY, AND ONGOING POLLING SPEAKS to significant amounts of support for the new Trudeau government. The new PM himself has hinted that he is prepared to help lead a reinvigorated progressive movement internationally. It’s still early days, but it’s difficult to deny that the initial impressions of Justin Trudeau internationally have been favourable.

To be one of the leaders of global progress, however, Trudeau has to show that his ideas work at home, and on this particular budget day that will be a tall order. We’ll hear the usual spin from politicians, economists, media pundits, and interest groups on the budget’s effects. People will debate the size of the proposed deficit, the effectiveness of investment in infrastructure, and how Canada has to get its productivity moving again.

Yet, as with the recent meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, all this maneuvering will be taking place against a backdrop of staggering global financial inequity. Just as in Davos, where the world’s elite heard directly from Oxfam that 62 people now control over half the world’s wealth (more than the poorest 3.5 billion people), Canada has to come to terms with the harsh reality that much of the great wealth created in this country goes to fewer and fewer people. While today’s budget will mostly involve tinkering, it’s likely that the fundamental flaws on inequity on how we handle our finances will go unaddressed.

Oxfam’s revealing study was the work of Deborah Hardoon, Sophia Ayele, and Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva. One of their main subjects of research was the increasing disconnect between workers and their earnings. In advanced nations, like Canada, the national income going to workers is falling, while that going to owners and elite executives is growing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us who have watched average wages remain stagnant at the same as corporate profits mushroom.

In the poorer countries, the same trend continues. Between 1990 and 2010, in many developing nations learned that some 40% of their workforce saw their wages grow more slowly than the national average – a tragic reality that left 200 million people mired in abject poverty despite the growing wealth of their respective nations.

Then came the intriguing revelation in the Oxfam report that $8 trillion dollars of global generated wealth remained untaxed because it was diverted to offshore savings accounts. Much of this was from countries like Canada and the United States – revenue that could have been put towards alleviating poverty or increased worker wages in advanced nations. This has remained the financial backdrop for successive Canadian governments.

We’d be making a great mistake to assume that this vast inequity in our wealth is only taking place in poorer regions of the world. It’s a reality that continues to cripple worker wages in Canada and to rob citizens of the vital investments required to prepare ourselves for a fairer economic future. Canada was built upon the model of effective wealth sharing – the only method possible to adequately manage such a large nation with a relatively small population.

This is crucible working its way through the global financial system at the time that Canada’s new government is laying out its first budget. To lead a global progressive movement means to come face-to-face with this one great conundrum: how to work toward income equality when the financial trends are heading the other way, burgeoning the gap between the rich and the poor? Countries shouldn’t become victims of their own wealth, but, indeed, be liberated by it. Budget 2016 is likely to be more about the former than the latter.

It will take a remarkable amount of courage, ingenuity, and popular support to lead a global movement that will reverse current trends. Mr. Trudeau has some time to develop that leadership by showing that it works at home. People in Canada and around the world are dissatisfied following a decade or more of austerity and the lack of investment in people and in the planet. They are eager for change and it’s this reality that has provided a window for progressivism to take on its onerous task. But should we tinker, the downward slide will continue, affirming Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s observation: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey. Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

The Future Is No Longer A Gift

Contestants compete in an early round during the 6th Annual LG US National Texting Championship August 8, 2012 in New York's Times Square. A 16-year-old boy retained his title as America's fastest texter Wednesday in a duel of the thumbs staged before yelling fans on New York's Times Square. Austin Weirschke took home $50,000 prize money for the second time in two years when he bested 10 other texting demons in feats of thumb speed, memory and fluency in texting shorthand. One round was performed with the remaining contestants blindfolded and having 45 seconds to type the verse: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky." The event, sponsored by LG Electronics and using the company's cell phones, took place on a traffic island in Times Square. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

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Note:  This post is also available to view on National Newswatch here.

BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED ON A GENERATIONAL SEA CHANGE in politics and government. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is riding its crest. The American president’s agenda eventually came up against an angry partisan opposition, remaining somewhat unfulfilled. The new Canadian prime minister’s policies have yet to sail through choppy waters.

When the two leaders summited in Washington D.C. last week, there was the unmistakable sense that something new was brewing and that the brief moment in the sun between Obama’s retirement and Trudeau’s arrival was a kind of passing of the torch. But behind each of these men emerged a new social and political force that will make our tomorrow, for better or worse, unlike our present age of democratic underperformance.

For the first time, the abiding and somewhat lackluster political imagination of the Baby Boomers is formidably matched by the Millennial generation – those born from the mid-1980s onwards. We should have noted by now that the key trait of this new political reality is decidedly progressive. Like Trudeau and Obama they view the public estate through a centre to centre-left lens. How else can we explain the massive success of Bernie Sanders with young voters in the American primaries, or Trudeau’s enlistment of over two million new or re-engaged voters in the past federal election? Things are not only changing in both countries, but are transformational in their effect.

Naturally there are many of the younger generation that ascribe to the conservative agenda, but they are the exception, not the rule. Everything else among the Millennials is about a social and economic shifting of gears – the mobilization of the public spirit.

This new force demands transparency over backroom deals, authenticity over authority, social inclusion over historic stereotypes and practices. And unlike their predecessors, who systematically tolerated, even promoted, the shrinking and paucity of the public estate, the Millennials envision a strategic place for government in their collective future. In their own way they are angry, frustrated that two nations that produce more wealth than at any other time in their history would permit so much of it to be frittered away in the pursuit and practice of a narrowing capitalism.

What else should we expect? They face stiffer unemployment than their predecessors, are saddled with unacceptably high student loans, and have watched their wages either stagnate or shrink. They largely played by the rules, went to university or colleges in record numbers in order to secure well-paying jobs to secure their future – the same pattern their parents had employed and enjoyed. Except it didn’t work out for them, or for their respective countries.

And so they are playing the hand they have been dealt with, pressing for environmental renewal, for capitalism with a heart, for a politics that actually includes constituents, and governments that reflect their diverse communities. They shake their heads at a political architecture that still can’t work out wage parity between men and women. They reflect in wonder how countries so resourced and rich can tolerate yawning gaps between the rich and the poor. And they double-down in anger over a political class that has stood by and watched as dignity has been stripped out of hard work.

This new political force has now arrived – revolutionaries, not reactionaries. They want meaning and inclusiveness and they expect their politics and governments to fight for both. They aren’t so much a volatile force as a moral one, and they have the scars to prove it. They are no longer the future we frequently patronize, but the living, breathing present we must now accommodate.

Only months prior to his assassination, Bobby Kennedy made a remarkable observation while addressing a crowd, one that perfectly challenged his generation: “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.” Fewer observations capture what’s going on right now in politics. Gone are the days when by simply by following a time-honoured agenda that the wealth and individual choices of the future would simply unfold for us. We are living in an era where we must fight back to reclaim the public space, where we get out to vote to change politics itself, and where we link money with meaning again. This is the era which gave us Obama and which propels Justin Trudeau. The recent meetings of the leaders in Washington weren’t so much about the affability of their relationship as this new reality of sacrifice in politics that put them in their lofty positions in the first place. Far from just electing change, this new generation wants to jointly build it.

Canada-U.S. Relations: Rising Tides

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CANADA VISITS THE WHITE HOUSE this week and behind all the glitz and glamour naturally produced by two leaders who effectively know how to work a crowd are issues that will take a lot more than popularity to address. We’ll consider some of these in the next few posts, starting with perhaps our greatest challenge.

Both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama got lots of press at the Paris climate change summit last November. They got along well and agreed the time had come to raise the game between the two nations regarding climate change. The buzz from the agreement still moved through the streets of the great French city when I was there in January.

But while all this is going on, environmental decline is picking up pace whether or not some kind of effective global response can be worked out. World leaders were reminded of this in Paris when they got a quick briefing on sea-level rise. In a little over a century (1901 – 2010), the level of our oceans climbed roughly seven inches. Things have changed so dramatically that it has become difficult to predict what the next 100 years will look like.

The last time our planet reached the levels of warming it has today – roughly 300,000 years ago – sea levels rose 20-30 feet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is now reaching similar temperatures by 2100. The Panel concludes that within the next 100 years sea levels will rise 3-4 feet. Unknown is what will transpire when the West Antarctic ice sheet melts. The best guess is that water levels will rise 11 feet if and when that happens.

That’s a small portion of the data, but the real issue will become the human cost. Columbia University professor Maureen Raymo put it bluntly: “I don’t think 10 years ago scientists realized just how quickly the potential for rapid sea level rise was.” The effects on places like the Florida Keys or Chesapeake Bay will be devastating, but the ultimate tragedy will play out in the developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The United Nations estimates that some tens of millions of climate change refugees will be the ultimate result of people who can no longer live in their historic coastal homes and who, with precious little resources, will begin to move across borders in search of security and survival.

Every day we have witnessed the pressure placed upon European nations of refugee numbers out of control. Serious as it is, the appearance of millions of Syrian refugees on the world scene is only a harbinger of what will arise once the environmental refugees begin to make their migrations.

In perhaps a sad bit of irony, Trudeau and Obama will enjoy a state dinner and numerous other formal venues at the same time that a significant citizen revolt is underway in both the Democratic and the Republican parties – people have had enough. Canada, while hardly pushed to the political extremes experienced at present by their southern neighbour, nevertheless voted for their own desire for change only a few months ago. But unless the two administrations can move quickly into emergency mode, everything runs the danger of image without substance.

Both political leaders are overseeing a political estate in various levels of turbulence and must confront the economic devastation of global capitalism that is about to be matched by environmental devastation. This is not the time for mere policy discussion between two neighbouring friendly nations who just happen to share the largest unprotected border in the world. If we can’t get it together, all the silverware, photo ops, and political bargaining will come to mean little.

We are facing the greatest challenge of this or any other time, with climate change threatening our very survival. As both capitalism and the environment create such massive fallout, it is time for friends to become compatriots in the task of saving democracy and the planet in these most precious of moments.

No doubt the Obama-Trudeau gatherings will be a photographer’s dream, but something serious, really serious, must go on behind the glitter. Best to follow W. Somerset Maugham’s advice: “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” The time for serious work is upon us.  That’s what friends do in times of seismic challenge.

Transcending Cynicism

This blog post is also available at National Newswatch here.

“SCRATCH ANY CYNIC AND YOU WILL FIND a disappointed idealist,” comedian George Carlin said during an interview. We are watching this play out in the American election season, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have plumbed a motherlode of disenchaumudunu_kaybetmentment on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters of both candidates continue to cry out that they want their country back and their leader is just the person to do it.

In the modern era, those seeking election have learned that it’s possible to create something of a political movement by speaking to the despair of citizens, and there’s a point to it. Globally, politics has increasingly become a mug’s game – a sad parody of how it doesn’t seem to matter who gets elected because our greatest challenges as humanity remain significantly under-addressed. Whether it’s a lacklustre response to climate change, financial inequality, or a growing kind of collective distemper, the political class seems never quite able to rise to the challenge. This is playing out in real time as we witness the fascinating machinations in the American election.

In Canada, however, cynicism has to some degree been temporarily suspended. Whether the change promised by the Trudeau Liberals will materialize can’t be known for some time yet, but a stubborn sense of optimism has endured in large swaths of the country since Election Day, and, for a time at least, our growing suspicion has been placed on the shelf.

It didn’t start with Trudeau’s victory, but had been emerging over the last few years, for anyone willing to spot the undercurrents. Progressives across Canada began to see movement in 2013, when British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario opted for more activist-minded governments. Cities like Montreal, Mississauga, London, Calgary, and Toronto voted along similar lines. Something was brewing and at its base was the belief that governments could entertain more imaginative policies than mere austerity and restraint. The movement caught on enough that the Postmedia’s Jim Warren would note:

“The stars have finally aligned and have created an opportunity for real change. We are living in political times never experienced before. All of Canada’s major political decision makers are aligned in political ideology.”

Years of political dysfunction and financial restraint had ultimately resulted in a critical mass of the Canadian electorate pining for something more dynamic. In voting with the pen in the ballot box instead of remaining isolated in their detached cynicism, citizens were confirming they were capable of transcending their pessimism in order to be part of the change they sought.

And so progressive leaders and parties have the levers of power at their disposal. Will it be sufficient to restore hope in what Canada can accomplish? The answer is no. Change has come because Canadians pressed and voted for it, with progressive politics benefitting as a result. The cumulative intervention of citizens on politics in the last few years is what changed our political dynamic in Canada, not the other way around.

Elections don’t change us so much as they reveal us. Like our cousins south of the border we wanted something more hopeful. Yet enough Canadians were willing to transcend their learned cynicism to at least create the possibility of a different future. In putting aside our collective pessimism we affirmed what Sufi mystic Rumi concluded: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”

Will Canadians remain engaged enough to shape their governments towards the change they seek? If not, cynicism is never far off and it won’t take much to tarnish our ideals. The political order has caught the wave, but without citizens paying attention it won’t be able to ride it to completion, whatever the goal may be. The next few years will be just as much a test of citizenship as of politics, and democracy will only flourish as both remain engaged in a partnership robust enough to overcome our main challenges.

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