Tuesday, October 17, 2017

And on it Goes: European Political Struggles

It's difficult to cast an eye to the European news lately and garner much sense of optimism. I should declare at the outset that I am no expert on Europe and only approach the subject as an observer. That said, reading recent headlines out of the continent are certainly enough to give pause.

Last week I wrote about Catalonia and the political instability of Spain. A few weeks before that it was discussion of the rise of the AfD, a far right party, in Germany. Now, we have fresh stories out of the UK on its struggles with Brexit and the growing leadership challenge for Prime Minister Theresa May and far right victories in Austria. This does not make a rosy picture for Europe. While the situation is not as dire as that immediately following the economic collapse years ago, all the following events stem from that time to a certain degree.

The Catalonian situation remains a mess. Conflict continues between the central government in Madrid and secessionists. The constitutional court ruled the referendum illegal, but this will likely only spur divisions between separatists and unionists. Leadership on the Catalan side has been jailed. Surely this escalation would only result in worse outcomes.

Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is struggling to hold her party together and complete Brexit negotiations. The UK is less than 18 months away from being booted from the EU if they don't get a new deal in place. May suffers in the negotiations because of divisions within her own government. Conservatives cannot agree on the form of Brexit which is undermine British negotiations. May could be forced to drop Brexit, but who knows if such a thing would be possible anymore?

Austria's right-wing People's Party and Freedom Party made concerning gains in the most recent election earlier this week. The party will form government after running an anti-immigration, and anti-immigrant platform. The Freedom Party won second and has been a long-standing far right-wing party in Austria. Austria narrowly avoided this outcome in their presidential elections not long before, but it seems the voters of Austria are willing to give the new right a shot.

Looking at the last few weeks alone has been unpleasant for Europe. In Canada it would be quite easy to sit back and ignore what's happening across the Atlantic. However, it is always useful to be aware of trends, especially in some of the globe's largest economies and our closest allies.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Worth Reading - October 12, 2017

Strong Towns looks at the word 'gentrification' and its shortcomings as a term in our discourse. 

PM Trudeau tries to move the Trump White House on NAFTA, but pleas may be falling on deaf ears

Journalist, writer and activist Desmond Cole is considering a bid to be Toronto's next mayor. 

Heading towards the 2018 municipal election the city of Toronto is adjusting its ward boundaries

Ontario's Financial Accountability Officer is warning about the province's debt and budget deficits

Paul Wells weighs in on Trudeau's tax reforms

Elamin Abdelmahmoud tells you why some of us have to pay higher taxes

Supriya Dwivedi writes that Jagmeet Singh's team needs to brush up on their communications tactics

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Catalonia: Breaking Countries and Making Nations

We may soon bear witness to the birth of a new country. Spain has a fractured and difficult modern history, which includes violent separatist movements. Recently the Catalan region held a referendum on the question of its independence. Like make such referenda the history behind this is long and not easy to summarize, but where this referendum differs from Scotland, Quebec, etc. is that it succeeded.

Catalan's regional President Carles Puigdemont is expected to declare independence for his region soon. Puigdemont is in a difficult position as he moves forward. Hardliners within his governing coalition will expect a unilateral declaration, but this will impact any future negotiations. Another important difference was that the referendum vote was held without the consent of the Spanish government. Spanish police forces attempted to prevent voting on October 1st which resulted in violence.

These questions are inevitably difficult as they dive into questions of loyalty and identity. Despite the animosity between Catalans and the central government, is it still possible to be proud to be Spanish and Catalan at the same time, or to reconcile these differences? Add into the fact that Spain has spent the last ten years struggling with its economy and debt and the risk of disintegration only grows. Especially in the case of Spain it is important to note that there are other regions agitating for greater autonomy or independence. Principally the Basque come to mind.

Since Spain has not recognized the referendum it has threatened to suspend Catalonia's self-government it makes further moves towards independence. While I don't think there is enough suggestion that we are at this stage, there is a very real risk of civil violence if not civil war in Spain. The legitimacy of the vote is in question, not only because of suppression by the central government, but also because only 43% of the electorate turned out to vote. The Catalan government claims that 90% of voters supported independence.

I suppose in the coming weeks and months the only certainty is uncertainty. It will be very difficult to close this particular Pandora's box and it is just as likely that accepting this dubious referendum will cause just as many problems as accepting it. Spain is not unique in this regard. Many countries have defined, distinct regions, cultures, or nations within their boundaries. Divorcing these areas and bodies from the central state is as complicated as it is messy. Catalonia may provide an object lesson on the difficulties of this process, but the lesson may be costly for Europe as a whole at a time when it can scarcely afford it.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Worth Reading - October 5, 2017

The India Times wrote a piece on Jagmeet Singh's win, but raises issues between Singh and the Indian government

Chantal Hebert argues that the biggest loser of the NDP leadership race was Charlie Angus

Noah Richler reflects on the NDP and Tom Mulcair

Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns takes a swing at the culture of regulation, certification and licenses. 

Adam Ruins Everything looks at the intersection between race and the suburbs and how they perpetuate racial inequality. 

Strong Towns talks about biking in difficult urban conditions

In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas I found it difficult to process the event. I have grown very weary of the tired tropes that define these conversations. So, I'd like to share this piece from Salon on the masking of these shootings as mental illness and denying terrorism committed by white men

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jagmeet Singh and the New NDP

Disclosure: I voted for Guy Caron to lead the NDP in the recent leadership contest. 

This week marks an important moment in Canadian political history. As far as I know Jagmeet Singh is the first non-white leader of a federal party, and among the first in the country. The British Columbia NDP and Quebec Solidaire have had non-white leaders prior to this selection. 

There can be no doubt Singh represents a radical departure from Tom Mulcair. Mulcair represented competent, prosecutorial, experienced leadership. Trudeau bested Mulcair and the NDP by seizing the mantle of "change". New Democrats have decidedly selected the most Trudeau-like option among the leadership candidates on offer. Few challenge the narrative that Singh is a young, handsome, stylish man. He is also intelligent and has an impressive resume, but lacks experience in government and has none at all at the federal level. However, he has displayed a certain 'mass' appeal.

Singh certainly appealed to a group of supporters: urban progressives, young people, Torontonians, and suburbanites - especially Punjabi and Sikh voters. During the campaign there can be little denial that he received substantial endorsements from members of the party representing different constituencies.

Let's put aside how Singh won. Instead let's consider how this impacts the party's fortunes going forward.

The NDP is at a crossroads. For all the handwringing about 2015 it was the second best result in the party's history at 44 seats. It was a drop from the over 100 in 2011, but still significant for a party that spent the preceding decade plus in the political wilderness. The question comes now if the NDP will be relegated back to third party status, or, rise to Official Opposition or government.

Samara's research, if memory serves, says that the leader determines people's votes more often than the local candidate so he will impact support for the NDP across the country in some way. That impact, of course, is unlikely to be uniform. Most assume, I think fairly, that Singh could lead to a surge of support for the NDP in suburban areas, particularly with large South Asian populations. That is not to say all brown-skinned voters will support Singh, but the prospect of the first Indo-Canadian Prime Minister will certainly engage some voters. Seats in Brampton, Mississauga, Halton, Surrey, Edmonton, etc. could flip to the NDP in 2019.

But Singh's race is a double-edged sword, I am sad to say. I fear his skin and religion will turn off voters elsewhere in the country. We cannot pretend, especially since 2015, that racial prejudice is dead. In Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, and their environs race may help more than it hurts, but it could easily cut in places like Southwestern Ontario, the north of the provinces, etc. This needn't explicitly be about bigotry, it could merely be voters feeling less able to connect with Singh given cultural differences. I don't mean to cast aspersions on my fellow Canadians, but comfort with a non-white, turbaned Sikh is in question.

Then there is Quebec. While I'm certain the racial dynamic is also at play, more important may be secularism. Ujjal Dosanjh, former BC Premier and MP, and many elected Sikhs tone down their religiosity. Though, to be fair, many, such as Navdeep Bains, are turbaned Sikhs. Singh decidedly does not tone down his faith. His very nature could repel the soft-nationalist voters that the NDP won over during the last few elections that created the larger seat totals in 2011 and 2015.

An NDP with strength in cities and suburbs is a radical departure from the past political calculus. Weakness in rural areas and northern areas may offer fresh opportunities to the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc. Perhaps even the Green could find an advantage on Vancouver Island.

As one of the most important political leaders in Canada Jagmeet Singh is both a reflection of Canada and Canada will in kind respond to him. The fortunes of the NDP and our politics rides on his shoulders as he shapes the new NDP.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Worth Reading - September 28, 2017

Strong Towns takes a look at the word 'blight' in terms of its use in discussing urban issues

Guy Caron sits down with the National Post to discuss his leadership campaign for the NDP. 

From the Tyee, instant memberships undermines the leadership campaigns

Adam Radwanski writes about the NDP's difficulties in Quebec

Samara Canada recently opened its Everyday Political Citizen contest. If you know someone deserving of a nomination for what they give back to their political community, nominate them!

In a move that baffles the mind, there is a move to name a stadium after deceased former Mayor Rob Ford

Chantal Hebert writes on the proposed tax changes by the federal government. 

Martin Regg Cohn writes about the connection between the provincial government and precarious employment

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Considering Free Speech

There is a subject that has been troubling me. I won't pretend the 21st century is unique in facing illiberal political movements, but I live in this historic moment and feel compelled to note the links between a harder line left and the new right and the difficulty liberal democracies may be facing moving into the future. This post is partially spurred on the German election results, where the AfD gained significantly in the parliament. There have been moments in modern history where polarization in between extremes fractures the polity and wrecks the centre.

In the face of this how do liberal societies defend themselves from those who would use their principles to undermine them?

Today I want to narrow today's topic to the freedom of speech. A liberal, at core, would  not like to limit people's speech. The liberal position says that we need strong justification to curtail anyone's right. Libel laws or harmful speech (fire in the theatre) are obvious restrictions. For classical liberals restrictions are difficult decisions and they prefer to err on the side of speech.

Speech works if we can rely on some basic ground rules. However, the evidence abounds that lies and mischaracterizations spread like wild fire while the truth plods along. Liberal ideals are undone by the most basic human instincts, instincts which are all the easier to embrace in the digital sphere. Enter the era of "fake news." Even beyond the political, lies or misleading headlines stand at equal heights of fact. People are increasingly unable to filter information meaningfully. Look no further than the misinformation on vaccines to see how muddled and mired we are.

As a liberal-minded person I have to concede my discomfort with these sources of "information" or confirmation bias, but I'm not at all comfortable with interfering with these forms of speech.

Then there is hate speech. Here two sides of my thinking war with one another. Speech matters. It shapes thinking and attitudes. Calls for violence are illegal, and I think most can agree are reasonable restrictions for public speech. However, calls for violence are common on the internet and this speech is not curtailed in any substantial way. The debate then goes to what constitutes hate speech. Most people are canny enough to mask their racist rhetoric, or cloak it in policy language. Distrust of Muslims is cloaked in anti-refugee, terrorism, and geopolitics. Anti-black racism is buried in conversations on crime, poverty, and urban culture broadly. the coarse dialog (or rants) of the internet now infect our real world life. Things not uttered in 'polite society' are now bellowed proudly.

Liberalism is a modernist idea and relies on reason, rationalism, and truth. How does it operate in a world where half-truths and lies rule, or at least easily remain on par?

The current debate of free speech is rather odious, in my opinion. Progressive voices seek to silence certain forms of speech deemed inappropriate. It has a streak I find deeply troubling. Protest to disrupt speakers, regulating the use of language, and the bevy of terms to police language seem to belittle real oppression for the sake of bourgeoisie sensitivities of the intelligentsia. To be clear, I am not joining the ranks complaining about all silly university antics.

The right has corrupted free speech as a notion to its own purposes. In reaction to the left they now claim free speech. However, free speech is increasingly used as coded language for expressing racist, bigoted opinions free of consequences.

the last few years has helped to demonstrate to me the power of language. Leaving some to routine abuse by those trying to assert historic dominance makes me uneasy. That said I'm not sure I'd comfortable regulating speech. But speech can be used to undermine a liberal society. Critics may answer the solution is more speech, but I fear there are growing indications that those that seek to distort our polities are fighting with guns while liberals only have knives. This thought is one that worries me.