Monday, October 13, 2008

A Better Strategic Vote

For much of my adult life, I have been a reluctant "strategic voter." Indeed, I was voting strategically before I ever heard the term used in the popular media. You see, I live in a neighbourhood where the progressive choice in federal elections has usually been the Liberal candidate, while the progressive choice in provincial elections has been the New Democratic Party candidate. So while my natural political affinity has been for the NDP, and while I have almost always voted NDP provincially, I have cast several Liberal ballots in federal elections, especially when John Harvard was the member of parliament for the western part of Winnipeg.

That changed when John Harvard retired from parliament upon his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba. In the ensuing three elections, the Liberal party decided to run parachute candidates who had little or nothing to do with this part of Winnipeg before they decided to seek to represent it in parliament. First there was Glen Murray, whom I had supported as mayor of Winnipeg but who proved to be less progressive in office than I had hoped and who seemed ambivalent towards the suburbs, where I happen to live. Then there was John Loewen, who resigned as a Conservative member of the provincial legislature to seek the federal seat as a Liberal. I thought to myself, "If we really want a Conservative MP, why wouldn't people just vote for the Conservative candidate?" This election, the Liberals nominated Bob Friesen, who has found this urban constituency a more promising field as a Liberal than the rural riding from which he comes. So, for three elections now, I have voted for the NDP candidate in a constituency where the Liberals were once contenders.

The Liberals could have seduced a vote from me, though, since I cannot fathom the thought of another Conservative government under Stephen Harper. Nor do I relish the thought of once again being represented in Ottawa by the reactionary Steven Fletcher. Now, I'll confess that I belonged briefly to the Progressive Conservative party when I was a teenager, in the days when the party was led federally by Robert Stanfield and provincially by Sidney Spivak, two of the most decent persons ever to serve as leaders of any party. In those days, the Progressive Conservatives were so genuinely progressive, it seems, that Stephen Harper belonged to his high school's Young Liberals Club! (Hmmm, maybe we could appear together on Trading Places!) I gave up on the Progressive Conservative party during my first year at university, when it became clear that the Red Tory tradition had been displaced by American-style neoconservative economics and a reactionary social agenda.

I'm so anxious to replace the Harper government that I might have loaned my vote to the Liberal candidate this time if Stéphane Dion and his party hadn't sent me so many signals that they weren't interested in having it. Dion has stuck doggedly to the platform he and his party crafted before the current global financial crisis, blissfully indifferent to rapidly changing conditions and stubbornly resistent to modifying their plans in response. Then there was Dion's embarrassing CTV interview, which he has tried to spin as a simple misunderstanding of the question, although it seems more likely that it was a very public illustration of his own impatience, anxiety and stubbornness. But the one thing that has made me glad, in hindsight, that I didn't cast a Liberal vote was Dion's insistance that he would not enter into a coalition with the NDP in the event that a progressive coalition could replace the Conservative government. In other words, Stéphane Dion effectively declared that, short of a Liberal majority, a vote for the Liberals would serve to maintain the Conservatives in office. The Liberal caucus has already voted with the Conservative government too often and I don't care to encourage them to continue the pattern.

So I voted strategically in the advance poll, but my strategy has changed! This year, I committed myself to a longer-term strategy, which stands to produce positive results in future years, if not necessarily in 2008. I cast my vote entusiastically for the local NDP candidate, Fiona Shiells, a personable, intelligent and articulate young women who would make a wonderful member of parliament. I am confident that Fiona has a long and promising political career before her. As significantly, though, I've decided that the only feasible strategy for the future is to contribute to the NDP's national strength, so that the day will come when New Democrats replace the Liberals as the official opposition and, from that base, go on to form the government. The time has come for a fundamental political realignment in Canada, since the Liberals have seemingly abdicated governing to their Conservative rivals.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Retire Stephen Harper Now!

In recent weeks, I have watched the value of my retirement savings plan decline by 22% and I know that many of you find yourselves in a similar position. In a society where the self-indulgent have been driven by conspicuous consumption, many of us have saved for our future well-being while investing with confidence in the health of the Canadian economy. We are the real "conservatives," in a sense, irrespective of the different political parties we may support. I'm not complaining, nor do I despair, since I know I'm in good company -- we are all in this together.

But I was incensed to read about a flip comment that was recently uttered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is asking us to let him keep the job at which he has been failing for nearly three years. According to a Bloomberg news report by Greg Quinn, "Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said a recent decline in stock prices may present good buying opportunities. "I expect some good buying opportunities may be opening up," Harper said today in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., prompting interviewer Peter Mansbridge to ask if he really meant to have made such a comment. Harper also said he hasn't looked closely at his retirement savings account since he was elected."

Of course the prime minister hasn't looked closely at his retirement account since he'll be the beneficiary of a generous parliamentary pension -- a benefit I don't begrudge to those MPs who work diligently for the greater good of the country, something that cannot be said about the current prime minister and his cavalier colleagues. Unlike most of the rest of us, Harper doesn't need to worry too much about his retirement, between this undeserved pension and the corporate directorships he'll likely receive from his big business friends! The rest of us can work an extra decade, take a second job, or perhaps beg from our children in retirement, but Prime Minister Harper seems to think he'll do fine when the time comes. So I say let's retire him and his self-serving partisans now!

I've had it with this prime minister's smug indifference to the needs of everyday people, his patronizing and condescending attitude towards those with whom he differs, and his evident fetish for controlling his cabinet and caucus. The Conservatives failed to release their platform until the last week of the campaign, so there would be little time for public scrutiny or critique. With the Canadian economy teetering on the brink, Harper and his colleagues ask us to trust their ideologically-driven economic policy while making light of the losses that Canadian investors have suffered. They just don't care! If Canadians have any collective self-respect, they will vote to retire Stephen Harper from office along with the gaggle of right-wing extremists he leads in parliament.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Sinking My Teeth into the Election

Earlier this evening, I was invited to participate in a public opinion survey related to the federal election on October 14. After half a dozen questions which had nothing at all to do with the election, I stopped the interview and decided to write to the president of the polling company instead. This experience only serves to confirm my suspicion that most public opinion surveys today are meant to mould public opinion rather than reveal it. In this, polling companies have become propaganda machines rather than reliable sources of information. Here's my message ...

Bruce Anderson, President

Harris/Decima Research

Dear Mr. Anderson,

I just finished hanging up on one of your company's representatives, who professed to be conducting a survey on the current Canadian general election but whose initial questions all seemed to be about dentistry. The questions were surprisingly invasive in nature, especially since your firm and I hardly know one another well enough to be on such a mouth-to-mouth basis. This leads me to wonder who was paying for the survey, why the survey was really being conducted, and what possible connection there could be between my dental hygiene and the federal election, unless it's somehow related to the stupid grin the prime minister has been wearing lately.

More significantly, though, the construction of this particular survey leads me to have grave doubts about the statistical integrity and reliability of surveys conducted by your firm. I cannot help but think that the skewed nature of your survey questions will produce skewed results, so that when I see Harris/Decima's name attached to a public opinion poll, I should likely dismiss it out of hand. After all, it can only represent the opinions of those lacking in personal dignity and healthy boundaries, which would have led an emotionally healthy person to hang up on your representative. Frankly, I don't care what such people might think about politics or dentistry.

In the future, when I see competing public opinion surveys reporting wildly different results, I will think of Harris/Decima and its tooth fetish. Obviously, either your firm's management or one of your clients believes there must be a correlation between dental hygiene and voting preferences but I cannot imagine what that might be, unless it's somehow related to the damage that candidates do to their teeth by so often putting their feet in their mouths.

Hmmm ... maybe I should have stayed on the line.


Rev. Stefan M. Jonasson

Friday, August 08, 2008


Summer's only a little more than half over and already I've failed to keep two appointments that I had made. This is as many appointments as I had forgotten in the previous decade -- maybe longer.

The first missed appointment was early in July, when I showed up late for a christening service after having been away at a funeral in Saskatchewan. I was tired after the long drive home and when I got up the next morning, I was so focused on driving up to my cottage, where my family was waiting, that I didn't remember that I had promised to conduct a christening service at one of the churches near my summer home. It was Saturday, which made it easier to forget, since christenings usually occur within the Sunday morning service. The proud parents tracked me down, so the service went ahead -- three hours late. They accommodated the change by having their picnic celebration before, rather than after the ceremony, no doubt fussing to keep the children's clothes free of condiments! They were understanding and accommodating but I felt embarrassed, not to mention sorry for the inconvenience I had caused. They were freely forgiving without having said as much out loud.

Then yesterday, I failed to show up to greet a gaggle of Icelandic tourists who were visiting Winnipeg in the aftermath of Íslendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival of Manitoba. The plan had been that I would walk with them from the Manitoba Museum to The Forks, showing them the site of the first Íslendingadagurinn, held in 1890, and then proceeding to the site where Shanty Town once stood, the first neighbourhood occupied by Icelandic immigrants in the city. Along the way, I was to regale them with tales from the religious life of the immigrants. But I didn't appear at the appointed time, so, after waiting a while, they went on without me. This time I had awakened feeling under the weather after a late night before. (I was writing until the wee hours of the morning, not drinking as your overactive imagination might have guessed! My life is mostly pretty dull by today's standards.) Anyway, I didn't feel too well when I got up, so I went back to bed without checking my calendar and slept the day away. It didn't help that I had been scheduled to be on vacation this week, so my appointment book was far from reach ... and even farther from my mind. The tour leader tried rousing me on my cell phone but the ringer was off! This time, I discovered my oversight too late to correct matters. I dashed off a quick email before breakfast this morning and later called the tour organizer, apologizing profusely because I felt genuinely terrible about the whole matter. She understood the situation and said, "We forgive you."

"We forgive you?" I hadn't even asked but it was nice to know. We live in a pretty unforgiving culture, so her words were especially comforting and reassuring when I was feeling so badly. It's not that it hadn't mattered, it's just that I didn't need to keep flogging myself about it. And when she asked me if I would meet next year's tour group for the same reason, I knew she really meant it. I had been forgiven! And I will be there next time.

Now I just need to work on forgiving myself. Forgiveness of oneself was described by A. Powell Davies as "the forgiveness that comes hardest." I know what he means: it requires genuine humility and an acknowledgment of my limitations and shortcomings. I've been humbled twice this summer and I've been twice forgiven. I'm grateful ... and still a little embarrassed!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Wal-Mart: A Personal Confession

I saw a young woman I know walking out of Wal-Mart this evening. I saw her because I was walking into the store, so I hope she didn't notice me. For years now, I've been encouraging everyone who will listen to refrain from contributing to Wal-Mart's bottom line, since I believe that it is a toxic corporation. Just about any way you slice it, Wal-Mart is bad news: their business practices are bad for communities, bad for competition, bad for workers, bad for the people of the Third World, and bad for the soul!

So why was I shopping at a store I find so loathsome? Well, having broken the extension cord for my car's block heater, I needed a replacement tonight -- it's damn cold in Winnipeg today -- and Wal-Mart was still open after the nearby mall had closed, so I sucked it up and went there. And in the interests of full disclosure, I also bought some hi-liters from the stationery department, since I discovered that the store carried my preferred brand, which I've been unable to find elsewhere for several months now.

While I choose to minimize my shopping at Wal-Mart -- I spent a total of $67 there last year, including sales taxes! -- I long ago decided I wouldn't punish myself in order to avoid the store. So here are my personal ground rules for shopping at the store that Sam built: (1) I will never enter a Wal-Mart store for the sole purpose of saving money, no matter how much I may have to pay for the same product elsewhere. (2) I will go there to purchase something I cannot reasonably acquire from another store, provided I've convinced myself I really need that specific item. (3) I will shop there to get something I need with some urgency, when time is of the essence and other stores are closed. And (4) should I happen to be passing a Wal-Mart store knowing that I need to make a minor purchase, I may stop in if I can convince myself that driving somewhere else would unnecessarily increase my carbon footprint. Frankly, these four personal rules don't leave much room for lavish spending!

So what about my young friend, who I saw leaving the store? Do I judge her negatively for shopping there? Not at all. She's a single mother who needs to make her money stretch as far as possible, so Wal-Mart may well offer her choices she might not otherwise enjoy. While I think that a careful economic analysis would show that this company saves no one a dime in the long run, in the shorter term some people like my young friend may benefit. But I can easily afford to shop elsewhere, so I do. Nor do I look down on the good people who work for Wal-Mart, since they work hard and should not be held responsible for the policies and practices of their employer.

On the other hand, I am troubled by people with privileged incomes who make a habit of shopping at Wal-Mart. I sometimes think union cards should include magnetic chips that set off the store's electronic security devices when a union member walks through the front door. And I will continue to be embarrassed on those very rare occasions, never more than once or twice in a year, when necessity leads me to enter a Wal-Mart store. Simply put, it matters where we shop because, in the end, we make our values real through our economic choices. And values should always trump value, at least when it comes to consumer goods.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Will the Real Bill Clinton Please Sit Down?

Are any other political progressives as weary of the Clintons' campaign tactics as I'm becoming?

In recent weeks, we've been treated to former President Clinton condescendingly dismissing Barack Obama as a "kid" and describing the Illinois senator's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Then, in Nevada, Clinton accused the Obama campaign of voter supression. His strident tone has been eerily reminiscent of his more noteworthy hyperbole while president, which hardly inspires confidence in the trustworthiness of his patronizing assertions during the present campaign season. I'm surprised that the former president hasn't accused Barack Obama of "a vast left-wing conspiracy" against him and his wife!

It sometimes seems as though the Clintons only appear gracious when they're winning. When they're behind, or even think they're behind, they seem to become paranoid and vindictive. And this attitude betrays a disturbing sense of entitlement on the part of the Clintons: to dominate the Democratic party, as if the divine right of kings had morphed into a party principle, and occupy the White House, as if the presidential mansion were somehow their family home.

Since Barack Obama's strong showing in Iowa, the Clinton campaign has alternated between meanness and condescension, generating a tone that might better be saved for the part of the campaign when the Democratic nominee is actually facing his or her Republican opponent. (And even then, the tone would be questionable.) Indeed, the Clinton campaign seems all-too-willing to adopt a tone and employ tactics we usually associate with the hysterical right-wing of the Republican party. While it is often overzealous campaign workers who indulge in such childishness, sadly, the former president has waded into such antics in a manner that's unseemly for an elder statesperson. If we are learning anything from the current presidential campaign in the United States, it is that the real Bill Clinton no longer seems to be the affable, sensitive leader we remember from the 1990s. Someone needs to tell him that this campaign isn't about him or his tenure as president.

If it were, then present-day liberals would have reason for pause. Bill Clinton may well have been the most conservative Democratic president since Harry Truman, or perhaps even Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, as Paul Krugman observes in his magnificent new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, "On economic issues from welfare to taxes, Bill Clinton arguably governed not just to the right of Jimmy Carter, but to the right of Richard Nixon" (p. 5). And in the senate, Hillary Clinton has hardly been the uncompromising left-wing radical that some feared -- or that some of us hoped for! Only on healthcare does Senator Clinton seem more progressive that Senator Obama, although her credibility on this issue is tainted by her and her husband's failed attempt to reform healthcare in the 1990s.

Although Hillary Clinton would not be my first choice for the Democratic presidential nomination, I sincerely hope she continues to do well. But she will only do well if she and her campaign call off the dogs, take the high road, and return to a focus on the issues and her own record as an elected official. This leads me to ask, "Will the real Bill Clinton please sit down?" His recent performance as a sort of Democratic "Karl Rove" is not helping Senator Clinton and can only undermine the credibility of the Democratic party's presidential nominee, whomever it is.