Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Obamamania may be fading, and he's not invited to the Tea Party

There is one difference between Canadians and Americans that is not much remarked on: the difference in their attitude toward government.

By and large, Canadians view government as neutral or even benign. It tries to establish a level playing field and provide a social safety net. For example, Canadians have no big problem with the government running a single payer health care system. Especially one that covers all citizens at about half the cost of the American system. Generally, Canadians are willing to pay higher taxes so that those most disadvantaged in our society may have access to health care and other services, such as low-cost drugs.

Not so Americans.

Many view government as the enemy. They cling to the view once expressed by President Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.”

This view is rampant at the moment. It finds its strongest expression in the Tea Party movement, which finds its inspiration in the anti-government sentiments of the Boston Tea Party.

So far, the tea-partiers are a movement, not a political party. They want fewer taxes, smaller government, and more money on security and defence, which already costs almost $2 billion a day.

Both major political parties have reason to fear the Tea Party movement, the Democrats because the movement paints them as big government and big spenders, if not outright socialists, the Republicans because the Tea Party movement is driving the GOP farther to the right. They are demanding virtually a loyalty oath from the party’s nominees: lower taxes, lower deficits, no abortion, and more money for national defence.

Tea Parties began cropping up around the United States in February of last year, responding with anger to government bailouts of banks and car companies. They then took on the task of defeating Barack Obama’s plan on health care, showing up last summer to disrupt political meetings.

Democrats and some Republicans dismissed them as “Astroturf,” or false grass roots. Few in either party now doubt their influence.

In fact, a recent poll revealed that more people viewed the Tea Party movement favourably than they did either the Democrats or the Republicans. That influence was brought to bear in the fight for the Democratic Senate seat held for 47 years by Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. It’s true the Democrats had a weak candidate and the independents moved heavily to the Republicans, but the Tea Parties were in the thick of the fight. The result was a surprise win by the GOP candidate who ran around in a pickup truck, inveighing against big government and the health bill.

The result of the election defeat in Kennedy’s old seat was a wake-up call for the Obama administration. Obama and his brain trust were advocating more entitlement programs and bigger government at the very time the voters wanted less governmental intrusion into their lives. Should he have been pushing so hard for a health care bill when the real need was for more jobs in the private sector? It’s the economy, stupid, not socialized health care.

There’s no doubt there is considerable anger in the country against Obama and his poll numbers are dropping. I met several people here in California who don’t think he will win a second term. One retired businessman with whom I played golf in Palm Springs said he couldn’t wait for the 2012 election so he could run Obama out of Washington on a rail.

But hold on for a minute. The next national election is all of three years away. Obama’s personal approval ratings are still sky high.

His policy ratings not so much. In the president’s first State of the Union address, he pivoted hard from health care and climate change to the economy and jobs.

And there’s something else. For all its growing influence, the Tea Party movement is a leaderless, ramshackle group whose only unifying plank is to attack big bad government. Is that enough to change a movement into a political party? Hardly. What’s more, the fact that it has no leader means that demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck become its loudest voices—not exactly a plus.

But what about Sarah Palin? Wouldn’t her brand of grass-roots populism and mean invective be tailor-made for the Tea Party movement? She is scheduled to be the main speaker for the tea-partiers at their first national convention, in February—although various factions are squabbling about her $100,000 fee.

But if you think Sarah Palin could be leader of a national party and a serious candidate for the presidency, please read Game Changer, the new page-turning book on the 2008 election. It recounts in electric detail how John McCain’s senior advisers became concerned that Palin was mentally unbalanced. Her manic mood swings, her stubborn refusal to prepare for her interviews, her scalding rage against the press, all suggested Palin had a screw loose. They were almost relieved when their candidate lost and Palin would never be a heartbeat from the presidency.

I don’t think Obama has much to fear from Sarah Palin. Nor, for that matter, from the likes of Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. When some guy tells you Obama will be a one-term president, ask him who will beat him, then listen to him stammer and stutter.

* * *

As many expected, President Obama used his first State of the Union address to pivot from health care (which he still wants) to the economy, and jobs. Jobs will be the four-letter mantra for the second year of Obama’s mandate. Other populist issues will include coming down hard on Wall St. and reducing the billowing deficits.

Just imagine the Republicans voting in favour of the bankers. The folks out there—including the tea-partiers—will crucify them.

Three years from now, Obama will not be running against Superman. He will be running pretty much against the same rag-tag bunch that lost the last election. Don’t bet he won’t beat them again.

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The Vatican continues its move to the right

December, 2009

This has been a year when the signs from Rome suggest the Vatican is moving steadily to the right.

One of those signs is Rome’s investigation into American nuns. This inquiry is concerned with the lifestyle of the nuns and their attitudes toward such issues as female priests, gay marriage and the relationship of the Catholic church to non-Christian religions.

It is curious indeed that Rome should launch a full-scale investigation into American nuns. After all, nuns had virtually nothing to do with the paramount problem in the American church – the child abuse scandal perpetrated by Catholic priests and brothers and aided and abetted by Catholic bishops.

Rome has launched no investigation into either the priests or the bishops. In fact, Cardinal Law, one of the main culprits, was summoned to Rome and promoted. Yet it is the nuns who are under the gun. One reason is the precipitous drop in the number of American nuns. Forty years ago there were 180,000 vowed sisters in the United States. Today there are fewer than 60,000. Yet the number of priests has also dropped sharply during the same period, leaving more than 10 per cent of parishes without resident priests. Why isn’t the priest shortage the subject of an investigation?

During this same period U.S. bishops presided over a sexual abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic community more than $2 billion and the episcopacy much of its moral credibility. So why no visitation for the bishops? One might also ask why virtually no bishops have resigned.

The religious women that Rome is targeting are members of congregations that have taught in Catholic grade schools and high schools, academies and colleges. They are the sisters who have staffed hospitals and worked to relieve homelessness and to develop low-cost housing.

Naturally, American nuns are extremely upset at Rome’s vote of non-confidence in their lifestyles and ministries.

One of them has expressed her disappointment: “There is simply no way of getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings, not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican does not want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s – and that means men’s – voices and views. But we are not ‘men’ or ‘mankind.’ We are persons with minds and hearts and voices who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty and who remain loyal to this church even when it treats us as second-class citizens.”

It will be interesting to see whether this crackdown on nuns will manage to force the toothpaste back in the tube and develop a more docile, conservative sisterhood. The Vatican’s attempt to entice more Anglicans to cross the Tibre also seems to be a move to the right. Those Anglicans who oppose gay marriage and female priests and bishops are the ones most likely to accept the pope’s invitation. This means the most conservative elements of the Anglican church would become Catholics. This development will make the Catholic church more conservative and the Anglican church more liberal.

At the same time, an influx of married Anglican priests into the Catholic church will raise in a dramatic way Rome’s insistence on celibacy for its own priests. It is also interesting to note that on its initiative to reach out to Anglicans, particularly in England, the pope made no effort to consult his English bishops or, for that matter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. This is just one more instance of a further conservative trend in the church – to centralize all authority in Rome.

At the same time, Rome is in discussions with the bishops and priests in the Society of St. Pius X, which rejects the liberalizing teachings of the Second Vatican Council. It was one of those bishops – who denied the Holocaust – that the pope welcomed back into the church.

It is difficult to understand how Rome could sit down and negotiate with a group that rejects most of the teachings of Vatican II, including the Council’s reaching out to the Jewish faith. A former head of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Professor John Pawlikowski, has warned that the pope may be confronted with the negative consequences of his efforts to try to reconcile the ultra-conservative Pius X Society when he goes to the synagogue in Rome on January 17 because many rabbis intend to boycott the visit. He added that Christian-Jewish dialogue is now “in a serious crisis.”

However, this move to more conservatism in the church has just sustained a major setback in Ireland, one of the most conservative Catholic countries in the world.

After a three-year investigation and a 700-page report into the crimes of priestly sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, the conservative Irish church is reeling. The report on priestly sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese reveals that for almost half a century about 50 Irish priests have sexually abused hundreds of innocent children. What’s more, a series of bishops in Dublin aided and abetted this abuse.

Some senior political leaders in Ireland are demanding that these bishops resign. This sexual crisis marks the end of the authoritarian church in Ireland, an authoritarianism that has held sway for centuries and is comparable in some ways to the Quebec church in the times of Maurice Duplessis. Of course, the suffocating grip of the Catholic church in Quebec has long since collapsed. It will be interesting indeed to see if church authority and practice collapse in Ireland.

It will be also interesting to see whether in the coming year the Vatican continues its move to the right. I should think so. Rome seems prepared to live with a smaller conservative church as long as the adherents who remain are docile and obedient.

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Irish vote puts new Europe on horizon

After Ireland recently ratified the Lisbon Treaty, Europe has moved one step closer to being a full-fledged federation.

The potential significance for Europe of Ireland’s Yes vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum may not yet be fully clear, but it is of major import. If the Lisbon Treaty now comes into force, the Irish electorate’s rethink will have rescued the viability of European unity, probably for a generation.

If the No side had prevailed in the referendum (as it did in the first one) the European Union would have suffered a massive, morale-sapping blow. Not only would the Lisbon Treaty itself have been killed off, but so, too, would the prospect of reforming the EU for years, given that this time next year David Cameron and the Tories – a party and a leader both sceptical to Europe – would be in power in England.

With a Conservative-ruled UK vetoing every attempt to improve the EU, it is more than likely that Europe would be divided between states advocating further integration and states opposing it – a disaster for the continent.

However, the Lisbon Treaty is not quite a done deal. Two other states have not yet ratified: Poland and the Czech Republic. Both countries’ parliaments have voted approval but their Eurosceptical presidents have withheld their signatures.

Polish president Lech Kaczynski, however, promised last July to consent to ratification if Ireland voted Yes and he has now done so. This leaves Czech president Vaclav Klaus, who more than once said he would try to keep the treaty from coming into force.

Some have speculated that he wanted to delay signing until after the general election in Britain, in the hope the Conservatives would win and call a referendum on the treaty.

Now Mr. Klaus admits he cannot wait for a British election. “They would have to hold it in the coming days or weeks. However, the train has now travelled so fast and so far I guess it will not be possible to stop it or turn it around, however much we would wish to.”

The treaty was designed to streamline the EU’s decision-making process following its expansion from 15 to 27 members. Critics, including Klaus, have described it as an attempt to create a European superstate that would rob individual nations of their sovereignty.

Some months ago, Klaus said he he would be the “last politician” in Europe to sign the the Lisbon Treaty. This has come true – but ironically his signature will now be the one that enables the treaty he despises to come into force. That leaves British Conservative leader David Cameron.

Gavin Barrett, a senior lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, specializing in European Union law, asks what Cameron’s chances are of blocking the treaty by calling a referendum in England once the Conservatives achieve power. “The answer, very simply,” Barrett writes, “is that it will end them. Once the Lisbon Treaty comes into force it will be irreversible. The new institutional architecture will be there to stay.” Part of that architecture might well be Tony Blair, considered by many to be the front-runner for the new position of EU president.

Much to the chagrin of the more Europhobic supporters, Cameron will have to abandon a now legally pointless referendum on Lisbon in favour of a concerted effort to repatriate certain powers to Britain – in social, employment, justice and home affairs. Whether he succeeds remains to be seen, although the UK could threaten to block the accession of new member states if it does not get its way.

Cameron’s hardest job will probably be managing Europhobia within his own party: An astonishing 40 per cent of Conservative supporters favour leaving the EU altogether. Be that as it may, Ireland on its second try has broken the logjam preventing a new Europe.

“The train has now travelled so fast and so far I guess it will not be possible to stop it.” Czech president Vaclav Klaus

“Once the Lisbon Treaty comes into force it will be irreversible.” Lecturer Gavin Barrett

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Harper deserves credit for strong economy, leadership

October, 2009

If there is a federal election this fall, the Conservatives are the odds on favourites to win it. I base this prediction largely on the state of the Canadian economy. Compared to almost all other western industrial nations, Canada has had a “soft” recession. We moved into the recession in better shape and we are moving out of it in better shape.

That is a remarkable achievement, and certainly the Harper government deserves some of the credit for this state of affairs. Imagine if the Canadian economy was in the dumpster compared to other nations. There is no question that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be getting the blame. Because we have done so well he is now deserving some of the credit.

Add our strong economy to Harper’s strong lead in the polls, and a fall election would see the Conservatives returned to office, quite possibly with a small majority. Harper has been all over the news this summer – in the north, dispensing funds from the stimulus program, attending international conferences.

Whatever you think of his policies, Harper carries himself well on the international stage. When U.S. President Barack Obama came to Ottawa for his first official visit outside Washington, Harper was graceful and eloquent. He did the country proud. At the same time, Harper has given generally competent government unmarred by scandals.

But the growing Conservative lead in the polls is not only due to Harper’s strengths. Much of it is owing to Michael Ignatieff’s missteps. For one thing, the Liberal leader virtually disappeared this summer. He went to England to give a lecture, then, apparently realizing he had goofed, wisely cancelled a trip to China.

In the Globe and Mail, Rex Murphy put in words what many voters were thinking: “What’s the matter with Michael Ignatieff?” Murphy provided his own answer: “He is cocky and uncertain almost simultaneously, aggressive and challenging one moment, hesitant and even confusing in his message the next. That message, what there is of it, is a muddle. He casts the word ‘vision’ around like it’s a talisman, but speaks in the mushy platitudes of a high-school valedictorian. He seems stranded between the two models of successful Liberal leadership, caught between the saloon and the salon.”

Here in Quebec we have seen a sad example of leadership. Ignatieff, who prides himself on party unity, appointed Denis Coderre as his chief lieutenant and political boss in this province. Coderre, with the leader’s backing, dumped several sitting Liberals to parachute in star candidates.

One of the incumbents to be dumped in St. Laurent was no other than former leader Stéphane Dion. This ungrateful manoeuvre rightly drew the wrath of the Gazette: “[Dion] deserves better than to have his back stabbed by the likes of Denis Coderre, a party apparatchik whose contributions to Canada are minimal compared with those of Dion.”

But where Coderre’s machinations really came unglued was in the riding of Outremont, now held by the NDP’s Tom Mulcair. The Liberals desperately want to win Outremont back, and Coderre thought he had just the candidate to do it: business executive Nathalie Le Prohon. Trouble was that Martin Cauchon, a justice minister in the Chrétien government, used to represent Outremont and wanted it back.

Naturally, Ignatieff backed his Quebec lieutenant and they tried to fob Cauchon off to another riding now held by the Bloc. But Cauchon would not play dead. He doesn’t like Coderre and the feeling is mutual. So Cauchon lined up some heavy hitters to back his bid, including Bob Rae and Jean Chrétien himself. As the pressure mounted, Ignatieff caved. Cauchon will run in Outremont against Mulcair, and Coderre was left out to dry.

But Coderre did not hang on the clothesline for long. He took four days to think it over, then resigned as Ignatieff’s lieutenant in Quebec and as the Liberal defence critic. In the process he blamed his leader for listening to a Toronto clique on political affairs in Quebec. All this left Ignatieff damaged, Coderre angry and the Liberals’ chances in Quebec seriously diminished.

If a leader cannot run the affairs of his party, how can he run the business of the country? Fortunately for him, Ignatieff now has time to connect with the voter. For months I have waited for Iggy to give me a reason to support his party. So far he has not delivered.

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Right-Wing talk show hosts feed anger to their followers

September 2009

For many years, I have spent part of the summer with close friends in Maine. As a good many Montrealers know, Maine offers a cornucopia of goodies in the summer – ocean swimming (cool-ish), blueberries (pricey), upscale scenery (the George Bush estate) and lobster (along with champagne, in my view, both vastly overrated.)

As for me, a long-time political junkie, when I’m not playing golf near Old Orchard Beach (once a frequent haunt of René Lévesque) or watching the Red Sox on television, I’m twiddling the dial looking for political talk shows.

Rush Limbaugh is at the top of the list for several reasons. Limbaugh is an entertainer and a good one. But he violates most of the rules I tried to follow when I hosted a Montreal talk show, first on radio, then television. Rush is the centre of his show. His callers are just disembodied props. Unless their opinions coincide with his, he has little time for them. Rush uses his callers like cigarette butts: to light up another harangue of his own. Many of Limbaugh’s views are outrageous . He wants US President Barack Obama to fail. He says again and again that Canada’s health system kills people and is socialism at its worst. He forthrightly advances his view that Sarah Palin, George Bush in a skirt, would make a fine president in 2012, when Obama must be defeated or the Republic will fall.

When I first began to listen to Limbaugh, especially on the car radio, I often had to stop the car for fear of driving off the road in a rage. I believed then that Limbaugh was an ignorant racist who spent most of his time whipping his huge audience (20 million) into a frenzy of hatred.

But I no longer think that. I now believe Limbaugh (and the legions of other right-wing, conservative talk show hosts) are not creating hatred, they are tapping into hatred that is already there. That is the most remarkable thing about the United States this summer, the scary amount of anger and hatred stalking the land. This phenomenon is most visible on the Fox News network, not in its treatment of news (the network has some very able and balanced commentators, like Chris Wallace, the son of Mike Wallace) but in the talk show hosts that take over, mostly in the evening.

You need a strong stomach to watch these people (my wife leaves the room when I turn on Fox.) There are four of them, unleashed by Fox every night like a quartet of Doberman pinschers, snapping and snarling at all things democratic and liberal.

First there is Glen Beck, followed by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren. You need to hear Beck to believe him. He is a teetotaler whose commentaries are so dyspeptic that he seems to be suffering a dry drunk. He charges that Obama is a racist and says his government reeks of the excesses of Nazi Germany.

Bill O’Reilly is a smoother operator than Beck and he has the ratings to prove it. But O’Reilly’s treatment of many of his guests is simply appalling. After inviting them to come on, O’Reilly proceeds to bully and berate them so that the viewer, who already knows what O’Reilly thinks, has no idea what the guest thinks.

When O’Reilly had on an informed Catholic nun who supported Obama’s health care plan and tried to show how it related to Catholic social doctrine, O’Reilly cut her off and bounced her the way Ted Tevan did with his radio callers years ago in Montreal.

Sean Hannity is the poor man’s Bill O’Reilly, and not nearly as well informed as his master. I have not heard Hannity say a positive thing about Obama since he was elected eight months ago. Hannity’s idea of deep analysis is to keep throwing Rev. Wright’s name around; his idea of penetrating questioning is to state his own opinion (“I think Obama is a dangerous radical”) and ask his guests if they agree with him. They invariably do, because most of the guests on these programs are chosen precisely because they hold the same rigid conservative views as the hosts.

Which brings us to Greta Van Susteren. For a lawyer who spent time in the criminal courts, Greta’s questions are about as crisp as wet spaghetti. My guess is that this is because she often does not understand the issue under discussion. She spends much of her time criticizing people in Congress because they do not carefully read bills, like the current thousand-page health bill. Apparently Van Susteren does not realize that it is the broad thrust of bills that are voted on, not the minute legal niceties.

So there you have it – Fox’s big four. Yet whatever weaknesses they have, apparently they are cleaning up in the ratings. Why is that? Because night after night, they cater to the anger and rage that is boiling over out there in TV land.

What is the source of this anger and hatred? If Rush Limbaugh and the Fox quartet don’t create this anger, then where does it come from? It comes, I am convinced, from changes in the country that neither Fox nor Limbaugh can control and may not even understand. But they can read the writing on the wall. Before mid-century, the conservative yahoos who make up the Fox audience will be a minority in their own country. They are losing their place in the sun. They look at the White House and they see the first black president. They look at the Supreme Court and they see the first Latin woman.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. They are confused. They are angry. Limbaugh and Fox give voice to their anger and that may well be a good thing. But the game is up and they know it.

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What language debate? Blog comments reflect a peaceful Quebec

July 2009

About three years ago I began blogging. This means I got myself an address on the Internet (anyone can do this in three easy steps) and started to post daily comments.

The major themes of these comments usually involve politics,morality and religion. I usually put these comments in the form of a question: Is Michael Ignatieff ready to be prime minister? Should lesbians conceive children? Is religion a hoax?

The records for my blog show that about 300 people check it out every day. But fewer than five per cent actually leave comments on my original postings. The most comments I ever had was 90 on whether Dr. Morgentaler should have received the Order of Canada.

I have had comments from as nearby as my neighours in Westmount and as far away as South Korea and Latvia. The comments are generally informed and civil even when they deal with contentious subjects. Two of the most contentious are the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the language tensions in Quebec.

Because of the PQ’s language policies, one of my blogmates left the province and moved to the United States. He is still bitter and whenever Quebec comes up on my blog he makes no bones about his contempt for the province.

I bring this up now, not because I think this expatriate is typical of Quebecers on the language issue. The point is, I think he is atypical.

As Hubert Bach recently pointed out in a comprehensive article in The Gazette, there are signs all over the place that language peace has broken out in Quebec. One current example of that was the banning of two anglo bands from a Fête Nationale concert. Several artists in the sovereignist camp spoke out in protest. As a result, the two anglo bands participated in the concert. What a change that is from the time there were fights in the street about the Eaton’s apostrophe.

What seems to have replaced the bitterness in the language war of the late ’70s and ’80s is a realization that the accommodation between the two groups is working well for both. The French are more secure in their majority. The English are more comfortable as a minority.

This language peace is visible in the two national holidays that begin our summer. In both the Fête Nationale and Canada Day there is more fun and less politics. Instead of two dueling communities there is a sense of welcome all over the province.

Just imagine if Howard Galganov were to return from his exile in Ontario and tried his old game of fanning animosities. I don’t think he’d get far. That kind of demagoguery just doesn’t cut it here anymore. There are, of course, a small group of angryphones remaining in the province, but they operate on the political fringes and are largely irrelevant.

Having said all that, the PQ option of separation for Quebecers is still on the books. PQ leader Pauline Marois has been doing her best to inject some life into that option. She has outlined a program to chip away at the federal system in the province by fighting to take various powers back from Ottawa, specifically in cultural affairs.

No sooner had Marois outlined her program than former premier Parizeau weighed in. Wouldn’t you know it. Parizeau has become a kind of frenchified Colonel Blimp. He told Marois she might provoke crises with Ottawa on a series of contentious issues. This would put the sovereignist troops on their metal.

So what happens? A few days after Parizeau’s ill-chosen remarks, the PQ was shut out in two by-elections, one of which they thought they could win.

Now we can take a break from politics at least until Labour Day. There are no constitutional questions buzzing around Ottawa, no referendums on the horizon in Quebec.

The Gazette caught the mood in a recent editorial on June 26: “Look around the world. There might be no place anywhere that manages diversity- in-unity as well as Quebec-in- Canada. Where is it as easy to understand that there’s no need to choose between one sense of belonging and the other? In fact we do so well that we really need two days – or even the whole week in between – to celebrate how lucky we are.”

Have a great summer.

Check out Neil McKenty’s blog at neilmckentyweblog2.wordpress.com

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Ignatieff ’s Liberals looking cool, collected – and ready to win

June 2009

These days the federal Liberal party appears to be on a roll. They are in a dead heat with the Conservatives nationally and are well ahead of them in both Ontario and Quebec. The Conservatives could easily lose their 10 seats in this province, and without Quebec they have no hope of winning a majority in Ottawa.

Which brings us to their leader. Stephen Har per has been off his game for some time. Other than building up the deficit – now $50 billion and counting – Harper has little of import in the legislative hopper. His minority government has little to show for the first 100 days of the current parliamentary session. Unless you count the recognition of the capital’s Beechwood Cemetery as the National Cemetery of Canada.

Harper’s troubles began last fall when he ruthlessly tried to reduce public funds for his political opponents. When the three opposition parties tried to fight back by setting up a tripartite coalition that included the Bloc, Harper cut his own throat in Quebec by lashing out at the perfidious separatists. Tory numbers in the province dropped like a stone.

When Harper belatedly realized the coalition was a real threat to his hold on power, he scuttled off to Rideau Hall and convinced the Governor General to shut down parliament. It was a demeaning stratagem and the voters recognized it as such. Hence Harper’s drop in the polls. Hence the low grumbling in some Tory circles that Harper will never win a majority government and, indeed, will be lucky to win another minority one.

One name mentioned as Harper’s successor is that of justice minister Rob Nicholson. He is Harper’s most competent minister. The big rap on Nicholson is that he is from the West. After Manning, Day and Harper, some Tory strategists feel it is the turn of the East, which would make Elmer McKay a better fit. There is even some talk that Jean Charest, now in his third term as Quebec premier, might move back to Ottawa to lead the Conservatives. It is a long shot, but so was Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby. Whether Harper stays or goes, his decline in the polls has been mirrored by the rise of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. After he took over from Stéphane Dion, some Liberals worried that Ignatieff did not have a killer instinct, that he was unable to go for the political jugular. The Liberal leader put paid to that when he dispatched his old friend Bob Rae from the leadership contest.

Rae’s only hope was to have a national leadership contest. Ignatieff replied that the fight should be settled by the Liberal caucus. Ignatieff prevailed and Rae threw in the towel. A good thing, too. The last thing the Liberal party needed was another internecine struggle between two candidates. After all, for years the party was racked by the fight between the Chrétien and Martin factions.

So Ignatieff was crowned at the Vancouver convention last month and the party emerged under his leadership more united than it has been in years. In his powerful convention speech, Ignatieff took on Harper directly : “For three years you have played province against province, region against region, individual against individual. When your power was threatened last November you unleashed a national unity crisis, and saved yourself only by sending parliament home. Mr. Harper, you have failed us. If you can’t unite Canadians, if you can’t appeal to the best in us – we can. We Liberals can build a federalism based on cooperation, not confrontation.”

Since the convention, Ignatieff has not shied away from tough issues. He has said he might have to raise taxes. In light of the biggest deficit in our history, surely that is self-evident and reveals Ignatieff to be an honest politician. Ignatieff has also said bluntly that he will not make further “concessions” to Quebec. He says this province has all the power it needs, and he is not in favour of amending the constitution to give it more.

Instead, Ignatieff has invited Quebecers to join a national project, and in that regard he has mentioned construction of a high-speed rail link between Windsor and Quebec City.

The main Ignatieff policy plank coming out of the convention was employment insurance. In keeping with his unity pitch, he is suggesting a system of uniform national standards to replace the existing patchwork structure. And he is ready to make this an election issue.

Even so, I doubt very much that there will be an election before the fall. Neither the Bloc nor the NDP are ready, and the Liberals need to raise a lot more money before they can match what the Tories have in the bank.

Ignatieff is often described as “cool”. In that regard he resembles Pierre Trudeau, also a public intellectual. He has even been compared to Barack Obama, arguably the “coolest” politician on the planet.

Certainly there is no politician in Canada who is provoking more buzz than Ignatieff at the moment. You can tell the Tories are worried when they mount a series of expensive ads slamming Ignatieff because he spent so much time outside the country.

Actually, the Harper government is not really concerned about Ignatieff having been away. What really concerns the Tories is that Ignatieff is back and ready to take them on in the next election, which he has a better than even chance of winning.

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Why is abortion the issue that trumps all others?

US President Barack Obama is at the centre of a storm raging at the University of Notre Dame, perhaps the best known Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.

The president of Notre Dame, Rev. John Jenkins, a priest of the Holy Cross Congregation that runs the university, invited President Obama to speak at the school’s commencement on May 17 and receive an honorary degree. Obama agreed. Then all hell broke loose. Conservative Catholics and leading prelates brought huge pressure to bear on the university to withdraw the invitation to Obama; claiming that he is “pro-abortion,” because he supports choice and embryonic stem cell research.

The head of the United States bishops conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, said the university’s decision was an “extreme embarrassment” to Catholics and added,“Whatever else is clear, it is clear that Notre Dame didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation…”

The local bishop, John D’Arcy, announced that he will not attend the graduation and an online petition by the Cardinal Newman Society against the invitation has collected a quarter of a million signatures. Pro-life groups on the Notre Dame campus have organized demonstrations. Pro-life activist Randall Terry plans to rent a house near the university for the next six weeks to mount a campaign to stop Obama from speaking. Terry’s website features a photograph of the president between pictures of Judas and a graphic photograph of an aborted fetus.

All this furor begs the question whether it makes any sense to regard abortion as so crucial an issue to relations between Catholics and a secular government that no other consideration carries any weight.

It is interesting that the question has a somewhat different answer here in Canada. The US bishops seem frustrated that their Catholic flock is not more militant on the issue of abortion. A Gallup survey of polls on religious attitudes over the past three years shows that Catholic views on issues such as embryonic stem-cell research and legalized abortion are not that different from their non-Catholic fellow citizens. (I expect the figures would be about the same here in Canada).

But Canadian bishops, even allowing for hardline conservatives like Cardinal Ouellet in Quebec City and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast S.J. in Ottawa, seem far less aggressive than their American counterparts. Canada has no abortion law at all. So far as I am aware, even though we have had a series of Catholic Prime Ministers – Trudeau, Clark, Turner, Chrétien, Martin – the Canadian bishops have mounted no consistent campaign to pass such a law. There is much less controversy about abortion in Canada than there is south of the border. Very few prelates here are threatening to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians.

But the current controversy at Notre Dame raises questions related to abortion in both countries. The main one is whether for Catholics abortion trumps every other issue when it comes to public discourse. After all, President Obama has a political agenda that promises greater social justice and equality, more harmony between the races, environmental reforms – and he favours social measures that would reduce the need for abortion. Nobody has suggested that Obama should be silenced because he has not promised to end the death penalty – which is also part of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life – nor that his predecessor should have been rejected because he engaged his country in an unjust war in Iraq, where untold innocent lives were lost.

Nor are all Catholic voices impugning the president. John Quinn, archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, highlighted the danger for Catholics if they adopted what he called the “clenched-fist approach.” He has urged that “it is in the interests of both the Church and the nation if both work together in civility, honesty and friendship for the common good, even when there are grave divisions, as there are on abortion.”

Father Jenkins is standing by his decision, saying the invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony “should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his [Obama’s] positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life.” A survey of letters to the student newspaper The Observer indicated that while 70 per cent of alumni were opposed to Obama speaking at the university, 97 per cent of the graduating class approved of him speaking.

The Catholic journal The Tablet, from London, captures the central issue for Canadians and Americans in this uproar. “It seriously damages the whole Catholic contribution to democratic politics to treat abortion not only as a black-and-white issue, with no shades of grey, but as the unique black-and-white issue that trumps all others.”

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Look to Northern Ireland for a way to peace in Middle East

April, 2009

The recent outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland seemed at first like a black cloud threatening the fragile peace process. Until the silver lining appeared.

What happened after two British soldiers and an Irish policeman were murdered by a discredited IRA dissident group is almost unimaginable. The forces that had been at each other’s throats for decades came together to publicly denounce the killings.

Thousands of people, Catholic and Protestant alike, took to the streets to express their outrage and abhorrence. And the republican splinter groups who have claimed responsibility have been roundly condemned by the mainstream republican organization, Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister in the power-sharing executive, stood shoulder to shoulder with the protestant first minister, Peter Robinson, to condemn the killings: “We were elected to lead and, through democratic institutions, deliver for everyone throughout the community. We will not allow a tiny mindless minority to set our political agenda or divert us.”

McGuinness called those responsible “traitors to Ireland” and urged Catholics to cooperate with police in catching the culprits. Such an unambiguous display of support for the Northern Ireland Police Service from the leadership of Sinn Fein is unprecedented. As the London journal The Tablet wrote: “Twenty years ago they would have been plotting the killing of soldiers and policemen themselves.” Those responsible for the bloodshed plainly intended to destroy the power-sharing structure of the Assembly at Stormont and escalate sectarian tensions across the community. However, the response from politicians and even more importantly from ordinary citizens, who took to the streets in significant numbers at short notice to support vigils and peace rallies, made clear that any attempt to turn back the clock on the peace process would not be tolerated.

These public displays were followed by the unprecedented image of Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists attending the funeral of Stephen Carroll, the murdered Ulster police officer. In a highly personal address at the end of the service, in the presence of Carroll’s widow, the head of the Police Service, Sir Hugh Orde, told her:

“He will not be forgotten, Kate. I promise you. My staff and officers will not forget what he did. I know the community will not forget what he did.”

The hard fact is there will be no united Ireland for the foreseeable future. But the blinkered IRA dissidents refuse to recognize that. They first demonstrated their hostility to the peace process when they planted a car bomb in Omagh in August 1998 that killed 29 people in the main shopping street. (I walked on this street in a trip to Ulster a couple of years ago. The Omagh blast is still fresh in the minds of the citizens there).

Undeterred by the hostile reaction, pockets of disgruntled republican activists throughout Northern Ireland vowed to defy majority public opinion, re-arm and revive “physical force” republicanism as the traditional and only effective means they could see of ever achieving a united Ireland.

For a time there was nothing much more than propaganda stunts with armed, hooded figures on manoeuvres in remote Irish boglands. From time to time police on both sides of the border intercepted arms and explosives in transit to a planned atrocity. The dissidents suspected that the mainstream IRA was double-crossing them by infiltrating its own people into their ranks to betray them.

But several well-planned ambushes over a year ago, in which police officers were wounded, underlined the growing dissident threat. Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde warned that the dissidents were intent on killing a police officer, a grim prophecy that has now been fulfilled.

Still, tragic as the killings were, what remains is the virtual universal condemnation of them in Ulster by the ordinary people and their elected leaders. Remember these same leaders had been fighting each other for decades. Now they are united for peace, an extraordinary accomplishment and a way forward for others.

It is no coincidence that U.S. President Barack Obama chose as his new envoy to the Middle East the very man who played a large role in bringing the warring Irish factions together in the Good Friday Agreement. Former democratic senator George Mitchell now brings his negotiating skills, honed in Ulster, to building peace between Israel and the Palestinians, whose enmity is perhaps the most dangerous in the world.

But the peace process in Ulster is a paradigm for a similar development in the Middle East. There are dissimilarities of course, but if the hard men in Ulster can unite for peace, so can those other warring factions – the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The peace process in Ulster points a way to peace in the Middle East.

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Pope’s reaction to Williamson curious and disappointing

March 2009

It is now clear that Catholic-Jewish relations have been seriously damaged by the Vatican’s lifting the excommunication of a schismatic bishop who is a Holocaust denier.

Vatican authorities claim Pope Benedict XVI was unaware of the anti-Semitic attacks that Bishop Richard Williamson has launched in the past. Is this claim credible? Williamson’s diatribes have been in the public domain for years. In 1989, for example, Canadian police considered filing charges against Williamson under Canada’s hate speech laws after he gave an address in Quebec charging that Jews were responsible for “changes and corruption” in the Catholic church, that “not one Jew” perished in Nazi gas chambers, and that the Holocaust was a myth created so that the West would “approve the State of Israel.”

Williamson also praised the writings of Ernst Zundel, the German born Canadian immigrant whose works include Did Six Million Really Die? and The Hitler We Loved and Why, both considered mainstays of Holocaust denial literature.

A 2008 piece in England’s Catholic Herald documented Williamson’s anti-Semitic record and included a judgement from Shimon Samuels, director of international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to the effect that Williamson is “the Borat of the schismatic Catholic far-right.” Samuels also said at the time that Williamson is “a clown, but a dangerous clown.”

To be sure, the subjects of Williamson’s controversial views are not confined to Jews. He has also suggested that the 9/11 bombings were not the result of airplanes hijacked by terrorists but rather “demolition charges,” has criticized The Sound of Music for a lack of respect for authority and has expressed sympathy for what he described as the “remotely Catholic sense” of the Unabomber for the dangers of technology.

A number of strong voices have spoken to condemn Rome’s rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson and none more so than Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reminded the Pope that in her country denying the Holocaust is a crime. Several Jewish groups have suspended all dialogue with the Catholic Church and, by all accounts, the French bishops are furious. Recently the New York Times questioned why no U.S. or Canadian bishops had publicly deplored the Williamson scandal.

It is also curious that the moderate German Cardinal Walter Kasper was not consulted in this whole damaging affair. Cardinal Kasper is the head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.

Nevertheless, the Vatican moved swiftly to try to contain the widespread damage done by the Williamson affair. The Pope confirmed that he was looking forward to his visit to Israel this May. The Secretariat of State said that Bishop Williamson must retract his views unequivocally if he is ever to serve as a bishop in the Catholic Church. In the meantime Bishop Williamson has been dismissed from his post running a seminary in Argentina and the government there has expelled him from the country.

To make matters worse, the Pope named a new bishop in Austria whose well-known public utterances are as outrageous – he described Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as divine punishment for homosexuality and abortion, and the Harry Potter books as Satanic – as Bishop Williamson’s are evil.

This appointment raised such a storm of opposition in the Austrian Church that the appointment has been rescinded. The irony here is that when a bishop is appointed the diocesan authorities submit three names for the Pope’s consideration. In the Austrian case the Pope rejected the three names and appointed another candidate so unpopular he had to withdraw.

There may well be a silver lining to the affair in Austria. If the Vatican backed down because of opposition at the local level, will this set a precedent for future Episcopal appointments. At the very least it would seem that Rome must take more seriously the views of the local church. In fact, this would be in the spirit of Vatican 11, which urged a more collegial governance for the Church.

Both the fracas over Bishop Williamson and the aborted appointment in Austria beg the question of whether the universal Catholic Church can be competently led by a small group of male celibates isolated in Rome. It is a question that requires an urgent answer.

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Abortion woes for Obama?

Amidst all his economic challenges, President-elect Obama is heading towards a showdown with America’s Catholic bishops over the issue of abortion.

At their bi-annual meeting in November, the president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, said that while the bishops “rejoice” at the election of an African-American president, they should confront him over his support of abortion rights.

President-elect Obama’s views on abortion are reflected in the party platform. The Democrats support a woman’s right to choose. But very significantly the abortion plank was extended this year to include measures to reduce abortion. These involve strengthening the social and economic safety net to enable more women to bring their pregnancies to term.

It would seem at first glance that programs to reduce abortion are something that both sides of the abortion debate could agree on. But that is not the case, at least with the leadership of the Catholic church in the United States and also in Canada.

Cardinal George said in a news conference that while the bishops supported “social welfare programs that come to the aid of the poor,” they also would continue to lobby for legislative and legal restrictions on abortion.

It would seem from this and other episcopal statements that the primary objective of the bishops is not only the reduction of abortions but their elimination.

This reveals the inherent weakness of the bishops’ position. It is simply not realistic to think that the United States (or any other western country) will pass laws and restrictions that will criminalize abortion.

The American Catholic bishops have been at war for a long time on the abortion issue. But, after having spent an enormous amount of political capital on this issue, it is difficult to see that they are any closer to their objective, the elimination of abortions.

Nor do Catholics themselves seem to support the bishops unqualifiedly. Most polls show that about the same proportion of Catholics in the United States and Canada support a policy of restricted abortions as do the rest of the population. And despite the warnings of a number of bishops not to vote for a pro-choice candidate, exit polls found that 54 percent of Catholic voters supported the Obama-Biden ticket. Is it likely that a growing number of American and Canadian Catholics are realizing there is more merit in the gradualist approach (reducing abortions) than the absolutist one (trying to eliminate them altogether). Is it also possible that the pro-choice group is more effective in reducing abortions than the pro-life group is? And what a relief it would be if both groups abandoned their sterile debate on abortions and pooled their resources to reduce them.

It would seem that the key to lowering the rate of abortion is preventing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Pro-choice supporters such as President-elect Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, a practising Catholic, champion wider access to birth control. It’s also been pro-choice elected officials who have fought for insurance coverage of the procedure and the introduction of new and more effective contraception.

Only 11 per cent of sexually active American women forego contraception, and this 11 percent account for half the abortions in the United States. Both Senators Obama and Biden support the comprehensive sex-education programs that seem to work as opposed to advocating no-sex-until marriage programs which do not.

In addition to abortion, the bishops also said they were concerned that President-elect Obama was reportedly planning to overturn President Bush’s directive that banned most research on embryonic stem cells.

As the bishops wrapped up their meeting, the abortion debate continues. But one thing is sure. The absolutist position, eliminating all abortions because they are considered murder, will not be realized now or later in either Canada or the United States. The gradualist position, reducing abortions as much as possible, will carry the day. It is indeed a pity that the bishops do not realize that their absolutism does not help their cause, it hinders it.

However the bishops confront him on the abortion issue, it would seem that President-elect Obama has most Americans, including Catholics, with him on his policy to reduce abortion.

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A tale of two campaigns

This is being written a few days before the American election. Which gives me the perfect chance to go out on a limb. So here goes.

I assume that when you read these lines, the United States will have a new president and his name will be Barack Obama. Why did Obama win and why did John McCain lose?

The answer, in its simplest terms, is that the senator from Illinois had a plan and stuck to it. The senator from Arizona had no plan except to throw spaghetti at the ceiling to see what would stick. Not much did.

Senator McCain began by saying he would be taking the high road. He would eschew personal attacks. He would engage his opponent by arguing the substance of the issues.

The high road didn’t last long for McCain. When his campaign began to slip and slide during the summer and could get neither traction nor focus, a cry went out for help. And help came with a plane full of leftovers from the Karl Rove school of political operatives.

These are the guys and girls who specialize in the politics of personal destruction. Forget grappling with Obama on the issues. Instead, dig into Obama’s past to see what dirt comes to the surface. McCain, to his credit, refused to go after Obama about his relationship with his former minister Jeremiah Wright. But that left in play other blemishes on Obama’s record, particularly his association with a domestic terrorist named Bill Ayers.

Never mind that this was pretty far-fetched. This domestic terrorist had tossed some bombs when – get this – Obama was eight years old. Many years later Obama sat on a board with Ayers at a state university. Unfortunately for the Rovians who had taken over McCain’s campaign, polling showed that these personal attacks on Obama didn’t cut much ice with American voters.

Even on issues of substance, like taxation, McCain refused to engage his opponent. Obama cited chapter and verse to demonstrate that his tax cut would benefit 95% of the middle class. Instead of arguing the merits, McCain said his opponent was a liar, a tired old Republican refrain for any “tax and spend” Democrat.

It’s also ironic to note that McCain’s biggest splash during his campaign (the choice of the manifestly unqualified Sarah Palin) turned out to be in the end one of his biggest mistakes. By election day, some on the Palin staff were knocking others on John McCain’s staff and rumours circulated that Palin would run for the Republican nomination in 2012. A cynical choice had already become an albatross.

Against these fits and starts, with a different McCain theme almost every day, Obama’s campaign emerged from the beginning “steady as she goes.”

Obama and his staff had one paramount objective. They were determined to tie McCain as tightly to Bush as two peas in a pod.

And they succeeded mainly because they stuck to this theme day after day. Eventually the ordinary voter gave up trying to distinguish between the Republican President and the Republican senator. The sins of the one were visited on the other.

The steadiness in his campaign was mirrored in the way Obama dealt with unexpected events like the financial crisis. McCain ran around in circles – suspending his campaign, rushing to Washington, failing to get his colleagues on board – while Obama coolly waited for the facts before making a pronouncement on the crisis.

This is what eventually got through to the electorate. From the primaries through the campaign and the debates, Obama emerged as a thoughtful, eloquent, steady hand. These qualities were illustrated again in Obama’s choice of Joe Biden for VP. Biden was not a headline-grabbing choice (as Hillary would have been). Instead Biden was another steady hand, complementing and completing Obama’s own strengths.

So by the end of the campaign, the 47-year-old Obama seemed steadier, more presidential and more thoughtful than his somewhat irascible and impetuous 72-year-old opponent, and a majority of voters agreed with former Secretary of State Colin Powell that Barack Obama would make “an exceptional president.”

In conclusion I should say that if this analysis turns out to be wrong, at least I’ll have my very own “Dewey Defeats Truman” style souvenir.

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Electoral showdown in Ottawa and Washington

I don’t know a single one of my friends or acquaintances who plans to vote Conservative in the federal election, now less than 10 days away. Yet polls show Stephen Harper so far ahead that there is now talk of a Tory majority.

How did Harper, who everyone agrees is a superb tactician, do it? My view is that Harper, right out of the gate, defined the central issue of the campaign. That issue is leadership. And Canadians by a country mile see Harper as a far more accomplished leader than any of his opponents.

Entering the campaign, Harper wanted to build on his leadership advantage by showing a new side. He would smother one of his main negatives: the image of him as a sinister, overly partisan operator. Ads showed a soft, caring family man and a benign and understanding human being. Never mind that Harper, the one-time Reformer, is so straight-laced, you would think he walks into the shower in a three-piece suit.

Harper’s main opponent, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, also tried to define the major issue for the campaign. First it was the tax on carbon, the Green Shift. But it never caught on. Either the Green Shift was too complex to explain, or Dion hasn’t found a formula to translate it into everyday language that his candidates can use on the doorstep.

After a couple of halting weeks, the Liberal strategists pretty well buried the carbon tax. Instead they began to showcase their team – Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, Martha Hall Findlay, and Gerard Kennedy.

The idea was to emphasize the strong Liberal team as opposed to Harper’s weak and nameless cabinet.

It might have worked but it didn’t. One reason is that the people around Dion, strong communicators and politically savvy, simply brought their leader’s weaknesses into bold relief.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve thought Stéphane Dion is a remarkable person ever since I first encountered him at a speech at Concordia during the last referendum. I further think that if he ever got the keys to 24 Sussex, he could well become a splendid prime minister. Dion is not ideologically driven and he’s as honest as the day is long. No matter. Dion, who lacks poltical street smarts, has not been able to communicate his message in either official language.

The result is that the Liberal vote has collapsed in British Columbia and there will almost certainly be significant losses in Ontario and Quebec. Only in Atlantic Canada is the Liberal vote holding.

Another problem is that, with the exception of someone like Marc Garneau, Dion has not been able to attract star candidates in Quebec or anywhere else. Nor did the debates change the momentum in any significant way.

At this stage, the prospects for the Liberals are bleak indeed. If Dion can’t hang onto the seats he has now – 95 – it is difficult to see how he can survive as leader.

The same judgement could be made about Senator John McCain in the American election. If Senator Obama loses he would almost certainly run again four years hence.

But as this is being written, about four weeks ahead of the election, it does not appear that Obama is losing. The latest ABC-Washington Post poll shows Obama nine points ahead. You have to go back to Tom Dewey’s surprising loss to Harry Truman in 1948 to find a candidate this far ahead at this stage of the election who subsequently lost.

McCain has two problems. So long as the news is about bank bailouts and a faltering economy, Obama has the advantage. In the first debate McCain needed a game changer. He didn’t get it. Obama needed a tie. And in my view he surpassed that.

McCain’s other problem is Sarah Palin. The bloom is off the rose so far as the governor of Alaska is concerned. Even conservative columnists, like David Brooks in the New York Times, complain that Palin’s answers, in the few media interviews she has done, are so incoherent and painful that he cannot bring himself to watch her anymore.

But Palin is nothing if not resilient. She smiled her way through the vice-presidential debate, answered questions when she could, ducked them when she couldn’t, and lived to campaign another day.

It will not likely be enough. The tide is moving strongly toward Obama and it is hard to say what will change it.

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Biden or Palin: who's really pro-life?

When Republican nominee John McCain chose the little-known Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, 44, to be his running mate, he obviously saw three things she would bring to the ticket: she's a woman, she's young and she's pro-life.

Questions about Palin's experience, or lack of it, become more acute when you compare her to Barack Obama's choice of running mate.

There is no question that Joe Biden adds heft to the Democratic ticket. He's a Roman Catholic from a blue collar background, two constituencies in which Obama is weak. He has a solid background in foreign affairs and military policy, after six terms in the Senate, where he chairs the foreign relations committee. He recently returned from Georgia where he was consulted by the Georgian government. As the conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan put it, "he's a senator who doesn't just call foreign leaders – they call him."

The scrappy Biden will also do for Obama what James Carville did for Bill Clinton – act as an attack dog. The Globe and Mail calls his selection a sign of "a welcome determination to take the fight to the Republicans on their home turf of national security."

One element of the Obama-Biden ticket will come more to the fore now that Sarah Palin's pro-life credentials are so high-profile. Both Democrats are pro-choice, despite Biden's Catholicism. Does this mean Democrats will lose the pro-life vote? Not necessarily. Democrats have made a significant shift in their abortion policy. Besides the commitment to choice, their platform explicitly states that there should be a reduction in the number of abortions.

Obama and Biden have statistics to rally in their favour in appealing to social conservatives. For openers, most data now show the pro-choice approach to be more effective at achieving ostensibly pro-life goals: reducing both the number of late-term abortions and the number of abortions overall. Key to the issue is preventing unwanted pregnancies. Pro-choice figures like Obama are the ones who champion wider access to birth control, and it's been pro-choice elected officials who've fought for insurance coverage of the procedure and the introduction of new and more effective contraceptives. Only 11% of sexually active American women forego contraception, and this 11% account for half of the abortions in the US. Obama and Biden support the comprehensive sex-ed programs that have been proven to work. McCain and Palin support no-sex-until-marriage programs which have been proven to fail.

Abortion won't be the major issue in November, the economy will. But Obama and Biden will need votes wherever they can get them, and the pro-life faction may take another look at the Democratic ticket if they realize it's the real pro-life ticket.

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Obama or McCain: who’s best for Canada?

If Canadians were allowed to vote in the American election the result would be a landslide.  According to a Harris-Decima poll, 55 per cent would vote for Barack Obama, only 15 per cent for John McCain.

At first glance, this seems curious. On the one issue that makes many Canadians nervous, Obama is on the wrong side. The issue is the free trade agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and the junior Senator from Illinois has threatened to tear it up. Subsequently Obama has backed off from his tough talk, telling Fortune magazine that some of his trade rhetoric was “overheated and amplified.”

But John McCain’s record in favour of free trade is not something he contrived for the campaign; he’s always held that view.  When he addressed the Economic Club of Canada recently in Ottawa, the Senator from Arizona attacked Obama’s position: “Demanding unilateral changes and threatening to abrogate an agreemement that has increased trade and prosperity is nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls.”

Almost all Canadians would agree with McCain’s views on trade. So why would almost all Canadians refuse to vote for him even if they could? For one thing, McCain seems to have espoused “voodoo economics” which the current president’s father once accused Ronald Reagan of peddling.  At the same time as McCain wants to increase the size of the armed forces and spend billions to modernize their weaponry, he is also promising to cut taxes – a surefire recipe for more deficits.

McCain’s tax policy illustrates another McCain trait – his ability to flipflop. He opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 arguing rightly that they would lead to deficits and were tilted toward the rich. His fellow Republicans attacked him for this so he caved in and now favours making those cuts permanent – and adding to them.

How does McCain propose to spend more and cut taxes at the same time? He says he will do it by cutting “earmarks,” those items of pork that US legislators add to money bills. But they amount to a tiny proportion of federal spending.

Even if McCain’s economic policies made more sense, he would have a hard time. After eight years of Bush lying the country into war and tapping his countrymen’s telephones illegally, 2008 looks like a Democratic year. And the party has nominated a candidate who has the wind in his sails.

Obama is the most engaging and attractive candidate nominated by either party in my lifetime. He epitomizes the multiculturalism so valued by Canadians. As John Ibbitson writes in the Globe and Mail, Americans are thinking seriously about electing a Kenyan-American who has an Indonesian-American half-sister who is herself married to a Chinese-Canadian doctor. So Obama has a Canadian connection.

Perhaps at an intuitive level Canadians understand that the United States (and Canada) need Obama. Recent polling shows that 80 per cent of Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction, a higher number than at any time since polling began.

Whether or not Canadians grasp the specifics of Mr. Obama’s platform, they seem emphatically to buy his message of hope and change.

And so do I, especially after I heard Obama deliver his message at an historic unity meeting in the village of Unity (population 1707), New Hampshire, by the Vermont border.

After driving from Montreal, my friend Jim and I got into the unity rally, where a crowd of 5,000 on a hot sunny day enthusiastically waited the arrival of Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.

They did not disappoint. Senator Clinton promised that she would help Obama and the Democratic ticket in any way she could. Some of her female supporters, seated around us, nodded their heads when she urged them to back Obama and forget any foolish notion of fleeing to Senator McCain.

Senator Obama reciprocated by assuring the former first lady how much he needed her help and that of her husband too. As the two leading Democrats embraced each other and raised their clasped hands high, the crowd went wild. Their party is now solidly united for change.

There was only one incident that left a bad taste in the mouth. A few yards from where we were sitting, a minor disturbance broke out. I looked around and saw a state trooper hustling away a fiftyish man wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt. That didn’t bother me but the expression on the man’s face did. It was a narrow face, lips compressed and red with anger. A face to raise apprehension.

After the speeches I got myself down to the rope line and managed to shake hands with Barack Obama. His handshake was firm, his hands rough.

It was a satisfying way to end a splendid day.

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Liberal leader Dion and the carbon tax

There must be a federal election by October 2009, or sooner if the Harper government falls on a confidence motion in the Commons.

In most Canadian federal elections there is no big issue. The major parties dive for the centre ground, leaving not much substantive difference between party platforms. Canadian voters, I would guess, make their decision on what they think of the leaders. Are they trustworthy, fair, competent, comfortable in their skins? Charisma is not a factor in current federal elections because no leader has much of it.

There hasn’t been a big issue in a federal contest since the Free Trade election of 1988. Could the next federal election be decided on a big issue?

It might well be. The issue currently being weighed on its pros and cons in party backrooms is the carbon tax.

The rationale behind a carbon tax is quite straight­forward: that we should tax less the things we want more of (work, savings, and investments) and tax more the things we want less of (pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, smog and waste). The intention of a carbon tax is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and slow global warming. Such a tax can be implemented by taxing the burning of fossil fuels – coal and petroleum products such as gasoline, aviation fuel and natural gas – in proportion to their carbon content.

This direct taxation is transparent. It can be popular with the public if it’s revenue-neutral – in other words, if the revenue from the carbon tax is returned to voters by reducing other taxes.

Could this be the defining issue that decides the next election? Indeed it could. And the man who is thinking of putting a carbon tax at the centre of his platform is Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

Recently Dion ran the carbon tax up the flagpole for a Toronto business audience. “I’m prepared to fight an election on a richer, greener, fairer Canada, and I’ve said that for the last two years.”

Harper’s Conservatives are equally prepared to fight an election against the tax because they claim it would hurt our economy.

Other critics of the plan, including those in Dion’s own party who are nervous about any tax hike, especially on gasoline, say the proposed tax – to be officially unveiled next month – is confusing, expensive, and politically risky because many voters will see it as a money grab.

But Dion responds that his new tax, estimated to raise about $16 billion, will be revenue-neutral. “What can be clearer? We need to make polluters pay and put every single penny back into the hands of Canadians through the right tax cuts.”

Dion said jurisdictions like British Columbia, which will bring in the first carbon tax in North America this summer, have taken the lead in a movement he hopes will “sweep the nation.”

The latest polls show that 72 per cent of Canadians would support some form of carbon tax.

The Liberal leader also praised Quebec, which imposed a carbon-based tax last fall that pumps revenues back into programs supporting green technology.

The bigger fear among his own caucus members is that Mr. Dion, who at the best of times is not a great communicator in either official language, will be unable to sell his idea in 30 seconds at the door during an election campaign. One caucus member put the problem this way: “Voters do not want to hear how to build a watch, they just want to know the time.”

But the Liberal leader is planning his carbon campaign carefully. He has already dispatched 30-year-old rookie Ontario MP Navdeep Bains to sell the idea over this summer to young people.

One of his staff members, Nick Gzowski – son of the late broadcaster Peter Gzowski – has produced a TV ad about climate change inspired by the Make Poverty History campaign, in which film stars are seen snapping their fingers. In the carbon ad, Liberal MPs are featured clapping. Dion says, “We’re up to the challenge... Are you?”

There’s no question that Dion and the Liberals are playing a high-risk game. There’s also no question that a bold pol­icy to improve the environment and become a world leader in climate change could well engage the imagination of the Canadian voter, and be a political winner to boot.

It depends whether the Liberal leader can clearly explain the time, and not get bogged down trying to build a watch.

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Navigating life with the right map

One day on my radio phone-in show the question was, “How do you get on with your mate driving the car?” Most of the callers, especially the women, recalled incidents where their husbands got lost. The reaction was always the same. First the husband denied he was lost, then he refused to stop the car and ask for directions and finally, in a fit of pique, he angrily refused to look at a map.

That radio program got me thinking about maps. Of course, if you’re lost it’s stupid not to consult a map and figure out where you are. But suppose you don’t have a map. Or even worse, you have the wrong map.

For example, you live in Montreal and for the first time you are motoring to Boston. You get to Boston alright, then the whole trip begins to unravel. You can’t find your hotel. You can’t even find the name of the street your hotel is on. You pore over your map. None of it makes any sense.

Finally, you see a policeman. You stop and show him your map. He looks at you quizzically. He says it’s no wonder you’re lost. You’ve been driving frantically around Boston using the map of Detroit.

But isn’t that how some people go through life, following the wrong map? Is it any wonder that so many are anxious, bewildered, angry and ultimately lost? Of course, now we're talking about an interior map, a map that somehow relates to the landscape of our own psyche. So where do we get this inaccurate, defective map that has led us down so many blind alleys? I think the answer is that we get this map from other people. Perhaps our parents gave us a map that applies more to their needs than to ours. Or we spend a lot of energy trying to live up to the expectations (the maps) of other people.

At the core of the problem is an instinctive sense that we are not being true to ourselves, that we are not living out our natural bent, nor, in the words of Joseph Campbell “following our bliss.” Instead our lives are still governed by external expectations — by these maps drawn by other people.

Think of the tortuous journey of a man who wants to be a writer but instead, living up to his family’s aspirations, has become a priest. Or a woman who wants to be an artist but finds herself doing a degree in bioethics because that’s what her father, an eminent doctor, wanted her to do.

I think the word “hypocrite” is relevant here, not in a moral sense, but from the Greek root meaning “actor”. It’s a dreadful burden to go through life being an actor, following the wrong map.

So how does a person develop his or her own map for the journey? My own experience is that a crisis of some sort may be required to get us on the road to existential honesty. Some of us must hit what AA calls an “emotional bottom” wherein we realize that (with the wrong map) we are powerless, that our lives have become unmanageable and we must reach out for help. It is in this “bottom” that I believe we take the first decisive step in beginning to draw our own map.

It is a marvellous paradox that when we become vulnerable we also become able to grow from the inside. In that sense, God does indeed write straight with crooked lines. Or as the Canadian therapist Marian Woodman puts it, “God comes through the wound.”

There's a type of litmus test to tell whether one lives by one's own map. First, a friend telephones and ask you to a party. You say you’ll get back to her. The reason for your delay is not to consult your agenda. The real reason is that you don’t want to commit yourself in case another more interesting invitation might turn up. Only those who habitually live outside of their own maps are mature enough not to continually hedge their bets but to move in a straight line. Another friend invites you to take on a project. You hesitantly say yes not because the project interests you but because you don’t want to offend your friend. You're not living on your own map. Only those who do so are comfortable saying no when it is the mature response. How and why a person says no says a lot.

Drawing your own maps is not a decision nor an act of will. It's a process which requires awareness, demands patience and is truly liberating.

Blessings on your journey.

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Hillary jeopardizes Democratic win

It is remarkable that the two candidates running for the Democratic nomination are so strong they risk weakening their own party. Imagine another three months of trench warfare between Senators Clinton and Obama. The collateral damage for the Democratic party is that this slugfest can only help Senator McCain now and in the general election next fall.

Because she is behind in so many categories – elected delegates, popular vote, states won – the New York Times has concluded Mrs. Clinton has no more than a five per cent chance of winning the nomination at the convention in Denver next summer.

So is it any wonder calls are increasing that Clinton should sit down, review her situation and bow out. Among others, the distinguished Democratic Senator Leahy from Vermont has urged her to do just that.

But Senator Clinton, displaying uncommon energy, resiliency and resolve, has made it clear she is staying the course at least until the primaries are over in early June. Even her critics admit she has every right to do so.

So what would it take for Senator Clinton to win? For starters, she would have to pull ahead in the popular vote to balance her second-place spot in number of states won and in pledged delegates. Unfortunately for Clinton, almost nobody who has done the math thinks that she can win the popular vote without re-votes in Florida and Michigan.

Mrs. Clinton is more than 700,000 votes behind in the popular vote. With 10 states and territories still to vote (including Pennsylvania which she will almost certainly win), perhaps another six million votes could be cast if turnout is very high.

To get the lead in the popular vote, she would need to win 56 percent of all the remaining votes – or well more than 60 percent of the votes outside of North Carolina and other states she is expected to lose. So far, though, Mrs. Clinton hasn’t won 60 per cent in any state except Arkansas, where she had reigned as first lady.

So any way you slice it, Mrs. Clinton’s chances of winning the popular vote are negligible. And without the popular vote, she is toast. In view of that bleak prospect why does Mrs. Clinton stubbornly insist on soldiering on? Her own people say she’s not a quitter and she will hang in right through the convention. Her critics are not so kind. Some say her real strategy is to destroy Mr. Obama’s chances of winning the general election so that she can compete again in 2012.

Meanwhile, the big winner of this Democratic fist-fighting is Senator McCain. A recent Gallup poll found that 19 percent of Mr. Obama’s supporters said they would vote for Mr. McCain in the general election if Mrs. Clinton were the nominee. More startling, 28 percent of Mrs.Clinton’s supporters said they would defect to Mr. McCain if Senator Obama were the nominee.

In addition, each Democratic candidate is inflicting wounds on the other, wounds the Republicans will rip the scabs off come the general election next fall. Mrs. Clinton says she would have walked out of Obama’s church given the hateful comments of his minister. She also said both she and Senator McCain are qualified to be commander in chief, pointedly omitting Senator Obama. The Obama campaign underlined Mrs. Clinton’s big fib about fleeing sniper fire in Bosnia.

Granted, tempers may cool by November. But dragging out the contest only deepens wounds and reduces time for healing. In nine of the last 10 presidential elections, the nominee chosen first ended up winning the general election. And if the Democratic nominee has been crippled, that would hurt Democrats running for other offices as well. When Mrs. Clinton goes down to defeat how many of her Democratic friends will she take with her?

I freely confess that up until the beginning of this year I supported Hillary Clinton for president. And, if despite all the odds, she is still selected and elected, I think she would make a good president. But I have now concluded that Senator Obama might make a great one. His speech on race relations was the best since Bobby Kennedy in 1968. He has special appeal for young people. He would put a new face on America in the world of nations.

Hillary has waged a gallant campaign. She could have a brilliant future in the Senate. But I believe the time has come, for the sake of her party and for her own sake, for Hillary to gracefully bow out.

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