Three Canadian Elections That Matter

Today is the 44th time we have gone to the polls to create a new parliament. Today, power shifts from them to us. Candidates preen and promise; glad-hand and grandstand, while the media shines its light on orchestrated pictures and silly distractions. But it’s our moment. In the end, when it counts, what counts is us. We decide.

            Today’s election matters because all elections matter. All campaigns reveal and some change who we are. Where we place our X later this month will determine a host of issues that will shape our future including how we emerge from a pandemic still wracking the world and the climate crisis that may wreck it. But this election could do even more than that.

            Let’s pause to ponder our moment by considering Canada’s three most important elections and the lessons they offer.

1926: Canadians or Colonials

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck, notoriously bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest person in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131 – but he refused to resign. With Governor General Byng’s grudging assent, King continued as prime minister.

Parliament resumed in January 1926. King remained in power through keeping the support of the Progressive Party, comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. In February, he won a by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and so he was back in the House in time to be attacked as corrupt due to customs department shenanigans. By the end of June, it appeared that his government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King sought to dodge the loss by asking the governor general to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled battle at Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around again by this pugnacious colonial. He said no. King resigned the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Now opposition leader, King asked if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had slyly shifted portfolios to avoid resigning and running for office again as ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. He moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. For the first time in Canadian history, a vote of non-confidence defeated a government. An election was set for September 23, 1926.

The campaign began like most with a scattergun of issues and concerns but it quickly coalesced to just one. Who governs Canada? Is it the British appointed governor general or the democratically elected Canadian prime minister? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was again at the centre of it all when a new, indignant nationalist pride swelled Canadian chests. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we? Are we Canadians or colonials?

King took the message to the country. Meighen began the campaign by speaking of tariffs and corruption but soon he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s fundamental question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats.

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference that adopted the Balfour Declaration. It led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster declaring that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers and Britain’s power merely ceremonial nostalgia. Canadians already knew; they had already made that decision.

1988: Bridges or Walls

Brian Mulroney had been ambitiously exploiting his thick rolodex, rich baritone, and Irish charm on the road to political leadership since he was a skinny teenager. In 1984, he led his Progressive Conservatives to an astounding 211 seats and a commanding majority. But his government was quickly mired in a succession of scandals. He needed a hail Mary pass to change the narrative.

In September 1985, a Royal Commission begun by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau issued its long- awaited report. Its analysis of economic problems and opportunities concluded that Canada should seek a comprehensive free trade agreement with the Americans.Despite having previously spoken against free trade, Mulroney became a convert. Canadian and American trade negotiators threw away all tariffs and trade barriers then fought over a litany of exceptions. They initialled the 194-page deal in October 1987.

The House of Commons ratification debate was raucous. Silver-haired Liberal leader John Turner had recently been prime minister for ten weeks and wanted the big chair back. He attacked not free trade but the agreement saying, “This is not a trade deal with merely lower tariffs. It goes beyond that. It’s the Sale of Canada Act.” Just before the summer break, the Conservative majority saw the agreement’s easy passage. But Turner had a trick left up his pinstriped sleeve. He ordered the Liberal-dominated Senate to block the free trade bill. He argued that because it would fundamentally change Canada, an election should be called to allow Canadians to have their say. Mulroney acquiesced and voting day was set for November 21, 1988.

Mulroney tried to make the seven-week campaign about his leadership but Turner said it was about Canada’s sovereignty; it was about Canada’s survival. The campaign came down to two key moments. First, a Liberal television ad showed imaginary American free trade negotiators standing over a map of Canada with one saying there was a line he would like to change. An eraser then began removing the 49th parallel. It ended with the Liberal slogan: “This Is More Than an Election. This Is Your Future.” It was devastating in its simplicity.

The second crucial moment was a two-and-a-half-minute exchange near the end of the second televised debate. Turner stepped from the podium, his steely blue eyes widened, and he boomed: “I happen to believe that you have sold us out.” Mulroney was taken aback, said he was a patriot, and with Turner shouting over him claimed that the agreement was but a commercial contract, cancellable in six months. Turner pounced again, saying that the agreement was much more than that because it related to every facet of all peoples’ lives.

The campaign became a free trade referendum. Many Canadians expressed worry that free trade would steal their healthcare and all that was unique about the country while many business leaders spoke of the economic bonanza free trade would bring. Polls later showed that many people changed their voting intentions two or three times.

An impressive 76% of eligible voters went to the polls. Mulroney’s Conservatives won a majority with 169 seats. The Liberals took 83 and the NDP, which had consistently opposed free trade, won 43.

The Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement came into force on January 1, 1989. Just five years later, it was folded into a broader Canada-U.S. free trade agreement involving Mexico (NAFTA). With the 1988 election, Sir John A. Macdonald’s high tariff National Policy, through which much of the country had developed, was gone. The 1911 election that had rejected free trade with the United States was reversed. Free trade had finally won. We reoriented ourselves to think north-south as the rules shaping Canada’s future were forever changed.

2015: Sir John or Stephen?

Sir John A. Macdonald and Canada’s other founders met in 1864 when the United States was butchering itself in a bloody Civil War. They believed the war’s root cause was the American constitution having placed too much power with the states. They would right that error by creating a country where a dominant federal government had sufficient power to speak and act for all Canadians and the fiscal capacity to respond to emergencies. As Canada evolved, this orientation was woven into its political culture. The federal government organized the creation of railways, canals, and highways that built us; the fighting of wars and a Depression that saved us; and the institution of social programs that strengthened us. Inevitable right – left ideological arguments merely banged at the extremities of our general consensus.

Then came the letter. In January 2001, former Reform Party MP Stephen Harper, and five friends, published an open letter asking Alberta premier Ralph Klein to, “build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”

The letter clearly articulated Harper’s mission: to turn the Canadian consensus on its head. A new Conservative party emerged after years of double dealing. In 2006, the introverted policy wonk with the cold eyes was prime minister. Harper’s objective remained the same. Journalist Paul Wells wrote, “His goal is to hobble not just his own government, but any federal government of any party stripe that will come after it.”

Harper cancelled the national day care program negotiated by the previous government and in its place offered families a monthly $100 stipend. He told provinces he would maintain healthcare transfers but surrendered federal influence on how the money was spent. He cut the Goods and Services Tax by 2%. Harper eliminated the long form census. He cut grants to government scientists while banning them from speaking about their work. These actions, and others, were consistent with a leader who saw the federal government as a beast to be emasculated, starved, and lobotomized.

Harper was re-elected in 2008 and 2011. In the 2015 election, however, he faced the strong opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, leading the NDP, and newly installed Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, whom polls said was in third place. Mulcair and Trudeau led an uncoordinated two-pronged attack on Harper’s vision. They spoke of the federal government undertaking national programs to fight climate change and provide day care. Harper promised boutique tax cuts. He dog whistled to his base about the wearing of the niqab, barbaric religious practices, and “old stock Canadians.” Crude attacks on Trudeau’s movie star looks and apparent inexperience gained no traction.

On October 19, voters created a Liberal majority government. Sixty percent of Canadians had rejected Harper and his decentralized conception of the country by voting for the NDP or Liberals. The firewall fell. The country’s founding and guiding consensus was back. Every time Trudeau put conditions on federal transfers, rallied national support in reaction to natural disasters and the welcoming of refugees, and spoke of new national policies on day care, climate change, and vaccination acquisition, one could almost hear the soft Scottish burr of Sir John’s echo.

We don’t know why individuals vote as they do and our antiquated electoral system often divorces voter intentions from seat counts and power. That’s alright because the reasons that determine a particular election’s outcome are not the same as why it’s important. It’s a safe bet that our most significant elections – 1926, 1988, and 2015 – changed Canada in ways that most voters at the time did not factor when marking their X.

That notion leaves us with a sobering thought. When considering our vote later today, let’s think not just about who we want to win, but more importantly, why that win will matter.

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Globe and Mail on September 4, 2021. If you liked it, you should consider checking my books, my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Elections Matter

Whether we like it or not, after being confined to our homes for a year and a half we are all now off on a haphazard journey. Canada’s 44th federal election has begun. We will now be coaxed, bribed, and flattered. There will be appeals to the logic of our minds and yearnings of our hearts.

            This election matters because all elections matter. Ask Americans if it mattered that Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton. While all elections are important, some are more important than others. Over the next few weeks I will consider Canadian elections that were more significant than others because of the changes they wrought.

The Canadians or Colonials Election – 1926

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck loner with notoriously bad breath and totally bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest man in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131. But King refused to resign. He met with Governor General Lord Byng and said he would try to continue as prime minister with the support of the Progressives, a fringe party comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. It worked, for a bit.

Arthur Meighen

            Parliament resumed in January 1926. Still unable to sit in the House, King had his able Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe audaciously move a government confidence motion on itself! He was interrupted by Meighen who leapt up to move one of his own. The speaker allowed debate on Meighen’s motion. The Progressives supported the Liberals which allowed King to maintain his tenuous hold on power.

            In February, King won a hastily-called by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He was back in the House in time to have his government attacked as corrupt regarding a customs department issue. By the end of June, it appeared that the government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King dodged by going to see Byng. He asked the governor general to dissolve parliament and call a new election.

            Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around by this pudgy little colonial. He said no. The Canadian prime minister could not have the election he wanted. King’s only option was to resign the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Viscount Byng of Vimy

            Now opposition leader, King rose to ask if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had done a political two-step to avoid resigning and running for office again as all cabinet ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. King moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. Then, for the first time in Canadian history, a government was defeated with a vote of non-confidence. Now an election had to happen. It was set for September 23, 1926.

            The campaign had only one issue. Who governs Canada? Is it the British-appointed governor general or the prime minister who had been elected by the Canadian people? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was at the centre of it all again when a new nationalist pride was felt in the breasts of many Canadians. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we?  The 1926 election was posing that fundamental question and demanding an answer. Are we Canadians or colonials?

            King took the message across the country. For two weeks, Meighen spoke of tariffs and King’s corruption and political trickery but then he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

            Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats. In an uncomfortable meeting, Byng asked King to again become prime minister and form a government.

Legacy

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference. Inspired by Canada’s temerity, the other British dominions demanded all that the Balfour Declaration had suggested and insisted that they and Britain be deemed equal. Britain agreed. Negotiations continued until in December 1931 the Statute of Westminster declared that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers.

            Elections matter. The 1926 election determined that Canada would be an independent state.

(If you enjoyed this article, please check my other work at johnboyko.com or my books – my latest is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

The Rigged Presidential Election

Power never sleeps. Those with power usually want more and will do just about anything to get it. Beginning in the 1930s, Joseph Kennedy became one of America’s most powerful men. His fabulous wealth was made through shrewd investing, cornering the rum market, and producing Hollywood movies. His activities created connections with other powerful Americans in the worlds of finance, politics, entertainment, unions, and organized crime. Power, of course, is useless if not employed. In 1960, Kennedy used his power to get his son, John, elected president.

John F. Kennedy was, as they still say in his native Boston, wicked smart. He was also handsome, charismatic, a persuasive speaker, a war hero, and a U.S. Senator. But he was Catholic when that was two-and-a-half strikes against him in most parts of the country. He would also be running against Richard Nixon. He was also smart, a tenacious worker, rapaciously ambitious, and was completing his second term as vice president for the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower. The nomination race would be close and the presidential race closer. Joseph Kennedy knew his son could lose and, for him, that was simply unacceptable.

Joseph Kennedy and his son

Among Kennedy’s investments was his 1945 purchase of Merchandise Mart; a building in Chicago that housed 13 warehouses. It allowed Kennedy to control the sale of goods, primarily those related to building trades, around much of the country. The building itself was the largest in the United States, so big that until 1988 it had its own zip code. His control of Merchandise Mart had led to interactions with unions and through them organized crime figures which, at the time, controlled union membership and union’s massive pension funds.

In the fall of 1959, with the nomination campaign underway and not going particularly well, Kennedy met at his Hyannis Port compound with singer Frank Sinatra. He asked Sinatra to meet with organized crime figure Sam Giancana and persuade him to support his son. Giancana had grown from an Al Capone hitman to become one of America’s most powerful organized crime figures. He agreed to help get Kennedy elected if John and Robert would end their determination to break organized crime syndicates and jail its leaders. He also wanted Fidel Castro gone and the nationalized Cuban casinos returned to their previous owners, one of whom was him. Joseph Kennedy agreed. The fix was in.

In early 1960, with John Kennedy still seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination, mob and union money began pouring into the campaign. Union leaders began voicing support and union rank and file began volunteering in overwhelming numbers. The presidential campaign brought more union and mob money and support.

Election night is a media invention. For decades, no one expected all votes to be counted and a winner declared on election day. Television invented the myth that the winner must be announced quickly, hopefully in prime time, to satisfy sponsors who paid extra for election night ads. They were disappointed in November 1960. State after state was announced for Nixon and Kennedy with many too close to call. Most Americans and even the two candidates finally went to bed not knowing who the next president would be.

The next morning, Kennedy’s young daughter Caroline leapt into his bed and said, “Good Morning Mr. President.” That is how he found out that he had won. But how had he won?

In 1977, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee revealed that on election night, Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daly, had telephoned Kennedy and said, “Mr. President, with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to win Illinois.” Kennedy took Illinois and its 27 Electoral College votes by fewer than 9, 400 votes. It was revealed that a frankly unbelievable 89% of Illinois voters had cast ballots. While Nixon had won many of the rural counties, those victories were overwhelmed by Kennedy having won four times his predicted plurality in Chicago. Kennedy squeaked similar victories due to other strong union cities coming his way that swung other states such as Nevada, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Final tallies had Kennedy win 303 to Nixon’s 219 Electoral College votes. However, out of 63 million votes cast, Kennedy won only 118,000 more votes than Nixon. Nixon and just about everyone else on the inside of the two campaigns knew what had happened. In some Illinois precincts, for example, more people voted for Kennedy than there were people. But Nixon later wrote in his memoirs that if he had challenged the results he would be branded a sore loser and his political career would be over. Nixon did the honourable thing – he conceded.

Power still loves power. The difference between 1960 and 2020 is that power no longer seeks the shadows. It took 20 years to unearth all that corrupted the 1960 election. Now, we are seeing naked power operating before our eyes. We are seeing corruption without apology. We are seeing corrupt power excused and encouraged by a television network and social media platforms supportive of its means and ends. We are seeing heavily armed people incited to protect the power that overtly robs them of all they think they are defending.

All of this means that while Kennedy stole the 1960 election, compared to today, that theft was child’s play.

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China and the Thucydides Trap

As Americans move toward their election and we toy with one of our own we should consider a broader perspective. We should summon the courage to wrestle with the question more important than the scandal du jour and bigger than even COVID or Climate. We should debate the Thucydides Trap.

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general who lived over 2500 years ago. At a time when everyone blamed or thanked various Gods for everything, Thucydides wrote that plagues, wars, and other catastrophes were the result of decisions made by people. Those decisions, he insisted, were based on the same considerations that individuals rely upon when making all decisions: self-interest and fear. His work on the Peloponnesian War laid the foundation for all historical inquiry that followed because it was based on demonstrable facts and empirical evidence. 

Thucydides

In his analysis of the struggles between Sparta and Athens, Thucydides introduced what became known as the Thucydides Trap. That is, when an established world power is threatened by a rising world power, war between them is inevitable.  

China’s power has grown since it discarded communism for a new amalgam of Adam Smith capitalism and Karl Marx collectivism. In 1978, 90% of China’s people survived on less that one dollar a day. That number is now one percent. Since 1978, Chinese capital has built infrastructure in African and South and Central American countries. China owns a growing percentage of American and western government debt. Chinese investors have purchased companies and real estate throughout the western world. Western companies rely on Chinese factories to build everything from kites to computers that are then shipped back and sold for prices that bankrupt home-based companies. Amazon, Costco, and Walmart are essentially Chinese distribution centres. Cash-strapped American and Canadian universities and private schools have re-jigged their business models to become dependent on educating Chinese students who, upon graduation, go back home and kick our ass.

When will China overtake the United States to become the world’s most powerful economy?  We missed it. It’s in our rear-view mirror. If you examine dominance of the world’s manufacturing and trade; Gross Domestic Product by every measure that matters; the size and buying power of China’s middle class and its number of millionaires and billionaires, China has already surpassed the United States.  

We are at our Thucydides moment. Historians have noted 16 similar moments. Besides Athens and Sparta, they include the Hapsburgs and French in the 16th century, the Dutch and English in the 17th, Britain and France in the 18th, Russia and Japan in the 19th, and the United States and Soviet Union in the 20th century. Of the 16 cases of a rising power threatening an established power, 15 have resulted in direct or proxy wars.

The United States has tried to squirm from the trap without war. President Obama tried to contain China with trade and environmental treaties. President Trump impulsively withdrew from those deals while taxing Americans through tariffs on Chinese trade. Obama and Trump were merely tinkering at the edges of the much larger issue. While Americans screamed at and over each other about concerns other countries solved decades ago, the teeter-totter of global power continued to tilt toward China. Canada has been a bit player in the global game, doing what it can to punch above its weight but it’s put in its place when taking actions such as arresting one of China’s business leaders. China has largely ignored American and Canadian noise as it relentlessly advances its long-term project.

Bill Clinton once observed that the history of the 21st century will be written according to how China uses its power. He was only partly correct. The century’s history will more likely be determined by whether Thucydides was right. A Chinese-American war is not inevitable. But unless Americans get over themselves and wake up to what has really been happening while they have been arguing with each other, it will become more likely. And that war, between two nuclear behemoths, will benefit no one.

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Hundred Days and Honeymoons

In the fifth century, a northern European marriage tradition encouraged newlyweds to enjoy a daily dose of mead, a fermented liquid honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Using the only calendar available, the sipping stopped when the moon returned to the wedding day’s phase – about a month. From this custom came the honeymoon.

The concept has grown. We experience honeymoons at work. The new person is allowed silly questions and rookie mistakes. New business leaders are similarly excused if questions reflect a genuine desire to understand and not veiled threats, and mistakes are forgiven if blame is accepted and apologies are quick. Often, however, honeymoons end when a business leader’s personality flair reveals a character flaw; intelligence becomes arrogance, or the pace and nature of change threatens profits or values.

Such is also the case in political leadership. Political honeymoons are Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fault. He became president in March 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Within 100 days of inauguration he presented, and Congress passed, 15 major bills. He began by closing and stabilizing banks and then quickly touched nearly every sector of America’s sputtering economy. Some New Deal legislation worked and some failed but within those frenetic 100 days confidence and investment were rekindled and lives and capitalism itself were saved. Soon, however, even FDR’s honeymoon ended. Critics appeared from the left and right and the Supreme Court overturned his most ambitious initiatives.

Every leader, whether in business or politics, is warned that a honeymoon is as real as it is transitory and so it must be as productive as possible. Since FDR, every newly elected political leader has also been measured according to his or her First 100 Days.

Few leaders have demonstrated those twin realities as clearly as Barack Obama in 2009 and Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Both were propelled to office by charm, charisma, and positive campaigns. Both undertook ambitious agendas supported by the public and enabled by their party’s legislative majorities. Then, inevitably, both saw popularity plummet as their 100 days involved more talk than achievement and performance that couldn’t match promise. Obama watched Republicans take the House of Representatives. In his next election, Trudeau formed a frail, two-seat minority government.

Justin Trudeau has yet to be sworn in but the clock is already ticking on his honeymoon. Like all honeymoons, it offers novelty and excitement. The United States has seen two father and son presidents – Adams and Bush – but this will be a Canadian first. Never have Canadians welcomed a new leader not through the lens of TV news or at the behest of newspaper endorsements but, rather, primarily through the citizenship levellers and engagement enablers of YouTube videos, tweets, selfies, and blogs. Not since Pierre Trudeau, have Canadians embraced a celebrity politician as they would a movie or rock star.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

(Photo: beaconnews.ca)

Our prime minister designate followed a masterful campaign with a positive election night speech, a fun meet and greet with surprised Montreal subway commuters, and an articulate, confident press conference. Even those who did not vote Liberal seem invigorated by his promise of change in policy and tone; shown most blatantly in his inviting premiers and opposition leaders to the climate conference in Paris. Much of the country, in fact, much of the world appears giddy with expectation. A Canadian journalist has, only partly in jest, asked the international media to stop ogling our prime minister.

The Liberal parliamentary majority could guarantee a productive 100 Days with actions and bills addressing the environment, murdered and missing indigenous women, tax reform, infrastructure spending, an end to Canadian military action in Syria and Iraq, and more. We should enjoy the ride but remember our history. The 100 Days will end and the honeymoon won’t last. Soon enough, Canadians will stop sipping their honey and Mr. Trudeau may not seem quite so sunny.

If you enjoyed this column please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com (This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Ottawa Citizen on October 29, 2015)

Rocks, Guns, and Unicorns: Today’s Campaigns Are Child’s Play

The longest Canadian federal election since 1872 is finally over. Thank goodness. The attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau began before the writ was dropped with TV ads declaring him not ready and others showing wildly out of context quotes and clips. The New Democratic Party and Liberals launched their own ads and assertions that were equally nauseous in tone and questionable in accuracy.

The long Canadian campaign was nothing, of course, compared to the American four-year presidential marathon that became real fully two years before party nominations. Canadian negative campaigning also pales in comparison. Consider the House Benghazi Committee that was ostensibly created to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Libya in September 2012. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy recently bragged that the committee’s sole purpose is to destroy Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Today's Negative Campaigns Are Child's Play.

(www.faircitynews.com)

Negative ads and practices are used because they work. They have always been with us. In many ways, they are tamer now than before.

Consider Burr and Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was the primary force behind the Constitution’s ratification and as the country’s first treasury secretary he saved the United States from bankruptcy. Aaron Burr was a senator and then Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. In 1804, Jefferson made it clear that he would drop Burr from the ticket in the upcoming election and so Burr ran for governor of New York. He lost by a wide margin; due mostly to vicious negative attacks launched against his character and lies told about his record. He blamed a number of people including Hamilton.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. In a New Jersey field they paced it off, turned, fired, and Hamilton fell. One of America’s most respected founding fathers died the next day. Burr returned to Washington and, with Jefferson’s blessing, served out his term as Vice President.

Canada’s history is less violent. In 1861, Conservative John A. Macdonald was running for re-election. Former friend and Reform Party candidate Oliver Mowat arranged to run in Toronto and, as was legal at the time, against Macdonald in his Kingston riding. Mowat had a number of scandalous allegations made against Macdonald and printed in newspapers owned by members of his party. (The Reform Party became the Liberals.) Included among those blatantly and unapologetically partisan papers was the Globe. It was owned and edited by Reform party leader George Brown.

Macdonald arranged his first public meeting. Mowat hired a group of young men who spread themselves around the back of the hall. When the meeting began, they instigated fights. They threw rocks at those on the stage. Macdonald jumped into the fray and threw punches along with the rest. Macdonald won the fight and election and later become Canada’s first Prime Minister. Mowat was later elected Ontario’s premier.

In the twentieth century, newspapers and money continued to wield enormous power. In 1950, young Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy was running for the Senate. His multi-millionaire father, Joe Kennedy, used various committees to quasi-legally funnel several million dollars to his son’s Quixote effort. Joe saved the Boston Post from bankruptcy with a $500,000 loan and then, two weeks before the election, saw the influential paper flip from supporting the Republicans to endorse his son. Kennedy defeated the far more experienced Henry Cabot Lodge by a narrow 52% to 49% margin.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson used one of the first negative TV ads in 1952. A carnival barker fields questions for a Republican candidate who, because he has two heads, offers two contradictory answers. The ad was clever but the Republican’s Eisenhower won the election.

http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952/platform-double-talk

Things have become increasingly worse. It was believed that forcing candidates to say that they endorsed a particular ad would help. It didn’t. Some thought the backfiring of certain ads, such as the Conservatives making fun of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s face in 1993 would help. It didn’t.

Today we seem to be stuck with campaigns that demean democracy rather than elevate it. Canada’s prime minister, for instance, based much of his 2015 re-election bid on trying to divide and frighten Canadians. In the campaign’s dying days he spoke only of taxes and used a sophomoric game show gag to make his point while saying things about his opponents that were obviously untrue. It was embarrassing.

Meanwhile, the United States has Donald Trump saying demonstrably false and ludicrous things while firing shot gun blasts of negativity and yet polling far above his opponents. America also has the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United v. FEC ruling that declared money is free speech. It allows folks like the Koch brothers to buy Congressional seats in ways that would make 19th Century Robber Barons blush.

A glance back suggests that parties, candidates, and the wealthy are not about to change. Maybe it’s up to us. Maybe we need to become a little more discerning and ask the next question of candidates who insult us by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites and slogans. Maybe we need to reject those who use negative smears in ads, speeches, and debates by using social media to fact check and fight back. Truth may beat trolls. Maybe we need more journalists with the courage of comedians such as John Oliver to take on issues that corporate-owned media or ideological mouthpieces avoid. Maybe we need to respect our citizenship by more intentionally exercising it. We could begin by insisting that candidates and politicians address more than just boutique tax cuts meant to buy us and, rather, tackle substantive issues that challenge and improve us; all of us. We can do it with our tweets and blogs and donations and attention and attendance and, most importantly, we can do it with our votes.

I may be naive. But that’s okay. Hope is never a waste of time. I sincerely believe we can have an uprising without a coup. We can have a revolution without guns. All we have to do to be better is want better. All we have to do is demand better. In this way, history’s lessons will not be that resistance is futile but that better is necessary and change is possible. We’ll see.

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Your Circle of Loyalty and Responsibility

We are the enlightenment’s willing slaves. It began when a number of 17th century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently and with variations on a theme argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion was perfectly fine until the trenches of the First World War, extermination camps of the Second, and then, more recently, climate change’s dreadful reality suggested that perhaps positive progress is not so inevitable after all. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line. Perhaps Aboriginal philosophy, the spiritualism that existed long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and his cohorts insisted they were wrong, were on to a more fundamental and enduring truth. Maybe it’s all about circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Native North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in Native circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

It's All About Circles

(Photo: http://www.dreamstime.com)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Americans and Canadians are now embroiled in political decision-making. The air is smudged with attacks and promises and the media is focused on tiny, distracting issues while portraying the elections as horse races. The options being presented by the various candidates and parties are really asking voters to consider circles of loyalty and responsibility.

Some are saying we should be loyal only to our immediate families and ourselves. Everyone of a different class, race, region, or nationality be damned. Others are arguing that we should feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country with those outside its borders on their own. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kicked down the ladder. Still others go further. They argue that we are human beings who share the planet and so should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all, including Earth itself.

When boiled to its essence, the American and Canadian elections are proving that the enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that aboriginal spirituality is right because it is really all about circles. It is about the size, the volume if you will, of our personal circles. So where do you draw your circle of loyalty and responsibility?

Consider that question when you hear a candidate speak of building a fence or helping to save Syrian refugees, supporting those who deny gay or women’s rights or those trying to extend them, propose we all pay a little so we can all be healthier or pay for only ourselves. Think of those using dog whistle code words such as “True Americans” or “Old Stock Canadians.” Where is their circle? Where is yours?

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Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

I am Donald Trump’s biggest fan. I follow politics like other folks follow sports and Mr. Trump to me is like NASCAR to my brothers. He’s loud, draws crowds, there’s too much money, and a tumbling wreck is not just inevitable but the main attraction.

Like all comedians, Mr. Trump knows a joke’s three step structure. First he establishes the premise. Mexicans are terrible people, rapists even, and the Mexican government that can’t seem to do much of anything else has its act sufficiently together to gather its worst people and ship them over the border to steal jobs, commit crimes, and take welfare money from Washington. It’s a great premise because everyone knows that Mr. Trump built his wealth upon buying up companies and laying off people and a TV show where he fires people, has been to court several times for skirting the law, and has not just avoided repaying loans by declaring bankruptcy three times but also accepted more money in government tax breaks and hand outs than the Mexican family picking oranges in California’s blistering heat could ever imagine. It’s his absolute blindness to irony that renders the joke’s premise so brilliant.

Then comes the punch line. When he becomes president of the United States, that thought alone turns my giggles to laughter – but wait for it – he will build a giant wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Hilarious! But there’s more. He will leave a door in the middle; perhaps some place in Texas, for the “good Mexicans” to enter. Now I’m laughing out loud.

But then, like in all the best jokes, comes the tag. All great comedians use tags. It’s the line that comes when the laughter begins to subside and everyone thinks the joke is over but then it turns back on itself like a snake eating its tail. Mr. Trump’s tag is that he will have the Mexican government pay for the wall’s construction. All right, now I’m on the floor.

Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

(Photo: www.nydailynews.com)

Canadian elections are too often bereft of such comedy. We are left only to marvel at the shamelessness of the attack ads or wait for some candidate to commit a career-ending gaffe by saying the same insensitive, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, or puerile thing in public that they tell core supporters in private.

But there is good news. The Rhinoceros Party of Canada is back. Among its campaign promises is that the moment you mark your ballot for a Rhino candidate you will experience an orgasm. If elected, it promises an orgasm a month for every adult in the country. I love it. The promises are as serious as Mr. Trump’s wall and as likely to be fulfilled, but that’s the point.

The Rhinoceros Party was formed in Quebec in 1963. Its name was inspired by Cacareco who was a real Brazilian rhinoceros that in 1958 was run to demonstrate electoral corruption and, surprising those who pulled the stunt, actually won a seat on São Paulo’s city council. The Canadian party elected Cornelius as its leader. He was the rhinoceros who lived, blissfully unaware of his fame, or so I assume, at Quebec’s Granby Zoo.

The party said that Canadian unity was being compromised because the Rocky Mountains blocked our view of each other. They pledged to plow them under. The project would have the added bonus of creating jobs. They promised to pay off the national debt with their VISA card. They would then pay that bill with their Master Card and that one with their American Express, with the assumption they would be out of office before the mess was cleared up. To make Canadians more free they promised to repeal the law of gravity.

The party’s most famous candidate is Guy Pantouffe Laliberte. In 1980, he ran as the Rhino candidate in a Quebec riding and won three percent of the vote. Lalibert went on to found Cirque du Soleil.

Now that the election has been called, I am looking forward to hearing from the Rhinos. past slogan,

All comedy fails when it runs into the bright light of logic and the law. Consider Mr. Trump’s promise to end American citizenship for children born of illegal immigrants. It’s a great applause line at rallies until one considers that the American constitution’s 14th amendment says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Trump has never let the law, logic, or the truth for that matter ruin a good gag.

Mr. Trump ceases to be funny when he stirs emotions among those looking for someone to blame for their lot or yearning for a nostalgic past that never really existed. Those acting on Trump’s urgings to be less tolerant and more angry would be akin to those leaving a NASCAR race and driving home at 200 miles an hour. Sorry folks, but the show’s over now and it is time to again act like intelligent, responsible adults.

There is no worry about such tragic repercussions with the Rhino Party. Elections Canada eliminated the party in 1993 due to a number of financial rule changes that made its existence untenable, but it’s back. For the 2015 election they have promised to privatize Canada’s military and nationalize Tim Horton’s. It demands that Lake Ontario’s 1000 Islands be counted as it suspects that the United States has been stealing them. In order to have Canada’s capital city closer to the centre of the country they propose to move the seat of government from Ottawa to Kapuskasing. They will start a lottery where the first 105 winners receive a Senate appointment.

So let’s enjoy the American presidential campaign and the Canadian election. Donald Trump will flare out because, just like Americans saw through the funny but sad spectacle of Sarah Palin they will see through him. Trust American intelligence and appreciate the show while it lasts. And as Canada’s party leaders plod along trying more desperately to avoid mistakes than say anything inspirational, lets giggle along with the Rhinos. After all, their platform says that if they ever actually won they would demand a recount.

If you enjoyed this half as much as I enjoy Mr. Trump and the Rhinos, or even if you think I’m off my rocker for taking serious things as jokes or jokes as serious things, please offer this column up to others to see what they think.

Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.

Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

(Photo: www.thewritingreader.com)

Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

 If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through Facebook or other social media and consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com