Whatever happened to conservatives?

Neoliberalism’s Dark Path to Fascism
It’s hard to believe these days, but in many nations, conservative political parties were once actually the defenders of the nation’s interests, of the greater good, of the public, and of the state. They weren’t always the corporate shills, protectors of billionaires, privatizing libertarians, lobbyist puppets, Talibangelist lapdogs*, and racists they all seem to be today. No, once upon a time they actually cared about their country and its people, not just themselves and the firms that own them.

Look at the Republicans in the USA. It the Republican party under Lincoln that fought racists and went to war for equality in the 1860s. It was the Republicans under Eisenhower who created NASA, expanded Social Security, passed the Civil Rights Act, and enforced integration. It was the Republicans under that arch-villain/Republican Richard Nixon who brought the Environmental Protection Agency into existence. And early Republicans added important amendments to the US Constitution.

But then came President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), whose twisted vision of the USA and its government was radically different from anything before (at least within the mainstream of US politics). This wasn’t a new vision: he had voiced it as early as 1964 in his speech “A Time For Choosing” when he said,

“…the full power of centralized government” this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.

Reagan despised government, despised public service and public assets. He was determined to hand America over to private corporations, to the capitalist elite, and reduce government to the role of rubber stamping or denuding laws to met corporate needs. He would vilify government again and again in his career and laud private enterprise as better, more efficient.

Reagan believed in an economic fantasy spawned by an arch-conservative economist named Art Laffer called “trickle-down economics” (sometimes disguised in the innocuous-sounding “supply-side economics” – see Jonathan Chait’s book, The Big Con).

Reagan assured the voters that tax cuts to the rich and to corporations would be used to fuel the economy and create jobs rather than what they actually did: line the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders, while making the rich richer. Nor did it matter to Reagan that many of these corporations moved their HQs overseas to avoid paying American taxes or having to obey American labour laws, and then moved their jobs overseas to take advantage of cheap foreign labour, all for the sake of profit.

In 40 years since Laffer’s wild ideas became public policy, in those states they have created deficits, massive economic inequality, and financial disasters. As Morris Pearl wrote in The Guardian:

Each and every time state or federal governments have tested Laffer’s trickle-down theory, deficits balloon, rich folks hoard their wealth at the top, and average Americans suffer.

Not that neoliberals care if anyone “average” suffers from their policies. They only care about how these policies benefit the rich. In 2019, Donald Trump risibly awarded Laffer the “medal of freedom” — further debasing the medal’s credibility in his tiny hands — as he and the GOP continue the long-debunked fantasy of “trickle-down economics” by cutting taxes to the rich and corporations again and again, at rising cost to the masses of American people. The economic inequality in the USA is at an all-time high as a direct result of neoliberal policies.

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The slow death of media credibility

A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

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Are facts inflammatory?

CensorshipInflammatory is the word I was told the Connection used this week in rejecting an ad by mayoral candidate John Trude*. That ad challenged some of the claims of one of his opponents by stating what actually happened at council this term in four areas: open and accountable government, the hospital redevelopment, working together with our municipal neighbours and sole-source contracts on major expenditures.

All of Trude’s comments are backed up by facts taken from the media, town agendas and town staff. Take for example, sole sourcing. You may recall back in 2014 that deputy-mayor candidate Brian Saunderson promised when elected he would oversee…

Change the purchasing policy to ensure there can be no sole sourcing of any contract for goods or services over $25,000, no exceptions.

But as the Trude ad points out, that never happened. In fact, just for sole-sourced legal consultants, the costs have ballooned every year of this term to more than $1.8 million: 2014 $268,000; 2015 $374,000; 2016 $414,000; 2017 $761,000,  and invoices are still coming in until at least year-end. By 2019 they will have topped $2 million – and that doesn’t include costs for sole-sourced consultants to create reports to justify the secretive Collus sale or the sole-sourced PR consultant hired to sell the town’s anti-hospital stance.

Is this inflammatory? Or simply truth that someone on the Connection staff didn’t want the public to read? How can the public engage in a conversation about these or other issues if the media hides them?

I suggest you ask a member of Trude’s campaign for a copy to decide for yourself. I’ve read it – it’s not an attack ad, it doesn’t call anyone names or make the sort of accusations and false allegations some candidates have been making as they go door-to-door (one council candidate was even served with a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer for doing this!). The ad simply states the facts – unlike some posts on social media about local issues and candidates, many of which spin conspiracy theories wildly distant from any semblance of factuality.

Since when does local media decide what the voters get to read or see or hear in an election campaign? Since when does local media decide for the voters what is appropriate? Isn’t that using the media’s position and power to unfairly influence the election in favour of one candidate?

Was the decision made because of personal bias or associations? Regardless of why, it’s still censorship.

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Why not to run for council

Silly season starts this fallA recent article shared with me on Facebook, titled “Five Terrible Reasons to Run for Municipal Officelists many – but far from all – of the reasons people should not run for office. It’s a good read and, since the silly season will be on us soon enough (some of The Block are already in campaign mode), you should pay attention if you plan to run for office next year. Knowing why not to run is as important as knowing why you should.

The author of this piece is Danielle Klooster, self-described as, “… a leading Alberta provider of professional community development, economic development and strategic business planning consultation and support…”

Klooster’s five terrible reasons are:

  1. “People are ready for change!”
  2. “I’m going to clean house!”
  3. “I’m going to fix the [insert pet peeve such as snow removal/pot holes/bike lanes] situation!”
  4. “We have to get rid of the current corrupt/secretive/self-serving/incompetent bunch!”
  5. “I’m going to make lowering taxes my number one priority!”

She then fleshes out each element with her explanations why you should not run on these. Overall, it’s a pretty good exploration of the inappropriate motivations behind some people’s decisions to campaign for municipal office. Locally, of course, there have been other reasons, not least of all The Block’s decision to collectively use the municipality and your tax dollars to enforce and fund personal agendas and private vendettas.

The Block was especially big on number four – they built a whole campaign on innuendo, rumour and lies about the former council and promised to “drain the swamp…” but instead, they became the alligators. This council quickly proved itself more corrupt, secretive, self-serving and incompetent than any we’ve seen in this town previously.

They still harbour conspiracy theories about the former council and some now-departed staff and blame them for everything (Yes, I know: The Block blame their own faults and mistakes on someone or something else, all the time because taking responsibility is an adult act).

Time has shown the public that the former council was none of these things, and in fact The Block have shown themselves time and time again to be the most closed, unethical, and corrupt councillors in our town’s history. In the past three years, The Block’s single positive accomplishment has been a bylaw that makes it illegal to throw birdseed on your porch or driveway. Compare that to the lengthy list of positive, pro-community actions and accomplishments last term.
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The symphony of government

A good government in operation is like a symphony: disparate parts, dozens of different instruments and performers, each in their own space and place, all working together under the benign management of a conductor. When working in harmony, they are a delight to hear and see. There’s no “me” in a symphony: it’s the result of a remarkably efficient collaboration and trust of everyone involved.

To be good, to sound good, they all have to watch the baton, to play and move in syncopation and in harmony. They all need to be tuned to the same pitch (A440). Singers need to listen to the cadence, the pitch, and sing in tune and on time. There’s a lot going on in every bar, so they all pay attention. They all need an implicit trust in one another that – without each one having to oversee his or her neighbour – they all work together to achieve a common goal. It is a remarkable experience.

But a symphony is not simply an auditory experience: it’s something to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced. That is quadrupled if it is an opera, or choral piece. In the video above, the metaphor shines: here is Verdi’s familiar Anvil Chorus from his opera, Il trovatore, performed by the The Royal Opera Company. It’s a stunning production that looks as lovely as it sounds. Who can help but be moved by it?

That’s what good, effective and efficient government should be like: hundreds of pieces moving together towards a common goal under a single conductor. A symphony, metaphorically speaking.

Life coach Michael Hyatt has a blog post on why life is like an orchestra, but it applies to government as well. He says there are five components to an orchestra:

  1. Diversity;
  2. Space;
  3. Pace;
  4. Common purpose;
  5. A plan.

Ultimately an orchestra is judged by its results: the musical performance, and for that performance to achieve its goal (that is: audience appreciation), all those parts have to be in synch. Most of the audience pay little attention to the individual performers, to the space or diversity or the parts listed above: it’s the music that they attend to. It’s the final result that matters.

This is equally true of government: most people pay little attention to the processes, the procedures, the codes of conduct, the staff reports, the flatulent ruminations of sole-sourced lawyers or the dreary pontifications of CAOs. They see only the result: whether the community is working well. Is it safe? Clean? Are there places to work and play? Schools? Are taxes affordable? Are sidewalks and roads in good condition? Can I drink the water from my tap? Is there housing? Are there jobs?

Imagine for a moment the conductor in the performance above waving his or her hands randomly. Imagine different parts of the orchestra trying to play different songs. Imagine the performers striking the anvils at will, each on his or her own time. Imagine the instruments playing at different time signatures. Or different sheet music entirely. It wouldn’t be a symphony: it would be a cacophony.

Such is the state of Collingwood’s municipal politics today. While council should be the collective conductor acting through the mayor, we instead have multiple conductors, each trying to force the orchestra (staff) to play their own tune. While Mayor Cooper tries to wave the town baton in time with the municipal music, the deputy mayor has gone rogue, madly waving his own baton to a tune only he can hear, while behind him the interim CAO props up Brian’s arms to control the motions according to his own corner-office theme song. And there are sole-sourced lawyers and consultants brought in to wave their batons at the same time. It’s chaos.

Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 60.

This is also translated as an imperative: “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish.” (Lin Yutang translation). In other words: delicately. With subtlety and attention. Carefully. Not the hamfisted stumbling and fumbling of The Block. Not with the flailing clumsiness of the deputy mayor and interim CAO duo.
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Brian the comedian

ClownFollowing the success of Collingwood’s Comedy Duo, whose act has taken them on tour across the nation on the taxpayers’ dollar, our Deputy Mayor has entered the ring as our jester-du-jour. And since the Duo’s main act was sidelined recently by not being allowed to keep a snout into the FCM trough, it looks like Brian’s act may be the foremost comedy skit in the council burlesque. Who would have thought a lawyer could also be a clown?

At a recent Council meeting (June 12, 2017) he had the audience in stitches with his new routines. And not just his always-risible English gaffes when he starts his speeches with “moved by me…”! You can watch it on Rogers TV starting at 1:22:23 when he presents a request for a staff report (cunningly not included with the meeting’s agenda so as to keep the element of comic surprise alive when it was presented!).

Watch and listen. Brian uses words like “accountability” and “transparency” like they are something he suddenly discovered and we need to get to them now. Like frickin’ right now. And staff better give us a report about them because these are hot stuff!

Too bad the camera didn’t pan out to catch the baffled looks on the faces of his minion Block members. Heads were shaking and rattling sounds could be heard from them. Blockheads had never heard him use those words before, at least not since the election campaign and certainly not directed at them. The Block stands for secrecy, for scurrying behind closed doors to discuss policy, to making decisions via email not in the public. For conniving and conning, for ignoring the public and blaming everyone else.

Yet after two-and-a-half years in office, here is Der Leader suddenly telling them he wants to see more “accountability,” more “transparency.” They must have piddled themselves in terror. What, they wondered, do those words mean?
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