Monthly Archives: February 2005

Do the math

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Looks like Bob and Carol and Alice, but not Ted. Ideas matter, and polygamy is a bad one whose time has come.

Some people deny the doorbell is ringing. The Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Wente wrote, “Until [Tory leader Stephen] Harper brought it up, there was no polygamy debate, except on the outer lunatic fringes . . . ” If true, it wouldn’t be very reassuring, given Parliament’s overwhelming vote in favour of traditional marriage in June 1999, and then justice minister Anne McLellan’s assurance that “the definition of marriage [as] ‘the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others’ [was] considered clear law by ordinary Canadians, by academics and by the courts” and the House was wasting its time on “a motion, on which, I suspect, there will be no fundamental disagreement inside or outside the House.” Yesterday’s lunatic fringe, today’s orthodoxy. But in any case it’s not true.

Polygamy was not brought up on the outer lunatic fringes. A federal department, Status of Women Canada, suddenly offered a big pile of cash money for quick research hostile to it–and not to help pass the long winter nights. For more than a decade, the British Columbia provincial government has been afraid to crack down on open polygamy amongst some of its more eccentric rural residents for fear of what the courts might do. B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant just confirmed that two separate confidential legal opinions from senior jurists lay behind his letter to a newspaper in 2003 saying, “The province has questions about the constitutional validity of the Criminal Code provisions that make polygamy a criminal offence.” Some lunatic. Some fringe. Thoughtful citizens must recognize that the gay marriage saga shows our courts to be anything but shy about following modern human rights logic wherever it may lead. Continue reading

Galbraith biography fails to explain failure of political liberalism in late 20th-century

John Kenneth Galbraith is a big subject in every sense: 96 years old; occupant of prestigious academic and public positions from an early age; bestselling author of more than 40 books; six-foot-eight. And Richard Parker’s John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics is a big book. With, like its subject, much superficial appeal but too little substance.

Given his fame and influence (I myself assigned his American Capitalism as a university text), Galbraith deserves a sympathetic biography. From humble birth in 1908 in Iona Station, Ontario, he rose to Harvard economics professor and public official (including running the U.S. Office of Price Administration from 1941 to 1943 and being John Kennedy’s ambassador to India). Parker also shows his deep involvement in politics as frequent Democratic National Convention delegate and senior adviser to Democratic losers from Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern to Edward Kennedy, with ample, occasionally excessive detail on matters from the New Deal to the New Frontier. And he rightly dismisses, as sour grapes, the frequent academic attacks on Galbraith’s lively writing. Truly, one wishes more scholars had his wit and clarity.

The biography is not uncritical. Parker notes that Galbraith’s accounts of his life include not just considerable reticence on personal matters but more than a few inaccuracies on his career. He had a long, busy life and one forgets things, but his lapses too often burnish his self-image as courageous outsider cold-shouldered by smug establishment. And here one encounters a significant problem to which this biography gives insufficient attention. Continue reading

Liberals need a reminder about the role of Parliament

It is good to hear that Canadians are wise and selfless while Americans are dumb jerks. Especially watching U.S. politics move from one large issue to another, such as structural repairs to Social Security to forestall catastrophe in 2037, while we bicker endlessly about how every province can get more money from the federal government than it contributes. Or our Kyoto Plan, which was due Wednesday but it seems the dog ate our homework.

Don’t worry. The Jan. 17 Maclean’s informed me that “New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell is one of North America’s most influential hipster-intellectuals” then quoted him that Canadians and Americans are “profoundly and unalterably different” in the way they think: “Americans can’t make a distinction between a larger sense of what’s right and their own personal feelings.”

I see his point. For instance, our own government has deftly separated its own feelings of smugness over its Kyoto plan from any larger sense of whether it’s right to claim it has one. Of course the American plan is simpler (don’t ratify, don’t implement) but at least they’re pulling it off. Whereas here we, um, yes, well, a plan you say. How about hosting a big United Nations conference nine months from now and talk about how great we all are instead? Continue reading

Five things you need to know when the inquiry calls

Oh oh. The summons has come. You have to testify before a commission of inquiry. You have done nothing wrong, of course. At least, nothing worth mentioning. Well, nothing anyone was so foolish as to write down. So you’re completely innocent or, failing that, innocent enough for government work. Still, in view of pitfalls dug for you by people insufficiently appreciative of your long years of devoted public service, you deserve a few hints on how to avoid them. No need to thank me. In public, I mean. On an unrelated matter, my consulting firm offers first-rate oral briefings on various matters relating to public relations for, well, what price good advice when the national interest is at stake?

First, let’s talk about memory. The moon has none, and neither should you. It might seem odd that people could enjoy such success in public service with an entirely feeble grasp of detail, but don’t worry. SMIA (Sudden Microphone-Induced Amnesia) is such a well-recognized phenomenon in public life by now that yours will not attract attention. Remember what happened to Bill Clinton, long famous for his capacity to recall a face and a name decades after briefly meeting a person, when that dreaded little red light went on? No, you don’t. You don’t remember any Bill Clinton. Continue reading

Bow down and proclaim fealty to the almighty charter

Canada’s Parliament just reconvened. It might seem a singularly inauspicious time to discuss proper self-government. But I must protest the growing conviction that it is not only wrong but offensive to think the majority should set the ground rules for our political life.

I am pleased Justice John Gomery has decided to remain at the helm of his inquiry. But why has it become the focus of efforts to uphold public ethics while Parliament is again reduced to a carnival sideshow with partisan points for the lucky winner? How did the representatives of the people cease to be the principal guardians of the public purse or any other public interest?

Unless you make your habitation beneath a singularly large and heavy rock, you will have noticed that the debate on gay marriage has made the very notion of majority rule distasteful to the chattering classes. Gilles Marchildon, of EGALE Canada, just said, “To subject minority rights to a popularity contest, I don’t think that’s a way to lead a country.” The minister of state for public health, Carolyn Bennett, recently opined that “minority rights isn’t a place where majority rules.” Buzz Hargrove in Monday’s Financial Post wrote, “it never occurred to me to call an election in my union over same-sex rights … a referendum on minority rights … makes no sense at all ….” He went on, “Protecting the Charter of Rights takes leadership. Martin will need to continue to stay strong on this issue.” Continue reading