The Daily Mader – May 3, 2011

The brand is at its lowest point in years. Regular supporters have abandoned it in droves. Can a format change revive this old blog? Find out right here – daily!

WELL THAT HAPPENED: Some night for the Tories. Some night for Canada! I’m trying not to read anything into the fact that all this excitement happened in the first federal election that I wasn’t allowed to vote in. So what does it all mean?

THE KING IS DEAD; LONG LIVE THE KING: The story of the night is – well, it’s that there are so many stories of the night. Let’s start with the Grits. In an ironic way, the Liberal Party stands a better chance of rebuilding now than they would have had the Tories failed to win a majority. If NDP + Liberal > Conservative, the resulting contradictory pressures – from the left, to join with Jack and form a government; from the right, to join with Harper and stop Jack – would have torn the party apart. Those same tensions are surely to blame for the decimation the party received at the polls. Now, the rump can take time to decide whether and how to regroup. Just because they can, though, doesn’t mean they will; and depending on when and how the per-vote subsidy is scrapped, the party might not be able to rebuild even if it wants to.

THE NEW MIDDLE?: As my progressive friends pointed out endlessly last night, the Tories “only” managed 40% of the vote, which means a majority of Canadians voted for somebody else. (The same was true of Chretien, of course. And Trudeau. And… Actually, since the war, only Mulroney and Diefenbaker have won more than 50% of the popular vote.) Be that as it may, the Tories have a pretty good shot at replacing the Liberals as Canada’s natural governing party. For one thing, the West, as Andrew Coyne noted on CBC last night, is now in. Firmly in. They might choose to leave again — once a maverick, always a maverick — but for now I think we can agree that the west is pretty solidly blue. And with a Tory majority — and without a Liberal party to cater to their every whim — the central Canadian establishment’s allegiance will shift, pretty quickly, to the Tory camp. In fact you could say that’s what the past ten years of Conservative politics, and the past five years of Conservative government, have been all about: toning down the party’s western eccentricities and getting central Canadians comfortable with this whole ‘Conservative’ thing. So: solid west + amenable Ontario + new seat distributions + end to per-vote subsidy = lasting Tory majority. Well, almost. There’s one other, volatile ingredient.

VIVE JACK LAYTON LIBRE: Federalists of all stripes were congratulating the NDP for destroying the Bloc. Some were even declaring an end to the sovereigntist movement. Wrong, and wrong. The NDP didn’t out-campaign the Bloc in Quebec. Let’s be honest: the NDP hardly campaigned in Quebec at all. Nor did they out-ground-game the Bloc. So it’s not really fair to credit the NDP, as a political organization, with the defeat of the Bloc, as a political organization – even though NDP candidates beat Bloc candidates across the province. No, the NDP won in Quebec because, by all accounts, Bloc voters voted NDP. Now I suppose it’s possible that the voting majority of an entire province went to bed one night committed soft-sovereigntists, and woke up the next morning committed federalists in search of a federal party that best represented the rest of their social-democratic views. Possible – but likely? Hardly. Isn’t it more likely that the very same people who voted Bloc last election and NDP this election are… still soft sovereigntists? Surely. And it’s just as likely that they voted NDP not simply because the NDP offered them a social-democratic federal alternative, but also because the NDP offered them… a soft sovereigntist federal alternative. In short: the NDP didn’t defeat the Bloc in Quebec. The NDP simply co-opted the Bloc vote.

TWO SOLITUDES: Without a doubt the political map has been re-drawn. But the new shades and borders make a renewed unity crisis more, not less, likely. More than half of Jack’s new NDP caucus is from Quebec; the party holds nearly 80% of Quebec seats. The governing party holds less than 1%. In the Rest Of Canada, meanwhile, the governing party holds roughly 70% of seats, compared to less than 20% for the NDP. There are a lot of dynamics that will determine how that tension plays out. The NDP has room for growth – particularly in the maritime provinces, which are the last bastion of Liberal support, and in the cities. But the NDP’s growth in the ROC may come to be inversely related with its fortunes in Quebec. As Gilles Duceppe warned last night, the NDP, having won Quebec’s votes, must now cater to Quebec’s demands. And a party institutionally required to pander to Quebec will have a tough time growing its base in the rest of a Canada growing increasingly impatient with special status. On the other hand, a Tory government firmly entrenched in Ontario and the West will have to tread carefully if it wants to avoid stoking Quebecois feelings of resentment. Fat chance. Referendum by the end of the decade.

SLOW NEWS WEEKEND: So Bin Laden is dead. Long-time readers know that I am second to none in my neo-conservative support for the war on terror, so please, please save me the machismo when I say that I won’t celebrate the death even of a piece of garbage like him. Harper’s “sober satisfaction” is the most appropriate response I’ve heard. At the same time, I think I understand the cheering throngs in Washington and New York. This is a nation desperate for good news. This is a nation desperate for anything to counter the general, creeping, inexorable feeling of decline. An apparently perfectly executed SpecOps raid deep inside Pakistani territory, like something out of Tom Clancy, allows Americans to feel like they’re still top dog. And of course it provides a nice book-end to the last Tom Clancy-esque moment in American history, ten years ago this September. But of course this isn’t the end of the war on terror, and it’s silly and irresponsible to say so. That’s not because, as a war-monger, I want an excuse to go invade other countries. It’s because this war has never been winnable by military means alone. I stand by what I wrote eight years ago: this is a struggle for human rights and democracy and against terrorism and tyranny. In such a struggle military might has its place; but ultimate victory depends on a renaissance among those who would destroy us, and an acceptance, on their part, of the principle of peaceful coexistance. On balance I think Bin Laden’s death moves us closer towards that point, just as I continue to think that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did the same. But it’s certainly debatable, and in any case we’re a long, long way from the ultimate goal. So: sober satisfaction; quiet resolve.

HATERS GONNA HATE: Lastly, the Royal Wedding. It was marvelous. They’re a terrific couple; it was meaningful, as a renewal of vows between nation and crown; and all the naysayers are perfectly welcome to go suck an egg. God bless them both; God bless us all.

Two Speeches

President Obama and former Vice President Cheney both gave speeches today on the same topic: America’s response to terrorism. The two speeches—whose back-to-back timing was apparently coincidental—constitute a rare and important thing: a thoughtful, lengthy, and well-articulated statement of two contrasting policy approaches to one of the major issues of our time. Others have focused on the political aspect; I think it’s much more productive to read the speeches with an eye not towards the political party the speaker represents but towards the assumptions and ideas—political, philosophical, practical, and moral—that underlie each approach.

Here are President Obama’s remarks, delivered at the National Archives.

Here are Vice President Cheney’s remarks, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute.

Both speeches are long, but I think both are more than worth the time to read and digest. I think the two speeches illustrate an important, perhaps a fundamental philosophical difference between the current administration and its predecessor. I can’t say much more than that right now, but I’ll revisit the issue in due time.

BONUS: If you’re not speeched-out, I also heartily recommend President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame University. The President’s words about the presumption of good faith may sound familiar to longtime readers. His words about doubt should sound familiar to fans of John Milton.

Khadr and The Prime Minister

[Note: I have to tread lightly here, so forgive me if this is a little opaque.]

The Federal Court issued an opinion today ordering the Canadian government to request Omar Khadr’s repatriation from Guantanamo Bay. Two thoughts:

First, the opinion’s logic strikes me as flawed. The fundamental holding is that Khadr’s Section 7 Charter rights have been violated because (a) he has been detained at Guantanamo Bay as a ‘child’ and (b) while at Guantanamo Bay he has been subjected to sleep deprivation prior to interrogation. These alleged acts violate Khadr’s Canadian constitutional rights, notwithstanding the fact that they occurred outside of Canada and at the hands of non-Canadians, because Canadian government officials were complicit by virtue of their interrogation of Khadr in these circumstances. The court concludes that the only plausible remedy is an order compelling the government to exercise its heretofore-prerogative power to request Khadr’s return.

I don’t think the court’s logic follows. Khadr’s claim (as I read it) is not that the government must request his repatriation because his Section 7 rights have been violated; his claim is that the government’s failure to request his repatriation itself violates his Section 7 rights. The court blurs the distinction, but it’s an important one. If the rights identified by the court—detention while a child and sleep-deprivation—were violated, they were violated some time in the past. Khadr is no longer a child, and the allegations regarding sleep-deprivation relate to events occurring between 2002 and 2004. Given that these violations occurred in the past, how does repatriation now—when the violations are not alleged to continue—remedy the wrong? That doesn’t mean there should be no remedy at all; if the Canadian government was complicit in the violation of these rights, it seems to me the appropriate remedy is an action for money damages against the Canadian government. But I don’t think it follows that because Khadr’s rights were violated in the past, but are not being violated now, the Constitution requires the Canadian government to demand his return as a means of remedying the past wrong.

The second thought is a more general one. The court explicitly acknowledges that it is infringing on what is traditionally a prerogative power of the executive branch. Indeed, it can cite to no other case—anywhere in the world—that has infringed on this power in this way. The result is to mandate the appropriate exercise of this consular power; that is, the court’s decision erases any discretion the government has traditionally had, and declares that only one possible choice among the universe of policy choices in this circumstance is constitutional.

We seem to be seeing a lot of that these days—attempts to mandate a particular policy choice by determining that alternative policy choices are unconstitutional. But by mandating a particular policy choice, the deciding court places that choice outside the realm of politics, thereby foreclosing debate and discussion. That’s bad for democracy. There are good, honest arguments on both sides of the repatriation debate. Both sides should have the opportunity, and ability, to affect government policy. And if government policy ultimately strays from popular opinion on a particular choice, the people have an opportunity to alter that policy—at the ballot.

There is a great temptation, always, to declare an opposing policy alternative to be so wrong, so immoral, so contrary to received notions of good government, that it cannot be tolerated by law. But when we succumb to that temptation, we constrict the realm of politics, restrict our collective ability to make policy choices, and reduce the involvement of the electorate in the process of governance. That’s not my idea of democracy.

The Price of Freedom

Warren Kinsella has a (mostly) thoughtful post about the consequences of negotiating with al Qaida to achieve the release of Bob Fowler and Louis Guay. The prime minister was very careful with his words yesterday, acknowledging that negotiation was the best option in the circumstances but maintaining that Canada neither pays ransoms to, nor exchanges prisoners with, any terrorist group. As Warren notes, that leaves open—and points to—the possibility that an intermediary like Mali or Burkina Faso did pay a ransom or exchange prisoners to achieve the diplomats’ release.

I don’t know how to draw the line. I am inclined to the strong position that Canada should never negotiate with these groups, even if that means consigning hostages to their fate. But of course that abstract position bumps up against its human and personal cost, particularly for a DFAIT brat like me. Still, while the nation is grateful today for the safe return of our public servants, I think it’s important to acknowledge the consequence of what has occurred.

Let us assume that some concession was made to this al Qaida franchise to achieve the diplomats’ return. The consequence, inevitably, will be an increase in the incentive to kidnap western officials in the region. The consequence of that will, I predict, be a decrease in the willingness to western officials to travel to the region. It’s important to recall that Fowler and Guay were in Niger on behalf of the United Nations. Insofar as U.N. and western officials become less willing to visit the region, the result will be a decrease in the good that those officials could otherwise do. And the cost of negotiation, therefore, will be the loss of the benefits that our officials could have brought to the region, directly or indirectly, through their active involvement in local humanitarian and good-governance efforts. That cost won’t be borne by you or me; it will be born by the folks in Niger.

Of course, at root this is a result of the kidnapping itself: I suspect you’ll find fewer volunteers at DFAIT willing to go to Niger today that you’d have found a year ago. In other words, the ultimate responsibility for the hindrance of western aid efforts—and the resulting cost to the local population—rests on the shoulders of the terrorists. But if negotiating with terrorists increases, even incrementally, their motivation to take more hostages, then we bear the responsibility for the resulting incremental decrease in the good that is done in the region.

Perhaps that’s a price we’re willing to pay—particularly because we derive the benefit without having to bear the cost. But it’s worth sparing a thought, at least, for those on whom that burden falls.