In politics, loyalty can be dangerous

(October 29, 2020)

NO government — however tyrannical — survives for long, except by consent of the people.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where or when you are, or how much power you wield. If the people withdraw their support, it is game over for any politician, government or system. “Power to the people” is just a reminder of that political reality, not some revolutionary call to arms.

Accountability is the thin red line between order and chaos. It’s what keeps in check the anger of the crowds at mishandled situations or poor government. Things may be wrong, things may be bad, but at some point, the people responsible will pay for what they have done and things will get better.

Lose that accountability, however, and all bets are off. Overnight.

American democracy is on display right now, if not actually on trial. The question is whether U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican party will be held accountable for the gong show that politics down south has become, especially during the last four years.

Historically, we rejected the divine right of kings to rule over us, in favour of democratically elected governments. It is therefore ridiculous for any politician or political party these days to think they have some natural right to govern. Long terms of office, especially, are a mistake in any political system, because power without accountability tends to breed arrogance and entitlement.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was first elected a senator for Kentucky in 1984. Perhaps, like other longtime incumbents, he has been held accountable by the people of Kentucky every election since then, and they have just loved the job he has done. But given the evidence of the last four years, I suspect his continuation in office more likely reflects voters’ loyalty to the Republican party (McConnell became a U.S. senator five years before Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born — and it shows).

In fact, it is fair to say this U.S. election, from the start, is more about loyalty than about issues or accountability — especially personal loyalty to Trump and his version of the Republican party.

Yet, if all politicians were truly accountable to the people, everywhere, there would be no long-term incumbents or safe seats of any political colour. Politics would certainly be much more interesting, as a result — and the people or parties that do a poor job would be punted out.

Without real and regular accountability, however, politicians and political parties come to believe they can govern with impunity, as long as they placate their “base” of forever-loyal supporters. As a result, they promote social, economic, racial and ecological injustice, trampling the rest of us underfoot — for now.

Believing you can govern with impunity is a dangerous, delusional attitude that can only have an inevitable and catastrophic outcome — in the United States, or in any society, anywhere else, including here in Canada.

At some point, the people will inevitably demand accountability. When that day comes, scores will be settled with those who at the moment arrogantly consider themselves the new “untouchables” — those political and economic elites whose positions (they think) are above any challenge from the rest of us.

We need loyalty; of course we do — not to individuals or political parties, but to the ideals on which a just society is founded. If we don’t hold our leaders accountable to those ideals, loyalty to individuals or a political party inevitably will become lethal to the democratic principles that are increasingly under threat in our climate-changing world.

Those ideals include the rule of law. When, in the Canadian West, the RCMP arrest Indigenous grandmothers to protect construction of a pipeline whose existence is harmful to the planet, as well as local ecology, but then stand by in the East and watch non-Indigenous lobster fishers torch the livelihood of Mi’kmaq lobster fishers, there is something seriously wrong with our system.

If the federal opposition Conservatives had wanted to demonstrate responsible leadership instead of childish petulance, they should have investigated the purchase and then construction of that pipeline, which wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Instead, playing to their loyal base in Alberta and on Bay Street, they chose to hyperventilate about the WE fiasco that did little more than wreck a charity doing good work.

Rather than actually safeguarding the finances of Canadians or working toward a sustainable future for everyone, they are playing pointless political parlour games — impressing themselves, but no one else.

This is why young people such as Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier are frustrated and angry, because they find themselves having to be the adults in the room, as the world around them — and their future — burns.

I could wish a plague on the houses of all the immature, irresponsible politicians, but it is already here.

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Pallister’s legacy: not easy being blue

(October 10, 2020)

If Premier Brian Pallister had not chosen (for his own reasons) to dodge Manitoba’s fixed election date law, we would have been headed to the polls in this past month.

The Progressive Conservative government would have spent the last year spinning explanations for its unfulfilled promises. Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have unfolded in the harsh light of pre-election scrutiny. Voters would have had the chance to decide how well that plan worked — or didn’t — as schools opened and the second wave hit.

So Pallister didn’t just dodge a law — he dodged a bullet. Several bullets, in fact. No doubt party faithful have raised a few glasses in his direction over the past six months.

Yet, apart from grimaces at his various gaffes since the last campaign, people on all sides now seem to be waiting for his forecasted retirement. Pallister himself is not behaving like someone who expects to account for his actions — or his inactions — for much longer.

Most charitably, the current throne speech was aspirational. Less charitably, it was delusional. Confident projections of Manitoba’s economic health, despite the ongoing effects of a global pandemic, sound like something normally found on a Twitter feed from the White House. While implying (tongue in cheek?) this outcome would require two more generations of Progressive Conservative government, Pallister did not anoint himself “Premier for Life.”

Instead, he appears to be in “legacy mode,” acting like someone heading into retirement after two decades of public service. For that dedication and longevity alone, he deserves our appreciation — but his legacy as premier is not something he can decide.

For example, the recent self-congratulatory skewing of Manitoba’s last fiscal year toward the black (ignoring all casualties) was stunningly tone-deaf — especially as next year’s outlook, thanks (in part) to COVID-19, is catastrophic.

If Pallister thinks he will be remembered for that accomplishment, along with reducing the provincial sales tax, then someone should at least clean his rose-coloured glasses for him.

Whether he has time to make amends before leaving office remains to be seen, but here is what his legacy looks like to me, regarding a sustainable future for Manitoba:

First, despite a growing global climate crisis driven by continued use of fossil fuels, in the past four years, Manitoba has done nothing substantive to reduce its own emissions. Pallister has fought, undermined and sidelined Manitoba Hydro, instead of finding ways to enhance our production, sale and domestic use of electricity.

Other places buy the electric buses we make, while provincial support for public transportation in Winnipeg has been reduced, and bus service in the rest of the province has disappeared. There are no provincial incentives for EV purchase, nor for installing public charging stations — but there is $2.5 million for a friend’s report.

Second, there is no functional climate action plan in Manitoba, in part because Pallister has politicized environmental protection for the first time in our provincial history. He has consistently undermined previous environmental initiatives, and seemingly regards environmental NGOs (and now protesters, too) as suitable political targets for retaliation when they object.

In four years, there have been three ministers made responsible for environmental affairs (none of whom had prior experience in the field) and two complete reorganizations of their departments – the most in any cabinet portfolio – making real progress impossible in this critical area.

As an example, David McLaughlin’s first post-campaign job for the provincial government (long before becoming head of the public service) was to do the legwork for a climate plan, especially a carbon tax. I participated in an excellent consultation at the Legislature attended by representatives from across all provincial sectors. We found a lot of common ground, but our advice was essentially ignored — replaced by the interpreted results of that bizarre online public consultation, no doubt at Pallister’s direction.

The freestanding pillars that bedeck Manitoba’s Climate and Green Plan make no architectural sense (outside of mimicking some ecological Stonehenge) and have changed nothing.

On Pallister’s watch, we have already lost four years we will never get back, largely because he has chosen to inject his personality (and ideology) into what should be a pragmatic discussion of what we can do together toward a sustainable future for all Manitobans. He has consistently resisted, objected to and refused to collaborate with the federal government on climate initiatives, leaving who knows how much money on the table that Manitobans could have used.

This week, there was nothing substantive about sustainability in the throne speech — just more of the premier’s trademarked flannel.

Brian Pallister’s personal political swan song might involve rewriting the lyrics of Kermit the Frog’s signature song to It’s Not Easy Bein’ Blue, focusing on his legacy of reducing deficits and cutting taxes. But since he was elected premier in 2016, it has been much harder for Manitobans of all colours to be green — and that’s what will be remembered.

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We’re gambling on unlikely outcomes

(July 18, 2020)

PEOPLE have a weird relationship with numbers, especially probabilities. How we view those numbers depends on whether we are considering the probabilities of a good or a bad outcome.

If it is a bad outcome, it will never happen to me. If it is a good outcome, then it’s almost money in the bank!

Millions of Canadians every week demonstrate this kind of reasoning when they spend money they don’t have on lottery tickets and other forms of gambling. Tell them they have only one chance in a thousand to win the next draw, and some would sell their mothers to buy more tickets.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler had the opposite intention, however, when he said storms like the recent one that hit the Brandon area were a “one in 1,000 years flood event.” He meant, “No need to worry, folks” — couldn’t possibly happen again, right?

(No doubt he gave the same speech a couple of weeks earlier to communities in southeastern Manitoba, as they bailed out their basements from a similar storm.)

That same mathematical idiocy leads people to ignore public health warnings about masks and physical distancing, because the risks are so low for them to catch COVID-19. Couldn’t possibly happen to me, they say, on their way home from the crowded beach, lined up (shoulder to shoulder) to buy tickets for tonight’s draw, betting for a win against much worse odds.

People are just not getting the picture that, in our world today, all bets are off. Previous predictions about what is likely to happen are almost pointless. Using probabilities to decide on funding priorities for floods or pandemics is a waste of time, for example, because we don’t (and won’t) have the data sets we need to calculate them properly.

Who knows what it really means, when both the Arctic and Antarctic are warming at a rate several times that of the rest of the planet? When Siberia hits temperatures in July that are hotter than Houston? Those things alone are signs, when it comes to calculating outcomes, that systems beyond our control are also beyond our comprehension, if we rely on the tools of probability.

We need to approach our problems – and our potential problems – differently. If you want a fancy phrase, call it “qualitative analysis.” Otherwise, just call it systems thinking, or applied common sense.

Look at water issues from the perspective of watersheds and their management — and find the points of vulnerability (such as the Rivers dam). What would happen if the dam failed — and how could the system be rejigged to relieve pressure on that dam, not just now, but in the future, given that more extreme weather (drought and rain) will certainly lie ahead, thanks to climate change?

A stitch in time saves nine, we have been told for centuries, but we seem to have forgotten that wisdom. Our probability calculations and resulting economic assessments cost us more in the long run, because they too often fly in the face of common sense — a cheap and increasingly rare commodity in these Trumpian times.

In April, I got a call from a former student, who was watching the pandemic unfold and remembered my course on “Disease and History” at the University of Winnipeg 20 years ago. It was a troubling course that year; we toured the virology lab, and I had to devote an entire class afterward to reassuring students because of the security flaws we observed.

Then I offered an assignment to assess Manitoba’s emergency response to a potential Ebola epidemic — and had to take another class to calm them down because of what they found.

Briefly: Many of the phone numbers on the emergency list were dead; others went to people surprised to find they were on the list. Asked how the airport authority would screen incoming passengers from abroad, we were told not to worry, because there were no direct international flights “from those places to Winnipeg.”

Pressed further, the airport person said anyone who “looked sick” would be put in a separate room – no special precautions — and then admitted the only medical personnel available to do any screening was a veterinarian. At that point, there were no hospitals with HEPA-filter, negative-pressure environments in the city — only the new Canadian Blood Services building and the virology lab had them. And so on!

Of course, the odds were this kind of epidemic would never happen here, and for 20 years, it hasn’t. But whatever experts had been consulted along the way, my students could have easily set up a better system. I only hope some of them eventually did.

From pandemics to the climate crisis, we need more common sense and less preferential gambling on best possible outcomes. Ideology, whether political or economic, has to stop getting in the way of practical solutions.

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