The perils of speaking truth to power

(March 11, 2021)

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, received the US$1-million Dan David Prize last month, it was not only for his lifelong work in public health. He was also honoured for “speaking truth to power.”

Speaking truth to power is not only a thankless task; it is a dangerous one. Power rarely appreciates the conversation – something Fauci knows only too well.

It’s why 50 journalists worldwide were killed in 2020. And being an environmental defender is even more dangerous: in 2019, 212 were killed.

Thankfully, in Canada, the risks are not so high for either journalists or environmental defenders. But power — though constrained by the rule of law — still reshapes those laws to make it harder for truth to be spoken, and punishes people who speak it anyway.

Unfortunately, under Premier Brian Pallister, Manitoba has become a riskier place for environmentalists and journalists to advocate for a sustainable future. For some reason, it seems there is no more sensitive nerve for Pallister than the one connected to the environment and sustainable development. Even when he is given the opportunity to receive federal money, whether it is from a carbon tax or sustainable infrastructure funds for municipalities, or public transportation subsidies, he balks or refuses to co-operate.

Further, any criticism of Pallister’s government or its policies — however reasonable and well-deserved that criticism might be — is immediately considered to be both a personal affront and a politically motivated attack. I also suspect anything less than enthusiasm from his MLAs is viewed as disloyalty — perhaps even enough to get cabinet ministers sacked and their departments reconfigured.

As for environmental affairs, no other sector of the Progressive Conservative government has had its cabinet responsibilities rearranged (read: mangled) three times in five years, each time then given to a new, rookie minister. It appears that just when the green minister starts to get a handle on her hastily rearranged portfolio and makes progress in co-operating with local environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), she is replaced.

Even when Pallister’s heart is in the right place, his head is somewhere else. For example, after months of consultations, hype and dramatic build-up, the 2017 release of the Climate and Green Plan, in all its many-pillared splendour, left ENGOs and everyone else bewildered by what Pallister thought was the way to make Manitoba into Canada’s greenest province.

Pallister was clearly hurt by this general lack of applause. So, after eliminating Green Manitoba and removing energy conservation (PowerSmart) from Manitoba Hydro, Pallister’s government (supposedly as a cost-saving measure) then decided to defund the main ENGOs in Manitoba.

These actions were clearly driven by ideology more than frugality — the amount of money saved by defunding the ENGOs, for example, is laughably small in comparison to other spending decisions that the Pallister government routinely makes on a whim (new vaccine, anyone?).

Our provincial ENGOs are not on the side of any government; nor should they be. They are on the side of Manitobans, present and future. Increasingly grim climate numbers demonstrate that no government, anywhere, is doing enough, quickly enough, to make the kind of difference a sustainable future requires. So giving Pallister’s environmental paralysis a thumbs-down doesn’t automatically mean giving a thumbs-up to the NDP, the Liberals or even the Green Party.

But despite the (literal) price Manitoban ENGOs have paid for criticizing the Pallister government’s decisions — where criticism seems to mean anything less than rapturous applause — they continue to do what they can, for all of us.

This is why three main ENGOs in Manitoba — Green Action Centre, Climate Change Connection and Wilderness Committee — applied for and received funding (with other partners) from the Winnipeg Foundation to draw up a blueprint for what Manitobans could do together, working in practical ways toward the achievable goal of a sustainable future.

(Launched on Feb. 18, you can find The Road to Resilience at the group’s website, climateactionmb.ca).

Speaking truth to power doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict — but if power can’t handle that truth, then those who choose to speak it anyway will likely be in trouble. In Pallister’s Manitoba, it seems to mean limits on both freedom of speech and action, according to the currently phantom Bill 57 (the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act), the contents of which we still await.

It also can mean losing government funding, the elimination of valuable programs, and just fighting to stay afloat, rather than being supported in educating Manitobans about sustainability and resilience.

But in a free and democratic society, that truth needs to be spoken, both to keep freedom and democracy alive and to keep tyranny in check. We should respect and honour those who have courage to do this, whatever the price — and perhaps listen to what they have to say.

For a change.

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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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