Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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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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