Monday, September 30, 2013

Accentuate the Positive

I've been giving a lot of thought on what to talk next about on the blog, and with news of the Saskatchewan Party's newest round of attack ads, I thought that would be a good place to start. But first, we need to have a small detour before we discuss attack ads themselves.

Recently, Brian Topp had a memo come out about what he felt went wrong with the British Columbia provincial election. As many of you are likely aware, the BC NDP led the polls for months, and then stumbled at the finish line as the BC Liberals were re-elected with a majority government. Part of Topp's memo explained the nature of attack ads used against then leader Adrian Dix, and how the process of 'nasty politics' seemed to change the outcome of the election.

Topp also explained that Dix had several other gaffe moments, which prompted Topp to say that the Harper Conservatives have the right of it when it comes to restricting access to the leader and prescreening media questions. Effectively, Topp conceded that a lot of basic decisions were wrong with the campaign; but it is his admission that the party took the high road to failure that we're concerned with.

Which bring us finally to the question: Is it always wrong to run a negative ad against your opponent?

The answer, surprisingly or not, is it depends.

"Attack Ads" tend to conjure images of saying that someone is a compulsive liar, or that they happen to eat babies on the weekend. Effectively, when you think of an attack ad or a negative ad, you tend to imagine that it is usually pandering to the lowest common denominator.

For example, let's look at an attack ad against Michael Ignatieff from 2011.

Wow, that's scary isn't it?

That is the general perception that we have of negative ads. Selective quotes from the person taken out of context (notice that while they are quotes, the ad doesn't mention the context they were uttered under.) Effectively, the idea that anything anyone says at anytime can come back to haunt them in a negative ad.

For example, let's say Person A asks Person B for their thoughts on the latest violent installment of the "Saw" movie series. Person B explains that "Under those kinds of conditions, you can understand the need for extreme violence without prejudice against a person like that." In the context of the conversation, it makes sense.

But taken out of context, it could mean anything.

Who is this person? What is extreme violence? And so on and so forth.

These are the kinds of negative ads that people tend to think of when we discuss the idea of whether you should use a negative ad or not.

Unequivocally, these are also the kinds of ads a party shouldn't run. They are fact distorting, highly misleading, and often focus on the personal rather than policy.

Stick with the Ignatieff punching bag, let's look at an ad the NDP ran against him in 2011.

Now, this is an ad that walks an interesting line, in that is straddles both the personal and policy. While perhaps a little too hokey, which does make it feel a bit more negative than it should, the ad doesn't use quotes from the Liberal leader or make reference to his background prior to politics. Rather, it highlights a simple truth: Ignatieff missed a lot of the Parliamentary session.

As Jack Layton said during the debate, you can't expect a promotion when you don't show up to work.

While this is undoubtedly a 'negative ad', it stands in stark contrast to the one ran by the Conservatives. The 'scary' background music that would fit in with a horror movie is missing, as are black and white photos that do the same to the leader. It also ends with Jack Layton offering a solid alternative, pledging to be there (referring to in the Commons) when elected.

Does that make this less of a negative ad?

In my opinion, it does. Negative ads focuses solely on one person and their party; they almost never include a sound proposal or rebuttal from the party that is running the ad. For the Conservative one, for example, Harper doesn't pop up at the end and condemn the things Ignatieff had said. It doesn't tell us Harper's opinion at all, or the position of his party, rather it just focuses on tearing down the Liberals.

Whereas the NDP ad, shows a fault with the Liberals and offers a rebuttal on how they would do things differently.

Another example of this is the ad the NDP ran against Harper in the last election.

Again, it uses the same tact that we saw against Ignatieff. Remind people of the banner of accountability that the Conservatives were elected under, while showing that things are continuing much the same as they were under the Liberals. Then offer the alternative.

Effectively, as stated above, these ads while highlighting a negative aspect of a party's platform or leadership style, at least offer a constructive discussion on moving forward. It's not just doom and gloom, like you see with the Conservative ads.

Lest people think I'm excluding the Liberals, here's one of their negative ads from 2011.

While a bit less dour than the Conservatives ads, it still falls into the same prat falls. Even worse, it runs into selective history.

It mentions the "unprincipled deal" by the NDP and Conservatives to bring down Paul Martin's government in 2005. Neglecting that the deal came about due to Liberal corruption allegations with regards to the Sponsorship Scandal. So yes, some things that progressive Canadians wanted to see came off the table, but the reason for it was fairly valid as no one wins when you prop up a perceived corrupt government.

The ad also fails to rise from the 'attack ad' mentality, in that the Liberals say they have a plan but offer no glimpse of it in the ad. For that, you have to go to the website.

But another Liberal ad from 2011, shows that they share some idea of how to attack with doom and gloom as well as the Conservatives.

Pretty close to the one ran against Ignatieff, more or less. Though, this one scores better points in at least presenting proper context. The ad does raise valid points and concerns, even with the doom and gloom messaging, but it fails to say what the Liberals would do instead. 

A clearer picture is starting to form, I hope, by this point. Effectively, there is a difference between a 'negative ad' and an 'attack ad'.

Negative ads highlight an issue, either from policy or leadership style, while offering a rebuttal from the party running the ad to say what they would do differently. Furthermore, 'negative ads' also focus on remaining as close to the issue as they can; they don't rely on hearsay, or out of context remarks, but do rely on presenting an issue in truth.

Attack ads highlight an issue, either from policy or leadership style or past remarks, and are used solely to demonized, destroy, and demolish the character of the person being portrayed. As such, attack ads often contain out of context remarks, innuendo, and as close to libel as you can get without getting sued.

So, with that in mind, let's take a look at the ad the Saskatchewan Party is running against Cam Broten.
(My apologies for not being able to embed the video, but YouTube seems to not allow it for this one)

If you just want the Coles' Notes version, effectively the ad is saying that Cam continues to support the 2011 NDP policy of resource sharing with First Nations and ties him to the leadership style of Dwain Lingenfelter.

So, with our new understanding of 'negative' VS 'attack' ads, what category does this one fall into?

Well, by our judging criteria, it is an 'attack ad'. It highlights a policy, while avoiding commenting on the approach taken by their own party. It also, unfairly, tries to tie Cam to Lingenfelter, arguably one of the least popular Saskatchewan NDP leaders in recent years. I have a bit more to say about this particular point, but let's save that for a moment and do some fact checking on this attack ad.

It is true that Cam supports revenue sharing with First Nations, as was party policy during the 2011 election. However, if you go to MBC news (link), you'll see that Cam also says "it remains to be seen where the party will go on the issue."

The way I'm reading that is that the policy will remain but it will be retooled. I've commented before on how the problem with the policy was that it was too loosely defined (link), which allowed the Saskatchewan Party to play on fears, hearsay, rumours, and lies to define what 'revenue sharing' meant.  As such, Cam might be saying that the policy will be revisited and better defined for the next time the NDP trots it out in a policy booklet. (Which is how I'm reading this.)

The second way, which seems more unlikely, could be an admission that some in the party are grumbling about the policy and it's possible it could be defeated during Convention. While it isn't completely uncommon for party membership to reject parts of their leader's own policy ideals, I don't see it being said this way. Rather, if anything, I think it would be more likely to see party membership put it on the backburner until the policy is defined clearly and able to stand against Sask Party fearmongering.

The other major problem with this ad is that it falls into the Sask Party ill-defined zone. What I mean by that is, that revenue sharing is such a foreign concept to some people. It doesn't really explain what it is, or why they are seemingly against it, and why it makes Cam a horrible leader for supporting it.

If you checked the link regarding the last time we talked about revenue sharing, you'll know that I strongly feel racism played its part in letting people's fears run wild over the policy. And to a degree, that's what this ad is doing again. It is subtly playing on the convention 'fear of the other' that resonates so strongly in a person's mind. Not that I'm saying the Sask Party is racist, mind you, just that the ad is conjuring that kind of fear that invokes a response based on fear of the other; so whether they meant it or not is immaterial, as they did mean to invoke this kind of fear response.

That brings me to the little tidbit about tying Cam to Lingenfelter that I mentioned earlier. And this is another one of those moments where we can see a clear definition between a negative ad and an attack ad.

I say that because the NDP, myself included, have condemned the Saskatchewan Party and Brad Wall for their ties to Grant Devine and his government. It is a tact that people in Saskatchewan are familiar with. The difference here is that tying Wall to Devine is a much clearer case than it is tying Cam to Lingenfelter.

After all, Wall cut his political teeth in the Devine Government as a Ministerial Assistant. Whereas Cam, had already served as a MLA for a year prior to Lingenfelter's return to politics. Furthermore, Cam backed Deb Higgins for leadership over Lingenfelter during the race to replace Lorne Calvert. Effectively, the only real ties you can make for Cam to Lingenfelter is that they were in caucus at the same time. Whether or not Cam took any political mentoring from Lingenfelter, in the way I'm sure Wall did from Devine and the Ministers he served (one of whom, John Gerich, served two years in prison for his role in an expenses scandal) is beyond my knowledge.

Yes, I suppose that was a bit of an 'attack ad' approach there with that fact. But, what's good for the goose, right? After all, if they can tie Cam for his connection to the NDP's former leader, surely I can draw on Wall's connection to a former PC Cabinet Minister; right?

So, let's think on that for a moment. Was that distasteful? Or was it a valid point?

While it was valid, in context to the discussion, I don't think it's the kind of thing you put in an ad. But at the same time, is there an argument to be made that if one side is drawing on negative connections in the past the other side should do the same?

If anything, both sides would end up fighting to the middle. At the very least, it might change the channel and force both sides into developing a new talking point.

I'm going to close this post on this.

I think we've established that there is a difference between a 'negative' ad and an 'attack' ad. And while negative ads may strike some as distasteful, they add to the context of the political discussion. They also serve as a means of informing voters, and making sure that parties are held account for their record.

It is when these ads stray from record to the personal, when they become 'attack' ads that they begin to do disservice to the political process. And while there may be some desire to return hit-for-hit what is given to you, I think in the long run that doesn't help anyone.

But the correct approach isn't to take the high road 100%; on that much, Topp and I agree. But rather, the approach is to craft 'negative' ads that highlight the reasons why the other party shouldn't be given the trust of the electorate. Focus on record, focus on policy, and focus on what you offer as an alternative.

It comes down to this: If you ad is calling on rationality, on facts, and on record and asking people to make a change, you are doing it right.

If your ad is playing to emotion, bending the truth a little, and asking people to condemn a specific person or party, you're doing it wrong.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

We Also Accept First-Born Children

Source: CBC News: Saskatchewan Tuition Increase Highest in Canada
Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: Paul Gingrich: After the Freeze: Restoring University Affordability in Saskatchewan
Source: Macleans OnCampus: Sask. NDP Commit to Tuition Freeze
Source: Macleans OnCampus: Saskatchewan Party Pledges Affordability
Source: News Talk 650: Wall Reacts to NDP Post Secondary Platform
Source: Saskatoon Homepage: UofS Salaries Questioned Ahead of Projected Deficit 

In a continuing trend for the government of Brad Wall, Saskatchewan's tuition rates soared higher than a NASA based program for this academic year. Since removing the tuition freeze when first coming to power, the news of Saskatchewan's higher learning facilities raising tuition rates has been as regular as morning breath.

It seems with each passing academic year, the universities find themselves in need of raising tuition levels. It feels a bit like the Weimar Republic; just keep printing money and devaluing the currency until we sort the mess out. Only instead of deflating, we're inflating the cost of higher education.

But Saskatchewan's increasing tuition rates were national news this time around, as our province  had the single largest increase of 4.7%. This even outpaces the standard increase levels of 3.4% noted by sociologist Paul Gingrich; you can read Paul's full paper on the subject by checking out our sources at the top.

So, we're outpacing ourselves it would seem on the race to the bottom.

We also managed to make programs for graduate students more expense (4.9% more expensive) and programs for international students more expense (6.7%). This has also taken Saskatchewan's tuition for an undergraduate student to the SECOND HIGHEST in Canada; with an average of $6,394.

Let's do the math on that.

So, a 4 year undergraduate degree for tuition costs: $25,576 in tuition alone. Add on to that the monumental cost of textbooks (Rarely do you find a textbook under $100, and some classes require you to purchase between 2 - 5 books, which you will sometimes rarely use), the cost of housing, the cost of food, recreational expenses (include alcohol for the party-hardy crowd), and we're probably look at between $35,000 (on the low ball) and $50,000 (high ball) for a four year degree.

 And to date, what has the Wall Government done to help students out?

Let's start with the good, as there's only one thing to talk about there. The Wall Government expanded the Graduate Retention Program; by allowing students who stayed in Saskatchewan to receive up to $20,000 of their tuition back over a four year period.

The problem with the Retention Program, and as an habitually unemployed graduate I can speak with some authority here, is that it will rarely be used by the student to pay down their debt load. If a graduate is staying in Saskatchewan, but continually can't find employment, that rebate money is going towards food in their belly and a roof over their head...Not paying down their student loan debt.

It's sort of like the infamous 'beer and popcorn' complaint about the Child Tax Credit idea. Sure, we want our graduates to spend that money on getting out of debt, but there are other expenses that jump to the front of the queue, especially expenses that involve staying alive.

So, let's move on to the bad.

In 2007, the epitome of Wall's post-secondary education program was to give all high school graduates $2,000 over four years to knock $500 of their yearly tuition. So, looking at the average, Premier Wall gives new students an average tuition of $5,894 a year...And only if they're coming directly from high school to university.

Though, Wall apparently does understand post-secondary education to a degree. After all, in 2011, when responding to the NDP's platform of reinstating a tuition freeze, Wall had this to say:

"We’ve seen huge increases when freezes inevitably come off."

Well, he's certainly living up to that expected vision of what happens when a tuition freeze disappears. Wall also warned that tuition freezes place a university in trouble if a government doesn't live up to it's funding commitments under a freeze.

Were we not paying attention when he was making these comments? He basically laid out, par for the course, what was going to happen to post-secondary education. A untrustworthy government backing out of financial commitments to the universities, and huge increases to tuition in a post-freeze era.

Does this mean every time Wall rings a warning bell about something, we should be nailing down the hatches and waiting for when his government brings that exact scenario to fruition?

After all, Wall's 2011 election platform talked about increased funding to post-secondary institutions; yet we've heard for the last two years, if not more, how the government is not providing adequate funding. After all, the UofS is currently looking for ways to shave 10% of its current budget to avoid a potential $40 million dollar shortfall by 2016; and they're doing so by looking for people to layoff.

I need to have a side note here, just for a moment. Wall's underfunding of post-secondary institutions is only part of the problem. The other part is the administration of these post-secondary institutions. Ilene Busch-Vishniac, President of the University of Saskatchewan, made waves when she announced that hers (and other key administrators) salaries, benefits, and bonuses were not on the chopping block.

In addition to her $400,000 a year salary, Busch-Vishniac also receives the following perks:
  • $12,000 per year allowance for a vehicle
  • $7,500 per year allowance on financial and tax assistance, 
  • 6 weeks of paid vacation a year
  • 1 Rent-free home (though, technically, it's a mansion and it's located on Campus)
  • $253.49 a month for health and dental insurance plan
Then there's the other senior administrators who have similar perks. The UofS has defended this move by saying that top administrators amount to just 0.36% of the overall budget; and then tacks on the standard line about needing perks and top pay to 'attract and retain' professionals.

Am I the only who thinks that attracting and retaining professionals is good when that it tacks onto actual professors?  I think most people would be fine with recruiting and paying a world-class researcher or expert in their field to teach at the University; but we start to run into issues when we apply this designation to administrators behind the scenes.

Yes, we want competent people running the administration of the school; there's no debate about that. But do we really need $400,000 + perks of competence? When Peter MacKinnon started his term as President, his yearly wage was $200,000. And over less than a decade, it has doubled for his predecessor.

And given the perks included, especially a rent-free house, there's very little room to argue for 'living expenses' here. An administrator could survive EASILY on $200,000 a year. Hell, an administrator can survive COMFORTABLY on $100,000.

Ultimately, when students talk about where to go, they don't discuss the Administration. They discuss the programs, the faculty, the atmosphere, and the tuition. The current administration at the UofS is putting the horse before the cart; you shouldn't be talking about attracting and retaining exceptional administrators, but rather attracting exceptional students.

The point of education is to educate; not fatten the school's purse and dole out the largesse to administrators. If that's a university's goal, here's a suggestion to potential students, DON'T GO THERE.

Now that we've shared equal blame with the universities, let's get back to Brad Wall.

His government has talked about funding post-secondary institutions, but consistently missed the mark on actually providing this funding. It's a good soundbite during an election, of course, but quickly forgotten once in government. After all, there's more important things, like banjo playing, to be done.

If Wall is going to continue to allow tuition raise to rise (Ontario is still ahead of us, maybe when he talks about Saskatchewan being number one, this was on his hit list of items), then he at least needs to follow through on funding promises to the universities that will allow them to reduce tuition.

There's a lot more I could say about this issue, but I'll wrap it up with this thought.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right. The fact that we educate our children up to grade twelve on the taxpayer dollar (another education sector this government is currently failing) supports this argument. Education doesn't just enrich the person who undergoes it, but their entire community by creating skilled individuals who can contribute their knowledge back.

When you make education impossible to access, you are condemning a generation. Not just economically, but personally. Education enriches, its one of the few things in life that rarely does harm to a person. Denying education creates problems; while providing education creates solutions.

And that's a message we can all support.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Self-Determination as Inequality

This may be one of the more philosophical postings I've made on the blog, and that's alright. It was a thought keeping me awake, and it did come from my sleep deprived musings at 4 in the morning; so, hopefully it makes sense. I do apologize slightly for waxing poetic more than usual, but philosophical writing styles just lend themselves to a touch of that. 

It would seem to me, that the greatest injustice foisted upon humanity is our own existence. We have no say in the manner of our creation, yet we are expected to spend upwards of sixty years trapped within our own consciousness. It is not a decision to be made lightly, this question of existence, yet the person it impacts the most has no say on the matter.

To compound matters, we have no say as to the nature of our existence. It is bad enough that we do not chose to exist; yet nature mocks us further by determining the path of our lives. Self-determinists will argue that this is incorrect, but there are matters of which nature casts the deciding vote past our initial conception.

If one could chose the nature of their existence, no doubt the world would be a much different place. Racism would have been stamped out years ago, as newborns could chose to exist as the predominant race or the "well to do" race in their respective nations; rather than exist as one of the persecuted minority.

Poverty would be a thing of past, as newborns would chose to be born to well off families; rather than end up being born to a family that barely had the means to look after its current members, let alone a child. 

Homely people would cease to exist, as surely newborns would choose to be as comely as possible. No one under a certain height, a genetic disposition to a fast metabolism ensuring perfect weight, and the proper facial features to ensure that one is always considered breathtaking. Not to mention the destruction of sexual inadequacy; as all women would be endowed in a pleasing fashion with regards to their bust, as males would never again wonder whether or not they "measured up".

All of these factors determine your lot in life, or at least your enjoyment of life, yet they are factors that nature robs from us. How can one believe in self-determination when such fundamental choices are denied to us? 

For those who find themselves lacking in the genetic lottery, life will always be a reminder of what could have been. Why should person X look the way they do, and I look the way I do? Why should person Y be born to wealth and a modicum of power, while I have nothing and struggle for recognition? 

Why indeed.

Of course, one can look both ways at these problems. Sure, I was born with brown hair instead of blond, but person Z was born with a predisposition to early baldness. Or I may have been born with mismatched facial features, but person W was born with a large purple birthmark that covers half of their face.

I have it bad here, but others have it worse. But regardless of this realization, we will always look at the better and envy it more than we will look at the worse and be thankful. 

And this is because of the fundamental lack of choice in our existence. In a world full of rich and varied choices, we seek reason for why things are the way they are and not some other way instead. You didn't get the promotion because your co-worker put in extra hours to earn it; or your co-worker is related to the boss. Two different possibilities for the same problem, which suggests that somewhere and somehow a choice was made to affect the outcome. 

Such is the matter of our birth; infinite possibilities and combinations, yet we become who we are with no real input. Self-determinists will again argue that the choices we make in life will ultimately determine who we are, but this neglects that conditions that are forced upon us.

Say you were born with a hunchback. Imagine your early life as a hunchback; do you consider what school would have been like? Do you consider the possibility of losing friends your non-hunchback self made? Do you consider that you may have had no friends at all? Do you consider that you would not have joined the sports team, or drama club, or gotten involved in any sort of extra curricular activities? 

We may make choices, but our choices are first determined by the limits set upon us by nature. If we are excluded due to deformity, our choices are limited as well. If we are isolated, not only do our choices diminish, but our personalities are forged by those conditions and not the choices we make.

An excluded person, for whatever reason, may become a harder person. Much in the same way that had they been included, they may have become a much more social person. Yet, this was not a choice that they made. The choice to be exclude came from those who did the excluding; it was a decision that existed outside of the self that had profound impacts on the self.

How can we say we have self-determination, when so much of our lives are determined independently of our own choices? 

Or perhaps, that is the true nature of the universe. Humans do indeed possess a degree of determination, but not self-determination; rather, we have the ability to determine the lives of others but not ourselves. 

Parenting is perhaps the most profound example of this. When a person is found lacking of moral character, or human decency, how often are the parents blamed? If a person is considered selfish, or petty, or another moral stain it is often laid at the feet of the parents. Before we are truly conscious of the decisions that we make, our parents guide us and mold us. 

They lay a groundwork for the type of people we will become, and that foundation is one of choice. A parent who raises their children to be inclusive, for example, may raise a child who doesn't grow up to become the school bully. Whereas a child who doesn't receive this lesson, or one who receives no lessons at all and exists as Freud would say as "Creatures of the Id", would have a greater chance of acting out in a negative manner. 

Again, a choice not made by us, is fundamental in determining who we become. These basic foundations will be with us throughout our lives, as the case is strong that very few people ever actually achieve complete "change" at a fundamental level. These first steps set us down a path that we will continue to walk.

Consider the differences now when one thinks of the genetic lottery. A child born to poorer parents will face things that a richer child will not. This is not necessary "bad parenting", as a child born to poorer parents may or may not receive just as much love and comfort as their richer counterparts, but rather adversity. 

A poorer child may want for food; which in turn may cause their learning to suffer, which in turn diminishes possibilities outside of school. And all because they inherently drew a shorter straw than someone else upon their birth. 

How can you say that this person has self-determination? They cannot will food into their stomach that they can't afford; nor can they conjure career opportunities that they aren't considered experienced for due to a poorer educational experience. At no point did they choose to experience this, yet this was what life had given them through their sheer existence. 

Self-determination is a fallacy; but a useful one for those who seek to blame inequality, poverty, and other social ills on the people experiencing them. Self-determination argues that you are the master of your own fate and that you alone are to blame for your failures and to cheer for your successes. Ultimately, Self-determination is the perfect answer for inequality. 

But as we've established, the choices made by others in our lives affect our very choices by limiting them. Self-determination makes it sound as though our choices are limitless; I can move to British Columbia and become a lumberjack if I am unemployed here in Saskatchewan.

But if you do not have the money to get to British Columbia; or are afraid of chainsaws, your ability to followthrough on this choice is impossible. You cannot call a decision you cannot make in reality a choice; it is the illusion of choice, and it does not mean we have self-determination.

John Donne wrote that "no man is an island, entire of itself, rather each is a piece of the continent" and that is a very true statement when we consider the choices of others in our own lives. The choices of others affect our ability to choose, and it is high time that we accept this fact.

However, it is a harsh truth. To accept it means to accept that poverty and inequality are of our own making; and that we choose to allow it to continue. Harsh truths, however distasteful at first, are necessary as the first step towards recovery.

And it is through this that one can actually make a choice and finally be a mover in one's own life rather than an object: you can make the choice to act.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I'm Mad As Hell, But Apparently I'm Still Going to Take It.

Recommended listening: Shades of Grey - Billy Joel

Of the list of things I said we would talk about, this wasn't one of them. It is an issue we have touched on before, and one that I am sure we will talk about again, but I have felt a need to sit down once again and put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper and get this out into the world. Perhaps, to a degree, it is folly to focus on something so abstract when there are much more serious and looming issues in our world today; but it is where my mind is focused, and one only moves on from finally expressing a thought and getting it out into the world.

The issue I speak of is disillusionment.

Since an early age, I have always been fascinated by politics. I don't know quite while, but I suppose it is the same way some children are drawn to sports, or music, or any other hobby that exists. And while at times in my youth, I didn't always understand the stakes or the players, I was no less fascinated by them. I'm sure I'm one of a handful of thirteen year olds in 2000 pleading with his parents to let him stay up to watch the election results come in.

When I entered university and declared my major as political studies, I had a group of friends who tended to debate and spar with me on the issue of politics. It's hard being the only 'declared' NDPer in a den of Liberals, but it was certainly easier than dealing with the numerous Conservative leaning youths I had met both prior to, during, and after my university career.

As the years have gone by, I've watched several of my former political sparring people withdraw from the contest. We went from a group that constantly talked politics, to a group that only mentions it when we're less of a group and more of a pair. In fact, my former strongest political sparring partner, promptly ended all political discussions a few years ago with the declaration that he no longer cared.

This is should not serve as a surprise to anyone. Politicians continue to talk about getting youth involved, about preparing the next generation to rise up and play roles in future administrations (as both supporters, candidates, and bureaucrats.) But increasingly, the next generation is answering with shrugs and blatant apathy.

I have tried to understand this, and there are moments when I swear I've peered through the fog and seen into the abyss that fuels this indifference and disillusionment with the political process. But, like Nietzsche warned, when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. By which, I will state openly, that even I have had my doubts and felt the pull of disillusionment on my shoulder.

However, I must admit this openly and firmly to all who bother to read this: This apathy is not a product of my generation, or the one that succeeds me, but rather it is far reaching and flows back to previous generations before me.

I've talked before of my parents on this blog. They're both non-political to the point of my of my generational compatriots; unless they're trying to get my goat about something they've heard on the news, then they'll have a bit of fun and make me think they lean a certain way. One of the most earnest conversations I'd ever had with my mother on the subject of politics elicited this phrase from her:

"Why can't they just do what they said they were going to when they wanted to be elected?"

In my younger naivety, I tried to explain how agendas were blocked and cajoled by opposition parties and things of that sort. In my somewhat older age, I find that excuse wanting. If I were asked that question today by her, or anyone else, I'm not entirely sure how I would answer it.

The practical part of me would make the argument about money, and how certain objectives couldn't be achieved if previous governments ran up huge debt loads. The idealist part of me would argue that some objectives require the political will of the people, and that as long as we function as a country where we hobble together loose coalitions of "this party over that party" or "anyone but that party", we will never have the political will to undertake certain political objectives.

The realist part of me would laugh at both, and explain that today's political parties are engaged in their own personal Game of Thrones. Which, sadly, is closer to the truth than I'd like to admit. Despite all the possible excuses and explanations, it seems more and more likely that each political party has become something of a 'great House' out of medieval history.

They seek nothing more than power for their side, destruction of their enemies, and good health for the King...until the King ticks them off and a plot is made to replace them with someone more palpable. Stephen Harper has made no concession to the fact that one of his goals is the utter destruction of the Liberal Party, and the replacement of them with his own party as Canada's go-to government.

And there you have it, the beginning of the planting of a seed of disillusionment. When a political party, let alone a Prime Minister, has the grand goal of burning another party's support to the ground, no small wonder most people couldn't give two damns about the political process. And then we have the flip side of this coin. Every once in awhile, there comes a person. A leader who stands outside of the herd, who attracts the attention of thousands of people.

They talk about doing things differently. They talk about making changes to the political process. They talk of getting people involved, and giving all citizens a voice in the political process. And then they get elected, and the talk goes from a shout to a whisper before it is snuffed out completely.

The best example of this would be the Obama Administration in the US; which while the lesser of two-evils when compared to the Republican Party, has still managed to be a let down to the idealists who thought they had voted for change. Obama back peddled on issues like Guantanamo Bay, didn't do much to include the younger generation who helped get him elected (instead bringing forward old guard Democrats to fill important positions in cabinet), and is now leading the US towards another war in the Middle East.

Change indeed.

Canada faces the same in Justin Trudeau. He's hitting the same keys as Obama, yet those who have payed close attention to the political process, know that he's already hit some odd notes as warning signs. He's voted with Harper and his agenda more times than against it. He's pro-Keystone, pro-Tar Sands development, and seems just as willing as Harper to sell Canadian wilderness to the highest bidder.

It's the same Harper brand in great new packaging!

And there is yet another seed of disillusionment planted.

My grandfather is often fond of saying that in the long run it doesn't matter who you vote for, as the parties are pretty much the same. He's flipped back and forth between Liberal and Conservative quite a few times in his life, and has openly admitted that he never has nor ever will vote for the NDP.

This lack of difference between the parties, however, is a mess of our own making. As I've said above, people tend to vote in a coalition against one party in this country. We saw it in 1993 with the destruction of the Progressive Conservatives. We saw it in 2011 with the collapse of the Ontario Liberal vote to the Conservatives in an apparent effort to stem off a potential NDP minority government.

Perhaps that is the real problem, at least in Canada's case. It has become less and less about presenting ideas and a vision for the country, and more focused on winning and forming government. Our little Game of Thrones continues, but the players are not just the party members, but the average Canadian citizen who votes for them.

People like a winner, that's no secret. When a sports team rallies to victory, the fans are almost as overjoyed as the players who won the game. More importantly, the victory feels shared between those on the field and those in the stands. I knew a person, who funnily enough happened to be an Educational Assistant, on the eve of the 2011 Saskatchewan Election. He was planning to vote for the Saskatchewan Party, regardless of knowing what they were doing to EAs throughout the province, simply because the winds were blowing in their direction and he wanted to side with the winners.

Even worse, there were and remain, people who vote a certain way because their parents tell them to. Or their teachers, or a role model, or a friend. People who will go to a voting booth, with no grasp of the issues or the slightest thought of consequence of casting a ballot one way or another, as if they were cows being led to the slaughter.

What's that, yet another seed of disillusionment?

The only surprising thing is that is comes from our fellow citizens as opposed to the parties they vote for, for once. As a politically minded citizen, it is difficult to watch someone vote for a party that they don't actually support. Much like my EA friend who was voting against his own future; it's my understanding now that he's in University now, seemingly because I'm sure his EA position ceased to exist due to budgetary measures from a government he helped elect.

To watch citizens cast ballots, without giving any real thought to it, ensures only one thing: Our political system will remain as broken as it is today.

Take the myriad of issues surrounding the Harper Conservatives. Their CIMS database provided information that was unquestionably used to commit election fraud, no one has batted an eyelash. Three Senators appointed by the Harper Government are being investigated by the RCMP, or soon to be, for questionable accounting methods; while Conservative Senate leadership helped them all along the way. But still, the mighty bear of the general public stays in hibernation.

Justin Trudeau admits he smoked pot once while as an MP, and suddenly there is a firestorm. This is an issue in the same way that a bridge is a car; in that it isn't. Yet, the Harper Government has spent millions in bringing in communications officers to the bureaucracy, all of whom seem to be working directly for the Conservative Party not the Government, in spinning issues and inflaming voters over small matters.

Perhaps that is where the true confusion lies, with our non-politically minded citizens. Numerous people have said there's nothing wrong with PMO staffers spinning out attacks against the opposition parties; but there is. Government is not a political party, political parties are just a piece of government. They're a strange bastardization that seems a bit like a symbiotic relationship at this point, neither can exist without the other but they are indeed separate organisms.

A citizen who can't tell the difference between the bureaucracy and what they're paid by taxpayers to do; and a political party operative and what they're paid by the PARTY to do, needs to sit down and open a book about governance.

The Harper Government has given Canadians so many things to be angry about. They've bastardized our political system, or at least continued the bastardization undertaken by previous governments; they've diminished our reputation on the world stage; they are responsible for the single largest government deficit in Canadian history; they are responsible for the largest Cabinet in Canadian history; and they are indeed responsible of dividing our country along such polarizing lines that one simply wonders how it will be possible to even achieve a modicum of national unity for the future, all in the name of Conservative power and strengthening the role their 'House' has to play.

Granted, our Game of Thrones is a lot less bloodied than the one in the novels or the TV series, but there are indeed consequences for bystanders. With yet another proroguing of Parliament, Harper has killed several important commissions and bills; the commission into missing Aboriginal women, and stemming violence against Aboriginal women, being one of them.

So, while the players of the game will escape mostly unscathed, it seems us small folk are made to suffer at the hands of our lords and ladies who are posturing for political power.

I talked about this sense of disillusionment not being a new thing, as I can point to my parents and others in their generation that couldn't care about politics any less than your average 18 year old. If anything, my thoughts on this subject have only troubled me more than helped.

I say so thinking about the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in regards to the US. As such, I would say disillusionment almost seems to be a cycle. We saw people rally against war, against government oppression, and against the ideals of their parents for more inclusive and open views of their own, and against corporate influence in our lives.

We saw celebrities come out about issues of the day, singers wrote and performed songs, and writers were equally critical. And yet, decades later, the same issues that plagued those counter-culture 'warriors', for wont of a better word, continue to plague us today.

Wars are still seen as the first option, rather than the last, a means to an end. Government oppression continues, as people begin to wonder whether or not the concept of privacy continue to exist in this technological era. Allies spy on allies, and god knows what else. And we continue to fight for equal rights for all citizens, a fight we make tremendous strides in (like the Supreme Court striking down DOMA) while we take two-steps back at the same time (Russia and it's new stance on homosexuality.)

And corporate influence has grown to staggering new levels.

And there, perhaps, is the seed that has struck my parents and my grandparents' generations. Fifty years after the 1960s, we continue to fight the same battles that existed in the past. The world spins forward, but it would seem our politics and our ideologies are firmly stuck in the past.

Perhaps it our own failure to put the blame on. Winston Churchill, in a quote recently used by John Kerry to justify an attack on Syria, once said that "if you're aren't a liberal in your twenties, you don't have a heart. And if you're not a conservative in your fifties, you don't have a brain." Is that what happens? Did those counter-culture warriors simply grow up and shift their views?

Thirty years from now, will I look back on everything I've written for this blog and think what a spineless socialist I was? I can't quite see that happening, but perhaps it is true for the majority. Perhaps those who rallied and raged against the dying of the light simply grew up and tired of fighting the same battles. And when you can't beat them, you join them, as the saying goes.

That at the very least would explain the complete lack of change for the battles we fight politically. And it would also explain why some of the older generation have given up on changing the world; like George Carlin once said, "if you scratch the surface of every coldhearted cynic, you will find a defeated idealist."

Perhaps the younger generation are just better students of history; perhaps we've cued in earlier that we've fought the same political battles for the last six decades, and there hasn't been movement for either side. Or any movement made is simply replaced by the next battle on a slightly different field. We went from women's rights, to African American rights, to LGBT rights. We went from the cold industrial revolution, to the rise of worker unions, to the embrace of cold corporatism and the decline and outright war against worker rights.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And this is because of our great Political 'Houses', who are just different enough in ideology that when they get elected they want to undo the strides made by the previous great 'House'. Again, though rolling back workers rights, or cutting social programs, or what have you. Successive governments have been less about vision, and more about retroactive revenge schemes.

And we've seen our share of politicians who have said they will do things differently. Who succeed in bringing the next generation to their campaigns, and who sometimes end in defeat, but other times march in triumph to elected office...Only to turn around and immediately act like their predecessor.

The crazy thing is, despite all I've written here, and all the problems that seem impossible to conquer...I still wouldn't stop being a political citizen. I don't know if that makes me insane, or still just a cockeyed optimist when it comes right down to it, since I still am willing to believe that SOMEONE could actually change all this...Or at the very least, start the ball rolling in getting actual change to arrive.

All of this, and more, is the source of disillusionment for the average Canadian citizen. You have citizens who just don't care, citizens who care too much but are blinded by ideological battles, and those who care only about power for the sake of power. All of which mean we rehash the same battles, over and over, without actually achieving a damned thing in the long run.

I wish I could end this on a happier note, with some grand prescription that would allow us to engage citizens of all generations on higher level than blind ideology. Or that I had some note that would encourage all citizens to learn more about their political process, and to accept that democracy means being informed and making informed decisions about who you elect as your representative.

Sadly, I'm lacking such a closing statement. In the end, it would seem that disillusionment strikes for different reasons for different people. And in a democracy, all we can do is vote and hope that the politician at the microphone means what he or she says, and the people will actually vote about substance over stage presence.

It's a lot to hope for, perhaps, but stranger things have happened. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

On the Road Again, For the First Time.

*Note of correction: After further reading Paul Godsmark's blog with regards to the public transit impact of a self-driving car, I have corrected the post. My initial comment that his thoughts were off base was highly incorrect, due to a lack of information on my part (that's teach me to rely on one source), and I have amended the post to reflect the new information correctly. 

Source:  Huffington Post: Self Driving Cars are Coming to Canada

Despite previously alluding to some of the topics we might talk about this week, I decided to go to a different route talk about something a little more abstract.

There was news today that Canadian roads can expect to see driverless vehicles within the next four years. People who have been following tech giants, such as Google, are not surprised by the fact that driverless cars being developed; though some people might be surprised that they're closer to launch than anticipated.

Paul Godsmark, a retired highway designer, has said however that we need to worry about regulation and testing prior to the car's arrival. Godsmark has pointed out that the technology is coming regardless of whether or not Canadian roads are ready for it, and as such the question of regulation and legislation has become very important.

Personally, I welcome the self driving vehicle. Having done numerous trips going from Yorkton to Saskatoon (which usually takes a person the better part of over three hours) it would be refreshing to be able relax a bit more during that commute.

There are numerous trips throughout Saskatchewan that take over two and a half hours of driving time. And some of these routes have few stops far and in between destinations. As such, I'm sure no one will begrudge me if I said that is sometimes a chore to drive between one Saskatchewan community to another.

Not to mention the numerous thoughts of things you could be doing with your time rather than having to drive. The self-guided vehicle is the first step in rectifying some of these issues. And personally I believe Saskatchewan has a major role to play in setting policy and regulation for self driving cars throughout Canada.

Saskatchewan's population is growing, but we are still a sparsely populated province with thousands of kilometers of open space. We have kilometre and upon kilometer of open highway, it's the sort of testing conditions that a company would be interested in for self driving vehicle.

The very nature of our province suits itself to the testing grounds of a self driving vehicle. The article sourced quotes Alberta and Ontario as being contacted over the issue; and has both provinces saying they're paying attention to developments but have no plans to introduce regulations or legislation.

As such, Saskatchewan has a unique opportunity where it could position itself as a major forerunner in self driving technology by being the first jurisdiction in Canada to begin to propose regulations and legislation and allowed testing of such a vehicle on our roadways.

Saskatchewan also poses an interesting testing ground for such vehicle. For example, our winters would provide valuable data for how such a vehicle responds to ice and snow. Hazards such as natural wildlife, who often cross our highways, would allow companies who produce self driving vehicles to begin to come up with the technology needed to factor in such variables for future designs.

Saskatchewan would establish itself as a place to innovate automobile technology, while at the same time helping producers of such technology make their designs safer. You can't get much more of a win-win scenario than that.

Frankly, there's no reason I can see for the province not to move ahead on this kind of project. It's the exact kind of forward thinking, attention drawing project that would draw international recognition for the province. And where there is recognition there's new industry, new investment, and new infrastructure creation that in the long run would only benefit the province.

Godsmark makes a strong argument in suggesting that a self driving vehicle will reduce automobile accidents which in turn will see a decrease use of emergency rooms. As such, a self driving vehicle is a good first step in helping the province improve healthcare funding by taking the strain off of emergency rooms and hopefully allowing hospitals to repurpose their budgets to accommodate this new reality. He also has some comments on the implications this technology would have on public transit, and I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to head over to his blog for more information: Autonomous Vehicle Impacts.

Saskatchewan would be a good test case to see whether or not a decrease in emergency room usage could be the first step in helping to repair healthcare funding issues, and would likely encourage other provinces to follow suit in bringing the self driving car to Canada.

The province has a role to play here and I think it could be one of those perfect unions of government cooperation, company investment, and technological forethought that will really establish Saskatchewan's reputation as an international place for research and development.

If you'll forgive the bad pun, it's time for Saskatchewan to hit the road running on self driving car.