Living by the Sword
25 February 2007, 09h30 EST (GMT-5)
As if being a tent pegger is insufficiently absurd on its own, last week I found myself practising for the upcoming world championships in -30ºC weather, some 65ºC lower than the likely temperatures at the competition itself.
I am only pleased that I managed to avoid demonstrating the horseback pole-vaulting catastrophe that he described...
Changing the Subject
23 February 2007, 18h45 EST (GMT-5)
There are few more cherished social skills than the ability to tactfully change the subject when a friend is in the midst of making an ass of himself. However, the Conservatives' response to Stephen Harper's reprehensible conduct during Question Period has entirely degraded this fine art.
Life Begins at (the Maclean's) 50
17 February 2007, 03h15 EST (GMT-5)
In a burst of self-deluding optimism about my ability to find more time to write, I have accepted a post as one of the Maclean's 50.
Maclean's magazine describes the Maclean's 50 as, "A diverse field of Canada's most well known and respected personalities, from journalists to politicians, offering their comments on the issues of the day, everyday." Ironically, there were only 46 members as of the launch; moreover, to my mind, the phrase "journalists to politicians" describes a narrower range than I believe the magazine had intended to suggest. Nevertheless, it was a sincere honour to be asked to serve as a member of the group.
Members of the Maclean's 50 write companion commentaries to articles at the magazine's web site, thus generating a spontaneous debate that will both reflect and stimulate Canada's national conversation.
As Canada's largest magazine, Maclean's has been home to some of the men and women of public letters and ideas I have most admired: from Yousuf Karsh's breathtaking photojournalism during the Second World War; to Peter Gzowski's celebration of national identity; to Paul Wells' relentlessly principled pursuit of the public good.
Though my involvement with the magazine through the Maclean's 50 will be modest, my enthusiasm is immense, and I will do my best to be worthy of the company of my peers.
Polling for Dollars
11 February 2007, 08h30 EST (GMT-5)
In a democracy, an ethical Member of Parliament understands that his role is to do more than merely parrot back to the people what he believes they want to hear; he must have the courage and the skill to lead public opinion as well as being led by it. For this reason more than any other, I have always been suspicious of the dark arts of political polling.
As regular readers of my blog are aware, I am sceptical about the accuracy of pollsters in an age when Canadians' willingness and ability to participate in traditional polling methods have withered away. More pointedly, political parties are too often transfixed by polls, taking their policies from what is saleable in the moment rather than from what will withstand the judgement of history. Worst of all, not even the most inattentive observer of the relationship between polling firms, political campaigns, and government largesse can doubt that casual corruption stalks the polling industry.
Having said all this, I recognise that polling is a means rather than an end, and as such is susceptible to principled use as well as pragmatic abuse. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the finest exponent of the ethical use of political polls is also one of Canada's most accomplished pollsters.
Mike Marzolini and Pollara were vital elements of the Liberal Party's triumphant general election victories in 1993, 1997, and 2000, and their absence from the 2004 and 2006 campaigns was equally manifest in those results. Yet, in my view, their greatest tour de force was their decision to limit their government contracts to 2% of revenue: this single decision guaranteed that there could never be any question of the Liberal Party's political debt to Pollara being repaid by a Liberal government.
As a result, when Mike speaks of the public good, I am inclined to listen.
Mike frequently points out that Canada is of virtually one mind that political parties should pay greater heed to the views of Canadians, and that polling is by its nature one of the few ways in which parties can plumb the thoughts of a genuinely representative cross-section of a vast population.
Even I must concede that polling can be an instrument to serve the national interest, if parties wield polls to understand popular concerns rather than simply to ape them, to communicate a principled position effectively rather than to mouth whatever position emerges as popular, to exercise political courage in manner that inspires rather than to avoid expending political capital on difficult decisions. However, this is a very substantial "if".
For better or for worse, polls will play a decisive role in the timing of the fall of the Conservative government, in the issues that will dominate the campaign, and in the election results. For the sake of my country as much as the sake of my party, I hope that the Liberal war room understands that the best way to ensure that polling leads us to victory is to employ polls in a manner that shows us worthy of victory.
Terry Fox, Jackie Robinson, and the Virtues of Sport
07 February 2007, 09h05 EST (GMT-5)
As my childhood friends will all happily attest, I was never one of nature's athletes. Perhaps because of this, the two athletes I most admired were people who mastered not only the practice of sport, but also its virtues.
Terry Fox was more than a prolific runner and Jackie Robinson was more than an accomplished second baseman, because each man's character was equal to his physical prowess. Each man chose, therefore, to be as much a champion for the weak as he was the embodiment of the strong.
Now in my thirties, I have found myself in the spectacularly improbable role of representing Canada as an equestrian athlete at the international skill-at-arms championships, to be held in Oman this March. If anyone had predicted this as little as a year ago, I should have advised him to stop picking his own mushrooms.
We all reach towards our heroes, even when we recognise that they inhabit a sphere inaccessibly high above us. Accordingly, I hope to do some good in the world while I strive to do well at the championships, and I have donated my team's naming rights to UNICEF, to further the cause of children toiling in child labour.
Though I draw my inspiration from the vast works of two great men, I recognise that my own efforts represent a small gesture by an athlete of modest talent. Nevertheless, I hope passionately that when I compete in Oman, I will do so in a manner that will be worthy of the virtues of my country and of my sport.
"O Lord, make me environmentally virtuous, but not yet..."
06 February 2007, 08h20 EST (GMT-5)
The most extraordinary aspect of the Conservatives' defeat over the Commons motion endorsing the Kyoto Protocol was not that they were caught unawares by the single most obvious issue awaiting the new Parliament. It was instead that they appeared signally unable to learn from their own history on the issue.
For the entire life of the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance, and until latterly the new Conservative Party, they maintained in the face of all reason that climate change was a hoax. Eight of the hottest years in recorded history were in the last decade. The year 2005 was the hottest year in a thousand years, and both the British and American national meteorological services agree that 2007 will likely be hotter still. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, are higher today than in the previous 650 000 years. Nevertheless, the Conservatives believed that Canadians would blithely accept their claims that nothing was amiss.
When the evidence became irrefutable, the Conservatives fell back to the position that while climate change might possibly be real, there is scientific doubt that human activity lay at its source. Yet, of the 928 serious scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals across the world in the ten years before Harper took power, not one disputed human agency as the cause of climate change. Nevertheless, the Conservatives believed that Canadians would take their word above that of the world scientific community.
When this redoubt crumbled, the Conservatives retreated to claims that the costs of action on climate change would be prohibitive. However, the global costs of mitigating climate change are estimated at approximately 1% of GDP, while the costs of inaction due to health impacts, disasters, and lost economic activity are estimated at 5% to 20% of GDP. Nevertheless, the Conservatives believed that Canadians would fail to understand the notion of investing in our own future.
Finally, the Conservatives now offer the country assurances that they have experienced a political death-bed conversion to environmentalism on the road to Kyoto. However, as yesterday's Commons debate amply demonstrated, they stand prepared to do absolutely everything necessary to convince the nation of their sincerity, short of actually taking meaningful action.
Canadians are not the fools the Conservatives take us for. This Parliament is entering its final months, and after a political lifetime as part of the problem, they have scant time left to make themselves part of the solution.