Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ken Dryden: Pwned With the Truth

Dryden fails to close snakeoil sale to economist

Coming via National Post Full Comment is the sordid tale of Liberal MP Ken Dryden trying to sell his mendacious pro-Coalition rhetoric via email to economist Sally Zerker.

Zerker begins the exchange by expressing her concerns about the proposed Coalition -- concerns shared by 59% of Canadians.
"Dear Mr.Dryden;

I am a constituent in your riding. I cannot believe that I would live to see the day when you and your party would be willing to undertake such an undemocratic coup as is now underway with your attempt to oust the government. There is simply no basis for the kind of reaction by the Liberal Party which involves manipulating the democratic process to satisfy the unseemly passion for power. You are obviously entitled to criticize the government but that shouldn't justify going into a deal with the devils, socialists on one side and separatists on the other. At issue is power for its own sake because this move on your part is totally contrary to the interests of Canada. I can only say "shame on you and your party".

Dr. Sally F. Zerker
Dryden takes nearly two weeks to respond. When he does, however, the response is predictably partisan, and outright deceptive:
"Dear Dr. Zerker,

I had originally drafted this letter after the events of last week. The events of this week have also been of great impact to Canadians so I will try to speak to them as well.

We now have a new Liberal party leader, Michael Ignatieff. I support Michael and I support the process by which he was chosen as our leader. It is time for us to present to Canadians a permanent leader. Our economic situation as a country is such that world governments will be taking important decisions in the next months. The Harper Government, to say the least, has not responded to the global crisis in any real way. It is our job as the principal opposition party to push the Government to do more, and to do what is necessary. It is also our job, in this minority situation, to present to the public a party that is ready and able to govern. That requires a permanent leader who will plan and act like a permanent leader, and who is seen by Canadians as the permanent leader.

Michael has the overwhelming support of Liberal Caucus and of members across the country. I look forward to the important weeks and months ahead.

I would also like to say a few words about Stéphane Dion. This has not been an easy last two years for him or for the party. No one in Canadian political history has had to deal with the kind of abuse that Mr. Harper rained on Stéphane. But he hung in there and kept to those things he believed. In hockey, they say the “tough guys” are those who deliver thunderous bodychecks to their opponents. But to me, it’s easy to deliver the checks. The real “tough guys” are those who are willing to take a check to “make a play” — to make a pass to set up a goal. Those who are willing to accept whatever the punishment in order to achieve the bigger goal.

And that is Stéphane. He is as tough as they come. He went into politics not to get his name in the papers but because he thought those things he believed in most could be best pursued through politics. Now he is leaving as party leader, the public having delivered the message that he didn’t represent what they wanted as a prime minister but also, after all the blows, with his reputation for honesty, decency and intelligence absolutely intact, if not enhanced. A very significant achievement.

Now to last week. Let me try to tell you what I think —

This is a time when we face the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s. It is a time when as Canadians, as a world, as Parliamentarians, we know we need each other. We know we need to come together.

After the Speech from the Throne on November 19th, things began promisingly. All parties, knowing the expectations of Canadians, talked of working more co-operatively. There had been enough bad experiences in the past that MPs couldn’t be anything but tentative about this, still the words were there.

Mr. Flaherty’s Economic Update, however, turned out to be fundamentally, economically, distressingly inadequate. It did not reflect the dimensions of our problem. Other countries were acting seriously and determinedly. We were not.

All that would have been bad enough, but there was something more. Again, this was a time to work together. There was just one thing to focus on — the economy; people’s jobs; the well-being of families. Nothing else mattered. We knew that. Everyone knew that. But Mr. Harper just couldn’t resist. He chose to do what he had done before, but never so outrageously as this time. It was the very wrong moment to do the very wrong thing.

He decided as part of the Economic Update that there should be the elimination of public support for political parties. He argued that everyone needed to tighten their belts, and politicians should take the lead and set an example. What could be wrong about that? Except, of course, the impact of cuts like this relative to the economic crisis was practically zero; and further, the impact of this on what was his real intention would be anything but “practically zero.”

Mr. Harper knew that this would mean all the Opposition Parties and any fledgling party such as the Greens would be affected far more than the Conservatives, and that in the next few elections at least (and with minority governments these elections happen more often), these parties would have a far harder time competing and potentially winning, which real and fair competition is the basis of our democratic system. Further, that this action, so wrong on its own, was doubly, triply wrong in the context of an economic crisis where everyone needs to work together. Where everyone needs each other. Where everyone needs to trust each other and focus on just one thing: the economy.

This was Mr. Harper at his absolute worst (one would hope) doing something so completely so utterly political, so completely so utterly partisan and non-democratic, so fundamentally, so disturbingly, so outrageously wrong.

It was at this point, after knowing finally and forever there was no way of working with Mr. Harper, that the Opposition Parties began talking seriously about whether we could work with each other.

Coalition governments are not what Canadians are used to, and that makes Canadians anxious and uncertain. That is understandable. But coalitions are not at all uncommon in other very successful, very stable Western democracies – e.g., Germany, Netherlands, Belgium. And given the fact that we have four parties represented in the federal House of Commons and both the Liberals and Conservatives are strong enough to elect many Members (unlike a few years ago when the Conservatives were not), minority governments are now more likely, even probable. For a party to govern, it requires the support of one or more other parties, not necessarily under a formal agreement as would be the case with a Liberal-NDP Coalition, but with other-party, often Bloc, support nonetheless. That was what happened with Mr. Martin’s Government. That has been the case with Mr. Harper’s.

As we go into the next few difficult weeks, let’s keep these things in mind:

First, this would be a Liberal-NDP Coalition, led by the Liberals with a Liberal prime minister, where the Finance Minister would come from the Liberal Party, where 18 of the 24 Cabinet Ministers would be Liberals and 6 would come from the NDP. This is NOT a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Quebecois Coalition. The Bloc is NOT part of the government. Their part of the agreement is ONLY to vote for the Coalition when there are confidence votes during the next 18 months. They have no Cabinet positions. They have no say in the direction of the government or government policy any more than, as an opposition party, they do now.

Second, a coalition government, though unusual in Canadian experience, is absolutely contemplated under our Constitution. In our Parliamentary System, a government needs the support of the majority of the House of Commons. With a majority government, that support need come only from all the members of the governing party. With a minority government, there needs to be support from members of other parties as well. Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have 143 seats out of 308 in the entire House of Commons. A majority, therefore, is 155. The Coalition represents 163 seats. Just as it has been for the 141 years of our history, this Coalition would be a Government that represents the majority of the House of Commons. Again, different from what we are used to but entirely contemplated by our Constitution.

The last point –

I have said all that I’ve said above because the situation we have before us is not just about Canadians deciding between a Harper Government and a Liberal-led Liberal-NDP Coalition Government.

There is no doubt the Coalition has its work cut out for it. Between now and when Parliament resumes on Jan. 26, it must demonstrate to Canadians that it can be a strong, stable, effective Government. It needs to begin planning and setting out its priority directions like a government. It needs to be ready to govern if it is called on to govern by the end of January. That is its challenge. That is its bargain with Canadians.

But Mr. Harper has a challenge too. And his challenge, I believe, is even harder.

A prime minister sets the tone of the House of Commons. Respect gets respect. Disrespect breeds disrespect. The Prime Minister is now fighting to stay on to win a battle that need never have been fought in the first place. To preside over a Parliament whose dynamics, whose very relationships, he has poisoned and destroyed. It’s too late. This Parliament cannot work with this Prime Minister. All of us have heard the angry voices every day in the House of Commons, and now across the country. Shout and scream versus shout and scream.

Mr. Harper has scorched the earth of civility and trust for all of us. For him, it is over. He cannot be trusted. He cannot repair what is irreparable.

We need a new prime minister.

That is what I believe.

In the next days and weeks, we will be preparing ourselves for the return of Parliament on Jan. 26 with Michael as our leader. It is our job to provide to Canadians the best that is in us whether in opposition or in government. That is what we will endeavour to do.

Thank you for letting me know what’s on your mind. Thank you for the chance to let you know what’s on mine.


Ken Dryden
Sadly for Dryden, Zerkler did not buy this disingenuous response. Her reply certainly voices the sentiments shared by a great many Canadians:
"Dear Mr. Dryden;
Thank you for your answer to my letter. I do appreciate your effort and I do pay attention to your opinion.

However, I do not agree with you about many aspects of your reply. I do not accept that the Bloc is not part of the coalition because as you noted, the majority you speak of, is only with the inclusion of the numbers in the Bloc. Secondly, I do not trust a Liberal coalition with a socialist party. If Canadians wanted socialists governing them they could elect them to power at the federal level. They never have because Canadians clearly do not want the kind of legislation that the NDP stands for and would enforce. Your coalition would have to make socialist-like concessions to the NDP and perhaps concessions of another sort to the Bloc. Also, I can't say I want Liberals back in power after the long history of Liberal authoritarianism when they were in a majority position. I did not enjoy how they used their power. As for Mr. Ignatieff, I am not thrilled that after 39 years absent from Canada, he does us a favour to come back here with the "chutzpa" to offer himself for the position of prime minister, and you Liberals are willing to anoint him.

Finally, I trust Prime Minister Harper even if you do not. The fact that all of you got so excited about the proposal to cut some of your bounty from tax dollars does not surprise me. People and parties on the dole are incenced when the flow stops or is reduced. I must say that it does not upset me in the least. It speaks very badly about the the Liberal Party management skills that it somehow finds itself broke, after all those years in power and the recipient of lobbiers' huge grants to the party.

It's true that PM Harper did not keep all his promises--he has kept most of them--but then no politician that I know of has done so. Indeed, the Liberal premier of Ontario broke over 200 promises and I never heard you or any other Liberal condemn him for it. And for me, Mr. Harper has kept a very important promise. He has done what no Liberal administration has done with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. He has been unbiased and fair. The Liberals pretended to be so, but they never were, and I can recognize the difference.

So, Mr. Dryden, I hope you can appreciate my point of view and learn from it.


Dr. Sally F. Zerker
Zerker's criticism of Michael Ignatieff is short and to the point. Whether the Liberal party wants to admit it or not, the fact that Ignatieff has spent the majority of his adult life outside the country is a real disadvantage for Ignatieff.

As will be the way in which he was selected. While partisans such as Dryden will naturally want to portray Ignatieff's ascension to Liberal leader in the most positive light possible, the simple fact of the matter is that the ascension of a leader who wasn't elected through democratic means and instead simply defaulted to the leadership through the closing down of the leadership process is not something that looks good on Ignatieff or the Liberal party.

Dryden is also being dishonest when he complains that no one in Canadian political history has had to tolerate the "abuse" that Harper heaped on Dion.

Dryden may say what he wants. The Conservative party never accused Dion of being out to destroy the country, nor did they ever accuse him of wanting to stage a military takeover of the country. The Liberal party did accuse Harper of these things. some Liberals insist on continuing to do so.

Ken Dryden may pretend otherwise to his heart's content. His party's own political ads stand as the dirtiest examples of politics-via-character assassination in modern Canadian history.

Dryden may also pretend to his heart's content that Dion was simply "taking a hit to make a play". Considering the voting plans expressed by 44% of Canadians should the Coalition actually come to fruition, the Coalition may score a quick goal, but would only lose the next game in disastrous fashion.

Even if Dion's reputation for "honesty, decency and intelligence" survived the recent federal election intact, it has not survived his move to build a Coalition government with the Bloc Quebecois -- separatists who he built his reputation fighting.

Now, Stephane Dion will end his career as an individual who sacrificed that reputation by cozying up to the Bloc in the shallow name of attaining political power.

Recent events -- such as the recently-announced aid package for automakers -- have truly put the lie to the most concrete of Dryden's criticisms. The Harper government's response to the economic crisis has been cautious, but it has also been methodical.

The Harper government was not "doing nothing" to address the crisis, as Dryden insisted. The government had already introduced liquidity into the Canadian credit market, and was working with the automakers and with Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government of Ontario to establish an aid package for that province's ailing manufacturing industry.

In Dryden's other criticism of the economic update -- that it was allegedly meant simply to destroy the opposition parties -- there is nothing short of a tacit admission that a great deal of the impetus of this proposed coalition was the opposition parties simply protecting what they view as their entitlements.

A Liberal coalition with socialists and separatists -- in defiance of a duly elected government -- would have been a bitter pill for Canadians to swallow under nearly any conditions. In the simple defence of their public subsidies? Intolerable.

Furthermore, there's a big question about whether or not this coalition is really about whether the opposition parties honestly believed they could work with Stephen Harper. These opposition parties have spent the last fifteen years in this country building our political environment to a point where they simply cannot be seen working with "dangerous" conservative politicians. This coalition is simply about whether or not they can beat Harper in an election. Consecutive Conservative victories have shown that, at least for the meantime, they can't.

But the greatest mendacity of Dryden's response deals with the nature of this coalition. As Zerker herself notes, the coalition cannot justify itself under its "62% majority" mantra without the Bloc Quebecois.

Furthermore, the Bloc's participation is necessary just to keep the Coalition stable. At a mere 132 seats, the Tories' 143 votes would be enough to defeat the Coalition should the Bloc abstain from any confidence motions.

Last -- and most importantly -- the Bloc formalized its support to the Coalition in the very same agreement in which the Coalition itself was formalized. Whether it recieves Cabinet seats or not, the Bloc Quebecois is very much part of this agreement and party to it.

Dryden himself insists that the Coalition represents 163 seats. He himself is counting the Bloc's seats in with the Coalition's total. If that isn't a tacit admission that the Bloc is part of this Coalition, few Canadians would know what is.

Dryden concludes by insisting that everything that is wrong with Parliament is Harper's fault. Yet it was Dryden's then-leader, Stephane Dion, who disingenuously accused Stephen Harper of lying when Harper spoke the truth about Dion's Coalition with socialists and separatists.

Sally Zerker doesn't buy Dryden's snake oil. Most Canadians should refuse it too.


  1. Again, an excellent analysis of the current situation. Serker is completely right and justified in her response.

    Now if I could only get my Bloc MP here to answer my letters in the language of my choosing I'd be a happy man. Much less have a constructive exchange. If nothing else at least Dryden answered. Even if it was just useless babble.

  2. Let me guess: he won't answer your letters in English?

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought your first language is French.

    Although, I think I understand what you're trying to do...

  3. My first language is French, you're completely right.

    I'm just out to prove a point. My riding here is just over 30% anglophone and immigrant, I believe my MP no matter which party he/she represents can speak or at least write in both official language.

    I wouldn't expect bilingualism from an MP in Yellowknife where the french population is almost nil.

    But from someone in a large urban center where constituents speak English? Hell... I demand bilingualism.

  4. Any MP anywhere in the country who refuses to answer correspondance in either official language should be stripped of their federal office budget.

    I think it's as simple as that.

  5. With all due respect to Dr. Zerker, I think she doesn't properly address some of Mr. Dryden's arguments.

    Dryden, for one, hit it right on the head when Harper started this whole sorry mess with his idiotic economic update, which contained little or nothing to actually help Canadians through the difficult economic times. Instead, the centerpiece was to eliminate the public funding subsidy.

    I find this incredibly ironic, given that we've had public electoral subsidies in one form or another in this country for decades, and that in one way or another they all come from our tax dollars. Whether it's the reimbursement of a candidate's election expenses, or the tax credits given for political donations, all these types of elements come from the public purse and our tax dollars. This was first put into place in 1974 (check Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches, 5th Edition, 2008, pages 312-313)

    As Bryan Corbett wrote in a letter to the editor in the December 1, 2008 edition of the Edmonton Journal, if the Tories are so interested in saving more money, why don't they cancel the public tax deductions that come with political donations?

    It'd be interesting to hear Dr. Zerker's thoughts on this issue, particularly since it seems to me that Harper was specifically targeting the major source of funding for his opponents, when we've had other sources of funding from the public purse for nearly three and a half decades now. She's right about the Liberals' management and fundraising problems, but as it stands many of the Liberal blogs I've seen are already aware of the problem and trying to fix it. In any event, the money they're getting from these subsidies isn't enough to pay off their debts, anyway.

    Initially, Harper was more interested in playing cheap partisan politics than in actually doing something to help Canadians with the economic crisis-an economic crisis he failed to anticipate during the October election campaign. It wasn't until the Opposition stood up to his bullying that Harper and Flaherty actually stood up and did something to help our automakers.

    -Similarly, while Patrick quite rightly points out the distortions and exaggerations the Liberals accused Harper-and Stockwell Day before him-of in past elections, at least they mostly restricted their ads to actual elections. The Conservatives, for whatever reason, have spent the better part of two years with their distortionate "Not a Leader" ads, which contained little of substance besides simply bashing Dion. I somehow doubt that these ads were as effective as their supporters claim, given that 40% of the electorate stayed home on election day and Harper actually got 168,737 fewer votes in 2008 than he did in 2006. Don't believe me? Go to the Elections Canada website and do the math for yourself.

    How about the fact that in 2004, Harper wrote a letter to the Governor General, alongside Layton and Duceppe, all but proposing the same thing that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc are now attempting.

    Don't forget, too, that while the election of Michael Ignatieff as Liberal leader has its problems, don't forget that Peter MacKay wasn't able to win the leadership of the old Progressive Conservative party on his own-which doesn't surprise me, considering his thoroughly mediocre performance in the leadership debates-and could only win by cutting a deal with David Orchard. He then promptly stabbed Orchard in the back and merged the PCs with the Harper-led Alliance, despite the fact that he had specifically promised not to.

    Along with calling elections when it suits them and attempting to bankrupt his opponents, Harper is pulling the same dirty tricks we in Western Canada used to quite rightly criticize the Liberals for doing. Does this mean it's alright when the Conservatives do it? Or is it only bad when Liberals and Easterners pull this crap?

    Why has there been no reaction to Tom Flanagan's articles and interviews where he openly brags about "tightening the screws" on the federal government by cutting its taxes and depriving it of revenue-a practice which has led directly to the possibility of our facing a deficit, as Parliamentary budget officer Kevin page pointed out:



    How about Flanagan's August article in the Globe and Mail comparing the Liberals to the Carthaginians, wherein he implies that the Tories plan to keep pushing the Liberals into a financial pit they can't get out of, and otherwise pretty much wipe them out?


    That's hardly fair and responsible government.

    I hope this isn't taken as a defence of the Coalition. I am deeply dismayed by Dion's readiness to work with the Bloc in this way, as Patrick points out, sacrificing his integrity for the opportunity to gain power. I am also upset at the way this crisis has divided Canadians, putting us at each other's throats when we need to be working together.

    But my view is that the blame should be equally divided-on Harper for his economic incompetence and for playing foolish partisan games designed to bully his opponents into submission, and to the Coalition for creating instability and damaging our national unity through their foolish attempts to seize power from the democratically elected prime minister.

    Dr. Zerker trusts Harper, but I am more ambivalent. He has been very effective in keeping many of his promises, such as defending our Arctic sovereignty, rebuilding the military with new equipment, and arming our border guards, and various other bread-and-butter issues, but I am very concerned about his longer policy goals, such as making Canada more "conservative" in the sense that Tom Flanagan implies.

    Conservatives like Peter Lougheed, R.B. Bennett, John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield were willing to intervene to help poorer Canadians in need, and to try and strike a balance between free enterprise and individual gain, and collective aid and social programs for those in need. The idea of taking power away from accountable institutions like government, and otherwise tying its hands and transferring power to unelected, unaccountable trade tribunals and companies, is something that I am very wary of, with agreements such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, NAFTA, or the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Patrick's written extensively on the Nexus about the problems that arise from both the Keynesian approach to economics and the Friedman-based style of free enterprise and bare minimum of government intervention, and I'm very concerned that Harper is going too far in the latter direction.

    Similarly, it's worth noting that Harper's premise of "open federalism" and sticking to the strict letter of the Constitution is in some respects admirable, but we have to remember the difference between the strict letter of the Constitution and the various conventions that have arisen. Constitutional convention, for example, means that the federal government doesn't use its reservation and disallowance powers to override provincial legislation, although it has the constitutional right to do so. Similarly, although most social policy is meant to be left to the provinces, the Canada Health Act has long since been accepted by Canadian society, and no politician who valued his or her career would suggest getting rid of it. Even now, although the Coaltion government would be legal, modern constitutional convention has, as I see it, become that the government who wins the most seats automatically forms the government, and that the only way to replace them if they lose confidence is for another party to win an election and carry the most seats in the House.

    The Fathers of Confederation were quite clear in this respect-we are a federal country, and Sir John A. Macdonald's initial vision of a unitary Canada simply didn't work, but by the same token we're not a loose collection of provinces-we're a country, and the federal government has a role to play in helping Canadians across the country through social policy. Harper might prefer to see such things left entirely up to the provinces, but again the convention has developed that the federal government has a positive role to play in this area, and leaving everything strictly up to the provinces certainly isn't what the men who build this country had in mind.


  6. "If the Tories are so interested in saving more money, why don't they cancel the public tax deductions that come with political donations?"

    Well, Jared, mostly because that would make it more difficult for political parties to raise funds from where they should be raising them in the first place -- from private donors.

    Eliminating that tax deduction would prevent a great many Canadians from exercising their civic right to financially support the parties they wish to support.

  7. True enough Patrick, but don't forget that Harper is in effect doing the exact same thing. Jennifer Smith pointed out a similar problem at Runesmith's Canadian Content, as did Caylan MacGregor of Red Deer in a December 1, 2008 letter to the Journal. Both these women-and men like myself-don't have the disposable income to donate to the parties we would prefer to support. I'm having a lot of trouble finding a job right now, and so I'm stuck living at home until I can get enough income to move out on my own. I might like to make donations to the party of my choice, but I can't do so right now.

    In effect, that's what the current financing laws do-one of the factors that affected my vote, alongside various other considerations, was the fact that my $1.75 would be going to support them.

    While I can understand that some Canadians would not want to see their tax dollars going to support the Liberals or the NDP, I would point out in response that many progressives probably don't like seeing their tax dollars going towards some of the Harper government's other initiatives-tougher crime sentences, the war in Afghanistan, the military buildup, arming the border guards, etc. If you look hard enough, somebody somewhere is going to object to seeing their tax dollars go to just about anything you can think with.

    And, like I said, we've had public financing in one form or another since 1974, so why get rid of it now? Why is Harper only targeting one specific form of funding-an initiative you weren't all that fond of either? It just makes him look like a bully, and waves a red flag at the opposition parties when Canadians made it quite clear they wanted everyone to work together-Harper got a slightly increased minority, although he actually lost ground in terms of the popular vote, and in overall electoral turnout.

    As Dr. Serker pointed out, Canadians don't want to be governed by radical socialist policies, but I don't think we're all that keen on the Friedman ideas of radical deregulation and cuts to social spending-and Harper does deserve credit for doing what he should be and introducing an auto stimulus package, conditional on structuring deals.

    But when his first major policy announcement is an economic update that all but deliberately provokes the opposition parties, that's when I think he should be criticized. Both sides are equally to blame for this sorry fiasco, and I don't want to let either side off the hook.


  8. Well, in essence, Jared, I would argue that the individual who casts their ballot in favour of the Liberals or NDP can credit themselves for that $1.97.

    However, one also has to realize that non-voters help foot that particular bill at all. As much as I abhor the choice of simply not voting, I'd say that their decision not to vote just goes to show exactly what they think of their taxpayer dollars going to support political parties that they evidently don't support.


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