Canadian gang fight

Canadian gang fight
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NOTE: I just want to remind everyone that I, J.J., will be making my first-ever convention appearance this weekend (May 26-27) at the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival at the Roundhouse in Yaletown. Please try to come and visit! I’ll have lots of fun, exclusive Filibuster stuff for sale, and I promise we can argue about whatever political issue you like. For more information, please visit the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival website!

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As I discuss in my Huffington Post piece this week, the once-difficult task of figuring out how to broadly and succinctly caricature Thomas Mulcair’s political views became a lot easier this week. After making a number of harshly critical, and very much unapologetic statements on the Alberta oil industry, it seems Tom will now forever be known as the self-styled regional defender of eastern Canadian interests.

For a while now, a grand theory of the Canadian economy known as the “Dutch disease” thesis has been gaining increased traction in some powerful corners. I tackled the topic in more detail in in an earlier toon, but basically the theory presumes that Canada’s overzealous oil production — based in the western half of the country — provokes too much international demand for Canadian dollars, which in turn makes everything else the country exports overvalued and unsellable. In particular, this is taken to explain why Canada’s eastern-based manufacturing sector has fallen on such hard times: the damn “petrodollar” is making all our factory junk too pricey for foreigners to buy!

Whatever the hard economic merits of this theory (and they’re widely contested), the “Dutch disease” thesis was initially regarded as fairly regional in appeal, and espoused only by cranky eastern politicians eager to explain away their localized manifestations of the global economic recession. For Thomas Mulcair — the leader of the leading national opposition party — to now officially endorse it as his preferred economic understanding of Canada is thus pretty dramatic, and signals the degree to which he’s effectively abandoned any pretense in fixing what has long been viewed as his largest political liability, namely a lack of popularity in the west. The logical conclusion of Dutch diseasism, after all, is that Canada’s oil production should either be slowed down or halted in some way in order to prop up a decaying sector of the Ontario-Quebec economy. Since both Alberta and Saskatchewan have much of their economic future vested in increased petroleum development, and British Columbia in the development of pipelines to the Pacific coast to export the stuff, it would be hard to devise a stance more explicitly designed to alienate western voters.

Within the Canadian political class, there’s always a sort of phoney, overblown veneration for the idea of “national unity,” born from the obviously self-interested desire that our insanely large, contradiction-riddled country remain quiet and peaceful so it can be governed easier. But the history of Canadian elections shows that almost every Canadian regime has only ever come to power by pursuing the exact opposite course.

Regional power imbalances have long proven to be among the most permanent and powerful facts of Canadian political life, and to the extent one is ever a successful “national” leader in Canada, his career is usually a case study in exploiting them. The unapologetically Anglo-centric Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had no traction in French Canada, yet was able to come to power in 1957 and 1962 by assembling an electoral coalition broad enough that he could afford to write off Quebec. Pierre Trudeau led a famously eastern-centric government for 15 years, his obsession with Quebec issues and pseudo-nationalization of Albertan oil permanently poisoned the Liberal brand west of Ontario, but formed a workable approach that was more-or-less emulated by his successors Mulroney and Chretien. And now, of course, we have Stephen Harper as the anti-Trudeau/Mulroney/Chretien, whose political career, forged in the defence of western economic interests, has birthed a fresh power base for his new Conservative Party built on a western sweep coupled with some chunks of rural and suburban Ontario.

In other words, even though Mulcair’s open stoking of an east-versus-west jealously feud has been soundly denounced by the press, provincial governments, and opposition parties (including the ever-hapless and increasingly goody-goody Liberals), there’s a lot of evidence to suggest he doesn’t have much to lose by defining himself this way. His New Democratic Party already made tremendous inroads into Quebec during the last federal election, after all, and by electing a high-profile Quebecer like himself as leader, that base has presumably only been solidified. If he can procede to make greater inroads into urban Ontario and a handful of other urban centres across the country, it’s entirely possible he would be able to cobble-together something resembling the Trudeau coalition of old, and ride it to victory in 2015.

It’s unfortunate that so much of our political conversation is framed through the prism of stragey rather than principle, and that so many of the issues that evoke the most passionate regional cleavages are born from sophistic, simplistic, stereotypical understandings of complex economic concepts — such as natural resource management — that are actually pretty far-removed from the avergae voter’s day-to-day interests.

Nevertheless, if history has proven anything it’s that parties and politicians that spend too much time worrying about this sort of thing get quickly left in the electoral dust. Prime Minister Harper often speaks grandiosely about his vision for a “strong, united Canada,” and I have a friend who likes to joke that no party leader ever promises a “cruel, divided” one. But they don’t need to, since that’s what they all end up delivering anyway.


  1. drs

    “The logical conclusion of Dutch diseasism, after all, is that Canada’s oil production should either be slowed down or halted in some way in order to prop up a decaying sector of the Ontario-Quebec economy.”

    I don’t think those are the only possibilities; taxing the revenues heavily and putting the money into Canada-wide investment (infrastructure, education, sovereign wealth fund) helps too, I think, a la Norway, which has planned for when the oil runs out.

    It would mean slowing down the rate of Albertans enjoying the luck of sitting on top of a bunch of oil, yes, and an identification with Canadian interests which doesn’t seem to exist. So I’d bet on a strong dollar and declining manufacturing and increasing political tensions.

  2. Guest

    Any chance of Mulcair getting BC onside? If there is, it's no longer E v W, it's AB v ROC.

  3. PTBO

    Well the NDP already has 12 seats in BC and there is a very BC heavy shadow cabinet in Ottawa (Cullen, L. Davies, D. Davies, Crowder, Donelly, Garrison, Julian, Sandhu, Sims, and Stewart). IF the polls are any indication then the Mulcair led NDP is doing alright.

    Being a rural BC forestry worker dependant on the timber processing sector it is easy to see that the high dollar- while not the only problen by far- definetly does not help. Alot more people would have jobs if the dollar was at its true value- 82 cents. I agree with Mulcair and Peter Lougheed (longtime Conservative Priemer of Alberta) that Albertans should act like an owner by maximizing their oil revenue while prolonging the construction phase.

    I will always be on the side of more jobs and that is where the NDP is.

  4. Gray

    The NDP currently has 12 seats in BC, but let's not forget that the NDP has a rather long legacy of support in BC. If the party becomes rather eastern-dominated, there's definitely room for the Greens or, ironically, the Liberals to slip in (and BC /has/ tended to be more three-cornered than a lot of the other provinces).

  5. spaaaaaaaaaan

    As someone with some relatively close professional ties to the manufacturing and software sectors here in Ontario I see the immense impact the rise in the dollar has had to Ontario industry. The high dollar is making it quite hard on pretty much every industry that is not based on natural resources and has any notable measure of global competition. Not to say that there aren't other issues that make it hard (such as labour laws not being as factory-friendly as other states, natural death of old, labour-heavy manufacturing, other regulations, the old PST was terrible and such) but that the relatively cheap dollar from before is no longer there to make it economical, and Canadian manufacturing does not have near as much specialization as Germany, say, to be able to survive a strong currency.

    Some of the political noise may simply be from unions seeing their natural base gutted and are getting vocal about anything they may feel is a solution. However, old style manufacturing, even if we had a weak dollar, isn't coming back. That is known. The thing is, it isn't simply speeding the demise of dying industries. It's also making margins extremely thin for almost everything.

    Not that it means Canada should just give up the oil sands or mining, but that Canada really must decide if it wants to put all its eggs in one 'natural resources' basket. At times when natural resources are expensive the market determines it is more efficient to spend more and more of our time digging stuff out of the ground instead of building stuff. Then, as we increase our exports of resources even more, demand for the dollar goes up more, making it even less economical for people to import Canadian goods or services. Essentially, it is a bit of a slippery slope. The farther we go into being a resource based economy, the harder it is to be anything but that.

    The issue is that the more we let our economy be run by resource prices, the harder it will be on us if there's ever a drop in it (and the resource markets can be very volatile). Do we want to take that risk with its possible rewards? That's what we need to debate and come to some decision on.

  6. Ricardo Bortolon

    I don't think Mulcair cares to defend his position. As NDP leader, he was opposed to the current development of the oil sands but (rightly) knew that opposing primarily for environmental reasons would be inadequate to rally voters in the middle. This argument is effective for the majority of middle voters across Canada–the losses in the prairies and rural BC are acceptable in exchange for the voters gained in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. It's not so much pitting the East v the West, it's more that different areas of Canada have different interests, it's impossible to legitimately please everyone, and losses will come from somewhere so Mulcair (like every PM-hopeful before him) is streamlining his policies to optimize his gains.

    The zeitgeist will facilitate certain strategies over others, Mulcair knows better than to simply be an alternative in every riding and would prefer to be the best option in most ridings.

  7. Ricardo Bortolon

    I want to add that my last statement is obviously embodied by the Greens who got nowhere being an alternative everywhere so put their eggs in fewer baskets. The Liberals and Conservatives concede certain areas or ridings (or I should say, depend on local flavour to carry the vote)–the Mulcair is acknowledging that the NDP need a national strategy to win an election rather than being a team of nice guys and also-rans.

  8. PTBO

    I don't see how Mulcair's factual statements will lose him seats in Rural BC.

    For one the NDP can only really go up in rural BC. They have Skeena-Bulkley (Cullen is untouchable and is very anti- pipeline), BC Southern Interior (a pretty solid industrial/hippie/ old Russian anarchist riding), and the rurban Naniamo-Cowichan and Esiqumalt-Juan de Fuca.

    They are always close or winning in North Island (the pipeline is not going over well there).

    I think a policy wanting reasonableoilosand develpoment (as Mulcair has repeatly say- he is pro oilsand EXPANSION) will go over very well in rural BC which is generally anti- Enbridge and has lost alot of manufactering jobs.

  9. Kadin

    "Within the Canadian political class, there’s always a sort of phoney, overblown veneration for the idea of “national unity,” born from the obviously self-interested desire that our insanely large, contradiction-riddled country remain quiet and peaceful so it can be governed easier. "

    Your analysis here is so materialist it's almost Marxist!

  10. Kadin

    (I don't mean that as a pejorative, btw.)

  11. Gray

    I know what you mean here. One can arguably apply a "Marxist" analysis to something from far more than just the perspective of a Communist or Socialist.

  12. Rebochan

    Okay, that "conservatorious" tattoo cracked me up.

  13. Gray

    1) I do tend to agree with the general idea of "Dutch Disease". I think it's often overplayed and used as an excuse to cover for other, deeper problems (such as uncompetitive labor practices and industry featherbedding on the one hand, or declining employment due to automation on the other), but I do think it has a decent amount of merit.

    2) This leads to another issue entirely: You never hear politicians speak of the merits of a weak currency (they always seem to talk up a "strong dollar" or the local equivalent), but there might be some merit in the Canadian government easing its currency policies if a strong (Canadian) dollar is a real problem. 'course, you won't see the NDP arguing for that…but it might be a solution if that is, in fact, the problem. Granted, this risks an inflationary problem, but deciding between a risk of inflation and a risk of strong currency-induced stagnation is never an easy one.

    For an example of a country that has had no trouble running into a currency-related problem is Japan (where the Yen is the strongest that it has been since the immediate post-WW2 era…and where the steady rise of the Yen has done a lot to keep the country in a deflationary mess for the last fifteen years or so).

    3) And this leads to yet another point: To what extent is trouble with the Canadian dollar externally-induced? i.e. How much is the strength of the Canadian dollar and how much is the weakness of the US dollar, the failure of China to "let up" on their currency sufficiently, etc.? Remember, currency values are all relative at the end of the day.

    In short, I agree that a strong Canadian dollar is a problem for Canadian manufacturing, but it's only part of the story. Still, I think there is an argument to be had for the government taking some effort to ease the currency by letting more Canadian dollars go "out the door" to ease demand pressures.

  14. Jake_Ackers

    If the Canadian Dollar is too strong then why not just print money? Increase the supply of it to decrease its price but not enough to case inflation. Again that if a weak dollar is actually that much better for Canada.

    Plus shouldn't Eastern Canada focus on innovation over manufacturing? Put that free education in the East to some use. Develop new technology to explore energy. Take a South Korea approach as opposed to a Chinese approach to production. Aka higher educated thus higher quality production over cheap labor and cheap trinkets.

  15. Gray

    1) I agree here…some monetary easing could help things.
    2) It depends what you mean by "innovation" versus "manufacturing"…higher-end goods (cars, for example) are a different kettle of fish than, say, t-shirts, and manufacturing can arguably (at its extremes) include both.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Actually inventing new technology. And if there is production produce the higher-end goods as opposed to trinkets like dolls, plastic junk, and the sort.

  17. Tweeg

    I doubt Thomas Mulcair's support of "polluter pay" = him being in favour of the east over the west.

    He wants regulations already in place to actually be enforced, everything thats been brought up latly is old hat.

    Just because Harper and the conservatives think in a West Vs East kind of way doesn't mean every other politician does.

  18. ThePsudo

    The regulations hurt the industries central to western provinces' economies in order to protect the industries central to eastern provinces' economies, eh? That seems to pit east and west against each other. Where do you disagree?

  19. Tweeg

    These regulations already exist, its not like he proposing creating these and screw the west, hes discussing enforcing already existing regulations that were brought into place not to help eastern provinces but to ensure that the environmental costs weren't put on future generations credit cards.
    What wrong with holding industry accountable for say the cost of a clean up, they should have to eat that cost.

    The east would be held to the same regulations, just because theres no oil in the east doesn't mean these regulations wouldn't effect them. Theres natual gas extraction that would have to follow the regulations, pulp and paper mills, the east doesn't end at ontatio.

    How does saying, hey we're not enforcing regulations we have in place, we should probably do that = west vs east ?

    We shouldn't pick and choose what regulations we enforce and ones we don't, if the Harper government doesn't agree with these regulations then they should take steps to get rid of them, to just ignore them like they're not even there is cowardly.

  20. Stoo

    How is it East Vs West when Harper is from Toronto and they won southern Ontario with force to claim the government? Everyone who constantly shits on Alberta should recognize how many people from across Canada come here to work, make money and leave while paying taxes to their primary residence in BC, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the maritimes. why does it always come to Alberta being the bad guy? They fly people from all over Canada here to exploit resources. The problem is a national one.


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