Opinions, musings, and ravings from the mind of John Percy

Three political parties in Canada have the opportunity to reinvent themselves into 21st century models. It will require vision, courage, and trust; attributes sadly lacking in politics these days.

Partisan politics is a 19th century construct, offering 20th century solutions to 21st century issues. It’s no surprise many of the ‘solutions’ don’t work. Reshaping the square peg to fit into the round hole is a mug’s game.

The easy way out would be to continue on with the status quo and attempt to convince the citizenry that the same old is brand new and shiny. But a new coat of paint on a crumbling foundation will never be more than temporary.

The real shift has to be in policy direction, something not easily done in the hyper-partisan, ideologically driven world of modern politics. In a media setting, talking heads attempt to make all issues black and/or white, but policy work is five thousand shades of grey, usually without the sex.

That shift will have to come from a generation other than the one in charge now. For better or for worse, the Liberals did a major generational shift last year and, although the jury is still out, it appears to have paid off.

I would hope that the other parties have at least caught a glimpse of the future and are prepared to accept it. If they don’t, they will be consigned to the irrelevant file, and those of us who sail into the future will wave to them as they stand on the shore arguing about how to improve the dock.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

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Musing on Lunacy

I was looking out my studio window last night as the full moon rose over the lake and at a certain position in the sky, the moon was reflected perfectly in the mirrored lake. So there I was on Christmas staring at two perfect moons, one right above the other, and it was so breathtaking that I didn’t bother to take a picture. I just took it in, not just with my eyes but with my heart as well. It was…well…joyous.

This is a rare occurence as the last Christmas full moon was in 1977, when I was 28 years old. I’m pretty sure I missed that one. I was busy. The next Christmas full moon will be in 2034, and, given my present age, there’s a very good chance that I’ll miss that one too.

So I just stood there and appreciated the hell out of it for five minutes. It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, and indeed these days five minutes is only worth 30 seconds anyway, but just being there and observing this moment of beauty felt like an hour. (Note to self: send Einstein a thank you card for his theory of relativity).

One of the paradoxes of life is that as we run out of time, the more significant each moment becomes.

Enjoy each moment and your lifetime will take care of itself.

What’s the story?

I have noticed over the last year that the media’s lack of adherence to journalistic principles has become more overt. It has become very difficult to read the News section as it appears to have become confused with the Opinion section.

I would long for the “good old days” of journalism, but that has always been a myth perpetrated by the fourth estate that there was once a time when integrity ran rampant through their pages. Truth be told, news organizations have always been beholden to one political stripe or another; we just like to believe that society has outgrown that idea.

Perhaps someday, but for now we must rely on our ability to access the story from several different sources online, and parse the bits of truth contained in most of them and weave together a relatively accurate version from which we can draw our own conclusions, and not those of the editorial staff. Unfortunately, most people neither have the time or inclination to do so, and parrot what they have heard from a single source and form an opinion that they believe is their own.

Innovation!!

There’s nothing like an exclamation mark or two in a title to get your attention.

We’ve all heard a lot of talk about innovation recently. It’s the new buzzword for policy makers, and for politicians attempting to appear current and relevant and forward looking.

It makes a fabulous slogan for the 21st Century. Innovation! It’s new! It’s better, shinier, modern, making life better for you! We have Innovation Summits with the brightest and best Innovators from around the world telling us how to innovate.

Now don’t get me wrong. Innovation is badly needed, but technological innovation, which is what most people talk about when they talk about innovation, is only a sliver of the pie. Technology can only go so far when it’s injected into a system that is built to reject innovation as a threat to its self preservation.

We will also need innovation in business models, public and private financing, infrastructure planning & valuing services. Social and economic innovations are every bit as important as technological innovations. The new century will not and cannot thrive on propping up models developed sixty years ago.

This is the most difficult challenge for policy makers, and a challenge that is doomed to failure. When a new model is designed to be round and it is re-shaped to be square to fit into a pre-existing hole, it is no longer the model that was created in the first place. It will not function as advertised and will ultimately be rejected.

Policy failures abound; the innovation graveyard is waist deep in decomposing initiatives that were too “radical” to survive the ravaging given them by an entrenched system that sees its’ sole purpose to be its’ own survival.

We see this in political discourse on a daily basis. Political parties love to speak about change and innovation as if they honestly know what it means. Change is something the long-established parties do not want. Anything that is perceived as a threat to their future electability is rejected as unworkable or relegated to the Someday File, where everything goes until “more studies are done to assess its safety” or “the economy is in better shape.”

As we stumble our way into another election, we would do well to consider that change and true systemic innovation will only come about when enough citizens are willing to accept the consequences of change.

Anyone?

In the preamble up to a provincial election here in Nova Scotia, I would like to state that there are some troubling aspects in our newly revised Elections Act that will present a significant barrier to exercising our democratic rights as citizens.

One such issue has to do with the candidate filing fees required by Elections Nova Scotia. In the revised act, the filing fee doubled from $100 to $200. Filing fees have always been a deterrent to smaller parties, but a 100% increase in fees can be construed as an attempt to either bankrupt smaller parties or deter them from running a full slate of candidates. With 51 electoral districts this amounts to $10,200 that smaller parties are practically guaranteed to never see again.

Section 71 (ii) of the Nova Scotia Elections Act states that any party that receives less than 10% of the total vote will not have their filing fee reimbursed. Parties that receive more than 10% will be cheerfully refunded. Big parties win. Small parties lose. Too bad, so sad.

In other jurisdictions in Canada, this provision has been successfully challenged on Charter grounds, and struck down by the courts, including the Superior Court of Ontario.

From the Nova Scotia Elections Act:
Return of nomination deposit:
71 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer shall return the nomination deposit of a candidate to
(a) the candidate’s official agent if the candidate
(i) is elected,
(ii) receives not less than ten per cent of the valid votes cast in the electoral district in the election in which the candidate stood for election, or
(iii) dies before the close of the polls on election day;
or (b) the candidate’s official agent if nomination documents are superseded and withdrawn pursuant to Section 70.
(2) In all other cases, the Chief Electoral Officer shall transfer the nomination deposit to the Minister of Finance for deposit into the General Revenue Fund of the Province. 2011, c. 5, s. 71.

In recent years the Green Party of P.E.I. challenged the province to do away with a $200 deposit required by every candidate seeking a nomination in provincial elections – and the party was ready to take its fight to provincial court. The party retained a lawyer to challenge this provision in the Elections Act, saying the deposit discouraged new and third parties from getting involved in politics because paying money to participate in the electoral process is a deterrent to citizens participating fully in the democratic process. It took a lawyer’s letter and threat of court action to have it quickly and quietly changed.

The PEI amendment struck down an unconstitutional provision allowing government to seize the $200 candidate deposit from every candidate who does not get at least half as many votes as the winning candidate.

Similarly, Section 71 of the revised Nova Scotia Elections Act requires each candidate in a provincial election to post a deposit of $200, a 100% increase from the old Elections Act. Candidates will only have their deposit refunded if they are elected, die during the campaign, or if they receive at least 10% of the total votes cast. This is a direct assault on smaller parties with limited resources. Larger, well funded parties get their money back. Smaller parties do not.

Jurisdictions that require hefty deposits justify it by saying the deposit is put in place to ensure only serious candidates enter provincial elections, especially when so much administrative work goes into the nomination process. It shows that the candidate would have to be serious about running before they would pay that deposit.

But in a court case in Ontario, the judge said that there was no basis for those kinds of assumptions. He said in fact, frivolous candidates might actually be willing to spend a lot more than $200 to get a platform for themselves.

Similar provisions in Canada’s and Ontario’s election acts were held unconstitutional in two separate decisions of the Superior Court of Ontario in 1999 and 2007.  The courts found that such deposit requirements interfered with the rights of candidates and supporters of small parties to participate in elections and contravened the electoral fairness required by section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Supreme Court of Canada has also ruled that elections act requirements that interfere with the rights of smaller political parties to play a meaningful role in the electoral process contravene the Charter.

It would behoove this government to correct this situation before embarking on their campaign journey.

Last time I checked we were living in the 21st century. Social media sites, and some mainstream media, abound with cries for systemic change in our political infrastructure.  The appearance of an international movement for change imparts the assurance that we are on the cusp of something that is, dare I say, revolutionary. Grassroots democracy appears to be poised to drag governance, kicking and screaming if need be, into the 21st century. As we talk amongst ourselves we become convinced that we are mere moments away from transformation. Lincoln said that with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.

And yet, astoundingly, we continue to elect 19th century partisan political parties with, at best, a mid-20th century outlook on governance.

When questions of policy and/or policy implementation are raised, 19th century partisan parties ask themselves two questions, and only two questions.

1. If we do this, will it get the party more votes or fewer votes?
2. If we do nothing, will it get the party more votes or fewer votes?

Regardless of grand electoral promises, platform declarations, and policy documents, it is the will to implement that is always sadly lacking. 19th century partisan parties always check the wind direction before reacting. Often the result is, “We intend to set up a sub-committee to determine if we need to establish a commission to investigate the ramifications of doing something. It shouldn’t take more than five or six years. Until that process is completed, we don’t feel it’s appropriate to comment on the subject.”

And so while I applaud Mr. Trudeau’s call this week for the full legalization of marijuana, a move the media have labelled “gutsy”, I am of an age that I can remember someone of the same name and party persuasion entertaining a similar notion some 43 years back. In those 43 years, Mr. Trudeau’s (choose one) party held power for 26 of those years. Nothing changed. It was not politically expedient to do so.

I sometimes ask myself why they are called leaders when they are almost always at the back of the pack.

I often ask myself why citizens continue to elect 19th century party representatives.

I always ask myself why voters get upset when parties in power do nothing.

Well, they were elected to do nothing. Our system of governance rewards stasis; it is an internal self-governing entity, regardless of who appears to be “in power” at the time. The political class has become the  collective whipping boy for our fear of change and our resentment of “entitled elites.” Decrying their action/inaction has become a public sport and guilty indulgence.

Now some readers will undoubtedly reply that their MP, MLA, MHA, MPP, is an honest, hard working, caring person doing a wonderful job, and I won’t dispute that assertion. I most likely know that person and will wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. But something transformative occurs when there is a conflict between the good of the country, the good of the constituencies, and the good of the party. The order of precedence reverses.

It appears that we only desire change if it doesn’t affect us personally. Political parties will always speak of change, but they are almost always referring to the seating plan in their respective legislatures. I equate it with a very large volleyball team rotating players every few years.

As Nova Scotia heads into an election sometime in  the next eight months, we would all do well to remember that the three main parties have all been in power before, have all made the same promises, have all opposed the same initiatives, and not much has really changed. Einstein said that you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it. Perhaps it’s time for some 21st century thinking. Real systemic change will be revolutionary. It will affect most segments of our society. Societal shifts are not easy, and will require a collective resolve most likely not seen in this country since the Second World War.

True change will only come about when we are willing to live with the consequences.

Those who have known me for many, many, many, many, years know that I have consistently advocated for major reforms to Canada’s drug laws and shifting the perception of drug users as only faceless criminals to that of neighbour, co-worker, or family member either requiring access for legitimate medicinal purposes or in need of compassionate health care, or recreational users, like myself, who require nothing other than to be left to their own devices and sense of personal responsibility, much like those who partake in the use of the socially accepted drug…alcohol.

Over forty years ago, Gerald LeDain was commissioned by the government of Pierre Trudeau to look seriously and scientifically at existing drug laws and possible changes and solutions. All agreed that the status quo was ineffective.

In June 1970 the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs delivered its interim report, calling for the decriminalization of all drugs. Analysts called it “one of the most politically-explosive documents ever put before the government.”

Many in the country inhaled deeply; some with pleasure, and others with trepidation.

Liberal Health Minister John Munro announced that his government would immediately look at moving marijuana out of the Criminal Code and into the Food and Drug Act.  Justice Minister John Turner was blindsided by this announcement, and waxed apoplectic, calling it, among other things, political suicide.

And once again, politics heads its ugly rear and drowned out LeDain’s recommendations about drug education and “wise, informed freedom of choice.”  The Liberal government ignored the LeDain commission’s report.

Most of those involved in commissioning or writing the report are long dead. Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau, now calling for the legalization of marijuana, was not even born. If the wheels of justice grind slowly, the wheels of government outright refuse to get into gear.

Within hours of Trudeau the Younger’s announcement that he favours the legalization of marijuana, our current government rummaged about in the basement and dragged out the talking bogeyman doll from the thirties (and forties, and fifties, and sixties, and seventies…) “These drugs are illegal because of the harmful effect they have on users and on society. We will continue protecting the interests of families across this country. Our government has no interest in seeing marijuana legalized or made more easily available to youth.”

Yes, think of the children. And the mandatory minimum sentences handed down to them thanks to changes in the law brought in by the protectors of the family and our children. Say what you will about their attitude, but at least we know where they stand.

In defending such a stance, it requires that the government judiciously ignore decades of peer-reviewed scientific studies, economic analyses, and sociological studies to the contrary. This is, of course, business as usual for the Harper government when their personal ideology is threatened. There are days when I have difficulty distinguishing the Harper Conservatives from Doctor Who’s arch-nemesis, the Daleks. Perhaps a re-branding is in order.

So we know where the Dalek Party of Canada stands (welcome to the 1930s). We now know where the Liberal Party of Canada stands (welcome to the 1970s), and we know the Greens have always advocated positively for drug law reform, especially marijuana. The NDP say yes, their Leader says no, then maybe, so we remain uncertain where they stand. It appears to be a day to day thing, after checking wind direction.

All of this is moot at the moment. The party of No is in power. The parties of Yes and maybe are in Opposition. The real question worth asking is: If a party of Yes comes to power in the next election, will these changes come to fruition? Or will they be subject to a multi-year study whose recommendations will be ignored? Will it be an election platform issue, or will it be buried in the someday in the future file?

Mr. Trudeau, you have taken a small but significant step on the path. Well done. How you proceed will be subjected to public scrutiny. Words must become actions. Actions must be clear. Many of us have waited over forty years for some sort of action.

I hope you will forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

Some salient points from the original LeDain Commission:

• The LeDain commission’s 320-page interim report argued that nobody should go to jail for possession of psychotropic drugs. But it did not recommend outright legalization because there had not been enough clinical study or public debate on the subject.

• The commission justified the decriminalization of hard drugs as well as marijuana because they felt that penalties for possession should not be based on how harmful a drug is to the user.

• The LeDain commission said drugs are so pervasive in Canada that government strategy should focus on frank drug education, not suppression. Chapter two of the interim report was an explicit explanation of what various drugs do — including any positive aspects. The commission argued that a careful, scientific explanation of the whole truth was the only responsible approach to drug education and worth the risk of sparking interest in drug experimentation.

• In the year following the release of the interim report, the commission studied drug education, treatment for drug abusers, and the costs of current drug law enforcement. The first report, on treatment, was published in January 1972. It included a first aid manual for treating drug users that was sent to every doctor in Canada. But many doctors saw this as an attack on their profession.

• The commission’s final report was delivered in June 1972. The five members of the commission were split on the recommendations. The majority position was held by LeDain, Heinz Lehmann and J. Peter Stein. They argued that marijuana possession should be decriminalized because the law enforcement costs of attempting to prohibit it were too great. They said they hoped this would not promote marijuana use, but admitted this might be an incidental effect of decriminalization.

• Two members of the commission dissented. Marie-Andrée Bertrand thought the government should go further and provide a legal source for marijuana distribution. On the other hand, Ian Campbell felt the majority recommendation would be seen as an endorsement of the safety of marijuana and would result in increased use.

Juno Beach

Sixty-nine years ago today, thousands of Canadian soldiers huddled in landing craft off the coast of Juno Beach Normandy, shivering from equal parts cold and outright fear. I try to imagine my father, a medic in both that campaign and the liberation of Belgium and Holland, yet not even the age of my son today, and wonder what it took to calm his mind and remain as focused as he could under the circumstances. Perhaps the quote “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear,” held him and his brothers together that day.

Even a cursory examination of the events of the first hours of D-Day reveals the impressive accomplishments of the Canadian assault battalions. Most of the elaborate pre-invasion fire-support plans had failed, leaving the infantry, combat engineers, and armoured troopers to overcome the enemy by direct fire. It took incredible courage just to keep going; there are no words that can do justice to the fourteen thousand individuals who rose to the challenge and led assaults on deadly enemy positions. The price they paid was high – the battles for the beachhead cost 340 Canadian lives and another 574 wounded.

John Keegan, eminent British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “At the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division. The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

Of the many lessons that we can take from the Normandy invasion, two stand out for me. The first is the importance of mental health. Canadian infantry battalions lost on average 80% of their soldiers in the three months following Juno Beach. As many as a third of all non-fatal casualties were designated “battle exhaustion” cases, breakdowns from the extraordinary stress of combat that today we call operational stress injuries.

Allied medical facilities were poorly equipped to deal with psychiatric casualties effectively, which aggravated existing manpower problems and almost ground the army to a halt after Normandy. What we can learn from this is that mental health is of profound importance in military and civilian life, and must be treated as an urgent component of medical care and public health. Additionally, if mental strain and anxiety could sometimes be too much for even the hardened Canadian soldiers who won Juno Beach, it can sometimes be too much for anyone. There is no shame in that.

Juno Beach is also a lesson in Canadian values. More than a million Canadian men and women volunteered during the war, a war far from home and with little immediate impact on daily life. But there was a broad understanding among Canadians that their responsibilities did not end at the country’s borders. In 1944, Canadians demonstrated a willingness to volunteer and fight for principles and interests beyond the physical safety of family and country. The D-Day landings were the ultimate sign of Canada’s commitment to and engagement with the world, values still reflected across our country today.

These days we often take for granted our rights, our freedoms and our values. In our day to day lives we pay little heed, if any, to the source of that which we hold most precious. Martin Luther King said that ‘a man who is not willing to die for something is not fit to live’. If for only one day a year we remember those who were willing to die for the values and freedoms we hold dear, let it be today. Let it be now.

And let us never forget that freedom is not free. It is paid for in the blood of a generation that we can never afford to lose, that of our nation’s children.

Publish or perish

When we read a story in the newspaper, or watch the news on television there is a collective assumption that what we are seeing or reading is factual and true. We do not expect our information to be tainted by bias and, given the choice, prefer to come to our own conclusions based on evidence presented, without undue editorializing.

Journalists are taught to find both sides of the story, whether they exist or not. We must understand that newspapers and television are not in the business of disseminating news; they are in the business of selling advertising, and nothing sells advertising like a good old fashioned controversy.

Witness the reportage on climate science. While 99.97% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, the media portray the issue as debateable by continuing to give equal credence to junk science and the opinion of paid hacks, purportedly in the interests of ‘balance’, but the real reason is because it sells. Rupert Murdoch (Fox News) was once asked, “If you could make more money espousing a liberal point of view, would you do it?”  His reply was, “In a heartbeat.” It’s a business, not a public service.

The same is true of political reportage. When the government tables a budget and proclaims it as good, editors will break their backs trying to find opinions to the contrary. Politicians play the game as well. The Opposition opposes, no matter what. Party Whips ensure that there is never anything good said about the government. They must be opposed; however silly it sounds. It is imperative that party spokespeople sound decisive and unyielding, and firm in their commitment to the talking points that have been worked by a communications committee in the backroom. In the news game, it’s almost as good as a sex scandal.

Question. If the government is so wrong on everything, then how did they get elected? Do opposition parties believe that the citizens who voted for the governing party are stupid, or just victims of a clever and evil hoax? When was the last time an Opposition Leader went before the cameras and said, “This is a great initiative on the part of the government and we wholeheartedly support it.”? At best they will damn with faint praise, “It’s not bad as far as it goes, but we would have done blah blah blah, which would have benefitted the poor, the hard-working families, small business, rural dwellers, unemployed youth, municipalities…”pick the correct target audience.

This is all so 19th century. It’s not news. It’s opinion, and while opinion is all well and good, when it is passed off as news we slide a little further down the slippery slope to poorly informed, autocratic governance. The old saw that the Fourth Estate was established to speak truth to power, to hold the mirror that reflects the current state of society and protect the public good was never really true, but it plays well as the justification for all manner of pre-digested pap that passes for mainstream journalism.

This is not to vilify journalists. Most graduate from journalism schools with a belly full of fire to take on the power elites and tilt their sharpened lance at the perceived injustices in society. And then they get a job, and have to do end runs around editorial policies that are mandated from the media ownership. I know many fine journalists working the mainstream who publish stories, sometimes under a pseudonym, with independent online organizations; stories that would never be allowed to run at their place of employment. I get calls for background on stories but I’m never quoted. It would be pulled. I’ve had camera crews erase tape in front of me when they learn my affiliation. (“Sorry. We can’t talk to you.” This was said right to my face. I smiled.)

Frankly, I believe it’s well past the time to dock the boat at the 21st century and use fresh eyes to look at where we need to place our efforts to continue as a viable, compassionate and sustainable society. Sitting safely offshore and watching how the tides shift isn’t a workable solution. The media and governments have an important role to play in developing those solutions. If our current slate of political leaders and journalists are unwilling to venture down new paths, then the only road left open to them will be the one that leads to irrelevance.

They will not be missed.

The Numbers Racket

With the release of the latest Angus Reid Poll showing the Nova Scotia NDP government at a 30% approval rating and Premier Dexter’s personal approval rating also at 30%, it begs the question, “Would you call an election now with numbers like that?”  When Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil is polling 18 points higher at 48% approval, it would be tantamount to handing him the keys to the Premier’s Office. Why would any Premier knowingly do that?

Mr. Dexter’s NDP government still has another year left on its mandate and that time could be used wisely to boost those numbers and put voters in a frame of mind more amenable to his party’s chances at the polls.

In running out the clock the NDP may, through legislative initiatives, see a steady rise in their numbers, but the same cannot be held true for Mr. Dexter. It is he who must wear the disappointment of long-time party stalwarts that walked away in disgust during his mandate; indeed, the defections began almost as soon as he took office and have not let up. As well, the public perception and anticipation of systemic change exceeded the reality of the situation, and the subsequent disillusion has created a heightened level of discontent that is out of all proportion.

Now I will not say that Mr. Dexter deserves to wear all the mud slung at him, but wearing it is written into the job description of Party Leader. Everyone in politics knows the Leader is always easy to spot. It’s the person with the target on the front and the back and, as any Leader will tell you, at least it balances the weight.

The case can be made that the NDP inherited an unholy mess from previous government incarnations, both Liberal and Conservative, that placed severe constraints on the new government’s ability to effect any meaningful policy initiatives. That they have, in three years, been able to balance (real or imagined) the budget and maintain service levels must stand as a testament to their managerial capabilities. Visionary? No. Progressive? Not Really. Radical? Ha!

With five senior members of his caucus declaring their intention to retire, Mr. Dexter should now be considering whether this would be a good time to consider his own options. History will show that going out on a high note is always preferable to being sent home in ignominious defeat. If, indeed, his fondest wish is to see a second term for the NDP, his best course of action now might be to clear the path for those behind him. As the federal Liberals can attest, there is nothing like a good leadership race to once again pique the interest of voters, and a fresh new face and a coat of paint can do wonders to boost a party’s electoral hopes. With one year left on the NDP mandate, there is just enough time to put this play in motion for Spring 2014.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of every politician’s mind lurks the Legacy Thought. It’s always preferable to walk off the stage as the first Leader to bring the NDP to power and balance the budget, passing the torch and the target on to a new generation. The alternative, the political equivalent of the music industry’s one hit wonder, is not even worthy of consideration.

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