Friday, April 19, 2013

Two questions - and it's too soon for answers

The aftermath of the 2011 Canadian election, left two interrelated questions, the answers to which would determine the shape of federal politics in Canada for a generation or more.

The first question was, "Can the New Democratic Party consolidate their historic breakthrough in Quebec and establish themselves as the principal alternative to the Conservatives?"  Within a few weeks, that question was tragically amended to add, "without Jack Layton."

The second question was, "Can the Liberal Party recover from it's worst electoral trouncing in history?"

With last weekend's coronation of Justin Trudeau after a pro forma leadership stroll, some commentators have misread the standard leadership poll bump as an indication that the two questions have both been answered with a "no" and a "yes" respectively.  These are the same commentators who breathlessly assured us that Paul Martin would crush both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, that Stephane Dion was a formidable opponent who thrived on being underestimated and that Michael Ignatieff's stature as a internationally known public intellectual would wow the Canadian electorate.

The consistently bad track record of the commentariat notwithstanding, it would be equally foolish to conclude that the questions have been answered with a "yes" and a "no."  Beyond a few broad generalizations, only a fool would try to handicap the next federal election more than two years out.

Each of the two parties have certain things that must be accomplished in order to be successful in 2015.  If only one of the two parties is successful, then it is highly likely that party will establish itself as the principle alternative to the Conservatives for at least a generation or two.  If neither party can effectively establish itself in that role, the Conservatives are destined to a whomping majority in 2015, Quebec will largely drift back to the Bloc and any other prognostication is a complete mug's game.

New Democrats need to establish their new MPs (especially, but not only, the Quebec MPs) as strong presences in their communities and establish effective constituency associations in traditional areas of organizational weakness (again especially, but not only, in Quebec).  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but certainly the party has been focusing its resources on these twin goals.

In the early days, the handful of mostly quite young placeholder candidates who were elected was seen as the party's greatest vulnerability.  While the so-called McGill Four were held up for a certain amount of derision, but the prime target for the corporate media attack machine was Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the Ottawa campus pub manager who agreed to be a name on the ballot in the Quebec riding of Berthier - Maskinongé. Recent media features have highlighted how hard these young "accidental MPs" have worked to connect to their constituencies.  

The NDP organization in Quebec is stronger than it has ever been, and the membership at its highest level in history.  NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, a former Quebec environment minister and the architect of the NDP's Quebec breakthrough, is well respected in the province, and has managed to unite the party behind him following the leadership race.

For New Democrats, consolidation doesn't necessarily mean they need to hold onto all of their newly won seats, especially in Quebec where some shrinkage after a sweep is actually to be expected.  But if the NDP can retain the largest number of Quebec seats after the next election, it will be very difficult for the Liberals to overcome that inbuilt numerical advantage in the rest of Canada. 

The Liberals, who have seen their support steadily erode over the past five elections, have also seen their support become more concentrated in Atlantic Canada and in Canada's two largest cities.  In vast swathes of the country, the Liberals have no organizational depth, and the party would likely not even be competitive in any of its four seats west of Ontario were the incumbents to step aside.

In electing Justin Trudeau, the largely unaccomplished eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals have rolled the dice in the hope that a photogenic young(ish) leader with a famous name will garner them enough media attention to attract nostalgic former Liberals back to the fold and to recruit a handful of star candidates in areas outside their regional strength, while opening up the wallets of potential supporters.  Certainly Trudeau's initial poll numbers look good, but party poll standings generally improve in the immediate aftermath of a new leader.  Given the way the mainstream media have been fawning over Trudeau from the day he was born and the general reluctance of reporters (or Liberal leadership opponents) to challenge him with hard questions, one should expect the polling honeymoon to go on for a while.  However, continued and sustained Liberal recovery will depend on rebuilding the organizational infrastructure of the party, and vain celebrity is of limited value there.

That said, vain celebrity can have some effect in holding the media's attention and creating at least the illusion of broader capacity.  Opponents would do well not to underestimate the nostalgic appeal of Trudeau fils who, while lacking his father's gravitas, actually exhibits stronger soft political skills than Trudeau pere. 

In 30 months we will have a much clearer sense of the real answers to the two questions. Those who pretend the answers are discernible now are either fools or partisan spinners - or possibly both.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Memo to Lord Carey: Loss of privilege is not persecution.

A poll was released on Easter Day which suggests about 40% of Britons do not trust clergy to tell the truth.  According to the YouGov survey, 54% feel the Church of England has "struggled" to give moral leadership and fully 69% believe the established Church is "out of touch."  A Barna Group study from the United States a few years ago showed similar negative perceptions, with 87% of young people saying Christianity is judgmental and 85% that Christianity is hypocritical.  Only 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and 20s had a positive impression of Christianity.

I'm always a little leery of commenting on polls based on superficial media stories, but it strikes me the loss of the Church's credibility in England (and elsewhere) is related to a quite credible perception that the Church is far more interested in institutional preservation and with recovering lost privilege than she is concerned with proclaiming good news about anything or about speaking in a way that is credibly prophetic.

The perception, though credible, isn't entirely accurate.  Unfortunately for Christianity, the majority of mainstream media reporters are more or less religiously illiterate.  Add to that the desire for conflict to sell papers, and you have an inbuilt tendency for the media to pass on thoughtful religious voices in favour of hacks and cranks.  As a result, the self-identified Christian voices that get the ink are all too often the least credible and the most obnoxious.  Thus it isn't a negative perception foisted upon us by some imagined secularist conspiracy.  We do it to ourselves.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey's lunatic screed over the past weekend is a prime example. In the face of major changes to the welfare state with as yet unknown effects on the poor (of whom scripture says much), Lord Carey chooses to ignore that and instead offer up a deluded dystopia of pretendy persecution. He advances the fantasy that the loss of unearned and unmerited privilege is the same as being killed for what you believe. In a country where the head of state must belong to his religious body, where 26 legislative seats are set aside for senior members of his religious body and where the past leaders of his religious body (himself included) are always offered a legislative sinecure on retirement, where simply being a retired Archbishop pretty much guarantees you front page coverage in all the major media for your every pronouncement, no matter how inane, to talk of persecution is both idiotic and an affront to those Christians who face real persecution elsewhere.

It is said that "every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket."  George Carey, Pat Robertson and the rest of the far right hacks and flacks would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Christianity has degenerated to racket long since.

Yet just a few weeks before the latest wittering from Lord Carey, 43 serving bishops of the Church of England signed a letter expressing serious and thoughtful concern about the UK government's plan to reform assistance benefits.  Sadly, this kind of substantive intervention pales in the media's attention next to the ridiculous figure of a retired bishop making a fool of himself and disgracing the Gospel.

When someone of this stature says something so addlebrained as this, it reinforces every negative stereotype of Christianity as a gang of angry old Major Blimps raging against the end of the Victorian era.  If there is some massive secularist conspiracy out there somewhere, they'd be well advised to keep their powder dry, in keeping with Napoleon Bonaparte's dictum that you should never interrupt your enemy when he is shooting himself in the foot.  George Carey and his ilk are a greater threat to British Christianity than Richard Dawkins, the National Secular Society and the entire readership of the Guardian combined.