Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

I sat through the whole debate

with 9 comments

I did not feel tempted to drop in on the Biden v Palin match. It was two hours of, mostly, reasonable debate and I think if anyone came out ahead it was Elizabeth May. She demonstrated that the Greens are not a one issue party, and that she can handle herself in a scrap.

Jack Layton came across as a snake oil salesman. While he got some good shots in – going for the same sweater remark twice was callow. It did not help that he seemed to need to be swivelling his guns too much. He had Harper on the ropes and than suddenly turned on Stephan Dion. And the Liberal leader seemed to have two weak spots – his command of English is far from perfect (but to be fair much better than my French) and he is also on shaky ground when he tries to trot out the Liberal record. As Layton said, we all remember Red Book promises that seemed to evaporate the day after the election.

Duceppe’s best point was that he is not running to be Prime Minister. I actually quite like his policies, up to the point when he suddenly goes back to being Quebecois first and foremost. He was actually calling for a “Made in Canada” industrial  policy at one point – and conceded that seemed strange for a BQ leader.

What I did not hear once anywhere was any reference to transit or transportation. I don’t think I heard anything about the need to allow cities to take more control over their own affairs – and the talk of “fiscal imbalance” was obviously federal/provincial – municipal was not mentioned.

There also seemed to be a willingness to talk about “the environment” as though protecting parks and reducing ghg were the same thing. All of the leaders except Harper were strong on reducing CO2, and Duceppe was very effective at knocking out the idea of “intensity” targets, with a simple illustration using his water glass that anyone could follow.

What was nauseating was the smile on Harper’s face while he was being attacked – by all four of the others – on income trusts, Iraq, healthcare (especially the references to his previous job which was characterised as inviting the Americans to come in and take over). He kept his cool, and his confidence became smugness. I think he began to relish the fact that the divisions of his opponents means he could well take enough seats to keep his job. So kudos to Elizabeth May for having the wit and courage to raise proportional representation as an issue to be dealt with first after the election.

All of them tried to make the US economic crisis the subject of the debate, and Harper’s confidence that we are not in the same boat – while it does have some substance – began to look reckless. Especially when he claimed to have a platform, which the others could not resist repeating has not been published. He is running on his record, not on his promises, so the others obliged by bringing up his support for invading Iraq, which he conceded had been a mistake.

Do debates like this change anyone’s mind? Well not mine anyway. I do think that sitting around a table is better than standing up behind podiums. And the job of moderator was handled as well as anyone could expect. I think Dion scores an extra point for “I did not interrupt you when you were speaking” (aimed at Jack Layton). All the candidates were equally nauseating when it came to the question of the arts – each one using it as an excuse to trot out their families. And each made sure that they addressed their constituency – though Harper’s line about a tough set of standards for the tar sands was simply tendentious.

Not one of them admitted to the possibility of using a deficit to stimulate the economy – which shows that the conservative mindset still rules this arena. There are actually worse things that can happen to a country than a  budget deficit.

If I were Governor General, after the election I would summon the four and tell them that they have a week to come up wioth a workable coalition before telling Harper he can carry on. Becuase it seems most likely that once again more people will vote against the Conservatives than for them. So the Liberal/NDP/Bloq/Green leaders need to be thinking what they are prepared to conceed to get rid of Harper. As Duceppe said, most of the 5 people around that table will not be PM whatever happens.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 2, 2008 at 8:48 pm

Posted in politics

9 Responses

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  1. I think Layton did say “public transportation” or “transit” as part of a list, but that was the extent of it. I was very dismayed, however, when I found out the NDP would be offering funding to transit in Toronto, Montreal and… Ottawa… but not Vancouver. ?!?!

    May was excellent and she really reamed out Harper. I did love Jack’s sweater quip, but felt defensive about his charges against Dion. Dion’s English was excellent and he came forward as bold and aggressive, more serious than in previous appearances. Everyone but Harper was passionate, but what else can one expect from a sweatervest-donning robot.

    Great debate. So riveting we forgot to even check up on VP vs LOLVP. I saw a brief clip afterward in which Palin used the phrase “I betcha.” Wow.

    Erika Rathje

    October 2, 2008 at 11:27 pm

  2. Your final paragraph, Stephen, alludes to a centre-left coalition government — or possibly a Liberal minority backed by the NDP, Greens and Bloc under some kind of agreed upon policy framework. That makes eminent sense to me and would more accurately reflect the intentions of the people rather as opposed to another Harper minority.

    The most important policy in the entire world now is to do something to drastically diminish the oncoming effects of climate change and to prevent a future catastrophe. It can be said that that alone justifies such a coalition and would result in harmonizing the policies of the four centre and left parties for the good of the country.

    Sadly, the biggest blot on Layton’s record was to pull down a Martin Liberal minority government(which, amongst other things, proposed a significant agenda for cities, climate change and aboriginal communities) in an overdose of utterly bald partisanship. He badly miscalculated and as the result we now have Helmet Hair adorning the Big Office, perhaps in a second term soon. It was unbecoming to see Jack become Steve’s best friend. Tommy Douglas probably turned in his grave.

    Maybe he’s learned from the vituperative criticism about his actions from more pragmatic progressives (see: — the final draft was published in The Walrus magazine). Even Maude Barlow sees the need for progressives in all parties to unite, because she fears the neocon slant of a Harper majority (as opposed to the blue sweater saccharine cloak of a minority) would tend to erase many of the progressive policy achievements since the David Lewis NDP backed a Pearson Liberal government to create socialized healthcare in Canada in the 60s. Incidently, the federal health minister then was Paul Martin Sr.

    Regarding deficits, I can’t agree. Many of us remember Mulroney’s successive $40+ billion deficits throughout the 80s. He inherited a $185B (+/-) national debt from Trudeau, which spiked under the artificial Milton Friedman-created 20+ percent interest rates that coincided with Trudeau’s last years in office. When Mulroney left office eight years later, the debt was driven way up to $565 (+/-) billion primarily as the result of reckless spending, something Liberals are constantly accused of.

    It took a Liberal government with Paul Martin as finance minister to bring the deficits to ground. He went too far too quickly, in my opinion, notably in cuts to health care, but something had to be done, including raising taxes, or creating new ones like the GST, which I believe if kept reasonable, have far less of a drag on the economy than repetitive deficits that only lead to a massive debt load.

    What irks me now is that Harper inherited a healthy surplus, then squandered it in what — three years? –mostly on the necon holy grail of cutting taxes for the wealthy. We pay 2% less GST now, something we hardly notice as individuals and families, but that resulted in cancelling a major source of revenue. It was recently estimated that the Liberal surpluses would have topped $60 B last year. That kind of money would have bought a lot of Flexity trains and hospital upgrades for cities, not to mention unparalled extra payments on the debt (now at about $465 B) and therein lower debt servicing charges, which are in essence money shovelled mainly at foreign banks.

    I have no problem at all with a Dion government, and would like to see Layton and May in cabinet, but kept under firm control.


    October 3, 2008 at 10:56 am

  3. Personally, I can’t get over the frustration that a majority of Canadians will vote for parties with real climate change plans, and yet we’ll end up with the conservatives. (Who have no motivation for electoral reform since they benefit so clearly from our current broken system.)


    October 3, 2008 at 11:44 am

  4. The GST was introduced in 1991 by the Mulroney government to replace the 13.5% manufacturers sales tax.


    October 3, 2008 at 11:58 am

  5. I stand corrected on the GST.


    October 3, 2008 at 12:53 pm

  6. I agree on your point about running a deficit during economic downturns especially given events of late.
    The bailouts and low interest policies of the US government appear to have not caused a massive devaluation of the currency as might be expected. Moreover, the Canadian dollar is not benefitting from the lack of a deficit versus the greenback, probably because the rest of the world seems to view Canada as a colony or, worse, easily annexed territory of the USA.
    I do suspect that the greenback’s devaluation is imminent but if the USA creates a new currency backed with gold afterward it is likely that Canada and Mexico will adopt it as well. Presto, your debt is cut in half or less. After a nasty bit of suffering that is, complete with Oil at around $1000/barrel for a while.

    Greg A

    October 3, 2008 at 7:00 pm

  7. Erika – take a look at . The NDP has promised “$206 million dollars over four years for Vancouver’s public transit system”.


    October 5, 2008 at 10:26 pm

  8. The Canadian national debt as of 2007 stood at $481 billion, not $465 B as I previously stated. The debt servicing charges added up to over $38 B that year, or $93 million a day. A big chunk of those payments goes to foreign banks who own a big chunk of our debt.

    Given those inconcievable numbers, I cannot agree with deficit financing and increasing the already massive debt, unless the circumstances are especially dire (war, natural disaster). It’s a far better policy, in my opinion, to pay down the debt faster and free up the interest charges.

    The U.S. bailout as I read it will go mostly to the investment banks that created the problem in the first place, and who backed politicians who practiced three decades of deregulation and propoer oversight. The phrase “socialism for capitalists” comes to mind, but so does “rewarding bad behaviour.”

    A deficit-creating bailout should not reward the private sector for their miscalulations in risk-management, not should it result in cutbacks to our public healthcare system, which is Number One among several important social programs, to finance it.

    The Swedish bailout in the 90s, so I read, included handing over the shares of the banks bailed out to the government, and the deal imposed strict controls on lending and borrowing policy from that point on. The government has so far recouped about half of its investment in increased share value (they’ll probably take another hit now with the current cirsis).

    Those with ideological blinders would say handing over ownership is an intrusion into private enterprise, but similar intrusions into public enterprise have been praticed by the IMF when dealing with debt-ridden countries, and which resulted drastic social consequenses.

    Everybody wants a healthy economy, but that begins by building good foundations, doesn’t it? Sometimes you have to let a rickety house collapse to rebuild and achieve a stronger economy that is less susceptible to the temptation to supply an obscene level of easy credit to prop up the always shaky suburban dream of overconsumption.


    October 6, 2008 at 12:06 pm

  9. Thanks for that important reassurance, Chris! Too bad the link was broken.

    So… when the federal government leaves money to cities and provinces for infrastructure like transit, do they also make it clear it has to be spent wisely, like on LRT instead of SkyTrain or highways?

    Erika Rathje

    October 12, 2008 at 12:29 am

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