Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stop obsessing on youth and focus on policies

With the Liberal leadership race over, Canadians are reflecting on the trend of younger people seeking high office. Let’s have a closer look at the issue of age in politics.
Observe a young man, never having run a significant business, rather spending most of his life in academe, either studying or teaching, and surrounded by the old guard of a major Canadian political party. He was a member of his high school’s Young Liberals club. At the tender age of 34 he is elected to Parliament, never having previously served in elected office, not city councillor nor school board trustee. A rising political star, he is made his party’s leader while only 42 and fresh off his 45th birthday has the temerity to seek the highest office in the land.
He didn’t win, but less than 2 years later, on his second try, he did, becoming Right Honourable Prime Minister at the still relatively young age of 46.
Hold on, Justin Trudeau hasn’t been elected Prime Minister, what am I on about, you ask? Well, the bio above is actually that of Stephen Harper. Yet it strikingly parallels that of Mr. Trudeau, though Justin didn’t enter the Commons until he was 36 (two years older than Harper), became party leader at 41 and will be first running for PM when he’s almost 44 (in both cases a mere year younger than Stephen at that stage).
Harper cut his political teeth working with Deb Gray, Preston Manning, and Tom Flanagan, advising Reform and Alliance parties. Trudeau, surrounded by MPs and world leaders from birth, later chaired the Liberal task force on youth renewal. While out of politics, Justin chaired Katimavik, bringing Canadians together from coast to coast; Harper led the National Citizen’s Coalition, bringing some Canadians together to oppose the interests of some others.
As private citizens, both have been active in national causes and criticized government in ways that have later been highlighted as controversial. For a charity gala, Trudeau removed his shirt; at another gala, Harper sang of getting high with the help of his friends. What of it?
The city I live in has elected councillors at the tender young ages of 21 and 22 with little prior life experience who have nevertheless gone on to re-election with record-setting support. We elected an MP at age 27 who has likewise seen popular re-election with solid majorities. I really don’t see the point of the argument that someone is “too young” to lead. After all, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte were both emperors by their own hand at 30 (not that I’m endorsing that leadership style today). No Prime Minister governs alone (well, not before Stephen Harper, anyway); they always have the support of other MPs and expert advisors. My own party’s leader has demonstrated wisdom and leadership since her teenage years. So how about we stop obsessing over youth or supposed inexperience and instead focus on the policies each party leader offers?
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ontario Tories typify conservative political hypocrisy

New rules requiring members of all trades in Ontario pay annual fees to the College of Trades has created a backlash by the Progressive Conservative party, including our local Members of Provincial Parliament. They declare that it is unfair to make tradespeople pay annual fees of $120 just to be able to work in their field, and are calling this a “tax”.
Apparently, they have short memories, because the last time they were in government, under premier Mike Harris, they did exactly the same thing to teachers. Ontario teachers were already organized and professionally supported by their own unions, but Tories formed a College of Teachers all teachers working in elementary and high schools in Ontario had to join; the membership fee is now $138.
I’m not defending the College of Trades or attacking the College of Teachers. I’m just wondering why one is a “job-killing tax” while the other was Tory dogma. Is there any reasoning behind this apparent hypocrisy?
One might assert that teachers are paid better than those in trades, so they can better afford it. But that ignores the reality that teachers must pay the fee even in years they aren’t working, and newly-graduated aspiring teachers must pay even if they aren’t teaching yet. New teachers in this area commonly spend as long as 8 years working in supply positions with uncertain hours and unreliable income, and sometimes wait even to get on the supply list. Even though the work opportunities may be few and far between, they can’t take on another regular job lest they lose crucial supply opportunities, yet still have to pay the rent, the other bills – and the OCT annual fee.
Is it a matter of pitting professionals against “working people”, with an idea that those working primarily with their minds are less worthy than those working with their hands? This generalization would be offensive to both groups, since teachers do a lot of hands-on work while tradespeople need good thinking skills.
Perhaps it’s part of a general trend among conservatives, from supporting education to suspecting it. In past centuries, conservatives created and staffed institutes of higher learning, and ensured their children attended them. Ontario’s free elementary schools were founded, funded and administered by establishment religions, Anglican (public system) and Catholic (separate), in the conservative belief that education was the key to a richer economy and stronger nation. Yet nowadays conservatives commonly dismiss the “ivory tower” and seek to cut teacher salaries and benefits, or force them to work extra unpaid hours.
(The “wage freeze” imposed by Ontario’s Liberals with Tory support was actually a 1.5% wage cut due to the 3 days of school closures, and Tory leader Tim Hudak is on record proposing that extracurricular activities be mandatory.)
So is there a conservative bias against educators? If not, how to explain that what was good for teachers then is bad for trades now?
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Is there a conservative bias against educators?"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

All allies welcome in saving Springwater Park

I commended Ontario’s Liberal government for putting participatory democracy into action when crafting the Lake Simcoe Protection Act & Plan. However, this same government has become acutely non-participatory, seemingly deaf to entreaties to save Springwater Provincial Park.
Representative government should administer public lands on our behalf, acting as if we were making the decisions ourselves. Sometimes this means trade-offs, where local groups must accept measures favouring the greater good. But in Springwater, no greater good mandates ignoring the very strong local desire for this Park to thrive.
The sole justification for closing this park is budgetary: costs exceed revenues. Yet the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) itself is a prime culprit, having failed to repair the automatic payment machine for years, costing them unknown amounts of potential revenue, and in general failing to promote the park’s charms. Running the park is estimated to cost between $59,000 and $300,000 per year; repairing facilities is floated as around a million dollars.
But as C. D. Howe first explained in 1945 and Dr. Evil confirmed when thawed out in 1997, a million dollars is a drop in government’s budgetary bucket. Tourism in Simcoe County is a $570-million-a-year industry; surely local governments and industry can produce a business plan to save and expand the Park? I’m confident they can, but the government is hearing none of it. Rather than working with local partners to step up and boost park revenue, last fall MNR arbitrarily announced park closure within six months. Since then, despite a huge groundswell of support at all levels from citizens, local business, local municipalities and even provincial and federal parliamentarians, the Ministry’s shown little interest in plans to keep the park operational, or even delay closure to give time to establish a new plan, instead sticking with the original deadline.
This park is a unique gem where people can see the native wildlife living near or sometimes in our sprawling communities. With this area targeted for heavy growth in coming decades, that valuable link with nature only becomes more important.
Valiant members of citizen’s groups including Friends of Springwater Provincial Park and the Springwater Park Citizens’ Coalition have been lobbying hard and keeping the issue in the local spotlight with demonstrations, marches, and meetings, but so far to no avail. Now, once again, our downtrodden First Nations are putting their own lives on hold to protect what is of value to us all. Park occupation may finally force the government to give a meaningful response to our community’s concerns. I commend these bold women, because not only do they face arrest and conviction, they now must withstand the racist backlash I already see on news comment pages. No Johnny-come-latelies, Idle No More has enjoined this struggle from the start, hosting teach-ins and protests, and have now put forward their bodies as a last resort where sensible words have failed. I hope that with the 41 and Mega-Quarry victories already on the board, together we can help Nature score a hat trick.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "First Nations protest can only help park situation".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.