Canadian Politics

Well done, activists

Truth be told, activists irritate me. For some time I’ve felt that, taken as a group, they’re not much more than outrage junkies looking for a fix: angry people going out of their way to find some injustice to protest, something to focus their pre-existing rage. Protesting for the sake of protesting, without a clear agenda or a specific outcome. My pre-existing biases are confirmed by Andrew Potter’s Maclean’s piece on the G20 protesters:

What sort of policies were they opposed to? Which ones did they support? It’s surprisingly hard to say. I’ve been trolling through the stories in the aftermath of the summit, and it would appear that most of the protesters had no real clue either.
When a firm agenda was expressed, it tended to be absurdly general: “People not profits.” “Stop the G20”. “Justice Now.” “Animal Rights are Human Rights.” “Free Palestine.” You get the picture. Even the supporters and organizers of the protests seemed less than pleased with the discordant messaging. At one point, in a rally and march held the day after all of the major arrests (on June 28), the Globe’s Anna Mehler Paperny tweeted “The telling moment when Rebick shouts ‘what do we want?’ and everyone shouts something different. (They settle on ‘justice’)”.

Meanwhile, Potter points out that the Harper government was doing something actually worth protesting about: they protected several fossil fuel incentive programs in the face of G20 pledges to phase such programs out. In other words, the Canadian government protected tax breaks for the oil sands. That, says Potter, “is completely evil on Canada’s part — not just doing the wrong thing, but doing the opposite of the right thing. And it was out there, on the national newswire, while the summit was still going on, and the day before Judy Rebick led the crowd in a game of ‘let’s play “what do we want”’.”

Had that policy been the focus of the protests, it could have been a profoundly uncomfortable and embarrassing moment for the government, which would have been neatly caught between G20 commitments and precise popular pressure. Talk about a missed opportunity. Well done, activists.

Some Canadian advice about the British election

Watching the British elections, and the rather strong performance of the Liberal Democrats, I’m reminded of a couple of provincial elections that took place in Canada: Manitoba’s in 1988, and British Columbia’s in 1991. Both of those elections have the following in common with the current British election campaign:

  1. The incumbent party is deeply unpopular and is facing electoral defeat.
  2. The official opposition party, however, is still held in suspicion by a large part of the electorate.
  3. The leader of the third party puts in a strong performance during a televised debate, introducing an unpredictable element into the campaign.

In 1988, the Manitoba NDP was facing collapse, but unpleasant memories of the last Tory government were fresh enough in enough voters’ minds that they more comfortable voting Liberal, particularly given the high personal popularity of their leader, Sharon Carstairs, who’d clobbered the two main leaders in a debate during the previous election in 1986.

British Columbia’s Social Credit party was also imploding in 1991, but the electorate was sufficiently polarized that traditionally right-of-centre voters were unwilling to vote for the goddamn socialists (i.e., the NDP). Again, a strong debate performance by then-Liberal leader Gordon Wilson gave voters an alternative to holding their noses. (Wilson had to go to court to be included in the debates; he made the most of it when he got there.)

In both cases, the third party finished a strong second, with the incumbent party reduced to third place. We’ll see what happens in the U.K. tomorrow.

Now, televised debates are old hat here, as are three-way campaigns; the Brits, never having had debates before the three held during this campaign, lack such experience. I doubt these conditions will ever be repeated: the two top parties, whoever they are, will not underestimate the third-party leader again. The dynamic of the scrappy third-party leader calling bullshit on the other two will simply not recur.

Similarly, Nick Clegg’s challenge will be to avoid losing momentum: lightning does not strike twice. The Manitoba Liberals dropped to third place in the following election two years later. And while the B.C. Liberals eventually absorbed the remnants of Social Credit and took power in 2001, Gordon Wilson lost the leadership only two years after that breakthrough election in 1991, for rather sordid reasons. If the electorate hands you a gift, do not fritter it away.

Medical isotopes and me

The federal Liberals are attacking the Harper government for failing, in their view, to deal with the medical isotope shortage. The shortage, which was triggered by the (second) shutdown of the Chalk River NRU reactor last May, will be exacerbated by the shutdown of the Dutch Petten reactor for repairs, which start this month and will run through the summer.

I didn’t say anything about the isotope issue while I was working for Health Canada (though, strictly speaking, Natural Resources is the lead department on this issue, I did edit some work on this issue), but I’m not working there any more — and I just figured out that I have direct experience with the medical isotopes that are now in short supply.

One of the isotopes produced by the NRU reactor is technetium-99m, which, among other things, is used in bone scans. In late 1997, it was a bone scan that revealed activity in my heels and sacroiliac joint and suggested the likelihood of ankylosing spondylitis. Had that bone scan not been available, I would not have received the right diagnosis as quickly, and I cannot imagine how things would have turned out then. Most people with my disease go years before getting the right diagnosis; I was damn lucky to get it only six months after the onset of severe symptoms.

If bone scans are harder to come by as a result of the isotope shortage, people like me will be considerably worse off.

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