Month: January 2020

“Destroyed By The Insolence of Demagogues”

It would be a mistake to think Donald Trump is the only American politician to aspire to greatness by whatever means he felt legitimate. There have been quite a few over the years, but one that springs to mind more readily than most is Huey Pierce Long, who became Governor of Louisiana in 1928 and was assassinated in September 1935.

He was similar in political outlook and personality to President Trump, although the current president would consider Long well below the salt in the lordly pecking order. Trump is from a wealthy family, well-schooled if not well-educated, and remarkably rich for an eight-time bankrupt.

Springing from an impoverished family, young Huey had enough smarts and ambition to stay in school long enough and study hard enough to pass his bar exam at the age of 22. At the age of 25, he got his first taste of politics and won election to the State Railroad Commission. It also gave him his first exposure to power – and he liked it.

So, apparently, did the people of Louisiana when he used his position to attack big oil companies with demands that tighter regulation of utility companies was needed. Standard Oil was one of his favourite targets, and its rank-and-file employees loved seeing their boss kicked around. They quickly gave Huey the nickname “Kingfish,” a title he loved and encouraged.

Encouraged by this adulation, the rookie politician made a bid for the state governor’s job in 1924. The Kingfish won a lot of support but not the election. Four years later, he tried again, leaning heavily on what was termed “irreverent language” on the hustings; language understood by farm and oil field workers.

His speech delivery was often described as “fiery and picturesque oratory” and well-spiced with “unconventional buffoonery.” The Kingfish stepped up the rhetoric, and his base – to use today’s political vocabulary – responded with solid support at the polls.

He won the election as the state’s governor.

His State was rewarded with massive public works projects and greatly expanded social welfare programs. New schools and hospitals were built, and the entire road system, long neglected, was improved throughout the state.

Where did he get the money for his programs? The oil companies were hit hard with various production taxes; inheritance taxes were imposed; and, income tax boosted.

Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) describes the times: “Long’s folksy manner and sympathy for the underprivileged diverted attention from his ruthless autocratic methods. Surrounding himself with gangster-like bodyguards, he dictated outright to members of the legislature, using intimidation if necessary.”

Times were good, but democracy wasn’t.

EB tells a story from the year the Kingfish left the State governor’s mansion to take up residence in Washington DC and his duties as a newly elected senator:  “When he was about to leave office, he fired the legally State elected lieutenant governor and replaced him with two designated successors who reported to him” and obeyed his orders from Washington.

Huey’s brother Earl had replaced him as Governor.

It was while Long was visiting Baton Rouge in 1935 that Carl Austin Weiss, son of a man the Kingfish had often vilified, stepped in front of the senator and shot him twice before bodyguards could return the fire that killed him. The Kingfish died two days later.

I think we can all hope for a better ending to the Trump story. The USA has lived too long believing in the power of the gun to solve political differences.

Aristotle once wrote: “Democracies are most commonly destroyed by the insolence of demagogues.” It is sad to watch the ancient philosopher’s truth come echoing down through time.To watch as demagogues like the Kingfish, and the man who wants so badly to be a king of any kind, prove the old philosopher right.

 

 

 

A Neutral or Biased Public Service?

It was a damp day. Hard to tell whether you were walking through a soft rain or a heavy mist. So, when I walked soggily from the street into Ted Hughes’ office, and he said: “Better hang your raincoat in the hall – and you look as though you could handle a coffee,” I responded with speed.

With raincoat dripping contentedly on a coat stand, my eyeglasses cleared of steam, my notebook rescued slightly crumbled from jacket pocket, and a life-saving sip from a mug of coffee “black, no cream or sugar,” I was ready.

My first question was simple: “What can you tell me about the investigation you are conducting into the affairs of Premier Bill Vander Zalm regarding allegations of conflict of interest?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing to report to you. The Premier requested the investigation on behalf of the government. It would be most unethical for me to make it – or any part of it – it public.”

I should have known better than to ask the question because, having known Ted for a few years, I knew full well that ethics and open pride at being ethical were part and parcel of his daily make-up. When it was ready his report would go first to the government. He knew where his duty lay.

He wasn’t perfect, but in his life as a public servant, he never ceased preaching against what he called the growing tendency to weaken public service by permitting political party loyalty to become more important than the common good.

He didn’t have to like all the people he worked for, but he did owe them the best advice he could give. And, if they had broken any laws or had violated any ethical codes, he did not close a blind eye. At least one Premier and one Attorney General resigned after Ted Hughes investigated their ethical standards. And they were the first to know his findings.

In May 1996, in a Victoria speech to the Institute of Public Administration in Canada, Ted openly warned of the dangers to democracy when an opposition party wins an election after years in the political wilderness and then goes on a job replacement spree. He used as an example a Saskatchewan election in the 1980s and the “new” government’s decision to terminate the employment of many public servants on the grounds the incoming legislators had “lost confidence” in them.

While citing the Saskatchewan experience as “a stark example,” Ted warned of similar upheavals “across the provincial scene of our country … which leads me to the conclusion that the Canadian tradition of a neutral public service career is increasingly under challenge. It is not out of control but, the trend is there, and therefore, in my opinion, it is time for a forceful initiative to reverse it, to restate the virtue of the Canadian tradition, and to appeal to the reason and logic of our elected representatives so that they and the people they represent will appreciate that they all will be much better served by an adherence to the time tested procedures of the past rather than by moving step-by-step to gut one of the greatest safeguards of a vibrant parliamentary democracy.”

Although Ted’s speech made no direct reference to BC, it could have. The province underwent significant public service job changes when Dave Barrett and the NDP defeated W.A.C. Bennett after 20-years in power; and another, less than four years later, when Bill Bennett defeated the NDP and returned Social Credit to power for 15 years (11 with Bill Bennett and four with Bill Vander Zalm and Rita Johnston).

The NDP came back for a decade with four premiers: Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller, and Ujjal Dosanjh. Dosanjh was defeated and replaced by Liberal Gordon Campbell, followed by Christy Clark, who gave way to the NDP – which will soon be getting ready for another switch or more of the same.

Each time there has been a change of government there has been a public service shake-up. A major when the NDP ended 20-years of Social Credit and thought too many senior public servants had become Socred loyalists. When Bill Bennett took over part of his first year in office was spent gently removing from key positions the NDP appointments.

Ted Hughes died on January 17 after a brief illness. Along with several of his old Saskatchewan friends, I had been scheduled to lunch with him in The Shield and Dragon pub in my retirement residence at Berwick Royal Oak on January 4. Helen, his wife of 65 years, phoned to say Ted would be in hospital undergoing tests that day but that he would reschedule the lunch when he got home.

We always talked about politics, and I wanted to ask him if he’d changed his mind about public service. Back in 1991, he had felt the old essential neutral career rule was under serious challenge. Did he still believe “public employees have a duty to carry out government decisions loyally, irrespective of the party or persons in power and irrespective of their personal opinions?”

With a provincial election looming on not too distant horizons I wanted to ask if BC  had moved any closer in recent years to the old standard of a politically neutral public service or had drifted deeper into the dangerous waters of decisions biased by political party doctrine.

In his 1996 speech, he urged the need for continually striving to reach the day when “a superbly qualified professional public service” would be in place in this province to serve the elected representatives of the people and the public who elected them.” It was, he said “incumbent to foster a neutral public service where purges will not be the order of the day when a government changes but, rather, where continuity will abound, where merit will be awarded and morale maintained at a high level.”

I would like to have asked for an update. But I know he faulted the politicians for the intrusion of partisan politics where none should be.  And I know he would have agreed with Cicero, who once wrote: “He removes the greatest ornament of friendship who takes away from it respect. The good of the people is the chief law.”

(Readers feeling a need for more detail on Ted’s remarkable life story should grab a copy of The Mighty Hughes by Craig McInnes published by heritagehouse.ca.)

 

Where Will Our Government Lead Us?

A few things to consider while nervously observing events in Australia, where that incredible Down Under country is painfully showing the rest of the world what global warming looks like when it lurches from disturbing to calamitous.

Australia, with its vast forests of gum trees and brush, burns a little easier and more rapidly than British Columbia’s tall tree wilderness. But not all that much as our forest firefighters will tell you when they remember 2018 and BC’s record wildfire season. It was a time when several small towns felt isolated and scared.

Australia and BC are blessed with abundant natural resources which, when sold on the international market, have brought them great wealth and afforded their citizens a way of life envied by millions – and even a few Royals seeking a pleasanter lifestyle.

But, benefits usually come with problems. Coal – the “black diamond” that made both Australia and BC rich in resources and their citizens comfortable – brought with it the evil of carbon emissions. And, the countries that bought their coal became the worlds’ leading contributors to excessive carbon emissions and brought on global warming now threatening the entire planet.

China is the leader in carbon emissions, as registered by the Global Carbon Atlas. The latest record I could find indicates 9,839 metric tons in 2017. The USA – which, on President Donald Trump’s orders, has abandoned the international effort to find world-wide solutions to uncontrolled carbon emissions – sits second on the Atlas spewing 5,269 tons of carbon emissions annually; India is third with 2,467 tons.

China and India are the great consumers of coal on the international market. They, along with Japan (1,200 tons a year in metric emissions), have been prime customers for BC and Australian coal for decades.

So why do the Aussies and BC still sell to these countries committing blatant massive violations of safe environmental practices in their primary industries? Both countries have all sorts of federal and provincial environmental rules and regulations governing the mining industry to protect their citizens at home. However, globally, it’s a free-for-all for those who don’t seem to mind contributing to what could be the end of Planet Earth.

So, why not just stop fueling foreign furnaces with our profitable coal … a fuel that could destroy Earth as we know it? Good puritanical thinking for sure, but – there’s always a BUT and this is a big one.

A recent Business in Vancouver (BIV) article tells us, “BC’s mining sector generated $12.3 billion in gross revenue in 2018 – a nearly $4 billion increase over 2016. Higher prices for metallurgical coal and copper helped boost net income for BC miners to $3.5 billion in 2018.” The full report can be found at biv.com/article/2019/05/mining-bc-generated-record-revenue-pwc.

The BIV story goes on to report that payments to government in 2018 through taxes was $900 million. I think it is safe to assume that the loss of $900 million in any government’s revenue would be disastrously reflected in cuts to social programs. And China wouldn’t take long to find another supplier.

There is some urgency for a solution. Nerilie Abram, an Australian climate scientist at the Australian National University, says: “The question we need to ask is, how much worse are we willing to let this get? This (the Australia scene) is what global warming of just over one degree Celsius looks like. Do we really want to see the impacts of three degrees or more?”

Three degrees or more is the trajectory generally forecast by climate scientists.

Footnote: Just before posting this blog, I learned that Germany had announced (Jan16) a plan to close its 84 coal-burning electricity-producing plants by 2038. Germany is sixth on the Global Carbon Atlas list with a 2017 record of 799 tons of pollution discharged annually. Canada is 10th with 473 tons. The legislation will also include closure of Germany’s nuclear plants. Some $45 billion (US) will be budgeted for compensation and the building of new infrastructure and training in new jobs. The new legislation is expected to be in place this summer.

Will Canada and the rest of the world be brave enough to follow?

 

 

 

 

 

Forward Tho’ I Canna see – I Guess And Fear

 

 

Scottish poetry lovers will be celebrating another Burns’ birthday on January 25 (1759) with wild repetitions of: “And we’ll take’ a cup of kindness yet for Auld Lang Syne.”

 

Usually, these are the only words most of them know from his beautiful short poetic appeal to remember past years and friendships. At some gatherings, serious fans will wrestle with dialects, and one or two will take a stab at a rare poem dedicated “To a Mouse” involving a one-sided conversation and advice “to a mouse on turning her up in her nest with the plough.”

 

It is not a children’s poem or a nursery rhyme.

 

Burns was apologizing to the mouse for leaving her only a “wee bit house in ruin from the plough,” its fragile bits and pieces blown away by the wind with little left to build a new house “with bleak December winds still blowing both snell (bitter cold) an’ keen.” All the mouse had left was “a heap of leaves … that cost thee many a weary nibble – and now thou’s turned out for all thy trouble to suffer the winter’s dribble and cranreuch (hoarfrost) cauld.”

 

And the lesson, according to Burns? Well, it’s more for his fellow humans than the mouse which is trembling in fear, a “wee, sleek it, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, O what a panic’s in thy breastie” just waiting for Burns to get out of the way so she can forage her way to another place of shelter. But Burn’s spoke to her anyway and 260 years later we get the message – or at least we should.

 

“But Mousie thou art no thy lane (not alone)

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft agley, (oft go astray)

And leave us naught but grief an’ pain

For promised joy

 

“Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only touches thee:

But Och! I backward cast my eye

On prospects drear!

And forward, tho’ I canna see

I guess and fear!”

 

I think of the last two lines often when U.S. President Donald Trump threatens and the men and women who could control him become “wee sleekit, cowering, timorous beasties” and leave their nation and the world to guess and fear.

Trusting In God But keeping Their Powder Dry

If you are reading this, it means that on December 27, I survived my 96th birthday and wandered into my 97th year on Planet Earth. Tradition suggests I now murmur, “and I don’t feel a day older than I did yesterday,” which would be true – but barely.

The fact is, the old machine is creaking and groaning in so many places that I need to maintain a coordinated pharmaceutical battle plan to make sure unwelcome bugs are held at bay.

So, while I may not feel any older this week than I did last week, I am. But, I can still wake up in the morning, happy to smell the coffee and share a cup while pontificating on how the fellow citizens we have elected to govern us are letting us down.

There is nothing new in that, of course. Centuries ago, emerging communities decided they would be better off with a small group of intelligent citizens developing and administering laws geared to make the community as a whole a better, healthier, safer place in which to live.

They called it “democracy,” and by and large, it has worked well – although never perfectly – in countries where the people have preferred to live under sometimes bumbling but always freely elected government rather than a dictator’s decree. In Canada, we like the bumbling way; we love the democratic right to complain, often utilize it with glee – and without too much thought.

Sometimes, in our haste to question decisions of governance, we insist on what I call a black or white answer to a sometimes very grey question. A few weeks ago, a short paragraph appeared in a long story on gun control – or the lack of gun control – in the USA. It noted that a recent “in house” notice to members of the Mormon faith had requested members not carry firearms when attending church services.

It shocked me that such a notice could ever be required of churchgoers. That worshippers anywhere would need to be asked to leave their guns of choice at home was unbelievable. That church governors would have to urge firearms be left at home, an unthinkable confession that a house of God could no longer offer what was once traditional protection from evil.

Then, just before 2019 closed its decade ending doors, there came a story out of Texas describing a shooting at a Jewish religious ceremony that involved members of the congregation “returning the fire” of a gunman bent on murders. It was later stated the returned shots were fired by an armed guard in the congregation.

It still bothers me to consider worshippers getting ready for church on a Saturday or Sunday morning being reminded to make sure their handgun is tucked away with their bible – or removed and left at home as an act of faith.

Think about it. It’s not a decision Canadians have to face – yet. But, with inexorable pressure on our living and moral standards, I fear the US of A may one day contaminate us with its steady determination to convince the world that God has been replaced with the gun.

They’ve been working on the conversion since Colonel Valentine Blacker (1778-1823) around 200-years ago urged his troops to  “Put your trust in God – and keep your powder dry.”