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Quote of the day

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“Every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character” – Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1898

A bloodied, but unbowed, Darrell Dexter

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When elected leaders finally fail at the ballot box, their post-campaign routine typically conforms to the immemorial script of the politically vanquished: Fade into the background for an obligatory period of reflection; emerge sadder, but wiser; issue subdued, yet heartfelt, expressions of remorse.

No so for former Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter who resurfaces this week making no excuses for his one-term NDP government, which lost to the Liberals on October 8. In fact, in his first full, published interview (with the Globe and Mail) since his shellacking, than man seems downright feisty.

“There is a point at which you could say. . .what more do you have to do?” he told the newspaper late last week. “What more do you have to do in order to demonstrate, if not exceptional management skills, at least acceptable management skills and a certain level of vision?”

Not that he’s complaining. Not exactly.

“We didn’t have angry mobs following us around the campaign. In fact, of all of the events I did through the campaign. . .not once did a protester ever appear. . .I think at this point you get this phenomenon where people, where they act individually, and the result happens collectively. . .that’s part of the unpredictable nature of politics.”

As for the bottom line, he says “I am completely satisfied with the decisions I made. I made them because I believed they were in the best interests of my province. I’ll live with that.”

Whether or not his decisions were, for the most part, sage and prudent, only time will tell. What is certain, however, is that they were not the unmitigated disasters some members of the Fourth Estate claimed they were. Indeed, very few of them went far enough to risk failing marginally, let alone catastrophically.

His government raised the HST by two points and, in the process, launched its four-year “Back to Balance” plan. Maureen MacDonald, the former Minister of Finance, put it this way in the 2011-12 fiscal statement: “The Public Accounts for the year ended March 31, 2012 are reporting an improvement of $141.1 million compared with the budget estimate of a $389.6 million deficit. With total revenues of $9.7 billion and total expenses of $9.9 billion, the 2011-12 deficit is $248.5 million.”

Meanwhile, “At year-end, the province’s net debt was $13.2 billion, which presented as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is 35.0 per cent for 2012. This Net Debt to GDP ratio is an improvement over previous years.”

Most famously, perhaps, Mr. Dexter took it squarely in the chin for lending Irving Shipbuilding a sizable chunk of taxpayer change to help the company win the federal government’s $25-billion naval procurement.

But, as he told the Globe, referring to the $2.2-billion windfall in expected provincial government revenues, “It seems to this day like a no-brainer. What government in its right mind would not do that when the returns are so great?”

As for his other measures, many seem worthy, if somewhat pedestrian. The NDP (says its website) “invested $8 million to ensure that every pre-school aged child with autism gets the help they need – help that was previously only available to half of them. . . .The NDP is putting what matters most first by increasing reading assistance to students, extending high school math to both semesters, and directing money from central offices to the classroom. . .The NDP’s Primary-Grade 3 class-size cap of 25 meant hiring more than 70 teachers this year.”

It’s hard to se how Mr. Dexter and his decidedly non-socialist New Democrats deserved to lose, when their mainstream policies and programs could have stemmed, just as easily, from Grit or Tory ranks.

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Dexter remains unapologetic, even a little defiant, about his fortunes these days.

In politics, just because you haven’t failed the public, doesn’t mean the public isn’t out to get you at the ballot box.

Raise three cheers for mere mortals

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The Spanish conquerer who discovered Florida, now the western world’s largest home for old folks, was actually looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth. How’s that for historical irony?

No more exquisite, perhaps, than Martine Rothblatt’s statement at the Global Future 2045 International Congress in New York City this summer that “The first company that develops mindware (a kind of software that will render human consciousness eternal and eternally free of the human body) will have (as much success as) a thousand Googles.” Sitting in the audience was Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor and director of engineering at, you guessed it, Google.

Not that he could have been much annoyed. Mr. Kurzweil was among friends and acolytes, alike – people who dream of immortality through technology. Here’s what he had to say in the Times of India the other day: “It has been my consistent prediction that by (2029) computers will match human intelligence and pass the ‘Turing test,’ meaning that they will be indistinguishable from human intelligence. Once they can do that they will necessarily exceed human intelligence because they will be able to read everything on the web and every page of every book.

He added: “By 2045 we will have multiplied our intelligence a billion fold by merging with the (artificial intelligence) we are creating. That is such a profound transformation that we borrow this metaphor from physics and call it a singularity.”

Of course, such Utopian nonsense has been a feature of everyday life since Narcissus saw himself reflected in a pool of water, became entranced, fell in, and drowned. Some of us just can’t enough of ourselves, so we hold conferences for like-minded individuals and sit around all day gabbing about how neat it would be to live forever. Oh sure, what a wonderful world that would be.

Elsewhere, others are embarking on a more bite-sized project, though their motives are suspiciously similar to those of the “singularitists”. A Globe and Mail piece this week describes researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City conducting “anti-aging experiments” on mice. Such efforts and the early results “have scientists talking seriously about the average lifespan rising by decades, possibly to 120 years, and academics pondering the consequences. What would it mean for the solvency of the health-care system or public pensions? Would it change views on marriage (‘Happy 98th anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa!’)? And would anyone really want to live so long anyway?”

According to the story, “Versions of the latter question were asked in two recent surveys, one of Canadians, the other of Americans. In the Canadian survey, published last year in the Journal of Aging Studies, 59 per cent of respondents said they would welcome living 120 years ‘if science made it possible to do so in good health.’ The Americans were more reluctant. The survey, by Pew Research and published this month, asked whether people would prefer to live 120 years with the help of ‘medical treatments that slow the aging process.’ The majority – 56 per cent – said no.”

Naturally, they did and here’s why: These days, you have to be rich – or, at least, financially independent – to grow exceptionally old. Who, but you, is going to pay for the expensive treatments, tablets, procedures that will keep you from keeling over?

Just because medical science has figured out ways to keep people alive long past their otherwise natural expiration dates, doesn’t mean the other institutions that comprise society possess either the means or the will to democratize such technologies. Ours is, after all, a market-based economy.

Besides, as Brendan Leier, a clinical ethicist at the University of Alberta’s John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, told The Globe, “It’s not the duration of life that’s the problem for us, but the quality of life. Quality is what makes it meaningful.”

It would be justly ironic, indeed, if the only old people left on the planet were rich ones, bored to death of their own long and lonely lives

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How (not) to make friends and influence people

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The Prime Minister’s Office, we are told by the more liberal factions of the mainstream media, is a dark and gloomy place where political officers rule with the zealous certitude of their convictions.

In this dramatic pastiche of a Franz Kafka set piece, they are ever relentless, incorruptible and never wrong. They demand absolute loyalty to the nation’s dear leader  from both lesser staff and elected representatives.

And so, it is utterly unsurprising that many of these media critics now decry the apparent  existence of so-called “enemies lists” prepared, at the PMO’s insistence, for new members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

But then, given their suspicions about this government, what were they expecting?

An email from the PMO on which the CBC and a variety if other media have laid their paws stipulated “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer” as well as “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

Reported the CBC, “The request for a list of problematic bureaucrats was subsequently dropped, according to another email sent a few hours later on July 4. The person who leaked the emails said that when some staff balked at the idea of coming up with the blacklists, they were cut off from further communications about the matter.

“The person also said staff were given examples of stakeholders that could go on the ‘enemies list’ and they included environmental groups, non-profit organizations, and civic and industry associations with views different than the government’s.”

Those who remain decidedly unflustered by the revelations are all who, quite reasonably, expect to find their names on the lists. “I wasn’t surprised but I continue to be disappointed that stakeholders like environmentalists are considered enemies rather than stakeholders who are trying to pursue important issues,” The Sierra Club of Canada’s John Bennett told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Indeed, according to the public broadcaster, “He said if some ministers were more ‘mature’ they would understand how democracy really works and that all perspectives should be considered when making decisions.”

Said Bennett: “They don’t believe in democracy the way we do, which is an exchange of ideas and debate and try to come up with reasonable solutions. They believe in forcing ideology and if you’re forcing ideology on the Canadian public then you see people like me as an enemy and that’s unfortunate.”

Still, even this observation seems broadly naive, and not a little reflexive.

Whether or not they publicly admit it, all governments maintain some version of an enemies list. They’d be astonishingly dense, even irresponsible, if they didn’t. The tool is a useful instrument in the mix of plans and priorities that guide public decision making. Imagine a civil administration without credible intelligence about who is for and against it: feckless, at worst; chaotic, at best.

Having a list, and checking it twice, does not automatically render a government undemocratic. What does is abuse of power.

If authorities savagely curtail press freedoms, round up their “enemies” and throw them in jail without due process of law, vastly expand the definition of sedition, and lock the doors of Parliament. . .well, then we have something about which to truly fret.

What’s different about this government – specifically, the PMO – is its historically bloated size, its abnormally youthful composition, and its fondness for deploying inflammatory language in its internal communications.

Reliable media sources have told me that the average age at the PMO is something like 33. Contrastingly, the average age among political news staff at the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star is closer to 50 – old enough to remember the Pentagon papers and Watergate era, when the term “enemies list” was first coined in the wreckage of the terminal Nixon Administration.

Had the character of the PMO not borrowed so heavily from the X-Box, flaming-at-will, unfiltered social networking generation, this utterly meaningless contretemps would not have developed the muscular legs it now has.

Politics is nothing if not about friends and enemies. Sometimes, your friends become your enemies. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Keeping track of them all is the job description of every political staffer, regardless of his or her age.

So is exercising circumspection when the occasion to flap his or her gums arrives. Perhaps, that should be the subject of the next memo the PMO writes, under the subject field: note to self!

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