Letters

July 2006

ndp Endgame
James Laxer’s perceptive critique of the New Democratic Party’s role in our recent election (“Fake Left, Go Right,” May) shows that it has yet to learn how to play the minority-government game, either in Parliament or on the hustings. Jack Layton was not alone in demonstrating his limited understanding of the new regime, just the most inept and, ultimately, the least successful.

Historically, our major parties have been coalitions of disparate interests forged into effective political consortia in advance of elections. The Canadian Alliance-Progressive Conservative merger of 2003 is a case in point, though it came about only months before the election. In a minority-government situation, however, negotiations aimed at creating parliamentary alliances can begin only after the election. Nevertheless, the prospect of having to bargain with other parties post-election can subtly influence election strategies.

Customarily, competition for votes is most intense between parties with similar outlooks and manifestos. The prospect of a minority outcome, however, complicates these relationships. Partiesare no longer merely rivals for the support of the same undecided voters; they are also potential future partners. Instead of concentrating solely on maximizing their own seat counts, they may take a direct interest in how well their “natural” partners fare at the polls and may even consider mutually beneficial electoral collaboration.

During the recent election, Paul Martin demonstrated some understanding of the new realities by tempering his criticism of the ndp and emphasizing the shared concerns of what he termed the “progressive parties.” On the other hand, Jack Layton seemed not to waken to the Conservative threat until the final days of the campaign. Neither leader saw as clearly as Buzz Hargrove that, in the absence of a majority party, party alliances are what count.

Majority government is essentially confrontational, whereas minority government is more accommodating. The latter requires, in addition to loyal opposition, restraint and a culture of co-operation, concessions, and commitment. The sooner the parties and the public learn to play the minority-government game, the better it will be for Parliament and the country.

Douglas G. Anglin
Professor Emeritus of
Political Science
Carleton University
Ottawa, Ontario

Canadians know there is a difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals, and the ndp should stop trying to convince people that there is not. The party should concern itself with distinguishing its own policies from the Liberals’, especially since most Liberal leadership candidates seem more interested in stealing ndp votes than fighting the Conservatives.

But Laxer’s antiquated economic-policy prescriptions were most disappointing. His suggestion that Canada regulate energy prices, an idea that pits reducing inequality against forging good environmental policy, misses the opportunity Jack Layton’s ndp has taken to advocate an environmentally sound industrial strategy that also improves the lives of workers and the poor.

A more radical policy to make energy affordable and accessible would include aggressive energy-efficiency programs, investments in public transport, mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for all vehicles, and community-based renewable energy. Providing better housing standards for the poor through energy efficiency and legislating that products must be cleaner, safer, and more efficient is far more progressive than forcing producers to charge a lower price for oil. The ndp’s early-1970s leftist Waffle group, which Mr. Laxer was involved with, envisioned an economy that creates high-value-added products, is energy independent, social movement—oriented, and committed to structural economic change. A left-green alliance can challenge the Conservatives on their destructive environmental agenda and seek to renew Canada’s social democratic party. While Laxer offers a valid critique, he provides few solutions to today’s most important problems.

Brendan Haley
Halifax, Nova Scotia

James Laxer seems to think that Stephen Harper didn’t deserve to be elected but that Paul Martin’s Liberals did. Does Laxer really believe that the Grits’ twelve years of broken promises and insider politics had nothing to do with their defeat, or that the ndp lost any relevance in Canadian politics after the 1980s yet was responsible for the 2006 federal election results He states that the ndp should be a more powerful, resonant voice in federal politics but not challenge the Liberals or do anything that would risk dislodging them as the governing party. Forgive me if I find this bizarre.

I find it impossible to understand the logic of those who actually prefer the ndp to be a voice in the wilderness while protesting that they want the party to engage the electorate. These folks get their knickers in a knot when the ndp decides that Canada’s old-line parties have let Canadians down and has the temerity to say it in an election campaign. I assume they would have been happier if Jack Layton had stifled his criticism of a decaying Liberal party, believing that corrupt, ineffective leadership is better than the unknown.

“The Liberals don’t deserve to be re-elected,” Jack Layton said during the campaign, “and the Conservatives are wrong on the issues.” How much clearer could Layton be And how is that moving to the centre Moving to the centre would be pulling your punches because you believe that the Liberals really are okay, no matter what they do. And that would truly be “waffling.”

Wendy Hughes
Toronto, Ontario

James Laxer is shocked that the primary preoccupation of ndp election campaigns is to elect New Democrats. He seems surprised that New Democrats would not tolerate Buzz Hargrove’s blatant efforts to sabotage the 2006 ndp campaign. He is amazed that we are not particularly interested in electing Liberals and that we’re not devastated when they lose. Even after twenty-five years, Laxer still doesn’t seem to have figured out what social democratic politics is about.

Kim Pollock
Burnaby, BC

I would like to thank James Laxer for so clearly articulating what I’ve felt about the ndp for quite some time. After Mike Harris, a Tory, was elected premier of Ontario in 1995, I joined the ndp and attended meetings regularly for about six months. My desire to help soon waned, however, when I discovered the party had no real economic vision beyond being a compassionate version of the Liberals or Tories. Most Ontarians believe the ndp is economically challenged, and until the party creates a credible and distinctive vision for the economy, citizens who might otherwise vote ndp will continue to vote Liberal.

The best hope for the ndp is proportional representation. The larger number of seats that PR would likely award the ndp might allow it to once again stand by its founding principles.

Peter Morgan
Toronto, Ontario

James Laxer attacks the ndp for almost every action the party has taken over the last twenty years. Perhaps he will find a place for himself in a re-energized federal Liberal party under Bob Rae. It seems rather apropos—first criticize those with whom you’ve apparently identified for many years, then join those who stand for nothing but power in the name of virtue. The mushy middle is home to many things, but principles are not among them.

Colin Betts
Ottawa, Ontario

James Laxer has made a career of slamming the New Democratic Party. In the early 1980s, his critique of the ndp in the Globe and Mail accused the party of underestimating the power and right-wing slant of the Mulroney Tories. Now Laxer accuses the ndp of handing Canada’s government over to the right-wing Harper Conservatives. Although his verdict on the party is correct, Laxer has missed one key reason why the ndp helped vote the Liberal minority-government out of power. “The ndp was worried about losing votes to the Liberals,” one long-time ndper told me a few months ago. “If the ndp had kept supporting the Liberals, as it virtually did in the 1974 federal election, the party would have slipped in the polls and lost votes to the Liberals.” If this had happened in our last election, this man predicted, the Liberals would have won a majority.

Dave Jaffe
Vancouver, BC

James Laxer responds:
Wendy Hughes’s letter encapsulates the problems with today’s ndp. There is a strong whiff of morality and self-righteousness in it with no underpinning of serious thought. The left needs to be concerned with political outcomes, something the ndp utterly failed to understand during the recent election. The outcome that needs to be avoided most, from the viewpoint of progressive Canadians, is the election of a Stephen Harper majority government.

In his few months in power, with a weak minority government, Harper has set back the cause of creating a national child-care program, devastated the hopes of aboriginal Canadians for a new deal, and tightened Canada’s military alliance with the United States, most notably in widening the joint Canadian-American operations in norad. His government has also frozen spending in most departments. It is not difficult to see where this prime minister will take the country if he succeeds in winning a majority in the next election. The goal of the Harper Conservatives is no less than the dismantling of the social state in Canada and its replacement by a hard-edged neo-liberal regime.

If the ndp wants to contemplate this problem, it could begin by considering the highly intelligent analysis offered in Douglas Anglin’s letter. On the matter of energy policies raised in Brendan Haley’s letter, while I agree with some of his comments, I believe that high energy prices, which are likely to climb even higher, have already worsened the lot of the large majority of Canadians. The federal government needs to act quickly to put in place an energy policy that is both green and does not allow the petroleum companies to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. This will mean reviving ideas about public ownership in the petroleum sector and discarding neo-liberal prescriptions—ideas that quite literally belong in the eighteenth century. To halt its drift to irrelevance, the federal ndp should expose the thinking of our prime minister, who speaks for Big Oil, and should advance some radical alternatives that will benefit cash-strapped wage and salary earners.

Today’s Specials
I applaud Chef Michael Noble (“The Noble Effect,” May), as well as his new employer, Earls, for raising the bar on what constitutes dining out in Canada today. While much of the food world remains focused on innovative fine dining catering to an elite few, Noble has found a way to affect the food served to the masses. Sounds like the true spirit of hospitality to me. To those who suggest this is a culinary version of selling out, I say the following: if a soufflé falls and no one tastes it…what’s the point

Chef Michael Smith
Host,
Chef at Large
Food Network Canada

Sure, Earls is probably paying Chef Michael Noble a lot of money, but so what I’m not one to judge. As a professional chef for twelve years at the fine-dining level, I can say that if Earls believes that Noble’s quality of food can be recreated at each of its fifty-two locations, it is sadly mistaken.

A great chef and the team he or she leads make a great restaurant. To create and maintain a consistently high quality of food, that chef needs to be a presence in the kitchen. The chef’s leadership must inspire a cohesive bond that brings out the best in all employees, fuelling their drive to assemble each plate perfectly. Such an atmosphere in a restaurant chain would require as many head chefs and culinary professionals as there are chain kitchens. This is not viable.

Still, if Noble is attempting to upgrade Earls’ menu ideas—consulting on trends and flavour pairings—he might succeed, and all power to him. Those well-versed in the culinary world (Noble’s former clientele) are not likely to expect Catch’s quality at Earls anyway.

If a fast-food joint called me, I would gladly add a Kobe beef burger to its menu! Would you like to biggie-size your frites with that

Andrew King, Chef de Cuisine
da Maurizio Dining Room
Halifax, Nova Scotia

The Tangled Octopus
Charles Montgomery’s compelling tale (“The Octopus,” May) serves as a myth in its own right about loss and change and about anthropology and the hope for redemption. Montgomery justifiably situates anthropologist Pierre Maranda as a character inside the story, as someone with his own cultural stance instead of as a neutral observer. But I am troubled by Montgomery’s somewhat accusatory tone. Must every account of misfortune have a villain Could we not read this as tragedy rather than detective story

Maranda is hardly typical of contemporary Canadian anthropologists, few of whom surround themselves with elegant cultural artifacts or develop mathematical models of myths. What we share with Maranda is an uneasy complicity with our subjects—a partial entanglement in lives, struggles, and dilemmas that were not originally our own—and an imperative to use our knowledge wisely. The career of an anthropologist entails continuous ethical vigilance—this is both one of its pleasures and one of its burdens—but it does not follow that there are easy answers to be doled out by ethics review boards or eager journalists.

Though tragic, Montgomery’s story is not without hope. After all, if the Lau created the tale of the stolen octopus to make sense of their despair, so perhaps Lau prophets or artists will produce a new moral vision for their society. For this task they may not need the dusty formulas secreted away in Marandas files, secrets whose repatriation could just as easily lead to conflict and disappointment as to the cultural rejuvenation that Montgomery, Maranda, and Lau research assistant Gabriel Maelasi each devoutly hopes for.

Michael Lambek, frsc
Professor of Anthropology
London School of Economics
London, England

Healthy Debate
Alastair Brown raises some important issues for doctors working in rural settings (“The Cost of Care,” April). He also got some of the costs wrong. Seeing a patient for a nasty cough, sprained neck, or unpleasant rash would typically be billed as a minor assessment (A001, $17.75) or an intermediate assessment (A007, $30.20), not a general consultation (A005, $56.10).

Similarly, the estimate of average income for family doctors is also off the mark, but in the other direction. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s statistics for 2003-2004, the average gross revenue for a full-time-equivalent, fee-for-service physician was $196,441. Typically, approximately 40 percent is taken off the top for overhead, leaving an average net salary in the neighbourhood of $118,000, not the $70,000 estimated in the article. Were definitely not making it hand-over-fist, but cries from the poorhouse also ring somewhat hollow.

Finally, Brown neglects to discuss the most important developments for rural GPs in Ontario: alternative funding plans and the introduction of family health networks and family health teams. Over the last few years, the Ontario government has put together several programs designed to alleviate the isolation and overwork that plagues rural practice. Family health teams bring together groups of family doctors along with allied health professionals (nurse practitioners, dieticians, pharmacists, etc.) in order to enhance care, share responsibility, and balance the load. I did my family-medicine training in Fredericton, New Brunswick, but was drawn to the underserved community of Smithville, Ontario, to practise in just such an environment.

There are still some major obstacles in achieving an appropriate level of service in rural communities, many of them well outlined in Brown’s article. The vital discussion as to how this situation can best be addressed needs to start with an accurate picture of what is actually happening.

Dr. Matthew Noble Wohlgemut
Family physician
Smithville, Ontario

Editor’s Note
In our June and July/August letters pages there has been much debate surrounding the list of medical billing codes commonly used by family doctors. The Walrus would like to thank Dr. Matthew Noble Wohlgemut for pointing out that rather than the more expensive A005 code, codes A001 and A007 are used in cases of minor and intermediate assessment, respectively. On the issue of a family doctors annual salary, Brown’s column indicated that his estimate was based on a forty-hour workweek, with expenses for supplies, equipment, and support staff deducted.

I’m Right, Right
The story about driving in Rwanda (“The Right Side of the Road,” April) is reminiscent of the roads in Myanmar, with their right-hand-drive vehicles plying the right lane. However, the reason this maniacal system exists in Myanmar is much more entertaining: the leader of the ruling junta decreed that all traffic was to switch to the other side of the road upon being told by an astrologer that a great tragedy would befall the country if they continued to drive on the left.

Ivan Maddox
Lyons, France

My Dominica
I read with interest, puzzlement, and a degree of perverse relief Ellen Vanstone’s account of her visit to Dominica (“Looking for Jean Rhys,” April). The excuse for her trip to the last remaining paradise in the Caribbean was the Dominican segments of the life of the novelist Jean Rhys.

My interest in this article was entirely due to the contrasting perceptions I have of Dominica. Vanstone seemed less than impressed by her stay near Roseau, the capital Roseau itself, and Scott’s Head to the south. I agree that, undoubtedly, these are the most dismal places on an island otherwise steeped in tropical splendour and populated by the gentlest, most upstanding people in the Lesser Antilles. Roseau is the place to avoid, particularly when the cruise ships disgorge hundreds of camera-toting day-trippers who rarely venture beyond the streets of Roseau and nearby Trafalgar Falls.

Why did she restrict herself to these relatively unpleasant locales Her first mistake was not renting a vehicle at the airport. Instead, she acquiesced to the advice of a taxi driver who proclaimed that renting is too dangerous, thereby severely restricting her mobility. Driving around Dominica can certainly be breathtaking, but it is hardly dangerous. The sad result of this timidity is that she ends up spending a sickening, boring day whale watching just because the whale-watching tours happen to be next to the sad-sack place she ended up staying in.

To feel let down because the locals dont know or care about Jean Rhys demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding of Caribbean history. Jean Rhys, although perhaps a decent novelist who led an interesting personal life, represented British landowners and French and British slaveholders in the eyes of the locals—colonialism at its worst! Why on earth would they hold such a person in esteem

Vanstone demonstrates all the travel savvy of an American soldier in Iraq. But why my perverse pleasure in this atrocious article Because after reading it, fewer of Vanstone’s fellow feminist Torontonians will deign to leave their objectionable imprint on this jewel of the Caribbean.

John D. Charlton
St. Lazare, Quebec

Fight Club, Afghanistan
Tom Fennell and Sean Maloney’s article (“Soldiers, Not Peacekeepers,” March) provoked John Thompson’s argument (Letters, May) that Roman legionnaires were peacekeepers. This is pure sophistry unfounded in historical fact. In the Romans’ eyes, their Germanic neighbours were barbarians, perceived as barely above animals, and the empires principal goal—once it decided that they were not worth the trouble and expense of conquering-was to prevent them from becoming a serious military threat. To this end, the Roman Empire actively encouraged division and internecine warfare between tribal groups and periodically conducted brutal punitive expeditions to intimidate those living along the border. While this policy could perhaps be called pacification, equating it with peacekeeping is an insult to the hundreds of soldiers from around the world who have put their lives on the line under the UN flag on armed peacekeeping missions since 1956.

However, there is a lesson to be learned from Roman actions that is still relevant today and that imperial pretenders would be wise to heed. As Peter Heather writes in a conclusion to his book The Fall of the Roman Empire, “The Roman Empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction…as a consequence of its relationship with the Germanic world…. By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction.”

Davor Cubranic
Vancouver, BC

And the Winner Is…
The Walrus and the St. Petersburg Summer Literary Seminars would like to congratulate Nadia Kalman and Katie Peterson, the winners of our 2006 fiction and poetry contest. “The Counterpart,” a short story by Kalman, and “Design,” a poem by Peterson, won first prize in their respective categories and will be published in The Walrus in the coming year.

Kalman emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. She is a recent winner of the 2006 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction from the Madison Review and has published short stories in the Gettysburg Review, the Antigonish Review, and the Crab Creek Review. She lives in Brooklyn.

Peterson is a visiting professor at Deep Springs College in California. Her first book, This One Tree, was selected by William Olsen for the New Issues Poetry Prize. Her poems and criticism have appeared in various periodicals including the Boston Review, the Chicago Tribune, and, most recently, Hunger Mountain.

The Walrus would like to thank the fiction judge, Margaret Atwood, and the poetry judge, Robert Hass.