Sunday, March 30, 2008

A quick guide to Winnipeg protests

I'm a regular reader of David Watson's Waverley West and beyond blog and find it engaging, well-written and a valuable addition to the community. Lately, however, I've been following with some amusement his attempt to uncover some grand scheme behind last week's P3/city budget protest, made notorious by one attendee's ignorant attempt, via a sign, to put Mayor Sam Katz on par with Hitler.

Watson seems desperate to find a smoking gun showing that the provincial NDP or some other political organization organized the protest as part of some larger strategy to take on Katz. Is offensive sign holder Steve Mack an "NDP operative," he asks? Is protest spokesperson Mike Lennon an NDP-paid-for "protest leader"? (oops, he's already scratched that one off the list). Is the fringe Canadian Action Party "involved with the Katz defamation"? What if the "agent provocateur was sent by someone else in City Hall?" Watson also wonders, as he seems to struggle with just why Katz would be hiring people to film the protestors, is the plot "why Sam Katz was having the protestors photographed"? The drama has all of the twists and turns of a good conspiracy theory movie and I'm almost disappointed to see each new lead turn up with, well, nothing surprising.

It's been some time since I've attended any sort of political protest and I wasn't at the one at City Hall, but what happened seems pretty straightforward to me -- along the lines of the many hundreds this city has seen before:

1. For obvious reasons, unions and their allies dislike contracting out, P3s, privatization, and right-wing politicians who support such things.

2. Political demonstrations are not all that effective in swaying public opinion. Unions and other organizations organize protests to communicate with the public and with political leaders when other avenues are limited. If you can elect your people to public office with ease or get what you want through negotiation or simply by asking without having to protest publicly, why would you go to all the trouble?

3. The provincial NDP, especially when in power, does not bother to organize demonstrations as a political strategy because they have other, far more effective avenues for getting things done. If the provincial NDP decided that Katz was a thorn in the province's side (which they do not), they'd use their communications machine to back it up or recruit someone sufficiently high-profile to run against him.

4. No political organization or protest organizer with any brains or experience directs people to compare politicians they dislike to Hitler. How much ground did Katz's political opponents gain after the incident? Absolutely zero. If anything, the incident lost them ground. It's obvious that the sign was not the brainchild of any organization seeking to defame Katz.

5. Rallies against political policies are usually open invitation events held in public spaces. As a result, they may attract all sorts of people, including political organizers, members of any number of major or fringe parties, activists who regularly attend protests on any number of issues, people elected to public office, people who want to be elected to public office, people who have lost or who risk losing a job should proposed political changes pass, people whose philosphical or ideological sympathies are consistent with the protest's objectives, people who like crowds, lonely people, smart people, dumb people, people who are there for the free coffee, etc. For this reason, it seems pretty reasonable that lone individuals attending a protest cannot be said to speak for or represent the protest organizers or the entire collective body of protestors.

6. People attending political protests are motivated enough to take time out of their day and hang out for an hour or two regardless of the weather or other committments they may have. It shouldn't be surprising then that many attendees are dedicated political activists who are also avid participants in the political process in numerous other ways to support a range of causes or organizations.

7. Filming or photographing participants of strikes and political protests is nothing new. It's an extremely well-established and often-used technique throughout Canada and the US and elsewhere for (a) making participants feel "watched" and uncomfortable, so that they'll keep a low and non-militant profile and hopefully stay home next time; (b) discourage bad behaviour, by ensuring that photographic evidence will be available if things get out of hand; and (c) provide beautiful opportunities to shift attention away from the policies being protested to the protestors themselves when, for example, some clown shows up with an inappropriate sign.

8. As much as City Councillor Lazarenko is right to be shocked and offended at the sign one protestor chose to bring, trying to ban or limit protests isn't going to solve anything. Lazarenko, who according to the CBC, feels the city may have grown too lenient over the years in terms of what it will tolerate in a demonstration, is quoted as saying, "It gets to be like a mini-riot. It comes to a point where we lose control. The courtyard is for a peaceful demonstration."

Settle down, councillor; it was a peaceful protest, like one of many that happen in Winnipeg all the time.

Photo: A less-recent protest at City Hall. Depicted is a crowd gathered outside old City Hall, at Main Street and William Avenue, during the Winnipeg general Strike. Visible on the left are the Union Bank of Canada building and Leland Hotel.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The devious Mr. Katz

The mayor's office has released its detailed Service Based View of the budget. The document, which is
available here, outlines a range of cuts to city services.

Shockingly, it was released just before the long weekend and a mere six days before the budget vote on the council floor. Its release also comes days after a public meeting in which citizens were invited to express their views on the budget. The Free Press covers the story here.

Can it all be coincidence that the mayor's office has released the bad news with virtually no time for the public to digest it, let alone debate it? Or, more likely, was this a sly attempt by our mayor to sneak some nasty cuts past the council floor when no one in the public is really paying attention? If the latter, it's more than just the usual lack of vision or fear of open debate; it's a wilful abuse of power.

Policyfrog has a great post on our mayor of "none" here. I'm personally keenly interested to see how each of our city councillors reacts to this one -- kudos to Councillor Gerbasi for drawing attention to the issue quickly.

Photo: Winnipeg's modernist City Hall (aka Civic Centre), completed and opened in 1964.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A punditry-inspiring week

What a week. While being buried in my work life, I've seen about 50 blog-worthy topics pass me by. See here for a
small sampling of the utter ridiculousness. I've commented on a few items that provoked some thoughts.


Quite a new low for the Liberals this week -- they're actually introducing a motion in the House of Commons blaming the NDP and Bloc for voting to defeat them in 2005. To quote Warren Kinsella: "Lord God Almighty, the Liberal Party of Canada needs help."

Mr. Dion and friends seem to be under the impression that their fellow parties are to blame for ending the long Liberal reign in Ottawa. Do they forget the voters who booted them out in the election that followed their defeat? Rather than pointing the finger for alleged wrongs committed by everyone else, can they not take some responsibility for the corruption and bad decisions that appeared endemic to their own party? Does the Liberal Party not look in the mirror and wonder if the source of their own troubles is staring right back at them?

It's more of the unspeakable arrogance we've seen before. Sounds like they're badly in need of some reflection time, of exactly the sort that comes with lounging in opposition for a long, long time.


Speaking of
Kinsella, he's calling the US Presidential race for McCain in the wake of the seemingly endless Democratic nomination race. I wouldn't go so far as to call it yet, but he's right - I'm worried about the Democrats' chances. The added months of publicity, fundraising, and organizing time that the Republicans have while the Democrats scrap it up can't be underestimated. When the dust settles in the Democratic nomination and the winner emerges, expect the Republicans to be well-prepared, waiting with boats of money and a battalion of attack ads.

It's a damn shame.


A lot of people were shocked at the
Alberta election results, particularly by the huge increase in Conservative seats at the expense of all three other parties that were represented in the Legislature. That came despite a whole lot of talk about voters being in a mood for change.

The result can be chalked up entirely to the Tory increase in Edmonton, which is the only part of the province where the opposition parties have a large concentration of seats. Tory increases in the opposition heartland, combined with slippage in parts of the province where it doesn't really make a difference (e.g., Calgary) equals a big increase in the majority.

At a glance, the overall popular vote didn't shift by a massive amount -- the Conservatives went up from 47% in 2004 to 53% in 2008, while the Liberals dropped three points to 26% and the NDP dropped one point to 9%. That's not a cataclysmic shift. For all the talk about the new Wildrose Alliance on the right, their 7% this time is below the 9% their 2004 counterpart earned. The Greens crept up from 3% to 5%, mostly as a result of two high-profile candidates who did well, but didn't come close to winning.

In Edmonton, though, the Tories soared from 31% to 43%, while the Liberals dropped from 41% to 33%. The NDP lost three points to land at 18%, which was enough to cost the two of their four seats, sadly including that of former leader Ray Martin. I wonder if Edmonton Liberal popularity in the Klein years was driven to some degree by Ralph Klein himself. The former Premier was a high-profile and
not uncontroversial Calgarian, something that might not have entirely endeared him to voters in rival city Edmonton. Remove the Klein and see the Liberal balloon deflate, despite what most pundits agree was a better-run campaign by the party.

A big disappointment is that the
voter turnout has dropped yet again, this time to a mere 41%. It's no coincidence that the lowest voter turnout in Canada happens to be in the province that's our closest thing to one-party state. There's not much point in voting when the outcome's pre-determined, so why bother? The Tories now have won a mandate based on 53% of 41% or about 22% of the electorate. How low does it have to get -- in Alberta or in any voting jurisdiction --before people start to question the government's very legitimacy? What then?


Ed Schreyer, Manitoba's resident loose cannon ex-Premier, sure had
something to say recently. Can you blame him? Did the boosters of Waverley West not do any research on the technical requirements associated with installing geothermal energy before announcing the project? Sounds to me like "geothermal" was a nice-sounding term some folks decided to slap in their PowerPoint presentations when it came time to do the dirty job of selling sprawl. It's more than a little disappointing.

The Rise and Sprawl has a some good comments on the topic.

Photo: Downtown Edmonton. The city shifted quite dramatically toward the Alberta Conservatives this week.