Saturday, March 15, 2008

Political Karma?

There has been much talk in the media recently over the "fate" of New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Mr Spitzer who made a political name for himself as a zealous prosecutor, including prosecution of crimes relation to prostitution, has been identified as a customer of an expensive call - girl. Faced with this evidence Spitzer resigned his position and presumably lost any chance he might have had for higher public office in the future.

While I don't favor prostitution I would like to point out that the "rules" have been very unevenly applied in the past. For example, the historians I have read suggest that one of Spitzer's predecessors as Governor, Franklin Roosevelt, later to be president of the USA, had a mistress at least occasionally during his life. Plausible suggestions have been made that even Dwight Eisenhower had a mistress during the war (his female driver). John F. Kennedy seems to have been well known as a "ladies man" yet nothing was made of this during his lifetime. Senator Gary Hart, at one time a prime candidate to be president virtually disappeared from public view when it was revealed that he had spent time on a yacht with an attractive model who was not his wife. Henry Kissinger (its hard to imagine him as a ladies man) once famously said that "power was the ultimate aphrodisiac". Of course we have the story of Bill Clinton and Monica. In Clinton's case it seems that the politicians sitting on his impeachment decided that his sexual adventures were not serious enough to justify depriving him of office.

Moving outside of the USA just over ten years ago Princess Diana complained about the relationship between Prince Charles and his mistress (now wife). Looking back in British history you could almost say that with minor exceptions (Like George VI perhaps) it was accepted that the monarch would have a mistress. Far back in history, the tale of Henry VI wives was basically a story of the politics of the king's mistresses and wives. A limerick still exists which celebrates one of the mistresses of Charles II.

So, I think that the question is, does good leadership demand a particular ethical standard? More particularly, is sexual immorality incompatible with leadership? In scripture we find the story of King David's "sin" with Bathsheba. David remains chosen by God, but possibly only because of his repentance. We know that some leaders, John A. Macdonald in Canada and Winston Churchill in Britain to name two would likely be hounded out of office today because of their drinking problems. So, it seems to me that human imperfection is not an impediment to leadership and extravagant sin is not a sign of greatness. What is different is that in the past leaders could have a more or less private life. Today, with the tabloid press, this is not possible. Leaders who expect people to follow them have to set an example.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A One Party Democracy

Here in the province of Alberta where I live we just finished having an election. The governing party gained a massive majority by winning more than 85% of the seats in the legislature. The reason I refer to a one party democracy is because the same party has formed the government in this province since 1970. Prior to 1970 another party had held power since 1935. So Albertans do not change governments on a very regular basis at all. How does this relate to the ideals of democracy?

First of all I suppose its important to note that elections here are always free and democratic. People choose to vote for the governing party time after time. One thing worth pointing out is that the percentage of the popular vote won by the governing party does not accurately reflect the number of seats gained by the party in the legislature. In this election the governing party with about 50% of the popular vote gained 85% of the seats in the legislature. This is one of the effects of a single - member plurality system. If we had some kind of a system of proportional representation the dominance of the governing party would not be as pronounced.

Secondly I would observe that opposition politicians tend to have a pronounced charisma deficit. This election was made to be won by the opposition. The governing party had recently changed leaders from a popular charismatic leader to someone not as telegenic. The government had irritated a number of important constituencies in the province. Despite this the opposition parties actually lost seats in the legislature. One possibility is that the voters who wanted change did not see either opposition party as a potential government and so chose to accept the promise of change from the traditional governing party.

So, is it possible that Alberta will have a change of government any time in the future? It is true that traditionally Albertans are quite conservative in the sense that they are reluctant to change. Change might be possible if the opposition can find leadership that captures the attention of the electorate. Change might also become possible if the government "loses its touch" and provides the opposition with possible election issues. Still, with Alberta in the midst of an economic boom, the prospect of many more years of rule by the same party remains.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

More on Residential Schools

Recent news reports suggest that despite progress made towards a large cash settlement with former residential school students another group is taking further action. They want to accuse the churches and the federal government of being "complicit in crimes against humanity." The focus here is over the number of young people who died while they were students in residential schools. First of all, there is no question that large numbers of young aboriginals died during the era of the residential schools. Reading the yearly reports of the DIA from those years it seems that tuberculosis and pneumonia were the main contributors to the mortality rate with localized outbreaks of those diseases devastating some areas. Secondly, it seems possible that in some cases students may have died from mistreatment or abuse - but I doubt if those cases would have amounted to crimes against humanity.

There is no question that forced separation of young people from their families and long absences from the family were traumatic experiences for both the young people and their parents. At the same time it seems clear (again from reading reports of the DIA from those years) that parents did not passively accept what was being done. Still, for parents whose child was taken from them, the news that their child had died while in school must have been devastating. Underlying this particular group seems to be (again) the assumption that any thing that the residential school did (since its basic policy was assimilation) amounted to "crimes against humanity." I concede again that the assimilation policy was wrong, although at the time it was well intentioned from the point of view of the government and the churches. I doubt that generally there were what we would consider to be crimes against humanity committed during that time. The reality is that many people who became leaders in their own First Nations were educated in these schools. The reality is also that large numbers of First Nations people died during those years (both on reserves and in residential schools). It should be noted that the population of aboriginals in Canada declined during those years. It is probable that some of this suffering could have been alleviated if the government had spent more money on nutrition and health care for aboriginal people. Of course this policy of benign neglect still does not, I suggest, rise to the level of crimes against humanity.