Tuesday, May 31, 2011

 

TAPPING INTO VOTER ANGST

Alas; citing America's ceaseless Presidential campaigning as the prime example, I've ranted before about the downside of fixed calendar election dates.

Witness as we are to the media barrage from the United States; one could have assumed that informed Canadians would not be tempted to follow in the same footsteps. Indeed though, we have once more embraced the American way and as Canada tilts ever more to the political right of centre; our politicians have struck another blow for their vision of democracy. Thus increasingly at every level of Government we too move to fixing election dates in time...as with America, mostly in the fall of the year.

Though unlike in the United States, here in the Great White North, elections held in the fall mean that campaigning in all of its manifestations must carry through our pitifully short summer season. And, everyone well knows that engaging Canadians, especially over politics, during their precious summertime is about as arduous as smiling during deep root-canal surgery.

So it is that the shadowy politicos, the spin-doctors, and the pollsters who make-up the ever growing un-elected backroom manipulators of our political world have evolved their theories, and from there strategies, to engage this vexatious debate. They are tapping into our alleged "Voter Anger." - Damn! Five months to Ontario's October election...and I didn't even know I was angry. But, annoy me with political platitudes over an entire summer and I am bound to get pissed-off.

Lucky Ontarians are we; 12-million strong (on third of Canada's population) and being called to the polls on October 6 to pass judgement on eight years of the Liberal "Dalton McGuinty" Government which - as some would have us believe - is just short of the devil incarnate. Also which of course is the same line from 8 years ago about the then Progressive-Conservative Government of Mike Harris: Apparently we're either gullible and/or forgetful.

So precious is our short and beloved summer that politicians could take lessons from real estate agents who learned a long time ago that selling anything in Ontario (other than lake shore acreage and beer) is damned near impossible between the Victoria Day Weekend and September's Labour Day break. Rejecting the obvious, the (new) Progressive-Conservatives of Ontario tabled this week their platform for change, dubbed the "Changebook" that they will take to the campaign to unseat the "Daltonytes" come the first Thursday in October. The challenge issued; the gauntlet dropped!

The real problem for Ontario politicians of every stripe is that the province is broke and that, were it not for its sheer size and economic power within the Canadian Confederation, it teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. Maybe that's why Mr. McGuinty's Government countered the P.C.'s salvo by relaxing Ontario's antiquated liquor laws just this week in the immediate aftermath of the Victoria Day long weekend and the unofficial start of summer in Ontario. After all there is nothing quite like a boozy distraction from the problems that ail you.

Beware! This is the kick start of a very long summer of political campaigning that's bound to distract many; and by the end likely make most all of us a lot anxious and a little angry.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

 

IT'S JUST LIKE A REAL ONE...

I was given to chuckle earlier in the week when the Minister of Defence unveiled an "interim" Cyclone Maritime Helicopter at CFB Shearwater in Nova Scotia.

As it's been with a growing number of Mr. MacKay's military procurement sales jobs; Thursday's effort in front of what at best can be described a loaner mock-up of a Sikorsky "Cyclone;"- the sales pitch is energetic; but unconvincing. It's the same near boring TV infomercial sales pitch we saw last July back here in Ottawa when Lockheed-Martin flew-in a shiny make believe mock-up of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for McKay to play with in front of the TV cameras.

Making War satiates the base of the newly-minted Conservative majority supporters primarily in western Canada. Alas! As our American neighbours south of the border have discovered since the end of their "neo-con" Bush Administration, it's damned expensive...and in that case (at least) has just about bankrupt the largest economy in the world.

Interesting that here in the Great White North as Minister MacKay ascended the podium at Shearwater on Thursday, he was forced to defend a leaked DND report that his department will be cutting as many as 2500 civilian public service jobs. The story (and he's sticking to it) is that..."We are going through a belt-tightening exercise to achieve efficiencies and Canadians would expect and respect that." Ahem; Er; well except perhaps of course the 2500 poor sods and their families who will be turfed-out of their jobs. For whom the belt-tightening may be damned suffocating. - I digress!

The once proud National Leader of the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada; Peter MacKay is now relegated to playing second and most often third fiddle to Stephen Harper's neo-Conservative Reform-Alliance movement which ultimately in 2005, swallowed-up the P.C.'s and morphed into the Conservative Party of Canada. Little wonder that in the immediate aftermath of the May 2nd Federal Election, the now retired longest-serving Speaker of the House of Commons, Peter Milliken, lamented publicly Canada's erosion of democracy. Mr. Milliken who served 10 years as Speaker blamed the erosion on the increase in the power of party leaders: "The leader says you vote this way or else you're out, and bango, you have to do it, or else. I don't think that's the way democracy was intended to function." Enough rant.

Somewhat like the logic for buying the F-35 jet fighter the rearmament factor doesn't fly. Because increasingly it seems to be financed by belt-tightening and increased efficiencies...your "new" Conservative Government Buzz-Words for Public Service cut-backs and lay-offs.

Despite some wonky and frequently clumsy sales gimmicks; on just about every file of the military ramped-up procurement programs, the personable Mr. MacKay does his level best to blow-down critics. Even with the new Conservative majority in Parliament, the Minister's ultimate challenge remains to convince our cash poor nation that the jaw-dropping cost of the untested, unproven,(just may never-fly) Lockheed-Martin F-35 jet fighter is in the country's best interest. On that file his worst enemy may be the Congress of the United-States. Facing a $14-Trillion national debt, Washington's political elite on both sides of the aisle are becoming increasingly jittery over shiny new military toys which are gobbling-up the U.S. Treasury. As Presidential elections loom large in 2012; this crown jewel of "out-of-control" military expenditures is clearly in their sight.

If, as some suspect, the F-35 "joint Strike Fighter" turns-out a lemon. We may all drown in lemonade before they are ever delivered to Canada.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

 

REALITY CHECK

When Atlantic Canada's four provincial Premiers met in southeastern New Brunswick a few days ago they came-out resolved to ask the Federal Government for more transfer funds. Although Prime Minister Harper did promise in last month's Federal election campaign to maintain a steady level of transfers; I'm guessing given Ottawa's deficit budget measures that any "new" money is not soon to flow down towards the east coast.

Residents in two of the Atlantic Provinces will go to the polls in provincial elections this fall; Prince Edward Island on October 3; and Newfoundland & Labrador a week later on October 11. The get-tough posturing with Ottawa over transfer payments to the "have-not" may be good fodder for provincial politics but quite likely to fall on deft ears federally, in particular in those two jurisdictions which voted overwhelmingly against the Harper Conservatives in the May 2nd Federal encounter. And, from the perspective of the other three Atlantic provinces, though they may be envious of Newfoundland's recent offshore oil wealth, it probably doesn't help the "one-size fits all" argument favouring increased transfer funds from the Feds either.

Lest I digress: Flush from his majority win in Ottawa Mr. Harper has promised to pass his budget; scrap the long-gun registry with its 250 jobs based in Miramichi, New Brunswick; deliver on his omnibus "get-tough on crime" agenda; and kill subsidies for political parties - while at the same time chopping more than $4-Billion per year in annual spending. In addition to massive Federal job cuts, experts predict that means painful reforms to the Employment Insurance Program and (you guessed-it) Equalization payments to the provinces.

When Statistics Canada's April inflation numbers were published at week's end no one, least of all New Brunswickers, were surprised that theirs was the highest in the land: A reflection of the usual "sin tax" increases foisted on them by the Progressive-Conservative government of Premier David Alward in an effort to stave-off provincial bankruptcy. Sadly the same measures contained in the province's March provincial budget played a significant factor in a double-whammy which resulted in the loss of 2000 full-time jobs and kicked the provincial un-employment rate to more than 10 Percent.

The trend was in sharp contrast to the rest of Canada with a national unemployment rate of 7.6%; which added nearly 60,000 jobs in April. Commenting specifically on the New Brunswick situation a senior economist with the research think-tank Conference Board of Canada described Premier Alward's austerity measures as..."necessary to address the inevitable long term impact of crumbling finances."

Across North America less than 7% of the population has in savings more than the $500,000 which is estimated to get us through our "Golden-Years." In reality 63% either don't know how much they have; or admit to having less than $25,000 in savings. And; that same Conference Board of Canada predicts that specifically New Brunwick's aging population will scuttle any long term potential growth for at least the next generation. In North America, economic growth is set to ease overall as "Baby Boomers" retire. Pretty much since the end of the great sailing ship era of the 19th Century Atlantic Canada's problem has been to retain it's young workers. I was a product of that great migration west 45 years ago. It is a migration which has shown little sign of moderating over the past 5 (or more) generations.

In demographics alone, New Brunswick already has less than one young person entering its workforce for every person leaving it. And; that does NOT account for the 41.4% of provincial students surveyed a year ago who indicated that would be "likely" or "very likely" to leave their native province in order to find work. Despite noble efforts to turn around its provincial fortunes, New Brunswick's economic problems will only get worse. That's the reality of the Boom, Bust and Echo cycle of the post war euphoria of the mid-20th century which demographers have been warning about since the halcyon days of the "sixties".

For reasons theorists and economists may debate for decades; it's happening first in one of the country's smallest regions...but New Brunswick's slow agony into economic chaos should be a clarion call to every other region of the North American Continent that we are poised for, and headed down the same path. If magic somehow produces an effective remedy to the woes that ail my native province; it will be an experiment to watch, and a lesson to be learned.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

 

MY LITTLE TOWN

A report in the morning's newspaper suggests that Canada's multicultural identity may be suffering from the country's perceived "tougher" identity. As with the case of our "peacekeeping" reputation being damaged by involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Libya; it is perhaps an unconceived result of well intentioned government social policy gone awry.

On past occasions I have noted the impact and effects of the War of 1812 on our relationship with the United-States of America with whom we share the North American Continent. Most recently to chide the Federal Department of Heritage for its plan to spend millions of dollars next year to mark the war's 200th anniversary...an unconceived result of which may be to remind our American neighbour of a painful three year period in its own history in which it eventually lost this war. (See: "To The Victor...The Spoils" - May 14/11)

Until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, one of the unsettled issues of the War of 1812 was designation of the International Boundary between the northeastern United-States and eastern Canada. It's an area which was rich in navigable waterways; vastly unexplored timber resources of white pine; spruce and poplar; and rich farmland. - Given as I am to digression: The masts on Admiral Nelson's ship at the Battle of Trafalgar were of white pine from New Brunswick; the spars and struts on the famed "Battle of Britain" fighters (Hurricane and Spitfires) of New Brunswick spruce veneer; and the blockbuster Discovery Channel TV series "American Loggers" is shot in the Allegash region of Northern Maine at the head waters of the St. John River which since 1842 has designated the International Border.

Webster-Ashburton's designation of the St. John River (often described as the Rhine of America) split settler's and settlements between two nations. And it spawned a subsequent declaration of the short-lived "Republic of Madawaska;" an armed movement by locals to reunite their colony. - That's where I was born, where I grew-up more than six decades ago. A fiercely proud community of Americans and Canadians; Francophone and Anglophone - A multicultural, international, bilingual community of mutually respectful residents of The Republic.

In fact, New Brunswick is Canada's only officially bilingual (English / French) province. At my birth; my hometown; Edmundston, New Brunswick could boast of a population which was 98% fluently bilingual. Over the ensuing decades, for seemingly logical and expedient reasons, successive governments essentially split the school system into the two language groups and eventually brought-in specialized educators to replace retiring locals. Ultimately the "unconceived results" skewed the delicate balance which made the place special...Sadly at least to those of my generation and the ones who'd come before me.

Facing the harsh financial realities of our times, locals will welcome in 2014 the economic fallout from the World Acadian Congress in the area. As have so many others of us, Acadians have lived and prospered in the area (as elsewhere) since their Great Deportation of 1785. We will be respectful; but WE ARE NOT ACADIAN. I'm saddened if not mildly outraged that economic and politically expedient reasons are once more poised to trump authenticity and revise the history of my ancestors.

"It's not that the colours aren't there
It's just imagination they lack
Everything's the same back
in my little town."

(Paul Simon / 1975)

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

 

TO THE VICTOR...THE SPOILS

Though mid twentieth century movies tried to romanticize America's civil war - "Gone With The Wind" (1939) / "Shenandoah" (1965) to name a couple of the more prominent - It comes as little surprise that events this year marking the sesquicentennial of the war between the States have been somewhat muted. So far just a few solemn events in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia have noted the passing of the 150 years since the United States was ripped apart. It seems Americans are somewhat reluctant to scratch open the scabs over scars which in many respects remain fresh.

Not so here in Canada where before the defeat of the Government in April, Heritage Canada had earmarked a $100-Million budget for next year's events and celebrations marking the bi-centennial of the War of 1812. Fresh from this month's majority re-election in Parliament the Conservatives have indicated they will re-introduce the budget before the end of May; which this time will pass likely unamended.

A recent survey of American citizens commissioned by the Association For Canadian Studies(ACS); a group based in Montreal; has been measuring cross-border attitudes ahead of the government's kick-start of the War of 1812 celebrations. A spokesman for the Association claims the bicentennial will provide a good opportunity to explore the important "interconnectedness" of our histories and how we've evolved together.

It's clear that the Federal Government through Heritage Canada and many various other historical and parks organizations it will fund, wants to attract as many American tourists as possible north of the border to join in this momentous event 200 years in the making. War remembrances tend to emphasize patriotic fervour. Our American cousins and business partners, still smarting from the "draw" of the Korean Conflict; the loss of Vietnam; and their interminable War on Terror in all of its manifestations (Iraq; Afghanistan; Libya; Yemen - take your pick) may be dazed, shocked and confused to learn they LOST the War of 1812.

That's not just a result of America's general decline in educational standards; but it is also because of the nature of the self-centered cultural influence of the mass media of the United States in all of its own manifestations from news organizations; its print and new media; and of course the film and television industry.

Ironically Heritage Canada's plan to shovel-out as much as $100-Million tax dollars to springboard a renewed dialogue with the United-States using the War of 1812 as catalyst arrives in the very breath that our own cultural industry is threatened with potentially massive funding cuts.

Under the pretext of reining-in it's $50-Billion annual deficit Mr. Harper's government indicated last fall that it intends to institute a strategic review of spending in all departments, including the CBC, Telefilm Canada and the Canada Council. And the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, reiterated just this week that much of his deficit will be reduced by identifying departmental efficiencies. Before this month's Federal Election tensions between the industry's regulator; the CRTC; were already at a fever pitch all time high over "new media" regulations and funding, and the licensing of the right-wing "Sun News" channel to name just a couple of troubling issues.

Despite appearances singing Beatles' tunes during the most recent election campaign; Prime Minister Harper and for the most part the opposition politicians as well; steered clear of Canada's "cultural debate" in sharp contrast with Harper's infamous outburst of the 2008 campaign that ordinary people didn't care much about the rich artists who attend ritzy galas.

If in the upcoming "new" budget deliberations, it's a toss-up between spending $100-Million to promote the defeat of our American friends in the War of 1812 or saving Canada's beloved diverse culture and its supporting industry - I vote for the latter. The Federal Government can take solace in letting our iconic coffee giant "Tim Hortons" do the talking for us down south of the border. At no cost to the Canadian government our "Timmy's" has just recently re-branded itself in the United States as "Tim Hortons Cafe and Bake Shop(s)" and sales in the first 3 months of the year shot-up five percent. That is clearly a culture understood in America.

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

 

ALERT AND WEARING YOUR SUNDAY BEST

The grip of winter's cold stubbornly hangs on here in eastern Ontario. The agricultural sector complains that the "planting" season is at least 3 weeks delayed. In the Nation's Capital the spring's bloom of the city's 4-Million or so tulips (I've stopped counting) sputters and shivers much to the dismay of the thousands of tourists who flock here each year for the iconic Canadian Tulip Festival.

There is much hope for more appropriate and welcoming early summer weather by the last week of June; and most especially on June 30 and July 1 when Britain's newlywed "Royals"; the future King William and Kate, arrive the city on a first "official" visit to a Commonwealth Country. Canada was first of now 53 nations to join the modern British Commonwealth. It's a favorite of the Royals and William's grand-mother, Elizabeth II, also toured Canada in 1953 before ascending the Throne. The Queen was in Ottawa last year for the annual July first "Canada Day" celebrations. William and Kate will be here next month.

Billions worldwide watched the couple's wedding a couple of weeks ago; perhaps none more enchanted than our southern neighbours in the USA where the tale of the commoner princess and her handsome prince kept the national media on the story for most of April. - To be knocked-off the front pages only by the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden in Pakistan.

The news of William and Kate's visit to Ottawa, about an hour's drive from the U.S. border, means that thousands of American well-wishers will be flocking to Parliament Hill along with the usual quarter-million Canadians (or so) to celebrate the nation's 144th birthday and the start of America's own July 4th holiday weekend. Major hotels in downtown Ottawa already report full occupancy bookings for that long weekend.

Doubtless on many levels that the visit is a logistical nightmare. And, most likely in the aftermath of the death of Bin-Laden, also an issue of increased threat and security concerns for the authorities responsible for the safety of the Royals and the many thousands of people who will greet their visit to Parliament Hill on July first. In the past both the United-States and the United Kingdom have suffered indiscriminate murderous attacks from the al-Qaida network and though reaction to the assassination in the Muslim world has been muted; supporters of Bin-Laden have vowed revenge on the infidels.

In the United-States the "colour warnings" that became the Government's most visible anti-terrorism program after September 2001, and which were frequently mocked by stand-up comedians, has been quietly abandoned effective two weeks ago, on April 27. A new somewhat classified system now in effect places the American Homeland Security Secretary (Janet Napolitano) in charge of a "National Terrorism Advisory System" with step-by-step procedures in place "behind the scene" when the government believes terrorists may be threatening Americans. Governments have frequently struggled with how much information to share with the public about specific threats largely over concerns about revealing intelligence and/or their efforts to disrupt unfolding plots.

Information obtained by the Associated Press claims the new advisory system is more efficient; involves better intelligence sharing; and aims to address specific areas of concern such as transportation hubs, airlines and airports or public events. Only under what are described as "special circumstances" will a public terror alert be relayed to the public: That would include using social media outlets such as FaceBook and Twitter, "when appropriate."

Though we may quite never know for sure: In effect since just a few days before the demise of Osama Bin-Laden; this is most likely the warning system's first test under fire. I suspect that they are being extra vigilant and alert.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

 

HECK! THE "FAT LADY" WAS JUST TUNING-UP

The election's flotsam, jetsam, entrails and campaign signs have yet to be fully picked-through...much less analyzed; but we're just starting. Increasingly in Canada, jurisdictions at all levels have moved to set predictable, stable, fixed election dates.

Of course the Federal Parliament has had a "set" election date since the winter of 2006 - A date which, for as many reasons as you may rattle-off, has been conveniently ignored by the government of the day on three separate occasions in the last 5 years: But I digress.

Provincially, Prince Edward Island and the North West Territories (okay, not a province) will go next (and first) on October 3, 2011; Manitoba the next day, October 4; then followed by Ontario on October 6; Newfoundland and Labrador, October 11; and lastly Saskatchewan on November 7. Yes, it sounds very much like a summer of perpetual electioneering from coast to coast. No doubt good for the print and advertising businesses which struggled through the recession but damned annoying - Nay! Expensive, for taxpayers assailed by the bickering, the partisan attacks, the advertising and the costs we ultimately all share.

Of course that's the very predictable product of fixed election dates: Perpetual campaigning because the politicians know exactly on which date the voters will turn out. There is not a more inauspicious and obvious example than down south of the border where the Presidential elections, coupled with the mid-term Congressional face-off, mean that the campaigning never stops. The next Presidential election is in November of 2012 but the contenders are already lined-up at the trough. Little wonder it's so damned difficult to get anything positive accomplished in the USA.

Clearly it's already started here: Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is playing down the potentially career shortening consequences of Monday's federal wipe-out of Liberals in Ontario and pretty much everywhere else. Mr. McGuinty told the Ottawa Citizen newspaper that..."No previous election has ever been a perfect predictor of a subsequent election." Though to be safe, in the next few weeks Ontario families will receive the third of the installment cheques, totalling just about $1000, in rebate for last July's HST implementation. A little summer spending booty of our own tax money as the election campaigning ramps up.

Newfoundland and Labrador, like Prince-Edward Island, bucked the trend in the Grits national humiliation. Newfoundland's provincial election follows Ontario on October 11. Though it didn't make much difference on Monday, Premier Kathy Dunderdale who was appointed last December has been much more conciliatory towards Prime Minister Stephen Harper than her predecessor Danny Williams. Williams had famously counselled Newfoundlanders in 2008 to vote A-B-C / Anyone but Conservative! In fact Mrs. Dunderdale's biggest issue may be the implosion of her own Progressive-Conservatives before October's provincial vote. An ominous sign noted when the former Premier, Mr. Williams, refused to attend his own farewell dinner organized by the Dunderdale troops a couple of weeks back.

Westward in Saskatchewan tensions were obvious last fall between Premier Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party supporters and their Federal Conservative brethren when the Harper Government kiboshed the sale of Potash Corporation to BHP Biliton an Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate. Mr. Wall's government though holds a massive majority in the Regina Legislative Assembly and the November 7 provincial election is unlikely to effect any groundswell change.

As in the case with the Harper Conservative breakthrough of 2008, and made the more succinct in Monday's "Orange Crush" courtesy of the New Democrats; Quebec's next provincial face-off is the most ambiguous. Though the province, like Alberta, doesn't have a "fixed" election date. - The current term of the Charest Government expires in 2012. I've speculated earlier that "Bloc" Leader Gilles Duceppe would jump to provincial politics after Monday's Federal Election. (See: "A Question Of Leadership" April 17/11). That's almost a "done deal" in the aftermath of the BQ's demise on Monday and Mr. Duceppe's sudden resignation. Facing a potential breakthrough of the "Parti Quebecois" with Gilles Duceppe as leader, the unpopular Premier Charest may pull the plug on the National Assembly before the former Federal BQ leader gets any home province traction. The light to illuminate Mr. Charest's ultimate decision could be a lucrative Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) deal with the Harper Government which would see Quebecois get "cheques in the mail" bigger than Ontarians'. Charest's plan B could always be to seek the Leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. Oh the irony!

Then we can all make way for Alberta in 2012, and British-Columbia on May 14th, 2013...just 750 more days of campaigning left to go before that one.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

 

THE "PRE" POST-MORTEM

One thing seems abundantly obvious on the eve of this 2011 Federal Election. It is that the tactics and practices of "the architect" as he's been affectionately called by George W, Bush, have no place in Canadian politics.

As was observed in publication this weekend; Canadians are neither infantile nor incapable of clear-headed thought; especially when it comes to elections. In this instance (perhaps) we have been fortunate to be side-line observers of the bitter, divisive, bi-partisan, non-compromising political tactics which have hobbled the United-States of America, diminished both its influence and respect around the world, and brought it to the edge of financial collapse.

"The architect," Karl Rove may be credited with a series of successful political campaigns, including those of the former President George W. Bush, across the United States; but his name has also come-up in respect with some political scandals and controversies down in Washington. The aftermath of both successes and failures is plainly obvious to Canadians who, because of our proximity, are exposed every day to news, commentaries and observations from south of the border.

In this most recent of our 4th Federal Election campaign in six year the politics of cynicism borrowed from Mr. Rove's "playbook" appear to have worked sufficiently to wound the Liberal Party beyond short-term recovery. The turbulent 2011 election campaign has been dominated by vacuous talk about coalitions; bickering politicians; and "stable" government designed more to disengage voters than engage them in honest discussion about ideas and visions for our future and the policies to implement them.

But to the embarrassment of just about every pundit, commentator and observer a week ago; when a record shattering 2,056,001 allegedly "disengaged" voters cast ballots in advance polling; they re-energized the election and threw the carefully planned and scripted scenarios of the campaign "war rooms" right into the nearest garbage receptacles. Lest I digress; calling them War Rooms is a major part of the problem. Election campaigns are not "wars" : They are the highest calling of the democratic process.

It seems that tomorrow's voter turn-out and much anticipated election night results may signal an historic shift which, at the very least, is poised to affirm and solidify the supremacy of Parliament and the elected members of the House of Commons, its rules, traditions and the Constitution, over the imperial or presidential aspirations of our party leaders.

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