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Hearts and Minds

September 2015 has provided a particularly intense reminder to many Torontonians of the power of images.  We had only begun to confront the collective call to action that resounded from the heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdi’s body face down on a Turkish beach when our downtown core was turned over to the 40th Annual Toronto International Film Festival.  Though admittedly not as compelling as that already iconic still photo, the fare on offer from the skilled filmmakers presenting at TIFF provide their own array of clarion calls.  Having only partaken of a small subset of the films on offer, my own compassion has been forever activated on issues as far flung as the emotional journey that must be confronted by transgendered children and adults and their families, the harrowing circumstances of child soldiers in Africa and the technical and personal challenges of rescuing our brave explorers on Mars (who knew?).

It is undeniable: the right image, at the right time, with wide distribution, can truly galvanize global opinion and become a catalyst for action.  That is why we are inundated with such images, each one competing to be THE policy focus.  For anyone that tries to be truly aware, it is relentless, and exhausting.  Roused from the necessarily narrower focus of our day-to-day lives too often and too jarringly, we instinctively begin to respond to the initial shock by pounding the snooze button.  We cannot engage with any one issue, the next is coming too fast on the heels of the last.  When we focus even briefly to comprehend the complexity that defies simple solutions to urgent problems, our hearts quickly jerk our heads out of that important but taxing exercise to address the crisis revealed by the next compelling image.

The migrant crisis is a clear example of this challenge.  The solution is not simple.  The photo of Alan Kurdi has jolted Western nations into a consensus that we are obliged to act to address the Middle Eastern migrant crisis.  However, many are realizing that the response cannot be limited to the relocation of those now so desperately seeking refuge.  The enormous number of refugees willing to risk the perils of an unaided migration and the uncertainties of ultimate settlement will multiply exponentially with the appropriate and necessary creation of compassionate, streamlined and more certain relocation programs.  Sadly, it is not possible to relocate the entirety of the at-risk populations of the failed states of the Middle East (Libya, Iraq and Syria) to Western nations.  The appropriate global response must therefore also include diplomatic and, if necessary, military measures to restore stability and order in the region, which will likely require a regime change in at least Syria, …but wasn’t regime change in Iraq and Libya what got this all started in the first place…?

Hey, is that Omar Khadr on the TV, looking for some relief from his bail conditions?  We have got to do something about Canada’s hypocrisy in its treatment of Canadian-born child soldiers.

Good Things Come From Threes

If the polls are to be believed, there is one certainty about the outcome of the upcoming Canadian federal election that is critical to the health of the body politic: all three of the large national parties will enjoy a healthy backing of the electorate in terms of both popular vote and elected seats. Canada’s periodically tenuous three party system will not only survive, but be demonstrably stable.

Why is this so important? Because it maintains the viability of the political centre, from which effective public policy can not only emerge but also find broad acceptance among Canadians. That is not to say that there is no important role for those voices on the vanguard of the right and left of the political spectrum. The emergence of public healthcare in Canada is the most transformative example of the value to the political marketplace of a progressive party that runs ahead of the status quo. One could equally argue that the presence of reasonable Canadian federal debt levels notwithstanding our generous public healthcare programs demonstrates the benefit of a viable conservative perspective that acts as a brake upon the inclination of progressive sentiment to outrun society’s willingness and ability to pay.

It is the functionality of this dynamic of the Canadian political landscape that is both comically and tragically absent in the U.S. The current popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the early stages of the Republican and Democratic Presidential nomination race are emblematic of this shortcoming. While neither is likely to ultimately be their respective party’s nominee, the explicit (Trump) and implicit risk of a third party candidacy that could decide the election by splitting either the left or right vote means that the nominees on both sides must lean further from the political centre to hold their respective vote. The casualty will be the quality of both political discourse and, sadly, effective public policy.

Canada has inched closer to the creation of the sort of two party split that plagues the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, the U.K.) on several occasions, including most recently in the 1993 federal election in which Audrey McLaughlin’s NDP was reduced to only nine seats and Kim Campbell’s PCs to only two. That election was further notable in that the PC collapse showed the danger of the party of the right drifting too far to the centre, as its annihilation was the product of the rise of Preston Manning’s socially conservative Reform Party.

The 2011 election saw a near-death experience for Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals as “Canada’s Natural Governing Party” was reduced to 34 seats. Some commentators and biographers of Stephen Harper have suggested that his driving political ambition is to complete that bifurcation of the Canadian political landscape. History suggests that would be both an impossible and undesirable result. Let’s hope that whatever the outcome on October 19th, we are left with a three party system that can effect the integration of the laudable but contrary impulses of policy innovation and prudent incrementalism and sustain the halting but inexorable progressive arc of Canadian public policy.

Greece Is the Word

Written by David Allan


Many of you may have heard about this summer’s revival of the 1970’s musical “Greece” by the European Community Theatre.  While this production, like most community theatre, lacks the polish of a Broadway or West End show, it has received so much media and internet attention that a review of the show seems an appropriate choice for my first blog on the TAO Asset Management site.

First off, I need to admit that I have not seen the show live.  However, the media has been so inundated with snippets that I feel unexpectedly qualified to provide a review.  The production is being directed by Italian economist and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.  The lightness of his direction is extremely apparent in the unevenness of the performances.  The casting is no less inconsistent.  The brooding southern European charms of Alexis Tsipras as Danny Zuko and menacing allure of Yanis Varoufakis as sidekick Kenickie are spot on, while the plucky and genial style of Angela Merkel as Sandy Olson cannot hide the fact that at 60 she is simply too old for the role.

The musical numbers are also a problem.  With the exception of an exceptionally poignant rendition of “Business School Dropout” by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, the songs are largely discordant.  Particularly grating is the number “Greek Pensions”, which starts abruptly and feels extravagant in the context of the scene in which it arises.  The playbill indicates that we can expect a rollicking performance of “Here’s the Loan That You Want” by the entire ensemble in the final Act.  While it is unclear whether this number will be offered in a scornful or heartfelt tone, the production to date leaves the audience with the expectation that this will just be the same old song.

Notwithstanding these faults, the production remains compelling viewing.  The reimagining of the 50s tale of the seeming irreconcilability of greaser Danny and preppy Sandy as a cultural, economic and political conflict between a centre-right German Chancellor and a Greek Communist populist Prime Minister is inspired, as is the protracted, real-time manner in which the story has unwound.  As we move toward the final Act, we are profoundly engaged with the story: will Alexis/Danny don his letterman sweater and embrace conservative economic policies to win favour with Angela/Sandy, or will she instead pull on her Spandex leggings and dance with Syriza?  What makes this particular production even more gripping is the sneaking suspicion that even Director Draghi has no idea where this is heading.