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Leo Panitch: Toronto’s right populist Mayor is accused of crack use and PM Harper accused of covering up corruption in the Senate – their more serious crimes are attacks on workers rights and on public services

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

A Canadian story has broken through American news networks, and it isn’t often that happens. It’s a story about the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. He’s in the news because apparently he was in a video smoking crack cocaine–at least that’s what he’s been accused of.

But is this a bit of a tip of the iceberg, a reflection, perhaps, on what happens to some right-wing politicians who come in with all kinds of rhetoric about smaller government and cleaning things up and leave office with a trail of, essentially, corruption scandal?

Now joining us to talk about all of this–and we’re going to try to dig a little deeper than what we’ve seen in the press–is Leo Panitch. Leo’s a Canada research chair in comparative political economy, a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He’s the coauthor with Sam Gindin of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.

Thanks for joining us again, Leo.


JAY: Thank you. So give us a little bit of outline. First of all, what’s been going on with Ford? And then also there’s a lot going on in terms of scandal around prime minister Stephen Harper.

PANITCH: Yeah. It’s kind of a pleasure to see. And I’m sure that all of your left-wing American viewers will be surprised by all of this, since they tend to have this highly romantic notion of Canada as their Sweden. In fact, we have a federal government, a national government which is far to the right of most governments in the advanced capitalist countries.

And here in Toronto we elected a couple of years ago a very far-right mayor, who ran on no taxes, small government, get the city council out of our pockets, truly, truly reactionary on almost any dimension you could name. And he now is all over the American talk shows. It’s over a video that has been seen by a couple of Toronto Star reporters, as well as a Gawker reporter, which shows him apparently smoking crack with two young black men, both of whom were shot, one of whom was killed, shortly after the video was taken. So this has, you know, blown up.

But he has been in constant trouble. It would almost be a Keystone Cops routine were it not so sad that North America’s third- or fourth-largest city is run by such a bozo, who has no politics other than lower-taxes rhetoric and has actually overseen the privatization of half of garbage collection in Toronto, opposes the extension of public transit insofar as it would involve any additional taxes, talks a good line about doing away with congestion, which is horrific in Toronto, by building more subways while at the same time says he’s going to end the war on cars. So it’s been an appalling, an appalling record.

That this has blown up in his face is rather nice to see in a way. It’s not the worst he’s done, whatever he smoked, although all kinds of dirt is coming out about his family’s very far right wing connections, something alleged about his sister having been close to someone in the Ku Klux Klan at some point. And apparently when his older brother, who’s clearly the brains in the family and a councilor at the city level here, was apparently a drug dealer, so it is said in a Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, massive story in last Saturday.

JAY: Alleging that his brother was a big hashish dealer, that in a kind of dry–.

PANITCH: As a young man.

JAY: Yeah, as a young man operating–.

PANITCH: As a young man. Actually, not just dealer in a drive-up way, but actually a intermediary with rather large amounts being passed through him. But, you know, that’s in the past. The horrific stuff is the kind of culture of know-nothing populist politics that they run on a no-tax platform, at the cost, of course, of civil political discourse and at the cost of the very needed public services that a city of this size desperately needs to have. And one can see that the ruling class of this city, those who own the banks and effectively own Canada, find this all very distasteful as well.

So, you know, whether, you know, that kind of populism in the midst of this kind of economic instability could give rise in Canada or elsewhere to populist figures who might get reelected precisely because they operate on this kind [incompr.] platform is something to be worried about. It’s unedifying to have to face this every day.

JAY: Right. Now, it seems to me interesting that The Globe and Mail can dig up this stuff about his brother Doug and his alleged hashish-dealing network. He wasn’t just a dealer, as you said. He’s running, actually, other people, and he was running a bunch of dealers, alleged. His sister’s alleged connection to Ku Klux Klan or some other right-wing politics, they can dig it up now, but they didn’t dig it up at the time of the election of Ford, which they could have. They have the resources. If they can do it now, they could have done it then. I guess what I’m getting at here is the Toronto elite didn’t mind this populist figure, didn’t really care what his history was. If they get him elected and they can bring this kind of right politics, they were fine with that. It just that it got out of control for them.

PANITCH: Yeah. I mean, it’s not to say, I think, that they didn’t find him distasteful, but that’s right. I think that’s right. They would have preferred a more establishment figure, like a very famous Canadian Conservative like John Tory, who keeps on running and losing in all kinds of arenas. But, yes, you’re right, of course. That’s absolutely true.

And here in Ontario, in any case, we have an extremely right-wing government fully supported by the ruling class of this province and city in the 1990s, which this guy, Rob Ford’s father, was a member of the legislature for. And our prime minister, Harper, who is himself somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun, and his finance minister, Flaherty, are said to be quite good friends with the family and have attended on a number of occasion the famous barbecues in the back yard of the mansion that the Ford family runs every year.

JAY: And speaking of Prime Minister Harper, he’s in the middle of his own scandal. What’s going on there?

PANITCH: Well, you know, he came in on the basis of a right-wing populist party having–which he was associated with, having merged with the traditional Conservative Party of Canada. And insofar as they split the vote, it was always the Liberal Party that was the government of Canada. It was called the government party.

But once they combined, Harper managed to squeak in with a number of minority governments and then a majority government in the last election. His base is often very far right, coming from the Tea Party constituency. He himself is not an unsophisticated right-wing economist who–he used to head a think tank funded by the insurance industry here. And he has both on foreign policy and in terms of economic policy been one of the most right-wing governments around.

JAY: So tell us what’s been happening. He has a scandal in the Senate.

PANITCH: And the scandal is ironic, because one of the elements of him getting elected on a populist platform was he wanted to do away with the Senate or have it elected by each of the provinces. When he couldn’t pull that off because it would involve a massive constitutional change that’s very difficult to do, he started in a very cynical way packing the Senate with Tory propagandists, two of whom are former journalists who you know probably very well, Paul, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, who in the last election campaign were really the dogs, more than any others, for the Tory campaign, running vicious propaganda.

Now, it turns out that these people have been taking advantage of the Senate benefits. Some of the time they were campaigning for the Conservative Party in the last election, they were claiming that they were sitting in the Senate and therefore getting the benefits that go with appearing in the Senate. They have been claiming that they live in the province that they were appointed to represent and collect an enormous amount of travel benefits for doing so, but in fact spend all of their time in central Canada. And this has become a major scandal. What became even worse was that the chief of staff of the prime minister’s office handed Mike Duffy $90,000 to partly repay some of his ill-gotten expense claims and [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, ’cause he got caught and had to repay the Senate some of this money.

PANITCH: The chief of staff resigned, took blame for this when this was publicly exposed. Harper took off for South America to shill for Canadian mining companies there. But even there he was dogged by reporters asking him how he, who is a complete control freak, who has centralized power in the prime minister’s office like no one else historically in Canada, how it could be that he didn’t know what his chief of staff was doing. So this is much bigger now than just the Senate scandal. The question is what was the coverup that the prime minister’s office was engaged in.

JAY: And this tells you something about Canadian television news, too. Mike Duffy, with CTV–now, for American viewers, CTV is the biggest privately owned channel in Canada–CTV’s Ottawa correspondent, who’s reporting on Ottawa news, is Mike Duffy. And after he retires as a journalist, he becomes this hack for the Tories in the Senate.

PANITCH: That’s right. And the same applies to Pamela Wallin, who was a major figure first with CTV and then for a smaller channel, had her own show, and was appointed to the New York consulate, more than Duffy in the 1970s was a propaganda dog for the Conservatives like no one else in the last election.

JAY: So is this going to hurt Harper’s image? I mean, part of the reason he won a majority government: he was able to give this sense of being a good governor, managed the economy well, managed things. And one of the things that helped sink the Liberals was supposed to be Chrétien corruption that kind of reverberated through to his successors. Do you think it’s going to actually dent him?

PANITCH: I think that in terms of massive corruption this is small potatoes relative to the kinds of scandals that the Liberals got caught with their pants down on. And that also applies to the Toronto case. So it’s not so much, you know, feathering one’s own bed, what’s involved here on the part of the figures in office themselves, not in any massive terms, but it certainly raises all kinds of moral question.

And, of course, it does expose in a deeper sense the way in which these kinds of right-wing politicians who run on such a program of probity, defending the market against the unethical state, these kinds of politicians often appoint people who are in it for the take. And, you know, it’s often the case that those who scream loudest against government expenditure are the first ones to try to accumulate on the basis of getting a government contract. That’s an old story in the case of the Liberal parties, but it’s–really it applies equally, of course, to the kinds of businesses that support governments like Harper’s or Ford’s at a local level.

JAY: Yeah, they yell smaller government as they raid the treasury.

PANITCH: That’s right. In fact, the reason they yell smaller government–and what they mean by that, of course, is certain kinds of public expenditure. They don’t want money spent on collective public services, they don’t want money spent on the poor, they don’t want money spent on education, unless they can get a contract in the public school system. They want the money spent on the kinds of things that would allow them to make sales at a global level. We see this, by the way, in the bond markets. Their opposition to public expenditure is all about ensuring that when governments have any money in their pockets, they will pay off the interest on their bonds before they save somebody from starvation or build them some public housing to have a roof over their heads.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Leo.

PANITCH: Great to talk to you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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