Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's driving the car wars?

Sergio Marchionne, Fiat’s chief executive, takes the honours for making last week’s most incisive comment on the German government-sponsored deal to sell Opel to a Canadian-Russian consortium. Referring to the slump in the car industry, he said disapprovingly: “In Europe, as a result of this crisis, there’s not a single plant that has shut down.”

He was speaking, appropriately, on the eve of the biennial Frankfurt Motor Show, an event at which some industry executives predicted gloomily that Europe’s car industry might not return to full health until 2015. As their remarks made clear, the controversy over the sale of the European arm of General Motors is industrial as much as political.

From an industrial viewpoint it is about how to restructure a sector that is the backbone of European manufacturing, supporting 12m jobs, but in which production overcapacity, according to some experts, may be as high as 30 per cent for passenger cars. From a political viewpoint, it is about how to uphold European rules on fair competition and state aid at a time when the recession is driving up unemployment and Germany, home to four Opel plants, faces a general election next Sunday.

A third and especially intriguing feature of the deal, combining both politics and industry, is the Russian connection. A sizeable chunk of the €4.5bn ($6.6bn, £4bn) in subsidies Berlin is offering to smooth Opel’s sale to Canada’s Magna International and Russia’s state-controlled Sberbank appears destined to modernise the Russian car industry. German Gref, Sberbank’s chief executive and a former government minister of ethnic German origin, hopes to use the deal to bring new technology to Russia’s auto sector and to produce low-priced cars at GM’s St Petersburg plant.

The fundamental criticism of the Opel deal is, however, not that it will benefit Russian motorists but that it drives a cart and horse – so to speak – through European Union rules on state aid to business. Belgian, British and Spanish politicians complain that Berlin offered the subsidies so that, when the time comes for Magna to reduce capacity, job cuts and even plant closures will hit their countries rather than Germany.

Naturally, the German government rejects allegations of wrongdoing. “We don’t rescue companies, we are simply giving them a chance to survive the financial crisis,” Angela Merkel, the chancellor, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper last weekend.

Visiting the Frankfurt Motor Show on Thursday, however, she went further, promising that, if her centre-right Christian Democrats are re-elected, she will help the domestic industry develop promising technologies. “It might seem like quasi-protectionism. But I think we would be well advised to see how Germany can pool its potential as a 21st century car nation as best as possible,” she said.

It was telling, though, that Dirk Pfeil, a member of the Opel trust, set up by the government to handle the company’s affairs after GM filed for bankruptcy protection in June, criticised the subsidies. Politics not economics, he implied, had driven the deal. “The sale to Magna is exactly the sort of aggressive industrial policy that Germany is always being criticised for – and rightly so,” he told Bild newspaper. “The job cuts planned by Magna favour Germany, and the other European countries with GM plants aren’t going to let that just happen.”

Similar views are held by Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany’s independent-minded economy minister. But perhaps the most devastating attack came from Jürgen Thumann, the newly appointed president of BusinessEurope, the Continent’s top business lobby. A former head of the German industrialists’ federation, he told the Financial Times this week that he was “totally against” the Merkel government’s deal.

Echoing Mr Marchionne’s scathing analysis of Europe’s unwillingness to scale down capacity in its car industry, Mr Thumann said: “If you believe in the social market economy and competition, you have to accept that the weakest will leave the market they’re serving and the strongest will survive. If governments try to influence this process, it starts getting very dangerous.”

There are, however, no easy answers. When the steel industry was in crisis in the 1970s, the European Commission had the authority, under the 1951 European Coal and Steel Community pact, to declare a “manifest crisis” and order compulsory curbs on production. Today’s European car industry may require similar restructuring but the Commission lacks the legal powers to impose it.

More than a few analysts see the Opel controversy as symptomatic of an outbreak of malignant economic nationalism that has infected the European body politic since the western world’s financial system came close to collapse last year.

“The credit crunch and world recession have blown apart EU finance rules,” says Denis MacShane, a former UK European affairs minister. “States have done their own thing and boasted of national protection for threatened industries or workers.”

It started in the financial sector in September and October 2008, when one government after another announced emergency measures to prop up banks and protect depositors without consulting fellow EU member states.

Scrambling to contain the damage, EU finance ministers set out a list of principles for bank rescues, stating inter alia that governments must respect state aid rules to ensure a level playing field; and that one country’s actions must not have negative spillover effects on others.

However, the contagion soon spread to the auto industry, when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, offered domestic carmakers billions of euros in state aid on the proviso that they kept jobs and production in France rather than moving elsewhere in the EU. Sensing danger, the Commission forced the withdrawal of this condition but approved the aid nonetheless. Meanwhile, Paris made clear it was relying on the carmakers’ sense of “moral obligation” to prevent job losses and plant closures in France – and the car manufacturers appear to have got the message loud and clear.

For Brussels the lesson is obvious. Few tasks are more fundamental to the EU’s success as a multinational, rules-based entity than the defence of the single market and the enforcement of state aid law. “If we can get through the next five years with the single market fully intact, we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done,” says one high-ranking Commission official. “Quite simply, it’s the most important challenge we face.”

The Commission’s credibility is at stake. Over the past 15 years, the institution that is the guardian of the EU’s rulebook has turned itself into one of the world’s most powerful and energetic regulators, investigating suspected cartels, intervening in takeover cases and opening up once protected national industries to competition. As corporate giants such as Boeing and Microsoft can testify, no company is too big to be taken on.

Under José Manuel Barroso, who on Wednesday won a second five-year term as Commission president, EU regulators have been especially aggressive in levying fines for infringements of competition rules. Since it assumed office in 2004, the Barroso Commission has imposed fines totalling almost €10bn; between 1990-94, when data were first collected, it was a mere €567m.

This relentless pursuit of malefactors would be wide open to attack if the impression were to gain ground that the Commission was bending the EU’s state aid rules to favour particular companies under pressure from national governments. But the implications of the proliferating challenges to the single market go further still.

European monetary union itself depends to no small degree on the integrity of the single market. During the euro’s 10-year lifespan, the EU has defied gravity by operating a single currency without a common fiscal policy, common government bonds or common eurozone representation in global financial institutions.

But without the single market the euro’s future would be precarious in the extreme, as governments sharing one currency watched each other take measures deliberately intended to gain a competitive advantage over their nominal partners.

Small wonder, then, that Mr Barroso says he will make a priority of defending the single market in his second term. “The recent crisis showed that there remains a strong short-term temptation to roll back the single market when times are hard,” he said in a set of policy guidelines for the next Commission published before his reappointment this week. “The Commission will remain an implacable defender of the single market. ”

One can only hope that he is as good as his word.

WARNING: Photos in the slideshow below depict graphic violence. As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to speak to the United Nations Gene

From South China Morning Post

China watchers look for patterns and signs in the secretive workings of the Communist Party the way ancient seers examined animal innards for clues to the future. So it came as a shock to many when Vice-President Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, was not appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission last week. The conventional view is that the military appointment is a key stepping stone to the top job. That was the way Hu attained supreme power, so it must be the same for his successor, it is thought. Therefore, a smooth transfer of power when Hu steps down in 2012 appears to have been thrown into doubt. A closed-door power struggle, jockeying for position and horse-trading have – predictably – been predicted.
But there are no set rules as to when an heir apparent needs to ascend to the military post; Xi may yet be so appointed at the Central Committee Plenum next year. The way the party organises itself and promotes promising cadres to key positions is very different from 10 years ago when Hu was appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. China itself is a different place. Even a monolithic dictatorship would find it difficult to prepare for political succession years ahead, and the Communist Party is surely no longer that type of political beast.Within the party hierarchy, the selection of rising stars to top positions is increasingly based on merit. A meritocracy within the party is being established, even if political connections and lineage still count for much. Rapid social and economic changes have forced Beijing to adapt to changing times. If the party’s vow to introduce greater internal democracy is to be taken seriously, then the process of selection has to be “less certain and unpredictable”, as a Hong Kong commentator has complained. Beijing is not offering Western-style democracy. But even though the political system is opaque, the party understands it needs to be more transparent, accountable and less corrupt if it is to maintain the legitimacy to rule.
Xi is a good example of the new system. A princeling whose father was a close ally of Deng Xiaoping , he has proved himself a seasoned troubleshooter for the party. There is no doubt he is being groomed for the top post, considering he was plucked from relative obscurity as the Zhejiang party secretary to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 and vice-president last year. It has been observed that Xi is “a man of all factions”: he is apparently not Hu’s favourite but is acceptable to all sides at the top echelon of power. He is also a leader of the so-called princeling group in which Hu’s power base is reportedly shaky. So Hu may find it politic not to guarantee the political future of his successor at such an early date.
For the average citizen, instead of asking who enjoys most support in which power centre, it may be more relevant to ask whether the party would be anointing a suitable leader in someone like Xi if he does become president. His time as a party leader in Shanghai has shown him to be an advocate of liberal economic policies and aggressive market reforms. As China’s economy is among the first to emerge from the global economic crisis, similar policies may be just what the country needs.
His occasional outspokenness also makes him much more interesting in front of the camera as China aims to project itself as a modern, responsible and increasingly sophisticated world power.

China watchers look for patterns and signs in the secretive workings of the Communist Party the way ancient seers examined animal innards for clues to the future. So it came as a shock to many when Vice-President Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, was not appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission last week.

The conventional view is that the military appointment is a key stepping stone to the top job. That was the way Hu attained supreme power, so it must be the same for his successor, it is thought. Therefore, a smooth transfer of power when Hu steps down in 2012 appears to have been thrown into doubt. A closed-door power struggle, jockeying for position and horse-trading have – predictably – been predicted.

But there are no set rules as to when an heir apparent needs to ascend to the military post; Xi may yet be so appointed at the Central Committee Plenum next year. The way the party organises itself and promotes promising cadres to key positions is very different from 10 years ago when Hu was appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. China itself is a different place. Even a monolithic dictatorship would find it difficult to prepare for political succession years ahead, and the Communist Party is surely no longer that type of political beast

Read rest of article on East Asia Review:


Photos: Iranian Dissidents Document Election Brutality


WARNING: Photos in the slideshow below depict graphic violence.

As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to speak to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, a trove of photographs — most of which have never before been published — documenting the summer’s uprising against the disputed election has emerged, thanks to a dedicated network of digital smuggling.

Most of the photographs were taken by Iranian dissidents themselves, and several were shot with cell-phone cameras while in the midst of the protests that shook Tehran following the disputed June 12 elections. Some are extremely graphic, and show a level of repression exhibited against the Iranian people that did not appear in Western media. There are images of the aftermath of rubber-bullet welts, security forces on motorcycles terrorizing women, and bloodied protesters.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The protests caught the world’s attention and led to a sustained crackdown on the Iranian opposition, particularly its ability to communicate with the outside world. One image shows the wreckage of a computer lab at Tehran University after regime elements targeted it in June. Human rights groups have documented widespread detentions and prison abuses, including rapes. On Sept. 11, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the supreme leader of Iran,threatened a “harsh response” to those who continue denouncing the government. Yet this weekend, thousands of demonstrators turned the annual Jerusalem Day celebration into an occasion to denounce the regime at great personal risk.

As a result of the crackdown, tech-savvy dissidents have created a network stretching far outside of Iran to pass information out of the country. Sympathetic political activists outside of Iran operate clandestine servers beyond the regime’s technological reach that serve as a clearinghouse for information like these photos. TWI was given access to one such server on condition of anonymity, by Iranian dissidents and their international allies in advance of Ahmadinejad’s remarks to the U.N. general assembly — anticipated to focus on a defense of the Iranian nuclear program — at a time when many in the Iranian opposition worry that global interest in Iranian repression has dissipated.

“Do not accept our government as the one we (the Iranian people) have chose[n], or even that they are legal,” said an anonymous Iranian dissident in a message, delivered through an email from a non-Iranian ally, explaining why the dissident was allowing a reporter to view a sampling of the photographs. “Do not believe anything our president says. Do not believe their claim for nuclear power to be peaceful. They have no credibility, you can not trust them, this election was proof of that. They stole our votes, and silenced our protest against them. “
WARNING: Photos in the slideshow below depict graphic violence.

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At a speech Friday previewing the U.S. agenda for this week’s general assembly session, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the Iranian regime had to make a fundamental choice about whether it wanted warmer relations with the U.S. and Europe, a path accessible only through a perishable offer to negotiate on issues beyond Iran’s nuclear program. “The international community has made abundantly clear what is possible for all Iranians if Iran lives up to its responsibilities on the nuclear issue – the benefits of economic connections to the rest of the world, cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy, and partnership in education and science,” she said. “But there will be accompanying costs for Iran’s continued defiance – more isolation and economic pressure, less possibility of progress for the people of Iran.”

Clinton singled out the regime’s treatment of its dissenters, denouncing it for launching “a campaign of politically motivated arrests, show trials, and suppression of free speech” and saying it “stands in the way of the justice it seeks.”

The Iranian uprising and subsequent crackdown “undoubtedly complicated” the Obama administration’s efforts at diplomacy with the regime, and forced the administration to reconsider some of its assumptions, one administration official conceded. “First, there was the concern of not wanting to do anything that may undermine the Iranian opposition,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They also splashed cold water on any possibility of making real substantive gestures towards Iran beyond symbolic outreach, raised the domestic political costs of engagement, and most importantly ensured that in the short-term Iran would be ruled by a more hardline regime less likely to negotiate. The elections also caused a significant delay in our engagement policy by ensuring that rather than looking outward Iran would be internally absorbed and unable to make major foreign policy decisions.”

Yet as the Iranian regime has looked inward — which, in this context, means violently suppressing dissent — some Iranian human-rights advocates believe the world has looked elsewhere. On Monday afternoon, Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran will hold a joint press conference across from U.N. headquarters in New York, in which a tortured Iranian dissident will speak.

“The Iranian government is doing its best to prevent any news from inside Iran to reach the outside word,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “The level of repression is increasing and detentions of activists is continuing. But the international community should realize that the protests in Iran are not over, just as we saw yesterday with tens of thousands risking their lives to publicly protest. As Ahmadinajed comes to the U.N., the focus should be on the grave human rights violations of the past three months: murder of protestors, torture and rape of detainees. The U.N. General Assembly should hold Ahmadinejad accountable by appointing a special envoy to investigate and document the extent of crimes that have taken place.”

Don’t worry over radio closures; the NRM government needs them

One of the outcomes the riots that recently rocked Kampala is what many in the media fraternity say is the receding shoreline of media freedoms.
The particulars are that four FM radio stations were switched off air for what the Uganda Broadcasting Council said was failure to adhere to the minimum broadcasting standards.

This action has been perceived as a government crackdown on media freedoms. However, it offers us an opportunity to renew the debate on media freedoms in Uganda from 1986 to date.

The relative press freedom in Uganda is the result of the experience and spirit of the armed rebel movement that mothered the political leadership in power to day.

During the armed struggle, the rebel movement pursued what they called a policy of ‘open criticism and open debate’ as a tool to resolve disagreements. It is this openness they brought to government when they assumed state power in 1986. This formed the basis for a deliberate government deportment to run an open administration.

Needless to say, this posture was the basis for the liberalisation of the electronic media and the resurgent influence of the print media on social and political behaviour.

What is now viewed as the receding shoreline of press freedom is therefore merely an administrative action without any long-term effect on the spirit or the thinking of the people.

For instance, the government needs bimeeza (community open-air field broadcasts) as much as the opposition (perceived or real). It is worth noting that these bimeeza had become part of the NRM mobilisation strategy that they too (NRM) will feel denuded without them.

The bimeeza (and other innovations like call-in formats of guest-host radio talk shows) offered the only way to identify and develop political cadres (they are now called activists). I can bet my white bull that they bimeeza will return (in a different form or otherwise).

The 1995 Uganda Constitution was very clear on interest political groups to wit: all political parties must have a national character qualified by a demonstrable existence of support in two thirds of all the districts of Uganda. This provision was aimed to avoid Kabaka Yeka type of self-interest political movements of the early 60s.

The main aspect in the debate on media freedoms in Uganda now is therefore the challenge to reconcile the media’s traditional role as the vehicle of civil and civic awareness and what I will refer to as the emergence of ‘interest journalism’, if I am allowed to coin a phrase. And how did we reach here?
In the absence of organised political groups between 1986 and 2006 (non-partisan Movement Era), the media was viewed by the political leadership as a function of political (almost ideological) mobilisation.

That is how what Charles Onyango-Obbo calls the Political Commentariat evolved as a force in the media and Uganda’s body politic. However, the political elite could only be tolerant to the media in so far as there was no organised political contest at the time.

When competitive political contests resurfaced in 1996, the media had generated a lot of public interest (and it had itself gained a politically acceptable stature) in public affairs. The major friction between media and the state therefore no longer derived from the flimsy cases of defamation but the influence of civic and civil attitudes.

So, the gist of the debate on press freedoms in Uganda now is whether the media should play the role of a passive rapporteur or that of an ‘interested functionary’ in the socio-political dynamics.

The problem however lies in the ideological construction of the body politic. Without any conspicuous ideological differences among political groups, The thinking of Buganda (or Mengo) offers what looks like an ideological model of political mobilisation. It is therefore not surprising that all political groups (even the ruling NRM) have tended to gravitate to Mengo.

And that is why all Luganda vernacular media outlets (print and electronic) have Mengo-leaning editorial content or posture to tap into what I have called ‘The Thinking of Buganda’ to enrich their acceptability. The question then is: how can the media survive in such circumstances?

The media must reconcile its traditional role of being the avante guarde constituent of the functional civil society with the realities of socio-political dynamics obtaining on the ground. It is all about judgment; and it is my personal assessment that Central Broadcasting Services (CBC), Mengo’s very influential FM radio, failed on balancing this act.

Here is the rider: With the liberalisation of the media, the control and dissemination of information is no longer the exclusive preserve of the state. This has rendered the state as merely ‘first among equals’ in the field. However, information as a constituent tool for rallying the nation for policy absorption and conscientious national consciousness remains the responsibility of the state.

Obama’s Mideast Strategy: Useless if Not Harmful

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will hold trilateral talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the annual U.N. Summit in New York.

Naturally, smart gamblers will bet against a peace process breakthrough. For starters, history suggests that the forthcoming Obama-Abbas-Netanyahu meeting will go the way of previous Bush-Abbas-Olmert andClinton-Arafat-Barak encounters: nice photos, no results. Moreover, the two parties seem as far apart as ever on all of the issues – security, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem – that stand at the heart of the conflict. And then there’s the inconvenient fact that Hamas – an Iranian-funded terrorist organization that rejects Israel’s very right to exist – controls half of the Palestinian body politic.

But even if these traditional barriers to Middle East peacemaking weren’t enough, President Obama has – through his own policy decisions – erected another. Indeed, by reinforcing Islamists’ version of history and calling it “public diplomacy,” Obama has systematically alienated the Israeli people, who have increasingly backed Netanyahu’s more skeptical approach to both U.S. policy and peace making. Polls currently show that Netanyahu’s approval rating among Israelis is at 65% – staggeringly high, especially by the standards of Israel’s fractious political system – while only 4% of Israeli Jews see Obama as pro-Israel.

How might this affect Obama’s ability to forge Middle East peace? Try this thought experiment: put yourself in Netanyahu’s shoes and assume that, like most politicians, your top priority is political survival. Do you take the risks associated with immediate peace negotiations and more closely align yourself with an American president who is deeply unpopular among your constituents? Or, do you stick with an alternative approach that a strong majority of your countrymen endorse? The answer should be obvious.

Of course, none of this is news to the Obama administration. In recent months, it has attempted to counteract Israeli skepticism by pressing Arab regimes to make friendly gestures towards Israel. But, once again, Obama’s own policies have gotten in the way: Arab leaders have refused incremental “normalization,” using the administration’s earlier demand for a complete freeze of Israeli settlement expansion as an excuse for doing nothing at all. And, strategically, this makes perfect sense for them. Just put yourself in the shoes of an Arab leader: when the U.S. President naïvely affirms your long-held contention that Israeli settlements – and not terrorism, nor your own rejection of Israel’s right to exist – are the primary obstacles to peace, you run with it.

It is worth repeating that, even without Obama’s policy blunders, Israeli-Palestinian peace would be highly improbable. Still, Obama is supposed to be the “realist” president who, according to his most erstwhile defenders, prioritizes strategy and interests above principles. If so, how has he failed to understand Arab and Israeli leaders’ interests and decision-making so spectacularly?

Fox Nation, Where Republicans Can Hang Out and Do Whatever

Jesse Watters, the infamous Fox News producer who’s sometimes dispatched to ambush people who’ve said mean things about Bill O’Reilly, made the rounds of the Values Voter Summit–I watched him interview Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) with some of the friendliest questions I’ve ever heard. At the close of that Cantor interview, Watters asked the second-ranking Republican in the House to say something to his “fans” at Fox Nation. “Keep clickin’ on Fox Nation,” said Cantor.

What was the point of that? It was one of the interviews contained in Watters’ “behind the scenes” look at the summit, which consists of Republicans like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas.), and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) shouting out to readers of the conservative site.

“FoxNation.com and my fans there,” said Romney, “they’re the best.”

“Fox Nation,” said Bachmann, “you rock!”

Muslim Community and British Politicians

Jim Fitzpatrick, a British minister criticized the segregation of male and female guests at Muslim wedding. Yet another 'Gaffe' from another jumped up, half-baked, ill-educated Labour moron; a former fireman indeed. He learned nothing about putting out fires rather than starting them. He actually has a GCSE 'D' in Politics? God Help us internationally if he is ever made a Diplomat. I suppose he left in a huff because there was no beer an' 'Am sandwiches at the buffet. The Minister's action is just a stupid, attention-getting stunt appealing to prejudices. This serves only to inflame the prejudices so widespread today. People have their customs, and you don't insult them. It hasn't been that long since our society had some public institutions that kept men and women separate. And it hasn't been that long since women in our society typically wore hats with veils. Plenty of Western customs, we accept as normal, are unacceptable or ridiculous to others.

Muslim marriage is a religious ceremony. He insulted the bride and groom for his own political gain. They should not walk out because it would have been bad manners and rudeness to do so. They should respect the couple wishes, it’s their big day. He should have ascertained what the customs are beforehand, and then not attended if he thinks the practice offensive. One should have respect of others people's customs, even if one does not agree. Perhaps he should grow up and get an injection of reality. If you are not prepared to accept this then don't go or don't insult the bride and groom by walking out. What a disgusting small minded little man. Just shows the caliber of today's MP's from all parties. Well being a Labour politician his appalling ignorance of Islamic tradition plus downright rudeness to his hosts does not surprise me in the least. He should do his homework instead of ruining someone’s day. He is totally an ignorant person. If a Muslim wants to have separation at a wedding (like much of the Muslim world) then they should be allowed to, and don't insult them when they do. Jewish wedding has observed the tradition of separating of men & women at ceremonies, without raising any eyebrows. Men and women are separated in Masajid and Synagogues. Muslim secondary schools are also segregated.

In the past another British Minister Jack Straw caused a similar furore when he referred to Muslim veils as “a visible statement of separation and difference” and called for women to remove them during surgeries in his Blackburn constituency. No one has the right to ban the freedom of choice in a secular and democratic country. The right to choice is a basic fundamental right the person should have. To veil or not to veil should be an individual choice. Dress codes are for children. Muslim women should be free to wear burqas. If women get Away with wearing cropped shirts and pants that show their panties, they should be able to wear burqas too.

Globalisation is here to stay, Muslims are here to stay and so are other communities. Those idiot British ministers need to learn that the world is made up of different people and the British society and its Establishment need to learn to accept and tolerate every culture for what it is and most importantly respect and tolerate the values of each and every religion.
Iftikhar Ahmad

Ryan Hastman: The Next Generation of Conservative Leadership

Let it never be said that I do not give the people what they want.

Last week, after my interview with Mark Holland–whom I described as part of the new generation of Liberal leadership–readers sent me several emails and Facebook messages to express their interest in learning about the next generation ofConservative leaders.

So, today, I am here to respond to that request. I have three answers for you.

First, here is one prospect who may soon be the latest star candidate for theConservative Party. If he wins the nomination and then the election, I have no doubt–none at all–that he will be mentioned in the same breath as Bernard Lord, Jim Prenticeand Jean Charest as possible successors to Stephen Harper. Those are big ifs, though. He will have to beat this guy–not an easy feat for anyone.

Second, don’t forget about rising stars in the Conservative caucus, like him, her, him,her or him, among others.

And third, onto the business at hand. Allow me to introduce you to a rising star in his own right, one who hopes to join the Conservative caucus with a victory in the next federal election: Ryan Hastman, today’s guest in our continuing Meet the Players series.

A former special assistant to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and aide to Public SafetyMinister Stockwell Day, Hastman has been well trained in the ways of Ottawa and, if elected, will have little trouble navigating its labyrinthine institutional and political bureaucracies.

Hastman is ready for the election, whenever it is called. He won the nomination to carry the Conservative banner in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, currently held by NDP MP Linda Duncan and formerly held by Rahim Jaffer. (Yes, the same Rahim Jafferyou have no doubt read about recently.)

As is quite clear from my interview with Hastman, he is substantive, intelligent, witty, serious, plugged into popular culture, and is as comfortable at the Calgary Stampedeas he is using la langue de Molière.

So, with no further ado, and as my gift to readers who asked me to introduce them to the next generation of Conservative leadership, here, for your enjoyment, is Ryan Hastman.

Richard Albert (RA): Your impressive experience in government and in the private sector belie your young age. Still, you are only 30–actually, not until October!–a fact that will perhaps give some people pause. So why you, and why now?

Ryan Hastman (Hastman): Why me? I am running because, first of all, I think that Edmonton-Strathcona deserves stronger representation than its current MP provides. I am from Edmonton and I have a solid business, community and political background. I care passionately about our community, province and country. No one will work harder than I will to listen to every voice and reach out to every corner of the riding. MPs don’t get to choose who they represent. They must represent everybody, not just the narrow interests of a small group of activists. We need an MP who understands what it’s like to run a business, raise a family, and work to make ends meet and get ahead. We need someone who not only understands the core values of the broader community but also has the political skill to effect change. I believe I am the best person to earn the trust of voters in Edmonton-Strathcona, and represent their interests in Ottawa. And perhaps due to my relative youth, I am still idealistic enough to believe that I can make a difference in this world.

Why now? Electing an NDP member was a risky experiment and I think we’ve seen that experiment fail. The NDP doesn’t understand the economy and it cannot deliver results for the residents of Edmonton-Strathcona, to say nothing of the country as a whole. In the current economic circumstance, we cannot afford to be represented by someone who is out of touch with the majority of mainstream Canadians. Edmonton-Strathcona, the city of Edmonton, Alberta and Canada have an amazing potential and I am very excited about the future. I believe that Edmonton-Strathcona should be the home of the very best in all walks of life and I don’t see us getting there with the NDP. We should be leading the charge in terms of research and science. We should be the natural home for Canada’s next group of groundbreaking businesses and employers. Our children should be given every opportunity to excel and lead their generation forward. While the opposition parties are focused on tired old policies that didn’t even work in the 1960s, we want to take Canada forward.

RA: You’re running in a riding that has been a right-of-centre stronghold since1972. However in the 2008 federal elections, a sharp leftward turn propelled NDP candidate Linda Duncan to victory over then-incumbent MP Rahim Jaffer. Is this a temporary shift or is there something more seismic underway in Edmonton-Strathcona?

Hastman: Well, the answer is “both”. In 2008 what you saw was a “perfect storm” for the NDP. The disastrous policies of the Liberal Party’s Stephane Dion gave Linda a boost. Many dissatisfied Liberal voters voted NDP in order to protest their ownleadership. But I will be the first to admit that we Conservatives need to raise our game in Edmonton-Strathcona. We need to work harder and we need to listen more closely. We really believe Edmonton-Strathcona is looking to return to a broad-based, big tent, mainstream party with reasonable, sensible policies for important issues likethe economy. Let other regions protest–Edmonton-Strathcona wants to lead Canada into the future.

But I do want to get back to what you said about a seismic change in Edmonton-Strathcona, because you are onto something there. Edmonton-Strathcona is a fantastic microcosm of Canada as a whole: it is diverse, it is growing, it is represented by many diverse voices, ethic groups and ages. It is vibrant and looking to succeed. I believe that many of Canada’s next leaders will be from Edmonton-Strathcona. There is a real energy here that is contagious.

RA: Have you asked Rahim for advice?

Hastman: Rahim and I spoke shortly after I won my nomination in June. He is now dealing with some well documented issues is his private life, but in his time as a Member of Parliament, Rahim proved not only to his own ethnic community but to all young people that being young or different isn’t a barrier to making a meaningful contribution to Canada.

RA: Have you spoken to Rahim since his arrest?

Hastman: No.

RA: Ok, getting back to your riding, what are the most pressing needs and priorities for Edmonton-Strathcona?

Hastman: #1 The economy. #2 The economy. #3 The economy. As someone once said, “It’s the economy, stupid!“. Without well-paying, stable jobs, most other things in life become less important. I want Edmonton-Strathcona to break out and reach its full potential, but we must make sure we give as many people as possible the best possible shot to succeed in their own lives. That means better jobs, safer streets, and lower taxes. We need to make some changes to the laws and tax system. We need streets that are safe for our children and seniors to walk alone on. We need to protect our local environment as a legacy for our children. We need to continue to attract the best and brightest from around the country and around the world.

RA: Can you say something nice about your NDP opponent, Linda Duncan?

Hastman: I have lots of nice things to say about Linda. She works hard and fights for what she believes in. She is a voracious environmental advocate. She will do very well in her next career as a post-MP, special interest activist.

RA: If you get elected to Parliament, who is the first person whose counsel you will seek once you land in Ottawa?

Hastman: The PM! No but really, I would probably say Jason Kenney. As a young guy from Alberta, Jason and I have a lot in common and I’ll probably pick his brain about how to set up an effective operation in Ottawa and serve my constituents with excellence. Jason has done a lot of good work in terms of building bridges to new communities.

RA: Apart from working to improve the lives of your constituents in Edmonton-Strathcona, are there any larger or more national legislative projects you would like to explore if you get elected?

Hastman: You’re right: working for the people of Edmonton-Strathcona will be my priority #1 and #1A. In addition to that, there are a couple of areas that I hope to make a contribution toward:

Improving our tax code. We need a simplified and reduced tax system in this country. First of all, our taxes are too high across the board. Second of all, despite the last three years of improvements, there remain many inefficient and/or unfair aspects of the code.

Crime and community safety. Again as with taxes, the Harper government has taken many positive steps, but there is more work to be done. People are sick and tired of common thugs ruling their neighborhoods through fear and intimidation. We need to give youth hope for a better future, to help them stay out of trouble before they are trapped.

National unity is also something that I am concerned about. We need to build the ties that unite our diverse groups. Also, I am a strong supporter of official bilingualism.

I could easily go on; there is no lack of worthy and important work to be done.

RA: Now let’s turn to the larger race outside of Edmonton-Strathcona. Why, in your view, is Stephen Harper a better leader for Canada than Michael Ignatieff?

Hastman: Stephen Harper knows what he believes, and why. He thinks about issues and takes a clear position, regardless of which ways the political winds are blowing. He sought the office of Prime Minister to bring change to Canada, and not simply as an entitled gambit to fill a hole on his resume. He wants to build a diverse, prosperous and secure country for the 21st century. Michael Ignatieff has never found an issue that he doesn’t both agree and disagree with. He dreams of returning our country to the tired old ways of Trudeau. After all, he described himself as a “tax and spend liberal.” We need a new approach to the issues of tomorrow, not an old approach that got us into some of the trouble we have today.

RA: I’d like to talk a bit about you for a moment. What is your biggest personal strength?

Hastman: That’s a tough question! I would say that I love rising to challenges. Call it competitiveness or maybe audaciousness, but I love doing things that “they” say can’t be done.

RA: What is your biggest weakness and how, if at all, have you tried to turn it into one of your strengths?

Hastman: Now this is even tougher. Politicians don’t like answering these types of questions… but I think that the opposite of my best strength is also my biggest weakness: I try to accomplish too much on my own. In business and in life I have found that the best way to succeed is to build a strong team around me and empower people to do their best, even if it’s a bit different from the approach I would take. It’s Maxwell’s 360 Leadership model.

RA: As we transition to a few more fun and lighthearted questions, I have to apologize for not saying this at the outset of our interview. But better late than never: Congratulations on your wedding last fall! Your one year anniversary is coming up. Any ideas yet as to what you’ll buy your wife to mark that special occasion?

Hastman: Well that depends on Michael Ignatieff! If we are in the middle of a campaign, we might skip a door knocking shift and head to Steeps for one of their unique teas. If we aren’t into a campaign then, we hope to get away and make up for the very brief honeymoon we managed a year ago.

RA: You helped found a not-for-profit called Her Dream Next Door, which helps women achieve their personal and professional aspirations. Are you concerned about the relatively low number of women in politics both generally and within theConservative Party specifically?

Hastman: This is something that I feel passionately about. Too many young women today lack strong role models and mentors, keeping them from busting through society’s various glass ceilings. Generally speaking, I am encouraged by the strong women we see in politics today. Our party in particular has a very strong female cohort. And unlike the other parties, female candidates don’t get a special pass for their nominations in the Conservative Party of Canada. Try telling Nina Grewal, Lisa Raitt, Alice Wong, Cheryl Gallant, Rona Ambrose, Kelly Block, Candice Hoeppner, Diane Finley, or Josée Verner (just to name a few examples) that our party doesn’t value their contribution or that they are only plausible as politicians if they are appointed as part of an artificial female slate! Our party’s Vice President, Kara Johnson, is female. Many of our candidates last time who will be elected next time are female. Many of the PM’s key advisors, as well as senior aides to Ministers, are women. Our leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, is female. Canada’s first female PM came from our party, and in 2002 and 2004 our leadership contests featured female candidates. So I would argue that our party is a leader among its peers in terms of female engagement. Of course it would be great if there were even more women involved, and I look forward to working with more and more strong females in caucus.

RA: Now just a couple of more questions before we move to our Lightning Round. Which three living non-Albertans would you most like to host for dinner at Packrat Louie, one of Edmonton’s very best restaurants? Why?

Hastman: If I were to host a dinner at Packrat Louie, my three choices would be:

Bill Gates–not only has he built one of the most successful companies in the world, but he has also transitioned into one of the strongest forces for public health. I would love to talk to him about how the private sector can partner with government and NGOs to solve some of the great issues that humanity will wrestle with this century. I want to hear more from him about how corporations, individuals and governments can partner together effectively.

Cesar Millan (aka ‘The Dog Whisperer’)–I love our puppy but we just can’t seem to reach an understanding on some of his behaviours. I would like to have a hearing with The Dog Whisperer and hope that he can clear up a few issues.

George Straight–My wife Lianne is a huge fan. I think she might wish I was a little bit more like George Straight, so maybe I could ask him for a few tips. I don’t know much about his political views, but I suspect he would take a common sense approach on most things. He definitely wouldn’t vote for the NDP!

RA: Parlez-vous français?

Oui, je parle français. J’ai eu la chance d’assister à l’enseignement par immersion en français ici, à Edmonton. Cela m’aidera à servir notre communauté franco-albertaine dans notre circonscription. Cela me donne aussi une appréciation de la double origine linguistique de notre pays. Je soutiens le bilinguisme officiel, et je pense que parler les deux langues contribuera à donner la prochaine génération un avantage compétitif dans un monde global.

RA: Ok, Ryan. Time for the Lightning Round. Blackberry or I-Phone?

Hastman: Blackberry! I need an actual keyboard.

RA: Facebook or MySpace?

Hastman: Facebook.

RA: Mac or PC?

Hastman: Mac.

RA: Less filling or tastes great?

Hastman: Coke Zero.

RA: Boxers or briefs?

Hastman: I’ll take the moderate position and say boxer-briefs.

RA: Favourite band?

Hastman: U2. I also really like Radiohead and Muse. For Canadian content, I’ll takePaul Brandt and Pilot Speed.

RA: Gretzky or Lemieux?

Hastman: Is that even a fair question? The Great One of course. My father was at the “50 goals in 39 games” game, and I’m fortunate enough to remember most of the 4 Stanley Cups that #99 was here for. The question would have been more tricky had you asked “Gretzky or Messier”, a local Edmonton guy who also went to my high school (St. FX.).

RA: Which was worse for western Canada: The National Energy Program or theBristol-Bombardier scandal?

Hastman: The National Energy Program. People still talk about it at the doors. Good on PM Brian Mulroney for cancelling it.

RA: Who was the better premier: Ralph Klein or Peter Lougheed?

Hastman: This is a tough one. Both of them contributed to the province and made tough decisions that needed to be made. Lougheed established a very sensible savings trust fund to diversify the economy; Klein got public spending under control. I guess it’s a draw.

RA: Greatest Canadian?

Hastman: Stephen J. Harper. His mastery of policy is second only to his incredible judgment of cabinet material. (Can you make sure a copy of this is sent to PMO?).

RA: Greatest prime minister?

Hastman: Didn’t I just answer that?

RA: Greatest politician never (never yet?) to become prime minister?

Hastman: Stockwell Day. Politics is a rough ‘sport’, a contact sport as they say, and his experience with national politics started out pretty roughly. He has shown not only resilience, but grace and forgiveness, which is usually not common to the profession. Watching him in his role as a senior Minister today makes me wonder what his contribution could have been had things worked out differently. I hope to model even a fraction of his resilience through my career. He’s been one of the most steady and consistent Ministers in our government. I’m also a big fan of both public safety and free trade!

RA: Public safety and free trade–those are two priorities that no reasonable person could disagree with. So in light of that common ground you’ve struck with all of our readers–those who wear Conservative blue, Liberal red, NDP orange, Green uh green, or otherwise–it’s a nice way to close our interview. Thank you for sharing your views with us. I think it’s safe to say that Linda Duncan is in for a tough battle when the writ drops. Edmonton-Strathcona will certainly be a riding to watch. Good luck to you.

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