Twelve months have passed since the “Ibiza-videos” triggered the dramatic end of the coalition government and with it the fall from grace of one of Austria’s most controversial politicians, Heinz-Christian Strache.
It was 6 p.m. on May 17, 2019 when video footage that would change the course of Austrian history hit the internet. Stunned journalists sat mesmerized before their computers that evening, barely able to believe their eyes.
A visibly inebriated and chain-smoking HC Strache — Austrian vice chancellor and head of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) — slumped on a couch in a shabby t-shirt, with what appeared to be a line of cocaine on the glass table in front of him. Alongside him Johann Gudenus — member of the Austrian national parliament and former vice mayor of Vienna— waving his arms and translating Russian, replacing missing vocabulary with pistol-shooting gestures, “Glock, boom, boom.” And together with the pair in a holiday villa in Ibiza a “Russian oligarch’s niece,” apparently discussing the purchase of Austria’s most popular daily newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung.
By the following morning, thousands of furious protesters had gathered outside the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, demanding Strache’s resignation. A few hours later, a chastened vice chancellor quit both his posts, apologized to his wife and disappeared to lick his wounds. It heralded the end of the coalition government led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP).
A year on, political consultant Thomas Hofer describes the reaction to the now-infamous “Ibiza videos” as “an expression of how some people think politics works in this country.”
“But you can’t say this is a completely unknown practice in Austria,” he adds, disagreeing with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen’s statement shortly after the footage became public, that “We (Austrians) are not like this.”
The dark side of politics
Never again in Austria will the word “Ibiza” be synonymous with a party island. Since that day, it has come to connote the dark side of politics: an image of two sweaty senior politicians explaining to a supposed Russian businesswoman how one gains power in Austria, spins the news and manipulates the mass media; how to get entrepreneurs on side and how to funnel money past the tax authorities into the party coffers. Strache dropped big names: the millions-of-dollar weapons manufacturer, Glock, Austria’s largest construction company, Strabag, and the international gambling business, Novomatic.
Within days, the affair led to a no-confidence vote in Kurz, the implosion of the entire government, and a transitional administration. New elections were finally held in September 2019, in which the Freedom Party suffered significant losses as disillusioned voters turned to the ÖVP.
Despite the indisputable evidence to the contrary, HC Strache doggedly professed his innocence, quickly coming up with a conspiracy theory in which he portrayed himself as the victim. He spoke of a “b’soffene G’schicht” (“a drunken tale”) and swore the encounter with the long-legged blonde was a one-off, a claim later refuted.
It is now known that the video was recorded sometime between June 22-25, 2017, when Strache and Gudenus were firmly in opposition mode. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for that autumn. At the time the recordings were made, it was anything but a forgone conclusion that the People’s Party and Freedom Party would end up agreeing to form a coalition.
Now that coalition is no more — nor is the Freedom Party, minus the almost cult-figure charisma of Strache at its helm, what it once was.
“Yes, it was a turbulent and eventful year,” says Strache, who post-Ibiza affair was subsequently plagued by scandals involving party expense accounts and bags of cash.
New political pastures
The 50-year old has now found himself a new political stage as the head of the “Alliance for Austria” (DAÖ), a splinter party made up of Strache-loyalists from the Freedom Party. He’s currently running for the post of mayor of Vienna in elections to be held this autumn, and very confident of his chances.
Strache blames the current strife of his former party on the new leadership — party head, Norbert Hofer and chairman, Herbert Kickl. He can barely hide his malice towards the two, both for their rejection of his offer to find a “common path” and his and his wife Philippa’s expulsion from the party.
The FPÖ leadership declined to comment for this article.
The party itself appears uncertain of its positions. With the coronavirus lockdown, Kickl initially demanded a complete closure of the country, yet is now seething against “Corona madness.” At the same time, the People’s party has hijacked the FPÖ positions on issues such as asylum, maintaining the hardline policies put in place by Kickl himself during his term as interior minister.
Political consultant Thomas Hofer says the Ibiza video tore a “wound in the FPÖ” and believes the double leadership of Hofer-Kickl is a construct that “cannot work in the long run.”
What is interesting, however, is that despite Norbert Hofer and Herbert Kickl having had nothing to do with the Ibiza video, the affair has nevertheless affected the FPÖ just as much as it has Strache.
The Russian connection
“The FPÖ is catching up with the spin of its own past decades,” says Thomas Hofer, referring to Strache’s use of conspiracy theory and political intrigue to convince his followers that he is the real victim in the case.
While Strache is making a political comeback, Johann Gudenus has gone underground. And according to a former friend of the two — Levan Pirveli, a Georgian businessman living in Austria — that friendship has now turned into a bitter enmity.
Pirveli was the FPÖ’s main contact with Russia. It was Pirveli who took Strache to Moscow in 2009 to meet members of the Russian Duma.
According to Pirveli, he explicitly told Gudenus that the woman who passed herself off as “Alyona Makarova,” niece of the oligarch Igor Makarov, was not who she said she was. Initial contact between “Makarova” and Gudenus was made by Irena Markovic, a real estate agent friend of Gudenus’s future wife, Tajana, who had told Gudenus that “Makarova” had expressed interest in purchasing a family estate belonging to the Gudenus’s.
“Makarov is an only child and has no niece, and I told Johann that,” says Pirveli of his conversation in May 2017. “But for some reason he did not listen to me.” Pirveli speculates that Gudenus was most likely blackmailed with compromising video material into agreeing to take Strache to the meeting in Ibiza the following month.
Who exactly was behind the Ibiza video remains a mystery. But did the video change anything?
“Not enough,” says Thomas Hofer. “There were concrete effects, but fundamentally nothing has changed.”
The Troubling Origins of Birthright Politics – The Nation
Birthright citizenship is the foundation of American democracy. The birthright principle, rooted in common law and the Reconstruction era’s 14th Amendment, guarantees citizenship to the children of US citizens and to everyone born within the country’s borders. The grant of citizenship at birth has a powerful egalitarian effect, making every American—at least in theory—an equal stakeholder in the political community. Yet it brings about this desirable result through what can only be described as arbitrary means. One inherits citizenship from one’s parents or acquires it based on the happenstance of one’s place of birth. Our democracy of equal-born citizens is therefore built on a fundamental inequality: the unearned privilege of winning what the scholar Ayelet Shachar has called “the birthright lottery.”
Two recent histories explain how the illiberal birthright principle has become so fundamental to modern democracies. In Race Is About Politics, the French historian Jean-Frédéric Schaub offers an elegant and polemical account of how the idea of racial difference, first crafted in medieval Spain, grew into a defining form of political otherness. Birthright Citizens, the most recent book by the prominent historian of law and race Martha S. Jones, gives us a closer look at how this process unfolded in the United States. Taking us through the streets and into the courthouses of 19th century Baltimore, Jones shows us how free African Americans asserted their citizenship as a birthright in order to counter the hereditary logic of race and, in so doing, helped lay the groundwork for the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to all those born on US soil.
Taken together, Race Is About Politics and Birthright Citizens show the power as well as the limits of birthright politics—how it can be a vehicle for liberation and equality and how it can serve the cause of racial and ethnic exclusion. Both books acknowledge the potential of birthright politics to generate inclusive and equal citizenship. They also show that beneath its surface, currents of inequality persist that can make it a treacherous medium for creating a more just society.
Birthright has been part of political life at least since Jacob bought the blessings of the firstborn from his brother, Esau. From the ancient world through the early modern era, birth determined one’s station in life. Born a king or a nobleman, one had rights and duties that a commoner would never have. One’s place of birth mattered, too: The native sons of a city had privileges denied to the peasants born a stone’s throw outside its walls. However, in practice, the premodern world was more socially and politically dynamic than the theory might suggest. Commoners could become noblemen—kings, even—and nobles could fall into a penury little different from that of the peasantry. But the principle of birthright remained the rule. A natural-born subject, wrote the English jurist William Blackstone in 1765, owed a “perpetual” allegiance to his sovereign from the moment of his birth, one that could never be “forfeited, cancelled, or altered.”
Starting in the mid-15th century, birthright politics took on a new form: the notion of race. As Schaub observes early in his book, the history of race is often flattened into a timeless and universal practice of differentiation based on how people look. But the idea of race, he insists, began as something else. It was not about appearance at all; in fact, early racial thought differentiated among groups that looked alike. Race was an ideology that sought to draw boundaries of political community through genealogy and birthright. By “naturaliz[ing]” forms of “sociopolitical difference,” it applied a new and pernicious patina to the age-old practice of inherited political status.
To make his argument, Schaub retells the story of the racialization of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula—which he sees as a key passage in the development of both racial thought and modern birthright politics. Starting in the eighth century, most of Iberia fell under the rule of a succession of Muslim states, which were content to let the region’s large Jewish population exist in relative peace and autonomy. But as Christian kingdoms gradually conquered the peninsula during the Middle Ages, they and the Catholic Church sought to enforce religious conformity on their newly acquired lands. Jews were massacred or subjected to mass forced conversions. In 1492 the “Catholic Monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile completed the conquest and brought this process to its conclusion, forcing all of the remaining Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave.
Yet even as they were stamping out the last pockets of Judaism in Iberia, Spain’s Old Christians, jealous of the social and political power they might lose to the new converts, were finding ways to perpetuate their outsider status. By the 1440s, Old Christians had formalized in law an early form of racial ideology that rested on a distinction between two kinds of otherness: Jewish belief and Jewishness. The Jewish faith could be washed away at the baptismal font. But Jewishness was something else altogether—a form of genealogical inferiority embedded in Jewish bodies. It passed from one generation to the next, and it was unalterable. Jews were a different people as well as a different faith. Although they could convert, they would retain their racial otherness (which was also invisible, since the conversos looked just like the Old Christians).
In the decades after their first contact with the Americas in 1492, Iberians and other Europeans carried this emerging racial ideology around the globe, creating an expansive portfolio of racializing theories to mark off many other groups as permanent outsiders. They increasingly imagined Native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans as distinct races, granting themselves license to take their lands and reduce their people to serfdom or slavery. Unlike the conversos, many of these populations had physical features, especially skin color, that created visible forms of distinction between them and Europeans. Though Europeans used these features to identify the members of the various “races,” their fundamental difference, they insisted, was genealogical—an inheritance from birth, as with the Jews of Iberia.
The racialization of non-Europeans in the Americas and Africa thus became an essential part of European efforts to draw lines of political exclusion within and around their empires, putting millions of people outside the circle of citizenship and, in some cases, outside the circle of humanity itself. Unlike other forms of identity and political membership, this birthright politics enfolded many Europeans, including women and even members of other religious groups, as natural-born members of a racial community. But it excluded many others and insisted that belonging was an immutable fact, lodging racial otherness in the body and making the boundaries between in-groups and out-groups permanent and unalterable.
This racialized logic of birthright, as Schaub observes, has remained latent in Western politics ever since, wielded by dominant groups over and over again as a way to slow down or stop the social and political ascent of subordinated communities.
When the United States emerged as an independent nation, it seemed to promise at least a partial break from the idea that political belonging should be the result of birth alone. Starting with their 1776 decision to disavow the British monarch, American revolutionaries insisted that theirs was a community of citizens who freely chose to be part of the nation. Their actions in subsequent decades gave some substance to those claims. The 1790 Naturalization Act, the new nation’s first immigration law, let any free white person enter the country and become an American citizen more or less at will. Some US politicians even seemed inclined to accept the claim that citizens could expatriate themselves—that is, give up their citizenship. In 1795, Supreme Court Justice James Iredell even ruminated about whether expatriation was a “natural, inalienable right” that could not be limited or regulated by the state.
Yet status by birth entrenched itself in the politics of the new republic as well. A few exceptions aside, the nation’s founders embraced a birthright notion of race not unlike that of the Spanish—which they then used to justify slavery and the denial of rights and citizenship to nonwhite people living in US territories. At the time of the American Revolution, roughly one out of every six inhabitants of the American colonies was an enslaved African. White Americans justified their status on the grounds that Africans were members of a different and inferior race, whose stain passed from generation to generation.
Members of the founding generation, eager to expand the white population of their new country, took an equally expansive view of the birthright principle’s application to members of their racial group. David Ramsay, a South Carolina congressman and early theorist of US citizenship, believed that American citizens “transmitted” their citizenship to their children “by inheritance.” Before long, judges and legislators had extended this potent principle of hereditary citizenship to include any white person born to US citizens abroad and to white people born to noncitizens on American soil.
In Birthright Citizens, Jones explores how a small but significant free African American community tried to turn the young republic’s birthright politics on its head, transforming a doctrine of exclusion and hierarchy into a means by which they could claim a place for themselves in American society. Free African Americans, like many people of color in the Atlantic world, were relentlessly pursued by the possibility that their race, not their status as free people, was their true birthright. The risks of exclusion or expulsion and the nightmare of reenslavement were a constant presence in their lives. Claiming American citizenship as an inalienable birthright was a crucial way for free African Americans to overcome these dangers—and, Jones argues, their claims had a lasting impact on the nature of citizenship for all Americans.
Baltimore was a center of these efforts by free African Americans to assert their inborn right to US citizenship, and Jones focuses her narrative on their story. As members of an old and relatively wealthy community, Baltimore’s African Americans were well equipped to use the city’s courts as a forum for demonstrating their citizenship by exercising the rights of free people. They sued fellow Baltimoreans of both races over matters great and small, from a debt of a few tens of dollars to control of a prosperous Methodist church and its property. These suits protected their property, but they also had symbolic value: Even an unsuccessful suit affirmed a litigant’s status as a legal person. While in court, black litigants could, as Jones put it, become “peers to their white counterparts.” And the act of going to court, repeated year in and year out, could be used to make claims, however tenuous, about citizenship and equality.
But exercising one’s rights in court proved to be a weak guarantor of African American citizenship. Throughout the antebellum period, in Baltimore and elsewhere, white legislators and jurists worked to reduce African Americans to the status of “denizens,” a category in English common law for individuals who were designated neither native nor foreign and occupied a middle ground between full membership and full exclusion. In Maryland alone, the state legislature heaped on law after law that sought to impose this second-class status on black people in the state. African Americans could not freely or easily leave the state, they could not vote, and they faced restrictions on owning firearms (though in practice, white judges in Baltimore routinely granted gun licenses to black men). African American citizenship, in short, was perpetually under assault.
Starting in the 1820s, Baltimore’s African Americans found their citizenship status threatened in a new and frightening way by the so-called colonization movement. Colonization was a project, led by white Americans, that sought to empty the country of free people of color. Most proponents of colonization did not envision forcibly expelling free people of color but wanted them to leave of their own volition. Yet even if it was not backed by a threat of force, colonization posed an existential threat to African American citizenship: All such projects rested on the assumption that the true home of African Americans was somewhere else. When coupled with measures designed to make life in the United States difficult for free people of color, as it often was, colonization took on the sinister, coercive overtones of ethnic cleansing.
To counter the threat of colonization and other efforts to reduce them to the status of denizens, black Baltimoreans and their allies began to declare their citizenship an inalienable birthright. “We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship,” wrote the Pennsylvanian African American leader Martin Delany in 1852, and activists in Baltimore transformed this claim into their political creed. Inalienable citizenship was defined by the same birthbound language that was used to exclude them. In 1831, Baltimore’s leading black citizens issued a declaration proclaiming themselves natives of the “land in which we were born” and insisting that it was thus their “true and appropriate home.” William Yates, a white activist whom Jones discusses at length, expanded on this notion in an 1838 treatise. Free people of color, he argued, were undoubtedly citizens because they were “natives of the country.”
These claims by black Baltimoreans began to resound forcefully beyond the city’s borders in the run-up to the Civil War. The most striking illustration of their reach, curiously enough, came from the pen of a famous opponent of black citizenship, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney. As a son of the city and a leading Maryland politician before joining the court, he was intimately familiar with the black Baltimoreans and their claims to US citizenship. Both were clearly on his mind in 1857 when he authored the court’s notorious opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, an appeal of a freedom suit brought by an enslaved man from the Midwest. Going well beyond what was necessary to resolve the case presented to the court, Taney decided to use it as an opportunity to pronounce against African Americans’ aspirations to citizenship in general. His opinion provided a decisive rebuff to black Baltimoreans’ claims. African Americans, he baldly declared, were “not citizens.” The “unhappy black race,” he continued (in language that closely echoed the Iberians’ more than four centuries earlier), “were separated from the white by indelible marks.”
Jones’s book closes with a brief discussion of Reconstruction, which gives a tantalizing glimpse of the connections between African American claims to birthright citizenship in the antebellum period and the arguments about it after the Civil War that culminated in the 14th Amendment. The aftermath of the war saw a final struggle, played out across the country, to remove the persistent doubts about the citizenship status of former enslaved people and freeborn African Americans alike. The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, aimed to remove all ambiguity on this point by constitutionalizing the very principle of birthright citizenship that activists for African American rights had been hammering home for decades. “All persons born…in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” the amendment states, “are citizens of the United States.” By the time this language was adopted, black Baltimoreans were no longer prophets in the wilderness: The idea of citizenship for African Americans had gained substantial acceptance in the North. But they were surely gratified to find their argument set, at long last, into the US Constitution.
In the century and a half since its ratification, the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment has been without doubt a force for good, a powerful instrument for unambiguously confirming membership in the American nation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the face of virulent anti-Chinese racism, the clause guaranteed the citizenship of individuals born to Chinese parents on US soil. It did likewise for the children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants who came to the United States in the early 20th century, and in more recent times, it has extended citizenship to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants from Latin America and other regions.
Yet as Schaub’s historical genealogy of racial thought reminds us, there is a flip side to this coin. Like the idea of race to which it is sometimes opposed, the birthright principle works through inheritance, passing status from parent to child as if it were an innate quality in a bloodline. It can also confer the same status based on the accident of where one is born. In either case, the birthright principle distributes citizenship’s privileges and blessings by chance rather than in accordance with any higher principle of justice. In practice, this means equality for some is bought at the price of arbitrary exclusion for many.
For much of the recent past, Americans have uncritically accepted the bargain we have struck between these two faces of the birthright principle. The benefits of inclusion have seemed to far outweigh its exclusionary, illiberal mechanism for deciding who is in and who is out. But in our age of global inequality, it is clear the arbitrary belonging created by birthright politics is no longer adequate to our moment. Globally, the distribution of wealth among the world’s countries has reached unprecedented levels of inequality and continues to grow more extreme. The negative externalities of runaway consumption, above all climate change and its effects, are falling hardest on the countries and peoples least able to bear the burden. Infectious diseases—of which the novel coronavirus is just the latest arrival—kill millions of people in poorer countries as the citizens of the richest nations shut their gates and hoard medicine and supplies. How is it even remotely fair to allocate citizenship in the world’s nations by mere random chance when so much depends on which ticket one draws?
Rethinking the politics of birthright will not be easy. The roots of birthright belonging extend deep into the soil of the American political tradition. And as Schaub and Jones remind us, over the past two centuries we have gained a great deal, in terms of equality and inclusion, from the audacious grafting of democratic institutions onto a political community defined by birthright. But as the modern world of nation-states enters its third century and perhaps comes to its crisis, we will have to take a hard look at the birthright principle and decide if it is still right—if, indeed, we can still accept it. Should birth alone dictate so much about who we are?
BRIAN HODDER: Flexibility – even in politics – is one lesson we should learn from COVID-19 – The Guardian
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to seriously impact Canada’s East Coast in March, a lot of things got put on hold.
Included in these postponements were political leadership races for the federal Conservative Party and the Liberal Party in Newfoundland and Labrador, which also entails selecting the next premier in this province. As these races begin to ramp up this month and more of our society opens up, it will be interesting to see if political parties are able to adjust to the necessary changes brought about by the pandemic or whether there is an attempt to return to politics as normal.
For the Conservative Party, the most recent update was a court ruling that overturned the decision to bar controversial candidate Jim Karahalios from running due to alleged racist comments because proper procedures were not followed. After the ruling, he was subsequently barred again by the appropriate officials within the party, meaning that nothing had really changed. It appears to leave the field open for the two established candidates – Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole – to fight it out for the leadership as the party attempts to play to its base while smoothing over the more radical elements in order to appeal to a broader range of Canadians. There are no substantive changes and we’ll have to wait and see how the campaign is impacted by the pandemic.
In Newfoundland, there was recent discussion around re-opening the nomination process for the Liberal leadership to allow Health Minister John Haggie, or other candidates who may now be interested, to enter the race.
Haggie has gained much support and respect over his conduct during the pandemic and had indicated he was now open to entering the race if it was possible. The leadership within the party denied it, sticking rigidly to the original process, which has two candidates that have never been elected to public office running to become the next premier. Such rigidity doesn’t seem to recognize that the world has changed and the flexibility in how we run our society that has come about because of the pandemic might also be helpful within the political process as well.
One change that has been forced upon all of us, including politicians, is the need for physical distancing. The large group gatherings that are normally part of the political process will not happen and means connecting virtually with one’s political base has become a critical element of success in politics. This process was already underway before the pandemic but is now likely to accelerate.
Our legislatures and parliament have had meetings with only a fraction of those elected taking part and virtual meetings of committees have become the new normal. I would hope this process is retained once and if the pandemic ends, as it reduces air travel and should save taxpayer money in the long run. There will be times when our elected members need to be together to vote on legislation but much of their work can be done virtually.
Sadly, recent decisions by the major federal parties point to a continuation of the same old routine. With the exception of the Bloq Quebecois, the other four federal parties have applied for and received the economic benefit package for workers in their parties. While I can appreciate that the parties are less likely to be able to pay their workers due to decreased donations and that the individuals who work for them are being impacted, the optics of taxpayer money being used to pay for workers promoting partisan politics doesn’t feed a narrative that things have changed much.
What’s clear from this pandemic is that there has been a massive impact on our economy and we will need to find ways to cut costs moving forward; political parties should lead by example in this regard rather than being the last to feel the economic impact.
Brian Hodder works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dermod Travis, BC's Brilliant Politics Watchdog, Has Died – TheTyee.ca
Dermod Travis was a one-man opposition party and a thorn in the side of any party in power. A keen researcher and prolific writer, the executive director of the watchdog group IntegrityBC kept an eye on the provincial legislature in Victoria and city halls across the province.
Travis, who died today at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, criticized British Columbia’s “wild west,” anything-goes electoral finance laws long before the story hit the pages of the New York Times. He denounced a system allowing for unlimited contributions (a developer once financed the campaign of the civic Non-Partisan Association in Vancouver with a donation just under $1 million), as well as cheques from oil and gas businesses based in Alberta to back the BC Liberal Party. He also decried the power of trade unions to finance the NDP.
After the provincial government banned union and corporate donations as well as limiting individual donations to $1,200 in 2018, Travis spoke out against the inevitable loopholes exploited by candidates and their backers.
IntegrityBC, a non-governmental, non-partisan and non-profit group monitoring governments, sought to restore accountability and transparency to politics.
“We want politicians in the province to respect voters,” Travis once said.
A gaunt figure with a sallow complexion whose long face gave him a passing resemblance to the 1960s television actor Fred Gwynne, Travis carried himself with the disheveled shabbiness of a small-town lawyer. His wardrobe and schoolboy haircut seemed to emphasize that what he had to say mattered far more than any other perception.
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of politics and processes. He was one of the few people outside academia who could speak knowingly about the mechanics of government and the functioning of democracy. By understanding systems and connections, he anticipated potential areas of corruption. He has been accused of suffering from “excessive idealism.”
A United Church minister’s son, Travis had a varied and sometimes checkered career before returning to British Columbia earlier this century. Some of his ventures flopped. He was once, briefly, a boxing promoter. More successfully, he played host to the Dalai Lama on a visit to Vancouver. Over the years, he had associations with more than a half-dozen political parties across the spectrum, including two years as national spokesperson for the federal Green Party under leader Jim Harris.
After joining IntegrityBC in 2011, Travis wrote more than two dozen articles for The Tyee, shining a spotlight on lobbying, the Mount Polley mine disaster, and freewheeling campaign financing. A decade spent in Quebec in the 1990s, which boasts the country’s most stringent reporting laws, gave him a model for reform of a system ripe for corruption.
Travis was like a “full-time professional citizen,” said Sean Holman, an associate journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He was a one-man Ralph Nader, exposing waste, fraud and negligence.
“This was a person who marched straight into minefields because he thought he could help,” Holman said. “It’s a terrible loss. There’s not enough of those people in society.”
“Dermod was a bold, unassailable voice for cleaning up cronyism in our politics. He wrote powerfully, and produced critical leads and baseline information that helped journalists do their jobs in the public interest,” said Tyee founding editor David Beers. “He enriched our society incredibly by paying attention and being brave.” Travis published 28 articles in The Tyee.
The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief, Andrew MacLeod, said, “I had a message from Dermod when he was out of hospital in March joking that he was training to run the Boston marathon as soon as the pandemic is over. Even when things were bad, he had a sense of humor. He also came out of the hospital with an assessment of what’s wrong with the health-care system (the victim of a legacy of cuts) and how poorly it was prepared for the pandemic. Even from his hospital bed he was a keen observer of what was happening around him and an insightful commentator on it.
“I would also say that over the years I always found him to be a rewarding interview. I’d call him with something I thought was simple to comment on and he’d surprise me with the depth he’d bring, often pointing out an angle, issue or solution that never would have occurred to me. I also always appreciated his ability to keep a sense of proportion and an eye on the big picture. His criticisms of what was wrong in our society and political systems tended to be constructive. “
Dermod Travis was born in Banff, Alta., in 1960, a third child and first son for the former Elizabeth Molly Sullivan and Rev. John Probyn Travis. She was born in Belfast in 1922, a tumultuous political year during which the six counties of Northern Ireland opted out of the Irish Free State. During the war, she served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a radar operator and as one of the plotters for Bomber Command who, using a stick like a croupier’s rake, plotted the movement of planes and ships. She was posted to a seaside air-force base at Bishops Court, County Down, about 40 kilometres southeast of Belfast. In 1945, she met a Welsh airman from Swansea who served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He studied theology at New College in London before being ordained to the ministry of Congregational Church in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield in 1948. They married that same year.
The family moved to Canada in 1951 with Rev. Travis entering the United Church ministry with charges in the fishing village of Northport, N.S., and the border hamlet of Franklin Centre, Que. In 1957, the minister moved to Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, a third bucolic posting. After nine years, the cleric was accepted to succeed a retiring minister at Centennial United Church.
Ten weeks before taking up the new posting, the Travis family was on vacation in Berkeley, Calif. They were spending a day sightseeing in San Francisco when involved in a fatal crash. The taxicab they hired was struck broadside by a streetcar at the intersection of Market and Battery streets. The tram (ironically, for a minister and his family, running on the J Church line) dragged the taxi nearly 30 metres in a grinding crash.
Police arrived at a terrible scene — the driver dead in the front seat, all five passengers injured, gas pouring from a ruptured tank. Both parents and the oldest daughter, Deirdre, 13, were removed from the wrecked car, but firefighters with the city’s rescue squad needed jacks and prybars to free a trapped Gaye, 12, who had cuts on both legs, and seven-year-old Dermod, who suffered a broken right thigh bone.
(Deirdre was later a University of Victoria student when cast to portray a young Emily Carr for an award-winning, two-part television series aired by CBC in 1975. She had been discovered while waiting tables as summer help at the Empress Hotel. She abandoned acting as a career to complete her studies.)
In Victoria, young Dermod attended the private, preparatory St. Michaels University School, which was an all-boys institution at the time. At age 15, he won the Western Canada Debating Seminar in Winnipeg, a competition pitting the top 100 high-school debaters from the four western provinces. The main resolution for debate dealt with measures to improve free enterprise in Canada.
In his junior year, or Grade XI in the school’s preferred Latin enumeration, he organized fortnightly interschool debating contests to be aired on Victoria’s channel 10, the local community cable-access channel. He also delivered editorials on CFAX, the city’s top commercial radio station. He was the school’s representative to a United Nations’ conference on “The New International Economic Order” in Winnipeg, and one of two assigned to attend a Student Commonwealth conference in Ottawa.
By his graduating year, Travis had already developed a tweed-and-tie young-fogey look, an antecedent by a few years for the actor Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of Alex P. Keaton in the television sit-com Family Ties. Travis was a head boy whose activities included debating and drama, as he had a role in the student production of Twelve Angry Men. Underclassmen later described his greatest achievement as turning the Tuck Shop into a profitable arcade with foosball and pinball machines.
In the school’s Black Red & Blue yearbook for 1978, Travis expressed his desire to become prime minister, while self-deprecatingly acknowledging his probable destination was to service pinball machines for Ryan Vending. His final request after seven years at the school — a glass of Bristol Cream Sherry.
The young man’s interest in electoral politics was expressed while he was in his mid-teens when he was elected one of the directors of the Victoria branch of the B.C. Conservative Association in 1976. One of the vice-presidents was a not-yet-notorious lawyer by the name of Doug Christie, who later that year formed the first of his several political groups promoting Western separation.
As a first-year student at the University of Victoria, Travis won a best all-round award at a debating contest for B.C. university students.
Even then, he had a no-nonsense approach. One morning, he telephoned newspaper columnist Max Low with a bracing question: “If you were deaf, Max, how would you have answered this telephone?” He soon after marched into the newsroom to demonstrate Porta-Tel, an innovative device that lit up to announce a call and included a screen so that two people with the device could exchange messages by text. The portable device weighed less than two kilograms and cost $550 (about $1,975 today). It was a system of text messaging before the internet or smart phones became available to the public.
Marketing the Porta-Tel was one of three businesses in which he was engaged at age 19, as he also had a television production company and an interest in a downtown newsstand.
The budding entrepreneur was the first candidate to announce his intention to run for city council in Victoria in 1979, launching his campaign by blaming three NDP-affiliated aldermen for obstructing development. Travis was endorsed by popular former mayor Peter Pollen, but the editorial writers at the Victoria Times offered a harsher assessment. “A 19-year-old business whiz kid makes an interesting candidate, but Travis has not been very convincing,” the paper stated two days before the election. “He has tended to come across as self-righteous and overly rigid.”
With only four incumbents seeking re-election to the eight-seat council, the contest attracted 16 candidates. Travis finished 12th with 3,342 votes, 1,178 fewer than he would have needed to win election. Despite his disappointment, he paid for a published advertisement in the newspaper thanking the voters of Victoria.
On campus, he had noticed an unmet demand for student housing, so he rented Orcades, a 12-room, 6,000-square-foot Tudor Revival mansion in the leafy Rockland neighbourhood which he, in turn, rented out to student tenants. He also rented out rooms in another large home on Gorge Road. An attempt to purchase Strathcona Lodge, a former Canadian Pacific resort in Shawnigan Lake, outside Victoria, fell through in part because a potential business partner pulled out after Travis spoke about the deal to a reporter.
He wound up living in the oilsands boomtown of Fort McMurray in his native province, where he spent a year as a senior policy advisor to the Alberta Liberal party. He ran for a seat in the legislature as the NDP candidate in Lac La Biche-McMurray in the 1982 provincial election. His campaign tactics annoyed all three rivals, one of whom said he “was too smart for his age.” Travis finished a distant second behind the Progressive Conservative incumbent.
The following summer he produced a 20-page newspaper parody that turned a profit after a resident filed a libel suit. By the fall of 1983, Travis was in Lethbridge to drum up attention for a proposed twice-weekly community newspaper to challenge the daily Lethbridge Herald. (His mock-up edition stirred controversy as he had copied articles from another publication without permission.) The Southerner lasted eight editions before Travis announced its closure.
On moving to Vancouver, Travis enrolled at the University of British Columbia, where he eventually completed a degree in international relations in 1987. He tried his hand as a boxing promoter, organizing a club card at the Italian Cultural Centre and unsuccessfully trying to set a fight date for up-and-coming middleweight contender Michael Olajide.
A restless, always active mind next conjured ArtsFund, a non-profit foundation to provide shared medical and dental benefits for working artists, a plan he devised while on the board of directors of a Vancouver dance troupe. He seeded the plan with $1,000 of his own money, hoping to create a job for himself as administrator. More than 200 artists signed up, including the singer k.d. lang, but the plan failed after two years.
By then, Travis had moved to Montreal despite having limited French, a language he managed to conquer, if he was not entirely successful in mastering an accent. The newcomer eagerly waded into the minefield that is Quebec politics. He was a public policy analyst, an advisor to Greenpeace Quebec, and a research director for Equality Party leader Robert Libman, a member of the National Assembly from Montreal.
In 1994, he co-founded Public Interest Research Associates Communications, offering public-relations advice to opposition politicians and non-profit groups. The company was also hired by a law firm considering a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Bre-X shareholders who lost their investments in the fraudulent gold-mining company.
In the aftermath of the province’s divisive second sovereignty referendum, he organized a group of 60 prominent anglophones to oppose any partition of Quebec territory, a threat sometimes raised by opponents of independence. Travis was a driving force behind Forum Action Quebec, a group of young bilingual Quebecers promoting moderation and rapprochement in the post-referendum era.
“We believe most language militants belong to a different era and a different generation,” he told a parliamentary special joint committee in Ottawa in 1997.
Travis later served as one of the 11 commissioners on Gérald Larose’s commission Estates-General on the Situation and Future of the French Language in Quebec. For his participation, he was denounced by the militant anglophone rights leaders of Alliance Quebec, a group for which he had been a director of a Montreal chapter. Among those on the receiving end of his poison pen were the newspaper columnists Diane Francis and William Johnson, who was nicknamed Pit Bill and described as an “angryphone” in the never-ending debates over English-language rights. (The confrontational Johnson died in Gatineau, Que., on March 1, aged 88.)
After his two years with the federal Green Party, Travis served as executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee, which promotes human rights for the Tibetan people. In that role, he was responsible for getting 1,000 Tibetan refugees and their families admitted to Canada, according to Wayne Crookes, the long-time friend of Travis who founded IntegrityBC and hired Travis to lead it.
Crookes also helped hire Travis to run communications for the federal Green Party’s national campaign in 2004 and was amazed, he said, by the energy and strategic skill he brought the job. Many people had the same reaction to Travis as he went about building the party’s profile in the media, said Crookes. “It was, ‘wow.’” Yet Travis refused to accept payment anything close to what people doing similar jobs in other political parties were receiving, Crookes noted.
“I was extrmely impressed with him for his confidence, conscientiousness and activism as a professional and also as a volunteer,” Crookes told The Tyee today. “I lost a very good friend.”
Travis made IntegrityBC a force to be reckoned with, said Crookes. Asked to sum up that legacy, he said, “We brought together information and got it out in the media so that the need for electoral finance reform was one of the top-of-the-mind issues when voters voted in 2017.”
Travis had acute liver disease and was struggling to gain the strength to undergo a heart operation when he passed away. He died two days short of his 60th birthday. He never married and is survived by his sister Deirdre Chettleburgh.
On the news of his death, many took to social media to express their grief and to praise the watchdog. “Always looked out for the average British Columbian,” Alan Mullen, chief of staff to the Speaker of the B.C. legislature, wrote on Twitter.
Find pieces by Dermod Travis published by The Tyee here.
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