07 February 2016

Christy Clark's disingenuous comments on the TPP

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is a very big fan of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement—in her words, a "100 per cent" supporter. In a comment on CBC Radio's The House, the premier stated, "We do 60 per cent of our trade with TPP countries in British Columbia, if we are not signed on to that deal we are going to be shut out," sounding as if without the agreement her province would face economic Armageddon.

A quick check of the facts, however, suggests another story. B.C. did indeed do 63 per cent of its export trade with TPP nations in 2015, but the great part of it was with the United States (52 per cent) and we already have a comprehensive trade agreement—the NAFTA—with the U.S. Only 12 per cent of B.C.'s exports go to other TPP nations, almost entirely to Japan. Potentially losing a portion of 12 per cent could hardly be described as "shut out."

The province's second biggest trading partner is China (17 per cent) which, of course, is not party to the agreement.

Ms. Clark's hyperbole is not, I hope, typical of arguments in favour of the TPP although, as I discussed in my previous post, the agreement appears to be a great deal less than what its proponents would have us believe.

06 February 2016

TPP—trading down?

According to its proponents, the "trade" agreement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will generate economic benefits to all parties by eliminating obstacles to trade and investment.

A study out of Tufts University—Trading Down: Unemployment, Inequality and Other Risks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement—offers another opinion. The Tufts' economists made their projections using the United Nations Global Policy Model which they claim "provides more sensible projections because it allows for changes in employment and inequality and incorporates the impact those changes have on aggregate demand and economic growth."

Their results show that some countries, including Japan and the U.S., would suffer net losses of GDP, and all countries would suffer employment losses and higher income inequality. Specifically, by 2025 Canada would trade a .28 per cent increase in GDP for a loss of 58,000 jobs and a .86 drop in labour's share of GDP. In other words, what benefits do occur will go to capital at the expense of labour.

Quite aside from the long list of problems already identified with the proposed agreement, it now appears the promised benefits may be an illusion.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has formally signed the TPP, however she has also pledged to hold broad consultations and a full and open debate in Parliament before it is ratified. It would be utter foolishness to ratify the deal before the U.S. presidential election in November as both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton oppose it. If the democratic candidate becomes president and backs off the deal, our government will have an easy out. And that, it increasingly seems, would be a very good thing.

01 February 2016

Notley quite correctly accepted the Royalty Review Panel's conclusions

The Alberta Royalty Review Advisory Panel has concluded its study and issued its report. One of its conclusions, and certainly its most controversial, was, "Alberta’s total fiscal take (including royalties) from crude oil and natural gas wells is reasonably positioned against its most direct competitors." In other words, there is no justification for raising royalties.

Was I surprised? Absolutely. Do I believe the Alberta government should have accepted this conclusion? Again, absolutely. Indeed, I believe it had no choice. It appointed the review panel and is therefore honour-bound to accept its conclusions whether it likes them or not.

It has nonetheless raised the ire of many of its supporters including Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan, who claims his organization's suggestions and concerns were "passed over in favour of a plan that could have been introduced by a PC or Wildrose government" and accused the NDP of being "captured by industry."

My own surprise resulted from ignorance. I had for a long time assumed our royalties were too low relative to other jurisdictions, but this was based more on hunch than knowledge. (In my defence, Alberta's royalty scheme is very complex—the panel has recommended greater transparency.) The panel did a thorough comparison of rates and found that Alberta's revenue share is roughly the same, for instance, as that of Texas and North Dakota (and much higher than Saskatchewan’s).

The panel did extensive research and consultation. Over several months, they considered 132 submissions, the views of Albertans at dozens of public meetings, and the advice of three groups of experts. They did their homework and therefore I accept their results.

I respect the process: impanel a group of respected citizens; have them consult widely with the public, interest groups, and experts on the issue; and then make appropriate recommendations to government. The government should in turn act on the recommendations. The Alberta government has done just that, it has engaged in evidence-based decision-making and I applaud it for doing so. I do not want to see the Harper approach (ignore the experts, go with your gut) adopted in Alberta.

Modest proposals for our defence policy

The federal government has promised to develop a new defence strategy for the country and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has confirmed the public will be asked to participate. I thought, therefore, I would get my two cents in early.

The minister's mandate letter states, "As Minister of National Defence, your overarching goal will be to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces are equipped and prepared, if called upon, to protect Canadian sovereignty, defend North America, provide disaster relief, conduct search and rescue, support United Nations peace operations, and contribute to the security of our allies and to allied and coalition operations abroad."

Some of this I can agree with, some not so much. For example, the first bit, about protecting Canadian sovereignty and defending North America, these are reasonable responsibilities but considering there are no apparent threats to Canadian sovereignty and no one is about to storm the borders of North America, they are not items we should spend a lot of dollars on. "Provide disaster relief, conduct search and rescue and support United Nations peace operations" I wholeheartedly concur with. Facing the increasing severity of weather events caused by climate change, we might train forces specifically for this challenge, in effect disaster forces rather than armed forces. Redirecting the use of the military to respond to environmental disasters was in fact part of the Liberals’ platform.

The last part of the mandate letter, particularly "contribute to ... coalition operations abroad," is suspect. This seems to lead to us collaborating with the increasingly redundant NATO and acting as a foreign legion for American imperialist adventures. We are, for example, currently being called upon to fight ISIS in the Middle East. ISIS is a product of the last great binge of Western imperialism in that region—the invasion of Iraq—and that is precisely the kind of war-making we should avoid.

In summary, we need to spend much less on conventional warfare and more on peacekeeping and dealing with national and international disasters. Considering we are not at war and have no enemies posing a threat of war, there should be ample room to reduce the defence budget overall and use the money to improve the lives of Canadians. You can sign a petition to that effect here.

28 January 2016

Technology bargain betrayed—where have all the rewards gone?

Early in the Industrial Revolution, many workers were concerned about being replaced by machines. The most well known group were the Luddites, British weavers who smashed mechanical looms that threatened to replace them with low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. Today we look with disdain upon the Luddites, applying the term as pointless resistance to change.

The Luddites lost their fight, of course, and ultimately the replacement of worker by machine turned out to be beneficial for workers. Technological progress allowed for increased efficiency and that in turn allowed workers to be more productive. As a result, as a sort of bargain for accepting the change, workers were better paid, gained more benefits and, of no small importance, spent less time working. Early in the Industrial Revolution people commonly worked twelve to sixteen hours a day, six to seven days a week. After WWII, this had dropped to eight hours a day five days a week.

In the last few decades we have experienced one of the most remarkable periods of technological progress in history, including four computer revolutions, from the computers that transformed business in the 1960s, to the personal computer, to the Internet and World Wide Web, to the smartphone. Consequently, workers should expect the rewards of such progress—substantially higher wages, better benefits and perhaps a three or four-day work week. In fact, we have seen none of these things. The incomes of the middle class have stagnated, benefits have been threatened, and we are working nearly as many hours as we did fifty years ago. It appears technological progress has betrayed its bargain.

Why? Did the computer revolutions fail to increase efficiency? Indeed they did not. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canadian labour productivity in constant dollars increased by about 60 per cent from 1975 to 2012. Joel Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, predicts that if wages tracked productivity, “Median family income in the U.S. would be about $20,000 higher today than it is.”

So where has the new wealth gone? According to an OECD study, 37 per cent of income growth in Canada over the period 1975-2007 was scooped up by the infamous top one per cent of income earners. James Henry, a senior advisor for the Tax Justice Network, claims that, “The world’s super-rich have taken advantage of lax tax rules to siphon off at least US$21-trillion, and possibly as much as US$32-trillion, from their home countries and hide it abroad."

The computer revolutions have been very generous to the rich. For the rest of us they have provided us with some nice stuff—we love our laptops and our smartphones—but they have betrayed the promise of financial and time rewards to balance the workplace downside.

And the downside is real, in some cases as a direct result of computerization. For example, Amazon's sweatshops have taken the workplace back to the 19th century. Uber, the ride app, allows its owners to make billions off the exploitation of cheap labour. And as the computer revolutions continue, we increasingly see well-paid workers replaced by robots.

The answer to this betrayal is not Luddism. Technological progress is still to be welcomed for its promise. The challenge is political, to ensure the promise is enjoyed by everyone. Labour had to fight Capital for its share of wealth and spare time throughout the Industrial Age; now the struggle continues into the Information Age. Some things, as they say, never change.

24 January 2016

Oceans of plastic

What comes to mind when you think of oceans? Fish, of course. But what about plastic? Most people know we are dumping a lot of plastic into the world's oceans, but many would be surprised at just how much. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum, by mid-century the oceans will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish. As the oceans are fished out, the amount of plastic dumped into them steadily increases.

We currently dump eight million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year, the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic every minute. By 2030 it will be two trucks a minute; and by 2050, four a minute, at which time there will be as much plastic in the oceans as fish. It turns up everywhere from the deep sea to buried in Arctic ice. We are turning the oceans into plastic soup.

This has severe effects on the environment and on our economy. Fish, seabirds, whales, turtles and other marine life eat plastic and die from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation. Toxic chemicals from the plastic, such as bisphenol A, an endocrine-disruptor, leach out and are absorbed by fish and ultimately, therefore, by us.

Yet another argument for a lot less plastic and a lot more recycling.

On Putin the poisoner

According to a report by former British High Court judge Robert Owen, the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London was carried out by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and probably approved by President Vladimir Putin. Putin has, of course, denied the charge but I would put my money on the good judge, partly because he is a more credible figure, partly because his report is exceptionally thorough, and partly because the operation is typical Putin.

Indeed, so much murder is associated with the Russian president that the idea he would have Litvinenko killed comes as no surprise. He certainly had good reason. Litvinenko accused the FSB of carrying out the 1999 apartment-block bombings that killed more than 200 people in Russia, and which Putin blamed on Chechen separatists and used to launch his brutal suppression of Chechen independence.

The animosity between the two men goes back decades to when Putin was the director of the FSB and Litvinenko complained about corruption (to no effect). He accused the FSB of collusion with organized crime and in 2006 wrote an article claiming Putin was a paedophile who had used his power as FSB chief to destroy videotapes of himself having sex with underage boys. Shortly before his death, Litvinenko accused the president of responsibility for the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. And it didn't help that he was working with MI6 and two of Putin's most outspoken critics, oligarch Boris Berezovsky and exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev.

What will come of this? Not much. Britain desperately wants Russian support in dealing with the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the British government didn't want Sir Robert’s inquiry in the first place and certainly would have preferred his report not be published at this sensitive time.

Putin has gained a certain degree of respectability in the West since becoming a more-or-less partner in the fight against the Islamic State, and the report serves as a good reminder of the kind of man we are dealing with. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will continue to have a relationship with him but "with clear eyes and a very cold heart." Wise approach.

15 January 2016

Bishop Henry pontificates on LGBTQ rights

The Alberta government has established LGBTQ guidelines for the province's schools. This story would not be complete without comments from Calgary's Bishop Fred Henry. The good bishop has excoriated the guidelines as "anti-Catholic" and "totalitarian."

He claims that Catholic schools, which will be subject to the guidelines, already require that all students be equally respected. Considering that is the whole point of the new guidelines—to ensure that LGBTQ students are equally respected—it isn't easy to appreciate Henry's complaints.

He states that, "Our teaching is rather simple and direct. God created beings as male and female." God (I prefer "nature" but I'll gracefully use the bishop's term) did indeed create beings as male and female, and She did it for a purpose—procreation. By committing himself to celibacy, it would appear the bishop is thwarting God's purpose, not exactly a lofty position to lecture from.

In any case, when God created male and female, She didn't make it that simple. She created males who prefer sex with other males, and persons that are physically male but psychologically female, and other variations on the theme. Conservative souls, such as Bishop Henry, prefer things "simple and direct," black and white, male and female, while God loves variety.

Considering the bishop personally denies God's sexual purpose, and rejects Her delight in gender diversity, perhaps he should refrain from speaking on Her behalf.

03 January 2016

Time to reverse Canada's peacekeeping decline

At one time, back in the early 90's, Canada contributed more troops to UN peacekeeping missions than anyone else. We were number one. Today, with only 26 military personnel involved, we rank 66th.

Peacekeeping itself has continued to grow. The UN is now deploying more peacekeepers to world hot spots than at any time in its history with 130,000 military, police and civilian personnel serving in 16 missions. The UN now puts more troops in the field than any other actor including the American military, and the missions are more complex than ever. Our financial contribution has paralleled this growth, but when it comes to boots on the ground, we have become something of a slacker.

Now that we have fired the militaristically-inclined Stephen Harper, who saw our forces as a sort of foreign legion for the American empire and despised the UN, and replaced him with a PM who has a more comprehensive view of the world's challenges, perhaps we can return to the role we once filled so well. As a country with advanced military and logistics capabilities, we can make a major contribution to the effectiveness of operations.

At U.S. President Obama's Peacekeeping Summit last October a number of nations, including European governments and China, pledged to commit 40,000 new troops and police, 40 utility and attack helicopters, 15 military engineering companies and 10 field hospitals. We can and should be part of this renewed interest.  Canadians, after all, have consistently said they prefer our military peacekeeping rather than war-fighting.

Quite aside from the altruistic goal of helping to create a more peaceful world, as a trading nation we have much to gain from international stability. With no external threat to our borders, this is an effective way to get value for money out of our military. By helping the world, we can help ourselves.

31 December 2015

2015—a very good year

2015 is nearly done, a year of significant change for me: a new home after 25 years of living by Calgary's Elbow River, by far the longest I've ever lived in one place, and even a new car, also after driving my little Honda Civic for 25 years.

But blogging-wise, the most dramatic changes were political. First was the election of the NDP in Alberta, my home province, something I never thought I'd live to see. And then—my cup runneth over—the dark clouds lifted federally and the Harper government was replaced by the Liberals.

About these latter changes, Jackie Flanagan, founding publisher of Alberta Views magazine, had this to say in the New Year's edition:
The people of Alberta and Canada chose our new leaders for the hope and the change they promised. Both Notley and Trudeau brought a new, inclusive attitude to governing, a more collaborative approach to solving our problems. Both individuals are noted for their warmth. They don't demonize opponents or regard those who disagree with them as enemies.
My sentiments exactly, Ms. Flanagan. Politically, Canada is a much sunnier place entering 2016 than it was a year ago. I look forward to the new year and wish my readers the best.

30 December 2015

Why a referendum on electoral reform would be a very bad idea

The need for electoral reform in Canada has never been more stark. We have just endured nine years of government by a political party that over sixty per cent of us opposed. That is simply not democratic. We have an electoral system, but we don't have a democratic system. Only a proportional system, and there's a healthy variety to choose from, will allow the will of the people to prevail.

The Liberals "are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." They have promised to "convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting." Furthermore, "This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform." If the Liberals propose a PR system, Parliament will have a strong majority mandate as both the NDP and the Greens support proportional representation.

We should expect them to get on with the job as promised. Some voices have suggested that any change should be subject to a referendum. I strongly disagree.

Referendums are poor democratic instruments. They may have some validity on a simple yes-no issue but are seriously flawed for more complex issues, and voting systems are a complex issue. Some citizens will do their research, think the issue through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Many won’t. The ignorance factor in referendums can be very high.

Healthy democracy doesn’t just require participation, it requires informed participation. And how many informed voters can we expect in a referendum? A third of the Canadian electorate can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth once every four years. How many, therefore, can we reasonably expect to do their homework on voting systems?

One of the powerful advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. If we insist that legislatures read bills three times (in the case of Parliament, three times in both the House and the Senate), are we being sensible when we decide an issue in one go in a referendum? A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration might well be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they voted in a referendum.

Conservatives will holler for a referendum as if they had suddenly cast Harperism aside and become the voice of the people. Quite aside from their reluctance to change, first-past-the-post offers them their only chance to form a majority government. They will exploit the ignorance factor to the hilt.

Let's not be distracted. Let's keep our eyes on the prize. It's the vote that's important. The voting system is only important in how it serves the vote, specifically in how well it ensures that every citizen's vote goes toward electing a legislator that represents that voter's views. In the 2015 election, over half the votes cast failed to do that.

Anyone who believes as I do that the right to vote is precious ought to be demanding that every vote count and count equally, not quibbling about a referendum.

29 December 2015

Is Christ Christian? Reflections on the niqab debate

Pondering the late unlamented election debate about the niqab, I took to wondering just what a religion is. Not the dictionary definition or what theologians say it is, but how it is practiced by its followers.

Take Christianity, for example, the religion that has surrounded me all my life. As someone who has no religion, a mere observer of things religious, I might think Christianity should simply be following the teachings of Jesus Christ. But it ain't that easy. In quite significant ways, Christians reject the teachings of Christ, even making that rejection part of their dogma.

Consider Christ's teaching about how one treats one's enemies. In Luke 6:27-8, He says, "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." In Mathew 5:38-9, He says, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." He is quite clear on this point and obviously considers it of great importance—he offers the message twice.

But how many Christians do you know who will turn the other cheek? Any? Americans are perhaps the most religious people in the West, yet they are almost constantly at war, punishing their enemies. No cheek-turning there. The Catholic Church even has a doctrine, the Just War Doctrine, which spells out the conditions that allow Christians to kill their enemies.

Or consider the wealth issue. In Mathew 19:24, Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That's pretty clear, too. But how many Christians do you know who don't want to be rich? The Catholic Church has struggled with this at times, nonetheless, rarely turns down a fat donation from a rich man and has acquired quite a hoard itself. Some denominations view getting rich as not only acceptable but as a religious calling, extolling wealth as an outcome of faith. Prosperity theology claims that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians.

These conflicts between religious practice and the teachings of the prophets occur in all religions—Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever.

So what than is a religion? Apparently it is what the members of a religion, or a denomination, say it is, no more, no less. If what they say agrees with the teaching of their prophet, so much the better, if not, so much for the prophet. There is no ultimate arbiter. Believers think there is, but He seems to have little to say about such conflicts, commonly leaving the disparate parties to literally fight it out.

This brings me back to the niqab. Many critics of niqab-wearing claim that most imams and Muslim scholars teach that wearing the face covering is not required by Islam. Actually, that isn't true. Muslim scholars, depending on the denomination, differ on the issue. Some say it is obligatory, some say it isn't, while others say it is not obligatory but desirable.

But what the scholars say is irrelevant. If a recognized body of Muslims believe, regardless of what most Islamic scholars profess, that wearing the niqab is essential to their faith then it is essential for them. It is a legitimate religious observance. Therefore wearing the niqab at a citizenship ceremony is deserving of protection under the constitution, as long as the wearers are prepared to uncover and take the oath in private (as indeed they are). This the new government quite properly recognizes.

As for Christ, if he were to return to Earth today, would he be comfortable as a member of a Christian Church? Even if He could choose one, I suspect not, considering the cavalier way his teachings are treated. He might feel it was necessary to start all over again with a new church. We might call it Jesusism. And, of course, eventually it would be whatever Jesusists said it was.

19 December 2015

Dandelions may save your life

I love dandelions. In early spring, when the landscape is still grey-brown, and the streets are filthy from the accumulated sand and salt laid down over the winter, that sunny yellow face emerging hopefully from a crack in the sidewalk warms my bones.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees about dandelions. The City of Calgary is inclined to think of them as a noxious weed that should be eradicated, not appreciated. I have never understood why a sea of bright yellow flowers in a city park aggravates The City so. The plant is actually a beneficial garden companion: its taproot brings up nutrients for shallower-rooted plants and adds minerals and nitrogen to the soil. Yes, I agree, when the flowers burst into parachute balls for seed dispersal, they are less attractive, but a good sweep with the lawnmower takes care of that and green lawns are restored. Does it really matter if the green is grass or dandelions?

In addition to their charm, dandelions are a very useful plant, edible in their entirety. Their leaves are delicious in salads (and highly nutritious), their flowers can be used to make wine, and their roots make a caffeine-free tea.

And that tea is very special. Science has discovered it can save lives. Dandelions have been used medicinally for centuries, now University of Windsor researchers have found that dandelion root shows promise in fighting cancer. According to the university's Dr. Siryaram Pandey, professor of biochemistry, "We scientifically validated that dandelion root extract has very potent anti-cancer activity." A Calgary company, AOR Inc., is conducting a clinical trial of a specially-formulated tea on patients in Ontario. The trial involves 30 patients with blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma who have had no success with conventional therapies.

So hail the humble dandelion, not so much a weed as a crop. May the little darlings prosper everywhere.

18 December 2015

Americans—a dangerously fearful people

For nine years we were led by a fearful prime minister, and during the last election he gave us broad hints about who we should fear the most. Not that I am suggesting Mr. Harper was simply being a demagogue and trying to scare us into voting for him. Quite the contrary; I believe he is a genuinely fearful man. In any case, it did him little political good.

It may, however, be far more effective for candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The Republicans, and not just the buffoonish Donald Trump, are playing the fear card with great zeal, and they too leave little doubt about who Americans should most be afraid of.

Unfortunately, this is falling on fertile ground. According to a Pew Research survey, Americans rank terrorism as the major problem facing their country, substantially more important than unemployment, the economy or gun control. Over 80 per cent rate ISIS as the greatest threat to their well-being, almost twice as many as who rate climate change the most serious threat. A Foreign Policy article claims that half of Americans fear they or a loved one will become a victim of terrorism. This is, of course, ridiculous. As the author of the article points out, "in a typical year, more Americans are killed by cows than by Islamic terror attacks." (She didn't say if the cows were Christian or Muslim.)

Irrational fear is dangerous. It's dangerous for Americans and it's dangerous for the rest of us. It's dangerous for them because, quite aside from what it might mean for their Muslim citizens, it leads them to undermine their own freedoms. A solid majority of Americans now say the government’s anti-terrorism policies do not go far enough to protect the country rather than that they have gone too far in restricting civil liberties.

And it's dangerous for the rest of us because a frightened America is a more belligerent America, and that means more military aggression, more death and destruction, and more hostility toward the West. A solid majority of Americans believe that President Obama isn't tough enough on foreign policy and national security while almost half say the use of overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world. A frightened America could demand greater militarism from their next president or even elect one of the Republican warmongers.

These disturbing sentiments may not differ all that much from those of Canadians. Fortunately, however, Harper's damage to Canadians' privacy and civil rights should now at the very least be mitigated. As for our international posture, unlike the U.S. Canada can make only limited mischief and, in any case, we now have a government less fearful of the world around us.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told his fellow Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. They, and we, are now very much in need of a new FDR to remind them.

29 November 2015

Putin's Christian crusader

After 9/11, the Americans declared war on terrorism. Now Russia has gone them one better. According to the Very Reverend Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, prominent spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle, and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.” So it’s official. Christianity has spoken. We are on a crusade and Putin wears the cross.

ISIS has already responded to the challenge, claiming responsibility for the bombing of the Russian passenger jet which went down in the Sinai and triumphantly celebrating the deaths of the “Russian crusaders.” Russia has acknowledged that the airliner was brought down by fighters challenged, at least in part, by Chaplin’s “holy battle” comment.

And if ISIS welcomed the deaths of 224 people, including children, so did Archpriest Chaplin. He explained, “The plane crash in Egypt was necessary for Russian society. Society saw death and realized that life in pursuit of entertainment, material well-being, holidays, and so on, is the incorrect way to live. ... If a person does not understand this, then God will remind him of it.” So there you go. God cannot let a vacation in the sun go unpunished.

Aside from war-mongering, gay-bashing and evolution-denying, Chaplin refuses to pray with Christians of other denominations. This idiot priest sounds not a little like his counterparts in ISIS, a reminder that Christianity, too, has its depraved zealots.

Vladimir Putin has made a considerable effort to restore the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, frequently commenting on the importance his deep Christian faith holds for him. If Archpriest Chaplin is any example, the Church is a good fit with a former KGB thug.

16 November 2015

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their progeny

Neil Macdonald had an interesting article on the CBC website Monday morning about the options for dealing with ISIS. One of the comments—by "western island"—had a suggestion that in my opinion was much better than the options presented by Mr. Macdonald. Western island suggested:

"Maybe we could offer to hand over Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld."

If only, I thought. Although many believe this appalling trio should be prosecuted for war crimes, I doubt they will ever be called to account for their sins, the worst of which may yet prove to be their ultimate responsibility for the creation of ISIS. If only ....

Paris—the blowback of imperialism

U.S. President Barack Obama has referred to the atrocities in Paris as attacks "on all of humanity." He is wrong, of course. The attacks were specifically directed at France, an ex-imperialist European nation that has a long history of colonizing, oppressing and exploiting the Muslim peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, and that continues to interfere in their affairs to this very day.

It is also a nation with a large population of disadvantaged Muslims replete with a great many angry, frustrated, unemployed young men—another legacy of its imperial past.

Western leaders seem to assume that Islamic terrorists appear fully formed, materializing out of the ether almost without cause. In fact, they materialize out of generations of Western imperialism acting on the Muslim peoples of the Middle East. The Paris attacks are the latest result, and the latest lesson, of Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.

As for President Obama, he is being disingenuous. ISIS is a direct outcome of the wrecking of Iraq by the U.S. and its coalition partners. If the Paris attacks were indeed carried out by ISIS, then the U.S. and its allies are partly responsible. They have an obligation to deal with the monster they unintentionally created. They have an obligation to clean up their mess.

We don't. We wisely opted out of the Iraq invasion. Now Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to opt out of the bombing campaign against ISIS and appears intent on keeping his word. No Canadians should be put at risk because of the imperial adventurism of the Americans and their partners in crime. We are not an imperial power and have no need to reap the whirlwind of those that sowed the wind.

10 November 2015

Lest we forget—enough already

Lest we forget? How could we possibly? At this time of year we are overwhelmed with noise about not forgetting.

Now the warrior worshipers are demanding that stores not put up their Xmas displays until after November 11th. It is disrespectful, they say. Frankly, I wouldn't be unhappy if stores didn't put up their displays until the last week before Xmas, but it seems to me we are overdoing this Remembrance thing.

Blasphemy, some will say. You should be ashamed. Those dead soldiers died for your freedom to write your blog and say what you think. Nonsense. No one in the Canadian military ever died for my freedom, for other people's yes, but not for mine.

Even the fighting for other people's freedom has been a mixed bag. For example, during WWI while Canadians were trying to protect the Belgians and the French from the Germans, Belgium was oppressing and exploiting the Congolese, and France the Vietnamese. And, of course, the British were doing the same thing to Indians and Africans. And as soon as the war was over, France and Britain greedily gobbled up the remains of the Ottoman Empire to add to their ill-gotten gains. In short, we fought for freedom for some at the expense of others.

The Second World War echoed the First. The Japanese were bad guys because they wanted to do what the European powers had done—build an empire. And since the Europeans had expropriated most of Asia, i.e. Japan's back yard, why shouldn't the Japanese get a piece of the action? Canadian troops died keeping Asia safe for European imperialists.

In Europe, the Germans too wanted to build an empire, but we would have none of that. Subjugating Asians and Africans was quite acceptable in those days, but subjugating white people was simply not on. Nonetheless, the brutality of the Nazis put us on the side of the angels and in that case at least Remembrance is justified.

One of the most politically correct traditions in today's society demands the veneration of warriors. As someone who has little respect for the military, I find myself on the incorrect side. In the minds of many, warrior is the highest calling of man, but I simply don't believe that a profession dedicated to the fine art of killing people is a particularly noble one. So no poppy for me.

09 November 2015

Would you pay the cost of a cup of coffee for democracy?

Canadian taxpayers are reasonably generous funders of democracy. Federally, we support political parties in two ways through our tax system. We subsidize political contributions up to $1,275 with an income tax credit up to $650. And we reimburse political parties for 50 per cent of their election campaign expenses and candidates 60 per cent, if they meet certain minimum requirements.

Both subsidies have their unfortunate downsides. For example, only a tiny fraction of registered voters make political contributions, and therefore the contribution subsidy is controlled by a few per cent of the electorate. These few have a grossly disproportionate influence over funding. With the campaign expense reimbursement, the more a party spends, the more subsidy it receives. In effect, the richer the party, the more the benefit.

A much fairer way of public funding is available and in fact was in place from 2004 until 2015 when the Harper government terminated it. This was the roughly two dollar per-vote subsidy which parties received annually for each vote received in the preceding election.

One flaw in this otherwise excellent scheme was the subsidy being distributed on the basis of votes received in the last election. The democratic way would be for taxpayers to make their own choice. Registered parties could be listed on the income tax form and people could simply tick off the parties they wanted to receive their contribution.

And how much would the contribution be? Very little as it turns out. The spending limit for a 37-day federal election is roughly $300-million for all parties and candidates combined. This sounds like a lot, but when divvied up between 25 million taxpayers it's trivial. Over the four-year pre-election period, it works out to three dollars per taxpayer per year. That, you might say, is the price of democracy.

In order to ensure that parties don't become lazy, they could continue to collect privately the funds they need for expenses between elections. (The maximum contribution would need to be strictly limited in order to keep the rich at bay.) An approach to funding elections that eliminates the advantage of wealth is at our fingertips. Would Canadians be willing to pay the cost of a cup of coffee once a year for fairly-funded elections?

08 November 2015

Making Canada a leader in the world again

Canada has a distinguished record of contributing to the use of hard power in the world, as our performance in two world wars and Korea attests. As a third-rate power militarily, however, we are always a follower, never a leader. In the realm of soft power, things are rather different. Here we have often been a leader.

For example, in 1956, working through the United Nations, our foreign minister, Lester Pearson, played the key role in defusing the Suez Crisis. For this, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the nominating committee declaring he had "saved the world." Pearson is also considered the father of modern peacekeeping, an endeavour in which we once played a major role.

After coming to power in 1984, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney led the fight for sanctions against apartheid in South Africa (despite the opposition of his fellow Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan). This proved to be an instance in which sanctions worked.

Mulroney, once named by leading environmentalists as Canada's greenest prime minister, was also an international leader on environmental issues. His government and our scientists were leaders in dealing with acid rain. Canadians were prime drafters of the Montreal Protocol which aimed at reducing emissions of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Anan called it the most successful international agreement.

Under Liberal governments, Canada has played a crucial role in creating various international institutions and agreements, including the International Criminal Court and the treaty to ban anti-personnel mines (known as the "Ottawa Treaty").

This history was a virtuous circle. We were able to lead because we were considered an honest broker, and leading in turn burnished our image as an honest broker. Unfortunately in recent years, we have entered more into a malicious circle. We have seemed more interested in stalling progress than leading it and have as a result burnished a reputation as a reactionary.

Bur under our new government, that should change. Prime Minister Trudeau has informed our top diplomats that Canada has entered a "new era" for our international engagement, and they have a critical role to play. This marks a radical change to the tight control the Harper government imposed on the diplomatic service. Foreign Affairs Minister St├ęphane Dion has stated that, “The Canada that helped the world to build its multilateral institutions is back,” while pointing out that former Conservative Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark were critical of the Harper government’s approach to foreign affairs. Regarding Palestine, he insists the new government will "stop making it a partisan issue."

As a middle power, we simply don't have the military might to lead hard power adventures, we can only follow. But there is a leadership role for Canada in the world and it lies in soft power. We have been good at it in the past and we can be good at it in the future.

Religion is bad for kids

It might strike some as surprising, but it shouldn't. A study by academics from seven countries suggests that children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious families. According to the researchers, "Overall, our findings ... contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite."

The study included almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the United States, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa. Almost 24 per cent were Christian, 43 per cent Muslim, 28 per cent non-religious, and five per cent other. They were tested on their willingness to share and their reaction to film of children pushing and bumping one another.

Not only did the results “robustly demonstrate" that Christian and Islamic children were "less altruistic than children from non-religious households,” but older children, i.e. those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit the greatest negative relations.” The study also found that religious children, “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions.”

A Pew Research Center study in 2014 found that most people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Most people would appear to be wrong. The world might well be a much better place if children were never contaminated with religion.

05 November 2015

A fine, feminine cabinet

Good to see that Prime Minister Trudeau (haven't said that for a while) has kept an important promise and formed a gender-balanced cabinet. He said his cabinet would reflect Canada and a 50-50 male/female cabinet does just that.

Not surprisingly, some detractors insist that cabinet appointments should be made strictly on merit. They never have, of course. Other factors have always been important—regional interests, bilingualism, ethnic background, balancing veterans and rookies, etc. Merit has never been more than one factor.

And who's to say gender balance doesn't enhance merit. Our political system has been built over the centuries by men for men. It heavily favours a male ethos—aggressive to the point of belligerent, competitive to the point of ruthless—and therefore male politicians. This has created an atmosphere in which many women (and more-civilized men) are not comfortable.

One woman member of the British House of Commons once referred to behaviour in the chamber as “very public-schoolboy primitive,” a description that applies aptly to our House. Former Calgary MP Jan Brown opined that party politics creates, “an unnatural and combative setting that does not support positive relationships. A place,” she added, “where power and gamesmanship determine the rules.” One result of rules flaunting masculine culture and male libidos is a shortage of women in politics. Affirmative action is simply leveling the playing field.

Balancing the cabinet is not only fair but should encourage more women to go into politics, which would be good for women, but more importantly good for all of us. As we devour and pollute our planet, never have we been more in need of the feminine ethos in governance, more empathy and more caring. Trudeau's cabinet is an immediate start in bringing more of these traits into our current government. This should do nothing but good.

As a postscript, I should express my delight at the appointment of one of these women in particular. I refer to the highly-qualified Jody Wilson-Raybould assuming the mantle of Minister of Justice. Who better to appreciate the needs of justice in Canadian society than a Native person? Ms. Wilson-Raybould was reported as having been overcome with emotion at her swearing in. I confess I felt a flutter of emotion myself.

29 October 2015

The NDP—back to social democracy

Rather like the British Labour Party under Tony Blair, the NDP made a play for the political centre. The Liberals, led by the dangerous to underestimate Justin Trudeau, have now writ fini to that ambition.The thing for the NDP to do now, in the heart and mind of this member of the party at least, is to return to social democracy.

Not that the NDP hasn't occupied centre-left of the political spectrum successfully. They have filled that space in all the Western provinces and currently hold power with that mandate in Alberta and Manitoba. Federally it's a different matter. There it has traditionally been a Liberal fief, and although the NDP managed to usurp the role in 2011, the Liberals have reclaimed it in no uncertain terms.

The need for a party of the left, a social democratic party, arose from the inequalities of power and wealth that derive from capitalism. As those inequalities declined in the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War with the rise of the welfare state, the need for such a party was believed by many to have faded.

However, in recent years, the need is back, and in some ways is more urgent than ever. For example, with globalization we have seen a steady growth of corporate power. "Trade" agreements have been as much about advancing the rights of investors over governments as about trade. We see democracy steadily undermined in favour of plutocracy. Liberals, who have generally been supportive of "trade" agreements, cannot be counted on to assume the responsibility of democratic champion. Only social democracy can reliably fill that role.

Further to this question is whether capitalism, a system based on accumulation, is appropriate for a future where growth must eventually end if we are to avoid exhausting the Earth's resources. Social democrats have always offered the perfect alternative to capitalism—the co-operative. Co-operatives are thoroughly democratic, economically successful locally, nationally and globally, and emphasize co-operation over competition, essential in a world of shrinking resources. Incredibly, although co-ops were once at the heart of NDP (or at least CCF) philosophy, there is no mention of them in the NDP election platform. Here is an opportunity for a political party to proclaim the mantra "we must co-operate in a global society" over the soul-destroying "we must compete in the global marketplace."

Globalization has also undermined the power of workers. With entire sectors of the economy not unionized, other sectors experiencing decline in unionization, the use of temporary foreign workers, the replacement of people with robots, etc., working people face a host of challenges. They need a political voice committed to their interests, and the NDP has traditionally been that voice. It might start by insisting that worker protection at least match investor protection in international trade agreements.

Regarding foreign affairs, Canada needs a political party to speak out for the vulnerable—the downtrodden and the dispossessed. This is a fundamental role for a social democratic party. For example, we might start with the Palestinians, a people terribly ill-served by our recent government, and not much better served by the NDP who cravenly submitted to political correctness during the recent campaign and shushed candidates that spoke out for these beleaguered people. Serving the interests of the less fortunate is a fundamental role for a social democratic party even at the expense of popularity.

There is a lot of work to do from a left perspective. I submit that the NDP's future should lie in taking on that job.

21 October 2015

Sunny ways and other thoughts on the election

The Dark Age is over. The wicked witch of Calgary is gone. And Justin Trudeau has promised he will lead according to Sir Wilfred Laurier's "sunny way." Guided by the PM-elect's "positive, optimistic, hopeful vision" rather than by Harper's paranoia, the country will be a much happier place to inhabit.

I had hoped for a minority government; however, all in all I can live with a Liberal majority. And the icing on that cake is that my local Liberal candidate, Kent Hehr (you may hear more of him), won, and that's something in Calgary.

The Liberals received about the same per cent of the vote as the Conservatives did in 2011, so we remain ruled by a government elected by a minority of voters. We can, however, expect a broader range of representation than we had under Harper. The Harper government was just that—a Harper government, a one-man rule. He saw little need to consult outside of his own mind and if you weren't on his side, you were the enemy. The NDP and Green Party policies are generally closer to those of the new government, and the new government has promised to be a listener, so our governance should be much more inclusive.

Furthermore, Trudeau has promised to include the views of ordinary Canadians in his policy-making (now there's an idea for a democracy—listen to the people). What a change to have policies driven by people power rather than by dogma. That, of course, is exactly what we should expect from Liberals. The Prime Minister-elect has also promised electoral reform and we should keep his feet to the fire on that promise.

One of the refreshing aspects of the campaign was Trudeau's declaration he would take the high road and he stuck to it—no attack ads, no wedge issues. Nice to see positive politics work, a healthy sign for the future.

As for the NDP, my party, it tried the political centre approach and it didn't work. The Liberals have made it clear that's their territory and they intend to keep it. Time to get back to democratic socialism.

17 October 2015

We're on the international stage—for our bigotry

The latest issue of Press Progress includes an article commenting on the attention the Prime Minister's divisive anti-Muslim politicking is getting around the globe.

For instance, The Economist carries the headline "Muslim-bashing is an effective campaign tactic" and goes on to say, "The fuss is a godsend for Stephen Harper, who hopes voters will re-elect him for a fourth term as prime minister—despite their fatigue with his ten-year rule and a weak economy."

A Guardian article headlines "It's not just America: Canadian politicians use Islamophobia to make gains in polls," and comments, "Canadian political and thought leaders, including both politicians and media, seem to be fixated more on the dress of a handful of Muslim women than the tragic loss of over 1000 Aboriginal women." It adds, "This is an issue that was previously irrelevant, especially since reciting the oath is mostly symbolic. In Canada, women in face-covering veils have sworn oaths at their weddings for centuries."

The Washington Post, under the headline "How a Muslim veil is dominating Canada’s election race," states, "There are lots of important issues at stake, including Canada's flagging economy, its role in counterterrorism operations overseas, and the looming specter of climate change. But, of late, something far more insignificant has begun to dominate the conversation: whether Muslim women can wear the niqab, a type of full-face veil, during Canadian citizenship ceremonies."

Esquire headlines an article "What the F*ck Is Going on up in Canada?" with the subhead "Stephen Harper has designs on being a Christian oil sheikh." It goes on to observe, "Harper, of course, having learned all the wrong lessons from the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton years, has been going to Trump University this time around."

British daily the Independent comments, "Faithful ally of Britain in two world wars, peacekeeper to the world, Nato but neutral across the globe, it’s difficult to believe that Canada’s democracy might have come adrift. But the last weeks of election campaigning by Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative party—with its dark, racist overtones and anti-Muslim rhetoric—suggests that something has gone profoundly wrong with the nation which Winston Churchill once called 'the linchpin of the English-speaking peoples.'"

Considering that we once had a reputation for being a progressive, tolerant sort of place, it is not happy-making to have us discussed in the world's leading newspapers and magazines as a land of bigots. Thank you very much, Mr. Harper.

16 October 2015

A minority progressive government would be the best result of the election

I wouldn't dare to be so bold as to play the prophet and predict the shape of the government that will result from Monday's federal election. Polls and electorates are much too fickle. I can only observe that if the polls are accurate and the electorate doesn't suddenly change its collective mind, after the Governor General has been duly consulted and all the other dust has settled the best bet is a Liberal minority government.

I would prefer an NDP minority, but regardless of whether it's Liberal or NDP what's important is that it be a minority. We don't need another dictator for the next four years, and that's what we tend to get under our current system. Our prime ministers have the power of presidents, but unlike presidents they aren't elected by the people—I won't see the names Harper, Trudeau or Mulcair on my ballot.

Stephen Harper has been more of a one-man government than we have ever had, but both Mulcair and Trudeau are playing too much of the same tune. Trudeau constantly refers to "my plan" and Mulcair tells us "I will do this and I will do that." And the parties seem to have no objection to their leaders assuming royal postures.

And a minority government will mean more than imposing a much-needed constraint on the prime minister. It will also mean, if the polls hold up, 60 per cent, a solid majority, of Canadians will be represented in their parliament, just the opposite of the last four years, in which 60 per cent have not been represented. The result will be a reasonable facsimile of proportional representation.

The question of the effectiveness of minority governments has long been settled. Lester Pearson led a minority for five years in the sixties and it was one of the most productive governments we've ever had. Among its achievements were Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, our flag, the Auto Pact, the Order of Canada, a 40-hour work week, the de facto abolishment of capital punishment, and the initiation of two Royal Commissions that contributed to legal equality for women and official bilingualism. Compare this to the sterile years of Harper's majority.

Neither the Liberals nor the NDP would like to head a minority government because with political parties it's all about power. But from the citizens' perspective, a leashed prime minister and a majority of our MPs forced to co-operate for the good of the country would be a very good thing indeed.

14 October 2015

Americans support Keystone, Canadians not so much

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline revealed some intriguing, and perhaps counterintuitive, results. According to the survey a majority of Americans solidly support Keystone, with almost twice as many supporting as opposing, while a majority of Canadians are against it. Only 42 per cent of Canadians are in favour of building the pipeline while almost half (48 per cent) are not. Keystone is, of course, intended to carry tar sands oil south to American refineries.

Our federal government has claimed Canadians want this pipeline, practically suggesting at times that opposing Keystone is tantamount to a lack of patriotism, if not outright treason. Mind you, according to the Pew survey, some Canadians do want it, specifically three-quarters of Conservatives and two-thirds of Albertans, but for most of us, it's no thanks.

The government, in other words, hasn't been accurately representing Canadians. But then it hasn't represented most of us much of the time—a governing party that has never been able to obtain the electoral support of even 40 per cent of the people isn't exactly the voice of the people. Some governments have been representative even though they only obtained minority electoral support simply by listening to a broad range voices, but this government has not been a listener.

In any case, if the Americans fail to approve Keystone, despite the Prime Minister insisting it's inevitable, they will simply be doing what most Canadians want. Odd, though, that we would have to rely on the U.S. government rather than our own to reflect our wishes.

11 October 2015

What are Canadian values, of what value are they, and who decides?

Prime Minister Harper, the "old stock" Canadian, recently made the odd remark, "I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is a woman. That's not our Canada." Why such a notion should ever present itself to Mr. Harper is a mystery, but the part that caught my eye was, "That's not our Canada."

"Our" Canada? Stephen Harper's Canada is not my Canada. Can a man who once mocked Canadian values to an American audience, a man who wanted to build a firewall around Alberta to keep out Canadian values, a man who has disrespected Canadian courts and Canadian democracy, speak for Canadian values? This fellow is no fit arbiter of "our Canada."

But who is? Who can speak for Canadian values? There are many sets of values floating about the country: conservative, liberal, socialist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim ... the list is long and the spokespeople varied. And of course values constantly change. Gay marriage was, only a very short time ago, alien to Canadians; today it is widely accepted and approved of.

And how does a value become Canadian? When a majority accepts it? So are values held by minorities un-Canadian? How can that be when, as we often insist, tolerance is in itself a Canadian value?

And is the Canadian way necessarily the right way? At one time, "our Canada" denied women the vote, excluded Chinese and Aboriginals from citizenship, took Indian children away from their parents, and persecuted gays.

Some values are so widely supported and deeply ingrained, they might fit the bill as "our Canada." Those ensconced in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms come to mind. But many others are arbitrary and transient, and progress commonly involves challenging and overcoming accepted values.

Morally, issues should be judged on their individual merits, by appealing to principle and logic, not to the easy emotions engendered by slogans such as "our Canada," "the Canadian way" or "Canadian values." These are best left to the demagogues.

Telling your daughter that women should cover their faces because they are women isn't wrong because it isn't "our Canada." It's wrong because it denies women equality, including the right to make their own choices. The oppression is in the coercion. Oppressing women is the sin, not wearing a niqab, not being "unCanadian."

07 October 2015

Albertans support stronger climate change policies

A recent survey by EKOS Research Associates commissioned by the Pembina Institute reveals that Albertans' attitudes about energy and climate change are more progressive than many think.

For example, 50 per cent of Albertans support a carbon tax that applies to all polluters, both companies and individuals (38 per cent oppose the tax). Support rises when the revenue is used for projects that help reduce emissions, such as public transit, energy-efficient buildings and reducing emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Two-thirds of Albertans believe the government should prioritize diversifying the economy over improving the efficiency of the oil and gas industry.

A solid majority (70 per cent) support investment in renewables to reduce coal use, and 86 per cent believe the province should do more to support the development of clean energy.

As for further development of the tar sands, Albertans are split: 48 per cent think production should stay the same or be reduced while 43 per cent believe production should be larger. Seventy per cent believe the province should be stricter in enforcing tar sands environmental rules and safeguards.

Support for tar sands production remains higher than a realistic view of climate change can tolerate, nonetheless overall the attitudes are encouraging. There is grist here for the new government's mill for aggressive environmental action.

05 October 2015

Niqab nonsense—much ado about nothing

I am no fan of the niqab. Hell, I'm no fan of religion. But if a Moslem woman wants to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony for religious reasons, I can't think of a single reason why I, or the state on my behalf, should prevent her. As long, that is, as she is prepared to unveil privately to establish her identity.

And that, Zunera Ishaq the young mother who took the government's ban to court and won, was prepared to do. In fact, up until 2011 that's exactly what niqab-wearers were doing. There was no problem. Everything went smoothly. In accordance with the law of the day, the women revealed their faces privately to prove their identity and then were allowed to wear their face covering for the purely symbolic, public oath-taking ceremony. This is what we call in a civilized country a reasonable compromise. We Canadians are very good at it; it's why we are a peaceable kingdom.

And then the federal government decided to make trouble. Rejecting the advice of their own legal advisers, they passed legislation banning the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. Ms. Ishaq challenged the law in court and won. The government appealed and lost. Now it wants to appeal to the Supreme Court. All of this legal mischief will of course be at the taxpayer's expense.

This is not a new struggle for Ms. Ishaq. She chose to wear the niqab as a teenager in her native Pakistan, somewhat to the surprise of her liberal family and to the discomfort of her college teachers. She has never had a problem with revealing her face in private, as for example when she passes through airport security or when she obtained her driver's license. She is simply balking at exposing her face to a roomful of male strangers when there is no practical reason to do so.

One objection to the niqab is the notion that it represents male domination of women. I believe it does, but if a woman freely chooses to wear it, as Zunera Ishaq clearly does, that complaint is irrelevant. Indeed, there is no little hypocrisy in all this. For example, many of those Canadians objecting to wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies are members of the Catholic Church, Canada's largest religion. This institution, ruled entirely by men, dictates that women abstain from abortion and birth control. Men dictating women's intimate sexual practices is hardly less misogynous than requiring women to wear veils.

As for the government, Stephen Harper and his colleagues seem obsessed with Muslim practices. As The Independent commented, the niqab affair "smells like another attempt to mould the word 'security' around the religion of Islam." Do we see the evangelical Christian peeking out from behind the Prime Minister's skirts?

03 October 2015

Stephen Harper's sad little world of fear

I have tended to think of Stephen Harper's efforts to instill fear in Canadians as largely demagoguery. Governments creating a climate of fear to rally their people around them when they are in trouble is one of the oldest political gimmicks in the book. However, the more I observe Harper, the more I come to believe that he is truly a frightened man.

In an interview with Calgary Metro, he "warned of international financial crises, pandemics, terrorists and explained ... why Canadians can't have the kinder, gentler country the other leaders have been promising." "Fear," the interviewer concluded, "is a guiding factor for this leader."

I agree with the interviewer. Our prime minister is a man guided by fear. Unfortunately, his fear is irrational. We do, in today's world, have financial crises, pandemics and terrorists, but then we always have. The reality is that never in all history have ordinary people been more prosperous—or more secure—than we are in Canada today. If Mr. Harper knew his history, he would understand that. There is, in fact, no better time for a "kinder, gentler country."

If Harper was just an ordinary guy, I would feel sorry for him. It can't be pleasant living in a world of fear. But he isn't just an ordinary guy, he's our prime minister and he's trying to impose his angst on the rest of us. And a fearful society is not a healthy one. Fearful people are suspicious people who tend to isolate themselves from others, other societies, even from their neighbours when they are of a different race, religion or life style. It definitely does not lead to a kinder, gentler country.

If we believe in that kind of country, a country of open, confident and generous people, we have the unfortunate burden of countering Mr. Harper's insidious fearfulness. Or of electing a new prime minister.

02 October 2015

NDP attacks Trudeau—Harper grins

As I was about to mail another donation to the NDP earlier this week, I encountered the following headline on the CBC website: "NDP sets sights on Trudeau in bid to recapture momentum." No doubt the headline put a large grin on Stephen Harper's face. It put a large frown on mine. Wonderful, I thought, my party is now collaborating with the Conservatives to undermine their fellow progressives.

This is one of the most important elections in our history and from a progressive standpoint it has one overriding objective—rid the country of Stephen Harper. I was, therefore, in light of this new NDP campaign, wondering if my party had lost sight of the goal.

I recognize that as the campaign has progressed, Trudeau has improved his image, Mulcair not so much. No doubt the NDP wants to ensure that, regardless of the outcome, they don't end up playing second fiddle to the Liberals. I understand that but first things first. First defeat Harper, then quarrel over the spoils. If the Dippers feel a need to improve the image of their leader, they should work on that, not on undermining an ally in the greater cause.

In the end I did mail my donation but not, I admit, without being tempted to redirect it to the Liberals.

24 September 2015

Enough of this low tax nonsense

If conservatives believe in low taxes in order to keep government small, so be it, but when they insist that low taxes are necessary for a healthy economy, they are talking rot, parroting a mantra that has been utterly disproved.

The low tax theory can in fact be refuted with one word: Sweden. I could use other words, e.g. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, etc., but Sweden will do. Sweden has the world's second highest taxes as a per cent of GDP (Denmark has the highest). It also has a per capita GDP higher than ours and is ranked by the World Economic Forum as having the world's sixth-most competitive economy. (We rank 14th.) In other words, with a tax rate of 47 per cent of GDP compared to our 33 per cent, it performs as well or better than us economically. And it does this with a fraction of the natural resources that we possess. For instance, it has no oil or natural gas—to a Canadian, the essentials for a strong economy.

A number of other countries can tell a similar story. The proof is irrefutable. Indeed, we can go further. Not only do high taxes not preclude a robust economy, they may be necessary to achieve a nation's best economic performance. After all, in the modern world an optimal economy requires excellent social infrastructure—a healthy, well-educated population in which all members can fulfill their potential. And it requires excellent physical infrastructure—good roads, docks, water and sewer facilities, etc. And excellence costs money. Low taxes can't afford it.

How taxes are applied is another matter. Different taxes create different incentives and disincentives, so which taxes a government emphasizes can be important to economic health, and this certainly deserves debate. But that high overall taxation is in itself a disincentive to an economy is an argument deserving of a quick trip to the ideological dumpster.

23 September 2015

Why this Dipper is voting Liberal in Calgary Centre

Liberals have been screwing Calgary for a long time. When one hears this, one's thoughts immediately turn to Trudeau senior and his National Energy Program. But it started long before that. Back in the beginning in fact. When Alberta became a province in 1905, Frank Oliver, Edmonton newspaper publisher and Liberal MP, persuaded Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier to make his hometown the capital of the new province. His justification was simple—Calgary voted Conservative, Edmonton voted Liberal.

Calgary thought in all fairness it should at least get the University of Alberta. It wasn't to be. Alexander Rutherford, president of the Liberal Party of Alberta, was appointed the first premier and located it in his hometown of Strathcona, now part of Edmonton. Edmonton 2, Calgary 0, all because of the conniving Liberals.

Nonetheless, that's who I'll be voting for. Actually, that's not quite correct—for this election, I'm doing something I rarely do, voting for the candidate, not the party. The last time I did this federally was vote for Joe Clark over an incumbent Reformer in 2001. This time I'm voting for Kent Hehr. The reason is twofold. First, he has easily the best chance of any of the opposition candidates to defeat the Conservative incumbent. Secondly, he has been my MLA for the past seven years and he's been a damn good one. He deserves to go on to the senior level.

As a member of the NDP, I'd prefer to support the party. And I will, in dollars. But this is one of those times my vote just has to go to the other guys.  In 2001, Joe Clark won. I can only hope I've picked another winner.

16 September 2015

Saints and slackers on the refugee front

The Canadian government has come under considerable criticism for its sluggish reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis, and deservedly so. As I pointed out in a previous post, this is in sharp contrast to our response to other similar crises.

A number of countries are doing much better than us, and then there are those that are doing much worse. On the better side are some of Syria's neighbours. Turkey has taken in more than any other country, 1,600,000 refuges, and Jordan and Lebanon, despite their small size, have received over 600,000 and 1,100,000 respectively.

Of the total number of refugees, the UN Refugee Agency estimates 380,000 are in need of resettlement. To date, 107,000 places have been offered with Germany the most generous country, offering to resettle 35,000, a third of the places required.

Not all nations are so welcoming. A number of high income countries, including Japan and South Korea, have offered zero resettlement. The worst malingerers can be counted among the Syrians' rich Arab neighbours. The Gulf states—Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—have offered no places to their Semitic brothers and sisters. There can be no excuses here. The Gulf region has immense wealth and ample job opportunities—millions of professionals and labourers are imported from around the world to service the lifestyles and enterprises of these states.

Also noticeably absent from the list of nations offering to accept refugees are Russia and Iran. Neither has offered refuge to a single Syrian. Considering that they have been supporting Bashar Al-Assad in his brutal attempt to maintain power, the least they can do is provide sanctuary to some of his victims.

Canada can do much more to help these people, but we are not alone in shirking our humanitarian responsibility. There are others who should also be doing more, some a great deal more than us.

14 September 2015

Vote CBC

The CBC, our national broadcaster, is usually justified on the basis of two fundamentally important services it provides: it serves as stage for Canadian culture and it unites a broad, diverse country. I suggest it serves us in yet another way that is equally important: it is the only national mass medium that is not owned by and accountable to the corporate sector, i.e. the only truly independent voice. And, I might add, as the only national medium we own and is accountable to us, the only democratic voice.

Despite the invaluable service it provides us, we have not been serving it too well for the past few decades. During the Liberal's term in office, the CBC's Parliamentary appropriation fell from $1.6-billion, in 2014 dollars, to $1.3-billion. Since the Conservatives came to power, it has dropped further to $1.0-billion. Per capita, each Canadian pays only $29 per year for public broadcasting, a paltry sum compared to the average for Western countries of $82.

It is more than a bargain, it's a steal. While we pay the appropriation with our taxes, we pay for commercial broadcasting via advertising. Every time we buy a dozen oranges or a pair of socks, we pay a few pennies for advertising, a portion of which goes to private TV and radio. What we pay private broadcasting via advertising works out (I've done the math) to five times what we pay for the CBC with our taxes.

The Conservative government has done more than squeeze the CBC financially. In 2013, it placed the broadcaster under the supervision of the Treasury Board, thereby undermining its editorial independence from government, contrary to the Broadcasting Act. The current 12-member CBC board has been appointed entirely by the Conservatives, nine of which, including the president, have been financial contributors to the party.

Restoring funding and editorial independence to our national broadcaster should be a key priority for any government elected next month. Canadian culture, Canadian unity, and Canadian democracy deserve and demand it. Those who agree can join a good friend of the CBC here and vote in the best interests of the corporation on October 19th.

06 September 2015

How many refugees should we accept?

Joseph Stalin once said that if you kill one person it's murder, if you kill a million it's a statistic. The old psychopath, who knew a lot about killing one person and about killing a million, put his finger on a key element of human sensibility. We have difficulty connecting to people in the aggregate; we need to connect to the individual to realize our humanity. Such is the case with the Syrian refugee crisis.

The civil war in that country has created millions of refugees and we have paid limited attention, but the picture of little Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach has touched the world's heart. Like Kevin Carter's famous photo of a vulture looming behind a starving Sudanese infant, or that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing her napalmed Vietnamese village, Aylan's photo has become the symbol of his people's tragedy.

Historically, Canada has been generous in accepting refugees from violence. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, we accepted 37,000 refugees. We took in over 100,000 boat people after the Vietnam war. And this was when our population was much smaller. We should be able to accept substantially larger numbers today. The Syrian crisis is as pressing as either of these tragedies and deserves equal generosity, yet our response has been pathetic. Fewer than 2,400 Syrians have been resettled in Canada during the last two years, with an overall commitment by our government to accept a meagre 11,300.

The NDP proposes bringing in more than 46,000 government-sponsored refugees by 2019, including 10,000 by the end of this year. The Liberals call for expansion of our intake to 25,000. If we accepted the same number as we did after the Hungarian uprising proportional to our population today, the number would be almost 80,000, and we are a much richer country today. If we are no less a moral country, even the NDP and Liberal figures are modest. We can do much, much better.

05 September 2015

Ms. Harper supports the NDP position on marijuana

Speaking at a Conservative campaign office last week, Laureen Harper, the prime minister's better half, declared that when it comes to marijuana possession, "You don't put people in jail." On the other hand, she also said marijuana use was worse than smoking or alcohol and she opposes full legalization. Nonetheless, her view would seem to approximate the NDP's policy of decriminalization. It certainly contradicts Conservative Party policy which is the status quo—up to five years for possession of a small amount with six months or a $1,000 fine for a first-time offence.

I prefer the Liberal Party position myself, i.e. legalization. I don't use the stuff, but I can't think of any good reason why I should prevent anyone else enjoying a toke or two. Decriminalization is small progress but it's something and, according to a recent Ipsos Reid-Global poll, supported by two out of three Canadians.

Veering off message like Ms. Harper has done could get a Conservative in big trouble in her husband's control-obsessed party. It is doubtful, however, that anyone would dare scold the PM's missus, his "best political advisor." In any case, it is a pleasure to see at least one Harper on the right side of the issue, even if only marginally so.