30 June 2011

Petraeus's imaginary Taliban

In Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, his protagonist Chichikov seeks to purchase serfs who have died but are still registered against their owners as taxable assets. By relieving the owners of the tax burden, Chichikov obtains ownership of the dead serfs for nominal sums. He hopes thereby to inflate his apparent wealth and use it as collateral for an enormous loan which would provide the wealth and status he aspires to.

It appears that General David Petraeus, commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan, has been doing a variation on Chichikov. Last December, he reported that raids by Special Operations Forces had resulted in 4,100 Taliban captured and 2,000 killed in the previous six months.

The military has now admitted the 4,100 figure referred to the number of Afghans detained, at least 80 per cent of which were determined to be innocent civilians and released within two weeks. (One wonders where the hearts and minds of these 80 per cent innocent detainees have migrated to.) Apparently Petraeus was aware of this little discrepancy at the time.

Now the question arises, if the number reported captured was grossly exaggerated, how valid is the number reported killed? Are the 2,000 souls dead or just imaginary? Gogol would be amused.

29 June 2011

On trashing the long form census—Stats Can on my tail

Shortly before the Canada Post lockout, Statistics Canada mailed me a copy of the 2011 National Household Survey, formerly known as the long form census, to dutifully fill out. I promptly trashed it.

But Stats Can was not finished with me. Yesterday, with Canada Post back in business, I opened my mailbox looking forward to some overdue magazines, but to my considerable disappointment all I found was a brown envelope from Stats Can reminding me to fill out its form. And as if that wasn't enough, later in the afternoon I received a phone call with yet another request that I fulfill this pointless exercise.

Don't get me wrong. I am a strong believer in the long form census. It is, or was, an important resource for a host of individuals and organizations—business, labour, religious, educational, charitable, etc.—and of course for government itself. I would be delighted to assist in the gathering of information that will result in a better understanding of and better policy-making for my country.

But the information provided by a census is only valid if it is gathered in a controlled manner and that means filling out the form must be mandatory. That, unfortunately, is no longer the case. Filling out the form is now voluntary which renders the information gathered useless or worse. I have no intention of wasting my time filling out a 40-page form to provide information that may present an inaccurate, even deceptive, portrait of Canadians.

I will wait until the government regains its senses, listens to the advice offered from almost every corner of Canadian society and returns to the mandatory long form. Then, if I'm still around, I will do my duty as a citizen and fill out the form with enthusiasm.

28 June 2011

Pakistanis really don't like the U.S. They really don't

That the United States is unpopular in Pakistan is common knowledge. But just how unpopular is surprising. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 73 per cent of Pakistanis hold an unfavourable opinion of the U.S., 68 per cent have little or no confidence in President Obama, and 69 per cent see the U.S. as more of an enemy than as a partner. Those are not good numbers for a country the Americans profess to need as a friend.

And they are not the only discouraging numbers. Adding insult to injury, 63 per cent of Pakistanis disapproved of the killing of Osama bin Laden and 55 per cent think it's a bad thing he is dead. Furthermore, support for their own government's military campaign against extremist groups is dropping, from 53 to 37 per cent over the past three years. Their military nonetheless remains popular with 79 per cent saying it has a good influence on the country. (The Americans may have a somewhat less generous view.) 

All of this is not to suggest Pakistanis are soft on extremists. Only 12 per cent have a favourable opinion of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, although that rises to 27 per cent for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmir-based group that has carried out numerous attacks against India. Eighty-five per cent believe suicide bombings and other violent acts against civilians in defense of Islam are never justified. This has risen from 38 per cent in 2002. 

So, the U.S. distrusts the Pakistani army, and the Pakistani people distrust the U.S.—quite a conundrum. Yet if the United States is to influence lasting change in the region, it must come to terms with Pakistan, a nation central to the region's future and, of course, a nuclear power. The above numbers suggest that will be quite a challenge.

24 June 2011

Impeaching Ahmadinejad

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, has a problem. He wholeheartedly supported incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election, and now it turns out the flaky Ahmadinejad is being a bad boy. Allies of the president and his chief of staff and close confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, are accused of attempting to undermine the power of the clerics. In recent weeks, at least 25 people close to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been arrested.

In April, in a fit of pique over Khameni's intervention in a cabinet appointment, Ahmadinejad abandoned his office for 11 days. Apparently the only reason he returned to work was because he was threatened with impeachment. But that hasn't mitigated the threat. Several members of Iran's parliament have warned Ahmadinejad he still faces impeachment if he insists on supporting Mashaei. Given that all MPs are vetted by Iran's Guardian Council, a body controlled by Khamenei, this would seem to be a clear warning from Khamenei himself.

Khamenei is quite likely employing Parliament to avoid the embarrassment of confronting his former pet in public. Although he would no doubt prefer Ahmadinejad go quietly, all he has to do is pull the trigger and Parliament will impeach. In any case, the romance is over. One way or the other, Ahmadinejad is toast.

Americans tire of war spending

Americans have for some time seemed to have an insatiable appetite for military spending. Defence was the sacred cow of their federal budget. Now it seems they are losing that appetite for at least one form of military expense—waging war.

The Afghan war is expected to cost the United States $118.6 billion in 2011, over four times Afghanistan's GDP. The cost, soaring since Barack Obama became president, surpassed that of the Iraq war in 2010 when the U.S. spent $93.8 billion in Afghanistan versus $71.3 billion in Iraq. And these costs exclude long-term expenses such as veterans’ benefits for the returning soldiers which will persist for many years.

As the cost of the war has escalated, so has the desire of the American people to get out. According to a Pew survey, 56 per cent of Americans now want to remove their troops as soon as possible compared to only 33 per cent expressing this view when Obama assumed office. Only 39 per cent want the troops to remain until the situation has stabilized, down from 61 per cent over the same period.

Earlier this week, the United States Conference of Mayors approved a resolution calling for an early end to military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are asking Congress to redirect the billions being spent on war and reconstruction toward urgent domestic needs, saying that American taxes should be paying for bridges in Baltimore and Kansas City, not in Baghdad and Kandahar. This is the group's first resolution on foreign policy since it called for an end to the Vietnam War forty years ago.

This growing recognition of limits to American power was neatly expressed by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia who said, "The question the president faces—we all face—is quite simple: Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan? In light of our nation’s fiscal peril, we cannot do both.”

President Obama does seem to be facing up to this reality. In his television address Wednesday evening, he declared that the "tide of war is receding" and announced the rapid withdrawal of the 33,000 "surge" troops. It isn't all that rapid, actually—scheduled over a year and a half and it's only the troops added since he became president—but it is in the right direction. He also hinted at a more militarily modest foreign policy, saying the country needs to "chart a more centered course" between "an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face" and the urge to "overextend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad."

If he carries through on all this, he has the opportunity to cut his country's obscene defence budget without appearing to reduce security. And, of no less importance, he may bring much-needed relief from American aggression to the rest of the world.

21 June 2011

Why the dolphins are smarter than us—recently revealed

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, animal advocate and a very funny man, once observed that, "Man always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reason."

Adams makes a playful remark about a playful species, but it carries a serious truth. Dolphins, without our presence would be thriving in a healthy environment, but with our presence find their environment threatened along with that of most other species on Earth. Homo sapiens is on the verge of creating the sixth great extinction. All because we have achieved too much—too much technological expertise but not enough smarts to use it wisely.

When we invented intensive agriculture and thus civilization, we set ourselves on a path toward technology that would eventually lead us to wrecking our environment. Throughout most of that history, life has been worse than the old hunger-gatherer lifestyle for the great majority of people and now, after a brief period of high living, it's about to get a lot worse for us and probably most of our fellow creatures.

Inventing civilization appears to have been the biggest mistake in human history. Unless we radically change our ways, we would have been much smarter to emulate the dolphins and retain our simpler way of life, mucking about in the fields and woods having a good time. The dolphins were right, just as Adams claimed. And we thought he was kidding.

Sports—tribalism in full cry

The now infamous Vancouver hockey riot has done a pretty good job of smearing the city's reputation around the globe. Shocking as it was, it wasn't entirely surprising. Rioting seems to be part and parcel of professional team sports. The reason, of course, is that team sports are a tribal phenomenon and tribalism has a close relationship to violence.

When people go to a music concert, a movie, the ballet, whatever, they go principally to appreciate the performance—the art and the skill. But when they go to a sports match they go principally to see our guys beat their guys, to see our tribe triumph over theirs.

If you go to a concert and the performers sing out of tune or if at a ballet the dancers trip over each other, you are unhappy. You may want your money back. If, on the other hand, they sing or dance beautifully, you are delighted, you got your money's worth. You don't much care one way or the other whether the performers are from your home town or from Beijing. The performance is the thing.

But if you go to a sports match and it's badly played but your team wins, you are nonetheless ecstatic. On the other hand, if the game is brilliantly played but your team loses, you are depressed. The tribe is the thing.

Players on teams don't all wear the same uniform just so they can tell their guys from the other guys, it is equally about tribal regalia. The fans, too, often deck themselves out in team colours and other symbols—the tribe in full cry.

Sports, next to war, are almost unique in generating mass loyalty and mass emotion. States know this and often invest heavily in sport to unite their people and promote their tribe. When Olympic winners mount their pedestals, their national anthem is played and their national flag waved, and that's essentially what it is all about—flaunting the tribal symbols.

Unfortunately, that mass loyalty and emotion will from time to time spill over into mass violence. It happened in Vancouver on June 15th, and it will happen somewhere else next year or the year after. It is, you might say, in the nature of the game.

20 June 2011

Time to end growth?

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Canada's economic prospects are looking good. In its latest global forecast of economic activity, this year we will have the highest GDP growth in the G7 except for Germany. We are, it appears, doing very well.

Or are we? Growth is the mantra of our business and political leaders and such classical economists as hang out at the IMF, to whom it is the preeminent measure of a country's economic success, if not its overall success. And by growth, they mean growth in the GDP, i.e material growth. What they are measuring in effect is how rapidly we are devouring our planet's resources. If those resources were infinite, that would be fine, but they aren't. In fact, we are using up our planet's resources faster than the planet can replenish them and we are polluting the planet faster than it can absorb the pollution. In short, growth is exhausting the planet. And that means we are exhausting our civilization.

A major contributor to the collapse of civilizations, going all the way back to the first civilizations in Mesopotamia, has been their demand for more from their environment than it could provide. Ultimately, they wrecked their environment and that wrecked their civilization. And we are now doing the same thing, only this time on a global scale. In the past, new civilizations could always spring up somewhere else; this time there is no somewhere else.

So do we really want Canada to be a leader in a process of civilizational suicide? If not, we should contain our applause for our GDP performance and instead insist our business and political leaders end this insane race to the edge of the cliff and start seriously to put an end to material growth. We can, after all, grow in many ways: grow a more equitable and compassionate society, grow in creativity, grow our leisure time and our time for civil participation, and so on. Both history and physics tell us there is no sane alternative.

18 June 2011

"Saudi women, start your engines!"

I admit I was motivated to write this post by the above heading. I couldn't resist it, so I plagiarized it. Apparently it first appeared as a Twitter message on the main site women2Drive. As flippant as it sounds, it sends a serious message.

It reminds us that in this modern world of ours we still have a nation where women have to beg men just to drive a damn car. Where they must obtain permission from men to take a job or travel. A nation where religion remains supreme in all its misogynistic glory.

And it reminds us this sorry excuse for a nation is a good friend of the West, recently the beneficiary of a massive arms deal with the Americans, the largest in U.S. history.

But Saudi women are protesting. Nothing big like Tunisia or Egypt, just a few gutsy ladies getting behind the wheel and heading downtown—a mini-revolt you might say. But you never know. Small acts of defiance can lead to revolutionary change. Rosa Parks did it by sitting at the front of the bus. Saudi women may do it by sitting in the driver's seat of a car.

17 June 2011

A dynamic Turkey steps up

Congratulations to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) for their victory in the Turkish election last Sunday. Erdogan led his party to their third straight win with a majority of seats and almost 50 per cent of the popular vote.

The AKP has guided Turkey to unprecedented prosperity. Since they first took power in 2002, the GDP per capita has risen from $3,500 per annum to $10,079. Foreign investment in the Turkish economy has soared from $1.1 billion to $9 billion, and Turkey has increased trade with its neighbours from $5 billion to $16 billion. In 2010, Turkey became the fastest growing economy in Europe. Staples such as gas, tea and sugar, once scarce, are now plentiful. The AKP government has matched the economic progress with improvements in social programs.

The country is also moving up on the international stage, becoming both a regional and a global player with its use of soft power. After seeming to ignore its neighbourhood for decades, it has become increasingly influential, offering an attractive alternative to peoples justifiably suspicious of American and European interventions in the region. Erdogan's newly assertive foreign policy is highly popular among  Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians.

Of particular importance is the example Turkey sets for those Arabs pushing for democratic change. Not only is it a dynamic and successful Muslim democracy, it is governed by an Islamic party.

It has its problems, of course, dealing justly with its large Kurdish minority perhaps first among them. But a prospering local democracy will provide the perfect mentor for the Middle East, rather as Brazil is proving to be an excellent mentor for South America as its nations awaken to democracy and emancipation of their indigenous peoples.

Erdogan, the AKP and Turkey deserve continued success, domestically and internationally, in their democratic adventure.

CBC contributes much more than dollars

A study released Wednesday by international consultants Deloitte and Touche reports that CBC/Radio-Canada contributed $3.7 billion to the Canadian economy in 2010. This contrasts to its annual parliamentary allocation of $1.1 billion and overall expenditure of $1.7 billion. The study concluded the public broadcaster's contribution to the Canadian economy is well above its spending power because of its support for jobs and businesses across the country.

The study took into account the economic effect if the government used the $1.1 billion for other purposes. It found that a broadcaster forced to rely on advertising and other commercial revenues would do much less for the economy because it would be forced to buy more foreign programming, crowd out private broadcasters and contribute less to creative communities across the country. A privately funded CBC would be forced to spend less on both news and Canadian programming. The study can be found at http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/about/value.shtm.

It would seem the CBC offers a handsome economic return on investment, but its return is much more than economic. It creates diversity and depth in Canadian culture while uniting a very broad and diverse country.

Furthermore, it is our only truly independent mass medium, at least nationally. Owned equally by all of us, it is our only national “public” forum. Other media—commercial TV and radio, and the daily press—are corporate-owned and answer to a corporate agenda. We must pay for them, of course, as they are funded principally by our advertising dollars. Indeed we pay a great deal more for corporate media via advertising than we pay for the CBC via taxes. If we want to buy food, clothing, shelter, etc., we must pay for advertising and thus pay to indoctrinate ourselves in the corporate message. 

Without the CBC we would be much less a democracy. As important as its contribution to Canadian culture is, its contribution to the democratic process is perhaps even more important. That it is also a significant contributor to our economy is icing on the cake.

15 June 2011

Stephen Harper's moral relativism

In Stephen Harper's speech to the recent Conservative convention, referring to foreign policy, he announced that the Conservatives moral stance would be clear. "Moral ambiguity, moral equivalence are not options," he stated, "they are dangerous illusions."

They may or may not be, but he is something of a moral relativist himself. A prime example is the Palestine issue. In his view, any violence against Jews is abhorrent but even much greater violence against Arabs is acceptable, even justified. For example, he infamously referred to Israel's 2008/09 assault on Gaza as an "appropriate response." The response was to thousands of rocket attacks from Gaza which over an 8-year period had killed about 30 Israelis. The assault on Gaza killed 1,400 Palestinians, including almost 300 children. In addition, much of Gaza's infrastructure was destroyed, including half of the hospitals. Subsequent to the war, Gazans experienced increasing epidemics of health problems with a 60% increase in birth defects and a doubling in the number of cases of blood cancer. All of this murderous efficiency was, in Harper's view, an appropriate response to the largely ineffectual rocket attacks.

Slaughtering 300 children is never an "appropriate response." It is always, under any circumstances, an atrocity.

Harper's seeming indifference to the suffering of Palestinians is disturbingly reminiscent of that great conservative hero Winston Churchill. At the Peel Commission on the future of Palestine in 1937, Churchill, who supported the creation of a Jewish state, was asked what was to become of the Palestinians. He replied, "I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. ... I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." 

Is this Harper's attitude toward Palestine? A "higher-grade race" is quite appropriately replacing a lower-grade race? I would hope not. I don't believe Harper is the racist Churchill was. So how then do we explain his moral relativism regarding the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine? 

Moral relativism is, in itself, a good thing. After all, all morality is relative, all circumstances are different, and good decisions result from thoroughy considering circumstances. But I suspect Harper has been led into his position on Palestine not by fairly considering the circumstances of both parties, but rather by his own moral certainty, an evangelical Christian moral certainty that often leads to conveniently easy but dangerously biased reasoning. Unfortunately, that moral certainty is now guiding our country's foreign policy.

14 June 2011

Good news—Gates says NATO faces dismal future

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates is not amused by the lack of military esprit de corp among America's NATO allies. "The blunt reality," he lectured, "is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence."

One can appreciate his disappointment. The Americans have invested heavily on tens of thousands of troops in Europe training with local forces so they can work effectively together defending common interests. Yet when called upon to defend these interests, as defined by the U.S.—Iraq and Afghanistan for example—the Europeans participate only halfheartedly.

The problem, of course, is that NATO was created to defend North Atlantic nations and many Europeans have difficulty understanding how waging wars on the other side of the world is related to that purpose. Indeed, with the collapse of the threat from the Communist East, the prime justification for the alliance, they begin to wonder if NATO itself has any purpose.

The Americans on the other hand, being in the empire business, see threats everywhere, and want to use NATO as backup for the military adventures they deem necessary to mitigate those threats. Unfortunately, Europeans now tend to see themselves as out of the empire business and don't seem particularly interested in helping the Americans stay in.

For that matter, the American people aren't all that keen either. A recent survey indicated that about half of Americans think the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally" and 65% approved of reducing overseas military commitments as a way to cut the budget deficit. It seems the "American body politic writ large" already has a "dwindling appetite" for spending money on global military involvement.

All of this is encouraging. The United States is the world's most bellicose nation, constantly at war with somebody. An increasing reluctance of its allies to support its imperial designs, combined with an increasing reluctance of Americans to pay the price, may bring the great power to heel.

This does not mean there is no role in the world for NATO. If it changed its name, incorporated troops from other parts of the world, and put itself at the disposal of the UN, it could serve a new and useful purpose, a truly international one, perhaps under the Responsibility to Protect initiative. However, as long as it remains primarily an instrument of U.S. hegemony, it deserves to dwindle and die.

10 June 2011

Peru chooses social democracy over capitalist "democracy"

Some events of note in South America's last five years:
  • In Bolivia, President Evo Morales presided over the ratification of a new social democratic constitution and was re-elected as president with 64 per cent of the vote. 
  • In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa easily won re-election and ratified a new constitution that guarantees social rights and limits privatization. 
  • Also in Ecuador, the people voted for ten progressive initiatives, including, as an article in Al Jazeera put it,  "the strict regulation of two blood sports: banks are now banned from speculation and bulls can no longer be killed in bull fights."
  • In Brazil, Lula da Silva left office the world's most popular politician, handing over the presidency to Dilma Rousseff, a former urban guerrilla and economist who vows to continue Lula's policies of making Brazil a more humane and equal nation.
Now Peru has joined the swing to social democracy with the election of Ollanta Humala as president. His election should ensure that Peru will join those other South American countries that have been moving democracy away from a neoliberal concept of deregulated capitalism and globalization toward a more humane, sustainable model.

The South American revolution has a definite liberating air about it. For half a millennium the indigenous peoples of that continent have suffered under burdens of exploitation and oppression from both internal and external forces, internally from the European populations beginning with the conquistadors and externally from the United States. Now they are freeing themselves from both and doing it democratically. It is a good thing to see. Spring has sprung, it seems, in South America as well as the Middle East.

09 June 2011

Now here's a death penalty I can support

Former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, now secretary of Homeland Security for the U.S. government, is a staunch supporter of the death penalty. This is not a position I would normally agree with. However, when Ms. Napolitano refers to the Arizona Workers Act, which she signed into law as governor, as a potential "death penalty" for corporations, I agree with her sympathies entirely.
Contravention of the Act, which was drawn up in order to keep businesses in Arizona from hiring illegal aliens, is punishable by suspension and subsequent revocation of business licenses. Put simply, a business can be terminated. The Act recently survived a challenge in the normally corporate-friendly U.S. Supreme Court.

Whether this is a good or bad law doesn't interest me. What is important is that it reminds us that corporations exist to serve us, and they exist at our pleasure. When they misbehave we have the right to punish them, even to the extent of ending their lives. As they increasingly intrude on our democracy, exploiting powers we have granted them through privatization and globalization, we are well-advised to remind ourselves of this from time to time.

U.S. follows lead of Taliban Jack

Googling the history of our Afghanistan adventure the other day, I encountered  a snide Vancouver Sun article written in 2008 mocking "Taliban Jack" for his position on the war, sarcastically summarizing his views as, "Bring in the UN, facilitate discussions among the warring parties, directly engage the Taliban leadership, develop a comprehensive peace plan, build consensus around a political settlement. That kind of thing."

Well it seems "that kind of thing" has caught on. The Sun pilloried Jack's views as anti-American, yet now the Americans are adopting his position. The United States and Britain are currently pressing the UN to lift sanctions against 18 former senior Taliban leaders. (The U.S. asking the UN to lift sanctions rather than impose them is in itself remarkable.) The reason for the American and British action is almost certainly to allow the Taliban chiefs to travel outside of Afghanistan for peace negotiations. With the sanctions lifted, the Taliban could establish a political office in a third country. Turkey, Turkmenistan and Qatar have offered to host such an office.

The sanctions were imposed in 1999, when the Taliban were in power, and were expanded after 9/11, with dozens of insurgents banned from traveling or holding bank accounts. Removing the restrictions, a move long supported by the Afghan government, has been a key demand of the insurgents.

The first direct meetings between U.S. officials and the Taliban were reported to have taken place last month in Qatar and Germany. Apparently the talks included the personal secretary of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader.

So there you have it. Jack Layton was on the right, perhaps inevitable, track all along. What will we hear now from the cynics—Taliban Barak?

War on drugs busted

Reports criticizing the War on Drugs are manifold but few carry the cachet of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Issued this month, the report commissioners are a uniquely prestigious group that include the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland; a former U.S. Secretary of State under Presidents Reagan and Nixon; a former Secretary General of the UN; a former Canadian Supreme Court Justice; a former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve; one of Britain's most successful corporate leaders, and so on.

The conclusions of the report are unequivocal. The Executive Summary begins, "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." Can't get much clearer than that. The summary goes on to say, "Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction."

The report shows that in the ten years 1998-2008, opiate use increased 34.5 per cent, cocaine use 27 per cent and cannabis use 8.5 per cent. Drugs, it seems, are winning the war.

Recommendations include, " End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. ... Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime ... Offer health and treatment services to those in need. ... Eschew simplistic "just say no" messages and "zero tolerance" policies in favor of educational efforts grounded in credible information ... Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation. ... Break the taboo on debate and reform."

The report specifically refers to "heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada."

Unfortunately, our government's approach—tougher laws, more imprisonment and shutting down heroin-assisted treatment programs—would seem to contradict just about everything in the report. If our government is not sensitive to the human cost of its approach, we might expect it to at least be sensitive to the economic cost. As British businessman Richard Branson, one of the commissioners, remarked, "It's estimated that over one trillion have been spent on fighting this unwinnable battle. The irony is that a regulated market—one that is tightly controlled, one that would offer support not prison to those with drug problems—would cost tax payers much less money." That should be music to Conservative ears.

The report is a good read with a thorough analysis of the state of the drug war, including the results of decriminalization initiatives, and solid recommendations for a more constructive, one might say saner, approach. I sincerely hope our governments reads it.

03 June 2011

Will the Conservative majority placate the West?

The West has in the past had a number of grievances against Ottawa, some legitimate, some not so much. The sense of grievance is strongest in Alberta for various reasons not the least of which was Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program of 1980. One by-product of the resulting alienation is the growing sense that the only party that can fairly represent the West's interest is the Conservative Party, the Liberals being perceived as the party of the East.

The Mulroney government, despite being highly favourable to Alberta, did not seem to alleviate the alienation, perhaps because Mulroney was seen as Quebec's man. Indeed, the Mulroney government contributed to the creation of the Reform Party in Alberta. Nor have the Harper minority governments, despite their strong Western flavour, helped to cool suspicions about Eastern designs. The proposal to form a coalition Liberal-NDP government headed by Stephane Dion, after his thorough rejection in the West, did not help. The Harper administration is seen as their government by many Westerners, yet unable to act in their interests as it has been under siege by opposition forces.

Now, the siege has been lifted, a majority achieved. The Conservatives command the nation, even establishing a beachhead in the effete confines of Toronto. So, the question arises: will this consummate power combined with the humiliation of the despised Liberals offer disaffected Westerners the reassurance they seem to need that all parties must now come to terms with a vigorous West and its increasing importance to the country? Will it give them the confidence to support other parties, perhaps ones closer to their personal philosophy, safe in the belief they need no longer rely solely on the Conservatives to serve Western interests?

If so, this election may have served a good purpose after all. Yes, the country will regress under the Conservatives but progress is, after all, two steps ahead and one step back, and if the overall attitudes of the regions are healthier (keeping in mind also that Quebec rejected the Bloc in favour of a federalist party), that in itself is progress. The Liberals and the NDP did not do well in the West in this election, yet ironically it may offer them the opportunity to get back in the game.

01 June 2011

Don't mess with my vote, Jack

With 59 of their 103 seats in Quebec, we could expect the NDP to pay close attention to Quebec's concerns. That would, of course, be appropriate. But what I wouldn't have expected them to do is propose eroding the democratic rights of the rest of us in order to favour that province. This is what Jack Layton has proposed with his suggestion that the government give Quebec more seats in the House of Commons.

With 24.4 per cent of the seats for 23.2 per cent of the Canadian population, Quebec is fairly represented in the House. Furthermore, its share of the population is decreasing.

Democracy is nothing less than equal political power and one citizen/one vote is the embodiment of that principle. Now it appears Mr. Layton is willing to sacrifice my political equality for his political gain. First-past-the-post has already reduced the value of my vote to essentially zero in federal elections, and the only hope I have of giving it meaning is a system of proportional representation. And that is one of the reasons I support the NDP. Of the three major parties, it has been the strongest advocate of PR. Gaining a fair vote via a new voting system and then having it undermined by giving a piece of it to Quebeckers is something I would have trouble accepting quietly.

I hope this is just Jack talking off the top of his head and not voicing an NDP policy. As a policy it would do a pretty good job of alienating voters in Ontario and the West, i.e. where the population is growing, and thus reducing the NDP's chance of ever forming a national government.

So by all means, Jack, let the party be a good representative for Quebec, but not by sacrificing the democratic rights of the rest of us. Don't become the new Bloc. Forget you ever tossed the idea out and never mention it again. We'll forget you said it and move on.