26 March 2015

Our wise men have spoken—will the politicians listen?

Last week a report produced by 60 Canadian scholars stated that we can create a clean, sustainable future for our country with only a minimal effect on the economy. The scholars, representing every province as well as climate change expertise in areas from engineering to sociology, offered a consensus on viable, science-based solutions for greenhouse gas reduction.

The report, Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars, was produced by Sustainable Canada Dialogues, an initiative under the UNESCO-McGill Chair for Dialogues on Sustainability and the Trottier Institute for Science and Public Policy.

The proposals include a price on carbon, either through a tax or cap-and-trade; transferring subsidies for the fossil fuel industries to sustainable energy sources; and low carbon policies for urban development that include new building codes, reduced energy consumption and more public transit. The measures could reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by the middle of the century with reductions of up to 28 per cent in10 years.

Implementing the report's proposals would cost us about one per cent of our GDP but would save us four or five times that much in health and environmental costs. The scientists have spoken, now it's up to the politicians to follow through and incorporate the recommendations into policy.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect much from our current federal government. To date, it has done its best to ignore science (while actively muzzling scientists) and it shows no sign of mending its ways. However some of the provincial governments have been demonstrating more responsibility. We can encourage them and, as for the federal laggards, there is an election approaching. It will be up to us to act on the advice of our wise men and support politicians who will do likewise.

You can personally endorse the report here.

23 March 2015

Prentice makes nice to labour

When governments find themselves in a financial bind they tend to make the civil service their first budget target. Overpaid public servants is a popular cliche. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, his government facing a $7-billion deficit, appeared to be taking that tried and true approach, calling public sector wages unsustainable and pointing to $2.6-billion of wage increases over the next three years.

It was refreshing, therefore, to see him take a more constructive tone last week. Following a meeting with leaders of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the United Nurses of Alberta, Health Sciences Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, he was the soul of conciliation toward the brothers and sisters.

He not only assured them he would not attempt to roll back wages, he promised to revoke Bill 45, a measure that restricted union activity and imposed prohibitive fines for illegal strikes. The bill, passed in 2013 during former premier Alison Redford's brief regime but never proclaimed, seriously divided the government and its employees. It was being challenged in the courts by the United Nurses of Alberta as a Charter violation. The premier stated it should never have been introduced in the first place and hoped that with it out of the way a more respectful tone will be set for labour negotiations. The union leaders expressed that they, too, hoped the meeting would mark a respectful turn in the province's relations with labour.

“This is not about rolling back contracts," said Prentice. "It’s about working together to define solutions as we go forward that reflect the fiscal circumstances we’re in.” On his part, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith declared that repealing Bill 45 removed an obstacle for future discussions and added, "I really believe that we heard a strong commitment from the premier and his ministers ... to make sure things do improve for everybody.”

All this represents a civilized approach to the relationship between government and its employees, all too often absent at a time of financial challenge. It bodes well for the province's future.

19 March 2015

Cluster bombs and climate change—the good news

The media infamously saturate us with bad news. If it bleeds, it leads ... and all that. Nonetheless, good news does surface from time to time. This week saw two good news stories that particularly caught my attention.

The first was that Canada ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the 90th state party to do so. Cluster munitions are bombs that open up in mid-air and release dozens or hundreds of bomblets. Often many of these little bombs fail to explode and remain active for years after hostilities have ended. They are then picked up by civilians, often children who perceive them as toys, and are killed or maimed. A third of the victims of cluster munitions are children.

The convention forbids signatories from the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of these weapons, and requires that current stockpiles be destroyed within eight years. It further requires the clearance of areas contaminated by cluster munition remnants within 10 years and assistance be provided to victims.

Canada's legislation is among the world's weakest with loopholes that allow Canadian soldiers to assist allied armies with use of the weapons. This, however, is not allowed under the convention and one must hope the prospect of embarrassment in front of the international community would keep us from exploiting the loopholes.

The second story concerned a report by 59 Canadian scientists, economists, engineers, sociologists, architects and philosophers from all 10 provinces who collaborated on a study to determine how we can wean the country off fossil fuels. They concluded we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to a very low level within 30 years. And it would be economical. It would cost us about one per cent of GDP but would pay off four or five times over in reduced health and environmental costs.

The group recommended a range of measures from a carbon tax and electrifying public vehicles to linking major cities with high-speed rail and promoting urban density. It all sounds a bit Pollyannaish to me, but we can hope. The International Energy Agency recently announced that while the global economy continued to grow in 2014, the amount of carbon dioxide produced didn't, the first time emissions have declined without an economic downturn in 40 years, so who knows?

Protecting children from bombs and reducing global warming—Pollyannaish or not, it's enough to put a smile on your face.

Netanyahu sabotages U.S. Palestine policy ... a good thing?

How much will the Americans put up with from this yahoo? He is the most arrogant leader in the international community, making even Vladimir Putin look modest by comparison. He has the most powerful nation in the world as his country's best friend and benefactor, so what does he do? First, he humiliates its president, then he disdainfully dismisses its most important policy for his region.

The U.S. believes in a two-state solution to the seemingly endless conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The newly re-elected prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced that under his watch there will be no Palestinian state. Furthermore, as to the American opposition to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, those will continue.

He puts the Americans in an impossible position when it comes to recognizing Palestine on the world stage. They have justified their opposition by insisting that Palestinian recognition can only be achieved by negotiation with Israel, but Netanyahu has made it clear that such negotiation is pointless. The U.S. now has no justification in opposing Palestinians pursuing their statehood independently of Israel. How ironic if the main beneficiaries of Netanyahu's hubris are his enemies.

Netanyahu is obviously confident the Israeli tail will continue to wag the American dog. And he might be right—after all, he owns Congress. On the other hand, President Obama may now feel liberated from any obligation to Israel in his negotiations with Iran, something that would help greatly in striking a deal. If that should prove the case, the Israeli prime minister will have inadvertently done us all a favour.

15 March 2015

News flash—Western nation stands up to Saudis

Western nations may proclaim their virtue but when it comes to Saudi Arabia, they behave like whores. They posture their belief in democracy and human rights but genuflect before a kingdom that manifests contempt for both.

The allure of the desert sheiks is twofold: they sell lots of oil and they buy lots of guns. They have the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world and they are the world's largest purchaser of military hardware. The oil alone brings Western leaders bowing and scraping. Earlier this year, President Obama cut short a visit to India to lead perhaps the most prestigious political entourage in American history to pay his respects to the new Saudi king. Add to the oil the seemingly inexhaustible market for arms and Western leaders shiver with ecstasy. If there is an inconsistency between their concerns about instability in the Middle East and their turning it into a massive arms market, they refuse to notice.

What a surprise then when Sweden announced it was terminating its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a primary overseas market for its defense firms, over a concern about human rights. The move followed complaints by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom that the Saudis prevented her from speaking about democracy and women's rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo. The Saudis retaliated by withdrawing their ambassador.

Needless to say, Swedish business leaders are upset, publicly claiming this undermines the country’s credibility as a trading partner. Its credibility as a promoter of democracy and human rights, on the other hand, apparently means naught to these guys.

The Swedes may just have started a conversation among European countries regarding the ethics of peddling arms to a brutal, misogynistic dictatorship. The kingdom's public floggings and beheadings, oppression of women and general disregard for civil rights is forcing many European leaders to recognize it for what it is—a medieval theocracy hiding behind a veil of fabulous oil wealth.

Canada, meanwhile, is busily working to expand its arms sales to the kingdom. Like the Swedish businessmen, our government is not about to let principle interfere with profit.

12 March 2015

Work ain't what it was—it's worse

Work is getting worse. In any case, that's the tale told by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in its Employment Quality Index. The index measures three key areas of job satisfaction: the distribution of part-time vs. full-time jobs; self-employment vs. paid employment; and compensation for full-time jobs. It indicates job quality has been on an overall decline for 25 years.

Since the late 1980s, the number of part-time jobs has risen much faster than the number of full-time jobs; self-employment has risen faster than paid employment; and the number of low-paying jobs has risen faster than the number of mid-paying jobs, which in turn has risen faster than the number of high-paying jobs. In other words, a smaller portion of the labour force has higher bargaining power while a larger portion has reduced bargaining power. According to Benjamin Tal, the author of the report, “This is the main reason why the income gap is rising, which I believe is the number one economic, social issue facing the country in this decade.”

We have seen, over this same period, some of the most extraordinary technological progress in history. From an employment perspective, one wonders, what was the point? We might ask the same question of all the trade agreements we've signed. They, too, were supposed to lead us closer to the promised land. It seems we may have been doubly duped.

Why do we allow face coverings in the House of Commons?

The Prime Minister explains to the House why face coverings are unacceptable to Canadians

08 March 2015

Zehaf-Bibeau had a point

At the risk of being investigated by the 130 agents RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has working on the Michael Zehaf-Bibeau case, I must say I think the man made a valid point.

After watching his now famous video, or at least the portion big brother has allowed us to see, I cannot dismiss all the would-be jihadist's rhetoric. His message was, to put it simply, if you kill us, we will kill you. Vengeance is not a pretty motive but there's a lot of it around. Since 9/11 the U.S., despite being a Christian country, has shown a great deal more "an eye for an eye" than "love your enemies."

One might say they have justification. But then so do Muslims. The horror that the U.S. and its friends inflicted on Iraq was vastly greater than that inflicted on the U.S. by the 9/11 jihadists, so the anger expressed by Zehaf-Bibeau is legitimate. (I get angry at our government's callous dismissal of Palestinian suffering and I'm neither Arab nor Muslim.) Directing his anger against Canada is not quite so legitimate. It's true we skipped the Iraq debacle, but on the other hand we sent troops into Afghanistan and are now bombing ISIS, so we are likely responsible for the deaths of a few jihadists and no doubt collaterally damaging a few innocents. Such is war.

Zehan-Bibeau is no different in some key respects from many other lost souls. Immersed in drugs and booze and perhaps crime, they find religion, usually Jesus in Western society, and are saved. They find sanctuary and purpose in their faith and often become the most devout of the devout. Fortunately, they rarely celebrate their zealotry with violence. Zehaf-Bibeau did and paid the price—dying by the sword he chose to live by.

Before wrapping up his message, Zehan-Bibeau instinctively added one very Canadian touch. After threatening us with violent jihadist justice, he concludes with a "thank you." Polite to the end ... literally.

A note for the RCMP: I swear that I am not, and never have been, a member of any jihadist organization, nor did I aid, abet, facilitate or counsel Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in any way.

06 March 2015

Prentice is right—Albertans are to blame

If Albertans want to know why their government is having budget problems, Premier Jim Prentice advises them to "look in the mirror." His comment went, as they say, viral. Opposition leaders have demanded he apologize for his insult to the people of this province. “I was really quite surprised that he would come out with something that was so insulting and so disconnected from the reality in Alberta,” said NDP leader Rachel Notley.

The truth can hurt. And Ms. Notley's outrage notwithstanding, the premier was simply stating the bald truth. "In terms of who is responsible," he declared, "We need only look in the mirror." This is true and it has taken place under 44 years of Conservative rule, and who has elected the Conservatives to power for all these years? Why, the people of Alberta, of course. That's where the buck stops.

The good citizens of this province have consistently supported, often overwhelmingly, a party that introduced a flat tax, has consistently rejected a sales tax, has been outrageously generous to the oil industry (one of its major funders), has persisted in including oil and gas revenues in its budgeting, and has failed to put aside an appropriate portion for the future. All of this, the very policies that brought us to the current state of affairs and keep us trapped in a boom and bust economy, we must assume Albertans approved. They have gotten the government they want ... and deserve.

One wonders if Premier Prentice recognizes the irony of his remark. When Albertans look in the mirror they see the Conservative Party—his party. In any case, we shouldn't shoot this messenger, we should vote him out.

03 March 2015

Soul mates and the politics of fear

Fabricating a threat to the nation in order to instill fear in the population may be demagoguery, but it is also a highly effective way for leaders to rally the people behind them. Frightened citizens turn conservative and cling to what they know, i.e. the incumbent government, rather than risk change. Politicians understand this very well and, in dictatorships and democracies alike, have been exploiting it ever since politics was invented.

We are currently witnessing two unpopular national leaders, both facing elections this year that threaten defeat, resorting to this ancient but proven strategy. I refer to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his soul mate, our very own Stephen Harper.

Harper is building his game plan around terrorism. The chance of a Canadian being harmed by a terrorist attack in this country is absolutely remote, but the PM isn't allowing that tidy little fact to deter him. The latest salvo in his war on terror is Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015. This omnibus of an effort has been excoriated by a host of legal experts for its excessive intrusion on civil liberties and its lack of oversight. In true demagogic fashion, opponents of the legislation are subjected to the usual accusations of treason. “Now is not the time for the NDP agenda of attacking the police and the security agencies,” Mr. Harper said. “Now is the time to take on terrorists.” Considering that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s son is a cop, I doubt attacking the police is high on the party's agenda.

Netanyahu is founding his fear-mongering on Iran's purported effort to create a nuclear weapon. He is currently bringing his crusade to the U.S., a crusade that isn't limited to the truth. His own intelligence agency, Mossad, told him Iran wasn't performing the activities necessary to produce nuclear weapons, but that didn't prevent him going to the United Nations and doing a Colin Powell. Using a bomb cartoon and a red marker, he patiently explained to the General Assembly that Iran was nearing completion of a bomb. Apparently Mossad was not amused.

So will the demagoguery work? In the case of Israel, we shall soon see—the election is on St. Patrick's Day. As for how effectively Harper has frightened Canadians, we will have to wait until the fall.

01 March 2015

Presumption of innocence be damned—Putin killed Boris Nemtsov

In this country, the "golden thread" of criminal law, embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is the presumption of innocence. To quote the Charter, "Any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal." It is one of our most fundamental rights.

In Russia, like due process, it means nothing. President Vladimir Putin runs a gangster state where he can muzzle or murder his critics with impunity. Russia's top investigative body, the Investigative Committee, answers to Putin directly. It announced it is looking into several possible motives for the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and Putin's private life. It pointedly omitted the overwhelmingly obvious motive: Nemtsov's vocal criticism of the president's policies. It seems clear where this investigation will go, or perhaps I should say won't go. We can reasonably assume the Investigative Committee will presume Putin innocent of the murder, regardless of the evidence.

Nemtsov led a weakened opposition, but he was a vigorous and voluble critic. Only hours before his murder he gave a radio interview in which he denounced Putin's "mad, aggressive" policies and the day after he was to help lead a rally protesting Russia's actions in Ukraine and the economic crisis at home. To a former KGB thug like Putin, such dissent is intolerable, just as it was intolerable to the Communism that he served. Putin didn't pull the trigger, and he may not have ordered the hit, but he is primarily responsible for the intolerance and lawlessness that puts the lives of critics of his regime in grave danger. One way or another, he stands responsible for the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. We need not presume innocence here. There can be no doubt where the buck stops.