26 October 2007

Ed Stelmach -- no Peter Lougheed, but then no Ralph Klein either

Once upon a time. long, long ago, Alberta had a premier who insisted that Albertans get a fair share of their oil and gas revenues. His name was Peter Lougheed, and he stood up to both the oil industry and the federal government, at times earning the hostility of both, to defend our interests. Then things changed. First came Don Getty, who was incompetent, then Ralph Klein, who was lazy, and "fair share" declined to the point where Klein indicated he didn't care if we reviewed royalties or not.

So what do we have with Premier Ed Stelmach, a Lougheed or a Klein? Ed certainly cares -- he trotted out the Royalty Review Panel report front and centre -- but he also compromises. He will adopt about three-quarters of the report's recommended increases in royalties, leaving the government's increased take (our take) of about $1.4-billion a year half a billion short of that envisaged by the panel.

As expected, the increases were greeted with great lamentation by the oil industry, which expressed various degrees of outrage -- "shock," "really bad," "insult to the intelligence," and so on. Ho hum. With the price of oil over $90 per barrel, and the industry making its fattest profits on record, sympathy is in short supply. Even the markets weren't impressed by the whining, with some oil stocks actually gaining value this morning.

The big question, of course, is how Albertans will accept the compromise. Will they see Ed as bold or timid? Will they reward him or punish him? Only an election will tell for sure.

25 October 2007

What's sauce for the goose ...

Sometimes the hypocrisy of the world's greatest power is a wonderful thing to observe. When the Americans felt threatened by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, they launched an all out war and reduced the country to a state of bloody chaos. As it turned out, there really was no threat but, hey, everybody makes mistakes. When Hezbollah guerrillas from across the Lebanese border attacked an Israeli army patrol killing eight soldiers and capturing two, the U.S. wholeheartedly supported Israel's blitzkrieg against Lebanon. But when Kurdish paramilitaries raid Turkey from across the Iraq border, killing dozens of Turkish civilians and soldiers and capturing eight men, American diplomats urge caution and insist the hostilities be resolved by negotiation.

So what are the rules here? When a Christian or a Jewish nation is threatened, full scale violent retaliation is justified, but when a Muslim nation is threatened, dialogue must rule the day? If the Americans practiced what they preached to Turkey, and preached the same sermon to Israel, what a wonderful message they would send. And how much better off the Middle East would be. But asking the Turks to take the high road while they and their dearest friend take the low road sends a message that invites contempt.

22 October 2007

You must be kidding, Tony

For a very bright guy, Tony Blair does and says some very dumb things. In a major speech in New York, he had the following to say about Muslim extremists, "There is a tendency even now, even in some of our own circles, to believe that they are as they are because we have provoked them and if we left them alone they would leave us alone. I fear this is mistaken." Really, Tony? Let us assemble the evidence:
  • The West supported the imposition of Israel on the Arab world, thereby solving a European problem in true colonial style by dumping it on the Third World. Israel, on its part, has ethnically cleansed Arabs by the hundreds of thousands and oppressed the remainder while busily stealing their land. The West, particularly the United States, persists in supporting Israel despite its rogue behaviour.
  • In the 1950s, Britain and the United States destroyed the first Muslim democracy in the Middle East in Iran. Recently, Western nations, including to our shame Canada, conspired to crush the latest Middle Eastern Muslim democracy in Palestine.
  • Not content with wrecking democracy, the West staunchly supports Middle Eastern dictators, including the dreadful Sauds of Arabia, a favourite of both Britain and the U.S. This support includes massive arms sales and military training.
  • And, as if waging war in two Muslim countries wasn't enough, Western militarists like Blair and Bush, with Iran in their sights, seem to be gearing up for an attack on a third.
In the face of all this, Tony would have us believe the West hasn't provoked and doesn't continue to provoke Islam to extremism?

I suggest the evidence is irrefutable: the West is overwhelmingly responsible for Muslim extremism. I'm not a Muslim, I'm not even religious, in fact I'm an atheist, but even I get angry listening to Blair pontificate about the West's innocence. No wonder young Muslims in Britain go off the deep end.

During Blair's speech, attended by powerful men such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and media baron Rupert Murdoch, he received three standing ovations. Blair's blinkered view of the West's contribution to Third World rage clearly holds sway in very influential circles. This does not bode well for peace in the Middle East or justice for the Palestinians or, for that matter, dealing with violent hostility toward the West.

15 October 2007

The devil made me do it

Well, that's Monsignor Tommaso Stenico's story anyway. The Vatican official was caught on video tape in his office propositioning a young man with an offer for sado-masochistic sex. The young man, who had encountered the priest on an Internet chat room, had surreptitiously brought recording equipment to his appointment to expose the hypocrisy of the Church.

The Monsignor insists he isn't gay. He explains he was just posing as a homosexual to research a plot by satanists. It sounds like Satan is winning.

Following a report on TV, a spokesman for the Pope admitted the Vatican had suspended Stenico. Presumably, he will now be free to continue his research.

12 October 2007

The folly of growth

Leafing through the pages of your local newspaper you can come to no other conclusion than that growth is good. The more the GDP is predicted to increase in the coming year, the louder the cheers. If it is predicted to be only a couple of per cent, brows furrow. Corporate CEOs burst with pride if their sales figures are dramatically up. Politicians also get into the act -- growing populations are a source of pride, shrinking populations a source of shame. Such is it faithfully recorded in our daily press.

But then, occasionally, a nugget of wisdom appears. In the Globe and Mail this week a tiny article, discreetly tucked away on page A11, provided a sensible insight into the folly of growth. The article, referring to the views of a leading Australian climate change expert, stated, "Worldwide economic growth has accelerated the level of greenhouse gas emissions to a dangerous threshold scientists had not expected for another decade." Internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer and conservationist
Tim Flannery based his conclusions on reports from UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working groups. He declared, "We are already at great risk of dangerous climate change ... It's not next year or next decade. It's now."

So what is this madness? While scientists tell us economic growth is fouling our planet, we go insanely on producing ever more stuff, consuming ever more stuff, and loudly proclaiming what a good thing it all is. Are we not exhausting the Earth's resources fast enough? Are we not polluting the planet quickly enough? Growth for the sake of growth it seems -- the philosophy of the cancer cell.

And, our scientists are telling us, we are a cancer on the Earth. Growing without direction or constraint we are strangling the life out of the celestial body that sustains us. If a cosmic physician were consulted, he might insist that Homo sapiens is the name of a disease -- for life on a planet, a possibly terminal disease.

11 October 2007

Burma and unrealistic expectations

Any number of observers have mused about the duty of China and India to pressure Burma's military dictators into recognizing the human rights of the Burmese people. They have been scolded for not doing so, even accused of enabling the generals by maintaining cozy relationships with them.

How wonderful if they would use their considerable muscle to bend their wayward neighbour into moral shape. But how unrealistic to expect it. Great powers just don't behave that way. China and India have developed mutually beneficial relationships with Burma under the military and great powers nurture regimes that are of use to them, they don't undermine them. We in the Western hemisphere should understand that. We need only consider the behaviour of our local great power, the United States, toward oppressive regimes they find useful.

What did the Americans do when the Argentinean generals murdered tens of thousands of their citizens in the 1970s and 80s? What did they do when the Chilean military tortured and murdered thousands of its people? And what did they do when the Guatemalan military slaughtered thousands of students, workers, professionals and peasants during its 35-year reign of terror? For the most part, the answer is they enabled. They provided these militaries with arms, they trained many of the officers who carried out the atrocities, and in the case of Chile, even helped install the dictatorship. They saw these regimes as useful and acted accordingly.

Of no small importance in the Burma equation are its oil and gas reserves. China and India are not about to let human rights get in the way of obtaining energy resources any more than the United States does. The Americans supported Saddam Hussein as long as he was a reliable oil supplier and only turned on him when he no longer was. They currently support the Gulf dictators, including the execrable Sauds of Arabia, the most misogynistic regime on Earth, and recently agreed to sell them $20-billion worth of arms. As long as the oil keeps flowing west, they will no doubt get all the arms they can afford.

To expect China and India to allow the brutalizing of Burmese citizens to interfere with easy access to energy is to expect them to behave at a much higher standard than the United States. Not that that wouldn't be easy, it's just unrealistic.

10 October 2007

Proportional representation ... it's a start

Fair Vote Canada's slogan is "make every vote count." Considering that democracy means political equality, ensuring that every citizen's vote counts the same as every other's is indeed essential to democracy. That is obviously not the case under our current first-past-the-post voting system. And that of course is why we must adopt proportionality. But is that enough?

If our goal is to have fair representation in our legislatures, it is, but if our goal is to have fair representation in our governance, it isn't. Governing would remain the prerogative of the ruling party or parties. Legislators in the opposition benches would still be shut out of the process. Our votes under proportional representation would be equal, but our participation in our governance would not. And it seems to me that is the real objective. If it is, then
proportional representation is the first step, an essential step to be sure, but we have to go further. We must ensure every elected member of the legislature is involved in governing.

We might start by freeing our legislators to represent their consciences and their constituents. This would mean breaking the back of the caucus system. Caucus solidarity demands that once an issue is thrashed out in party caucus, all members of the party must vote as a bloc. Elected members owe a loyalty to their parties, simply because most people vote for the party not for the candidate, but this doesn’t justify turning them into legislative ciphers.

We might also abandon the tradition, and it is just tradition, of a government falling if defeated by a vote on a bill involving money or a matter of policy. If such a bill is defeated, the tradition insists that cabinet, chosen from the legislature, has lost the confidence of the legislature, and therefore of the people, and must resign, in accordance with the principle of responsible government. If the rule didn’t apply, members could vote freely and legislatures could provide a place of meaningful debate. Indeed, if the government were forced to come back with a revised bill, it might very well be better legislation and more in agreement with the public’s wishes.

If we are really serious about turning our legislative nobodies into somebodies we could make them, not cabinet, the source of policy and law. We could do this by instituting strong committees.

Our legislatures use committees now. The House of Commons has standing committees on everything from human resources to finance to national defence; legislative committees appointed to review bills; and special committees set up to investigate particular issues. They do a great deal of important work, however, they are ultimately subject to the whims of the executive, which is inclined to ignore any committee recommendations it frowns upon. They review bills, but they can only propose amendments, not make them, and even then only amendments that do not alter the substance of the bill. They review appointments, but they cannot veto them.

The best way to give teeth to committees would be to transfer law-making power to them. Standing committees could be responsible for initiating legislation in their areas, special committees for issues that arose outside of the regular jurisdictions. Committees could bring other appropriate government business under the rule of the legislature as well. For example, rather than having appointments made by the party in power and only reviewed by committee as is now the case, appointment committees could ensure that a host of public positions, from parole boards to governors of universities to Supreme Court judges, are filled on the basis of ability rather than patronage.

We could go even further. Committees could choose their own chairpersons, the choices to be approved by the entire legislature, and the chairpersons could then form the cabinet. Currently, the prime minister, or premier, who is chosen not by all the people but by his party, selects the cabinet, which in effect becomes the government. If cabinet ministers are to be responsible to the legislature, to the representatives of the people, they must be chosen by the legislators. The legislators could even, as they do in Germany, choose the prime minister. This prime minister would generally turn out to be the head of the main governing party, but the point is he or she would be approved by the representatives of all the people.

Legislative committees as law-making bodies would allow all parties in the legislature to participate in government and therefore allow all citizens to be represented in governing. And this, I believe, is our ultimate and proper goal.

Bringing more views into the process would result in better legislation, reduce friction, facilitate the acceptance of legislation, and create a climate more amenable to new ideas. By bringing all the political parties together, the process of creating our laws, and therefore governing ourselves, would become a much more co-operative, less adversarial, process.

These are only suggestions. The point is if we want to ensure every citizen participates equally in his or her governance, we must go beyond proportional representation. It is an essential start, but only a start.

05 October 2007

Architecture, ego and the ROM

A recent article in the Globe and Mail about the woes of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto rather nicely illustrates modern architectures' sacrifice of charm, personal scale and functionality to architectural ego.

The Crystal is a brutal assault on the dignity of a heritage site. It is rather like slashing the face of a handsome old friend, an almost criminal act ... at the least, an act of vandalism.

It illustrates an underlying problem of modern architecture. Architects like to think of themselves as artists, but this isn't their role. An artist answers only to his muse, that is to say, his ego. If an audience appreciates what he does, that's icing on the cake, but he is obliged only to please himself. The architect, by contrast, must serve first the public. His principal responsibility is to the people who will have to work in his building, or live in it, or appreciate exhibits in it, or just look at the damn thing when they walk down the street. The responsible architect must submit his ego to the needs of the public, and of course to the demands of function. Unfortunately, too many modern architects ignore all this and dedicate themselves to building monuments to themselves.

The question is why we put up with this. Perhaps it's because the decision-makers, such as the ROM's selection committee, simply want to be chic, hip, with it, cutting edge ... whatever. Or perhaps it's simply a matter of scale. One of the villains of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, coined the phrase "less is more" to define his minimalist approach. Less may be more on the artistic scale. Drawn at 30 inches, a building of simple glass and concrete slabs, shorn of decoration, may appear quite sleek, quite arty, but built at 30 stories it will lack human scale, it will be cold and intimidating. Similarly, a crystal penetrating a cubic form may have a certain elegance as a drawing. As a full scale structure it is brutal and crude.
A passer-by, confronting such a monstrosity, might believe he has happened upon a flying saucer that just crash-landed.

Whatever the administrators of the ROM were thinking of, it wasn't maintenance. The window-cleaning costs alone are expected to increase by up to $200,000 a year. What folly for an institution that depends on charity. Two hundred thousand dollars that could have been spent on collections will now be spent on scrubbing glass. The additional daylight allowed by the Crystal addition risks bleaching exhibits, so the museum has had to purchase special blinds to filter out UV rays. And then of course there's the problem with the Crystal leaking.

Nor were they thinking about their customers. With all the weird walls and corners, safety has turned out to be a major challenge. Al Shaikoli, director of capital development and facilities, admits "We didn't predict human behaviour."

Nor were they thinking about the exhibits. With no vertical walls for displaying artifacts, one artist was reduced to designing a temporary wall for his exhibition -- it cost $200,000. Director of gallery development Dan Rahimi candidly admits the architect, Daniel Libeskind, "didn't design this building based on the collections. We had to design the collections to go with the building." As one letter writer to the Globe observed, that's rather like buying a painting because it fits over the sofa.

So there you have it. Forget about the function of the building, its very purpose, and forget about the people who are to use it. It's all about the architect. Instead of form following function, function follows form ... and ego.