27 July 2011

The "most Catholic country" slips away

Pope Paul VI once referred to Ireland as "the most Catholic country in the world." Now it seems the Irish are slipping the Vatican's leash. Abortion on demand remains illegal and most citizens describe themselves as Catholic, but the Irish people are becoming increasingly secular. The legality of divorce, the widespread availability of contraception and the decline in church attendance all manifest the drift from Catholic doctrine.

And now the unimaginable has happened—the Church has been denounced in the Irish parliament. Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny unleashed what the Guardian called "an unprecedented and blistering attack" on the Vatican's role in the cover-up of abuse. A report released earlier this month accused the Catholic hierarchy of undermining the Irish church's own policy of reporting child abuse to the authorities. Kenny told the Dáil that "the rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, in power, standing and reputation." Strong words, to say the least. The Vatican has responded by recalling its ambassador to Dublin.

Kenny is himself a Catholic with a political base in the country's conservative, rural west and whose party, Fine Gael, has traditionally been the stoutest champion of the church's power and privilege.

One of the most interesting aspects of this spat is that the Irish people are siding with their prime minister. Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the influential newspaper the Irish Catholic, claimed that most Catholics in the Republic would back Kenny rather than the Vatican, referring to "the widespread and positive public reaction to the speech." The lead story in a recent edition, entitled "Time for Penitence," included the words, "Instead of fond memories of a nurturing Church, most remember an arrogant authoritarian Irish Church and a privileged clerical caste that obsessed over sexuality and hell fire and neglected the tender compassion of Christ." "The Taoiseach's speech," it continued, "while unfair in some of the detail, was an emotional roar from much of Catholic Ireland to the Vatican for action now."

Will the action come? Will the Church seriously reform? Or will it continue to hide behind hollow apologies? It seems the Irish are getting tired of waiting.

21 July 2011

Crime—the declining problem

Down, down, down it goes. According to Stats Can's latest report, our crime rate has dropped again, down five per cent from 2009 to 2010, now in decline for 20 years. Particularly impressive was the 10 per cent drop in the murder rate, and perhaps even more telling about the dwindling urge to violence is the 13 per cent drop in the attempted murder rate. We are, it seems, increasingly becoming a peaceable kingdom.

This does not mean our Conservative government will back off on its law and order fixation. A major influence on crime rates is the age of the population. Our population became younger for a generation after the baby boom, and crime rates increased accordingly, now we are aging and crime rates decline accordingly. But older people worry more about crime, so it isn't surprising for concern about crime to increase as crime itself declines. The Conservatives may act on that concern and, in any case, they are conservatives and conservatives tend to cling instinctively to outdated ideas.

We may therefore be paying for law and order measures that will do nothing to make us safer but may at least make some among us feel safer. Somehow I don't think I'll find much consolation in that as I watch my tax dollars go down the drain.

20 July 2011

The energy ministers' Orwellian statement

The news release and action plan issued by the provincial energy ministers following their recent conference in Kananaskis stepped rather lightly over environmental concerns. Perhaps this is not unexpected at a meeting paid for in part by oil companies. One statement went beyond treating environmental concerns lightly to the point of trashing them. I refer to the comment in the news release that reads, “As global energy demand is expected to grow over the coming decades, Alberta’s oil sands are a responsible and sustainable major supplier of energy to the world.”

The statement is patently false. The oil sands may be a vast resource, but they are nonetheless finite and therefore, by definition, unsustainable. Furthermore, considering they represent the dirtiest form of oil produced, to refer to them as responsible is Orwellian.

If this reflects the energy ministers attitude toward, to say nothing of their understanding of, dirty oil then we, and the environment, are in serious trouble. The fact that the energy ministers of Manitoba and Nova Scotia signed on to this communiqué particularly disturbs me as I had thought the NDP had a more enlightened approach to dealing with climate change.

All is not dark, however. Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid, who did not attend the conference, said his province wasn't "comfortable with the wording that the oil sands are sustainable and responsible.” One province at least is on the side of the angels. As for the others, one despairs.

16 July 2011

Canada's growing income gap: It isn't the size of the pie, it's the size of the pieces

According to the Conference Board of Canada's report How Canada Performs, we are becoming a more unequal society. Although, in the period 1976 to 2009, all Canadians were better off in real dollars, the poor and the middle class have gained only marginally. The rich, on the other hand, are getting a lot richer. This is largely due to the "super rich"—the richest one per cent of Canadians. From 1998 to 2007—the decade of greatest economic expansion in this generation—they took home almost a third of all income growth. In the 1950s and 60s, the last time the economy grew so fast, they received only eight per cent of income growth. The graph below shows the Gini index for Canada (the share of total income that would need to be redistributed to achieve exact income equality) for 1976 to 2009.

As to what effect income inequality has on the well-being of a country, the report states, "High inequality can diminish economic growth if it means that the country is not fully using the skills and capabilities of all its citizens or if it undermines social cohesion, leading to increased social tensions. Second, high inequality raises a moral question about fairness and social justice."

How should our government react to this trend? The "fairness and social justice" bit may have little influence on the present office-holders—conservatives, after all, believe in privilege—but they should pay close attention to the "economic growth" and "social cohesion" bits. There is a growing body of evidence, summarized nicely in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, that more equitable societies are healthier societies. The evidence shows that more equal societies have lower rates of heart disease, crime, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness and other social ills than less equal societies, and the rates are lower not only for the poor but for the rich as well, i.e. everyone benefits from equality. The determining factor is the relative levels of incomes within a society, not the absolute levels. The reason, as the report states, is that less equality results in less social cohesion. This in turn results in increased insecurity, more stress and a greater obsession with status.

The Conservatives claim to want a stronger economy and less crime. An excellent step toward achieving both these goals would be to act forcefully to end this disturbing trend toward greater inequality.

15 July 2011

It all began with Maggie and Ron

The modern march to free market supremacy is often thought to have begun with the ascendancy of the conservative regimes of Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and the Ronald Reagan in the U.S. One of its ultimate—and inevitable—outcomes was the recent collapse of the world financial system and wrecking of the economies of those nations most seduced by it.

And now another chicken has come home to roost. The British media has been exposed as massively corrupt, a corruption that has crept also into the United States. Much of this has resulted directly from the policies of the twin conservative ideologues.

Murdoch was in no small degree a creature of Thatcher. Prior to the arrival of the Iron Lady on the political scene, Murdoch owned two tabloids, the Sun and the News of the World, fun reads whose exuberance, sports coverage and girly pics appealed to a male, blue-collar readership. Neither were politically influential. In return for Murdoch's support in her political endeavours, Thatcher set aside the competition law, allowing him to buy the Times and the Sunday Times and thus become the major player in the British press. Her support was also critical to Murdoch acquiring exclusive football rights, central to the success of his Sky TV. In return for this largesse, he turned his media muscle loose on Thatcher's enemies. The rise of Murdoch's empire and Thatcher's political reign in the 1980s was not coincidental.

Meanwhile in the United States, President Ronald Reagan's henchmen were busily dismantling the Fairness Doctrine, one of American democracy's strengths. The doctrine was a policy of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance and to present them in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. Under Reagan-appointed commissioners, the FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine and repealed it entirely in 1987. Thus was the door opened for vested interests to dominate the air waves without the inconvenience of offering counter opinions.

Dominated by an unethical oligarch, the British media has degenerated into a cesspool of sleazy, bullying journalism and political influence peddling. The latter is the greatest threat, corrupting not only journalistic standards but democracy itself. Murdoch, triumphant in Britain, carried his corruption into the U.S. After turning his Sun newspaper in the U.K. into an instrument of crude news manipulation and distortion, now free of the need for fairness in the US. he was able to apply the model there with his Fox News network. Fox has brought journalism not down into the gutter, but into the sewer.

At best, Thatcher and Reagan were naive ideologues, believing the invisible hand would guide greedy, ruthless men to act responsibly even as they were released from reasonable rules. At worst, they were simply political opportunists, willing to trample the public good for their own ideological and political ends. Either way, we continue to pay a high price for their misguided ambitions.

13 July 2011

China leads spending on green energy

"Global investment in renewable energy jumped 32 per cent in 2010, to a record $211 billion," reads the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2011 report. The report, commissioned by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), revealed that for the first time financial new investment (money invested in renewable energy companies, utility-scale generation and bio fuel projects) by developing countries surpassed that of developed countries. China led the way, now the world leader with investment of $49 billion. Significant increases were also seen in South and Central America, the Middle East and Africa.

Europe saw a decline in financial new investment to $35 billion; however, this was more than made up for by a surge in small-scale project installation, predominantly rooftop solar. Germany alone saw an increase of $34 billion, up 132 per cent. "Europe’s small-scale solar energy boom owed much to feed-in tariffs, particularly in Germany, combined with a sharp fall in the cost of photovoltaic modules," said the report. The cost of PV modules has fallen by 60 per cent since mid-2008. As costs decrease, feed-in tariffs—higher prices for green power—are being reduced accordingly. In 2010, investment in solar came close to catching up to that in wind.

The overall increase in renewable energy investment from $160 billion in 2009 to $211 billion in 2010 is encouraging. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner commented: "The continuing growth in this core segment of the Green Economy is not happening by chance. The combination of government target-setting, policy support and stimulus funds is underpinning the renewable industry’s rise and bringing the much needed transformation of our global energy system within reach." Yes, well ... keep your fingers crossed.

09 July 2011

UK media mess—once again self-regulation fails

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted it. He recently declared that press self-regulation in Britain had failed and a new body, independent of the media and the government, is needed to properly enforce standards. Quite an admission for a conservative, although having his one-time communications chief, former editor of News of the World Andy Coulson, arrested Friday, may have finally concentrated his mind on Britain's corrupt press.

"Party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers that we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue," said Cameron, "The people in power knew things weren't right but they didn't do enough quickly enough."

That's putting it mildly. Britain's premier press lord, Rupert Murdoch, has been described as the most powerful man in the UK, a man whose blessing is essential to winning a general election. When Tony Blair first ran for prime minister, one of the first things he did was fly half way around the world to genuflect before Murdoch in his native Australia. And when David Cameron became prime minister, one of the first visitors to Number 10 was of course Rupert Murdoch. The Great Corrupter has almost singlehandedly turned the country's democracy into an oligarchy.

This corruption of the democratic system is the greatest threat oligarchs such as Murdoch pose, not the sordid practices of paying police for information and hacking into the phone messages of celebrities, young murder victims and the grieving families of dead soldiers.

Now, in a grand gesture, Murdoch has shut down his scandal-plagued News of the World, but not, I suspect, because he has recently discovered ethics. Rather more because the paper's advertisers are deserting it by the dozen in order to avoid the taint of sleaze, and that means it could quickly become a money-loser. Murdoch may not understand journalistic standards, but he certainly understands money. And then, of course, there is his need for government approval to buy the 61 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting he doesn't own.

Cameron has indicated Murdoch's apparent act of penitence won't get him off the hook. "I want everyone to be clear," He has said, "Everything that has happened is going to be investigated." He intends to appoint a judge to lead a thorough investigation of what went wrong at the News of the World, including alleged bribery of police officers, and establish a second inquiry to find a new way to regulate the press.

The latter is something we should be paying close attention to. Our daily press, even the Sun chain, isn't hacking people's phones or paying off police officers, but it is nonetheless owned and controlled by a handful of oligarchs and even if none have the power of Rupert Murdoch their concentrated ownership undermines democracy. We, too, need an independent regulator. The daily press is our most important public forum and is, therefore, much to valuable to leave to self-regulation by corporate interests.

08 July 2011

Why we should not hold a referendum on proportional representation

It seems that every time the subject of changing the voting system comes up, we automatically assume that a change must be sanctioned by a referendum. I increasingly feel this is a mistake.

We have experienced four referendums on the voting system in this country recently, one in Prince Edward Island, two in B.C., one in Ontario, and all lost even though the systems proposed were thoroughly considered and two were recommended by citizens' assemblies. While it is true that in the first B.C. referendum the proposed system received 57 per cent of the vote, it nonetheless lost because the government set an unreasonable requirement of 60 per cent. In the next referendum the system was roundly defeated, obtaining only 39 per cent of the vote. It is time to think about whether the referendum approach is a sound one.

Referendums have major drawbacks as a democratic instrument, one of which is the ignorance factor. Some citizens will research the issue, think it through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Some won’t. The more complex the issue the greater the ignorance, and voting systems are, unfortunately, a complex issue.

Healthy democracy requires a great deal more than the people’s voice and the people’s will. It requires fully-informed, thoughtful voices and wills, and these are often absent, to a greater or lesser degree, from referendums.

One of the 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 may well be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they simply voted in a referendum.

However, if we do want the people to decide directly, we could use a citizens' assembly, rather like the first step in the B.C. and Ontario processes. With a citizens' assembly, the participants can be thoroughly immersed in voting systems such that when they decide on a system, it is a knowledgeable, carefully considered decision. Unfortunately, in the B.C. and Ontario cases the decisions of the assemblies were subverted by forwarding them to referendums. Ironically, a citizens' assembly, if chosen by random selection, will almost certainly be more representative of the population at large than a referendum. An assembly is “the people” in microcosm.

I suggest, therefore, that the preferred approach to change would be delegating the choice of a system to a citizens' assembly and then referring that decision directly to the legislature.

Electoral change does not require constitutional change. What one government legislates, the next can undo. If the people dislike a system introduced by an incumbent government, they can respond accordingly and vote that government out in the next election. A vigorous debate generated by an unpopular voting system may be just the catalyst needed to fully develop a popular sense of what voting systems mean to democracy. This sense is now seriously undeveloped in this country. Relying on referendums for change may mean it will remain that way.

07 July 2011

Canada's not entirely harmless romance with "Will & Kate"

Calgarians, indeed Albertans, will often tell you that this is a place where you are judged by what you do, not by who you are. I doubt this was ever true. I've lived across Canada and I've never found Calgarians any less susceptible to the prestige of a name or the seduction of celebrity than other Canadians. If there was any doubt about that, the current gushing over William Windsor and Katherine Middleton, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Earl and Countess of Strathearn, Baron and Baroness of Carrickfergus, should leave no doubt.

If it's what you do that counts, these two haven't done much more than any other prominent young couple of wealth might do—get born into the right family, dabble a little in this, dabble a little in that, have an opulent wedding, wave to the groupies and otherwise endure the trials of celebrity. And yet this country is honouring them as if they have accomplished something of importance.

I don't want to be a party pooper. Lavishing attention on the royal couple is generally harmless fun, but let's not forget this guy is next in line after his dad to become king of England and therefore our head of state. Choosing our head of state in this manner ... whoops, actually we don't choose, do we. Accepting a head of state in this manner is not only undemocratic, it is sexist and bigoted. Sexist because sons inherit the Crown ahead of daughters and bigoted because the heir must be a Protestant not married to a Catholic.

And one wonders why our federal government is so indifferent to the fact William won't be elected when he becomes our grand poobah. This, after all, is the party that refuses to accept an unelected Senate.

So ... let's not end the fun. They are a lovely couple and any excuse for a party, eh wot? But let's give some thought to the fact that this harmless-appearing fellow may one day be imposed upon us as our head of state in accordance with an archaic and prejudiced tradition, a tradition deeply insulting to the democratic process.

06 July 2011

British Columbians love their carbon tax ... so far

As British Columbia's carbon tax celebrates its third birthday, the province's residents seem to have grown rather fond of it. According to a Pembina Institute report, 69 percent of British Columbians are concerned about global warming and 70 per cent support their province being a leader in dealing with it. Furthermore, they would like the tax applied to all sources of pollution that cause global warming, not just fossil fuel combustion as is the case now. In fact, as a way of raising government revenue it was their second choice after corporate taxes, more popular than sales taxes, property taxes and personal income taxes.

British Columbians, unlike our federal government, are not prepared to wait for others to lead the way in dealing with climate change. Seventy per cent strongly agree or somewhat agree with the statement: “B.C. should be a leader in reducing pollution that causes global warming, even if our neighbors and competitors lag behind.” Over half feel current actions are “not tough enough” while only 36 per cent feel they are “about right.”

Indications are the tax is reducing the use of fossil fuels. Research by Stewart Elgie, a University of Ottawa economist and professor of law, found that B.C.’s per capita fuel usage had fallen more than four per cent compared with the rest of Canada while its economy, measured by GDP, has kept up with the rest of Canada's.

Nonetheless, this isn't good enough. According to the Pembina Institute, a carbon tax approaching 50 cents a litre for gasoline will be required to meet emission reduction goals for 2020, but the current tax, which has escalated each year, will work out to only 6.7 cents a litre in 2012 after which no increases are scheduled. About half of British Columbians are currently opposed to an increase after 2012, so more winning of hearts and minds is obviously required.

All of us are contributing to global warming, the biggest threat our civilization faces. All of us should therefore be held accountable for the damage we are doing. The fairest and most effective way to do this is through a carbon tax—the more you pollute the more you pay. It is encouraging to see British Columbians at least getting a start on accepting their responsibilities, but discouraging that the start is so small and that no other Canadians have accepted a comparable tax.

05 July 2011

The Arab spring—seeking a deeper democracy than ours?

Catherine Ashton, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, recently stated that the EU called for "deep democracy" in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt as they liberated themselves from dictators. She emphasized that deep democracy is about more than votes and elections. It includes the rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, impartial administration, enforceable property rights and free trade unions. "It is," she said, "not just about changing government but about building the right institutions and attitudes."

She is right about all that of course but she might have added that, most importantly, it is about ensuring that decisions of governments derive from citizens and not from vested interests. On this critical point, the governments arising out of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have the potential to be deeper than ours.

We have experienced in recent years the shallowing of our democracy. Government decisions seem increasingly abandoned to an ideology of free market supremacy within which the influence of corporations and their neo-classical economic gurus all to frequently trump the influence of citizens. An example is U.S. President Barack Obama's medicare program, the most important piece of legislation passed in that country in recent years. Without major concessions to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, it is doubtful he would have seen it passed. But much more importantly, the economic liberalization and globalization driven by free market zealotry has resulted in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

Now the U.S. and the EU are encouraging the Tunisians and Egyptians to adopt this same philosophy just as they encouraged Eastern European nations to adopt it after the collapse of Communism, ignoring the fact that many of those countries then either stagnated or endured a monster credit bubble followed by a fiscal crisis and a collapse into the arms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Fortunately, there is evidence the Arabs are not falling for it. For example, Egypt recently rejected a $3 billion loan from the IMF as Arab activists warned that conditions attached to western aid threaten to undercut the goals of economic and social justice at the heart of the Arab spring.

The Arab NGO Network for Development is concerned that transitional governments meant to be in power for the short term until elections can be held could be signing up their successors to long-term commitments to neoliberal reforms—privatization, deregulation and liberalization of trade—in exchange for the urgent financial help they need. They point out that these reforms were largely responsible for the inequality and concentration of power that created the need for revolution in the first place.

A joint statement from 65 Arab civil society groups included the following, "The path to development of each country should be decided by its own people, via constitutional processes and national dialogue." If the revolutionaries remain true to these words, they may not only create deep democracy for themselves, they may refresh democracy for all of us.