31 October 2011

Congratulations to the Palestinians ... and UNESCO

Allow me to add my cheer to those that went up at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 36th General Conference after delegates approved Palestinian membership. The move was particularly courageous considering the United States will now punish the organization by cutting its 22 per cent contribution.

The Americans claimed they opposed the move because it could harm Mideast peace efforts. This is nonsense. These "peace efforts" have been going on for decades, have achieved nothing and are going nowhere. They could hardly be harmed. It is well past time that efforts to achieve justice for the long-suffering Palestinians was pursued by other means—peaceful means of course. Indeed, this action may jolt Israel and the U.S. into getting serious about their peace efforts.

In any case, UNESCO's move is perfectly consistent with what Israel and the United States, and Canada and just about every other government in the world, have claimed all along is the ultimate goal—a two-state solution. Fully accepting the Palestinians into the United Nations will be an inevitable result of that goal, so why not start on it now? With the discredited peace negotiations going nowhere, why not at least do what we can? It is simply churlish to deny the Palestinians any progress at all.

Although we are no longer relevant in the Middle East, I should mention that our government joined Israel and the U.S. in voting against the Palestinians. Not, as they say, one of our finer moments.

29 October 2011

Six more MPs for Alberta—not good news for this Albertan

I admit to ambivalence about the government's announcement that under the proposed Fair Representation Act the country will gain 30 more MPs. It is a good thing, of course, to strive for more equitable representation and that's what this Act attempts to do. My province, Alberta, will receive six more seats to bring its representation closer to its share of the population.

That will be a good thing for most Albertans—but not for me. In the last election, the Conservatives won 27 out of Alberta's 28 seats in the House of Commons. The party I support, the NDP, won only one even though they received 17 per cent of the vote. The 17 per cent should have earned them five MPs, not one. Given the idiosyncrasies of our voting system, the odds are that the six new seats will also go Conservative which means representation for Alberta social democrats will be reduced even further below its current meager level. So, ironically, the Fair Representation Act may result in less fairness for citizens like me.

In fact, the system is so perverted, I have given up voting in federal elections altogether. In my constituency, Calgary Centre, the Conservative candidate routinely wins by 15-20,000 votes. The result is a foregone conclusion. My vote for the NDP counts for nothing. Under a proportional representation voting system, it would count toward electing an Albertan who truly represents me, but we don't have such a system. Casting a vote that counts for nothing strikes me as participating in a fraud, so I abstain.

To those who will benefit from the proposed redistribution, enjoy! The rest of us will have to wait for a Fair Representation Act that is fair to everyone.

28 October 2011

The "climate change caucus"—good news on two fronts

An initiative championed by Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan has borne fruit in the House of Commons. Dr. Duncan proposed a "climate change caucus" consisting of members of all parties, and it has now been formed. In addition to Duncan, the caucus consists of Conservative MP Michael Chong, NDP MP Denise Savoie, Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

According to Savoie, "The climate change all-party caucus provides a space for meaningful discussion on the defining issue of our generation—in a forum without talking points or media." The group plans on staging events to engage other MPs “regarding the climate crisis,” including climate and faith; the lead-up to the next international climate change summit in Durban; extreme events and disaster preparedness and economic impacts of climate change and clean technology.

The caucus is well credentialed for their task. Kirsty Duncan has taught medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University, and served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Michael Chong is one of the few Conservatives who is passionate about action on climate change. He has encouraged his government “to accelerate its efforts through the clean energy dialogue with the United States and at the climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico.” Both Savoie and Mourani have echoed Chong's call "to act quickly and ... to act now." As for Elizabeth May ... well, this is primarily what she's in politics for. An impressive group.

Not only are they dealing with what Duncan refers to as "perhaps the defining issue of our generation," but they serve as an excellent example of how politicians can work together on important issues regardless of political affiliation. Good news on two fronts.

Convincing this government to "to act quickly and ... to act now" on climate change is a huge challenge, and Michael Chong has not always endeared himself to Mr. Harper, but formation of the caucus suggests all hope is not lost. These days, even that is something.

27 October 2011

Capitalists really do run the world—science says so

Science, it seems, is confirming the Occupy movement's concerns about capitalists running the world. A trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology combined the mathematics used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs). They discovered that less than one per cent of the corporations controlled 40 per cent of the wealth in the system.

Starting with the world's 43,060 TNCs, they constructed a model of which corporations controlled others through shareholding networks, combined with their operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power. The model revealed a core of 1,318 corporations with interlocking ownerships. Each had ties to at least two others with an average of 20. This group represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, but in addition they collectively owned the majority of the world's large blue chip and manufacturing firms, representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.

Further untangling the ownership web, the team found much of it tracked back to a "super-entity" of 147 even more tightly knit corporations that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. Most were financial institutions.

This may not represent a conspiracy, but it does represent a disturbing concentration of wealth and power. The group shares common interests and extraordinary means to influence governments toward satisfying those interests. Thus the democracy yields to the plutocracy, which is of course essentially what the Occupy movement is protesting.

26 October 2011

The Pope supports a Tobin tax

In 1972, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin suggested his now famous currency transaction tax as a way to manage the volatility of exchange rates. He believed that governments were not capable of adjusting to massive movements of funds across foreign exchanges without causing hardship to their people and sacrificing their economic policy objectives. By imposing a small tax (he suggested something around 0.5 per cent) on each exchange of one currency into another, volatility would be reduced as would the effects on national economies.

The idea of this tax was then seized upon as a means of providing revenue for dealing with poverty and environmental issues throughout the world. It appears that the Pope has become a supporter. In a document entitled Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of a Global Public Authority, released Monday by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican recommends "taxation measures on financial transactions through fair but modulated rates with charges proportionate to the complexity of the operations." Pretty much what Tobin suggested 40 years ago.

The council went even further to recommend a central world bank that "regulates the flow and system of monetary exchanges" to help restore "the primacy of the spiritual and of ethics ... and, with them, the primacy of politics—which is responsible for the common good—over the economy and finance." These instruments would "nourish markets and financial institutions ... which are capable of responding to the needs of the common good and universal brotherhood."

So will we find Benedict XVI camping out with the Occupy movement? Probably not, but his heart seems to be with them.

25 October 2011

Measuring social progress—the Canadian Index of Wellbeing

Released last Thursday, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) illustrates yet again the folly of using the GDP as a measure of social progress. The GDP is, after all, simply a measure of how much stuff we buy and sell. It doesn't cover areas of our lives such as community vitality, democratic engagement, education, the environment, health, leisure and culture, and time use, all of which are included in the CIW, along with living standards.

The overall trend is quite different from that of the GDP as shown in the attached graph. While our GDP has increased 31 per cent over the period from 1984-2008, our quality of life has increased only 11 per cent. Although our wellbeing improved in a number of areas, we lost ground in other areas including the environment.

Furthermore, the GDP hides some disturbing trends. For example, while Canadians are on average better off in terms of income and wealth, inequality of both has increased.

The CIW is discussed in detail in the report "How are Canadians Really doing?" which can be found here. If you are interested in a comprehensive picture of the trends in Canadians' overall quality of life, the report makes for an intriguing read.

As the CIW website says, "For the first time in our country’s history, we have a transparent picture of how our quality of life—in all of its many dimensions—is changing." Here is a powerful instrument to inform social and economic policy. We will be foolish if we don't take advantage of it to improve Canadians lives.

19 October 2011

Public transit blossoms in Calgary

When Calgary's GoPlan, the blueprint for the city's transportation development for the next 30 years, was created in the mid-1990s, it predicted that by 2024, 50 per cent of commuters would be using public transit to get downtown to work. Only 33 per cent used public transit at the time. Critics said the plan was optimistic, even unachievable.

It has turned out to be wildly pessimistic. Thirteen years sooner than expected, half of rush hour commuters are now taking transit into downtown while only a third are driving. The C-Train, Calgary's light rail transit (LRT) system, now handles 270,000 trips every weekday.

Various factors are thought to have contributed to the change. First is the improved transit system. The city has continually increased transit hours, extended LRT lines and added more bus service to keep up with growing demand. Secondly, while the city has spent millions on improving its road system, it has not built freeways into the downtown. And then there is parking. Limited parking downtown has resulted in some of the highest monthly rates outside of New York.

So it can be done. People can be shifted from their cars to public transit in major ways and surprisingly quickly. If it can be done in the car-loving oil capital of Canada, it can be done anywhere.

18 October 2011

Welcome to the new Supremes

Finally, the Prime Minister has filled the gaps in the Supreme Court and seemingly with good choices: Justice Andromache Karakatsanis and Justice Michael Moldaver, both from the Ontario Court of Appeal. Politically, the two justices are considered small-c conservative, not surprising for a Conservative Prime Minister.

Justice Karakatsanis, called to the bar in 1982, has practiced criminal, civil and family litigation. She was appointed a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2002, presiding in all areas of the work of the court, and a judge of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 2010. Before becoming a judge she gained considerable experience in the public service, not a bad field of expertise to bring to the Court. Her various duties for the Ontario government included serving as Deputy Attorney General, as Secretary of the Ontario Native Affairs Secretariat, and as Chief Executive Officer of the Liquor Licence Board.

Justice Moldaver, a Gold Medalist graduate of the University of Toronto, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1990 and to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1995. He has lectured at the University of Toronto Law School and has held a variety of other prestigious positions in the legal and academic communities. One quibble about Justice Moldaver may be that he doesn't speak French.

The selection process was thorough. The Prime Minister and the Justice Minister consulted with the legal community to draw up a list of candidates which was then scrutinized by a selection panel that included MPs from all parties. (In accordance with the Supreme Court Act, the Prime Minister may only appoint a person who has either been a judge of a superior court or has been a barrister or advocate with at least 10 years standing at the bar.) The panel, which reviewed past judgments by the candidates and consulted with prominent members of Ontario's legal community, drew up a short list of six candidates for the Prime Minister's final selections. Apparently, the panel's short list was unanimous among all parties.

The Prime Minister has also maintained the gender balance on the court, not a bad thing either. Altogether, two worthy choices.

17 October 2011

Calgary's main attraction

What is Calgary's most popular attraction? The Calgary Stampede, you say? Flames games, perhaps? The Calgary Zoo? Wrong, wrong and wrong.

According to an article in Fast Forward Magazine, in 2010 the Calgary Public Library system "had more visits than the Stampede, Calgary Zoo, Heritage Park, Science Centre, recreation arenas and all professional sporting events combined." It circulated more items than any other system in North America except those of Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.

For a city sometimes perceived as redneck, we Calgarians do surprising things. We elect the most progressive mayor in the country and we read our brains out. Libraries are one of the finest measures of civilization and on that score at least, we are apparently quite a civilized bunch.

14 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street—a Sixties moment?

Is Occupy Wall Street a Sixties' moment? Will it bring about lasting change or simply fade away? Either way, it is overdue. Started in New York, inspired by the Arab Spring, it has now spread throughout the U.S. and beyond. The views of the participants are diverse, yet seem to focus on two demands: We want our democracy back and we want a more equitable, sustainable society. The demands are reasonable and timely.

The United States more than other Western nation has seen its democracy reduced to a shadow. The Obama administration offers a variety of examples. Its centerpiece of domestic legislation, the health care program, seemed designed as much to placate the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as serve the American people. And when he dealt with the financial crisis, he focused on bailing out the banks rather than their victims and even hired some of the scoundrels who contributed to the problem. But rather than blame Obama, we might ask if he had a choice. Given the lobbying and publicity power of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, he probably couldn't have passed his legislation without their concurrence. As for the financial industry, it was a major contributor to his 2008 election campaign, and he will need that support again if he hopes to win in 2012. Corporate largesse is now essential to winning elections in the U.S.

And while democracy is steadily eroded by plutocratic power, wealth drifts increasingly into the hands of those who already have the most. The United States now has its most inequitable distribution of wealth since at least the end of the Second World War and the most inequitable in the Western World. Nor is its wealth production sustainable, dependent as it is on diminishing resources and pollution of the environment.

In a properly functioning democracy, these fundamental issues would be debated through the conventional party process, but that is hard to do in the kind of dysfunctional democratic/plutocratic system that exists in the U.S. Both major parties are beholden to corporate power which wants neither issue debated seriously. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, who famously warned against the military-industrial complex would be astonished to see his country now run by a military-industrial-Congressional complex. Nor is the mass media, the political forums of modern democracy, much help in holding such debates when they are owned and controlled by corporations.

The dissenters are therefore, like those in the Sixties, left to rely on less orthodox methods than party politics or the mass media to get their message heard, such as the tried and true approach of taking to the streets.

And the movement is growing. Demonstrations have spread from New York to almost every other major city in the U.S., including Chicago, Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Unions representing transit workers, airline pilots, teachers, doormen, security guards, maintenance workers, postal workers, healthcare workers, and other labour sectors have pledged support. Actors, filmmakers, musicians, academics, and other celebrities have also shown support, as have some Congressmen.

Canadians, too, are getting in on the act, with protests planned for cities across the country, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary. We Canadians have been fortunate in not having our democracy eroded to the same degree as the Americans, nor have we suffered the same disparity of incomes. Just as we refused to surrender our financial system to the vagaries of unregulated free markets as they did, we have maintained a more democratic and equitable society generally, but the same destructive forces of global capitalism are pressing in on us, too, so adding our voices to the movement is an exercise in both solidarity and prudence.

The movement may, like those in the Sixties, produce lasting effects, or it may just fade away, but it's a righteous cause—or causes, rather—a refreshing rejection of the status quo.

13 October 2011

A message from Forest Lawn for workers everywhere

The workers at Sobeys' Forest Lawn supermarket, the only unionized Sobeys in Calgary, are currently on strike. The pickets have been on duty for two weeks. Doug Smith of the United Food and Commercial Workers union says the action resulted from the company's refusal to bargain in good faith. He claims they have been bargaining for 22 months and the union is prepared to continue negotiations, but Sobeys is refusing to return to the bargaining table. For its part, the company says it is willing to negotiate but wants to reach a contract that is fair to everyone and reflects the deal non-union employees have at other Sobeys locations.

We can make a reasonable guess what the "deal the non-union employees have" consists of—whatever the company decides to unilaterally impose. Without the union hovering in the background, no doubt it would be even less than it is now. And now the company plans on reducing all its employees to the lowest common denominator.

The lesson for workers here is an old one. Without unions, they have no leverage. They are at the mercy of management. There may be fewer unions these days, but just their presence alone remains a major incentive for companies to treat their workers well. They are the only democracy in the workplace, the only guarantee that workers voices will be heard.

I wish the United Food and Commercial Workers members at Sobeys Forest Lawn store all the luck in the world, for their sake, for the sake of their non-union colleagues at other Sobeys outlets, and for the sake of non-union grocery store employees throughout the city.

12 October 2011

Premier Redford's male cabinet

The recent election of Alison Redford as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, and thus the premier of the province, was healthy progress for women in Canadian politics. Now Premier Redford has selected her cabinet and there the progress halts. Out of 21 members of cabinet, including Redford, there are only three women.

One cannot entirely blame Redford, however. She had little to choose from. Of all the provinces, Alberta has the second lowest proportion of women in its legislature. Of 67 Conservative MLAs, only 10 are women.

Redford as premier may represent healthy progress, but obviously Alberta has a long way to go to achieve a healthy mix of the feminine and the masculine in our political culture.

07 October 2011

Congrats to Tawakul Karman and friends

I was a little surprised at the Nobel Peace Prize awards for 2011. I had felt sure the winners would include a leader from Egypt's Arab Spring revolt, the Arab Spring being the major peaceful achievement of the year and Egypt being the most prominent example of it. Nonetheless, the winners are all sound choices—all women, chosen "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

The award to Yemeni journalist and pro-democracy activist Tawakul Karman was of particular importance for more than playing "a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen." It was important also because she is a devout Muslim and a member of an Islamist party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. She demonstrates that Islamist parties are not immune to women's rights and democracy. Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee, disagrees that such groups are necessarily a threat to democracy, saying, "There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution."

Karman may have been chosen over participants in the Egyptian revolt because she has been involved in the struggle long before the Arab Spring. In 2005, for example, she founded Women Journalists Without Chains, focusing on the right to a free press.

Her award sisters, too, are highly deserving. Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state in Africa, was chosen for contributing "to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women." She has been a tireless fighter of corruption and has made education compulsory and free for all primary-age children.

The third winner, fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee, helped bring peace to her county in the early 2000s. According to the Nobel committee, she "mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections." She is now executive director of the Women in Peace and Security Network, an organization that works with women in other West African countries to promote peace, literacy and political involvement.

Worthy winners all. Congratulations, ladies.

05 October 2011

Pembina comments on the federal environment commissioner's report

I intended to comment on the October Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, offering as it did yet another disappointing, if not depressing, account of the federal government's climate change efforts. However, a press release by the Pembina Institute said it better and with more expertise than I could, so I decided to offer that instead.

Matt Horne, director of the Institute's climate change program, commented as follows on Chapter 1 of the report which dealt with the government's plans under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act:

The federal government has repeatedly exaggerated the effectiveness of its policies to limit greenhouse gas pollution, and now admits its plan will be 90 per cent less effective than it first claimed. Further, the government has ignored the legal requirement to explain how it will make up for this gap.

Despite years of debate and discussion about federal action on climate change, the Commissioner found that the federal government still does not have a solid management structure in place to achieve its objectives, or properly measure the effectiveness of its policies or spending. This is a recipe for continued failure.

The Commissioner's findings are especially relevant when looking forward to Canada's 2020 commitments. Canada will fail to live up to those commitments unless it addresses the serious gaps in the ambition, implementation and monitoring of its climate change plans.
Nathan Lemphers, a senior Pembina policy analyst, commented on Chapter 2 which concerned the cumulative environmental effects of tar sands projects:
Today, Canada's environment commissioner concluded that the federal government is not able to adequately assess the cumulative environmental impacts of oil sands development due to gaps in monitoring data and baseline information. The implication of this is simple: the government can't claim to be effectively managing environmental impacts when it is not adequately assessing what those impacts are.

Doing a thorough job of assessing and understanding the environmental impacts is fundamental to making informed decisions about whether and how development should proceed. The government is failing on both counts.

This report is the latest in a series of reports that contradict the government's claims about protecting the environment in the oil sands region. Canadians have learned that their government does not have sufficient information to make informed decisions, and as a result is unable to properly assess the cumulative environmental impacts of oil sands development. The only thing diminishing faster than Canada's international credibility on these matters is the environmental assessment agency's budget, which will be cut in half over the next two years.

This report tells a different story than what the federal government has been saying in the U.S. and the EU, where it has downplayed environmental concerns in its effort to lobby for new pipeline approvals and shield the industry from environmental measures elsewhere.
Not an encouraging picture.

04 October 2011

Loss of party subsidy is loss for democracy

Democracy is about political equality. To be democratic, a political system must in essence belong to all the people equally, and if it is to belong to all the people equally, all the people must fund it equally. One person/one dollar may not be as important as one person/one vote, but it is very important nonetheless—money does translate into votes.

The federal government's termination of the public subsidy to political parties will shift political power away from equality toward those with bigger purses, i.e. away from democracy toward plutocracy. This may be of little consequence to Conservatives because after all Conservatives believe in privilege, but it should be of considerable consequence to democrats.

The Conservatives are right in that we practice other ways of leveling the political playing field—banning of corporate contributions, tax breaks for contributions, limits on election spending, etc,—nonetheless the subsidy is an important tool in achieving greater political equality. Its loss will be a loss for democracy.

Cities—the provincial option

The possibility of Toronto becoming a province has popped up in the news again. The idea has floated around for years, supported by a variety of civic thinkers including the urban guru Jane Jacobs.

The idea has considerable merit and not only for Toronto. Under our Constitution, cities are creatures of the provinces, to be dealt with as provincial politicians see fit. This may have been reasonable when we were a rural country, but we have become an urban country, and it's time to reverse the relationship. A good start would be transforming our major cities into provinces. They are, after all, the centres of cultural and economic activity and should therefore be the centres of power.

Acquiring provincial status might require a constitutional amendment ... or it might not. If the federal and provincial government agreed to split a province, a constitutional amendment might not be necessary.

Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, a vocal advocate for Canadian cities, has been talking a lot about the need for more sources of revenue for cities, emphasizing that their growing costs drastically outpace their property tax revenues. “I’m the mayor of a city that has more people in it than five provinces," he points out, "yet I have the exact same legislative authority as any village of 30 or 40 people. And that has to change.”

Indeed it does. And if he starts promoting the provincial option as the agent of that change, he will get my support.

03 October 2011

At least read the bloody book

We in Christendom have a history of "Christians" using religion to justify violence of all kinds, from war to burning people at the stake. Indeed, exploiting one of history's gentlest prophets to justify violence is one of the more intriguing themes of the Christian story.

The prophet's Testament describes as non-violent a man as one could imagine. In Luke 6:29, he advises, "And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other," and in Mathew 5:43-4, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."

Of course, this is New Testament stuff. Old Testament stuff, on the other hand, can get pretty nasty—an eye for an eye and so on—but that after all is not the Testament of Christ, so it should have nothing to do with Christian behaviour. Unfortunately, many who insist on calling themselves Christians seem to prefer it, even when it's not so much Christ as Antichrist.

We should not be surprised therefore when the more devout among the Muslim faith also use religion to justify waging war and persecuting those who do not share their beliefs. A recent article about Pakistan in the September issue of the New Internationalist relates how religious fundamentalists in that country have brought in a number of blasphemy laws including one that specifies "death or imprisonment for life" for defiling the "sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad."

The joker in this pack is that the law would seem to violate the Koran, which says in verse 2.256, "There is no compulsion in religion," and in verse 73.10, "And bear patiently what they say and avoid them with a becoming avoidance."

But of course the disciples of violence will pick and choose from their good books, whether it be the Bible or the Koran, seeking words to justify imposing their brutish, self-righteous dogma. Asking them to read a little more carefully to find something that might at least modify their barbarous tendencies is, I suspect, asking too much.