30 October 2012

Has Mr. Katz done Alberta democracy a favour?

Alberta has the laxest election funding rules in the country, rules designed to favour the rich. Toward the end of this spring's election campaign, billionaire Daryl Katz nicely illustrated this corruption of democracy when he provided a cheque for $430,000 to the Conservatives, almost a third of the party’s total fundraising, to cover the combined generosity of the Katz family and friends.

As it turns out, this is the same Mr. Katz who wanted the provincial government to cough up $100-million for a new arena for his hockey team, the Edmonton Oilers, as well as the OK for a casino license. Premier Redford has stated, to her considerable credit, that the money will not be forthcoming and furthermore she is opposed to "direct provincial government funding" for any professional sports arena. (Although note her use of the word "direct"—she has said she is not opposed to cities using their provincial infrastructure grants for that purpose.)

Nonetheless, democracy means the political equality of citizens and equality is mocked when the very rich are allowed to swamp the system with their largesse. Conservatives have in the past received as much as 70 per cent of their funding from corporations. That's plutocracy, not democracy. Elections, like courts, must not only exercise equality but they must appear to exercise equality.

Alberta's election funding rules—excessive limits on donations and no limits on spending—encourage anything but equality. Perhaps, just perhaps, the embarrassment caused by the Katz donation, combined with outrage from the opposition parties and the electorate, will push the Conservative government into enacting democratic rules.

At the very least, it ought to ban contributions from corporations and other institutions and limit contributions from individuals to an amount an average citizen can afford. Or, it could fund political parties' election expenses entirely out of the public purse. If we assume that half of Albertans pay income tax (a rough but reasonable assumption), then if every taxpayer added a mere two dollars per annum to his or her taxes, over four years this would amount to about $16-million—over fifty per cent more than the total spent by all parties in the 2012 election.

Would Albertans object? That depends on whether or not they believe democracy is worth two dollars a year, the price of a cup of coffee. I suspect most do. On their tax form, they would of course be allowed to specify which party or parties would get their two dollars.

The ball, as they say, is in your court, Premier Redford.

Americans and global warming—science bounces back

Earlier in this century, almost 80 per cent of Americans accepted that the Earth was warming and almost half believed we were causing it. Then skepticism increased and those believing in warming fell to 57 per cent and those believing we were causing it fell to a third. This increasing rejection of an inconvenient truth was no doubt aided by the massive disinformation campaign waged by vested interests and their political servants. But now there is some good news.

According to a Pew survey, over the last few years recognition of reality is returning. Two-thirds of Americans now agree there is solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature is increasing and 42 per cent say this is caused mostly by human activity.

Global warming is a vastly greater threat to Americans' security than their favourite fear, terrorism. Deniers have done grave mischief by undermining the science of climate change in order to sow confusion and doubt. Major figures in government and industry, men who are expected to show leadership, have acted with particular irresponsibility, one might even say, given the gravity of the threat, wickedness, in support of their own greed or political advantage or simple ignorance.

Perhaps the truth is now beginning to have its day. Americans still have a very long way to go before they come to terms with science which overwhelmingly declares that we, Homo sapiens, are causing global warming, but at least the trend is now in the right direction. A shred of hope remains.

26 October 2012

Israelis endorse apartheid

For those supporters of Israel who gamely continue to insist that Israel is not an apartheid state, a recent poll published in the Haaretz newspaper should offer second thoughts.

The poll was relentless: If the West Bank were annexed by Israel, over two-thirds of Israeli Jews say that the 2.5 million Palestinians living there should be denied the right to vote. Furthermore, a third want Arab citizens within Israel to be banned from voting. Almost sixty per cent want Jews to have preference over Arabs in government jobs, and over 40 per cent do not want to live in the same building as Arabs and do not want their children going to school with Arabs.

As for apartheid, the clincher is that 58 per cent of Israelis believe their country already practices it. The headline in Haaretz read, "Apartheid without shame or guilt." If the Israelis believe apartheid is being practiced and are OK with it, who is anyone else to say it isn't so?

Mr. Kenny's arbitrary guidelines

As part of a new bill enhancing the powers of the immigration minister, Jason Kenney has revealed new guidelines he would apply to deny entry to foreign nationals. Currently, visitors can only be denied entry for criminal or national security reasons. Kenny's guidelines would allow the immigration minister to bar:
• People who promote terrorism, violence or criminal activity.
• Corrupt foreign officials.
• Foreign nationals from countries against which Canada has imposed sanctions. 
Consider the first of these: "People who promote terrorism, violence or criminal activity." Former U.S. President George W. Bush and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair both promoted violence, probably illegally, against Iraq. Should we bar them from Canada? Or how about Barack Obama's assassination by drone—is that violent enough, or criminal enough, to make him persona non grata?

Then there's "Corrupt foreign officials." Russia's government is corrupt from top to bottom. Would we deny a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin? Indeed, there might be quite a few heads of state on this list.

As for denying entry to "Foreign nationals from countries against which Canada has imposed sanctions," why would we not allow Canadians, particularly those who disagree with the sanctions, an opportunity to hear from the other side? This is simple censorship, and has more to do with protecting government than protecting Canadians.

The point here is that the proposed guidelines are highly arbitrary and obviously subject to political whim. Mr. Kenney referred to Florida preacher Terry Jones as an example of the kind of person who should be denied entry. Jones, with his anti-Muslim high jinks, is certainly an undesirable specimen, but why not let him in and if he engages in hate speech, charge him under the appropriate Canadian law. This would not only teach him a well-deserved lesson but effectively discourage other hate-mongers who entertain the idea of visiting our country. And it would be achieved by due process, not by the arbitrary powers of a government minister. Such arbitrariness is to be discouraged, not enhanced.

20 October 2012

The swan song of the Round Table on the Environment

As part of its monstrous budget bill earlier this year, the federal government trashed the National Round Table on the Environment. The Round Table, established in 1988, brought together leaders from business, academia, environmental groups, labour and public policy, to bring “leadership in the new way we must think of the relationship between the environment and the economy and the new way we must act."

Considering that the members were appointed by the government of the day, the agency shouldn't have been perceived by that government as much of a threat. However, it developed the unfortunate habit of criticizing the government's lax environmental policies, for instance reporting that “Canada is currently on track to achieve just under half of the emissions reductions required to meet its 2020 target.”

This did not go over well with the government. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird went so far as to accuse the Round Table of recommending a carbon tax which in fact it never did. No matter, the government killed it.

It has now released its final report, a thorough 184-page effort entitled Framing the Future: Embracing the Low-Carbon Economy. The report emphasizes the economic imperative of moving toward a low-carbon economy and warns that we must act promptly to avoid "missed opportunities and growing economic risk." It points out that while "Canada’s actions today on climate, energy, trade, innovation, and skills will shape its economic prosperity for decades to come," the reality is that "Canada is unprepared to compete in a carbon-constrained world."

The report is prescriptive as well as descriptive and lays out a "foundation for a low-carbon growth plan" for the country. The fact that the report emphasizes economic benefit rather than environmental necessity should make it easier for our environmentally-challenged leaders to act appropriately and safeguard our country's future.

Americans increasingly belligerent as foreign policy debate looms

On Monday, Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy. Recent surveys indicate that Americans, on at least two important issues, are feeling increasingly hard-nosed which probably means advantage Romney.

Regarding Iran's nuclear program, early in the year more Americans felt it was more important to take a firm stand (50 per cent) than to avoid war (41 per cent). That view has now hardened to 56/35. In dealing with China, last March more Americans felt that building a stronger relationship (53 per cent) was more important than getting tougher (40 per cent). That has now sharply reversed with 49 per cent wanting to get tougher and only 42 per cent wanting to build a stronger relationship.

As to who is best qualified to handle foreign policy, Obama still has an edge of 47 per cent to 43 per cent but Romney is gaining fast, up 11 points since September. Furthermore, he has a nine-point lead on dealing with China on trade issues.

Perhaps also favourable to Romney is the view of 54 per cent of Americans that it is more important to have stable governments in the Middle East even if it means less democracy while only 30 per cent say it is more important to have democratic governments. Hardly a vote of confidence in democracy.

Obama has persisted with a number of conservative, Bush-era policies—reauthorizing the Patriot Act, maintaining Guantanamo, using military tribunals, expanding drone attacks, etc.—but this may not be enough to win him favour with an increasingly belligerent America. We shall see, I suppose, Monday night, and of course on November 6th.

18 October 2012

U.S. and Russia vie for Iraq arms business

Much has changed in Iraq since the Americans invaded in 2003. Saddam Hussein is gone, replaced by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki who appears to want to replace Saddam's one-party Sunni-dominated state with a one-party Shia-dominated state.

And Russia has been replaced by the United States as the chief arms supplier to Iraq. Not that Russia is out of the picture—it is Iraq's second largest arms supplier.

Despite concerns that al-Maliki is increasingly consolidating Shia power at the expense of the Sunnis, with the risk of civil war, the Americans proceeded late last year with a $11-billion sale of arms and training for the Iraqi military. As national security issues expert Kenneth M. Pollack observed, if the United States won't deal, Mr. Maliki “would simply get his weapons elsewhere.”

That he is doing anyway. This week, Iraq announced it has concluded a $4.2-billion arms deal with Russia, making it Russia's biggest customer after India. Russia is already doing well in the Middle East—it is the largest supplier of arms to both Syria and Iran. After the U.S., it is the world's largest arms exporter.

With its complexity of hostile relations between well-armed groups, the Middle East is the world's most dangerous region. The U.S. and Russia seem to be doing their best to keep it that way.

17 October 2012

Kenny's power play should be opposed

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is proposing legislation which will give the minister the power to deny visitors entry to Canada even if they don't have a serious criminal record. Now limited to denying entry only for criminal or national security reasons, the new power would allow the immigration minister to deny entry to someone who might promote hatred or violence.

The opposition parties should vigorously oppose this legislation. Hate speech laws in this country include provisions in the Criminal Code, the Human Rights Act and other federal legislation, as well as statutory provisions in all ten provinces and territories. This is the way Canadians should be protected against the promotion of hatred and violence—by due process, not by the arbitrary decisions of ministers. Mr. Kenney has promised a list of criteria to help prevent abuse of the power, which is good and I commend him for it, but free speech is too important to be left in the hands of one man acting in the absence of due process.

In 2009, this government denied entry to British MP George Galloway who was a promoter of neither hatred nor violence. On the contrary, he has long been an outspoken (if somewhat intemperate) opponent of violence. The government barred him on the grounds that he was a supporter of Hamas, a terrorist organization, because he had been involved in providing aid to Gaza. In fact, as he correctly pointed out, he was involved in providing aid to the people of Gaza via the democratically elected government of Palestine.

Perhaps Mr. Kenney's criteria will protect us from arbitrary decisions such as he himself made in the case of Mr. Galloway. But I wouldn't count on it. Mr. Kenny, and immigration ministers who will follow him, are politicians, not judges, and will always be influenced by political considerations. Canadians are mature enough to hear the views of foreign nationals—allow them in, let them have their say and let the law deal with them if they abuse the privileges they have received. When it comes to freedom of speech, we should be advocating less discretionary power for government officials, not more.

11 October 2012

A paean to the Elbow River

Last Friday I attended a ceremony that involved giving thanks that fit nicely with the Thanksgiving weekend. It was, in fact, an offering ceremony, conducted by a Blackfoot elder and his assistant.

In 2008, our community association petitioned The City of Calgary to name a picturesque little park in our neighbourhood "Mok’nstsis." The word is Blackfoot meaning “elbow,” considered appropriate as the park is on the Elbow River just downstream from a natural bend. City Council subsequently approved the name.

The idea behind the naming was to honour our area’s first inhabitants, the Blackfoot people. In order to properly dedicate the park, the association contacted Lorna Crowshoe, Aboriginal Issues Strategist with the City, herself a Blackfoot, who advised us the site should be blessed by a Blackfoot elder and put us in touch with elder Leonard Bastien to further consult. Leonard felt the name was acceptable and agreed to facilitate an Offering Ceremony to appropriately give thanks for the river, its waters and the surrounding life the waters nourish.

The association agreed and Leonard, assisted by Grant Little Mustache, conducted the hour-long ceremony. Sweetgrass was burned, the director of the community association's Heritage Committee was daubed with red ochre to consecrate the offering, and appropriate words were spoken in English and Blackfoot. The offering was a calfskin dressed with eagle feathers, sage and tobacco. After the ceremony, it was left along the riverbank at a secluded spot for Nature to do with what She will. The community association will erect a cairn and bronze plaque to tell the park's story in the coming year.

As an atheist, the ritual of the ceremony meant little to me. However I respected the sincerity with which it was performed and I particularly respected the appreciation expressed for the river and all it offers. I live by the river, walk its banks several times a week, and appreciate it deeply. I enjoy and photograph it in its various moods: ominous in the spring flood, sparkling and joyful in the summer sunshine, warmly welcoming yet melancholy in its autumn colours, and patient and serene during the long winter. For me, having grown up in a prairie river valley, it offers a wisp of nostalgia for someone who really isn't very nostalgic, a spiritual connection for someone who isn't religious. A river to which I give thanks.

Malala Yousafzai—heroine

This week the Taliban committed yet another atrocity in the name of religion when they shot 14-year old Malala Yousafzai in the head and neck while she sat with her classmates on a school bus. Still in critical condition this morning, she has been flown to the country's top military hospital for specialist treatment.

Malala has for some time been on a Taliban hit list because of her support for "the imposition of secular government" in the Swat area of Pakistan. She has exhibited extraordinary courage in speaking out against religious militants and advocating for girls' education, recently expressing her desire to set up her own political party and a vocational institute for marginalized girls in her area. A quite exceptional young lady.

Rana Jawad, Islamabad bureau chief of the country's biggest news channel, said the incident could "help the nation gel together in dismissing this mindset which attacked an innocent, harmless girl." Let us hope he is right about Pakistan rallying behind Malala to oppose religious extremism, but he is wrong about her being a "harmless girl." She is a greater threat to the Taliban than any military force.

May she recover completely and continue to serve as an inspiration to all of us.

06 October 2012

The U.S. squeezes the Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority has announced that before the end of the year (but after the U.S. presidential election) it will press for a vote by the General Assembly for upgraded status at the UN. On cue, the United States has gone into bullying mode, warning European nations that if they support the Palestinians there will be "significant negative consequences," including financial sanctions, for the Palestinians. Last year the U.S. used its veto in the Security Council to block an application for full statehood.

At first glance, U.S. opposition to the Palestinians moving closer to statehood seems to contradict its own policies. Does it not consistently claim that it supports a two-state solution in Palestine? The Israelis have their state, should the Palestinians not now have theirs? The current process—whatever it is—has been going on for decades and is going nowhere. (Or at least it has gained nothing for the Palestinians—the Israelis gain more land and further segregate the Palestinians every day.) Taking another approach to statehood, a peaceful one step at a time process in co-operation with the world's nations via the UN, would seem eminently sensible. We might expect the Americans to be applauding and yet they are instead threatening dire consequences. They would apparently deny the Palestinians any progress at all.

The answer to this seeming contradiction lies in the U.S. declaration that Palestinian statehood "can only be achieved via direct negotiations with the Israelis." The U.S. pushes negotiations between the two parties because the Israelis have all the leverage. They have the most powerful military in the region, complete with nuclear arms, backed up by the most powerful military in the world. And they occupy most of the land. The Palestinians have virtually no leverage at all. The U.S. is in effect telling the Palestinians to submit, to accept whatever crumbs the Israelis care to offer. And they are determined to coerce the Palestinians into accepting this submission by cutting off any other alternatives that might lead to a Palestinian state.

The U.S. approach is rather like what we did with the North American Indians. We forced them, by virtue of our ever-increasing numbers and our superior technology, to negotiate with us when we had all the leverage. And we know how that worked out.

The analogy with the Palestinians is not complete however. History was on our side with the Indians. As Europeans poured into North America in their millions, the Indians were utterly overwhelmed and either negotiated for very little or got nothing at all. In the case of the Palestinians, however,  history is on their side. They make up 20 per cent of Israel itself, half of all Palestine, and then there are the millions in the immediate diaspora in Jordan, Syrian, etc. and beyond that hundreds of millions of fellow Arabs.

Of course the Palestinians do face losses as Israel changes the facts on the ground by stealing ever more land. Nonetheless, with the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Palestinians and their kin and the support of the Arab peoples brought increasingly to the fore with the Arab spring, in the long term the Palestinian position is strong.

Naturally, the Israelis are keen to take advantage of the current power imbalance while the Palestinians gain by taking other approaches than negotiation which, with time on their side, they can afford to do. Thus their bid to the UN for upgraded status. One European diplomat observed "if we are to persuade Abbas not to pull the trigger, a serious alternative needs to be put on the table, and fast." That alternative is obvious: propose a settlement that is fair to the Palestinians and then the U.S. must pressure Israel into accepting it.

But they refuse to do that. They insist instead on coercing the Palestinians into negotiations in which they will be victimized yet again. The American behaviour strongly suggests the United States supports not a two state solution but rather a state/bantustan solution.

04 October 2012

The enemy of my enemy is not a terrorist

It's a truism: The other guy's terrorist is my freedom fighter. A recent example of this arbitrary logic in action is the removal of the militant Iranian group the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq or MEK from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

The MEK was originally involved in the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah but then parted company with the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. It has cut a long and bloody swath of bombings and assassinations that have killed thousands of civilians, Iranian politicians and at least half a dozen Americans. It was befriended by Saddam Hussein who allowed it to set up armed camps in Iraq and who used its fighters against the Kurds and the group's fellow Iranians in the Iran/Iraq war.

It now claims to have abandoned violence, but this may be a bit disingenuous. The MEK was on the U.S. terrorist list so when the Americans invaded Iraq, they disarmed its camps. This has not however dissuaded them from terrorism. They are, for example, suspected of collaborating with the Israelis in the murder of Iranian scientists.

And then there's the terrorism of their own members. The organization is run by the husband and wife team of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi (although Massoud has not been seen for years and although Maryam insists he's alive won't say where he is). The couple has been accused by Human Rights Watch of brutal treatment of dissenters and MEK is frequently described as a cult.

Nonetheless, after lavishing largesse on American politicians, holding rallies that featured prominent U.S. politicians and officials (often well reimbursed) and extensive lobbying, the group has been removed from the U.S. terror list by the State Department. Ted Poe, a member of Congress who has received political donations from wealthy MEK supporters, has dutifully described the group as "freedom fighters."

Some members of Congress have gone so far as to agree with the MEK that it should be considered the official opposition to the Iranian government—a ludicrous idea considering its support for Saddam Hussein and its own autocratic nature. John Limbert, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, is more realistic, calling the delisting a "strange and disappointing decision," adding the group has "a very dubious history and a similarly dubious present."

Nonetheless, the MEK will no doubt prove useful to the U.S. (and Israel) in its quarrel with Iran, so it is, almost by definition, no longer a terrorist organization. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt said about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that "he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." Apparently not much has changed except the sons of bitches.