30 September 2013

Help Saudi women get behind the wheel—sign the petition

In an apparent attempt to demonstrate that there is no limit to the idiocy of Saudi Arabian misogyny, a Saudi cleric has explained why women should not be allowed to drive. According to Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, "If a woman drives a car ... that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards. That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees." The good cleric did not quote sources to support his royal "we."

Unfortunately Saad al-Lohaidan is not without influence. He is a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists.

A campaign is calling on women to defy the ban with a protest drive on October 26th. Not surprisingly, the Saudi regime has blocked the campaign's website in the kingdom. If you would like to sign a petition supporting an end to the ban, you can do so here.

28 September 2013

Global warming will be long with us

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls it the "greatest collective challenge we face as a human family.” He is, of course, referring to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the first installment of its Fifth Assessment Report Friday and it has much of interest to say about the "greatest collective challenge."

This includes the stark warning that "Carbon dioxide induced warming is projected to remain approximately constant for many centuries following a complete cessation of emissions. A large fraction of climate change is thus irreversible on a human timescale, except if net anthropogenic emissions were strongly negative over a sustained period." To put it bluntly, unless we invent some way to suck billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, we will be stuck with the higher temperatures and all the attendant problems for centuries.

And of course the longer we allow emissions to increase, and we are doing precisely that, the worse those problems will be. Storms and floods will be bigger and more frequent, droughts will be vaster, and sea levels will continue to rise. Indeed sea levels will continue to rise for centuries even if emissions don't increase due to the delayed effects of thermal expansion of the warming oceans and the melting of ice sheets. And then there is the nightmare of global warming becoming irreversible, a very real possibility if we don't soon act proportionate to the "greatest collective challenge."

Considering our procrastination with reducing emissions, developing means of removing them from the atmosphere will be challenging indeed. We may as well accept that we will be living with our increasingly unpleasant new normal for a very long time.

27 September 2013

Americans support Keystone

Prime Minister Harper was talking tough about the Keystone XL pipeline this week. On a visit to New York, he told the Canadian American Business Council that he wouldn't take no for an answer. His bravado may have been bolstered by a recent Pew Research Center survey that showed two-thirds of Americans support the pipeline. Even most Democrats are on side.

All fossil fuel initiatives do not fare so well. For example, more Americans now oppose the increased use of fracking than support it, and a solid majority support stricter emission controls on power plants. Almost 60 per cent say it is more important to develop alternative energy sources while only a third say expanding exploration and production of oil, coal and natural gas is the more important priority.

Majorities of two-thirds to three-quarters support requiring better vehicle fuel efficiency, federal funding for alternative energy research and more spending on mass transit. All good news.

Not so good about that support for Keystone, though. Those Canadians who oppose the pipeline, myself included, simply have to face the unfortunate fact that most Americans are on the Prime Minister's side on this one.

Why has Canada failed Omar Khadr?

The first responsibility of the state is to protect its citizens, particularly its children. The Canadian state has utterly failed that responsibility in the case of Omar Khadr.

Omar was the classic child soldier, formally identified as such by the head of the United Nations child soldier program. Indoctrinated in an extreme philosophy from birth, at the age of fourteen his family placed him in the hands of fundamentalist fighters in Afghanistan. He was completely dependent on them, not merely for his room and board but for the very thoughts in his head. He did the only thing he could, he fought alongside the men he had been taught to believe were heroes in the defence of the one true religion. He was captured by the Americans after a firefight, interrogated, imprisoned, cruelly abused and finally put on trial for murder and other crimes.
He is the only minor convicted of war crimes in modern history—and the Canadian government allowed it to happen. It rejected pleas by Amnesty International, UNICEF, the Canadian Bar Association and other prominent organizations to repatriate or extradite him.

In 2010, he pled guilty at a military tribunal in the infamous Guantanamo prison. As part of the plea deal he was repatriated to Canada in 2012 to serve the remaining six years of his sentence and earlier this year was transferred to the maximum security Edmonton Institution.

When his lawyer appealed before the court this week to have him transferred to a minimum security prison where he would have access to the rehabilitation programs he needs to apply for parole and to prepare for his re-entry into society, Prime Minister Harper stated his government would "vigorously defend against any attempts, in court, to lessen his punishment." Our government has not yet, it seems, extracted its pound of flesh.

Civilized nations do not punish child soldiers, or allow other nations to punish them. We have done both, and worse. We have allowed him to be more than punished, to be cruelly abused, to be incarcerated and to be subjected to a drumhead trial.

You can often tell the character of a nation by how it treats a single citizen. Canada's character has been dishonoured by this case. It has revealed the dark, vindictive side of our nature and of the government that leads us. It is a tragedy not only for Omar Khadr.

25 September 2013

Buying Calgay's civic election with a little help from Preston Manning

Alberta's election funding rules are notoriously weak. Those applying to municipal elections are no exception. The essentials can easily be summarized: no spending limits, contributions limited to $5,000 a year (the candidate may contribute up to $10,000 of his own funds), and the candidate must file a disclosure statement of contributions over $100. Candidates are allowed to keep surplus revenue for future campaigns.

As lax as these rules are, they apparently aren't lax enough for the development industry, the major funder of both provincial and municipal elections in Alberta. In the 2010 election, their preferred candidate lost to Naheed Nenshi even though, with their generous help, he outspent Nenshi 2.5 times. Perhaps chagrined by their loss, to say nothing of dealing with a mayor who is no friend of sprawl, this time they have recruited Preston Manning to provide a little third party help.

Shane Homes and 10 other home builders are donating $100,000 each to the Manning Centre which is offering a training program for municipal candidates with "market-oriented ideas and principles." For the latter, read pro-developer. The Centre is also funding a new group that will "focus both citizens and candidates on public policy issues." Considering that the group is headed by a Conservative party organizer, is a critic of Calgary's city planners, lists a real estate agency and powerful Calgary home builders as supporters, we can guess what that focus will be.

This third-party manoeuvre has been described by Mayor Nenshi as the use of "Super PACs," referring to those committees in the U.S. that are allowed to raise and spend unlimited funds on elections while avoiding legal limits by supporting a candidate or party but not contributing directly to their campaigns.

In response to his critics, Manning replies that if anybody doesn't like what his think tank is doing, they can start their own. Well, yes, they could, but who can kick off a think tank with over a million dollars from fewer than a dozen donors? The answer, or course, is someone who, like Preston Manning, panders to the rich. Mr. Manning's disingenuous comment reveals the problem: we all enjoy free speech but the rich are able to enjoy it— and exploit it—a great deal more than the rest of us. And at election time, that matters. Without strict funding rules, they can dominate the process.

In order to bring Calgary's municipal elections into a truly democratic regime, a number of reforms are necessary, including much stricter limits on contributions and confining them to election years, restrictions on spending, and requiring candidates to contribute surplus revenues to charity to ensure all candidates start out equally in the next election.

And of no small importance, limits must be applied to third parties. Mayor Nenshi is right—we don't need Super PACs perverting Calgary elections. Meanwhile, in October we will watch with interest how Calgary voters dispose of Preston Manning's developer slate.

23 September 2013

The New York Times bashes Canada's science-bashing

Is it just my imagination or is Canada's international reputation slipping into the sewer? The question seemed particularly pertinent this morning as I read an editorial in the New York Times Sunday Review entitled "Silencing Scientists." I don't have to tell you whose scientists they are referring to. It's a short piece so I'll include it below (warning—may contain content unfit for younger readers):
Over the last few years, the government of Canada—led by Stephen Harper—has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists.

It began badly enough in 2008 when scientists working for Environment Canada, the federal agency, were told to refer all queries to departmental communications officers. Now the government is doing all it can to monitor and restrict the flow of scientific information, especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands—source of the diluted bitumen that would flow through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Journalists find themselves unable to reach government scientists; the scientists themselves have organized public protests. 

There was trouble of this kind here in the George W. Bush years, when scientists were asked to toe the party line on climate policy and endangered species. But nothing came close to what is being done in Canada.

Science is the gathering of hypotheses and the endless testing of them. It involves checking and double-checking, self-criticism and a willingness to overturn even fundamental assumptions if they prove to be wrong. But none of this can happen without open communication among scientists. This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance.
It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush—the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences. The Harper policy seems designed to make sure that the tar sands project proceeds quietly, with no surprises, no bad news, no alarms from government scientists. To all the other kinds of pollution the tar sands will yield, we must now add another: the degradation of vital streams of research and information.
Worse than the Bush years, no less! I think the last sentence sums it up nicely—yet more tar sands pollution. And please note they say "tar" sands, not "oil" sands.

22 September 2013

Be happy, be an atheist

I couldn't resist a chuckle over a study reported in the October issue of the journal Psychological Medicine. The study, entitled "Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort study," examined the incidence of major depression in 8,318 people from seven countries over a one-year period. The participants were broken down into three groups: a group who held "a spiritual understanding of life," a religious group, and a secular group.

Over the year, 10.5 per cent of the first group had an episode of depression compared to 10.3 per cent of the religious participants and only 7.0 per cent of the secularists. According to the report, "The findings varied significantly across countries, with the difference being significant only in the UK, where spiritual participants were nearly three times more likely to experience an episode of depression than the secular group ... The strength of belief also had an effect, with participants with strong belief having twice the risk of participants with weak belief. There was no evidence of religion acting as a buffer to prevent depression after a serious life event."

Now, believe me, I may be an atheist but I'm not gloating. Depression is much too serious a matter for that. I'm simply pointing out the possibility that religion may be the problem, not the solution.

20 September 2013

You're making progress, Francis

After two doctrinaire popes, it's a pleasure to have one who puts mercy ahead of dogma as Pope Francis did this week. In an interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit magazine, he criticized an emphasis on abortion, gay marriage and contraceptives at the expense of more important matters. Unfortunately, he doesn't challenge the Church's position on these issues—still a long way to go there—but he is at least saying the Church should be an inclusive one.

He may be simply recognizing that hammering on these issues changes nobody's mind but is simply divisive and alienating and does nothing to achieve the Church's major purpose of introducing people to Christ's message. Or in his words, "The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all."

This move toward a church of mercy rather than condemnation will not be well-received in all quarters. Already some American bishops have expressed disappointment with the pope's lack of enthusiasm in addressing abortion, gay marriage and contraception. These, of course, are the same bishops who promoted Pope Benedict's crackdown on American nuns for putting social justice ahead of doctrine. It appears the nuns now have a champion, a friend in high places so to speak. A pleasing vindication.

19 September 2013

McCain answers Putin—great stuff!

I love it—war with words rather than guns. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times laying out his views on international law and gently chiding Barack Obama for his "American exceptionalism." Now John McCain, Senator from Arizona, has answered Putin in kind—and in spades.

In the online version of Pravda, he laid into Putin, accusing him of running Russia like a tyrant while being the friend of tyrants. “I am not anti-Russian,” McCain insisted, “I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today.” McCain made no attempt to justify American foreign policy, the focus of Putin's piece in the Times, but satisfied himself with trashing Putin—a message of heat rather than light.

The good senator may not have as wide an audience as Putin did. Pravda.ru is not the famous Pravda, former flagship publication of the Soviet Communist Party, just a website with a limited following, although there's a rumour his piece may go viral in Russia. In any case, read it for yourself here. Duke it out, boys.

Wow! This NSA stuff is getting serious—Rouseff snubs Obama

There seems to be no limit to the cats whistleblower Edward Snowden has put among the pigeons. Among the gems about the U.S. National Security Agency's spying mischief Mr. Snowden has revealed is that it monitored Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's telephone calls and emails, spied on communications by her aides and targeted Brazil's biggest oil company, Petrobras.

President Rousseff is not amused. The lady has postponed a proposed official visit to Washington in October, saying, "Given the proximity of the scheduled state visit to Washington and in the absence of a timely investigation … there aren't conditions for this trip to be made. ... when the question is settled in an adequate manner, the state visit can quickly occur." She had requested an explanation and apology from Obama, but apparently his reassurances have been unsatisfactory.

Politically, Rousseff may have felt her decision was necessary in light of the fury that details of U.S. spying activities have created among the Brazilian public. Nonetheless, it is very serious stuff when the president of Brazil tells the president of the United States that a meeting is off because he hasn't met her expectations. It illustrates in part the declining influence of the United States in South America and the rising influence of Brazil, but it also illustrates the seriousness of the NSA's misbehaviour.

Part of that seriousness is the spying on Petrobras. It suggests that the NSA is conducting intelligence operations beyond that of ensuring national security and is now engaging in industrial espionage, precisely what it claims makes its operations different from those of Chinese and Russian agencies.

The NSA has been very naughty indeed. Its alienation even of friends will not help make the United States a safer place.

18 September 2013

Greece—1930s redux

When Europe sank into depression in the 1930s, politics polarized. The far right became more appealing to some, the far left to others. One reassured people by harking back to tribal values, the other by insisting nothing would do but to overthrow the system and start afresh.

In hard times, people become frightened and angry, and look for easy answers. Demagogues are ever ready to prey on their emotions. A simple answer and a ready scapegoat are their stock in trade. We now see them emerging from under their rocks in Greece.

Just as Nazi goons poured into the streets to do battle with Communists in Germany in the 1930s, so black-shirted supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party now assault Communists in the streets of Athens. Last week, 50 men wielding crowbars and bats set upon leftists as they distributed posters in the dock-side district of Perama—a Communist stronghold where Golden Dawn has made considerable inroads as austerity measures bite ever deeper. Dimitris Psarras, a writer who has chronicled Golden Dawn's rise claims their agenda is "to create a climate of civil war, a divide where people have to choose between leftists and rightists."

Whereas the Nazis victimized the Jews to promote their agenda, Golden Dawn is victimizing immigrants with Muslims their favourite target. The Muslim Association of Greece has received a letter from the group implying that its members would be "slaughtered like chickens" unless they leave the country.

Golden Dawn has capitalized on the growing desperation of Greeks like no other political party. Surveys show that they are the nation's fastest growing group and are now its third largest political force. Even prominent clerics have voiced support. The left, on the other hand, has called on authorities to "erase" the group.

There is a sadness in observing the birthplace of Western democracy slip into this condition. We must hope that most Greeks have learned their lessons and will refuse to repeat history's most tragic story.

"Lock and load" has a new meaning in Montana

The United States saw an increase of 30 per cent in suicides among middle-aged Americans from 1999 to 2010. More Americans now die from suicide than from automobile accidents with rates highest in the "suicide belt"—the eight mountain states and Alaska.

In Montana, for example, 227 people died from suicide in 2010, twice the national average. Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, referred to "Montana's suicide epidemic" as a "public health crisis.” The high suicide rate is attributed to a number of factors including a lack of mental health facilities, a cowboy culture, isolation, and the availability of guns. Two-thirds of the suicides are committed with firearms.

Montana ranks third in the nation for per capita gun possession, and guns are the most effective way of committing suicide. One study showed that in the 15 states with the highest firearm ownership, twice as many people were successful in committing suicide as in the six states with the lowest firearm ownership. Just as they are the most efficient way of killing others, guns are the most efficient way of killing yourself.

To help reduce the slaughter, health workers in Montana are now giving out thousands of free trigger locks. I've heard of handing out free condoms—this is the first time I've heard of handing out free trigger locks. But then the American West is a gun culture, and in a gun culture, trigger locks may very well be the more important prophylactic.

14 September 2013

Bob McDonald says "stand up for science"

Bob McDonald, host of the CBC's Quirks and Quarks, Canada's favourite science program, makes a plea for both basic science and for Monday's "Stand Up for Science" rallies. He comments on our federal government's unfortunate shift from basic science to applied science, in other words from the science government ought to be doing to the science industry ought to be doing for itself.

But enough from me, read Bob's message here.

13 September 2013

Did Putin really write that?

I've always thought of Vladimir V. Putin as an amoral ex-KGB thug. And I still do. But I have to admit he wrote a rather progressive op-ed piece in the New York Times on Wednesday. Overlook a belittling of Syrians' desire for democracy, a fudge about who used the poison gas and a gratuitous sermon at the end, and what's left is a well-reasoned appeal to international law.

Perhaps I was just a tad disoriented by the president of Russia selling peace while the president of the U.S. was selling war, but I was pleasantly surprised.

He made a powerful point with his argument, "If you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is
being eroded." 

I remain ambivalent about his message, however. I think we should take his gesture seriously, give him the benefit of the doubt, but we shouldn't forget that this was the man who butchered Chechnya and is a leader who continues to run a gangster regime. In other words we should be receptive, but very cautious.

12 September 2013

Quebec Charter of Values not all bad

Every cloud has a silver lining, according to John Milton. That may be a bit too optimistic for most of us but it is, believe it or not, true of the Quebec Charter of Values proposed by the governing Parti Québécois. Most of the proposed charter is offensive or just plain silly and will probably be challenged under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But there is some silver lining in the cloud. For example, it will eliminate subsidies to private religious schools. Considering that Quebec currently funds about 60 per cent of the budgets of most of the province's private schools, including parochial ones, this is overdue. And we could well emulate the idea of defunding private schools here in Alberta, as former Education Minister David King proposes in the September issue of Alberta Views.

The proposed charter would ban opening prayers at municipal council meetings, as recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report into cultural accommodation. This I would like to see adopted at Calgary City Council meetings, although Council shouldn't need the province to tell them this is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.

And then there's the section which would eliminate property tax exemptions for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings. Again, a long overdue measure which should be initiated elsewhere in the country.

So the proposed charter should never get further than that—proposed—but it does contain some good stuff which could pass constitutional muster and which deserves further debate, and not just in Quebec.

11 September 2013

September 15th—International Day of Democracy

Attention, all you democrats, mark it on your calendars: the International Day of Democracy, Sunday, September 15th—as declared by the UN General Assembly in 2007 with resolution 62/7.

Following the big day is Democracy Week, September 16-23. Elections Canada is inviting Canadians to participate in events and activities across the country. The theme this year is "Connect with democracy." According to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, "Canada's Democracy Week is about celebrating what youth are doing to promote democracy in their communities." Read all about it here. I intend to celebrate Democracy Day by attending a pub meet-up on proportional representation with some fellow Fair Vote Canada folks.

The cynics will no doubt say, what democracy? Our first-past-the-post electoral system is the world's worst, frequently electing governments most citizens don't want. Unions, the mainstay of democracy in the workplace, are under siege. Our mass media, the public forum of modern democracy, is almost entirely under the thumb of corporations, as is too much of our economy. Etc. Etc.

All this is true. Our democracy is far from perfect ... well, OK, very very far from perfect ... but that's our fault. As part of celebrating what democracy we do have in the coming week, we might also resolve to do our bit to undoing some of the ills.

10 September 2013

Climate change is ruining my tea

This is really too much. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, all aggravated by climate change, and now the cruelest blow of all—it's ruining our tea.

India produces one-third of the world's tea with the state of Assam producing over half. Now increasing temperatures and diminishing rainfall are reducing Assam's production and fouling the taste of the tea. The once ideal climate is changing. An ambient temperature that used to be below 35 degrees C, now ranges up to 38 to 40 degrees in the shade and up to 50 in the sun. (Here's something I didn't know: photosynthesis slows at 35 degrees C, and after 39 degrees food production stops. Over 48 degrees, tea leaves stop breathing and die.)

Assam isn't alone in its misery. According to R.M. Bhagat, deputy director of the Tea Research Association, all tea-producing belts are being affected.

Sometimes it seems impossible to get the urgency of dealing with climate change through to our politicians. If even a threat to their cuppa won't work, we are indeed lost.

Apple and the exploitation of Chinese labour

I have been an Apple fan since I got my first computer—Mac all the way. I cringe, therefore, when I encounter articles about the company and its exploitation of Chinese labour. So I really didn't need to read this morning that Apple's new iphone is being produced under illegal and abusive working conditions at its contractor's plant in Wuxi, China. A report by China Labor Watch claims that workers at the plant, owned by U.S. company Jabil Circuit, work more than 60 hours a week plus 100 hours of overtime a month (three times the legal limit), not including another 11 hours of unpaid overtime. The report claims further that workers must stand more than 11 hours a day with no rest outside of a 30-minute lunch break; their pre-work training is illegally inadequate; dorms have eight people per room; and a host of other abuses.

In response, Apple claims it has conducted three audits of Jabil Wuxi in the past 36 months and it has a team of experts on-site to look into the new claims about conditions there. It also claims Jabil has an auditing program of its own with an excellent track record of meeting Apple’s high standards. "Employees at Jabil," states Apple, "are among the one million workers in Apple’s supply chain whose working hours we track each week and report on our website. Year to date, Jabil Wuxi has performed above our 92 per cent average for compliance with Apple’s 60-hour per week limit." The Chinese legal limit is 49 hours.

The 80 workers interviewed by China Labor Watch would apparently disagree with Apple's claims, as would the pay stubs that indicated the excessive hours of overtime.

But believe who you will, justice for Chinese workers will never be guaranteed until the Chinese people are guaranteed freedoms of speech and association, including the right to form independent, democratic labour unions. When Apple and other companies advocate vigorously for those rights to the Chinese government only then can we believe they truly support workers being treated fairly as they tirelessly claim they do. But that of course would largely defeat the purpose of what we know as globalization.

09 September 2013

Will the tax man catch up to the corporate slackers?

Globalization as we have come to know and love it is misnamed. As it advantages corporations while disadvantaging workers and governments, it might more appropriately be called corporatization or some such thing.

Among its sins, it allows corporations to escape the democratic confines of the nation state and it allows corporations to blackmail nations into providing cheap labour. Manufacturing moves to China because China can promise workers unprotected by independent unions and without freedom of speech or freedom of association. American companies can set up in Mexico to exploit cheap labour but Mexican workers do not have the reciprocal right to move to the United States to exploit higher wages.

Another area of advantage is taxation. Coorporations can shift their profits to low tax jurisdictions regardless of where they manufacture or sell their products. A range of corporate giants have been exploiting this opportunity, including Google, Amazon, Starbucks, Cadbury and Apple. The Tax Justice Network estimates that national governments lose tax revenues of $200 to $300-billion per year in total to corporate off-shoring. Apple, for example, has parked about 64 percent of its global profits over the past three years in Ireland and Bermuda, paying less than 2 per cent income tax. Amazon has paid a negligible tax on its £4.2-billion annual sales in the UK by routing its sales through Luxembourg.

The G-20 nations have now decided to do something about it. At last week's conference they endorsed the first internationally co-ordinated effort to curb the escalating problem of corporate tax avoidance. According to The Guardian, "It is the most ambitious program of reform since the principles for bilateral tax treaties were first laid down by the League of Nations in the 1920s." The program establishes 15 initiatives that will arm tax authorities around the world with the tools they need to crack down on some of those areas most widely exploited by multinationals.

A particularly important target is the tax breaks offered by nations in the relentless competition for investment. Tax competition has created a race to the bottom where the tax burden is increasingly shifted to the middle class who are unable to avoid tax by moving their assets offshore. The G-20 is trying to put an end to this kind of predatory competition and to have more collaboration among governments.

The plan isn't perfect. For example, developing countries have effectively been excluded even though they are losing far more revenue from tax-dodging multinationals than they receive in aid. Oxfam claims corporate profit-shifting costs African nations two per cent of their GDP. 

Nonetheless, it's a good start. The next step should be to go after the estimated $21-trillion of assets squirreled away offshore by individual tax-dodgers.

08 September 2013

Australia—a win for Tony Abbott (and Richard Murdoch)

By all accounts Tony Abbott waged a highly effective campaign in leading his Liberal (conservative) Party to victory in the Australian election on Saturday. And it didn't hurt that he faced a Labour Party splintered by internal bickering.

But the biggest boost of all may very well have been the massive support Abbott's party got from Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate whose newspapers cover 70 per cent of the country's readership, a formidable propaganda machine. Indeed, given that kind of backing, perhaps the only surprise was that the Liberals didn't win the landslide many predicted. On election eve, Abbott referred to Murdoch as a "hometown hero." He certainly did heroic service for the Liberals.

All of this must be deeply disturbing to democrats. Democracy is about political equality, and when one man has the kind of power Murdoch does, democracy is mocked. And that power is not limited to Australia. It is said you can't become prime minister of Great Britain without his blessing, his media empire there is so vast. He even exercises considerable influence in the U.S. with his ownership of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, America's largest newspaper. The power of this one man trivializes the power of ordinary citizens.

Canada has its own Rupert Murdoch of sorts—Pierre Karl Péladeau—the owner of Quebecor Media Inc., a media monster that includes the country's largest newspaper chain.

Democrats may fret about this disproportionate power, but Tony Abbott won't be among them. It has served him well, and he will no doubt bask in the approval of his hometown hero for the next four years.

06 September 2013

Is Obama forgetting that many Syrians support Assad?

As humanitarian concern over the Syrian tragedy transforms into a call for war, I wonder if we in the West—and most importantly President Obama—aren't forgetting that many Syrians support Bashar al-Assad. The last poll I could find (January 2012) showed that 55 per cent do not want him to resign.

Many segments of the Syrian population have good reason to fear the rebels. Women, for instance. They are now free to enter public life, but that could change if an Islamist opposition took over. The fact that the rebels are supported by Saudi Arabia, the world's most misogynistic nation, does nothing to ease their concern.

The military support Assad, of course. As do the merchant classes. Christians, who make up 10 per cent of the population, are terrified of the Salafi elements among the rebels. A variety of ethnic groups also fear the gunmen for similar reasons. There are even those among the opposition who fear their violent brothers-in-revolution.

This is not to say these various sectors of the population support Assad in his dictatorship. They don't, most want democratic elections, but they fear for the future of their country if change is dictated by ideological gunmen.

How, I wonder, does Obama think all these Syrians will react if he attacks their country. Does he think they will applaud? That is not the lesson of history. History tells us that when under attack, people rally behind their leader, even an unpopular leader. They may not much like their government, but they like foreign aggressors a great deal less. Congress may approve Obama's plan to bash Syria, but the result may surprise and disappoint him. Syria will be a more bloody and battered place but it may also have a more determined population rallying behind their president and against the rebels. And against the United States.

Odds against Obama

Lay your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Will President Obama get the support he wants from Congress for an attack against Syria, or will he suffer an historic and humiliating defeat? At the moment the odds are long against him.

Various news organizations contacting members of Congress report that the nays outpace the ayes by at least 3-1. A Washington Post count of the House of Representatives was much worse. With 371 out of the 435 members of the House contacted, 204 were against or leaning against and only 24 were in favour with 143 undecided. He may well win the Senate, although it will be close, but the House is a long shot indeed.

Obama would seem to have a very big sales job to pull off in a very short period of time, particularly with the American public strongly against the war.

While a defeat would be a devastating rebuke to Obama, the biggest losers might be House Leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They support the measure while most rank-and-file Republicans are opposed. Yet another division in the Republican Party would be opened up. Yet another reason to hope the resolution fails.

05 September 2013

Sanctions—deadlier than war?

Most Canadians, I suspect, don't pay much attention to the use of sanctions in international politics. War, yes—people being shot, bombed, and apparently even gassed is hard to ignore—but sanctions are complicated and largely invisible, easy to tune out. Most people's reaction is simply, "They're a lot better than war, eh?

But an eye-opening article in Harper's September issue suggests that is not necessarily so. The article, "A Very Perfect Instrument," claims that the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq cost the lives of at least half a million children from malnutrition and such diseases as gastroenteritis and cholera compared to the death toll of 174,000 from subsequent violence.

That wasn't supposed to happen—the sanctions allowed for shipments of food and medicine. But this safeguard existed more in theory than practice. The United States blocked attempts by the Iraqis to buy pumps needed for water treatment plants. Chlorine, for disinfecting the contaminated water, was denied also on the grounds it could be used as a chemical weapon. People were forced to use dirty water and the result was a slaughter of the innocents.

The current sanctions against Iran create a similar dilemma. If the Iranians want to buy food or medicines, they must pay through a bank of the country from which they make the purchase. But foreign banks are terrified of dealing with Iran lest they be punished by the Americans for sanctions-busting. They can be fined or have their U.S. assets seized. The article offers the example of an Iranian pharmaceutical executive who presented a French bank with documents showing that a trade deal was legal only to be told that even if he brought a letter form the French president himself, they would not risk it. Iran is, in effect, shut out of the international banking system.

That the Iranian people pay the price of sanctions is not surprising. After all, sanctions are intended to undermine governments by hurting ordinary citizens. As Winston Churchill said about the blockade of Germany during the First World War, the intention was to "starve the whole population of Germany ... into submission."

The article suggests that the sanctions won't dissuade the Iranians from their nuclear ambitions (whatever those ambitions might be) for at least two reasons. First, they are doing more to rally the people behind the government than turn them against it. And second, the ayatollahs simply don't believe that this is the purpose of the sanctions. They believe that the American goal is to destroy the regime. And they are probably right.

In the meantime, ordinary Iranians suffer. Referring to the WWI blockade of Germany, the article makes an interesting point. The blockade persisted for five months after the armistice, and this peacetime extension resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people, many of them children. A survey which asked young Nazis why they supported Hitler suggested a major reason was their "vivid memories of childhood hunger and privation." We might well wonder what the sanctions are brewing in Iran.

02 September 2013

At least the provinces (well, two of them) care about climate change

In a good news item, the governments of Ontario and Manitoba announced they will maintain the internationally renowned Experiment Lakes Area project. Ontario has committed $2-million a year and Manitoba another $900,000 over six years through its funding of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The IISD, a Winnipeg-based public policy research organization, will run the site.

The project's future had been in doubt since the federal government announced last year that, as part of its budget cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, it would close the site despite its international reputation as a pioneer of research into such environmental problems as acid rain, mercury and phosphates.

In making the announcement, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stated, "I am thrilled that the Experimental Lakes Area will remain open. The research performed here provides invaluable knowledge about climate change and helps protect freshwater systems around the world."

So there you have it, a premier who rhapsodizes about research into climate change. What a pleasant change from a prime minister (and at least one premier) who rhapsodizes about producing dirty oil.

How will the West react when the Sauds turn on their people?

Various Western nations, including Great Britain, the U.S. and France, are exhibiting great outrage against Syria's assaults on its own people. And outrage is indeed called for. Yet there is no small measure of hypocrisy about the West's righteous anger.

Another dictatorship in the Middle East, the misogynous Saud family of Saudi Arabia, may in the not too distant future see its people rise up against it. If, or perhaps when, they do, it will have massive arms with which to suppress them, courtesy of Western Nations. Indeed, it has already used its war machinery against a popular uprising, participating in the violent repression of legitimate dissent in Bahrain.

The contract between BAE Systems of the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, had by 2005 earned that company and its predecessor £43-billion with the potential of £40-billion more, the largest export agreement in British history. The biggest foreign military sale in U.S. history was signed with Saudi Arabia in 2012, worth a staggering $29.5-billion. Of the European Union countries, France leads the list with arms sales to the Sauds of €2.2-billion in 2010 alone. In a nice touch, the U.S. recently announced a $641-million sale of cluster bombs to their favourite customer.

Ironically, Saudi Arabia continues to depend on the United States to guarantee its external security while it focuses its military might domestically—countering terrorism, suppressing dissidents and maintaining its iron grip on its own society.

While Western nations rail against Bashar al-Assad for using his military to kill his own people, those same nations arm to the teeth the thugs who may well be the next butchers of their citizens.