28 July 2014

Canada Revenue Agency snubs Parliamentary Budget Officer

It may be hard to believe, but Canadians don't know the difference between what the government is owed in taxes and what it collects. And we aren't going to find out. That is the decision by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in response to a request from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) for information that would allow calculation of the tax gap.

Apparently the Commissioner of Revenue had assured the PBO the info could be provided without breaching taxpayer confidentiality or violating the Income Tax Act, but after meetings with CRA officials that initially appeared productive, the CRA declined to provide critical information, citing legislative prohibitions. The PBO stated in a letter to the Commissioner that he would, as a result, be unable to fulfill part of his legislative mandate and requested other options. After a long delay, he was told he would not be getting the information and that was that.

Tax evasion and tax avoidance through the use of tax havens has long been a problem for Canada and other countries. Indeed it is an international scandal. Knowing the tax gap would assist government in best allocating resources to recover these monies. Appreciating this, earlier this year MP Dionne Labelle made a motion in the House of Commons to order the CRA to provide information necessary to provide an independent estimate of the gap arising from tax evasion and tax avoidance via tax havens. It was defeated by the Conservatives.

The PBO is mandated to "provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances." Rather hard for him to do his job, and hard for us to get a proper picture of the nation's finances, when we don't know what's missing.

Germany stands up for democracy

Finally, someone has said enough to the erosion of democracy brought about by "trade" agreements. From NAFTA to the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, these agreements have eroded the power of governments in favour of investors.

International agreements are, in themselves, a very good idea, one way of imposing orderly behaviour among nations, and trade has always been a way of bringing people together. If we are to have trade agreements, as with any international agreement, we have to sacrifice a certain degree of sovereignty to the larger good. Unfortunately, these agreements go much further than what is necessary. For instance, by incorporating investor-state dispute settlement provisions, they have been used as instruments to provide foreign corporations the right to sue national governments, not in the nation's courts, but via trade panels established under the agreements. A three-person panel could, behind closed doors, override a nation's laws, in effect dismissing both democracy and due process.

It is precisely for this reason that Germany has declared it will not sign CETA. According to Deputy Economy Minister Stefan Kapferer, "The German government does not view as necessary stipulations on investor protection, including on arbitration cases between investors and the state with states that guarantee a resilient legal system and sufficient legal protection from independent national courts." The Germans have already taken a similar position in the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the United States.

Germany is showing a respect for its courts that unfortunately our government infamously does not have. How ironic that we must take lessons on democracy from our old foe, but this isn't particularly surprising—Germany is now, in a number of important ways, a much more democratic nation than any in North America.

26 July 2014

NHL is worried about global warming—listen up, Mr. Harper

Surprising perhaps, but the National Hockey League now produces a sustainability report. And it's worried about global warming. According to League Commissioner Gary Bettman, "Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates. Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors." This is the first sustainability report produced by a pro sports league.

It presents the league's carbon inventory, detailing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its operations, including energy and water use, waste and travel, acknowledging that NHL hockey is energy intensive. The league has established an initiative, NHL Green, to raise the level of environmental consciousness among fans and arena operators, and encourage improvements within its buildings and operations.

Mike Richter, three-time NHL All-Star goalie, now environmental champion, concludes the report stating that researchers have "found a 20 to 30 per cent decrease in the length of Canadian skating seasons over the past 50 years, with the biggest drops in Alberta, eastern British Columbia, and the southern Prairie regions."

Perhaps Mr. Richter could convince hockey fan Stephen Harper to add another chapter to his book about hockey discussing the threat global warming poses to the "Great Game." And then add what he learns to a new chapter in his environmental policy.

25 July 2014

Hamas more legitimate than Harper's Conservatives

Discussions on the Palestine issue are usually framed as Hamas vs. Israel. This suggests Hamas is merely an organization when in fact it is the democratically-elected government of Palestine, having won the last all-Palestine election in 2006. Or at least it was. That government collapsed after violent assault from Israel including the arrest of dozens of parliamentarians, sanctions by Israel and the West (supported, to our shame, by Canada) and ultimately fighting between Hamas and its rival, Fatah. Nonetheless, no election has been held since, so Hamas remains the only party in Palestine with democratic legitimacy.

We might compare that legitimacy with our elected government. Hamas won with 44.5 per cent of the vote. This compares to the 39.6 per cent the Conservatives received to win our 2011 election. Furthermore, the Palestine election had an impressive 77 per cent turnout, despite considerable Israeli obstruction. The election was described by the head of the European Parliament's monitoring team as "extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence."

Canada's election was no doubt extremely professional as well, but the turnout was only 61 per cent. In other words, the Conservatives were elected by 24 per cent of Canadians, Hamas by 34 per cent of Palestinians. One might say that, from a democratic perspective, the Hamas government is 50 per cent more legitimate than our federal Conservative government. How ironic that Canada, ostensibly a strong supporter of democracy, helped to destroy an elected government with more democratic legitimacy than our own.

In any case, Hamas legitimately represented the will of the Gazan people, if not all Palestinians, at least until the formation of a unity government with Fatah in April. Whether that remains the case, we will soon find out. Hamas and Fatah have now agreed to an election later this year. Let us hope Canada will not collaborate in wrecking this government.

I'll answer your question, Mr. Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron, like our PM a cheerleader for Israel, posed a rhetorical question this week: how would those criticizing Israel’s actions expect their own government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on their country's cities?

Well, Mr. Cameron, if hundreds of rockets were raining down on Canadian cities because our government had in effect imprisoned 1.8 million people, one million of them refugees denied their moral and legal rights to return to their homes solely because of their race and religion, I would make it very clear what I expected my government to do—END THE IMPRISONMENT. I decidedly would not tell it to invade the prison and slaughter hundreds of the inmates including children. Sometimes, sir, the best answer is the most obvious one.

22 July 2014

Who loves the US of A?

The answer to the above question, according to a Pew Research survey of 44 countries, is mostly everybody. Well, outside of the Middle East anyway. Not surprisingly, most Middle Eastern countries hold an unfavourable view of the U.S., led by Egypt where only 10 per cent of the population is favorably disposed.

Most European countries are fans, particularly Italy, France (now there's a surprise) and Poland, where over three-quarters of the public hold positive views of the U.S. Approval has declined to low numbers, however, in Germany, likely because of spying on their PM, and even more so in Russia, no doubt over the Ukraine issue.

The U.S. is overwhelmingly popular throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Popularity peaks in the Philippines, where over 90 per cent of Filipinos hold a favourable view. Even 60 per cent of Venezuelans, despite the tensions between the two countries, offer a favourable rating, as did half the Chinese. Pakistanis, however, return the low esteem Americans hold their country in with only 14 per cent warmly disposed toward the U.S.

Americans face widespread disapproval of their National Security Agency's spying and strong and increasing disapproval of their nation's drone attacks. Nonetheless, outside of the Middle East, there is little anti-Americanism and a lot of thumbs up. The median rating among the nations surveyed was 65 per cent favourable compared to 49 per cent for China, the Americans' major rival in international affairs. All in all, not bad news for Uncle Sam.

Tobacco companies—the biggest, baddest drug dealers pursue our kids

If we conjure up an image of drug cartel bosses, we might imagine swarthy men with gold chains hanging around their necks and voluptuous babes hanging off each arm. This would be well off the mark for the drug dealers who present the greatest threat to our young people. They are, on the contrary, law-abiding citizens, loving spouses and parents and friendly neighbours. At least in their personal lives. But when they don their dark suits and pick up their briefcases, these respectable family men, or women, metamorphose into commerce people, the CEOs of Imperial Tobacco, JTI-MacDonald and Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, dealers in nicotine, an addictive recreational drug that kills 40,000 Canadians a year.

They may not hang around high schools, but they are nonetheless setting their sights on addicting Canadian youth. Their latest gimmick is flavoured products—fruit, vanilla, mint, chocolate, maple syrup and menthol-flavoured cigarillos, cigars and thin cigarettes that look like a lipstick.

Loaded with kid-friendly appeal, they work. Over half of young smokers use a flavoured product. According to University of Waterloo public health professor David Hammond, "What we have is a very effective recruitment tool for kids to start smoking." Menthol (a favourite of mine those many years ago) is particularly insidious in that it not only imparts an icy flavour but also anesthetizes the throat making it easier to inhale.

The time to hook people on drugs is, of course, when they are young. The tobacco companies are quite aware that 70 per cent of future smokers start before their 18th birthday. The corporate CEOs present themselves as respectable citizens, and we accept them as respectable citizens, even as they, with premeditation, addict young people in a habit that will kill half of them if they don't manage to quit. It's a sordid business, and the tobacco barons should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

21 July 2014

Why Canadians must resort to the courts for democracy

Federal Conservatives have been complaining lately about the courts being used, in the words of MP Dan Albas, "to do an end-run around our democratic process." My immediate reaction to Albas's remarks was, what democratic process? If he is referring to our current governance, describing it as democratic is overly generous.

To begin with, our government is run by a party that won the support of less than 40 per cent of the Canadian people. In other words, we are governed by a party that a solid majority do not want governing us. This isn’t necessarily contrary to democratic process. In the past we have had governments, both Liberal and Conservative, that won only minority support but compensated by drawing ideas from across the political spectrum. This is not the case, however, with this government. It is led by the most dogmatic prime minister in my memory (and I’ll be 80 in November), a man uncomfortable with views not his own, a man who sees issues only in black and white. Never have I felt more alienated from my own government.

The current government’s style is illustrated by its environmental policy. Despite dramatic changes, I don’t remember it being presented to the people during the last election or being opened to the public for thorough discussion, and when finally presented to Parliament it was buried in omnibus bills thus precluding our elected representatives from properly debating it. Indeed, there have been suggestions that it was, in effect, written by the oil industry. In any case, this is not democratic process.

What then are the majority of us to do when our views are ignored? One perfectly legitimate recourse is the courts which, incidentally, often seem more in tune with most Canadians than the executive branch.

I agree that this is not the preferred approach. However if the government is concerned, it can do something about it. First, it could legislate an electoral system that would ensure a majority of Canadians are represented in their government. Second, before it finalized legislation, it could make an effort to hear and consider the views of all Canadians and then present a bill to Parliament such that each and every issue could be individually and thoroughly debated. Both of these measures are straightforward and could be initiated forthwith. 

Until such measures are undertaken to create a truly democratic process, concerned Canadians will have no alternative but to avail themselves of other means of having their voices heard. If Conservative MPs like Mr. Albas do not approve, they know what to do.

Hamas is not a terrorist organization

It seems that the media and politicians can hardly mention Hamas, much in the news these days, without referring to it as a terrorist organization. And indeed a number of governments, including our own, have officially labelled it as such. But we might keep in mind that our government at least is sycophantically pro-Israel and labeling Hamas terrorist is very much in Israel's interest. So is Hamas truly a terrorist organization or is this just a political ploy?

We might start by defining "terrorism," a notably slippery task. I will, for the purposes of this discussion, borrow from Wikipedia: "violent acts that are intended to create fear (terror); are perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal; and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants." So, has Hamas committed such acts? Yes, it has. But then so has Israel, Hamas's nemesis. Indeed, Israel's current actions in Gaza might fit the above definition rather well. And of course the two greatest terrorist acts in all of history—the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—were committed by our great and good friend, the United States.

Yet we have never labelled Israel or American governments terrorist organizations. Why? Well, there is a logical reason. Although their military arms have committed terrorist acts, they are a great deal more than their militaries. The governments responsible were and are complex, comprehensive institutions with social and political arms as well as military arms. It would not make sense to categorize them by only one of the many activities of only one of their parts.

But the same logic applies equally to Hamas. Its military arm has used terrorism, but the organization also has a social welfare arm and a highly successful political arm. Hamas, after all, won the last all-Palestinian election in 2006 and is, in fact, a democratically elected government, not merely an organization. Reuven Paz, Israeli scholar and specialist in Islamic movements, has stated that 90 per cent of Hamas’s activities involve “social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities.”

So to categorize Hamas as a terrorist organization is no more logical than to categorize other governments as such if they commit terrorist acts, and many do. What then is the way out of this definition conundrum? We must not only define terrorist acts, we must also define a terrorist organization—another slippery task. I suggest that it be defined as an organization or government whose behaviour consists primarily of terrorist acts as defined above.

This will allow us to exclude culpable Israeli and U.S. governments, but we must also exclude Hamas. So let's put an end to the political fiction and recognize Hamas for what it is—a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It will be very difficult to achieve peace in the region until we do.

13 July 2014

Settlers killed in Palestine—echoes of another colonialism

The killing of three Jewish teenagers from a West Bank settlement in Palestine brought to mind another colonialism—that of North America. As the Europeans swarmed across the Americas, the Native people found themselves overwhelmed. Sometimes they fought to keep the intruders out, but inevitably they found themselves outmatched by superior numbers and technology. Sometimes out of desperation they would commit violence against the invaders, attacking and killing settlers, the very ones they could see dispossessing them. The attacks could be savage, as acts of desperation often are.

There is a remarkable similarity to what we see happening in Palestine. Although the killers of the Jewish boys have not yet been identified, they may well be militant opponents of Israeli expansion. As with the Native peoples of North America, the Palestinians watch the seemingly inexorable theft of their land, unable to resist forcefully against overwhelming military superiority. Most patiently await the results of negotiated agreement, but a few, frustrated by endless and unproductive chin wagging, act out their frustrations with violence.

Today we would label the Indians who carried out attacks on settlers as terrorists, as indeed we label the Palestinians who echo their desperation. But these are less acts of terrorism than gestures against colonialism, against land theft.

Just as there are strong similarities between the two stories, there is also at least one significant difference. The Indians were doomed to lose their land, to be left with scraps, as their populations were decimated by the diseases the Europeans brought with them while the numbers of Europeans and others ultimately swelled into the hundreds of millions. The Palestinians, however, do not face the same smothering sea of intruders. Even in Israel, they make up 20 per cent of the population and in Palestine as a whole they make up nearly half, and then there is their diaspora in the surrounding countries, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of Arab allies in the region. Unlike with the Indians, time and numbers are on their side.

12 July 2014

Bucking horses and other immoral entertainments

It's Stampede time in Calgary and that means it's time for another debate about exploiting other animals to amuse ourselves. The focus, of course, is rodeo—bucking broncs, calf roping, steer wrestling, chuckwagon racing and other entertainments featuring man and beast. Every year, animal welfare advocates criticize some or all of the events as cruel and Stampede officials staunchly defend those same events. So, is rodeo cruel or not?

In answer to that concern, consider the most iconic of rodeo events—cowboy versus bucking bronco. The first question is, why do the horses buck? There are various possible reasons but one fundamental one. A horse is a prey animal and when a large creature suddenly leaps on its back, it means but one thing: a predator is attempting to kill it. This terrifies the animal and it desperately tries to rid itself of the thing.

This then is how rodeo amuses and entertains the crowd. It subjects a dumb beast—a horse, a calf, a steer—to stress and fear. Over and over and over again. Cruel? Without a doubt.

Rodeo people insist they treat their animals to the best of care, and as far as food, shelter and medical attention is concerned, I don't doubt that they do. The animals are, after all, prize assets, the source of rodeo revenues. Only fools fail to take good care of their assets. I take good care of my car, but my car is not a sentient being. Animals are. Good care of an animal requires attention to its mental well-being as well as its physical, and the repeated infliction of terror does not contribute to mental well-being.

The Stampede has a great deal to offer in the way of fun, entertainment and education. It really has no need to play to the crowd by tormenting animals. It is time to end the barbarism.

04 July 2014

Blair makes nice with Sisi—following in Margaret's steps?

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher's fondness for Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet was infamous. Pinochet was a mass torturer and murderer, but the iron lady was quite fond of him despite his peccadilloes. He was a favourite partner for tea.

Now it seems former PM Tony Blair also has a fondness for military dictators. He has agreed to become an adviser to Egyptian president, and former general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi is truly a rival for Pinochet when it comes to bloodletting, only in power for a year and already he has killed more than 2,500 protesters and imprisoned over 20,000. More recently his regime sentenced three journalists, including one Canadian, to long prison terms for ... well, for committing journalism.

Tony claims he will not make money out of the arrangement, yet he is acting on behalf of a program funded by the United Arab Emirates that has promised to deliver huge business opportunities to those involved. This nest of dictators—the Emirates and Saudi Arabia—are jolly good friends of the UK and faithful customers of British arms dealers.

But is it only commerce that attracts politicians like Thatcher and Blair to these political thugs? Does that macho military swagger turn them on? Or did Pinochet's butchery of leftists excite Thatcher's political passions and Sisi's butchery of the Muslim Brotherhood excite Blair's? In any case, it's an unhealthy attraction that has led both to the most unseemly relationships and makes mock of their democratic pretensions.

Omar Khadr's trial lacked legal basis

After the way Omar Khadr has been persecuted by both the American government and ours, I wouldn't have thought any more outrageous news of this sordid affair could emerge. But it has. After a hard-fought freedom of information case by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, a court has ordered the release of a U.S. Department of Justice memo that rejects any legal foundation for Khadr's trial for war crimes.

In order to prosecute Khadr, the U.S. military invented the category of "unprivileged belligerent," i.e. because he wasn't wearing the uniform of a regular army, his actions constituted war crimes. It appears that the CIA became concerned that this legal sleight of hand might turn around and bite them in the ass. They use civilians to pilot drones and they do a lot of killing, so could these civilians be tried for war crimes? The CIA asked the Justice Department and got a decisive answer—no. In a detailed opinion, the Department concluded war criminality depends on a person's actions, not on whether the person is officially part of an army or wears a uniform. This, according to Khadr's Pentagon-based lawyer, "completely blows away one of the major prongs of the government's theory in all these Guantanamo cases."

Of further interest, the Justice Department memo came out several months before Omar accepted a plea. It isn't clear whether the prosecutors knew about the opinion, but if they did, and they didn't reveal it to the court, they were guilty of a serious breach of ethics.

Of particular interest to Canadians is whether or not our government knew. Was it aware that Khadr's conviction had no legal basis when it agreed to take him back? If not, then the Americans misled us about wrongfully incarcerating one of our citizens. If it did know, then its continued imprisonment of this young man is even more egregious than we had thought.

Khadr's story represents one of the sorrier episodes in the war on terror. This horrific abuse of a child soldier by the Americans aided and abetted by our own government has brought shame on both our countries. The least our government can do now is to recognize this legal charade and give Khadr his freedom. Unfortunately, this government is not one to admit error. The outrage will continue.

02 July 2014

Corporations suing countries—how crazy is that?

Lone Pine Resources sues Canada because Quebec has imposed a moratorium on fracking. Philip Morris sues the Australian government over its tobacco plain packaging legislation. Swedish energy company Vattenfall sues Germany because of that country’s decision to phase out nuclear energy.

Fracking is a method of exploiting oil and gas reserves that has been accused of, among other things, poisoning water reservoirs, and Quebec wants a time-out to properly evaluate the technology. Tobacco is the greatest killer drug on the planet, and Australia is simply trying to implement packaging recommendations of the World Health Organization. Germany is attempting to shift to safer sources of energy. All sensible measures. Yet companies are allowed to sue countries because their governments are trying to exercise the foremost responsibility of the state—protect its citizens?

What is more, these corporations are in effect above the law of the land. Rather than pursue their suits in the usual manner, by going to court, they can resort to panels empowered by the "trade" agreement under which they are suing. The treaties, such as NAFTA (Lone Pine vs. Canada), the Hong Kong-Australia investment treaty (Philip Morris vs. Australia), and the Energy Charter Treaty (Vattenfall vs. Germany), grant foreign investors the right to bypass the domestic courts of the host country and to directly file complaints to ad hoc tribunals which may operate in secret. How did this madness come to be?

At one time, in a more sensible past, governments granted charters to corporations to serve some public good—building a canal or a railroad, for instance—and could revoke that mandate when the job was done. But over the years, corporations have extended their influence until today, generously aided by "trade" agreements such as NAFTA, the World Trade Agreement, and other instruments of corporate empowerment, they can hold governments hostage, undermining both democracy and the rule of law.

We have allowed institutions that should be our servants to become our masters. It is time to end the madness and return them to their proper role—exploiting resources, providing jobs, products and services and absolutely nothing more. Their charters should confine them to strict mandates and be revoked if they engage in political activity of any kind. Fail to do this and we will continue to be bystanders as democracy is replaced with plutocracy.