28 February 2015

Alberta woes—It ain't the economy, stupid

Here in Alberta, energy superpower, we are going through the bust part of one of our infamous boom and bust cycles. The premier is weighing the government's options. Cutting MLA salaries, imposing health-care premiums and hiking post-secondary tuition are some of the ideas mentioned. He has even floated the possibility of adjusting the province's regressive flat tax and—the heavens tremble—adopting a sales tax. “Everything is on the table,” he has declared.

Well, not quite everything, it seems. He hasn't discussed the approach that would end the ridiculous misery of boom and bust once and for all. The solution is no secret. Most recently, it was proposed in a unique way by University of Calgary economist Ron Kneebone. "It's not the economy that's the problem," he observed, "It's the government itself that's the problem." He points out that the oft-mentioned lack of diversity is neither problem nor solution because the Alberta economy is in fact very well diversified. The problem is that the government insists on making the same mistake over and over again—the mistake of including oil revenues as a major part of its budget. His advice? He suggests the government should always budget for $50 a barrel oil. If the price goes above that, and it surely will, the added revenue goes into the Heritage Fund, just as Peter Lougheed intended all those many years ago.

This is of course the famous Norway approach. Norway, too, has substantial oil and gas revenues, but not the attendant boom and bust. The government includes very little of those revenues in its budget. The bulk goes into a sovereign wealth fund, now worth about a trillion dollars. When Norway's oil and gas run out, the whole population will be able to move to the Bahamas and live in the sun. In the meantime, the country's economy rolls along perfectly well with a significantly higher GDP per capita and a significantly lower unemployment rate than Canada's.

This is Premier Prentice's big chance. He can deal with boom and bust once and for all and guarantee future Albertans a solid nest egg in the bargain. He can, as Professor Kneebone puts it, promise to "never again hold Albertans hostage to high energy prices." We once had a premier with that kind of vision—his name was Peter Lougheed. Will the next one be Jim Prentice?

27 February 2015

Parsing Bill C-51— the academics' letter

The first criticism of Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, is the fact it is entirely unnecessary. Our criminal law is already capable of dealing with terrorist activities. More to the point, terrorism poses no significant threat to Canadians and therefore no further infringements on Canadians’ civil liberties are warranted.

The facts are clear. In 2014 two Canadians were killed in terrorist attacks. I do not demean the death of any individual—all lives are precious—but from a national perspective two deaths is trivial. The chances of a Canadian being harmed in a terrorist attack in this country are absolutely remote.

Specific articles in the Bill that concern me include Section 16, which could create a chilling effect on freedom of speech, and Section 42 (12.1) which in effect turns CSIS into a secret police force. But my parsing of the Bill is that of an amateur. For an expert critique, I strongly recommend the open letter to Members of Parliament by 100 academics. The authors represent a range of disciplines but primarily the faculties of law. They do not critique the entire Bill (a monster in the tradition of the Conservatives' infamous omnibus bills) but concentrate on five points of analysis that urge MPs to vote against it.

The letter can be read here. If, like me, you are a layman in the law, having your suspicions of this proposed legislation confirmed by such an impressive battery of distinguished legal minds is reassuring indeed.

23 February 2015

Harper outmaneuvers Trudeau on Bill C-51

If any political party ought to oppose Bill C-51, it's the Liberal Party. After all, it's liberal values that the Bill threatens to erode. And yet, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has decided to support it. He wants some changes, and if the Conservatives don't make them, he will ... if and when his party is elected to government.

Why is this liberal leader playing games with our civil liberties? Probably because Harper has simply outmaneuvered him. Stronger measures against terrorism are a motherhood issue—most Canadians will support the idea in principle. Harper is counting on that and using it to frighten Trudeau out of opposing the Bill. And it's worked.

Indeed I suspect it's worked even better than the Conservatives had hoped. They don't need Liberal support to pass the Bill and they're in a hurry, so Trudeau is unlikely to get the amendments he wants. In any case, why would they give him his changes when he has so conveniently put himself in a box? Denying him amendments will stick him with the ambiguous position of not liking the legislation but supporting it anyway during the coming election campaign. The electorate will see a wishy-washy Trudeau contrasted against a decisive Harper, and that of course is exactly the message the Conservatives are selling.

Mr. Trudeau's approach may be appropriate for a full and proper debate, which this Bill is unlikely to get, but I suspect during an election campaign it's going to be an albatross—a position much too complicated for sound bites on an issue made for sound bites.

22 February 2015

Harper fails Conservative citizenship criteria

Over the signature of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, the Conservative Party of Canada recently emailed a petition to its supporters, rallying them against face covering during citizenship oaths. Apparently Conservative ire was raised by a Federal Court of Canada decision that struck down the ban on Muslim women wearing niqabs when taking the oath, a decision the government is appealing.

In Mr. Alexander's petition he states, "We believe that when someone becomes a Canadian citizen, they should embrace our culture and everything that makes us proud to be Canadian." Everything, Mr. Alexander? Really? No thinking person can embrace everything that people may be proud of in any culture. For example, as an atheist and a feminist, I am unable to embrace a national anthem that includes phrases such as "God keep our land" and "True patriot love in all thy sons command." And as much as I love the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the opening statement "Whereas Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law" sticks in my craw.

But enough about me. Our prime minister also has trouble embracing "everything that makes us proud to be Canadian." In fact, he has trouble embracing the very things that make most Canadians proud.

Surveys that ask Canadians that very question—what makes them most proud of their country—invariably rank two institutions at the top of the list: Medicare and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Mr. Harper only reluctantly tolerates the former and despises the latter. With his own party leader failing his citizenship criteria, Mr. Alexander might want to rethink his position on niqabs.

Where is the outrage about the RCMP's witch-hunt?

At one time I instinctively assumed that government agencies were apolitical, servants of the people, not the servants of any particular philosophy or party. That, it increasingly seems, was the good old days. Recently I, like many others, have the distinct impression that the Canada Revenue Agency, for example, is serving the political interests of the Conservative government. Its focus on auditing environmental groups and other progressive organizations has come to seem more than coincidental.

Now I am getting the same impression about the RCMP. I knew that the government had been gathering intelligence on environmentalists and sharing it with the oil industry, but it's the recent RCMP's report on environmentalists that suggested to me that it, too, has been co-opted.

The report shamelessly promotes the oil industry while stating that environmentalists “claim” climate change is the most serious environmental threat and “claim” it is a result of human activity. The report echoes Finance Minister Joe Oliver's accusations that environmental groups are foreign-funded and undermine the country's interests by opposing the use of fossil fuels. It coins the phrase "anti-Canada petroleum movement" and repeats it endlessly in high propaganda fashion.

The first, and obvious, question is what the hell is the RCMP doing compiling a report on the environmental movement? Environmental organizations are reputable groups and environmentalists are respectable citizens. Indeed, in seeking to protect the environment, they are doing what is perhaps the noblest work a citizen can do in this modern age.

Certainly an environmentalist may go rogue and commit a serious offence (as the occasional member of police forces has been known to do), and this the RCMP must investigate. But this is rare indeed. If environmentalists commit unlawful activity it usually consists of nothing more than standing in front of a logging truck or a bulldozer. This comprehensive investigation by the national police force is a slander on respectable citizens—an outrage against civil society.

We seem to discern a troika here: the government, the oil industry and the police and spy agencies. Combined with Bill-C51, the RCMP's behaviour is ominous indeed.

13 February 2015

ISIS and the grand imam—not so different

That ISIS is a scourge of major proportions is agreed on across the globe. Driven by some religious mania, they persecute other religions, behead infidels, burn enemies alive—all with sickening zeal and an obsession with publicity. Other Muslims are as outraged as any of us. A host of Arab governments and Muslim religious authorities have expressed vigorous condemnation.

For example, Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad Al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, the world’s leading institution of Sunni learning, has condemned ISIS as “corrupters of the Earth” who wage war against God and the prophet.

So far, so good, but then the good imam takes a weird and disturbing turn. He goes on to say that members of ISIS deserve the scriptural punishment of death, crucifixion and the amputation of limbs.

The Sheikh is not to be taken lightly in these matters. Aside from being grand imam, he is a former president of al-Azhar University, holds a Ph. D. in Islamic philosophy from the Sorbonne, served for two years as the most powerful cleric in Egypt as its Grand Mufti, and is considered to be one of the most moderate Sunni clerics in the country. And yet here he is espousing punishments as barbaric as those carried out by ISIS. What is an objective observer of Islam supposed to think?

Of course Netanyahu "rules in Washington"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to address the U.S. Congress next month has created quite a stir. President Obama, apparently not informed of the visit beforehand, is fuming. At least a dozen Democrats, including the outspokenly pro-Israel Vice-President Biden, have announced they will not attend. Even many American Jews who are normally staunch supporters of Israel have expressed concern. But Netanyahu is not deterred.

The prominent left-wing Israeli politician, Yossi Sarid, claims the Israeli PM, "is determined to show the president once and for all who really rules in Washington, who is the landlord both here and there." With all due respect to Mr. Sarid, it has for a long time been obvious who really rules in Washington, at least as far as the Middle East is concerned, and it ain't the president of those United States.

There is a certain ritual that defines the process of accommodation to the Israeli will. Israel commits yet another aggression in Palestine, for example building another illegal settlement in the West Bank. The Americans complain loudly, insisting this will hurt prospects for peace, blah, blah, blah. Then the Israeli Prime Minister visits Washington and tactfully whispers in the president's shell-like ear, reminding him that he commands more clout in Congress than the president. The American concern then fades away and the new status quo is quietly accepted. Israel ruled in Washington well before Netanyahu mounted the stage.

Congress has long been whipped by AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), perhaps the most powerful lobby in the capitol. Congressmen and women toe its line with impressive fealty. AIPAC is keeping its distance from this event, suggesting that even it is apprehensive about Netanyahu's hubris, but I suspect all this will pass. The ritual will return.

Did he really say that?

How does he get this stuff out of his mouth? Pope Francis, I mean. In a recent audience in St. Peter’s Square, he declared that couples who choose not to have children are "selfish." He went on to pontificate that, “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.” He seemed oblivious to the fact he was describing his own institution.

That is not to say he himself is selfish. He may have a few children scattered about. Quite a few popes have had, legally and otherwise. But if he has, he certainly isn't surrounding himself with them.

Last year, in a similar vein, he warned against a “culture of wellbeing” where couples opt for nice holidays and second homes in the countryside rather than children. “It might be better, more comfortable, to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog,” he said. “Then, in the end, this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.” Does he have no compassion, one wonders, for his fellow priests, for all those bishops and cardinals, ending their lives in bitter loneliness? Should his conscience not demand he allow them to couple, offering them the gifts of children and happiness in their declining years?

But no, this is not for the men of the cloth. Not for them the worry, the weight, the risk. The Church has always imposed those burdens primarily on women. It has fashioned its doctrine to coerce Catholic women into maximizing their production of little soldiers for the army of the faithful, and coercing their husbands into supporting them. Pope Francis, we can be confident, will not volunteer his brothers to do their share. Selfishness, it seems, is reserved for the clergy.