28 April 2016

The inevitability of the BDS movement

The Palestinians need a Canadian champion, specifically a political champion. None of our three main political parties will stand up for them. It would normally be the responsibility of the NDP to demand justice for these beleaguered people—after all that is what social democratic parties are for—but it is apparently not about to wade into the politically incorrect waters of criticizing Israel.

The pat answer of our government, parroting the United States, is that a Palestinian state can only be achieved by direct negotiations with Israel, independent of third parties. This puts the Palestinians in an impossible position. All the negotiating leverage lies with Israel. Israel has the most effective military in the region, replete with nuclear weapons and supported unreservedly by the most powerful nation in the world, and it controls virtually all the land. The Palestinians have no military and control little. Asking them to negotiate with the party that holds all the cards is asking them to submit, to sit at the table and accept any crumbs they are offered.

This was amply demonstrated by the late, unlamented Oslo Accords. In 2001, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned an official history of the Norwegian-mediated negotiations. The report concluded, "... the Oslo process was conducted on Israel’s premises, with Norway acting as Israel’s helpful errand boy. ... Israel’s red lines were the ones that counted, and if the Palestinians wanted a deal, they would have to accept them, too." 

The only way negotiations can possibly be fair would be for the United States (no one else could do it) to pressure Israel into making a just settlement. But the Americans insist there must be no third party interference. One can only conclude they want the Palestinians negotiating on their knees.

With the utter failure of the American-sponsored "peace process," the Palestinians are attempting to make progress independently of Israel. These efforts have been consistently opposed by Israel's allies. In 2012, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine to non-member, observer-state status. It has also been accepted as a member of UNESCO and the International Criminal Court. This step by step approach to nationhood would seem ideal: completely non-violent and each step approved by the international community. Yet incredibly Canada, alongside the U.S., voted against the UN motion. Clearly they are determined to keep Palestine's future firmly in the hands of Israel.

The State of Palestine is recognized by 134 countries; however, with Israel and most Western countries denying recognition, to say nothing of Israel's continued occupation, the Palestinians cannot function as an independent entity.

When governments refuse to act on justice issues, inevitably civil society steps in. Enter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Launched in 2005 by dozens of Palestinian civil society groups, BDS advocates for economic and cultural action against Israel "until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights." The movement has gone world-wide with supporters in Canada including the United Church, Independent Jewish Voices, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and other unions, and various student organizations.

The Palestinians continue to suffer from ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination and military occupation. Canada is a country that generally acts with a sense of fair play, but there are exceptions and our political parties' attitude toward the Palestinians is one of them. BDS gives Canadians an opportunity to support what our political leaders won't—justice for the people of Palestine.

25 April 2016

Canada earns a D for environment

Last week the Conference Board of Canada released its environment report card and Canada did not do well. We earned a D, ranking third from last against 15 of our international peers. The only countries that performed worse were Australia and the U.S. The best performer of the provinces was Ontario with a B. Five provinces flunked.

To evaluate performance, the Conference Board applied 10 indicators that covered four broad categories: air pollution, waste, freshwater management, and climate change.

Regarding climate change, Prime Minister Trudeau signed off on the Paris agreement during a ceremony at the United Nations in New York on Friday with some stirring words: "Today, with my signature, I give you our word that Canada's efforts will not cease. Climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will. But we are equal to that challenge." I hope he's right, but given that Canada scored particularly low on greenhouse gas emissions on the report card, we have a long way to go.

The Pembina Institute found one source of optimism in its evaluation of the report. Alberta's past performance earned it a D-, but the Institute predicts the province's new Climate Leadership Plan will turn things around. According to its analysis, greenhouse gas emissions "will clearly see improvement with the implementation of the plan. Improvements will also be seen in energy efficiency and production of low emitting electricity, with the combined efforts of the new energy efficiency program, the coal phase-out and a renewable energy production target of 30 per cent by 2030."

We can but hope that the Mr. Trudeau's plan for the country will generate similar optimism.

24 April 2016

Escaping the growth trap

The recent meeting of the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Washington resulted in the usual conversation about economic growth—the need for more of it. That we are exhausting our planet's resources faster than it can replenish them, that we are sucking it dry, did not apparently make the agenda. There seemed little recognition that endless growth will eventually bring global civilization crashing down around our ears.

The problem our leaders face arises from the growth trap. The Industrial Revolution brought accelerating technological advance which in turn brought ever-increasing efficiency. With greater efficiency, we can produce more stuff with fewer workers, resulting in surplus workers, i.e. unemployment. But the unemployed can't buy much stuff, and that is bad for the economy. If something isn't done, it may enter a downward spiral. The solution has always been to produce more stuff and therefore create more jobs. In other words—growth.

It's a trap. As long as technology continues to increase efficiency, and no end is in sight, we must have growth in order to keep people employed. So the question becomes, is it possible to end economic growth? Fortunately, the answer is yes. We have a number of tools at our disposal. They include the following:
  • Shorten the work week. Produce the same amount of stuff (or less) but share the work more broadly, thus creating jobs.
  • Create more jobs that demand little or no growth, e.g. teaching, health care, the arts, etc. For example, if optimum class size in schools is 20, but the average is currently 30, reducing the size to 20 would create 50 per cent more jobs with little growth and, in this case, improve the product in the bargain.
  • Reduce efficiency for the sake of job quality. When Henry Ford began producing his cars on an assembly line, he greatly improved efficiency, thus reducing the price of cars. But there was a sacrifice. His skilled mechanics were turned into human robots, repeating the same simple task over and over, all day every day. The sacrifice was accepted at the time as cheaper cars, and a lot of other cheaper stuff, helped pull society up from what was a very low standard of living. Our standard of living today needs no such boost, thus we are able to focus on quality of work rather than quantity.
  • Pay people not to work. The guaranteed annual income is being bruited about a lot these days, often as a more efficient way to provide welfare, but with the speed at which artificial intelligence and robotics are advancing, jobs may become increasingly scarce. Technological efficiency may help solve the problem it created. 
How practical or effective any one of these measures may be is debatable, but they clearly illustrate that we are not helpless in the face of maintaining a decent standard of living while ending growth. We can exit the trap.

It took a long time for our leaders to recognize the threat of climate change. They finally have and actually seem to be getting serious about it, but when it comes to the folly of endless growth, they remain oblivious.

The rest of us can help alert them to the challenge. For example, our new government has established an Advisory Council on Economic Growth. Attempting to do my bit, I wrote to Minister of Finance William Morneau and to the Chair of the committee, Dominic Barton, pointing out that long-term growth is not viable and urging the Minister to "put our economy on a path that will offer future generations a prosperity that respects our planet’s limits." Perhaps if these two gentlemen get enough letters, they will put the end of growth on the committee's agenda. We can but try.

21 April 2016

Prairie blues

On Monday, a political colour map of the Prairie provinces would have shown a blue stripe hemmed in by orange on both sides. Today, the palette shows a decidedly blue shift.

The Conservatives' impressive win over the incumbent New Democrats in Manitoba on Tuesday follows the Saskatchewan Party's victory in Saskatchewan earlier this month.

But even these two elections don't fully illustrate the conservative grip on the Prairies. Under our corrupt first-past-the-post voting system, parties commonly win elections with less than half of the popular vote. Not in these two cases. The Manitoba Conservatives won with a solid 54 per cent and the Saskatchewan Party with an almost unheard of 62 per cent. And it's worth remembering that in last year's Alberta election, conservative parties won a combined 52 per cent of the popular vote. Not much potential here for Leaping into Manifestos.

The Manitoba election leaves the Alberta NDP as the lonely progressive government on the Prairies. Indeed if we include the B.C. Liberals, who often take on a conservative hue, we might say the only progressive government in the West. Fortunately, it is a highly effective government that has pushed the progressive agenda along admirably—an optimistic orange swatch in the blue background.

20 April 2016

Congrats, Omar!

Omar Khadr is a living example of that old blues refrain, "If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

Omar was born into a family of extremists who sent him off to fight with jihadists in Afghanistan at the tender age of 14 where he was seriously wounded and captured by the Americans. Despite being a child soldier, he was imprisoned, tortured and convicted of crimes in a kangaroo court. And during all this, his own country—and you know which one I'm talking about—abandoned him ... and worse.

But his luck seems to be turning. Serving his American sentence in Canada, he was released on bail about a year ago and has since been living with his lawyer in Edmonton while he awaits the outcome of his appeal of his U.S. conviction. Now it appears he's getting married. The lucky lady is Muna Abougoush, a human rights activist who has worked to help him gain his freedom.

I offer my most sincere congratulations to Muna and Omar, and I especially wish Omar the normal life he so richly deserves.

18 April 2016

Alberta's carbon tax—benefits plus

The Alberta government released its 2016 budget last week, revealing the details of the new carbon tax and the details look good. The tax will kick in on January 1, 2017, at $20 per ton of carbon burned and increase to $30 per ton in 2018. The bulk of the revenue will be used for renewable energy technology, green infrastructure and increasing energy efficiency for homes and businesses. About a third will go to rebates, reduction of the small business tax and helping coal and other communities adjust.

Critics have been quick to attack the tax, some claiming it will cost Alberta households $500 or more per year. In fact, most Albertans will ultimately pay no more for energy than they do now. Sixty per cent of families will receive a full rebate and six per cent at least a partial rebate. The rebates are designed to cover the average cost of the carbon levy to an individual, couple or family with children, with the amount tailored to net taxable income. As lower-income people tend to use less energy than the average, they could even come out ahead.

According to the Pembina Institute, assuming emissions don't change, lower-income families will have a net gain in income on average of $95 per year, middle-income families will see no net effect, while higher-income families will experience a net loss of $400 per year. The levy is, in effect, a tax on the rich. Of course, if lower and middle-income families reduce their energy use, they could wind up with even more change in their pockets.

Rebates of $400 or more will be paid every three months; those between $200 and $399, twice a year; and those under $200, once a year. The rebates may very well have added benefits. Once most Albertans start receiving their cheques, they may begin to feel that a carbon tax is a pretty good idea after all. And by reminding them that the current government keeps its promises, it shouldn't hurt the NDP's chances in the next election. The rebates also, in a small way at least, redistribute income from the rich to the poor, and that's not such a bad thing either.

14 April 2016

Supporting two NDPs

Like many members of the federal NDP, I support a shift back to socialism from wherever it is we have drifted. The now famous (or infamous) Leap Manifesto may help in that regard. Re-establishing the NDP as a social democratic party would give its members a sense of direction and purpose and would be good for the country. Canada needs a left-wing option to provide the political spectrum with a proper balance, particularly when the Conservatives have shifted so far to the hard (or is it Harper) right.

I also support the Alberta NDP, a party that can't afford to be fully social democratic. If it is to re-elected in 2019, a goal of the greatest importance, it must adhere to a moderate centre-left approach.

It has achieved some quite remarkable things in one short year. It unseated a conservative government in the most conservative province in the country. Since then, among other things, it has established a gender-balanced cabinet, banned corporate and union donations to political parties, moved toward a minimum wage of $15 an hour, raised taxes for corporations and high income earners, and introduced occupational health and safety and Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for farm workers.

And it has introduced probably the best climate change plan in the country. The plan includes a carbon tax, a cap on tar sands emissions and a phasing out of coal-fired electrical plants. Will it be enough to deal with global warming? Almost certainly not, but it's an impressive first step.

When Premier Notley publicly presented her government's Climate Leadership Plan, environmentalists stood side by side with oil executives, representatives of First Nations, academics and politicians. This is a scene I never thought I'd see anywhere, least of all in Alberta, and I doubt any politician other than Rachel Notley could have pulled it off.

To understand why the party can't go further at this time requires an understanding of the oil industry. The industry isn't, as many on the left seem to think, just a bunch of fat cat capitalists. It is that in part, but more importantly it is tens of thousands of ordinary working people—men and women, engineers, roughnecks, secretaries, janitors, etc.—who not only depend on the industry for a living (and it is one of the most rewarding industries to work for) but are proud of what they do, proud of helping us heat our homes and drive our cars. They are not about to be told they have to leap into unknown territory. They might accept a brisk walk toward a green future, step by step, but today they have to put bread on the table and that means a job, and that means a healthy oil industry. That's the reality of Alberta politics.

By the end of this month, Alberta will have the only NDP government in the country. That makes it the most important NDP in Canada and Rachel Notley the most important member of the party. The federal party should continue with its search for its social democratic soul, but it must also show the greatest respect to its Alberta brothers and sisters. At the moment, when it comes to the power to actually make change, they are the only thing the NDP has going for it.

13 April 2016

Corporations bully the bigots

A number of southern U.S. states have adopted or are considering laws allowing faith-based organizations to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender people. They are now being faced with consequences delivered by some of the biggest names in corporate America.

For example, Pay Pal recently announced that an expansion it was planning for Charlotte, North Carolina, would be moved elsewhere because of that state's LGBT discrimination law. Four hundred jobs will be lost. Braeburn Pharmaceuticals is reconsidering a $50-million facility in Durham County for the same reason. Other companies are taking similar measures. Apple, Amazon, Google, Monsanto, Intel and dozens more corporations have established the Business Coalition for Equality in support of the Equality Act, federal legislation that would provide basic protections to LGBT people similar to laws that protect other groups.

This is a lot of muscle. As Beth Brooke Marciniac of Ernst and Young told a Davos forum discussing LGBT rights earlier this year, "Our corporate economies are bigger than the economies of some countries, and I think we understand both the obligation and the importance of speaking out."

This sounds very much like a good news story. What can you do but applaud when entities with bigger economies than some countries act to defend LGBT rights?

Yet there is something very disturbing here. Should corporations really have the right to dictate to governments what kind of legislation they can pass? Isn't that right supposed to lie with the people? What we are witnessing is the replacement of democracy with plutocracy.

In this case, it's in a good cause, which makes it easier to overlook the corruption of democratic process, but we know all too well that corporate power is also used to promote companies' own interests, often at our expense. So before we applaud corporations behaving as good citizens, we might consider whether or not they should be acting as citizens at all.

10 April 2016

Will Notley get a pipeline built?

In a recent Rabble article, David Climenhaga quotes a unite-the-right Albertan as predicting that if the NDP "actually get a pipeline built. … they're going to govern for the next 20 years!" That may be the overstatement of a panicked conservative, but certainly if the NDP want to win the next election, they will have to make nice with the oil industry.

Premier Notley made that clear in her address to the NDP convention in Edmonton when she emphasized that the party was governing “on the basis of a concrete plan that is actually being implemented,” and adding, in effect dismissing the Leap Manifesto, "That is what you get to do when you move up from manifestos, to the detailed, principled, practical plans you can really implement by winning an election."

The Premier was elucidating the ancient clash of the practical with the ideal. Ideology may be a necessary guide for your party, but if you actually want to do something you have to gain power. You have to gather the support of people who may not like your ideology, but will support you if you consider their interests. If you only appeal to your true believers, you may while away your days in opposition, nobly achieving nothing. For the NDP, or at least for its Alberta brothers and sisters, adopting the Leap Manifesto could be a leap into the political abyss.

According to Premier Notley, Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan is "the single most important step any Canadian government at any level has taken so far to actually act on climate change." And it may well be, but if it involves another pipeline the question is whether it's enough or if it is simply slowing down the race to environmental Armageddon. Is the cost of electoral success for the Alberta NDP more rapid warming for the planet?

Time, I suppose, will tell. Unfortunately, time may tell us too late.

08 April 2016

Excluded by God and Queen

It seems some new Canadians are having crises of conscience with the Canadian Citizenship Oath. The oath reads, "I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen." 

The problem lies with the Queen bit. None of the dissenters has objected to swearing to faithfully obey our laws and duties—quite the contrary, they look forward to enjoying their rights and responsibilities as Canadians—but swearing fealty to a monarch, particularly a foreign one, they find offensive. So do I for that matter, but fortunately I don't have to take the oath.

A website has been set up that lists a number of dissenters along with some quite intriguing quotes explaining their views.

In addition to the Queen's intrusion on Canadian citizenship, God's presence can be equally tiresome. Our national anthem, quite aside from misogynistically demanding patriotic love only from men, begs God to "keep our land glorious and free." That, it seems to me, is our responsibility, not some mythical being's.

And then there's God poking Its nose into our constitution. The introductory phrase to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:. I fail to see how the rights guaranteed in the Charter have anything to do with the supremacy of a religious fiction.

Not that any of this stuff need mean anything. It's essentially just symbolic. New Canadians can take the oath and then disavow the Queen bit. I personally, like many other Canadians, simply never sing the anthem. The Charter intro is a bit more problematic; nonetheless, the instrument guarantees freedom of speech, so you are free to express the view that its introduction is half nonsense.

Nevertheless this kind of language is exclusive. It suggests that if you believe a head of state should be elected, or at least chosen on merit, and if you don't believe in a god, both widely held and perfectly respectable beliefs, then you aren't one of the club, you're not quite Canadian.

It is possible of course to write what are intended to be inclusive instruments in inclusive language. Someday, perhaps, someone will do that and we will no longer have to pretend we are all monarchists and believers.

07 April 2016

Brit says Canada a vision for progressives

Yes, an article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian describes our native land as a progressive vision. The lady flatters us handsomely. I enjoyed her piece because it says nice things about us and because like many (most?) bloggers I tend to be highly critical of our country and its foibles, and it's nice to be reminded occasionally how lucky we are to live in this place, even if it takes a foreigner to remind us.

There are two ways to judge a society. One, by the ideal, by what it would be like if it were perfect. The other, by reality, by the kind of community fallible human beings are actually capable of creating. The latter means judging your society relative to others.

We bloggers often employ the former, the ideal, to judge Canada and therefore find it wanting. This is not a bad thing; holding your community to a high standard is healthy. And by the highest standard, Canadians certainly have a lot of work to do to improve every aspect of our culture. But judging realistically, we have one of the finest societies on the planet, by any measure—socially, politically and economically.

In her article, Ms. Hinsliff asks, "Who else is still surfing a wave of sunny progressive feeling when the U.S. and much of Europe are increasingly convulsed with rage against either poor migrants or privileged elites, or both?" Who indeed. She goes on to add, "Canada seems to be pulling off the elusive trick of remaining tolerant, relaxed and at ease with itself in challenging circumstances with more aplomb than most."

From my completely unbiased perspective, I can't help but agree with her. So today I will bask in the sunny feeling of being Canadian. Tomorrow I'll get back to being my usual critical self.

02 April 2016

Why are we still discussing the TPP?

Has anybody actually read the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement? I presume the negotiators have. And no doubt a host of corporate lawyers. But have any of our politicians read it? Has International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland? All 6,000 densely-packed pages?

I remember John Crosbie, when he was Minister of International Trade in the Mulroney government, being asked that question about NAFTA in the House of Commons. Mr. Crosbie, a man who tended to speak frankly, honestly admitted he hadn't. I suspect Ms. Freeland has the same answer for the TPP.

I will give economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz the benefit of the doubt and assume he has. Mr. Stiglitz is an economist worth listening to. Among many other accomplishments, he has won the Nobel Prize in Economics, is a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, and is a former chairman of the U.S. president's Council of Economic Advisers. And what he has to say about the TPP ain't good.

Speaking recently at the University of Ottawa about the deal, he stated it may well be the worst trade agreement ever negotiated and offered a long list of reasons, including the following:
• It was negotiated in secret with corporate interests at the table.
• Investment-protection provisions could interfere with the ability of governments to regulate business.
• Governments could be sued for regulations designed to reduce pollution or global warming.
• It contains provisions that could prevent raising the minimum wage.
• The rules of origin provisions could hurt North American employment because they allow "very clever ways" to hide where products are actually made.
• It will have little effect on trade volumes, yet will change the basic legal framework that governs society, shifting power to corporations.
The list goes on, and on. All the American presidential candidates have got the message and are speaking out against the agreement. Which raises the question, why is our government even considering the thing?