Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Very Dark Place


Things are starting to get crazy. Mohamad Jebara writes:

Recent suggestions by some American and European officials that mosques should be closed, and Muslims rounded up and placed in camps, are not merely troubling. They’re reminiscent of past injustices which the civilized world vowed never to repeat.

People do crazy things when they get scared. History provides us with plenty of examples:

Due to the frenzy aroused in the indoctrinated, many innocent and law-abiding Canadian and American citizens of German and Japanese descent were unjustly persecuted; their properties were confiscated, they were gathered into internment camps and their basic human rights were limited and abused.

Many injustices have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against our First Nations people, who were subjected to ethnic cleansing through residential schools, forced to convert to Christianity and denied the basic rights of citizenship until 1960. Their ancestral lands were confiscated, their lives treated with disregard.

Looking back, we are ashamed at what others have done in our names. But, when we look forward, we tend to forget the past:

The demonization of peoples and religions is an insidious process that infects entire cultures. Shakespeare vilified European Jews when he wrote The Merchant of Venice, as Charles Dickens did when he made his child-slaver Fagin a Jew in Oliver Twist. For centuries, Jews were portrayed in Western media as sly, deceitful, evil and merciless — a portrayal that allowed the ‘civilized’ world to stand by in silence — and in some cases even rejoice — as the Nazis worked to annihilate European Jewry.

The enemy is the Islamic State. It is not Islam. If we fail to see that distinction, we will end up in a very dark place.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Another Challenge


Stephen Harper used to talk about the virtue of individual responsibility. But, when it came to defending an individual's civil liberties, all of that rhetoric went up in smoke. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson  believes -- as Harper did -- that civil liberties get in the way of good police work. Michael Harris writes:

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson wants warrantless access to online subscriber information. That, in itself, is not remarkable. Police always want fewer obstacles between their work and the people they pursue — more John Wayne, less Perry Mason. It’s the old argument: It’s plenty hard enough to catch the bad guys, we’re told, without bureaucrats putting roadblocks in the way of the good guys.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find small graven images of Stephen Harper and Vic Toews on Commissioner Paulson’s desk, given how much he sounds like them. Harper and Toews both saw the world the way Paulson does, in binary black and white: Give the police the power they ask for and forget about the implications for civil liberties.

Harper simply didn’t give a hoot about privacy issues from the point of view of the individual. This is the man who gave us Bill C-51, after all. Harper’s approach to privacy law always came down to reduced protection for individuals online and far more power for police and other security services. Bill C-13 (the so called ‘cyberbullying’ law) and Bill S-4 (the Digital Privacy Act) were all about invasion of privacy without consequences for the invaders.

To Harper and Paulson it doesn't matter that the Supreme Court upheld the right of internet privacy in R v Spencer.  The police, the court ruled, need a warrant to search internet subscriber information:

And it wasn’t just a matter of names and addresses, as the old Harperites and the police always insisted in their zeal to pursue a bad idea. It was high-tech snooping without due process or independent oversight. The high court saw far greater values to protect than the right of police to snoop.

But, unlike Harper, Paulson hasn't gone away. He represents another challenge which the Trudeau government faces.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Putting The Numbers In Perspective


Canadians across the country are getting ready to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees. In the small community in which my wife and I live, a family of 11 arrived two months ago. But before we begin congratulating ourselves too heartily, Jeff Sallot writes, we should put that number -- 25,000 -- in perspective:

While 25,000 might seem like a big number, it’s still only 10 per cent of the total number of immigrants to Canada in an average year.

On the other hand, 25,000 is two-and-a-half times the number of Syrian refugees the United States plans to admit next year. Now that is shocking.

And, given the number of people who have fled Syria, that number is a mere drop in the bucket:

The UN has registered more than 4 million refugees who have fled Syria for safety. There are at least 1 million more who have not been registered. Inside Syria itself, about 7 million have been displaced by the civil war. Half of Syria’s prewar population has been forced to move.

These are the fortunate few. An estimated 250,000 have been killed in the conflict. For every one refugee who arrives in Canada, ten have already perished.

These three frontline countries rarely offer refugees resettlement, permanent residency or a path to citizenship. The Syrians live in shantytowns on the fringes of cities or in camps, some for more than two years now.

The frontline governments hope a political settlement can be reached in Syria so that the refugees can go home — the sooner the better. Many displaced Syrians reckon they have nothing to go back to. They would rather take their chances on the seas, or wait patiently for a country like Canada to accept them as permanent residents.

There is much more which needs to be done. And now that Vladamir Putin has installed anti-aircraft missiles which can shoot down coalition bombers, the situation could get much worse.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thorough Corruption


Like Junior, Red Skelton's mean little kid, Stephen Harper's avowed purpose in life has been to throw a wrench into the workings of government. He remained true to form -- even as he was leaving -- making 49 re-appointments and future appointments, whose purpose was to hamstring the incoming government. Alan Freeman writes:

The 49 appointments, including renewals and new appointments, have effectively blocked the newly-elected government from determining the future course of key agencies like the National Energy Board. In one remarkable case of chutzpah, the government renewed in advance the term of Canada Post’s CEO, Deepak Chopra, until 2021 — even though Chopra was the architect of the Crown corporation’s decision to kill door-to-door mail delivery, a policy opposed by both the Liberals and the NDP. (In this case, the Liberals may be able to undo the appointment because it was made “at pleasure”. Others won’t be so easy.)

Several of the future appointments were made just before the government's mandate ended:

What’s particularly curious about the future appointments is that several of them came down just days before Harper called the federal election in early August, at which point the so-called “caretaker convention” came into effect. That convention calls on the outgoing government to show restraint in its exercise of power during an election campaign, and to not do anything controversial. Knowing that the convention was about to come into effect, the government rushed ahead regardless with its future appointments — surely knowing that it could do it with a wink and a nod from its top bureaucrats.

Harper showed no respect whatever for parliamentary conventions. But he couldn't have accomplished what he did without the clear collaboration of senior public servants:

It’s clear that many deputy ministers, each holding their jobs at the pleasure of the PM and reporting to a Privy Council clerk equally beholden to Harper, have spent a decade conveniently ignoring their duty to serve the government and people of Canada. Many have known no other government and may now suddenly find themselves a loss when actually asked for real advice, let alone being forced to speak “truth to power”.

Harper's parting appointments are a reminder of how thoroughly he corrupted the civil service.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Empty Barrels


Just as they did before the American invasion of Iraq, most of our media -- particularly television -- are once again fanning the flames of fear. Andrew Mitrovica writes:

In times of free-floating anxiety like these, the corporate media does not act as a brake on the state; quite the opposite. Rather than challenge the extraordinary and expanding security powers of Western states, corporate media outlets routinely urge them to exercise those powers more pervasively and ruthlessly. Rather than the question the rush to declare “war” — especially when the target is a non-state actor which has proved itself stubbornly resistant to the traditional tactics of war — they join the chorus calling for more airstrikes, more ground troops, more action.

Worst of all, the corporate media will never acknowledge — from one episode of panic to the next — that it ever made a mistake, ever took things on faith that it should have verified, ever owed it to the people making life-and-death decisions to shoulder some of the burden of the terrible consequences of errors.

And it's not Fox News or the now defunct Sun News that are beating the drums of war:

And I’m not just talking about rancid right-wing radio and Fox TV commentators. I’m talking about ‘mainstream’ journalism as well. I’m talking about the talking heads who dutifully trot out the usual ‘experts’ — superannuated white, male members of the national-security industrial complex now working as consultants — as they point fingers at everyone but themselves and the state institutions they once served.

These suits are given free rein to say whatever they want, confident that the reporter doing the questioning will nod solemnly and never seriously challenge a word. So they’ll blame the latest ISIS atrocity on American whistleblower Edward Snowden — calling him a traitor, claiming he has “blood on his hands.” These pastured espiocrats will claim that the only way to combat terrorism is to grant to already vastly powerful, secret and unaccountable government agencies even more authority, money and staff. They’ll rush to accuse Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama of weakness, to condemn them for failing to jump into the Syrian quagmire with both feet.

When "experts" start beating their war drums, it's wise to remember that empty barrels make the most noise.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tearing Down The Firewall


If you really want to know what the Harper years were all about, Andrew Potter writes, you have to go back to the letter which Harper and Tom Flanagan sent to Ralph Klein in the aftermath of the 2000 election:

Addressed to Alberta premier Ralph Klein and signed by six people (including Harper and his adviser at the time, Tom Flanagan), it was a plea for Alberta to take charge of its own future. The goal was for Alberta to carve out a place for itself in Confederation, using its existing constitutional powers, that would insulate the province from an “increasingly hostile government in Ottawa.” The letter’s proposals included creating a provincial pension plan (like the QPP); a provincial police force (like the SQ or OPP); collecting its own provincial income tax (as Quebec does); forcing Senate reform back on to the national agenda; and taking over complete provincial responsibility for health care.

Apart from this list, the letter demanded that Klein do whatever he could to reduce the transfer system that saw Alberta send $8 billion a year to other parts of the country. In its concluding paragraph, the letter says, “It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”

When Klein refused to take their advice, Harper decided to go to Ottawa and build the firewall from there:

Once you realize that Harper’s agenda was to build a firewall around Alberta from Ottawa, a lot of what he did while in power starts to make more sense. More specifically, a lot of what seemed like high-level ideology is revealed as simple tactics. A case in point is climate change. It is one thing to insist (as Harper rightly did) that Canada should not go it alone on emissions reduction. It is something else entirely to indulge in barely concealed denialism.  But once you realize that any comprehensive deal on emissions that would actually do anything worthwhile would involve leaving a lot of oil in the ground in Alberta, forever, then denialism becomes more comprehensible.

To protect Alberta, Harper had to shut down three sources which were essential to the proper functioning of the federation:

Data: It wasn’t privacy, as Tony Clement said, or freedom, as Max Bernier argued, that was the real rationale for killing the mandatory long-form census. It was to throw a whole lot of noise into the demographic signal that the census had been giving for decades. That is also why Statistics Canada as a whole was gutted over the course of the Harper years. Without accurate data, social planners are flying blind.

Expertise: No government in living memory has been as hostile to experts and to evidence as the Harper government. But as Laval economist Stephen Gordon recently argued, it wasn’t all forms of expertise and evidence that gave the Tories hives – plenty of their economic initiatives were rooted in the best available evidence. What the Tories were allergic to was expertise that steered the evidence in directions they didn’t want to go – “committing sociology,” in Harper’s wonderful turn of phrase. That is why scientists were muzzled, policy shops were shuttered and bureaucrats were ignored.

Money: Here is the meat in the sandwich. When it comes to social planning, the ultimate source of Ottawa’s power is the spending power. And this is where Harper had his greatest success. By the end of his tenure as prime minister, Ottawa’s spending, as a share of GDP, had fallen to levels not seen since the middle of the 20th century. And the spending that does remain is overwhelmingly devoted to either just keeping the lights on or takes the form of transfers to the provinces and individuals.
Harper’s policy genius here was the two-point cut in the GST, which currently costs the federal treasury about $12 billion a year. Harper’s political genius was the creation of an all-party and pan-Canadian consensus around the virtues of a balanced budget at that historically low level of federal spending.
No data, no experts and no money. Starve the beast, but make it blind and deaf at the same time. This is Harper’s “Ottawa Firewall” in a nutshell.

Justin  Trudeau has moved immediately to restore data and expertise to government. Finding the money to make government function will be difficult, because neo-liberalism isn't dead. But it's beginning to look like Rachel Notley -- who introduced  her proposals to deal with climate change over the weekend -- is very much in favour of tearing down the firewall.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Let's Hope They're On The Same Page


On Friday, Carol Goar took stock of the Harper years. Of Mr. Harper, she wrote:

The former prime minister was neither an ogre nor a brilliant manager. He was an introverted politician who relied on fear to maintain control. Over time, he alienated all but his party’s core supporters.

She then turned her attention to the incoming government:

As the Liberals begin their mandate, they need to be conscious of their blind spots and Achilles heels. They are a largely eastern, lawyer-loaded party that closely resembles the political elite of the past. They campaigned skilfully but they haven’t mastered the levers of power.
They must guard against any sign of entitlement. That means filtering out the adulation of their acolytes and refusing to demonize their opponents. It also means reaching out to the people who didn’t vote for them. Trudeau promised on election night to be a prime minister “who never seeks to divide Canadians, but takes every single opportunity to bring us together.” Every new leader makes some version of that pledge. Few stick to it. 

The Canada and the world that Justin Trudeau has inherited is full of challenges: 

The fledgling prime minister had a challenging first month: a worse-than-expected fiscal update, a horrific terrorist onslaught in Paris, a tense G20 meeting in Turkey and a jittery APEC summit in the Philippines. He stuck to his election commitments, ignored the second-guessers shouting from the sidelines and sidestepped the obvious pitfalls. It was hard work.

Having acknowledged all that, Goar's final sentence bears repeating: 

The time for celebrations and score settling, winning sides and losing sides has passed. The nation voted to turn the page.

Let's hope that Ms. Goar and Mr. Trudeau are on the same page.