Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reconfirming Runnymede: Speaker Says Parliament is Paramount in Conservative Contempt Case

Speaker Peter Milliken gave an historic ruling earlier today in the House in Commons. By all accounts, the eyes of the world were focussed on Milliken’s declaration that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper may be in contempt of parliament. While this may seem a mundane event to many, or at best posturing by the Opposition NDP and Liberals to score political points, the fact of the matter is quite different, and the implications of Milliken’s ruling will ring down through the annals of Canadian history, and indeed the history of parliamentary democracies throughout the world.

The only question yet to be answered: will this ruling lead to real reform, or will it ultimately be labelled as one of democracy’s last gasps?

Do you think that I’m overstating the case? Well, maybe so, but then again, maybe not. Let’s speculate for a moment, shall we, about where things might have ended up if Milliken had arrived at a different ruling.

As you know, the Opposition Parties have asked the Speaker to make a ruling on whether the government’s refusal to provide unredacted copies of correspondence related to prisoner transfers in Afghanistan constitutes contempt of parliament. The Opposition says that, because parliament has demanded access to these documents, if the government won’t make these materials available to elected Members of Parliament for their scrutiny, then the government is in contempt. The Conservative government says that there is a bigger picture here to consider, and that releasing these documents will compromise Canadian security, presumably as it relates to Canada’s and NATO’s role in Afghanistan.

Now that Milliken has ruled, you can bet that the Conservatives will begin attacking the Speaker personally. Remember, although Milliken has served in the non-partisan speaker role since his election by parliament to that position in 2001, Milliken is a Liberal. Clearly, today’s decision will be cast in a partisan light. A safer course of action for Milliken would have been to find in favour of the government, however that approach would have flown in the face of parliamentary tradition, and it would have been one of the final nails in democracy’s coffin. Here’s why:

The Conservatives claim that large portions of key documents are not being made public because of "National Security". So, we Canadians, and opposition members of parliament, don’t know what is in those documents. Maybe there are some real state secrets there which need protecting. Maybe there are just skeletons in the Conservatives own closet. Fact is, we don’t know. We have to trust the government that there are greater issues of National Security based only on their word at the moment.

Yes, the Conservatives have appointed retired Supreme Court Judge Frank Iacobucci to review the documents and determine whether or not the contents of these documents should be made public. Stephen Harper and the Cons believe that this approach will be fair and balanced, and that Canadians will accept the findings of the retired judge. And so should the Opposition, according to Harper.

Of course, this approach has no mandate within parliament. Parliament has asked for the documents, and they have not been delivered. The Opposition believes (as do I, and apparently so does the Speaker) that Cabinet must submit to the will of parliament, and parliament has decided that it wants to see these documents. This fact will not change if Iacobucci makes a finding in support of the Conservative position. And if he does, Canadians will never know why; we’ll simply have to trust Iacobucci as an honest broker without the benefit of knowing what’s in the documents.

Yes, but you may be concerned that some MP’s from all parties might go and leak information to the media after seeing the documents, and that these leaks may jeopardize security interests, or worse, put Canadians in harm’s way. Well, these issues have been addressed in the past when making certain secure documents available for parliamentarians, and the release of these documents could also be handled in such ways, as called for by Milliken. Release to a committee in camera, for example, of contentious documents has already happened.

Again, though, this argument does not change the fact that parliament has demanded to see the documents, and the documents are not being made available. And I personally don't buy it. We elected these MP's to look after our best interests. These are our decision makers. To suggest that they can't be trusted, well, that's really inappropriate.

Had Milliken sided with the Conservatives, and deferred to the process currently underway through Justice Iacobucci, he would have dealt a serious blow to our already-stressed democratic processes. In essence, such a decision would have been a slap in the face of parliament, and a declaration that real power lies only in the hands of Cabinet. And we know that cabinets are controlled by the Prime Minister, right from the get-go of appointments, to managing media messages. In essence, had Milliken ruled differently, it would have been a confirmation that the Prime Minister alone decides what all other elected officials can and can not know.

This would have led to a situation ripe for serious abuse. After all, if you can control the flow of information, you’ve set yourself up to be in a pretty position when the information might be somehow detrimental to you. Why share information with the Opposition in Parliament when you don’t have to? What, exactly, constitutes an issue of "National Security" anyway? I guess as the Prime Minister, unaccountable to anyone except the 50,000 or so electors who vote for him every few years, I suppose he gets to make that decision.

Our Prime Minister is already exercising power beyond that ascribed to his "first among equals" position. I often wonder what might have happened had the Governor General refused to prorogue parliament back in 2008. I suspect strongly that parliament would not have been sitting the next Monday afterwards, despite a negative ruling on Harper’s request. Remember that Minister Baird, a member of Cabinet, suggested that the Conservatives were ready to go over the GG’s head, directly to the Canadian people if they had to, in order to achieve the result that they wanted. This despite the fact that there would have been no parliamentary process to do so.

On the recent request to prorogue, well, no one is really sure why the reset button had to be pushed. Harper said it was so that the Conservatives could spend time refining the budget, but when the budget came out, there was no change of course. Pretty much everyone, including members of Harper’s own Party, realize that all of the reasons stated by Harper and his mouthpieces weren’t the real issues. Shutting the door on the detainee enquiry seems the likeliest reason, although we Canadians will never truly know why our parliament was shut down for several months earlier this year. Let’s hope that it wasn’t just so the PM could attend the gold medal hockey games.

Even these past few weeks we’ve seen Harper accept the resignation of one of his own Minister’s on so-called "serious allegations", and refer the matter to the police. We still don’t know why this Minister resigned. From the sounds of things, former Minister Guergis herself doesn’t know why she resigned, despite the fact that Harper indicated that, given the nature of the allegations, he had no choice but to accept her resignation.

And on the Afghan detainee hearing currently going on before the Military Police tribunal, we have a lawyer for the government claiming to have read the unredacted version of Richard Colvin’s correspondence to his superiors, and claiming that there was nothing substantive which Colvin brought to the attention of his superiors regarding the transfer of prisoners being problematic. Colvin can’t answer this accusation, because he’s under a gag order not to discuss the contents of his own correspondence due to "national security", but the government through its lawyer is free to make statements that there isn’t anything there. And to challenge Colvin to show where, in his heavily redacted correspondence, he was sounding the alarm. Of course, Colvin couldn’t point to the locations in the correspondence because they were blacked out. All of which prompted the tribunal chair to question, then, why the correspondence hasn’t been made public, given that there isn’t anything to it. The lawyer’s response was that he should take it up with his client the government. And that other documents would be delivered to the tribunal when the government was "good and ready" to provide them, and not a moment before, despite the fact that the absence of these documents were holding up the tribunal’s enquiry.

This is all truly bizarre. A ruling by Milliken in favour of the government’s position, that it is not in contempt of parliament, would have added fuel to the fire burning away at our democracy. It would have given carte blanche to the Prime Minister to declare matters to be within the purview of "national security" and to shut down on all discussion in parliament on them, aside from speculation. In some ways, that’s exactly where we are at right now, and I would suggest that this is due to the Conservative’s on-going contempt for the institution of parliament; their contempt isn’t confined to the prisoner detainee issue.

Milliken could have given his consent to the business-as-usual approach to governance as practiced by Stephen Harper, our modern day King John. This is the approach which we see in action today. Instead, the Speaker ruled that the Prime Minister and Cabinet is not above the will of parliament, who are after all, individuals whom Canadians have elected to look out for our best interests. MP’s are in Ottawa on our behalf, and Harper needs to remember this. MP’s and government do not work for Stephen Harper; they work for me and all other Canadians. Milliken’s ruling today should cause Harper to do a bit of a rethink, but I’m not holding my breath. Likely we’ll see the Supreme Court asked to intervene, or have an election before this can go much further. My money is on both outcomes.

But at least the supremacy of Parliament was acknowledged today, and that is a triumph for all who care about the state of democracy in this great nation of ours. Had Milliken ruled differently, well, Canadians would be left wondering what good, exactly, are all of these parliamentarians whom we elect, ostensibly to represent our interests, when the Prime Minister and Cabinet get to determine what can and can not be discussed. Likely the conclusion that just about everybody would arrive at would be: not much good at all. Which would please Stephen Harper to no end.

Thank you, Speaker of the House, for shoring up my eroding faith in Canadian democracy.

And now if we can just get Minister Clement to release the agreement the government made with Vale Inco when Canadian mining giant INCO was sold to the Brazilians for the "net benefit of Canada". Yet another example of the Conservatives telling us to simply trust them, in absence of releasing documents for us to make up our own minds.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Climate Change and Freedom: How the Climate Crisis May Erode Civil Liberties

A few interesting things have been brought to my attention in the past few days which have started to formulate some sort of loose nexus of ideas in my mind. In this blogpost, I’m going to try to weave these threads together, and hope that I come out with a decent thesis.

Climate Wars

Tomorrow night in Toronto, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and international journalist Gwynne Dyer, will be making a presentation called "Finding Hope: Confronting Climate Wars". Presumably, they’re going to put a positive spin on the thesis Dyer offers in his excellent book, "Climate Wars". In short, that thesis is, climate change is real, has been understated by the international community, and is being taken into consideration by military planners. Some have described his book as "chilling". Certainly it should be a wake-up call to the climate-change deniers out there; and not just because of the science behind climate change, but also because of the seriousness which the coming climate crisis is being treated by military planners.

My wife gave me this book for Christmas in 2008, and I’ve read it twice since then. I’m very much a believer in Mr. Dyer’s thesis, and I am troubled by the social, political and military aspects which will occur as a result of the climate crisis. I saw Mr. Dyer speak about his book when he was here in Sudbury last year. I’m sure that those attending tomorrow’s presentation in Toronto are in for a treat, and I’m a little jealous. There certainly is hope amongst the doom and gloom, and we often forget about things such as hope when we turn our attention to the subjects which are so very overwhelming in scope.

However, let us also keep in mind that while "hope" is a great thing, it can also derail us from taking serious action. When we hope, we often remove ourselves from taking responsibility for action. For example, if we hope that a solution can be found to the coming energy crisis, it may mean that we personally put off doing all of the things that we really need to start doing to prepare for the crisis. I think most people understand this, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Hope can certainly inspire us to action, to "being the change that we want in the world" or something like that. But Hope is a double-edged sword, so we must be careful how we handle it.

Back to "Climate Wars", though, and why the climate change denier types should take a closer look at Dyer’s research. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, you should take seriously what the military planner-types are war-gaming with regards to the near future. In the U.S. especially, there has been a lot of concern about National Security, which many have largely come to think of as under threat by terrorists. A lot has happened in the past decade in the United States in the name of "National Security", including a significant erosion of personal rights and liberties. Today’s government has much more power over individuals than it did before September 11th and the Patriot Act. Many Americans are already concerned about these outcomes, and these concerns are manifesting themselves in different ways.

Dyer contends that national militaries are preparing for the political and military impacts of climate change: since people are going to be displaced due to drought, disease, rising sea levels, etc., and struggles for increasingly scarce resources are going to occur with more frequency, in the name of National Security, it makes sense to prepare for potential negative outcomes. Dyer offers a number of examples, but the one which I remember best (likely because it is closest to home) is what might happen on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Climate change will likely severely impact Central America and Mexico’s ability to produce enough food to feed itself. Given that the rest of the world will also likely not be in a position to export food surpluses which no longer exist, this will lead to a significant number of hungry people who might feel that they don’t have much to lose by migrating to a place which they perceive to be a better location for them. Certainly, throughout history, peoples have done just that.

While the U.S. southwest will itself be suffering from the ill effects of climate change the depletion of the Oglalla aquifer, relatively speaking, it might still seem a paradise to those from Central America who can not feed themselves. How will the U.S. protect itself from those seeking a better existence through illegal entry? Maybe some sort of wall should be built to keep other out. Maybe the wall should be armed with remotely operated weaponry, to deter those who might seek to challenge it. And don’t you think that landowners in Texas and Arizona are going to demand that their federal government take actions to ensure their security? To do so effectively, though, what might those who live in Texas and Arizona have to give up? Their right to assembly? Some of their property, wealth?

Certainly, this part of the world is already experiencing stresses which will be further exacerbated by a changing climate (witness the movement to "re-unify" the southwest with Mexico). Even if you don’t believe in climate change, you should recognize that the military is planning for a future which is going to be impacted by a changing climate.

Why would the military do that if the threat wasn’t real?

Climate Change: Not For Real?

Well, here’s why some people think that the military would be making all of its plans even though it knows that climate change is not real. I have become increasingly disturbed by the followers of Alex Jones and others who hypothesize that national governments, in the pockets of the military-industrial-banking complex, are using climate change as an excuse to stifle civil liberties, with the eventual goal of creating a corporatist world government run by the IMF and World Bank. Sometimes the ultimate goal of population reduction is brought into this belief.

I’m disturbed by this line of thinking mostly because I believe that there is a lot of merit to it, however I do not agree with that part of the hypothesis which suggests that climate change is not happening, and that scientists throughout the world are fudging the data and are part of an international conspiracy to make the rest of us live in fear. I guess I’m disturbed by its merit, because I, like many, don’t like to think about things like this.

That part of about the corporatist global government which is the ultimate goal, however, really does have a lot of merit, and I don’t think that there’s any question that we’re heading in that direction. This may be troubling for many Americans who have come to view their constitutional rights as paramount to all other rights, and that they should not be subservient or beholden to a government which refuses to recognize the U.S. Constitution as paramount. My concern here is that those people who might otherwise be allies in the fight against global warming are being lost to us and claimed by the denial industry.

The fact is that the green movement has a lot in common with the anti-corporatist, libertarian agenda which many in the U.S. and Canada subscribe to. Not all libertarians are right-wingers, and not all who oppose bailing out banks are left-wingers. Indeed, there is a lot of overlap if you go looking. There can also be a lot of opposition, given that the green movement was built out of the peace movement, while many libertarians with an anti-corporatist, anti-government agenda will fight to their last breath to hold onto their guns and ammo.

For all those areas where greens and libertarians might find common ground, it appears that the idea of climate change might turn into a losing proposition, thanks in part to the machinations of our national governments. This might be difficult to understand for those in the green choir, but picture the following scenario.

The President of the United States acknowledges that climate change is real, happening, and needs to be addressed, despite what the media says. The President decides to take action, without the approval of Congress, and announce a plan to do just that. He travels to Copenhagen to announce that America will participate in the creation of a fund wherein the wealth of the developed world can be transferred to those less-developed nations so that they may invest in green technologies instead of brown. The President goes on to say that this must happen because National Security may be jeopardized if we don’t act. All around the President, other international decision makers are talking about how all of this will hopefully lead to a global government.

Video clips go viral on the internet, showing youthful protestors interrupting speeches given by respected climate change deniers, some of whom are in governments. Protestors mindlessly shout down any and all who want to suggest that climate change isn’t happening. The protestors are compared to Hitler Youth and Brownshirts for their slavish actions. Green is seen as the new Black, Red & White; green is the heel of the latest jackboot.

The President is denounced for selling out the American people and the Constitution for his insistence on taking action to address the imaginative issue of climate change. Worse, the fears of many focus on the President’s use of Executive privelege over Congressional law (remember that the President of the U.S. can not make law – that’s Congress’ job. The President can only sign or veto a bill; if Congress doesn’t present the President with a bill to make a law, such as the one needed to address climate change, what legal right does the President have to insist that the government will do so anyway?). With this precedent, what else might the President do to enforce his view over Congress? Where does it end? Remember that the President is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military; the military does not answer to Congress, it answers to the President.

These are not small issues. While it seems that the denial industry has been largely funded by the corporations who appear to have the most to lose if we start to take action to address climate change (the very military-industrial-banking complex referenced above), there is a subset of individuals out there in the U.S. and Canada (and presumably elsewhere) who see climate change as the latest tool to be used by government to erode civil liberties. What bothers me is that I find myself sharing some of their concerns, because one doesn’t have to disbelieve in climate change to see how it might be used by decision-makers to advance a particular agenda. And one can see how that agenda might easily benefit the corporate elites.

Cap and Trade

Certainly a North American or an international emissions trading program is one which will benefit the banking industry and the corporate elite, and disadvantage those who are the least well-off amongst us. We have seen the European Emissions Trading scheme increase the wealth of corporations engaged in emissions trading, while little or no success has actually been achieved on reducing greenhouse gases. While it might be true that a successfully implement cap and trade scheme would eventually lead to a reduction in emissions, will it take us to where we need to be? How long will it take to get us there? And, who will disproportionately benefit in the process?

I’m certainly not optimistic about the timeframes involved in establishing a meaningful cap and trade scheme (by meaningful, I here mean one which actually reduces emissions). Cap and trade would be a great way of achieving intensity targets, and giving pats on the back to the corporations and politicians who are involved. Cap and trade will certainly enrich those who generate money from nothing. There is a lot to fear about cap and trade just from that perspective alone, neverminding the ghg reduction angle (or lack thereof).

Why, then, is this costly, incredibly bureaucratic method of potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions the preferred method of governments? The answer, of course, is that because people will make money off of it. And by "people" I don’t mean you or me, as we stand to become further impoverished by a scenario which adds a premium to everything we purchase without the corresponding offsets on other taxes. In short, if I’m making the same income and am now expected to pay more for just about everything that I need, why the hell would I ever want to buy into that? And that’s why I don’t.

Now, if it were the only real option available, maybe I would accept this kind of program. But it’s not the only option available. It’s not even the easiest option available to implement. We in the Green Party know that there’s a better option: reducing personal income taxes while putting a premium on products and services which use carbon. This approach, misleadingly labelled a "Carbon Tax" (I say "misleadingly" because calling it a new tax is only half the story; the other side of the new tax is reducing the old tax), is a lot simpler to implement, and if handled correctly (through the provision of income offsets for those least well off amongst us), will end up impacting us much less, and contribute to health of our economy by providing us who are keen on conservation with more income.

A cap and trade scenario won’t do that at all. Instead, it will suck up our income and distribute it to the bankers and financiers who are running the scheme. Potentially, the governments involved will see a little of the dividend, but likely only after the administrators have taken their healthy cut. Look, I’m all for new revenue sources for governments, but I’m also for deciding how best to spend my own earnings.

Anyway, you can see that if you were an Alex Jones Libertarian how you might be very concerned about an international emissions trading scheme. The unfortunate part of it all is that if you were an Alex Jones Libertarian, you won’t be out there advocating for a carbon tax instead of cap and trade, because you’re likely not one to believe that climate change is happening in the first place. And that really makes me angry, because all things being equal, the Alex Jones Libertarians would be natural allies for moving forward a sensible carbon pricing scheme.

To Sum Up

I’m sure I’ll revisit some of what I’ve written here in a more specific format. Suffice it to say, though, that we can expect to hear a lot more about National Security in the coming years, and a lot of it is likely to have to do with climate change. We need to be very careful where these sorts of discussions end up going, and we should be very suspect at joining with those who want to take action on climate change through means which lead to the erosion of human rights and liberties. Yes, the future may be a very bleak one when it comes to human strife and suffering, and if the world for which the military planners are war-gaming for comes into being, we all stand to lose a lot. But let’s not also throw away our human rights in the name of national security.

Let us all also be vigilant with regards to those who would use the climate crisis to further their own agendas, be they governments or the military-industrial-banking complex. The threats to our civil liberties are very real, both in Canada and the United States. We simply can not allow the struggle against climate change to imperil democracy. If you don’t believe that climate change and democracy are inexorably linked, it’s time that you give it a second thought.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More Contempt for Parliament: Conservatives Stall for Time on Guergis

I’ve been taking some time off lately, to prepare for Earth Day, which comes early to Sudbury (on Saturday, April 17th, at Market Square! Hope to see you there). So, for those of you wondering what’s become of me in the past few weeks, now you know.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been a lot to blog about. Today, though, I’m going to focus on subject material that I really didn’t have much of an interest in, figuring that the blogosphere has already been quite atwitter over it all already. Yes, I’m talking about ex-Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer and MP Helena Guergis, who was up until last Friday the Minister of State for the Status of Women. I’m not going to re-cap this whole situation for you. Instead, I wanted to focus on events which have taken place since Friday, when the Prime Minister "referred" certain allegations pertaining to Guergis over to the RCMP and Ethics Commissioner. As you know, Guergis has been kicked out of the Conservative caucus, and is now sitting as an Independent in the nether-reaches of the House (actually, I understand that she’s still on a beach somewhere in the tropics).

Since the brief statement late last Friday afternoon, there has been little information regarding what prompted Harper to accept Guergis’ resignation to ask for investigations. Given that the request went to the Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, there had been speculation that the allegations pertained to an ethical situation which Guergis might have found herself involved in, which may have had legal implications, given the RCMP’s involvement. Given that there have been recent suggestions in the media that her husband, Rahim Jaffer, had been telling potential business clients that the had special access to the government for funding, there has been some suggestion that maybe the allegations Harper received on Friday had to do with influence peddling.

Thing is, though, here we are four days later, and no one really knows why there’s a cloud hanging over Guergis’ head. Since then, opposition parties have been looking for answers during question period, only to find none. The only new information which seems to have come to light so far is that the allegations were made by a third party, who is not an MP or someone who works for the government, which doesn’t rule out all that many people.

Earlier today, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson announced that she would not be investigating Guergis, because there hasn’t been anything brought to her attention which would warrant an investigation. Plus, Dawson indicated that she can’t investigate anyway while the RCMP is investigating. The RCMP haven’t hinted at anything at this point, but one must think that since the matter was referred to the RCMP by the Prime Minister, they’re likely looking into it. Usually, though, the RCMP keeps the specifics of investigations under wraps while the investigation is on-going.

So, in the House we have Conservatives refusing to answer questions about what, exactly, Helena Guergis might have or not have done which warranted her removal from cabinet. Questions aren’t being answered because the matter is under investigation. The investigators aren’t talking, because they’re investigating, at the behest of the Conservative Prime Minister; one of the investigators has already dropped the matter because there wasn’t anything there to be investigated.

And we Canadians are growing more and more despondent with a government which refuses to provide answers for its actions. That’s what has me really ticked about this whole matter. That and the fact that parliament’s precious time is being wasted on what really should have been something cleared up by the Prime Minister or his spokesperson in the early goings fo question period yesterday afternoon. Instead, the Cons are mum, because the matter is under investigation.

Look, I’m no fan of Helena Guergis, but whatever is going on sounds like it may be serious, given the Prime Minister’s actions. As a Canadian, I have a right to know why a member of government has essentially been forced to resign from her position. I want to know why there is a cloud hanging over the head of a sitting MP. But, as long as the Conservatives presume that they are unable to discuss the matter while the RCMP are investigating, I’m not likely going to find out.

This all stinks. Yet again, the Conservative government is trying to get away with providing Canadians with no explanation regarding its actions. And it’s not just us Canadians out here in the blogosphere who are being denied answers, it’s Parliament itself, which the Conservatives have an obvious contempt for. What’s been going on with regards to withholding information related to the Afghan detainee issue is disgusting in the extreme, and now they’re at it again with Helena Guergis.

I suspect that some of the answers might come out eventually, but unless the RCMP actually lay some charges, we’re not likely ever going to get the full story here. Given that the Ethics Commissioner has already backed off, I have my doubts that the RCMP will be laying any charges. Which would then lead to the following questions: if the accusations on which Guergis was forced to resign aren’t enough for a legal or ethical investigation, why did the Prime Minister refer the matter to the RCMP and Ethics Commissioner? Was he simply trying to stall for time in answering questions swirling around Guergis and her husband Jaffer? If so, boy, that’s a pretty low partisan game being played with parliament and the Canadian people.