Monday, January 31, 2011

Canada Should Send a Clear Message to Egypt: Mubarak Must Go

Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. What do they want? Democracy! When do they want it? Now! For over 30 years, the Egyptian people have lived under the thumb of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The pace of democratic reform in Egypt has been akin to that of a paralyzed slug. Finally, Egyptians are telling the world that they've had enough. They are asking the world to figuratively stand with them in the streets of Cairo, as they demand the ouster of Mubarak.

But...for the western world at least, Mubarak isn't someone our governments want to abandon quickly. While the west tends to talk a good talk when it comes to democracy, and go so far as to demand and enforce "regime change" when dictators of middle eastern nations become non-compliant (read: Saddam Hussein), when it comes to Mubarak and our friendly dictators in other nations (such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen and, up until lately, Tunisia), democracy seems to take a back seat to political expediency.

Just what are western governments afraid of? All of this pussy-footing around really isn't helping the situation on the street. If anything, it's providing Mubarak with a false sense of confidence that maybe he and his regime can survive the protests. He can't, however. The people of Egypt won't let that happen. Mubarak's regime may survive long enough to implement transition measures, and perhaps hold those "free and fair" elections western nations are now calling for (and isn't funny how those buzz-words appeared magically in the media of many western nations just today. Almost as if they were sharing script writers and spin doctors).

Again, what are western nations afraid of? Oh yes...there's the spectre of radical Islam. They talk a lot about that on Fox News to be sure, but from all reports, these protests are not being led by radical muslims. Indeed, the protesters appear to cut through all socio-economic classes, and when religion is raised as an issue at all by the protesters, it's when they're going out of their way to identify the need for christians and muslims to work towards the same goal: an Egypt without Mubarak.

Sure, I'd be naive to believe that the revolution couldn't at some point be highjacked by radical groups. Throughout history, when revolutions have occurred, all too often that's what ends up happening. But it doesn't always happen. As far as Egypt goes, the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party slash charitable organization, seems to be the group often identified in western media as the "radical" organization to be feared. Personally, I'm not completely sold on the notion that the Brotherhood can be equated with Al Qaeda, although I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that they are as benign as Turkey's ruling AK party.

Should Canadians be afraid regarding what might happen in Egypt should Mubarak be forced out? No, we shouldn't be. What we should be doing is standing with the people of Egypt, and letting them know that we share their desire for democratic decision making. We should be telling Egyptians that there is no higher aspiration than to achieve true democracy for one's community, state, or nation. If the democratic door is opened and radical Islam walks inside, then perhaps (and only then) should the west temper its stance with Egypt. Yet, even in such a circumstance, what right does any western nation have to thwart the will of a government elected by people?

Oh wait. I guess Canada thought that was the right thing to do when the people of Gaza elected Hamas in a "fair and free" election. I guess it's possible that the people of Egypt might also elect an Egyptian version of Hamas. But possibility of doing so is not reason enough to deny the people of Egypt the opportunity to participate in a democratic election.

For the "fair and free" election to happen, the primary prerequisite is that Hosni Mubarak must go. Otherwise, there will be no legitimacy to the electoral process. Further, Egyptians might not be satisfied to wait until the fall of this year to hold those elections. An interim government, one without Mubarak, should carefully gauge the will of the people, and call for an election for an appropriate time.

And it may very well take time for Egyptians to bring themselves to a point where a "fair and free" election can be held. It's not as if the democratic tradition in Egypt is particulary strong, and political parties, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling National Democratic Party, just don't have the depth and experience to participate in a fair and free election. Even Egyptians currently protesting in the streets realize that democracy isn't going to happen over night.

Only the biggest democraphobes out there would deny the people of Egypt their opportunity to form their own government. Pundits worldwide agree that Mubarak's days are numbered. Why aren't western governments saying as much? What do they (and we) have to lose now by simply stating that Mubarak must go? Indeed, to me it seems that the west has everything to lose by not endorsing the Egyptian people's demand for Mubarak's ouster. It's possible that our lack of resolve today might lead to the very outcome which the west fears: a radical Islamic government brought to power in Egypt.

Morally, the west should be calling for Mubarak's ouster. But, as with so many things which prove to be intransigent, Hosni Mubarak represents "sunk costs" to the west. We've invested considerable resources in the Mubarak regime, in an effort to keep the peace, especially as far as Israel is concerned. Abandoning anyone or anything for which a hefty price has been paid is never easy politically, especially when the political gain for doing so is uncertain at best. It's difficult to abandon an ally even when the political reality staring you in the face is that it's all going to come crashing down anyway.

Today, CBC's The National was reporting the leaders of the three main national political parties were calling for measured responses in Egypt. Fair and free elections, sure, but nothing about Mubarak. All this while the people in Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor are clamoring to get rid of Mubarak as the first step. Only Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May were specific in their calls for the Canadian government to tell Mubarak to exit, stage left. May in particular had a number of things to say about the importance of democracy. May understands that, when it comes to democracy, the west shouldn't try to suck and blow at the same time.

I wasn't at all surprised that Harper and Ignatieff were reluctant to abandon Canada's erstwhile ally Mubarak, given that the Conservative government and previous Liberal governments have done what they could to support the dictator in the past. I was much more surprised to hear (or not hear) the NDP's Jack Layton take the same position. Again, the NDP disappoints me.

Either we believe that people around the world deserve a healthy democracy or we don't. While the situation in Egypt is anything but black and white, democratic principles don't inhabit a greyscale. People throughout the world should be able to participate in the decision-making processes of their governments. Full stop. Democracy can not be paid lip service. Either you're all in, or you're playing a different game.

The people of Egypt aren't playing a game. They are deadly serious, and they are certainly "all in".

Friday, January 28, 2011

No! No! No! to Yes! Yes! Yes! CPC Attack Ads

Last week I asked (and answered) the question as to whether or not recently unveiled Conservative Party attack ads were backfiring on Stephen Harper, as a result of a number of controversies swirling around those ads. I had indicated that we would have a clearer picture when next week’s polls came out. I predicted a very moderate, yet identifiable slippage in the Conservatives polling numbers.

If the latest poll from EKOS is any indication, however, the attack ads had no bearing one way or the other. The EKOS poll, released today, shows a relative flatline in support of the Conservative Party. Indeed, all parties support remains flatlined. If a conclusion based on this one poll can be made, it’s that the attack ads have had neither a positive or negative effect on the fortunes of the CPC. All things being equal, I would normally have said here that I’d adopt a further wait and see attitude.

However, in politics, all things rarely remain equal for very long. It looks like the Conservative Party has just today acknowledged that it’s shot itself in the foot with the release of two new attack ads yesterday. In an effort to minimize self-inflected damage, the Globe & Mail is reporting this evening that the CPC has pulled the two ads after they enraged Canadians in twittersphere.

These two ads used a clip from Liberal Leader Michael’s Ignatieff speech to party faithful earlier in the week, in which he asked (and answered) his own questions regarding whether the Liberal Party was ready to fight for Canadian families. His answer, a resounding “Yes! Yes! Yes!” proved to be far more memorable than the questions themselves, apparently. The Conservative Party’s ads used the Yes! Yes! Yes! completely out of context, so that Ignatieff appeared to be answering different questions related to his desire to force an unwanted election (in these uncertain economic times, no less!).

The use of the Ignatieff clip out of context really burned a lot of Canadians, and outrage spilled across blogsites and the comment sections of mainstream media. I have to express my own surprise here, as I hadn’t anticipated the level of outrage to the ads. I just sorta kinda thought that Canadians were growing more used to these American-style ads which seek to vilify opponents by using their own words taken out of context against them. Maybe it’s just me, having watched too many ads on American TV during last year’s U.S. mid-terms.

Nonetheless, these ads from Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party were disgusting attempts to distort the truth and confuse Canadians. I guess he thinks so very highly of Canadians that he believes that we’ll fall for this kind of complete distortion of reality (because apparently we’re pretty adept at falling for other distortions of reality as proffered by the CPC). I suppose it’s a good thing that his Party’s braintrust massaged out their collective braincramp and pulled the ads. Certainly these latest ads are going to go down in Canadian political advertising history, ending up right beside Kim Campbell’s unflattering portrayal of Jean Chretien’s face.

So, now I’m really expecting to see a slight, but discernible, slip in Conservative polling numbers in next week’s polls. These attack ads are proving to be a disaster for Harper and his Conservative Party (and a completely self-inflicted one). If the 15% of Canadians allegedly paying attention to federal politics have anything to say about things, I can’t see how the Cons can spin these ads into a success.

Or perhaps a slight bump to the Liberals and NDP might be more indicative of the really decent week that both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton have had. Ignatieff in particular, since he started taking a populist stance on killing unnecessary tax cuts for corporations, and questioning the need for expensive jet fighters, has started to come into his own this week, from a political perspective. While his one-issue wonder approach to growing Liberal support really galls me for its lack of comprehensiveness, I’m not blinded to the fact that attacking wasteful corporate tax cuts clearly resonates with Canadians.

Layton’s cat and mouse game with the election issue has also left him looking pretty good. He wants to be perceived as the reasonable guy in the midst of the election madness. Maybe he even believes that Harper will bend on the one or two concessions Layton wants to see in the budget – removing HST from home heating being the biggest. At least he’s not demanding $5 billion dollars all for one province as Gilles Duceppe is doing.

All of this, of course, is bad news for the Green Party of Canada. While our support remains flat, it’s clear that we’ve not been able to capitalize at all, even in the midst of all of this rhetorical nonsense. Now, I know Green Party members and supporters will point to the obvious – the Green Party of Canada isn’t built in such a way as to participate in this kind of partisan rhetoric. Indeed, it’s because of the sort of nonsense going on these past weeks that most of us joined the Green Party in the first place, because we’re just all too frustrated with the way that gotcha politics seems to have replaced policy discussion and debate in this country.

Nonetheless, as a Green pragmatist, I can’t help but point out the almost complete absence of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the mainstream media this week. That’s not to say she isn’t working her guts out for the Party (because I know that she is), but it is to say suggest that a lack of press at this time isn’t helping the Green Party. Canadians might want to know where Greens stand on eliminating corporate tax cuts, or cancelling the unsourced fighter jet deal. Instead, we get treated with May’s take on the revamped Mark Twain classic “Huckleberry Finn”.

So, let’s wait and see what the polls have to say. Perhaps the Conservative attack ad fiasco will prove to be a tempest in a teapot, as many Canadians just aren’t paying attention right now. Or maybe Conservative support really is as solid as it appears, and there isn’t anywhere to go for the CPC but up. By all rights, though, these attack ads really should be damaging to Stephen Harper and Conservatives. If there isn’t any damage recorded, however, one wonders exactly what the Conservatives might have to do to seriously rock their own boat.

How big of a disaster might be necessary for the 35+% of Canadians who support the Conservatives to question whether they’re backing the right horse? I continue to be perplexed by these polling numbers, given the lack of interest and regard (not to mention the outright hostility) the Conservative Party of Canada has shown time and again to middle-class Canadians. The middle-class continues to vote against its own interests when they cast ballots for Conservative candidates. I guess maybe as with the Conservative Party itself, Canada’s middle-class might prove to be its own worst enemy in the long run.

Ending the Per-Vote Sudbsidy Detrimental to a Democracy in Crisis

I read with interest an article appearing in my local Sun Media paper today, from Brian Lilley. I didn’t have much hope for the article, “$2-per vote subsidy needs to be killed” based on its headline, so I was surprised to discover that Mr. Lilley advanced a decent argument, low on political rhetoric, as to why the $2 per vote subsidy should be terminated. Of course, this article is simply another voice in the Conservative Party’s echo-chamber. Sun Media ceased being non-partisan a long time ago, having replaced true journalism with infotainment. Sun Media isn’t a news source; it’s a soap box.

The latest tactic being used to convince voters that the per-vote subsidy needs to go is to go on the attack against the very argument being used by those in favour of maintaining the subsidy. And that’s whether or not the subsidy is actually beneficial for promoting the democratic health of our nation. Proponents of the subsidy have long relied (almost entirely) on the argument that removing the subsidy is bad for democracy in Canada. Opponents are now questioning this argument, which frankly was never the strongest or best argument for maintaining the subsidy, in my opinion.

Some of the reasons as to why I’ve personally been troubled by the per-vote subsidy are outlined effectively by Mr. Lilley in his article. But I can’t agree with the assertion that the per-vote subsidy harms our democratic process. In theory, it appears that giving money to political parties while not providing it to Independents is problematic for democracy. And if our democracy operated in practice as we would like it to in theory, perhaps there would be harm.

In practice, however, pretty much all of the aspects of the democratic process have become partisan in nature. With the centralization of true power first in the hands of Cabinet, and then in the Prime Minister’s Office, the de facto role of elected Members of Parliament have deteriorated over time to that of a chorus line, used only to enliven the key solo performance of the Party Leader or Prime Minister. For the most part, our elected MP’s have little influence on the direction of government, and much less than their counterparts did even 30 years ago.

While political parties are not mentioned in our nation’s Constitution, parties have evolved over time into influential components of our democratic system. Personally, I firmly believe that the Party system in this nation is an impediment to a healthy democracy – but it’s the system itself which is problematic, and not the per-vote subsidy. I believe the per-vote subsidy is helpful for the promotion of democracy in a deeply flawed democratic system.

Canadian democracy is in crisis mode. Recent attacks from the ruling party regarding the removal of the per-vote subsidy are simply one more component of the crisis, and if the per-vote subsidy is removed without our system undergoing transformational change, it will be yet another setback for democracy. Simply put, in our current system, money talks. And this is so quite literally.

Yesterday it was revealed that the government of Canada spent more on monitoring the media than it did on polling in order to ascertain the perspective of Canadians. Polling itself has always been a bit of a problematic (and expensive) way to judge Canada’s political will, as it took a “focus group” approach to policy development. Media scans and monitoring, however, is far inferior to even the focus group approach to policy development because of the concentration of media ownership in this nation.

Our mainstream media is not representative of mainstream Canadian sentiment, and that’s a fact born out again and again by pollsters who ask Canadians for their opinions on policy. One needs to look no further than the opinions of Canadians who demand real action to combat the climate crisis (which, in a recent poll, was identified as being just under 85%), versus the views of many “mainstream” media outlets, some of which have taken the editorial position that global warming has yet to be proven to exist by science. Just who is the mainstream media really speaking for? Certainly, the answer is often: not you or me. Which means that different media outlets clearly have their own agenda.

And since the government of Canada (not the Conservative Party, by the way; I’m talking about your tax dollars and my tax dollars here) are increasingly monitoring the media in order to develop policy to guide our nation, it’s no wonder that the government’s agenda is increasingly divergent from the real needs of Canadians. If the media isn’t representative of the opinions of Canadians, and if the media has increasing influence on policy development, it’s really no wonder that we get what we get. And it’s no wonder at all that our democracy is in crisis.

In an environment where the wealthy right-wing dominates the media, taxpayer-funded subsidies to political parties, whether they are based on votes or the more financially important subsidies which are provided through deferred taxation to Party contributors (in the form of tax receipts for three quarters of your donation to a Party), are one way of levelling the playing field. Certainly it’s not the best way, in my opinion, but at least we’re financing opportunities for other representative voices to be heard (albeit partisan ones).

It’s easy to say that political parties should be allowed to either flourish or die on their own. I don’t disagree with that sentiment in theory. If a political party can’t attract a critical mass of support, including financial support, perhaps there is a problem with its policies or message or leader or whatever which is holding it back. It might therefore deserve to die. More successful parties will be the ones which appeal to a broader base of support, and end up meriting financial contributions to further their own ends.

However, in the real world, it doesn’t work that way, and it all has to do with the concentration of wealth in this nation. Simply put, the minority rich can afford to drive the political agenda at the expense of the majority middle class. And they do so by following Marshall McLuhan’s advice by controlling the message through the media. How do you control the message? You prevent alternative messages from being heard.

All of which makes things that much harder for other representative organizations and groups (including political parties) to get their message out to Canadians. By shutting down the message, our media effectively severs opportunities to for Canadians to make connections with others who share their opinions and beliefs.

For political parties, the issue isn’t that their message doesn’t resonate with Canadians; it’s far more often the case that their message doesn’t resonate with media. In our sound-bite political world, discussion and debate about policy has devolved to name-calling and character assassination. Shooting the messenger has become a viable policy debating option to the point that it’s often the only aspect of the debate to be covered by the media.

Non-media friendly messages are forced to muscle their way into the media, and these efforts unfortunately cost money. Hence the importance of tax-payer funding.

My preference would be to do away with having taxpayers fund political parties, but only after we transform our current system into one which is truly representative of the political will of Canadians. Right now, our “first past the post” electoral system is the primary culprit responsible for the growing democratic deficit. When most votes cast by electors in this country simply do not matter, how can we expect to end up with a government which represents the will of Canadians?

The urban \ rural divide between the relative power of votes is another culprit. The effective weight of urban votes is almost one half less powerful than that of votes cast in rural ridings, because of the numbers of electors in different ridings.

The concentration of real power into the hands of an increasingly “Presidential” Prime Minister which effectively limits the power of all other elected MP’s, including those serving in Cabinet, is yet another blow to democracy in our nation.

And then there’s the unelected Senate, filled with political partisans, which has now started to position itself as a body which will thwart the will of our elected House. Here I’m talking about the recent defeat of Bill C-311 in the Senate; this Bill had been passed by parliament, but Conservatives in the unelected upper house killed it without so much as debating it. When unelected appointed political operatives can thwart the will of elected Members of Parliament who came together across party lines to approve legislation, it can no longer be argued that Canada isn’t in a democratic crisis.

Keep those things in mind when you head to the polls to cast your ballot. For all of its flaws, the per-vote subsidy is one small attempt at levelling the playing field so that issues important to the majority of middle-class Canadians can be heard above the monied right-wing cacophony of our mainstream media. Right now, your vote is worth real money to the Party you choose to support. Yes, it’s unfortunate that, as Brian Lilley points out, it isn’t worth anything to an Independent candidate who you may choose to support. But that flaw is not a reason to do away with the subsidy altogether, especially when so much is at stake for the health of our Canadian democratic system.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cambrian College Students Help Promote Cycling in Sudbury

This blogpost is long overdue, and I must offer my sincere apologies to Professor Brian Vendramin’s graphic design class at Cambrian College for the delay.

I had the pleasure of attending presentations put on by Mr. Vendramin’s class back on Monday, January 17th. The Graphics Design class had been diligently working on a project for the Sudbury Cyclists Union, after Union members had visited with the class back in October of 2010. The class had been tasked with producing promotional materials and a marketing strategy to address the priorities of the Cyclists Union (whatever those are!). Last Monday, the efforts of the entire class were on display for me and other Union members. And I can tell you that, if I were Prof. Vendramin, everyone would be getting an “A”.

The Sudbury Cyclists Union is a new organization to Sudbury. It was founded only on Earth Day, 2010, and really started to take off after our first in-person meeting, held in June of last year. We’re still an organization trying to figure out what it wants to be (which I’m sure created headaches for the marketing students…but also apparently offered opportunities to apply some seriously creative ideas…more on that later).

The SCU wants to focus on a number of things, which can be summed up as the desire to promote a culture of cycling within the City. To do so, the SCU has to be an advocate for cycling, as well as the go-to organization for cyclists when it comes to cycling safety and other issues which impact cycling in our community. We want to work with other stakeholders to advance our interests in a safe and financially sustainable way. Growing our organization is also a priority.

The strategies developed by the students in Professor Vendramin’s class will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the SCU, and when the SCU formalizes an organizational structure (which will be before the end of the winter), the SCU Executive will have an informed discussion with the membership about where we are to go from here. The strategies and materials developed by our Cambrian College student partners are going to play a big role in moving us forward.

5 groups of Cambrian students presented their strategies, and were asked tough questions by SCU members. The first group focused on attracting new members, identifying a to-be-targeted demographic between the ages of 15 and 50, with a health and fitness bent. Their promotional materials, to be made available at gyms and health food stores, were stellar.

The second group to present came up with an idea which would force the SCU to create partnerships with local cycling-friendly businesses (which was very appealing to me) as part of a City-wide game (which was interesting, and something the SCU might consider as part of a campaign to attract new members and potentially some media interest). The game, which would see cyclists biking around the City throughout any given month, receiving stamps from area-businesses, was to be driven by a powerful on-line video (which had great production value, and I’m sure would go viral locally!).

The third group to present offered a very clear strategy for growing the organization, with an emphasis on promotional materials. This group put a lot of thought into the notion of what it means to be a “member” of the Sudbury Cyclists Union, and their promotional materials, which incorporated the Union’s logo, would definitely assist in “branding” the Union, making it recognizable to the larger community.

The fourth group identified the need for the Union to position itself strongly with a demographic which they believed would be very supportive of the Union, and which would lead to further growth. Their message was succinct, and one that I’ll personally be advocating for at the next meeting: get into the schools. When I questioned this group regarding a statement they had made relating to the difficulty which the Union might experience with getting into the schools, I was presented with what I felt was the best answer of the day: you can’t afford to miss the opportunity, so do whatever it takes.

The fifth group offered some practical solutions for growing membership locally, through organizational branding and transferable promotional materials. They had put a lot of thought into how the organization could promote itself at every opportunity possible, and provided information on expected expenses.

All of these strategies and materials were very well thought out, offering the SCU different ideas and approaches to growth and marketing. Now, if only we had some money…

But the good news for the SCU remains that we’ve accomplished a lot already without any budget whatsoever. We’ve been able to tap into some kind of community zeitgeist related to cycling. We can’t fail, because the community understands that cycling is here to stay, now more than ever.

And with the enthusiastic help of Professor Vendramin’s Cambrian College class, the SCU will be well positioned to move forward in 2011. I was just blown away by these presentations, and I am so very thankful for the assistance offered to our organization by Professor Vendramin and his very capable students.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Are Conservative Attack Ads Backfiring?

Are the Conservative Party of Canada’s recently unveiled attack ads backfiring for Stephen Harper? Given what’s been written about the controversy these ads are creating, versus the substance of the actual ads, I think that it may be fair to answer that question in the affirmative. Although, I would include the caveat that, like the ads themselves, it may be premature to answer the question with an unequivocal “yes”.

And that’s the problem with these ads. Just what the heck are they? Some have suggested that they are clearly election ads. However, there isn’t an election underway that I’m aware of. So, ok, then they’re pre-election ads by the Conservative Party. Sure, ok, but Stephen Harper keeps telling everybody that he doesn’t want an election. Some are suggesting then, that this is Harper’s way of bargaining with the opposition parties from a position of strength: he’s showing them that if they choose to bring the government down, this is the sort of campaign that they’re in for, so hopefully one of the opposition parties will side with government come budget time. Well, that’s an interesting way to seek co-operation amongst political parties, as Jack Layton, Leader of the NDP, noted. It’s seeking co-operation by hitting the opposition leaders over the head with a two-by-four.

I can hear Conservative Party supporters now, saying, “Sure, the ads are premature, but they’re doing their job: portraying the Stephen Harper as the best choice for Canadians, and vilifying Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the process.” Well…is that the effect they’re really having?

I have to admit, at this time, I’ve not actually watched the ads. I’ve only been following the controversies. Let me recap, to date:

On the day that the ads were released publicly, one of the links on the CPC website led to a video posted mischievously which portrayed then-opposition Leader Stephen Harper giving a speech in the House of Commons about why Canada should help the U.S. invade Iraq. That speech was later determined to be stolen, almost word for word, from a speech given by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. This clearly wasn’t a CPC highlight reel video which Harper and his gang would want Canadians to remember.

Next up, enter the CBC, which complained that their broadcast footage was being used for partisan political purposes. Apparently, one of the Ignatieff attack ads used video footage from the CBC’s archives, which the CBC would consider a no-no under most circumstances, given that they paid for the footage and are owners of it. As the footage goes to further partisan political aims, well, for the CBC that’s just right out. However, the CPC argued that since U.S. public affairs channel C-SPAN had allowed the CPC to use footage of Ignatieff in the past, based on “fair use” provisions, the CBC’s material falls under those same provisions. Conservative Party of Canada legal experts determined that there was no violation of any copyright laws.

Just keep that in mind the next time you post a Rick Mercer clip to YouTube.

Anyway, last I heard, the CBC was still pursuing the matter.

Then, there’s the biggest brouhaha of them all, which is still unfolding even as I write this, with the other political parties, the civil service, watchdogs of various sorts and a few constitutional experts throwing their opinions around. Apparently, in the only non-attack ad produced by the Conservative Party, there is footage of Stephen Harper at work in his office. In the House of Commons. In a federal government building paid for and maintained by the taxpayers of Canada. And that’s hardly the kind of location that political party ad producers should be thinking of using as a backdrop.

Sure, maybe Harper looks “prime ministerial” sitting in his office, doing paperwork. But think about it for a moment: would you ever contemplate seeing a U.S. presidential campaign ad where the current president is seated in the oval office, extolling the electorate to vote for him? That’s not exactly the sort of backdrop which would be appropriate for a partisan pitch. Ever.

The CPC says that the Prime Minister’s office is different, and that they are breaking no laws or procedures through its use. And, as the opposition parties are discovering, the CPC may be right about that from a legal perspective. I won’t go through the twists and turns which journalists have been uncovering now for the past few days about why this is so; just take my word for it that it’s almost a chicken and egg, pretzel shaped argument which seems to suggest that the ads are ok…from a legal perspective. From a moral perspective, however, there can’t be any justification for the Conservatives to stoop so low in a partisan ad. However, when it comes to political gain, the Conservative Party of Canada proves time and again that it's hardly a bastion of morality.

Pundits in the mainstream media, along with opposition politicians, are noting the strange timing of the release of these ads, following in the wake of the Tucson shootings and President Obama’s inspirational message to Americans which, in part, urged everyone to tone the rhetoric down. It’s clear that Harper, like Sarah Palin next door, didn’t seem to get that message, and it’ll be "half truths and character assassination", a.k.a. "business as usual" over at the CPC “war room” (I’m not sure when running an election campaign turned into a “war”, by apparently that’s where we’re at now: it’s winner-take-all and everyone else is a casualty. It’s no wonder that there is so little co-operation in parliament).

Others have pointed out that these sorts of attack ads really do work for the Party doing the attacking, although right now, I’m not so sure that the Conservatives are accruing any net benefit. It’s going to be interesting to see whether there are any changes in the polls next week which might attributable to the release of these ads. I, for one, expect to see a slight, but noticeable dip in Conservative Party support, which isn’t what I’d normally expect to see in a circumstance where all of the parties are gearing up for an election. No, I don’t believe these attack ads are working out for Harper and the CPC as they had planned.

In the long run, though, what Green Party Leader Elizabeth May had to say about the nature of attack ads might end up bearing fruit for the Conservatives. May says that attack ads really do work, but not in the way that many think they do. She says that attack ads work by turning off the electorate through their creation of a political environment akin to a high-school history class run by a newly-hired supply teacher. The ads work by turning voters off, and therefore keeping voters at home.

Attack ads work against the interests of democracy.

It’s certainly hard to argue with May on this one. You only need to look at the declining rate of participation in Canadian elections, which has coincided with a rise in American-style attack ads and the politics of negativity. New, younger voters in particular, are choosing to remain disengaged. There’s nothing inspirational about negativism. The Conservative Party is aware of this, and they are quite happy to have scores of younger voters remain at home on election day, as younger voters overwhelmingly do not support the Conservative Party. Why wouldn’t the CPC want to turn younger voters off with negativity?

All that being said, though, I still believe that the Conservative Party of Canada appears to have committed a blunder with the premature release of election-style attack ads. Rather than Canadians talking about how terrible Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton are, this week's conversations around the water cooler and at Tim Horton’s have been about Conservative mis-steps.

Yes, Canadians seem to be resigned to the fact that an election is going to happen (and no one is really clamouring for our politicians to work together to resolve whatever issue might lead to an election).

With the resignation of voters in mind, Conservative Party strategists can’t be happy that they have lost control of their message this week. For the boys in the CPC war room, that’s akin to losing the initiative in battle. They have been on the defensive all week long, and clearly that wasn’t a part of their game plan. Instead of coming out with guns a-blazing, what we have is a Prime Minister which has been made to look like an American partisan opportunist (and one who is having trouble shooting straight at that). And that’s hardly the sort of image which is going to convince undecided voters to give the Cons a 38% false majority when the election comes.

Maybe it’s time to resurrect that fuzzy blue sweater, Mr. Harper.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Jack Layton & the NDP: Ho-Hum

I attended the New Democratic Party’s recent open house with Party Leader Jack Layton earlier this week. Layton was in Sudbury on a campaign-style tour, to discuss NDP priorities, and to hear from Sudburians about issues which are important to them. A good number of Northeastern Ontario MP’s were also in attendance, including Sudbury’s Glenn Thibeault, and Nickel Belt’s Claude Gravelle (along with Carol Hughes from AMK, and Tony Martin from Sault Ste. Marie; France Gelinas, Ontario MPP from Nickel Belt, was also on hand).

Before I continue, I probably should clarify a few points with regards to my own personal bias. As many of you probably already know, I’m not a member of the NDP, nor have I ever been a member of that Party. I am currently a member of the Green Party of Canada, and am possessed of a partisan bias. I have never been a big fan of Jack Layton’s, as I’ve always perceived him to be more “slick” than “substantive”. My opinion of Mr. Layton, however, has mellowed somewhat over the past several years, having seen Mr. Layton in action now on several occasions here in Sudbury. He still retains those slick qualities which are a turn-off to me, but he seems to have grown into his leadership role over time,.

Certainly, I’ve always had respect for Layton and his passionate defence of a number of issues which are important to me. I had once considered the NDP as a party which I could support because of their policy positions on many things. However, having seen the NDP in action provincially, and having witnessed the federal NDP flip-flop or outright ignore many of the issues which that Party claims to be important, I think it’s fair to say that my impression of the NDP is that it is a Party which lacks integrity inasmuch that they will sacrifice principles for electoral gains at just about every opportunity, particularly under its current Leadership.

I just don’t really trust the NDP to do the sorts of things that they say they want to do.

I believe that there are many members of the NDP who understand that the old ways of doing business in the brown economy are coming to an end, and that we need to start planning for a different kind of sustainable economy. Change will need to be transformative. However, Jack Layton and others in leadership roles in the NDP just won’t talk about the sorts of profound change Canada needs as we head into the 21st Century. The NDP continue to perpetuate the needs of the status quo over the real needs of Canadians, despite their members being engaged in moving the bar forward.

I truly think that, generally speaking, the NDP’s members are out in front of their own party on many things. I used to wonder why this was, but every time I did, I recalled that the NDP remains in the thrall of organized labour, a movement which doesn’t always possess the most progressive of outlooks on a complete range of issues. The labour movement, in my opinion, continues to have a long way to travel before they are able to shed their pro-brown economy outlook. I think they’ve started to head in that direction, mind you, and I’ve seen some progressive initiatives, such as Blue-Green Canada, come out of the labour movement. But there’s a long way to go yet.

(One last admission: I’ve been a pretty big fan of Sault Ste. Marie’s Tony Martin for quite some time now, and have followed his career for a number of years. Martin is the kind of politician that I like: hard-working and low-key, committed to his constituents, and not blinded by partisan rhetoric. It was nice to see Martin here in Sudbury this past week)

No, for me, the NDP remains a party of the status quo. And that was really on display earlier this week when Jack Layton came to town.

Ostensibly, the open house was not a pre-election campaign, as Layton made clear when he told the audience that the NDP doesn’t want an election, but would be prepared to fight if one was called. Layton took the tack that he was here in Sudbury to discuss the sorts of things which the NDP want to see in the upcoming spring budget. I’ll give the NDP the benefit of the doubt about this for now (and given their recent showing in the polls, I can understand why they don’t really want an election right now – even though I believe they will gain seats at the expense of the Liberals, who appear set to completely implode).

But with many pundits predicting an election this coming spring, I think that we have to treat these January tours by Layton and Ignatieff as filling a campaign niche as pre-writ excitement builders. Both leaders are travelling to ridings which they are targeting to hold and win (in fact, Ignatieff’s own tour is only going only to those ridings where there isn’t a Liberal incumbent).

The NDP are currently entrenched in Sudbury (and throughout most of Northeastern Ontario), so it makes sense that Sudbury and Nickel Belt will be ridings which the NDP will be defending (and from a position of strength, I might add, as MP’s Thibeault and Gravelle both have had some pretty good and positive public exposure, and have largely avoided controversy, with but one exception: flip-flopping on the long gun registry vote). I note that the Ignatieff’s current tour won’t be making any stops in Northeastern Ontario, so I think it’s probably fair to say that Liberal candidates in Sudbury and Nickel Belt will largely be on their own, these ridings having been written off by their Party. And that’s an astute assessment, in my opinion, as I don’t think the Liberals have much of a hope here in Sudbury or Nickel Belt, unless Ignatieff can pull these local campaigns up with the national campaign (although many believe that the Liberal’s national campaign will be a disaster in the coming election; I count myself amongst those who believe that Harper is going to tar and feather Michael Ignatieff from head to toe, and that’s also why I think that Layton and the NDP can make some modest gains. And why I think that Stephen Harper will finally get the prize he so desperately wants: a majority government).

Layton talked about a range of issues while he was in Sudbury a few nights ago, mostly all of which I couldn’t disagree with him on. The primary focus of the NDP for the “budget” (or, the “election” if you prefer) appears to be fairly modest: helping seniors by reforming the Canada Pension Plan; removing the 5% HST on home heating and restoring the EcoEnergy program to help with energy efficiencies; pour more money into health care to better improve the system. A number of other matters were discussed, and I know that his Party supports a really broad range of policies. Those three items, though, appear to be the priorities. Very modest. Even Ho-Hum.

That’s not to say that they’re not important. But it is to say that the NDP continues to think small. They might suggest that they’re thinking in terms of realistic and achievable goals, and I can’t disagree with that assessment. These policy items, particularly the priorities, tend to be both realistic and achievable (depending on how you define “pouring” money into health care anyway…if success on health care proves to be of the same sort of success the NDP defined last year’s “win” with EI reform, that money poured in might really just be a trickle..or a drip).

Isn’t it better to be thinking along the lines of looking for small, realistic, achievable wins, rather than offering a grand vision which would renew Canada, but likely would be much more difficult to implement, especially in a minority government situation? I’m sure many would answer yes to that question, and most NDP supporters would agree. I just can’t agree, however, because I believe that the time for proposing incremental changes has come and gone, and that only bold initiatives which are transformational are going to move us forward to where we need to be.

The NDP continues to view the political world through a lens which puts issues into silos, treating each issue as a discreet matter with its own solution or solutions. Through this lens, solutions for, say, employment policies may or may not compliment solutions for the environment, or for the economy for that matter. That’s one of the reasons why the NDP makes it easy for others to be critical of that Party, making the “tax and spend” moniker sticky.

And I saw that on display this week with Layton, who talked a very good talk about all of the things which our government needs to start doing better, most of which will cost more money. Aside from a commitment to end the billion dollar subsidy to the fossil fuel industry (which is great), there was no discussion regarding the flip side of the spending coin, that being revenue sources to pay for all of the good things Layton wants for Canadians (and he even failed to make the link between ending subsidies and using that money to help pay for programs when he had the chance).

Now look, I know that the NDP’s platform is costed, and when it comes out, it makes some of these linkages that I’m talking about. But my point is, why am I the one talking about the need for these linkages? The NDP loses in credibility every time it promises something new and fails to identify a funding source for it. Layton and the NDP need to do a better job of telling me what they are going to cut to finance their promises, or where they are going to find revenues through taxes and/or user fees. But since the culture of that Party is to look at issues in discreet silos, these things aren't top of mind.

And that, dear friends, is why I joined the Green Party, and why when listening to Jack Layton speak very well in front of a crowd of people who probably shared very similar values to my own, I felt proud, happy and content to be a Green. That’s because I know that Greens truly get it when it comes to a holistic approach to policy development. We have policies which integrate with and support one another, based on a stated set of values.

For Greens, the concept of “sustainability” is always first and foremost, particularly in economic policies. Greens understand that there is now a need for transformational change. And we aren’t scared to tell people what, exactly, we stand for, and make it available to them in writing. Sure, we’ve got a problem with delivering the message, but there isn’t any problem with the message itself.

A transformative, holistic and sustainable approach to policy and action is what Canada needs right now. Not more spin in the place of debate and discussion. Not more incremental, single-issue successes, offset by an equal number of back-sliding losses. We can’t keep doing the same sorts of things we’ve been doing for the past 50 or 60 years, because our economic activities are contributing to a climate crisis, and because we have run out of inexpensive fossil fuel energy to power our economy. Things will change, whether we want them to or not. To me, it only makes sense to plan for change, rather then to pretend that the old brown economy, and all that came with it, can continue to trundle along its merry way.

NDP members get this, too, I think. Yet they continue to support a party which perpetuates the brown economy’s status quo through its failure to want to address these important issues holistically. Sure, ending fossil fuel subsidies will help reduce greenhouse gases maybe, and free up revenue. But if the NDP truly thinks that’s the kind of transformational change Canada needs right now, they’re clearly not thinking big enough for my liking, or for Canada’s need.

I know that the NDP supports implementing a carbon emissions Cap and Trade system. I didn’t hear Jack Layton discuss that here in Sudbury. Will he discuss it on the campaign trail? Will he, if elected Prime Minister, or if he participates in a coalition government, insist that such a price on carbon is necessary, rather than just mouth some easy words about targets? An honest conversation with Canadians about our economic and environmental circumstance in the near future continues to be something which the NDP doesn’t want to have with Canadians.

The Green Party, however, does, and will continue to engage Canadians on these issues, because we understand that these are going to be the biggest issues facing Canadians over the next few and many years, and that real solutions require transformational changes. In the context of a heating planet and the end of cheap energy, I don’t think little promises for incremental action, are going to get us all that far, even if they are welcome. Go ahead, make those changes. But let us dare not be satisfied with these truly modest proposals when so much more needs to be done.

Thank you, Jack Layton, for coming to Sudbury, and for reconfirming my commitment to my Party. You’re a good man, Mr. Layton, and I know that there are many good people on your team, such as Mr. Thibeault and Mr. Martin. But your time isn’t now. Canada needs more than you are offering to give.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sun Media's Peter Worthington Takes a Cheap Shot at Canada's Military with Homophobic Rant

Peter Worthington’s stunningly homophobic, anti-Canadian rant, which appears in today’s Sudbury Star, left me shaking my head: why does the Star publish this stuff? Worthington’s intolerance of gays certainly can’t be representative of our community’s norms in 2011, can it? No way. And his view that somehow Canada’s armed forces lack enthusiasm and resolve because they allow gays to openly serve is a truly bizarre slam of all of Canada’s fine men and women who serve our country.

Today, Worthington goes off on the recent decision by the U.S. government to eliminate that nation’s archaic “don’t ask / don’t tell” (DADT) policy, which prohibited gays serving in the armed forces from expressing themselves in an honest and open way regarding a very fundamental element of their being, or else risk being removed from their positions in the armed services. With the elimination of DADT, no longer will the U.S. military prove to be an organization intolerant of non-straight sexual identity.

Worthington, though, doesn’t see this recent change in U.S. policy as any sort of victory. Given that Canada has long allowed gays to serve openly in our military, Worthington is forced to write about how the U.S. is playing catch-up, and what that really means to the performance of the military, in his opinion. His opinion seems to be that any military tainted by the presence of identifiable homosexuals amongst its ranks will prove itself to be less effective in combat. To bolster his homophobic argument that homosexuals have no place in any nations armed forces, he trots out all of the infamous “arguments” he can muster.

First, Worthington discredits LGBT soldiers currently serving in the U.S. armed forces, by indicating that gay soldiers have long used DADT as a way of being discharged from the military when it became clear that the would be sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not only is Worthington suggesting that DADT is open to abuse – by homosexual soldiers – he sets about questioning the dedication of gay soldiers to the military, along with their fighting ability. This all despite no evidence which suggests that LGBT soldiers performance in combat is any way inferior to straight soldiers. But Worthington has never been one to let facts get in the way of a good argument.

Next, Worthington goes on to indicate that soldiers don’t usually discuss sexuality, and like to keep their personal “idiosyncrasies” private (as if one’s sexuality can be written off as some kind of aberration). He then goes on to suggest that often off-colour sexual banter between straight soldiers isn’t an expression of orientation. How he arrives at that conclusion, we’ll never know, because in Worthington’s world, it’s ok for men to shoot the bull about sex, as long as it’s about straight sex.

Worthington then goes on to tell us that the elimination of DADT will likely make rank and file soldiers uncomfortable. I’m not sure what he’s getting at here with the term “uncomfortable”: does he mean the sort of “uncomfortable” soldiers might feel while under enemy fire, or when they are attempting to disarm militants at checkpoints? Or maybe it’s the sort of “uncomfortable” that gay soldiers have experienced day in and day out, trying to keep their sexual identities secret from their companions and from their organization.

Worthington suggests that surveys of marines and other elite forces show that 60% believe that the elimination of DADT will adversely effect the fighting ability of the armed forces. I’m not sure that a survey regarding how individuals feel in any way should replace the experiences which exist in the real world in other military organizations which have allowed openly gay soldiers to serve. To my knowledge, none have reported any decrease in combat-readiness. But I guess Worthington is in need of some ammunition here to bolster his case. More on this in a moment.

Worthington’s next point is so off-base, it’s not even funny. Worthington then goes on to suggest a link between homosexual soldiers and pedophiles, by hinting that when gay soldiers were allowed to serve in ancient Sparta, that they took children as young as 7 years old as their “mentors”, and entered into relationships which might have had “sexual overtones”.

Now, whether this happened in ancient Sparta or not, the fact of the matter is this sort of nonsense has no place in an educated discussion of DADT, and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes that gay men are a danger to our children. First, the fact that Worthington had to reach back in time approximately 2,500 years, and use an example from a militaristic society which would be, to we modern North Americans, almost completely alien, is very telling to me. Why not something a little more current, Peter?

Second, there aren’t any children currently serving in Canada’s or the United State’s armed forces who might be “at risk” from gay soldiers or anyone else for that matter. No, the “Spartan Experience” makes an appearance only to perpetuate a stereotype.

And never mind the fact that the Spartan army was one of the most feared in the ancient world.

Finally, once again despite the absence of any evidence, Worthington questions the fighting ability of western militaries which have allowed gays to openly serve in their ranks. Worthington’s invented “evidence”? He cites some NATO countries lack of “resolve” to continue the fight in Afghanistan, as if all decisions related to the Afghanistan adventure somehow hinge upon the fighting ability of homosexual soldiers. In this narrow view of the world, Stephen Harper’s decision to end Canada’s “combat” role in Afghanistan must be because gay soldiers have inundated Defence Minister Lawrence Cannon’s office with pleas to come home, or to at least relocate behind the wire in Kabul. Likely, the truth is that the Conservatives received more letters from those upset with the long form census than from gay soldiers lacking the will to carry on Canada’s mission. Score that 2-0.

No nation with gay service people is spared from Worthington’s homophobic invective. In what must have been a very difficult moment to write, Worthington even goes on to slam Israel, albeit in a back-handed way. He indicates that while no one would ever dare question the resolve or competence of the Israeli armed forces (even though gays serve openly in those forces, which is a bit of a knock to his own argument, in my opinion), Worthington is able to justify having gays in the Israeli military only because Israel is surrounded by enemies which outnumber it. I guess, in this sort of do-or-die fortress situation, it’s ok to have gay soldiers at your back.

And Worthington ends his rant on the lowest of low notes, speculating who might pay for the sex change operations of gay soldiers, as if somehow gays and lesbians are uncomfortable with being males and females.

Peter Worthington should be ashamed of himself, but this is the sort of divisive nonsense I’ve come to expect from him. The Sudbury Star, and all other Sun Media newspapers, really should be ashamed of themselves for having published Worthington’s latest homophobic rant, which both perpetuates old, anti-gay stereotypes and questions the ability of Canada’s military to perform its duty when asked to by our government.

Worthington often likes to pass himself off as a kind of Canadian Patriot. Worthington doesn’t represent my Canada, and with this latest anti-gay and anti-military rant, he’s surely no Patriot. The fine men and women who serve Canada in our armed forces should be disgusted with Worthington’s false accusations regarding the fighting spirit of our military.

Ezra Levant and the Conservative Politics of Political Party Donations: What They Don't Want You To Know

Conservative Party mouthpiece Ezra Levant is given another opportunity by Sun Media to preach his ideological brand of politics, while pretending to pass it off as “journalism”. Here again, we see Levant presenting only half the case, as he trots out the usual list of suspects in the argument against the per-vote political subsidy: that the subsidy is political party welfare; money could be better spent elsewhere; the Bloc Quebecois wants to break up the country, why are we giving them money to do so? And the Green Party hasn’t elected anyone, why are they being financed?

These are legitimate questions, and all have legitimate answers which you may or may not agree with. The per-vote subsidy to political parties can be a difficult issue, and it’s certainly one which continues to trouble me.

What Levant doesn’t want you to know about, though, is the incredible amount of tax-payer dollars being funnelled to political parties through donations. These amounts of taxpayer dollars far exceed the per-vote subsidy. And the reason Levant doesn’t want you to know about these taxpayer funded subsidies is because overwhelmingly the Party which has benefited the most is the Conservative Party of Canada!

Did you know that if you donate $400 to a political party that you receive a tax receipt back for $300, which you can declare on your income taxes (if you pay income tax; if you don't pay income tax, you're out of luck) for that year? The political party receives the full $400, but you actually only contribute $100. The difference between your donation and the Party’s revenue is made up by, you guessed it, the taxpayers!

In 2008, the Conservative Party of Canada received approximately $34 million in taxpayer-funded private contributions. The Liberals received approximately $14.2 million, while the NDP, Bloc and Greens received approximately $12.3 million, $1.7 million and $2.6 million respectively. Contrast those amounts to the per vote subsidies identified in Levant’s article, and you can see why Conservative Party commentators are most reluctant to bring up the fact that their own Party’s finances receive taxpayer subsidies in the form of direct contributions which are almost double what all of the other parties receive combined!

(If you think that I’m making this stuff up, here is a link to the Pundits Guide’s take on the per-vote subsidy story. Add the Party, Riding, Candidate totals together, versus the per-vote subsidy totals for the real story, the story Levant and the Conservatives don’t want you to know)

And who are those contributors who are receiving these tax breaks? The Conservative Party contributors tend to give at higher levels (above $200) than any other Party. They also tend to pay income tax, unlike many of the supporters of the Green Party and the NDP, who despite their poverty, provide what they can without any economic benefit to themselves. It’s fair to assume, therefore, that Conservative contributors tend to be wealthier than those who contribute to the other parties on average. So here we have a case where a Party supported by the wealthy tends to benefit disproportionately from tax-payers!

But the per-vote subsidy is always the target of Conservative commentators such as Levant. And that’s because the subsidy is straight-forward and easy to understand: every vote a party receives is worth about $2 a year to that Party, all of which comes from the government. This is the price that we pay for having contribution limits set on campaigns and political donations.

It also makes your vote worth something in terms of dollar value, so that when you cast it, it doesn’t just count in an election: it keeps counting until the next election, giving it real financial value. And lends credence to the notion that you really should vote for the Party or candidate you truly believe in, rather than compromising by casting a ballot simply to prevent another candidate being elected.

When Levant calls for the elimination of taxpayer-subsidized contributions to political parties, than you’ll know that he really is concerned about governments funding political parties. Until then, he’s just blowing hot air.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Facebook Wall Posts, Part IX

My 9th installment of Facebook Wall Posts. There are some good picks here today, including a few about Peter Kent, the latest in a series of Federal Ministers Against the Environment. Enjoy!

Canada-Europe Free Trade Agreement: Why isn't Anybody Talking About This?

Canada-Europe Free Trade Agreement: sort of like NAFTA, only with Europe. Maude Barlow discusses why this proposed free trade agreement, currently being negotiated by the Harper Conservatives, will jeopardize future legislation and regulation aimed at protecting our environment. Barlow concludes that ultimately this deal will bad news for Canada. Funny how hardly anyone is talking about it. Might it be an election issue, the same way the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement was back in the 1980s? Nah. Elections don't seem to be about issues any more.

What's in Store for Cyclists in Toronto?

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford once opined: "Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks." Looks like he's not just paying lip service to that sentiment. He wants to get the bikes out of the way of cars in downtown Toronto. His solution? Ban bikes? No. Build separated lanes for cyclists, where a curb and maybe parking area stand between the flow of motorized vehicular traffic and the flow of cycling traffic. One Way roads like Richmond Avenue? Well, maybe take out a lane and build a separated two-way bike thoroughfare. These kind of anti-cycling actions on the part of Rob Ford are probably ones that cyclists in Toronto will find that they can live with. And embrace. And maybe throw a parade. Let's see if this comes to fruition. I'm not yet ready to jump on the Ford bandwagon, but this would be a good news story for a City suffering from dangerous conditions for cyclists. And maybe serve as an Ontario-based example for the rest of us.

Calling Out Right-Wing Myths: Lower Tax Rates for the Rich Do Not Lead to Better Outcomes for Society

Great editorial from the Ottawa Citizen's Susan Riley. We all need to be doing more of this: challenging the assertion that lower taxation rates for the wealthy, along with lower corporate taxes, leads to a healthier economy. On both, Riley points out that the facts show otherwise, especially when it comes to lowering the taxes paid by the rich. Why do Canadians continue to believe in the completely discredited notion of trickle-down Reaganomics? It's probably for the same reasons that conservative are perceived as being the sound financial managers. Again, the facts say otherwise. Will our right-wing media start telling the truth to middle class Canadians about these misconceptions? Don't count on it, although obviously I'm linking you to articles which appear in the mainstream media. The voices in the mainstream, though, continue to be the exception rather than the rule.

Ethical Oil and the Tar Sands: The Latest from Canada's Newest Minister Against the Environment

Well, that didn't take long. Canada's newest Environment Minister, Peter Kent, spoke yesterday about the tar sands as providing "ethical oil" to consumers. He also indicated that since claims of the tar sands being the single most environmentally damaging undertaking on the planet are false, the oil produced from the tar sands somehow isn't "dirty". Not sure how he reached that conclusion, as all of the science shows that oil produced from mined bitumen is, in fact, the dirtiest kind of oil ever produced. Given this, I'm not sure that I'd call the tar sands "ethical" (but I certainly would call them "dirty"!). Just another marketing ploy from the newest Minister. Ho-hum. There used to be a time in Canada when the Minister of the Environment actually advocated for protecting the environment. Here we have yet another Minister who believes that our current industrial model and its dirty processes should be allowed to continue at the expense of the environment. This has to change. Well, maybe Kent will surprise us yet, and start taking the actions recommended by a number of reports released lately to at least start collecting scientific data and cleaning up bitumen mining sites.

Environment Minister Peter Kent Wants to Clean Up the Tar Sands!
But Don't Get Too Excited...It's Not What You Think

Canada's New (but not "improved") Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent wants to clean up Alberta's dirty tar sands! Wait for it…He wants to clean up their dirty REPUTATION, rather than actually clean up the industry. Kent believes that the tar sands produces ethical oil, and is concerned that their reputation as a dirty producer is misguided. This despite the fact that oil produced from bitumen mined in the tar sands IS the dirtiest oil produced in the world. It may be true that those producing the oil are well-compensated employees, and tax benefits derived from oil production are going to democratic governments in Edmonton and Ottawa. That doesn't change the fact that the tar sands oil production is contributing disproportionately to global greenhouse gas emissions due to their unique industrial processes. But Kent doesn't want you to think about that kind of environmental destruction, and economic crisis it will lead to when as the impacts of climate change take hold. Short term gain for a few = long term pain for the many: that's Conservative Ethics 101.

Why Inequality is Bad for You (yes, YOU!): Carol Goar

Carol Goar makes some convincing arguments regarding why YOU should be worried about inequality and poverty. She says that unless your family is making more than $120,000 a year (which puts you in the top 20% of Canada's income earners), your real wealth will continue to decline over time. That's what the "shrinking middle class" is all about. Goar says that you have an interest an economic stake in fighting against poverty, because nations with lower levels of inequality are more resilient in the face of economic downturns. Given that we are living at the time of the end of cheap energy, we know that the economy will remain sluggish, at best. Time to plan for the future facing us, and curbing the growing disparity between rich and poor is one part of the solution.

Children and Tobacco Continue to Mix Despite the Conservatives So-Called "Law & Order" Agenda

A letter to the editor of Sun Media from Winnipeg tobacco store owner Brad Cartman, who argues that we should prohibit convenience stores from selling tobacco. Cartman has a strong argument. For me, though, what's really interesting is Cartman's description of how effective the Feds have been at curtailing tobacco use among children. In Cartman's assessment: not at all, and he points to recent changes to prohibiting the sale of filtered flavoured cigars. The tobacco companies got around that one: you can still buy flavoured cigars, just not with a filter. The outcome: an even less healthy product, which is more expensive (extra tobacco is needed to increase the regulated weight, which adds to price). When it comes to kids and tobacco, the Conservatives "law and order" agenda seems to break down. Whose priorities are the Cons looking out for here? Yours and your childrens? Or maybe the interests of others?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Being Rich is Fine, Just Pay Your Fair Share Towards Building a Resilient and Sustainable Society

With reports all over the internet about how the richest of the rich have already paid their dues to society through their “tax freedom day” as of Monday, January 3rd, just a little before noon (meaning everything that the rich earn from here on in is pure profit, while the rest of us middle class folk toil to make our contributions to civil society for another 6 or 7 months), it seems to me a very bizarre time for Mike Milke to be defending the rich from having to pay their fair share (“Being rich is fine, just not with taxes”, published in the Sudbury Star, Wednesday January 5/11).

Nobody likes paying taxes. But we all know that they contribute towards building the kind of society which we enjoy, and in fact, demand of our governments. Certainly, there is much debate on how best our hard-earned tax dollars are spent, and there is inevitably waste in government spending, not to mention mis-directed spending which sometimes erupts in scandals such as those under the federal Liberal Party: the sponsorship scandal and the HRDC billion dollar boondoggle.

However, none of this means that we should forego paying our fair share of taxes. The thesis that McQuaig and Brooks offer in their new book, “The Trouble With Billionaires” (attacked by Milke in his article), is that the ultra rich aren’t paying their fair share, and the middle class is in fact subsidizing the lifestyle of the rich. Of that there really is no argument, as the facts speak for themselves.

Milke believes that Canadians should continue with a tax system which penalizes the middle class and rewards the rich. Milke takes a look at the tax policies of U.S. President Roosevelt during the Great Depression, which others have determined to be some of the most progressive tax policies ever implemented by a federal level of government, and which almost single-handedly saved the United States from an even deeper level of economic depression than was actually experienced in the 1930s (and almost certainly staved off civil unrest by giving unemployed people jobs). Milke concludes that it was the government’s post-1929 Wall Street crash policies which brought on the depression, and not the crash itself.

Lessons from the Great Depression?

Let’s examine this Milke’s assertions a little more fully. Initially, a loss of confidence following the crash put closed to many banks and businesses, although there appeared to be growing momentum towards recovery. This notion of “confidence”, however, plays an extremely, and often little-understood role in the economy. With confidence never really recovering following the crash, investors weren’t ready to make the decisions needed to prevent the depression, for fear of losing their investments. Milke conveniently forgets that the rich largely held on to their wealth, which was accumulated through the toil of workers, rather than making decisions to invest in prosperity. The middle class really had little choice but to follow suit in this circumstance, due to this loss of investment confidence. Those workers who created the wealth in the first place increasingly found themselves out of a job, and wealth itself went into decline.

Certainly, the government’s protectionist policies, such as the Smoot-Hawley tariff in the U.S., enacted in the wake of the stock market crash contributed to the economic downturn. However, Smoot-Hawley was enacted under Republican President Herbert Hoover, and not Roosevelt.

Milke further argues that Roosevelt’s policy to subsidize farmers (who then made up a significantly higher percentage of Americans than they do today) in an attempt to raise food prices was also misguided. One shudders to think about what might happened to those farmers had they joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed. And while it’s true that many Americans were “dirt poor”, the depression of the 1930s actually deflated prices at the time; that isn’t something that we risk experiencing today, due to ever-rising energy costs.

No Opportunity With Inequality

Milke’s solution is the old conservative stand-by: rather than taxing the rich to help build our society, let’s lift those in poverty out of their plight by providing the poor with opportunities. Only through the creation of opportunity will we ever lick the poverty cycle. Who can disagree with the notion that jobs are the best bulwark against poverty? Nobody.

But to suggest that creating economic opportunities for the poor means that we don’t have to worry about how much the rich pay in taxes simply doesn’t follow. There remains the inequality in taxation which has grown since Roosevelt left office. Back in the 1930s, the richest Americans (and Canadians) contributed a significantly higher proportion of their income to governments through taxation. Since then, we have largely dismantled the progressive taxation policies which existed at that time in favour of deregulation, based on the premise that wealth is generated for private interests and that the market should be the great dictator and society builder.

What we’ve actually ended up with is a situation where the rich under-contribute to society. While you or I may pay as much as half of our income to the state in taxes, the richest of the rich may pay as little as 5% to 10% (and maybe even less than that, due to the numerous loopholes found in our current taxation system). What we have is a situation where those most capable of paying their fair share don’t, leaving the burden of society building to fall disproportionately to the hard working middle class. And somehow this makes sense to Milke and others who suggest that there is no need for the rich to pay more in taxes.

In a society with such rampant inequality, can we really expect the significant creation of opportunities for the poor to pull themselves out of poverty? Well, this isn’t a theoretical argument, as we now live in a world of increasing inequality, and have for some time. Growing inequality actually leads to fewer opportunities for the poor to help themselves, as wealth is increasingly tied up in private interests which tend to invest in the sorts of activities which don’t primarily lead to a healthier society.

If you don’t believe me, just look around at our current circumstance. If you believe that we’re not in trouble, well, perhaps you would conclude that we shouldn’t be concerned about taxing the rich. But if you believe that we haven’t built the sort of society with the necessary resilience needed to tackle a changing climate and the end of inexpensive energy, well I think that you might share my view that there is something terribly wrong with the way in which we increasingly rely on market forces to dictate where wealth is spent.

Paying Our Fair Share and Spending Smarter

It didn’t have to be this way. But we, including the middle class, got greedy, and told our governments that we were upset with our tax burden. Our greed was fuelled by the fact that our governments took our money and spent it wantonly, often in a very public manner, which led to our increasing calls to reign in spending. This has been going on for decades, and has recently culminated with the anti-tax Tea Party movement in the United States.

But is decreasing our level of taxation really in the interests of the middle class? Given that it’s the middle class which is largely financing the enterprise of society building (and maintaining what we have already built), if we contribute fewer dollars to our governments, what can we expect the outcome to be but fewer services leading to more disparity and inequality? And greater disparity will certainly kibosh those “opportunities” for the poor to pull themselves out of their economic circumstance.

If you look behind the Tea Party movement to who is actually providing the funding for advancing the anti-tax agenda, you’ll discover quite quickly that the Tea Party is nothing but an astro-turf campaign of the ultra-rich. The rich have an interest in convincing the middle class that we’d all be better off paying a much smaller level of tax to governments, because governments would then be in less of a position to build societies which require public investment, and thus leave the rich alone to increasingly use their wealth as they see fit. Nevermind that the greater collective interests of our society continue to suffer, while the interests of the ultra-rich remain paramount; the middle class is being fooled into believing that lower taxes for everyone is somehow beneficial for society, even at a time when the inequality between rich and poor continues to grow, and the middle class continues to shrink.

I understand the angst of the middle class regarding taxes. In fact, I share it to a considerable degree. But the answer is not to lower my own taxes (at least not in isolation of any other answer). A better answer would be for all to pay their fair share, and that includes the ultra-rich, who are best positioned to do so, and who have increasingly been let off the hook by our governments. Certainly, we also need our governments to spend smarter, which means not only reducing waste (and ending the boondoggles), but targeting spending in such a way so that it leads to the greatest benefits for our society. For example, investing upwards of $9 billion in fighter jets just doesn’t make any sense for Canada at this time, given that we do not have enemy states which threaten us, and given the massive spending deficit we’ve accumulated these past couple of years through misguided stimulus spending and tax cuts. That’s just stupid spending, and it’s no wonder that the middle class is angry when their governments make these kinds of spending decisions with their hard-earned tax dollars.

A more progressive taxation system is the solution, one in which we all pay our fair share, and one which leads to better outcomes for our society. I agree with the Tea Partiers who say that we should be allowed to keep more of our income and spend it as we see fit. I also agree with those who recognize that our society continues to subsidize activities which are ultimately destructive. I believe that we need to take a very close look at these perverse subsidies and start making changes where full cost recovery is considered, so instead of my tax dollars going towards finding solutions to problems created by these activities, those benefiting from these activities are instead paying the full and real price.

Ending Perverse Subsidies

An example of the above situation involves the subsidy that our society provides to smokers, whose use of our health care dollars is disproportionate to their contribution to health care paid through taxes on cigarettes. Sure, taxes on a pack of smokes are considerable, but health care costs for smoking-related health issues are considerably more considerable! Add the fact that many smokers are opting not to pay taxes by engaging in black-market activities, and it’s clear that we have an activity where a certain segment of our society is benefiting from a destructive activity through a perverse subsidy.

Another example is how our society continues to subsidize personal vehicle transportation over sustainable transportation (cars vs. transit/cycling/walking), despite the established health-care and environmental effects of personal vehicle use. We subsidize our car culture in many ways, including offering personal vehicles public storage benefits on private and public property (free parking, or low parking rates). Here in Greater Sudbury, as in most Canadian municipalities, an incredible percentage of our property tax dollars goes towards road maintenance, which is also funded by higher levels of government through transfers. This money ultimately also comes from us through income taxes. As many of us are not vehicle owners and do not use roads for personal transportation (one third of Greater Sudburians do not own cars), many Canadians are paying for an environmentally detrimental activity which they do not use. And I’ve not even begun to discuss how our governments subsidize the price of gasoline at the expense of our atmosphere.

(As an aside, just think of how things might be if car owners had to pay for privilege of parking every time they used their cars, while transit users ride for free).

Generally, it’s not the rich who are choosing to walk instead of driving their SUV. While it may seem that personal vehicle ownership is necessary for the middle class, this has only come about because we have chosen not to invest in alternative transportation, such as transit, or to physically build our communities so that cycling and walking to destinations are sustainable choices. Low density suburban living remains desirable to many, but it has historically been subsidized at the expense of our health and our environment. It is a negative activity in which many of us continue to engage in.

If you want to choose to continue with negative lifestyle choices, fine, do so, but pay for the complete cost of your choices. Your choices will assist in financing the building a more resilient society for the greater good of all of us. Let the rest of us make a choice regarding how best to spend our money. And let’s make sure that our governments are positioned to intervene in situations where the most vulnerable can not choose for themselves, because they have been shut out of those opportunities for economic betterment. We can not leave the poor behind, nor those living on fixed incomes. Let’s instead guarantee that they will be active participants in building a society and communities where their own needs are met.

Tipping Points for Change

All of the above are reasons for making necessary changes to our taxation system. However, these changes will not be made as long as we continue to subsidize the rich and their negative lifestyle choices. Since many of the ultra rich seem to have a vested interest in not paying their fair share, and accumulating wealth at any cost (except to the rest of us), we can be assured that they will continue to mount campaigns against progressive tax reform, and lobby our governments with their vast resources so that ultimately our governments continue to make decisions in the interest of the few at the expense of the many.

We have one tool at our disposal which can be a very useful instrument of change, should we choose to use it. That tool is democracy, and we use it through our vote at ballot boxes. However, an increasing number of Canadians, mostly those who are not rich, have become disengaged with the democratic process for many reasons. Chief amongst these reasons, though, is the notion that we can not change the system. I admit, our current system appears to be monolithic, and monopolized by the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor. However, there are tipping points which, once reached, will lead to fundamental shifts in the system. We just need to nudge things forward to those tipping points.

The most important tipping point which exists now just over the horizon is getting rid of our regressive “First Past the Post” electoral system. Jurisdictions throughout the world have realized that this form of electoral system achieves results which are not representative of the will of voters. Here in Canada, discussions regarding alternative electoral systems have been in the mainstream now for over a decade, and as more understanding of the benefits and values of scrapping First Past the Post become apparent, we can expect that some jurisdiction in Canada will move forward with progressive electoral reform before too long. That’s going to prove to be a tipping point, and it’s going to begin to change everything.

Another tipping point looms on the horizon as well, albeit a much more negative one. We can expect to experience increased levels of poverty over the coming decade, along with rising unemployment, due to the twin crises in the environment (climate change) and the economy (the end of inexpensive energy resources). With higher unemployment and higher prices, our social circumstance will lead to increasing levels of unrest. The powers that be understand this, and will continue pushing their “law and order” agenda, along with their war on civil liberties. When things begin to go downhill, they will be politically and legally ready to safeguard their interests. Will the rest of us be? Probably not. But clearly our economic circumstances in the years ahead are going to lead to a tipping point, and there will be change, and possibly significant change. Harnessed in a positive way, with organization and optimism, we can start making smarter spending choices which benefit the majority of our society. However, if we continue to let the interests of the wealthy trump the interests of the majority, we risk creating a society with increased police powers in the name of public security.

Building a Resilient and Sustainable Canada for the 21st Century

I’m not suggesting that the rich are the enemy, only that they be held to the same level that the rest of us are, and that they contribute their fair share of taxation revenues and pay the full price of activities in which they choose to engage in. The contributions of our society’s wealthiest are considerable and should not be forgotten. They help create the jobs at which we work through their investments. They contribute to philanthropic and charitable organizations. Some act as leaders and role models.

But disproportionately they’re not contributing to building the Canada that all of us need for a prosperous future. And their efforts to maintain the status quo are the holding the rest of us back, and making us poorer as a result. If you don’t believe that, put aside economic theory for a moment and just look around at the world we inhabit in 2011, and ask yourself: are we better off now than we were 10 or 15 years ago? And if this trend continues, where might we be in 10 or 15 years time? What kind of world will our children inherit if we continue to let market forces make our investment decisions for us?

Is pursuit of the almighty dollar for personal gain more important than everything else? If we continue to believe that the answer to this last question is “yes”, than the society that our children inherit will be one in which, generally speaking, the majority will be worse off than we and our parents were. Are we prepared to allow this to happen, when we have the ability to foment real and positive changes if we just make the effort?

Those who favour maintaining the status quo are relying on our complacency, which will allow them to build a future which favours the wealthy minority over the rest of us. It doesn’t have to be that way, but the rest of us need to start taking action. Action starts with the understanding that inequality is not ok, and does not have to be a fact of life.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Facebook Wall Posts, Part VIII

Since Facebook now has a 420 character limit for updates, my blogpost analysis of the links I originally posted to FB is enhanced here in my blog! Talk about "value added"! Thanks for visiting this site!

Crisis in Housing: Too Much House, Too Few Occupants

George Monbiot's recent article discusses an unforeseen crisis in housing: under-occupation of housing stock, which in part creates the need for more homes. Monbiot suggests that we need to use our built-infrastructure more efficiently, and start treating housing stock (public and private) as a common good. He suggests that someone come up with a "housing footprint" similar to a carbon footprint, which would provide a measurable notion of whether a family is under- or over-housed. Monbiot suggests dividing the number of bedrooms by the number of occupants as a simple method. I think that square footage needs to be considered as well, especially in a North American context. Using Monbiot's method, though, my family home comes in at 1.0 - 3 bedrooms, 3 permanent occupants. Yet sometimes the house feels bigger than necessary, especially when there's housecleaning to be done!

Plenty of Room: No Need to Worry About Over-Population

This has to be the most shockingly stupid editorial I've read in a long while (and I've read some pretty lousy editorials printed in the papers recently). Neil Reynolds of the Globe & Mail hypothesises that the planet can sustain a staggering number of humans, so we don't need to worry about over-population. Reynolds attempts to justify that all of humanity, all 6.8 billion of us, could fit comfortably into a land mass the size of Texas, utilizing only the farm land present in North America (with a healthy dose left over) to feed us, and drink only the water which flows from the Colorado River out to sea (nevermind that in the past decade that water from the Colorado River hasn't actually reached the Gulf of California…which leads me to wonder, was this whole editorial supposed to be a joke? If so, it's not funny). This na├»ve piece of tripe is yet another mainstream media piece designed to make us all feel good about our planet. Complacency, however, is the enemy of action. So I've got to call Mr. Reynolds out for writing this nonsense, and call the G&M out for publishing it.

Electoral Reform - Solution to Many Problems with Canadian Politics

A nice, succinct, blogpost. Jim Johnston writes about proportional representation, and why it's important for the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives to begin embracing this concept. Johnston writes that the First-Past-the-Post system of electing governments gives Canadians a government it doesn't really want, as political parties are forced to compromise core values in a shift to the centre of the spectrum, and where small shifts in voter intentions (between 3%-5%) can lead to strange electoral outcomes (the difference betweeen a minority government and a majority). Johnston also writes about those voters throughout Canada whose votes are simply wasted: Liberals in rural areas, Conservatives in Toronto, and Greens everywhere. He also could have written about the continued disparity between the power of votes in urban and rural ridings, which the NDP, Liberals and Cons don't want to do anything about.

The Liberals Talk Up the Tar Sands

Why the Liberals can't be trusted to do anything about climate change. Here's an interesting story about Michael Ignatieff's hopes for a Liberal breakthrough in Alberta. His winning strategy? Talk up the oil sands as being the best thing for Canada's future, and never mind the environment. If you haven't heard much from the Liberals in the past couple of years with regards to tackling greenhouse gas emissions, this story tells you why: the Liberal Party of Canada has no interest in doing anything for the environment, other than to continue poisoning it a break-neck pace.


Transit in the City: Priorities, Priorities!

A great letter to the editor of the Northern Life from Sudburian Maja Vojnovic, who shares her ideas about how money set aside for the Barrydowne highway might be better spent. Greater Sudbury's transit system has been taking a lot of knocks in the media lately. I often take transit, and I'm usually very satisfied with our system here, particularly given the structure of our City. That being said, there remains so much more that we could be doing to promote transit in this community. This letter writer offers her perspective about what our priorities should be and suggests that maybe building more roads for cars wouldn't be the wisest use of our scarce resources.