Wednesday, January 28, 2015

When They Cower In Abject Fear


Tomorrow, we're told, the Harper government will introduce its new anti-terror legislation. Recent events have proved to be the undoing of the Harperian economy. So a diversion is in order. If they won't vote on your economic record, perhaps they'll vote for you out of fear. And if they do that, Clive Doucet and Joe Ingram write, the terrorists will have won:

The terrorists understand the power of the front page and are using it with apparent success – forcing their anger, rejection and violence to the top of the news, week after week, month after month. They want to provoke a “clash of civilizations.”

And Mr. Harper and his supporters appear to be walking right into their trap.
While no one disputes the need to deal effectively with terrorism and its causes, how we do so and the public resources we spend on them need to be proportional to their real importance for Canadians and for the world at large. The term “war on terror” was coined during the George W. Bush administration; his Presidency is long gone, his “mission accomplished” in Iraq. And terrorist actions have been multiplying ever since.

The "war on terror" response has only made things worse. But it focuses voters on the enemy without -- not the enemy within. And then enemy within is focused on destroying the state at home:

The glaring weakness of Mr. Harper’s decade of oil-first economic policies has been vividly exposed. Despite the warnings of some of the globe’s leading economists about the perils of the so-called “resource curse” (ie. an excessive reliance on a single commodity) the Harper government has failed to strategically diversify the structure of Canada’s economy. It has been as if we are blind to the longer term trends and to the particular threat reliance on fossil fuels has for the planet and to our economy. It’s only taken a few months for Alberta’s robust extraction economy to collapse and suddenly a national ‘balanced’ budget – even after years of unprecedented cuts to all public services – is receding into the distance.

Democracies depend on coherent, sustained and remembered public debate around complex issues such as – is there an alternative to oil? What is the best science telling us about climate change? And how can we best react to it? The Germans, for example, have just moved their economy into being powered 50 per cent by non-fossil fuels.

Last we checked, Germany had the strongest economy in Europe and they have no domestically produced oil. And the Danes are not far behind.

But the last thing the Harperites want is a debate about the wisdom of transforming Canada into an energy super power. So cue the alarm bells. Scare the hell out of them. And, when they cower in abject fear, you can get away with anything.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When He's Naked, He Looks Ridiculous


Yesterday, the opposition parties hammered the Harper government on what was supposed to be its signature issue going into the upcoming election. The NDP's Nathan Cullen observed that the prime minister had "painted himself into a corner:"

They spent the surplus before they had it, and they spent the surplus on an economic scheme in which only 15 per cent of Canadians receive any benefit, but 100 per cent of Canadians will have to pay for it.

Still, Joe Oliver insisted, the government would balance the budget and not cut services. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries write:

The PM has never liked budgets. He never saw them as a means to articulate a vision of the economy and the country. To Harper, a budget is a PR document — and a Trojan horse for pushing through legislative changes that have nothing at all to do with the budget.

Past governments, both Liberal and Conservative, saw the budget as their most important policy and political document. Budgets set out the government’s fiscal, tax, industrial, social, developmental, international and defense policy objectives and the policy initiatives the government intended to take to achieve them. They were visionary documents. You didn’t have to agree with the vision … but it was there.

No longer. Since 2006, major policy decisions have been made outside the budget, with no discussion or parliamentary debate. The change in the Canada Health Transfer escalator was made at a meeting of federal and provincial finance ministers in December 2011. Harper announced the change in eligibility for Old Age Security benefits in Davos, not Parliament. And he announced his “family tax package” in Vaughan, Ont., back in October — shortly before the oil market fell off a cliff.

At every turn, Harper has tried to cut Parliament and the budget process out of the equation. Once upon a time, governments had to table a Borrowing Authority Bill if they needed incremental borrowing. Parliament demanded that any Borrowing Authority Bill be accompanied by a budget in order to provide the proper economic and fiscal context to justify the borrowing.

In the 2007 budget, the Harper government eliminated the need for a Borrowing Authority Bill. Now the government can borrow through an Order-in-Council — no budget, or parliamentary approval, required. 

That's what happens when a man who claims to be a "trained economist" turns out to be utterly incompetent. He doesn't present a budget -- because he doesn't know how to budget. The trained economist has no clothes. And, when he's naked, he looks ridiculous.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Democracy? What Democracy?


Last week the Harper government awarded a ship building contract to the Irving family. Like the F-35 contract, it was awarded -- by a "bureaucrat" -- without a competition. Michael Harris writes:

Is there anyone in the country who believes the Harper government’s latest whopper that a $26 billion contract for new frigates was the work of a bureaucrat and that cabinet had nothing to do with it?

Is there anyone who believes that it was a wise move for the public to make this staggering purchase, the largest in Canadian history, as a sole source contract – i.e. an award with no competitive bidding process?

Is there anyone who doesn’t know from the catastrophic bungling of the F-35 stealth jet-fighter project, that sole source contracts add on average about 20 per cent to the overall acquisition costs – as procurement expert Alan Williams said repeatedly at the time? Williams now correctly says that no one really understands what the government is doing with the frigate program. That is, of course, Stephen Harper’s idea of political Nirvana.

The Harper government is following the model of other so called western "democracies:"

What is happening in Stephen Harper’s Canada — the hoarding, and choking off information, and outright lying — is going on in many of the aging, decrepit democracies in the West. The establishments of several countries have effectively decided that they are above the law and often argue national security issues to justify their anti-democratic, and in some cases, thoroughly illegal behaviours.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, the energizer bunny of post-politics money-grubbing, misled the British people on that country’s participation in the Iraq War. There was no proof of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands, and without that evidence, the invasion likely violated international law.

In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush repeatedly told Americans than the country did not torture detainees captured in the war on terror, and that its detention and interrogation program was “humane and legal.” More than that, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that intelligence gathered by the CIA was essential in thwarting terrorist plots.
Then just before Christmas last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee lowered the boom in a 6,000-page report based on thousands of classified CIA documents. The U.S. did indeed practise illegal and widespread torture during the Bush presidency, including medically unnecessary rectal feeding or hydration, a series of simulated drownings called water-boarding, and extreme sleep deprivation.

Finally in Australia last June, the courts declared an unprecedented censorship order concerning a corruption case that involved current and past heads of state, their relatives, and senior officials, and seven senior executives connected to the Reserve Bank of Australia. The court case deals with allegations of multi-million dollar bribes made by agents of the RBA to national leaders in Asia in order to secure contracts for the supply of Australian-made polymer bank notes.
The super-injunction argued “national security” concerns to justify the banning all reporting about the case, and even banning publication of the details of gag-order itself.

It's comforting to know that democracy is in such good hands.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Neo-Liberalism: The Undying Monster


Neo-Liberalism came to Canada long before Stephen Harper came to Ottawa. It was ushered into public policy by Brian Mulroney, who privatised crown corporations like Air Canada and Petro Canada. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin contributed to its juggernaut by signing NAFTA and by introducing fiscal restraint.

But Donald Gurstin argues in his book, Harperism: How Stephen Harper And His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, that neo-liberalism's entrenchment in this country is the result of the long hard work of organizations like the Fraser Institute, the Frontier Centre and the Macdoanld-Laurier Institute:

As of this writing in mid-2014, a tightly knit, smoothly operating neo-liberal propaganda system has been installed in Canada. The foundations of wealthy businessmen, corporations, and individuals are investing more than $26 million a year in neo-liberal think-tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations. (This figure doesn’t include Calgary’s School of Public Policy, whose financial statements are buried within the university’s accounts.) The long-term goal is to discredit government as a vital institution and to champion market alternatives.

As a result of the massing on the right, the political space is crowded with a seemingly endless flow of studies, reports and commentaries supporting neoliberal perspectives. Of course, people are not automatons who blindly internalize these messages. But gradually, and especially as a result of constant repetition, some ideas rise to prominence, while others fade away. People are presented with a changing set of ideas from which they must make selections to make sense of their world: economic freedom and school choice are unqualified good things; the tax burden is burdensome and requires relief; government is inefficient because it harbours bloated bureaucracies and overpaid public employees; the private sector is hobbled by red tape; and so on.

As a result of the constant drumbeat from the Right, neo-liberal ideas have assumed the status of axioms; and they made Stephen Harper's success appear inevitable. The damage has been catastrophic:

He’s hobbled government’s long-standing social-democratic obligations by slashing revenues to their lowest levels — in relation to the size of the economy — they’ve been at in fifty years, when the state first implemented its major social programs. One estimate pegs Harper’s tax cuts at $45 billion a year in foregone revenues. With total revenues at about $250 billion, that’s nearly a 20 per cent cut. Call it privatization by default. If there’s not enough money in the public coffers to finance health care, post-secondary education and rising old age security needs, they will have to be provided by the private or voluntary sectors or by individuals.

But Mr. Harper's success was never inevitable. It has only been possible because the Right has understood what Goebbels meant by the Big Lie. If you repeat a lie often enough, people will assume that it is true.

The Great Recession should have proven that neo-liberalism was a Big Lie. But, thanks to the think tanks, it keeps re-appearing -- like Frankenstein's monster in those old Universal sequels.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

That Grievance Mentality


Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address this week. Here are a few highlights:

  • We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions.”
  • “We still need … a higher minimum wage.”
  • “Free community college is possible.”
  • “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.”
  • “Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 per cent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.”
  • “No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

Jeffrey Simpson writes:

Could any Canadian imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying such things? If Mr. Harper were a U.S. legislator, he would have been sitting in the House of Representatives chamber with the sullen-looking Republicans. The Republicans might have chosen Senator or Congressman Harper to deliver their critical reply to the President’s address.

The speech made clear just how much distance there is between Harper and Obama. I suspect that Obama really has little use for Harper -- a suspicion that is bolstered by Harper's cancellation of the Three Amigos Conference:

With political optics defining almost everything in Ottawa, the Harper government dreaded a late-February meeting in Canada featuring Mr. Harper, Mr. Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Planning had been proceeding until the Harper government abruptly announced it was pushing back the meeting until some unspecified later date.

What Ottawa dreaded was the public airing, on Canadian soil, of disputes over Keystone XL and Canadian visa requirements on Mexicans. This would not have looked good, since it would have underscored how clumsily the Harper government has played both files.

What has sent Canadian-American relations south, Simpson writes, is Harper's "grievance mentality:"

A grievance mentality has settled over the Harper government because of Keystone XL, which Mr. Obama obviously opposes, although no final decision has been rendered.

The grievance mentality is deepened by the sense that the Americans have given nothing in return for Canadian participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the venue Canada provided for the U.S.-Cuba talks. Things have improved a bit, but they got so bad a while ago that the U.S. ambassador to Canada had to get Prime Minister’s Office’s approval for meetings with cabinet ministers.

That grievance mentality, however, does not confine itself to Canadian-American relations. It defines everything Stephen Harper does. It shows through in his dealings with Parliament, with the provinces, with evironmental groups -- with anyone who opposes his agenda.

Harper came into politics with a chip on his shoulder -- a chip which has only grown bigger over the years. The man is the walking definition of  "grievance mentality."

Friday, January 23, 2015

Going To War In His Armchair


Stephen Harper told us that there would be no boots on the ground. It turns out there are, and they're on the front lines. Michael Harris writes:

At some point, a Canadian soldier is going to be captured or killed in action. The prime minister will hold a sorrowful press conference — without taking any questions. The emotional dividend from these inevitable events will be used by his hawkish administration to justify a more “robust” response — i.e. more boots on the ground to protect our forces. And so on … until it’s Afghanistan Redux.

Those of us with longer memories might call it Vietnam Redux:

This, of course, is exactly how the Americans eased their way into the war in Vietnam after the French were whipped. That initial helping hand to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam turned into a military operation that dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than were dropped in the entire Second World War — and the Americans still lost.

It ended on April 29, 1975, with a desperate airlift of U.S. citizens from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, as the Viet Cong overran the city. It was a war that started with trainers and advisers. It ended with the deaths of more than fifty thousand U.S. soldiers — and 3.8 million Vietnamese. So forgive me if the “trainer” explanation rings a little hollow.

And, if anyone in the Harper government actually read history, they might have paid attention to the Russian experience in Afghanistan:

Before the Americans showed up with their army, the Russians were the occupiers. They tried to force changes on an ancient society which didn’t see the world through western eyes. The result was a bitter war that the Russians lost to an alliance of local forces — including the Mujahideen, which gave the world the CIA’s most famous trainee: Osama Bin Laden.

It is instructive to read through the dispatches from Russian generals trying to tell Moscow it was losing the war. The Politburo ignored the warnings, wanting only good news from the front — the kind of news that reinforces the idea that the war is “working.”

But Mr. Harper is an armchair general. He knows nothing of war -- and nothing of history.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tearing Away At The Nation's Core


The Harper government is busy preparing new anti-terror legislation. But, Colin Kenny writes in today's Toronto Star, we don't need new legislation. We need adequate funding of the institutions which apply the laws we already have:

No less than eight pieces of anti-terrorism legislation have successfully passed through Parliament since the Twin Towers fell. These laws made comprehensive changes to Canada’s legal landscape to ensure the country has the powers it needs to prevent terrorism.
Harper himself has acknowledged this, stating just recently to the press that, “the reality is that our security agencies are able, in the vast majority of cases, to identify threats that are out there and to prevent them from coming to fruition.”

So why the new legislation? The prime minister believes it is an all important a wedge issue:

Harper sees the passage of further counterterrorism legislation in Parliament, no matter how unnecessary, as a valuable wedge issue that will help with his re-election.
Last year, the prime minister’s handlers went to great lengths casting him as a reincarnated Ronald Reagan on the world stage, unafraid in staring down the Russian bear.

Now, they’re trying to burnish this tough guy image by having Harper pretend he’s making big strides in combating terrorists by passing superfluous laws.

It's all about votes at home. It's always been about votes at home.

Mr. Harper's economic strategy has also always been about votes at home. Yesterday, the Bank of Canada drove another nail into his economic strategy. While he has been buying votes, he has also been shredding the nation's core principles -- something he will continue to do with his new anti-terror legislation.