Thursday, November 26, 2015

Putting The Numbers In Perspective


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thorough Corruption


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Empty Barrels


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tearing Down The Firewall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Let's Hope They're On The Same Page


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

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

She then turned her attention to the incoming government:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why The Dippers Lost


Some folks are beginning to look through the embers to explain why the official opposition is now the third party. Geoffrey Rafe Hall writes:

Many observers, picking through the post-mortem of the NDP campaign, have laid most of the blame on the niqab debate and the eruption of identity politics, on Tom Mulcair’s flat performance in the first leaders’ debate, and on Justin Trudeau’s substantial personal appeal. All of these factors contributed to the result, of course — but not one of them was solely capable of toppling what should have been a well-run, sturdy election machine.

It may not seem obvious now, but the seeds of the NDP’s defeat in October were sown years earlier — before Jack Layton’s death and the breakthrough of 2011. Both were momentous events that had negative and long-lasting repercussions. Ultimately, the gains in the 2011 election fostered a climate of arrogance and complacency within the NDP’s senior ranks and shifted the focus away from building a robust election machine to operating the levers of power. Jack’s tragic death, which triggered a genuine and heartfelt outpouring of grief from Canadians everywhere, virtually guaranteed that the party would not conduct a critical analysis of events.

Layton's triumph  was also the party's downfall. Like Stephen Harper, Layton insisted on message discipline:

Career advancement was halted for anyone who failed to adhere rigidly to dogma prescribed in many cases by senior political staff — not the party leader. Greater emphasis was placed on centralized messaging and communications at the expense of organization, technical innovation, voter and volunteer identification and recruitment. In short, the NDP’s organizational strength was allowed to atrophy.

But, ironically, even though the party movers and shakers insisted on message discipline, the message wasn't clear:

From the get-go, the NDP campaign lacked a clear direction and message. Why did they want to win government? Was it to replace Harper? Usher in change? Provide economic stability? The party failed to answer these questions for voters, or to offer them any inspirational arguments for a NDP government.

The party seemed to have forgotten who they were -- and lots of traditional Dippers voted for Trudeau -- a message that Justin should heed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Who Wants To Do That?


What happened in Paris a week ago was horrific. It can't be justified and it must be dealt with. But, for the last fifteen years, our response to what has been happening in the Middle East has been wrong headed. Since George W. Bush invaded Iraq, western policy has been all about eradication. Michael Harris writes:

But the more relevant question is whether a strategy of “eradication” works. Fourteen years of boots on the ground in Afghanistan should have shown the United States that it doesn’t. Two superpowers — the USSR, then the U.S. — tried the military option for 24 years; Afghanistan remains an unreconstructed narco-state with the Taliban back in business and Kabul as corrupt as ever.

Boots on the ground accomplished even less in Iraq. Revisit in your memory President George Bush strutting across the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in September 2003 beneath a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” It was War on Terror rhetoric at its most perverse. Thirteen years on, that “war on a noun” is still an utter failure.

Shock and Awe may assuage a need for revenge. But it doesn't solve the problem. It only makes things worse -- because it obliterates perspective:

You stand a better chance of being struck by lightning than of dying at the hands of a terrorist — but most governments see a hidden benefit in exaggerating the threat. After every attack attributed to terrorists, governments take another step towards the complete surveillance state. France is no exception. In the wake of the Paris attacks, French President Fran├žois Hollande has asked to change the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.

What's even more worse, is that it gives rise to the Surveillance State:

The journey towards global surveillance rides the bullet train of fear and prejudice. The more speed it picks up, the further democracy recedes in the rear-view mirror. The National Security Agency spied on all American citizens with its collection of so-called ‘metadata’ — something Americans would still know nothing about were it not for a fellow named Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in exile for alerting his countrymen to the 21st century version of Watergate.

So what should be done?

The most sensible way to deal with terrorists is to stop characterizing them as fanatics or mentally unstable. As former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says, all terrorists are members of political movements. They have grievances and goals which need to be understood rather than caricatured. Otherwise, we have no way to intervene against them other than the sharp edge of the sword — always an excellent recruitment tool for outfits like ISIS.

But that would mean "committing sociology." And who wants to do that?