Monday, January 30, 2006

The promised land

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conceded recently that Israel would have to give up parts of the West Bank in order to preserve a Jewish majority within its borders. Specifically, he mentioned "giving up parts of the land of Israel," as if all Palestine belonged to Israel.

An article in the Globe and Mail by Israel Harel, "The Real Reasons for Hamas's Success," reinforced Olmert's view. Mr. Harel referred to Israelis giving up parts of their "historic homeland," as if Palestine was theirs to give.

This Israeli conceit leads to the discriminatory concept of a Jewish "Right of Return" which offers Jews everywhere citizenship in Israel. The idea that some old Palestinian woman living in a refugee camp in Lebanon, who holds the key in her hand to the house she was born and raised in, that her mother was born and raised in, and her grandmother before that, has less right to that house than some young Jewish man from New York, whose ancestors haven't set foot in Palestine for 2,000 years, is a travesty of both logic and decency.

Palestine has been a homeland for many peoples, from ancient Canaanites to modern Arabs and Jews. Israel is a modern nation created by Europeans, as colonial a project as stealing North America from the Indians, and it has no right to an inch of land beyond the borders granted by the United Nations.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Once again — the shaft

Oh, who will rid us of this troublesome voting system?

So spoke King Henry II in 1170, loosely paraphrased. The king was referring to a priest, one Thomas Becket to be precise, not voting systems, but his frustration was certainly no greater than ours. In the recent election, our troublesome voting system, first-past-the-post, once again distorted the will of the people. The results were Conservatives 124 seats, Liberals 103, the Bloc 51, the NDP 29 and the Greens a fat none. If the parties had been awarded seats in accordance with the wishes of Canadian voters, the distribution would have been Conservatives 112, Liberals 93, the Bloc 32, the NDP 54 and the Greens 14.

The Conservatives and the Liberals did very well by the distortion, and the Bloc did superbly. The NDP and the Greens took big hits. The Bloc is handsomely rewarded for ignoring the entire country except Quebec while the NDP and the Greens are punished for appealing to all Canadians. What could be more foolish in a regionalized nation than rewarding a separatist party with far more representation in parliament than it deserves?

And many citizens votes count for nothing. In my hometown, Calgary, Conservatives win by such massive majorities those who support any other party might as well stay home. If they chose instead to watch the soaps or play video games, the election results would not change one iota. Only a proportional voting system will give their votes value.

But who will make the change? The Conservatives or the Liberals when they profit from the corruption inherent in the current system? The prospects are not good there. The Bloc? when they are getting 60 per cent more seats than they deserve now? Not likely.

That leaves the NDP. They would gain impressively from a proportional system, and indeed had an opportunity to leverage change out of the Liberals in the last parliament, but they blew their chance. However, they have, as occasionally happens in life, been given a second chance. With skillful negotiation around the right issues, they may be able to pry change out of the current parliament. Those of us who want every vote to count will be watching.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Stephen Harper takes a shot at the courts and the Conservatives dip in the polls. Coincidence? Maybe. But keep in mind the very high regard Canadians have for their courts, particularly the Supreme Court, to many a treasured institution. Canadians have a vastly greater respect for the people who sit on the Court than they do for the people who fill the benches in the House of Commons. They know that judges are well-qualified professionals, the Supremes the most qualified of all, the Wayne Gretzkys of the judicial world, whereas MPs are, well, sort of hit and miss. Perhaps Harper offered his views without realizing this, his confidence over the possibility of a majority government leading him to speak more frankly than might be wise during an election campaign.

Worse, his remarks were gratuitous. Our Supreme Court, unlike our neighbour's, is impressively non-partisan and balanced. A court of nine with four women, one of them Chief Justice, is a balance that is the envy of the world. Yes, most were appointed by a Liberal government, but the political affiliations of the judges are virtually unknown, a singular feat of selection.

A democracy is no place for sacred cows, but some institutions, by the integrity of their people, simply demand the highest respect. Parliament, sadly, is not such an institution. The Supreme Court is. Politicians demean it at their peril.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The not so monolithic West

In this election, as is so often the case, the Eastern press exhibits the annoying habit of treating the West as one great monolithically Conservative block. It arises, I suspect, from assuming the West is Alberta, a belief all too commonly assumed by Albertans themselves. Despite the widespread support in Western Canada for the Conservatives in recent federal elections, the truth is rather different.

Two political streams flow vigorously through Western Canada, one left, one right. Blinkered to this reality, Eastern media tend to overlook the fact that socialists govern two of the four western provinces and form the official opposition in a third. Indeed, Alberta is as often at odds with other western provinces as the West is with the East. I offer two examples:

  1. During the Kyoto debate, Alberta was the only province opposed to signing the protocol. Manitoba was one of its strongest boosters.
  2. While Albertans generally opposed same-sex marriage, British Columbians were second only to Quebeckers in supporting it.

And, of course, while Alberta is renowned for its embrace of capitalist competition, its neighbour Saskatchewan, home of Medicare, is famed as the land of co-operation.

Adding to this mischief is the further assumption that the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary is hardly more than a Conservative think tank, known as "the Calgary School." In fact, diversity reigns there also. I know two of the professors in the department rather well, and both are decidedly not Conservatives.

I would go on to discuss a third political stream, a Liberal one, but the way this campaign is going that stream is in danger of drying up.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The still-scary Mr. Harper

Just as Stephen Harper seems to have eased Canadians' concerns about his dogma driven motives, he goes all spooky again. He talks about a Conservative government's power being balanced by "... courts that have been appointed by the Liberals."

He then refers to the courts as "... checks on the power of a Conservative government." This suggests a number of things. First, he seems to consider the courts partisan political institutions. Quite aside from the gratuitous insult to the judiciary, a potential prime minister who positions the courts as the opposition is not reassuring. Second, does he have something in mind that will be challenged in the courts? One cannot help but wonder what that might be. And what does he have in mind for the future? If the courts are political institutions, does he intend to nominate judges on the basis of their politics? Disturbing questions demanded by a disturbing attitude.

The divisive nature of his thinking is worrisome, all too reminiscent of the Harris Conservatives, to say nothing of the Bush Republicans. We can only hope that power will temper Mr. Harper's paranoia, perhaps even make a bit of a statesman out of him. If not ... well, that's too scary to think about.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Hurrah for Chile! Kudos, Liberia! Canada? ... not so much

What a long road Chile has travelled in a very short time, from a murderous dictatorship in 1989 to electing a woman president in 2006. Chileans have freely chosen Michelle Bachelet to lead their country, the first woman in South America to be so elected on her own merits.

Not to be outdone, Liberians elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf president, the first African woman to become a head of state.

While these heartwarming breakthroughs occur elsewhere, here in Canada the leaders of all four major parties are, as usual, greying white men. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not an ageist. Speaking as an older person myself, I believe we should be offered equality of opportunity. Nor am I a racist. Speaking as a white person, I believe we should not suffer discrimination. Nor am I a sexist. Speaking as a man, even though we may be less worthy than women, I believe we should be treated equally.

But must all the leaders of the political parties, all the big city mayors, all the premiers and the prime minister, be men? Is it not obvious there is something terribly wrong with a political system that routinely consigns half the population to serving rather than leading? If countries as disparate as Chile and Liberia can elect women to the top job, surely we can. If it takes affirmative action, bring it on.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Who's scary now?

In the 2004 election, the Liberals successfully portrayed Stephen Harper as too "scary" to vote for. Mind you, with his support of American belligerence, talk of a firewall around Alberta, insulting Canadians before an American audience, and other peccadilloes, Harper could be accused of doing the job himself. In any case, it worked.

In this election, Harper comes across as the soul of moderation; he has "evolved," he says. And maybe he has. So, apparently, has Paul Martin. This former soul of moderation suddenly proposes removing the notwithstanding clause from the constitution, a scary proposal on at least two levels.

First, the notwithstanding clause is one of the best things in the constitution. It is also unique -- at least I know of no other constitution that has one. It represents a brilliant compromise between those who put their faith in the courts to protect our freedoms and those who put their faith in parliament. Both have their arguments. It is one of those instruments that are of very great importance but which you hope you will never have to use. Like an insurance policy, perhaps. Its power lies in its symbolic value. While it recognizes the right of the courts to decide the legality of legislation, it emphasizes that ultimate power lies with the people. Brilliant!

Second, did Paul Martin get permission from his party to promise this dramatic change to our constitution? There isn't a word in the official Liberal platform about it. If he didn't, the members of his party should be a little afraid. Such an act would be frighteningly arbitrary and autocratic. Scary.

What a topsy-turvy election this is becoming.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Terrorism -- a risky business?

Risk, it seems, is 90 per cent perspective.

The attack on New York by Muslim extremists on September 11, 2001, and its aftermath is a case in point.

Three thousand deaths in one horrific act in the heartland of capitalist commerce seared into American hearts and minds by the most dramatic scenes ever seen on television. Planes crashing into towers, towers collapsing like card houses, thousands running through smoke and debris for their very lives -- not science fiction but mesmerizing reality, and all live on TV. Paranoia was struck into the hearts and minds of Americans like nothing since Pearl Harbor.

The response was overwhelming. The President of the United States declared a War on Terror, claiming terrorism to be the challenge of our time. He has invaded two countries, threatened others, implemented the greatest assault on his citizens' civil liberties in living memory and called the international community to arms.

The paranoia is understandable, but what exactly is the risk? What are the chances an ordinary U.S. citizen will be killed by terrorists? Quite low, actually. Three thousand in one year is a lot but a lot less than the 12,000 Americans who were murdered by other Americans in 2001, most with handguns, and this goes on year after year after year. If President Bush really wanted to save American lives, he would wage war on handguns, not terror.

The possibility of a Canadian being killed by terrorists is roughly the same as being eaten by sharks or stung to death by angry bees -- almost nil. We did have one monstrous attack, the Air India bombing, but that was an internecine quarrel originating in the Indian subcontinent, not an assault on Canadians as such, and that was 20 years ago.

For most peoples throughout the world, Bush's emphasis on the threat of terrorism is a bad joke. Yes, 3,000 Americans died in one day, but that was one day. Three thousand African kids die of malaria every day. This is a real problem. Listening to the president's incessant harping on a relatively minor matter while real problems kill millions is nauseating.

The United States is the most influential nation on Earth. Neither Americans nor the rest of us can afford a president who doesn't understand risk.

Friday, January 06, 2006

When will they ever learn?

Once again the politicos are trotting out tough law and order platforms to mollify Canadians. The federal Conservatives, caught up in an election campaign, promise hard time for recalcitrant 14-year olds, five to 10 year mandatory minimum sentences for dozens of crimes, and hiring hundreds of new cops. Ontario's Liberal government plans to spend $51 million dealing with gun crime, the money to be spent on more police officers, prosecutors and judges, with not a penny for programs to help poor, single mothers raise their kids. Only the federal NDP promise a package that includes more money for mentoring programs and aid for victims than for enforcement.

Maybe sentences for gun crimes should be stiffer, maybe not, but putting more people in prison for longer periods is futile. If it worked, the United States would have the lowest crime rate in the western world. With over two million people in jails and prisons, and probably the world's highest incarceration rate, it's a wonder there are any criminals left on the street. But there are. And they are nasty. The United States murder rate is over three times as high as ours.

More enforcement may suppress crime, people may be a little safer on the street, but this is dealing with symptoms, not the core problem. And it's very expensive. It costs $88,000 a year to keep someone in prison and $52,000 to keep someone in jail, money that could be better spent to deal with cause rather than symptoms.

The cause is dysfunctional family life. Deal with this and we can cut crime off at the root. By ensuring that every pregnancy is a healthy pregnancy, every infancy a healthy infancy and every childhood a healthy childhood, we can preclude crime. The tools are available: tried, tested and proven effective. Programs to assist single mothers at risk have achieved great success in creating healthy family life, programs such as the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program and Hawaii Head Start. Quite aside from offering young people better lives, these programs are sound economic investments. By reducing crime, drug abuse and early pregnancies, and by turning boys away from a life of crime and toward a life as productive tax-paying citizens, they offer a handsome return on each dollar invested.

So what is it to be? Prevention or punishment? Do we help families or exact vengeance? The politicians have made their choice, and I fear it's the wrong one.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Productivity or equity?

A number of pundits in the press and business are busily chastising our campaigning politicians for focusing more on spending than on productivity. Mention is frequently made of countries such as China and India increasingly producing goods and services in competition with us.

Actually, the politicians are closest to the mark. Spending wealth is the modern challenge, not producing it. Our country, indeed our species, has the ability to produce enough wealth to provide every member of society with a decent standard of living. What we lack is the will to share that wealth equitably, a deficiency we are unlikely to overcome as long as we cleave to the soul-numbing mantra, "we must compete in the global marketplace." If we adopted a more inspiring motto, such as "we must co-operate in the global society," rather than look upon China, India, et al. as menacing competitors, we could delight in their progress as they raise millions of people from poverty. We could look forward to co-operating with them in the production of even more wealth and, much, much more importantly, the equitable distribution of it. This would, needless to say, include ensuring their workers have the same rights to bargain for working conditions as ours do.

The wealth problem in our high tech world is one of distribution, not production.