Friday, December 22, 2006

Canadian economy is number one

According to an annual index compiled by BMO Nesbitt Burns, Canada's economy is tops among the G7 countries. With a grade of 91.8 out of 100, we edged out Japan at 91.6 to rank number one. Italy with 83.6 narrowly slipped under the U.S. at 83.9 for bottom spot. The OECD average was 88.2.

The economic report card for 2006 took into account inflation, unemployment, budget deficits, current account deficits and growth.

Canada was the only nation to have a budget surplus. "Stellar fundamentals" was the phrase applied by deputy chief economist Doug Porter as Canada improved its performance over 2005 when we were also ranked number one. Not a bad habit to take into the New Year.

Ole! Fighting bullfighting

Cristina Narbona, Spain's environment minister, has stepped on one of the Spanish sporting fraternity's most politically correct toes. She wants to end stabbing bulls to death as public spectacle. She has suggested matadors in Spain's bullrings do the Portuguese thing and let the poor brutes live to be killed humanely after the fight.

Predictably, Spanish bullfighting aficionados are up in arms. "The minister's aim is to kill off the bullfight," claims one matador. "This just shows the interventionist, totalitarian instincts of the government," raged a conservative senator. Even the leader of the communist-led United Left coalition got into the act, accusing the minister of importing "Anglo-Saxon prejudices" into Spanish culture.

But the minister has her supporters. The United Left coalition's parliamentary spokeswoman, Joan Herrera, disagreed with her leader and welcomed the proposal to end a "savage and atavistic tradition." Consuelo Polo of Ecologists in Action called for "an end to the macabre spectacle of people sitting down in a bullring to watch someone repeatedly stab a living animal."

Perhaps action to end the "macabre spectacle" won't be necessary, anyway, as it may, unlike the bull, simply die a natural death. Barcelona's last bullring is about to close for lack of fans, another is being turned into a shopping mall.

Now ... as to rodeo.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

From Spain in '36 to Palestine in '06, history repeats itself

Reading a piece about the Spanish civil war recently, I was struck by the similarities with the current situation in Palestine, in particular in the way in which the West is once again betraying democracy.

In 1936, a democratically elected government in Spain faced a revolt by the military. The government appealed to its fellow democracies, France and Britain, for help. France was amenable but was dissuaded by a conservative British government which saw the republican Spanish as too left-wing. The Soviets, however, saw an opportunity and offered military assistance. The Spanish, now desperate, accepted. The rebels meanwhile received support from the Italian and German war machines. The latter proved decisive, the government was overthrown, democracy was lost, and Mussolini and Hitler greatly encouraged.

In 2006, the Palestinians elected a government but, as in 1936 Spain, not one of which the West approved. Not only did the West decide not to support this government, it decided to strangle it at birth by cutting off its revenues. The Palestinians have been reduced to seeking help from whoever is willing to provide it. As Stalin and the Soviet Union saw an opportunity in the '30s, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sees an opportunity today and is providing the Palestinian government with desperately-needed funds.

Predictably, Western leaders like Bush and Blair accuse the Iranians of trouble-making, yet it is their rejection of the democratically elected Hamas that has invited Iran into Palestine, just as their rejection of the democratically elected Spanish government in 1936 invited in the Soviets.

History repeats itself only roughly, yet the lesson here is clear. When we lose faith in democracy, when we treat it as a convenience to serve our interests and reject it when it doesn't, we not only betray our own principles, we invite disaster.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Chutzpah, Blair style

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to whom self-righteousness is no stranger, recently lashed Iran for being the major obstacle to peace in the Middle East while criticizing other world leaders for their indifference to Iran's alleged sins. This is quite the performance for a leader whose country stole a large chunk of the Middle East's oil reserves after the First World War, helped overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950s, continues to make billions on arms sales to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, and whose army now participates in an occupation of Iraq that has unleashed bloody chaos. The British record in the Middle East is one of unmitigated greed and violence, and Tony Blair has the nerve to condemn Iran for making trouble?

If he is really interested in peace in the region, he might try sitting down with the key players, including Iran and Hamas, actually listening to them, and negotiating agreements that take their interests into account. Much more importantly, he might convince his good friend George W. Bush to do the same. Or maybe both the U.S. and Britain should seriously consider just going home, stop peddling weapons to anyone with cash or oil, and letting the inhabitants of the region sort out their differences for themselves.

Iran challenges UN on Israel's nukes

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made his little slip of the tongue in a television interview, asking rhetorically if Iran having nuclear weapons was the same as "America, France, Israel and Russia" having them, he inadvertently admitted that Israel had the bomb. This was widely suspected for years, but Olmert's gaffe was the first time an Israeli leader had owned up. He hastily backtracked but it was too little, too late. Israel's nuclear cat was out of the bag.

Now Iran, not surprisingly, has jumped on it. In a letter to the Security Council, Iran has called on the UN to compel Israel to give up its nuclear arms. Iran's UN ambassador declared the council should, "compel it [Israel] to abandon nuclear weapons, urge it to accede to the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] without delay and demand this regime to place promptly all its nuclear facilities under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] full-scope safeguards."

The action comes as the Security Council debates sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program which, according to its critics, is aimed at producing weapons. A signatory of the NPT, Iran insists its program is designed only to produce electricity. Israel has never signed the NPT.

Tricky business. How does the West punish Iran for maybe trying to develop nukes but not Israel which now admits to possessing them? The Middle East sometimes seems a hotbed of double standards.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Alberta goes macho and rural

In choosing his new cabinet, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has given short shrift to women and the cities. Although Calgary and Edmonton make up over half the population of the province, they have only four out of 18 ministers. Under-representing the two powerhouses of Alberta's cultural and economic life would not seem to be a smart move toward governing a modern province. Rural ridings have smaller populations generally than urban ridings, so country folk are already over-represented; they hardly need yet another advantage.

That women are also under under-represented in an Alberta cabinet is no surprise. Alberta has the lowest proportion of women in its legislature of any province except New Brunswick: 16 per cent compared to the Canadian average of 21 per cent. (And that Canadian average is a sorry sight as well. Women make up 47 per cent of Sweden's legislature).

Alberta constantly frets about not having enough influence on the national stage. It would do well to get its own house in order and offer a fair deal to its cities and its women.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tony Blair pisses on the rule of law

As if British Prime Minister Tony Blair's reputation hadn't sunk low enough, he has now indulged in a bit of sleaze that had the Guardian saying, "Yesterday will leave stains on Mr Blair that will survive any amount of scrubbing."

Twenty years ago, Margaret Thatcher secured the first of the big arms deals between BAE Systems PLC, Europe's largest weapons maker and a major British employer, and Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, Tony Blair declared a halt to a major criminal investigation into alleged corruption by the arms company and its executives, claiming -- what else? -- it would endanger Britain's national security. Blair's action came just as the UK's Serious Fraud Office appears to have made a significant breakthrough, with investigators about to access key Swiss bank accounts.

BAE and the Saudis had frantically lobbied the Labour government, an effort culminating with the Saudis issuing an ultimatum. In an illustration of how the arms trade can corrupt government, MPs from all parties engaged in a public relations campaign urging termination of the investigation, citing fears that jobs might be lost in their constituencies. One can only imagine how the much more massive U.S. arms industry corrupts the American government. On the bright side, BAE's shares are now rising nicely.

What Blair has done with this one action is staggering. He has shown contempt for the rule of law by putting BAE above the law. He has shown contempt for democracy by arming one of the worst dictatorships in the Middle East, and for women and human rights by arming probably the most misogynistic state anywhere. He has made his opposition to Iran obtaining nuclear arms look hypocritical by providing high-tech weapons to a government led by religious zealots. His justification for the war in Iraq collapses utterly if it hasn't already. Quite a day for old Tony. And one of the shabbiest in recent British history.

However, justice may be down but it isn't out. Even if the British government has abandoned morality, others haven't. Anti-arms trade campaigners have instructed their lawyers to consider legal action against the attorney general. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development plans to launch an investigation. Britain is, after all, a signatory of the OECD's anti-bribery convention.

We will be hearing more about this little affair.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Clowns on the world stage

Challenging American global hegemony is a healthy phenomenon. However, when the challenges are made by heads of state who major in buffoonery, it isn't helpful. The most noted tormentors of the reigning superpower these days are Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

As for Kim, well, what can one say -- a man as ridiculous as he is dangerous, a prancing clown of a man who rules his people with Stalinist terror.

Chavez, on the other hand, rules democratically, and pursues the enlightened policy of applying capitalism directly to the benefit of the poor - a novel and refreshing idea. Unfortunately, he smears his own image with pointless and provocative insults of the American president. Indeed, not only the American president. His gratuitous demeaning of former Mexican president, Vicente Fox, was instrumental in costing Lopez Obrador (Chavez's choice) the recent election.

And then there's Ahmadinejad. If there's anywhere the U.S. deserves to be challenged, it's in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad might seem the man for the job; unfortunately, he insists on playing the fool. His latest escapade, the Holocaust conference, was so petty, so childishly provocative, so sordid in its mockery of the murder of millions, even the most ardent opponent of American Middle Eastern policy was left feeling nauseous.

It's disappointing. The world needs more balance, more influence from non-Western leaders. Chavez and
Ahmadinejad, both democratically elected, are well-positioned to provide that balance and influence for their regions. How sad that they insist on behaving like juvenile delinquents.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Al-Jazeera yes, the BBC no, says Israel

The BBC dropped in favour of al-Jazeera? In Israel of all places?

Yes indeed. Israel's satellite provider Yes TV is replacing BBC World with the newly launched al-Jazeera English. BBC World will still be available in Israel on cable, but will lose half its audience. Al-Jazeera will now have an international audience of 80 million households.

Long-dominated by BBC World and CNN, the international news market is becoming increasingly competitive with the entry of al-Jazeera English last month and France 24 last week.

Watch the Arctic summer sea ice disappear

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado has produced a neat little animation of the potential affect of global warming on the Arctic sea ice.

The Bushmen return

For over a decade, the government of Botswana has been forcing the San Bushmen out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, an area they have occupied for over 20,000 years. The reserve was created in 1961 to protect the Bushmen living there from farmers and cattle-raising tribes. The government claims it is too expensive to provide basic services and, furthermore, the Bushmen threaten the reserve's ecology with their hunting ways. Skeptics suggest the government wants the area cleared for diamond mining, the country's main export industry.

Botswana's Supreme Court has now ruled 2-1 that evicting the Bushmen is illegal and those who have been removed, many of whom live in squalid resettlement camps, must be allowed to return. The case - the longest in Botswana's history - is seen as of major importance in establishing the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Bushmen are among the last of Africa's hunter-gathers, the last representatives on that continent of a way of life we all once enjoyed, a way of life we may have been fools to abandon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The arbitrariness of morality

What a wonderfully arbitrary thing morality is.

Augusto Pinochet murdered 3,000 people, tortured 35,000, drove hundreds of thousands from their country in fear, and enriched himself immensely in the process, yet at his funeral on Tuesday 60,000 Chileans attended, some wept and kissed the casket, and a Catholic bishop referred to the former dictator as an exemplary head of state.

When mass murderers can be worshipped by thousands and blessed by the church, one wonders if morality has any meaning other than convenience. Something to regulate society by and not much more. This morality of convenience is of course ancient. Tribes have always had one standard for their members and quite another, often a brutal one, for outsiders. Members of the Pinochet tribe would never sanction murder of their own but would without compunction sanction torturing and murdering members of the socialist tribe.

Fortunately, human society is slowly, if erratically, overcoming tribalism. For every step backward there are many steps forward. One day perhaps we will overcome it entirely and fully recognize the equal humanity of all, from the politically-misguided fellow next door to the woman of different race and religion on the other side of the world. In the meantime, we will simply have to endure the sordid spectacle of women weeping on the coffins of monsters.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Blair whacks non-proliferation treaty

Surely it's time to admit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead. The treaty not only obliges non-nuclear states to reject nuclear weapons; it also obliges nuclear states to get rid of them. But they aren't doing it. As if to underline this point, Tony Blair has announced his government intends to replace its fleet of nuclear subs and renew its Trident D5 missiles. Needless to say, British Tories support Blair's policy.

Blair's shameless statement is as offensive to the treaty as is Iran's alleged attempt to obtain nuclear weaponry. At least North Korea had the decency to formally withdraw from the treaty before embarking on its nuclear quest.

How can the West in good conscience ask Iran to honour its obligations when its major antagonists, the United States, Britain and Israel, treat the agreement with contempt?

The nuclear clock moves ever closer to midnight.