Monday, 27 March 2017

World’s richest country and it can’t even do health care. Sad!

Watching the Americans thrash about trying to put together a decent health care system prompts much head-shaking and eyeball-rolling. The Republicans have bitched and moaned about Obamacare for seven years, but in all that time haven't been able to come up with a plan they can agree on.

"It's complicated," wailed President Trump. But of course it isn't. It's a challenge every other advanced country mastered generations ago. All the Americans have to do is open their eyes to the variety of universal programs in effect in other countries and choose those elements that would create the best system for their purposes. The result could be a system that covered all their people and provided better outcomes, all at a much lower cost.

Universal, publicly-funded medical care is one of the finest social inventions in all of history, and our system is, along with the Charter, one of Canadians’ two most popular institutions.

One can only speculate about why our good neighbours to the south seem incapable of what we and every other modern nation has managed. Their failure is due in large part, certainly, to a hard core of market fundamentalists who still haven't forgiven FDR for his "socialism" and have never quit attempting to roll back the state to little more than the police and military. Their commitment to ideology is such that they have no qualms about sacrificing the peoples' health, or even lives, on the alter of dogma.

Not even the master of the art of the deal could get a new program past the Republican zealots. And considering what was on offer, it was just as well. Obamacare will now persist for the foreseeable future. It may be a third rate system, but it's still much better than anything that went before.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

You can't educate Republicans on global warming

Many progressives believe that if the public were better informed about the science behind climate change, people would be more inclined to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming. A U.S. survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that's only true for some people.

Climate scientists tell us that global warming will result in phenomena such as rising sea levels and more severe storms and droughts. Pew asked samples of Democrats and Republicans with low, medium and high levels of science knowledge whether they believed the scientists. They found that only about 20-30 per cent of the Republicans agreed with the scientists and the level of science knowledge made little difference. More of the Democrats with even a low science knowledge agreed with the experts and the number increased rapidly with the level of knowledge.

The same was true regarding the cause of climate change. Ninety-three per cent of the Democrats with high levels of science knowledge agreed that climate change is mostly due to human activity whereas only 49 per cent of Democrats with low science knowledge believed this is the case. Among Republicans, again the level of science knowledge made little difference to their beliefs about the causes of climate change.

It would appear that when it comes to climate change, you can lead a Republican to knowledge but you can't make him think.

One might reasonably suspect, I hope not unfairly, that Conservatives in this country share this rejection of science with their Republican cousins. Unfortunately, a lot of available evidence, including the attitude and behaviour of our last federal government, suggests they do.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Will Alberta revert to Social Credit?

In August, 1971, Alberta had its quiet revolution. For 36 years it had been governed by Social Credit, a largely rural-based, social-conservative party led for most of those years by E.C. Manning, father of leading conservative intellectual and unite-the-right guru Preston Manning.

By 1971 Alberta, like the rest of the country, was increasingly urbanizing and Albertans wanted to join the modern world. The Progressive Conservative party, led by the very urbane Peter Lougheed, answered the call.

Social Credit was ultimately absorbed by the PCs, but a rural-urban split simmered within party ranks, the urban element generally predominating while vestiges of Social Credit periodically emerged as fringe parties. Then in 2007, Premier Ed Stelmach announced he intended to increase oil royalties. The oil industry was not amused and decided to show Ed who was boss. They poured their big bucks into the coffers of the latest fringe party, the Wildrose and turned it into a contender. It very nearly unseated the Conservatives in 2012 (and would have if some of its fundamentalist views hadn't leaked out) and currently sits in the legislature as official opposition.

The Alberta Progressive Conservatives (the "progressive" may soon disappear) have now elected Jason Kenney, a strong social conservative, as their new leader. Kenney ran on a platform of uniting with Wildrose, an almost entirely rural party to the right of the Conservatives.

He has stated he wants to create a big tent party. The big question is whether or not the urban moderates will go along. Already there have been defections. The two women candidates for the leadership both dropped out, citing personal attacks, and one has crossed the floor to the NDP. And long-time Conservative stalwart Senator Ron Ghitter has indicated Kenney's views are inimical to his and hinted that he, too, may support the NDP.

It will be interesting. If the right merges into a rural-based, social-conservative party and wins the next election, Alberta will have come full circle.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Shell bails on the tar sands

I read with interest Royal Dutch Shell's decision to sell sell most of its stake in Alberta's tar sands. It brought back memories. I toiled for Shell Canada during my days in the oil patch, now a long time ago, and the last project I worked on was in the tar sands.

Shell was a good company to work for. It paid well, offered generous benefits and excellent training opportunities, and always allowed you to progress to the limit of your abilities. And I made many good friends. I packed my bags mostly because I wanted a change, but also partly because I thought of myself as an oil man and considered tar sands development more as mining, something I had no interest in. Since then, my attitude toward the sands has hardened further and I now oppose their development entirely.

So when I read about Shell's disengagement, I couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't tracking my journey. Its decision was no doubt economics based—its hard to wrestle a profit from the sands at $50/barrel—but I suspect economics fueled by environmental concerns to some extent at least. Investors in the industry are becoming increasingly worried about stranded assets. According to CEO Ben van Beurden, "I do think trust has been eroded to the point that it is becoming a serious issue for our long term future."

Shell has for some time shown sensitivity to environmental concerns. It intends to increase its investment in renewable energy to $1-billion a year by the end of the decade. Ten per cent of its directors’ bonuses will be tied to how well the company manages greenhouse gas emissions. Van Beurden has said that government policies, including a carbon price, are essential to phase out the most polluting sources of energy, and, indeed, when Alberta Premier Notley revealed her climate change plan, which included a carbon tax, the president of Shell Canada stood on the stage along with other executives, academics, environmentalists and First Nations' leaders.

In 1991, years before Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, Shell produced a film entitled Climate of Concern in which it warned about climate change "at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age—change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation." It continued, nonetheless, to invest heavily in oil and gas, largely ignoring its own warning, even as it continued to recognize the threat. Habits are hard to break, particularly when they're profitable.

I am delighted, therefore, that it is now joining other oil firms, including Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips and Statoil, in writing down or selling tar sands assets. Still a long way to go, but at least it's moving in the right direction.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Congrats to Commanding Officer Butterworth-Carr

It's always encouraging to see a woman get a top job, and encouraging also to see a Native person get a top job. With Brenda Butterworth-Carr we get two for one.

Ms. Butterworth-Carr, from the Tr'ondek Hwech'in Han Nation in Yukon, has been appointed Commanding Officer for the RCMP in B.C., the country's largest division.

In her 30 years in the Mounties, she has held positions that include Assistant District Commander in E Division's North District, Officer in Charge of Prince George Detachment, and Director General of National Aboriginal Policing and Crime Prevention Services, National Criminal Operations. Prior to returning to B.C., she served as the Criminal Operations Officer and then Commanding Officer in Saskatchewan.

Active in provincial, federal, and international committees and associations, she has been a member of the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Chair of the RCMP's National Women's Advisory Committee, and a member of the Canadian and International Association of Chiefs of Police. She was invested as a Member of the Order of Merit of the Police Forces for her work throughout the country.

An impressive resumé indeed. I wish this supremely qualified lady all the luck in the world in her new role.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Behold! Emperor Trump

What to make of U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed budget. A $54-billion hike in spending on weapons balanced with cuts in foreign aid, environmental programs and domestic agencies. It is if nothing else a major shift toward a military state, furthering a trend the country has been on for some time.

Many people have expressed concern that Trump's election was a serious threat to liberal democracy. I admit to being one of those who thought such concerns were overblown, but now with the commander-in-chief swelling the ranks of his troops while surrounding himself with generals and right-wing extremists, this buffoon is seriously starting to worry me.

What, after all, does the American military need this additional funding for? It already spends more than the next eight countries' militaries combined. And to defend itself against what? It has friendly (and weak) neighbours on two sides and oceans on the other two. And it has enough nuclear weapons to wipe any enemy of the face of the Earth. No country is about to invade the U.S. The only possible use of this extraordinary military is to dominate the international order, to maintain the empire with Trump, presumably, as emperor.

What kind of society encourages children to eat unhealthy food?

What kind of society encourages children to eat unhealthy food? Our kind of society. A society that bombards its children with 25 million food and beverage ads ever year on their favourite websites, 90 per cent of which are for unhealthy products, much of them high in salt, fat or sugar. Add to that the two hours of TV a child watches on average every day with four to five food and beverage ads per hour. We do this year in and year out and wonder why so many Canadian children are overweight.

In the late 1970s, five per cent of children and teens in Canada were obese. Today it's 13 per cent. Not coincidentally, processed and ultra-processed foods have increased from 30 percent of the average family's food purchases to 60 per cent.

There is a high price to pay for our recklessness. Obesity puts children and adolescents at risk for many health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression. The cost of obesity in this country, including direct healthcare and lost productivity, is estimated to be between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion a year.

Advertising Standards Canada has a voluntary program on food and beverage advertising to children under the age of 12 but, according to pediatrician Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, "Industry self-regulation is a failure." It doesn't work.

What does appear to work is Quebec's ban on commercial advertising to children under 13. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the ban is associated with a 13 per cent reduction in the likelihood of buying fast food, compared with Ontario. Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in Canada among children aged six to 11 and the highest rate of fruit and vegetable consumption.

In September 2016, Senator Nancy Greene Raine introduced an act to prohibit junk food marketing to children under the age of 13. The Heart and Stroke Foundation would like the legislation passed without delay and all sensible people must agree. It is a strange and foolish society that systematically indoctrinates its children in bad habits.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Will city folk continue to be Alberta's second class citizens?

Amid debate about adopting a voting system to replace the egregiously undemocratic first-past-the-post, another offense against fair voting is sometimes overlooked. In Alberta, an opportunity to redress that particular sin is underway.

In accordance with the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission Act, a commission has been established to set the constituency boundaries for the 2019 provincial election. If history is any guide, city folk will once again be relegated to the status of second class citizens.

Under the Act, "The population of a proposed electoral division must not be more than 25% above nor more than 25% below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions." The boundaries were last established in 2010 and, following tradition, urban ridings were generally more populous than rural ridings with the result that the votes of city dwellers were worth less than those of their rural brothers and sisters. They are worth even less today. As urban populations have been growing much faster than rural populations for the last century or so, the situation always deteriorates between boundary reviews.

For example the most populous riding, Calgary-South East, now has 2.7 times more people than Leader of the Opposition Brian Jean's riding, which means that Jean's constituents get 2.7 votes for every constituent in Calgary-South East. The average of the five most populous ridings (all urban) is over double the least populous five (all rural), or putting it another way, the country folk have two votes for each city voter's.

Historically, this injustice has been defended on the grounds that rural ridings are much larger in area. That excuse loses its credibility in this modern era of instant communications. But while it may have been defended, it was never justified. If an MLA faces an extra challenge because of distance then provide him or her with a greater travel allowance, or satellite constituency offices, or additional aides to roam the backwoods of the riding, but diminishing someone else's vote is not the answer.

His or her vote is a citizen's most precious democratic possession. There can be no justification for diminishing one citizen's vote in favour of another. Democracy is, after all, political equality.

All constituencies face their own special challenges. For instance, my constituency, being inner city, has many residents whose first language isn't English. It contains Chinatown, 40 per cent of the residents of which don't speak English at all. Yet I would never suggest we address this challenge by reducing the number of people in our constituency to less than the average. I wouldn't suggest that because I have no desire to diminish the votes of citizens in other ridings. The answer is clearly to provide my MLA with special translation facilities. Solve the problem, don't erode democracy.

On the subject of first languages, it is worth noting that because immigrants tend to congregate in cities, diminishing the value of urban votes results in diminishing the voices of ethnic communities. A victory, one might say, for "old stock" Canadians.

Unfortunately, political equality was undermined by the Supreme Court in the 1991 Saskatchewan Reference case in which Madame Justice McLachlin stated, "the purpose of the right to vote enshrined in s. 3 of the Charter is not equality of voting power per se, but the right to 'effective representation'." It is the arbitrariness of the weasel words "effective representation" that have allowed Alberta its outrageous ± 25 per cent.

Alberta's prairie neighbour limits the range to ± five per cent. Saskatchewan has very similar boundary challenges to Alberta. If it can achieve five per cent, our province has no excuse for 25 per cent except a lack of imagination or laziness.

The chair of the recently-appointed commission, Justice Myra Bielby, has commented,
"The basic underlining democratic principle is that every voter's vote should be relatively as effective as every other voter's vote." Her use of the phrase "relatively as effective" is not encouraging.

But I will give her the benefit of the doubt. I will faithfully make my submission and faithfully keep my fingers crossed that when the new boundaries are established I will finally be able to emerge from the shadows of second class citizenship.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Islamophobia—what's in a word?

Words don't always mean what they say. For example, anti-Semitism says "against Semites," but it means "against Jews," who actually only make up a small part of the Semite community. Yet confusion never arises because the word has become so firmly established as meaning anti-Jew.

That is not the case with the word "Islamophobia," defined by Wikipedia as "fear, prejudice, hatred or dislike directed against Islam or Muslims, or towards Islamic politics or culture." That seemingly innocuous phrase "Islam or Muslims" is critical. Do we mean dislike or prejudice against the religion or against the individuals who practice it?

Canadians generally disapprove of prejudice against individuals because of their faith and, of course, it violates the Human Rights Act. But prejudice against a religion, Islam or any other, is something else entirely. Canadians have the right under the Charter to criticize, ridicule or otherwise show their dislike or even contempt for any faith, an important right not only as an exercise of free speech but because of the unique influence that religion holds over society. It needs to be closely watched.

This brings us to Motion 103, introduced in the House of Commons by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, which reads, in part, That, in the opinion of the House, the government should ... condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination ....

The emphasis on "Islamophobia" has sent certain conservatives, including some of the leadership candidates, into a spasm of hysteria. They have denounced the motion as an assault on freedom of speech with its perceived potential for preventing criticism of Islam. Some have accused it of other sins, including the insinuation of Sharia law into Canada. They have been reminded that it's a motion, not a bill, so in fact it won't force anybody to do anything, but that has not lessened the criticism.

Conservatives objecting to the motion on the grounds of freedom of speech is a tad hypocritical. Last year they unanimously supported a motion censoring the BDS Movement, a thinly disguised attempt to discourage advocating action against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Nonetheless, they do have a point about Motion 103.

People of good will will recognize the motion simply as an attempt to condemn discrimination against members of racial or religious groups, particularly Muslims, but, by not defining Islamophobia, it can in fact be interpreted as condemning criticism of Islam.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly insists that "Islamophobia is clear. It's discrimination against Muslims, people of Muslim faith." Dictionaries, unfortunately, are not so clear, offering various definitions, including Wikipedia's.

Over time, Islamophobia may come to mean specifically discrimination against Muslims, even though that's not what it says, just as anti-Semitism has come to mean discrimination against Jews, even though that's not what it says. But then how will we refer to criticism of Islam, the religion? I ask the question with a personal motive because I am no fan of religions, often criticize them, and have even less use for Islam than I have for Christianity.

One obvious answer to the semantic challenge, as a number of observers have suggested, is to use the word "anti-Muslim" for discrimination against Muslims as individuals. It is specific, matches anti-Semitism, and means exactly what it says. And as for Motion 103, anti-Muslim should satisfy both sides of the House. When they discuss discrimination against Muslims (or against Islam) in the future, they could start on the same page. Too reasonable, perhaps?

Monday, 13 February 2017

America's "flawed" democracy or The Revenge of the Deplorables

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), The Economist magazine's research division, annually publishes an analysis of the state of democracy in the world. Its report for 2016, entitled Revenge of the"deplorables," focuses on the popular revolt against the "political elites who are perceived by many to be out of touch and failing to represent the interests of ordinary people."

One significant change in this year's analysis is the demotion of the United States from the EIU's top rank of "full democracies" to the second rank of "flawed democracies." The demotion wasn't due to the election of Donald Trump, but rather due to the precipitous decline in confidence many Americans have in their political parties and government that Trump exploited.

According to the report, this decline was apparent in other countries as well, resulting in a general recession in global democracy. The decline was matched by a populist upsurge led largely by blue-collar workers—white and lacking a college education. The EIU describes this populism as "a revolt by large sections of society who feel that they have been abandoned politically, economically, socially and culturally by the mainstream political parties to which they used to give their allegiance."

The EIU claims that "In Europe and the U.S., the political class seems increasingly out of touch with the people they purport to represent and often seems to express contempt for sections of the electorate" and refers as an example to Hillary Clinton's classification of half of Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables."

I believe the EIU's analysis is spot on. I believe also that some of Trump supporters' complaints are justified. Millions of people are being left behind by globalization and automation—a theme I developed in a previous post—but are getting short shrift from our political parties and governments. They deserve better.

Other complaints lack justification. Economic distress often leads to fear and scapegoating, as demagogues well understand, Trump being a good example. Many white, socially-conservative Americans have been offended by the success of causes such as equality for women, racial minorities and gays, and protection of the environment. Some issues such as the legalization of abortion and accusations of racism aimed at the police have particularly angered them. They feel their values are under attack and their views ignored. These people are, I suspect, Ms. Clinton's "deplorables." I would hesitate to categorize them in that way, but I certainly agree their views are deplorable. Maintaining your culture at the expense of others has no moral justification.

Political parties and governments need very much to respond to the economic anxieties of the working class, but this should not be accompanied by any backsliding on social progress. Regrettably, under President Trump that is exactly what is happening. And considering he has nominated Andrew Puzder for his Secretary of Labor, a fast food CEO with a reputation for underpaying his workers and a staunch opponent of the minimum wage, I am not confident this administration will prove to be the friend of American working men and women.

Frankly, considering the U.S. is run primarily by moneyed interests, I think the EIU is being generous in even calling it a democracy. Plutocracy would seem more apt.

And as for Canada? Well, we bucked the general decline; in fact, our democratic rating actually increased in 2016. The EIU ranks us at an impressive number six out of 167 of the world's nations, tied with Ireland. A nice pat on the back for our 150th birthday.