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.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Repeating history—the new need for unionization

For all Donald Trump’s failings, and they are profound and many, he deserves credit for one thing. He acknowledged the anger and despair of those Americans in the Rust Belt states and elsewhere who have seen stable, well-paid manufacturing jobs disappear in the millions. In their place are often low-paid, precarious jobs in the service industries. Trump’s insight carried him into the White House.

Our prime minister has also recognized this system failure. “What we’re facing right now,” he said in an interview with the Guardian “—in terms of the rise of populism and divisive and fearful narratives around the world—it’s based around the fact that globalization doesn’t seem to be working for the middle class, for ordinary people.” The loss of hundreds of thousands manufacturing jobs in this country has underlined his statement. The portion of Canadian workers in low-paying jobs is at an all-time high.

Economists talk about a new social class—the precariat: workers living a precarious existence due to a lack of job security, including part-time employment and low wages and benefits, stemming largely from the entrenchment of neoliberalism.

The loss of manufacturing jobs in both the U.S. and Canada is due to two forces: globalization and, most importantly, automation.

We can do a better job of globalization—trade agreements, e.g. NAFTA, have been focused on improving things for investors and corporations with trickle down benefits for the rest of us. Unfortunately, trickle down isn’t working. We need to do globalization with workers first in mind rather than corporations. There is, on the other hand, little we can do about automation; it has a momentum all its own. And despite Trumpian wishful thinking, jobs lost to automation aren’t coming back, from China or anywhere else.

There is, however, something we can do about the jobs that are replacing those lost in manufacturing. We can turn bad jobs into good jobs. I suspect that if you asked someone with if they would rather spend their time on an assembly line or working in Starbucks, many would choose Starbucks—if they could make a living. But that’s a big if. The retail sector has now replaced manufacturing as Canada’s biggest employer of both men and women, yet it is the worst paid occupation in the economy. It is characterized by low wages, unpredictable working hours, part-time work, and the need to juggle multiple jobs to earn a living wage.

That doesn’t have to be the case. In Sweden, retail jobs are desirable jobs. Their starting salaries are up to 40 per cent higher than ours, workers have a minimum five weeks paid holidays, receive overtime pay for weekends and holidays, and are entitled to generous parental leaves. Why the difference? In a word, unionization. Sixty per cent of retail workers in Sweden are unionized compared to twelve per cent in this country. We cannot simulate the strong union environment of Sweden but obviously greater unionization would go a long way to boosting working conditions in retail in this country.

After all, we did this before with manufacturing. Early in the last century manufacturing jobs were not all that great. Workers often toiled in dirty, dangerous workplaces for low pay and long hours. But unionization and appropriate legislation turned these jobs into the well-paid, stable and desirable jobs they are today. What unions did for manufacturing they can do for retail. We need to repeat history.

It is important as well, of course, to keep the other instruments of distribution strong—good labour legislation and a healthy welfare state.

Some critics will complain about raising the wages of service workers, complaining that they will raise prices. They will, of course, but when we steadily increased the wages of manufacturing workers did we find we could no longer afford to buy the products? The automobiles, the fridges, the TV sets? On the contrary, with higher wages, we had a more prosperous economy and bought more stuff. Today, we have twice the GDP per capita in constant dollars that we had in the 70s. We are richer than we have ever been. This is not a wealth problem, it’s a distribution problem.

Political parties have been doing good work for investors and corporations, with globalization, privatization, lower taxes and all the other accouterments of neo-liberalism, now it's time to do something for workers. Supporting unionization as avidly as they have supported trade agreements would be a good start. This country doesn't need rust-belt provinces.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Trudeau's big lie

I am reluctant to refer to my prime minister as a liar, particularly when I generally hold him in high regard, but when the lie reaches a certain magnitude, one's hand is forced. And this was a very big one—a whopper.

The promise was unequivocal. The Liberal election platform of 2015 stated: "We will make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. ...Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform."

And in Governor General David Johnston's speech from the throne: "To make sure that every vote counts, the Government will undertake consultations on electoral reform, and will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system."

And yet this week, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould was informed "changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate." It was all a lie folks, all a lie.

The Prime Minister compounded the lie with his explanation. "There is no consensus," he said, "There is no clear path forward." In fact, the government's own Special Committee on Electoral Reform reported a consensus and pointed a clear path forward with its recommendation that "The Government hold a referendum, in which the current system is on the ballot" and that "the referendum propose a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less." The committee reported that the views of the overwhelming majority of the experts and citizens that presented submissions favoured proportional representation. Trudeau's gratuitous dismissal of both the committee's months of hard work and its recommendations illustrated his cynical manipulation of both them and us.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, a member of the committee, responded "I am deeply afraid that this betrayal will strike much more deeply in the hearts of Canadians than Prime Minister Trudeau realizes," and warned him that in these times of dangerous politics, cynicism has led to populist revolts in other countries. And we don't have to look far to see the truth of her words.

What’s the next big lie to be revealed, Mr. Trudeau? Your environmental promises perhaps?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Guess which country dodged Trump's travel ban

President Donald Trump has manifested his regime's Islamophobia with a ban on the nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries entering the U.S. for at least 90 days. The choice of countries is odd. Not a single citizen from any of these countries has ever committed a terrorist act in the United States. Not one.

On the other hand, a country of particular interest when it comes to terrorist attacks in the U.S. has been left off the list. Of which country do I speak you ask. Take a guess.... no? Well, let me give you a hint: from which country came 15 of the 19 terrorists who conducted the 9/11 bombings? Saudi Arabia, you say? Bingo! Furthermore, the Congressional investigation of the attacks reported that there were connections between the attackers and members of the Saudi royal family. And then there is the Saudi funding of extremist institutions around the world.

Yet they are not banned. Some pundits have noted that Muslim countries in which Trump has investments were excluded, and considering the Donald's ethics that could certainly be the case. However, I would suggest two other reasons. One, Saudi Arabia has the world's largest reserves of conventional oil, which it sells liberally to the U.S., and two, Saudi is the Americans' major customer for weapons sales.

So, the message would seem to be that Muslims are bad, unless they sell you oil and buy your guns, then they are good. The Americans have always pandered to the Sauds, so that part is nothing new. Now the pandering even overcomes Trump's Islamophobia.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Canadians opt for co-operative government

The results from the federal government's MyDemocracy.ca survey are now in and one clear result has emerged.

The survey, mailed out to every household in the country inviting online participation, was a follow-up to a report by the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. The committee had spent months listening to experts and citizens, however the government seemed to think something additional was required and so created the survey. The government claims that "383,074 unique users" competed the survey. I doubt the number of "unique" users is entirely accurate because no ID was required, so one could send in as many responses as one wanted. I myself sent in at least a dozen.

But enough about cheaters. The survey was in itself of questionable value. The questions were ambivalent and the selection of questions biased. One result, however, is not in doubt: Canadians believe in co-operative governance. Seventy per cent of respondents said it was preferable that several parties share accountability and co-operate in governing rather than one party being solely responsible. This was Canadians' top priority for electoral reform. Five different versions of this question gave consistent results.

If the government takes the survey seriously, indeed if it takes the whole electoral reform process seriously, it would have to introduce a voting system that requires a more co-operative approach. And that would be a system of proportional representation. But, the big question remains: will it take the process seriously?

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Lies, alternative facts and the Trump universe

Describing somewhat exaggerated claims about the inauguration by Donald Trump's press secretary, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway came up with the delightful phrase "alternative facts." It has so much more of a lilt to it than "lies." Trump came up with a few alternative facts himself, claiming that the sun shone during his inauguration speech (it rained) and that he lost the popular vote as a result of three to five million votes by illegal aliens.

His incessant lying raises the question of whether or not he actually believes what he says. The disturbing truth may be that he does. He may live in an alternative universe where things are the way he wants them to be. He wanted the sun to shine on his inauguration speech, so it did. He wanted to win the popular vote, so he did but was cheated out of it. In other words, the president of the United States may not be fully in touch with reality.

On the bright side, sales of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 have apparently soared.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Inauguration Day—from class to crass

I have differed with Barack Obama on various issues during his presidency, but on one point I hold no reservations: he is the classiest U.S. president in my lifetime. A man of intelligence and eloquence, he displayed a combination of grace and dignity that honoured his office.

And now he is to be replaced by easily the most boorish individual to ever assume the presidency—a vulgar narcissist devoid of both charm and substance.

Oh America, America, what have you done.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The world does indeed need more Canada

I wrote the title to this post with some reluctance. I am not a patriot and have little use for flag-waving. Nonetheless, I believe Barack Obama was right when he declared, "the world needs more Canada." The reason came home to me while reading an essay in the Guardian by Charles Foran entitled "The Canada experiment: is this the world's first 'postnational' country?" He was picking up on our Prime Minister's comment in an interview with the New York Times Magazine. "There is no core identity," Trudeau had said, "no mainstream in Canada.”

This struck a chord with me. I experience little blood and soul connection to my country, even while recognizing my great good luck being born here. To me, loyalty to your society is best expressed not by emotional binging but by being a good citizen. That applies to all the societies of which you are a part, your local community, your city, your province, your country, the world. It means being a good person and an involved citizen.

Foran's thesis is that a lack of a core identity allows Canada to readily absorb people of any identity, filling "our spaces with the diversity of the world." We are creating a country that not only enjoys the prosperity that diversity brings but also a society with a refreshing openness, a society that can evolve, that can "respond to newness without fear." Inclusiveness is practical as well as moral.

The ability to live without a national identity has allowed us to avoid the nativism (Stephen Harper's "old stock Canadians" notwithstanding) and the right-wing populism plaguing so much of the Western world at the moment.

With the greatest challenges to our species now being global—climate change, nuclear war, inequality, refugees—never before have we been more in need of societies that are not inhibited by identity based on religious and racial norms, societies able to get beyond tribalism and open themselves to the world. By offering proof that such a society can be realized and prosper, we do the world a service.