Harper’s (Un)Fair Elections Act Could Spark Voter Surge

The Harper government seems intent on proving to its detractors that things can always get worse. They’ve one-upped themselves with the farce called the Fair Elections Act.

It has been described as a direct threat to the right to vote and an assault on democracy by the very people our democracy assigns to examine these things. But as is the pattern with this government, it seems likely it will ram it through no matter what critics say.

If that is the case then true democrats passionately opposed to Bill C-23 should plan the second phase of their campaign soon — that is, use the opportunity hidden in the crisis to turn the bill into a massive voter legitimization campaign focused on those groups Harper and his point man Pierre Poilievre want to disenfranchise. But more on that later.

Everything about this smacks of American-style voter suppression. It’s not just the actual provisions of the bill which are so transparently aimed at denying voting rights. It is the delivery of this bill by the most arrogant and contemptuous of all of Stephen Harper’s trained attack dogs. Just having to observe this sorry excuse for an elected representative is enough to suppress democracy. The ideological rejection of science and evidence is also on full display here as if political debate itself has been banned from the House of Commons.

This goes beyond even hyper-partisanship. It’s more like feudalism and the divine right of kings — which asserts that “a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm [such as science]… “

There is not much need to go into great detail on the outrages of this legislation as even the normally complacent mainstream media has been piling on this one. The media had adapted to the new normal of the Harper regime’s approach: never answer a question, never acknowledge an argument from the other side, never talk to the national media and always keep a straight face when you lie, cheat, bully, slander and break every rule that doesn’t actually get you arrested. That level of contempt for democracy is now so commonplace it isn’t even news anymore.

But the Fair Elections Act was a step too far and has had the effect of waking the media. Outrage has been dragged from its long slumber.

The broad political system seems to have responded as if all the Conservatives needed was a lesson in political ethics. A few high profile, respected experts stating the obvious would work its magic. No? Well let’s add a few more — like former federal chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. Nope. How about a dozen academics and some provincial chief electoral officers? No response. All of this science-based stuff just seems to reinforce the faith-based government and its choir boy Poilievre. The more criticism and indeed the more respected it was, the more enthusiastic the government became. After all of this — and virtually no one backing the bill’s targeted features — the bill was declared by Poilievre as not just fair but “terrific.” Till then the sanctimonious (this must now be seen as a compliment in the royal court) minister had replied to questions with nearly identical talking points.

Of course at the crudest level of hardball politics this contempt for all criticism works because there is no way to force anyone to actually answer a question. Nonetheless the approach leaves all of the severe criticisms of Bill C-23 out there on the table — unsullied by any serious attempt at rebuttal. The claim by experts that upwards of 500,000 voters could be denied their constitutional right to vote isn’t even acknowledged yet alone refuted. The overwhelming evidence that there simply is no voting fraud in Canada (except by the Conservatives) sits unchallenged. Eliminating vouching (where eligible voters without the correct ID can be vouched for by someone who has ID) and the use of the government’s own voter registration cards are universally condemned as disenfranchising young people (especially mobile students), First Nations members, the homeless and many elderly voters.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has challenged the 2007 federal voter ID laws and won partial victories. According to the BCCLA, “Both courts found that the voter ID laws are a prima facie violation of section 3 of the Charter.” [my emphasis] But despite this, the courts also found that “the law constitutes a reasonable limit on those rights and is justifiable.” One of the reasons the court found this to be the case was that it included the practice of vouching — which ameliorated somewhat the threat of disenfranchisement implied in the requirement for ID. The removal of vouching therefore suggests that the requirement for voter ID is no longer a “reasonable limit.” Last week the BCCLA made application to Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) for leave to appeal the B.C. Court of Appeal decision.

Ironically, the courts these days seem to hold the most promise for those seeking to defend democracy against capricious and authoritarian attacks by elected governments. And the SCC has shown it can move quickly when the democratic stakes are high.

But whatever the outcome, perhaps the best possible response of democracy activists would be to treat this loathsome piece of legislation as a useful crisis. This is exactly what leaders of the African-American and Latino communities have done in their fight against the blatant voter suppression efforts in the U.S. — where individual states determine voting procedures for federal elections. “A Center for Social Inclusion report entitled “Citizens Denied: The Impact of Photo ID Laws on Senior Citizens of Color” warned that nearly half of black voters over age 65 and one in three Latino senior voters would have a more difficult time registering and voting on election day due to photo ID laws passed in some 33 states.”

In at least some cases efforts at voter suppression in the U.S. have backfired because the attack on black and Latino communities has galvanized them to get out the vote. The government of Florida reduced the early voting period which prompted black churches “to conduct a two-day ‘souls to the polls’ marathon. And even as election day turned into a late election night, and with the race in Ohio, and thus for the 270 votes needed to win the presidency, called by 11 p.m., black voters remained in line in Miami-Dade and Broward, two heavily Democrat counties in Florida, where black voters broke turnout records even compared to 2008.”

Efforts to suppress the vote in civic elections in North Carolina and Texas also backfired, resulting in record turn-outs of the people targeted by Republican party controlled board of elections.

With young people, the homeless and First Nations voters at the low end of the turn-out numbers, the Harper government’s crude effort to suppress their votes even more can and should be used to galvanize the vote from those communities.

Student organizations, anti-poverty groups, the Idle No More movement and senior’s groups are well placed to take up the challenge, with help from groups like Democracy Watch and perhaps the NDP.

While many in those communities have found little reason to go to the polls given the slim likelihood of any change in their lives, no one likes to be told what they can and can’t do — especially when it comes to rights. For the people targeted by Harper for disenfranchisement, the 2015 election could be purely about democracy itself.

When it Comes to Political Ideas, How Big is ‘Big’?

In search of the party of Big Ideas

The notion of ‘big ideas’ periodically raises its head in Canadian politics and I recently criticized the NDP for taking a good idea – a national day of action – and wasting it in on, well, small ideas. Specifically I suggested that the party’s focus on excessive interest rates and other charges effectively redefined citizens as consumers, something that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have been doing for eight years.

In response to the criticism the party’s deputy leader Megan Leslie wrote claiming that the NDP had big ideas “in spades” and that she was proud of them. It is unusual for the NDP to engage its critics on the left outside the party and it is a positive sign – just as the days of actions and national town halls are. Engaging people outside the four week period of elections is critical to the NDP’s future success.

But, as my philosophy prof would have said, it’s necessary but not sufficient for a party claiming a progressive mantel. If you want to get people engaged as citizens you have to challenge them as citizens to engage with you about their future. And people know, even if they are often in denial, that the future looks bleak. In the context of rapid climate change (and the social upheaval it will cause), increasing inequality, international conflicts, the coming conflicts over water, the dangerous growth of the security state, the threat of another global economic meltdown, and the limits to growth, the need to commit to big ideas is even greater.

Regrettably, in the context of conventional Canadian politics, the likelihood that any truly big idea will be put on the table, or become part of a national day of action or town hall is remote. Our political system’s greatest flaw is not the first-past-the-post voting system. It is the fact that it is gravely ill-equipped to deal with crises with which it has no experience. We have muddled through for decades tinkering with the perversity of capitalism. But capitalism has long since entered the cancer stage, as Canadian philosopher John McMurtry so prophetically described in his 1999 book (now updated)It is no longer capable of recognizing the crisis its faces and like a cancer attacks its own body.

The politics of incrementalism and issue-parsing is simply incapable of dealing with the issues we face and that means that at both the civil society level but especially at the political party and parliamentary level, there is almost no one is addressing the catastrophes we face and no one is seriously challenging the citizenry to take off its blinkers.

Our political system operates as if nothing has changed because fear prevents any political leader strategizing to win an election from going outside the window of acceptable ideas. Yet it is precisely the currently acceptable ideas that are leading us inexorably over a cliff.

Megan Leslie lists a number of NDP policies which she describes as “bold” but with all due respect most are defensive, involve resisting Stephen Harper’s anti-democratic agenda or are long-standing policies that have also been supported by the Liberals – such as child care. Returning to the pre-Harper corporate tax levels is a start – but Thomas Mulcair’s absolute refusal to consider increasing personal income taxes even on the wealthy shows timidity, not boldness. And without reclaiming lost revenue promises of child care and a national housing program ring hollow.

Leading “…the charge against Stephen Harper’s attempt to import voter suppression tactics” is what any opposition party should be doing and opposing the outrageous subsidies given to oil companies is good policy but hardly a “big idea.”

Ms Leslie’s listing of Medicare as a big idea gets to the core of what I am talking about. Big ideas take a long time to be seen by the broad public as first acceptable and then sensible. There is a well developed theory on this process referred to as the Overton Window, named for the man who developed it. The “window” is the current set of widely accepted public policies which typically determines what political parties run on.

The theory suggests that if you want to see a big, bold idea accepted as government policy you have to expand that window to include the new idea. Overton described the evolution to broad public acceptance as a process that develops by degrees: “Unthinkable; Radical; Acceptable; Sensible; Popular; Policy.” The right used this model and stuck with it for thirty years to achieve its current dominance. Ideas like slashing UI and welfare, privatizing crown corporations, gutting taxes on the wealthy, huge cuts to social programs and signing “trade” deals that give corporations more power were all, in the beginning, “unthinkable” or “radical.” But after thirty years of relentless promotion and the courting of politicians all of these ideas are now public policy.

The advent of Medicare in Saskatchewan followed precisely this road to fruition. And any party wishing to actually deal with the crises we face will need to accept that it will take time to make the necessarily bold policies sensible and popular. But so long as the NDP clings to the fantasy of winning a majority it will avoid big ideas for this reason. Contrast that with the NDP in the 1960s when it took the big idea of Medicare to the national stage and forced the Liberal government to implement it. That is the NDP’s historic role in progressive social policy: not winning elections but promoting bold ideas until they become popular.

The dramatic shift in strategy – seriously going for a majority – has been disastrous for the NDP. It led them to opportunistically defeat the Liberal government and give power to Stephen Harper. Inexorably, the NDP is becoming another liberal party in order to be competitive. Federally, they’re badly trailing a Liberal Party with a pretty face and no policies. The tragic irony in this is, of course, that even if the NDP did win it would have a mandate limited to liberal policies.

Social democracy in the developed world has already suffered the same fate – as it has provincially in Canada. In Europe, New Zealand and Australia it is virtually indistinguishable from neo-liberal parties and is in decline. In Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and BC NDP caution has been rewarded by voter rejection.

The root of the crisis for social democracy is its philosophical relationship with capitalism: accommodation rather than transformation. For decades that accommodation seemed to work – it gave us greater equality, Medicare, low tuition fees, genuine environmental protection, fair taxes, labour standards, vibrant cities. But the problem with social democracy is that because of its accommodation with capitalism it has no core principles that it won’t moderate or abandon. As capitalism gets worse, social democracy has to adjust. Its operating political principle becomes the process of accommodation.

But today accommodation with capitalism amounts to complicity with a system that has become so destructive and immune to reform that it threatens all life on the planet. The cancer stage of capitalism says McMurtry, is guided by “economic thought [which] is in principle incapable of recognizing what has gone wrong” and is controlled by transnational corporations which exercise sovereignty over nations through global trade agreements (one of Mr Mulcair’s most egregious accommodations).

If the pathologically destructive nature of finance capitalism is to be addressed there needs to be a political party that can do so by expanding the window of acceptable policies. And that means promoting bold ideas that directly challenge the policies that are creating the crises. Some examples: Make advertising to children illegal and begin to address the obesity epidemic; instead of capping credit card fees, establish a public national bank to compete directly with the private banks; get out of NAFTA; use the Bank of Canada’s mandated power to lend to governments at near-zero interest rates and pay down the debt; challenge the outrageous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies by establishing a public company actually dedicated to people’s health and not shareholder profit, and ban the use of antibiotics in animal feed before they become useless and people start dying again from a scraped knee.

Now there’s a party that would have me skipping to the polls.

What’s really at stake in Ukraine?

It’s difficult to know which is the more disturbing aspect of the crisis in Ukraine. Is it the deliberate obfuscation of the truth by Western leaders like Stephen Harper (and their complicit media)? Or is it the truth itself — the casual acceptance by the West of an illegal, coup-installed regime in Kyiv populated by neo-Nazis and anti-Semites?

You don’t have to choose between them. You should be very concerned about both. Democracy is impossible without an informed citizenry and given the effective collusion between the Harper government, the Canadian media and the geo-political interests of NATO, we seem doomed to remain uninformed.

The truth about Ukraine is hard to come by, as it is a complicated country that has had deep divisions for much of its recent history. But the West, which eagerly intervened financially and politically in the protests early on, encouraging ever more radical and confrontational actions, knew these complexities — or should have. On the face of it, if the U.S. and its EU allies knew what they should have known, it seems hard to conclude anything but that Western actions were a deliberate provocation of Russia.

And it’s not difficult to provoke ex-KGB autocrat and Russian hyper-nationalist Vladimir Putin, something else the West knows. It is simply not possible that the U.S., U.K., France and Germany could not have anticipated at least the possibility of Putin’s strong reaction to the events in Kyiv. For Russia and Putin, Ukraine is an existential issue with a relationship going back centuries, yet it seems no one in the West operates from this understanding.

The portrayal of the new government as a reclaiming of democracy lost is laughable. The U.S. and its allies always put great stock in democratic institutions until it doesn’t suit them. As corrupt, inept and autocratic as Viktor Yanukovych was, he was elected in an election that was judged by outside monitors as fair and free. Yanukovych was forced out of office by increasing threats of violence. His “impeachment” was no more legal constitutionally than the Crimean parliament declaring independence from Ukraine. One illegal act spawned another.

But it is the makeup of the new government that should have signaled unmistakably to the West that Russia would never acquiesce to the creation of a regime chock-a-block with neo-Nazi ministers utterly hostile to Russia — and to Russians in eastern Ukraine. One of the first acts of the government was to repeal legislation that allowed for Russian to be a second official language in the east. The new regime is also talking about banning the communist party and that of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, even though it has now disowned him.

Five members of the new cabinet are members of the Svoboda party as are three senior officials. Established in 1991, its members idolize Stepan Bandera, whose followers in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) fought against the Red Army alongside the Nazis. The OUN played the role of policing Ukraine once the Nazis had conquered it and participated directly in the Holocaust. According to journalist Justin Raimondo, the Banderists declared “The Jews of the Soviet Union are the most loyal supporters of the Bolshevik Regime and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in the Ukraine.” When the Germans took Lviv in the summer of 1941, the Banderists sent a message to Lviv’s Jews in the form of a pamphlet that said: “We will lay your heads at Hitler’s feet!” The OUN and the SS arrested and executed 4,000 of the city’s Jews.

In a story dripping with tragic irony, John Baird’s (and Hillary Clinton’s) comparison of Russia’s bloodless occupation of Crimea to the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland is ridiculous. Baird doesn’t need analogies — there are real Nazis here, just not on the side Baird suggests.

And these are the people that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, John Baird and the hapless Liberal Chrystia Freeland shake hands with when they travel to Kyiv to meet with the new government. Did Baird, champion of Israel and implacable enemy of the “new” anti-Semitism, talk to his Ukrainian counterpart about the truly deadly “old” anti-Semitism that infects the new government?

Among the members of Svoboda in the cabinet are, according to Raimondo:

Andriy Parubiy, National Security Council chief and co-founder of the party when it was called (not so subtly) the “Social-National Party.”
Oleh Makhnitsky, Svoboda member of parliament and prosecutor general.
Andriy Moknyk, the new minister of ecology, who has been Svoboda’s envoy to other European fascist parties. Last year, he met with representatives of Italy’s violent neo-fascist gang, Forza Nuova.
Ihor Tenyukh, interim defence minister and a member of Svoboda’s political council. Formerly commander of Ukraine’s navy, in 2008 during Russia’s war with Georgia, he ordered Ukrainian warships to block the entrance of the Russian Navy to the bay of Sevastopol.

Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, now a senior official in the new government, announced in the Ukrainian parliament in the past that the country was secretly controlled by a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” (Jews makes up 0.15 per cent of the Ukrainian population).
The other right-wing group represented in the new cabinet is even more violent and more recently formed — the so-called Right Sector, a militant neo-Nazi paramilitary group that took charge of security in the Maidan. Dmytro Yarosh, the founder and leader of the group, is now deputy head of the National Security Council — the national police. Yorash has indicated that he will reconstitute the police with Right Sector members, whom he boasted had already amassed the necessary weapons. As deputy head of the police it isn’t hard to imagine on whom he might focus his attention and his hatred. According to TV network Russia Today:

“Yarosh has called on Russia’s most wanted terrorist Doku Umarov [The U.S. has a $5 million price on his head for terrorism] to act against Russia in an address posted on Right Sector’s page in VKontakte social network…. The radical leader has been consistently anti-Russian in his statements, calling for the destruction and division of the ‘Moscow Empire’ and openly supporting Chechen militants and Georgian aggression. Yarosh believes Russia is Ukraine’s ‘eternal foe’ and has said that war between the two countries is ‘inevitable.'”

Right Sector also wants nothing to do with Europe or the EU deal, according to Andriy Tarasenko, a party co-ordinator: “For us, Europe is not an issue, in fact joining with Europe would be the death of Ukraine.”

Yarosh announced last week that he will run for president in May.

The notion that the West — whose fingerprints are all over every aspect of this completely unnecessary crisis — could help Russia “mediate” a diplomatic solution with a coup-installed government that includes virulently anti-Russian neo-Nazis, is Western delusion in its purest form. But when the West believes its own lies and rhetoric, its demands become ludicrous. Someone should teach Americans about irony after John Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002, attacked Russia for “invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.”

But the U.S. and EU narrative on the crisis is falling apart, if not in the U.S. and Canada then in Europe. That narrative rests almost entirely on the slaughter of some 50 demonstrators, allegedly by Ukrainian police and at the behest of Yanukovych himself. But this story is turning out to be the equivalent of the weapons-of-mass-destruction narrative that the U.S. and U.K. used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Evidence is mounting that the snipers were actually from the opposition side of the struggle — most likely from the notorious Right Sector.

This account of the killings (which included 27 police, a fact hardly ever mentioned in the Western media) was first revealed in a secretly recorded phone conversation between Catherine Ashton, head of EU foreign affairs and Urmas Paet, the Estonian foreign minister. According to the Guardian newspaper, “In the call, Paet said he had been told snipers responsible for killing police and civilians in Kyiv last month were protest movement provocateurs rather than supporters of then-president Viktor Yanukovych.” Paet told Ashton, quoting a Russian doctor, “What was quite disturbing, this same Olga [Bogomolets] told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides.”

This would explain what appeared to be Yanukovych’s sudden and inexplicable resort to deadly force against demonstrators after weeks of using tear gas and water cannon. Until that orgy of killing the government had been remarkably moderate in its response. For days the police endured scores of fire bombs being rained down on them, and attacks by people protected by helmets and body armour and armed with iron pipes, bats and later firearms — with many policemen badly burnt and around a dozen killed. Still the response was tear gas and water cannon. Police were unarmed. Imagine for a moment how American officials or those in Canada would have responded to similar violent attacks on police protecting government buildings.

The narrative also relies on the characterization of the government as “tyrannical.” Yet the original demonstrations were focused almost exclusively on a decision that was, like it or not, completely legitimate for a democratic government. Yanukovych was openly corrupt and clearly no angel, but to declare him a tyrant because of a policy switch is absurd.

While Yanukovych is portrayed as having “betrayed” Ukrainians by suddenly deciding not to sign an economic pact with the EU, what is not well known is that the pact would have obliged Ukraine to virtually close its doors to expanded economic co-operation with Russia. The EU rejected a Russian proposal for a tripartite agreement that would have allowed Ukraine to balance its economic future. The EU deal also contained a military integration clause which offered a backdoor into NATO — a stunning provocation to Moscow. This was reckless and irresponsible overreach by EU bureaucrats with no appreciation of the history of Russia and Ukraine. It was such an alarming agreement that Putin upped the ante with an offer of $15 billion euros in aid (and likely an end to cheap gas if they refused the aid package).

Let’s be clear — there are no good guys in this drama. Putin is an unrepentant KGB autocrat and his occupation of Crimea is, provocation or not, unjustified and illegal. Yanukovych was corrupt, inept and unpopular across Ukraine. The new government in Kyiv is there illegally and its acceptance of openly fascist individuals into its cabinet gives increased legitimacy to their political parties and to the violence they initiated. While there are violent and organized anti-Semites in western Ukraine, the eastern part of the country and Russia have more than their share, too — and skinheads have been seen attacking the Muslim minority Tatars in Crimea.

The larger geo-political question relates to whether or not the West and its aggressive military alliance NATO really want to have Russia as a partner, or if they are determined to make it an adversary. While it is hard to imagine what advantage the latter policy would be to any player, all of the West’s actions seem to lead to that conclusion. The other possibility — that NATO countries have simply made egregious error after error in assessing Russia’s interests and its role in Europe — may actually be preferable as it at least holds the hope of a correction.

Both Russia and the West are set to lose from this confrontation. But the U.S. is set to lose more from its aggressive stance, which is puzzling given that Obama came to power promising to reset the relationship with Russia. Russia has been a key ally of the U.S. — allowing its air space to be used in the invasion of Afghanistan, contributing major resources to the fight against terrorism and playing critical roles in the current negotiations going on with Syria and Iran. And America’s European allies are dependent on Russia for natural gas well into the future.

Given all of that, we might want to ask Stephen Harper and John Baird just what they hoped to accomplish by comparing Putin to Hitler, recalling our ambassador and generally reviving reckless and ignorant Cold War rhetoric.

But posing such a question is probably pointless.

It seems that every foreign policy opportunity that presents itself to this rogue regime in Ottawa is used to micro-manage some part of the electorate. For Harper it has nothing to do with responsible foreign policy. It’s all about playing the Canadian Ukrainian community. It’s a variation on that old theme, follow the money. With Harper, it’s follow the votes, the state of the world and our reputation be damned.

NDP Needs Big Ideas to Win

Budget days should be days when Canadians are encouraged to imagine the possibilities for one of the richest countries in the world. Not the possibilities of the shopping mall or the offerings of Netflix, but the possibilities of building – or rebuilding – community. At its best that is what government is supposed to be about.

But for the last eight budgets it has been about smothering the national dream of prosperity and equality by systematically starving the federal government. The outrageous tax cuts of the Harper government (and the Liberal’s before that) have had one purpose only: to dramatically reduce the role of government and to redefine Canadian citizens increasingly as consumers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know from years of polling and focus groups that Canadians have a strong and resilient attachment to the idea of activist government – of doing things together. They even by significant majorities of two thirds or more say they would pay more taxes to get the things they want and need. But only if they can get the elephant out of the room – the elephant being the profound level of distrust of government. Ironically, a good deal of that distrust comes from the erosion of public services that is rooted in cutbacks caused by tax cuts.

It seems abundantly clear that no political party at the federal level has any stomach for taking on the elephant by engaging Canadians in a conversation about Big Ideas and the need to fund them. As it stands now whichever party wins the next election will adopt the current impoverished state of our federal government as the new normal.

On February 22nd, in the aftermath of a “boring” budget Thomas Mulcair’s NDP undertook a National Day of Action – a welcome idea that’s been long in coming and has the potential over time to be a political game changer. If developed more and replicated it could be the beginning of moving the NDP away from being simply a campaign machine to actually being, like its CCF predecessor, a movement party engaged in communities year round.

And yet the potential in this first experiment of engaging Canadians between elections seems to have been squandered by the focus of the day of action. How is it possible that the NDP would finally understand the importance of this kind of engagement and at the same time completely abandon any substantive ideas with which to start a conversation? The whole day of action is one huge political contradiction – engaging citizens but only after you have redefined them as consumers.

The theme of the day of action consists of a handful of consumer issues, some of them almost pathetic in their level of triviality. The Big Five issues that the NDP presents are ATM fees, interest rates on credit cards, the usury of the ‘payday lending’ industry, the collusion of the oil companies on gasoline prices and finally – and this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel – the fact that companies add a couple of dollars to the invoices they mail out to customers each month.

The campaign is billed as helping “make life more affordable” for Canadians but these measures do almost nothing to accomplish that goal. The banks’ ATM charges amount to an average of $21 a year per adult Canadian. The extra $2 charge on hydro and cable bills amounts to just over $100 a year. Credit card interest rates are outrageous – but surely a progressive party should at least raise the question of the wisdom of racking up tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards while living beyond your means. If you are going to have a day of action and national conversation why not talk about the real causes of poverty and inequality in this country? As for gasoline prices they should actually be higher (a carbon tax is long overdue) and used for mass transit so that people can get out of their cars. That could be a conversation about climate change and what to do about it.

Every study ever done shows that the best bang for your buck is the taxes you pay. Put your money together with everyone else and you get stuff you could never possibly afford by yourself – Medicare being only the most powerful example among dozens: education, police and fire protection, parks, clean water, mass transit.

Imagine if the NDP had instead of talking about relatively minor consumer issues they had instead decided to have a National Day of Action engaging Canadians on the budget and taxes. While the way budgets are presented and discussed makes them dry and frustratingly incomprehensible, wherever participatory budgeting has been tried there has been a tremendous public response. Give people a real opportunity with accessible information and they always respond.

The NDP could come up with its own information but they hardly have to given that every year the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) produces an amazingly thorough and perfectly doable Alternative Federal Budget.This year’s was no exception and the section on taxes is especially instructive. Over the past 15 years Liberal and Conservative governments have systematically disposed of well over $50 billion a year in revenue through tax cuts focused disproportionately on corporations and the wealthy. While this irresponsible giveaway is framed as spurring economic growth it has failed miserably to do so. Small wonder. Wealthy people are spending as much as they can and corporations are already sitting on over $600 billion in cash they refuse to spend.

The CCPA’s alternative budget replaces most of the revenue lost through tax cuts by measures that are actually quite modest, including: Reversing just half the recent corporate tax cuts to raise $11.6 billion; a new high income tax bracket of 35% for earnings over $250,000 to raise $2.5 billion (it was 80% in the 1960s); close tax loopholes and dozens of tax credits to raise $9.6 billion; a 1% withholding tax on all assets held in tax havens to raise $2 billion (catching the tax dodgers could raise even more); a .5% financial transactions tax – the so-called Robin Hood tax – to raise $4 billion; an inheritance tax on estates over $5 million to raise $2 billion and finally a carbon tax of $30 a tonne to raise a net amount of $7.5 billion (after provision of a green tax refund).

That’s about $40 billion in new – or rather recovered – revenue from modest tax increases that could be sold to Canadians if the NDP actually had faith in the intelligence of the people they hope will vote for them. That $40 billion could have been the basis for a National Participatory Budget Day in which people were engaged on how they would like to spend the money. If you want to reduce the mistrust that people have come to have in governments – and even more so in political parties – what better way than to have them engage meaningfully in defining how government should work.

We live in a fabulously wealthy country – twice as wealthy in real dollars per capita as we were when Medicare was first introduced. Everything we dream of is possible. But it requires a political party with the courage to put forward Big Ideas. Regrettably, Thomas Mulcair and the NDP have opted for small ideas. Canadians won’t be fooled. A recent Ipsos Reid poll asked – in addition to who people would vote for – who they thought would win the 2015 election. Forty-five per cent thought Trudeau’s Liberals will win, 43 per cent believed the Conservatives will emerge victorious and just 13 per cent thought the NDP would win.

Capping ATM fees apparently won’t get you into 24 Sussex Drive. Nor should it.

Has Big Oil Hijacked democracy?

Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.

Benito Mussolini

With the announcement by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) of formal complaints against the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) for illegally spying on environmental groups opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, should we ask the question: are we there yet?

Well, no.

But it is instructive to reflect once in a while on Mussolini’s musings about the true character of fascism. The word itself has become almost unusable given that for years it has been applied to the guy who cut you off in traffic or your neighbour who refuses to silence his dog. And, absent of goose-stepping soldiers and brown-shirts breaking down your door in the middle of the night, people simply don’t think much about fascism. The last infamous Western fascist was the murderous Augusto Pinochet (best buddy of Margaret Thatcher’s).

But while a fascist system may be a long way off, fascist attitudes and behaviour are clearly not. And if we shy away from using the term to describe genuinely alarming and unprecedented trends in that direction then we effectively declare that any new anti-democratic measure, any incremental assault on our rights, is still somehow within the bounds of normality.

Until it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

While media owners, editorialists, journalists and academics periodically rise to the occasion and decry Stephen Harper’s brazen attacks on our institutions, it seems to me that they doth protest too little. The day after the BCCLA announced its formal complaint the media response was generally a big ho-hum. Harper business as usual. Old news.

Harper’s general list of assaults, as bad as they are (and columnist Lawrence Martin has compiled a pretty thorough one here), is different from our prime minister’s genuinely frightening decision to enlist the country’s security apparatus in the direct and immediate service of the oil industry. Nothing like this has ever happened before in Canada.

Paranoid governments in the past have used the RCMP and CSIS to spy on political enemies, infiltrate activist organizations and have even sent in agent provocateurs to tarnish the image of political protest. But to arrange to have intelligence and police agencies, government representatives, a government agency supposedly responsible to Parliament and the Canadian people (the NEB) and corporate executives all sit around a table to explicitly violate not only our democratic rights but the law of the land is a grotesque step beyond.

The open use of government security forces on behalf of private corporations was first revealed in the Vancouver Observer on Nov. 19 last year. Reporter Matthew Millar wrote:

“On May 23, 2013, Natural Resources Canada hosted a ‘Classified Briefing for Energy & Utilities Sector Stakeholders’ in collaboration with CSIS and the RCMP at CSIS’s headquarters in Ottawa.”

Millar’s FOIs revealed just how casual corporatism has become under the Harper regime. The meeting was announced by way of a one page announcement entitled “Classified briefing for Energy & Utilities Sector Stakeholders — hosted by Natural resources Canada, in collaboration with CSIS and RCMP” and was replete with the logos of some of the corporations being briefed, including Bruce Power and Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners who were co-hosts of a reception at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. The breakfast meeting the next morning was sponsored and paid for by Gateway’s Enbridge. The collusion of all these players had been going on for so long (since 2005 according to Millar) that the meeting was billed as any other Natural Resources Canada meeting might be — just business as usual.

The rational for the collection of covert intelligence on environmental groups opposed to the gateway project was protection of the NEB hearings and the panel members conducting them. But clearly no one believed there was a threat. RCMP’s Tim O’Neil, senior criminal intelligence research specialist, reported there was “no intelligence indicating a criminal threat to the NEB or its members… I could not detect a direct or specific criminal threat.” Nonetheless, he delivered the desired, contradictory (and outrageous) prediction: “It is highly likely that the NEB may expect to receive threats to its hearings and its board members.”

Let’s be clear about where the source of these alleged threats: some of the most public, transparent and principled organizations in the country, including Idle No More , ForestEthics, Sierra Club, EcoSociety, LeadNow , Dogwood Initiative, the Council of Canadians and the People’s Summit. None of these organizations have ever been cited for any activity except effective democratic engagement.

As Will Horter of Dogwood Initiative told me, “What we are all doing is exactly what a democratic society asks of its citizens — to get informed, to be engaged, to come together in communities to discuss what’s best for the country. But instead of being congratulated for getting a record number of citizens out to the NEB hearings we are demonized, vilified and spied upon.”

One of the meetings deemed worthy of covert infiltration was a church basement gathering in Kelowna which helped retired seniors make hand-painted protest signs and trained them in story-telling as a communications technique. Virtually any activity of any of the organizations targeted by this chilling cabal would have been equally innocent.

An obvious question poses itself: How far will the Harper government go to neutralize those who oppose the massive expansion of the tar sands? What’s next? Covert conservative operatives trashing the offices of enviro groups? Hacking into computers and destroying an organization’s data? Sabotaging activists’ vehicles? If this sounds far fetched ask yourself how, 10 years ago, you would have assessed the likelihood of the breathtaking violations of democracy that have already taken place in this country.

There is a hint of the kind of escalation the government is already implementing. Seven major environmental groups are now being audited by Revenue Canada to see if they are sticking to the rules limiting political activity or advocacy to a maximum of 10 per cent of their resources. In 2012 Finance Minister James Flaherty allocated $8 million to increase the auditing of environmental groups. He is hinting at more draconian action to further restrict charitable organizations’ activities.

And to further demonize the groups – the David Suzuki Foundation,Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, the Pembina Foundation and several others – Flaherty last week implied they could be connected to international terrorist groups. Challenged on the obvious targeting of political enemies Flaherty shot back:
“There are some terrorist organizations, there are some organized crime organizations, that launder money through charities and that make donations to charities and that’s not the purpose of charitable donations in Canada.” This statement would be laughable were it not so grossly irresponsible. It was clearly designed to create hatred of these groups so that if and when they are stripped of their charitable status there will be enough Canadians suspicious of them to support the government.

Given the pace at which the Harperium is neutralizing democratic rights in this country, wary citizens must now be on guard that the next election is not stolen, one way or the other, by a prime minister apparently committed to dismantling democracy and permanently changing the country.

Standing in Harper’s way are the organizations he is targeting with audits, illegal spying, public demonizing and open threats. Anyone who cares a whit for this country has to commit themselves to preventing this from happening. Should these vital organizations be stripped of their charitable statuses, we, as citizens with a huge stake in the outcome of these battles, must commit to making up any loss of contributions they suffer as a result. And if you are not already giving to them, start now. Our response to Harper’s intimidation tactics being challenged by the BCCLA should be to immediately contribute to the organizations in question.

The fight against Big Oil corporatism may be the most important one you ever support.

Stephen Harper’s Disservice to Israel

The dictionary definition of perverse says (of a person or their actions) “…showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences.” Well, that just about sums up Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s disturbing trip to Israel. If anyone knows why this trip took place – and with the largest “delegation” likely to have ever accompanied a prime minister (almost all of them biased towards Israel) – I wish they would reveal it.

Because otherwise it appears that Mr Harper was intent on setting back the peace process, insulting the entire Arab world, making Canada persona non grata throughout the Middle East and angering the United States government which is trying desperately to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to moderate his positions so as to kick start negotiations.

What did this visit add to Canada’s foreign policy that wasn’t already well established? Israel already knows as do all of Canada’s allies that Mr Harper is Israel’s most loyal and uncritical supporter. In fact Harper didn’t add anything positive to Canada’s position and how this advances Canada’s broader interests is even more of a mystery. The trip actually seemed designed to harden our position against the Palestinians. As many have pointed out it was as if Harper was speaking in opposition to his own government’s stated position – updated on its web site just before the trip.

This was most notable in Harper’s refusal to criticize or even refer to the Likud government’s aggressive settlement policy – the most egregious of Israel’s violation of international law and by far the biggest obstacle not only to a peace agreement but to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Harper refused to comment on the settlement issue saying he refused to “single out” Israel. Given that no other state in the region is illegally occupying someone else’s territory and building settlements on it, “singling out” Israel seems like a strange notion.

But it underlines what many in Israel have observed about Harper’s speech and his fawning support of the Israeli prime minister: that Harper may well have proven to be a good friend of Mr Netanyahu but not necessarily of Israel. Barak Ravid, in an editorial in the Israeli paper Haaretz, stated: “If the Prime Minister of Canada thinks his words in the Knesset will advance peace, it seems that the opposite is true. His speech only served Netanyahu’s repression (sic) instinct and strengthened his feelings of victimization and isolationism that already exists in him. Harper put Netanyahu back months from the standpoint of his attitude concerning the peace process.”

Mr Harper’s speech to the Knesset was the first ever by a Canadian prime minister and that is extremely regrettable. It will be recorded in history as one that did a disservice to Israel, to peace in the region and to Canada’s reputation as a nation with a thoughtful and constructive approach to foreign policy.

One of the most ironic aspects of the speech was Harper’s attack on Israel’s critics and specifically his focus on those who compare Israel to apartheid South Africa:

“Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Now think about that statement. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that. A state based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law that was founded so Jews can flourish as Jews …is condemned in the masked language of anti-racism. Friends, that is nothing short of sickening….”

Either Mr Harper is abysmally ignorant of what is actually said by Israeli leaders in this regard, and is thus incompetent, or he does know is being deliberately mendacious. The comparison is so obviously apt that it is regularly made by senior members of the country’s political elite, most forcefully, perhaps, by Michael Ben-Yair, Israel’s attorney general from 1993 to 1996, who described Israel’s approach to the Palestinian territories captured in 1967 thusly:

“We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities… We developed two judicial systems: one — progressive, liberal in Israel. The other — cruel, injurious in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture.”
The list of senior Israeli officials describing their approach as apartheid includes Shulamit Aloni, who once served as Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert said: “If the day comes when the two state solution collapses, and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights, then as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

But that is precisely what is becoming increasingly likely under Mr Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing regime – and precisely what Mr. Harper’s reckless intervention on his behalf in the Knesset helps ensure. The more settlements are built, the more difficult it will be to implement the two-state solution that every authority (and the majority of Israelis) recognize as the best possible outcome.

As it is Israel has already made the establishment of a contiguous land base for such a Palestinian state almost impossible with its twenty foot wall, scores of settlements and special roads built for the exclusive use of settlers. East Jerusalem is now encircled by settlements, a deliberate Israeli policy aimed at making it impractical if not impossible for it to become the capital of a Palestinian state – another deal breaker for any Palestinian leader who has any hope of being elected.

As the Haaretz editorial stated: “[Harper’s] words blinded the eyes of Netanyahu and the ministers in his cabinet. He gave them the false feeling that everything is okay, that they are right, that if we only stand firm a bit longer, a lot more Harpers will sprout at the heads of the Western powers.”

But they won’t. No other Western nation takes a position remotely like Harper’s (who in his speech actually suggested Israel should have a veto over the establishment of a Palestinian state). In particular, the US is desperate to move the peace process forward and is putting enormous pressure on Netanyahu. What Harper must know, but chooses to ignore, is the US has been redefining its national interests in the Middle East – away from its traditional blanket support for Israel. Israel’s best hope of retaining US support (presumably something Harper wants) is a moderation of its policies. Yet Harper has managed to undermine Israel’s real interests and no doubt anger the US at the same time. This is not how a true friend of Israel behaves.

It’s as if Harper simply discarded his official role as a prime minister of Canada and became a hard line activist for whatever Israel does. Did he even once think of the consequences of his intervention? While he stated it is legitimate to criticize Israel, in fact he adopts the position of Israeli exceptionalism: that Jews went through a unique horror — a horror so unimaginable that no other injustice can compare, nor be used to criticize the survivors, no matter what they do to survive.

Stephen Harper’s concern about anti-Semitism is not matched by a thoughtful or principled approach to it. By encouraging the most right-wing, intransigent government in Israel’s history, Harper helps ensure a powerful global movement opposed to Israel – and that opposition inadvertently provides comfort to anti-Semites. If Mr Harper really wanted to confront the continuing scourge of real anti-Semitism he would recognize that eliminating it and finding a peaceful solution for Israelis and Palestinians has to come from the same place: a passion for justice.

The problem with running government like a business.

The Senate scandal that will continue to plague Stephen Harper when the House resumes sitting is far more than just a run of the mill scandal, of which Canada has had many over the years. This one seems to present the result of an accumulation of rot, amorality, casual thuggery and complete lack of shame, as one politico put it. It feels like we are approaching the end point of the collapse of public morality.

I think it started as soon as the political, business and media elites decided that the new mantra for the state was that government needed to be run like a business. At first blush this may seem like an innocent precept because, as it advocates were careful to frame it, it could mean little more than just running things more efficiently.

But running government like a business begs the question of just what business you are talking about. The mom and pop grocery or Goldman Sachs? The local shoe store or Lehman Brothers? The local eatery or Enron? It does make a difference.

Nigel Wright, Harper’s former Chief of Staff, was the quintessential representative of the corporatization of governance. He was at the top of the PMO, a political, bureaucratic machine for whom the end justified the means — something he had to learn when he was becoming a multi-millionaire businessman on Bay Street. Bullying, lying, manipulating and treating employees and customer alike as so much disposable trash is at the core of the culture of the world’s largest corporations. Import that culture into government and the result should come as no surprise. That Harper would choose a millionaire businessman to run his office should also come as no surprise: Harper’s contempt for government is confirmed almost weekly.

Indeed, the running government like a business crowd never had any doubts which businesses they had in mind as they promoted an agenda which included “free trade” (read corporate rights), privatization, weakening labour rights, deregulation, slashing government services and taxes on large corporations and the advent of the surveillance state. Not only would they run government like a business, they would run government for business.

When I say that the world’s largest corporations adopt an end justifies the means approach I am not simply making a subjective judgment. I am reflecting on the work of Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Fischel, two Chicago law School profs who formalized this principle in the Michigan Law Review in the 1980s and afterward. They argued that “it was the duty of managers to violate the law if it was profitable to do so.” This principle was not restricted to minor violations but to all laws governing corporate practice. For these two law profs fraud, corruption, pollution, price-fixing, occupational disease, and bribery were just “‘externalities’ and related fines and penalties should simply be viewed as the ‘costs of doing business.’”

It took a while, but the notion of law breaking as the fiduciary duty of corporate managers gradually became the new normal as corporations grew into transnational behemoths. And in order to facilitate this new and profoundly immoral approach to corporate governance, boards of directors began choosing CEOs and other senior executives who could apply the principle with a minimum of anguish. Robert Hare, UBC’s internationally renowned expert on psychopathology refers to them as “sub-criminal psychopaths.”

Reading through the hundreds of pages of emails between the various co-conspirators in the senate scandal offers resonance to this corporate-think at every turn. Wright, in fact, saw himself as a manager. His lawyer told the RCMP that Wright’s role was to “manage Conservative caucus members.”

Wright played the role of political CEO as the scandal worsened and threatened to spin out of control. Senate Majority Leader Marjory LeBreton had written a letter saying Senators should have to repay expenses. Wright assured Duffy that he was not pleased and that he had said “all unilateral action from that office should cease before being cleared with me.” He then insisted “To repeat Patrick, no further action from that [Senate leader’s] office at all without pre-clearance” from the PMO.

This casual interference in the workings of the Senate — and the equally casual expectation that it would be immediately complied with — demonstrates how far running government like a business has gone. And, of course, Wright was justified in this thinking. Almost. It turns out there was just one public fly in the private ointment: the young Chris Montgomery, director of parliamentary affairs for Senator LeBreton. He refused several requests to intervene because it would compromise the senators and would involve him interfering in an “independent process.”

Patrick Rogers, another senior PMO staffer, emailed Wright “This is unbelievable…Montgomery is the Problem.” Wright asked if he should come over to the Senate to weigh in — and do what, it could be asked, given that he had no authority. Wright was getting exasperated: “Based on Montgomery’s response it is clear to me that we should brief Senator Lebreton directly. Chris simply does not believe in our goal of circling the wagons.”

At some point it appears that Montgomery succumbed to the PMO’s bullying. But there were others in the mix who didn’t need any persuading — no matter what was asked of them. Carolyn Stewart Olsen promised Wright in an email: “I am always ready to do what is asked…” But she was frustrated, too, in trying to circle the wagons: “The non-partisan nature of the committee is a problem as is the Clerk who seems to have his own agenda. He wants to clean up the place.” God forbid.

In all of this, it is sometimes easy to forget that the issue was three greedy Senators – easy because there are now so many seemingly ethics-challenged players in the game it makes your head spin. Harper’s legal counsel, Benjamin Perrin, clearly informed of all the questionable activity and yet — as the RCMP documents show — not advising against it. The senior partner at Deloitte who did not hesitate to intervene in his firm’s supposedly independent audit at the Conservatives’ bidding. The Conservative bag man, Senator Irving Gerstein, who did his best to subvert the audit process.

The behaviour of this nest of unclean birds fits perfectly with the Chicago law profs’ legal opinion that CEOs have a fiduciary duty to break the law if it is profitable to do so. Getting caught, having to throw your friend under a bus, being repeatedly and publicly exposed as liars and cheats — well, that’s just the cost of doing business. But it shouldn’t be the cost of doing government.

Government is supposed to be different precisely because it operates in the public interest, not the private interest. As others have pointed out recently this distinction seems have been lost elsewhere in the Harper government. It’s not just the three suspended and disgraced Senators who have not resigned — neither have the rest of those who knew of and helped facilitate the PMO scheming. Ministers of the crown now simply refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Again paralleling the senior ranks of the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan executives, ministers like Peter MacKay (who used a military helicopter for a private fishing trip) simply tough it out as if hubris was the modern replacement for honour. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty refused to resign after it was revealed that he intervened with the CRTC to help a constituent with a license application.

Ministers used to take their responsibilities seriously. Liberal Sheila Copps resigned because she broke an election promise and Brian Mulroney’s fisheries minster John Fraser stepped down over the tainted tuna scandal. But in the corporate world of the quick or the dead, ethics is for losers. And when government is run like a business it’s just a matter of time before the infection spreads.

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