Yes, we need to tax the rich

You have to hand it to the rich in dealing with the tax reforms proposed by the Liberals. They didn’t even have to put pen to paper or pick up the phone to protest the taxman messing with their ill-gotten wealth. They got the poor besotted small businessperson to fight on their behalf. In this newly fact-free world it didn’t matter that 80 per cent of conventional small businesses and farmers would be completely unaffected or that the changes impacted only those earning $150,000 or more.

The dimpled face of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in TV ads repeating the outright falsehoods contributed to a win-win-lose-lose outcome: The rich won by not having to play the game, small biz got a tax cut they didn’t deserve, the notion of tax fairness took a hit, as did any real increase in government revenue. The loss in revenue from decreasing the small business tax to 9.5 per cent will likely cancel out any increased revenue from what remains of the tax changes.

As the dust settles, we are left to puzzle over why Morneau and Trudeau chose this particular set of tax loopholes to close when there are so many others that would have been politically popular, would have forced the wealthy to defend their indefensible privileges, and would have brought in far more revenue.

One of the most outrageous giveaways which exclusively benefits the very wealthy is stock options. We lose a billion a year to this scam, which allows corporations to pay their executives with options to buy their company’s shares at a set, low, price. This loophole — the beneficiaries pay tax on just half the gains — also leads to CEOs driving up share prices in the short term to increase the value of their options, while discounting the long-term growth of the company.

The most costly loophole enjoyed by the wealthy is the capital gains exemption. The rationale for this break is laughable as it suggests that investing in the stock market is actually investing in new productive activity. In fact, it is nothing more than a tax break for gambling, which is exactly what anyone who invests in the stock market is doing.

There are other features of the tax system that basically reward people for already being rich — the benefits of RRSPs and Tax Free Savings Accounts accrue disproportionately to the wealthiest 10 per cent. The vast majority of Canadians — for whom these programs were supposedly established — come nowhere near the maximum contribution allowed. Capping the benefits could save billions.

The Trudeau government is now coming smack up against its progressive promises and its political will to find the revenue necessary to keep them. The NDP, with its new leader Jagmeet Singh, is poised to take advantage of any show of hypocrisy by the no-longer-new prime minister. Trudeau has just two years left to prove his metal.

Morneau’s tax changes deserve to be supported even if they were badly rolled out. But for the next round of loophole-closing the Liberals need to be prepared for the high profile and well-funded onslaught. As was shown in two previous efforts at comprehensive tax reform — the 1960s Carter Commission and the 1981 reforms by Allan McEachan — the motivation of a small powerful minority standing to lose real money is much stronger than that of the tens of thousands of regular-income earners whose financial benefit will be minimal.

But it goes beyond loopholes and special breaks. The wealthy in this country can easily afford at least two new tax brackets targeting extremely high income. The myth so firmly rooted in the public consciousness and promoted by the media — that wealthy people create economic growth — needs to be challenged. It is useful to remember that in the late ’50s and early ’60s the highest marginal tax rate was over 80 per cent, and economic growth was nearly double that experienced over the past 25 years.

If Trudeau is looking for allies in taxing wealth and high income he just got a major boost from a highly unusual source: the International Monetary Fund. In a recent report the IMF stated unequivocally, according to The Guardian newspaper: “Higher income tax rates for the rich would help reduce inequality without having an adverse impact on growth.”

The report rejected the claim that higher marginal rates would impact growth: “Empirical results do not support this argument…”

The IMF reported that, “the average top income-tax rate for the rich country members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had fallen from 62 per cent in 1981 to 35 per cent in 2015.”

While it is understandable that the Liberal government is pre-occupied with NAFTA negotiations, it is precisely this crisis on the trade front that should remind the government that 80 per cent of our economy is domestic. That is the part of the economy that the government actually has some influence over.

Trudeau in the election campaign talked a lot about the scourge of inequality. The IMF report stated that, “between 1985 and 1995, redistribution through the tax system had offset 60 per cent of the increase in inequality caused by market forces.” Since that time, inequality in Canada has skyrocketed at the same time that the tax system failed completely to respond.

Trudeau has to realize he can’t deliver sunny days and win the next election without first weathering a political storm.

 

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The corporate assault on science

The fact that science is the foundation for civilization and democracy should be self-evident. Regrettably, that connection seems often to escape our collective consciousness. We tend to think of science narrowly as restricted to high-tech, laboratories, and the development of electric cars or travel to Mars. But everything we do collectively, from Medicare, to fighting climate change, to designing social programs, building infrastructure and tax policy, we take for granted is rooted in evidence, that is, science.

The advent of right-wing populist hostility towards evidence, and now extended by so-called alternate facts, threatens to take us down the dystopian road of the irrational. The spread of this trend in the U.S. — highlighted by the election of Donald Trump as president and the inability of U.S. culture to cope with gun violence — is as much a threat to the future of the human race as climate change.

The trend started in earnest in the 1990s, and it took a long time for scientists themselves to step up and defend their ground. An unprecedented and overt attack on public science by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper forced the traditionally apolitical science community to take a public stand for evidence-based policy. In the summer of 2012, hundreds of demonstrators marched from an Ottawa science conference to Parliament Hill under the banner the ‘Death of Evidence’. Many were working scientists wearing their lab coats. Last April, there was the worldwide Global March for Science in 600 cities coinciding with Earth Day.

The fight back for science and by scientists is one of the bright spots in the resistance against the rise of irrationalism. But there is another dark corner that has not had as much light shone on it and that is the pernicious corruption of science and scientists.

A recent book gives us a major resource for understanding and exposing the sinister trade in lies and obfuscation that results in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths every year. Corporate Ties that Bind: An Examination of Corporate Manipulation and Vested Interests in Public Health is a 450-page, 24-chapter compendium by an international group of scientists about how corporations routinely set out to undermine public interest science — and how they have found hundreds of scientists eager to do their bidding.

Those who consider themselves informed citizens know, of course, that science is often corrupted, with the tobacco industry being the poster child for deadly science fraud. But even the most disillusioned will have their breath taken away by the accounts in this book. One of the most compelling chapters is authored by Canadian Kathleen Ruff (a friend), who led the successful fight against asbestos in Canada.

Ruff documents how the strategy of the tobacco industry was adopted by virtually every other dirty industry eager to hide their toxic products. The advice received by the industry from the infamous Hill and Knowlton was “not to challenge scientific evidence but instead to seize and control it. …declare the value of scientific skepticism… creating an appearance of scientific controversy.” It was a brilliant strategy and is still being used today.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the book are the accounts of how world-renowned scientists working in the public sector (and genuinely in the public interest) casually switched sides giving cover to some of the deadliest industries on the planet. Ruff highlights the example of Paolo Boffetta who for 20 years until 2009 worked for the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer IARC), where he eventually became  chief of Environmental Cancer Epidemiology.

While still with IARC, Boffetta in 2008 accepted a contract with the consulting company Exponent, a firm dedicated to countering critical independent and government research into toxic products. He prepared a paper for the styrene industry claiming there was no increased risk of cancer “among workers exposed to styrene.” The industry used the study effectively, citing Boffetta’s prestigious record with IARC. However, while Boffetta was at IARC in 1994, the agency had upgraded the styrene threat to “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

When research by the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that sugary drink consumption was responsible for roughly 180,000 deaths per annum worldwide, Boffetta’s own mercenary research firm, the International Prevention Research Institute (IPRI), published a review article, funded by Coca-Cola claiming there was “no link” between sugary drinks and cancer.

Ruff writes that Boffetta, still touting his IARC credentials, continues to take on projects defending products that have been judged to be carcinogenic or harmful by agencies like the WHO’s IARC: “whether it’s the issue of dioxin, acrylimides, beryllium, atrazine, formaldehyde, diesel fumes, vinyl chloride, endocrine disruptors, PCBs, continued exposure to asbestos or air pollution caused by heavy metals, Boffetta has come up with the findings desired by the industry.”

The book focuses almost exclusively on the role of corporations in the assault on public-interest science. It details the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry to cover up deadly drugs; the false science supporting the asbestos industry and the tens of thousands of deaths that resulted; the failure of many scientific journals to demand of contributors that they reveal corporate funding and their refusal to withdraw articles revealed to be fraudulent; and the systematic and sustained efforts to destroy the careers of scientists who have dared to simply tell the truth. It has a chapter on “Epidemiological War Crimes” detailing how a mass of German data on the toxicity of many drugs and chemicals was quietly handed over to U.S. corporations after WWII, never to be seen again.

There is also a chapter on that now almost quaint concept of the precautionary principle, the foundation of public health protection for decades that was disposed of under the Paul Martin government by then deputy minister of health David Dodge. The precautionary principle, said Dodge, was not geared to decision-making. “Risk management is about maximizing benefits and minimizing risks.”

It is encouraging to see scientists becoming “political”, because in a capitalist society science can’t be anything but. Yet fighting the overtly irrational is just one step. Scientists have to show similar courage in confronting the corruption in their own ranks. They should all read this book.

 

Finance committee chair Wayne Easter defends the privileged, undermines modest tax reforms

What is it about progressive politicians going to Ottawa only to end up as arrogant and nasty conservatives? My old friend Pam Wallin was one of the kindest people I knew in Regina in the 1970s when she was a member of the Waffle group in the NDP. She turned into one of the nastiest Conservative senators.

And the last encounter I had with Wayne Easter, Liberal finance committee chair, was in 1991 when he (as head of the National Farmers’ Union) and I joined other social activists to demonstrate in front of the Reform Party’s policy convention in Saskatoon.

Now it seems Mr. Easter is mostly in the news when defending wealthy individuals and big companies who are getting away with blatant tax avoidance — or advising others how to do so. He is currently doing his best to undermine his own government’s modest tax reforms by calling for it to “step back” from the reforms.

As head of the finance committee Easter has a lot of clout, which was demonstrated in June 2016 when he suddenly and with the flimsiest of excuses, banned the testimony of critical tax experts called to testify in hearings into KPMG’s role in a major tax avoidance scheme.

Almost everyone is familiar with the KPMG case. The huge accounting firm created shell companies in the Isle of Man for wealthy clients to help them avoid (and possibly evade) taxes. It went on for 10 years before it was finally discovered by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in 2012.

And while the CRA officially concluded that KPMG “intended to deceive” it, the agency then offered secret amnesties to those caught using the scheme. The sleazy scheme was also promoted as a way for clients to avoid expensive divorce settlements.

But when the several expert witnesses on the scheme showed up to testify at committee hearings — as they were invited to do — Easter summarily implemented a gag order. Caving in to threats from KPMG’s lawyers, he warned the witnesses that if they mentioned the Isle of Man scheme and KPMG they could be in contempt of Parliament. The witnesses were furious but Easter was unmoved, stating the matter was before the court and could not be discussed — a position contradicted by numerous Canadian precedents. Later in a TV interview he oozed arrogance and self-importance. He didn’t need to explain it. He was the chair. He could do what he wanted.

Fast forward to today and we find Easter once again stepping up for the privileged amongst us and undermining what are actually very modest tax reforms affecting a small number of Canadians eager to manipulate the system for private gain. Instead of passionately defending these long overdue reforms as just the beginning of fair tax reform, Easter chickened out: “Maybe do a couple of the simpler things that were proposed, like ensuring that there isn’t sprinkling of income to take undue advantage of the tax system.” The rest he would send to an “expert committee” — for a private execution.

Instead of busting the myths surrounding these proposals, Easter promotes them. He knows that only those earning over $150,000 (the wealthiest seven per cent of Canadians) will be affected. He also knows that two-thirds of genuine small businesses earn under $74,000. Small businesses pay only half the lowest personal income rate (about 12-13 per cent) already — a $3.6 billion subsidy from the rest of us. And they have access to 550 different grants, contributions, financial assistance, loans and cash advances, loan guarantees, tax refunds and credits, and wage subsidies. Canada’s small business tax is the lowest in the G7. In fact, it is the gap between this low tax and individual income tax rates that has helped drive people to set up private corporations.

And as for the impact on farmers, there is none: they retain their $1 million capital gains exemption (another huge public subsidy) so they can transfer their farms to their children.

The reforms claw back a mere $1 billion from the tens of billions given away through tax cuts by finance ministers Paul Martin and Jim Flaherty. Those cuts, the vast bulk to the wealthy and large corporations, vaporized $50 billion in government revenue. It is this deliberate starving of government that has smothered child care, pharmacare and other programs in their cribs. If these programs were available, high-income earners would not be so motivated to revert to tax avoidance schemes. What will Mr. Easter do if and when his government introduces substantive reforms like bringing back a sane level of corporate taxes?

It is notable that the same week that Easter was bad-mouthing the mild reforms of Bill Morneau, people were mourning the death of Allan MacEachen. MacEachen was finance minister in 1981 when he brought in some of the most progressive tax reforms ever presented in the Commons. They were met by ferocious opposition from developers, insurance companies and others who were determined to hang on to their lucrative loopholes. Pierre Trudeau caved and demoted MacEachen — one of the most decent and progressive MPs ever to set foot in the Commons.

What a contrast of Maritimers: one a smug defender of the wealthy and the other a man dedicated to equality and fairness. The question does arise: what will Trudeau junior do with Wayne Easter? Will he remove him as finance chair or promote him to cabinet?

 

A new Middle East policy for the West: Get out

For those (mostly Christians) attracted to the idea that the “war on terror” is a clash of civilizations (a poisonous notion guaranteed to foment decades of unrestrained violence), a caution: you might want to consider ignoring the Old Testament injunction an “eye for an eye.” For if there is a moral equivalent to the dead on both sides, an eye for an eye will mean literally thousands of terror attacks like the recent horrific one in Barcelona, where 16 people were killed.

The body count in the West’s criminal assault on Middle East nations is now in the millions. In Syria the death toll is now 470,000. In Iraq, it is a staggering 1,455,590 (not counting foreigners). In Afghanistan, it’s 105,000, including Taliban and Afghan soldiers and police. In Yemen, pulverized by U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia, repeatedly accused of war crimes, the toll is now over 12,000 (including 1,500 from war-induced cholera), mostly civilians. A child dies of malnutrition every 10 minutes. It is impossible to get an accurate count for Libya, which the West turned into a grotesque failed state as a result of its exalted “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000.

Divide that roughly 2 million dead by 16 and you get a moral equivalent that would require 125,000 Barcelona attacks. Hard to imagine? Try imagining the daily horror in these countries with a combined daily death toll in multiples of 16, week after week, month after month, year after year.

And, of course, that doesn’t take into account the many more millions who have been wounded, displaced as refugees, died trying to get to Europe or permanently traumatized by war — categories that include millions of children whose lives will never be the same.

This is what we have done. What our governments have done in our name. And we are still doing it. The West either invaded these countries completely illegally (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) or encouraged and then betrayed dissident movements that our governments knew could not possibly prevail. Or, as in Syria, our governments quickly handed over the revolution to armed gangs and jihadists because they were more likely to prevail against Assad in the West’s goal of regime change. Or in Libya where we violated the UN resolution for a no-fly zone and turned it into an assassination mission.

Does any of this absolve the killers in Paris, London, Barcelona and other places? Of course not. Does it mean that every killer has a legitimate grievance against the West? No. But that, of course, is one of the perverse aspects of terrorism: anyone can become a terrorist by simply declaring membership.

It is stunning that there is almost never any connection made between the terrorist threat, which is very real, and the almost 20-year assault on the Muslim countries of the Middle East. Small wonder then that the popular responses to the terror attacks are almost always completely devoid of any recognition of the context of the slaughter. In response to the latest attack, tens of thousands marched in Barcelona. The theme was “We are not afraid!” The public response in Britain, France and elsewhere was almost identical.

Do people actually think this is a thoughtful, let alone strategic, response to terror? It implies that these attacks are like hurricanes — unpredictable, unstoppable, inevitable. In fact, they should be afraid because more is coming. A more appropriate slogan might have been “Get the West out of the Middle East” — and in fact, a few demonstrators actually made the point about Western foreign policy. They received little coverage.

Canada has been incredibly lucky that it has not been targeted by ISIL. Our contribution to the destruction and humiliation of Muslim countries was our eager participation in the ruination of Libya — a country which had boasted the highest standard of living and most generous social programs in Africa. It is a particularly egregious result of imperial hubris. Libya had done everything the West had asked of it: it co-operated fully with the war on terror, and it radically reduced the size of its military. It also abandoned its nuclear weapons program — a lesson North Korea will never forget.

In contributing to the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi, Canada contributed to the unprecedented refugee crisis which has engulfed Europe. Gaddafi knew exactly what would happen if he were forced from power and said so as Canadian jets pounded his country. He stated, in desperation:

“Now you people in NATO listen to me — you are bombing the wall that stopped African migration into Europe. This wall stopped the terrorists from al Qaeda. This wall was Libya. You are destroying it, you fools.”

Even the Canadian air force pilots knew what the result of regime change would be, knowing full well that the vacuum created would be filled by Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. They referred to themselves as “Al Qaeda’s air force.”

We as citizens face the consequences of our actions every day. If we threaten people or hurt them, we get arrested; if we burn down their house, we go to jail; if we drive recklessly, steal a loaf of bread, or fish without a licence, we face consequences. But our government can join in the complete destruction of a country and it — and we — don’t even get a reprimand.

Our new Middle East policy? It’s simple. We have no business being there, we have no lofty goals capable of being achieved, we have no genuine national interest: we are complicit in a senseless daily slaughter and we contribute to the creation of militants who want to kill us, not for “our freedoms” but because we treat them as less than human. We should just get the hell out.

 

Trudeau’s concessions in Canada-EU deal will hit cities hardest

The trouble with demonizing the leader of an unpopular government is that it gives the next leader way too much slack. I remember writing a column years ago comparing the hated Brian Mulroney with Paul Martin (who more or less ran Jean Chretien’s government). Who was more destructive to the public interest and progressive government? Conventional wisdom would say Mulroney. But, while Mulroney’s “free trade” agreement set the stage for the remaking of Canada, it was nice-guy Paul Martin who did the deed. He slashed federal social spending by 40 per cent, eliminated any strings attached to federal transfers (setting up huge cuts to welfare programs), and implemented the largest tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations in Canadian history.

And now we have Justin “sunny ways” Trudeau who presents as great a personality contrast as one can imagine to the grim and heartless Stephen Harper. And there is no doubt that on many symbolic issues the Liberal prime minister has provided welcome relief from the ravages of the right-wing libertarian Mr. Harper.

Key changes to procurement

But when it comes to the ideological commitment to trade and investment liberalization, Mr. Trudeau is easily a match for his predecessor, cementing the history of the Liberal party as the party of “free trade.” This week he was in Ireland pushing CETA — the Canada-EU deal.

Throughout the Harper era, notwithstanding Harper’s dogged commitment to these deals, the Conservative government managed to actually take a very good position on one enormously important aspect of the neoliberal agenda: government procurement. The ability of the federal, provincial and municipal governments to favour Canadian suppliers of goods and services was protected in NAFTA and all of the many bilateral agreements signed by Canada under Harper. Until CETA.

This was important not just because of the opportunities for local job creation but also for local businesses. B.C., for example, under the NDP, had a program called “First Contract” by which provincial procurement departments could give a first contract to a local company specifically to give it a chance to build its experience and capacity — waiving the normal low-bid rules.

Under CETA that would be explicitly prohibited because for the first time, provincial procurement and that of the so-called MASH sector — municipal, academic, schools and hospitals — will be completely open to procurement competition from companies in 28 EU countries.

What are the implications? According to trade lawyer Roy Nieuwenburg:

“Procurements by MASH entities would become more scrutinized and more susceptible to challenge. MASH entities would have to comply with stringent measures designed to ensure transparency and compliance. Disappointed bidders would have enforceable recourse. Remedies could include monetary awards and re-opening the outcome of bidding processes.”

One example from federal jurisdiction saw Corel successfully challenge the winning government contract bid of Microsoft in a Canadian International Trade Tribunal. It won a $9.9-million award.

Not only would local suppliers of goods and services be disadvantaged in bidding against giant EU companies — and municipal governments disempowered — the administrative burden on small to medium municipalities in dealing seriously with potentially dozens of bids from two dozen countries will be nightmarish.

Another potential victim: a relatively new but rapidly growing sector that is focussed on building up food security through the purchase of local food production. Four provinces — Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia — are promoting the production and purchase of local food. Cities — and MASH sector institutions — are also pioneering efforts to support the public procurement of local food. CETA could seriously undermine these initiatives, which openly favour local producers.

What does Canadian business gain? Not much.

As with virtually all these so-called trade agreements, their zealous proponents in the trade department of the federal government sing the praises of the billions of dollars in opportunities for Canadian companies — billions calculated through economic models with no relationship to reality. Business itself does not share the enthusiasm of this free trade priesthood. According to Matthew Wilson, vice president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, very few Canadian companies are anywhere near ready to take advantage of access to the $16.5-trillion EU market. The numbers tell the story: of approximately one million small and medium businesses in Canada just 10,000 currently export outside the U.S.

But the kicker in the whole procurement part of CETA is that Canada already has complete and open access to the EU’s MASH sector. Unbelievably — and inexcusably — Canada gave unfettered access to this sector and got absolutely nothing in return. In fact, the Europeans were so dumbfounded by their good fortune they were almost giddy. In an EU document analyzing CETA, the authors all but called Canada a complete sucker — stating they had won concessions far beyond their expectations:

“As regard market access the Canadian offer is the most ambitious and comprehensive Canada has yet made to a third party. For the first time Canadian provinces and municipalities will open their procurement to a foreign partner going well beyond what Canada has offered before.”

Municipal representatives should be shouting from their rooftops about this assault on their economic and social development authority. Where is the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on this issue — and where have they been all along? Do the mayors of Canada — especially those of the large cities where the first challenges are likely to arise — have any idea of the implications of CETA? If they do, they seem inexplicably quiescent.

The Trudeau government could have nixed the procurement chapter but chose not to. Is there a chance that the new kid on the block, B.C. NDP premier-designate John Horgan, might throw a last-minute monkey wrench into this destructive machinery?

I know you’re busy, Mr. Horgan, but this act alone could establish your legacy.

 

Liberals’ massive increase in defence spending is a budgetary coup

The arrogance of power could scarcely be more dramatically demonstrated than by the tag team of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announcing that Canada was going to cave in to Donald Trump’s demand that we spend two per cent of GDP on defence. We will be increasing military spending by 70 per cent over 10 years — an obscenity when so many social needs go unmet. Not only does this make a mockery of Trudeau’s election pledge to return to Canada’s historic peacekeeping role but surrenders to the absurd one-size-fits-all NATO imperative. Nothing has changed internationally to justify such an increase. There are no existential threats to Canada on any horizon. As Trudeau said in March, Canada more than pulls its weight in NATO: we are the sixth-highest spender in NATO and 16th in the world.

Giving Freeland the opening role on the announcement raises the question of her disproportional position in changing Canada’s defence posture. Her contradiction-filled foreign policy speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday suggested that Canada is going to somehow fill the vacuum left by an allegedly isolationist Trump regime. In her statement Freeland declared: “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course.” Really? Just how do we do that by caving in to Trump’s demand that all NATO members pony up? In fact, the increase in spending — $14 billion over 10 years; $62 billion over 20 — represents a clear loss of sovereignty, abandoning our right to make decisions in our national interest in order to please a rogue U.S. president.

Exactly what kind of global leadership does Freeland think we are now missing? Given that she spoke almost exclusively about defence spending, presumably she thinks that a less military-interventionist Trump requires more intervention from Canada. But intervention where, exactly? Our last enthusiastic intervention — celebrated by our last prime minister — was in Libya. That “humanitarian” project resulted not only in a failed state but also in the creation and arming of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees to Europe and, indirectly, the terror attacks Freeland rightly describes as “monstrous.”

U.S. “leadership” is known by another name in scores of countries around the globe: U.S. imperialism. In the last decade that term has gained widespread acceptance by the U.S. political elite where it used to be righteously denied. Does Freeland believe that the illegal war on Iraq is an example of U.S. leadership? Would she, unlike Jean Chrétien, have joined in? What about the slaughter in Yemen? Going back a bit further, would Freeland see the literally dozens of U.S. interventions to overthrow democratic governments and install dictators the epitome of U.S. leadership?

The notion that anything Trump says can be taken as rock solid American foreign or defence policy is laughable. The man is willfully ignorant of anything outside his New York penthouse and incapable of formulating, let alone implementing, a coherent policy. While he Twitter-rants, real decisions are made by others. The U.S. has not announced the closing of any of its 800 military installations around the world. Trump is going to go along with the military’s request for thousands of more troops for Afghanistan. And what kind of isolationist president increases military spending — already at $600 billion — by $54 billion?

The increase in military spending announced Wednesday will turn the Defence Department into an unabashed War Department, with Harjit Sajjan playing second fiddle to the militant Freeland. Just what existential threats does Canada face? The terrorist threat is handled by our intelligence agencies and police. Russia and the U.S. are the only two countries in close proximity and whether we have 65 jet fighters (Stephen Harper’s plan) or 88 (Freeland’s plan) will make absolutely not one iota of difference. With respect to the Arctic, where there are conflicting interests, it is obvious to all parties that negotiation is the only possible strategy.

But, of course, it’s not about defence. It’s about war. If we look at the planned spending it seems clear that we are gearing up for more Western adventurism, using NATO to prop up a failing finance capitalism by military threats. Freeland stated: “Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes requires the backing of hard power.” She has a duty to explain exactly what that means in the areas she listed as the focus of hard power: North Korea, the civil war in Syria, the Islamic State, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Freeland’s stated goal of “peace and stability” will not benefit in any way from an additional $14 billion in war materiel.

It’s hard to say which is the most outrageous aspect of this budgetary coup by the foreign affairs and defence bureaucracies. The transparent rationalization for the spending is simply shocking. Equally disturbing is the complete lack of a mandate for such an increase: it was never mentioned in the election and erases the Liberal election commitment to peacekeeping, it doubles down on Harper’s aggressive foreign policy, and was done without consultation with Canadians.

There will be blowback to this military build-up. Young people played a major role in electing Sunny Ways Trudeau. They might want to ask how it is Mr. Trudeau can find billions more for war fighting but nothing for reducing the crushing weight of tuition fees. They have the political clout and passion to put him on notice that this is a dealbreaker. Let’s hope they use it.

Jagmeet Singh and Niki Ashton: A choice of flash versus vision for the NDP

As the mainstream pundits are putting it, the NDP leadership race just got more interesting with the declaration that Jagmeet Singh, an Ontario NDP MPP, is in the race. He has real charisma and would break the white-only leadership barrier for the first time.

There seems at first glance to be little in the way of major policy differences between the four candidates who preceded Singh in the race. While all are smart, able politicians with a solid understanding of the issues, there seems to be scant recognition of the need for the NDP to distance itself from the Layton-Mulcair period wherein the party decided to go for power and made the inevitable rush to the centre to do so.

The Liberals won that race and now have an almost unshakable grip on the centre. The overarching purpose of the NDP is perhaps the most important issue of all and it’s not being debated. Will the new leader follow in the footsteps of Mulcair and his political whiz kids and go for the ring or will they decide to reinvent the party as a principled, unabashedly left-wing party eager to actually challenge corporate power?

The two candidates who stand in greatest contrast on this all-important issue are Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and newcomer Jagmeet Singh. Singh is eagerly poised to fill the role as the man who can take down Justin Trudeau (literally it turns out, claiming his mixed martial arts would be too much for Justin) and become prime minister. He oozes self-confidence but gets close to being a bit too attracted to himself. He doesn’t quite refer to himself in the third person, but he gets close, as in this Toronto Star interview: “If people see that I’m dynamic and exciting and approachable, that’s a good thing.”

But while charisma is an important aspect of leadership it has to be matched by policy depth and transparency. Singh is famous in Ontario for his expensive, perfectly tailored suits and his brightly coloured turbans. But he is a provincial politician with no experience in federal government issues. He has been given an easy ride by the Toronto Star (no friend of the NDP) and has even been featured in the Washington Post.

But his flash fell short when he was interviewed by CTV’s Evan Solomon. After saying “Glad to be here, man,” Singh looked very uncomfortable when Solomon pressed him three times on his position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. He dodged it three times, falling back each time on a nearly identical rehearsed answer: “We are going to come out with a comprehensive plan…” He similarly dodged a question on whether he would support retaliatory action against the U.S. for its softwood lumber tariff. When Solomon pressed him on what kind of leader he was going to be, he fell flat, suggesting that he was not ready for prime-time questioning.

Singh’s discomfort with these questions (and one on immigration levels) reveals a politician who is a bit of a blank slate. In fact, there is a certain irony in his eagerness to take on Justin Trudeau — another politician who, when he went for the Liberal Party leadership, seemed to have few ideas of his own. The other candidates have been immersed in these issues and their positions seem rooted in personal conviction.

When you haven’t developed a clear vision of the party you want to lead, you end up relying on others, which is exactly what Trudeau did — and it’s largely why he has broken the specific promises he has. They were never his in the first place. It begs the question with Mr. Singh: who is he going to rely on for his vision of the party and the country?

One of the people he is relying on is none other than Brad Lavigne, Jack Layton’s and Tom Mulcair’s strategic genius — you remember, the guy who thought it was cool to work for Hill and Knowlton, the people who brought you the first Gulf war. While Lavigne is only a volunteer and there are other people advising Singh, there is little doubt that Lavigne will be hard-selling the “we can win” Kool-Aid again.

Niki Ashton is about as different from Jagmeet Singh as you can get — about the only thing they share is that they are both young. Where Singh has given no sign of how (or if) he would rebuild the post-Mulcair party, Ashton has been clear that she wants to transform the party into a movement. Whereas Singh attributes the loss of the 2015 election to the fact that Mulcair didn’t “connect emotionally,” Ashton’s take is more substantive:

“In the 2015 election, we allowed the Liberals to out-left us. In the last little while we have lost our sense of being a movement. …We need to reconnect with activists and community leaders who share our same values …We need to build the NDP as a movement for social, environmental, and economic justice.”

While we have to wait for Singh’s answers to fundamental questions, Ashton’s answers seem instinctive but rooted in policy depth. She has served as NDP critic for Aboriginal Affairs, Status of Women and Post-Secondary Education and Youth. As the NDP’s critic on Jobs, Employment and Workforce Development she led a countrywide, 11-city tour engaging young people on the issue of precarious work faced by millennials.

Perhaps the strongest symbol of Ashton’s boldness is her stance regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. After posting support for Palestinian independence she was, of course, subjected to the knee-jerk bullying from B’nai Brith which “demanded” an apology –which it never got. Under both Mulcair (a proud Zionist) and Layton, the party was terrified of the issue. As I detailed in this column a few months ago, Canadians’ views on the conflict are clearly in line with Ashton’s.

Jagmeet Singh might well be the ideal candidate to continue the party’s centrist quest for power. He has charisma, he’s a social media star, young people love him, and breaking the white-only barrier is a very attractive proposition and would be a huge step forward in Canadian politics. If the party wants to try for a quick comeback in 2019 they could certainly do worse.

But if the party wants to rebuild, return to its social democratic roots and show the boldness that will be required to seriously challenge climate change, inequality, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and peace in the Middle East they will need to take the long view and build a movement. That’s Niki Ashton’s pledge though she would have to take on the party establishment to do it.

We’ll just have to wait to see what NDP members decide they want their party to be.