We must begin to curb the power of corporations

The revelations of the Paradise Papers, the earlier Panama Papers and numerous articles in the western mainstream and alternative media demonstrate just one dimension, tax evasion, of an increasingly obvious truth: global corporations have become the greatest threat to the planet. The deliberate starvation of government, climate change, grotesque inequality, Dickensian working conditions, environmental degradation, dwindling biodiversity, the slow (or not so slow) death of the oceans and the creation of the security state on corporations’ behalf threaten not only the natural world but our capacity to democratically govern ourselves while maintaining some semblance of civilization.

The advent of the corporate state was truly unleashed when Canada and the U.S. introduced the first “free trade” agreement in 1989. In the 28 years since, hundreds of such agreements have been signed, all of them designed to erase borders for corporations and radically reduce the operational space for democratic governance.

Governments are the only institutions that can seriously challenge the power and reach of transnational corporations: they made them and they could unmake them. Only governments can curb their predatory nature, constrain their contempt for their workers, communities and the environment, and genuinely punish them when they openly break the law as part of their fiduciary “duty” to their shareholders.

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine current governments in any role other than the unindicted co-conspirator which have played for decades. The implementation over 30 years of neoliberal policies by governments of virtually every stripe has liberated corporations, increasingly removing constraints designed to make them accountable to the broader society.

The tax avoidance/evasion tidal wave is just one example. Governments have not only allowed this obscene anti-social conspiracy; they have facilitated it. Much of it is actually legal; in other words, sanctioned by governments we elect. Yet that does not absolve corporations from their responsibility. A recent study by Canadians for Tax Fairness (disclosure: I am on their board) revealed that the 60 largest public companies in Canada have 1,021 subsidiaries in a string of tax havens. Four had none; Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Sun Life Financial have over 50 each. According to the study, “Canadian foreign direct investment (FDI) in tax havens grew from $2.1 billion in 1994 to $284 billion in 2016.”

By now most people know how these “profit-shifting” schemes work. Companies assign profits made elsewhere to tax haven subsidiaries in countries with low or no income taxes. They half-heartedly claim they actually do business in these countries, but the numbers say otherwise. The study shows subsidiaries in non-tax haven countries employ between 1,244 to 2,760 employees per billion in assets; for tax-haven users the ratio is one to 250. In 2014, Canadian corporations held almost $31 billion in assets in Bermuda; their subsidiaries employed a total of 35 employees.

While the Trudeau government has made some moves in the right direction to track flesh-and-blood tax cheaters, it has done virtually nothing to curb the immoral behaviour of so-called corporate citizens. This should hardly surprise us. Over the decades we have watched these ersatz “citizens” develop into the institutional equivalent of psychopaths. This is not a subjective assessment; it is written into their legal DNA by the laws governing corporations. They don’t have social responsibility like ordinary citizens — only the fiduciary duty to their shareholders. They are citizens who live forever; once a corporation has a charter it can’t be revoked.

Twenty years ago, of the 100 largest “economies” in the world, 51 were corporations. I am sure that number is higher now. It was recently revealed that the Royal Bank is now, officially, “too big to fail” — or more to the point, free to be reckless knowing the taxpayer will bail it out.

In attempting to imagine how we can save our civilizations and ecosystems from corporate predation it may be helpful to know that corporations haven’t always had such free reign. In 1809, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that if an applicant’s purpose in seeking a corporate charter “[i]s merely private or selfish; if it is detrimental to, or not promotive, of the public good, they have no adequate claim upon the legislature for the privileges.” Charters were routinely denied and in 1832, Pennsylvania revoked the charters of 10 banks for not serving the public good.

These strict limits on corporations — they could only engage in the single activity described in their charter — began to disappear in the late 1800s. The U.S. Civil War resulted in corporations becoming much more powerful. States competed with each other for corporate investment and their judges systematically eliminated restrictions on corporate charters. They gradually re-interpreted the U.S. constitution and changed the common law to make corporations citizens.

Canada of course, actually started off as a corporate state — the Hudson’s Bay Company — and corporations have always had a cozy relationship with governments here. But it wasn’t until the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that they were considered “natural persons” with the same human rights as you and I. The fight to get corporations to pay their fair share of taxes must continue. But we should set our sights a lot higher. A good start would be to find a compelling case to take to the Supreme Court and have corporations’ “natural persons” status removed. And then put back into corporate law the power to revoke the charters of corporations which violate the public good.

 

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Is Trudeau ready for a Middle East war?

The world is now at the mercy of a coalition of three of the most dangerous autocrats on the planet:  Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s new absolute ruler Mohammad bin Salman, a name that will become increasingly familiar as the months go by. These three “leaders” are now collaborating in an incredibly reckless plan to permanently reshape the Middle East.

The final outcome will unfold no matter what Canada does. But unless the government of Justin Trudeau gets a grip on reality, Canada will be drawn into this potential catastrophe by virtue of foreign policy positions it has already taken. Geopolitics is getting incredibly complex and there is little evidence that the Liberal government has a clue how to navigate through the dangers. The problem is that despite all the hype about “being back”, Canada’s foreign policy under Trudeau and minister of foreign affairs Chrystia Freeland is still characterized by cynicism and ill-considered trade-offs on files within the broad spectrum of foreign affairs — including investor rights agreements like NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Obviously, a certain amount of realpolitik is inevitable and even necessary to protect Canada’s interests. But even so it begs the question of how Canada’s interests are defined. How much of the store is Trudeau willing to give away to buy favour with the U.S. on NAFTA, especially when it seems concessions like putting our troops on Russia’s border has gotten us nothing in return? With Trump and his redesigned U.S. empire, there is no quid pro quo.

The embarrassing “me too” gang-up on Russia is bad enough. The Canadian version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act is a pathetic effort to please the U.S. (EU allies in NATO are increasingly uneasy about Russophobia given their own particular national interests). And Putin can hurt Canada and Canadian businesses more than we can hurt Putin and his oligarchs — and he has promised to do so.

And the Middle East is a whole other question. Canada’s past sins, such as torture in Afghanistan, and the destruction of Libya, can be dismissed by the government as old news. Canada has thankfully avoided getting re-involved in the chaos that is Middle East politics. But with the coming to (absolute) power of the new and reckless Saudi ruler Mohammad bin Salman, Middle East policy is suddenly fraught with danger and risk for any country allied with the U.S. or with any claim to interests in the region.

The new Saudi prince (who has arrested everyone who might challenge his authority) is encouraging Israel to invade Lebanon, urging the Israelis to do what they want to do, anyway: deal a crippling blow to Israel’s most effective foe, Hezbollah. Hezbollah basically governs Lebanon and has its own well-armed force. Funded by and allied to Iran, it fought the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006. It is this fact that prompted the Saudis to force the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; he refused or was unable to curb Hezbollah’s political power. The Saudi government upped the ante saying the Lebanese government would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia.” It ordered all Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon.

For the Saudis, the ultimate target is Shiite Iran and its significant influence in the Middle East and presence, directly or indirectly, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. When bin Salman declared that a rocket attack on Riyadh by Yemeni rebels could be seen as an act of war by Iran, the U.S. backed him up, implicitly giving the Saudi dictator a green light for more aggressive action.

Given the political situations in the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, all sorts of case scenarios are now being speculated, with the potential for a rapid escalation of military confrontations, to the point of risking a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. The first would be an Israeli assault on Hezbollah and Lebanon’s infrastructure. That could be followed by a Saudi-led invasion of Qatar and the removal of its government. While less likely, another confrontation could see the U.S. launch a campaign to seize Syrian territory reclaimed by the Assad regime, on behalf of Israel and risking a direct confrontation with Russia.

All of this could be a prelude to an attack on Iran itself and possibly the use by Israel of nuclear weapons. The rich potential for unintended consequences includes World War III.

If all of this sounds fantastical, consider who currently runs Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu is mired in his own corruption scandal and needs a distracting war to survive. Bin Salman has already demonstrated a stunning recklessness and ruthlessness: the brutal bombing of Yemen (and now a blockade of food and medicine), the blockade of Qatar, and the house arrest of another country’s prime minister. As for Trump (and some of his generals), he seems to genuinely believe that the U.S. is invulnerable, a truly suicidal assumption. All three heads of state adhere to the doctrine of exceptionalism: the normal rules of international behaviour don’t apply to them.

If one or more of these scenarios begins to play out just what will Trudeau do? His government’s policy towards Israel is driven by political cowardice, rooted in the fear of the Israel lobby in Canada. Towards Saudi Arabia, it is driven by sales of armoured personnel carriers, and a blind eye towards gross human rights violations. With respect to the U.S. it is characterized by ad hoc efforts to predict the unpredictable.

If any of this war scenario plays out, Trudeau will suddenly be pressed to come up with principled positions in response and not just political opportunism and calculated ambiguity. And he should take note: Canadians’ attitudes towards Israel have turned very critical, with 46 per cent expressing negative views and just 28 per cent positive views of that country.  As for our proposed $15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, 64 per cent disapprove.

While these progressive attitudes lie relatively dormant at the moment another slaughter of innocents will bring them to life.  Is the prime minister prepared?

 

Can you say, ‘conflict of interest’? Not at the UN

When it comes to measures seriously addressing climate change, Canadians have pretty low expectations. They know that oil companies have the ear of both Bay Street political parties. Just last week, for example, the auditor general went public, exposing the Trudeau government’s refusal to provide the information he needs to determine the level of subsidies we provide to the industry. But we retain some optimism when it comes to the UN. After all, the most credible voice on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It provides scientific advice to governments, who in turn negotiate targets at the UN Climate Conference — the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The problem is that the UNFCC negotiations are being compromised by the very oil giants that continue to create the climate crisis.  These uber-powerful oil companies and groups like the World Coal Association and the U.S. Business Roundtable are allowed into the negotiations at the UNFCCC as observers, and are classified as equivalent to civil society NGOs. They had access to all nations’ delegates, could host side events in the “civil society village,” feature their products in a “gallery” and sponsor the conference.

The result has been a pitched battle at the UNFCCC gatherings between countries of the Global South and environmentalists on one side, and developed counties like Canada on the other, over the issue of conflict of interest. The fight to demand that the UNFCCC establish rules and definitions regarding conflict of interest was led by Corporate Accountability International (CAI), which presented the secretariat with a petition of 500,000 names calling for the exclusion of fossil fuel companies.

The CAI is working in support of a group of developing nations who make up the Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries (LMDC) of more than 20 nations, including China, representing a majority of  the world’s population. The LMDC have been asking the UNFCCC to adopt “a clear, legal, policy framework to protect the objective, purpose and principles of the Convention and the Paris Agreement from conflicts of interest.” 

This request, made in the November 2016 Marrakech meeting, was repeated at the latest UNFCCC meeting in Bonn last May. In response the US (since withdrawn), Australia, Canada, Russia and Saudi Arabia all claimed that they could not see an issue of conflict of interest. The Australians even claimed: “There is no clear understanding of what a conflict of interest is and it means different things to different people.” 

Corporate Accountability International pointed out that Australia does not seem to have any difficulty defining conflict of interest in law for its domestic purposes, that is, someone “has a conflict of interest when the practitioner serves or attempts to serve two or more interests which are not able to be served consistently.” 

Ironically, on that same day the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was meeting in Delhi, India. Its strict rules regarding conflict of interest explicitly exclude tobacco companies from its deliberations. The Tobacco Control Treaty states that “there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.” – article5.3 In fact, a representative of the WHO spoke to the UNFCCC urging them to learn from the tobacco control experience: “(H)eed the remarkable example of the WHO FCTC as a milestone for public health and international health co-operation and know that it’s not an impossible task to prioritize human and environmental health over industry interests.” The plea fell on deaf ears.

In 2016 the climate warmed 50 per cent faster than the previous year, and was the hottest year ever recorded. But in the “hear-no-evil, see-no-evil” world of the UNFCCC, the priority of urgent action on climate change is being corrupted by herculean efforts to accommodate the most powerful corporations in the world. According to Kathleen Ruff who attended the meetings as a Canadian delegate of the CAI, by the end of the Bonn meetings, “the U.S., the EU, Australia et al. had forced the eradication of the words “conflict of interest,”, “integrity”, “reputation”, and “safeguard” from the proposal by the countries of the Global South.”  Members of NGOs requested permission to demonstrate at the Bonn meetings. They were given permission on condition that they “avoid using ‘Stop Corporate Capture’ or any other reference to corporate/companies/private sector or corporations to ensure that the atmosphere of respect during the sessions is maintained.

While turning a determined blind eye to the issue of conflict of interest, the Bonn meeting approved giving “non-Party stakeholders” even greater ability to influence UNFCCC “deliberations on substantive issues” by, for example, giving lobby groups, like the World Coal Association, greater ability to make interventions, provide regular briefings to the parties and set the agenda.

It gets worse. Despite the fact that the conflict of interest issue was the most strongly and passionately raised issue when the role of “non-Party stakeholders” was discussed, the 27-page final report has completely excised it from the record. A word search on conflict turns up nothing. Anyone relying exclusively on the report will have no idea it was even raised.

Canada’s official position contributing to this disgusting display of censorship was contained in its 2016 submission, Enhancing the Effective Engagement of Indigenous Peoples and Non-Party Stakeholders. The liberal-sounding title betrays weasel words about collaboration along-side niceties regarding “strengthened engagement” with indigenous peoples. There was no hint of discomfort with the blatant conflict of interest integrated into the UNFCCC’s protocols. Instead, Canada blithely recognized “the critical role” of the “private sector” in supporting climate change action.

So, the next time you feel confident that at least at the United Nations the global public interest is being defended, remember that our sunny-ways government sees big oil as a partner in, well, curbing big oil.

 

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.

 

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.