Archive for August, 2008

Just saying NO: Support for vice-regal activism may be stronger than you suspect

When I wrote Friday’s Saint City News column suggesting that Governor General Michaelle Jean should follow the example of her predecessor Lord Byng and refuse any prime ministerial request for an election, I assumed that the notion would be considered outrageous by most readers.

Notwithstanding the constitutional soundness and financial practicality of the arguments, I thought it would seem out of tune with the spirit of the era and the popular understanding of our Parliamentary system of government.

So much the better for a newspaper column, of course, since part of the job of the writer is to get readers thinking about how things work, and how they could work.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read in the Globe and Mail today that there seems to be considerable public support across Canada for the idea.

At any rate, the Globe ran one of those little interactive polls on its Website that asked: “Some constitutional experts say the Governor General should never – despite her constitutional powers – deny any request a Prime Minister makes to call a federal election. Do you agree?”

The poll gave respondents three options:

- “Yes, she should call the election if Harper requests it”
- “No, she should refuse it”
- “No, she should tell Harper to face Parliament again first”

The number of respondents was quite high for this sort of poll, 7,365 readers.

Interestingly, while a bare majority, 52 per cent, supported the first option, nearly as many lined up with the idea asking the Governor General to use her powers to prevent a needless and hypocritically justified election. You can read the Globe poll results yourself by clicking here.

While the Globe’s readership may be better educated on constitutional options than the public at large, this is nevertheless a very large percentage of respondents who support an activist role by the Queen’s Representative.

I would not be surprised that with more media coverage of the idea – which we will most assuredly not see in the mainstream media – support would grow, not wither.

While such polls are self-selecting, given that no response seems to have been pushed by supporters or opponents of the government, one suspects that this one is a bit of a sleeper that actually reflects the views of the populace.

So, as I said before: Go for it, Your Excellency!

Governor General should just say no to election talk

This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.

Canada is abuzz with election talk. By the time you read this, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have gone to the Governor General to request that she dissolve Parliament and call an election.

If he does, Governor General Michaelle Jean should refuse his request and use her Constitutional power to ask Opposition Leader Stephane Dion to try to form a government.

You heard me right. This is how our Canadian system works, and there’s never been a better time to use this power.

There are five good reasons why the Governor General – the Queen’s representative in Canada, charged with the responsibility of ensuring Canada has a government that enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons – should use her constitutional “reserve power” to ask the Opposition to form a government.

First, Canadians do not want and should not have to pay for another election just because it happens to be expedient for Mr. Harper’s Conservatives. This is especially so in light of his party’s attempts to sabotage the smooth operation of Parliament and its history of claiming to want fixed election dates.

In the last federal general election on Jan. 23, 2006, Canadians in their wisdom elected a Parliament in which no party enjoyed a majority. The Governor General exercised her vice-regal prerogative and asked Mr. Harper, leader of the party with the most seats in the House, to form a government. It has functioned in a fashion satisfactory to most Canadians for two and a half years.

The Conservatives told Canadians they would bring in fixed election dates, and many voters supported them in part because of this policy. Indeed, when it suited them in 2006, they passed legislation that purported to require an election on Oct. 19, 2009.

But that was then and this is now. With a grave economic downturn rushing at them in Central Canada like a freight train, casualties mounting in Afghanistan and sinking polls, they are desperate to hold an election before their policy chickens come home to roost. So the principle of fixed elections has been conveniently tossed aside.

Hoist by their own petard, the Conservatives are desperate to come up with a pretext for asking the Governor General to call an election while they still might salvage a majority.

This is what is behind the disgraceful Conservative handbook, leaked to the media, on how to disrupt the work of Parliament. It is what is behind the refusal of the senior Conservatives to testify when subpoenaed by a Parliamentary committee investigating election-financing irregularities. And it’s what is behind the Harper’s disingenuous claim that Parliament is not working because of the intransigence of the Opposition.

Second, asking the Opposition to form a government would be an accurate reflection of the democratic will of the people. More Canadians voted for centre-left parties in the 2006 election than voted for the Conservatives. Asking the three centre-left parties to try to work together to form a government would not offend the principles of democracy.

Third, the risk would be small, even for conservative ideologues. Notwithstanding Mr. Harper’s feeble fixed-election-date legislation, Canada does in fact have a real fixed-vote-date law. It’s called the Constitution Act, 1982. It was brought to us by Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Under Section 4, Sub-section 1, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, no Legislature including the Parliament of Canada may sit for more than five years without an election. That is the supreme law of the land.

So even if you hate and fear the Liberals, their chances of their doing too much harm would be limited by the remaining time frame since an election must be held by Jan. 23, 2011. Of course, if Dion were unable to persuade the New Democrats or the Bloc to help him keep his ministry afloat, we would have no choice but to proceed to an election.

Fourth, such a decision by the Governor General is hardly unprecedented. This is precisely what happened in 1926 when McKenzie King, a Liberal, realized that his government was about to fall because of a corruption scandal. He asked the Governor-General, Lord Byng, for an election. On sound constitutional ground, Byng refused and called on the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, to form a government.

Fifth, the next election would provide Canada’s electorate the opportunity to evaluate the alternative visions on which they were so evenly divided in 2006. We would have had two and a half years of the Conservative vision and two and a half years of the Liberal vision. It is likely at that point a clear winner would emerge.

Supporters of Harper’s government would try to paint this outcome as improper, unprecedented and undemocratic. As we have seen, it would be none of the above.

Go for it, Your Excellency!

Has privatization just killed again?

We Canadians have been bombarded for three decades with the myth – the outright lie, really – that the private sector always does everything better than public employees. The good grey Globe and Mail has done a goodly portion of this bombarding.

So it was faintly amusing in a perverse sort of way that the Globe sounded so surprised this morning when it reported as if it were a major scoop that last spring the federal agency responsible for food safety began letting the industry conduct its own safety monitoring.

Whoops! Let the industry police itself and five months later nearly a dozen Canadians are dead from listeriosis, two of them in Alberta. Coincidence? Hmmmm….

It should be painfully (stomach cramps, headaches) obvious by now that letting any industry police itself is not a good idea. Letting food production companies test their own operations is not quite akin to asking the fox to guard the henhouse. They’re not actually out to kill us, and, one can only assume, would prefer that their products not make their customers sick.

It’s more akin to letting the lifeguard watching your kids at the pool concentrate on flirting with girls in bikinis. It’s not that his intentions are bad, it’s just that his attention isn’t where it belongs. In the case of our imaginary lifeguard and our all-to-real food processor, it’s all on the bottom line, as it were.

In both cases, the potential results are deadly. In the case of the listeria-tainted Maple Leaf meats plant, 30 people are sick and up to 11 people dead, six of them confirmed as victims of the bacterial meat. Many more Canadians may sicken and die in the days ahead because this particular kind of food poisoning doesn’t always strike immediately.

It should have been obvious six years ago, when seven people died and 2,300 were sickened by e-coli in the municipal water supply in Walkerton, Ont., after water testing services were privatized and the costs downloaded onto municipalities, that it’s not a good idea to have the private sector provide essential safety testing services.

But the government of then-Premier Mike Harris, like the government of now-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had a cargo cultist’s charming faith in the idea that the private sector is always better than the public sector. No amount of evidence – even a stack of dead bodies – seems to be able to persuade them otherwise.

As a result, your food supply has been less safe since March 31, when unbiased federal meat inspectors were yanked off the processing floor and replaced by company employees.

You should remember this if you’re asked to go into a polling booth this fall!

At last, an argument that might work against ‘getting tough on crime’

A slightly shorter version of this column was published in today’s edition of the Saint City News.

At an all-candidates’ forum during the 2007 municipal election campaign, when I was running for City Council here in St. Albert, I was gobsmacked by a question from the audience.

I’d stayed up late the night before preparing for likely questions about municipal policies and issues on which councilors have the power to act. So when the question flew in from left field, I thought for a moment I might lose the power of speech.

“Where do you stand,” asked the moderator, questioner’s crumpled paper in hand, “on the use of crystal meth in our community?” (My first thought: “Who the heck asked that?”)

I did my best. I mumbled something about being opposed to a punitive approach to a social, psychological and medical problem. Not because I support drug use, obviously, but because punishment is ineffective, often doing more harm than good.

I didn’t feel that was what my questioner – and perhaps others in the audience – wanted to hear. Indeed, polling suggests harsh penalties for crime are very popular. I think the question was a set-up by someone who planned to score some easy points by calling for tougher penalties, more arrests, longer prison terms, mandatory sentences and the like. (Lesson learned. Next time, salt the mix with your own questions!)

So be it. What I said is what I thought, and what I still think.

Indeed, I believe wars on crime are, like war in general, apt to have unexpected and undesirable results. Wars can’t always be avoided, but they seldom work out the way the people who promote them predict. The troops are rarely home by Christmas. Sometimes the enemy wins, as seems to be happening with our never-ending “war on drugs.”

Moreover, while I would never deny crime is a problem, I am dubious about the widely held belief violent crime is getting worse. In mid-July, Statistics Canada reported that the national crime rate in Canada declined a significant 7 per cent in 2007. Crime was down in most provinces, including Alberta. Most serious violent offences – including homicides, attempted murders, sexual assaults and robberies – were down too. Over the past 15 years, the country’s crime rate has dropped more than 25 per cent!

So does it make sense that our federal government’s response to this heartening trend is to “get tough on crime” with discredited policies like mandatory sentences?

Ask yourself: is the United States safer today with more than 1.5 million adult Americans in prison than it was in 1970 when fewer than 200,000 were incarcerated? (Throw in prisoners in local jails, and more than 2.3 million people – one in every 100 American adults – are behind bars in the U.S.! The United States, with about 5 per cent of the world’s population, has about 25 per cent of its prisoners.)* Do you feel safer there than here at home in Canada?

Of course, it’s easy to advocate getting tough on crime. It’s the lazy man’s answer to poverty! It’s less complicated to throw people in jail than it is to address the social causes of crime, even if it costs more in the long run. Plus, it makes for good politics, keeping the public’s mind off more substantive issues. It also makes for profitable journalism, since covering crime is cheap. Wanting revenge is human nature – so what if we end up using jail as a crime college that turns troubled young people into hardened criminals?

Looking back to that campaign question, I think a more effective response might have been to appeal to taxpayers’ basic self interest: their pocketbooks. Because even if our federal government doesn’t get it, it’s starting to sink in south of the border that the prison-industrial complex advocated by the “tough-on-crime” crowd is not only not working, it’s too expensive to maintain.

The U.S. spends $200 billion a year on prisons – almost as much as Canada’s entire 2007-2008 federal budget of $234 billion. Of that astonishing sum, $49 billion alone has been estimated to be the cost of U.S. mandatory sentencing laws.

Put crudely, the more you spend on prisons and prisoners, the less there is for schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, libraries, recreation centres and the other infrastructure and services governments provide best – not to mention tax cuts.

That is why more than a dozen U.S. states – including notoriously “tough on crime” Texas – are revaluating their unsound sentencing policies to keep fewer people behind bars. California, for example, intends to release 22,000 non-violent convicts early to save more than $1 billion.

Should Canada be adopting a failed policy from which the U.S. is desperately trying to retreat?

If social justice, decency, practicality and safer communities won’t wash with voters, maybe the good old bottom line will!

* U.S. “justice” is not just brutal, expensive and ineffective, it is racist. If you are an African American male between the ages of 20 and 34, your likelihood of being behind bars in the U.S. is one in nine!

Stephen Harper’s Tories will leave Canada a little worse than they found it

I have a good friend in Calgary who boasts that he never picks up after his dog. “When my dog poops, it stays where it lays,” he explains. “I don’t care who steps in it!”

Considering who he is, this is a genuinely shocking admission. We’re talking here about pretty much the most law-abiding person you’ll ever meet. He hasn’t had a speeding ticket in more than 30 years, pays his taxes fully and on time, and he refuses to pull into a handicapped spot, even for a minute at 2 in the morning!

What’s with this?

My friend explains that he used to work for a Calgary business that was bought by an out-of-province businessman. The workers got worried about their future and voted to join a union, as is their right under the law in Alberta. What didn’t occur to them until it was much too late was that there really isn’t any labour law in Alberta if an employer doesn’t feel like obeying it.

Now, my friend wasn’t the union type, but he figured, what the heck, his co-workers had legally voted for a union, so he’d stand with them. That was the right thing to do, but maybe not the smart thing for a guy in his late forties with children, a career and debts to pay.

You see, the way it works in this province – and not just in the realm of labour law – is that the law applies to most of us, but it doesn’t apply to friends of the government. Or so my friend sees it. “The company refused to negotiate in good faith. They provoked a strike. They broke every rule and regulation imaginable. The legal authorities did nothing. We heard that they were laughing at us and hoping our lives would be destroyed in the premier’s office. The owners got away with it. They busted our union, got rid of most of us and took our pensions. Nobody gave a damn.”

The bosses’ attitude, he explains, was that they were unlikely to be caught breaking the law. If they were caught, the party in power supported them and the laws were weak – they could afford the penalties, such as they were.

On the other hand, he noted, if the union ever broke a rule, the authorities slapped them down, and quickly.

Now, there’s a concept called “the Rule of Law.” The rule of law is the principle that no one – no one – is above the law. Halsbury’s Laws of England explains the rule of law at length. Here’s an excerpt: “…every official from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen.

“In Alberta?” My friend scoffs: “Rule of law doesn’t exist here, except at the federal level. A friend of the Tories can break any law he wants – if murder was a provincial statute, they’d get away with that!” I know environmentalists right here in St. Albert who feel pretty much the same way about how the province’s laws are enforced.

The federal Conservative minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper hails, philosophically speaking, from Alberta. Harper, an Alberta MP himself, sees the way Alberta does business as a model for all of Canada. They also have a lot of time for the American Republicans – swift-boating, vote-suppressing, lobbyist-pandering and all.

So it is appalling, but hardly shocking, to read in the Globe and Mail this morning that yesterday 11 senior Conservatives failed to show up for a House of Commons committee investigating a controversial election-financing scheme. Two of them refused to respond to a summons, the Globe reported, while several others ran and hid to keep bailiffs from serving them.

Earlier this week, the Globe also reported, three other witnesses who were official campaign agents for sitting MPs didn’t bother to appear despite having been summoned.

This is pretty obviously contempt for the law and contempt for Parliament, too. But then, why not? The government’s on their side. They’re unlikely to get caught. If they are, there likely won’t be any penalties. If there are penalties, they can afford them.

Moreover, the rewards for their contempt may be significant, politically speaking. Without a specific hearing to tie it to, a scandal in which they are implicated may never be reported in the lead-up to a general election by a compliant, lazy, right-wing news media.

In other words, the law is only for little people – like you and me.

Opposition MPs say they want to call a separate inquiry into whether Mr. Harper’s Conservatives actively plotted to obstruct the work of the committee. Good idea. And good luck with it!

One New Democrat MP – not from Alberta, obviously – was quoted as saying the Conservatives contempt for Parliament “sets a terrible, terrible precedent for all future committees if people can … ignore a summons.”

Well, that it does. But that’s the idea. That’s the Alberta way, as my friend discovered to his horror when he went on legal strike in this province and learned that the law has no meaning if an employer feels like disobeying it.

So my law-abiding friend decided that what’s good for the goose is good, in a small way, for the gander. When he walks his dog, what’s left behind gets left behind. “Just like my former employer,” he says, naming a well-known business person, “I’m unlikely to get caught. If I do get caught, I’m unlikely to be punished. If I am punished, I can afford the fine. So to hell with it!

Thanks to my former boss and me,” my friend concludes, “Calgary’s just a slightly poopier place than it used to be.” (Actually, my friend uses a somewhat less fastidious word than “poop.”)

And that’s the problem with contempt for the law and governments that allow it to happen. It breeds more contempt for the law. Unlike rock ‘n’ roll music, comic books and beer sales in grocery stores, contempt for the law really does start to break down what makes a society civilized.

From yesterday’s events, we can see clearly that Mr. Harper’s Conservatives are a party that holds the rule of law in contempt, that believes the rules that apply to the rest of us shouldn’t apply to them.

If Canadians elect a Conservative majority government in Ottawa, Canada will be left a poopier place than it used to be.

I’ve got news for you, Toto: We never were in Kansas!

A letter writer to the St. Albert Gazette wonders what in Heaven’s name (as it were) possessed the Sturgeon Valley Baptists to declare on their church sign “We’re not in Kansas Toto. We’re in Sodom.” The letter writer demanded an explanation.

I’ll tell you right off that I raced to Woodlands Drive, my handy-dandy digital camera burning a spot on the car seat beside me, to get a snap of this message for my small collection of offensive-sign photos. Alas, by the time I got there, the Baptists had moved on. Their sign this morning merely admonished us all to heed God’s warnings. Including the one about Sodom, presumably.

The letter writer wanted to know what the Baptists’ message means, and to whom it is directed. I have a possible explanation: Perhaps they want us to be more environmentally responsible?

At any rate, that’s the message I like to take from the tale of the two unfortunate asphalt-producing towns and their sister cities of the plain: Oil towns beware! This means you, Calgary! You too, Wichita!

Yeah, I know, there are other explanations too – like, say, the one in the Mishnah, which suggests the sin of Sodom was … wait for it … property crime. Or if you want a purely Biblical explanation, Ezekiel 16, verses 48-50, suggests the sin in question may have been overeating, plus pride and a bad attitude toward the poor – more warnings for Albertans and Kansans to heed!

Whatever. You’d expect the Chamber of Commerce of the surviving oil town next door – that’d be Zoar, by the way – to come up with a more palatable alternative explanation than overuse or misuse of hydrocarbons.

Mind you, none of this does much to solve the problem of dealing with people who believe everything in the Bible is literally true. First, of course, it’s pretty hard to accept a single literal interpretation if the Bible offers more than one on the same topic. (See the passage from Ezekiel, above, plus, of course, Genesis 19, all of it, for the traditional explanation of how Sodom went wrong.) Second, the people nattering at you to do this inevitably refuse to take their own advice. That’s the trouble with Biblical literalists: they always they pick and choose what to be literal about.

Speaking of Toto and Kansas, as we were, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament takes a dim view of the activities of the friends of Dorothy, Toto’s mistress. Leviticus 20:13 is your guide if you want to make this point.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, however, whatever you happen to think about that one, Leviticus and its companion books of the Pentateuch are not a good guide to how to conduct yourself in the 21st Century.

For example, do Biblical literalists really believe that we should kill our children if they curse us? (Leviticus 20:9) Or if they work on Sunday at Starbucks? (Exodus 31:15) Or if they become Buddhists or Mormons? (Deuteronomy 13:6-9) If any of them do, and they act on that belief, they can count on a visit from the Mounties and an inconveniently long stay at the expense of Her Majesty!

Likewise, do modern Canadian Biblical literalists think it’s a big deal to plant tomatoes and petunias in the same flowerbed? (Leviticus 19:19 says do not do this!) To wear garments made out of both wool and linen? (Leviticus 19:19 again.) To eat a scallop? (Leviticus 11:10-12) To wink? (The Bible is death on winking. Among numerous references, Proverbs 6:12-13, has this to say: “A naughty person, a wicked man … winketh with his eyes.” So, no winking. Got that?)

There’s plenty more in the Old Testament that’s happily ignored by those who claim to believe the entire Bible is God’s inerrant word. Here are a few more items under the general Biblical ban: charging interest (Exodus 22:25); yoking oxen and donkeys together (Deuteronomy 22:10); or grabbing the private parts of someone who is trying to beat the snot out of your husband (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). (Wives who resort to the last item on this list will be relived to know that the prescribed penalty is not death, merely having the hand they use chopped off.)

Nor is there much relief from this in the New Testament, I’m sorry to report. A commonsense reading of the Gospels indicates that Jesus was in favour of pretty much all of the foregoing rules, except maybe the one about the scallops. St. Paul was every bit as cranky as the Old Testament prophets, except that he didn’t have much time for heterosexuality either.

In other words, if you have an ounce of sense, it’s pretty hard not to conclude that even from a thoroughly Christian perspective most of the specific rules of conduct set out in the Bible reflect the cultural context of the era in which they were written. Biblical literalists implicitly recognize this by the large number of Biblical rules they ignore.

Which gets us back to the case for environmental responsibility. What better Biblical lesson for our times could there be than that we should husband Earth’s resources? If nothing else, we can conclude from this that if we insist on digging up brimstone, we should at least have the common sense not to light a fire on top of it – no matter what we happen to use to strike the match.

So, in answer to the Sturgeon Baptists: No, Toto, we’re not in Kansas. We’re in Alberta. So listen up!

Saint City News column: Bet on it: Liepert’s health ‘review’ will recommend private-sector ‘solutions’

A slightly shorter version of this column appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

Fact: Organizations rarely hire consultants to genuinely study a problem and reach conclusions on the best way to solve it. When consultants are hired, it’s usually to justify the course of action preferred by the people doing the hiring.

Therefore, any conclusion reached by a consultant should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

A whole industry of ideologically inspired “think thanks” has sprung up to provide research that supports the preconceived positions of the people who hire them. You have your Fraser Institute and I have my Parkland Institute. If you want to use “research” to justify privatizing government services, you’ll hire the former, not the latter, because that’s the kind of conclusion they will always reach. Guaranteed.

Now and then, the work of such “institutes” is even methodologically sound, but it is always driven by ideology.

This is not just true of quasi-academic “institutes,” of course, but of corporate consultants as well. It is axiomatic they come to the table with a preconceived position and that any research they do will justify their assumptions.

That is why Albertans should be skeptical of any conclusions reached by the Canadian branch office of McKinsey & Co., the U.S. management consulting firm hired by Health Minister Ron Liepert in July to conduct a 15-week “review” of how public health services are delivered.

It’s suspicious, of course, that Liepert first reorganized Alberta’s health regions, then announced he had hired a consultant to make recommendations on the management of health care. But even if we were to believe the minister’s dismissal of his critics as fear mongers trying “to drag the private-sector bogeyman out of the closet,” we can get a pretty good idea of the conclusions McKinsey & Co. will reach by paying a visit to the firm’s Website, www.mckinsey.com.

If you are stuck in the “reality-based community” and believe the evidence that supports the fairness and cost-effectiveness of the single-payer public health delivery model used by many advanced democracies, including Canada, the opinions and assumptions salted throughout this site should trouble you. On the other hand, at least they show where McKinsey is coming from – and where, therefore, it is likely to go, evidence notwithstanding.

Here are three quotes from McKinsey’s Website:

From an article on “health savings accounts” making patients better consumers: Health plans “that are consistent with efficient markets … force people to make economic trade-offs between consuming more health care and other goods and services. … Consumers have a strong incentive to avoid unnecessary care and to become more cost conscious when they do seek treatment.”

From an article on public sector reform: “Full-scale privatization is of course an option, which has worked well in telecoms and utilities, but governments hesitate to apply it in areas such as education or policing, for reasons of equity, feasibility, and politics. More practicable is to use elements of the private sector through options such as retaining public control of commission services while having private providers deliver them. Examples include … encouraging the use of independent providers of routine operations in the U.K. health care system; and private providers of public schools in Philadelphia.”

From an article touting boutique health care: “The philosophical concern is that catering to affluent patients will diminish the quality of care for those unable to pay more. In reality, the extra services are likely to mean better service for all patients. … Facilities that provide patients with quicker access to care for higher fees … must find ways to counter the perception that non-affluent customers will be disadvantaged as the result.”

This is only a sampling, of course. Any Albertan concerned about health care should spend some time on McKinsey’s Website.

It sounds like the twaddle Alberta Conservatives trot out every time they try to open the doors to delivery of profitable health services to their friends in the private sector. Alleged benefits of consumer choice (cure the cancer, or feed the kids… hmm?), blithe assurances that two-tier delivery of health care means better care for all, and dubious claims of success in such areas as utility privatization all smack of Ralph Klein’s “Third Way.”

The fact is, Liepert is going to get what he paid for. (Though he won’t tell us how much he’s paying.) The upcoming McKinsey report will recommend creeping privatization, boutique clinics and other market nostrums. Bet on it!