Sunday, August 31, 2008

Italy compensates -- Libya

Many former colonies, now independent states, have said for years that their colonial masters owe them compensation for the years of plunder of theier country's resources. Now, at least one country has owed up. Surprisingly, it's Italy.

Italy ruled Libya (illegally) from 1911 to 1947. It was then under a UK / France trusteeship until it gained independence in 1951. After all this time, Italy finally agreed to pay €3.4 billion -- about $5 billion -- which will be released over twenty five years.

It's the right thing to do, but it does set an interesting precedent. For one thing, Italy will almost certainly get the contracts for energy development as well as the construction of a trans-Libya expressway, going from Tunisia in the west to Egypt in the east.

For another, it raises some uncomfortable questions. Does the UK owe its former colonies compensation, including the wealthier ones -- Canada and Australia, for instance? Does the US owe anything to the Phillipines? Or Australia, Papua New Guinea?


Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why it may not be Oct 14th

Man, either the press couldn't really care about the Jewish vote -- or Stephen Harper doesn't. Don't most calendars denote Jewish holidays as well as the secular and Christian ones? If anyone had bothered to check, they would have noticed something.

Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles, falls this year on October 14th (or more correctly begins at sunset the night before); which just happens to also be the day that many think will be Election Day in Canada. And for observant Jews, working on that day even as volunteers or poll workers -- even going to the poll to cast a ballot -- is considered verboten.

There are quite a few religious festivals in October this year, as it so happens, and since election law requires a Monday vote (unless a public holiday which would make it Tuesday, hence the speculation about October 14), any Monday is bound to offend somebody.

Last year, the "fixed date" election in Ontario had to be moved one week so as to accomodate the Jewish festival Shemini Atzeret. Surely we can wait one more week, no matter how bad Harper's government may be.

After all, Jews may make up 1.1% of the population in Canada, but with 20 million registered voters that means potentially 220,000 lost voters. And in an election where many districts could be decided by hundreds of votes, we can't afford to disenfranchise an entire group based on religion. Otherwise, that group will go to the advance polls (as Steve has snidely suggested they might have to); and they'll vote against the incumbent party that insulted them in massive numbers.

So my guess is, we're looking at October 20th. Then again, maybe Steve thinks he doesn't need God's chosen people, the very people he's been trying to court for years. If the GG goes to Beijing for the Paralympics after all (or not), then we'll know what his election strategy is.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sarah Palin. Sarah Who?

Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, is John McCain's choice to be vice-president. A lot of the "pundits" expressed surprise over this. Actually, she was on my short list of possibles -- given the number of disgruntled Clinton voters who were peeved that Hillary was passed over for the veep spot.

She's pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-gay marriage. She does support benefits for gay couples and she's a "hockey mom" as well. She has five children, the youngest, born in April, has Down's Syndrome. She clearly appeals what used to be called the "new traditionalist."

Downsides: She's very pro Big Oil and has no real issues with the rape of her state by unscrupulous developers. Unlike her opponent, Joe Biden, she has virtually no foreign policy experience and the way the event went today it almost seemed as if McCain is setting her up to be his sacrificial lamb.

After last night's speech by Obama, a lot of the Clinton delegates were clearly won over; even some Republicans expressed surprise at Obama's ability to close the deal. Of course, a couple of thousand is not 18 million so we have to see what will happen. But when those cracks in the glass ceiling turn into chards and crumble back down, it may smack into McCain's dream of becoming the oldest President ever. A great choice -- it would have been if there wasn't a recession or a war going on. But Palin will be part of the national dialogue for many years to come. I'm certain of that.

If I was McCain, though, and I really wanted a woman as running mate -- I would have chosen Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, or former Hewlett-Packard chief Carleton Fiorino.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Obama: McCain the 10% change candidate

Barack Obama hit one out of the park last night with his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium. He pretty much covered all the bases that needed to be. I do think that the Democrats pushed it too far in the after show; the fireworks last night were way over the top -- this is a nominating convention, after all, not a victory party; and there are still fighting people in Iraq, a civil war Obama has promised to get America out of.

Multiple issues were discussed but the key promise was Obama's plan to get America off of Middle East oil in ten years. This provides a bit of a loophole for him -- he can still rely on imports from "friendlier" countries like Canada, the UK and Norway but it also opens up the possibility of oil from Venezuela which is acting anything like a friend to America right now.

He was also merciless at McCain, which he had to be. He made fun of his opponent's promise to hunt OBL to the "gates of Hell" when he was unwilling to find him in the caves of Afghanistan. Absolutely right -- I don't believe the Bush Administration nor the senior leadership in the Senate and House at the time (both parties) were ever serious about finding OBL; and the price the world paid was Bali, Mandrid, London and recently almost Toronto.

Still, for me the highlight of the speech came towards the end when he reached out to social conservatives with this:

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. But this, too, is part of America's promise -- the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.

Later today, we find out who John McCain's running mate will be. It could be a big surprise, but Obama clearly set the agenda when he defined the underlying issue as change versus experience and that McCain is only a 10 percent change.

The fact is, three times America has faced true and not manufactured crises of confidence -- at the dawn of the Republic when it was still reeling from Shay's Rebellion and no one was sure whether the Constitution drafted in 1787 could actually work; before the Civil War when James Buchanan was so unconcerned about possible Southern secession that he actually had the temerity to say that he was the last President of the United States; and the Great Depression when the formerly compassionate conservative that was Herbert Hoover (he saved New Orleans the last time it was flooded out) suddenly turned around and said that the business of the country was business.

In the first case, America chose the most visible leader of its independence to begin the new era. In the next two, the incumbent party was trounced big time and new ideas allowed to flow through. This is one of those years again, and one can only hope Obama doesn't blow it. He needs to fight back at every attack unlike John Kerry who just let the Swift Boaters do the damage without reacting before it was too late.

Oh, the other thing ... I had to laugh a couple weeks back when James Dobson of "Focus on the Family" asked his listeners to pray for "abundant, torrential" rain so Obama's outdoor show would be ruined. It was clear as a bell last night -- and instead there's a hurricane bound for, surprise surprise, New Orleans. This doesn't mean God is a Democrat, but it also proved He sure as heck ain't a Republican either. Sow the wind, reap the whirwind.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pay and ride and pay

The Toronto Transit Commission appears to be serious about getting people out of their cars and onto public transit, all the way. So much so that the long-established "free" parking lots at subway stations for holders of the Metropass will no longer be free starting next year; it will cost between 2 and 6 bucks a day depending on the location of the lot.

It's the right move, in my opinion, because transit passengers shouldn't be subsidizing the operation of the parking lots. But it will only cause havoc at points where it's impractical to have paid parking -- in particular the lots at Yorkdale in the north end of the city and Scarborough Town Centre in the east. Both are major shopping malls and the lots remain open even after the malls close; since the stations which are still open until the wee hours are actually inside the mall or have passageways to them. Also, commuters use these as an alternative to the pay or Metropass only lots, causing major jamming on the platforms and leaving less parking for those who actually shop. It will get worse.

As Hamilton moves closer to deciding on either bus or rail transit (and it looks like it will be the latter despite the greater cost), we'll have to make a similar choice about the bus terminals at Eastgate, Limeridge and University Plaza. Do we make these long standing free lots paid ones?

Maybe we should so that the downtown Jackson Square is no longer at a competitive disadvantage; but that in turn will only give hay to the power centres in the Meadowlands, at Rymal and Centennial, and the new one being built to replace Centre Mall. Traffic patterns, and commercial development as it currently exists, could be extremely disrupted -- and people will be travelling even further to shop, the exact opposite of what we're trying to do with rail transit which is to bring people back to the corridors.

But we really do need to get out of our vehicles, regardless of what city we're in. Maybe GO Transit should also do the same and go on a pay system for their lots. After all, you pay by the hour if you park at the train stations for the commuter lines going into New York City and Los Angeles.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

John Rallo FREE?

I was barely just shy of four years old when it happened, but I have a memory of it and it still sends chills up my spine. The name John Rallo in fact sends chills up the spine of nearly every Hamiltonian with a conscience. Except for John Rallo himself. In August 1976, Rallo smashed his wife in the face, strangled her and dumped her in the Welland Canal; then smothered his daughter Stephanie and dumped her naked body in Jordan Harbour; then finally disposed of his son Jason and made sure his body would never be found.

He was quickly arrested and summarily convicted on three counts of murder one. Through several parole hearings he has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Yesterday, however, the National Parole Board suddenly had a change of heart and ordered him moved from the federal prison in Gravenhurst to a half-way house in Sudbury.

That's right, folks. They gave a child killer DAY PAROLE.

This cold-blooded, heartless, amoral motherfucking prick of a cocksucker shithead, who clearly did it, who knows he did it and has never apologized for it -- not even shown a hint of remorse or regret -- and he gets what is effectively a get out of jail free card?

The Parole Board members who did this should be fired on the spot. Because they did not do their jobs. I don't give a fuck if he is a so-called model prisoner. Or that he was six years past the mandatory twenty-five. You get out of jail because you've shown genuine remorse, give a real apology and try to make amends to the family that you wronged. You don't go tiptoeing thru the tulips and "playing like the rules" like Colin Thatcher has for twenty-five years -- in fact, he got out two years early before his twenty-five year sentence was up.

If he can prove -- prove -- he didn't do it, then maybe there may be a case. But as long as he can't say where he buried his son, his son for God's sake, he should continue to rot in jail.

People in Sudbury should know a killer is on the loose in their community. There are no amends for this child killer. He should have been kept in jail until God decided his wretched time left on this planet was up.

John Rallo -- go fuck yourself. I'll say it a zillion times if I have to.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

IINO (Independent in Name Only)

So Russia is now claiming that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are free countries independent of Georgia. Oh really?

It is a fundamental principle that a nation state cannot exist as being truly that without international recognition of its status. For example, Turkey claims that North Cyprus is an independent state but it is understood that it is a breakaway region of Cyprus as a whole and more or less under the control of Turkey -- and there is pressure to have Cyprus reunited as a condition of Turkey's application for admission to the EU to be taken seriously.

Another example are the former bantustans in South Africa, which were really puppet states to segregate black people and run under even more repressive conditions than existed in the main country during the apartheid era. It was also an excuse to allow vices that were prohibited by the Pretoria regime -- casino gambling, for example, at Sun City. When apartheid fell, the casino was allowed to continue to operate.

A sovereign state can only be such if it exercises its own sovereignty without assistance, or where the United Nations is required to defend it, only for a limited period of time until it can assert itself. This is not like the situation that existed with the Vatican which had no territory to rule over of from 1870 to 1929 (and which during that time refused to recognize the existence of Italy which surrounded it). Nor is it like Taiwan, which continues to view itself as the legitimate ruler of all China (and which China, in turn, continues to view as a renengade province); a situation even dicier when most nation states treat it as sovereign for business purposes but as having no status or a part of China for diplomatic reasons -- China, after all, has Da Bomb.

Kind of complicates matters, doesn't it -- when nuclear deterrence can be used to solve global issues? I'm sure Putin is itching to punch the button to get rid of one of his enemies once and for all -- innocent civilians be damned.

Can one compare this situation to Kosovo? Hard to say. One cannot forget that Stalin was a Georgian and during his rule he swapped provinces between republics like some switch player trading cards. Russia still chafes at losing the Crimea to the Ukraine. Since they can't get that back, they feel they need some more liebensraum. Just like when Hitler wanted the so-called Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to "protect" the German minority in the country. Only Russia has a shrinking population, and plenty of space out in Siberia.

Because Abhazia and South Ossetia are recognized to be part of Georgia by the vast majority of the world, although they are currently effectively under the control of Russia, they cannot be independent. If Russia is effectively exercising the sovereignty, it is in fact an illegal occupier -- and has illegally annexed the two provinces which belong to Georgia. It doesn't matter that a majority of people there may want to be independent. Unless the rest of the world accepts the fact, it can't happen and it's not going to as long as both the US and the EU maintain a common front on this issue. Canada should also refuse to recognize this charade.

No appeasement, period. The Russian troops must completely withdraw from the two disputed territories. If -- and only if -- they do withdraw from Georgia and become actual parts of Russia, then Georgia must be compensated for the loss. This could be tangible or intangible means.

Oh, and another thing: In all the appearances the Georgian President has made, he flies the EU flag next to his desk alongside the Georgian one. Legally he's not supposed to do that -- Georgia is not a member of the EU. It is not even a candidate country. He should stop pushing it and put the circle of stars away.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Monday, August 25, 2008

PMS kills C-484

Who could have believed it? Back in February, I wrote a couple of angry blog posts about Bill C-484, a draft law which was so poorly drafted that it would have raised more questions than it answered about what kind of reproductive policy we should have in Canada. Finally, some sense from the CPC as the leadership finally decided to kill C-484 and in its place introduce legislation that would make attacking a pregnant woman an aggravating circumstance in sentencing, instead of treating the death of a fetus as a separate offence.

A few other bloggers have commented. Here's my perspective. It's the right thing to do, although I feel this way for somewhat different reasons than my colleagues.

How do I square dropping C-484 with my pro-life beliefs? Simply in the fact that if we are to assign person hood to an unborn child, it should be done explicitly and not with weasel words that open up a court challenge that would, inevitably, result in the judiciary striking down the law as "void for vagueness" and sending Parliament back to the drawing board yet again. C-484 was such a weasel law in my opinion. How it got through second reading and through to committee I don't know (although some backbenchers stated they only voted "yea" at that stage because of their belief all private members bills should get a fair hearing; they were going to vote "nay" on third and final reading); but in my opinion it was a bill that should have been either tabled (i.e. struck from the order paper from further consideration) or at least seriously amended to meet Charter muster.

A wise woman once said that "Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt." We Canadians deserve clarity in our laws, not doubt. Where there is doubt about what a law really means, the law cannot be said to have validity.

I have said before, and I will say again, pregnant women are in particular need of protection for all the obvious reasons. They carry a life (or potential life, depending on one's perspective) and if the mother has decided to carry the fetus to term she should have every expectation that her person shall be free from interference.

I do find it bizarre, however, that the Cons decided to introduce their own bill rather than endorse Bill C-543, a Liberal bill that would have addressed precisely the concerns so many of us had about C-484. Guess admitting the truth about something doesn't come easily to some.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Is our food supply chain safe?

The current listeriosis outbreak has really gotten out of hand, so much so that Maple Leaf ™ Foods in addition to recalling at least 220 different products has temporarily suspended its usual advertising campaigns and in its place is running a 60-second public service announcement apologizing for the tragedy and assuring its customers that it intends to make sure it never happens again. That didn't help its stock price which was down over 9% by midday today.

How telling is this scandal? When I went to a Timmie's in downtown Hamilton today, they had signs posted there and at other locations around town assuring patrons that its sandwich meats and cheeses are not included in the recall. But it does make me wonder about other places that may use bulk ingredients in their restaurant servings.

I credit the company for acting relatively promptly, acknowledging the issue, and taking full responsibility for its actions. The kind of candor shown by the company's president, Michael McCain, is extremely rare in the corporate world. The fact remains that it did happen and at least four people are dead and two dozen seriously ill.

The other problem is that since Maple Leaf has such high standards, and this still happened, the pressure will be on to eliminate the minimum government standards as the Cons want to do (and as I wrote about the other day). But let's suppose for a minute the damage is irreparable. If a company with such a high regard goes, what would the next highest standard be? Would it be close to what existed, the minimum government standards, or less?

It's kind of like automobiles and trucks. A vehicle cannot be legally sold unless it can take a head-on or side impact of at least 60 km/h, or 35 mph in such a way that the passengers survive the crash even if injured. The insurance industry says that's not good enough -- that a concussion is not acceptable. They do their own testing at 70 km/h or 40 mph and offset crashes which they say reflect the real world then give grades on whether the passengers (i.e. dummies) are injured at all. The companies that have "fail" or "poor" grades always reply that they meet the minimum standards "set by the government."

But which vehicle would you buy? The bare minimum, or the insurance standard? Moreover, ask yourself, would the insurance industry even bother with the exercise if there were no minimum standards, which is what I think auto companies probably would prefer?

I believe that if there were no minimum standards for food safety, Maple Leaf might not be taking the extraordinary steps it is because they'd have no reason to set the bar even higher.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Do we really want an election on abortion?

Earlier today, I received a comment about my post about the attempt by some social conservative organizations to get the Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, impeached from the bench. The anonymous writer tried to make a point about how Stéphane Dion and his wife Janine Krieber have an adopted daughter because they couldn't conceive. The writer then speculates whether this was because Mme Krieber made one too many trips to Henry Morgentaler's abortion clinic -- and whether Dion really wants to make abortion an election issue.

Let's take these one at a time.

First: Even a pro-life person should cringe at this allegation, which I consider to be scurrilous. Even if it's true, it's a red herring and an out of line character attack. Besides, when the Parti Québécois came into power in 1976, they decided to stop enforcing the then abortion law in Québec creating a legal vacuum. Are we really going to accuse Krieber, and every other woman in the province who had an abortion, of breaking the law when the Sûreté du Québec was told not to enforce the law?

And second, if abortion is going to be an issue in the coming election, it will be social conservatives who make it so -- not their opponents. And I think most voters here will tune it out. The vast majority of Canadians support a politically independent judiciary, even if we don't always agree with their decisions or the rationale for them. More importantly, we have other major concerns, particularly bread and butter ones as we head into recession.

It never ceases to amaze me that the neocons who most fiercely oppose abortion also oppose improving or even having the income support programs lower and middle income mothers need to help raise their children especially in the first seven years of life. Or having subsidized day care, whether on a means-tested or a universal basis. Or funding after school activities, or nutrition programs -- which help children concentrate and do better in school, and in turn lowers the rate of juvenile delinquency over the long run.

But if it will be a vote on so-called family values, then fine. My vote will be for a leader who values families, not just one who kisses babies on the hustings for show. There's a difference. The election call may be as early as next week. Bring it on.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It's Biden

By the middle of this past week, it was pretty obvious to many observers that Barack Obama was going with Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). The fact the Exempt Media finally figured it out more than two hours before Obama sent out his text message also kind of bites. In the end, I think Biden's an outstanding choice although I think Obama's hand may have prompted by circumstances in the current world situation particularly in Georgia and Pakistan.

Had it not been for those surprises, Obama might have gone with Tim Kaine (for the Catholic vote) or Kathleen Sebelius (for the women's vote). Biden, having been Judiciary Chair and now Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, gives Obama some badly needed gravitas.

Biden also knows how to speak his mind, and call it like it is. Unfortunately, that means he can shoot off his mouth at times -- like when he called Obama a "clean African-American" earlier this year, or when he said that one couldn't buy anything at a corner store in New Hampshire unless he or she was East Indian. (True.) And who can forget twenty years ago when he was caught plagarizing the UK's Neil Kinnock, who ran two unsuccessful PM bids for the Labour Party.

I think many undecided voters will look past those faults. The fact he takes public transit to work every day (he rides Amtrak from his home in Wilmington to Washington, DC) as well as that he has a negative net worth right now, will put him right at home with many Americans in similar straits. Obama needs an attack dog as well, and Biden's experience with both Judiciary and now Foreign Relations gives him just that.

Obama-Biden. Kind of has a nice ring to it.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Friday, August 22, 2008

When companies self-regulate, we lose

Lawyers, physicians, accountants. Notwithstanding all the jokes surrounding those professions, we put so much faith and trust in them that we have allowed them for the longest time to be self-regulating. Since they understand ethical behaviour and the disrepute visited upon the entire profession when a crackpot violates professional standards, we don't need the government to tell them how to do their jobs.

Food inspection is not the same. In the bad old days when there was self-regulation (i.e. no regulation at all) people died from tainted and mishandled food in far greater numbers than what we would expect today. Some poor results still occur every now and then -- tainted tuna, mad cow disease, and the current outbreak of listeriosis -- but generally speaking, we trust our food supply chain to be safe. Why? Because of strict government regulations, including in many cases federal or provincial food inspectors with dedicated offices right on site of processing plants.

No surprise then that the Cons, according to a leaked cabinet document, want to turn over management for food inspection to the agri-food business itself. Actually, it wasn't really "leaked" per se -- it somehow ended up on a government website which could be openly accessed by anyone.

I'm not the only one to note that many on Team Harper were also on Team Harris, which was in power during the tainted water scandal in Walkerton which killed seven and made over 2000 others sick. Part of the blame was because of the lack of specific water quality standards and a way to review them. The result is that we're now paying double and then some for water, what we did just a few years ago, to get our systems up to standard. But it's a price worth paying.

I'm not against streamlining inspection rules, nor am I against giving the food industry a say in how that should be done. They pay corporate taxes as well as inspection fees to the government so they have every right to be involved in the process. Less bureaucracy helps both industry and government in the paperwork burden. In fact, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was created a few years back for precisely this purpose -- to eliminate duplication within the federal government on this file, as well as to try to coordinate with provincial inspectors.

But consider if we allowed the auto companies to do absolutely what they wanted, we wouldn't have fuel economy and motor vehicle safety standards; in fact vehicles wouldn't have seat belts, let alone air bags. Death tolls from high speed accidents would be far greater.

If we allowed steel and aluminum plants and chemical plants to do what they wanted, we'd have far more smog days -- and we have enough of them already in the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Basin with regulations. The numbers of people with respiratory illnesses would be much greater.

If food companies police themselves, many more people will die. And bottom line, people won't trust the food they eat. It's that simple.

I don't mind paying extra within the price of food at the supermarket or general store to have this reassurance that the stuff I consume meets a standard which is far higher than where the agriculture and agri-food business would like it to be. The claims that industry may have higher standards than what the government requires is bunk -- the moment those minimum standards go away, the push will be to push internal standards to levels even lower than which had been required by the government.

It's worth noting, this is being planned as a "cost-cutting" measure. This, from a government which has chosen to starve itself of taxes and is going into deficit on purpose, to get Canadians to accept even more cuts in social programs. To quote The Who, we won't get fooled again.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

93 plus one

Three engineers with the Canadian Forces were killed by a roadside bomb today. That makes the total number of personnel wearing the Maple Leaf KIA 93 since 9/11 -- 94, if you include the one civilian killed in the line of duty, a diplomat.

This has been a very bad week for NATO. Earlier in the week, 10 soldiers from France and 3 from Poland were also killed. I suppose, indeed I know, casualties are the price of war. But we've now been involved longer in Afghanistan than the fronts in either Europe or the Pacific during World War II, and the results have been far less than satisfactory.

It's a double edged sword -- we absolutely need to smash the terrorists, particularly in Afghanistan. But we have also seen no net gains in that front nor in development. As we creep up to the morbid total of 100, it will become a pre-election and election issue as it seems we may have a general election in November or December.

We've made a commitment to be there until 2011 and we should of course keep it. But people will also demand that Afghanistan not become a money pit, and it is up to the incumbent government to explain why we haven't met our goals of diplomacy and development as well as defence.

But talking doesn't seem to come easy to the hawks in the Harper government. Without compromising national security, surely we need to have assurances that we're getting our money's worth -- and so far, we haven't gotten any of that.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where's the safety snitch line?

A former employee of Sunrise Propane, the company that owns the plant that exploded the weekend before last in Toronto, said that he saw practises there that were unlike any in the propane business that he experienced. Set aside the fact the facility was practically right in the middle of a major residential neighbourhood.

The major flaw, the employee claimed, was that most propane plants have several emergency cut off switches. This plant had only one -- obviously, if someone had to run across a patrol yard to shut off a problem he or she would never make it. Also, tanks past their expiry date would be filled (they're usually around ten years) and full tanks would be put in the trunks of cars, an obvious violation.

The employee says he was laid off last winter. After this incident he quit. So why didn't he report the problems? He didn't want to lose his job.

We have snitch lines for child protective services. We have them for unsolved crimes. We have them for unsafe drivers.

So where's the snitch line for violations of workplace and technical standards? People shouldn't have to fear losing their positions for telling the truth. The law also allows people to refuse to work if they feel conditions are unsafe. This is where workers' compensation boards, where they have a dual capacity promoting workplace safety as a preventative measure, need more teeth. They should be able to say, it doesn't matter what the technical or electrical standards authorities have said -- you're going to fix the issue now, or you're shutting down until it is fixed.

Zoning laws are certainly an issue, but even siting these facilities a hundred kilometres away from the nearest city won't mean a thing if the plants are still unsafe.

Everyone has the right to be safe. In particular, at the workplace. It's not just the immediate workers whose lives are at stake.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Like the Lower East Side is BETTER, Clement!

One of the few bright spots during the rule of Mike "The Knife" Harris here in Ontario was that of his Health Minister, Tony Clement. He was a mostly competent Minister, serving in the Transportation, Environment, Municipal Affairs, and Health portfolios. It was in the last job that he stood out during the SARS crisis, one of those who helped to keep level heads in a really dangerous situation.

But that was then, and this is now. Last night, he made an uncommonly stupid remark. He questioned the ethics of physicians who support the InSite safe injection site for drug addicts in Vancouver.

I don't approve of drug abuse, naturally, but I would ask the current federal Health Minister what scenario should doctors support? Addicts on the streets, using dirty needles and spreading disease, with no community intervention whatsoever? Or a safe place where there are medical professionals on hand just in case a patient passes out? I agree with the principle "First do no harm" and doctors should do what they can to reduce and eliminate harm, but doesn't that also include a duty to alleviate the harm risk in a controlled environment and not the wilds of the Lower East Side?

We should be doing everything we can to help addicts kick their addictions permanently. We also need to deal with the root causes of addiction. Until we deal with both, we need to offer a bridge. That's why we need 24/7 safe injection sites, not just needle exchange programs and "vans" that patrol the streets late at night.

If this has something to do with "cleaning up" Vancouver's image for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it's not a valid argument. Progressive societies that ofter alternatives such as InSite usually have less drug abuse than restrictive societies with "zero tolerance" like the US and Singapore.

Oh ... not that it matters much to this discussion, but Clement also handles FedNor, the Federal Initiative for Northern Ontario, one of those "regional disparity" agencies along with the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency and Western Economic Diversification. Wouldn't it be better just to shut them down and have their services provided by the Business Development Bank of Canada, the BDC? Such agencies are just an excuse to have larger and larger Cabinets when we should have smaller ones running the country. The US seems to get by just fine with only 15.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bye bye Pervez!

Earlier today, Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, offered his resignation rather than face an impeachment trial. Good riddance.

If anyone thinks he did this to "save his country," don't believe it. He did it to save his pension, and since he was in the military he'll collect a pension from them too -- a classic double dipper. The amount he'll get will still be thousands of times more the average salary in the country.

It's also worth pointing out that despite free elections, Pakistan is still far from a democracy. The military still very much runs things and can, if it wishes, overthrow both the new Prez and the Parliament and bring it back to dictatorship. And since OBL is still on the run, and the military supports him too, don't expect an end to the war in Afghanistan any time soon.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

One, two, three ... four

So the Cons think they can get away with it again -- according to Kady O'Malley all Con candidates are being required to sign a contract compelling them to accept any services that may be rendered by the national party and also to agree to non-disclosure; ensuring yet another firefight with Elections Canada if they attempt "in and out" once more.

And Stephen Harper has called another by-election even though a general election is almost certainly in the offing this fall.

Yes, Jean Chrétien of the Liberals pulled this one off in 2000 -- held a couple of by-elections late in the year, one of which was to make sure Joe Clark, the rechristened Progressive Conservative leader, had a seat in Parliament (in arguably one of the safest seats in the country, too); then pulled the plug for a late year election after presenting a mini-budget with income tax cuts that Clark openly supported. Not that Chrétien needed it as he knew he was going to get a majority, the third in a row, something that hadn't happened since Mackenzie King in 1945.

But it's easy to do something like that when you already have a majority and a relatively popular government. When you're the Prime Minister and you have a minority government, scheduling three by-elections for one day then suddenly calling another one for two weeks later is both cynical and risky. Cynical because he's forcing an extra bureaucratic burden on Elections Canada which would rather do all four at once so they don't have to burn the midnight oil on two Mondays within a fortnight of each other.

I just don't buy that John Godfrey's decision to not hand in his resignation until August 1st led to the split dates. When a seat becomes vacant, the PM has to issue a writ for a by-election to fill the vacancy within 11 to 180 days of the vacancy. Therefore the writ could have been issued on August 12th, and the by-election still held on the same day as the other three, September 8th.

Risky, because the results of the by-elections could definitely swing the balance of power against you -- a clean sweep would give the Liberals a net gain of one and the ability to join with any one other opposition party to topple the government. It's almost like bating, goading the opposition to vote no confidence and force a general election. The voters in those four districts will very well have reason to wonder why they're voting twice in less than three months.

My sense is that Stéphane Dion has been biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. He's had his caucus abstain time and again, inexcusably in my opinion; but perhaps he wants Canadians to see what Harper is capable of doing while running a minority government to show what could happen in a majority situation where a right wing PMO would have absolute power. And lately with all the security breaches, the clownish behaviour of Cons at the Ethics Committee, and a ho-hum shrug about the declining economy, Dion may have had his hunch proven.

Of course, the by-elections would be cancelled if the government falls even a single day before the first ones on September 8th since they would be superceded by a general election. Harper could prorogue the House for another Throne Speech, again, but that would only be shooting himself in the foot further. If he wants to engineer his own fall, then he should just go to the GG and call a general election, now. Otherwise, Dion should serve notice of a no confidence vote to happen on the earliest possible date possible. Kady O'Malley's disclosure last night has just given him another reason to do so.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Chief Justice of Canada smacks down socons

While I said why in a previous post why I thought Henry Morgentaler probably should not have been awarded membership in the Order of Canada (nothing to do with my pro-life position, by the way), I also accept the reasons given by the judging committee that sifts through the dozens of nominations that go before it. Nominations, it's worth pointing out, are actually made by ordinary Canadians and not the "elites" as alleged by some in the social conservative movement (if you don't believe this, here's the form from the GG's website).

According to the GG's office, about 700 to 800 nominations are received every year (though it doesn't say how many are repeat nominations). About 1 in 10 make the cut so to be invited into the Order is indeed a true honour.

I predicted some would resign from the Order in protest, and some have indeed done so. However, I was outraged to learn some social conservatives had applied to the Canadian Judicial Council to have Beverley McLachlin, the Chief Justice of Canada, removed from the bench. Why? Because McLachlin is also the chair of the committee that vets Order of Canada nominees.

My colleague at Bouquets of Grey shows how the claimed groups are actually less so because of double and triple store fronts -- all related to Canada Christian College. This is the tactic used by the US-based Parents' Television Council to bombard the FCC with dubious form letter complaints about "indecency" on TV, which a US appeals court called them out on last month when it threw out the "wardrobe malfunction" ruling by the broadcast regulators.

A couple of issues. First as Buckets points out a related group, the Evangelical Association, credentials anyone who has $50 and "promises" to take classes at CCC as a minister. This should raise hackles from the Vital Statistics Agencies of all the provinces, which traditionally has insisted on a university diploma in divinity or religious studies to be granted a license as a minister (which license can, among other things, allows the minister to perform both religious and civil wedding ceremonies). We expect professional standards from a minister which is why we license them. I want a real priest or minister to officiate at my wedding whenever it happens and insist on credentials that could be verified. Or I'd go before a judge. Otherwise, I'd rather have a Quaker wedding (where there are no ministers, just an exchange of vows before witnesses) than one officiated by someone who "graduated" from something akin to a diploma mill or had the perception of being one.

And second, as my other able colleague Impolitical notes, the protestors don't have a leg to stand on. It's not just because it's only Parliament that has the right to remove Section 99 judges like the Chief Justice (by a majority vote of both Houses of Parliament). If the Canadian Judicial Council actually accepted the claims of the socons and referred the matter to Parliament (something it's done only a few times before) it would send a chill because it would be the first time someone was sanctioned for what they believed, not actual conduct on the bench or a blatant conflict of interest.

The only two times in recent history the Judicial Council made such a recommendation was once in the 1990s (can't remember the specifics, but the judge resigned before a trial could be scheduled) and once just a couple months ago regarding a judge who issued a restraining order about the reconstruction of the St. Clair Avenue streetcar line in Toronto when it turns out he was also acting as an advisor to the group trying to stop the dedicated right of way -- and failed to recuse himself due to the conflict of interest. The decision, made by a panel of three judges and two lawyers (one prosecutor and one defence lawyer) and chaired by former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Clyde Wells (now Chief Judge of the province) is currently being reviewed by the council en banc. If the full council affirms the findings, it will go to the Château on the Rideau. Now, if Parliament accept the finding such allegations are true, that is indeed definitely something that should result in impeachment and removal of the judge. I'd go further in suggesting the Law Society should disbar the judge from returning to the practice of law.

Regardless of the merits of a particular case, an impeachment trial would tie up the business of both the House and Senate. If that's what the socons are hoping for with McLachlin, they fail to recognize that, ironically, that is precisely what the same socons object about when they complain about the Opposition Parties' slowing down the business of Parliament (when in fact it's the ruling minority government that has tried to slow down committees where the bulk of the work is done, as my colleague Sabina Becker notes).

It's also because, according to McLachlin herself, she takes her role on the Order of Canada committee seriously. So much so, that she recuses herself from voting on new members or promotions within the order unless there is a tie, which she has had to do only once. She made clear that she was not involved in the Morgentaler vote.

From the Montréal Gazette:

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin distanced herself Saturday from the controversial decision to name Henry Morgentaler to the Order of Canada, saying she was not the driving force behind the move and intentionally abstained from voting on whether to honour the abortion doctor.

McLachlin, as head of an advisory council that selects Order of Council recipients, shed light on the secretive process as she spoke for the first time about a debate that has persisted since Morgentaler's July nomination.

Canada's chief justice told a news conference she "made a personal policy decision" almost a decade ago to avoid getting involved in appointments by promoting any candidate or voting for their investiture.

"My view is that I'm there to make sure that the meeting runs well and fairly and that the vote is taken fairly and not to weigh in for or against a particular candidate."


McLachlin, who as a judge must be viewed as impartial, spoke of her struggle to reach "an adequate comfort level" in her role as chairwoman of the advisory body, which makes recommendations to the Governor General.

"I do it because by law I'm required to do it. It's not something I chose to do," she said at an annual gathering of the Canadian Bar Association. "I feel reasonably comfortable in the process doing it the way I have outlined that I do it, not getting involved in promoting a particular candidate, or advocating for a particular candidate or voting for a particular candidate or against."

McLachlin decried the "misinformation" that has been publicly circulated about her personally promoting Morgentaler. She also disputed news reports that it was unusual for the advisory council to vote on a candidate and that the group usually reaches a decision unanimously.

"There has been no practice of consensus," said McLachlin. Rather, the group routinely votes on a nomination and she said she has only voted once to break a tie.

This, you would think, settles the issue. I think it will from the perspective of her fellow judges as well as the regular lawyers who sit on the review panel. It certainly won't from that of socons, however. They'll say, let's just make sure we GOTV to ensure a majority in at least the House -- then we'll bully the Senate to go along with us.

Canadians will see such subterfuge for what is it. A blatant attempt to undermine the judicial independence that makes us one of the least corrupt countries in the world. We don't want, nor should we even desire, a politically responsive judiciary like exists in Mainland China or Saudi Arabia.

The Judicial Council should simply dismiss the complaints as what they really are, political interference, out of hand. Good on McLachlin for calling them out. And for the record, I would defend any judge, liberal or conservative, as long as they stuck to the accepted codes of conduct for judges and didn't make up their own rules as socons want "their" magistrators to do.

As for Stéphane Dion, all I can say is: These front groups for the Conservative Party (often operating with different hats from the same addresses, as proven) should be all the reason you need to pull the plug when Parliament resumes. We Canadians can no longer tolerate the schenanigans we've had to endure the last two years. America has been held hostage by the religious right, and we can't allow that to happen to Canada either. Stand up for Canada ­™, sir. Bring on the election.

UPDATE (9:27 am EDT, 1327 GMT): Just to clarify an important point so I'm not misunderstood: I would not have an issue with an evangelical minister officiating at a wedding if, as it turns out, I wind up getting married to a "born-again" woman -- the only proviso I would insist upon is a real university degree with real credentials. I simply have no tolerance for those who have "doctorates" or even a bachelor's degree from an unaccredited institute. And there are more diploma mills out there than those cited by critics.

It's those factories that put out many of the "leaders" we see out there, that discredit the good name of true evangelical Protestants; and they and their products should be ashamed of themselves.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

How frightening is this?

I've been looking for this for years. Finally, no less than Russell Oliver himself posted it on his YouTube page. You know, the guy in Toronto with the cheesy commercials offering cash for used and unwanted jewelry.

It was late August 1997. He demonstrates a "purchase" of bling-bling from an actress playing Princess Diana. I saw it late on a Saturday night -- just hours later Diana was dead.

I know, this is really morbid ... but I have to admit, before we all learned the terrible news, I got a huge laugh out of this.

My father went there once. He didn't sell a ring he had -- although Oliver's assistant actually offered a lot more than I thought would be offered.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Leaky, leaky, number nine

The security breaches under the rule of Stephen Harper keep piling up. The war game plans that were left at a minister's girlfriend's apartment. The blueprints for the new headquarters of the military's anti-terrorism platoon. And now, found on a rainy Ottawa street, a sensitive document from Environment Canada detailing the risk assessment for its database of those who violate pollution laws -- and saying, quite plainly, the system itself was at risk of being hacked by corporations or by environmental activists, making the prosecution of offences next to impossible.

The clearance level of the documents was "Protected B" and not "Top Secret," but clearly not meant for public consumption. The status requires a forwarding and return address -- and neither, it seems, was on the envelope either. Again, as before, what if Al Qaeda or another undesirable group got its hands on the information?

Stuff happens, Harper will no doubt say.

But isn't it interesting that we have a government that keeps citing national security to not explain its entire agenda, and can't keep a handle on keeping important day to day materials that do affect our national security and public health, under wraps?

There's a time to be open and a time to be discreet. Harper and his team seems to have gotten the two concepts mixed up on numerous occasions. A failure to admit when one is wrong also continues to be a pattern of repetition with the incumbent government in Ottawa. This, too, is something the opposition parties should pounce upon when Parliament resumes sitting -- or at the election that he seems so willing to call now.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Edwards the cad

The more I hear about John Edwards, the more I wonder why he even got into politics in the first place. He has been a fine advocate for dealing with poverty issues which especially hit families hard, but was far less than grand in his conduct when it came to his own family -- as we all too well know now.

An article in today's NYT suggests the cover-up about his affair with Rielle Hunter may have more well known in inner circles, well known in fact in the legal community. The payouts to Hunter may also been more expensive than first thought. This is something that has been bugging me as well -- just how much money did she really get, and did Edwards' campaign pay others to cover up the affair or did Edwards pay off her from his own personal funds?

For instance, after the New Hampshire primary, I got this strange e-mail from Edwards (I had signed onto his mailing list) saying he needed to raise $265,000 so he could move his staff from Manchester to Columbia, South Carolina, pronto. I thought, how many "volunteers" does he need? Hasn't he heard of discount carriers, or Greyhound? I was also thinking at this point, although I didn't want to think it out loud personally or here, that if he was really that desperate, maybe it was over for his campaign.

Was some or all that money he purportedly needed hush money? And who was blackmailing him, if he was?

We don't know, because no one will say.

This just goes to show you, it's not normally a good idea to cheat on your spouse if there isn't abuse or drugs involved. Especially when your spouse has terminal cancer. And even if you made your millions taking on insurance companies.

To paraphrase Mike Myers: You will get caught. Oh yes. You will get caught.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Greatest Show in Ottawa

I'll demur to my able colleagues Scott Tribe and Pogge today on Day Four of the "In and Out" hearings in Ottawa on commentary. All I can say is, this is way more fun than anything the WWE can put out -- because at least the plot lines are real and not kayfabe. (Thank God for Kady O'Malley -- I wonder what other reporters are paying as much attention to this as she. And for Sam Goldstein, who really looked like a clown.)

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Obama leads in money race with military

Here's a rather interesting development. Many continue to believe that despite a thoroughly demoralized military, having been so due to the wrongful Iraq war -- and a war fought with shoddy heavy equipment and inadequate personal armour as well as the cronyism in the awarding of service contracts; despite all that, most members of the military will still in the end rally around John McCain.

Perhaps they will, slightly, in terms of votes. But there's a bad sign for John McCain in the money game. Among troops deployed overseas, Barack Obama outraised McCain for contributions 6:1. Even within the GOP, the very anti-war Ron Paul outdid McCain 4:1.

This is a huge sign of dissatisfaction. If a decorated war hero, and a POW at that, can't engage his fellow men and women in uniform to rally about him instead of around a self-described "community worker" who eschewed the value of military service for the longest time, then the winds of change are blowing. And when they blow within the ranks themselves, people should stand up and take notice. Because the vast majority of those in uniform understand the meaning of honour, which the current Commander in Chief -- who was suspended for playing hooky on a medical exam -- can't seem to comprehend.

It'll take more than "God and the Flag" to win over an increasingly disenchanted public. And for those stationed overseas, it's harder to make their dollars stretch when it must be converted to Euros or other currencies on a tear against the greenback. The Euro for instance has retreated somewhat the last couple of weeks over inflationary concerns in the Eurozone back to about $1.50, but even within the US inflation has now hit 5.6%, a near twenty year high -- and I don't think those troops still at home got a 6% pay raise last year, as did not the rest of the civil service.

Short of a revolt, I think one vote to watch will be military ballots both home and abroad. If about 40% push Obama's way, McCain will have a long night on November 4.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Assassination; clown college day three

Some sad news tonight, as the chairman of the Arkansas Democrats, Bill Gwatney was assassinated in his own office in Little Rock. The apparent gunman was later killed by police in a shootout. Obviously, my condolences to the family of the victim of this outrageous attack on the democratic (small-d) process. Needless to say, though, both parties officially are condemning this attack and rightly so.

On to today's review of the House Ethics hearings on "in and out." Somewhat briefer than before. Once again, HT to Kady O'Malley for her copious live blog notes.

Today was the turn of the ad agences that handled the Conservative account. Of note is that there was never any direct contact between local candidates and the agencies, it was all done via the party's head office. This adds further to the suspect practice of relabelling ads authorized by the national agent with ones signed off on by the local agents. (It'd be so much easier if we adopted the US practice where the candidate himself or herself says, "I'm Blank, and I approve this message." Then there would be no doubt.)

Also, we learn that some candidates were offered a chance to take part in "in and out" as far back as the prior campaign in 2004. Again, the argument being made by the Cons is that there was unused room by local campaigns and the national party decided to use what was left. But that is not the position Elections Canada has on the practice. The nominee for Prime Minister has a certain limit for the national campaign -- $18 million or so -- but if local candidates haven't spent to the max, tough luck. Use it, or lose it.

Also I note that some candidates were confused by the in and out. They thought they were getting something for the money flowing in and out -- buttons, signs, pamphlets, etc. Squat.

The longer this goes, the more one has to wonder whether the Cons may have actually found a loophole and gotten away with it. But it's worth remembering, this is the Ethics Committee that is considering the issue, not the Justice Committee. Just because something may wind up being barely legal doesn't mean it's ethical.

Needless to say, another very tense day at the committee. If this is what political discourse has degenerated to in Canada, where no one has an open mind, we're headed for truly troubled times if they are not already here.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

The "new" Russia: resolving old grievances?

As the situation in Eastern Europe escalates and the US is offering humanitarian aid, some of my thoughts about what's going on.

Back in 1991, as the world's attention was diverted towards the first Gulf War, the then Soviet Union launched a surprise military invasion of Lithuania, the Baltic State then most stridently seeking independence. The world rightly condemned the move, but Moscow seemed unfazed, claiming it was a pre-emptive move to protect the rights of the Russian minority. Yet a month after the failed August coup later that year, Gorbachev allowed Lithuania along with Estonia and Latvia to secede -- and by the end of the year, the remaining twelve republics had decided to dissolve their union.

For the longest time, the Russian Federation -- the largest of the twelve -- raised hackles about both NATO and the EU expanding eastward to where the client states and, really the former vassal republics, held ground. No doubt they were worried about Poland and Lithuania in particular, as their joining both organizations effectively left the Kaliningrad Oblast -- formerly East Prussia -- completely surrounded and separated from the rest of the "motherland." But it was mostly words, until recently. So what changed?

It must truly be grating to most Russians that with the expansion of the Schengen area last year, it's actually more difficult to go from Russia to one of the Baltic States to visit relatives who live there (because of the tougher border controls at the perimeter), than it is to go from Russia to the Ukraine or Georgia to visit their cousins there. There are still substantial minority communities in the "outer countries," as some Russians call them, and they view attempts to diminish the rights of their brethren as an insult to their collective pride. For instance, Latvia is about ⅓ Russian and a new citizenship law requires its residents to speak Latvian even though many have lived in the country their entire lives from birth and didn't ever have a reason to speak the language, until now. So much for "For the Motherland, for Stalin." (Not that I ever cared for the Communists, of course.) Certainly, one should learn the majority language, but from a Russian perspective this is seen as a slap in the face.

Perhaps Russia could ultimately tolerate being surrounded by its enemies to the West, but a potential expansion of NATO to the south (including the Ukraine and Georgia, both of which also want to be in the EU) leaving them surrounded must have been too much to bear for the Big Black Bear, especially when both also have large Russian minorities. They can't easily access their own brothers in the three Baltic States (which minority, ironically, do have freedom of movement between those three countries, and the rest of Central and Western Europe as do all other EU citizens). Hence, the last week's events that have seen Russia and Georgia at war, so they don't lose any remaining connections.

This is much more than about a dispute over territories (South Ossetia and Abkahzia) or about a gas pipeline. It's about pride. Russia was going to push back. It was just a question of when. Doing it just before the Olympics certainly caught the world's attention which is exactly what Moscow wanted.

Should the Ukraine and Georgia be part of the organizations that have ensured stability, economic prosperity, and freedom in free Europe since 1949; which have extended that prosperity as the territories moved further east with the end of Communism? Something which both Obama and McCain are now demanding? In my opinion, yes. Absolutely. Are they going to join any time soon? No way. Certainly not as long as Russia continues to sink back into dictatorship. One democracy does not attack another. A democracy will certainly attack a dictatorship, or vice versa.

I shudder at the thought we may see another round of ethnic cleansing. Of course, not all Russians would want that, at all. But from many Russians' perspective (and it is a large number), Russia is wherever a Russian lives, even if she's outside Russia proper. So, even if Russia does become a democracy again (not for a long time, I'm afraid), this issue won't go away. Russia won't rest until they get some kind of Greater Russia with a contiguous population, just as much as Nazi Germany was able get more and more land in return for appeasement.

Welcome to the new reality. For the record I say, no appeasement. Avoid war at all costs, but absolutely no concessions, under any circumstances.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shut up, Thibault!

From one Liberal to another ... Robert, you really are an idiot. Knitting? Tea? Where did you get that one -- the Southpaw sketch from Free to Be?

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Is there a word to describe this?

Kickback is such a strong word. It implies criminal intent.

That question came from Pat Martin of the NDs in questioning David Lowry just a few minutes ago (I managed to watch part of the hearings this afternoon on CPAC, for some bizarre reason there was no morning session when I attempted to watch live streaming). As I wrote in my last post this morning, we have to be careful here. Parliament or its members can allege illegal activity but it's up to the police to decide whether to press charges and for the Crown to pursue those charges.

However, if you're given money for a local campaign, supposedly to pay for flyers, signs and your candidate's personal website -- and then you're told to flow it right back to national headquarters in Ottawa, as Lowry admitted happened (he never even saw a paper cheque, it was done by wire transfer, and just pennies under the $50,000 of room he had left), what would you call it? I call it a reason to investigate further, without specifically saying what it might be (or not).

Lowry also notes that he didn't pick the stations the ads were aired on. Well, that's a surprise. In his defence, though, it's kind of hard to target a specific audience when there are between 60 to 80 or so districts within listening range (factoring in repeater transmitters which some stations have extending their range), 23 in Toronto alone, but doesn't common sense dictate you air ads at target niches where you think your opponents are vulnerable? I hardly think most listeners to a hard rock station would necessarily want to hear from a party whose bureaucrats consider rock to be Satan worship.

Here's something else I'd like to ask, that I don't think the committee has even considered, and perhaps not a lot of reporters either.

Under the 2001 omnibus anti-terrorism legislation passed by Parliament after 9/11, any transaction over $10,000 or a combination thereof within 24 hours must be reported to a federal agency called FINTRAC, the Financial Tracking Commission. This affects everyone: Baniks, trust companies, credit unions, even casinos and lottery agencies. And definitely, that also includes political parties. It doesn't matter if it's the payer, payee or a third party handling the transaction but it must be noted.

This provision was planned long before the 9/11 atrocities (it was intended to stop biker gangs and the mafia, no one even thought of using it against terrorists like Al Qaeda) but its broad effect is meant to protect law-abiding citizens against those who want "vigorish" or some kind of commission for protection. It's also a tool to help law enforcement focus in on suspicious activity. "In and out" is something I would definitely call suspicious, and unethical if not outright illegal.

Failure to report such transfers carries stiff maximum penalties: $25,000 each instance for an individual, and $5 million for a corporation. (Let's see, 67 times 5 equals, oh, $335 million. Let's see a political party pay that fine.) And, oh, neglect is not an excuse for this offence any more than any other offence classified as criminal by Parliament.

I'm wondering why the bank handling the Conservative HQ account, or Western Union or whoever it was, didn't notice something was weird when tens of thousands at a time were going out to candidates and then identical or nearly identical amounts was flowing back to Ottawa, and within just a few days or less.

When I think about this, I think about variations of Nigeria 419 scams where in the rare case you actually get a hold of the money, you only keep 30%; the rest is supposed to be wired somewhere else for security until a later date. Later, you learn the cheque bounced and you're left holding the bag. A friend of mine nearly got hosed last year like this, except the sender was from Switzerland and the amount was relatively small -- $2000. Good thing she asked the bank to put a hold on the amount.

The difference here is you get the money, send it all back, and you're entitled to 60% as long as you get 10% of the vote. But do you get to keep the money, or do you have to send it back to Ottawa to cover their national cum local expenses? If it's true, then it makes the whole protection money racket look like small potatoes.

I'm just speculating here. Whatever the truth is this is going to get a lot worse, before it gets better. And if the Cons are banking on the people ignoring this since the MSM is largely ignoring it, they obviously haven't heard of blogging.

By the way, at least one more candidate, David Marler (who ran in Brome-Missisquoi) said that he's no longer a member of the Con party after this. No kidding.

You just can't ask for better TV than this. Forget Canadian Idol or America's Got Talent. Wasn't it Eddie Greenspan who said, "The only thing that's surprising is reality?"

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Testify, when you're told to (or, Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft)

In their continuing quest to make Canada a carbon copy of the United States (except for the health care), the Conservative Party of Canada seems to have forgotten that a Parliamentary committee isn't the same as a Congressional one. Committees here do have the right to sub poena witnesses, but such power is rarely used unlike in the States. Further they do not have prosecutorial powers. I have yet to hear of anyone in Canada who was put on trial for committing perjury before Parliament -- it's par for the course in the States for lying to Congress, the most famous example being Oliver North who is still seen as a hero by neo-cons in the States for lying.

One common thing committees in both countries do share is that unlike a real criminal or civil trial, witnesses are not held in sequestration until they are called. In the court system, this practise is used in order to ensure that a witness' evidence will not be tainted by prior witnesses (although in the States, such taint is more likely with many trials being televised). In the legislative world, where most hearings are carried live on television or via streaming, people know exactly what came before them so they can shape their testimony to come.

Hence, yesterday's truly weird events at the House Ethics Committee here. One former Conservative candidate, Gary Caldwell who ran in Compton-Stanstead, knew something was terribly wrong when the party sent $37,000 to his campaign then took it back. He recognized what many other Conservatives have not -- that you can only claim the expense if you actually spend the money. Knowing he might get a 60% rebate from the feds for something he was not entitled to -- in this case, $22,200 -- he revised his report. He quit the Cons in disgust, as well as he should have.

At least he was honest about it. So were Ann Julie Fortier, Louise O'Sullivan (an ex-Lib who went to the Cons over Sponsorgate -- interesting), Richard Nadeau (now with the Bloc) and Joe Goudie (whose revelations about money he didn't spend seems to have gotten the whole investigation started). Kudos too to Liberato Martelli who refused to have a lawyer with him because, as he told the Con members, he didn't need a lawyer to "tell the truth." Ouch.

I wonder about the integrity of other candidates who didn't recognize even the scent of impropriety. I recognize this has probably happened before, with all parties and at both the federal and provincial levels (there's been a long history of keeping two sets of books, just as many truckers with priority "just in time" hauls keep two log books to fool weigh station inspectors. But the "in and out" scheme is the largest and most systematic attempt to circumvent official spending rules if Election Canada's allegations are proven to be true.

I also note that read into the record was the clerk noting that other witnesses who had been invited declined, because the Conservative Party told them to decline or ignore the invitation. And where sub poenas had to be issued, in at least one case a candidate's husband and son actually interfered with the service of the summons. If that's not contempt of Parliament I don't know what is.

It's what happened with Doug Finley that I have a hard time figuring out. He was supposed to appear on Wednesday. Instead he showed up yesterday and tried to be the first witness, attempting to make a statement that would set the ruling party's agenda for the rest of the hearings on the issue. The committee chair, Paul Szabo, politely requested Finley show up when he was scheduled. But Finley, knowing full well other witnesses who had booked their time for yesterday alone, wanted to silence them so they couldn't tell their story. Eventually Finley had to be escorted out (by force, it appears) and he said he would not be coming back. His lawyer, sitting with him, actually threw the chair he was sitting in across the room, according to Kady O'Malley (see her live blogging notes here and here -- more like live streaking since the Cons pulled their own pants down numerous times during the day).

Good riddance if Finley isn't returning. (Actually, he just might, Szabo issued a sub poena ordering Finley to show up on Wednesday as originally scheduled.)

But equally troubling is that the usual Conservatives on the committee weren't there, instead the alternates -- the B-team, if you will -- showed up, say some of my fellow bloggers (can't remember which ones, my computer partially crashed and I had to clean out my history so can't find the links anymore). Now, having an alternate isn't too unusual. Backbench MPs sit on several committees, not just one, and alternates allow the work to be spread around if two important hearings are being held at the same time; or if an opposition party leader wishes to cross-examine a minister or witness directly and at length which is almost next to impossible to do on the floor.

But every single regular member gone, or nearly every one, in favour of the alternates? Something's fishy there. Since they are possibly "weaker" members of Team Harper, it gives the senior apparatchiks a chance to manipulate their minions to attempt to obstruct the opposition parties who collectively hold a majority on the committee. And note also the Con members kept raising sub judice points of order, meaning since the matter was "before the courts" it could not be discussed in committee. Actually that's only true for Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer who is being sued by the Cons to get the money they think is owing them.

Moreover, when you determine the parameters of how your witnesses are going to testify or try to shove in a lead witness to set up the talking points, that in itself is an attempt to mislead Parliament. Where false or misleading testimony is given by a minister, or the minister is caught trying to tell a witness how to testify, Parliamentary convention is clear: The minister must offer his or her resignation. However, PMS so tightly controls his team that he will not even consider a resignation of this type. We saw Bernier resign earlier this year but that was over a security breach, not for something he said.

Many Conservatives, not just the ones who testified honestly yesterday, have quit the party over what happened and what the party's tried to do since the election. When the best you can do to prepare for the next election is to have cheesy stop action cartoons ridiculing Stéphane Dion and you continue to refuse to make an honest accounting for what money was transferred, how and when, you demonstrate that you stand against the very accountability you ran on.

Kangeroo court? Hardly. When the committee reports back to the full House, let the Conservatives try -- try -- to strike the report from the record. You may eliminate the paper record from the House, but you won't be able to destroy videotape, web archives and the memories of people who actually heard and read what was said.

Of course, the Cons have an easy way out of this. Without admitting they were wrong, they could save face by dropping the lawsuit and the people who did receive matching funds they weren't entitled to could pay them back, or the party make the payback on their behalf.

I'm not holding my breath on that one, and neither are most people including the conscience Conservatives who see "in and out" for what is really is.

UPDATE (8:18 pm EDT, 1218 GMT): Agh! It was my colleague Scott Tribe who referred to the second stringers as the B-Team, and rightly so. I also just noted at Kady's blog about Part Two yesterday that at this rate, the Libs won't need the Green Shift, just run tapes of yesterday and coming sessions of the hearings under "See We Told You So ™". Except, of course, Rush Limbaugh trademarked that expression.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

That's urban planning for you

A little more than twenty-four hours later, and like many in South Central Ontario I'm trying to figure out what on earth a propane plane was doing in the middle of a residential neighbourhood in Toronto. One firefighter is dead, and an employee at the plant is missing and we can only pray that somehow he escaped and still hasn't checked in yet for whatever reason.

You'd expect this kind of urban planning to exist only in the minds of idiots, or where there are no zoning laws at all -- such as in Houston, Texas. I'd like to meet the man or woman at the Toronto planning department who thought this was a brilliant idea. Doesn't Toronto have sufficient commercials zones to site such plants?

Here in Hamilton, we remember the plastic recycling company that operated almost without notice then went up in flames and spewed out toxins into the air at 67 times the legal limit. And if you're 25 or older, you remember the tire fire in Hagersville.

Again, two are dead, but one must still be thankful this happened on a Sunday when many were out of town and things slow down a bit. Imagine if this happened just before a weekday rush hour. You think there's chaos when the 401 is closed on the weekend ...

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Georgia crisis

I doubt that this is the start of World War III, but the war that has broken out between Russia and Georgia over the status of South Ossetia is not going to make things easy for the West. Georgia says it is withdrawing its troops from South Ossetia -- at least, that's what they're telling us. Georgia, about the size of South Carolina, has not had an easy history since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; and being at a major crossroads at the intersection of Europe and Asia both Russia and NATO want to have influence over the country.

I find it peculiar that the war broke out just as the Olympics were starting. So much for the so-called "Olympic truce," which dating back to ancient times called for the laying down of arms during the games and the athletes going to and from them as a sign of goodwill and peace. In the end, it's always the innocent that gets hurt the most and that's not going to do anyone any good.

Suffice it to say that were it not for the reckless campaign in Iraq, the outgoing US President might have had some influence in his lame duck year. We hear the phrase "territorial integrity" over and over, but it's sort of meaningless when people in the disputed territories don't want to be ruled by their current overlords; on the other hand, upsetting the apple cart doesn't do any good either.

Either way one considers it, this is a public relations disaster for both Putin and Saakashvili. The world needs to act fast before the violence really gets out of hand and we have a regional war on our hands -- which we need as much as the current worldwide recession.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The stolen Holocaust comics

Since the end of World War II, there has been a debate about what to do with art stolen from Holocaust victims and sold to unwitting third parties. Should the paintings and photographs be returned to the victims' families and into private collections, perhaps never to be seen again? Should title be given back to the families, but the pictures kept at the museums on permanent loan? Or do they belong to the galleries, period?

I have to admit I'm rather ambivalent about the issue. Normally, if the artwork is of significant value -- such as a Rembrandt or a Da Vinci, for instance -- I'd lean towards the second option. If it's of rather lesser value on the auction market, give it back to the families; unless there are no records of who owned what or there is no proof of a provenance. However, this is a case where there is no doubt in my mind. The paintings belong to the artist who made them, and she deserves to have them back, period.

The artist in question is 85-year old Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who was a talented artist and who helped ensure her and her mother's survival at Auschwitz-Birkenau by becoming the painter for Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death" at the notorious camp where 1.5 million Jews and at least 19,000 Roma (Gypsies) were murdered. Mengele performed live autopsies on his victims and wanted his handlers who did pictures of his victims to reflect the skin tones to determine their blood quantum. The Nazi graphic artists didn't do such a good job in this department regarding the Roma, so Gottliebova was hired to do the job.

Turns out she was a big fan of Disney films and when she went back home to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war she had a chance encounter with one of the artists of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She became an artist for several Hollywood studios and became one of the artists for such characters as Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck.

Here's where it gets interesting. Auschwitz was turned into a museum and in the 1960s it got hold of several of the Nazi-era paintings, and put it on permanently display. On several occasions, the artist has asked for nothing more than her paintings back. The museum has persistently refused, even though it has tacitly admitted it regularly rotates the real pictures with reproductions -- and the artist has stated she'd be more than happy to let them have the reproductions if she got the originals.

In 2006 a group of 450 cartoonists signed a petition demanding Dina get her paintings back. No luck. Now, they've turned up the heat. Three legends in the comic book community, Neal Adams (Batman), Joe Kubert (Hawkman) and Stan Lee (Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk), have banded together to create a special comic book making the case for Dina (click here for this graphical version of the story and the pertinence of this issue).

This is a really shocking story ... and it is absolutely asinine that the Auschwitz museum continues to take the line that it has. It wasn't other people's work, it was her own. She rightly has title to it as she made them under duress and the penalty of death and she should get them back. End stop. To make her one day longer is as tortuous as what she had to endure during the War.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

Can't the Mounties do ANYTHING right?

The once highly regarded RCMP, highly regarded that is everywhere in the world except in Hollywood (Duddley Do-Right, etc.) and the Stamford, Connecticut headquarters of the WWE (remember Jacques Rougeau's ridiculing them?) has become of late a joke in its home country with pension fraud, multiple Taser ™ incidents and more recently serious security breaches, like this one.

One has to wonder about the state of national security in Canada, when someone receives a page for a mysterious phone number; and when that number is called back one hears a highly detailed and sensitive message intended only for the ears of certain Mounties -- namely, the tactical squad, or if you prefer a SWAT team with even more dangerous weapons -- who as it turns out were scheduled to be called to Parliament on Sunday to prepare for a very sensitive operation -- one related, it seems, to the Olympics now on in Beijing.

The crazy thing about it is that the recipient of the page is one Tim Wentzell who is a web page developer for Transcontinental Media, a media and printing giant in Canada. Its publications include Canadian Living, the St. John's Telegram and the Charlottetown Guardian, and the Canadian editions of TV Guide and Elle. Its printing contracts include Time and the Globe and Mail.

Clearly, all publications with an axe to grind against the Mounties for various reasons. How on earth did they get a page not intended for them? Doesn't someone in Ottawa or Regina keep an eye on pager lists to make sure they're updated as personnel enter and leave the force?

One notes with a bit of scorn that the Cons made over $4 billion from the sale of bandwidth to new cell phone companies last month -- the area currently occupied by UHF channels 52 to 69 (which are being phased out to make way for 3G as well as digital televison, as is the case in the States). Can't they spare just a teeny, tiny bit of that to make sure the press is kept in everlasting darkness, as Harper is so wont of doing?

The Cons certainly can't claim the Liberals are at fault for this. After all, Wentzell says he only got the pager number assigned to him in January of this year and has been receiving two to three mystery pages a week since then. It's only this time that the area code was attached which finally tipped him off. Imagine if an Al Qaeda operative had gotten hold of that phone number instead. Can't the cops at least have a password protected voice mail, so that if someone gets a number by accident on their pager, they're blocked out from getting the actual message when they call back? That would take, maybe, five seconds to set up.

It's time to plug the vulnerabilities. Both the ones we find out about, as well as the ones we should never have to even know about unless we absolutely, positively have the need to know.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.