Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nothing unethical, eh? Try illegal (maybe)

Canada has a history of dirty tricks in politics. But the PMO's admission that a Conservative member hacked into an NDP conference call yesterday takes things to a new low. I was under the presumption that warrantless wiretapping, or recording a phone conversation without consent, is illegal in Canada. To openly release the tape is beyond comprehension.

But like Duplessis and Nixon, Harper must presume that if he's the leader then nothing he does is illegal. Or unethical.

At this point, a normal person would hire an independent prosecutor to investigate. But Harper is anything but a normal person. If there is any way to bring down his government before next Monday's no-confidence vote (short of a military coup d'état) then I'd like to know.

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More backpeddling -- not good enough

The Conservatives continue to backwheel. They've now backed down on the right to strike and pay equity issues -- at least, for now (as with the case on party financing). But that doesn't change the fact that they never should have brought it those issues in the first place. As for announcing the budget date as January 27, much earlier than would be expected in the cycle, one has to note this is even more cynical as it's just one week after Obama's inauguration.

We can't wait two months.

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Another reason to dump the Cons: Pay equity (or the end of it)

After going through the economic statement last week, that's caused the left to unite as it hasn't been in a very long time, I noticed something else very odious that's reason enough for me to hope Stephen Harper is forced to resign next week -- even if all the other concerns were somehow addressed (which of course they won't be). The Conservatives want to wipe out outstanding lawsuits regarding pay equity in federally regulated industries as well as the right to sue for any suits that might be forthcoming.

Pay equity goes beyond equal pay for equal work. It's the principle that there should be equal pay for work of equal value. It does this by measuring what the comparative worth of a job classifcation is and the value it provides to society at large (in the case of government) or to a corporation (in the case of industry). In plain language, it tries on an objective scale to compare apples to oranges.

For example, on a purely hypothetical example, say you're comparing federal public health officials (some working for the Health Department, others for Defence or for Indian Affairs) to a disparate class -- for this example,. detachments of constable Mounties (under the jurisdiction of Public Safety). Both groups are public employees on the federal payroll. The jobs are obviously vastly different and serve different purposes, but on an independent evaluation they are found to prove equal value to the community at large. Under pay equity, whoever is getting paid less should have their salaries raised to match the higher paid job. Further, identical jobs across different departments should also get paid the same.

While the vast majority of pay equity cases have involved underpaid women, some have involved underpaid men. Now the government wants to take that away citing "budgetary constraints."

No. Wrong. We cannot sacrifice equal rights at the altar of the bean counters. I should not be surprised that this would be happening. Mike Harris did away with pay equity in Ontario (wrongly) and the hatchetman he picked for the job was Jim Flaherty. He had a majority behind him in the Ontario Legislature (as well as a sailing economy at the time) so he mostly got away with it.

He, and Harper, cannot be allowed to get away with it at the federal level even if we are in recession.

This is a matter of equal rights. It's as simple as that. Anyone against something as simple as the equality of men and women in the workplace does not deserve to even sit as an MP let alone be a Minister of the Crown.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday night music vault: Let's Call the Whole Thing Off (and life imitates art)!

Well, what do you know? Who would have thought Steve would have caved in but he did just that tonight and scrapped his plan to destroy his enemies by eliminating public party financing.

Clearly they got the message on that one point but they still don't get it on the stimulus issue. The fact Harper has finally been shown to have a weak spot demonstrates the Opposition can be effective if it just gets its act together; and far as I can tell they have no plans to call off their non-confidence vote on December 8 nor should they.

In honour of this surprise news, I present my musical selection for the week. I was going to pick this one anyway, but the breaking news was just plain serendipity. Ladies and gentleman, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Now to whatever's on TV, besides ice hockey ...

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King-Byng no precedent now

I decided to look over the events surrounding the King-Byng Affair in 1926 and see if it has any lessons for the current stalemate in Ottawa. Let's review the facts. (I've reviewed a couple of online articles to get my facts straight.)

After the 1925 generals, the House of Commons was in a minority or "hung" situation. The Conservatives under Arthur Meighen (grandfather of current Senator Michael) won 116 seats, the Liberals (led by Mackenzie King) had 101 and the left-leaning Progressives under Robert Forke had 24. King had an informal agreement with the Progressives to stay in power.

A few months after the election, one of King's hacks at Customs and Excise was accused of taking kickbacks. The Minister in charge of the Department was fired but then quickly promoted to the Senate. The Progressives were outraged and pulled their support. King, who had lost two procedural votes (not on confidence) but fearing he'd lose one on the corruption issue (which was possibly a confidence matter) asked the Governor General, Field Marshall Viscount Julian Bing of Vimy, to dissolve Parliament and call a new election.

Byng refused, but for two specific reasons: First, the House was still considering a motion of censure and to interfere in that would be tantamount to the Crown stamping on Parliament's freedom of speech; second, he thought the Conservatives should have a chance to rule since they were the largest bloc in the House. King asked Byng to reconsider and that he should consult the British government (remember, Canada was still a colony in those days). Byng declined that, too. Furious, King resigned. Byng then asked Meighen to form a government.

Under the rules of the time, a Prime Minister called in mid-stream ould only make his ministers "acting" ones; to get their posts locked up they would have to individually resign and run in by-elections. King seized on the opportunity, got the Progressives back on his side, and voted non-confidence; an election was called and King won by a landslide. Ironically, he made Canadian independence his issue notwithstanding he was the one who had asked the Colonial Office to intervene; and even though Byng saw correctly that it was an issue for Canadians, not the British, to decide.

After the election, the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few others) got an understanding (called the Balfour Declaration) that a Governor General was not to be the agent of the London government but of the Sovereign. Thus, the viceroy or vicereine became a "vice-regal" representative. Representation of 10 Downing Street's interests would be instead taken up by a High Commissioner (the functional equivalent of an Ambassador).

So is Stephen Harper correct in saying that the 1926 crisis sets a precedent? I'm not so sure. I'm no constitutional expert, but there are four problems I see with the argument.

First, Balfour did not end the residual power that a Governor General has to seek out a possible government that can be formed in case of a deadlock or vote of non-confidence. There is an example for this -- many cite the 1985 alliance formed in Ontario between the Liberals and NDP, although in that case it was the lieutenant governor that called upon Peterson to replace Miller. The people would not have tolerated two elections in only three months and we're only six, seven weeks past the last election.

Second, King tried to have it both ways first by being for the Colonial Office before being against it. There's no more Colonial Office, and there's no way the Comonwealth Office or the Queen herself is going to get involved in this one; she got burned over Lord Hume in the UK in 1963 and she vowed never again to get involved in party politics.

Third, there wasn't a non-confidence vote that forced King to resign. It was still being considered. He resigned out of disgust to avert the humiliation.

Fourth, I think Harper might have an argument if he won the popular vote by a margin so large the other parties with their combined totals would barely surpass it if at all. That was the case in 1925: The Conservatives had 46.13%, the Liberals 39.74%, the Progressives 8.45%. Add the latter two, you get 48.19%, a difference of 2.03%.

Now look at the 2008 numbers. Conservatives: 37.65%, Liberals 26.26%, NDP 18.18%, Bloc 9.98%. (The Greens, who unfortunately didn't get any, won 6.78%.) Add up the numbers for the progressive parties. 54.42% voted for progressive parties that got into the House, if you add the Greens it was 61.20%. That's a gap of 16.77% or 23.55% depending on how you count it; a huge difference compared to 1925.

A reasonable GG would have to look both at the numbers in the House as well as the popular vote and say to herself, wait a minute -- the opposition parties do have a mandate (albeit a tricky one); it was given to them by the people even if they may disagree on a number of points. Let's see if they can work out their differences and try something.

Now, of course, Harper can end this game of brinksmanship and offer a real economic package rather than make us wait until the New Year. Or he could do what he should have done in the first place, and talk deal with one of the opposition parties to get their support. But if he doesn't, then the opposition parties will have to act. When you promise to make Parliament a calmer place and then make it explode in just the session's second week, then you've lost the moral right to govern.

As for sober second thought that Flaherty referred to yesterday -- that's the Senate's job to do on legislation, and they have no say on confidence whatsoever.

That's my view. If you think the GG has no choice but to call an immediate election, I'd welcome your argument.

UPDATE (10:41 am EST, 1541 GMT): Some minor edits. Also, some may think about the 1975 crisis in Australia where the GG and PM fired each other; but that country's situation was complicated by a double dissolution of both Houses of Parliament, something that couldn't happen here since the Senate is presently an appointed body; also I wonder if it's possible for our Senate to hold up a supply bill for an indefinite period.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Steve stalls for time

Driving home about a half hour ago I heard PMS say that he's not going to have the vote on the Ways and Means motion on Monday after all but instead will let the chips fall with however the non-confidence motion goes on December 8, the earliest it can be voted on.

This is just a stalling tactic, but it's hard to see how six sittings days are going to change the minds of the opposition. And as for his claim that he has the right to govern because he was elected, well no he wasn't. In Canada, like the UK, we elect MPs who are committed to a party platform and not directly for a PM. An overwhelming majority of Canadians voted for a majority of MPs who are progressives, not regressives. If he had a majority of members then it would be a different story -- but his survival now depends on the House.

Unless Steve says that he's actually going to do something to help the agriculture, automobile and forestry industries, he can forget deal. He's going to get voted down. Of course, he can always prorogue and have Parliament sit out for a one year cooling off period. But most Canadians would easily see that for what it is, too.

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Way more fun than "Deal" or "5th Grader"

Howie Mandel (a joint Canadian / US citizen) and Jeff Foxworthy (a true blue American but a hero to all of us rednecks rich and poor around the world) must read the news like many of us, and both must be wondering, are we Canadian rednecks to have gotten into this game of brinksmanship? And how did we ever get to this -- a standoff between not the bourgeoise and the proletariat (which Marx and Engels predicted) but between two groups of rednecks? Both sides, quite frankly, are demonstrating a "glorious lack of sophistication," as Foxworthy calls it.

Or was this the Opposition's plan all along, just biding their time before striking like the Massasauga snake? You have to wonder.

That's the state of Canadian politics this Friday. And here's the latest:

It's being reported this afternoon that the Liberals will try for a takedown of the Conservatives after all. There also appears to be agreement that Dion would be a caretaker PM until the Liberals can hold a convention. Imagine that.

Meanwhile, in an act of chastisement, the government has apparently backed down slightly and will have the party financing issue dealt with in a separate motion. That's as it should be -- changes to election rules, as well as who runs the elections agency are traditionally done with all party support; and this was a case of changing the rules after the fact without opposition consent, an unwritten but well established constitutional convention.

That does not change the fact that the opposition parties have to get better at grassroots organizing and funding that would more than overcome whatever subsidies the parties do get. However, the heavy-handed way Harper wanted to deal with the Green Party which does not have seats in Parliament at all was totally unacceptable in my view. I do not believe this was about the Liberals, NDP or the Bloc -- it was about silencing what the Cons still believe is a fringe movement but which clearly has more and more public support. After all, they got 6.8% of the popular vote. Does that sound like a "fringe" party?

It is truly possible Harper hates Elizabeth May that much?

Still it doesn't mean the government should be saved. Its broadsided attack against federal civil servants as well as virtually no help for businesses, especially small business which creates the most jobs, should be an insult to most Canadians. Even those who would normally support the Conservative cause are saying the time to help is now and there is little to none.

Also, the fact that the party of "fiscal restraint" has been anything but. It has raised program spending by 25% while slashing revenues when all the winds were blowing to a huge worldwide meltdown. Does that sound like a prudent manager of the economy?

That's why the government has to be brought down. Responsible government should mean literally that, not just that it responds to the legislative branch.


While I welcome any possibility of getting the Cons out of government, there are two things that need to happen for me to support the idea of a coalition government fully.

First, we need definitively to move to a better election system. Whether that's single transferable vote or some form of PR the votes of Canadians need to start counting. Second, eliminating poverty among children and seniors must be our top priority. Whatever we do to get the economy back on track there will be no point unless the most vulnerable in our society can enjoy the new prosperity when it ultimately returns. A country with a trillion dollar GDP (one of only about a dozen in the world) should not have this kind of disgrace.

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Substituting for Monty Hall: Broadbent and Chrétien?

Two of Parliament Hill's greatest warriors, Jean Chrétien and Edward Broadbent, are trying to put together a coalition deal between their two respective parties, the Liberals and the NDP.

How this version of Let's Make a Deal plays out is anyone's guess. But Broadbent had a lot of spunk in him when he came back to the Hill (only to retire again early because of his wife's illness), and Chrétien warned his colleagues they hadn't seen the last of him. Who would have thought as a facilitator?

There's a lot to bridge between the two groups, let alone the Bloc whose support would absolutely be needed. But the creeks between them are nothing compared to the gulf that separates all three from CRAP. Of course, Flaherty can always come up with something that all Canadians would find more reasonable.

Tick, tick, tick ...

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This time, it's Ignatieff

I still feel the choices that Liberals are being presented this time around for leader leave a lot to be desired. The actions by two of the three so far are far less than gentlemanly. However, given the choices there are, the one name that stands out for me is Michael Ignatieff. Briefly, here are my reasons.

At this time, Canada needs someone who can take on Stephen Harper -- or any other Conservative leader for that matter -- toe to toe. There's no question that Bob Rae or Dominic LeBlanc are up to the task but Ignatieff is the most in the class required. More important, Iggy has ideas both for domestic as well as foreign policy to help Canada reclaim its place as a world leader as well an honest broker both of which are lacking under the Cons.

Bob Rae is a fine gentleman, but too many people in Ontario haven't forgiven him for, or forgetten about, what he did as NDP Premer (not just the economy and Rae Days, but also reneging on public auto insurance). He would get clobbered if he got the leadership now. As for LeBlanc, I just don't know enough about him even though he is a four term MP.

We don't need a messianic figure (like Obama in the States), but we do need someone who combines pragmatism with dignity and fire. Ignatieff is not perfect and his voice is only slightly better than David Dodge (the former Bank of Canada governor who, in the words of the CBC Shanghai correspondent Anthony Germain could "make paint peel"), but he -- the man who should have won the last time out -- is my choice.

UPDATE (10:17 am EST, 1517 GMT): My bad; Germain is based in Shanghai, not Beijing.

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Craig Oliver: Today's worst person in the world!

I had laugh last night when Craig Oliver, one of the crony denizens of the Conservative Television Network, tried to frame the issue about the economic statement down to a single statement, which basically was that if the Opposition parties overthrow the government on an issue as petty as party financing, then the wrath of Canadians will know no bounds.

Uh, Craig, maybe should you should nominate yourself as Keith Olbermann's daily "Worst Person in the World." Because it's more than about the $30 million, although changing the rules after the fact is one part of it. The fact is, there is absolutely no stimulus of any kind. Oh sure, there's a few hundred million to the Export Development Corporation (which guarantees accounts receivable for foreign sales) and the Business Development Bank of Canada (often the lender of last resort for start-up companies). But that's peanuts.

Seniors are getting a one year break on minimum withdrawals from their RRIFs but most withdraw monthly and since many have already withdrawn the minimum or more under the old rules (before the markets tanked and so did their portfolios) there's no way they can take advantage.

An increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement, or the working income supplement? No. An increase in child benefits? No. A cut in income taxes? No!

We need to get money into the system and more money into people's pocketbooks, now. Instead the government is just content to sit on its hands and maybe at some point have some kind of stimulus. All other countries in the G-7 are trying something to benefit their citizens at this time. But, not Canada. One has to think that the Conservatives cut the GST and increased spending drastically on purpose to get us into this fine mess.

Sorry, Craig, but if the Opposition parties do what they have to do and kicks out Harper from Number 24 on Monday it won't just because of the checks they get every three months. If you had bothered to pay attention to what Dion, Duceppe and Layton had said you'd know better than to just pick one issue and run with it.

UPDATE (7:25 pm EST, 1225 GMT): Oh, and another thing, Craig: You forgot to mention the fact that labour rights are suspended at the federal level for the next few years. No right to strike and a cap on wage increases. That's a slap in the face if there ever was one.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Would Harper resign or would he pull a Major?

The Liberals and NDP are saying tonight that they will vote against the Ways and Means motion based on today's economic statement from Slim Jim ™ Flaherty.

I'll believe it when I see it quite frankly, but if the Bloc gangs up with the other opposition parties to defeat the government it would be a major humiliation for PM Stephen Harper. The question would be what would he do then? Would he call it a "false start" and demand immediately a self-contained no-confidence vote; or would he recognize it for what it was (an actual act of non-confidence) and resign? Moreover, would the GG, Michaëlle Jean, want to call a snap election or would she actually ask Stéphane Dion (who has already resigned as Liberal leader) to form a caretaker government?

I point this out because back in 1993, John Major in the UK was facing one problem after another barely a year after his upset victory over Neil Kinnock in the generals. There was Black Wednesday, a series of corruption scandals and to top it off, he had Parliament vote on the Maastricht Treaty which merged the "European Communities" into the present EU.

To appease the Euroskeptics in the ruling Conservatives, he negotiated an opt-out from the sections of the treaty dealing with social and labour rights. Some Conservatives who were opposed to the EU all together ganged up with Labour and the Lib Dems (who supported the social chapter) to (ironically) attach the social chapter (which lost on a tie vote), then voted to defeat a "take note" motion by just eight votes. Major then reintroduced the bill and vowed he would call a snap election on the issue. He won by forty votes. (Here's a link to discussion of the Maastricht Rebels who continued to plague Major for the rest of his term -- some of those rebels went on to form the UK Independence Party which advocates for Britain's complete withdrawal from the EU.)

Now I realize an international treaty to bind several countries even further together, is not at all like a ways and means motion to end public financing of political parties. But given our reliance on the "Westminster" system, would Harper cite the Major precedent and introduce his own non-confidence motion in a game of chicken and dare the opposition to cluck? After all, the old Reform Blue Book said that that a no confidence vote would only come if there was first a defeat of a budget or appropriations bill.

If he does pull the "triple dog dare," he may be in for a shock. The Liberals just might find losing $7 million per year all the motivation they need to pull the trigger.

UPDATE (7:53 pm EST, 0053 Friday GMT): Quite a few of my fellow ProgBlogs seem quite giddy about the possibilities, too. Scott Tribe raises a good point about 1985 and the Liberal / NDP alliance in Ontario -- although it should be remembered that David Peterson had actually won the popular vote but not the seat count (which Frank Miller had). Cam and Steve also have some good thoughts on this as well.

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We shall not be moved

Yesterday's terrorist attacks in Mumbai (Bombay) cannot go unanswered. Going after tourists is especially unforgiveable -- let alone attacking the heart of the business and entertainment industries in India. Regardless of whether this is linked to Al Qaeda or not, people simply will not be bullied like this.

I refuse to live in fear, and regardless of the colour of our skin, everyone should also refuse to live in fear. When the fear is taken away, then and only then the terrorists will no longer have a basis on which to operate or to execute their evil schemes.

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Give us one reason to leave here, and we'll bring your government down!

The idea behind public financing is to take away the corruption that comes with corporate and union donations and ensures that parties play on a more or less even playing field, based on the previous election's popular vote. Now, it looks like the Conservatives, the only party that is healthy financially, wants to take even that away. For the ruling party, a loss of $10 million per year may be peanuts; but for the other parties who rely solely on private donations as well as the quarterly payments it would be a disaster.

We know what it would do to the Liberals -- but think about what it would do to the Green Party, just a month after that group had its best showing in the popular vote ever. The NDP and the Bloc would also take a hit to their voices -- and in the current environment the more progressive voices the better.

Just like Karl Rove tried to do for the Republicans in the States, Jim Flaherty wants one party rule in Canada -- his own party.

The feds should find $30 million to cut from elsewhere, like corporate welfare. Otherwise the opposition has the numbers. Bring down the government, now.

Join the Facebook group supporting public financing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What is it about minority governments in Canada?

There's something about Canadian politics that I just don't understand. Maybe you have some ideas on this one so I'm going to open this up for comments -- moderated as usual.

On the occasions where we've had minority governments -- including now with three in a row -- the governing party always acts as if it has a majority and so rules. They know that, inevitably, they're likely going to get one or more of the opposition parties on side but that's pretty much a moot point; unless something really stupid happens the prime minister still pretty much has a blank check.

Yet in nearly every other Parliamentary democracy, whether derived from the British system or through another source, a minority government is always in peril -- always. Moreover the PM is not so stubborn to rule as if he or she was the king or queen of the heap. Deals are always worked out, and when legislation is introduced it is almost always with the tacit support of one or more parties.

Cooperation is the rule. Whether there is mixed member representation (as in New Zealand or in Germany), an instant run-off ballot (like Australia) or a run-off vote (like in France) -- even where it is FPTP as in India -- we don't have this attitudinal problem inside the PMO.

I've noticed a pattern that whether it's a Liberal -- Pearson, Trudeau or Martin -- or a Conservative -- Diefenbaker, Clark or Harper -- almost no effort is made to appease the opposition, or at least let it be known they're at least being listened to. It's damn the torpedoes all the way; and if side deals are made with a balance of power party every so often that are against the best interests of Canadians, tough.

I've heard all sorts of explanations -- because we have strong provinces we need an even stronger PM. Governing isn't about compromise, it's about making decisions. Why waste your time acknowledging the other parties when you're finally getting your chance.

So, what is it? What is it about Canada that makes minority PMs so stubborn? And would that change even if we did have some form of PR?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What's another $800 billion among friends?

No, America's not going into debt for another 800 big ones, but The Fed is scooping up about that amount from its reserves to buy up bad mortgages from Fannie and Freddie, in another sign things are going from bad to worse.

I really don't know about you guys, but isn't there a point where there should be enough of government intervention and the banks left to their own vices? They more than doubled deposit insurance just before the election. And it's not like everyone who signed these subprime loans were totally out of the know as to what they were signing. Most know exactly what they were getting into. Not just consumers but banks buying up mortgages as securities then trading them on the open market.

When some smaller banks are seized by deposit insurance and others lent zillions because they're considered "too big to fail," the principles behind equality of sacrifice go right out the window.

No doubt, some were genuinely defrauded and for them there should be some time-limited help. But for Wall Street -- maybe it's time we just let it go bankrupt and let real people take it over for a change. I mean, Joe or Jane Blow can't do much worse than the MBA losers that got us all into this mess. (Not that all MBAs are guilty of course, but maybe we should ban people with any business degree from The Street for a very long time.)

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Monday, November 24, 2008

At least, it's a plan -- if you're in the UK

Gordon Brown's Labour Party is going down in flames and everyone knows it. In a desperate last ditch attempt to save the party from almost certain defeat in next spring's election, his government announced a number of steps to ride out the rocky recession -- in part motivated by the fact that collections from "stamp duty" (what we on this side of the pond call the land transfer tax) is down a whopping 40% this year no thanks to a tanking real estate market.

Among the major planks in the mini-budget are a cut in the VAT, the country's GST, by 2½% to 15% (the lowest rate allowed under EU rules); an increase in income tax for those earning over £150,000 to 45% (although that wouldn't take effect until April 2011), and an increase in social security taxes (which funds unemployment insurance and state pensions) by ½% as well as a rise in vehicle registration fees and excise taxes at the pump.

To partly compensate for this, pensions and child allowances will also go up.

A lot of it is half-baked, and overall will wipe out the country's razor thin operating surplus (money needed to day to day operations), about £4 billion this year -- and Chancellor Alexander Darling said Britain should not expect a surplus again until 2015 at the earliest.. There's also nothing about bringing back the low income tax rate of 10%. So, in short, New Labour is officially dead. But at least I give credit to Brown and Darling for trying something to jump-start the economy.

What are we getting from Harper and Flaherty in Canada? An ill-timed GST cut well before the recession hit (a temporary cut during one might have been more proper) and nickle and dime tax credits here and there that amount to a hill of beans. As far as corporate taxes go, the 19% rate is actually quite competitive compared to the US (at 35%) or many EU states (ranging from 10-20%). And in general, a happy go lucky attitude. And oh yeah, they also want to sell the government's crown jewel, the CN Tower, along with other valuable assets.

Remember when Flaherty, as Ontario's Finance Minister, sold the 407 highway for a quarter of what it was really worth? At the rate we're going, we might very well see the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham put up for auction -- after all the sovereigntists have never been happy that they are federal facilities.

What we need is an income tax cut for the lower and middle classes, and now -- not nickle and dime stuff.

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PMS: No action on Khadr (yet), free trade with Colombia

Of all the stupid things PMS has done over the last few years, yesterday saw an apex. First at the APEC summit, he said -- again -- he's going to take no action on Omar Khadr. This time he gave a reason, saying he's charged with an actual crime unlike most of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay who have been held for up to seven years with no charge. Short answer to that: Some accused ring-leaders not from the Middle East and South Asia were charged with crimes but were repatriated to face trial in their home countries when the respective governments so requested -- among those countries included Australia.

Canadian law allows for trials where crimes were committed overseas under certain circumstances. War crimes certainly falls under that category. So what's the deal?

Second, Mr. Harper said now is the wrong time to impose trade duties, invoking the Great Depression. Canadians need no history lessons on this one, we are quite familiar with the fallout from the Smoot-Hawley Act, including making the depression in Canada that much worse. But then he used the opportunity to announce there definitely will be a free trade deal with, of all countries, Colombia.

I didn't really have that much issue with free trade with the United States -- given our generally linked economies as well as generally similar outlooks on human rights. I was rather apprehensive about extending the zone to Mexico given the rather poor human rights record there. While human rights have considerably improved it is still not to the point where I'd even contemplate a visit there. Furthermore the so-called "side agreements" on labour and the environment have proven almost unenforceable. Since they were not incorporated as protocols to the main treaty they in fact have no legal effect.

Colombia is a whole different story. Their human rights record is appalling. The government still doesn't effectively control about a third of the country which is instead under the dictatorship of the drug lords. And while we certainly should encourage improvements in civil liberties in exchange for lower tariffs (what is commonly called "linkage") it should be done as a reward for actual actions taken, not as an inducement to get promises that will never be kept. Progress in Colombia has been much slower in this regard and for that reason we shouldn't even be thinking about the possibility, yet. (And of course, the clincher: Unenforceable "side agreements" on labour and the environment!)

It's a different story when we talk about free trade with the European Union, talks of which are now on the fast-track. As I noted earlier there are huge obstacles to overcome with an agreement of that nature -- including agricultural subsidies. But when there are common values of individual liberty and collective responsibility as well as long standing military ties, it's much easier to build an environment of trust where looser restrictions to trade can flourish.

I mean, really. On the seven point scale of Freedom House ranking political rights and civil liberties (one being totally free and seven being totally not free), Colombia ranks a 3 on both (partly free -- i.e. it's either on the road to freedom or on the road to regressing back to dictatorship depending on what happens inside the country). Mexico is a 2 and 3. Meanwhile, every country in the EU, every single one, ranks at worst a double 2 -- most are double "ones", but the handful of 1 and 2, 2 and 1 and double 2 are still high enough to be considered "free countries" in the sense that democratic principles and human rights are so entrenched that they are basically non-negotiable.

Who would you rather trade with? A free country, or not a free country? Unless you're Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin, I hope you said the former.

Yeah, I know, we do deal with Mainland China, which is a 7 and 6. But we keep tariffs with them and will until such time as their people become truly free. We should insist no less with any other country simply because the people in those states are mostly white.

That means it's time for the Liberal Party to do its duty, and bring down Stephen Harper. If this isn't an issue on which to do it -- human rights as a condition of freer trade -- I don't know what could be.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jews in Israel sentenced for neo-Nazi attacks

Now this is beyond redemption; and no, the title is not a misprint.

A court in Israel has sentenced eight teenagers to sentences from one to seven years in jail for neo-Nazist attacks against religious Jews, homosexuals, and drug addicts -- as well as an attack on a synagogue. The crazy thing about it: The gang consisted of Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Or are they really Jewish? Only if one stretches the definition to the extreme. Under the Law of Return -- part of Israel's constitution -- anyone who can prove a link to at least one Jewish grandparent can claim automatic citizenship in Israel the moment they get off the plane in Tel Aviv. The "Jewishness" of these thugs is very debatable and even if genuine a complete disgrace to Judaism in general. It's certainly not in keeping with Judaism as I understand it.

This is really scary in a way. The airport in Tel Aviv is well known to have the best security of any on the planet with a port of control at the airport's exterior, no curbside check-in and racial profiling at baggage handling -- in addition to the x-ray machines we usually expect. Yet the immigration department can't be bothered to vet people who are coming in to the country, whether as visitors or immigrants?

A security fence isn't going to stop people who actually make it into Israel proper and then do stuff. And it's not just radical "Islamists" attacking Jews, but the other way around as well. Does anyone remember the name Baruch Goldstein? Hate cuts in many directions, and only God will be able to sort out the mess that is the Middle East.

Much as we should pray for peace in that region of the world as well as for peaceful co-existence among all who live in the Holy Land, I just don't see it happening even during a second Obama Administration, and we haven't even gotten to the first yet.

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Cafés: Another canary in the economic coalmine

Ah, France. The verdant fields covered with vineyards, wheat, and cattle. The castles and churches. And in the cities, culture as vibrant as the countryside. Especially those cafés and bistros.

About 78% fewer cafés now than in 1960, according to an article in today's print edition of the NYT. From a peak of 200,000 there are only about 44,000 left. And the current slump has put the remaining shops on tenterhooks. It's gotten so bad that some shops have dropped the price for coffee down to just €1 (about $1.25 US) -- and still no one's buying. And we're not talking about corporate giants like Starbucks ™ or McDonalds ™ but mom and pop shops, the independent places that give both town and country their unique characters, not to mention the numerous neighbourhoods in Paris. It's not just France. Across the EU, and here in North America, some long time favourites have disappeared in favour of cookie cutter establishments and even they're in trouble.

Not that I have a vendetta against Starbucks, but when was the last time you saw a struggling artist perform there?

How truly sad that when times are tough, many of the places where the greatest ideas are fostered are the first to go. Theatres, art movie houses, nightclubs. It makes one wonder if while the right may have lost the battle of economic ideas they have won the war on culture.

The greatest acts of our time got their start in nightclubs and busking on the streets. Then some idiots thought we'd rather listen to boy and girl bands and gave DJs the shakedown to make sure they got airplay and the music industry was turned totally upside down. Imagine how much better, more wholesome, more innovative, the music industry would be if we never heard of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, Michael Bublé (yes, him -- it's my right not to like his music any more than I don't like Don Cherry's Saturday night rantings) and instead we heard more of the independents.

And of course, let's not forget, the first installment of the most successful books of our time, Harry Potter, was mostly written in a coffee shop in Edinburgh.

No, I'm not arguing for mass subsidies for the small guy. What I am saying is that people should every so often try one of the little guys rather than just going to Timmy's or Dunkin or Starbucks by habit. If they're not able to survive, then there isn't much chance for other small retail outlets either.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday night music vault: After the Loving

A shock number one hit for Engelbert Humperdinck in 1976, just when everyone though his career was long over.

Well, after this one, his chart career pretty much was over -- but he still packs them in. I like this song -- one of the few of his I do.

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Somalia Pirates; That Town in Florida (Again)

Saturday morning ... two stories on my mind. First the hijacking crisis off the coast of Somalia. Earlier this week, the world's largest shipping company, Denmark's Maersk, announced they could no longer guarantee the safety of their most vulnerable ships in the Gulf of Aden -- an area about ⅓ the size of the United States -- and will reroute those vessels with decks closest to the waterline (mostly tankers) away from the Persian Gulf and Suez Canal and instead send them around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, adding thousands of kilometres to the voyage and through one of the world's most notorious shipping lanes weather wise.

That Somalia has been allowed to run without any government at all for nearly two decades is scandalous. No one should have been surprised when the "Black Hawk Down" incident happened in 1993 given such lawlessness. You would have thought the world would have put its foot down and pulled out all aid, even humanitarian aid, until the people of Somalia or at least their leaders got their act together.

Instead, banditry has been allowed to ensue and the blood is on our hands for not demanding our governments put a stop to it. And these are not the pirates of old so romanticized by literature and the silver screen. These are terrorists seeking to exploit an already sensitive world economy; knowing the West is heavily reliant on the Middle and Far East's raw materials and finished wares.

Whatever differences may exist between the democratic world and that which isn't government need to agree that enough is enough. The Law of the Sea must be ratified ASAP, and navies given the power to deal with such thugs in an appropriate manner, by force if absolutely necessary. If it means temporarily re-flagging ships and a military escort to ensure safe passage so be it. As well the world must insist that Somalia get its act together once and for all and have some kind of functioning government. A state cannot have no laws; or an enforcement mechanism to ensure the laws stay in place.

Obama has said he wants to pull troops out of Iraq and that's good. He may want to temporarily redeploy some of those forces to the Persian and Aden Gulfs for a few months until this situation is stabilized if not eliminated all together. This is one area where global leadership is lacking right now and all eyes are on him.


And now, for another visit to that friendly neighbourhood called Ave Maria Town, Florida. (HT: AveMaria Watch)

Yes, more signs that Tom Monaghan's Promised Land (read: monument to his own glory) is in major trouble. For whatever reason, the town was deliberately built some distance away from Naples (27 km or 17 miles east, one supposes to ensure the town would be "uncontaminated" from the Gulf Coast's alleged "sinfulness"); and it was reported yesterday that because of current economic troubles a southwest Florida bank has delayed indefinitely plans to open up a branch in the town -- a complete reversal from some reports last summer which suggested that the bank actually wanted to move its headquarters to the town. A building has been completed but remains unoccupied. Interestingly because of this, the town continues to not even have any one bank at all even though most towns its size would have at least a couple by now.

You would think that another bank eager for business would want to take advantage of the lease opportunity or to grab new potential customers. Nope. According to the town's developers, there are no plans to have any bank come to the town other than the one in question. Well, actually, last year those developers announced that an Ohio-based bank wold also becoming to town to ensure competition, but according to that Ohio bank they never had any such plans to begin with.

So, two questions: First, why would they have announced there was an agreement when there was none? Was it a ploy to pretend the instant city was a viable place to live and to get new home buyers to come to set up home? Second, now that the other bank -- the one in Florida -- is getting cold feet too, why on earth would there be hostility to having someone else take up business? Was there a side deal to ensure a monopoly situation? Does Mr. Monaghan have an interest in the bank even if it just a hundred paltry shares?

We don't know because as usual there is a continuing cone of silence. As always these are not accusations. These are questions that remain unanswered.

All this from a man who promised that by 2077 that the university around which the town is being built would have produced between 35,000 and 45,000 "strong" marriages (depending on which news source Monaghan was speaking to on the rare occasions he deigned to come down from his throne to mingle with the commoners), and between 2500 and 4000 priests.

Hard to see this happening when its current enrollment is about 600 (3/4 of them undergraduates) and like other faith groups the rate of divorce among Catholics holds steady at around 50%; not to mention that its accreditation remains constantly on the edge. Its goal of having a 5000 enrollment in twenty years may be doable (if one stretches the imagination), but he's going to need even more salesmanship than Oral Roberts did for his school in Tulsa to pull it off.

And lest we forget, that ginormous chapel (less than half the originally planned size but still too huge for the purpose) built to resemble an upright salmon and not in a style more appropriate to the environment (say, Spanish mission, like the cathedral up the highway in Venice). Not to mention it's right in the middle of the migratory path of the Florida panther.

As far as I know, the school still hasn't been designated an officially "Catholic" one by the Church; merely it is for now a school that operates on what it least claims are Catholic values. (There is a big difference in the two concepts.)

There are other, more reputable and well established private Catholic universities out there -- Gonzaga, Georgetown, Notre Dame; heck even here in Canada we have St. Paul's (connected to the U of Ottawa) and St. Jerome's (affiliated with Waterloo). I don't deny that Monaghan has done a lot of good charitable work, but wouldn't he have been better off using the balance of his fortune to help the needy both around the world and at home, rather than trying to build monuments?


It sort of reminds me of a joke that made the rounds a couple of years back. Around the time John Paul II died, so did a businessman. They showed up at the pearly gates. St. Peter dispatched one of his lieutenants to escort the deceased Pontiff was to his new quarters -- a fair sized condominium in a high rise tower, where all the other Popes resided in the afterlife. It was livable. A nice sized apartment but nothing more. About the only perk was each Pope had a dedicated T1 connection to the Internet.

Meanwhile, St. Peter personally took the businessman to his new home, a huge Southfork-style ranch manor with indoor pools, facilities connected to every bedroom (twenty of them), all the creature comforts in every single oversized den and to top it all off, the plates and cutlery were made of solid 24 karat gold. As for the internet connection -- it had bandwidth and speeds that would not be possible even on earth for another thousand years.

The businessman, who was somewhat philantrophic in his life but never thought he was a holy person, asked St. Peter what gave.

"Oh, we've had a lot of Popes in our time; but you're the first businessman to come here since the American Revolution!"

Kidding aside, I hope you get the point.

"Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ... for where your treasure is your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:20, 21)

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Friday, November 21, 2008

More and more go on dole in States

Yesterday's numbers from the United States certainly don't look good. According to the US government's numbers 542,000 applied for unemployment benefits last week. That's well above what was expected by The Street, and way above the 325,000 or so that one would expect in a "normal" week. Of course these are anything but normal times. The number of people collecting UI on an ongoing basis in America is now over 4 million. It's gotten so bad that Congress has extended benefits by 7 to 20 weeks depending on how bad it is by state to state -- the maximum is usually 26 -- and Dubya who had threatened to veto the bill now signed it early this morning (he probably didn't have much choice given the continuing meltdown).

There is absolutely no question now that the mission in Iraq was misguided from the start and that if the thirty billion or so per month being spent there (plus all the kickbacks various private contractors get on an ongoing basis) was instead spent in the United States, America might not be in the mess they are in right now. Imagine if instead of continuing to explode the deficit, it was announced that prudent measures were being put in to cut waste and the overruns would be cut by half -- overnight? Foreign investment in the States would skyrocket. End of recession, right there.

By the way, on a network news story last night from the States (can't remember which one), I also noticed that they put up signs in Social Security offices saying "Fight UI fraud." Oh, like they tell Americans NOW to fight it? I know desperate times make people do even stupider things but going on the dole is the last thing people would rather do.

I still don't see a depression headed towards America. A steep recession, certainly. Many of the safety valves that weren't around in 1929 are holding back the torrents, albeit barely and central banks are doing what they need to be doing.

But I also think people are going to need patience -- the new administration in the States isn't going to turn things around overnight. Obama's also going to need it too; he (or I should say his handlers) made a lot of his fellow citizens believe he can walk on water even though his campaign slogan was, Yes We Can. At least he emphasized the collective, unlike Secretary of State-in-waiting Hillary Clinton who had "[My] Solutions for America" as her banner.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

What if ... Obama was president NOW?

It's a pretty good question that Josh Marshall's asked today ... what if the Americans had a transition of power overnight and Obama had become President on November 5, the day after the election?

What if did it like they do in the UK? If a Prime Minister loses the election, he or she doesn't hang out for a lame duck session trying to ram through some last minute regulations or appointments. He or she goes to Buckingham Palace, tells the Sovereign that he or she has lost the confidence of the Queen's subjects to govern and resigns as Her Majesty's chief servant right then and there.

While Barack Obama was elected sixteen days ago it will be another sixty-one before he takes the oath of office. Imagine if America had it so that a team was ready to go, the day after the election rather than this interminable vetting and confirmation period?

No more surprise pardons. No more unexpected land management decisions. No executive orders that wind their way through the courts for years and wind up in the outgoing power's favour.

But of course, that's the way the Americans do it. They drag the transition out just like they do the elections; which gives Bush some last extra time to continue to put to waste his MBA and come up with yet another "Bushism" -- those twists of phrase that the press loves to ridicule. And in the current circumstance, two more months to do further damage to the economy when what America desperately needs is leadership.

I just don't get it. Even here in Canada, the transition usually takes about ten days.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stevens throws in towel, McCain wins Missouri 15 days late

Ted Stevens finally conceded the Alaska Senate race today, after he got word that Sarah Palin had congratulated the winner, Mark Begich. It will be interesting to see how Begich works with Palin as well as his fellow Senator from the State, the GOP's Lisa Murkowski -- Senators not only represent the people in their state but also their state government, a throwback to the days before 1913 (and the 17th Amendment) when Senators were picked by the state legislatures. But I shed no tears at seeing Stevens go -- convictions or not. Anyone who would say the Internet is a "series of tubes" clearly is out of step with reality.

Meanwhile, the AP reports that the count in Missouri has finally been completed and McCain won the state's 11 electoral votes by just 3632 raw ballots cast. Final total for the Electoral College: Obama 365, McCain 173. Missouri's nearly 50 year bellwether streak is finally over. Still, the fact Obama made it so close in the crossroads of America bodes well for the donkey in future election cycles there.

Hey, I was off -13 for Obama. Not a bad guess, I would say.

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Dating service now open to gays and lesbians

The online dating service eHarmony ™ has settled out of court with a man from New Jersey and, as part of the agreement, will now add two more dating options -- women seeking women, and men seeking men. It has been up till now been only open to heterosexuals.

The service, founded by Dr. Neil Clark Warren and which was once connected to Focus on the Family (no, seriously), had apparently been considering the options but kept putting it in the "planning stages." The new site which is going to be up by March 2009 will be called "Compatible Partners."

Absolutely the correct thing to do. I have no issues with two people of the same sex living together or trying to find companionship -- they face the same difficulties finding someone as people who are "straight," like me. Denying one's matchmaking services to a specific subset of the culture, or any other business so denying their fare for that matter, for a fee -- even when someone is willing to pay -- is a stupid way to run a business as far as I'm concerned. It's as stupid as the days when entire neighbourhoods were off-limits to those of the Jewish faith.

For what it's worth, I wouldn't care if someday we have a Prime Minister who is gay or lesbian and has his or her partner living with him or her at 24 Sussex -- as long as they can do the job of running the Langevin Block, I don't give a damn what they do under the sheets. If I recall correctly, Sweden has already had this precedent, and gay marriages become legal there next year (civil unions have been available in Abbaland for quite some time).

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Microsoft offering free anti-virus

So many of us use the PC platform for our computing that it's become almost ubiquitous. On the one hand, having a near universal standard makes life that much easier for software developers (who are then freed to make their programs even better than if having to start from scratch); on the other hand we become so reliant to the MS standard that we've exposed ourselves to numerous Trojan horses and other computer bugs -- a fact Apple's Mac ™ keeps poking fun at (even though there are quite a few Apple-specific viruses out there). The danger is so great that both platforms, but especially the former, keep urging us to have a registered and up to date anti-virus and firewall program.

Now, Microsoft is getting set to offer its own security and anti-virus package next summer, for free -- a tool which will work on XP, Vista and the forthcoming Windows 7. Just as Netscape went the way of the dodo, a lot of people wonder if this is The End for McAfee and Norton, among others.

I doubt it -- the MS program appears to be a no-frills program for those who want only the basics. Looks like they're going after the notebook crowd, mainly, as well as those still on dial-up. Many of us want and need something more robust.

Still, seeing how MS mowed down the competition in the past, such as IBM's OS2 and the NeXT Station, I wouldn't be too eager to be optimistic if I were one of those who make commercial packages. I would just promote it as a better product and why a pay package is better than the free one -- just as pay TV and extended basic cable often is better than free TV. Heck, even some free software anti-virus in competition might end up being better too. I didn't much like MS's spyware tool which I had to uninstall because it slowed down my desktop big time but some downloadable freebies work for spy and adware I have work just fine -- they're in the background and unobtrusive and often killing the spyware without even me knowing about it.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Breaking: Ted Stevens, loses Senate seat? Wunnerful, wunnerful!

From the AP, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich now has an insurmountable lead of 3,724 --since there are only 2500 ballots left to be counted. One (Alaska) down, two (Georgia, Minnesota) to go!

Also, Stevens said he will not seek a pardon from Dubya. I don't think Shrub would want to give him one anyway.

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Man got (then lost) an annulment -- for this?

A headline in today's Toronto Star reads "Muslim loses virginity case". Stupid wording in my opinion, but here's the gist: Some time ago, a Muslim man in France sought an annulment from his wife because, he claimed, his bride "lied about being a virgin." A lower court granted the man's request but an appeals court has reinstated the marriage; saying that's not a good enough reason, that an annulment can only be granted if one of the partners "has misrepresented his or her essential qualities.'"

Guess virginity doesn't count as one of them. What, he actually believed she had been telling him the truth? Prosecutors said granting an annulment would amount to discrimination against women -- and I totally agree with that.

This isn't a swipe against any one religion in particular. Not long after the Charter of Rights came into force in Canada a number of Christian husbands tried to block their wives from divorcing them saying their religion forbade a divorce and they took an oath to be married "until death do us part" -- in other words, divorce against one's beliefs amounted to violating one's freedom of religion.

The courts correctly ruled that the state is not concerned with the religious aspects of a marriage even if is held in a place of worship; only the civil aspects since a minister, rabbi or imam is also a licensed agent of the state. In the event of bona fide marital breakdown a divorce must be granted since, in the view of the state, anything that comes after the only legally required words "I take you to be my wife / husband" is obiter dicta (excess verbiage); a religious separation based on what comes after those words (or violation thereof) is a matter for the denomination to decide, not the state.

I don't like divorce especially as my parents split up that way, but sometimes that is the only option. If the woman misrepresented her "nature" such that it was, then the man should have sought an immediate divorce, not an annulment -- then pressed charges of fraud if he thought the lie amounted to a breach of trust. Even then I don't anyone would take the man seriously. If everyone was bound to the double standard he would have liked the courts to abide by, the divorce rate would double overnight -- and civil courts throughout the EU have a notoriously long backlog.

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FOTF slashes workforce

Is it just the bad economy or "cash strapped" donors as the ministry claims -- or have people finally gotten fed up with Rev. James Dobson and his repeated attempts over the past year to ensure who he believed to be "God's candidate" -- i.e. anyone but Obama -- got elected? It's hard to say but Focus on the Family is eliminating 202 jobs and slashed $22 million from its budget for next year. It's also eliminating four of its eight print magazines and moving them to online content.

I'm not going to gloat on this one -- Colorado Springs is being hit hard by the recession with unemployment already at 6% before this bombshell.

But surely a ministry must understand that if it wishes for something it's bound to get it back in ways unanticipated. Remember during the summer when FOTF asked its members to pray for a downpour in Denver so Obama couldn't give his speech at Mile High? Instead, it was Galveston, over 900 miles to the southeast, that got inundated. The laid off employees have their bosses to blame -- stupid things said will lead to a decline in donations which usually remain robust even during difficult times.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Happy b-day, Gord!

Before I forget, a very happy b-day to one of the legends of the music business and one of Canada's best exports ever. Gordon Lightfoot turned 70 today.

Mark Cuban charged: "Insider trading" sez SEC

The SEC, the US Securities and Exchanges Commission, has issued insider trading charges. Nothing new there. But the accused is quite a shock: Dallas Mavericks owner and erstwhile film producer Mark Cubanwho it is alleged sold 600,000 shares in a Canadian search engine called (now called Copernic) -- essentially, he knew an upcoming supplementary offering would dilute the share price so he sold all his shares the same day he supposedly got the tip. By doing so, he avoided losing $750,000.

(Source: KTXA, Dallas TX)

Yes, the same Mark Cuban who made a huge profit before the dot-com bubble burst; the same Cuban who has been fined about $1.5 million over the years by the NBA for his repeated outbursts against referees.

As always, one presumes innocence until proof of guilt. But after Enron, Worldcom, Xerox and even one solitary figure named Martha Stewart, you'd think that Cuban would know better than to profit from important info like that at the expense of others -- if the allegations are true. Even if one could make a technical argument that nothing illegal was done, it still amounts to an unfair advantage. Just as there's a morals clause for players there should be one for owners -- and the NBA should suspend Cuban pending the outcome of the trial.

Sadly, there goes yet another figure we presumed was at least slightly ethical; even if he's acquitted he's dead meat as far as a public profile goes.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Old Boys -- um, the Old Idiots

If the Liberal Party is supposed to be going through a renewal process, it's going to be a very messy one with former roommates Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff already throwing the gloves off. Rae accused Ignatieff of trying to keep the press out of an all candidate forum. The latter said he presumed that it was a private meeting before party executives.

Iggy was my second rank choice last time out (behind Gerard Kennedy who isn't running this time), but if both he and Rae Day are going to act like most of the other brats that come out of Upper Canada College then maybe it's time both stepped aside and some new ideas be allowed to be injected into the system. We don't need idiots running the party, especially Old Boys -- we need leaders and Rae and Ignatieff are acting anything but like leaders right out of the gate. Disgusting.

I mean really. A former Ontario Premier who busted the budget, and a Harvard Professor. Wow. How did people expect they would act?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saturday night music vault: Pilot of the Airwaves

At the close of another crazy week, something I've been looking for, for a long time. Remember this classic from 1980? Charlie Dore is well respected in Europe and has written a number of hit songs for quite a few A-listers on both shores of the Atlantic, yet on this side of the pond she is still considered one of those "One Hit Wonders." Too bad ...

What do we have as an excuse for music today? Don't even go there. About the only good thing to come out of the factory the last couple years was Weird Al's "White and Nerdy," a parody song. That's how bad it's gotten.

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Girl power in Nunavut

Nunavut, like the Northwest Territories, does not have territory level political parties. The legislature operates on a consensus basis -- with the Premier and Cabinet chosen among its ranks. This means among other things that even if an incumbent Premier is re-elected as an MLA in his home district he still needs the confidence of his fellow legislators to stay on in the top job. In a delightful surprise yesterday, the two-term Premier, Paul Okalik, was voted out. His replacement is Eva Aariak. What's more incredible -- Aariak is the only woman on the legislature, and she's a rookie MLA. (Previously, she was the territory's language commissioner.)

Aariak admits her job won't be easy. The cost of living in the territory remains the highest in Canada, development prospects remain grim in the current credit meltdown and if that's not bad enough the rate of suicide is far ahead of the rest of the country and there are health care issues exacerbated by a vast territory the size of Western Europe.

Perhaps this is reflected in the fact that five of her six cabinet members are also new to the executive and of them three are also rookies. (A seventh post will be filled once a by-election is held next month -- the general election in that district was cancelled to a court challenge alleging major irregularities.)

Regardless, it will be nice that the next Premiers' meeting won't all be thirteen men in suits (plus Laureen Teskey's clown, whenever he actually deems to show up). A woman's touch may actually knock some sense in the other bozos. We're going to need that in the rocky months ahead. And as a wise woman said: "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman."

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Whither the Eurozone?

It's official -- the 15 EU countries that use the Euro currency are in recession or more correctly have been since April of this year. So too, it turns out, is the entire EU block, including the twelve states that presently have opted out of the Euro.

Is this trouble for the world entire? You bet.

There have been currency unions before -- some Caribbean states for example share a common currency (the Eastern Caribbean dollar, or XCD) which in any case is pegged fairly close to the US dollar. But the Euro (EUR), which celebrates its 10th birthday in the new year as a virtual currency and its 7th as a material one (in terms of paper notes and coinage) is a behemoth by comparison. At the end of last year, about €610 billion were in circulation -- which is more than all the equivalent in greenbacks out there on the entire planet.

For those who don't remember, here are the countries that use it: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus (South), France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Slovenia. Slovakia will adopt the currency in the new year, with more countries to follow in the early 10s. (Three other countries, all outside the EU -- Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City -- also mint Euro coins by permission but are not part of the group that decides how the currency is managed.)

Why should we worry on this side of the pond? Because this is the first time in living memory so many countries have fallen flat and so fast -- and certainly the first time so many have at the same time.

On the one hand, a common currency simplifies life both for B2B transactions as well as for tourism. No need to change money at the border, no more hedging that a vendor might end up losing money on the deal. On the other hand, if one country goes into recession (or, in reverse, overheats economically) that country's government can't simply loosen or tighten the money supply (respectively) on its own -- it has to act in coordination with its partners as well as the head office of the currency, in this case the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. The very strength of the money also is its strongest weakness.

Now imagine having to juggle fifteen developed countries with often competing interests and various national rates of slowdown. All states being relatively stable democracies to be sure, but all of which have surrendered one of the ultimate and tangible symbols of national sovereignty. And, let's not forget, while the UK is still sticking with the pound sterling officially, its banks actually do at least 90% of their business in the Euro, so it's not like they're not catching the cold from the Continent. So you can imagine Jean-Claude Trichet pulling his hair out right now figuring how to keep things from collapsing after floating hundreds of billions of euros on the open market already this year.

While many may wish for their old money back, most would admit the Euro is pretty much permanent. So why should we care?

Much of the world does trade with Europe, including Canada. So we're bound to feel the impact too. If the currency continues its rapid downward slide as the recession deepens -- a total reversal from just a few months ago when it was flirting with $1.60 US -- then new quality machinery companies need here will become more expensive to procure; leaving manufacturers to go to places with already questionable quality, Mainland China just being one of them. On the flip side, a lower Euro should mean a boon for foreign tourism but with people just barely scraping by here it's hard to see too many people going to Europe for vacations in the near future; Europeans in turn are going to be reluctant to return the favour.

Making things even worse.

Where does this leave Barack Obama? With one hell of a juggling act. He's going to have to figure out how to appease his own people in America as well as the citizens of Fortress Europe without offending either side. Failure to do so will lead to greater destabilization. At least he only has to deal with two currencies -- not dozens. But there are a whole lot of countries at stake.

Fasten your seat belt folks -- we've only just begun.

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Since when did the Amish do this?

I don't know if it was in your local paper, but earlier this week the rag here in Hamilton had a full page ad giving away "free" Amish heat stoves on a first come first serve basis. Of course you have to pay shipping and handling -- which probably covers the cost of the materials plus a bit of profit.

But didn't anyone notice that the stoves are electric? I thought the Amish eschew electricity; so why would they make stuff that uses it? If -- if -- they drive cars, it's always black, just a base model and they never use the a/c; and they go in and out of merchant shops as fast as they can so they're not exposed to the "sinfulness" of our world for longer than absolutely necessary. That includes artificially produced heat and light. Granted, the vast majority of the community has a peace of mind that most of us can only dream of.

You can slap the word "Amish" on anything to give it an imprimatur of quality or a wholesome character. Doesn't mean it is really Amish. Chinese food here in North America (at least the kind at quick serve restaurants or buffets) isn't Mandarin or Cantonese -- it's mostly San Francisco fare. "Pizzas" aren't Italian, either -- a real Italian pie is thick, even thicker than the fare in Chicago. I have to wonder what the deal is here. Has anyone out there tried those heat stoves and is the provenance of origin genuine?

If this was a real advertisement, all the power to the vendor. If it was a fake, shouldn't the paper as well as the seller ask questions about its truthfulness? Uh, well not the paper -- after all Newsworld ran ads for weeks about silver coins made from the finds in a vault under Ground Zero in Manhattan, years after Eliot Spitzer (yes, him) ruled the whole operation fraudulent, and other than a few random blog posts I don't know if the CRTC or any fair practices agency called out the CBC on it.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hillary for State?

NBC reported tonight that Barack Obama will resign his Senate seat on Sunday, a lot earlier than expected, paving the way for a by-election in Illinois sometime mid-winter. (Theoretically he could stick it out right to January 20th but I guess he's too busy with the transition and security briefings.)

The network's Andrea Mitchell reported as well that Obama is seriously considering putting his main Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, in his Cabinet. No surprise there. What is a surprise is the post for which she is being considered: State.

Clinton has never been as media saavy as Obama. (Remember how the "vast right wing conspiracy" talk wound up blowing up in her face, when Bill admitted the real blow up -- pardon the expression?) The extent of her foreign affairs experience is some time at the airport in Tuzla and Track II chats with women's groups in Northern Ireland, as well as the junkets she went on with Slick Willy while she was First Lady. No doubt a chance to gladhand with executive and legislative officials from other countries, but that does make her qualified to be America's top diplomat?

She's no Madeleine Albright. Her tough as nails approach would be much better served as Attorney General. After all, you need to keep the press that covers the diplomatic beat happy. You don't have to care about the Fourth Estate if you're the top law enforcement officer. Just ask John Ashcroft.

For State, I'd pick someone with more foreign policy experience. It should be a career diplomat, or perhaps an ex-spy. Nothing would be sweeter justice than to see Valerie Plame or her husband, Joe Wilson, get the job -- after the way they were both ratfucked by the Bush White House. Given political realities right now, the likely candidates are John Kerry, Bill Richardson

On a totally unrelated subject: A Catholic priest today in Greenville SC said no communion for Obama voters. I thought it was a secret ballot ...

It's also patently silly. It's one thing to challenge Obama on his pro-choice position, as America's Catholic bishops have vowed. To take it out on their parishoners risks internal strife and schism, and given the American Church is still ripped apart over the sex abuse scandals, alienating the laity even more is the last thing that is needed right now. As usual, Roman Catholics in America went with the winner (54%, just slightly above the national overall) and "seemless web" issues weren't the only thing on their minds last week.

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"If invited, would you attend?"

Not too long ago, a fellow blogger (can't say which, since he or she asked to remain anonymous) asked me a hypothetical but good question. Notwithstanding how I feel about gay marriage, if I got an invitation to attend one, would I reply that I was coming?

I never thought about that about, actually. But here's my answer: If it was two men, probably not unless one of the partners was a relative. If it was two women, almost certainly yes; especially if one of them was someone I had a great deal of respect for.

That's just me, though.

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Ted Stevens now behind (uh, in vote count)

For those of us who've been hoping that convicted US Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) would be voted out of office and not have to face an almost certain expulsion, there's some good news.

Absentee ballots and votes cast at the advance polls have been counted since last Tuesday's election, when Stevens appeared to have a 3000 vote lead despite his conviction -- confirming suspicions by many in the Lower 48 that corruption and greed are part of an oil economy no matter if there is democracy or not (as in Saudi Arabia). With about 35,000 or so ballots left to be counted, Stevens' Democrat challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich has begun to pull out a very narrow lead over Stevens -- first just three votes, now 814.

The mail-in ballots are mostly coming in from parts of Alaska that tend to be friendly to Democrats, but Begich was also leading in many parts of Bush country. If the trend lines continue that will be another Dem pickup and increase the chances the donkey will get closer to the magic number of 60. There's still that recount in Minnesota between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, while there's a runoff in Georgia between Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin.

One other thing -- why hasn't Missouri announced who won the Presidential in that state? Could it be embarrassed to have not picked the winner for the first time in 52 years -- or are there still absentee ballots waiting to be counted there? We just don't know.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

EU admits it was wrong -- on food

Even huge fans of the European Union have often criticized the bureaucracy in Brussels for over-regulating and micromanaging. While common standards for such things as automobile safety make sense, other attempts at regulation -- such as refund rules for agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy -- would make most lawyers pull their hair out.

For once, however, the EU has caved in on at least one issue -- "oddly misshapen" fruits and vegetables sold in the trading bloc. I kid you not: Until now some food that grew the wrong way could not be sold anywhere in the 27 country bloc.

Regulations are being scrapped for -- get this -- 26 specific agrifoods: apricots, artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, avocadoes, beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflowers, cherries, courgettes, cucumbers, cultivated mushrooms, garlic, hazelnuts in shell, headed cabbage, leeks, melons, onions, peas, plums, ribbed celery, spinach, walnuts in shell, water melons and witloof/chicory.

They remain in place for apples, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, lettuces, peaches and nectarines, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes and tomatoes; but will now be allowed to be sold if marked with a label such as "product intended for processing."

When 20% of food has to be scrapped because it doesn't meet shape regulations (even if it is otherwise edible or healthy) while 29,000 children per day in the Third World die from hunger and preventable disease, there really is something wrong. People care about taste, not looks -- and if push comes to shove they'll eat slop as long as it keeps themselves satisfied.

As I've said before, I think the EU is probably the greatest success story in economic cooperation, open borders and the promotion of democracy values and human rights in the history of the world. But people expect their lives to remain rather simple -- you know, the KISS formula. It's little wonder why people here in North America are worried about further integration -- what unaccountable body would be setting regulations if the free trade area became a true economic union?

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This is NOT a hate crime?

There is no excuse for this incident last week, a deliberate attack against a lesbian couple outside a school in Oshawa where they were picking up one of their children. The Durham Police have charged the attacker with assault but say that the decision of whether to pursue this as a hate crime lies with the county's Crown Attorney.

Nope. Wrong. If this isn't a hate crime I don't know what is. The circumstances clearly dictate that it is hate, and prosecutors should have no discretion. I believe the law needs to be changed, so that it should be up to a jury to rule whether an aggravating circumstance of hate is involved; if so the sentence that would normally be imposed would be automatically doubled. Where the maximum would be life, the parole eligibility should be doubled. (Presently, the law permits the trial judge to consider a tougher sentence for a hate crime but is not legally bound to impose one.)

That would send a message that we're not going to take this crap anymore. Whether it's a so-called "honour killing," dragging a Native off the streets and into the back country, or going after someone because of their sexual orientation, hate is hate. Period.

Until we get that one fact straight, no one will trust the police or prosecutors to do the job they're supposed to.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Exploitative? How?

A number of groups are upset right now at Toronto Life magazine for their cover story this month about the murder last year of 16 year old Aqsa Parvez who was killed, prosecutors allege, simply because she wanted to be her own woman which some -- and I do underscore some -- Muslim men consider to be a "sin" worthy of death. Those groups are claiming that the article pigeon-holes the issue of violence against women and children and makes Muslims the targets of hate.

I'm with BigCityLib on this one and agree that the protest misses the point -- that Parvez' murder was in fact an honour killing. The only mistake Toronto Life made was saying it was the city's first honour killing -- they should have said it's the first one we've heard about.

We also need to consider why it is we aren't getting through to immigrant communities from all regions of the world, of all races and of all religions where speaking out about such violence is not only discouraged but in many cases brutally supressed. Indeed, I know many people within the community I come from, both men and women, who actually say if a woman is beaten up or raped it was because she wanted to. But if it is a man who is victimized by a woman, then it is a "horrible" crime and the wife should "get what she deserves." This is within a Christian, European community, folks, not a Muslim one.

Enough of the double standard, people. Part of the settlement process is an absolute insistence on re-education to purge that kind of hate, and if they will not do so then they should be given a one-way ticket out of the country. Plain and simple. If violence against is an indicated part of "multiculturalism," in fact actually increases violence against women, then it's time to change the policy or get rid of it all together.

And even removing the issue of culture, it's not an issue of culture. It's one of violence. 53% of women will be a victim of violence at the hands of her partner at least once in her lifetime. When we don't speak out, we acquiesce to the violence no matter the origin or specific belief of the attacker or the victim. Of course we must oppose hate crimes against people on the basis of religion, but violence against women is also a hate crime and should be punished as such.

Kathy Shaidle also has a tack on this one, and notes the irony that the protestors chose Remembrance / Veterans Day to launch their anger -- an irony not lost on me either.

To which, I would add this, since it is 11/11: Our troops are supposed to be fighting for women's rights. Inevitably, we just substitute one faction that hates women with one that hates women just a little less. A worse evil in my opinion, because it only means we actually educate the women, then kill them for whatever reason. Why in God's name aren't we looking for irregulars and militia groups who actually like women and support their dignity, for a change? Those groups, besides women's rights NGOs, seem to be in very short supply in Afghanistan right now -- another reason why we might want to consider pulling out of that hellhole before 2011, even if Obama wants us to send more fighters to back up the reinforcements he's sending next year.

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