Friday, July 31, 2009

RIP Corazon Aquino

Some very sad news tonight, as we learn of the death of Corazon Aquino, the reluctant woman who led the "People Power" revolution that led to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Her push for democracy in a region that at the time saw very little of it (only Japan, Australia and New Zealand could plausibly have been called democracies then) inspired the world, and led to her being one of only until then one of only a very few women who had been named Time's "Man of the Year."

Her no-nonsense approach to democracy as well as her tough line on militants who repeatedly tried to overthrow her set an important benchmark. It's going to be hard to imagine a world without her.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

When IS it a good time to talk about the economy?

Does this sound like something a leader would say?
"We do not need another round of political instability and another round of elections — we need Parliament to focus on the economy."

That was PMS.
What's the matter, Steve? You actually think Canada is going to turn into Italy, where the old saying goes, "If you don't like the government, wait ten minutes"? Let's face it, there's been an election that has been ongoing since the last one -- just like the last Parliament. It's sort of like a phony war that never ends.
If Harper wants Parliament to work, he should make it work -- not constantly point fingers at his enemies. Comments like the one today underscore why he may never win the majority he so desperately seeks.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

EU double standard

Iceland, which has gone through the wringer because of the financial crisis, may get fast-tracked into both the EU and the Eurozone in as little as three years or even less, given the close integration that already exists between the country and the trade block. Meanwhile, the applications for some other countries are being held up for all sorts of reasons: Croatia (a candidate country) still has a border dispute with Slovenia (in the Eurozone); Serbia still is seen as uncooperative with the UN War Tribunals; and of course Turkey -- well, most of Europe fears having a Muslim majority state in on the party.

Is it me, or is there a bit of ethnic prejudice going on here?

Maybe, but I also think people in the EU are still reeling from how fast Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU before they were really ready. Transparency International still gives pretty low marks to both countries -- in terms of "cleanness" Bulgaria ranked 72nd (tied with Mainland China) last year, while Romania was 70th (tied with Colombia). Compare that to some other EU countries -- Poland (58th, tied with Turkey), Italy (55th), Malta (36th, tied with Puetro Rico), France (23rd), and at the top of the list for least propensity for corruption: Denmark and Sweden tied for first (along with New Zealand). Canada, by the way, was 9th. The US rated no better than Belgium and Japan (18th).

Earlier this year, the EU pulled about €450 million (about USD 640 million) in transfer payments to Bulgaria for what is seen as its lack of efforts to clean up the judiciary and purge the Mafia. True, Bulgaria is a "free country" as most Westerners would define it; and I will concede that it along with the rest of the ex-Soviet client states have made incredible strides since the revolutions of twenty years ago. But it is clearly still not at the point where it could adopt the Euro (the country originally set a target of 2012 but 2014 seems more realistic now, if that).

Romania has appeared to fare better, but it still has a large brain drain issue, with many migrants heading to wealthier EU states, including Italy. The strained relations between Italians and Romanians is well publicized.

Sadly, my parents' home country of Croatia still misses the mark on some economic indicators and its judiciary is still partially stuck in the Communist era with judges still not fully independent from political interference -- one of the key hallmarks of a democratic state. The border dispute over Piran and Istria is really a red herring. Canada still has several border disputes with the US but that didn't stop a free trade agreement between the two countries more than two decades ago.

To be fair, Iceland meets most of the criteria for EU membership and it could theoretically become a member tomorrow if an agreement could be made on its whaling practices. But really -- why should it get any more special favours than any other candidate country? Shouldn't it have to meet the convergence rules first and then made to wait, just like all the EU states currently in had to do? A fast-track is simply glad handing the banks there which made some really poor choices in investments then expected the world to bail them out.

EU membership shouldn't be a bailout, but a reward for good financial stewardship.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Honour killing, times four

Looks like the car that smashed into a canal in Kingston, Ontario just didn't end up there by accident. All four of the victims were women and now three people from Montréal -- including the parents and brother of three of the women -- have been charged by Kingston authorities with four counts of murder one. Police aren't saying much yet, but this has all the markings of an honour killing.

Is it that? Or is this part of a long term strategy by some in our society to ensure the long term genocide of women in this country, simply because they dare to assert their God-given equal rights?
It may be just a coincidence, but the family is originally from Afghanistan, by way of Dubai -- both in a part of a world where honour killings are enthusiastically accepted by men as part of the culture even though the majority religion specifically condemns it.
There have been honour killings in this country before, committed by members of all major religions including Christianity, but just they haven't been reported as such until recently. They will continue unless we all stand up and say enough.
Sometimes I don't know what this world is coming to. Comments? (Please keep it clean.)

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Papers -- I didn't need papers when I got on the plane!

It's been about a week since PMS announced, totally out of the blue, visa restrictions on Mexico and the Czech Republic. We're still feeling the repercussions. The government claims it is because of bogus refugee claims from people who make claims for status once they arrive in Canada.

But doing so without much more justification than that is more than just perplexing, it's stupid; and it's creating a common template on two completely different issues.

There is, at least on the surface, a disproportionate number of Roma out of the total number of people who apply for immigrant status from the Czech Republic. And certainly, there is strong evidence that the Romany are being discriminated against throughout the EU. There are mechanisms to deal with this legally in Europe, including at the European Court on Human Rights. For many this obviously takes too long so they look for a safe third country. Since the US appears to be so bureaucratic, and especially with a backlash against even legal immigrants thanks to the Lou Dobbs Army, many see Canada as the "safe" alternative.

But it makes no sense to brush all Czech citizens with the same brush. Not all of those who are Czech bear an animus towards the Roma.

And traditionally Canada have given visa-free access to all EU citizens, a throw-back to our strong cultural, economic and military ties to Western and Central Europe. In return, the Schengen Area affords visa-free access to Canadians provided one gets his or her passport stamped within the first 72 hours of arriving in the first Schengen state he or she enters. It wouldn't take a stretch for the Schengen states to impose restrictions on Canadians in retaliation -- and one imagines, even the UK and Ireland as well since they're more likely to show solidarity with their European partners than their cousins across the sea.

Doing this on short notice was also just bad public relations. If there was a genuine concern, such as an identifiable terrorist group based in central Europe, then Canada should have asked permission to access the information system that lists people on the watch list throughout Europe and who are otherwise restricted from travelling and then put them on our watch list as well.

This also kind of puts a big wrench in the present free-trade negotiations we're having with the EU right now. The EU will absolutely insist that most favoured nation status, including visa-free travel, become permanent and irrevocable, before the treaty is finalized.

Even without such concerns, the visa is way past its prime. If we need a way to control the flow of people coming into Canada, the best way is what the Aussies do -- an electronic travel authority (ETA) that is purchased online once a passage is booked, and is tied to one's passport number. No paperwork, no sticker, no photos, just a confirmation that one is permitted to enter the country, and is cleared once the passport is shown and cross-referenced against the authority on-line and any watch lists.

That being said, I do think there is an argument that purely economic refugees should be dealt with firmly, and excluded from the country. This isn't like the Sudan or North Korea. If one wants to make a claim under the Geneva Conventions from a developed country, there is no reason why he or she can't do so at the Embassy and ask for an expedited claim.

As far as Mexico goes -- I do have concerns about the high rate of crime in that country right now and some people wanting to escape from there. That does not in and of itself amount to a legitimate refugee claim. Nor does economic persecution. The standard for proving political prosecution is very high. I ask if some of the claimants, having failed in the US or fearing they might, are trying for status in Canada because of our perceived more lenient policies (which runs the claimants against the Safe Third Country agreement which provides that one must apply for asylum in the first country they enter).

Still, we do get a lot of tourist trade from Mexico, and imposing a visa requirement on such short notice is not just idiotic but a money grab as well. Are the Conservatives so short of money that they decide that, our having been taxed enough, they will try to get a pound of flesh from those who visit us? What impression does that leave with people looking in?

We need to be absolutely clear on what our policies are and not just make them up. If there is going to be a visa requirement, it should be on six months' notice. If a country is part of a trade block, then the visa requirement should extend to the whole block and then only for the minimum period absolutely necessary to resolve whatever issue there might be in having created the backlog. And finally, we should be using our voice to ensure human rights are respected everywhere. If there's a problem with a minority in a specific country, we should use diplomatic means before using the hammer.

My father came here as a refugee, a legitimate one. Despite his and my concerns about illegal immigrants -- and our differences in politics -- even he would agree that a country shouldn't just change things on the fly, just to appease their base.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

That's the way it was: Walter Cronkite

It's hard to put words to the news Walter Cronkite is dead beyond what so many have said in print and on television. His impact was felt so far and wide beyond the US that even in some EU member states -- in particular Sweden and the Netherlands -- a news anchor is called a "Cronkiter." He famously reported on the death of JFK, Vietnam, the moon landing and Watergate; and he was actually handling the phones live on the air when two famous figures in particular -- Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson -- died during airtime.
Like Woodward and Bernstein at their heights, Cronkite was a stickler for details, giving people the simple facts without overdoing it. When he said "That's the way it is," it was. It's hard to imagine another coming along like him.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anything's got a price, even cable companies

Hearing today that one of the local cable companies here in Hamilton -- Mountain Cablevision -- is being taken over by Shaw brings back some memories.

A number of years back (1997 to be exact), when the big three cable companies in English Canada -- Rogers, Shaw and Cogeco -- got together to launch a dozen or so new cable networks at the same time at a cut rate price and called it "Me TV" -- it took many of the mom-and-pop cable companies by surprise. (And so began the negative option billing controversy that led to the explosion of satellite TV).
Here in Hamilton, there were at the time four cable companies; Cogeco and three smaller companies (Western, Mountain and Southmount). I was served by Western, however it did offer the package and I took it. But the other two did not, for months. It wasn't a negative option situation, instead they wouldn't offer them, period. Soon, a local deejay who lived in the footprint of one of those two called them the "loser cable companies," and the name stuck. And when they did offer the channels, the packages were so confusing that it's a wonder anyone picked them up.
Since then, in 2000 Western became Cableworks and then got promptly sold to Cogeco but Mountain and Southmount (now Source) were seen as untouchable. Until today. Shaw is a bit of a surprise since some years ago they, Rogers and Cogeco swapped some territories to avoid a "hop-scotch" and Shaw actually pulled out of the Toronto area; so coming back to Southern Ontario is a bit of déjà vu. Still, it amounts to a choice between a cable monopoly, satellite TV or wireless cable.
Real choice would be being able to have several cable companies plus the phone company's fiber optic service competing for our business for television, telephone, cellular and Internet service. One family may be laughing to the bank today, but in the end it's the customers who are the losers. Call me nuts, but it would be interesting if there was some way for Rogers and Videotron (as well as smaller companies across Canada) to be able to compete for our business. Then prices would really drop. This isn't like health care where it's in the public interest to have a government monopoly. We should extend net neutrality to its logical conclusion -- real competition.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Not just an ordinary faux pas

As a Catholic, I want to put in my two cents worth on the flap about Stephen Harper apparently taking in communion at the state funeral of Roméo Leblanc last week. Certainly this is not the place to make fun of Harper's religion -- I have too much respect for evangelicals to do that. Nor am I going to debate whether he actually ate the host or he pocketed it; nor about transsubstantiation (this debate goes back to the days of Martin Luther, after all).

Rather, I write to point out that while the vast majority of Catholics in Canada may be that in name only -- in the sense they don't go to Mass regularly and partake in communion themselves -- there is the detail remaining that about 43% of Canadians are at least nominally Roman Catholic, and take pride in the fact that so many of our Prime Ministers, going back to John Sparrow Thompson, have been RCs.
We are by no means a cohesive voting block, of course -- there are Catholics of all political stripes -- but ticking off a block that could theoretically cohere and vote a certain way is not exactly my idea of leadership. There simply is no excuse for such a major breach of protocol. That would be true whether it was for a sitting MP or Senator, or a former Governor General as Leblanc was.
Moreover, in Canada it has been understood that the title of fidei defensor -- defender of the faith -- which is given to the reigning Sovereign -- just doesn't mean defender of the faith, as in the UK (i.e. the established Church of England), but a defender of faith in general. It is hard to imagine a British PM, whatever his or her personal beliefs, wanting to offend an entire sect -- he or she would get quite the reprimand from the Queen, certainly in the current environment where she has gone to great lengths to gaining the respect of her Catholic subjects while fulfilling her duties as Supreme Governor of the C of E. Some traditionalists in Britain have objected both to this, as well as her outreach to minority groups in the country (including Muslims and Hindus in particular) but most have appreciated her efforts to be a uniter and not a divider.
In Canada, where there is a much clearer separation of church and state (although not absolutely complete, as with the school systems in some provinces and where some religious orders still operate hospitals under state supervision) a sitting PM has to be even more careful. We wouldn't tolerate a PM who deliberately set out to persecute a religious minority, whether it was Judaism, Islam or a Christian sect like the Jehovah's Witnesses. To give rise to an offense, however minor or unintentional, to the group that forms a plurality of the populace in Canada, is even more perplexing.
It's worth remembering that when Brian Mulroney liberalized the divorce laws in Canada in 1986, he had to put up with the "family caucus" within his party, which consisted of Christians of all stripes. I can't recall if Mulroney allowed a free vote on the issue, but there were at least 50 and as many as 80 of his MPs who threatened to derail the bill on moral grounds and some concessions had to be made to them to get the legislation passed. And as a Catholic, he certainly got a lot of flack from the bishops; but as did most of his predecessors, he understood his job was to protect the liberty of all and not to impose his own or someone else's moral code.
While some of the most extreme elements of evangelicalism may have the inside track in government these days, Harper still has a duty to work with those who profess different faiths than his. In attending religious services of other faiths, he can't assume that "their house is my house." No one would have had an issue if he had just crossed his arms and the archbishop blessed him, as should have been done.
For what it's worth, I'm actually prepared to give the PM a free pass on this one, although speaking to some other Catholic friends of mine today we got quite the chuckle out of what appears at both first glance and deeper analysis to have been an act of pure stupidity. However, I suspect that many other Catholics may not be so forgiving and they'll remember it at the polls, whenever the plug is pulled on the present Parliament. Certainly, Harper owes Joe Ratzinger an explanation when the former visits the Vatican in two days' time.

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Monday, July 6, 2009


He started as one of the "Whiz Kids" that turned Ford around in the 1940s, worked his way up to the presidency of the company (the first non-Ford to do so) and then served as Defense Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson. Very controversial in his time for escalating the war, and later making a mess of the World Bank, Robert McNamara later would come to regret many of the choices he made -- something he discussed in detail in Errol Morris' Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War, which I saw at a Hamilton Art Gallery fundraiser a few years back.
McNamara died today at the age of 93. I don't know whether to classify him as a hero or a villian, or someone troubled by what he did. But I would highly recommend the movie to anyone who wants an idea of what made him tick.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Sarah Palin -- quits?

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Sarah Palin is back in the news -- saying she's quitting as the Governor of Alaska well before her term expires. There really is no explanation for this other than she has an eye on 2012 and challenging Barack Obama for the Presidency, presuming she can get the GOP nomination that year.
But I have to question the timing of this. With Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) and Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) admitting in the last couple of weeks of extramarital affairs, is it possible she has been caught in a major scandal of her own and she wants to get it out of the way without being pressured to do so? Something about this doesn't feel right.

Besides which, she really needs to appeal better to the centrists in the Republican Party, and it's going to take more than charm and being a former hockey mom to win over the hearts and minds of card carrying members.

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