Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama meets the "Loyal Oppostion"

Yesterday's meeting with President Obama at the Republican's retreat in Baltimore MD was quite remarkable, perhaps almost unprecedented in that it was the first time a President's meeting with the "Loyal Opposition" was broadcast live.   We're used to seeing that back and forth in Parliamentary systems but not in a "separation of powers" as in the States; and even then the questions and answers are brief and inprecise at the best, a mean spirited shouting match at worst.   (Witness Canada where we've gone from the one extreme to the other in the course of about twenty years.   Even the British H of C has become quite rowdy as of late.)

Here, there were specific detailed questions, and specific detailed answers -- not the soundbites the networks are so fond of which is why, unless they were the news channels, they couldn't be bothered to broadcast it (except on the Net or on the digital "sub-channels").     I don't know how such a meeting could be made to work in Canada or the UK, but if the fox went into the henhouse every once in a while and just talk in a polite, dignified manner, maybe there wouldn't be so much cynicism and things could get done that benefits everyone and not just the lobbyists who have the connections.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stop the French headscarf ban

Ever since France amended its old constitution in 1905 to formally separate church and state (which was reaffirmed in the revisions of 1946 and 1959), the issue of laïcité or secularization has bedevilled the country.   Like other states in the now EU, France has tried to strike the right balance between freedom of worship and freedom of the state while ensuring the two do not trample on each other.   Of course, the separation took place to get the Roman Catholic Church -- by far the largest denomination in France -- out of the affairs of both the Élysée and Parliament.   It's when it comes to minority rights that there has always been a problem.   We're all too familiar with the persecution of the Hugenots (the French Calvinists) and the Jews of France.   Recently, the easy target has been Muslims.

Some time back, France tried to ban people from wearing religious symbols such as the cross or the Magen David.    Now, the French Parliament is proposing a law that would ban Muslim women from wearing the hijab or burqa, or Sikh men from wearing the dastar or carrying the kirpan, etc.   Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has said he will sign the bill if passed.   I say without blushing, Sarkozy and the French Parliamentarians are pinheads.

I say that because this is laicization gone way too far.    When there was a kerfuffle a few years back about a Sikh who wanted to wear a dastar as part of his Mountie uniform instead of the familiar tilted Stetson hat, the old Reform Party openly opposed changing any part of the RCMP dress as part of the RP's platform, the "Blue Book," that the now Conservative Party ignores and has even disavowed.    At least Harper and Company have the good sense to leave well enough alone on this as well as the other uniformed services and the civilian public service.

Not all Muslim women wear a hijab but many do.   Not all Sikh men wear a dastar but most do (a notable exception of one who doesn't is former British Columbia Premier and now federal MP Ujjal Dosanjh).   Not all Jewish men wear a yarmulke, or all Jewish women a tichel, but some do -- and many of us Gentiles wear one (depending on gender) on a visit to a synagogue or at a shiva as a sign of respect.

Do we really want a country where "different" people are branded?    It hasn't been that long -- just over 60 years -- when Nazi Germany branded Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the disabled.   Desegregation only happened in the States in 1964 -- along with the legal end of discrimination against women -- and we still see gentrification in neighbourhoods and women excluded from many country clubs including the one where the Masters is played.

Wearing a headdress or not, or any kind of religious symbol around the neck or waist, should be a matter of personal preference.   At the very least, I think Sarkozy's proposal violates not only the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 (incorporated into France's 1959 Constitution, and which Declaration every French student still memorizes by heart) but also the European Declaration of Human Rights which is incorporated into the laws of France and every other EU member.

Even suggesting the law in the first place is a license to sanction discrimination and violence, and especially now when the Eurozone is still trying to recover from the recession (notwithstanding Spain's huge continuing decline, but that's a topic for another upcoming post) it sends the wrong message across the open borders of what should be a tolerant Europe.

No party leader here in Canada should even think of something this mean-spirited.  It doesn't matter which party -- any self-styled "Dominionist," any Christianist or any bigot of any stripe should be kicked out of his or her party and banished from politics, permanently.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

All Haiti donations matched -- finally

It was Shakespeare who reminded us that "the quality of mercy is not strained," so it is good to hear the Harper government has lifted the $50 million cap on Haiti relief efforts and said all donations to listed charities including the Red Cross, the Sally Anns, the "Humanitarian Coalition" (Oxfam, CARE and Save the Children) and a multitude of faith based groups (including those under the Kairos Canada umbrella), will be matched with no limits.   This after it became known that at least $63 million has been pledged since the earthquake 12 days ago.  The fact is they should not have put a limit on in the first place -- there was none after the disasters related to the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

That being said, it's a good idea to make sure your donation will be matched.    There are a lot of scam artists out there who want to make a fast buck and not give a penny to those in need.   If it's not a reputable NGO -- faith based or otherwise -- or is just something designed ad hoc, it's probably a good idea to steer clear of that.

I would conclude these comments by pointing out that unlike the States, we don't seem to have too much of a problem with faith-based groups; mainly because they draw a clear line between relief work and proselytizing and give to all regardless of creed.   I think we have some lessons there that similar American groups could learn from.    No doubt that Samaritan's Purse and Operation Blessing, for example, do good work but they're almost impossible to distinguish from the ministries of Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson respectively.   On the other hand, when was the last time you heard someone bitch about Development and Peace (Roman Catholic) or World Service and Development (Presbyterian) crossing the faith line?

To borrow a good line from a 1980s cop show, be careful out there.

BTW, there was a lot going on this week, including the shock by-election win for the GOP in Massachusetts, Ben Bernancke's woes in his reconfirmation hearings, the Leno-Letterman-O'Brien spat and Sen. John Edwards' much belated admission he is the father -- but since so many others were writing about it my words would have been obiter dicta I didn't bother.   My quick response in order:   The donkey had better get its act together now to avoid an elephant takeover of Congress in November; Bernacke is a jerk but getting rid of him now -- when he and Jean Claude Trichet (of the Euro Bank) along with other central bankers have worked so well together to keep the economy from collapsing -- would be a disaster; it's time for Jay and Dave to bury the hatchet (18 years is way too long to hold a grudge); John Edwards should be exiled to the least desirable ambassadorship imaginable -- say, Swaziland or Burma -- and Elizabeth should file for divorce.

UPDATE (5:24 pm EST, 2224 GMT):  It goes without saying, of course, but say a prayer not only for the victims and survivors, but also for the aid workers as well as those in uniform helping out in the relief effort.   Now that it's gone from rescue phase to recovery, the aiders need all the help they can get and this won't be done overnight.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Street busking can get you a ticket in Hamilton

In what kind of a country are we living, when a street busker gets a $65 ticket for being a public nuisance? It's not like the musician was stalking drivers to wash windows. Only in Hamilton -- and this is supposed to be a progressive city?

Some in the generation before mine still talk about the "Hamilton Sound," the era of great music in the early 1970s that emerged from nightclubs and, yes, street musicians. This sends the message that new music is not welcome in this city, and it is wrong.

If the city has a "problem," they should do what they do in Toronto and have a competition for the annual licenses that go to buskers who perform at transit stops.   The city gets their cut, the musician keeps the rest and everyone wins.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Never say it won't happen here

In a truly sad week when the earthquake in Haiti took untold tens of thousands, it's worth remembering -- never say it can't happen here, whether on the ground or in the middle of a lake.    We're familiar with the fault lines out west, but large parts of Ontario also are over fault or sub-fault zones and a major event could cripple us for weeks, especially a tsunami - like event on the lakes.   Yes, we do have tougher building codes, but seismic events can wreak havoc even in developed countries.  It can never hurt too much to be prepared.

The only beef I have is that the current government is capping matching funds for donations at $50 million.   We may still be in tough times but a humanitarian crisis should be an opportunity for an unlimited response as was the case with the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

RIP Miep Gies

Among the thousands of angels of mercy during World War II who worked to save the lives of Jews during World War II, it is sad that only three are widely known:  Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and Miep Gies.    Schindler died decades ago and Wallenberg is still technically missing in action although presumed dead.   It was Miep Gies and her colleagues' act of helping out the Franks and the Van Pelts during the war, and of her preserving Anne Frank's diary, that rightly gave her the place in history she deserves.   She died yesterday at the age of 100.   God bless you, ma'am, for what you did.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Belfast, the EU's Cougartown

Don't you love it that when there's a major scandal in most parts of Europe, the man or woman responsible resigns or steps aside citing a "family illness"? Case in point: Northern Ireland and the "Mrs. Robinson is a cougar" kerfuffle -- the Premier has temporarily ceded executive power to one of his cabinet colleagues for at least six weeks, but still denies any wrongdoing by him or his wife.   OK, there's something about Irish women but is a near 60 year old married woman that desperate for satisfaction she needs to shack up with a 19 year old?    Hasn't she ever heard of marriage counselling?   And the husband -- if he knew what was going on why didn't he report it or call her out?

We need more political illnesses in Canada, say a sex scandal at 24 Sussex Drive. It'd be more honest than proroguing Parliament on a whim as seems to have become the pattern.  As it is, even the Senate or its committees can't  meet right now which is outrageous.

My guess as to why Harper pulled the plug -- the deficit for this year has ballooned to $70 billion or more.   Even in the States, while the President can suspend a Congressional session, he or she never does to preserve the independence of the legislature.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Blowing up pipelines -- for what?

The phrase eco-terrorist is used so loosely by the right that many, especially "social" conservatives, think anyone who wants to save some trees from wanton destruction or infill existing industrial property for commercial and residential development before precious farmland is used up must be some sort of Commie radical. But it's odd too that among the right are the original environmentalists -- hunters and farmers.

Hunters understand the need to control game before one species gets out of control and destroys the rest of the population; farmers know the imperative to stop gulleys before they get out of hand and to rotate crops and even leave some land fallow to give soil a chance to regenerate. It does become complicated when oil and natural gas is found on rural property and the hunter or farmer also becomes a supplier of energy and gets royalty cheques. He or she effectively becomes the slave of two masters.

One can't possibly understand the bind Wiebo Ludwig finds himself in -- having been convicted in the past of acts of real eco-terrorism or what is more properly called wanton destruction of property; although one can appreciate the reasons for it, among them his daughter suffering numerous miscarriages -- it is thought from the sour gas exploration in and around his commune. In the wake of several recent gas explosions all caused by tampering, the first name that came to many's minds (myself included, I have to concede) is Mr. Ludwig, notwithstanding an open letter Ludwig wrote supporting the cause but condemning the actions. Over this weekend, Ludwig was arrested for extortion but released for now as the Mounties still don't have enough evidence to detain him further.

Whoever is responsible directly or indirectly for blowing up gas pipelines -- critical to our national infrastructure -- should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. No one should condone terrorism without being right about it. I also think that the innocent should not be persecuted wrongly.
I also happen to believe that the "Wild West" mentality that shapes the extraction of non-renewable resources everywhere in Canada needs to be reigned in. While a lucrative revenue generator, the money won't last forever, and unlike other countries like Norway and the UAE which have huge sovereign wealth funds to invest the royalties and spend it for diversification and human benefit purposes we have been content to just put it into general revenues. British Columbia, where these attacks happened, certainly doesn't have a slush fund; and Alberta's "Heritage Fund" stopped taking in new monies long ago and was dipped into to finance the province's flat income tax -- with the result that it only has about $12 billion left, while Norways' SWF is well over $170 billion. Wind, water and solar power may not be as big of a payoff short-term, but as a general rule they do last longer. I can understand why those in the far north -- native and non-native -- are relieved that the Mackenzie Pipeline may finally be a go, but if the gas is just going to fuel the extraction of the tar sands instead of being shipped to the States for export as was originally intended then we're shooting ourselves in the foot twice.
If Mr. Ludwig knows the persons responsible, as he claims, he should name names. Refusing to do so is a discredit to those who actually want to protect the environment. Somehow the "Don't snitch" credo doesn't stick here. The charge of extortion is very serious, and if Ludwig did try to get money off of energy companies in exchange for money or other benefits without a legitimate purpose, then he should be re-arrested and held until trial.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Togo soccer team attacked

When it comes to terrorists, there are cowards such as ETA, the Yakuza and Sinn Fein; and then there's that category for which coward doesn't even apply. This is the class of terrorist that goes after people who have absolutely no interest in a conflict -- even if do they pay taxes to a government with which they may or may not agree (the excuse al-Qaeda supporters use to justify the 9/11 attacks). This explains how I feel about the attack in Angola yesterday against the Togo national soccer team, on its way to the first round of the African championship -- the matches for the group in which Togo is in are supposed to be played in the enclave of Cabinda which is separated from the rest of Angola by Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville. Several players were injured and at least three other people, including the bus driver, were killed shortly after the bus crossed the border from Congo-Brazzaville.

Whatever the conflict in Cabinda may be or who really owns what, I don't care one iota that militants have taken it out on people who want no part of any war, who just want to represent their country. Nor does it matter the majority of players ply their trade in European club soccer and make tons of money. An international event of this nature should bring people together peaceably and in the hope that all conflict will stop, at least for the duration of the games. This is the idea behind the "Olympic truce" which far as I can tell has never been respected by any belligerent country, and certainly isn't something separatists or terrorists of any stripe would ever want to respect. The rumour was that Togo will pull out of the tourney and the Voice of America confirmed they did about an hour ago. I was hoping they wouldn't, because then the terrorists win and that's something we can't let happen. But I hope the other national sides stick in their heels and say they won't cave in.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

So you think you've got "Troubles"?

The title of this post is a reference to a popular sitcom in the UK some years ago and I think it's rather appropriate to this particular news item.

If this was the case of three celebrities in a game of hanky-panky and irregular movements of money, the tabloids would be all over it; but most mainstream media would wisely avoid it as being unnewsworthy. In this case, it's not a celeb but -- a politician and it has has definitely gotten the attention of the MSM.

The short version is, the Premier of Northern Ireland as well as an MP in Westminster, Peter Robinson, is in hot water after it was reported by BBC Northern Ireland that his wife Iris' boyfriend Kirk McCambley, 39 years younger than she, got a license to open a restaurant after she solicited £50,000 in secret cash payments from businessmen for start-up money. Naturally, Mr. Robinson has denied any impropriety by him or his wife (also an MP) but has quickly called for an investigation to see if any rules were broken. The BBC implies they may have been because when Mr. Robinson found out and demanded his wife give back the money he failed to report the irregularity having taken place at all -- which itself is a violation of ministerial ethics.

The marital problems of the Robinsons have been the talk of Ulster the whole week, within both the Protestant and Catholic communities -- but last night's bombshell broadcast has thrown some rather unexpected turmoil into the peace process. I agree that one's personal life is his or her own business as long as politics or business doesn't get mixed in. But a blatant conflict of interest of this level is not just highly inappropriate it is just sheer madness since it could, in some instances, be even seen as sexual harassment although it is the one who got the benefit who's the one really in trouble -- in other words, the usual victim / perpetrator paradigm is reversed. It also sends the signal that one can get his or her way, just as long as one knows who to sleep with.
Maybe it's because the North is generally more religious than the rest of the UK (for example, abortion while legal in the North is still much more difficult to get than on the Mainland) that this has raised the ire of so many. Or maybe it's because the money in question should have been reported but wasn't. No matter how one cuts it, it is quite pathetic that this still goes on. I suspect that this is one case isolated from the thousands we never hear about -- but wind up paying for through higher prices and taxes when none of us were responsible for the fault in the first place. Far as I'm concerned, the "Troubles" shouldn't start up again because of the troubles of a few. It wasn't the people that made the woman cheat.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another group pulls support for US death penalty

A few weeks back, the American Law Institute quietly voted to remove a section from its "Model Penal Code" referring to the application of capital punishment. While not exactly coming out and saying it no longer supports the death penalty, it said that there are enough issues surrounding the punishment's application that it can no longer recommend a way that would ensure that legal obstacles can be overcome. In other words, the system is broken beyond repair.
The Model Penal Code, or MPC, was first drafted in the 1960s and has been regularly revised since then as an attempt by some lawyers to standardize the often contradictory criminal codes in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It has had some success -- for instance, some of the language it recommended regarding reproductive termination protocols found its way into the laws of many states that chose to decriminalize the procedure. Though never adopted in its entirety, some of the provisions of the MPC can be found in the laws of about two-thirds of the states. Interestingly, 2/3 of the states also still have the death penalty -- although New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished in the last couple of years, Kentucky and North Carolina have moratoriums, and it appears Kansas and Colorado will also repeal their laws in the near future.
Also interesting is that support in the States for the death penalty now threatens to drop below 60% for the first time in living memory. Just two decades ago, more than 80% would have supported capital punishment -- and such a large drop in that time makes for a great deal of hope that America, despite being threatened from without and within, just might join the rest of the civilized world that has gotten rid of this barbaric form of punishment.
I've noted before the City of Rome has a long-standing tradition that, when a region or country gets rid of the death penalty -- or a person on death row gets irrevocable clemency -- the lights that shine at night on the Colosseum (once Nero's favourite place to dispose of Christians by the tens of thousands) turns from white to gold. It sure would be nice to see a lot of that gold light, if you know what I mean.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

What a Christmas: More terror in the skies; the rogue prorogues

It's 2010, and it's kind of good to be back. I'm kind of in transit right now so posts will still be irregular but hope to be back up to full speed soon.

While we were trying to sleep during the Christmas holidays, we got a huge wake up when a militant from Nigeria who was on the no-fly list in the UK and on a watch list in the US (although the lowest priority) still managed to get on a plane from Lagos to Amsterdam and then change planes to one bound for Detroit where he tried to blow himself up over Canadian airspace with explosives hidden in his underwear.
Maybe it's me, but there are a few things wrong with this picture.
One, when the suspect in question became so radicalized why didn't the US Embassy pass on the suspect's fathers' concerns to anti-terror officials in Washington so they could bump up his name to the highest level of scrutiny?
Second, if the UK banned the said suspect from flying in, you would have thought they would have passed the name onto Frontex, the European mainland's front office for the Schengen Information System of persons of interest. This would have ensured there was no way the suspect could have even boarded a plane for anywhere in the European Union, even to do an in-transit flight change in the "international zone" of an airport, in this case Schilpol. Apparently this didn't happen.
Third, Yemen's fragile but still somewhat in control government admitted the guy was a problem. Why didn't it warn its Western allies?
Fourth, I thought this happened over Canadian airspace. Shouldn't Canadian law therefore apply even if the majority of passengers on board were Americans? Even some of my conservative friends agree with me on that point.
This certainly was a close call, and while we should be grateful it didn't come to fruition thanks to alert nearby passengers the fact remains he never should have allowed to board the plane in the first place with either Europe or North America as a final or intermediate destination. I have no problem with full body scans or with passenger profiling provided it is aimed fairly at all people equally and not at persons of a certain race or religion only. After all, no one seemed bothered when a hardware store got an order for a couple thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate to be delivered to a farm in Michigan -- which was later used in the Oklahoma City bombing. And the perpetrators as well as the unindicted co-conspirators were all white.
Constant vigilance. We need to pursue that, but we can do so without sacrificing civil liberties.
The other thing grinding my gears is the second prorogue of the federal Parliament in a year. While some private members' business stays on the order paper, government legislation has to start all over again -- and committees must also begin anew unless they vote to read in the record from the previous session, as will have to happen with the Afghanistan investigation (and with the opposition's majority this had better happen).
In most countries, regularly suspending the legislature is the typical tactic of a tyrant who does not want his or her power to be challenged. But we can't use the word dictatorship in Canada. That would not be politically correct.
Canada declared martial law in 1970 to stomp out the FLQ, still somewhat of an overreaction in my opinion (and a failure, as Pierre Laporte was assassinated in retaliation for Trudeau's move). But even with martial law (albeit a temporary imposition) Parliament still met and debated legislation, and to take note of the action in question -- even allowed Tommy Douglas to use his soapbox in the House to condemn Trudeau for the latter's move.
In the modern age, one can complain on the Internet and on cable and satellite TV networks. But that doesn't count in a Parliamentary state. The time and place to debate policies is in the House. It's as simple as that. To run away from Parliament, to shut it down for personal reasons, is to be in contempt of it. And this is as disgraceful as molesting the symbols of Parliament within the chambers, including the Mace.
Of course, don't expect Steve to apologize. His advisers are in the mould of Karl Rove, whose motto is, don't apologize for anything even when you are wrong.
This isn't the UK where a new session begins every fall by law and the agenda is front-loaded at the start of the session so Parliament has voted on all the legislation when it rises in June or July for a break. This is Canada -- and we only call a new session if there's a need for it or if we're at the halfway point of a four-year mandate. We're not at either, in my opinion. This was only done to stall discussion about prisoner abuse or about the poor fiscal record of the Conservatives -- and that's not a good enough reason. Face it folks, we're under one man rule for the next two months; and you'd think a democracy would want to send a positive message to the world by having its Parliament continue to meet while the Winter Olympics in Vancouver are on.

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