Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Little Heresy - Alberta Style

So, according to Premier Prentice, the downturn in oil prices is going to create an $11 Billion hole in provincial revenues, and is now talking about putting the brakes on all kinds of infrastructure spending, including a new cancer hospital in Calgary.

Okay, that's a significant chunk of change.  Let's talk about this for a moment.

As the leader of the governing party, Mr. Prentice has a responsibility to all Albertans to ensure that the machinery of government continues to operate smoothly.  Over the last 25 years, we have seen the government make further tax cuts all over the place, in particular to the benefit of corporations, but also introducing a rather ridiculous 'flat tax' income tax scheme.

Every time, the government has tied itself even more so to the revenues from resource royalties to fund programs.

Mr. Prentice, you want to balance the books?  Here's how you do it.  Take a long look at all of the possible revenue sources the government has access to.  Not just tar sands royalties (which are, a pittance because your predecessors cut them to almost nothing).

First, Mr. Prentice, you need to take a long, hard look at the taxation system.  Are the corporations who do business in Alberta paying their fair share?  No?  Then we need to design a taxation system that ensures that they do, especially since so many of the corporations are basically funnelling monies out of Alberta and Canada as quickly as they can.

Second, we need to look at what the individual income tax system does.  Is a 10% flat tax ensuring that we are taxing incomes fairly across the board?  Or do we need to return to the graduated system that was developed in the 1950s?  (Hint:  probably)

Third, and here's where I commit heresy, you need to take a longer range view and determine the means to stabilize provincial revenues so that we are insulated from the vagaries of the resource markets.  This may mean, *gasp*, implementing a sales tax (like damn near every other jurisdiction in the world) that sits in line with the GST, but is not harmonized with it - we don't want to hand control over those revenues over to Ottawa either.

Oh yes, and you need to shed this fetish that conservatives have developed lately with "Public Private Partnerships" and start thinking about long term debt financing instruments like bond funds again.  PPPs just hang the taxpayer with long term operating costs and leases.  One thing that Redford had done (although clumsily) was to structure our finances with a distinction between long term infrastructure costs and operating costs.  That's a distinction that matters, and we need to shed this silly "debt is bad" mantra - yesterday.  Long term debt that is used for purchasing infrastructure is not a bad thing.  It never was.

Alberta needs to funnel every dime it gets in resource revenues into the Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Now.  In a couple of decades we can use the investment income off that fund to sustain the entirety of the government (hint:  take a long look at Norway).  In the meantime, let's use all of the instruments of revenue collection available to the government so that we can actually have a reasonable standard of living for the PEOPLE of this province.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

On The WRP Collapse

Much has been made of the WRP's collapse in Alberta this past week.  Everything from speculation about the role of various people, to Ms. Smith more or less admitting that she was being undermined by the Social Conservative rump of the party.  

Back when the WRP was just getting itself going, and Ms. Smith was a mere candidate for the leadership, I had thought that the WRP was going to follow the same trajectory that Preston Manning's Reform party had back in the 80s.  Start off with some reasonable, if unrealistic dreams about a more open, democratic government; fall into the intellectual trap of libertarianism and get subverted by the far right religious nuts.  (... and yes, that's still visible today in Harper's CPC, just look across his front bench and the policies they have implemented - religious privilege and the associated discrimination, bigotry and racism are there)

In the 2012 election, the initial response of Ms. Smith to the "bozo eruptions", in particular the "Lake of Fire" nonsense, was naively libertarian.  "Oh, it's just an opinion.  He's entitled to that" - I've heard that before.  It is the chink in the libertarian armour that the religious right leverages every time.  It almost sounds reasonable: "Oh, but they're infringing upon our right to express an opinion".  As far as I was concerned, Ms. Smith was done as party leader at that point, the question was more one of time.

Even though Ms. Smith might be a (relative) moderate, the fact is that the religious right simply is not capable or interested in "moderate" anything.  They are sold on a particular worldview that includes imposing their theology on the country.

However, the point of this post is not to go on another rant about the impact of the religious right in Alberta politics.

Floor crossings happen in our political system.  I'm not going to make declarations about whether they are "good" or "bad".  I think in the big picture, we have to look at the consequences of the events which have transpired.

A total of 9 MLAs crossed the floor, following 3 other defections from the WRP in the last few months, giving the governing PCs control over 72 of the seats in the legislature, and leaving a total of about 16 MLAs sitting in the opposition benches.

Alberta has a long, troubling history of electing overwhelming majority governments, going back to the Lougheed era.  Under Ralph Klein, things got even uglier, with the majorities seemingly larger and larger and the legislature sitting for even fewer days each year.  Often just long enough to ram whatever legislation was on the agenda through the procedural hoops.  Few people in Alberta are aware of how much legislation gets pushed through without any kind of meaningful debate, although the rushed processing of Bill 10 last month might have finally opened a few eyes to the reality.

The nearly 30 seat opposition elected in 2012 was the first time in decades that this province has had any effective opposition at all.  Most of the time, the opposition benches have been occupied by an intrepid dozen or so MLAs and that's it.  Their voices muffled by the sheer volume that the PCAA has been able to push into the media.

What we should be concerned about in Alberta is the rise of "single party" politics and how it has stifled debate in this province.  People don't talk about politics.  It's almost considered subversive just to criticize the governing PCs in conversation.  Why?  Because until Stelmach, everybody "liked" Ralph Klein.  "Oh, he's not that bad, he seems like such a nice guy" would be the response to criticism.  Fortunately, neither Stelmach nor Redford were terribly likeable, and Prentice comes across as a bit too corporate, so hopefully this will start to thaw the chill on political debate in this province.

In our system of government, an active and vocal opposition is essential.  Prentice would have railroaded Bill 10 through if it hadn't been for a very loud public outcry against it, not just in the legislature, but on Twitter and in just about every other form of media.  The only thing that stands between a Premier with a majority and despotism is an active, informed and engaged opposition.  The Premier should feel uncomfortable at all times.  Every bill should be subject to amendment and improvement in the process.  Not just pushed through with whipped votes.

When the 9 WRP MLAs crossed the floor to sit with the governing PCs, they damaged their own party, but more seriously, they gave Prentice such overwhelming control over the legislature that he can effectively ignore public outcry over anything.  He knows full well that in a year's time, most people will have forgotten about today's outrage anyhow.

This is not good for our democracy.  We've seen that with how Harper has done things in Ottawa in recent years.  While he had a minority, Harper had to tread very carefully.  Now that he doesn't, there's precious little anyone can do to stop him.  Even the relatively sizeable opposition in Parliament is limited in what it can do.  In Alberta it's even worse.

It is my opinion that Alberta would have been far better served by all involved had the 9 WRP MLAs decided to sit as independents.  We are heading into an economic downturn the likes of which may make the 1980 crash look mild.  Having an overwhelming government majority will do us no favours in dealing with the resulting issues.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Bishop Henry, Bill 10 ... Lies, Lies and More Lies

If there is one thing that I find infuriating, it is when grown men like Bishop Henry lie.

In today's Calgary Herald, there is a copy of a pastoral letter that Bishop Henry has had distributed through the churches of his diocese.  In it, we find the following little gem:
The mandating of Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) is problematic for a number of reasons.  It infringes parental authority over their children, the freedom to instruct one's children in a manner consistent with their faith, and citizens rights to manifest their religious beliefs by worship and practice in the absence of coercion or constraint by government.
First of all, Bill 202 did not "mandate" the creation of GSAs.  What it does is remove the ability for a school board or school to refuse to allow a GSA to be created.

Nobody is saying that participation in a GSA is mandatory for the students, nor is it mandatory for parents to allow their children to participate in the GSA.  The obligation for schools is to allow the organization.  No more, no less.  The Bishop's argument here is a distortion of the reality - a lie.

As for the "freedom to instruct one's children", let's have a little discussion about that shall we?  Nobody is talking about the GSA being mandatory.  Nor is the GSA a "teaching" moment.  We are talking about a student led organization providing support to other students.  So, just where is this right being "infringed"?  I'm pretty sure that all sorts of school activities violate one aspect or another of either the bible or the RC Catechism, and we don't hear the bishops moaning about them.  Social groups in schools exist all the time.  If the RC church leaders think that they don't have gay students in their halls, perhaps they need to do some learning.

So, it must come down to the right to "manifest their religious beliefs ...".  Let's consider this for a moment.  The bishops are basically arguing that their beliefs trump the rights of students.  In this case, their "belief" that homosexuality is a sin.  So what?  That hasn't made it go away in the last 2,000 years or so, I don't think it's going away anytime soon.  Let's consider that discussion around "manifesting religious beliefs" a little further.  Who is manifesting which beliefs here?  Does the student not have a right to express their beliefs, or is that now a right reserved solely for the parents?  Do the rights of a religious school extend to, for example, not teaching science because they don't believe in evolution or they want to believe that the earth is flat?

The fact is that GSAs reduce suicide in the student population.  Religion doesn't reduce suicide among LGBTQ students.  In fact, arguably, "religious beliefs" are near the top of the list for reasons that LGBTQ youth end up suicidal.  Where do the hostile judgments come from most frequently?  Those who claim to have religious "belief" justifying them.  The most fervent of believers are often among the worst abusers in this regard.
A number of recent studies have identified groups of students who are most often bullied.  The Toronto District School Board Research Report reported that students most frequently face bullying attacks based on their physical appearance (38%), their grades or marks (17%) their cultural background (11%) or their gender (6%).  It is imperative that we address the root issue - bullying.
Yeah...let's talk about that for a minute.  38% of students have been harassed about their physical appearance.  According to Egale's survey of LGBTQ students in Canada,  74% of transgender students and 55% of LGB students have been verbally harassed; 37% of transgender students and 21% of LGB students have been physically assaulted in our schools.

I cannot emphasize enough how appalling this really is.  LGBTQ students are around 5% of the population, and yet they are grossly overrepresented as victims of bullying.  The numbers that Bishop Henry cites bury this reality.  Yes, we need to address bullying.  GSAs are a tool for doing so.  Whining because they place an emphasis on normalizing people's sexual and gender identities is simply an attempt at erasure.

Bill 10 is a bad piece of legislation.  Laurie Blakeman's Bill 202 was the correct solution to this problem in the first place.  Let me be absolutely clear about that.  There should be no exemptions.  Bullying is wrong.  Using your "faith" to justify erasure and continued harassment is wrong.

If Alberta students want to create a mutually supportive alliance in a school, that should be their right, without exception and without interference.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

_THIS_

I was never a fan of Bush II and his malicious sidekick Cheney, and even less so of their misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Yesterday's revelations of CIA Torture are crimes.  These people abused prisoners in ways that all Western powers should be horrified by, and they knew damn good and well what they were doing.

When we first starting hearing rumours of an "extraordinary rendition" program, and the wrongdoings at Abu Ghraib, I figured that there was something much, much worse going on.  Sure enough, that's what was happening.

Round up the lot of these rotten bastards and hang them out to dry.  Ship them off to the World Court in The Hague and lock in a cell while prosecutors put together a case against them.  These are crimes the magnitude of which cannot be ignored.

Canadians need to remind Stephen Harper that torture is wrong.  Not only will it produce exactly zero useful information, it is morally and ethically wrong.  For Canada to even implicitly endorse the use of torture by accepting "information gathered" through those means goes against the values of Canada as a whole.  We are better than that.

It is a shame that Harper isn't.


Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Prentice's Bill 10: A Legislative Trojan Horse

There is little doubt that the Prentice government is getting its ass handed to it on the editorial pages of newspapers across Canada with respect to its hastily written Bill 10 counter response to Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman's Bill 202.

After looking at Bill 10 for a little while, I have come to the conclusion that this is far worse than being a simple ham-fisted counter-response to Bill 202, it is in fact a legislative Trojan Horse which will create enormous problems in Alberta for years to come ... at least until someone has the political spine to remove S11.1 and a couple of other clauses that are being slipped in.

Let's take a closer look at how Bill 10 will change Alberta's Bill of Rights, shall we?

Off the top, the government wishes to amend S1 of the act.  Before Bill 10, S1 reads as follows:
Recognition and declaration of rights and freedoms
1 It is hereby recognized and declared that in Alberta there exist

without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex, the following human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely:


(a) the right of the individual to liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law;

(b) the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law;

(c) freedom of religion;

(d) freedom of speech;
 
(e) freedom of assembly and association;

(f) freedom of the press.

After Bill 10, this will read as follows (emphasis added to changes):


Recognition and declaration of rights and freedoms
1 It is hereby recognized and declared that in Alberta there exist

without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation the following human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely:


(a) the right of the individual to liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law;

(b) the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law;

(c) freedom of religion;

(d) freedom of speech;
 
(e) freedom of assembly and association;

(f) freedom of the press.
(g) the right of parents to make informed decisions respecting the education of their children. 
Please note, this is not the Alberta Human Rights Act, but the more foundational BILL OF RIGHTS. Section 2 of the Bill of Rights legislation clearly states that all other legislation in Alberta is assumed to operate in compliance with this act unless specifically stated to do so.  In other words, the Bill of Rights is one step removed from the Constitution in terms of legal hierarchy.

Whose bright idea was it to slide in clause (g)?  A clause like this will be used by the religious wingnut factions to object to everything from sex ed in schools to teaching evolution in biology classes.  This is a broadening of the effect of Section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act (a different piece of legislation that Minister Blackett amended in 2009.  This will open the door to lawsuits the likes of which we usually hear about coming out of Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Section 11.1 exits the Alberta Human Rights Act, but it is far from dead and gone.  Instead it resurfaces in the Education Act as Section 58.

Section 58 exists under the rubric that there is some kind of "parental right" not to have their kids learn about sexuality.  This is nonsense.  It was nonsense in 2009, and it's nonsense today.  As a parent you have an obligation to your children to ensure that they are educated and literate.  There is no "right" to keep your children ignorant about their own bodies and sexualities.

By adding clause (g) to the Alberta Bill of Rights, the Prentice Government has not only reinforced S58, but in fact has opened up every aspect of Alberta's education system to being challenged by anyone who "objects" to some aspect of the curriculum for one reason or another.

It will also place a chill on teachers as a whole, who will find themselves basically threatened with rights challenges at every turn.

Bill 10 does precious little to protect LGBT youth in our schools, as its provisions for the creation of GSAs (and other student led bodies) is such that the obstacles to appeal are far greater than most students would have the ability to effectively enact an appeal of their school's decision, much less taking said appeal up to the level of the provincial courts.

Instead, it further reinforces the worst aspects of what the Stelmach government did to the Alberta Human Rights Act in 2009, and deepens a set of legislative clauses which are a sop to the narrow-mindedness of a small group of Albertans who seem to think that their religious beliefs have something to say about how children should learn.

Revisions:

3/12/14 11:24   Corrected link to Alberta Bill of Rights instead of Alberta Human Rights Act

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Open Letter To Jim Prentice

Dear Mr. Prentice,

In responding to MLA Laurie Blakeman's Bill 202 as you did, you have just thrown LGBT students under the political bus AGAIN.

Let me be abundantly clear here.  Clause 11.1 one of the Alberta Human Rights legislation does not "protect" the rights of anyone.  It creates an environment where teachers are afraid to talk freely about sexuality that isn't straight "missionary position heterosexual".

By allowing for a "conscience exemption", you force teachers to go running to parents for "permission" to  talk about these topics.  Guess what?  That sends a message to students that being LGBT is somehow "bad" or "illicit" - something to be ashamed of.  Surely in today's world we know better than that.

Parents who wail and moan about their right to "protect" their innocent little child from these "evils" are doing nothing more than propagating their own ignorance and discomfort with matters of sexuality.  They aren't going to have an honest discussion with their children about sexuality, they're going to repeat the very narrow viewpoint that they have, which is often informed not by facts and rational evidence but by religious doctrine.  Remember, the vast majority of the discrimination and hate that is aimed at LGBT people in our society has its roots in religious dogma.

Yes, as parents they are free to teach their children whatever religious dogma they wish at home.  They are not free to deny their children free and open access to objective, evidence-based knowledge.  Schools which object to students giving each other moral support through mechanisms like Gay-Straight Alliances do so not because they have a religious objection with any validity.  They do it out of fear that their particular little narrow viewpoint of the world is somehow threatened by treating all of society's citizens as equals.

The rights and safety of LGBT Albertans are no less rights than the religious freedoms of Albertans or those of parents.  A child growing up gay in a religious home has the same right to a safe place at school that acknowledges their sexual identity as real and valid as a straight child.

It isn't hard to guess the political calculation that went into this decision.  You looked, smelled blood in the water from the Wild Rose party's recent disasters and decided to throw LGBT students under the political bus in hopes of securing a little more the religious vote that had gone over the WRP in the last several years.

Using students as a political football is appalling enough.  Doing so with students who are part of a tiny minority population is reprehensible, Mr. Prentice.

I urge you to pass Bill 202 in its full form as it stands today.  Man up, and do the right thing by LGBT students in this province, and take steps that remove discrimination from the system.

Sincerely,




Friday, November 07, 2014

So, Just Who Is The Terrorist Here?

In 2014 in Canada, we have had several incidents involving people attacking various institutions and symbols of government.

Consider the following list:





The two in October has been deemed "terrorist actions", the first two have never been called that.

WhoGunExplosivesTarget
GGYesYesVeteran's Affairs Office
Justin BourqueYesNoRCMP Officers
Martin RousseauNoNoCanadian Forces Member
Michael Zehaf-BebeauYesNoCanadian Forces Member & Parliament

Looking the surface of these, I don't see a whole lot of difference between these various events.

The first two involved people who were upset with the government for various reasons, as did the last two.  The last two have been dubbed "terrorists".  What's the difference?  Oh, well, allegedly the last two were "converts to Islam" and had been "radicalized".

All four involve a great deal of anger with the government, and arguably 3 of the four involved ideological differences with the government.  The case of GG seems to be more of a case of frustration with Veterans' Affairs, although given the current government's "Veterans as Photo-ops" approach to Veterans' Affairs, one could argue that there is a causal connection.

In the story around GG at the very least we are talking about PTSD and Depression (both significant mental illness conditions requiring treatment).  Michael Zehaf-Bebeau is known to have sought help for significant mental health issues unsuccessfully.  We don't know enough about Martin Rousseau, although there are hints in the story of possible depression and the act itself seems to be more one of opportunity rather than anything planned.  Justin Bourque is a little harder to pin down on this front, and I don't think there's enough evidence to be certain about his mental health.

Objectively, three of the four cases reflect people struggling with potentially serious mental health issues that were largely untreated.

So, why are the cases of Martin Rousseau and Michael Zehaf-Bebeau dubbed "terrorism"?  Frankly, it's nothing more than an arbitrary connection of these people's religious affiliation.  Both men had converted to Islam somewhere along the way in their lives.  This is not a crime.  In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that each of us has the right to follow whatever religion (or lack thereof) that we choose.

There had been much talk in the news about "radicalized" youth travelling to Syria to fight with ISIS in the months prior to the October events.  The events of this past October got dubbed "terrorism" because a couple of people who were arguably dealing with untreated mental illness happened to be converts to Islam. 

I'm not saying that there are not violent factions within Islam.  There unquestionably are.  However, mere association with Islam should not be seen as an affiliation with terrorism.  The individual acts of two men, both apparently suffering from serious mental health problems, should not be considered "terrorism" on the basis of their choice of religion.  Even if they had posted violent threats online, we have to consider those in the full context of their lives.

The use of the label "Terrorist" has become one of political expediency.  We need to be much more judicious in applying such labels.  As a public, we need to be even more skeptical of the motives of a government that uses that language about people who are now dead and cannot be objectively examined.