Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Canada's Economy: Not Exactly Healthy

If you are a worker, you already know that Canada's economy is a mess.  The only people who don't seem to know it are at the top.

Press Progress published a very detailed analysis of how messed up our economy is today.  A few of the highlights:
First, the good news: Corporate Canada's profits have hit a 27-year high, according to a new report by CIBC World Markets. Bay Street has never been happier, right? 
Well, there's just one little catch: new Statistics Canada data shows the Canadian economy shrank in January. All those layoffs and store closures you've been hearing about lately? "Ugly" retail sales? That stuff.
Yeah ... "that stuff".  If you work in retail, you've probably been smelling the rot that's been happening as hours of work are cut further and further in stores, although strangely the execs in head office don't seem to be taking pay cuts, or the quality of product being brought in has nosedived at about the same rate that sales have been tanking.

In Calgary (and the rest of Alberta), we've been experiencing enormous numbers of layoffs in the oil patch.  Not hundreds of jobs, but thousands of them lost.  One thing to notice though, is that the people at the top are not the ones bearing the brunt.  It is contractors and middle tier workers carrying the burden.

In Alberta, we are being fed the line that "corporate tax hikes will kill jobs".  This is a straight up lie, and we all know it.  It's a gambit play by the wealthy to keep as much money as possible, at the expense of Albertans.  It is not merely a matter of raising the tax rate, but also closing up all of the escape hatches used to funnel revenues out of Canada.  You earn a dollar here, or on our resources, you pay a fair price for it.  Current corporate taxation and royalty regimes in Alberta definitely are not reasonable, especially when we compare ourselves with say, Norway.

There's a point to this.  It isn't just that we are losing jobs in retail, or that the oil patch in Alberta is tanking.  It is that we have had a uniquely narrow-focused government which has been paying off their big donors (big business and the executive classes).  It isn't Canadians who have been winning, it is the wealthy who have been winning, at the expense of Canadians.  Alberta hasn't put a plug nickel into the Heritage Savings fund in ages.  Why?  Because our governments have been happily handing money over to the corporate world in the name of "jobs".

Jobs, which I will point out, are at best conditional fictions on a good day.  Corporate Canada argues that taxes kill jobs.  This is a lie.  Downturns kill jobs.  Austerity budgets kill jobs.  The speed with which layoffs and cuts begin the minute there is a downturn of any sort tells us a great deal about how much those jobs are really worth.

Canada's governments need to start looking out for Canadians.  Not Canadian corporations, not international corporations.  Canadian citizens.  Period.  Anything else is a disservice to the people that our government is elected to serve.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Harper's Slide Into Fascism Is Complete

With the tabling of Bill C-51, Harper has completed his slide into fascism, with a healthy dose of totalitarianism added to it.

Effectively, Bill C-51 not only creates a PMO-controlled police state, but it also effectively criminalizes any form of political dissent by leaving the decision of what constitutes a "threat" in the hands of policymakers without any kind of legislative oversight.

Others have commented at length why this bill is bad news.  Frankly, none of those commentaries are surprising in either their content or the fears that they rightly express.  When I took the veil down from this blog in 2013, the first post I made discussed in detail why I believe that Harper is a fascist, and the lengthy trail of evidence that goes with it.

Canada has never experienced the likes of Harper in the past.  Unlike Europe whose dalliances with fascism gave rise to WWII, we have been relatively insulated from those kinds of predations from our political leadership.  We haven't lived through the darkness of totalitarian rule before, but here we are today.

Consider the sequence of policies and actions taken by the Harper regime.  Under Harper, the long form census was scrapped - an act which has hobbled the ability of Statistics Canada to provide the kind of clear, highly reliable information that is necessary for informed decision making.  Science has been corporatized to such a degree that even basic research is compromised if not marginalized.  In particular, environmental sciences have been systematically defunded, making it all but impossible to objectively assess the consequences of major environmental impacts such as the Tar Sands operations in Alberta are having.  Education, especially past high school, has become focused on "useful" degrees, leaving domains such as the liberal arts to languish, impairing the ability of schools to teach critical thought and creative expression.  There has been a steady pounding of the military drum, with over $50 million spent on commemorating the 1812 war, and a paltry few hundred thousand on the flag's anniversary or the anniversary of the constitution.

Hitler used the Jews as a target to focus public ire on, Harper is using the "Jihadi Threat" to focus public ire on this nation's Arab citizens.  Okay, so Harper hasn't called for their extermination yet, but is the current whipping up of fervor and fear over "radicalization" (allegedly happening in the mosques) substantively different to Hitler's propaganda campaigns against the Jews in the 1930s?  I argue not so much.

The current CRA "audit campaign" against charitable organizations who have made statements which the government doesn't like is so blatantly politicized it isn't even funny.  This is yet another part of Harper's overall attempt to squelch any form of dissent or disagreement.  If he can't come after you directly through the force of law, he will come up with other tools of oppression.

The list is nearly endless.

Totalitarianism can arise from the far end of either right or left leaning governments, but let us make no mistake, Harper is a totalitarian and he just happens to have chosen the symbols of state to entrench himself with.  He is a fascist.  He will always be a fascist, our language has no other words for this kind of government and its patterns.

In tabling C-51, Harper has begun his campaign of undermining Canada's Constitution and in particular the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in earnest.  This law, like many others this government has passed grossly violates fundamental principles of liberty and justice.  It uses broad, ambiguous wording which can be interpreted arbitrarily to go after anyone whom the PMO decides is a "threat".  While I firmly believe that much of C-51 will collapse when challenged before the Supreme Court of this country, the fact is that any Supreme Court challenge is likely to be decades in the making before a ruling happens.

In the meantime, as long as Harper and his band of authoritarians remain in power, Canadians live under the shadow of a government which is willing to create a class of political dissidents the likes of which we have only read about in the past.

If this sounds "alarmist" to you, I encourage you to spend some time studying the political tactics of previous totalitarian regimes in other nations, their rise, the political strategies used and so on, and then spend some time paying close attention to Stephen Harper's actions since the mid-1990s to present.  The parallels are there, and I argue that we should be very worried about the effects that this man is going to have on this nation.

To our countries opposition parties, every last one of you should be decrying this bill for what it is:  an unwarranted, unjustified attack on liberty and freedoms guaranteed in this nation's Constitution.  

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The International Game Of Chicken

The current low oil prices have been characterized as a high stakes game of "chicken" between OPEC countries and "non-conventional" producing countries like Canada and more recently the US.

I don't pretend to know the state of the books for OPEC's countries, but I imagine they have a significant chunk of change set aside, and won't find that prolonged low prices won't be a particular impediment.

The extraction techniques for both Alberta's Tar Sands, and the Shale fields in the US are much more expensive to run.  Back in August of this past year, the rumblings of "cutting costs" were already starting to roll around the oil patch in Calgary.

I predict that the downturn we will experience in Alberta will be at least as severe, if not more so, than we saw in 1980.  If prices stay low for more than a couple of months, the oil patch will start axing investment and people at a ferocious rate.  We're just coming through to the end of the first full quarter of these low prices, and probably around the end of the next quarter we will start to see things happen as companies start to try to keep themselves profitable.

There are already modest scale layoffs happening in downtown Calgary, and larger cuts are yet to come.  Companies like Talisman Energy have bought themselves a bit of time by selling off to new ownership - it will take a few months for the new owners to start intervening.  But other companies are already making major changes to their capital investment plans, with cuts being announced almost daily.  If you don't think this is going to be a messy time in Alberta, just wait and watch - it's not going to be pretty.

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.