Saturday, September 24, 2005

Spreading true global values

The CP reports on a group of Canadian and U.S. peace activists trying to share a message of peace in Iraq. It might seem futile, but the response from Iraqis seems to be largely positive:
As a volunteer with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a Canada-U.S. organization, Rollins believes pacifists should be ready to risk their lives for peace just as soldiers risk their lives in war.

Rollins and a handful of colleagues live in a Baghdad neighbourhood among ordinary Iraqis, far from the fortified green zone where the coalition headquarters is located...

They've earned enough respect that the group now gets requests for assistance from the UN and Amnesty International, whose staffers are generally confined to the green zone...

"The Iraqi people always tell us, 'Your job is not here, your job is back there, in your countries, telling people what is happening and educating them.' We've worked pretty hard on that."

The article notes that while the activists are constantly in danger based on the chaos in the region, nobody appears to have attacked them specifically even through they're among the few foreigners willing to go beyond the Green Zone. Rollins' experiences discussed in the article should make clear that large numbers of Iraqis are entirely willing to cooperate with people who genuinely have their best interest at heart, and that even the insurgency is based far more on fighting occupation than on any general hatred for the West.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis who have dealt with Rollins have sent another important message: that peace will ultimately only come from change in American public knowledge. This is less based on a need for public opinion to change than based on a need for the political system to start acknowledging the majority view. But either way, the disaster that is Iraq will only improve if even people who have backed Bush to this point can be convinced that he's ultimately the greatest threat to long-term peace in Iraq. We can only wish Rollins all the best in the effort, and do our best to pass the message along.

Getting there

As much as debt relief has been talked about over the past year, it still isn't a fait accompli. But today, the IMF took a huge step in making sure that the agreement actually leads to relief:
An agreement Friday among finance officials of the world's seven wealthiest industrial countries should clear the way for final approval by IMF and World Bank leaders to the debt relief program, Treasury Secretary John Snow said...

The outlines of the deal were settled on world leaders at an economic summit meeting in Scotland in July. But Belgium, the Netherlands and others said the rich countries were not making sufficient commitments to replace the money that the IMF and World Bank would forego.

Finance officials from the Group of Seven countries, joined by Russia's finance minister, pledged in a letter to Wolfowitz to "cover the full cost to offset dollar for dollar" the loan repayments the World Bank would lose.

Kudos to all the states involved. Now that it's (relatively) clear where the money is coming from, there shouldn't be much problem in making sure that the debt-relief program can operate as planned.

Good words, little action

There are contrasting views in the Liberal party about how to handle the CBC lockout. While Joe Fontana merely wants to ask both sides for plans to end the lockout, Sarmite Bulte is rightly making noise about forcing the CBC to account for government money received during the lockout:
Bulte asked Treasury Board officials yesterday whether dollars directed to the CBC during the lockout could be put into a trust or something similar, to ensure the corporation wasn't using the dispute merely to save money. But she was told the CBC's financing was part of the June budget and no one can simply revoke measures in it.

What she can do, she was told, is ask for a Heritage Department audit of how the CBC used government money during this lockout. Bulte says she intends to ask for that.

"They may have to give some of it back," Bulte said, especially if an audit reveals the CBC is using these savings from the lockout to cover other losses. She said she would also be annoyed if the corporation used those savings to beef up its resources after the lockout, as a way of regaining stature and goodwill.

"You can't buy back the public," Bulte said.

While any need to save money can be readily traced back to the Liberals in the first place, Bulte deserves credit for at least pointing out that there's no reason for management to be able to profit at the expense of its locked-out workers. But that does leave the question of what to do next. And despite some momentary appeal to back-to-work legislation (another Bulte-backed solution), it's not going to solve the underlying problems of the CBC unless it's accompanied by enough future funding to let the network function.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Progressives for Anders

The big blog story today has been the Progressives for Harper movement, and I'm not going to pretend that it doesn't hold some appeal.

But allow me to dissent at least in part. Canukistan has already pointed out one former leader who I think we'd all rather see in charge than Stevie Franchise. And I'd think there are more than a few other potential candidates. Just think how much easier it would be for the NDP to take over as the main opposition party if the Cons' leader was someone who genuinely goes out of his way to be scary, rather than someone who merely gets outmaneuvered at every turn and fails to counter Liberal attacks.

What's more, I'm not sure it's too implausible to think that the Cons' base could conclude that Harper has moderated party policy too much, and accordingly go even harder-right with the party's next leader. So by throwing our support to Harper, we may only prevent the Cons from making an even bigger and better mistake.

Granted, Harper has managed to squander what should have been golden opportunities to take over 24 Sussex Drive, and for that we remain grateful. But while he's managed to make the Cons into an also-ran, I don't think we can say he's made them completely toxic yet. And I for one will reserve my support until I see a Con leader who can.

Money in the bank

The CP clarifies the impact of Goodale's recently-released budget numbers, with plenty of good news for this year:
Ottawa took in an extra $2.3 billion in July 2005 - almost $1 billion more than it reported during the same period one year ago, the Finance department reported Friday. That brought the total federal surplus to $7.1 billion from April through July - near double the $4.3 billion recorded during the same period a year earlier.

As pointed out in the article, even last year's level of income had the federal government in line to bank a surplus over 8 billion until the late spending came into play. Barring a shocking turn of events, the NDP budget deal looks like it's safe based on the numbers...as long the government in power at the end of the 2005-06 fiscal year is still interested in implementing it.

Returning for the right reasons

A couple of days ago, the OECD threatened that Canada's economy can't afford to see workers retire early. But today, Statistics Canada pointed out that the movement back to work has been in progress for over a decade:
According to a study released by Statistics Canada on Friday, 22 per cent of those who retired between 1992 and 2000 at the age of 50 or older went back to some form of paid work.

The study shows that retirees in good health who have the right kind of education and skills just can’t stay away. While the number one reason for returning was financial – 38 per cent of respondents said it was about the money – most had something else on their minds.

A full 22 per cent said they did not like retirement, 19 per cent said they were after “the intrinsic rewards offered by work,” such as challenging tasks, social contacts and sense of purpose. And 14 per cent said they were needed.

The OECD report contains some eminently sensible suggestions: that mandatory retirement ages be eliminated, that more training be available for older workers, and that workers be able to receive some pension funds while going back to work. But the OECD also suggests making retirement less comfortable by reducing RRSP incentives, which sounds like an awfully dangerous road to start down - effectively trying to reduce the economic well-being of older workers in order to create a need for employment. And judging from the StatsCan data, a good number of workers already lack the means to support themselves following retirement; there's little reason to think more people should be pushed into the same situation.

Fortunately, the StatsCan study suggests that a good number of workers end up going back for far better reasons. Having already spent enough time and effort at work to have earned their retirement, they still have a desire keep contributing. That, rather than economic need, is a reason for working past retirement age that we can all get behind. And we should be looking for every way possible to make sure that people in those circumstances don't face any barriers to working.

Returns on investment

The National Post points out one possible reason why increased investment in health care hasn't yet produced the results we'd like:
Canada's health care system is rife with fraud that costs the public and private sectors an estimated $3-billion to $10-billion a year, the country's first-ever survey of health fraud indicates...

More than 100 players in the field responded to the survey, including almost 80 who represent the insurance companies and government agencies and departments that make payments to health care providers. Others were police or investigators in the field.

All respondents estimated at least 3% of claims were fraudulent, while about seven out of 10 pegged the prevalence of the problem at 6%-19%.

Naturally, this doesn't mean there's a need to criticize the vast majority of health-care workers who do their job without padding the numbers. But in such a rapidly-expanding field, there's lots of money to be made by claiming to be performing necessary health services. And that leads to a need for countermeasures to ensure that the money goes only where it's needed.

I'm not one to demand audits as a matter of course: in a lot of cases they may add additional costs without much benefit. But where as large a program as health care is facing such systemic problems, the cost/benefit analysis shifts. From the scope of the survey, it doesn't appear that any one province or field has escaped the problem - meaning that only a well-coordinated federal effort is likely to put a serious dent in the problem.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stupid or worse?

E.J. Dionne gives his generous interpretation of Bushco's fiscal policy:
At least the Operation Offset crowd has produced this list of cuts and forced its own leaders to disown them. The exchange showed how fundamentally stupid our budget policies have been over the past five years -- and, yes, I'll defend that strong word...

Why describe our government's fiscal policies as "stupid," rather than, say, "ill-advised" or "misguided"? The softer words of conventional opinion writing imply disagreement but suggest an honest coherence in the other side's view. Hey, we all disagree on stuff, right?...

Which brings us back to that word "stupid." My dictionary tells me it means not only "lacking in ordinary intelligence" but also "dazed" and "stupefied." The crowd running our government is dazed and stupefied by a theory that sees throwing ever-larger sums to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts as so good, right and important that all the ordinary rules of finance and economics can be thrown out the window. If it was already stupid to pursue more tax cuts once the country decided to wage a large war on terrorism, it is supremely stupid to stay on the same course now that Katrina has added to our fiscal burdens and Rita, God help us, threatens to add more.

Dionne points out the current chasm in the Republican party, between the group of "fiscal hawks" which wants to cover added costs by slamming today's poor, and the White House-led faction which simply doesn't care about how anything should be paid for. While Dionne considers it a strong step to call the latter point of view "stupid", I'll take the view that it's both too generous a phrase, and wrong in its analysis of Bushco's motivations.

Rather, the right word is somewhere between "ruthless" and "malicious", though I'm open to suggestions as to even better fits. By completely ignoring the fiscal impact of current policy, Bush is managing to tie the hands of whoever succeeds him, ensuring that whatever future tax increases are necessary as a reaction to his tax-cutting must be used first to pay off his debt, rather than to repair the ever-increasing damage done to groups who don't form part of his core constituency.

Sure, there's some dishonesty in any claims of fiscal responsibility. But the bigger harm lies in the honest pursuit of a Norquistian "death to effective government" philosophy. And if Bushco's architects were genuinely stupid, they wouldn't have done quite so well at not only controlling the trappings of power, but also undermining bureaucratic and social systems built to outlast any one regime.

Well said

Scott Piatkowski tears into PMPM for his UN hypocrisy:
It's not uncommon for politicians to rehearse their speeches in front of a mirror. In Martin's case, if he's looking for someone to condemn for “empty rhetoric,” he should probably stick to delivering them in front of a mirror as well.

Not too much new information, but it's a nice summary of how Martin's lofty language so often runs contrary to his actions (or lack thereof). Give it a read.

Cellucci unmuzzled

Now that he's no longer Bushco's Canadian spokesman, Paul Cellucci has some worthwhile comments to make:
Mr. Cellucci also questioned sending a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen off to a dungeon-like cell in Damascus without notifying Canadian authorities. An agreement since signed between Washington and Ottawa will prevent it from happening again, he said.

"Part of the unfairness was that we took a Canadian citizen, shipped him to a third country without consulting with Canada," Mr. Cellucci told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview Wednesday from Calgary.

Now just by acknowledging that there are some limits to the President's unfettered discretion to do anything in the name of fighting terror (even for reasons of comity rather than human rights), Cellucci goes against everything his former boss seems to stand for. But it gets better:
Often criticized during his ambassadorship for his outspoken "megaphone diplomacy," Mr. Cellucci openly acknowledged Washington got it wrong when it alleged deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — even though he says such weapons were the "major reason for going in."

"We're not always right, and on that particular one it looks like we weren't right, although we know at some point in the past he did have these weapons," Mr. Cellucci said.

And while the book is highly critical of former prime minister Jean Chr├ętien's decision to keep Canada out of war in Iraq — saying Mr. Chr├ętien showed "indecision, mixed signals and confusion" instead of leadership — Mr. Cellucci said Wednesday he understands why Canadians applaud the decision.

Of particular interest is the fact that Cellucci's biggest criticism is Canada's lack of a strong stand rather than its ultimate position - and he acknowledges that we were right in the end. Which seems to provide all the more reinforcement for the idea that the biggest error the Liberals have made is to try to have it both ways rather than to clearly explain why the U.S. sometimes deserves to be opposed.

Contained inflation

Most news sources have prominently displayed the high inflation rate in August. But only CBC Unlocked gives as much attention to the cause as to the effect on its front page headline.* And its analysis is worth a look as well:
The surprising story behind high oil and gasoline prices is that they are not causing the prices of other goods to inflate.

Energy prices are driving up the costs of making many goods, such as plastics and paper, as well as the cost of shipping them. But that cost isn't being passed onto the consumer...

Statistics show companies have made their operations more efficient by reducing the amount of energy used. Companies are inventing new products for which they can charge higher prices because they can't boost prices on existing goods. If that doesn't work, they are shutting down production or moving it to countries with lower labour costs. Raising prices is a last resort for companies facing competition from abroad.

Unfortunately, only the first two of these strategies can really be seen as positive ones (and it seems particularly odd that anybody would move offshore when that would seem likely to increase shipping costs all the more). But to the extent that businesses are becoming more energy-efficient, there is reason to believe Steve Maich's argument that some good is coming out of the higher oil prices. And most of the potential harm to consumers from higher fuel prices doesn't seem to have materialized yet.

We'll see if that holds up as gas shocks get even worse. But for now, while there's reason to watch closely to make sure that price increases are legitimate, there's definitely no reason to panic. Let's hope the Bank of Canada keeps that in mind next time it decides whether or not to raise interest rates.

*In fairness, the National Post also notes the cause and effect on its business page headline. But the NP's front page doesn't appear to mention the inflation story at all.

Diversity of opinion

The Globe's web comment points out that another group of professional immigrants is having trouble finding a place in Canada - but that something is being done on at least a small scale:
When the Spectator let it be known that it was interested in talking with immigrant journalists in Hamilton, 20 showed up for the initial meeting. They came from India, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Angola, Ethiopia and Colombia. Jim Poling, the Spectator's assistant managing editor who ran the program, wrote later: "Some struggle with English. Some are shy. Some are nervous. They tell us about being beaten, imprisoned, tortured. One woman tells us how the police in Central America raided her newsroom and pulled reporters out of their desks and off to jail. By the time we arrived at the final person," Mr. Poling observed, "our own journalists felt humbled, proud of being journalists, and sad. Sad because there was such rich talent in this community that deserved to be telling our readers about stories of importance to them."

Half of the original 20 journalists committed themselves to the program. They met every week with Mr. Poling. The aim was to prepare them to begin writing for the paper as regular paid freelancers. The program now has 20 participants, including a core group of about 10 who write regularly. It also has its own designated freelance photographer, who was a professional news photographer in Pakistan before coming to Canada. An Indian woman journalist who came to Canada three years ago to face consistent rejection by Canadian editors because she didn't have "Canadian experience," now writes regularly for the Spectator ,and with the newspaper's support, is now lecturing on globalization to journalist students at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.

Not much to add, other than that the Spectator's idea is indeed a great one, and one that will hopefully be emulated: both in order to make sure that the media includes a wide range of experience and viewpoints, and for the benefit of the journalists who have gone out of their way to have the chance to live in Canada. The writer suggests Michaelle Jean as a patron for such a movement, but even without her jumping into the fray the idea should be matched by other media outlets.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Busted

Ralph Goodale now, explaining the suddenly-reduced surplus:
Goodale said he had no other option...

"If you look at the factors that we had to take into account at the end of the year, they were factors that were absolutely compelling and unavoidable," he said.

Billions were set aside to settle an offshore energy dispute in Atlantic Canada, aid for cattle producers hurt by mad cow and environment problems at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. which all had to be dealt with from last year's revenues, Goodale said.

Ralph Goodale this spring, answering a question on why the budget should be allowed to pass:
Mr. Speaker, this deal is hugely important to Newfoundland and Labrador and to Nova Scotia. The two premiers of those provinces have told me how very important it is for the opposition to support the government on this measure and get this passed at the earliest possible moment.

The measure is before the House at this very moment. It is called the budget, and it can be passed today.

And sure enough, there it is in part 12 of bill C-43. From the bill's official summary:
Part 12 enacts the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador Additional Fiscal Equalization Offset Payments Act. The legislation will implement the arrangements of February 14, 2005 reached with Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia on offshore revenues.

Now, I'm sympathetic to the fact that some factors may legitimately change a government's financial situation. And the other two factors cited probably qualify (though they should at least have been on the radar at the start of the budgeting process).

But the Atlantic accord was agreed to in February and included as part of the budget in Parliament. It's not plausible for Goodale to now claim that one of the central features of the Liberals' budget managed to turn into an unexpected, "last minute" expense which blew a hole in a well-planned federal surplus. Rather than being a reasonable explanation, that's what's known as a "blatant lie".

This will be particularly egregious if the claim is used as a rationale to try to break the terms of the NDP budget deal. And from the article, it isn't clear whether the remaining surplus takes the deal into account or will serve to undermine the NDP's priorities. But regardless of the impact on C-48, Goodale's duplicity demands some serious attention when Parliament goes back to work next week.

Knowing when to fold 'em

To follow up after this post, word comes out today that as suspected, the Washington Post was glaringly wrong about Iran's current position before the IAEA:
Iran gained a reprieve in the standoff over its nuclear program Wednesday, with diplomats saying the European Union had decided to postpone its push to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

The decision to delay a vote until a later board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency instead of demanding one this week appeared driven by concerns about strong opposition. More than a dozen of the 35 IAEA board member countries meeting in Vienna, including Security Council members Russia and China, are against the idea.

(A new EU draft) text is expected to be introduced at this week's IAEA meeting, but any vote on referral would come only at a future session, at the earliest when the board meets again in November, said the diplomats, who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss EU strategy at the meeting.

In other words, the speech that was supposed to crystallize world opinion against Iran has changed the position only of the EU, which not only wants to hold off on immediate referral to the Security Council, but isn't even discussing the possibility in its latest motion. And the only reason why the U.S. isn't fighting the change tooth and nail is that it's afraid of a veto if the issue comes to a Security Council vote.

Which isn't to say that the U.S./E.U. bloc can be seen as being reasonable in any event. But at the very least, the group has been forced to tone down its rhetoric lest it be exposed as having nothing to back up its words.

Speaking of empty rhetoric, the article has this bonus quote from Scott McLellan:
"We've expressed our concerns about Iran's behaviour," McClellan said. "They have a long history of deceiving the international community, of not abiding by their international obligations, and that's why we remain concerned about their true intentions."

No comment necessary.

Breaking in or breaking out?

Until reading this story, I didn't think the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq could have gone any worse. And I never suspected that British troops would be the ones to bring the conflict to a head:
Hundreds of Iraqi civilians and policemen, some waving pistols and AK-47s, rallied Wednesday in the southern city of Basra to denounce "British aggression" in the rescue of two British soldiers.

The Basra governor threatened to end all co-operation with British forces unless Prime Minister Tony Blair's government apologizes for the deadly clash with Iraqi police. Britain defended the raid...

Some protesters met with the Basra police chief, Gen. Hassan Sawadi, to demand a British apology, said police spokesman Col. Karim al-Zaidi. Heavily armed soldiers and police watched the protest but didn't intervene. Al-Zaidi said the demonstration was arranged spontaneously by some policemen, not by the force or its commander.

Several hours after the protest, Basra's provincial council held an emergency meeting and voted unanimously "to stop dealing with the British forces working in Basra and not to co-operate with them because of their irresponsible aggression on a government facility."

Note that the question at this point isn't whether the raid was justified as necessary to save the soldiers. Even if that's true, the effect of the raid only points to a deeper issue: any potential gains from continued occupation are diminishing with time, as even the security forces and placeholder governments put together by the occupiers are eager to turn against the foreign presence.

As pointed out by the article, the domestic security forces which are supposed to take over responsibility for Iraq are largely controlled by extreme groups which are looking to expel the occupiers. That means that the domestic troops can pick fights (such as by kidnapping the soldiers) and put the foreign troops in a no-win situation: the occupiers can either allow the kidnapping to happen and lose any remaining morale or sense of purpose, or they can fight back and turn the entire local population (including their own successors) against them all the more.

There may have been some chance to avoid this problem from the start of the occupation if it had been well planned. (Pause for laughter.) But that chance would have required thoroughly training a set of local troops without extremist infiltration. That opportunity was scrapped in favour of trying to recruit large numbers, training and loyalty be damned.

As a result, the occupiers now have two choices: they can try to start over, scrapping the existing security forces and trying to rebuild them without the same extremist presence; or they can recognize that there's no chance of salvaging anything resembling a democratic vision, and slink away as quietly as possible.

Needless to say, public opinion (in both Iraq and the occupying states) won't allow for option number one. Which makes the kidnapping the first step in an eventual withdrawal - whether or not either Bush or Blair wants to admit it.

Equal treatment

Several Muslim and Arab groups have proposed what seems to be an eminently sensible change to Canada's terrorism laws:
Courts should be able to convict people of terrorism even when there is no strong evidence of a political or religious motive for the crime, Canadian Muslim and Arab groups told a parliamentary panel reviewing the federal Anti-Terrorism Act yesterday...

The groups suggest a definition of terrorism along the lines of one adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in a refugee case: as an act intended to cause death or serious injury to civilians in order to intimidate a population or to compel a government action.

The article doesn't actually present an argument against the proposed definition; instead, it cites a Con MP who argues against equal focus on all religions, without answering the critique that the focus shouldn't include religion in the first place.

But let's see if readers can do better. Is there a situation included in the proposed definition that we wouldn't want handled as a terrorism investigation?

To start things off, it looks like a case could be made out that targeted violence within gang wars would fall under the definition to the extent that it has the effect of "intimidating a population". But then I'm not entirely sure it's a bad thing to deal with gangs on those terms.

Have at it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Sex Police State

There's been talk lately that Bushco is alienating its base for the first time by throwing money at hurricane relief rather than putting it solely toward tax cuts and the military. But while fiscal conservatives have one more reason to hate Bush (and really, could they have avoided noticing the consistent deficits anyway?), there's good news for more fundamentalist wingnuts:
Early last month, the bureau's Washington Field Office began recruiting for a new anti-obscenity squad. Attached to the job posting was a July 29 Electronic Communication from FBI headquarters to all 56 field offices, describing the initiative as "one of the top priorities" of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and, by extension, of "the Director." That would be FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III...

The new squad will divert eight agents, a supervisor and assorted support staff to gather evidence against "manufacturers and purveyors" of pornography -- not the kind exploiting children, but the kind that depicts, and is marketed to, consenting adults...

Popular acceptance of hard-core pornography has come a long way, with some of its stars becoming mainstream celebrities and their products -- once confined to seedy shops and theaters -- being "purveyed" by upscale hotels and most home cable and satellite television systems. Explicit sexual entertainment is a profit center for companies including General Motors Corp. and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (the two major owners of DirecTV), Time Warner Inc. and the Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt hotel chains.

But Gonzales endorses the rationale of predecessor Meese: that adult pornography is a threat to families and children. Christian conservatives, long skeptical of Gonzales, greeted the pornography initiative with what the Family Research Council called "a growing sense of confidence in our new attorney general."

For Gonzales, this is a perfect way to get in the good books of the religious right to try to win their approval in the event of a SCOTUS nomination. But for Mueller, as well as the congressional leaders who voted to fund the group, this can only be seen as a bad joke. As pointed out by the article, there's absolutely no mainstream movement against pornography - and indeed prime Bush donors and supporters profit from the industry.

But let not consistency stand in the way of pandering. The Republicans will solidify their standing among their most staunch supporters with the project. As for the rest of the country, hopefully it's paying attention to the fact that Bushco is more interested in interfering with consenting adults than in dealing with child porn or child endangerment.

Think about the children indeed.

(Via Kos.)

Money management

A new study from the UK shows that far too many Britons spend beyond their means every month:
A third of Britons are unable to make their wages last an entire month, with 34% running out of money five days before payday, research revealed today.

As a consequence, the research claims, the average Briton spends 23 days every year living in the red...

The bank said that this poor budgeting is proving expensive for consumers, who often borrow at an average overdraft rate of 12.6% and unauthorised rate of 24.3%. Almost a third of consumers paid an average £27 in penalty charges over the year.

Much as I'd like to think Canadians do a better job handling their money, there doesn't seem any particular reason to draw a distinction between residents of the two countries. And overdrafts and penalty charges may be the least of a consumer's problems compared to the rates charged for a payday loan in an effort to avoid them.

Not to repeat myself too much, but there's no reason for individual fiscal situations to follow radically different principles than those followed by government. In either case, an occasional deficit is sometimes unavoidable when things don't go as planned for a period of time. But a systemic deficit is never a reasonable outcome, as the cost of poor planning only makes a money crunch worse in the long run. The sad part is that over a third of the UK's population either hasn't realized that fact, or is unable to act based on it.

Pressing the issue

Layton unveils a huge legislative priority for the NDP - and one which will force the Liberals to put their money where their mouth is on defending health care:
NDP Leader Jack Layton says his party will bring in a bill this fall to ban private medicare...

His bill wouldn't ban existing private services but would stop any future expansion across the country.

Now if the Liberals were willing to enforce the existing Canada Health Act, the new bill would be unnecessary (at least unless a province was willing to give up federal funding in order to allow private care or, for that matter, user fees under s. 19). But Layton is making it clear that if the Liberals won't take obvious steps to defend public health care, then the authority to do so should be placed elsewhere. And that'll leave Martin and company the choice of either playing along, or trying to defend their complete lack of action.

Waiting in the torture chamber

The Globe and Mail points out that even as Canada tries to figure out what went wrong in Maher Arar's rendition, another Canadian remains trapped in a Syrian jail after three years:
In July of 2002, Mr. al-Boushi travelled to his native Syria to visit his dying father. He was arrested immediately on arriving at Damascus airport and, except for a brief period of freedom soon after to attend his father's funeral, the 46-year-old manager and former Ottawa resident has spent every moment since in jail...

The newly appointed Syrian ambassador to Canada, Jamil Sakr, says he would like Mr. al-Boushi freed as well. "I hope he will be released soon," he said in Ottawa. "It is a big hope for me."...

Hopes that Mr. al-Boushi might be freed were raised in February when Mr. Pettigrew went to Damascus. According to Mrs. al-Boushi, Syrian prison officials told her husband he was about to be released but "nothing happened." It's believed that the Syrians were willing to let Mr. al-Boushi go provided he would not speak publicly about his experience.

As the article points out, there's a slightly stronger "guilt by association" factor in al-Boushi's case: rather than merely having social contacts with suspected terrorists like Arar, he was convicted in Syria of being a member of a revolutionary group when he was 19. (Not that that justifies even the jail sentence, let alone any torture.) And unlike Arar, al-Boushi travelled to Syria of his own volition, meaning that Canada's responsibility doesn't extend to his initial detention.

But just the same, al-Boushi's case demonstrates that Canada still isn't managing to get its citizens freed from prisons known for torture - even when Syria's ambassador seems willing to make that happen. And Dan McTeague, who to his credit played a large role in having two other Canadians released, appears to be sitting back and seeing what happens rather than pressing Syria to meet a past commitment to allow al-Boushi to meet with consular officials.

As a result, there's serious reason to doubt that the Liberals have learned a thing from the Arar case. We can only hope that a scathing enough report in the inquiry will lead to greater efforts to protect Canadians abroad.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Enforcing responsibility

From the LA Times: as if there weren't enough problems with Wal-Mart, a class action suit which has just now made it to trial is pointing out one more way in which the company has mistreated workers:
Lawyers representing about 116,000 former and current Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees in California told a jury today that the world's largest retailer systematically and illegally denied workers lunch breaks.

The suit in Alameda County Superior Court is among about 40 cases nationwide alleging workplace violations against Wal-Mart, and the first to go to trial. Wal-Mart, which earned $10 billion last year, settled a lawsuit in Colorado for $50 million that contains similar allegations to California's class action. The company also is accused of paying men more than women in a federal lawsuit pending in San Francisco federal court...

The lawsuit was brought in 2001 by a handful of San Francisco-area former Wal-Mart employees, and took four years of legal wrangling to get to trial. During that time, Wal-Mart produced internal audits that plaintiffs' lawyers maintain showed the company knew it was not granting meal breaks on thousands of occasions...

One company document called results of the audit "a chronic problem." A one-week review of company policies showed thousands of instances in which workers were not given a meal break in accordance with the law, according to the documents provided to the jury.

Given that this time Wal-Mart hasn't been able to wriggle its way out of handing over the pertinent documentation, it seems like a waste of money to even bother going to trial on any issue aside from damages. But the strategy appears less pointed toward winning this case than toward making sure that any other workers who would otherwise stand up for their rights know that they'll be fought tooth and nail.

Fortunately, as the article points out, there are multiple suits across the U.S. attempting to hold Wal-Mart to its legal obligations. The problem with a company built on systematically flouting the law is that eventually, enough people are affected to make it worth their while to challenge that habit. And it looks like Wal-Mart is beginning to get what's coming to it.

(Edit: Apparently it's Brain Fart Week here at the blog.)

No guts or no plan?

In the face of Alberta's plan for private health insurance, any federal government actually wanting to defend one-payer care should be eager to speak out. Instead, Ujjal Dosanjh's response was only marginally less forceful than crickets chirping:
"Alberta has basically said they are reviewing the situation and I don't think it's appropriate for me to make any pre-emptory comments," Ujjal Dosanjh said Monday. Dosanjh - buoyed by a new poll which shows Liberal fortunes soaring over Stephen Harper's Tories federally and even rising in traditionally anti-Liberal Alberta - did not seem to want to say anything that might rock that boat...

Dosanjh said no one expects the changes to happen overnight.

"I think the people of Canada know progress is going to be slow but there is going to be progress," he said.

There's a flip side to patience, which is that nobody can reasonably expect the health care system to fix itself - and that, along with a healthy dose of buck-passing, seems to be the extent of Dosanjh's action plan. While Dosanjh's office devotes itself to a thumb-twiddling marathon rather than so much as meeting with the provincial ministers responsible, others are examining or making changes which may not be reversible once started.

Fortunately, Parliament isn't far from starting up again, meaning that Dosanjh will at least have to answer publicly for his inaction. But he's already frittered away nearly a third of the one-year grace period offered after Chaoulli - and we're still a long ways away from even hearing a workable plan to genuinely fix health care.

Leaders and followers

As if there was any doubt whether the border closure was based on anything resembling rational evidence, the U.S. announced today that it will implement more stringent feed regulations - which happen to match Canada's:
The government will close a gap in the U.S. defence against the spread of mad-cow disease by changing feed regulations to mirror those in Canada, FDA commissioner Lester M. Crawford said Monday...

Canada has regulations banning at-risk tissues – brains, spinal cords and other parts that can carry mad cow disease – from feed for all animals, including chickens, pigs and pets...

Mr. Crawford did not say whether the new regulations would ban cattle blood and restaurant leftovers, also considered potential pathways for BSE, from cattle feed.

“Our regulations will mimic theirs,” he said.

The choice to match Canada's current regulations was apparently the solution proposed by an international team put together by the U.S. Agriculture Department. Not coincidentally, that's the same department that implemented the ban on Canadian cattle in the first place, and a similar international team helped to draft the Canadian version of the regulations as well.

It's nice to see the U.S. now agreeing on what should be a solid continent-wide standard for feed. But it would be all the better if the U.S. hadn't decided to shut out Canadian beef and cattle while it figured out that our solution would be the most effective.

On consistency

Word comes out this morning that Paul Martin spent time this weekend pitching exports to China:
Mr. Martin made his pitch to sell more softwood in China during weekend talks in Vancouver with Mr. Hu, who was finishing a 10-day visit to North America.

There was talk of improving human rights in China during the visit, but also a deep focus on increasing trade with the most populous country in the world.

“We discussed softwood lumber, in terms of the ability for Canada to increase its exports of softwood lumber to China,” Mr. Martin said after the meeting.“We obviously discussed the strategic partnership which the Chinese announced that they wanted to have with us in a wide range of areas, from higher technologies to natural resources.”

All this is well and good, not to mention long overdue. But the interesting part to me is the reaction from the Cons:
The Conservative Party welcomed the government's efforts to help open the Chinese market to more softwood, saying that Opposition Leader Stephen Harper called last month for that exact approach.

But then, let's look at what Conservatives have done with regard to China over the last year. They've demanded an end to Canadian aid, on the basis that China's regime is "corrupt and abusive". They've also put forward a bill to grant greater recognition to Taiwan. And they've even tried to get Martin to cancel a planned trip to Beijing. Does anybody think that China would have been looking to make Canada a "strategic partner" if those views were seen as representing Canadian policy?

In fairness, NDP members have also taken a harder line than necessary at times, and that's an area where the party needs to make some choices as to whether it wants to take an internationalist focus. But at least the NDP isn't now trying to take credit for the idea of increasing trade with an obvious trade partner.

It's a plus that the Cons are on side in terms of trade with China. But it's tough to take the current claims seriously when they seem to run directly opposite to the party's usual position. And it'll take a lot more diplomacy, and a lot less anti-China rhetoric than usually displayed by the Cons, for trade with China to meaningfully reduce our dependency on our neighbours to the south.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Contrasting perspectives

Here's a brief survey of the coverage given to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address to the United Nations.

From the Star:
Ahmadinejad, elected in June, insisted his country wanted to produce nuclear power for peaceful purposes only.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran reiterates its previously and repeatedly declared position that in accordance with our religious principles, pursuit of nuclear weapons is prohibited," he said.

But while taking a defiant line, Ahmadinejad stressed that co-operation with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, would be the "centrepiece of our nuclear policy" in the future.

In general, the tone of the Star's article makes Ahmadinejad out to be reasonable and conciliatory, having no desire to produce nuclear weapons and pointing out the hypocrisy of the U.S. in maintaining its own stockpiles. And it's hard to believe that the intended tone of the speech would be anything but. But then, not everybody sees the speech the same way...

Here's the Washington Post's take:
On Saturday, dozens of international diplomats, including the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, gathered at the United Nations to hear how Ahmadinejad planned to stave off a crisis.

Instead his speech, followed by a confused hour-long news conference, was able to do what weeks of high-level U.S. diplomacy had not: convince skeptical allies that Iran may, in fact, use its nuclear energy program to build atomic bombs.

It is even possible for both of the above analyses to be based on the same speech? The Post focuses on a lot of rhetoric which, while undoubtedly offensive, doesn't seem to relate to the nuclear issue. It also glosses over the offer of international cooperation, and doesn't mention the assurance that nuclear weapons wouldn't be pursued. Now, I'm all for taking a healthy dose of skepticism to what's bound to be a self-interested address, but how exactly does Ahmadinejad's saying one thing become proof of the opposite?

There is a third option, that being the take from the AP:
In a fiery speech to the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defiantly rejected the European offer of economic incentives in exchange for Iran giving up its uranium enrichment program.

Ahmadinejad denied his nation had any intention of producing nuclear weapons. To prove that, he offered foreign countries and companies a role in Iran's nuclear energy production...

Iran said Sunday that it has no plans to resume uranium enrichment soon but warned that it might change its mind if the IAEA were to ask the Security Council to consider sanctions.

"Enrichment is not on the agenda for the time being, but if the IAEA meeting on Monday leads to radical results, we will make our decision to correspond to that," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said.

Just a friendly reminder to keep an eye out for contrasting coverage - even among what are generally seen as mainstream news outlets. Whether a given action was really a provocation or a conciliatory gesture is entirely in the eye of the beholder...and it's all too clear that media beholders are no less likely than political ones to assume that the facts fit with their opinions.

I'll avoid commenting further, other than to remind readers trying to decide which of the above to believe of the Post's recent willingness to serve undiluted Kool-Aid.

Civilized solution

It shouldn't be a great surprise, but Canada and Denmark have apparently reached agreement on a process to resolve the Hand Island dispute:
Insiders say Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew and his Danish counterpart, Per Stig Moller, plan to announce in New York that the two countries will draft a protocol for managing their dealings over the tiny island...

The longstanding dispute now moves from the political arena to the realm of bureaucrats, who will develop a set of mutually agreed rules.

They would address such issues as notification of the other country in advance of an official visit to the island.

To some extent, it's frustrating to see top officials of both countries putting as much time as they have into such a minor dispute. But at the very least, all that time seems to be moving the two states toward a constructive resolution.

(Edit: Typo.)

Proudly oblivious

For the most part, David Wilkins has done a better job sounding reasonable than most Canadians expected from a Bush appointee. But when asked about the Maher Arar inquiry, Wilkins showed one major blind spot within his home state:

Mr. Wilkins, who took up his post in Ottawa about two months ago, seemed puzzled when asked whether he or his government had any regrets about the affair.

“You talking about regrets by the United States?” he said...

The ambassador, a former speaker of the South Carolina legislature and a close political ally of President George W. Bush, was also at a loss to explain why American authorities refused to participate in a public inquiry in Canada into the Mr. Arar affair.

“I honestly don't know the answer to that,” said Mr. Wilkins. “Were they asked? I don't know.”

Based on Wilkins' other answers, the central problem seems to be an outright absence of consideration of the people who, through no fault of their own, get caught up in terrorism-related speculation. But it appears that not only is Bushco unwilling to try to defend its position on torture, but it's also unwilling to even acknowledge the debate, to the point of refusing to give its own members information needed to perform their jobs.

After all, Wilkins is the representatives abroad charged with maintaining U.S./Canada relations - and he was apparently unaware of one of the more toxic issues between the two states. Surely he should have been well-informed as to the background on Arar, even if only in order to allow him to best defend the U.S.' actions publicly when asked inevitable questions about the inquiry.

Wilkins must bear at least some responsibility as well, since his study of Canada apparently hasn't extended to taking notice of an inquiry that's made ample news over the last year. We'll learn a lot about Wilkins based on whether he follows up on the question as a critical Canadian issue, or seeks to bury it as would be the case at home.

But the bigger issue is the culture of ignorance among the handlers who apparently decided that the torture of Canadian citizens based on faulty U.S. information wouldn't be an international issue. Unfortunately, we know too much about the rest of the Bush administration to think that they'll start paying attention now.

Majority territory

Obviously it's dangerous to rely too much on any one poll result - but this one should have all opposition parties worried:
The federal Liberals had the support of 40 per cent of respondents in a new poll - virtually the same level of backing they received in rolling to their majority government in 2000.

The Leger Marketing survey, conducted Sept. 6-11, pegged Conservative support at 24 per cent, while the NDP stood at 15 per cent and the Bloc Quebecois at 13 per cent...

Marois said the poll revealed strong growth for the Liberals in Western Canada, including a jump of 16 percentage points in Alberta in two months and an increase of 14 percentage points in British Columbia...

While the poll had the Liberals way out in the lead in popular support, 53 per cent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with Martin's government, compared with 40 per cent who were satisfied.

The article notes that there would be serious risks for the Liberals in trying to push for an election anytime soon. And the dissatisfaction numbers show that a lot of people are willing to push Martin out of power given the right alternative.

But it does seem clear that the Libs are getting credit for the bulk of the good that's been done during the current Parliament, and that's a trend that the NDP will have to fight - particularly if it's not able to set its terms for cooperation as publicly as it did this spring.