Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- George Monbiot comments on the dangerous effect of agreements which place investors' interests above those of governments and citizens:
From the outset, the transatlantic partnership has been driven by corporations and their lobby groups, who boast of being able to "co-write" it. Persistent digging by the Corporate Europe Observatory reveals that the commission has held eight meetings on the issue with civil society groups, and 119 with corporations and their lobbyists. Unlike the civil society meetings, these have taken place behind closed doors and have not been disclosed online.

Though the commission now tells the public that it will protect "the state's right to regulate", this isn't the message the corporations have been hearing. In an interview last week, Stuart Eizenstat, co-chair of the Transatlantic Business Council – instrumental in driving the process – was asked if companies whose products had been banned by regulators would be able to sue. Yes. "If a suit like that was brought and was successful, it would mean that the country banning the product would have to pay compensation to the industry involved or let the product in." Would that apply to the European ban on chicken carcasses washed with chlorine, a controversial practice permitted in the US? "That's one example where it might."

What the commission and its member governments fail to explain is why we need offshore arbitration at all. It insists that domestic courts "might be biased or lack independence", but which courts is it talking about? It won't say. Last month, while trying to defend the treaty, the British minister Kenneth Clarke said something revealing: "Investor protection is a standard part of free-trade agreements – it was designed to support businesses investing in countries where the rule of law is unpredictable, to say the least." So what is it doing in an EU-US deal? Why are we using measures designed to protect corporate interests in failed states in countries with a functioning judicial system? Perhaps it's because functioning courts are less useful to corporations than opaque and unjust arbitration by corporate lawyers.

As for the commission's claim that the trade deal will produce growth and jobs, this is also likely to be false. Barack Obama promised that the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement would increase US exports by $10bn. They immediately fell by $3.5bn. The 70,000 jobs it would deliver? Er, 40,000 were lost. Bill Clinton promised that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create 200,000 new jobs for the US; 680,000 went down the pan. As the commentator Glyn Moody says: "The benefits are slight and illusory, while the risks are very real."
- Frances Russell and Chantal Hebert bite on the claim that entrenched caucus review processes are the only alternative to top-down leader control - and that they reflect a meaningful change from the power already held by individual representatives. But Alice Funke is on the mark in pointing out that caucuses already have plenty of influence:
A commentariat gravely worried about party group-think has shown itself all-too-ironically-susceptible to the very same affliction, as one columnist after another trips over himself or herself to jump in front of the parade.

Things have deteriorated so badly in the last two days that I’ve been told it really doesn’t matter what’s actually in the bill, because in politics everything is appearances, and people have to be seen to be lining up behind democracy.

But it does matter what’s in a piece of legislation that seeks to amend the Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, and we do need to debate it at length. What’s really wrong with our democratic system is that this is almost never done anymore. We’re all about Omnibus budget bills and Twitter fights being storify’ed now. Neither is a very good way to make laws. And the only way to change that is to say “stop”.
(T)he Bill would formalize in legislation a party caucus’ ability to call for and effect a leadership review. I say formalize, because there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.
So, it’s not that a caucus CAN’T call for a leadership review or push a leader out, it’s that they apparently won’t, and/or they don’t. I fail to see how enacting legislation formalizing this authority gives them any more actual power to do so, or makes them any more accountable back home for not showing some backbone.
And I'd add that the arbitrary review levels set out in Chong's bill might only strengthen a leader's hand in some cases. For the moment, pointed questioning from a few representatives on a particular issue might be enough to create a meaningful story. But a formal mechanism would allow leaders to punt on answering questions by saying they're answerable to nobody until the 15% standard is met - making any story into a process of speculation as to whether the dissidents will reach the review threshold, rather than a discussion of the issue.

- Oliver Burkeman discusses the relationship between consumerism, materialism and social isolation:
All this provides an interesting counterbalance to the interminable debate about whether or not there's a threshold of personal income, or per capita GDP, above which more money stops making us happier. Research on both sides of this question gets reported all the time, often accompanied by commentary suggesting it's the final word on the matter. But these investigations of materialist attitudes point to an important clarification: how much money you have and the attitude you take towards it are two different things.

It may well be that having more money would make some or even most of us happier. Undoubtedly, there are millions of people on the planet who'd be happier if they had more money. But at the same time, most of us might well be happier if we could learn to value money – and, specifically, the material stuff it can buy – a little less.
- Trish Hennessy offers up her year in review - featuring plenty of stories which didn't get the attention they deserved in 2013. And Alex Boutillier reports on another trend which fits the bill, as the Cons' attacks on public-sector pay are again being paired with massive increases in spending on outside contractors.

- Finally, John Lorinc's commentary about the state of the union movement in Canada is well worth a read.

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