29 February 2012

Are political donations and Alberta's persistent condo problems related?

Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done. — Lord Hewart, Seventh Lord Chief Justice of England

The same might be said about governing. Governing parties should not only govern justly but should be seen to be governing justly. That is difficult when they receive large political donations from vested interests. To the impartial eye, they might understandably be seen to favour those interests. 

Such is the case in Alberta and the government's action, or lack of it, regarding problems with condominium construction. As more condos were built during the heated economy of the last decade, their construction has often left a lot to be desired. Hundreds of Albertans have been forced out of their condominiums because they were too unsafe to inhabit. Thousands of others have had to spend millions of dollars to repair crumbling buildings, many less than a decade old.

Last year, 300 residents of the Penhorwood complex in Fort McMurray were hastily evacuated in the middle of the night because officials feared the nearly new building would collapse. The owners voted to borrow $35-million to rebuild the entire project.

Owners in Bella Vista condo in Calgary, a building less than 10 years old, face bills between $77,000 and $189,000 each for repairs to the roof, eaves, balcony and parkade in a building where some of the condos are only worth $200,000.The owners are pursuing legal action against the developer.

Earlier this month, about 150 residents of the high-end Bellavera Green Condos in Leduc were given an eviction order because of serious fire-code issues. Fire chief Ernie Polsom reported that the one-year old complex contained “serious Alberta Fire and Building Code violations."

The provincial government has been promising action for some time. Last year, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said the government is implementing changes such as a new home warranty program, better training for safety codes officers and increased fines for building-code violations. “It’s been a long process," she said, "but we’re getting to the end.”

The question is why the end hasn't been reached. A government committee, led by Conservative MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, issued a report in December 2008 which found Alberta’s system of construction and inspection was inadequate to protect home or condominium owners. Over three years later, nothing has been done and the woes continue.

Perhaps this is just a case of the mills of the gods grinding slowly, but an observer might be excused for wondering if he wasn't seeing an indebted political party hesitant to offend a major benefactor. Indeed, in the case of the Alberta Conservative Party, its major benefactor. The biggest donor to the Conservatives is not, as most would guess, the oil industry, but the construction/real estate industry. In 2009, for example, the Conservatives received 69 per cent of their funding from corporations and 26 per cent of that came from the construction/real estate industry. Does the government's caution, at the expense of homeowners, result from an obligation to a very generous friend, or does it only look that way? In any case, this is a circumstance that fails to meet the standard of integrity laid down by Lord Hewart.

25 February 2012

How Wall Street buys Washington

Oh, those fickle Wall Street bankers. In 2008, Barack Obama was their man for president. They lavished $71-million on the Democratic candidate, $10-million more than on his Republican rival. Goldman Sachs was Obama's major contributor. In the current campaign, they are laying out the largesse again, outspending all other special interest groups. So far, however, they have switched horses, investing twice as much in Mitt Romney's campaign as Obama's.

Romney holds a certain attraction for the bankers, of course. He is from their ranks, and he has promised to return Wall Street to the good old days of untrammeled greed. But, not to worry, Obama will get his share. That's how the bankers play it. They really aren't that concerned with who wins; their goal is to control the agenda and frame the debates. This means that, while they have their favourites, they are generous to both sides. No matter who wins, the winner is obligated to the bankers.

After all, they have little reason to be unhappy with Obama. Oh yes, he spoke out disapprovingly about the "fat cat" bankers and promised legislation to rein them in, but that was rhetoric for the rabble, designed to allay the righteous anger of the masses. The bankers understand that politicians have to display their populist side from time to time. All the while Obama was railing about fat cats, he was bailing out the banks with bundles of boodle and hiring the guys who had caused the problem as his economic advisers and chiefs of staff. Legislatively, all his administration has produced to control the excesses of Wall Street is the anemic Dodd-Frank Act (which Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal).

And then there's the tax issue. Back in the 50s and early 60s, The top marginal tax rate in the U.S. was 91 per cent. Today it's 35 per cent. Yet unemployment today is much higher and economic growth slower—pandering to the "job creators" clearly isn't an economically productive strategy. Nonetheless, seriously raising taxes is off the table, just where the bankers want it, even though the country is running massive deficits. Americans are, it seems, getting the government Wall Street pays for.

23 February 2012

Al Jazeera's Bahrain doc wins another award

For a definitive record of the 2011 protests against the kleptocratic Al Khalifa family, rulers of Bahrain, one cannot do better than the Al Jazeera documentary "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark." The courage and spirit of the uprising is well laid out as is the grim and sickening detail of its repression.

The film has now won the 63rd annual George Polk Award in Journalism. One of America’s most coveted journalistic honours, the award memorializes George Polk, a CBS radio correspondent slain in 1949 after writing critically about the fascist government while covering the Greek Civil War. Other winners, who are chosen from newspapers, magazines, television, radio and online news organizations, include Edward R. Murrow, Carl Bernstein, David Halberstam, I.F. Stone, Morley Safer and Walter Cronkite. The film was also awarded the U.K. Foreign Press Association Award for Best Documentary in November 2011.

The title is fitting as indeed the protesters were "shouting in the dark." Little attention was paid by the Western press compared to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria. Nor did Arab countries who supported opposition to other Arab regimes such as Ghaddafi's or Assad's, show support for the Bahrainis. Indeed, quite the contrary. Saudi Arabia, with the support of other Gulf states, aided in the brutal repression of the protesters.

The documentary is of special importance to Western audiences, not only because Saudi Arabia, good friend of the U.K. and the U.S., helped in the oppression, but because the U.K. and the U.S. continue to supply arms to both the Sauds and the Khalifas.

Al Jazeera was in a unique position to bring this story to the world, as they often are in the Middle East. As the crackdown in Bahrain deepened, it was the only international news provider to remain in the country. The documentary can be viewed here.

21 February 2012

Rick Santorum—an Antichrist?

Rick Santorum is a disturbing man. The candidate for Republican nominee for president has said things that if I were an American, I would find offensive if not frightening. For instance, he has suggested that people who don't live according to what he refers to as "God's law," have no claim to equality, making it clear he is referring to the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," i.e. the Jewish and Christian God. He has further insisted that "our founders said so."

Santorum would apparently deny fellow Americans equality because they don't think like him, because they don't accept his religious beliefs. This is more than devout, this is zealotry, this is creeping into Osama bin Laden territory.

He is wrong, of course, about the founders of his country saying so. Rather, they said, in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal"—all men, no caveats. Nor is he right about the concept of equality somehow emerging from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To my knowledge, the first group to explicitly state that all human beings are equal by nature were the Sophists of Ancient Greece, a pre-Christian group of atheists and agnostics.

Santorum ought to have a sound knowledge of the Christian God. He is a devout Catholic, was once listed as one of the 25 most influential evangelists in America by Time magazine, and he and his wife were conferred with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an award accorded to Catholics who have displayed exemplary chivalry, nobleness or service to the faith. But how does one actually know the laws of the Christian God? Unless Santorum has a direct line, he must rely on the Holy Bible, specifically the New Testament, the testament of Jesus Christ. And there he goes off the rails.

Santorum supports capital punishment, is a firm advocate of a citizen’s right to bear arms, supports the assassination of scientists working on Iran's nuclear program, supports the torture of prisoners, and believes the U.S. should pursue the Afghan war to a successful conclusion. In summary, he supports torture, murder and war against one's enemies—a very bloody-minded philosophy indeed.

This is all in violation of the laws of the Christian God, at least as expressed by Jesus Christ. It is more Antichrist than Christ. The prophet Himself had a lot to say on the matter. In Mathew 5:38-39, He advises, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." In Mathew 5:43-44, He adds, Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Many passages in the Bible are ambiguous, but these are abundantly clear. Christ considered the point so important, He expressed it in two different ways. Nonetheless, not enough ways, apparently, to convince Santorum.

And Santorum is not alone. His competitor New Gingrich said he would do with America’s enemies what former President Andrew Jackson advised: "Kill them.” Even Barack Obama, who also claims Christian credentials, said that anybody who disagreed with the murder of Osama bin-Laden should "have their head examined." How odd that a Christian should in effect say that Jesus Christ should have his head examined.

Being a Christian is hard, at least in the sense of following Christ's (God's) teachings, and I have chosen a particularly tough command to obey, one I certainly couldn't. But then I'm not a Christian and therefore I'm not obliged. Those who claim to be Christians are obliged to at least try. Santorum, Gingrich, et al. don't seem to even be aware of these inconvenient commands, almost as if Christianity were unrelated to Jesus Christ. They are Old Testament believers—an eye for an eye. I know atheists who are better Christians than these guys. Mahatma Gandhi was an infinitely better Christian, and he was a Hindu.

What would Jesus do, indeed.

16 February 2012

Syria and the reluctant alliance between al-Qaeda and the West

Al-Qaeda and Western nations agreeing on a policy of critical importance may seem strange, yet such is the case with Syria. Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda, has publicly thrown his organization’s support behind the Syrian opposition. Al-Zawahiri called on Muslim fighters from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to go to Syria and join a jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime.” “Continue your revolt and anger, don't accept anything else apart from independent, respectful government,” was the al-Qaeda leader's message to the Syrians.

Neither the West nor the Syrian opposition welcomed the message. After all, Assad has long smeared the opposition by claiming they were tools of terrorist and foreign influences, while the protesters have insisted their goal is a secular democracy, quite antithetical to the goals of al-Qaeda.

Nonetheless, the call is being answered. According to Iraq's deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Assadi, jihadists are moving from Iraq to Syria and arms are also being sent across the border. "In the past, Syrians were fighting in Iraq," he said, "and now they are fighting in Syria." A pair of recent suicide car bombings that killed 28 people in Aleppo had the mark of al-Qaeda. So, the Syrian rebels, and the West, have an ally in al-Qaeda whether they want it or not.

Other Islamic groups have also voiced their support for the opposition, including Jordan’s increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood, who said it was an Islamic duty to support Syria’s rebel army.

The West has had strange allies in the past, most notably perhaps the collaboration with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis. An alliance with al-Zawahiri is hardly more unsavory than an alliance with Joseph Stalin. Not that there will be comradely meetings between the parties as there were during WWII. Al-Zawahiri has made that clear, warning the Syrians against dependence on the West.

The co-operation with the Soviets worked out well for the allies in WWII—the Soviets inflicted almost ninety per cent of the casualties suffered by the Germans. However, the East Europeans, who suffered for decades under Communism, may have been less grateful for the Soviet presence. We might expect the same result here. The Islamists will be fierce allies in the fight to overthrow Assad, but when the job is done Syrian democrats will still wish they hadn't come.

15 February 2012

News flash—country rejects Olympic Games!!!

Hard to believe, but true—a country has rejected the possibility of hosting the Olympics. Rome had intended to bid for the 2020 Summer Games, but the Italian government has nixed the application. Italian Premier Mario Monti said it would be irresponsible to use taxpayer money to fund the Olympics with a guarantee that the government would cover any deficit, as required by the International Olympic Committee. How refreshing. If the Greek government had exercised the same sense of responsibility toward the 2004 Games, a project we now know it couldn't afford, the country might not have dug itself into such a deep economic hole.

Greece had estimated the cost of the 2004 Games at $6-billion and wound up paying $15-billion. And this is the drift into financial never-never land the Olympics tend to experience, cost overruns being a major part of the Olympic legacy. Canadians have some experience with this—the 1976 Montreal Games cost 12 times the original budget and weren't fully paid off until 2006. The 2010 Vancouver Games only cost four times the original budget.

With Rome out, five cities are left in the race: Madrid, Tokyo, Istanbul, Doha (Qatar) and Baku (Azerbaijan). Can their governments afford it? Spain is in a more fragile economic state than Italy and Japan's economy has been stagnant for years, so there's certainly doubts there. Turkey, on the other hand, is booming, while Qatar is petro-rich and rapidly getting richer, as is Azerbaijan. So some of these countries can afford the lavish demands of the International Olympic Committee; others—and, yes, I'm pointing a finger at Spain here—would be well-advised to adopt a little of Premier Monti's sense of responsibility.

14 February 2012

2012—International Year of Co-operatives

 "Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility." — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

I heartily agree with the Secretary-General. Indeed, I believe that if we are to develop the culture of international co-operation that will be necessary to deal with climate change, to say nothing of other global problems, building more of our local, national and global economies with co-operative enterprises must play a major role. 

In seeming agreement, the United Nations has declared 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives. In the UN's own words, "The International Year of Co-operatives is intended to raise public awareness of the invaluable contributions of co-operative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration. The Year will also highlight the strengths of the co-operative business model as an alternative means of doing business and furthering socioeconomic development." Information on events planned throughout the year, as well as suggestions on how to get involved and participate, can be found here. More than billion co-op members around the world will celebrate the Year.

Competition has its place, but co-operation is a higher human value and therefore a more moral basis for economic enterprise. And in the competitive world order we find ourselves in, as the UN has said, co-ops offers a real alternative. We are relentlessly subjected to the mantra, "we must compete in the global marketplace." It is time for a new and more civilized mantra. I suggest, "We must co-operate in the global society." May the International Year of Co-operatives help bring such a change about.

11 February 2012

Stephen Harper and the triumph of ideology over reason

Why did he do it? Why did Stephen Harper suggest we had a public pension funding problem when we don't? And why did he proclaim his concern at an international conference of all places?

Let's all repeat slowly: there ... is ... no ... funding ... problem ... with ... our ... public ... pension ... plans. Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has made very clear that the Old Age Security (OAS) program is sustainable and affordable given the federal government's projected revenues and economic growth. And a recent OECD study found that "Canada does not face major challenges of financial sustainability with its public pension schemes." Page predicts that the OAS will rise from its current 2.2 per cent of GDP to 3.2 per cent in 2036, the baby boom peak, and decline thereafter. In other words, it will remain a minor part of the GDP for the foreseeable future. The other instrument of public pensions, the Canada Pension Plan, is fully-funded and actuarially sound.

And yet Human Resources Minister Diane Finley hysterically insists that, "We know there's a coming crisis, that's in Old Age Security, that's why we're taking steps now before it's too late because we do not want to burden future generations with massive, massive tax increases," and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called Page "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible." It's true that Page indicated concern about sustainability last year but that was before the government reduced its projected health care funding.

So why is Mr. Harper's government making an issue out of something that has no business being an issue? I see two possible reasons. One, they don't speak to their Parliamentary Budget Officer or, two, they are manifesting yet again one of their defining characteristics—not allowing facts to get in the way of ideology.

We see this time and again: the building of prisons when the crime rate is falling; promoting dirty oil production in the face of climate change; spending billions on a technically suspect fighter plane to face a nonexistent threat; and of course abandoning the mandatory long form census to make sure facts don't clutter up policy-making.

Nonetheless, sometimes the facts will have their way. On the pension issue, for example, Finance Minister Flaherty seems to be backing off, reassuring the country on Friday that any changes to Old Age Security won’t take effect until at least 2020. And while Mr. Harper, the most ideological prime minister we've ever had in this country, once refused to attend the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics on a point of principle, he is now schmoozing the Chinese like a reincarnated Jean Chr├ętien. Even he is not immune to realpolitik.

10 February 2012

Ontario shows greatest population growth

Per cents are not people. Per cents don't hold jobs, buy products or pay taxes. People do. Yet it seems that most of the conversation about the 2011 census report revolves around per cent growth, not people growth. The per cent growth is interesting, and much more simple to illustrate and discuss, but it's deceptive. It overlooks the real growth, the growth in residents: working, consuming, tax-paying human beings, i.e. the proper basis for policy-making.

Because of the emphasis on percentage growth, the focus of the discussion has been in the West where Alberta racked up the greatest percentage growth among the provinces. Indeed, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia all grew at a faster percentage rate than the national average. However, when it comes to population growth, over the census period (2006-11) Ontario grew more than all the western provinces combined. Even Quebec grew by more people than Alberta.

Alberta may be growing rapidly but only in smaller amounts from a smaller base than Ontario. Only when it is increasing its population at the same rate as its eastern sister, can we talk meaningfully about a demographic revolution. That won't be for a long time, if ever.

Yet another concern about the discussion surrounding the census report is the persistent assumption that population growth is a good thing—another fallacy that needs correcting. But that's fodder for another post.

09 February 2012

Supreme Court Justice says U.S. constitution is dated

This will set the teeth of right-wing Americans on edge. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in an interview on Egyptian television, said she wouldn't recommend using the U.S. Constitution as a model for Egypt's new constitution.

When asked where the Egyptians should look for a model, she advised them to look around, particularly at constitutions written more recently, saying "I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the Constitution of South Africa. ... It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done." She even mentioned our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a more contemporary example.

This will no doubt be considered heresy in certain circles in the U.S. but it is really just sensible. All she is saying is that there are other models, possibly  superior ones, certainly more modern ones, that could serve Egypt better than the U.S. model. After all, the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787 (albeit with later amendments tacked on), a time when the country still practiced slavery and "all men are created equal" meant just that—all men.

Of particular importance is that the American Constitution omits the most essential rights of all—as does ours for that matter—rights to the basic necessities: food and shelter, and in a modern society, health and education. (It does a citizen little good to have freedom of speech if he is starving or dying of a curable disease.) The South African Constitution goes a long way to providing these basic guarantees. Section 27 ensures: "the rights to food, water, health care and social assistance, which the state must progressively realize within the limits of its resources." It also includes a very modern right indeed in Section 24: "the right to a healthy environment and the right to have the environment protected."

Lacking such provisions, the U.S. Constitution is indeed showing its age. Perhaps the Americans should join the Egyptians in checking out some more up-to-date models.

07 February 2012

Alberta and Saskatchewan vie for pollution title

Alberta is generally considered to be Canada's pollution champion. And it deserves the honour. With 11 per cent of the country's population it contributes 34 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, Saskatchewan can also make the claim. It only produces 7 per cent of the country's emissions, with 3 per cent of the population, but it is the big winner in per capita emissions with 71 tonnes of CO2 equivalent to Alberta's 64.

Industrial Ontario isn't even in the running. Despite having 40 per cent of Canada's population it produces a mere 24 per cent of the country's emissions. And its per capita emissions are an embarrassing 13 tonnes.

Alberta and Saskatchewan's advantages in the pollution sweepstakes include burning coal to provide 60 per cent of their electricity. Ontario, by comparison, relies on coal for only 7 per cent of its power, obviously a losing strategy. Alberta also owns the country's big ace in the hole—the tar sands. The tar sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country and will no doubt allow the province to eventually overtake Saskatchewan as per capita leader.

As for future prospects, my money is on Alberta all the way. With the tar sands in its corner, the province is already a world class competitor. In fact, if Alberta were a country, its per capita greenhouse gas emissions would be higher than any other country in the world. A champion indeed.

01 February 2012

The real radicals revealed

The word "radical" is being thrown out a lot lately, particularly from the mouths of certain federal ministers. Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver garnered a great deal of attention when he published a rant about opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline in The Globe and Mail. He has backed off a bit since then, saying he was referring not to all environmentalist but only to those who wanted to kill tar sands development entirely.

Well, I would like to kill tar sands development entirely and if that makes me a radical, so be it. But let's be absolutely clear about one thing: the most radical behaviour in this whole affair is what is being done to the environment in northern Alberta. When the scars caused by a behaviour can be seen from outer space with the naked eye, that's radical.

Extracting resources from the planet faster than it can replenish them—that's radical. Polluting the planet faster than it can absorb the pollution—that's radical. And we are doing both of these things. It would appear that our whole damn species is radical. And in the wrong way.

If Messrs. Harper and Oliver are opposed to radical behaviour they should, as our elected leaders, be leading us away from this folly, toward a sustainable, no-growth economy. Instead they passionately support what is perhaps the world's most savage assault on Mother Earth while denouncing those who oppose it. The Prime Minister has called the tar sands “an enterprise of epic proportions akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall, only bigger.” And, he failed to add, much, much dirtier.

Rather than enterprises of epic proportions, we might limit ourselves to enterprises of more modest proportions that respect the planet. A radical idea too, perhaps, but in the right way.