Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

States cut drug penalties as Canada toughens them

After more than 20 years of the war on drugs, more than a dozen U.S. states are reducing penalties for many drug offences.

The move away from mandatory minimum sentences without any chance of parole comes as states struggle to cover the costs of overcrowded prisons in the midst of tough economic times.

Republicans and Democrats alike have also recognized weaknesses in their tough-on-crime, one-size-fits-all sentences.

That's different from Canada, where the Conservative government has started toughening sentencing and imposing mandatory minimums for a number of crimes.

Lt. Richard Santangelo, who joined the Belmont, Mass., police force at the age of 18, says he's noticed a changing environment when it comes to the war on drugs.

"Most police officers are fairly conservative and we want to see people go away for a lot of time but we're also realists," Santangelo said.

The reality is Massachusetts' prisons are at 140 per cent capacity. It costs the state roughly $50,000 a year for each of its 11,000 inmates. That's why Santangelo says he's reluctantly open to sentencing reforms.

"The prisons are so overcrowded right now, most of them, if we can free up a little space for the more hardcore drug offences, it might be what we have to do."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has introduced a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offences and shrink drug-free school zones from 300 metres to 30. People caught dealing drugs in that radius would face an automatic two years in jail.

In Belmont, Santangelo says a lot of people get caught up in that net.

"Unfortunately, if you look at the design of the town and the number of schools out there, it's such a small town with such a large number of schools, a lot of the town is a drug-free school zone."

Full Article
Source: CBC news 

Conservative government out to undercut unions, critics say

NDP labour critic Yvon Godin is not alone in his assessment of a bleak future for unionized workers.

“This is only the beginning — no matter what,” the New Brunswick MP, former miner and Steelworkers’ negotiator told the Toronto Star. He was referring to labour disputes with Air Canada and Canada Post that have involved Parliament in the early days of the Conservatives’ first majority mandate.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper “has made it clear he’s only here for the big employers,” Godin said from Ottawa before leaving for this weekend’s NDP national convention in Vancouver. “It’s a message to all workers that they don’t matter anymore . . . Do we really want a return to the Dirty Thirties (and a Depression)?”

The result, he argues, will be an unsettling future of labour unrest.

The Conservative government acted swiftly in both disputes. After Canada Post locked out postal workers involved in rotating strikes on June 15, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt announced back-to-work legislation within hours. It will be tabled in the Commons Monday.

The government planned similar legislation for striking Air Canada customer service and sales staff. However, the issue became moot when the company and the Canadian Auto Workers’ union reached a settlement — with talks continuing on the dispute over pensions.

Union members and labour analysts fear this government has tougher measures in store, including concern about the Conservative party’s recent resolution calling for better protection for replacement workers. As well, they point out a potential for “poison pills” hidden in back-to-work legislation for postal workers, such as the worst-case scenario of curtailment of the right to strike for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said his party will study the legislation carefully when it is introduced Monday. He says Harper’s “authoritarian, command-and-control approach clearly puts the government on one side in labour disputes — management’s side. It’s going to make future bargaining more difficult.”

In the Commons, Harper said government actions are necessary to prevent “significant damage to the Canadian economy. The government has not taken a stand on the issues.”

Carla Lipsig-Mummé, founding director of the Centre for Research on Work and Society at York University, says she’s concerned about the potential for further federal legislation that restricts workers’ rights.

“I worry considerably because the government has shown itself to be so hostile to unions . . . It indicates this government is ready to go to lengths we have never seen in Canada to essentially threaten unions.

“It’s a green light to companies — ‘You can behave as badly as you want and we will support you.’”

An internationally recognized expert on workplace issues, Lipsig-Mummé said she saw no reason to legislate against postal workers when its union offered to accept the existing contract and continue negotiations in order to keep the mail moving. She called the government’s actions “unconscionable and unwise.”

CUPW president Denis Lemelin said the message in rotating strikes, including to small businesses, was that “we’ll keep the mail moving. There will be delays but you will receive your mail.”

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Ontario poverty rate up since last election

Almost 300,000 more Ontarians sunk into poverty since the McGuinty government was elected in 2007 on a pledge to fight the problem, according to the latest Statistics Canada income data from 2009 released this week.

Despite the 2008 recession that battered Ontario industries, the province’s 13.1 per cent poverty rate was still slightly below the national average of 13.3 per cent, says Ontario’s Social Planning Network. The network of social planning councils crunched the numbers using the Low Income Measure, after taxes, the province’s new method of measuring poverty.

But Ontario’s 17 per cent growth in poverty since 2007 was the highest in the country, the group says.

Almost 1.7 million Ontarians are living in poverty, including almost 400,000 children, according to the StatsCan data.

Using the Low Income Measure, an Ontario family of four living on $37,164 or less was considered poor in 2008.

The McGuinty Liberals introduced a poverty reduction act in 2009 aimed at cutting child poverty by 25 per cent by 2014.

“Although measures to end child and family poverty need to be maintained and strengthened, the rate of poverty among working-age adults, seniors and adults living alone is entrenched and growing rapidly,” said network chair Janet Gasparini. “A comprehensive strategy to end poverty among all parts of the population is sorely needed to stem and reverse this direction.”

The rise in poverty was lowest among children at 3.5 per cent, said the network. However poverty increased by almost 20 per cent among working-age adults and a staggering 42 per cent among seniors.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Unions rally to support postal workers, as back-to-work law nears

Thousands of unionists rallied outside Canada Post's offices in Winnipeg and Ottawa on Thursday in support of locked-out postal workers, while a solidarity rally is being planned today in Vancouver.

Chanting "Negotiate, don't legislate," members from dozens of unions protested outside Canada Post's Ottawa headquarters and Winnipeg offices, criticizing the federal government's tabling of back-to-work legislation next Monday.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) criticized the impending legislation as suppressing workers' rights.

"It's outrageous," said CUPW Vancouver president Robert Mulvin. "Not only locking us out, but then forcing us back. We were hoping the labour minister would ask us to work at [negotiations] a little more."

Unionists expressed hope that Canada Post, which locked out workers who had been on rotating strikes for more than a week, will return to the negotiating table before the government law passes.

"As workers, we have a common cause to protect the rights of the little people," said Angie, a 30-year Vancouver mail sorter who would only give her first name. "We are the backbone of industry, but as workers we have little voice in running the company."

Marching a picket line in front of Canada Post's Vancouver office, through a massive crowd of Canucks fans prior to the Stanley Cup final, Angie pointed to the larger cause of workers' rights and called on Canadians' to support CUPW workers.

"If this big corporation wins against the union, other big companies will do the same thing," she said. "Canadians will become more like the Americans without good medical plans, paying higher premiums, and little protection."

Mulvin said unionists are concerned about what the future holds for worker rights under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"We're on the forefront of the struggle," he said. "But out on the picket lines, we've really come together. We've got a whole generation of newer workers who've never been on strike; it's been a real eye-opener for them.

Full Article

A Cure Worse Than the Disease?

A proposed U.S. law would see websites shut down on just an accusation of copyright infringement.

On May 12, in a rare show of bipartisan co-operation, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill entitled Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, also known as the Protect IP Act. The stated goal of the legislation is quite simple: to protect the economic interests of American intellectual property owners from theft and piracy online.

Shortly after the bill was tabled, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) used his power to put a temporary hold on the legislation. In his estimation, the act, as worded, would have the undesired effects of limiting free speech and negatively impacting e-commerce. In a press release on the issue, Wyden said:

“At the expense of legitimate commerce, [the bill's] prescription takes an overreaching approach to policing the internet when a more balanced and targeted approach would be more effective. The collateral damage of this approach is speech, innovation and the very integrity of the internet.”
The senator’s appraisal of the bill is quite accurate. As written, the Protect IP Act gives the attorney general and private intellectual property holders the power to not only sue owners and operators of U.S.-based websites, but to execute what is known as an in rem action – essentially an action against property without involving the owner – against websites where the owner is not American or cannot be located.
One of the tools the Protect IP Act would give rights holders is the ability to prevent the U.S. public from accessing websites that are believed to be violating intellectual property rights. Access to websites being challenged in a lawsuit under this law would be restricted at the ISP level. This will obviously put an additional strain on ISPs – one the government won’t reimburse them for.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital-rights organization, warns that the bill’s definition of “domain name system” is too broad and could easily be interpreted to cover such things as personal and corporate email clients, routers, and even operating systems. It should be noted that such interpretations, if ever made, would be left to the courts. That being said, powerful IP rights holders tend to hire pretty good lawyers.

Many critics of the legislation, including the EFF, warn that allowing individual IP owners to block access to websites will limit the ability of site owners to defend themselves before a judgment is rendered. The foundation points out that this is ostensibly an offence to due process. The bill vests plaintiffs with the powers of restraining orders, preliminary injunctions, and injunctions to enforce their rights against non-domestic domain owners so long as their service is being used by Americans and the service “harms holders of United States intellectual property rights.”

Full Article
Source: The Mark 

Tax policies may aggravate gap between rich and poor

OTTAWA—The Conservatives, who will soon deliver their post-election budget, are championing a set of plans that may accelerate Canada’s growing gap between rich and poor, a sign of inequality that has already reached troubling levels.

As in many other countries, Canada is witnessing a phenomenon in which the most wealthy are enjoying stunning increases in their income while the rest of society stagnates. It’s something that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is likely to hear about in no uncertain terms in the parliamentary debate following the tabling of the budget on June 6.

The trend (long summarized as “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”) is so pronounced globally that Angel Gurria, head of the industrialized world’s main think tank, is warning that income equality is becoming a “serious threat.”

Gurria, secretary-general of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said in early May that disparities in income between those at the top and those at the bottom continued to grow even during the decade of global economic expansion prior to the 2008 recession.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Free Trade's Haves and Have-Nots

Trade agreements should be one part of economic policy; fighting inequality should be another.

International Trade Minister Ed Fast’s recent speech to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has drawn criticism for the partisan vitriol it directed toward the NDP. And so it should. Cabinet ministers represent all Canadians, and official speeches on the future of Canada’s international trade policy are not the place to divide and conquer.

However, Fast’s basic argument – that lower trade barriers promote economic growth – is utterly reasonable. And the standard opposition response – that Canadian workers must be protected from the evils of big business – leaves much to be desired. But economic growth alone is not enough to make Canadians prosperous, and it is here that Fast’s attack on New Democrats masks an incompleteness in the Conservative government’s approach to international trade.

It has been more than 20 years since Canada first signed a free-trade agreement with the United States, and few will deny that the Canadian economy has been better for it. In spite of the recent recession, on the whole Canadians are significantly wealthier than they were two decades ago.

But the increased prosperity has not reached everyone. The gap between the rich and the poor in Canada has grown steadily. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently reported that, among its members, only Germany has seen a greater increase in the overall inequality of household earnings over the last decade and a half.

Full Article
Source: The Mark 

A Government Beyond Reproach

Harper's decision to do away with the throne speech debate does not bode well for democracy.

Remember Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s May 2 victory speech? His face beaming, he declared: “We are intensely aware that we are and we must be the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us.”

Deferring to experienced political analysts, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe that Harper’s new majority would soften his partisan edge, that he’d reveal a more conciliatory side. I proclaimed on-air that the Conservatives would work to bring the country together – not because of some new openness of spirit, but because it would help them win the support of centrist voters.

Sadly, recent events have proven me wrong. With the prime minister’s Senate appointments and his decision to cancel the traditional debate following the speech from the throne, I’m now eating my words faster that I can chew. It’s all too clear that this government will continue to make a mockery of our public institutions in its pursuit of partisan interests. The “new era of civility and respect” has been put on hold.

The speech from the throne and the debate

The government’s decision on the use of time in the House of Commons passed almost unnoticed, but it should have raised alarm bells. The throne speech is a big part of the Canadian political process. Since the beginning of our democracy, this speech has opened every new parliamentary session, and each successive government has used it to lay out its priorities for the coming term.

The throne speech has always been followed by a debate lasting several days, in which members of Parliament had the chance to respond, offer policy alternatives, and present the concerns of their constituents. In this way, the opposition was able to counter, if only for a few days, the power of the ministerial majority.

But not this time. This venerated tradition – a custom that precedes Confederation and is rooted in the long history of the Westminster system – was summarily overturned by the prime minister, despite the astonished protest of the four opposition parties.

An attack on democracy

Our current prime minister has never been accused of kowtowing to the House of Commons. Under Stephen Harper, Canadians endured two untimely prorogations. We witnessed the Speaker of the House force the government to release reports on the torture of Afghan detainees. And we watched our government fall during an unprecedented motion of contempt of Parliament. Even the most cynical among us thought we’d seen it all. But in dismissing the debate on the throne speech, Harper is not just breaching customs and procedures; he’s attacking our very democracy.

By depriving opposition members of their right to speak, Harper is effectively gagging the 60 per cent of the electorate who voted them in. What good is an elected Parliament if our MPs are muzzled? If our prime minister is behaving like an autocrat, why bother keeping up the appearance of representative democracy at all? Let’s just hang out a “Gone Fishing” sign and let Harper govern by decree.

The importance of public debate

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan informs us that the debate is merely optional and should have been cancelled this time around due to the shortened parliamentary session. This is a weak excuse for a cynical political manoeuvre. There is no need to rush this session to its close; members have only just taken their seats.

There’s certainly no shortage of topics for them to discuss. Recent reports have uncovered instances of government negligence, pork-barrelling, and human-rights violations during the G8 and G20 summits. Our troops in Afghanistan and Libya are risking their lives over a muddled foreign policy. The government is preparing to gut the public service to the tune of $1.8 billion per year. It just scrapped public funding of political parties. And it also wants to modify the Canadian Senate, essentially altering the terms of the federal pact without the agreement of the provinces. With so much at stake, a debate on the throne speech is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

Throughout the history of parliamentary governments, first ministers have always submitted their political priorities to criticism by the opposition. If this principle was sacrosanct for the likes of Walpole and Churchill, for Macdonald and Laurier, who is Stephen Harper to brush it aside?

Source: The Mark 

Rain or shine, the monopoly must end

The current strike at Canada Post (perhaps you hadn’t noticed: it started last week) presents a curious spectacle: an all-out struggle for control of a company whose main line of business—carrying bits of paper from one point to another—is rapidly disappearing.

It isn’t just email, which has reduced the letter to more or less the same function that telegrams once performed, something you send on formal occasions but otherwise wouldn’t think of using. Nearly everything that Canada Post once charged to carry is being vaporized. Cheques are giving way to electronic funds transfer; catalogues to online shopping; CDs, DVDs and books to iTunes, Netflix and Kindle.

And yet, notwithstanding a 17 per cent plunge in volume per address in the last five years, it still carries 11 billion pieces of mail a year. Some customers in particular—small businesses, charities, rural and elderly correspondents—remain dependent on “snail mail.” For them a strike is an inconvenience, and even if some take the opportunity to make the switch to electronic transmission—never to return—for many others the post office is their only choice.

Which is to say, no choice: the monopoly Canada Post enjoys on the delivery of letter mail is not by virtue of its sterling service, but by statute. Sections 14, 15 and 50 of the Canada Post Act make it an offence for anyone else to carry a letter for less than three times the prevailing postage rate. You can go to jail for it.

Once upon a time, that meant a great deal. As Canada Post had a monopoly on its customers, so the postal workers’ union had a monopoly on Canada Post. Empowered with the right to strike in 1967, CUPW set out to extract as much of the monopoly “rents” (what economists call “loot”) as it could for its members. Over the next two decades, the union went on strike 10 times, and was rewarded with an array of wages and benefits of which other workers could only dream.

Rather than confront the union head-on, post office management adopted a series of cunning business plans. At first, they lost buckets of money, as much as $1 billion in a single year, and passed the costs on to taxpayers. Then, when that was no longer politically acceptable, they passed it on to their customers, in the form of higher prices and less service. Weekend delivery is but a fond memory, of course, but over much of the country households no longer receive any delivery: instead, they are required to pick up and deliver the mail the last mile, or miles, themselves.

Full Article
Source: Maclean 

Bill C-51 will turn ISPs into Internet gatekeepers

Should telecom network companies and Internet service providers function as arms of law enforcement and national security? Yes, according to the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act (Bill C-51), a bill that was introduced in the last Parliament and set to be reintroduced in the new Government omnibus crime bill soon.

The bill would make it mandatory for telecom providers, ISPs and search engines to monitor, store, retain and not disclose e-mail, Internet and telephone communications at the request of law and security officials. No warrant necessary.

It won’t take a lot to implement this bill. The government plans to tuck it into its “super Crime Bill.” This is telecom, internet and privacy policy by stealth. It will be easy to impose, because concentrated media markets are easy to regulate.

The big six ISPs that dominate Internet access in Canada – Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Telus, Quebecor and Cogeco – have been relatively quiet about their views on the subject. Hitting the big six would cover three quarters of the population with the new regime of surveillance and security and would be relatively easy, especially if ISPs remain quiescent.

Furthermore, since the search engine Google accounts for eighty per cent or more of all online searches in Canada, it would be an easy target, too.

In some ways, Bill C-51 would seem to make good sense. Who could be against modernizing our laws for the digital age? ISPs, telephones and search engines have become the electronic crossroads of the world, facilitating commerce and communication in some incredible ways. They also enable some extremely nasty things too: kiddie porn, copyright infringement, hacking, identity fraud, espionage – a veritable swamp of murky stuff.

Full Article
Source: Globe & Mail 

No licence, no lemonade: Officials shut down kids’ charity stand

Lemonade stands run by children are a quintessential part of summer. More and more, so are stories of them getting shut down for not having their paperwork in order.

The latest example comes from Maryland, where county inspectors shut down a children’s lemonade stand operating outside the U.S. Open and fined the parents $500.

The problem, according to the WUSA-TV, is the children didn’t obtain a vendor’s licence and aren’t allowed to operate.

It might sound strange that kids need to contend with bureaucrats and red tape to do something as simple as sell lemonade for a few cents a cup. County officials say it’s illegal to operate even a small lemonade stand without a licence and argued the children’s operation was rather large. They said other vendors have been warned not to set up near the site of the U.S. Open because of safety and traffic concerns.

Yet, the county has given countless of permits to area residents so they can make extra cash – some say tens of thousands – by turning their yards into parking spots.

The real kicker? The children were hoping to raise money for pediatric cancer.

But this is hardly the first time lemonade-selling children have been on the wrong side of city hall.

Last summer, officials in Oregon shut down a seven-year-old’s lemonade stand at an art fair because she didn’t get a $120 temporary restaurant licence.

Full Article
Source: Globe & Mail  

International Stop the Tar Sands Day: A guide to the disaster

For many Canadians, the image of the oil sands as a boost to the economy, providing a bounty of jobs and ensuring a continuing supply of fossil fuel, overshadows anything they may hear about its environmental and human impacts.

This image is perpetuated by the Alberta and Canadian governments and by most of the oil sands industry, who downplay the repercussions of oil sands production and promise that "clean-up" of this massive project is imminent. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, environmental devastation, and threats to the existence of First Nations peoples commonly go unheeded by many Canadians -- either because believing in the promises of fixes is the most comfortable route or because they are not aware of the "full story." Many people don't fully comprehend the extent of the repercussions of oil sands development nor the limitations of proposed "fixes" or the lack of remedial action.

In producing A Comprehensive Guide to the Alberta Oil Sands: Understanding the Environmental and Human Impacts, Export Implications, and Political, Economic, and Industry Influences, I have endeavoured to provide the "full story." The report brings together information from many sources to provide a single, easily readable resource on a broad range of issues related to oil sands production and development, and addresses several misconceptions.

One example is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The report provides a detailed accounting of production related GHG emissions. The National Inventory Report (NIR) figure for oil sands emissions for 2008 (the latest available at the time of writing) is often loosely misinterpreted by governments, the media, and the public as representing the total emissions related to oil sands production. Through calculated, averaged estimates the report shows that when all well-to-pump emissions are taken into account they are close to double the widely referenced NIR figure.

Another example of misconception is the image of bountiful, high-paying jobs. For many people involved, these jobs don't form an ideal image. The lives of mobile workers, away from their families for long stretches of time, the majority of them living in work camps, is far from ideal, and many suffer from vulnerability and stress.

Temporary Foreign Workers, who are brought in to fill Canadian labour shortages (60,000 in Alberta in 2010), often experience exploitation, abuse, racial discrimination, and lack of rights. As well, high living costs consume much of the income from high paying jobs. Even community members employed in jobs outside the oil sands are finding the "boomtown" growth of Fort McMurray a strain.

Another example is the greenwashing on reducing GHG emissions from the oil sands by utilizing carbon capture and storage (CCS), the source of most of Canada's "green" spending. Both the Alberta and federal governments know from their own studies that there are vast technological differences between CCS for coal and CCS for oil sands, the latter being so much more complex because of the number and diversity of emission sources and locations, and because their CO2, streams tend to be relatively small and diluted.

And, even for coal-fired plants, CCS is yet unproved, expensive, and energy and water intensive. There are additional concerns about the safety, capacity, and liability of storing carbon dioxide underground, and the expediency and extent of contributions that CCS can actually make to cutting global CO2, emissions. CCS has evolved into a justification and diversion for prolonging dependence on fossil fuels, assuaging public fears about resulting CO2, emissions and delaying efforts to aggressively convert to more cost-effective, renewable, low-energy systems.

CCS also won't prevent the increased risk of an oil spill fouling coastal areas of British Columbia if current proposals for increased tanker traffic carrying oil sands crude are approved. And it won't alter the risk of one of the large oil sands tailings ponds, held in check by barrage dams up to 100 metres high, breaching. Catastrophic amounts of toxic waste would flow into the Athabasca River, make their way into the Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River, and enter the Beaufort Sea.

Full Article