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.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tories hand out pre-Christmas patronage posts to at least a dozen party faithful

OTTAWA - Conservative cabinet ministers got to play Santa Claus over the last week, handing out patronage posts to at least a dozen people with Tory ties.

The recipients included failed candidates, ex-caucus members, members of Conservative riding executives and longtime party faithful. While in power, the Liberals also made a habit of naming party stalwarts to federal boards.

Former cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn landed one of the most desirable posts this week, being named ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.

His former Quebec caucus colleague Bernard Genereux was named Wednesday to the Quebec Port Authority.

"As a federal representative, I like to have someone who knows our government's philosophy, its way of doing things and its financial administrative rigour," Transport Minister Denis Lebel said of Genereux.

Millionaires Buy Eight-Figure Properties While Foreclosures Hit Hard In Rest Of Nation

If you want an example of how one percenters differ from everyone else, look no further than the housing market.

In a year when a pipeline of foreclosures continued to keep home prices low -- and rampant unemployment threatened the stable existence of many a middle-class suburbanite -- the luxury real estate market was booming, with multimillion-dollar properties in demand in cities around the U.S.

In 2011, buyers purchased a $28 million penthouse in San Francisco, a $31 million townhouse in New York City, and a $100 million mansion in Silicon Valley, the most expensive purchase of a single-family home on record, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

At the same time, U.S. home prices remain near historic lows and a deluge of foreclosures-in-waiting continues to distort the market. In addition, about 15 million homeowners are still underwater -- or owe more on their homes than they're worth.

Rob Ford losing key votes on council, analysis shows

Toronto has 44 city councillors. To win a vote, Mayor Rob Ford needs the support of 22 of them.

On most important issues, 16 left-leaning councillors are likely to vote against him. Twenty right-leaning councillors are likely to vote with him. That leaves — in most cases — eight councillors’ votes up for grabs.

The good news for Ford: He frequently needs to persuade only two of the eight to get to his magic number of 22. The bad news for Ford: the persuading has become harder. The eight swing voters are now voting against him much more frequently than they did during his early-term honeymoon.

How do we know? The Star compiled the results of the 20 votes we thought were most significant. (Yes, “most significant” is subjective.) Then we calculated the percentage of those votes in which the eight swing voters sided with Ford. (Yes, “swing voter” is subjective.)

Why the Republican Crackup is Bad For America

Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican crackup threatens the future of the Grand Old Party more profoundly than at any time since the GOP's eclipse in 1932. That's bad for America.

The crackup isn't just Romney the smooth versus Gingrich the bomb-thrower.

Not just House Republicans who just scotched the deal to continue payroll tax relief and extended unemployment insurance benefits beyond the end of the year, versus Senate Republicans who voted overwhelmingly for it.

Not just Speaker John Boehner, who keeps making agreements he can't keep, versus Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who keeps making trouble he can't control.

And not just venerable Republican senators like Indiana's Richard Lugar, a giant of foreign policy for more than three decades, versus primary challenger state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who apparently misplaced and then rediscovered $320 million in state tax revenues.

Some describe the underlying conflict as Tea Partiers versus the Republican establishment. But this just begs the question of who the Tea Partiers really are and where they came from.

MLK Bomb Plot: Attacker's Plea Withdrawal Request Is Denied By Court

SPOKANE, Wash. — An Army veteran with extensive ties to white supremacists was sentenced to 32 years in prison Tuesday for planting a poison-laced bomb along a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade route in what he said was meant to be an attack against the cultural diversity celebrated by the event.

Kevin Harpham tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his earlier guilty plea just before receiving the maximum punishment from U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush, who said the previously law-abiding Harpham seemed to be influenced by a "shrill and caustic and vitriolic" culture fueled by talk media.

Harpham told the judge: "I am not guilty of the acts that I am accused of and that I plead guilty to." He said he only agreed to the deal in September to avoid a possible life sentence.

The statement prompted Quackenbush to impose the higher end of the possible prison sentence, which was negotiated in the plea bargain as between 27 and 32 years.

"I am distressed that you appear not the least bit apologetic," Quackenbush said.

Harpham blamed the judge for not giving his defense team enough time. The 37-year-old said he did not intend to injure people with the bomb he placed in downtown Spokane prior to the January parade.

China's Wukan Village Wins Rare Government Compromise After Protests

BEIJING -- Southern Chinese authorities have given in to key demands of protesting villagers after a nearly two-week standoff with police, agreeing in a rare compromise to release detainees and return some confiscated land to farmers.

Guangdong's deputy Communist Party secretary Zhu Mingguo told Wukan village protest leader Yang Semao on Wednesday that four villagers being held by police would be released over the next few days, Yang told The Associated Press.

"So now we are cautiously optimistic," Yang said.

The significance of the authorities' unusual concession in Wukan depends on how the details are played out, but it could affect the way other protests are handled, particularly in the corner of coastal southern China that has seen periodic unrest over the last few years. To Wukan's northeast, the coastal town of Haimen saw a second day of protests Wednesday over a planned coal-fired power plant.

Conflicts over land disputes and other issues in much of Guangdong province have been intense because the area is among China's most economically developed, pushing up land prices.

The GOP's Payroll Tax Fiasco

GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said a year ago that his main task in the 112th Congress was to make sure that President Obama would not be re-elected. Given how he and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the President before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.

The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.

Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible.

House Republicans yesterday voted down the Senate's two-month extension of the two-percentage-point payroll tax holiday to 4.2% from 6.2%. They say the short extension makes no economic sense, but then neither does a one-year extension. No employer is going to hire a worker based on such a small and temporary decrease in employment costs, as this year's tax holiday has demonstrated. The entire exercise is political, but Republicans have thoroughly botched the politics.

Did Congress Just Endorse Rendition for Americans?

A defense spending bill that passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and is set to be signed by President Barack Obama as early as this week could make it easier for the government to transfer American terrorist suspects to foreign regimes and security forces.

The National Defense Authorization Act (PDF) contains a section that says the president has the power to transfer suspected members and supporters of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or "associated" groups "to the custody or control of the person's country of origin, any other foreign country, or any other foreign entity."

That means if the president determines you're a member or supporter of Al Qaeda or "associated forces," he could order you to be handed over to the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Yemenis ("any other foreign country"), any of their respective security forces, or even the United Nations ("any other foreign entity"). (You can read the relevant section of the law in the document viewer at the end of this article; look for the highlighted annotations.)

Many legal experts consider the NDAA a congressional codification of war powers the Bush and Obama administrations have claimed they already possess. David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and expert on the law of war, argues that Obama already had the power to transfer suspected Al Qaeda members (even Americans) to foreign custody, and the NDAA simply endorses that view. "If the president could lawfully transfer a German prisoner of war to a foreign country, then in theory he could do the same thing with an American prisoner of war," Glazier explains.

David Alward rebukes Ottawa over health plan

Premier David Alward is blasting federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s “unilateral” proposal to curtail health transfer payments to the provinces.

The provinces were caught off guard this week when Flaherty announced a new health transfer arrangement.

Flaherty announced on Monday at a meeting in Victoria that health transfers will be tied to economic growth starting in 2017. Several provinces immediately chastised the federal government for the move.

Alward unleashed a rare attack on his federal Conservative allies on Tuesday over the federal health plan.

"It is unacceptable that the federal government came forward with a unilateral proposal, with no dialogue, no consultation,” Alward said.

Why the Harper funding diktat endangers medicare

For medicare, the federal government’s new health financing ultimatum is a clear and deliberate step backward.

By scaling back cash contributions to provincial medicare plans, it will gradually and inevitably destroy Ottawa’s ability to enforce the Canada Health Act.

By tying these contributions to the vagaries of the overall economy, it will make it harder for provinces to forge long-term health-care strategies.

And by cutting back health spending during slump periods, it will remove money and jobs from health care precisely at those times when they are needed most.

Most provincial governments were furious when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty formally unveiled his non-negotiable scheme Monday. Justly so.

The new plan from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives threatens to undo key medicare gains that Canada has made in the past eight years.

To understand those gains, we have to understand what medicare is. It is a national public health insurance scheme administered and partly funded by the provinces.

The Tories And Health Care: You Elected Them, You’re Stuck With Them

Didn’t people know when they gave the federal Conservatives a majority mandate they would use it to push their ideological agenda?

Did Canadians really buy Stephen Harper in a sweater vest? Seems so.

Now we get very expensive crime legislation in the face of declining crime, that fall related to aging demographics. Now we get the first tinkering with that neo-con nightmare, public health care.

The real problem with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s new formula for transfers to the provinces for health care (with absolutely no debate … gee, why would the Tories not want to debate funding for health care?) is not what it does to provincial coffers in the near future, but what it does when the grey wave of boomers hits their high health-care years. This new formula can’t possibly address the problem in the future. The provinces (at least those without oil, gas, oil sands or potash for revenue) are having a terrible time balancing their budgets in the face of an aging, uncompetitive manufacturing sector and the killer fiscal responsibilities of health and education.

Is Stephen Harper changing Canada’s political landscape?

Can unilateralism, voodoo science, and perpetual campaigning create a new Canadian political landscape?

Stephen Harper is certainly giving it the old college try. The most remarkable feature of the first half year of Conservative majority rule is how quickly we have been herded toward a one-party system. Strangely, a lot of people seem to like it.

Take the government’s “Father Knows Best” Medicare deal. When finance ministers assembled in Victoria this week, they were expecting a conversation, not a policy haiku from their federal counterpart.

This was the clearest indication so far that the Harper crowd does not play well with others. In a few clipped sentences, Jim Flaherty laid out the new Canada Health Transfer deal – $38 billion for health care by 2018 with the 6 percent escalator intact in the run-up to that date. After that, the escalator will be tied to GDP. As a safety net, the feds will never let the escalator fall below 3 percent. In the event any province egregiously breaks the Canada Health Act, claw back provisions would apply.

The new deal is arguably good, though it does punt the thornier issues of financial sustainability down the road beyond the next federal election. But the deal came down like a ton of bricks on an ant hill. Provincial finance ministers thought they were going to Victoria for a Finance Ministers meeting. Instead, they got a Finance Munchkins meeting – eat your soup and listen to the Big Kahuna.

Canada's secret trial cases built on torture

Four years after the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously found them unconstitutional, secret hearing "security certificates" are still in use, with a number of Muslim men fighting unseen allegations while under threat of deportation to torture.

Security certificates have long been used by Canada's scandal-plagued spy agency CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) to tar refugees and permanent residents as national security threats without having to explain the allegations against them. Those detained under the process are never charged, and subjected to lower standards than those applying to any citizen facing similar accusations. Indeed, the law governing the procedure allows for the introduction of any piece of information "even if it is inadmissible in a court of law."

For the past decade, five Muslim men -- dubbed the Secret Trial Five -- have endured this Kafkaesque process both behind bars and under humiliating house arrest. Last month, the release of two formerly classified documents indicates that the national security secrecy claims that form the bedrock of these cases have in fact served as a cover for illegal and unethical acts by CSIS.

Indeed, the documents reveal the secret trial regime relies almost entirely on information gleaned from torture. A 2008 letter written by Jim Judd, then head of CSIS, bemoans legislative changes then being proposed that, in raising the bar on the admissibility of information possibly extracted under torture "could render unsustainable the current security certificate proceedings."

Bad medicine: Harper's prescription for privatization Medicare

The Harper government has announced a new funding arrangement for Medicare, which after 2016 will be tied to economic growth in the nominal GDP. According to one estimate, this will translate into $21 billion in cuts to health-care funding over 10 years. By unilaterally imposing health-care funding cuts on the provinces, the Harper government is putting its own brand on a familiar prescription for privatization: scapegoat Medicare, ignore private health costs, pretend you don't have any money, and then cut public health care to encourage privatization.

1. Scapegoat Medicare

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, fresh off his attack on Muslim women, was the first Tory to open the campaign against Medicare -- scapegoating it for cuts to social services. Suddenly a public education advocate, he claimed that public health-care costs are soaring and devouring provincial budgets. Kenney stated that, "For some of the provinces, if they continue in that trajectory, there will be nothing left for education, for universities, for anything else."

This is a common myth, repeated by the corporate media, that manipulates statistics created by decades of Tory and Liberal cuts at both federal and provincial levels. The relative rise in provincial health-care budgets is a statistical effect from greater cutbacks elsewhere. According to the 2011 report, "Neat, plausible and wrong: the myth of health care unsustainability" by Canadian Doctors for Medicare (CDM):

"The change in share of provincial budgets is not primarily due to increased health care spending. It is the result of decreases in other provincial spending to accommodate political decisions to cut taxes … Deep cuts in federal transfers to the provinces in the mid-1990s were compounded by provincial tax cutting policies in the latter part of the decade, causing significant reductions in total provincial budgets. Provincial revenues have fallen almost $30 billion since 1997, causing decreases in other government program spending through cuts to education, social services, and municipalities … It is tax cuts that have 'crowded out' these priorities, not Medicare."

Burma's Reality Check

Daunting challenges overshadow the reforms unfolding in a country long acknowledged to be one of the world’s most brutal.

A near-pandemic optimism over the Burmese government’s unprecedented promises of political, economic, and social reform has seized the international community. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit started a diplomatic stampede to Burma, with the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Japan, and China soon arriving to smell the air of reform.

But exactly what has happened in Burma to generate such excitement? What can realistically be achieved in a country long acknowledged to be one of the world’s most brutal, repressive states?

Thein Sein, a former general who took off his uniform to front the military-backed civilian government, became president of Burma last March. He came to power after a sham constitutional referendum in 2008, and crudely rigged general elections in November 2010. Under the new constitution, a bicameral national parliament and 14 regional and state assemblies have been formed.

Parliament has sat twice this year, pushing through a number of bills that purportedly guarantee freedom of assembly and the right to form unions, among other things, all of which had previously been imposed by military decree. Government ministers, many of them former generals, have debated issues in these forums. They also now give interviews to domestic and foreign media, face news conferences, and raise issues that have not been discussed in public for a long time, such as corruption, economic development, and ethnic rights.

Tory MP fuels abortion debate with call to revisit rights-of-unborn law

An Ontario Conservative MP says Parliament must take another look at whether unborn babies deserve to be treated as human beings, a move that could ultimately challenge the ability to terminate pregnancies with abortion.

Stephen Woodworth, the member for Kitchener Centre, said in a news release Wednesday that a majority of Canadians wrongly believe the law protects the fundamental human rights of children before birth in the later stages of gestation.

“In fact, the opposite is true,” Mr. Woodworth says in his release. “Canadian law provides no human rights protection whatsoever for children before the moment of complete birth.”

He added that an unusual Canadian statute defines a human being as a child who has completely proceeded in a living state from the mother’s body, whether or not the child has breathed. “This means that in Canada a child is legally considered to be sub-human while his or her little toe remains in the birth canal, even if he or she is breathing.”

Must Politicians Be Phonies?

Advice to aspiring politicians: Don’t check your conscience at the door.

The Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia recently organized a conference that pondered: “Why Don’t (More) Good People Enter Politics?” One of the main conclusions reached at the conference was that we need to empower ordinary parliamentarians. There is a pretty powerful logic behind this idea.

Let’s start with the basics. What do we want from a leader? I think it is fair to say that nobody likes a phony. We don’t want people in politics who we don’t believe and can’t trust. But politics seems to attract just that kind of person. Why?

One of the reasons “good” people (for the sake of argument, let’s say we mean by this people who try to be truthful and treat others with respect) don’t want to go into politics is that they have to pretend to be something that they are not. As former B.C. finance minister Carole Taylor put it, “We expect politicians to be perfect, and if you’re not perfect then you better pretend you’re perfect.”

Nobody, she said, wants “the kind of media scrutiny that looks at everybody I’ve ever dated, every business I’ve ever been in, every person I’ve ever had coffee with,” because nobody can say they’ve “led an error-free existence.”

Aboriginal ex-Mountie recalls racism, harassment

Transformed, triumphant and determined are all words that could be used to describe Marge Hudson, a former RCMP officer who said she faced racism and discrimination in the force.

Hudson was the first aboriginal female RCMP officer in Manitoba. So she had to break two barriers.

"I represented the RCMP and served Canada…. I'm proud to do that," she told CBC News in an interview.

After she joined in 1979, Hudson became the poster girl for in the male-dominated institution.

But she said during her 30 years on the force, she experienced harassment and watched others get promoted over her.

The RCMP's commanding officer in Manitoba, Assistant Commissioner Bill Robinson, said he has only ever heard good things about Hudson.

"The communities, quite frankly, loved her. They loved her approach, they liked the way she handled herself," he said.

But it was what Hudson heard that tainted her early experience in the RCMP.

Crime bill extinguishes hope for thousands of Canadians

With the government’s omnibus crime bill set to become law, a critical question we should ask is whether we are becoming a society that fosters hope or one that extinguishes it. While Canada is a country of promise in many ways, the government’s course of enacting legislation that favours incarceration and punishment over treatment and rehabilitation stands in conflict to the values that make it such a formidable nation.

Coverage of the debate surrounding this bill has erroneously pitted conservatives against seemingly everyone else. But the divisions are not that simple. Although the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper espouses many of the values that conservatives uphold, there remain policies that cause significant moral and philosophical cleavages within the party. I am a Tory, but like many others who cast their ballot the same way I did not vote for the draconian and misguided measures in this regressive legislation.

It is undeniable that parts of the bill make a great deal of sense, such as stiffer sentences for violent offenders and mandatory minimums for child sex offenders. Yet it is the provisions piled in with these laudable initiatives that make it so unpalatable and that can only be described as contrary to the most critical purpose of our justice system – the rehabilitation and reintegration of criminals into society and crime prevention.

Unilateral pronouncements won’t help us all get along

On Monday, the Minister of Finance announced a new investment in health care from now until 2024. He also announced the formula for funding equalization and other social programs. According to press reports, he made it clear to his provincial counterparts that this is not the beginning of a negotiation process. This is what the government of Canada is going to do.

Is this a surprise? Provincial governments, organizations with an interest in health care and many observers had been assuming – and hoping – that much of 2012 and 2013 would be devoted to discussions and negotiations on health-care reform and the federal role in health care.

After all, that is how it has been done in the past, more or less. But have we been paying attention? If you put together the stated intentions to stay out of provincial jurisdiction and to eliminate the federal deficit rapidly, and consider recent federal initiatives in the justice area, this development is perhaps not so surprising.

In any event, some will argue that this is a good financial deal for the provinces: a 6-per-cent growth rate for the federal health transfer for three years after the current health accord expires in March, 2014, followed by a growth rate tied to the growth of the economy. Given that most of the players, including provincial governments, think that health costs are growing too quickly and have to be contained, this seems like a reasonable approach. Perhaps. There is a claim that the measures announced by Jim Flaherty fulfill the commitment to Alberta that its health transfer will be the same per capita as the transfer to other provinces. This would fix a long-standing grievance and there is no space here to explain how it was generated. But we don’t know what the impact on other provinces will be. It may not do much for interprovincial harmony.

Palestinians are heroes, braving Israeli dictatorship

Palestinians are heroes, and that's not simply a flowery journalistic phrase, but a fact not intended for thugs, rather for people who shut their eyes - and they are many

The Palestinians are heroes, and that's the only fact that's relevant after the slight shock of the hilltop thugs. The hands are the hands of thugs, and the head? The head is the head of the hostile regime under which the Palestinians live and which harasses them every moment of every day, week after week for decades. To live this way and remain sane - that's heroism. "And who says we're sane?" Palestinians answer me. Well, here's the proof: self-irony.

The thugs of the hills are only the icing on the cake. Most of the work is being done by thugs wearing kid gloves. Unlike the people who threw the stone at the deputy brigade commander, these are fan favorites in Israel. The flesh of our flesh. Officers and soldiers, military jurists, architects and contractors in the service of the army, Interior Ministry and National Insurance Institute clerks. The hands are their hands. The head is the head of the demos, the Israeli-Jewish people, who by the democratic process send governments to be the dictator over the Palestinians.

What is the Israeli dictatorship over the Palestinians? Not only control of their space and the creation of isolated enclaves; not only the 19-year-olds who are sent - masked and armed to the teeth - on military raids (560 last month, according to the monitoring group in the PLO's negotiations department ); not only daily arrests (257 arrests in November, including 15 Gazans ) and the 758 temporary roadblocks that were placed on West Bank roads that month.