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.]

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ed DeMarco's Refusal on Principal Reductions Grounds for Firing

The single largest obstacle to meaningful economic recovery is a man who most Americans have probably never heard of, Edward J. DeMarco.

From his perch as acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, DeMarco oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-owned mortgage behemoths that collectively control about half of all home loans in the land. What he does shapes both the national housing market and the ability of troubled borrowers to hang on to their homes. What he has been been doing lately has been so unhelpful that Democratic lawmakers and grassroots advocacy groups are properly demanding his ouster.

DeMarco steadfastly refuses to allow Fannie and Freddie to help distressed homeowners by writing off principal balances on their mortgages. This has ensured that tens of millions of borrowers remain "underwater," meaning they owe the banks more than their homes are worth -- a status that has an alarming tendency to portend foreclosure. His refusal is based on logic that is both elegantly simple and tragically flawed: He is responsible for cleaning up the books at Fannie and Freddie, so he is against spending money.

BP's Influence Peddling In Congress Bears Fruit Two Years After Gulf Spill

As millions of barrels of oil began pouring into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, Democratic lawmakers began asking the question: what was the proper amount of money that the company responsible for the spill should have to pay?

This wasn't some sort of philosophical exercise. Oil companies pay money into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to help cover the costs of major disasters. But under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a company responsible for a spill is liable for only $75 million in economic damages, provided it didn't exhibit "gross negligence." The federal government picks up the next $1 billion.

Since it quickly became evident that the cost of damages to the Gulf would far exceed those figures, a group of senators, led by Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), tried to change the law. They proposed raising the $75 million cap on liability to $10 billion.

The bill was dubbed the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act." Introduced during the peak of anger over the spill and amid legitimate fears over how long the oil would continue to flow unabated, it seemed as though there was a fairly reasonable chance it would pass. When President Barack Obama not only endorsed the measure but also argued for eliminating a cap altogether, its prospects improved further.

Afghanistan's Haditha: An Atrocity to End the War

Iraq had its Haditha. Now, Afghanistan has its Panjwai.

Burning babies—yes, it has come to this.

Following routine bombings of wedding parties, hundreds killed in unchecked “night raids” by US Special Forces, the murders by the scandalous “kill team” in 2010, and, this year, the digitally recorded urination onto dead Afghans by Americans in uniform—not to mention the Koran burnings last month—it’s clear that there’s no hope of success for the “mission.” Whatever that is.

The massacre of sixteen Afghans by a US soldier on Sunday, including many children, is certain to inflame anti-occupation feeling in Afghanistan, send recruits into the Taliban and harden the opposition to a long-term treaty with the United States among politicians. It is also the death knell for President Obama’s plan to organize a dignified, orderly exit from the war. Forget an organized transfer to Afghan security forces in 2014—yes, that would be the selfsame Afghan security forces whose personnel are, more and more, assassinating US officers and enlisted men. If Obama has any sense whatsoever, he’ll accelerate the American pullout from Afghanistan this year, after the drawdown of 30,000 surge forces is complete in September.

Vancouver Income Inequality Study Shows City Segregating Along Racial, Income Lines

Vancouver has gone from being a solidly middle-class town to a city on the verge of extremes, with neighbourhoods starkly segregated by race and income, a new study shows.

Released exclusively to The Huffington Post Canada, the University of British Columbia study is the first to use census data to explore the dramatic change in income patterns that have reshaped the city’s socio-economic landscape over the past 35 years.

From 1970 to 2005, the proportion of middle-income tracts, or neighbourhoods, in the metropolitan area of Greater Vancouver fell significantly, from 71 per cent to 53 per cent. Meanwhile, the share of very low and low-income neighbourhoods increased from 13 to 23 per cent, and high and very-high income tracts jumped from 16 to 24 per cent.

The shift has been even more pronounced in the City of Vancouver, where the share of middle-income tracts was cut by more than half, from 65 to 31 per cent. Higher income neighbourhoods doubled, from 16 per cent to 32 per cent, and lower income neighbourhoods jumped from 19 to 37 per cent.

Democracy has not arrived in Libya; goodwill toward NATO fleeting

While all eyes are on the intensifying civil war in Syria and the deterioration of relations between Israel and Iran, scant attention is being paid to recent alarming events in Libya. This of course suits those western leaders who helped overthrow former Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi just fine.

Canada led the NATO air campaign and we also outdid our allies in our celebratory victory parades. In the wake of all these marching bands and military flypasts on Parliament Hill, the Harper government hoped all Canadians would take pride in our Forces for having ousted a dictator in the name of democracy and human rights.

Like a Hollywood script, the good guys win, the credits roll and everyone heads home feeling self-satisfied.

The "success" in Libya is now being touted as a possible template for international intervention in Syria. There’s no need for western soldiers to get bogged down fighting costly counter-insurgencies like Afghanistan or Iraq when our air forces can simply bomb with impunity for months on end, until the pro-democracy forces finally oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Ideology gets out of hand in Toronto-Danforth byelection

Canadian political commentators — myself included — have spent a considerable amount of time accusing the Conservatives of putting ideology ahead of pragmatism. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that the Tories’ adherence to a rigid “watertight compartments” idea of federalism is behind the government’s inability to develop a national vision for reforming health care.

Of course, this problem isn’t limited to the Conservatives. Members of all political parties have some form of ideology through which they filter facts, be it all-encompassing or limited to particular issues.

Yet sometimes, the malady of taking ideology beyond the brink becomes so laughable that it deserves an explicit mention in a media outlet or two. Such is the case of the NDP’s candidate in the Toronto-Danforth byelection, Craig Scott.

Al-Muzir Es-Sayyid, 22, is not a Canadian citizen. Yet since arriving in Canada in 1996, he has amassed more than a dozen criminal convictions, including possession of heroin, carrying a concealed weapon and armed robbery, and eventually was ordered deported by a Federal Court judge after having committed a series of armed robberies targeting sex trade workers. Notably, his father Mahmoud Jaballah is alleged to have been a member of a terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaeda.

Pipeline opposition brings case to Ottawa

A First Nations chief and representatives from British Columbia's commercial fishing and tourism sectors will outline their concerns about a proposed pipeline linking Alberta's oilsands with the West Coast at a panel discussion in Ottawa on Monday night.

Enbridge wants to build a $5.5-billion pipeline to carry an estimated 525,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., where it could then be shipped by ocean tankers to ports around the world.

But First Nations, environmental groups and communities across northern B.C. have lined up in opposition and now some are trying to spread the message to other parts of the country.

"We want to make sure that fellow Canadians in the rest of the country really understand, beyond all of the talking heads on the political shows, what the people who are actually from the region think about it, what are they saying, what their contribution to the national conversation is," said Josh Paterson, a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law.

Oilsands bounty benefits all -- except Dalton

In a way, we owe Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty for coming clean on his resentment toward the oilsands. It’s best to know who you can count on, who you can’t count on, and who can’t count.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford had reached out to Premier McGuinty, expecting he would wholeheartedly support the idea of defending the oilsands as a national resource, which was a charmingly innocent thing to assume.

Sure, the facts are clear enough. Thousands of Ontarians work in the oilsands. Ontario’s financial services sector continues to make billions of dollars a year financing oilsands development.

Ontario’s manufacturing sector sells trucks and equipment to oilsands companies. Ontario investors and RRSP holders receive oilsands dividends and capital gains. All Ontarians share in the benefits of the tax revenues that the oilsands produce.

Even Dalton’s churlish point that our high dollar has been caused by oil underlines the economic importance of the oilsands. A stronger dollar means a national pay hike for all Canadians because it makes it cheaper to purchase those things that we don’t produce in Canada, such as oranges, and Apple’s iPads.

Centre-leaning candidates moving up

With less than two weeks to go until New Democrats announce their new leader, the two candidates agitating to move the NDP more to the centre appear to have the most momentum.

Thomas Mulcair speaks repeatedly of "modernizing" the NDP and, in a debate Sunday in Vancouver, pledged to keep taking the party "in the same direction Jack Layton was taking it."

The Outremont MP, who is a former Quebec Liberal MNA, spoke of a compelling need to go beyond the party's base, noting "between Ontario and B.C. we won just three seats in the last election."

B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, meanwhile, has been pitching his own radical plan to cooperate electorally with Liberals and Greens. He favours riding run-off races to select a single candidate who would then take on each nominated Conservative.

A widespread perception in recent weeks is that Cullen is coming up from behind. The Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP claims about 1,100 campaign donors - more than any other candidate except the front-running Mulcair, with some 1,300 donors.

In past NDP races, leadership candidates with the greatest number of donors also got the most votes.

Talking points, dodged questions eroding confidence in Canadian democracy

It was, unmistakably, a rebuke — though delivered sotto voce. Preston Manning, the grand vizier of Canadian conservatism and the man who gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper his start, doesn’t take the robocalls scandal lightly, or dismiss it as a malicious confection of the opposition parties.

“Any political strategy, tactic or technology which deliberately employs a lie to misdirect or mislead a voter is deplorable ethically and for the damage it does to the democratic process and public confidence in all parties and politicians,” Manning told a blue-chip crowd of conservative thinkers, strategists, current and former politicians on the weekend.

Ouch. Robocall-scandal minimizers, take that. And Manning has a solution: Political parties should train their people in “ethical politics” and the “ethical use” of new political technologies, including automated calling and, of course, social media.

Conservatives in Guelph riding ready to 'talk' to Elections Canada's investigators, says Campaign Research lawyer

PARLIAMENT HILL—Conservatives in Guelph, Ont., who worked on the campaign at the epicentre of a controversy over fraudulent phone calls targeting Liberal voters in the 2011 federal election are ready to “talk” to Elections Canada investigators, a lawyer with one of the voter-contact firms that worked for the Conservative candidate in Guelph says.

Aaron Wudrick, general counsel and a spokesman for Campaign Research Inc., told The Hill Times Thursday he hopes an Elections Canada investigation gets to the bottom of allegations that a Conservative campaign aide in the riding used a disposable cellphone and Edmonton-based robocalls to flood the riding with fraudulent calls purported to be from Elections Canada, as well as investigations into similar complaints in at least 14 other electoral districts.

Mr. Wudrick, whose firm conducted voter-contact telephone surveys to identify supporters of Conservative candidate Marty Burke in the riding and get them out to vote, said he is “as much in the dark” as everyone else about who might have been behind the Guelph calls that claimed to be Elections Canada alerts notifying voters that polling site locations had changed, and other forms of harassing calls alleged to have taken place in other ridings.

'Pierre Poutine' will admit robocall role, sources say

OTTAWA — The news that Elections Canada investigators are aware of the IP address that “Pierre Poutine” used to set up the Guelph, Ont., robocall account has convinced a suspect to step forward and accept responsibility for the deceptive calls, sources say.

Whoever set up the account that sent out the election day message that deceived opposition supporters in Guelph was careful to cover his electronic tracks.

According to sworn affidavits from Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews, and sources close to the investigation, whoever sent the fake recorded message used a prepaid credit card to buy a prepaid cellphone, registered an account under a fake name and address with robocall provider RackNine, and used a different fake name and address — Pierre Poutine of Separatist Street, Joliette, Que. — to set up his cellphone.

But the CEO of RackNine, Matt Meier, was able to trace Poutine’s electronic trail back to a specific Internet protocol address, which is apparently assigned to a single home. Sources say that revelation has now convinced someone to step forward and own up to the scheme.

Electoral integrity rests with Elections Canada’s robocalls investigation, says Kingsley

The domestic and international integrity of Canada’s elections system may rest in how Elections Canada handles its investigation of the robocall, voter suppression issue during the last election campaign, says Canada’s former chief electoral officer.

“It is bound to have an influence,” said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who served as Canada’s chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2007.

“Some people will, around the world, start to wonder about this system which has been touted as the model, at least in terms of the principles and in terms of its execution,” said Mr. Kingsley. “What we do with it now is what is really what will count. We cannot discount the fact that there will have been some influence, some impact on our reputation, but how we handle it from here until we find out exactly what transpired, is also going to be telling on our system and that’s going to be very important.”

NDP House Leader Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.) said that the issue could have a negative impact on Canada’s reputation as election monitors.

Critics slam Tories’ pushback strategy on robocalls scandal, but Tories say it’s working

Critics say the government’s strategy to deal with the robocalls issue is “confusing,” “inconsistent,” “not well coordinated” and, as one crisis communications expert put it, “wrong, wrong, wrong,” but some Tories say that’s also why it’s working as the controversy has yet to hurt them in the public opinion polls.

“It’s difficult to generalize because there appear to have been a number of different strategies. That’s my first observation, that it’s been kind of inconsistent with a lot of twists and turns in it, many different spokesmen, not always saying the same thing,” said University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.).

Summa Strategies vice-president and Conservative pundit Tim Powers agreed. He said the story so far “is confusing” and the Conservative government’s approach is to “emulate” it and point out the confusion.

“Sometimes they get a little confused themselves in the retelling of the story. There’s so much stuff, both fact and allegations floating out there that it really is hard to keep track,” Mr. Powers said last week.

Robocalls: Protestors across country demand public inquiry into scandal

A few hundred protestors converged on Dundas Square Sunday afternoon — one of a dozen such protests across the country — calling for an independent public inquiry into the robocall election fraud scandal.

Bearing placards and megaphones, the crowd walked to Old City Hall chanting, singing the national anthem and yelling out facts to inform the thousands of bystanders on Yonge St. about their cause.

“People think that democracy will always be here,” said Jeanne Vlasics, who said this was one of the few protests she has ever attended. “But it can erode away very slowly, and I am afraid that is what is happening here.”

Vlasics said the robocall scandal, in which thousands of voters received phone calls directing them away from proper polling stations during the federal election last May, was the final straw for her.

“I have been sitting and watching all these creeping policies and the overall attitude of the government without doing anything, but then the news came out that election could have been completely fraudulent. I had to do something.”

Context matters more than character

Ever since the news of voter suppression robocalls in Guelph and of related dirty-tricks activities in dozens of other ridings broke over two weeks ago, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the state of Canada's capacity for self-government. Joseph Cummins, an American expert on dirty political tricks, says the scandal is a "shock to the system" of Canadian democracy. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2007, said "We have never seen anything like this alleged case in terms of this potential organization and impact in terms of numbers."

A large number of pundits have placed the blame squarely upon the prime minister. Stephen Harper stands accused of having cultivated a take-no-prisoners, anything-goes culture in the Conservative party, which has given everyone in the party tacit licence to lie and cheat and swindle their way to victory. Others blame the very existence of political parties: Writing about the robocalls last week, Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne asserted that the robocalls "scandal may be the symptom, but partisanship is the disease."

Hang 'em high, Canadians say

Dust off that hood, John Radclive.

It's been 50 years since the last criminal hangings took place in Canada, and Radclive was the nation's first professional executioner, delivering about 150 final sentences. According to an exclusive QMI Agency poll, our country wishes the end of our rope hadn't been reached in 1962.

Our Leger Marketing public survey -- involving questions on just about every hot-button topic faced in Canada -- has found half the country is now in favour of the death penalty for dangerous offenders.

In fact, only 37% of people now think death for violent offenders is a bad idea.

Just before cop-killers Ron Turpin and Arthur Lucas both swung from the Toronto gallows back in 1962, Lucas was reportedly told they'd likely be the last to be executed in Canada -- which they were. He reportedly replied: "Some consolation."

A majority of Canadians seem to now agree with him.

Economic sanctions against Iran affect students in Canada

Mohammed Shahsavari doesn't know how he is going to pay his tuition.

The second-year master's student at Carleton University is one of hundreds of Iranian students in Canada affected by deepening economic sanctions against Iran.

At the end of January, Canada followed the United States and the European Union in tightening its sanctions. This included prohibiting all financial transactions with Iran. Although Iranians in Canada can send less than $40,000 home, it's difficult to transfer funds from Iran to Canada.

Shahsavari says that students who depend on money from their parents have no way to access it.

"We can't get loans from the government, we can't get money from the banks. We are just dependent on the money we've got from our savings," he said. "We're in a very tight situation right now."

He says the only way to transfer the money would be to arrange for someone in Iran to pick it up and physically bring it to Canada -- a costly and time-consuming process.

Is Harper undercutting Obama on Iran?

It might be useful for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to read a U.S. State Department cable from Israel released by Wikileaks. It reveals that talk of Iran's imminent production of nuclear weapons goes back to the early 1990s: "The head of the MFA's [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] strategic affairs division recalled that GOI [Government of Israel] assessments from 1993 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest."

The March 2005 cable to Washington cautioned that Israel's estimates of Iranian nuclear capability "...need to be taken with caution."

While Harper recently reiterated the need for diplomacy and did not support military action, his emphasis that such action was "on the table" and his acceptance of Israel's declaration that Iran is seeking to build a weapon makes the call for diplomacy hollow.

Female MPs still fighting for structural, institutional changes in federal politics

In 2007, as the bell signaling the coming of a House of Commons vote rang, Bloc MP Maria Mourani was sitting just outside the House Chamber with her newborn son, Gabriel, and a colleague. Ms. Mourani was waiting for her mother—who was still en route—to relieve her so she could go and vote. But then she realized Gabriel’s diaper needed changing, and she was short on options.

With the clock literally ticking until she needed to take her seat in the House to vote, Ms. Mourani (Ahuntsic, Que.) said she knew she didn’t have time to make it all the way to the closest women’s bathroom that was actually equipped with a change table—located on the ground floor of Centre Block, near the public visitors’ centre. The nearby small, two-stall women’s washroom off of the House foyer was without one.

As passing noses caught a whiff, MPs’ heads turned, and Ms. Mourani decided she couldn’t wait for her mother.

“So I changed him there,” Ms. Mourani told The Hill Times.

Why protecting dairy, poultry farmers is no sacred cow for Harper

Is the Harper government willing to dismantle the supply management system that protects poultry and dairy farmers from competition? You should bet that it is.

The Conservatives’ trade agenda requires it. Domestic politics permits it. And although Stephen Harper is keeping his own counsel on the issue, those watching Canada’s trade negotiations are convinced the Prime Minister will act when the time comes.

There would be plenty of support – billions of dollars-worth – for farmers during a lengthy transition. But the end to protection from foreign imports for dairy and eggs appears inevitable.

Diversifying trade is Mr. Harper’s highest priority. If this Conservative majority government is known for only one thing, the Prime Minister wants that one thing to be trade.

This is why the Conservatives are putting so much emphasis on a free-trade agreement with Europe, why the government is working hard at concluding an agreement with India, why Mr. Harper has visited China twice in less than three years, why feelers are out to see if Japan or Thailand are interested.

Alberta, Ottawa, oil lobby formed secret committee

The federal and Alberta governments struck up a secret, high-level committee in early 2010 to coordinate the promotion of the oilsands with Canada’s most powerful industry lobby group, a document obtained through an access to information request reveals.

The committee brought together the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) with deputy ministers from Natural Resources, Environment Canada, Alberta Energy and Alberta Environment to synchronize their lobbying offensive in the face of mounting protest and looming international regulations targeting the Alberta crude.

Environmental organizations criticized the existence of a committee they said they were hearing about for the first time.

“I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that there should be a separation between oil and state, but with these types of secret committees it’s hard to see any daylight between them,” said Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace.

Toronto awards $13.4 million contract to insurance firm recently slammed for poor service

The city has awarded a $13.4 million contract to an insurance company slammed in a recent report by Toronto’s ombudsman for “misleading” city residents.

Granite Claims Solutions (formerly McLarens Canada) beat out four insurance companies vying for the five-year contract. The details were approved by the city’s bid committee on Wednesday.

The company serves as an external adjuster and handles third-party liability claims: claims in which damages are allegedly caused by negligence on the part of the city. Common causes include damage to private property caused by potholes, trees and sewage backup.

Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean’s report, titled “Potholes, Floods and Broken Branches: How the City Handles Your Claims,” was released October 2011.

It findings revealed a process governed by an “an attitude of denial,” whereby 90 per cent of total claims were denied, and adjusters turned down claims at “every opportunity” and, in some cases, “not for any reasons of fairness” but to manage volume.

Don’t expect federal spending to increase from projected $252-billion: PBO

The federal government’s spending estimates, recently released for the upcoming 2012-2013 budget year, project cuts to several departments even without including the coming billions of dollars in strategic operating review cuts, and the Parliamentary Budget Office says don’t expect public spending to increase from what departments have projected in their $251.9-billion main estimates.

Carleton University public administration professor Robert Shepherd said, however, that it’s unlikely, even with the strategic and operating review, that departments won’t be asking for more money in supplementary estimates.

“I can’t imagine going through a fiscal year without any supplementary requests,” he said.

“There’s always cost over-runs. You can’t reasonably estimate everything,” he added.

ORNGE investors will collect $22M a year from taxpayers

Investors in ORNGE air ambulance will soon be raking in $22 million a year with Ontario taxpayers footing the bill.

It’s all part of a payment schedule set in motion in December 2009, when former president Dr. Chris Mazza and lawyer Alf Apps sold bonds on the private marketplace so that a fleet of airplanes and helicopters could be purchased.

Financial documents show that starting next year taxpayers will pay $22.1 million to the institutional investors across Canada that purchased $275 million of the low-risk bonds. This year, documents show taxpayers will pay $15.7 million to investors but that will be interest only — the contract states that interest and principal payments will begin at the end of 2012. Investors are paid interest of 5.7 per cent annually.

Taxpayers already pay $150 million to ORNGE annually to perform air ambulance services. ORNGE does not make detailed financial statements public (it is also not covered by freedom of information laws) and so the Star could not determine how much of the new annual $22.1 million payment will come out of what taxpayers already pay ORNGE, and how much will be payments on top of the $150 million.

Question isn’t where conservatism is going, but where has it gone

This is from some remarks I’ll be making Saturday morning to the Manning Centre conference, a gathering of conservatives, and Conservatives, in Ottawa.

I confess I’m not particularly interested in defining conservatism. I do not see the point of knowing whether a given idea is or is not conservative, or in asking how a conservative would respond to x or y. This strikes me as an odd way to think about the world: to start with a box and try to make your views fit inside it.

What I believe in are a set of principles having to do with the freedom of the individual, the usefulness but not infallibility of markets, and the legitimate but limited role of the state. There are, in brief, a few things we need government to do, based on well-established criteria on which there is a high degree of expert consensus. The task is simply to get government to stick to those things, rather than waste scarce resources on things that could be done as well or better by other means: that is, government should only do what only government can do.