Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Throw Away The Key

As promised during our talking about the throne speech, though slightly detoured due to Senate revelations, I think it's time we sit down and talk a bit about prisons.

Prisons are arguably one of those 'flashpoint' topics in politics; the sort of issue where you find extremes on both sides, and very little room for compromise in the middle. People typically fall into two groups, represented by an old metaphor, the carrot and the stick.

The carrot group believe in rehabilitation. Prison exists as not only as a punishment, but also as a means of attempting to correct the offender. It is not enough to simply lock them away for their sentence; rather, we must offer the ability for betterment.

The stick group takes the opposite extreme. Prison is for punishment and punishment alone. These people violated the rights of another individual, and as such, they're forfeited their own rights in the process. We have nothing to give them, nor should they expect anything, other than punishment for their offense.

These tend to be the two 'majority' viewpoints when it comes to the discussion of prisons. As mentioned, there also seems to be little to no middle ground when it comes to this issue. I remember an all candidates' debate I attended during the 2006 Election campaign. The Liberal candidate drew a good laugh and response from the crowd when he responded, "No one says we can't let them shower, but no one says we have to give them warm water."

It's one of two memories from that campaign that has always stuck with me.

And it's also a reason why we need to be able to talk about the state of prisons in Canada, and the future of them.

However, before we get to that, there's a few key issues and definitions we need to settle upon first. So, let's do a small crash course on history before moving forward. My apologies, if my legal history is a little spotty, but I will do my best to make sure I don't make any glaring errors. As always, corrections are welcomed.

We'll start with the idea of codified law. The idea that a list of offenses were drafted, with punishments set for offenses continues to form the existence of modern law. The most famous of these sets of ideas is the Code of Hammurabi (LINK), which dates back to around 1772 BC. While not the oldest set of codified law, it remains one of the oldest that we have a complete set of. And as joked about in the Daily Show's book, America, "redefined the social contract from 'I will kill you' to 'I will kill you if you do one of the following 282 things."

Effectively, it established the limits and scope of law. It also helped to establish the presumption of innocence before guilt; as it applied means to provide evidence for both the accused and accuser. And while it may be extreme in punishment, and many of the laws no longer apply to modern life, it is indeed a major cornerstone in the foundation of modern law.

Hammurabi's Code, also, can be argued to be the source of the idea of punitive law. Punishments according to the code were often harsh, often ranging to death, and based on the idea of the victim receiving a means of retaliation against the accused.

For example, one law states " If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death." Imagine a better business bureau having to undertake that kind of investigation against a contractor.

Effectively, Hammurabi's Code established the idea of retaliation over 'justice'. For example, another of Hammurabi's laws states: "If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out." This speaks volumes to the level of recourse the victim had under Babylonian law. It also stresses that 'justice' was equal to direct punishment, rather than an infringement upon certain rights.

Hammurabi's Code promised, as the Daily Show joked, that if you made a violation you would be harshly punished.

Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato with his work "Laws", began to challenge some of the finality of vengeance in justice. Detainment, as a legal punishment, took quite awhile to catch on. For the most part, detainment was used as a means of punishing offenders who could not afford to pay fines; or in most cases, used as a means of securing hard labour from offenders. Effectively, for the longest time, detainment was not seen as a full means of punishment. In fact, detainment was often used before a more permanent sentence, such as execution, was passed on the offender.

It would be until the Middle Ages that detainment became seen as a tangible idea for punishment. In Europe, with the construction of castles and fortress and other 'strong' buildings, it became possible to place a person under a state of detention for a long period of time. No doubt, many of you will be aware of the history of the Tower of London. While the name often invokes a sense of dread, people often forget that the Tower served as one of the most secure buildings in London.

It was not uncommon for the Monarch, or the heir, to spend time in Tower as a guest for an extended period of time. This remains the case for 'noble' offenders throughout the Middle Ages. Being the 'prisoner' of another noble was more like an extended vacation than it was confinement; at least, if you were of noble birth and the charge against you wasn't too extreme.

Suddenly, we start to see what the notion of "courtesy" had on the notion of punitive law. It becomes incomprehensible to inflict the harshest punishment imaginable on a fellow member of the gentrified classes, and as such, we must extend all courtesy towards them during their time in my remand. Granted, it would take quite a bit of time until this level of courtesy was extended to the lower classes, but it's a starting point to see where change began to develop.

Not to say that all nobles were immediately excused of their crimes with a lavish detainment. Depending on the mood of the Monarch, the harshest punishment was still an option, though considerations other than guilt often determined the course of action. But, as stated, it was a start. It was move away from the demand for vengeance as the qualifier of appropriate punishment.

Now that we've sort of fleshed out the idea of punitive punishment, and where it came from, we need to look back on why these punishments exist in the first place, and whether our punishments are justified or not. That means taking a closer look at the Social Contract.

The Stanford Philosophical Encyclopedia is a great resource for philosophical ideals, and I highly recommend checking it out, as we will be relying on it quite a bit for this next bit. (LINK)

The modern idea of the Social Contract is usually traced by to Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argues that without law, man would exist in a state of nature that is marked by excessive violence. This is because everyone would be free to do whatever they want, in any amount that they want. For example, A could kill B, simply because A wanted to.

As such, free man subject themselves to the will of a civil society (a monarch, a ruling body/parliament, etc) and surrender 'rights' based on the idea of achieving protections from a state of nature. Later philosophers, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau placed greater emphasis on understanding that securing rights for ourselves means guaranteeing rights for other people.

Effectively, however, it comes down to the general idea that citizens of a state will surrender 'absolute freedom' in order to secure basic rights. So, while A has the capacity to murder B, A will refrain from doing so due to the social contract that protects A's life from C. Or put more simply, a person agrees not to kill someone else in the hopes of ensuring that the state will protect their life from someone else as well.

As such, as part of the surrendering of absolute freedom, we expect the state that we've empowered to have the means to punish those who step outside the bounds of the Social Contract. After all, if the state is powerless to enforce the contract, then the individual is surrendering rights without receiving anything in return.

And this is where we start to reach the problem of modern capital punishment, and one of the issues where the 'carrot' VS 'stick' group tend to argue with one another.

The violation of the social contract calls for the state to take action against the violator. It is an affront to the entire society if a person who violates the social contract, by refusing to curtail their own 'absolute freedom' (like the rest of us), is allowed to enact this freedom without some sort of rebuking.

The problem is now found in what happens to the rights of the violator under the Social Contract? The 'stick' group would argue that by violating the contract, they have nullified their own protections or entitlement to the rights enjoyed by the law abiding citizens of the society.

The 'carrot' group would argue that although the person has violated the contract, the social agreement between the entire society and the state, still applies to a person's basic rights as defined by the state.

Let's put that into simpler terms.

The 'stick' group argues that a violation of the social contract invalidates all rights afford to a person by that contract. The 'carrot' group argues that a person who has violated the social contract still has basic rights.

This is the foundation of perhaps the biggest gap between these two groups. After all, the 'stick' group sees the offender as now existing outside of the social contract. As such, we have no commitments to honour with them. Whereas the 'carrot' group, would say that regardless of a violation of the social contract, the fact that they remain a citizen of the state provides them the same basic protections afford to non-offenders.

This mindset creates a very different reality when you try to measure what prison is supposed to accomplish for an offender.

Like Hammurabi, the 'stick' group would advocate for a harsh justice that ensures the victims of the offender receive a form of retaliation for the offense. This could be a simple striping away of all their rights; or life imprisonment, or in some countries, the death penalty.

Like Plato, the 'carrot' group would see the fault of the offense as a failing of the person; and to some degree, a failure of the society. As such, an emphasis should be placed upon rehabilitation and fixing the fault inherent in the individual.

Though, in fair disclosure, Plato did argue for the death penalty for certain individuals who were deemed beyond redemption and saving.

And this brings us to the question of how we should be using prisons in today's society. Since the Middle Ages, our legal system has been evolving. We've moved away from the cold brutality of Hammurabi, and instead have tried focus on the more noble goal of rehabilitation laid out by Plato and other philosophers.

The problem, however, is that the people who agreed with Hammurabi's extremism in justice have not disappeared with the practice. In fact, political parties now base entire sections of their platforms around the idea of strengthening the punishment of prisons. As noted, the Throne Speech included a call for the government to make a life sentence exactly that, a lifetime detainment.

We're going to talk about the practicality of such an idea in a moment, but for now, we're going to stick with the philosophical view on the issue.

Firstly, we need to talk about whether stripping an individual of their rights for a violation of the social contract is indeed a punishment we should be enacting.

In 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It contains several Articles, establishing rights, that we will be talking about:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

"Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law."

"All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination."

Effectively, this establishes the fundamental human rights of all people; even those who have violated the social contract. People who favour the 'stick' approach in establishing the behaviour of prisons, are indeed advocating 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.' I refer you back to my 'no one says they need hot water' comment that I opened the post with.

Prisons exist to take away one key component from a person's rights: their right to liberty. After all, it was their adherence to absolute freedom that led to them being imprisoned. They refused to curtail their freedoms, as society expects, and as such have placed in remand where the greatest freedom of all has already been taken from them.

This lack of freedom just doesn't extend to physical mobility, but to the very aspects of control one's life in general. After all, prisoners are told when to wake up; when to eat; when to go to sleep; and whether or not they're allowed to step out into the 'yard'. So, prison exists to crush and curtail absolute freedom.

For the 'carrot' group, this seems to be punishment enough. For the 'stick' group, it barely scratches the surface. It also calls to mind the old familiar chant, 'don't do the crime, if you don't want to do the time'.

But that in itself exposes the truth about the punishment of prison, doesn't it? The time. The punishment is the time. It is the inability to control one's life, to dictate your own actions and be master of your own decisions, for a set amount of time. After all, what greater punishment could there be than to deprive someone of the ability to make their own decisions for set amount of time?

However, there are arguments for the 'stick' side where they begin to harken back to noble courtesy. For many people who favour stronger prison punishments, they cite the idea that prisons have become an almost holiday for the prisoners who reside within. It seems to conjure up images where prisoners have a bed, television, computer, and individual toilet in their cell.

Though, this is often not the case.

In Canada, prisoners make a wage for the work done while in prison. In fact, prisoners are currently 'on strike' over a pay reduction in the face of an increased cost to essential items, like shampoo or deodorant. (LINK) Furthermore, according to Corrections Canada, prisoners also incur costs while under incarceration. For example, an inmate will have pay deducted from their work to go towards food and accommodation. (LINK)

Inmate also have to purchase items from canteens, based on availability determined by the regional 'allowed' list. (LINK) I think this is worth mentioning as many people seem to be under the idea that prisoners have 'everything provided' for them. Quite honestly, this is not the case. Inmates are paid a stipend for their work, and can use this to purchase items that they may need.

If you look at the appendix in the last link, this includes items like razors, nail clippers, toothpaste, toothbrush, tampons, etc. Essentially, items that a person WILL need at some point and time. This items are not simply provided to inmates, they have to purchase them. And that money comes either from the work that they've done while at the prison, or from friends/family who have provided funds for their use to the prison.

The same goes for television sets and computers. 'Stick' proponents make it sound like Corrections Canada provides a TV and computer to every single inmate; but this is simply not the case. Once again, access to these types of electronic devices comes from friends/family from outside the prison. They also must conform to the rules laid down by the prison regarding these devices. (LINK)

So, while 'stick' people might want you to imagine a prisoner with a 50'' flat screen watching the latest blu-ray release; in reality, this cannot be the case due to the restrictions placed on both television sizes, and the types of media allowed within the prison.

The important thing to remember is that Corrections Canada does not provide these items; but prisoners who have friends/family on the outside are able to provide items that meet the requirements put down by the prison. As such, the prison allows certain luxury items to exist within the prison; but they by no means provide it for all prisoners.

The same goes for the cable packages is use on these television sets. Payment comes from the prisoners, not from Corrections Canada. This was brought up when Mark Twitchell, who based his crime off the Showtime series Dexter, was reported to be enjoy the series while in prison as part of his cable package. (LINK)

Keep in mind, however, that the CSC has final say over 'approved' cable packages. And channels that rebroadcast Dexter, like Bravo, ofter are included in packages that contain less objectionable channels like A&E or TLC. It's more a fault of predicting programming than directly providing access to questionable content for an inmate.

'Stick' proponents would have us completely ban these items; not just from individual cells, but from the prison population entirely. Or as Vic Towes might have said, "To hell with pizza parties!"

Which brings us to the question of whether or not televisions or computers should be banned from prisons. In Canada, we already ban internet access by inmates. So, even if an inmate has a computer they do not have the capacity to take it online. Some will falsely argue that the banning of the internet is proof that they should ban television access as well.

However, this is a false argument. Access to the internet poses a direct means of communications with other people outside of the prison, and even access to the means to commit crimes while in custody. Whereas television does not provide this medium. As such, it is logical to push for a ban (or limited use) internet for inmates due to the inherent risk of another crime being committed.

This doesn't come down to an argument about 'comfort' or 'right to access'. The internet is far and away and much more 'wild beast' than simple television access.

The Ontario NDP, a few years ago at this point, commented on access to 'premium cable packages' in prisons throughout the province. While the PCs were incredulous about prisoners getting access to these packages in the first place, the NDP presented an argument that made far more sense: That televisions were being used to 'babysit' prisoners in the way they were used to babysit children throughout the country. (LINK)

And perhaps they are quite right about that. While television might been seen as a comfort that prisoners aren't entitled to; others might see it as another means of keeping prisoners docile while under detainment. After all, an occupied prisoner who is able to watch their favourite television program is likely far more docile than an unoccupied prisoner who has hours upon hours to sit and stare at a wall.

In this way, perversely, there is an argument to be made for creature comforts as a means of ensuring peace within the facility. An occupied prisoner is a prisoner that is not a risk to staff or other inmates. Or quite simply, 'idle hands are the devil's playthings.'

It's an interesting train of thought, and as much as I'd love to continue exploring it, I think we need to get back onto the topic of prisons and punishment; not just the role of television within prisons.

Which does indeed bring us to the often forgotten people in prisons: The guards and administration. In addition to the prisoners, there must be the people who are in charge of watching them. And with regards to their punishment, scheduling their days.

In addition to considering the treatment of the inmates, we must also consider the treatment of the people who work in these facilities. An argument against the 'stick' mentality, is two-fold in that increased punitive conditions in a prison would pose a risk to the safety of the staff. After all, prisoners who are being denied human rights, or being mistreated, would be more likely to strike out at authority figures.

Secondly, we do indeed need to bring up the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Much like the Milgram Experiment, where people administered electrical shocks to people under orders from a single authority figure, the Stanford Prison Experiment found that 'guards' were willing to enact extreme authoritarian measures against 'prisoners'. The general consensus is that the 'guards' were willing to use psychological torture methods, and extreme measures against 'prisoners', due to the complacency of the professor leading the experiment to allow such methods to be used.

Effectively, what you can take away from this, is that when you establish a punitive system where all rights are disregarded and 'guards' have any means of punishment at their disposal, the nature response seems to be to immediately administer the maximum amount of authority, if not more. For example, the experiment had a solitary cell where prisoners were to be kept to a maximum of one hour. A 'troublemaker' prisoner was held in the solitary cell for three hours; well past the one hour maximum.

If you dehumanize prisoners, you are given implicit consent for them to be treated as less than human. And giving 'guards' a blank cheque with use of authority, and no consideration to human rights, makes the guards worse than the prisoners they are administering.

You cannot deny a prisoner basic human rights without dehumanizing them. And once you do that, you are allowing anything to happen to them while they are detained.

"Stick' people should be nodding in agreement, thinking that this is exactly what should happen to prisoners. However, this is a short sighted approach to the problem.

After all, there are numerous prisoners who are not life long inmates. People who have committed crimes that will be out of prison in four to five years; as opposed to those serving sentences to a minimum of twenty-five years.

And this is where we start to see the problem of the 'stick' approach.

These are people who will be reintroduced to the community. And the purpose of prison is two-fold: one, firstly deprive them of personal liberty as punishment for their crime. Two, provide the means to correct the behaviour to prevent recidivism.

If we fail to rehabilitate a prisoner, they will end up back in prison. For example, in 2003, the recidivism rate in Canada was between 41 - 44% for prisoners within their first year of being released. (LINK) It's now that we also have to consider policies that have a direct impact on recidivism rates.

The Harper Government has been very fond of mandatory minimums for certain offenses; which is odd, given that many nations are now in favour of removing mandatory minimums. The problem with this is that a first time offender is treated the same as repeat offender; there is no wiggle room, a judge must prescribe the minimum sentence as dictated by the federal government.

The risk here is that you take a first time young offender, and risk turning them into a lifelong criminal. After all, you are incarcerating them with serious, higher risk offenders. You are exposing them, in many cases, to a gang lifestyle; by which, an offender will join a prison gang and then continue to exist within the gang structure upon release.

Instead of rehabilitating, you have instead created a new repeat offender.

This calls for the need to ensure that first time offenders are given options outside of incarceration, depending on the nature of the crime, to increase the odds of successful rehabilitation and avoiding recidivism.

This also speaks to the need to ensure prisoners exist in an environment conductive to rehabilitation. John Hutton, of the John Howard Society, makes a point that when you pay prisoners a fair wage that they can actually save and use upon release, you increase the chances of successful rehabilitation. (LINK)

If you send a prisoner out in the world, with only $100 to their name after a four year prison term, they are not going to have that $100 for very long. Furthermore, job prospects for a person who has not only been charged with a crime but that has served a prison sentence, aren't the greatest. There is still a stigma attached to those released from prison that sees many potential employers see them as a liability, and not worth the risk in hiring.

So, you're creating an underclass that has little to no money to their name; might have established ties to criminal organizations while in prison; and who cannot find a legitimate job to provide for themselves. These are the same conditions that likely drove them to become an offender in the first place, and now you've recreated it for them.

All the rehabilitation in the world will fail if a prisoner leaves prison and their only prospects exist within committing another offense.

And this is where the 'stick' view fails so spectacularly. Punishment sounds fine, after all a person shouldn't expect a complete cakewalk if they've violated the social contract; but we must ensure that our punishment doesn't in turn pigeonhole the offender permanently into a life of crime.

If we have a responsibility to punish someone who has violated the social contract, we also have a responsibility to ensure that they are released in a manner that encourages them not to reoffend.

Monday, October 28, 2013

And Justice For None

You'll have to forgive my late commentary on the issue that has been percolating this entire week, and promises to take up as much time next week as well. I speak, of course, about the state of the Canadian Senate and the dramatic fireworks that have come out from the three 'exile' Senators.

Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau stood before their colleagues this week and attempted to explain why they should be allowed to keep their jobs. To no one's great surprise, this straightforward idea has been anything but. It's been a week that has seen cries of conspiracy, vendettas, deception, and breaking of the public trust.

It's the sort of drama one expects to find in the latest political thriller, not Canada.

And while the Senate has long been a thorn in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's side, this week it became a dagger that threatens to do to him what 31 daggers did to Julius Caesar. Conservative Senate leadership has been quick to call for the suspension of the three Senators, and no doubt many in the Conservative Party expected this to be the cure for their ills.

Instead, it has become a fox and pony show that has Canadians paying more attention to their government than they have in recent years. And acting as though he were an expert contortionist, Stephen Harper has tried to bend and evade to no avail. In attempting to dodge the issue, Harper has instead found himself front and centre in a series of questions that have changing answers; and it isn't just the House of Commons listening, it's all of Canada.

So, let's recap.

Mike Duffy spoke at length in the Senate about a conspiracy from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and how he was a victim in it. Duffy threw a firebomb in Harper's storyline, suggesting that he met with Harper and Nigel Wright to discuss repayment of the $90,000 in expenses he claimed. He further suggested that he was 'bullied' into repayment through phone calls from then Government Leader Marjory LeBreton and Harper's now Chief of Staff Ray Novak.

He also spoke about a deal that was struck prior to the Deloitte audits in which the Senate would 'white-wash' his report, in exchange for his repayment.

This has caused Harper to go from suggesting that Nigel Wright was a 'rogue agent' who acted alone, to admitting that a few people in the PMO knew about the repayment Wright provided for Duffy. This is the first, of many, changes to Harper's story and the NDP Opposition led by Thomas Mulcair have done an exceptional job at pointing out these changes and keeping pressure on Harper.

At the very least, Duffy proves to be the most interesting factor in play in all of this. Provided he does indeed possess the documents he's made claim to, he could indeed implicate a large amount of Conservative insiders and perhaps even Harper himself. It will be interesting to see what comes out once Duffy releases those documents.

Wallin continued the 'conspiracy' angle played by Duffy, and suggested that Senators Marjory LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart-Olsen had personal 'vendettas' against her. Brazeau railed against the lack of due process.

Let's focus on those issues before we start to discuss the myriad of other ones that came up.

I can't speak to personal vendettas between LeBreton, Stewart-Olson and Wallin; but it is interesting that both of those other Senators crop up with regards to Duffy. LeBreton has been doing the talk shows to defend the government and her good name, but she's been torpedoing both in the process. LeBreton certainly raised eyebrows when she admitted that the government wanted this entire affair over with before the Conservative Convention in Calgary this coming weekend.

It also raises the question many have been asking: Why now?

After all, news of the Senate expenses scandal broke almost six months ago. And in the beginning, the Prime Minister was less 'fire and brimstone' towards his star Senators than he was their chief defender. If you will recall, Harper defended Nigel Wright for days after it came out that he had given Duffy the $90,000. (LINK) In fact, Harper was incredulous over the Opposition demanding Wright's resignation; choosing instead to keep Wright in place and ensuring Canadians through his then spokesman that "Mr. Wright has the full confidence of the prime minister." Wright resigned two days later, with Harper thanking him for his years of service to the PMO.

In fact, the Conservatives even lauded Wright for his action. After all, his payment ensured that taxpayers were not on the hook for the expenses. (LINK) Harper now says he had every right to be kept in the loop on this issue by Wright. He also says that he would never have approved this 'scheme' of repayment; despite the fact that Harper and several cabinet ministers praised Wright's repayment on behalf of taxpayers.

All of this from a man who, two days before his resignation, enjoyed the 'full confidence of the Prime Minister.'

Of course, though, this is hardly the first time the Prime Minister and his cabinet have changed their minds. When news of Pamela Wallin's involvement became known, for example, Thomas Mulcair asked the Prime Minister about it.


The relevant portion is at the 1:06 mark; or you can just read what he said here:

“I’ve looked at the numbers, her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian, traveling from that particular area of the country over that period of time."

It wasn't until the audit numbers from Deloitte came out, and Wallin's travel budget of $120,000 raised public ire, that the Prime Minister tossed her aside with Duffy and Brazeau. But then that raises a unique question: What numbers did Harper look at?

If he looked at her numbers, you would assume a 'trained economist' could see the trouble with her expenses. So, either Harper looked at her numbers and lied in the Commons about what he saw; OR he didn't look at her numbers, and lied about saying that he did. Either way, the Prime Minister lied about something here.

I suppose you could argue that Harper may not have seen all of Wallin's receipts; but that is troubling in and of itself. And, if you take it with Nigel Wright holding back secrets, it makes it look like Stephen Harper is a Prime Minister who consistently has things hidden from him by his inner circle. That's a troubling thought, as it makes you begin to wonder just who is leading the country at that point, so I'm sure the Conservatives would never dare dream to use it as a defense.

And as noted, this is now almost month six of this scandal. With each passing month, it got worse and worse and it was becoming clear that it was not going to go away. Yet, the Prime Minister and his party did not dream about punishment for the Senators. Apparently, not being allowed to be a Conservative is the highest punishment they can dream up.

There was no push for their suspension. There was no push to completely remove them from the Senate. Hell, there was barely a push to garnish wages for Wallin and Brazeau as a means of repayment for their expenses. It was almost as if Harper thought he could make the issue go away by doing nothing.

Instead of dealing the Senators immediately, Harper did nothing. He even prorogued Parliament, effectively preventing the Senate from debating action. And now, in the face of overwhelming public anger, he finally seems ready to do something about those troublesome Senators of his...Except for the ones he apparently still has a use for.

On the fringes of this argument over expenses, there has been the lingering question of Senators always taking from the public purse. After all, it was only recently that a reform was passed that changed the nature of per diem claims while in Ottawa. In fact, there are other Senators that are underfire for expenses and misuse of Senate resources. Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, one of the Senators called out by Wallin for a personal vendetta, for example is one such Senator.

Stewart-Olsen served on the Senate Committee that oversaw the audit process; in which Duffy claims she and Senator David Tkachuk white-washed his audit after his agreement to repay his expenses. Stewart-Olsen has since excused herself from the committee and is under investigation into claims of overspending and claiming housing expenses and per diems while not on Senate business. (LINK) (LINK)

Conservatives LeBreton and Tkachuk have some things to answer for with their alleged roles in white-washing the Duffy audit (LINK); which seems to confirm at least that Duffy did indeed have a deal in place with regards to the audit and his repayment. 

Many online commentators have already called attention to the double standard being put to use here by the Prime Minister; as Stewart-Olsen stands accused of committing the same breach of the public trust as the other three, yet there has been no call for her suspension from the Senate. Add to that a role in 'amending' a Senate document, and there should be calls for her and Tkatchuk's head in addition to the Senators they were investigating.

Yet no cry is coming from the PMO, the Cabinet, The Prime Minister, or the Conservative Party. Furthermore, all three Senators have yet to have charges laid against them in this matter. Brazeau has charges pending in an unrelated matter, but as far as the Senate Expenses go, they're all in the clear for now. The same cannot be said about former Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Dean Del Mastro. Del Mastro has been charged of being in violation of the Elections Act, with regards to overspending.

Despite this, and it being a case which directly relates to his standing as a Member of Parliament, his resignation from the Conservative Party has been his only punishment. He is still allowed to sit in the Commons, and collect his wages and benefits despite criminal charges. For a Prime Minister who has talked about being tough on crime, and been in favour of 'removing' those who violated the public trust, this is a glaring absence. There is also growing cries of impropriety over newly minted Minister Kellie Leitch and her lack of declaring income from Dundee Reality Corp. (LINK)

So, why so tough on the Senate and not on his Cabinet?

In another case of the right hand apparently not knowing what the left hand is doing, Government Senator Leader Claude Carignan found himself in an awkward position when Patrick Brazeau stood on the Senate Floor and suggested Carignan offered him a 'backroom deal' for a lighter penalty. (LINK)

I'll give Carignan credit for at least admitting he spoke to Brazeau, but he is still trying to spin it as something less than a deal and more as a friendly word of advice.

Carignan has since gone on to say, in general, that he is open to amendments and other punishments for the three Senators. In the course of a few short days, we've gone from hearing the Prime Minister demand the suspension of the three members immediately, to his party's leader in the Senate musing about other possible options.

Carignan seems open to leniency for Wallin and Brazeau (LINK); Wallin for making a good case and plea, and Brazeau for possibly making an honest mistake in his expense. He has no such mercy for Duffy, who he wrote off as being more interested in settling political scores.

It seems unlikely that Carignan will actually accept lesser punishment for any of the three Senators; after all, his boss (Harper) has made it clear that he will accept nothing less than suspension for the three. But there is a small number of Conservative Senators, including past Party President Don Plett, calling for a slower and more processed response.

Liberal Senate leader James Cowan has called for a Senate Committee to be created to hear and deal with this issue; a prospect which must scare the hell out of the Prime Minister, due to the potential for more documents, witnesses, and other factors to come into play that may contradict his 'out of the loop' defense.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the Senate; and whether or not the three Senators will survive long enough to be given a chance to fully present their side of the story. And while the three have violated Senate rules, unquestionably, there remains questions as to why these three were singled out against other violators like Carolyn Stewart-Olsen; or people under investigation by the RCMP who have charges laid, like Dean Del Mastro.

The audits revealed improper spending, there is no question about that. But it is slowly becoming less and less about that as the Senators have essentially neutralized the issue.Wallin has begun making repayments. Brazeau is having his salary garnished until repaid (by the way, if they suspend him without pay, what happens to the repayment structure?)

But what matters more is Duffy and the $90,000 cheque from the PMO. The story here has changed so many times, it's hard to keep track of all the permutations. At first it was a gift between friends. Then it was discovered that Wright and Duffy were less than friends. Then it became Wright's conviction that it was the right thing to do. Then it was the Conservative Party itself that was going to pay back the expenses, but change their mind when the number was three times higher than expected.

Throughout it all, Harper has said Wright acted alone. But more and more people from the PMO, and the Senate Conservative Leadership, have been implicated as time goes on. In fact, Conservative Defender Extraordinaire Arthur Hamilton's name has been added to the list of potentially included individuals. The law firm Hamilton works for was mentioned as handing the bank draft that paid Duffy. (LINK)

Occam's razor would suggest that Harper indeed knew what was going on in his own office, with his own key players. And now, we're just waiting for the final piece of evidence that confirms what the majority of Canadians already feel: That the Prime Minister knew of, and was complacent in this issue.

The real problem rests with what happens after that. After all, he already has one motion of contempt under his belt and his political career survived just fine. Without any real teeth to punish him, other than the death of his political career, it's sort of surprising that Harper just hasn't come out with the truth already.

And that's why this issue matters.

It's not just about breaching the public trust in the Senate, it's about how we deal with those who violate the public trust. And right now, contempt of Parliament is an empty measure. So what if Harper is found, again, in contempt of Parliament? He still has two years to push through any agenda he wants until the next election.

If anything, this issue needs to call attention to the fact that Canadians have no real lever against politicians who mislead the public. And that is where our system fails us, and the three Senators in question. There is no clear cut disciplinary actions that can be invoked without majority support. There is nothing that can be done to a Prime Minister who has been found to be lying to the Canadian public.

And that should concern you. If we're going to throw three Senators under the bus, let's at least have some good come out of it and see some reform in establishing clear disciplinary actions. After all, we may have cause to use them against certain Parliamentarians when the smoke finally clears.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thoughts on the Throne Speech: Part Two

After a bit of time, here's the second post covering the recent Throne Speech. I think we should be able to get everything into this second post, so let's get down to the brass tacks.

"Respond to emerging threats to our sovereignty and economy posed by terrorism and cyber-attacks, while ensuring Canadians’ fundamental privacy rights are protected;"

There's a few interesting things about this comment. Firstly, one has to wonder how hard it was for the government to include reference to 'cyber-attacks' as our country has been caught engaging in its own cyber actions against Brazil. While not necessarily adhering to the classical definition of a cyber-attack, in that there was no aim to take down servers or compromise accessibility, there is a case to be made that cyber-intrusions are basically cyber-attacks themselves.

Secondly, there's no mention of the latest investment into CSEC and the building of their new headquarters. One imagines that CSEC would be on the front line in defending the country from cyber-attacks; yet there is no mention of the $1.2 billion dollar headquarters being built for the little known agency. Likely, the mention has much to do with the first problem: Brazil. After all, mentioing CSEC now would just remind people that Canada, and the rest of the so called 'Five Eyes' countries, are being a little less than diplomatic when it comes to countries that are supposed to be our friends.

"Reduced red tape so veterans can access the benefits they need."

Yes, they've reduced red tape so much that veterans haven taken the government to court. (LINK) For the TL;DR version: The government changed disability pensions for injured soldiers from a pension based system to a lump sum system. The lump sum system pays out less benefits to injured veterans, and fall short of covering worker compensation claims as well.

Understandably, veterans are angry about the changes to the system and are feeling shortchanged by the government. Notably, this isn't the first time the Harper Government has gotten into trouble with Veterans advocates. When the government brought forward the new Veterans Charter, it also ruffled feathers and led to some court battles between the federal government and veterans; notably Sean Bruyea. (LINK)

Basically, the key argument here is that the Harper Government's track record with veterans and the military isn't great; and changes that have been made, especially with regards to veteran affairs, have met opposition and condemnation from a lot of former service members. It's rather disingenuous for the government to try and make the claim that they've done a great service by veterans.

"Our Government has established the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. This world-class science and technology research facility will open in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation."

This is one of those tricky issues. A lot of people will remember the waves made when it was announced that PEARL was having its funding slashed, and that the research site currently in Canada's far north was likely to be shuttered. From finding alternative funding, PEARL was able to stay open. At the same time, the government made it clear that CHARS was going to be Canada's go-to research centre in the North.

Yet, some scientists have brought forward concerns about closing down spaced apart stations across the North and putting everything under one roof. (LINK) Furthermore, many have also commented that CHARS will not be able to replicating the kind of data PEARL did, due to the major gap in latitude difference. PEARL is situated in the 'true high arctic', where changes to the landscape due to global weather change patterns are more easily recordable. CHARS has the potential to minimize this kind of data, due to the difference in location.

"The story of the North is the story of Canada. In order to tell that story for Canada’s 150th year, our Government will continue efforts to solve one of the most enduring mysteries of our past. We will work with renewed determination and an expanded team of partners to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition."

As mentioned in the first post, we have a government preaching fiscal responsibility and then announcing a completely random expenditure. There isn't a price tag attached, but one can imagine what the cost will be.

After all, this plan was already announced back in August. (LINK) The expedition is being led by Parks Canada, and includes help from the "Royal Canadian Navy, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Canadian Space Agency and the Nunavut government." Keep in mind, Parks Canada was one of the departments put on notice to cut jobs in order to help turn around the government deficit. (LINK)

I'm sure there's solace for laid off Parks Canada employees to know that funds that once provided them a job are now being used to find out the fate of an explorer that isn't even taught about in schools now a days. And before you wash off that comment, I took several extensive classes in Canadian History throughout my University career; some of which covered directly explorers who explored the Canadian landscape, and at no time did John Franklin or his lost expedition ever come up.

So, the only enduring mystery here is why if it's so important to the fabric of Canadian identity, that we aren't teaching our children about it. Or the better mystery, is why we're going to be spending what will likely turn out to be a large amount of tax dollars to do so.

As one commentator on Twitter put it; money for finding Franklin, nothing for missing Aboriginal women.

"Building a Memorial to the Victims of Communism, to remember the millions who suffered under tyranny."

This one is semantics, but it is worth talking about. If you're familiar with the work done by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, then you would know the 20th Century use of the word "communism" is a bit of a misnomer. No country, let me emphasize that, NO COUNTRY that has ever claimed to adhere to communist ideology has ever actually followed through on that.

Lenin and Stalin's view of communism was markedly different from Marx's view. So much so, that their foundations are often referred to as Leninism and Stalinism rather than Communism. The ideals that they helped create (cults of personality around leadership, use of secret police, elimination of political rivals, etc.) were not and are not tenants of communism as laid down by Marx.

So, calling a monument a memorial to the Victims of Communism is quite misleading. More accurately, this monument would be better served by branding it as a memorial to the Victims of Authoritarianism. After all, it is controlling governments in general (not just the ideology they serve) that create victims out of their people.

Furthermore, Elizabeth May has taken flak for her tweet about a memorial to victims of Capitalism. I posted a similar tweet on the day of the Throne Speech, and would like to expand on that.

For people who say capitalism didn't endorse mass disappearances or murder against rivals, you need to look to our past and outside our borders. Early industrialization was not pleasant for the workers. You had no safety equipment, children were used as workers, wages were low, and you couldn't complain under threat of being immediately replaced.

Look to the hostility against unionized labour in our past, and in the USA. It was not uncommon for police to actively and forcibly use violence against workers attempting to organize. It was also not uncommon for workers to be let go, and in some extreme cases, killed for trying to bring forward some modicum of protection at work.

Furthermore, there are still cases today of victims of capitalism. When a company decides not to invest in better safety practices, or less training for employees in potential dangerous situations, things often go wrong. The latest epidemic of train derailments in this country speak to companies often putting their bottom line ahead of proper safety regulations.

It's bad enough when this lack of expenditure harms or kills workers, but we're seeing it starting to harm average citizens. If these people are not victims, I don't know what you would call them.

And if you want to see the same kind of 'tactics' under Stalinist Russia, look to countries outside our borders. Places like Mexico, India, and countries throughout Southeast Asia. Places where union leaders have been actively murdered, or just 'disappeared', by large companies attempting to maintain the status quo and a cheap operating budget.

Capitalism has blood on its hands; as does the so-called 'Communist' regimes that have existed in our world. But this is pandering of the worst kind; and it is insane that any reasonable Canadian would accept the logic presented by the government on this issue as sound. We do need to remember the wrongs of the past, especially in cases of genocide or mass murder. But we cannot white wash our own history in the guise of a different, therefore better, ideological system.

"The Government continues to believe the status quo in the Senate of Canada is unacceptable. The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish. The Government will proceed upon receiving the advice of the Supreme Court. And, the Government will propose changes to Canada’s elections laws to uphold the integrity of our voting system. Legislation will be introduced in time for implementation prior to the next federal election."

For most people, this was the major point we all wait for. In the end, it amounted to very little of the overall speech, and contributed no concrete ideas.

While it was refreshing to hear the Governor General say that the Senate must reform or be abolished, the odds of the Harper Government moving towards abolition are practically zero. After all, they've spent too much time talking about reforming it and holding true to the classical idea of the Triple E senate. Abolishing it would be a win for the opposition, primarily the NDP, and I just can't see Harper giving the NDP that kind of talking point going into an election.

And again, we have talk of electoral reform...but no reference as to what this could mean. I doubt this will result in a strengthening of Elections Canada; due to the Harper Government's seemingly distaste of the organization, so it leaves one wondering just what they might do.

My knee jerk reaction, and worry, is that it could be tightening on requirements for voting. The Harper Government made waves over their change requiring female Muslim voters to remove facial coverings prior to voting, so I'm wondering if perhaps they won't be hammering home a greater need for identification at the voting booth.

They've already made some headway on this front in previous sessions of Parliament; but given that allegations of unregistered voters being allowed to vote at polls, I could see a tougher crackdown on that coming. It's also one of the few issues that hasn't been directly tied to any of the past Conservative campaigns, so it would allow them to look like they're doing something, while also allowing them to avoid talking about 'in-and-out' financing, robocalls, and campaign overspending.

But, I suppose time will tell on that.

In the end, this was one of the more controversial Throne Speeches in recent memory; but more so for what happened behind the scenes than for the content of the speech.

The Media has been hammering the Conservatives for sending out a fundraising appeal following the speech claiming that media members snubbed a Conservative event prior to the speech in favour of the opposition parties. In truth, the event had banned the media from the event. Many media commentators are calling this a new low in the relations between the media and the Federal Government; and I think that's a fair term for it.

There's also been the cry from the NDP that the speech contains as many as 10 policy ideas carried by the NDP in previous elections; and that had been brought forward at one point in time, only to be defeated by the Conservatives.

Then of course, there's also been the deriding of the Throne Speech as a temporary distraction from growing Conservative scandals. From deeper allegations against the Three Exiled Senators; to Dean Del Mastro, and conflict of interest allegations, the Conservatives continue to find themselves mired in ethical lapses that have dominated conversation and public opinion. The underwhelming presence of the Throne Speech has only further cemented to most observers that the move was indeed less about setting a new agenda, and more about trying to put some distance between the scandals.

In the end, the Throne Speech in and of itself is immaterial. What matters is what the government brings forward from the speech for debate in the Commons, and how they attempt to implement the agenda set by it; or more importantly, whether or not they actually mean to carry through on the policies set out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thoughts on the Throne Speech: Part One

Source: National Post: Throne Speech 2013: The Full Text

Well, that was an ordeal.

In one of the longer Throne Speeches in recent memory, Governor General David Johnston laid out the blueprint for Stephen Harper's government over the next session of Parliament. Considering that Harper prorogued Parliament in order to hit this reset button, the result was decisively underwhelming. 

In addition to some creative historical revisionism (as has always been the case with the Harper Government), a touch of war-mongering chest thumping, and a sprinkling of wide-defined issues with ill-defined solutions, the Throne Speech was not the reset that the government was looking for. Using the source above, we'll talk about some of the things the Governor General talked about. We'll also touch a bit on some of the historical revisionism and general cheerleading that over looks facts and reality.

"By taking decisive action Canada has stayed strong where others have faltered." 

Well, there's a few things wrong with this one. As we've talked about before, the Conservatives were denying a coming financial crisis all the way through the 2008 Election campaign. Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper both denied a coming economic crisis; then when the crisis hit the US, they denied the possibility of the crisis extending to Canada. When it did, Harper dismissed it as a great time to invest in the stock market. 

The Economic Action Plan, which has been carried so proudly by this government, was born from the opposition ranks. Without the opposition threatening to topple Harper's minority government unless stimulus spending was coupled with his proposed tax cuts to corporations, Harper gave in. And while the program has left a lot to be desired, it was far from decisive. 

"And it will go further. Our Government will enshrine in law its successful and prudent approach. Our Government will introduce balanced-budget legislation. It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis."

Just like the same way the government enshrined set Election Dates? Again, however, this is incredibly loosely defined. What are normal economic times? What happens to a government that fails to meet timelines in an economic crisis? 

Essentially, this is one of those laws that sounds really good. After all, no one wants to be the party who campaigns against anti-deficit legislation. However, there will always be occasions where a government will need to go into deficit. It's almost as certain as death and taxes. I think the Harper Government has proven this point, given that they campaigned as sound financial managers and enjoyed the backing of small government/small deficit economic conservatives...Yet, they managed to ring up the single largest deficit in Canadian history.

Ultimately, as well, this is a law that will be modified by whichever party is in power. If 'normal economic times' is ill-defined, the sitting government will be able to set the guidelines and decide whether or not times are normal. As such, they will be able to decide whether or not they need to try to prevent a deficit. Which is more or less how the system works now.

It sounds nice on the surface, but when you scratch away the gold paint, it's just a block of lead underneath.

"Just as our Government manages debt, so too is it tackling spending. Every day, Canadian families make tough choices about how to spend their hard-earned money. Guided by this example, our Government will continue reducing the size and cost of Government to ensure that taxpayers get value for money."

Well, there's a lot of things wrong here.

For starters, the bureaucracy has grown under the Harper Conservatives. (LINK) So, you can't really 'continue to reduce' the size of government when you've presided over it growing. On top of this, though this should come later in our discussion, the government also committed to spending money to find Franklin's lost expedition in the North. 

An event so important in Canadian history, that I was never taught about it once in a formal education setting. I'll have a few more things to say about this idea once we get to it in the rest of the Throne Speech.

"To address this job creation gap, our Government is implementing the Canada Job Grant. It will increase employment by ensuring Canadians are able to fill job vacancies."

Kind of awkward that they left out the part about the Canada Job Grant being almost universally panned by the provinces; without whom, the project is dead in the water. Come to think of it, the Governor General did mention working with the provinces numerous times throughout the speech. But Harper's track record with the provinces (especially considering his deficit reduction plan is downshifting as much debt from the federal government to the provinces) leaves a lot to be desired. If he's hoping for provincial cooperation, he seems unlikely to find enough to get any program in full swing.

"The Government will soon complete negotiations on a comprehensive economic and trade agreement with the European Union. This agreement has the potential to create 80,000 new Canadian jobs."

The key word here is potential. But many experts, including economist Erin Weir, suggest that the Canada-EU Trade deal has more potential to cost Canada jobs. (LINK) (LINK) As you'll note, the Global news report issue on the deal suggests as many as 150,000 jobs could vanish from the Canadian marketplace as a result of the deal.

"Our Government secured and extended the softwood lumber agreement with the United States."

Some of you may not quite remember the events of 2006, so let's remember them together. The Softwood Lumber debate between Canada, the US, and NAFTA Tribunals continued to drag on. Despite Canada continuing to receive favourable rulings in NAFTA Tribunals, the US continued to unlawfully collect tariffs and duties on Canadian Softwood Lumber imported into the US.

Harper's grand deal was to allow the US to keep $1 BILLION of these illegally collected tariffs. (LINK) And in 2009, Canada and the US were in international arbitration again over the softwood lumber issue that ended with Canada having to collect an addition $68.26 million from lumber producers for export costs. (LINK)

So, I guess if you call just throwing away money that could have been spent elsewhere a success, then this was a real humdinger.

"Our Government will introduce legislation to enshrine the One-for-One Rule in law: for every new regulation added, one must be removed."

This one is a little worrying. Again, since it's bare-bones, we don't entirely know what they are suggesting. For example, would it be like your standard mail-in coupon where the regulation being removed needed to be of equal or lesser value to the one being added?

Could a new regulation saying that all small business owners must employ dogs as mascots, be used as a pretext to remove a much more serious regulation?

I guess we're asking for relativity. Again, this is one of those measures that sounds alright when you first hear it. We get the sense that we'll get new, clearer regulations to replace older, muddled ones. But if a weak regulation replaces a strong, but NEEDED, regulation then we're just asking for trouble. I'm sure there will be some expansion on this idea, but unless it is coupled with the need for the new regulation to directly address the regulation being removed, this is just another smoke screen.

"Canadians work hard for their money. And we know families are better placed to make spending decisions than governments. That is why our Government has lowered taxes, year after year—for families, for businesses, for each and every Canadian."

Again, we can look at Harper's tax record to see a lot of flaws here. As pointed out by Ralph Goodale, Harper's actions in other areas have caused price increases and tax increases in areas that Canadians may not be aware of. (LINK) Add to that that Harper's decision to slash the GST, while politically popular, contributed directly to the deficit problem that he finds our government in today.

"Canadian families work hard to make ends meet, and every dollar counts. While companies will look out for their bottom line, our Government is looking out for everyday Canadians."

This is the big one. Part of Harper's reason for proroguing was to bring forward consumer protection in the next session of Parliament. Sadly, this entire section seems mostly glossed over. Other than ripping apart TV bundles there is not much concrete here. There is talk of decreasing roaming, but no clear proposal or idea on how to do this or get the big three wireless providers to agree.

"But for the worst of all criminals, even this is not enough. Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. For them, our Government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life."

This one was a surprise, though I'm sure the right-wing base are whooping in celebration over it. This is one of the best examples of cognitive dissonance in this speech. Johnston talked about reigning in government spending, for example, but the cost of housing a prisoner for a true to word life sentence is a staggering number.

According to the Toronto Star the cost of housing an inmate in Canada's prison system for a year was $113,974. (LINK) So, let's say a 26 year old is arrested and sentence to a full life sentence. Canada's life expectancy is 80 years old. As such, our corrections facility would be housing this single individual for a minimum of 54 years. That totals $6,154,596 to incarcerate a single inmate; presuming they have the common decency to not live longer than the average life expectancy and costs don't increase (in other words, likely much more than that.)

And since Harper came to power in 2006, prison costs rose by 86%. (LINK) Which, if anything, proves that the current cost of $113,974 is only going to get higher. Effectively, this is a very costly proposal. We'll talk about prison and what it is meant to accomplish in another post, likely after this one, so for now I'll wrap up our prison talk on this.

These numbers are staggering. You can't talk about being financially prudence while also staring down the barrel of increasing costs of housing a single prisoner for life by as much as SIX MILLION dollars.

"Close loopholes that allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment."

A swipe at InSite, no doubt. The Harper Government has always been at odds with the safe injection site, and it seems like they're getting ready to make another run at shutting the place down. It also makes me wonder, in conjunction with a renewed call to battle prescription drug abuse, if the Conservatives aren't getting ready to fight the next election on a heavy anti-drug platform. After all, with Trudeau in favour, and the NDP historically inclined to study legalization, it seems like the Conservatives are entrenching as hard as they can in the anti-column.

That seems as good a place as any to take a break. A long speech requires a long post, and we will split up the remaining parts of the Throne Speech into another post. (Unless I decide to go the Peter Jackson route and decide the second part is still too large and we'll need a third.)

So, we'll talk military, arctic sovereignty, 'Canadian values', and Confederation celebration in the next post.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Taxing Through Taxes

Despite not hailing from Nova Scotia, I suppose its time that we sat down and talked about what happened in the province. Though, this post will only touch on the topic; rather, we're going to focus on something a bit grander that comes out of that discussion.

Now, as a non-resident, I can only form opinion and sift some aspect of truth from what resources I have at hand. There have been numerous explanations as to what happened in Nova Scotia that led to a collapse of the NDP, and a rejection of the party at the polls in an incredible exodus. There's also been quite a debate over whether or not this was a good thing...

After all, Chris Brisbane has said that the Dexter NDP has been less than progressive and their defeat at the polls would be a victory for progressively minded voters. (LINK) Numerous other commentators have pointed out that Dexter's government failed to control electricity rates throughout the province, angering a large segment of the electorate. There is also lamentation over Dexter's buddy-buddy relationship with corporate interests, or corporate welfare if you prefer, and his approach to massive forgivable loans to large corporations. There's also an argument over Dexter's campaign to not raise taxes, only to do just that.

It's the question of taxes that I actually want to focus on, though not quite in the way you might think.

In the last few decades, a mantra of government success is pointing to lower taxes. It is a good thing to be able to tell the electorate that you are taking less of their money; and it is a rallying cry for most right of centre political parties. In fact, they have so much claimed this issue, that almost every second sentence out of their mouth is about the other parties being proponents of higher taxes.

For example, take the recent announcement that the federal NDP would roll back Corporate Tax Cuts undertaken by the Harper Government back to pre-2006 levels; or put simply, raise them back to 22%.

Unsurprisingly, then idea was immediately attacked and criticized by both the Conservatives and Liberals. It also highlights a problem in the political world: The ability to have a conversation about issues.

I've talked before on the blog about how it seems we've been fighting the same political battles for the last five decades; and the battle around taxes is one of those battles. Right of centre parties will always say that tax rates are too high, and that they must be slashed. Centrist parties will prefer a middle of the road approach, raising here and slashing there, while trying to balance in such a way to ensure they don't offend their base.

Leftists, of course, focus on ensuring that corporations are paying their fair share. This is where I point to Cameco being accused of avoiding $300 million dollars in taxes through use of a subsidiary company; if only because it helps highlight that corporations have, and will, find the way to ensure they pay the least amount of tax possible.

It's also a good case to remind people who are sitting here and paying their fair share of taxes that those closer to the top are not.

In an episode of the now off the airwaves television series "House", the lead cranky doctor questions whether you would rather have a doctor who holds your hand when you're dying, or who ignores you while you get better. And sadly, this is a damned good parallel to politics.

When it comes to taxes, and numerous other issues, there is a deafening cone of silence. This is because of style-over-substance politics. It's politically damaging to stand up and state an opinion on a contentious issue.

It's a question of whether you would rather have a politician tell you hard truths, or feed you from a bottle and tell you everything is alright while the house is on fire.

Perhaps its the eternal optimist in people, but the general consensus is we don't want to hear hard truths. We don't want to hear how bad things are going to be; we want to keep our heads down, our money in our wallets, and just get on with our lives.

But that isn't the way the world works.

Look back to 2008 for the best example of this. With the housing bubble bursting in the US and the subprime mortgage crisis starting to have international repercussions; the Harper Government was proclaiming that there was no recession on the horizon. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rejected the idea that an economic downturn was coming; as did the Prime Minister. In fact, Stephen Harper went so far as to state that "now was a good time to invest in the stock market." at the first sign of a real economic dip on the horizon.  

Of course, it was an election year.

And while the Liberals and the NDP were sounding alarms about the economic recession and what it might mean for Canada; Harper and company were snake-oils salesmen selling the notion that the economy was fine and no icebergs lurked on the horizon for the HMCS Canada.

In hindsight, we all know what a bad buy that turned out to be.

The fact of the matter is, and the point I'm trying to get across, is that we must have these hard discussions in politics. Taxes should not be a verboten topic that cannot be discussed under penalty of political suicide.

Any government that tells you taxes will never rise, is outright lying to you. Ralph Goodale, for example, points out the ways in which the Harper Government have raised taxes on the average citizen through 'stealth' measures while touting an economic record that claims they haven't raised taxes for the average citizen. (LINK)

But sure, they cut the GST...which in turn directly contributed to the massive deficit this government has been running, which in turn is leading to massive austerity movements in the civil service and government programs that will undoubtedly have wide-ranging and long lasting consequences on government services for decades to come.

But, hey, at least they cut the GST!

Hard truths are part of life, and that is especially true in politics. But they are necessary if we ever want to stop fighting the same political, and ideological, battles over and over and over until the end of time.

It is better to have a politician telling hard truths and admitting that things are going to be rough for awhile, regardless of who you elect, than a politician who is trying desperately to convince us that nothing is wrong and then does nothing once elected to keep up the facade.

Take climate change, if you want to stray from the tax discussion.

Canada's record on climate change is going from bad to worse with Harper and team at the helm; if only because their party still seems to reject the idea of climate change as a concept, despite the recent IPCC report stating that human beings are indeed driving climate change. (LINK) The Harper Governments' response? A $24 million dollar ad buy promoting the Alberta Tar Sands and their development. (LINK)

Which brings me back to Nova Scotia.

The world is unpredictable, this is especially true of governance. A pledge to not raise taxes during an election might get you votes, but if you suddenly are staring down the face of a massive government shortfall you have to consider your options.

Granted, I'm a preferred redundancy man myself; in that, I would prefer a government look at their spending and find ways to first find savings rather than jump first to raising taxes. I think it's an approach we all can agree on; we don't want to put more money into the coffers, if the managers can find a more efficient way of spending money they already collect.

But, there will be situations where the end result is a tax increase. And we need to discuss the nature of this, and understand, that there are times when there is no choice but to raise taxes; even if it goes against what the party in power campaigned for.

Would Dexter's NDP government had been better served by acknowledging this? I can't say for sure, if only because there's a case to be made of them not being elected in the first place if they campaigned under possibly needing to raise taxes. Time will tell in Nova Scotia with how the Liberals respond to electrical rates in the province; after all, they campaigned under bringing those costs under control.

Not being from Nova Scotia, I can't say whether or not that is an achievable objective or whether higher utility rates are just another one of those hard truths we need to be able to talk about.

Politicians need to drive the change here, but electors have an important role to play. If a politician is willing to stand up and talk to us on an adult level, and acknowledges hard truths and doesn't pander to us, then we need to be willing to elect such an individual. Electors create their political system just as much as the politicians who represent it.

If we vote blindly, or from emotion rather than reason, then we are implicitly telling politicians that that is how you get elected.

Don't tell us truths, don't treat us like adults, don't raise civility in political discourse, and above all else have us turn our against one another because more for someone else means less for me. This is the political mandate and legacy that we've created over the last fifty years; but we can change it.

We can elect politicians who tell us hard truths, who talk about uniting rather than dividing, and who work with other parties instead of treating them all as adversaries. Politics is not a zero-sum game; when we help someone else, we all benefit. More for someone else does not equal less for me, it equals a better society for us all.

But first, we have to be willing to change the channel on political discourse and demand better. And that starts by acknowledging hard truths, and accepting that we need to talk about them. It's time to pull the wool off our eyes and take our fingers out of our ears. Are we going to like everything we have to hear? No, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we're going to absolutely hate some of the discussions we need to have.

But in the end, we'll all be better for it.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Your Source for Daily, Creative, Intepretation

Source: Vancouver Sun: Ethics Czar Looking into Parliamentary Secretary's Letter to CRTC

Another day, another Conservative caucus member rushing to the dictionary to look up the meaning of the word "Ethics".

To put it in a nutshell, Saskatchewan MP (and Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) David Anderson is being looked into by the ethics commissioner for sending a letter to the CRTC regarding Sun News' failed bid for mandatory coverage. Anderson is far from the first sitting Parliamentarian to get into trouble for sending a letter to the CRTC; as Jim Flaherty, Eve Adams, and Colin Carrie have all been rebuked by the ethics commissioner for sending letters to the CRTC in the past.

However, looking at Conservative moral failings isn't going to be the point of this post; rather, I want to examine something that Mr. Anderson mentions in his letter to the CRTC. The following is a quote from Mr. Anderson:

"Canadians deserve to be presented with a diversity of views when it comes to interpreting the news..."

I want you to re-read that sentence a few times and see if you can spot what has gotten me thinking. Have you found it?

Well, if not, never fear as I will mention it now. Something about the phrase "interpreting the news" just isn't sitting right with me. Call me naive, if you wish, but it was my understanding that the news was not interpretative. News was a report on daily events, something that happened that we can see or that reliable sources had seen.

But, we're assuming then, that news is not interpretative. Which begs the question, is news interpretative?

Well, if we take the original understanding of news as an event which as occurred that has been documented then the short answer would be no. After all, you can't really interpret an event. You can remark on an event, comment on an event, but you can't interpret it. It either happened or it didn't. There is no sort of middle of the road shade of grey.

What you can interpret, however, is cause.

For example, let's say the event was a car accident. Now, you can interpret what caused the event to happen. Was it driver error or driver fault, as in say a drunk driver. Was it a failure of safeguards, such as malfunctioning breaks on one car or traffic lights not working correctly?  If it was driver fault, which driver shoulders the most blame? If it was traffic lights, is the city at fault?

Those are all potential scenarios and comments that can be made and interpreted; but the event itself, remains the same: a car accident.

As such, I think it is safe to say that an event cannot be interpreted; which brings us to the next question, which may indeed be a more important one, should news sources be interpreting cause/reason for events?

This is a trickier question.

To keep with the accident motif, let's use the example of a plane crash as our event. Obviously, an event like that demands explanation. Potential airline travelers want to know what went wrong, and whether or not the same conditions could occur again. As such, there is a demand to know whether it was pilot error, technical malfunction, or just bad weather conditions that brought down a plane.

As such, news agencies have to explore these possibilities as a more complete picture of the event forms. In fact, some will argue (rightly, I think), that media scrutiny helps the process by keeping people informed and questioning, which in turn makes them demand answers. In this regard, news agencies must explore and interpret reason/cause for events.

However, this does not give media agencies carte blanche for interpretation, especially when we enter the political realm.

And this is where we start to come to the root of the problem with many of today's media agencies. There is a subtle difference between news and opinion, and it is a line which has been blurred for decades. One can point to the example of Walter Cronkite, who when observing the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, went on to say that the war could not be won through military victory and was effectively a stalemate.

While true, Cronkite's editorial was opinion, and perhaps this is where we start to see news merge with opinion and start on the dangerous path that it has led to today. Opinion and news are not equal to one another; and that is a fact. Though, people who often conflate opinion to news status may have some trouble with facts. When Cronkite saw the Tet Offensive, it was clear to him that the war in Vietnam could not be won through military force. Event interviews with some military brass on the ground in Vietnam ceded that fact to Cronkite. All the facts were showing that the war could not be fought to a victory, regardless of what the President and his pro-war team were saying.

So, we must ask: Was Cronkite in the right to report his opinion?

This is a truly sticky widget. After all, opinion is not fact. But when opinion is backed by fact, does it cease to become opinion and enter fact? That would depend, I would imagine, on the quality of the facts backing up the opinion; and whether those facts are truly facts or opinion masquerading as fact. However, even with facts on side, opinion ultimately is still opinion and there should be a clear distinction between the reporting of opinion and of fact; even if the two are coupled together.

As such, ultimately this is using hindsight, Cronkite was right to report his opinion but he should have made it clear that it was opinion, not news. He had the convenience of facts on his side, from reliable sources, and was doing what he thought was best to inform the American people.

Which brings us to another question: What is the primary purpose of news?

As touched on with our reference to Cronkite, news it can be argued exists primarily to inform citizens. Part of democracy is having an informed and educated electorate, so surely news must do its best to inform its citizens.

And this is where we run into the problem of opinion and interpretation again.

Let's take the recent example of the Government Shutdown in the USA.

Most mainstream news sources are putting the blame for the shutdown on the House Republicans for refusing to accept a 'clean' budget bill and their demand to defund the Affordable Health Care Act aka "Obamacare". Whereas, Fox News is firmly laying the blame on the President and his inability to compromise with House Republicans.

This is where we start to see the cracks behind the surface of news. We have one event, but two different explanations for its occurrence. Obviously, both cannot be right. The blame either rests with the House Republicans, or with the President, but it can't come from both and maintain the stories both sides are currently presenting.

How does this inform the electorate?

In short, it doesn't. Rather, it confuses, muddles, and deceives. Practically, every opposite you can think of for inform is achieved by this.

What this means, more depressingly, is that one side is actively lying to the electorate. More so, they're lying for their own goal. Whether their goal is to rally people against a certain political party, or to destroy the legacy of a political figure, or what have you, one side is presenting an interpretation of the event that benefits them over the truth.

Mark Twain once said "Never let truth stand in the way of a good story", and it would seem that many news sources are taking this idea to heart. Rather than present facts and events, they would rather report opinion.

Now, that begs this question: Is there room for opinion in news?

After all, Cronkite did it. Edward R. Murrow certainly did it, and they are considered paragons of virtue in news media. Certainly, opinion does have a role to play in news. The problem, is when editorial is presented as news.

Political pundits certainly get away with murder on this front, as they often present opinion as fact and are rarely called out on uttering complete falsehoods in the media. There is a reason why in print journalism, like newspapers, editorials are located in their own section away from the other news.

This isn't just to make them easier to find for readers, but to also note that editorials are separate than news.

This blog, is separate from news. After all, it's my thoughts and opinions on events that are presented. And yes, I write things from a perspective as a left-wing person. You won't find me endorsing many, if any, right-wing ideals because I simply don't support them. Just like you won't find a right-wing person endorsing left-wing ideals.

That's the point. Every human being on this planet, regardless of whether they're willing to admit it or not, has their own bias. That means when someone tells you something, they're telling you it from their perspective and their experience.

The same is true for news. Whether it's the bias of the newscaster, the newsroom staff, the news executives, or what have you; there is a certain bias behind the reporting of the event. Let's go back to the Government Shutdown.

Left-wing biases will tell you it's the Republicans fault. Right-wing biases will blame Obama. You'll also notice, that I've intentionally avoided saying which side is right and wrong in this debate. Obviously, due to my own biases,  I think you know which side I think is in the wrong. But that isn't the point here.

Rather, the point is the remind us all that news and opinion contain biases. Very rarely will you find an unbiased news coverage. Let's go back to the example of the car accident.

A newscaster who has issue with his or her city council might play up an angle that malfunctioning traffic lights contributed to the accident, provided one or two 'eyewitnesses' can make the claim. Whereas a newscaster with no issue with city management, may completely ignore the spotty witnesses and focus more on driver error.

Again, one event, but two different causes/reasons/interpretations.

Ultimately, you can't eliminate bias from news. It is possible to decrease bias to a minimum; but that leads to fractured reporting and single source information sources. (Look at Fox News; not many Fox News viewers get their news from other sources, or even multiple sources. They rely completely on Fox.)

And that might be more dangerous in the long run; to create a divide in your citizens where both sides are completely indoctrinated by a single media source and a single bias. Which is why it is important for citizens to seek out multiple news sources; when you understand that news has a bias, you can start to interpret truth by reading what is being reported about the same event from other sources. Compare them; see what one side reports and what one side doesn't. Not only will it give you a better understanding of the event, it will likely allow you to glimpse some real truth beyond just what is being reported.

If anything, it will at least give you a better understanding of spotting and comprehending biases.

So, let's sum up what we've learned.

News exists to inform the citizens, which is a vital role in the health of a democracy. News is a reporting of events, which cannot be interpreted; however, the cause/reason for an event can be interpretative but interpretation should be coupled with fact. Opinion is not news and should not be reported as news, even when facts prove that opinion correct. Opinion must always be opinion and clearly identified as such. Ultimately, news will have a bias and will report on events from this biased perspective.

Which brings me to a simple fact that we all need to learn, and that should be taught in schools but seems to be missing from the curriculum. It's slightly modified from George Carlin, in order to be more adaptable to people not just children, but the point still stands.

It's not enough to know how to read, you have to be taught to question what you read; to question everything. Question everything you read, everything you hear, and question authority.

It's a simple enough concept, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will catch on.