Monday, 31 October 2011

En francais? Harper, the Auditor General & Bilingualism

 Mike Ferguson Canada's new Auditor General
As it currently stands, Harper's appointment to fill the important post of Auditor General is unqualified for the job. This is not a slight on the man or his abilities. Like Justice Michael Moldaver - Harper's uni-lingual Supreme Court appointment - Mike Ferguson has waded into a political storm not of his making. Both are well suited to their new positions in terms of professional qualifications. Moldaver is immensely qualified student of the law. He's both an astute legal mind and avoids the appearance of being merely an ideological appointment (He was previously elevated by Liberal Jean Chretien).  Ferguson too has a wealth of experience from which to draw, first as the Auditor General of New Brunswick and, secondly, as a provincial deputy minister. Clearly he has an understanding of  the job as well as an inside knowledge of the public service and an ability to work with a ministry to get things done. Yet, as with Justice Moldaver, Ferguson can't speak a lick of French.  This, of course, runs counter to the Official Languages Act. The Auditor General is required to be able to fulfill  his job in both official languages. Both he and the government have acknowledged this (although, at first blush, it seems the government was operating oblivious to requirements). Ferguson has vowed to become proficient in French as quick as possible. 

This position is incredulous. I don't doubt the earnestness or ability of the new AG to accomplish this.  Intense and rigorous French language training can have a remarkable impact, turning nascent candidates into, if not fluent, passable speakers, able to understand and converse with some aptitude. Parliamentarians are offered these services with often spectacular results (Stephen Harper parle français? c'est fantastique!). 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Arctic MacGuffin: Canadian Sovereignty in the North

Sovereignty is a nebulous concept. It's imprecise and its meaning is highly mutable. For the early theorists of the subject, like the Jean Bodin, "Sovereignty is the absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth" (Bodin, 1). It was bound up with the state, often in the person of the king through monarchy. Over centuries that definition gave way as the authority of monarchs dissipated and sovereignty was relocated to the political body of a people. This major break came with the French Revolution in which the 'people' seized the locus of authority (at least in theory). By the 20th Century, theorists of sovereignty had moved beyond early definitions by exploring new terrain. For the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, "Sovereign is he who decided on the exception" (Schmitt, 5). Essentially whoever establishes the limits of law and decides when and where the line between normal and exceptional politics exists may be said to be sovereign. This definition again relocates the locus of sovereignty, extricating it from the people. These are themes taken up by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his reading of sovereignty (with help from Ardendt, Foucault and Schmitt) through the marginal Roman figure of homo sacer (sacred man).

These theoretical underpinnings, while interesting, tell us very little about how the idea of sovereignty has developed as a concept in Canada. In Canada it takes on a more practical form. Here sovereignty reverts in part back to its Medieval origins, although not entirely. Sovereignty is not about rulers or people, but about state power: the cold utilitarian conceptualization essentially boiled down to internal control of territory (with a monopoly on the 'legitimate' use of force) and external recognition. In essence, however, the Canadian variant takes on a distinctly Lockean character wherein use and improvement become the basis of ownership. Canada exerts sovereignty because of its mere presence, making use of the land (or ice) and conducting somewhat regular patrols. Plans to built permanent port facilities and maintain scientific research stations (perhaps the only use the Harper government has of scientists is as place holders) follow this logic of use. There is also an irony in that much of Canada's claim to sovereignty is, in fact, a piggybacking of the sovereignty of the Inuit community in the north. It is these settlements that provide perhaps the most substantial claim to territory in the north. The irony, however, is that this sovereignty is borrowed (or stolen).

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Harper's Creeping Militarism & the Rewriting of Canada

Militarization is most often associated with states in which every facet of life revolves around symbols and practices directly connected with the armed forces. The most striking examples of this are obviously totalitarian states where the military has either a direct role in the administrative apparatus of the state or is deeply connected to the regime in power. Perhaps the most prominent example is Nazi Germany where the military, and particularly the more fanatical paramilitary organizations, played a central role in organizing and uniting the people. Here indoctrination began early and was extremely intensive. From an early age children were conditioned and prepared for service to country, disciplining minds and bodies for sacrifice. The 20th century was permeated with militarized states, even after the defeat of the key militarist powers in 1945: Germany and Japan. North Korea, Argentina, Chile and Uganda, for instance, are also illustrative and diverse examples. Militarism, however, is often a pejorative attached to dictatorial and fascist regimes. It is not something closely associated with democracy. Indeed, for most, the two concepts seem antithetical, yet democracy and militarism are closely linked and have a long history.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Parliament's Charlton Heston Moment

From my cold dead hands.

Charlton Heston's infamous statement about his reluctance to part with his favourite killing implement essentially sums up the Conservative Party's view on gun control. Heston was less tactful than our present government. In the wake of the Columbine tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, Heston - then president of the NRA - insisted on holding the pro-gun organization's annual meeting in nearby Denver, a provocative move that drew the ire of survivors and the families of the deceased. Heston, the man who played Moses and once offered water to the Messiah, knew that following the tragedy calls would be made to strengthen the United States' lax gun laws. The NRA would go on the offensive, pushing hard against any restrictions, despite the overwhelming evidence of the deleterious effects guns of all sorts have in the United States. The Second Amendment - a constitutional provision as anachronistic as Heston had become -  was largely intended to ensure that the United States was prepared in case King George mounted an offensive against the fledgling and vulnerable infant American state. This was a product of a specific time and place, in which most able bodied males took part in a militia in case of emergencies. Without large standing professional armies, volunteers were required in case of foreign threats. These were also common in Britain's northern colonies. The constitutional provision has remained static while realities around it have changed. As the state grew, so too did its military and security capacities. Mutual security was no longer common but delegated, locally to police forces to maintain domestic order, and externally to the armed forces. The need for a "well regulated militia" dissipated. The 'right' to a musket in order to ward off an English tyrant had, by the 20th century, morphed into an unalienable right to be armed to the teeth, the 'regulated' portion of the text cast aside. America was no longer am exposed minor state, but a major power with extensive internal and external security mechanisms. The Second Amendment, however, remained stranded in revolutionary stasis.

Canada's experiments with gun control have been varied. The first regulatory attempts came during the Second World War, but were shortly thereafter abandoned. A gun control regime was subsequently strengthened in 1977 and 1991. It was, however, the Liberals under Jean Chretien who pushed for even greater control and a registration regime. Fresh in Parliament's collective memory was the École Polytechnique massacre four years prior, an act of violence which claimed the lives of fourteen. The murder weapon was a semi-automatic rifle. The Firearms Act, 1995 was the political response. The legislation included a host of regulative provisions designed to restrict the availability and, ultimately, use of weapons. It broadly refuted the notion that self-protection warranted gun ownership. In a move that would prove to be a divisive issue for over a decade, the legislation also mandated the registration of all long-guns in the country. This point proved to be particularly unpalatable, particularly for the Reform Party, which sought its destruction ever since. In the coming weeks, the Reform Party will finally realize its dream as the registry is dismantled and its records destroyed.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Department of Foreign & Missionary Affairs

The line between foreign and domestic policy is often blurred if it exists at all. Often the actions of states that seem to take on a purely external character are, in fact, impelled by explicitly national considerations. Refugee interdiction policies, while operating within the international realm, are designed with the domestic in mind. They preempt the arrival of refugees at the national frontier, prevent the crossing of borders and negate any potential state responsibility in the process. The propping up of foreign regimes - a popular policy of the West - has been geared to the 'national interest', preserving a global equilibrium of favourable to the maintenance of the existing international order ensuring the security of the state and the continued functioning of international economic processes. Similarly, foreign policy may be crafted with national political circumstances in mind, designed to boost the electoral success of an incumbent or play to the party base. The Harper government's staunchly pro-Israel policy is perhaps the clearest example of this and has been particularly effective as a wedge in tightly contested electoral ridings. By playing to a relatively small but politically active and vocal constituency - the Jewish diaspora - the Conservatives have been able to pry away several key GTA seats, especially in Toronto. While the approach violates Canada's traditional stance as an honest broker between Israel and Palestine, pushing away potential allies and, as it has been argued, costing Canada a seat in the UN Security Council, the policy was never good domestic politics. The Conservatives define good policy by the yardstick of electoral utility, not sound evidence or ethical considerations.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Strange Case of the 'My Tax' Multiplier

Taxes are unpopular, maligned and denigrated. Raising them is rejected as sound public policy and, thanks in part to anti-government conservatives - both small and big c - serious talk about issues of taxation, apart from cutting them, is deemed political suicide. This has been expressed in Canada by all levels of government. In Ottawa, the Harper Government forged ahead with reckless cuts to the hated GST, draining federal coffers of billions of dollars in needed revenue and helping create a 'structural' deficit before the onset of global recession. This, according to erstwhile academic and Conservative hack Ian Brodie, is a policy that works. How sad that the effectiveness of public policy is no longer measured in the tangible good it delivers to the public but is instead measured by electoral success of a party. Sadder still is how taxes have been so firmly politicized that a tax - justifiably hated in the way it came into existence and then - that is far more equitable and makes good financial sense has been rejected as a legitimate policy option. The 'Progressive' Conservatives under Tim Hudak ran on the same basic narrative: people hate taxes!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Message from the Minister of Closets & Denial

...It gets slightly less unbearable

It takes a lot of gall for a man who has been publicly closeted for his professional adult life to make grand, sweeping statements in the wake of a preventable tragedy. Obviously, I have no insight into the personal relationships of John Baird, so it’s impossible for me to say with certainty how open he is with his family and close friends. Yet the fact is, the cat is long since out of the bag. Indeed, that particular cat is long dead. The truth of the matter extends back to his time at Queen’s Park where, legend has it, if you shine a fluorescent light on it, his former office couch lights up like a dirty CSI Christmas tree. The point is, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is fooling no one. We know he’s gay. It’s no secret, yet he refuses to come out.

Certainly, yes, coming out is a personal decision, a choice one has to make alone. However, not everyone maintains the luxury of choosing their own time. Circumstance often compels individuals in to the open before their time, whether by necessity, accident, or outing. Outing is particularly prevalent as a tool in the United States, where politicians perceived as being gay often have the most virulently anti-gay voting records in Congress. Canada is fortunate to be in a less hostile environment where the outing is less vicious and often more subtle. The press here is polite and deferential, preferring the descriptor ‘bachelor’ to describe certain individuals, even those who are clearly acting as Lauren Harper’s flaming handbag gentleman escort. It is this politeness and lack of political vitriol that hasn't pushed firmly out in public.

Friday, 14 October 2011

This isn't a party! You can't be political here.

Dismissal is the ultimate facile gesture.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement prepares to move north to Canada's financial heart of Bay Street, so too do the arrogant self-satisfied out of hand dismissals of the movement follow. The media is already implicit in this, having firmly established a largely inaccurate narrative. They report this collective as a disparate and desperate group without a game plan or a firm set of established goals. Even the choice of moniker -- "protesters" -- is an attempt to delegitimize the movement by evoking images of violence and destruction. The language of protest is stigmatizing and inaccurate and presupposes the movements demise. This is a grossly misleading caricature. Yes, the movement is diverse, but this becomes an issue solely because of the existing character of politics in America which is so homogeneous: elite and upper class. Yes, the movement has a diverse range of concerns, ranging from climate change to jobs. Despite this, however, the basic underlying premise is clear: they're mad, they're tired of being marginalized and ignore, and they want a more equitable deal. They are not demanding the implementation of a blissful socialist workers utopia. They are not asking for a free hand out. Rather, they are demanding opportunity and fairness, the fulfillment of what they were promised. Yet this message is so cavalierly dismissed precisely because it is not expressed through the 'legitimate' channels of public policy making: party politics and the electoral system. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Homophobia and the Limits of Religious Expression

Religion, Rights and the Public Realm

Homophobia is perhaps the last bastion of outright hostility to and denigration of a particular group which is implicitly condoned by society at large. Yet, unlike so much bigotry that has been cast off as archaic, an appeal to religious grounds seems to suffice for an argument to defend the most vile of hate speech against the gay community. On legal grounds, however, this argument rests on an incredibly shaky foundation, but one which is firmly misunderstood by those invoking the freedom-of-religious-expression card. As the Supreme Court of Canada prepares to hear the case of William Whatcott -- a notoriously zealous self-hating homophobic prick ‘ex-gay’ cowering behind freedom of religion and speech to spread his message of intolerance -- this appeal to religion will be put to the test. Cases like these reveal the sheer moral bankruptcy of so-called ‘rights advocates’ -- let’s call them the ‘Levantists’ -- who champion the ‘right’ of individuals to say anything -- in this case, the dangerous queer-bashing equivalent of yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. How quickly rights bodies, such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, excuse away  reprehensive and dangerous speech while defending actions which put an entire community at risk. Their argument that speech should be ‘countered, not silenced’ runs in the face of the history of human rights struggles and simple logic. They take an extremely myopic view, seeing  any prohibition as an evil to be countered. Such blanket apologias are wrongheaded and dangerous; they ignore the denial of rights to those communities targeted by hate.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A Convenient Scapegoat? Blaming the Electoral System for Declining Voter Participation

The results of Ontario's 40th general election are alarming. Turnout was the lowest on record, reflecting previous downward trends in electoral participation which have accelerated over the past decade. On Twitter and other 'social media' outlets - not instruments conducive to sober and reflective thought but rather of instant opinion generation - assorted insta-pundits precisely diagnosed the problem: the electoral system itself. It is the system, they argue, that distorts electoral outcomes as a result of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system. Votes cast for candidates that do not win are ‘wasted’ and it is this waste that dissuades the electorate from casting a ballot. Identification of this as a ‘problem’ is not new, nor is the phenomena itself. Indeed, distortions within the electoral system are as old as that system itself.