Thursday, December 31, 2009

Four soldiers plus reporter dead in Afghanistan

The end of another year ... and more deaths in Afghanistan; this time four soldiers and a reporter were killed by a roadside bomb. The death of Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald is, far as I can find out, the first time a Canadian journalist has been killed in the line of duty since 1998 when Tara Singh Hayer was shot to death at his home, for courageously reporting about extremists in the Vancouver area Sikh community to which he belonged.

The price of war is a pretty steep one and as ever we need to consider the costs. It's understandable that soldiers, airmen and sailors will get caught up in the conflict but it is totally senseless when a journalist or a worker with an NGO is kidnapped or killed in cold blood. As long as we're there -- and frankly, propping up a corrupt government and a drug trade totally out of control are not reasons to stay there -- but as long as we are there, we need to do everything we can to ensure aid workers and embeds are to the maximum extent protected. War is war, but killing a civilian for no other reason than he or she is doing the job assigned should be treated as a war crime; and those responsible for killing Canadian journalists or foreign aid workers should be captured (if possible) and brought to justice -- in Canada. It might be different if there was even a semblence of a legal system in that part of the world; but where it can't be trusted to provide fair and due process then the need to have justice served where it actually exists becomes obvious.
As we head towards the 2011 deadline, here's hoping there are no more deaths either military or civilian although that may be, sadly, too much to hope for.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy holidays

Things are going to be pretty busy for me the next couple of weeks and besides which, it's the Christmas holidays anyway; so unless something big happens I'll be limiting my posts until the New Year. Enjoy the next couple of weeks the best you can.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Time Magazine's Man of the Year, 2009

I don't think I was expecting this announcement until Sunday, but Time Magazine has announced its Newsmaker of the Year (formerly the "Man of the Year") for 2009. It's none other than Ben Bernanke, the Chair of the US Federal Reserve; and by coincidence the announcement was made the same day that the Fed announced it's holding the line on interest rates banks charge each other (0 to ¼%).
Sorry, I just don't buy it; there are other people more worthy (such as Vaclav Klaus who held up the EU in the palm of his hands for nearly eleven months this year while stalling on signing the Lisbon Treaty until the last possible minute) -- but the criteria is the one who for better or for worse shaped the events of the last twelve months, and from the perspective of both progressives and conservatives Bernanke did so for much the worse. Joining the company of Vladimir Putin, Deng Xiaoping (twice), Ayatollah Khomeni, Joseph Stalin and Wallis Simpson as other villians deemed worthy of the prize must be a real honour.

The other four finalists, according to the once venerable magazine, are Gen. Stanley McChrystal, "the Chinese Worker," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and athlete Usain Bolt. Of the five, I would have picked Bolt, quite frankly. Bet the editors are happy Tiger Woods didn't make their short list!

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RIP Oral Roberts

There's no question that Oral Roberts had a spontaneous remission from tuberculosis after an encounter with a travelling preacher -- it was confirmed medically -- but what followed in the next 74 years would prove to be the business of one of the most controversial figures of the last century. Roberts died today at the age of 91.

To be clear, I am very reluctant to call his remission, or any of the so-called "healings" at his crusades "miracles" because I don't believe God works like that. Too, Roberts was wrong on so many points of doctrine, and set a standard for extravagence that would be exceeded decades later by Benny Hinn; but he exploited television in its golden age and set the standard for other flamboyant televangelists to follow and for that he should be given a lot of credit. Famously, he was sought ought for religious counsel over Billy Graham -- by no less than the Catholic JFK.
May he rest in peace ... although I don't think a lot of people will forgive him for his 8 million or he dies stunt in 1987 or his continued adherence to the Word of Faith even after one of his students at his university exposed it for being not only unbiblical but also largely lifted from previously published works -- in particular his claim that "God" gave him the name "City of Faith" for his expensive and quickly defunct hospital.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Intensity, inshmensity

After all this talk about Canadian sovereignty, standing up for Canada -- we're just going to be following the US policy of cutting "intensity" of pollution by a wimpy 10% instead of real pollution cuts overall? The forests of Alberta (a carbon sink cutting pollution) are being destroyed arrogantly while emissions from the tar sands will increase 165% by 2020 as the area mined grows to an area larger than Nova Scotia. Unacceptable. It's even worse than the intensity cut suggested a couple of years ago. We need a real environment policy, one that defines Canada as its own country. No wonder why we're a joke at Copenhagen this week.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

This is a story?

Why this should even be news is beyond me, but Houston has elected an openly lesbian woman to be its new mayor despite a massive mail and phone bot campaign led by the religious right (mostly from outside the state, of course). Maybe because it's Texas (a state that explicitly bans gay marriage), but this is certainly a positive step forward for a city that just a few years ago rejected by referendum giving spousal benefits to gay partners. Hopefully that latter ban would be the first thing to go under the new mayor, Annise Parker (currently the city controller) -- couples living common law should get those benefits regardless of gender.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's behind the blacked-out lines?

What is it that the Conservatives are trying to hide? What exactly constitutes national security anyway -- legitimate reasons to hold back information, or information that could embarrass the ruling minority government? Is is their lives, not the soldiers, that they are trying to protect?

I can only think of two examples where there were heavily redacted scripts that raised more questions than answers. The first was during the Watergate crisis, when Nixon initially refused to release tapes but offered up transcripts of the conversations. Of course, what was hidden was the evidence that was incriminating -- including the so-called Smoking Gun when the Supreme Court finally forced Nixon's hand.
The second was the 9/11 Commission report in 2004 which, while exposing a lot of the security faults that led to the tragedy (and whose recommendations were finally implemented when the Democrats took over Congress two years later), there's still the question of a 28 page chapter that was blacked out. Those familiar with its contents indicate that the government of Saudi Arabia had a direct hand in, or knowledge of, the attacks -- and names names, up to the highest levels of the al-Saud family. Of course, the State Department doesn't want us to know that because KSA is a "trusted" ally of the US. Not quite a "major non-NATO ally" like Australia, Argentina, and bizarrely Egypt and Pakistan -- but a "strategic partner."
Now if someone can explain to me why countries which regularly violate human rights should be in the same class as those which prosecute such violations quite strictly then there's something going on that I don't. However, the friendship between the Bush and Saud families is well known and we know members of the latter family were able to leave the States in the hours after the attacks even while airspace was closed to everyone else except military sweeps. Allowing people to get away with murder, even suggesting "diplomatic immunity" protects them, is no excuse. Those 28 pages should be released or leaked. It's time to name names and for those responsible to face war crimes prosecution in the Hague.
So on to Canada, and the vote on Thursday to order the government to release the briefing notes to the special Afghanistan committee, uncensored. Harper and Co. say that they are not bound to obey it. Actually, they are -- and to refuse to do so is contempt of Parliament. If one is given a sub poena to testify before a committee or to the bar of the House or the Senate and address the chamber as "committee of the whole" then it must be obeyed; every citizen understands that. Except the Conservatives. Do we really want a showdown between Parliament and the government in the courts? Usually, it's the government that enforces the will of the elected representatives. Are we next headed to "signing statements" where one signs a law but states his or her intent not to enforce it?
If security considerations are so important, why can there not be a compromise -- that the committee members take an oath of secrecy so they can review the documents while ensuring that they are not released to the public? Otherwise, the only option would be for a truly brave apparatchik at the Defence Department to post the docs to a document leak site; then there would be no secrets to keep.
Of course, like with most things about the Cons these days, I'm not holding my breath. Inconvenient truths need to be revealed in some fashion. Otherwise, it's Canada's credibility at stake.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Hannukah 2009

To paraphrase Adam Sandler, while we Christians get one day for presents, our Jewish brothers and sisters get "eight crazy nights"! Seriously, the events that happened 165 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and the miracle of the oil should be a reminder to all of us that God will never abandon us if we remain faithful to the Creator.

Happy Hannukah to my Jewish friends, colleagues and readers.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Indian move inspiration for Canada?

People in Northern Ontario, Cape Breton Island and Upstate New York have been agitating for their own autonomous regions for years. It looks like they may have gotten some inspiration: India, after years of protests, has agreed to carve out several districts from the north and northwest of Andhra Pradesh and create a new state called Telangana. The reason for the agitation: Complaints that the state government has ignored them.

How familiar this must sound. Northwest and Northeast Ontario: Their timber, gold and diamond resources are exploited by the south and most of the north is still covered by substandard two lane highways (most places in other countries and at similar latitudes have full dual carriageways). Cape Breton Island: They've complained that the mainland part of Nova Scotia has taken advantage of them for years, "Down with the Causeway!" is a familiar refrain. And, yes, Upstate New York: Similar issues to north Ontario -- except that they're more conservative as opposed to their mostly socialist cousins, plus there's that nagging issue that tax dollars and toll revenues are diverted to subways in New York City while the rest of the state suffers, not to mention that the NYS legislature is arguably the least efficient and most corrupt state body in the country with the possible exception of the legislature in Louisiana. (Imagine a constitution 120 pages long -- that's even longer than India's for heaven's sake!)
We tend to be a much more peaceable bunch in Canada and secession of this type is extremely rare -- New Brunswick separated from Nova Scotia in 1784, the Yukon from the NWT in 1898 and Nunavut was created ten years ago, also severed from the NWT. But hey -- if the areas north and west of Algonquin want to leave and form their own province, go ahead. They just might do a better job managing the resources than we do. Just don't come crawling back if you screw it up.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

About face by Canada's top brass on torture claims

Today's surprising (although not entirely) admission by Canada's top military person, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, that some of those captured were indeed likely tortured casts a pall on Canada's reputation as a force for good in the world. It's irrelevant that some were so-called "unlawful combatants" or that they may have been caught in the act of committing crimes. If Canadians had even the slightest suspicion that prisoners of war might be tortured after being turned over to Afghan authorities but did so anyway, that in itself is a war crime -- just as refusing to provide the names of captured detainees to the Red Cross is also a war crime.

I really have no compassion for or tolerance of terrorists and their supporters -- either military or financial. The same principle applies whether it's al Qaeda or the IRA.
But we Canadians have incorporated, by law, the Geneva Conventions and their protocols into the body of Canadian law and therefore we are bound by the rules. We just can't pick and choose what rules we will follow. If we have no intention of following the rules, then the Conservatives should actually stand up in Parliament and say that Canada is withdrawing from the Conventions -- and have a vote on it to remove our obligations from the law books.
I have joined at least one online petition calling for a public inquiry -- but I say again that we need a special prosecutor, independent of any level of government and who can investigate this matter with an open eye. As far as the Parliamentary hearings go, if ministers have not testified under oath they should be forced to do so. Canadians need answers and we need them now -- otherwise, everything we have fought for the last eight years has been for nothing. In no way should this and previous comments on this issue be construed as an attack on the military; rather it is one on the government. It's a tired question, but it bears repeating: What did they know (both the Conservatives AND the Liberals before them) and when did they know it?

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Black's "final" day in court

The law is a very convenient tool for those who make the laws, or shape opinion towards making it; and if courts nullify the laws then it is claimed that the judicial branch is usurping legislative power. Yet when the chips are down, the very same people want the laws they helped to write or promote to be tossed out by the courts saying the legislature has failed them. Or the courts become a refuge for bad behaviour, period. In brief -- the courts are the bad guy until the politicians or the media become the crooks.

Take today's hearing at the US Supreme Court regarding the "noble" Conrad Black, convicted some time back of abuse of power at the Hollinger Corporation -- specifically, that he and two other executives took $6.1 million in unearned bonuses and pocketed the money for themselves -- and sentenced to 6½ years in a federal prison cell. Nearly two years to the day he was sentenced, Black is challenging his conviction citing a 1988 law that makes it illegal for corporate officials "to commit fraud by depriving those they work for of 'the intangible right to honest services.'"
The claim? That the law is "void for vagueness." That is to say, the wording is so broad that it could be applied to any circumstance, therefore the law is unenforceable since it is not directed to a specific purpose and thus deprives a suspect of due process. Now, I've heard of the "void for vagueness" principle used to challenge anti-abortion laws and flag desecration statutues, but not to my knowledge has it been used for a white collar crime.
Both the conservative and liberal wings of SCOTUS appeared, at least on oral argument today, to be surprisingly empathetic to Black's claims. A decision will probably be delayed until it can hear a similar appeal from Jeffrey Skilling, one of the kingpins at ENRON. If this harebrained idea actually holds up, there are two possibilities -- at best, Black could get an outright acquittal; at worst, the case could be remanded back to Chicago where Judge Amy St. Eve would be forced to re sentence Black to a lesser term, possibly time served.
Two areas of concern bother me about that: First, there is no question that over $6 million disappeared. If it wasn't Black and his co-defendants, then who? And let's presume he is telling the truth and that he is actually innocent -- that doesn't change the fact he is one of the most hated men in Canada. Many haven't forgiven Black for what he did to Massey-Ferguson or Dominion Supermarkets, let alone how he changed the newspaper business (pretty much for the worse even by conservative standards).
Second, many people on both sides of the border still remember that incident where files were "borrowed" from Black's Toronto offices over a weekend, caught on camera. Were they photocopied? Shredded? Or simply made to disappear? We simply don't know -- and it seems securities regulators in Canada were quite content to let the SEC in the States do the dirty work for them in pursuing the case.
Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, there is one thing that is beyond question: Canada needs a national securities regulator, one with teeth and real law enforcement capabilities. Under the current situation, one can just take the alligator and run to another province and force investigators to start all over again -- not to mention our American neighbours need not one liaison here but thirteen (and there are thirteen of our people down there instead of just one).
Oh, yeah -- Black also wants his Canadian citizenship back. Sorry, Baron -- you picked your country and it's the United Kingdom. The US should deport him there; hopefully very quickly, with wifey Barbara Amiel in tow. Not that they should complain -- as UK citizens, they should take advantage of the right of abode in any other state in the EU they hate so much, while they can. Frankly, I don't think even the British and Northern Irish want them back.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Blame the air traffic controllers?

Rather than bitch about the Copenhagen meetings on climate change -- we all pretty know how much nothing's going to come out of that thanks to Harper and other skeptics like him determined to scuttle any meaningful treaty -- I wanted to make note of another example of the pot calling the kettle black. In this case, it's about the Northwest pilots flying from San Diego to Minneapolis who overshot their destination because they were distracted by their laptop computers. Quite rightly, the FAA stripped them of their licenses. Then they claimed they were discussing new flight rules implemented by the company and they simply lost track of the time.

But now it seems the pilots, Cheney (no relation, far as I know) and Cole, are blaming the air traffic controllers and the airline. In statements filed on November 24th and released to the media today the airmen say that air traffic rules were violated by ground crew and personnel from the airline, and if they had been followed the mistake wouldn't have been made.
Yeah, right!
Maybe it's me, but if someone's trying to contact you repeatedly by radio and by the onboard computer that relays real time urgent messages and you don't respond to them, then there's one of two possibilities. Either you're so distracted you're not doing the job you're supposed to; or you're a terrorist who has no intention of responding because you have a "God-given" mission to "kill the infidels."
It's amazing the plane landed safely at all -- a few minutes more and it would have been necessary to scramble US and Canadian fighter jets to escort it to safety, and if necessary possibly have shot it down. Remember, when the pilots finally did contact the controllers the pilots were ordered to conduct a series of evasive manouvers first to prove it wasn't a hijacking. In this day and age, we need our pilots to absolutely pay attention. We need more pilots like Sullenberger and Skiles than Cheney and Cole, with all due respect. As for laptops, PDAs and the like, they may be necessary in the cockpit but there should be technology to ensure that while in flight the computers are locked so that they only process relevant flight information and nothing else.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

In memoriam: Montréal Massacre

Twenty years ago today, a mad but equally rational man named Marc Lépine (born Gamil Gharbi) wrote a suicide note blaming all his problems on "feminists," signed it Alea iacta est (The die is cast), walked into the engineering building at the University of Montréal and systematically murdered fourteen women (twelve of whom were studying engineering, one studying nursing and the last who was a university employee) and injured ten more women and four men before killing himself.
The names of those who died:
Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique's finance department
Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student
Today, as a man, I remember this despicable act of terrorism and the disgrace it brought upon all men, and again commit that I will not stand for any act of violence against women. This includes continuing to fight for compulsory gun registration.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Automated -- prescription drug machines?

Filed under the "Why didn't I think about that?" department comes the story that after very successful pilot projects at Sunnybrook in Toronto and Cambridge Memorial (and now that they've been given official legal approval), an Oakville based company is getting ready to roll out the next new wave in self-serve machines. First came automated tellers, then the automated DMV / hunting / fishing license machines, and then self-service checkouts at supermarkets and department stores. Now will come a self-service machine that dispenses up to 2000 of the most popular prescription drugs.
The company insists that for security reasons some of the more dangerous drugs, i.e. those with street value, such as Oxycontin ™, will not be available through the machines -- you'll still have to go to a regular drug store for that. Also, having electronic drug records (which we're still way behind on, to our shame) is essential to ensure no negative drug interactions. Still, the ability to feed in one's prescription and have it ready in two to five minutes is, I think, a brilliant concept, especially since you'll still be able to consult with a real pharmacist via videoconference.
My main concerns -- First, the obvious privacy issues (even with a handset, who's to stop someone from eavesdropping unless it is in an enclosed space; as well as hacking). Second, more than ever this will require physicians to write prescriptions that are actually legible. On that end, the technology is there -- a doctor can and should type in a few keywords and have a computer printed Rx that is legible so there is no confusion.
Will this replace the neighbourhood drug store? No, nor should it.

But it gives us a choice. And in an era (my lifetime, actually) where we used to have six or seven chains but now we're effectively down to three or even two in some provinces (meaning higher prices), choice will drive down costs for everyone, which also saves money for the public system that pays drugs for indigents.
The big plus: This is a Canadian invention, that was done without interference from the "socialized bureaucracy that stifles innovation" the American opponents of universal coverage keep complaining about. Take that, HMOs -- or as Helen Hunt called you, Fucking Bastards.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Cons pondering GST hike???

Just one other thing for today ... the National Post, the semi-official organ of the Conservative Party, suggested Ottawa's finances are in such a big mess that the unthinkable is actually being considered -- the 5% GST may go back up "temporarily" (meaning permanently) to 7%.

The 2% cut has cost the feds about $13 billion per year. Not only was it short-sighted, as a value-added tax taxes consumption rather than income (and since we all consume on a regular basis it means a steady stream of cash for the government) it also was ill-timed -- since the GST was basically paying for Old Age Security and related supplements with plenty of cash to spare, the Cons were shooting themselves in the foot since the first cohort of the "baby boom" starts collecting in 2011 -- just thirteen months from now.
The argument would be, the boomers will have plenty of disposable income so the money will be made up somehow. How, exactly? Not all boomers worked, so they didn't pay into the CPP or RRQ; OAS and supplements will be all they have. More importantly, the strain on long term facilities will become almost unbearable in the next few years. Since seniors don't pay as much in income taxes (because of increased exemptions) someone has to pick up the remainder. And we can't keep borrowing the money -- certainly not from enemies like Mainland China, like the US has had to do.
A government shouldn't do things that are popular, they should do things that are for the common good no matter how unpopular. Mulroney and Wilson were excoriated for introducing the GST in the first place but it was smart policy. Increase consumption taxes and lower income taxes -- not the other way around. If people have more in their wallet at the end of the week, they will spend it and that will raise the revenues overall. Eventually you go back into surplus and overall debt can be paid down.

I do not believe, simply can't believe, that Team Harper would give all provinces authority to have a harmonized sales tax (as they did this week) or plowing those which opt in with "transition money" unless they're planning behind the scenes an about face about the federal sales tax and the level at which it is charged. If they approve even a half point hike, I'm not going to be smug in saying "I told you so."

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Refugees triple under "Steve"

On this Friday night, here's some rather comforting news: The Conservatives, which promised to eliminate the huge backlog of those claiming refugee status, even won votes saying there would be no tolerance for "bogus" claims, now faces a situation where the number of filers has increased in the nearly four years since they took power. In fact, it has more than tripled.

One of the reasons is that as board members have had their terms expire, the posts haven't been filled. There are now so few panelists that the average wait time to hear a claim has increased -- by 44%. Moreover, the government's response to alleged threats has been iffy to say the least, for instance earlier this demanding visas for tourists from Mexico and the Czech Republic -- neither group which has ever posed a serious security threat to our national interests and which leaves Canadians vulnerable to possible retaliatory measures. Imagine if the EU decides to require us Canadians to have a visa to travel to Europe, even for short stay vacations. Imagine what that will do to trade.
Meanwhile, the provinces are left holding the bill for social services while the applications are processed, almost never with compensation. Immigration is supposed to be a shared responsibility between Ottawa and the provinces -- has been since our federation was formed 142 years ago -- but even Québec which has the richest deal of all in this department of immigrant transition funding (for those who come in through the regular process) are saying their costs have doubled with nothing to show for it on the refugee side.
Also, by using the old canard "bogus refugee," those in power open up the door to having tolerance for racial and ethnic profiling which should have no play at all in determining the legitimacy of a "well founded fear of persection." Some other countries had a "whites first" policy for years, including Canada -- and look where that got us before we finally understood the doors should be open to all.
As the son and nephew of refugees, I say again I have no tolerance for those who would appeal to the better side of our virtues under false pretenses. But if we are to truly be a home for those who seek refuge for true reasons, then we should not be impeding the process. Competent people -- not party hacks -- should be named to the Refugee Board to eliminate the backlog, and the provinces and territories should get transition funding for refugees on the same basis as those under the regular class.

Another good step would be to eliminate visa restrictions on those remaining countries which pose no real problem in terms of trade or immigration but insisting those who want to file a refugee claim from those countries need to do so at our embassies in a safe third country, not at our borders. For those countries for which visas are necessary, a case should be made why restrictions are necessary and what steps need to be achieved to upgrade to visa-free status.

Finally, for regular immigrants, there shouldn't have to be an indeterminate waiting period; and those who have job qualifications for any position, not a pre-determined list, should not only get passage to Canada but also the ability to get their license in a reasonable period. Every country needs to update their migration policies, but all I have seen as of late is regression to the dark ages.

Even Mulroney wouldn't have let the refugee backlog get this big.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

HST: Passes, but too fast

Not to too much surprise, the House of Commons passed a Ways and Means Motion today on the HST that is worded in such a way that any province -- not just Ontario and British Columbia as the media has reported -- can now convert a provincial sales tax to a multi-stage value added tax that is harmonized with the federal GST. As many readers are aware, currently the HST operates in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland-Labrador; Québec has one de facto as well. Saskatchewan did have an HST briefly in 1991 but when Grant Devine was defeated by Roy Romanow it was promptly cancelled.

There is no question an HST makes good economic sense from the business side, but implementing one in the middle of a massive recession is rather questionable. My beef is not with the combined tax itself, but the fact the income tax cuts will nowhere near make up for the short-term hit in our pocketbooks. A one percent drop in the lowest bracket at the provincial level in Ontario is simply not good enough. It should have been two percent in the first bracket and one each at the second and third. Also, there simply hasn't been enough time to make the adjustments -- barely a year to get ready for the deadline of July 1, 2010; and only seven months with the official go-ahead. The GST was proposed a year and a half ahead and passed with only a couple weeks to spare for the 1991 deadline -- and only when Mulroney stacked the Senate with "the Queen's appointees."
At least there was advance warning an HST might happen here. Out on the West Coast, it was like a bolt from the blue, not even included in the budget; in fact I found out about it by accident while channel surfing through the time zones one night. Perhaps the thought is, with two such large provinces joining a harmonized regime, it will put pressure on the remaining provinces to do so. It will probably even encourage Alberta, which has long prided itself for having no provincial sales tax, to put one in as uncertainty over the oil patch continues and pressure is brought to become the first province to completely eliminate income taxes.
Also, the issue regarding native people not taxed is a legitimate concern. Treaty Indians not taxed should get a point of sale exemption; it's not all that clear that will continue to be the case despite Ottawa's promises.
It's not the tax itself, it's the way it's being done and the speed ... not to mention the almost complete lack of public consultation. And for that both Harper and McGuinty get thumbs down from me.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In and out in 18 months ...

... that is essentially what President Obama told the cadets at West Point tonight, when he announced a "mega-surge" of 30,000 troops to begin next month. As before, he also called upon NATO and other allies to start pulling more weight.

I noticed the strategy map they were using on CNN, and it is troubling. Countries like Germany, Lithuania, France, Sweden -- all have troops in the north of the country where there isn't as much trouble as there is in the south and along the border with Pakistan. There where the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Turkey and some others have troops -- that's where the war is the toughest and the slog the longest. One can appreciate the apprehension of sending troops into harm's way but isn't that what they were trained for? Isn't Al Qaeda a danger to lesser powers as much as to the middle and large ones?
A few thousand troops in Kandahar will certainly take the pressure off of Canada for a while as we can get out of Kandahar City and out into the back country where the Taliban is hiding out. But I have to say that 18 months to get out not just the surge but all combat troops is a very ambitious schedule. It's timed smartly, for July 2011 which is just at the edge point for a Democrat who might want to challenge Obama for the nomination in 2012.
I do agree that unlike Vietnam, the US has a lot of allies on side. But that is no match for knowledge of the land, and even with satellite mapping closing the advantage in the last few years we're going to need human intelligence and to win the trust of local tribal leaders if we have any chance of ensuring that Afghanistan is not a failed state. Not to mention the security threat if command and control of Pakistan's nukes ever fell into the wrong hands.

What is Canada being asked for? We have, what, 3000 there already. We might be able to spare a few hundred more but we're stretched to the limit. We and the States can't do it alone. It's time for those who haven't put in troops to do so, and for those who have to move them to where they're actually needed. If we have only 18 months, let's get it done right once and for all. But if Karzai doesn't move to actually clean up the corruption within the country, then the exit strategy and an immediate pull out is required.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

It's not about patriotism, it's about crimes

Questioning the patriotism of those who oppose the Conservative Party of Canada is old hat for PMS. What is new is doing so not in Parliament, where he can be questioned, but on the road thousands of kilometres away, in front of our troops -- in effect, hiding behind the trousers and skirts of our men and women in uniform.

Asking questions is not unpatriotic. It's what democracy is all about. Perhaps Harper has taken one too many tutoring sessions from the GOP's Karl Rove, who has played this game against the Democrats since 1972 when he threw mud at George McGovern, even though the latter was a hero of World War II.
Let's be clear: No one has suggested that the allegations of Richard Colvin are absolutely, 100 percent the truth. All that has been said is that they should be investigated. No one has said all troops are guilty of war crimes. Just that it may be possible that war crimes may have happened and that it should be investigated.
A special prosecutor is necessary if civilians have been implicated, because of the obvious conflict of interest (since the Minister of Public Security has oversight over the RCMP). JAG is more than capable of handling complaints about people in uniform, but it too must be seen as operating without interference from the executive.
If Haper has the guts, he should say what he really thinks in the debating chamber -- not before a captive audience who could face court martial if they openly disagree with what he is insinuating. Make no mistake, STEVE, we are proud of our troops regardless of our political affiliation -- or theirs.

At the rate things are going, next we'll hear that Diane Finley or even Laureen Teskey has been named the new prez of the Canadian Red Cross. Good bye, political neutrality.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

CTV -- the UnCanadian Television Network

They're just about to start the Grey Cup in Calgary. But if you don't have cable or satellite, you can't get the game. It's only on TSN.
The finals of the CFL should be on the main CTV network. Since it's sweeps, they figure it's better not to piss off those who'd rather watch Desperate Housewives. Or even the Sunday night NFL game (which I think will be on TSN2).
If 1 out of 5 Canadians are denied the ability to even watch the game, then it proves that CTV is not patriotic and not Canadian.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dubai World first, Tar Sands next?

Remember the huge flack created a few years ago when the sovereign wealth fund of Dubai, one of the fiefdoms of the United Arab Emirates, had the inside edge on a contract for the management of some of America's largest ports? People of all political stripes were so outraged that their country would sell out to some "Middle Eastern sheikh" that the company in question, Dubai World, backed out -- even after a charm campaign about the revival of the once sleepy city that included a story that took up 2/3 of an episode of 60 Minutes. The area was actually expanding out into the sea with palm tree shaped islands, that sail shaped eight star hotel (the Burj Dubai) and a massive shopping mall that included the biggest bowling alley in the Middle East and even an indoor ski hill with snow generated by machine all day and night.

My, how times have changed ... today, many world markets were shaken up by the news that Dubai World has asked for a six month extension on an upcoming interest payment -- a whopping $3.5 billion. Reason: Like most places during the boom, Dubai grew too big and way too fast and it's finally, like the rest of us, facing reality. Its dream of becoming the next great financial centre, after London, New York City and Hong Kong was, like the desert surrounding it, dust in the wind. And with the US markets closed today, one can only imagine the huge sell-off that will happen tomorrow during the biggest shopping day of the year -- if the company defaults, major banks in North America and Europe could be on the hook for about $40 billion in bad loans.
Hard to believe this is the same Dubai that advertised not that long ago in both the G&M and the NP for jobs working as oil technicians and accountants, for payrates in the six figures; even higher than what's being offered for some jobs in the Alberta Tar Sands. The benefit package included a six week vacation back home, fully paid by the company, each and every year in the five year contract. You can imagine how many people wanted to be the guy -- or girl -- in Dubai.
There are lessons here for us. The boom is bound to end at some point in Western Canada and off the East Coast. Not just the volatility in the price of oil but just the unrealistic cost of living is driving many away. These are tough times, but we need to find a way to diversify and make our locales a place that welcomes all kinds of business with long term growth. Otherwise, like countries overly dependent on just a minimum number of resources (and non-renewable ones at that) we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Two big decisions for Obama

President Obama may take his time making his mind up, maybe a little too much, but when he does it up it's well thought out and reasoned based on advice from a variety of sources; not just a narrow group of people who have a predetermined answer.
On two issues, he now wants to make a huge move forward. First, Obama announced he wants the US to cut its greenhouse gas levels by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050, and will make that the basis of his country's proposals for the Copenhagen meetings coming up. He'll also demand that developing countries do their part as well, something which was missing from Kyoto. It's less than the 25 to 30% most experts feel is needed to make a real impact but it is a real target, not the reduction in "intensity" that the current Canadian government feels compelled to follow.

Second, he has decided what to do about Afghanistan and will commit, in a speech at West Point next week, to increase his country's troop commitment of 68,000 by about another 30,000 in a "surge" similar to a belated strategy used by Dubya in the latter part of his administration but will also make clear that Afghanistan has to meet certain goals by specific dates and that the Western troop commitment is not an open-ended one. Many of the troops would be sent to Kandahar which will no doubt be a relief to our Canadian soldiers who are stretched to the limit.

A surge is unfortunately needed; and I have been consistent in my belief that the war in Afghanistan was the important one, and the battle in Iraq unnecessary (as it indirectly provoked a civil war) as the troops who were and are still in Iraq could have been in Afghanistan and secured the country. Imagine the difference if 200,000 US military were in Afghanistan from the very beginning. It certainly would have set an example for all the other NATO countries, the majority of which got put off all together on any kind of deployment after Bush and Blair pushed it too far on Iraq.
The sad thing is that it will also give legitimacy to a president (Hamid Karzai) who by most accepted accounts was re-elected via fraud. There are also no assurances that Pakistan will do its part which is a problem both for Afghanistan as well as India.
Much needs to be done in the region -- not just neutralizing the Taliban and other paramilitary groups as well as the al Qaeda network but also coming up with a final resolution to the issue of Kashmir. Further to the east, the long standing border dispute between India and Bangladesh, especially over the convoluted Cooch-Behar area with its dozens of enclaves, also has to be resolved as just one of the roughly 200 patches could be used as a base to start a regional terrorist war.
Obama still has a lot of international goodwill which puts him further ahead of his predecessor; but the world's patience will wear short and thin if he doesn't act fast and the troops he sends actually does something to start a chain reaction of peace in that part of the Asia-Pacific region, which is so desperately needed.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No to broadcasters' blackmail and cab-sat greed

Enough is enough.
At last we know the real reason why the TV broadcasters want higher carriage fees: They want to block access to prime time US television by forcing cable and satellite companies to black out signals if the Canadian network that has rights to the program airs the same episode within seven days. This policy, best described as domestic exclusivity, goes way beyond the current annoyance of "simultaneous substitution" or "simsub," actually a reality on both sides of the border -- in fact, domex is a form of legalized censorship. It makes the blocking of US newscasts during controversial trials because of publication bans look like small potatoes.

The networks have also confirmed they are indeed completely pulling the plug on analogue signals in many smaller communities -- like Thunder Bay, Swift Current and Prince George, just to name a few so-called "minor" markets. This could leave tens of thousands in the dark. And they want to push back the switch to DTV where it does exist to 2013, which means a delay in access to new bandwidth and with increased competition lower prices for internet and mobile devices.
What makes it all the more peculiar is that they only want to stiff us with fee for carriage if we get cable or satellite. Those who get signals over the air -- for now -- don't have to pay at all. This is quite unlike most places in Europe where everyone is required to have a license (but in return, the number of channels available in digital for free, including all networks both state and commercial, is substantially higher than in North America; even a videotext newswire service with real time weather updates is available on screen in most places, not at all here.)
To be fair, cable and satellite companies are also full of crap. They make huge profits, in fact are guaranteed profits thanks to that little known hidden fee called the "pass through portion," and we don't get all that much in return. They can definitely contribute more into the production fund without impacting on profits; but the governments federal and provincial also need to increase the production tax credits.
I could support higher carriage fees if they actually went into Canadian programming, that we Canadians actually liked and wanted to watch. But at this price? No, thank you -- and the CRTC should see the threat to black out US signals for what it is: Blackmail. If I was Judge Konrad von Finkenstein, I'd tell the networks to F-off.

When was the last time there was a nightly newscast in Kenora or in Chibougamau, after all? Once a week summary, if lucky.
One other thing: Now that digital is widely available, we need to go to a pure a la carte system where we pay for what we want on a per episode basis. This eliminates channel surfing, lowers our bills and ensures a steady stream of revenue for everyone. And we should be able to choose if we want to watch it on a Canadian or US channel, especially for the Super Bowl with all the nifty commercials we are not permitted by law to see here.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Maybe we should just fire the lot

I am truly troubled by the further revelations today about what was going on in Afghanistan regarding the transfer of detainees to the Afghan government and the lack of cooperation or notification with the Red Cross, and that it is possible that senior officials in the previous Liberal government may have known about what was going on as well as the present Conservative government. Since the other opposition leaders have security clearances, it stands to reason they have known something as well but have been (for obvious reasons) constrained from doing so until now.

At this rate there are a lot of questions to be answered. But simply brushing it aside by saying most Canadians don't care or that this is the "insider story of the week" just doesn't cut it. Canadians want answers. If the military mission was to create an environment that would have respect for human rights as most people understand the principle, then knowingly contributing to torture is a sure fine way to do that.
Someone asked me the other day, do I think people in the Liberal party ought to resign? At this point I am almost tempted to say -- maybe we need a new and clean slate from all parties. Fire all 308 MPs and 105 Senators, ban them and all their predecessors from ever running again; and start with a new freshman class. I don't know what the result would be but at least we'd get a majority, regardless of affiliation, who have absolutely no tolerance for this crap.
But as far as today's news about the lack of cooperation with the Red Cross, which is itself a war crime: We can't hide behind the old standby that "this is a matter of national security, so we can't talk about it." If we don't say this is not what Canada is about, then we're actually risking our national security and inviting a terrorist attack on our soil. Not to mention, there is no point in donating to the Red Cross if their hands are going to be tied by meddling officials, which we expect from Burma and Zimbabwe but not from Canada.

We don't need a parliamentary inquiry or a "Royal Commission." We need a special prosecutor and we need one now.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

EU: The Next Generation

After what was thought to be a potentially crisis meeting for the current rotating chair of the EU Council Presidency, Sweden's PM Frederik Reinfeldt, the 27 heads of government came very quickly to agreement on who's going to run the massive EU bureaucracy under the new Lisbon rules. The new European President is the present Prime Minister of Belgium, Herman van Rompuy; and in a bit of a shock, the Foreign Minister of the EU will be a British peer, Baroness Catherine Ashton.

It's somewhat of a relief that the PMs didn't choose Tony Blair. Although extremely fluent in French, one of the working languages at the Commission, he has a lot of personal and political baggage. Besides having little credibility left after the sexed-up Downing Street Papers, it would seem rather inappropriate to have someone running the EU who was from a country that is presently outside both the Schengen open border zone as well as the Euro. Besides which, his relationship with the Queen wasn't exactly cordial even at the best of times; imagine having to get heck from her as well as 26 other monarchs and presidents.
The big concern of the new leadership will be trying to get the eurocracy down to a more reasonable size and to put a stop to some of the boneheaded regulations that come out of Brussels and court rulings out of Strasbourg and Luxembourg City; as well as a Parliament that has to rotate between all three cities for no apparent reason other than to make the state railways and public transit companies rich in the pockets.
I don't think we're anywhere near the "United States of Europe" that many fear, but Rompuy and Ashton will have to act quickly to put their feet forward to be taken seriously. Still, for those who haven't been paying attention to Fortress Europe, there is no question this juggernaut is about to get a whole lot more influence. There's already more Euros in circulation than US dollars and it's just a matter of time before the common currency becomes the reserve currency of choice among most nations -- as it already has with Canada.

And many may not know what hit them until it's actually the EU -- not China -- that holds most of America's staggering debt. Sweden knows what it was like a few years ago when interest rates hit 500%. It'd be very interesting to see how America would react if they faced those terms, and the nuclear missiles of the UK and France were aimed not at Russia but the States.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ten percenters hit new now

By now, we're all used to the so-called "ten per center" fliers we get in the mail, thanks to the virtually unlimited double-ended franking privileges, meaning one can send and receive mail free of charge, the Governor General and all Senators and Members of Parliament have. (The privilege is also held by the Sovereign, the Clerks of the Commons and the Senate, Parliament's Librarian and his or her deputy, the ethics officers and the other "officers of Parliament" -- including the Information and Privacy Commissioners, the Auditor General and the Chief Electoral Officer.)

The Liberals and the NDP are actually no less guilty than the Conservatives -- I regularly get fliers from all three federalist parties in the mail from out of town MPs. It's more of an annoyance than anything and they usually just end up in the recycling bin without even being read. They are also increasingly partisan and in many cases, outright misleading or take quotes from "enemies" out of context.
(They are called "ten per centers" because, besides the four general mailings per year to the homes in one's own district -- although there are many more, to be certain -- MPs are permitted to sent out letters or fliers, equal to ten percent of the households in the district they represent, to homes and apartments in other districts and there appears to be no limit to how many times this can be done. For example, if you have 50,000 homes in your district, say in downtown Toronto, you can send 5,000 fliers to homes in, say, a district in rural Nova Scotia.)
Many have called to change the rules, including banning mailings outside one's home district other than for correspondence from actual letters. But after yesterday's torture bombshell, the latest fliers being sent out accusing the Liberals of anti-Semitism sets a real low for the ruling Conservative Party. In essence the pamphlet in question praises Mr. Harper for boycotting the "anti-Semitic" Durban conference while pointing out that Michael Ignatieff once accused Israel of war crimes (but neglected to mention that Ignatieff later retracted the remarks).

On the second point, a war crime is a war crime. I have always and will always support the State of Israel and its right to self-defence, but Israel gets no special exemptions from international law simply because six million Jewish people were slaughtered during World War II. Not only that, it clearly states in the Mosaic law that one is to have the same law for citizens as for foreigners; therefore it could be suggested all countries are guilty of this sin. "The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:34, NIV).
On the first point, by being absent, one actually is complicit with any lies (real or imagined) that might be stated. If Harper imagines himself to be the latter day Daniel then he should jump in the pit and face the lions in the den and call them out.
I share Scott Tribe's concern that the Cons timed the release and mailing quite deliberately, to distract attention from yesterday's damning testimony. If Harper thinks we're that stupid or forgetful, or that we have short attention spans, he may be in for a shock. When the death camps were liberated by Canada and our allies, it was by soldiers and other armed personnel of all political stripes, all persuasions and all religions. We've seen the pattern of atrocities repeated time and time again since then and the vast majority of us simply do not stand for it.

A lot of us have very, very long memories; and, for those among us who are Christian, we will not stand idly by and watch as our Jewish brothers and sisters are dragged through the muck, not the least of which is MP Irwin Cotler. We will also not stand and be silent about innocent people, including Christians, being bombed out of their homes under the principle of "collective guilt." If this is how $10 million of the Parliamentary budget (really, our money) is being spent every year, then it's time for the Board of Internal Economy (the "Board of Directors" for the House, which currently has a majority of opposition members) to put an end to the paid partisan b.s. that comes from all parties, once and for all. After all, if I sent a letter like that using the free mail to my MP or a Senator, I could be potentially charged with libel or promoting hate. But because a Parliamentarian does it (and on my and everyone else's dime), it's protected by Parliamentary privilege. That is unacceptable.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Torture, Canadian style (?)

If what former diplomat Richard Colvin told a House of Commons committee today is true, than Canada may be guilty of even worse crimes of war than many of the personnel serving in the armed forces of our allies as well as the political leaderships of all at the time the crimes took place. And to make it worse, those who were tortured after our forces turned them over to the Afghan government weren't even "high value" targets, those actually responsible for terrorist acts or in the leadership of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Ignorance of what was going on is no excuse, and telling a diplomat to tone down his or her memorandums or to just shut the hell up amounts to, in my opinion, complicity in the crimes. Not to mention the Red Cross -- the ultimate neutral arbiter -- also being told to mind its own business. Hearing the accounts on the radio tonight, I almost threw up. I didn't actually, out of courtesy for the people I was carpooling with, but I might have if I was alone.
What did Harper and MacKay know, and when did they know it? They owe Canadians an answer -- and they owe us the truth. Those responsible for such reprehensible actions should face courts martial in the case of the armed forces, or civilian trials in the case of the politicians.
I do have to ask, though, why didn't Mr. Colvin raise the questions while federal ministers were touring Afghanistan? Someone could have put a stop to this. In fact, it never should have been allowed to happen. Then again it's hard to see how our complaining would have helped much since we forsake our "honest broker" role in diplomacy quite some time ago.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Boondoggle, Caesar's ™ style

Truly unbelievable: To get the new and expanded Caesar's Palace ™ Windsor off the grid (because Windsor and area simply didn't have enough power to light up the hotel / concert / casino complex), the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation decided to build a "clean energy" co-generation plant on site. The Caesar's project was supposed to cost $40 million; it's now run up to at least $81 million but may actually be worth zero zip nada on paper because no one knows how much excess power would be created to pump back into the grid so it could pay for itself. And the worst part: It still hasn't generated a single watt of power.

Meanwhile, the designer of the power plant and the OLG are suing each other because of claims the province reneged on the deal to buy power in the case of the former, and lack of timely delivery for the latter.
You'd think with a name with the caché of Caesar's, and with several former auto plants in Windsor now idle permanently, there would be a top notch facility with plenty of power to spare. But the nearest power facilities in Lambton and Bruce are pumping out as much as they can -- to the Greater Toronto Area; meanwhile the juice from Michigan is sold out of state at top dollar.
For a Premier who promised accountability and major improvements in health and education, partly funded by the revenues from gaming facilities across the province (the casinos, slots at racetracks and the horse races themselves), we the taxpayers have gotten one hell of a snow job from Dalton McGuinty. Sure there's a recession going on and Ontario's casinos collectively lost money last year for the first time, but that's no excuse for overspending on a clean energy project with nothing to show for it.
Why couldn't they have done what they did up at Casino Rama near Orillia? They built a backup gas generation plant, which came in handy during the big blackout in 2003; in fact they were the only gaming facility in Southern Ontario that was still running. It doesn't cost that much to build a purpose-driven gas plant.
This is yet another thing Dalton McGuinty has to answer for. This is beyond embarrassing. Little wonder people would want to go to the casinos in Detroit -- and not just because one can bet on a single game there which is still illegal in Canada (a three game parlay minimum is required).
And if they can't be trusted to build an in-house plant at a casino, how can they be trusted to build a windmill farm, or a nuclear power plant, at or below the contracted or stated price? When pigs can actually fly, then I'll believe it's possible to keep a promise when it comes to power.

At this point one couldn't blame Harrah's if they decide to strip the OLG of the right to use the Caesar's name. Who would want to be associated with a bs project like this knowing there's money for nothing? That's what's supposed to happen to those who patronize the facilities, not those who built it -- in this case, us the taxpayers.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Zambian "porn" editor acquitted

Back in August, I wrote about the crazy story of a newspaper editor in Zambia who was charged with pornography because she took photos of a woman who was forced to deliver a breech birth in a parking lot after two hospitals turned her away for a lack of nurses caused by a labour dispute. The baby later died from suffocation. Many felt that the arrest was politically motivated as the editor -- Chansa Kabwela -- has been an outspoken critic in her newspaper about the incumbent and (allegedly corrupt) president of the country, Rupiah Banda; even though the photos were never published.

Today, a court in Lusaka ruled that there was nothing to suggest the photos were anywhere from being "obscene" and duly acquitted Kabwela.

For a continent largely unaccustomed to the idea of a free press, this is without doubt a huge victory -- not just for journalistic integrity, but also for the common sense idea that a woman has the right to give birth safely. How anyone could have possibly viewed photographs of child birth as being "porn" is beyond comprehension, but that kind of idiocy exists even on our shores and it needs to be challenged if women are ever going to truly be considered the equals of men not just in law but in fact.

Put it this way: If the roles were reversed and men could give birth, would a woman pursue such silly charges? I would hope not.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Military contractors get free pass when raping?

You would think by now that the message has gotten through to people: Rape is a crime, anyplace and anytime. It apparently hasn't reached the ears of some US Senators.
A few weeks ago, ex-comedian Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) put forward a bill that would prevent the US Department of Defense from signing contracts with private companies that require their employees to resolve sexual harrassment and / or assault via private binding arbitration rather than through the courts. In effect, the situation as it currently stands gives service companies -- I'll let you guess which ones -- immunity from prosecution, and the Franken amendment if it becomes law would end that immunity. The amendment passed in principle, as well as it should -- the vote was 68 to 30. But on the way there, 30 Senators, all Republicans, voted against it.

In many states, as well as in most of Canada, a restaurant or bar can be held liable if they were aware someone had too much to drink then hit the road and caused an accident under the influence. Furthermore if it was one of their employees that had one too many, they'd be fired on the spot as well as facing criminal charges. Most companies nowadays have strict sexual harrassment policies knowing full well that they could be held liable if they create a "hostile work environment" that allows such discrimination to take place.
Why should it not be any different with contractors on the battlefield? Should they not be held to the same standards as those who wear the uniform and could face a court martial if they committed similar acts?
As it turns out, President Obama's Defense Department is trying to get the amendment killed as it goes to conference for reconciliation and a final vote -- they say it would disqualify too many current and potential contractors. Tough. Taxpayer money should not be subsidizing criminal acts and those who do commit such acts should face justice, both monetary and criminal. It's that simple.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Can't terrorist groups come up with better names?

There's ETA (Basque Freedom and Homeland) ... the Tamil "Tigers" ... and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group in the Phillipines. Yes ... MILF.

Maybe that's why many people don't take the threat seriously. With a name like that ... who would?

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last dance for Dobbs at CNN

I don't think anyone saw this one coming, Lou Dobbs asked for and was released from his contract two years before it expires ... then again, Lou Dobbs was getting increasingly belligerent over the last six months. Not that he wasn't already but he may have finally worn out the patience of even the most tolerant editors at CNN.

He concluded tonight's show, his last, with "I'll be seeing you on the radio ..." à la Charles Osgood. Don't count on me tuning in.

It's almost certain he's going to settle in at Fox News any time now; proving just much of a comedy channel FNC is.

Indeed, he is the last of the original CNN anchors. Maybe they need to bring back one of the other originals -- that station is dead meat.

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Blackout in South America

Just weeks after Rio de Janiero won the 2016 Summer Olympics and as it gears up for perhaps as equally big an extragavanza, hosting the 2014 Men's World Cup of Soccer, a huge security concern has come up. Last night, a blackout plunged 60 million residents of Brazil and Paraguay into darkness for over two hours.

Why did this happen? No one seems to know for sure. Officially, sabotage is being denied at this time and the blame is instead placed on an "atmospheric event." The events have pointed critics to a huge flaw that nearly did in the Northeast of North America in the summer of 2003 -- too much interconnectivity causing a chain reaction blackout.
But if a 60 Minutes story the other night about how easy it is to hack into critical infrastructure is any indication, it may not be a good sign. It's happened before in Rio and many point a finger for those past events directly at Mainland China which, while it was unstatated, cannot tolerate any possible economic rivals and democratically elected ones at that. Or perhaps organized crime who can operate virtually anywhere on the planet.

Or it could be al Qaeda or another tech saavy terrorist group. And we know trojan horses have already been downloaded into central computers by stealth.
It doesn't make me feel all that comfortable about the security of Canada's electrical grid and our chemical and other raw materials plants. Or how easy it is to disconnect some power plants that may need to go offline in a hurry without causing damage to other plants or infrastructure at the end-user points. Not only that, if it's easy to hack into civilian systems, what leap of logic would it take to go from there to hacking into -- say, drones that can be flown by remote control, guided missles, entire cargo planes or destroyer ships.
And God forbid if a terrorist ever cracked the official nuclear launch codes.
I don't want to necessarily know what's being done -- that of course gives the hackers the heads up. Just that something is being done and intrusion attempts are caught and prosecuted.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Double Exposure Remembrance Day podcast

This is quite a surprise but a nice one ... comedians Bob Robertson and Linda Cullen ("Double Exposure") get very serious for once and have put together a 45 minute podcast in honour of Remembrance / Veterans Day, tomorrow, November 11. Their motivation: Hadnan Hajizade and Emin Abdullayev, who are in jail in Azerbaijan for a satirical video. This is very moving. You can get it off iTunes or download it directly from the humourists' website.

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Rescuers get rescued

Yesterday morning, there was a special bulletin on the radio about someone who was hunting, who got caught in an ice floe and a rescue mission was underway. It turns out the victim was indeed rescued, but then the rescue team got stranded on the way back to their own port and themselves had to be rescued.

No, I'm not making this up. This definitely isn't funny, but yet more proof positive the climate changes we're responsible for in the South are wreaking havoc way up North -- and we can expect to have more incidents like this. Thank God everyone was safe, and one can only hope beyond hope that no one dies in the future. Of course, most of the televangelists and their followers won't ever be convinced and they wouldn't be even if they could see the evidence for themselves up close.
Quite frankly, if Jesus came back today, he'd be executed by the religious right, before sundown, because they'd think he was the anti-Christ -- such is their unbelief.

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Korean naval clash -- again

After yesterday's celebrations in Berlin around the 20th anniversary of the fall of The Wall, one would have guessed the optimism would be short lived. It was. Enter today and a naval skirmish between North and South Korea -- two countries who don't even recognize the other's right to exist, to the point where broadcasts from the communist North are actually jammed in the democratic South. The world needs a regional war like a human needs a shot in the head and cooler heads need to prevail before this gets really out of hand.

But the bottom line is, just as is only one German people and the wall between them had to come down, so too is there only one Korean people and it's time for the DMZ to go and for Koreans in the North to be free. If it takes force to achieve that goal, then so be it. Much as I'd like to see Kim Jong-Il get shot, it'd be even sweeter justice to have him captured and tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity -- specifically, bringing his citizen slaves to starvation levels -- and get a life sentence.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Twenty years ago today -- the Fall of the Wall

Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. When I got home from high school that day and turned on the TV and saw all the channels covering this extraordinary event I had to pinch myself -- was this really happening. Then my parents and I saw people climbing up on the walls, the notorious Trebants literally lining up to go through Checkpoint Charlie -- and people using chisels, jackhammers, anything they had handy to literally rip the wall down and I thought ... well, there are no words to describe it. The following day, a Friday, the students at school were in a total party atmosphere -- whether our parents had come from Eastern or Western Europe, we knew then the Cold War was finally over. With Remembrance Day just a couple of days away, it made what our soldiers had fought for truly worthwhile after 44 years.
There had been a power shift in Poland earlier that year via a semi-democratic election; in Hungary the Communist Party simply declared itself out of business. The "day after" as it were the government in Bulgaria just proverbially threw in the towel and the end of dictatorship in Czechoslovakia was just around in corner.
What happened in Germany, however was inconceivable. One had to reasonably presume that, even with Erich Honecker out of office, the Soviet Union would intervene as they did in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The fear was especially real given that the Soviets still had several hundred thousand troops stationed in the East. This time, Moscow, which was under the control of Gorbachev at the time, just let things play out on their own. One supposes it was because the still active Soviet Union had problems of their own; but the realization that the Warsaw Pact was no longer to be considered a group of client states beholden to a superpower's interests was huge.
It was hard enough to know that a double-fenced No Man's Land cut through the heart of Europe, quite literally from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Even more insane was the Berlin Wall, which completely surrounded West Berlin (well inside of East Germany), a city that had vast urban and rural tracts.
The truly horrible thing, one reason why I still hate walls so much, is that it wasn't meant to keep the people of West Berlin out of East Germany as in a prison city -- instead, it was East Germany that was the prison country and West Berlin a free international city for while France, the UK and the US occupied West Berlin it couldn't actually say it was part of West Germany. In fact, it was so crazy that many in the "main" part of West Germany actually tried anything they could to get into West Berlin to evade compulsory military or alternate service. Some sources I've read suggest it cost the East about USD 1 billion per year to maintain the Berlin Wall -- when a country was still basically trapped in a post-World War II infrastructure. Today, public transit across Berlin is so generally easy it's hard to remember that as many as 12 of the 25 rapid transit lines that serve Berlin, both surface (the S-Bahn) and underground (the U-Bahn) were either totally cut off mid-point or had to run through so-called "ghost" stations -- not to mention the chaos done to the tram / streetcar lines.
Twenty years later after the fall, it's reprehensible to see people advocating for walls in the United States, such as Lou Dobbs. As pro wrestler and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura pointed out to Larry King last year, you build a wall to keep people in -- not out, citing Berlin as just one example. And America is literally being its own prison as more people want a wall to keep the "enemy" Mexicans from crossing in. It will get to a point where people want to break down the walls, and when it does it will either be peaceful as it was in Berlin or a violent bloodbath as the Christmas coup in Romania was a few weeks later. It's true a "wall of the mind" is still there and people still speak of being from "East" or "West" Berlin and reconstruction has been hugely expensive but the vast majority, I am certain, would never want to go back to the bad old days.
So many of us saw the Iron Curtain as permanent that when it just faded away, literally in one night, I think it caught the West off guard. It's been said that all NATO ever did was plan for an invasion from the East, it never had a plan for what to do if Eastern Europe ever actually did democratize.
Yes, we had always had the hope that freedom would ring from Lisbon to Tallinn. But had you told me that not only would the Iron Curtain disappear but it would become possible to travel across Europe without any border guards whatsoever, and that over time you would only need one currency as well -- not to mention that Canada would build a permanent embassy right where the death zone stood -- I would have said you were nuts. Yet within a few years after "the end" people from both East and West Germany could travel freely to the other countries in Western Europe without border checks, by 2007, border controls had been abolished in nearly all of central and eastern Europe. Even Switzerland and Liechtenstein, about two of the freest countries you can imagine, finally got with the program and also opened their borders to the rest of Europe this year. The Euro is the currency of 16 of the 27 EU member states and widely accepted in many of the others. The impulse for freedom cannot be resisted.
Freedom doesn't come by building walls. They come by breaking them down. Meanwhile, while the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States have relative prosperity and complete freedom, Russia has retrenched back into dictatorship. I think deep down people want the openness of the late 1980s back and they will wake up sooner or later. So too will the people of Mainland China, the ordinary people who know their country took the wrong path in 1989 unlike Eastern Europe which understood a future would like in freedom and not repression. Sadly it's just not happening fast enough.
Twenty years ago today was the day that changed everything. I for one am glad it did.

UPDATE (Tues 09/11/10 3:26 PM EST, 2026 GMT): Some minor corrections. Also, the party last night in Berlin, where Lech Walesa toppled the symbolic dominoes across the city, was a lot of fun. Too bad Thatcher wasn't well enough to attend -- on the other hand, she was at first opposed to reunification.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Health care in States crosses huge hurdle

It's kind of hard to believe but more than a hundred years after health care reform was first proposed by Theodore Roosevelt -- TR! -- the US House of Representatives passed a proposal for overhauling the medical system, one more ambitious than what President Obama proposed in his landmark speech to Congress barely two months ago and also even more broad than "Hillarycare" which never even came to a final vote before the Gingrich revolt in 1994. The vote last night was close; 220-215 (219 Democrats and 1 Republican for, 39 Democrats and 206 Republicans against). The GOP well as pro-life Dems did get one major concession -- they got through a provision that tightens the 1975 Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal funding of abortions) further.

The most important provisions have been the two humps that has bedeviled lawmakers for years -- first getting rid of the anti-trust exemption that ensures virtual oligopolies in 34 states (even though there are dozens of companies who would gladly want to compete as they can for federal employees and drastically drive down premiums were it not for the loophole); and second, the rule allowing denial of coverage for a pre-existing health condition and also permitting cancellation of a policy for a condition one didn't even know about when applying for a policy. No other country would tolerate either of these, even for supplemental insurance over and above the state plan.
The bill will have to be reconciled with whatever comes out of the Senate (certainly less sweeping, about $300 billion less over ten years) but approval in principle is still a major victory for Obama after months of "teabagging" (a misappropriation of a lewd sexual act) and even comparisons of universal health coverage to the Holocaust (which prompted Elie Weisel, the famous survivor of the massacre, to write a very angry response on his Twitter account this week). Not to mention using babies, live babies, as props on the House floor saying such things as "our babies don't want a government run plan." I don't recall their being asked if they want to die, though.

It still seems amazing that every industrialized democracy other than the US has figured out a way to pool the wealth when it comes to health care. As I've mentioned previously, some have had complete takeover, such as with the NHS in the UK. Even there private competition exists and all three major parties there have offered, under certain circumstances, to have the government pay to "go private" if the wait for certain procedures gets too long. This is something Canada should stop fearing and also approve, provided that the private clinics generally outside the loop only first take patients who are not entitled to our health care system at all.
Other countries strictly regulate the health care markets to ensure every can affordably access the system. Then there is Canada, which as noted before is basically Medicare for all but needs more than tinkering to ensure its survival especially with an aging population.
The battle is far from over; but the fact a vast majority of Americans support at least a broad outline of reforms similar to what Obama and most other Democrats have advocated will put pressure on the Republicans to offer something should they ever regain control of Congress -- getting rid of reforms barely a year after they were passed will create an uproar that will make the teabagging / birthers / KKK protests seem tame by comparison.
A major item that will have to be in the "reconciliation" bill would have to be portability. Firstly, across across state lines. Second, being able to continue to be able to buy into a company plan after one leaves an employer within certain time limits with the of course much lower premiums than under an individual plan (this is actually the law, an act written by two former Senators -- Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Democrat the late Edward Kennedy -- but never enforced due to the powerful health care lobby). Just these two would drive down premiums enough to get about half of the uninsured covered again; and cut down the length of the current bill by at least two-thirds (from over 2000 pages to around 600).
Admittedly, Obama should have stuck to his prior guns and demanded the right of Americans to buy into the public service plan. But at least there is a start.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

What they are expected to say

I got a call about 4:45 pm (Eastern) today from someone who said they were an organizer for Terry Anderson, the federal Conservative candidate in my district (Hamilton Mountain) for the "coming election." (Hint, hint -- looks like PMS may call one when even the media least expects it). The caller asked if they could count on my support. I said, quite matter of factly, "No ... I'm a card-carrying Liberal."
"Oh thank you ..." the caller breathlessly began -- then she realized what I said and laughed. "I'm sorry. I guess I was answering what I'm expecting to say."
"That's quite all right," I replied, "but you have a nice day."

"Thank you."
What they are expected to say? I thought politics was about dialogue. I was willing to talk about some issues on my mind but she didn't even want to hear from me. She didn't even take the chance to see if I could be persuaded to defect.

I'm surprised they even called me at all. I would have thought the Cons would have scanned for all the "progressive" blogs, taken names, and struck them off the list.
That's Team Harper for you. But I'll take the hint that an election is coming.

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Hate over hate only creates more hate

Can someone help me out here? An officer of the Army and a practicing Muslim, who's disgruntled because of prejudice against Muslims in society in general, kills his fellow soldiers so as to engender even more prejudice against Muslims by society in general?

What is wrong with this picture? There can be no justification for the actions of the major if he in fact is the shooter. Not only that, feeding on the environment of hatred is no way to improve race relations especially when your own group is the target of that hate. It only serves to marginalize the vast majority of the minority group who wants nothing but to live in peace.
The last thing we need now is a race war, but I get the impression incidents like what happened at Fort Hood, Texas yesterday is exactly what extremists on both the left and the right hope for to fan the flames.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Croatia moving one step closer to EU

Croatia's bid to join the European Union, something it has sought going all the way to the Balkan conflict nearly two decades ago, got closer to reality when it agreed with its neighbour Slovenia (an EU and Eurozone member) to send a long standing dispute over where a harbout is demarcated to binding arbitration. While it is welcome news, it does feel like a bit of déjà vu all over again. At least two former Yugoslav states, perhaps three if Serbia continues to cooperate with The Hague on the war crimes issue, will in a sense be put back together under the European umbrella.

Europe stands for the kind of freedom many progressives here admire -- individual rights and free enterprise tempered by collective responsibility and a hard line on arrangements that thwart competition. Unfortunately, some of the countries already in the EU have some very troubled pasts. With the celebrations this week of the end of Communism in most of Europe 20 years ago, one has to constantly remind oneself not just of the brutality of the Securitate in Romania but also the long simmering anger of Germans over the expulsion of their fellow men out of the Sudetenland by the former Czechoslovakia after World War II (to the point where the Czech Republic, one of the successor states, had to get promises from Germany that its citizens would not use the updated European Charter of Rights to file lawsuits for being so dispossessed as a condition for Czech accession to the Lisbon Treaty).
The Balkan conflict still weighs heavily all this time later. Very heavily. It's been going on for centuries, to be fair, but World War II and the atrocities committed then made the forty-six years that followed before the bloody breakup more like a ceasefire. Ethnic cleansing went around on all quarters. And it's going to run up against one of the pillars of Europe -- free movement of people.
Make no mistake, the right of free abode held in common by those who live in an EU or EFTA country is going to be a huge pill to swallow for both Croatia and Serbia, many of whom were only too happy to force their long time neighbours to move further down or upwind. And the attitudes don't just end in Europe. Here in Canada, where minor league soccer matches regularly break out into riots. You think NHL games are bad on the ice, you've never seen how uncivilized fans can be at soccer just because one has a name someone else doesn't like.
It's not at all a genetic thing. But I do worry somewhat if there's too much of a rush to get Croatia and Serbia into the club just as there was with Romania and Bulgaria back in 2007. Not just the ethnic conflict. The economies are relatively stable, a necessity to join of course, but there's still a lot of corruption both within and without the governments and court systems are to an extent still stuck in the communist area with judges still wont to do the government's bidding rather than independently applying the law. Guess who those judges favour in case of a civil dispute between two parties from the two ethnic groups? Hello. And organized crime is still a big problem. It's a common problem across Europe of course and one of the goals of the EU in common is to eliminate the Mafia in its various forms but Romania lost several hundred million euros in transfer payments this year as a sanction for its lack of action. I believe that any country should face similar shunning if they are also so inclined not to act.
Membership should be approved -- it's been delayed too long -- but the European Court on Human Rights needs to keep a very close eye on the situation and apply appropriate sanctions if the wont to fall into old habits bubbles back to the surface and this should be strictly enforced. However, 2010 is way too fast a timetable even if the Lisbon Treaty has now been approved. I think 2012 should be more realistic but if and only if economic tests are met (and the current economic crisis does raise red flags about the chances) a fast track into the Euro rather than a three year waiting period should be considered.

I still sense a bit of stubborness, however. Piran should have gone to arbitration years ago.

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