Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bellemare vs. Charest: A Classic Confrontation Between Principle and Self Interest

As the week begins and the former Minister of Justice, Marc Bellemare, faces interrogation from lawyers representing no less than the Quebec government, the Quebec Liberal Party, and of Quebec Premier Jean Charest concerning his allegations of influence peddling when it comes to the nomination of judges, it appears that we are witnessing the testimony of a somewhat politically naive individual taking the Premier to task for allowing naked self interest to take precedence over the principle of the independence of the judiciary.

As this melodrama plays out, I find it quite interesting to see how the media attempts to both discredit Bellemare and to normalize the situation. After all the allegations are quite serious: caving to the desires of fundraisers to have their candidates named to the bench. Consequently, headlines read that "Bellemare is Contradicted" and "Bellemare Stumbles Upon Questioning" and unflattering appraisals of his character appear in the op-ed sections of Quebec newspapers. At the same time, political analysts assert that no real harm has occurred since the judges in question were deemed to be competent and that as Quebec Premier, Jean Charest had the prerogative to intervene.

What is not being discussed at length is the troublesome realization that if the Premier of the province allows himself to be influenced by his party's fundraisers in the sacrosanct nomination of judges that this indicates that the Charest government could be as lax or more-so in exercising its responsibility as steward of the public purse.

Case in point. In my region of the Outaouais, the Quebec Liberal Party's principle fundraiser, Guy Bisson, admitted to soliciting the support of the Liberal Minister responsible for the Outaouais and Minister for Transport, Norm MacMillan, to speak to Bellemare about having Mr. Bisson's son appointed to the bench. Mr. MacMillan also admitted publicly of having spoken to Bellemare.

Here's where it gets interesting. In his testimony, Bellemare asserts that it was Franco Favo, the Quebec Liberal Party's principle fundraiser in the Quebec City region that was applying pressure to have Mr. Bisson's son named to the judiciary. As it turns out, one of Franco Favo's companies was awarded a contract by the Department of Transport to construct a highway running through MacMillan's riding and the riding of the ex-Minister of Labour, David Whissell. Furthermore, Favo's company subcontracted the work to construct an overpass to a company in which Mr. Whissell was a principle shareholder.

Looks like every one was managing to advance his self interest very well except for one thing. The overpass that Mr. Whissel's company built was deemed to be unsafe and had to be demolished and then replaced at a cost of more than a million dollars to the taxpayer. Oops!

These events indicate that perhaps the Quebec government has slid significantly down the slippery slope of not abiding to the principles of good government and suggest that there are sufficient grounds for a public inquiry.
Regardless of whether or not the nomination of judges during the Parti Quebecois's reign had been done in a similar fashion, rewarding the party faithful, there remains the larger issue of political patronage running amok. According to Bellemare, Premier Charest and Quebec's Liberal Party have on many occasions put their self interest before that of the public good.

In these increasingly cynical times, it is refreshing to see someone who has the courage to stand up and remind all of us that elected officials have an obligation to put aside their self interest and advance the common good.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Frack On, Frack Off

When it comes to hydraulic fracturing and the Quebec government’s decision to go forward with continued exploration of shale gas even before a promised environmental review has begun, as you would expect, I fall into the frack off crowd. If you are unfamiliar with the hydraulic fracturing (often referred to as fracking), I first invite you to view the trailer for the documentary film, Gasland.

As you can see, there are a number of unresolved environmental issues surrounding the process, which raises a number of unanswered questions.

First, why is the Quebec government allowing continued exploration for shale gas with the aim of immediate exploitation already on the table? This is where the issue of the burden of proof is inversed to favor the oil and gas companies at the expense of an unsuspecting public. For example, when a pharmaceutical company brings a drug to market, it assumes the responsibility to make sure that the drug in question is safe and has to demonstrate the absence of significant risk to a government agency before the drug is allowed to be marketed. However, when it comes to environmental issues, it is up to interested individuals to demonstrate that there is significant harm. Often, it will take years before the environmental danger is recognized (e.g. DTT) and in the meantime innocent victims fall into harm’s way. The burden of proof should fall onto the producers, and they should assume the costs of marshalling the evidence. Once this is done, then and only then should commercial exploitation take place.

Second, given that this year is shaping up to be the warmest year on the planet since records have been kept and areas at the extreme ends of the hydrologic cycle are experiencing catastrophic weather-related events, (Russia, China, and Pakistan), why are we even contemplating exploiting a new source of fossil fuels to be burned before we have gained control over the rising levels of green house gas emissions? Comically, Quebec’s Vice Premier, Nathalie Normandeau, said at the press conference that Quebec would be replacing Alberta natural gas with gas produced from Quebec. Frankly, nobody in their right mind (those who get climate change) gives a damn where the gas is extracted from because when it is burned it adds CO2 to the atmosphere regardless of where it is burned on the planet.

Third, why the rush to bring this non-renewable resource to market? Ever heard of Peak Oil? Well, the same principle applies to natural gas. So, if this is a question of energy security (it’s not), let us leave something behind for future generations since fossil fuels will eventually become a precious commodity. Exit the boomer mentality to burn through as much as you can only to leave a scorched earth for generations to follow.

Finally, and this is where the crap gets pretty thick, for god’s sake Madame Normandeau, if you are going to make some maudlin reference to Quebec’s recent past, the Quiet Revolution, get it right. The expression “MaĆ®tre Chez Nous” (masters of our own house) refers in this context to the nationalization of the hydro-electric sector in Quebec some fifty years ago. In other words, the exploitation of a huge natural resource was taken out of private hands for the benefit of the entire population. In this case, the exact opposite has taken place. Up until 2007, the mineral rights for the exploitation of shale gas belonged to the state owned Hydro Quebec, whose profits go into the public purse. Those rights were transferred to the private sector so that once again we have a situation where potential profit is privatized and potential risk is socialized.

When I hear such a clumsy attempt at propaganda in order to pass off what should be a serious concern to all Quebecers, I can only respond, FRAK OFF!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Would You Buy A Used Car From Quebec's Premier Charest?

I wouldn't and by judging by the latest polls, only 12% of the Quebecers believe the Premier's version of the events as compared to the 60% who believe the version put forward by the former Minister of Justice, Marc Bellemare, neither would the majority of Quebecers.

In short, today Mr. Bellemare detailed his accusations that as Minister Justice he was subject to undue pressure from some of the principle fundraisers of the Quebec Liberal Party to accede to their desires to have three candidates named to the judiciary. Moreover, he alleged that when he expressed his concerns to Premier Jean Charest, the Premier replied that if the fundraisers in question wanted these three candidates named, Bellemare was to heed their request.

In response, Jean Charest, in an unusual move, called a press conference to deny the allegations instead of waiting his turn to testify.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

After all, the fashion that the commission has been convened is wholly to the advantage of the Premier. His government chose the judge that would preside over the commission, who subsequently denied intervener status to the opposition Parti Quebecois and to Mr. Bellemare. Consequently, all the counter interrogation aimed at Bellemare and the following thirty something witnesses will come from the lawyers representing the Quebec government, the Premier, and the Quebec Liberal Party. As well, Mr. Charest said repeatedly when previously questioned about the allegations that it was important to let the commission do it's work. Yet, during the first day of testimony, Charest jumps the gun in an attempt to publicly undermine the credibility of the principal witness, which in my opinion is a lack of respect for due process and for the commission that he put in place.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Quebecers are much more concerned with the link between Quebec's construction industry and the financing of its political parties than this particular instance of influence peddling. Two Ministers were ousted from Charest's Cabinet for irregularities in the process of distributing contracts and licenses, and three other Ministers went on the public record to erroneously declare that companies could make donations to political parties. Finally, an engineering consortium was found to have participated in fraudulent practices with regard to making false declarations concerning donations made to Quebec's political parties.

Here in Quebec, we, the people, are like lobsters caught in a trap of a dysfunctional political system that forces us to decide whether we want to be governed by a party that regularly engages in practices that are an abuse of power or by the other that wants to have Quebec become an independent state. These are our political choices, forced to decide which is the least desirable of the two.

Faced with the choice of having to buy a car from either one, I opt for my bike.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Westminster Parliamentary System Is Showing Its Age

Hung parliaments have become the norm in the UK, Canada, and now in Australia, which should give cause for concern. In short, it now appears that as a system of governance, the Westminster system can no longer furnish stable, single party, majority governments, which raises the question: why are we hanging onto this political vestige of the British Empire?

Essentially, by using a single member plurality electoral method for electing representatives in the lower house, Westminster is an adversarial system that gives strong institutional incentives to vote for either of two parties that can offer a government option because only the votes that establish a plurality within an electoral district are effective. All other votes, often more than 50 percent of the total votes cast, are simply discarded. Consequently, electors who may prefer a smaller party with little are no chance of forming a government are encouraged to cast their vote for the "lesser of the two evils."

Regardless of Westminster's systemic design, voters are rejecting the notion of being channeled towards two voting options, and it is this emerging pattern that renders the system obsolete. Simply put, Westminster is not designed for coalition governments. Yet, in each of the last elections in UK, Canada, and Australia, voters have collectively refused to give a single party a majority of seats, which is significant since the single member plurality voting method has a built in bias that has as an effect to manufacture majority governments for parties that have received less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

What we are witnessing is a splintering of the electorate. Over the years, sustained immigration combined with the decline of the influence of the mass media as a result of the rise of the Internet has multiplied the poles of attraction. No single party can capture the allegiance of enough voters to form a majority government.

In each of the three countries, a single party can no longer effectively advance a legislative agenda, which results in varying levels of stalemate. In the UK, a ruling coalition formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; however, the price to pay was a referendum on the voting system that could make coalition government a permanent fixture. In Australia, both the Labour Party and the Liberal-National Party Coalition will attempt to form a majority with the single Green and the four other Independents in the lower House, while the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate. Finally, in Canada, the Conservatives cling to a single party minority government, having had to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid a non-confidence vote that would have toppled the government in favor of a coalition between the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois.

Given that single party majorities are rapidly giving way to coalition governments and the current economic situation demands a coherent, stable government to enable states to adapt to the changing conditions in the global economic order, nations governed by the Westminster system are in dire need of revamping their political systems. Unfortunately, the political parties that are used to forming majority governments are slow to accept the fact that their political reality has changed, and, in the meantime, the electorate is held hostage by those who steadfastly refuse to move ahead with systemic change.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Putting the Cart Before the Horse: the Economy Before Public Health

We often hear politicians say that it's all about the economy. Well, it's not. In fact, recent developments show that the excessive pursuit of economic growth has a negative effect upon the health of the population by promoting increased levels of inequality.

Everyday we are bombarded by news concerning how the economy is performing and how the financial markets are responding. Yet, scant attention is paid to the fact that for the average person real wages (taking inflation into consideration) have stagnated for the last 25 years. As well, despite its daily gyrations, the Dow Jones has hovered around 10,000 points for the last ten years, meaning that for the average investor the buy and hold strategy has been a losing proposition

In reality, measuring and managing the economy is all smoke and mirrors for the benefit of the super rich, the top one tenth of the top one percent of the nation's wealthiest.

All the boats definitely don't rise on the same tide. The trillion dollar transfer of wealth from the lower, middle and upper classes to the super rich as result of the bailout of the financial industry bears this out. CEOs within the financial industry continue to receive their multi-million dollar bonuses while millions of formerly employed workers exhaust their unemployment benefits to face a perilous future and, at the same time, miraculously disappear from unemployment statistics so not to disturb the rosy picture those who are supposed to be managing the economy would have us believe.

Even Paul Krugman, the left-of-center nobel prize winning economist, has fallen into the trap of criticizing US economic policy that would have the US fall at its peril into the Japanese syndrome of protracted anemic economic growth. In a brilliant rebuttal, Steven Hill of the Guardian points out:

Japan has been getting a raw deal from the so-called economic experts. Consider this: in the midst of the great recession, the United States is suffering through nearly 10% unemployment, rising inequality and poverty, 47 million people without health insurance, declining retirement prospects for the middle class and a general increase in economic insecurity. Various European nations also are having their difficulties, and no one knows if China is the next bubble due to explode.

How, then, should we regard a country that has 5% unemployment, the lowest income inequality, healthcare for all its people and is one of the world's leading exporters? This country also scores high on life expectancy, low on infant mortality, is at the top in numeracy and literacy, and is low on crime, incarceration, homicides, mental illness and drug abuse. It also has a low rate of carbon emissions, doing its part to reduce global warming. In all these categories, this particular country beats both the US and China by a country mile.

As we can see, higher levels of economic growth do not necessarily bring about an improved quality of life for the majority of people. How the wealth is distributed has a huge impact on the health of population. Consequently, narrowing the public's focus to a single measure, GDP growth, is extremely misleading. Quality of life is measured better by other indicators, the social determinants of health, and in the case of Japan and in other countries where material wealth is distributed more equitably, these nations score much higher on the indicators of public health.

Indeed, sustained annual economic growth of more than 3 percent inflates the value of assets to such a degree that recessions are inevitable, thereby creating opportunities for significant speculative financial gain both on the up and down swing, much to the chagrin of those in the labour market. Such movement creates wealth in the zombie economy at the expense of the value created in the real economy. As a result, income disparities widen within the society, which research demonstrates has a negative effect on the social determinants of health.

So, perhaps a lost decade could bring about some significant improvements to the overall well-being of the population. If there is no or little growth, people no longer subscribe to the believe that because the economic pie is getting bigger, we don't need to look at issues of wealth distribution. On the contrary, sustained periods of no or little economic growth create the political climate from which progressive legislation can be enacted. Furthermore, reduced economic activity also brings with it reduction in levels of green house gases from which everyone gains.

Yes, we need to recalibrate the economy. It's time it served the well-being of the majority of the population instead of increasing the wealth of a privileged few.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

You Can't Get There From Here

The "there" that I am referring to is the magic number of 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is the level of CO2 necessary to stabilize the climate change brought on by human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, since the onset of the industrial revolution.

Problem is that we are already approaching 390 ppm with no signs of abatement on the horizon. Should we begin to prepare for the worst? I think so since it is highly unlikely that humanity will be able to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Essentially, we are playing out a cultural set of instructions that took hold in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, subsequently exported to the new world, and then transferred to Asia so that it has become the dominant global paradigm and carries with it the seeds of our own destruction.

At the heart of this cultural imperative is the sanctity of the individual and the belief that the unrelenting pursuit of self interest will lead to the advancement of the common good. This mindset may have made sense during the seventeenth century when there were less than a billion humans on the planet, but it makes absolutely no sense now that we have passed six billion and look to peak at eight billion, if we don't experience a massive die off beforehand.

Indeed, that might be nature's way to deal with our exponential population growth, 400% during the last century alone. Humans, like ancient bacteria, exploit their primary energy source, fossil fuels, until they alter their environment in such a way as to kill off the vast majority of their numbers, leaving behind a successive species better adapted to survive in the new environment.

Maybe that's what it takes to purge humanity from its folly, the idea that isolated individuals can remain unrestrained by the constants imposed by the physical limits to growth.

Until then, we can expect to witness autonomous nation-states spouting the need to come to agreement on how to curb GHG emissions all the while being unable to overcome the struggle between self interest groups within their borders so that the problem is never adequately addressed. At the same time the soft power of the US continues to expand and the number of people from developing countries imitating American consumption patterns grows, carrying with it disastrous consequences.

In some ways, the collapse of the financial markets and the ensuing Great Recession provide a model of what lies ahead but on a smaller scale. Failure to provide adequate regulation to those recklessly advancing their self interest brings about systemic failure, where the the negative consequences fall heaviest on the most vulnerable.

Likewise, climate change has already begun to impact substantially on those with limited means: pensioners in Moscow and the rural inhabitants in Pakistan, India, and China. Unfortunately, there is no bailout for climate change and by the time cataclysmic flooding wipes out New York and London, it will be too late. Dynamic Forces beyond our control will have been put into motion and the fate of humanity will be out of our hands.

Sounds like Armageddon to me, but the really scary part is that what should be a fate that humanity would like to avoid is actually a desired end-of-days scenario for a great many in the USA, the most powerful and influential nation in the world. Incredibly, there is still a great number of Americans who believe that life on the planet is but a point of departure for the life in the hear after. From their perspective, the sooner we get to make our maker, the better. That's if there were a maker to be met, but that wouldn't occur to them from within the confines of their belief system.

So, in a nutshell, a cluster of beliefs from seventeenth century Europe have found extremely fertile soil in North America, taken hold of a critical mass of the population, and made them impervious to the assaults of reason. Deluded to the point that they think their unsustainable lifestyle is their god-given right, they are more than willing to lead the rest of humanity to a bitter end.

350 ppm? Fat fricken chance.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Quebec's Pathetic Electoral System Part II: The Farce Continues

This is no way to deal with illegal political contributions.
 Just what does the chief electoral officer do with the $27 million he gets every year?
Don MacPherson, THE GAZETTE, August 7, 2010

Another revelation this week concerning an engineering consortium engaged in electoral fraud and influence peddling made it into the news. This time, thanks to Quebec Solidaire's (QS) sole elected deputy Amir Khadir and a group of QS volunteers, it was confirmed by Quebec's Director of Elections that the Axor group had repeatedly used the names of its employees to make illegal donations to Quebec's three major political parties, the lion's share going to the governing Quebec Liberal Party.

The question that remains is whether this is an isolated case or the tip of the iceberg?

I got a laugh when then Minister responsible for the reform of Quebec's democratic institutions, Claude Bechard, appeared on television to do some serious damage control. For months now, the Liberals have been refusing to hold a public inquiry into links with province's construction industry and the financing of political parties. He denied that the problem was systemic, only an isolated case that did not reflect on the political parties, which of course raises the question that if this were true, why has the government tabled legislation to penalize companies who make illegal contributions.

Moreover, in what appears to be Premier Jean Charest's complete disdain for the intelligence of the population, we have Minister Bechard, charged with responsibility of ensuring the democratic nature of Quebec's political institutions, trying to reassure the population, yet this is the same Minister who has tabled another piece of legislation that would prevent the electoral map from being redrawn according to the democratic principle of one person, one vote, in order to prevent his own electoral district from disappearing. Talk about a conflict of interest.

As for the Director General of Elections, Marcel Blanchet, has this guy completely sold out? Where is the leadership? His office keeps saying that it is difficult to establish whether individuals are respecting the electoral law, yet a small group of volunteers backed by a very small research budget can uncover a major instance of fraud. Too bad, he doesn't utilize more of his department's resources to protect Quebec's democratic institutions.

But maybe that's why he hangs on to his job and doesn't do the honorable thing and resign like the Chief of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, who had the courage of his convictions not to go along with what he felt to be an unacceptable compromise of the integrity of the institution he headed.

Perhaps, Mr. Blanchet is not really a democrat. Cutting a deal with Axor so that the group would only have to pay a fine and not have the details about how the illegal acts were committed made public suggests that his institution is also engaged in damage control and lends credence to Quebec's former Minister of Justice Marc Bellemare's refusal to appear before the Director General of Elections concerning his allegations of wide spread influence peddling within the Liberal government.

Things are starting to heat up during the dog days of summer. It's going to be very interesting once the fall rolls around. Unfortunately, it has already taken on the appearance of a farce, with the three stooges, Charest, Blanchet, and Bechard, leading the way.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Limits of Political Messaging

In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most in politics is the marketplace of emotions.

Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation

In trying to understand why is it that climate change legislation is not gaining any traction among our elected officials, we run smack against the limits of political messaging.

From a rational perspective the case has been made. The data clearly shows the link between human activity and the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, which in turn has led to an increase in global temperatures. Moreover, economic analysis shows that it is preferable to incur the short-term costs associated with the transition to a low carbon economy than the monumental costs associated with catastrophic climate change. However, the gratuitous dumping of green house gases into the atmosphere in North America remains unabated.

The problem is that the deniers can easily illicit an emotional response from a sufficient percentage of the electorate so that they can avoid taking action. In short, the deniers work diligently to cloud the issue so that their supporters will look to them for direction. Thereafter, they use the usual rhetorical slogans of bad for the economy and big government messing with free enterprise to communicate to their electorate that they should oppose any measures to address climate change, knowing that given the choice between accepting the validity of the disconcerting data that opposes the views expressed by the conservative clan's leaders and remaining within the fold, their followers will opt for the latter option.

Essentially, the emotional affiliation to the group that individuals attach their identity is so strong that the individuals in question will bend over backwards to rationalize away any cognitive dissonance that may cause them discomfort. As a result, the rational arguments from those outside the group fail to penetrate the individual and the group's psyche.

What emerges in the political arena is two opposing camps engaged in an adversarial contest for control of the middle. Traditionally, this has involved trying to swing the independents to one or the either side. Lately, this contest has sunk to the level of heaping as much abuse on the other side as possible with the goal of reducing the level of voter participation so that the contest becomes one of who can better mobilize their already established electorate to show up to the polls.

In this context, any advantage to be gained through the manipulation of the electoral system is extremely important. Consequently, laws concerning financial contributions to political parties and the manner in which votes are transformed into seats in the legislature becomes the new ideological battleground. Unfortunately, it lies with the courts to decide how the political game will be played and as a result we move further away from democracy and closer to a juristocracy.