Thursday, February 26, 2015

Worth Reading - February 26, 2015

Here's another link from Granola Shotgun. I shared a post from here a few weeks ago. The author of this blog has an interesting way of looking at urban change and the suburbs. In this piece he suggests that the bunker buildings of the suburbs will become the new hot real estate for artists, makers and other creatives/young people as old urban industrial properties grow out of reach.

Steve Paikin writes about the ongoing developments in the Sudbury by-election scandal. Premier Kathleen Wynne's (OLP - Don Valley West) strategy seems to be to rally the troops and throw all the other parties in the mud while she is at it. 

Alice Funke at Pundits' Guide points out that there are 21 MPs are not nominated to stand in the next election. It's possible that these people may retire and want to run out the clock to prevent other parties from nominating stronger candidates.

When I moved to the Northwest Territories there was a few times I was asked to justify the antics of my fellow Ontarians. Mostly is was to do with Rob Ford, but as the Ontario election raged in 2014 one of my colleagues asked why the Liberals looked like they might be re-elected, and ultimately were. I couldn't help but point to the ineptness of the opposition. Today Rick Nicholls (PCPO - Chatham-Kent-Essex) stated that he did not believe in evolution. The Tories cannot seem to get away from a base that is putting them at the fringe of Ontario political life. In the piece linked above Ashley Csanady links these comments to similar ones dogging the Progressive Conservatives.

Cuba is in a fascinating moment historically. It is entirely possible that 2014-2015 will be a transformational moment that will usher in an entirely new era. The Walrus writes about the transition taking place in the Caribbean nation

I was an early supporter of Michael Chong's (CPC - Wellington-Halton Hills) Reform Act. It passed the House of Commons yesterday and now is off to the Senate. Sadly however the bill was watered down to be passed, and in the name of fairness, here is a critic that says it didn't deserve to pass

The tragic death of a three-year-old in Toronto led to some remarkable charity on social media. Marco Oved in the Toronto Star raises some issues that also occurred to me, what is the proper response to something like this in the present era. 

Justin Ling writing for Vice on the infamous Bill C-51 anti-terror bill as it faces barriers to final assent. 

Eric Jaffe in City Lab tackles the myth that people only want trains and buses are unacceptable. This is a topic I've tackled a few times, the notion that millions/billions must be spent on rail when bus offers cheaper, appropriate-scaled solutions drives me crazy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Canada's Insecurity

In recent weeks two pieces of legislation have moved their way through the House of Commons in Ottawa. The first was to reform the organization of security on Parliament Hill. The second seeks to increase the powers of our police/security forces.

For centuries the House of Commons in the United Kingdom jealously projected its security as a separate, independent entity from the government. Each house in the parliament commanded its own security detail, answering to the Speaker. But for reasons of 'improving' security the RCMP will now be taking the lead on Parliament Hill. Why is this an issue? Well, first, there's that old tricky thing about parliament. The RCMP is accountable to the government and the Prime Minister. In centuries past the executive (or king) was moved away from the security of the legislature in order to protect it. Perhaps it is an outdated and meaningless holdover from another time, but I believe it matters for symbolism and the supremacy of Parliament if nothing else. Second, in the wake of the October tragedy in Ottawa not a single group has reported with its findings or recommendations. Experts have yet to formally instruct the public how to best proceed with security of our national capital. Third, after an embarrassingly short debate in the House of Commons this legislation was passed. The government moved time allocation, because heaven forbid the Commons extensively debate a matter such as this.

And then there's Bill C-51. Insert heavy sigh here. The bill has recently passed second reading. I think it's fair to say that the proposed legislation has draconian measures to allegedly improve our national security. The new law, when passed, will allow the government to intervene and arrest people who express support online for groups such as the Islamic State/ISIS. Furthermore the law will increase the powers of police and security forces more generally and provide no additional oversight. Of course there is no evidence that additional powers are needed. The state will always find justifications to expand its own powers against its own citizenry. Clawing those powers back always seems much more difficult, which is why they should not be lightly bestowed.

Politically our Prime Minister and the Conservative Party have been playing rather fast and loose with the identification of our 'enemies'. I have no doubt that Islamic State and its supporters wish Canada harm, but the broad brush the government has been applying feeling increasing Islamophobic. I was relieved when much of the heated rhetoric on Islam never really surfaced in Canada in the wake of 9/11. It seems that we may have been devoid at that time of a political class willing to stigmatize an entire religious group at that time. It all makes me deeply uncomfortable.

What the federal government does not seem to understand is that religious extremism will never be defeated through a more strenuous, prying state. These movements and the threat of domestic terror will be curtailed through pluralism, tolerance and an open society, not to mention proper supports for mental health and a measured police effort. The more people feel more like outsiders in their own home the more likely festering resentments will grow. The thing we must always be mindful of is that one day these new powers could be turned against others and that is the ultimate reason to stand for the freedoms of others, it guards your freedoms too.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Worth Reading - February 19, 2015

We begin with Australia. In recent weeks you may have heard about the trouble surrounding the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot. He recently survived a leadership spill, but at least according to a U.S. think tank, he might be the least competent leader in the democratic world

Aaron Wherry in Maclean’s writes about the debacle in the House of Commons over changes to the security on Parliament Hill. This story reveals the troubling weakness of our ‘governing’ institution.

Mayor John Tory’s Smart Track plan was the central plank of his campaign. Royson James writes how the realities of Smart Track are raising some real issues/contradictions now that Toronto is looking at actual implementation. 

Lately I have heard quite a bit about the Conservatives’ growing support in Quebec. Eric Grenier breaks down the numbers

A black Mississippi judge gave an incredible speech when he sentenced three young white men who murdered a black man, motivated by racism. The text of his remarks are in the link above.

The Walrus has an interesting piece on Sun News in light of its demise

Peter Loewen has a great piece on Eve Adams (LPC – Mississauga-Brampton South, ON) and low expectations. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Prelude to the Election - Nominations

For all intents and purposes the country is already in the midst of an election campaign. Despite the fact that the election is still months away from being called it is very clear from the behaviour of the party leaders that that is merely the last formality. If memory serves the Prime Minister recently made an important announcement regarding security, which for the record sounded exactly like a stump speech, not in Parliament, but in York Region, north of Toronto. This so happens to be a critical area for the Conservative Party to hold if it hopes to maintain power. Similarly Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) has been crossing the nation trying to build goodwill. I have seen more than a few pictures of the Leader of the Opposition behind counters, wearing aprons and meeting people in normal settings.

Generally, more quietly, has been the steady nomination of candidates around the country. I have recommended this resource many times before, but once again I wish to highlight the excellent work Alice Funke is doing in collating all of this information at her website, link here.

Here’s an interesting point. The Conservative have nominated 202 candidates so far, of which only 37 are women for a percentage share of 18.3%. For the Conservatives to have approximately 50% of the candidates be women they would have to nominate 95 women in the remaining 134 seats they have left available. The Liberals lead in nominations with 203 candidates, of which 33.5% are women. The NDP have nominated 133 candidates and are doing the best with 41.4% of their candidates being women. Obviously there are many metrics to see how representative a slate of candidates are, but gender is a quick and easy one at a first glance.

The redrawing of riding districts will make for a very different campaign. There are a growing number of open seats where no incumbent, or a sitting MP will be contesting. While incumbency is less powerful in Canada than say the United States it remains a factor in the benefit of the MP. There are about 50 seats that are open, roughly one in seven in the country. Much of the parties’ resources will be dedicated to winning these contests.

Nomination contests are also interesting moments inside political parties that the public rarely gets a view of. There are two types of contests for a nomination: acclaimed and uncontested. Both have positive and negative implications for the party. Acclamations occur when only one candidate seeks the nomination to run for the party. While every situation is different it could be because the incumbent or another strong candidate is running and therefore scares off competition. Perhaps influential people lean on challengers and they withdraw from the race. Another possibility is that the person has volunteered to be the sacrificial lamb. In politics we rarely discuss the candidates who stand no chance but wave the banner anyway. They are needed and they are valuable, but the prestige of winning 10% or less of the vote is not so wonderful. A high number of acclamations may suggest that the party I unable to naturally attract fresh blood and talent or that too much pressure is being applied in some way.

Contested nominations can be signs of a healthy, vibrant party. Many candidates fighting for the right to run for the party in the election suggests not only are they engaged, but they believe they can win. However, these divisions can be fractious and spawn deep resentments within the party locally, regionally or nationally. The Liberals have suffered badly from this leading up to the 2015 election as time and time again it appears meddling from the central party is skewing nominations. The most grievous and recent example is the recruitment of Eve Adams (LPC – Mississauga-Brampton South) to the party and the effort to parachute her into the Eglinton-Lawrence riding.

It seems likely by the end of the summer the parties will have selected around 300 of their candidates to go into the election in October. I poured over the information for the ridings in around my old ridings in Ontario and found it interesting to see who it was throwing their hats in the ring to become our next class of parliamentarians. For those interested there is plenty of time to get involved and help pick, or even to be one of these candidates.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Worth Reading - February 12, 2015

A Canadian urban planner and geography professor has developed a theory that some of the gentrification we have seen has been misdiagnosed and suggests that "youthification" might be a better descriptor of what is happening

Andrew Coyne's take on Even Adams' (LPC - Mississauga-Brampton South) switch to the Liberal Party. 

More on Eve Adams, Althia Raj asks a simple question, if Eve Adams was blocked from being a candidate then why was she permitted to be a parliamentary secretary? 

Not long ago I authored a blog post questioning the health of our democracy. Aside from participation there are other factors, such as openness to the media. Prime Minister Harper is the most hostile PM to media in living memory. Reporter David Akin shares the behind the scenes of the rare moments when the Canadian press is allowed to question the prime minister. 

Edward Keenan looking at the mess of the Sudbury by-election challenges the public's ease at accepting political malfeasance

The Government of the Northwest Territories has released its budget for 2015-2016. The Minister of Finance, Michael Miltenberger (Thebacha) has stated that the territory is facing a difficult future. The government has difficult choices to make.

Emmet MacFarlane writes on the Supreme Court's decision on assisted suicide

As included in my post on Tuesday, here is Tabatha Southey's take on the anti-vaccination movement. Southey's irreverent take is pretty fun.

Martin Regg Cohn suggests that to clean up Ontario's politics is to reform how politics is financed

Every once in a while I make an impassioned argument for why renting is a valid way to live one's life. The Globe and Mail did some analysis to see which one made more money for you in the long run. It's closer than you might think

On the Agenda this week there was a fascinating interview with Susan Pinker on the positive effects of living in a social environment. Pinker's research is sort of mind-blowing.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Anti-Vaccination and the Fear of Disability

With the recent controversy surrounding vaccination rates and a large number of parents opting to risk their children's exposure to deadly infections I believe a significant part of the discussion has been left out. While I am confident that  a certain percentage of these parents have been seduced by the all-organic, natural-pathic movement over the past two decades but I think there is another motivator that is otherwise divorced from these factors. Potential parents across North America are weighing a false risk in their minds. On the one hand is the tried and tested vaccine that they themselves received and almost everyone they have ever met and then there is the myth that vaccines are connected to autism.

I believe that the anti-vaccination movement plays into a fear deep in the heart of every parent - that their child may not turn out "normal". The cliché of wishing for "ten fingers and ten toes" belies a much more serious fear that parents have of having a child with any disability, regardless of how severe it may be. While physical handicaps would no doubt give a child a more difficult life they are far more socially and culturally accepted than cognitive, learning or communicative disabilities.

A considerable amount of time and energy is dedicated to avoiding any potential birth defects or complications. Eventually one has to wonder when this crosses the line between prudent precautions and phobia. It's an understandable fear as no parent wants a difficult life for their child but there is a question on whether or not physicians are adequately preparing potential parents for the possibility of having a special needs child rather than coaching them to avoid it all costs. This movement is likely tied to similar trends such as having children later in life, prenatal vitamins and all the other interventions used to "ensure" a healthy child.

This is where our culture's stigma against those with disabilities and irrational skepticism against science collide. The fear of having a child with autism (or some other condition) outweighs the more realistic and plausible risk of infectious disease. The calculation is easy enough to understand. Measles, a disease most parents nowadays have almost no experience with, associated with a "risky" vaccine is more desirable than a permanent disability.

Aside from being wrong-headed and that measles and other childhood infections can be deadly I think this much more than anything else highlights our society's fear of having children with special needs. I work for a school board, and in fact have been working with a colleague on professional development to better serve our students with autism spectrum disorders. I have a sense of difficulties involved and why parents will do whatever they can to avoid it, but vaccines are not tied to them so children are being put in real danger out of fear. Of course, there are a contingent of parents who might vaccinate if, as Tabatha Southey suggested, measles contained gluten,. But for most, It's the fear of the possibility rather than a grim reality that we will increasingly go through until this trend is reversed.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Worth Reading - February 5, 2015

Does the Prime Minister have to appoint Senators? A British Columbia man is going to try to ask the Supreme Court

This week I had a "discussion" with a person on Twitter who suggested that pedestrians who are struck and killed by cars is a Darwinian purge of "entitled" people. Heaven forbid pedestrians exercise their right to, you know, exist. The... conversation was triggered by Martin Regg Cohn's article about pedestrian deaths

The American Constitution is both a brilliant document and severely flawed (to my point of view) in the 21st century. Justice Stevens has written a book about six amendments he'd like to see included to address some weaknesses including gerrymandering and campaign finance. 

I shed a tear for my hometown of Brampton whose governance woes seem to have no end in sight. It was recently revealed that the city has $215 million in debt and that public salaries are outstripping revenues. 

Many New Democrats are probably not happy with the direction of the federal party but I think the economic proposals Tom Mulcair (NDP - Outremont, QC) laid outin a recent speech are right on. 

Another Podcast from Canadaland, Jesse Brown speaks with Christopher Parsons on the Snowden files and the changes to CSE's (Canada's spy agency) power. 

This week there was a big push to restore the Long Form Census which is critical in the field of research and for providing everyone with a better sense of what the state of Canada is. Since it was a ridiculous commitment to the Conservative's fringe I imagine it'll be dismissed.

Read the New York Times piece about anti-vaccination people being insane. Try not to get angry. Try. P.S. TVO did great work this week talking about vaccines, link here.

I had hoped that people were wrong and that Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP - Don Valley West) would help end the scandals of the McGuinty era.  Instead, it looks like the provincial Liberals tried to buy off their former candidate.

Also from Vice and Justin Ling, the new Anti-Terror Bill is posed to make our security agencies less accountable and more powerful, things every Canadian should be uncomfortable with. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Parliamentary Democracy, If You Can Keep It

In a Globe and Mail piece I shared out in a recent Worth Reading that shared disturbing poll results. According to the poll 17% of Canadians believe that in "difficult times" the Prime Minister can dissolve the Supreme Court and 23% say he/she could dismiss Parliament and rule alone. Not even 'in a time of crisis', just difficult times. Now could be defined as difficult, any time could if a government wanted it to be. If you are anything like me and care about the things I care about those numbers cause a chill to go down your spine.

I heard a history professor remark once that one of our great delusions is that democracy is permanent. That it is a natural outgrowth of progress and that one day, inevitably, all societies will embrace this perfect form of being. But the truth is that democracy is incredibly fragile and we've seen liberal democracies crumble and fall more often than we care to remember. In fact many of the dictatorships of the twentieth century emerged from democracies, not some other form of government. I think this permanence has deluded us. The notion is that somehow the current situation will perpetuate itself in some sort of natural order.

As a hand-wringing democrat I have spent a great deal of time worrying over the state of affairs in this country: the abuses of Parliament by Prime Minister Stephen Harper; the increasing absenteeism of the provincial legislatures; the flagrant corruption (moral, ethical and fiscal) that has polluted municipal politics. Canadians may be perfectly justified in their growing cynicism and disengagement.

The changing demographics of who votes nowadays is an ironic return to the former status quo. Wealthier, older, whiter people, disproportionately rural, fill voting booths and make important political decisions. It is not difficult to see how these changes are and will affect political discourse and policy in this country. If politicians can afford to ignore a group of voters, they will.

It would be easy to read something like this and presume that I fear that one day jackbooted thugs will patrol the streets of Canada and silence opposition. I do not believe that to be the case. What I envision is that one day it will be harder and harder to look at our country and say that we have a robust democracy. Presently roughly 20% of our voting age population supported the party of the current Prime Minister in the 2011 federal election. As has been documented innumerable times in the media, academia and this blog our Prime Minister exerts incredible amounts of power. Party discipline is spectacularly high. Even whispers of dissent are eliminated immediately. A bloated appointment system for the Senate, public service, judiciary and Cabinet keep eager and ambitious politicians in line far more effectively than oppression. This is to say nothing of the growing issue of domestic spying or other increased police powers. 

More and more I fear that the evidence that is most damning is that political parties are breaking the law and seemingly paying not legal or political consequence for it. The federal Conservatives broke their fixed-date election and election spending law, the collapse of opposition in Alberta, and more recently are the debacles in Ontario. The provincial Liberals are accused of breaching election law by offering a position to a former candidate, Andrew Olivier, so he would not run again. The Liberals have argued that no concrete offer was made and therefore the law wasn't broken. This sort of fragrant disregard, and it is hardly unique, definitely undermines the notion that the rule of law governs those in power.

More and more our parliaments do not resemble centres of democratic action but stage managed public relations events. Debates are staged and meaningless, votes are predetermined, opposition is marginalized, time for debate is curtailed, omnibus legislation limits scrutiny, election laws increasingly exclude citizens, our appointed senate continues to exercise legal authority, and the government increasingly uses public funds to run partisan ads which sometimes do not align with actual programs.

If I were to describe what Canada's institutions of government are rather than what they are supposed to be you would think I was talking about a country in the former Soviet Union or developing world that can only tangentially be called a democracy. There are no simple fixes; rules for parliaments must be made explicit and enshrined, laws must be changed, electoral systems reformed, political parties and political culture must change and that would just be a start.  As we glide towards an illiberal democracy and politics becomes a hobby for elites and partisans will Canadians notice? Will they care?