Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

A tale of two tortures

In the UK, there will be an inquiry into allegations that British-transferred Afghan detainees may have been tortured with the knowledge of at least some British officials.

Canadian officials face very similar allegations, yet what investigative act of transparency have we got? There’s no such thing forthcoming. Despite this, we’re still stuck with this.

It appears of late that it takes British political innovation to make Canadians think seriously about the same. That in mind, let’s hope this is a turning point for the Harper government’s parliament-defying, pseudo-legal obfuscation of the full Afghan detainee file.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , ,

Spot the good guys

I made a brief comment on Warren Kinsella’s blog today, which I’m basically just reposting here. The discussion concerns another example of an over-zealous, juiced-up, smack-em-down summit security mentality during the G20 in T-Dot over the weekend.

Since when is it good practice to do this?

There are calls from some quarters, including Kinsella’s, for a formal investigation into police behaviour (brutality?) during this summit. I’m all for it. With a security price tag of nearly CDN $1 billion, I suppose the forces felt they had the resources and the political go-ahead to make over 900 arrests and beat down all sorts of potential hippies in between. No real foresight that the twitterati and the camera phone bystanders would be more than happy to let us know about it – who would have thunk such organised thuggery would offend the public? Isn’t it students wots the enemy?

An investigation is important for a few reasons. It helps establish a precedent of accountability for security policy. It might (if it does its job) identify a particularly over-zealous protocol and particular members issuing orders or actively encouraging overly aggressive behaviour. Those protocols and members can then be admonished, punished, and draconian special police powers can be held up and debated in full public view. From there, there’s every chance the force in general could appear “cleansed.”

No investigation, blame-passing, and attempts to diminish public grievance against this assault against the right to free assembly, just means everyone is left with the taste in their mouth that the police generally enjoy too much power and they don’t respect the law they defend.

Summit security has a stained history as is. The “Fake Black Bloc” agent provocateur at Montebello, the London police at last year’s G20 who removed their ID numbers from their jackets before assaulting complete innocents are examples. Genoa 2001 is another (literally fatal) example.

This only adds to memories of Jean Charles de Menezes and shoot-to-kill policies in times of perceived duress. Such images accumulate in the public mind, piling up into a residue of negativity and faithlessness in police and politics. It’s not just the atrocious behaviour of thugs with batons, it’s something that I think contributes to a general public malaise and mistrust of public institutions overall. Our lawmakers are implicated, our leaders, our community officers – everyone appears conspiratorially intertwined when such brutality is endorsed, forgiven, and forgotten by public officials.

In democracies, quaintly perhaps, there are civil liberties that are held aloft by leaders as the great treasures of our civilisation – treasures so precious that they can single-handedly be used as adequate justification of war policies against badly-behaved regimes worldwide.

Okee-doke. So, then, our own police forces need to be transparent and self-critical. They need to be able to hold up tangible examples of how they’ve protected demonstrators’ right to free assembly as well as how they’ve protected the summiteers’ right to security. It shouldn’t be so hard for “law and order” to win our undivided support, should it?

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AN ADDENDUM – here’s Mike Watkins’ post today on the storm-troopering of Canadian liberty this weekend.

He considers the view of new Canadians who’ve experienced life without freedom of assembly or expression in their countries of origin. Lest we forget that we’re supposed to be defending the same – eh?

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, , , , , , ,

G-Force?

And so, under the breezy glades of Lake Muskoka, amongst the gentle cooing of Ontarian loons, the G8 gave way to a super-powered, ultra-inclusive, supra-national cocktail club: the G20!

Much of the Globe’s editorial team are impressed and amazed at Stephen Harper‘s ability to chair the meeting, be included in the leaders’ photograph, and apparently forge broad consensus where once there was none.

I can’t help but view their adulation as a very Canadian response to any occasion in which the world appears to pay attention to us – a giddiness that betrays cringe-worthy insecurities about the weight we actually pull in global affairs. The idea that Europe, China, and America were “shepherded” to anything other than the dining hall by our travel-shy PM beggars belief.

But a triumphalist media aside, the main question here is: now that the G20 has effectively replaced the older, smaller eight-member club, is it time to applaud a decentralisation of power to the developing world? I greet that proposition with a giant “umm.”

It might be true, if only such international bodies themselves had power to assign. We already have a UN General Assembly, and we’ve had in years past a G77 and a Non-Aligned Movement. We have regional international organisations in all parts of the world, often with overlapping memberships. There remains endless potential for nation-states to join ever-more extra-curricular clubs and sip from ever-more champagne flutes.

We shouldn’t diminish the importance of diplomatic summitry – of course leaders do need to have tête-à-têtes, build relationships, sell ideas and maybe buy some too. But the G8/G20 is emphatically not a place where binding commitments are made, where past promises are scrutinised for achievement, or where any country transfers decision making power away from itself and towards a “higher power.” Enforcement mechanisms on promises such as Commission for Africa pledges, Kyoto pledges, MDG pledges and the rest could give teeth to summit communiqués, but of course, if summit communiqués had teeth, it’s unlikely nations would ever write them…

To wish such for truly global oversight is, of course, naivety in the extreme – but no less naive than hosting a summit that costs $1 billion, that turns the host city into a fortress stripped its civil liberties, under the belief that this time, under this programme and in this format, we’ll have a world-changing experience.

What G8 meeting ever reviewed its development commitments, as made in Kananaskis in 2002 or in Gleneagles in 2005? What became of the funds pledged through the Commission for Africa (although in mid-2010, the Commission has temporarily re-formed to evaluate precisely what’s been seen through and what’s fallen through the cracks)? If no one is monitoring the promises states are making, then what effect does simply reformatting and expanding the meeting group have to do with empowering it?

Following through on the promises of yesterday would be much more effective, and inspirational, than a new list of good intentions. Maybe at the Korea summit later this year, the soju will inspire creative thinking.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, ,

Twist my rubber arm

Norman Spector today points out that Hu Jintao and Stephen Harper met amicably in Toronto today, though had no press conference, no questions from reporters, no official presentation of themselves to the public to make anything resembling a joint statement of friendship etc. etc.

Rationale being that the Chinese delegation were not going to countenance any press gallery that included the Epoch Times. Harper’s PMO, looking to make up for some serious lost ground in kowtowing to the Middle Kingdom, thus agreed that no presser would be forthcoming.

Believable enough, but PMO spokesman Dmitri Soudas appeared suspiciously eager to note his regret that there was no press conference.

“On our side, we would have been more than happy to answer a few questions from reporters,” he said.

Sorry, but pull the other one. Since when has the PMO ever been anything but loathesome when it comes to answering questions from reporters?

I’m certain that, if there’s anything Harper and Hu can agree on, it’s a mutual disdain for facing a free press. Not that the new Sun News will much resemble Xinhua in ideology, of course…

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, , , , ,

Québec: Factor Orange

It’s St-Jean Baptiste Day! So, vive le Québec, vive le Canada…… and while we’re at it, vive le Brasserie Unibroue!

I can think of no better occasion to pore through a new EKOS poll of Canadians’ voting intentions (bottle of Maudite may be required), however sad it seems. But there’s an interesting feature in Québec, so I think it’s perfectly justified.

Overall, it’s a well-worn tale. Tories on 31%, Liberals on 27.7%. NDP on 16.5%, Green on 13% (again, if the NDP-GPC could get together and consolidate their demographic, would we not have a real fighting progressive party that’s statistically tied with the ruling Tories?). And the Bloc down on 9%.

So far, so uninteresting. But EKOS finds something that I (at least) would love to explore a lot more – page 5 of the survey report, regarding voters’ second choices.

There appears to be some predictable love between LPC and NDP supporters, as well as between NDP-Green. But while 38.7% of NDP supporters would back the Liberals as their second choice (unsurprising), a full 34.5% of NDP supporters would back the Bloc as their second choice. I thought this was quite wowwy.

This is good and bad news for the NDP, though, depending who’s doing the spinning. 🙂

Harper-For-Life types will love this news as it draws a link between “socialists and separatists.” Who could trust Jack Layton to babysit your kids, when 35% of his fans are also fans of Gilles Duceppe?

But NDP supporters have to be happy to learn that this means they’ve got a verifiable surge in Québec, and in the nationalist community as well. What seems quite astonishing is that the survey seems to suggest that, if a third of NDP supporters back the Bloc as a second choice, than at least a third of NDP supporters are living in Québec. No longer is La Belle Province the exclusive bastion of the Liberals and Tories when it comes to federalist support.

But there are problems for the NDP in these numbers too. The Liberals and Conservatives can fight over anglo federalist Montréal and the banlieues, but the NDP is charting new territory in nationalist areas. It’s good news in many ways, but this support must remain locked in the deep freeze of stalwart Bloquiste ridings that don’t appear likely to turn federalist soon. Or could they?

We first have to ask how the NDP, a party that errs on the side of a more centralised Canadian federation, are managing such support in the francophone Québec nationalist community.

Layton’s personal appeal in Québec is a big part of this, but we can’t forget the fact that a good number of Bloc voters are not actually anti-Canada “separatists” – they are just French-speaking, left-of-centre social democrats who like the Bloquistes’ daycare plans and like their policies on public investment in health and education.

And if they don’t believe a referendum is winnable or on the table anyway (CROP in April concurs – only 14% of Quebecers believe an independent state is on the cards), then this only empowers francophone progressives in Québec to “safely” give voice to the Bloc based on their social democratic credentials, and nothing else. I think that’s the logic in a lot of Québec.

So, after all, it may be the case that the NDP aren’t winning over Québec nationalists – they’re winning over social democrats (and soft nationalists at best) who just don’t fully identify with “distant” federal parties. So the question for the NDP is, how they convince francophone progressives that their natural home should be Team Orange, not Team Bleu?

Hard to do when identity is such a major feature of Québec voting trends. But if the NDP presents a respectable, federal, social democratic face to Québec, this has got to be good for unity. It says that there’s at least one well-regarded federal alternative in Québec amongst the soft-nationalist community, and that the federalist option isn’t necessarily the “stuffy, squareheaded” option.

Jack Layton should spend some serious time in Lac-St-Jean and the Townships this summer. Unless he’s there already for the Fête-Nationale?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , , ,

A future in monochrome

Canada’s House of Commons has risen for the Summer, leaving us with little else but the World Cup to keep us entertained (otherwise known as 22 men jogging for an hour and a half). I suppose it beats 308 men and women shooting political paintballs at each other.

But the Globe and Mail has noted the end of the session by harkening back to a more acrimonious time – one of dubious constitutional legality, and one which has left Stephen Harper with a legacy that will never be shed – the infamous economic update, the proposal to end public party subsidies, and the coalition and proroguation crisis which followed.

The Globe has taken sides late in the game on this one, effectively endorsing the Tories’ December 2008 position that the $1.95-per-vote party subsidy should be abolished. It was an astonishing position for the Globe to take in June 2010 (if ever), not only considering how spectacularly Harper’s initial attempt at this backfired, but also considering the reasons why the House rebelled against it – sure, smaller and cash-strapped parties’ livelihoods depend in part on the subsidy, but so does any semblance of an egalitarian democracy.

Our first-past-the-post (let’s call it FPTP, shall we?) voting system is not designed for competitive multiparty democracy – it’s designed for a bipartisan 18th Century British context in which voters needed local candidate MPs to act as the face of their respective parties – most voters would never get the chance to ever know what their Prime Minister looked like, let alone sounded like, and so local candidates were there to represent the party to the unwashed masses. We must remember that this electoral system was not designed for MPs to represent their constituents in Parliament – it was designed for MPs to represent their party to their constituency.

As obsolete as the FPTP system is for a regionally diverse, multipartisan, educated and media-savvy Canadian public in the 21st Century, the public party subsidy offers voters a faint and meagre incentive to go and vote for who they believe in. The majority of Canadian ridings would not be considered “marginal” – by and large, our country is built up of safe seats. With the subsidy in place, voters in safe constituencies have, at the very least, been incentivised to vote for the party of their own choosing content in the knowledge that, even if their party hasn’t a snowball’s chance of taking the riding, they will receive $1.95 of public funds for each vote they receive. It’s the only direct activation of voter’s will that we have, with the electoral system we’re saddled with.

The Globe suggests that by abolishing the subsidy, we can begin to reverse trends in voter apathy – the argument being that parties that rely more on their own fundraising will be driven to perform better. In essence, it’s a textbook conservative argument that welfare disincentivises beneficiaries from seeking work. But in the political context, this argument completely ignores the electoral system which itself refuses to compute the popular vote in favour of 308 winner-takes-all miniature races.

Currently, at the national level, the Green Party can rely on about 8-10% of the popular vote, yet have consistently received 0% of the seats in the House. The NDP get 17-19% nationally, on bad polling days, and end up with only 10% of seats. Harper and the Globe define “small parties” as ones without a threatening representation in the House of Commons: yet the NDP and Greens together amass the same (or a better) proportion of the popular vote as the ruling Tories – yet this huge wealth of public support is squandered in the electorally-meaningless runner-up camp.

This electoral injustice, rectified long ago in most Westminster parliaments inheriting FPTP systems, already contributes to voter apathy in Canada – and now the Globe advocates pulling the rug out from parties already crippled by an antiquated voting system designed for a bipartisan 18th Century Britain? If you are quizzing voter apathy, look no further than our unitary government, representing just a third of voters.

An electoral system in which 17% of the votes equalled 17% of the seats in the HoC – now that might get voters excited, it might get them to the polls in bigger numbers, and it might get donors on board to support “small” parties that command significant support from voters, but no representation in the Commons.

The Harper team, and the Globe 18 months behind it, push the view that these parties are small because their seat distribution is small – and thus, they are the political equivalent of underperforming welfare cases who shouldn’t be propped up by the all-important taxpayers’ dollars.

But any assessment of party performance, and any strategy to alleviate voter apathy, has to first take aim at our ancient and inappropriate electoral process which rewards monochrome bipartisan contests. Taking aim at the party subsidy is little more than an attack on our single pillar of public financing: the pillar that helps enable parties to remain accountable to the broad, national popular will rather than well-heeled donors with conditions dangling from every cheque they send.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

Gaulle de arms

Outside my office today, a cavalcade of coaches has just driven by, complete with police escort, sirens howling, and mildly-contained chaos. It can mean only one thing:

Sarkozy.

The French President is in London to commemorate the 70th anniversary of what is generally considered the beginning of the French Resistance. Immediately following the Nazi takeover of the French levers of power, and the collaborative accord signed by Pétain, General Charles De Gaulle escaped to London from where he would try to lead a French resistance in absentia.

On 18 June 1940, he arrived at BBC headquarters to deliver a rousing speech aimed at compatriots back home, urging them not to give up the fight against their new Nazi occupiers and the Vichy Regime that accommodated them. It was stirring oratory, as it needed to be – especially as he was physically absent from his devotees back home.

Charles De Gaulle has said some, umm, galling things (sorry) in his time. But in times of trouble, Mother Mary didn’t tell him to Let It Be – no – the thrust of his speech was to say “we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.”

An excerpt in English:

“Has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!

“Believe me, I who am speaking to you with full knowledge of the facts, and who tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us victory one day. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States.”

It is impassioned stuff, though there will always be some irony in invoking the “use” of the Allies’ great Empires in the war, as if there weren’t a hint of any moral quandary about the establishment of those empires themselves, nor any resistance within Allies’ colonies in aim of their own national liberations. And of course, De Gaulle’s taking for granted the Americans’ seemingly infinite industrial resources did come at its own price: eternal reminders of the fact.

Whatever the importance of the occasion 70 years ago, it’s not certain how widely the radio broadcast was picked up back home in l’hexagone. At least, though, it did signal that we’d entered a brief period of two Frances: the official France under the Vichy, and the resistant France in its form as a scattered underground.

P.S. EU Commission head José Manuel Barroso said a couple of days ago, possibly referencing the anniversary of the De Gaulle speech as much as he was referencing big decisions around the Greek bailout, that Europe comes together best during moments of crisis. Tell it to the ash cloud! But if a new cooperative spirit can be ressurrected in remembering Europe at its worst, well, that might be nice.

Filed under: International, Politics, , , , , , , , ,

The zombie we know

Jeffrey Simpson today wonders, in his article “Sure, there’s a leadership death watch – but for which leader?” which Canadian party leader is most likely to be dumped by his party in the short to medium term: is it the LPC’s Michael Ignatieff, or the CPC’s Stephen Harper?

I might say “God willing, Harper’s days are numbered.” Surely any major party leader who fails to secure a majority government after a fourth attempt has got to be considered damaged goods? And wouldn’t we all be better off without him?

Then again (and there’s always a “then again”): Harper’s leadership puts a helpful air-brake on what might otherwise have been Conservative majority government in Canada. Given the public’s disenchantment with the soap-operatic, scandal-prone Liberals after 13 years in power, it’s more than possible that the newly-united Conservatives should have had a decent shot at securing a majority government.

Perhaps it is Canadians’ nausea at Harper’s dull authoritarianism that’s really prevented his party from soaring to mind-numbing, majority-gobbling heights? So, the progressive Canadian might say to the conservative, “Keep Harper on! Without him, you just might win big.”

Which all avoids the main question. Are the Tories likely to replace Harper if they fail to improve on their 2008 electoral performance at the next opportunity? They must be sorely tempted. If they were an NHL franchise, their coach would be surprised to still have the code to the door.

But whatever the CPC is, it’s a strategic beast, and it understands its own vulnerabilities. They can see that the big Liberal tent is divided as ever by its ancient tribal factions: red Tories, blue Liberals, and ambitious social democrats who eschewed the NDP’s lack of career mobility. A caucus that can’t support their own bills, members riven between petty filial devotions to sub-leaders and pretenders throughout the party. At least as far as it does appear.

Canada’s Tories must recognise that their party is, by its own nature, even more prone to divisive infighting. It is, lest we forget, a re-married couple (not re-married for love, but for money). Its vast Reform-leaning instincts run against the old PC grain with a friction that could become all too heated – without Harper’s authoritarian approach to party discipline.

In the public view, there are certainly better liked Tories than Stephen Harper, and there are doubtlessly ones who could personally poll in the high 30s, or potentially beyond. Harper’s MP-gagging, parliament-proroguing, evidence-censoring, fixed-term-trashing, Senate-stacking ways run counter to any straight-faced definition of an “accountable government,” and Canadians in their great assembled majority know that.

But if the CPC doubts there is anyone amongst their tribe with the requisite ruthlessness to contain the boiling, mutually-antagonistic forces within their sprawling Reform-PC motley crew, they may stick with the minority-prone devil they know and suck up whatever little victories they can, one by one. The test for Canada’s Left is not to go insane in the meantime.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , ,

Chollima vs. the Universe

Putting on a brave face against vastly superior adversaries is nothing new to North Korea. But tomorrow’s World Cup tilt versus Brazil will prove one of the more lopsided altercations in a long, long history of seemingly hopeless battles for the Hermit Kingdom.

The #105 ranked DPRK side will be hoping to count on two main factors vs the #1 ranked Brazilians. They’ll seek to:

1) aim for a draw by adopting a strong defensive game, shutting the South Americans down throughout

2) summon a hitherto-unknown karmic spirit-force who might blow, umm, “divine wind” the Koreans’ way, as willed by their Eternal President, puppeteering the match from the skies.

Who can know which approach the underdogs will focus on. What we do know is that, in 1966, the last (and only) World Cup appearance for North Korea, they defeated top-ranked Italy in the group stages and advanced to a strong quarter-final showing against Portugal – leading 3-0 at half-time, only to be disposed of 5-3 at full time. The Chollima had to fly home, but with heads held high.

Back here in 2010, many observers might pity the North Koreans for having to face football’s ultimate global supremo early in the group stages, but I have to suspect it suits them just fine. In the DPRK, the political-cultural worldview seems to hold (though what do we know?) that the world is full of seemingly unassailable giants, and that it is the noble (indeed holy) duty of the DPRK to be ever-ready to lash at them with the fury of a thousand suns.

It makes me think of this.

But where does the worldview come from? No short answer to this one. I see it as something inherited through a long history of subjugation to, and invasion by, exceedingly well-armed (and just a bit duplicitous) foreign powers. This only reinforced their extreme hermitisation – their isolationist, spiritualised dynastic system was then hijacked by a 20th Century military leadership which twisted itself into a thoroughly bizarre regal Communist/neo-Confucianist military papacy. Or something.

It’s a worldview that’s enabled the military leadership, and its Kim Family god-figureheads, to strengthen their sense of legitimacy everytime they’re dealt a serious blow from outside. Indeed, when blows from the outside are in short supply, the North Koreans do seem to actively seek them out. They wave a pseudo-existential nuclear threat in the face of the UN, with words and promises of war that almost certainly outgun capacity, while the UN is trying to keep its eyes on the serious nuclear game in Iran. They torpedo a South Korean vessel in the midst of a relatively unremarkable period of inter-Korean relations, thus launching both countries back to the brink of war once again.

The natural state for the DPRK leaders is the state of emergency, and there’s a strategic case for it – whatever religious devotion North Koreans do feel for their collective military messiah and its holy objective of total “splendid isolation”, faith can sometimes, surely, be tested. Without actual Goliaths to tussle with, the relevance of a holy army can, in time, diminish all by itself.

How will this translate on the pitch? It’s win-win, really. A DPRK victory is a crushing blow to all those who ever doubted that their land is, indeed, a land of exquisitely talented ubermensch who routinely achieve greatness and can easily smite any enemy, no matter how well-equipped or well-regarded in the so-called “rest of the world.” A DPRK loss, likewise, is an undeniable affirmation that the tournament is rigged, and the group stages are pre-designed with no other purpose than to try to sully the natural dignity of their country. The nations of the Earth conspire endlessly to harass North Korea – why should FIFA be any different?

As always, however strange it seems, North Korea just can’t (appear to) lose.

Filed under: International, Korea, Politics, , , , ,

On the subject of marriage…

These are apples I could like.

…though with qualifications 🙂

As Jack Layton is the most successful NDP leader since Broadbent, and the first in yonks to poll decently in Quebec, I’ve got no reason to suggest he leave his post. Nor do I have any reason to suspect Thomas Mulcair would do a better job.

But, between the Greens and NDP, we do have a much more coherent coupling, and genuine space to end up with a progressive party that gets both votes and seats – enough, if spread right, to outgun an independent Liberal Party, no less.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , ,