Universal or selective human rights?

This week, the Prime Minister is in China to supposedly thaw relations he has been criticized for frosting since the years he was in opposition criticizing the government.

Stephen Harper, and indeed, a number of prominent Conservatives have, for years, roundly admonished China for its poor human rights record since the days of the Reform Party. For this, members of the opposition have suggested that the Conservatives firm stance against China has harmed our economic relationship with that country.

Among the Conservatives who have stood up against China is Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration. My first exposure to Jason Kenney’s breadth of politics came in 2005 when he and members of the Alberta Conservative caucus held a pro-Tibet movie night at the Conservative Party Convention in Montreal. In January of that year, while on a parliamentary trip overseas, Kenney was criticized by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin for embarrassing the Chinese when he visited the home of pro-democracy reformer Zhao Ziyang.

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In the Afghan detainee transfer agreement signed by General Rick Hillier and the Afghanistan defence minister, an entente was struck to prevent human rights abuses. Among other important guarantees it declares, “No person transferred from the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities will be subject to the application of the death penalty.” This is a strict yet progressive demand for the unstable government of an emerging democracy which in darker days used to slit the throats of thieves like sheep before a stadium of spectators in Kandahar province.

Last week China put a bullet in the back of the head of two company managers in the tainted milk scandal where six children died of contaminated milk. With an estimated 470 executions in 2008, China is believed to be the world’s leading executioner.

In Canada, some of our Liberal Parliamentarians have shown surprise over the past three weeks at allegations that some Afghans treat their fellow Afghans with callous disregard and fault Canadian officials for an uneasy balancing of coddling of a country reborn out of rubble going through the birth pangs of establishing a civil society, with the brutal hell of war against combatants that wear no uniform, splash acid in the faces of schoolchildren, and cut off the ears of those that would work to bring good governance to their country.

Meanwhile, Liberal observers have criticized the Conservatives for pushing human rights in China at the expense of trade. Liberals such as John McCallum describe the “broken Canada-China relation[ship] under the Conservative government” and Scott Brison who prematurely boasted that “the fact that Ignatieff is able to go to China as the leader of the opposition before the ruling party leader does is a clear indication of how good and solid relation[s] between the Liberals and China [are].” Ignatieff subsequently canceled his trip due to a pending fall election triggered by the Liberal leader himself.

This sentiment expressed by McCallum and Brison is not exclusive to the critics of the Liberal benches in the House of Commons. Rebukes of Stephen Harper’s tough stance on China’s abuses have also been echoed by former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien who complains that Canada used to be China’s “best friend”. Chretien bemoaned that comparatively, in the first three years that he was Prime Minister, the p’tit gars had visited China eight or nine times. Never mind the fact that Chretien started lobbying the Chinese government within weeks of stepping down as Canada’s twentieth Prime Minister.

According to Amnesty International, China is guilty of a number of human rights abuses,

Growing numbers of human rights activists were imprisoned, put under house arrest or surveillance, or harassed. Repression of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians, continued. Falun Gong practitioners were at particularly high risk of torture and other ill-treatment in detention. Christians were persecuted for practising their religion outside state-sanctioned channels. Despite the reinstatement of Supreme People’s Court review of death penalty cases, the death penalty remained shrouded in secrecy and continued to be used extensively. Torture of detainees and prisoners remained prevalent. Millions of people had no access to justice and were forced to seek redress through an ineffective extra-legal petition system. Women and girls continued to suffer violence and discrimination.

Conservatives are usually criticized for dealing with issues in absolutes, in rights and wrongs, in black and white. Meanwhile Liberals sometimes suffer a charge of moral relativism from their opponents as they are accused of dealing in shades of grey. On their assessment of a nascent democracy suffering in horrific ravages of war, a country attempting to cast off ages of illiberalism and lawlessness, it is evident that Liberals have little sympathy for the harsh realities of an imperfect situation. Whereas on a country with an often brutal established dictatorial order, a country with a $4.3 Trillion GDP, and a country that actually bans human rights monitoring groups from operating within its borders, Liberals such as Bob Rae suggest:

“The Chinese are very concerned about stability, they’re very concerned about order. They’re very concerned about a billion people. They’re fearful of the consequences of losing that kind of control. Seems to me we just have to keep on trying to persuade them that liberty is the better way. It’s something we believe in and something we should share with them.” — Bob Rae

If you’re looking for Rae in the halls of Parliament these days, his tolerance seems selective and true concern seems focused elsewhere,

The opposition parties say it is not believable that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his senior ministers weren’t aware of Colvin’s troubling reports. If true, they could implicate Canada in the war crime of complicity in torture.

“The fact of the matter is that if there was ever at any time a view that there was a serious risk of people being mistreated, those prisoners should never have been transferred and such transfer is a breach of international law,” said Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae.

Torture is abhorrent and is a fundamental violation of human rights. I’m confident that most would agree that such a violation is terrible no matter where or against whom it occurs. Yet can we reasonably expect perfection from Afghans in an imperfect situation in their war-torn country while diminishing and invoking willful ignorance of the abuses by a modern, industrialized and enviably affluent state such as China?

Call and answer

I like Warren Kinsella. One of the reasons I like him is because he went for my open question, brought in the other side to weigh in, and now this allows us to fill in the blanks too. Oh, and he introduced me to Bob Rae, the next leader of the Liberal party!

Tweet the first:

Tweet the second:

Other potential tweets:

“Senate reform: can’t wait to pass legislation that has popular support by folks that have a democratic mandate from Canadians! The scotch budget, however, will remain.”

“Respect for the Alberta: Liberal-free since 2006. WK may return but has to wear black hat in the parade”

“When the ‘decade of darkness’ for the military re: Liberal investment is so far in the past, kids file it along with ‘moon landing’ and ‘Michael Jackson’ as crazy #$@* that happened that only our history books can really tell us about”

“When the Liberal party stops offering us out-of-touch humanities professors to feast upon, and tosses us a street-brawler like Jean Chretien or (oh please) Ruby Dhalla”

“When ‘Unity Crisis’ is mistaken as the name for an 80s revival band that covers Starship, rather than our recurring Liberal ballot headache”

What other things are you hopeful for in the future?

Obama sets example for Canada

The election of Barack Obama is historic in many ways, most significantly in the progression along the troubled history of race in the United States. On Tuesday, Americans turned out in record numbers to give Obama a decisive win and vault the first African-American into the highest office in that country. The Obama team also set new records along the fundraising front and may indeed set a precedent for the financing of elections in the future.

According to opensecrets.org, a website on money in politics run by the Centre for Responsive Politics, Senator Obama raised $639 million during the 2008 Presidential election cycle with 91% of that sum coming from individual donations. Comparatively, Senator McCain raised $360 million, 54% coming from the same type; the majority of the dollars from each candidate’s campaign came from people making personal donations to their favourite candidate. A striking difference between campaigns was Obama’s refusal of public funding. The Illinois senator took $0 of public financing while his Republican counterpart from Arizona took over $84 million to make up 23% of his campaign’s spending power.

We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory. — President-elect Barack Obama, Chicago November 4th, 2008

In Canada, the Reform Party under Preston Manning started a tradition of passing the hat in church basements and legion halls during rallies, speeches or simple administrative meetings. A donation of $5, $20 or $100 was passed on to bring change to Ottawa. The tradition continues today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, though in a much more sophisticated way and one that is buoyed by databases and telemarketing. Conservatives have historically raised an average individual donation of about $100 while Liberals used to depend on fewer but larger sums. Jean Chretien –perhaps to kneecap his long-coveting Prime Ministerial successor — changed the way election financing was done in Canada by banning corporate and union donations. Chretien replaced the private financing of political parties by special interests with public financing by government. For each vote that a party earns during an election, that party receives $1.75 per year from the federal treasury.

On the surface, this reconfiguration of campaign financing seems to rebalance the funding equation from powerful institutions to those that ought to have the first and last word in any democracy. Indeed, voters are empowered not only when they give campaigns their vote but also when they do so with the knowledge that instead of corporate or union backing, there is a small financial sum that comes with each ballot cast that sustains parties instead. However, while Chretien’s system solves one problem, it creates another.

In Quebec where a province defaults to the inert rather than the principled, a problem exists with Chretien’s model of campaign financing. The Bloc Quebecois, doing all it could to supress its core principle of sovereignty for that province, rather stood against — indeed, as a block to — Conservative ideas in the 2008 general election and against Liberal corruption in 2006. In the first half of this year, the Bloc raised just over $70,000 but received $1.5 million in public financing. Donations are a result of direct support whereas that larger windfall comes from standing against something rather than offering something better. The Bloc Quebecois would not exist if it had to rely upon direct non-governmental financing from supporters.

This summer, I met a member of the Obama campaign’s senior staff in New York City. Discussing the presidential campaign and some Canadian politics, I was told that the Liberal Party had approached the Obama campaign to attain some insight into their fundraising capacity and to create a similar system in Canada so that a large number of small donors could fill their campaign war chest. The staffer told me that after initial discussions, the Liberal Party never followed up in any significant way.

A tried-and-true election strategy for the Liberal Party has been to strike fear into the electorate about what a Conservative administration might mean for Canada. In the last election we were warned that a Conservative majority would allow Harper to finally implement his hidden agenda. Yet the Conservatives in power have not been innocent of taking this lower path either. Defining Stephane Dion as a weak leader and scaring the electorate as to what his “tax on everything” would mean to the economy took a negative track and suggested people vote against, rather than for the Conservatives. People are goaded out of fear to vote against and they often hold their nose for the not-as-offensive choice they end up “supporting”. Since money comes from support, we should break the model that rewards false support and strengthen one that challenges parties to offer ideas rather than fear. Government subsidization of political parties hurts Canadian politics.

The motto of Barack Obama’s campaign for President was “Yes We Can”. Under the current Canadian system, we give welfare to parties for being best able to convince Canadians of the other parties, “No They Can’t”. If we made politics about the positive (Yes), responsibility of self (We) and enablement (Can) rather than the negative (No), what one’s opponent would do (They) and a need to stop them (Can’t), perhaps we could reduce voter apathy both at the ballot box and when parties pass the hat. If we gave voters more power to finance those they support rather than sustain those they least detest we could shift Canadian politics for the better.

On Tuesday, American politics changed. It is time to end campaign welfare so that we can replace politics that scares with that which inspires.

Yes we can.

History as viewed through a different sort of lens

On the so-called “Cadscam”, some reporters are re-writing history.

Consider the following from an article by Lawrence Martin, a senior reporter for the Globe and Mail in the Parliamentary Press Gallery:

Mr. Cadman, who had left the Conservatives to sit as an independent, was therefore preparing to vote with the Liberals to keep the government afloat. But Conservative Party officials, Mr. Moore said, were in discussions with Mr. Cadman, trying to work something out. [emphasis mine]

Now, here’s an excerpt from Steve Rennie’s CP story:

Harper said while he wasn’t optimistic about their chances of persuading Cadman – a former Tory MP who had left the party to sit as an Independent MP – to vote with the Conservatives to bring down Martin’s government, he urged two people “legitimately representing the party” to tread cautiously. [emphasis mine]

When Brian Mulroney was testifying before the Ethics committee, opposition MPs did their best to refer to former “Conservative” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, rather than “former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney”. In fact, we can see it here in an excerpt from this 2008 article in the Toronto Star:

Lawyers for all three men have also argued Gomery showed signs of bias through various statements to the press — he memorably described Chrétien’s fondness for monogrammed golf balls as “small-town cheap” — and in his decision to hire Bernard Roy, the law partner and longtime friend of former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, as the inquiry’s chief counsel.

So, what does this mean? Remember the Liberal alarms that went off post-merger that decried that the new Conservative Party was not the new version of the Progressive Conservative party? Now, we see opposition MPs try to associate Mulroney with the current Conservative party. Now, we see an entirely new invention by associating Chuck Cadman’s history with the Conservatives/Tories when he never sat as an MP for an party called Conservative! Chuck Cadman sat as a Reform MP and then as an Alliance MP. It suits Lawrence Martin’s narrative to throw around the “Conservative” label as his story discusses the dark cloud that has surrounded Conservatives lately (he even seems to extend the adjective “conservative” to the now jailed Conrad Black to imply the political noun “Conservative”). To streamline the scandal narrative, press flacks are revising history to label Cadman (and his alleged inducement back into the fold) as a Conservative-Independent-Conservative progression of events. Newspaper readers don’t need to be helped along; giving news consumers the full and truthful context is superior than bending affiliations to fit a desired storyline.

UPDATE: I was wrong. Cadman sat briefly as a Conservative MP post merger until he lost his nomination and then sat as an independent a few months later. I think that it is still more accurate to describe Cadman as an Alliance/Reform legacy MP rather than Conservative as the context of “Cadscam” relates to his independence from the new Conservative legacy. Still, I argued against what was factual. My apologies to Lawrence Martin.

The Green Paradox

On the topic of greenhouse gases (GHGs), I think that the Conservatives will have more success cutting Canada’s output of them than the Liberals ever did. This is because swing voters are skeptical that the government will accomplish GHG reduction and therefore the Tories have something significant to prove. In a similar sense, we can look at the Liberals and their elimination of the deficit. As in that case, the ruling party is receiving pressure from the other side of the spectrum and the swing voter is skeptical of their abilities on the particular issue. This provides incentive as these voters and the pendulum swing between parties causing government turnover.

For some reason, people are more likely to believe that parties on the left will be more proficient at GHG reductions. Certainly, the record doesn’t indicate this. I’d like to show that this reasoning and the result are paradoxical.

On the environment, left-wing parties can take this sort of thinking for granted and say green things and do much of nothing. Conversely, voters don’t see the Conservative Party as the natural choice to progress on the issue and working uphill, the Conservatives are framed as a party with a lot to prove on their ability to reduce GHGs. This provides incentive to act instead of taking voter prejudices for granted as Liberals do on this particular issue. If the environment is framed as the number one issue, the Conservatives don’t have the convenience of solely paying lip service.

Conservatives have already secured the voters that favour a tax-cutting government. What they will act upon lies where they have to extend themselves to get non-traditional votes. Similarly, Liberals have more of a secure hold on environmental voters as Canadians believe the party to more of a regulating party than their Conservative opponents.

Dion’s strategy of making the environment an issue right from the start of his leadership campaign is challenging Harper to be more flexible and as a result, he is able to grab a few extra votes. Dion is handing the incumbent an opportunity to show agility over an extended period of time. Of course, it will be difficult for Mr. Harper to show real progress on GHG reductions as the current economy has quite a lot of inertia against the trend of overall GHG reduction. However, if the PM can show sincere policy that he’s put in place to get the job done over a realistic period of time, he should be able to neutralize Dion and show the voter than he’s acting in good faith on the issue.

Strategically, Dion could have made the environment a smaller issue (and one of many others) to prompt little action from the government to act on GHGs. Subsequently, he could have fired on all hybrid cylinders during an election to contrast how Canada could be different under his carbon-cutting direction (even if it is all talk).

Some say that it was the Reform party that prompted Paul Martin to balance the budget. Perhaps now it’ll be Dion that prompts Harper to succeed on the environment. And remember, on the budget, only Martin got credit.

Does the same logic apply with the Conservative party and tax-cutting? Specifically that voters expect Conservatives to be the party of tax relief and reduced spending? I believe that this reasoning does apply to the Tories, but only to a certain extent. People expect the Conservatives to cut taxes and to a degree, empty talk and promises will go far to satiate the voters. However, over an extended period of time, as we’ve seen, the conservative movement is likely to tear apart the Conservative Party if it doesn’t see its ideological agenda fulfilled. While the Liberals faced pressure from Reform to put the government’s books in order, Conservatives face not only opposition pressure but pressure from within to keep it’s course. It will be interesting to see how Conservative party addresses the environmental issues while balancing the prospect of electoral defeat with that of devolution from within. Or can it find a common path that spares it from both?

Only one vote so far…

A whip, in a legislature, is the member of a party who is responsible for ensuring member attendance at votes, for handing out offices, standing committee assignments and seat location in the House. Whips are also famously known for enforcing party discipline.

For the Conservative Party, that title (and the responsibility that goes with it) lies in the hands of Jay Hill, an MP elected under the Reform banner back in 1993. Hill has been the whip for the Conservative Party, the PC-DRC, the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party which likely makes him the only person to be a whip in four parties in any country with a parliamentary system of government.

I’ve chatted with Hill on a number of occasions and he once told me that the only vote outcome which the Conservative government didn’t know before hand was that of the Afghanistan mission extension. Every other vote result (not totals per se, but ultimate outcome) was known by the government before the MPs voted. Quite an interesting fact from this 39th session of Parliament, I thought. (Of course, since this was communicated to me in private I contacted Hill’s office to get the “OK” before writing it here.)

The Afghanistan mission extension vote passed by a narrow margin last May (149-145).

Senator-elect to serve in the Senate!

I was in question period yesterday to see a bit of Canadian history unfold.

Mr. Kevin Sorenson (Crowfoot, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, as part of our campaign promise for democratic reform, our Conservative government put forward Bill C-43, which establishes the national process for consulting Canadians on their preferences for Senate appointment through election. We have recently learned that Senator Dan Hays, who holds the seat from Alberta, will be retiring from the Senate after it rises for the summer.

Could our Prime Minister advise the House, Canadians and Albertans on how he will be filling this vacancy?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): First, Mr. Speaker, let me take the opportunity to congratulate Senator Hays on his long public service, including his role as leader of the opposition and Speaker of the Senate.

We do have Bill C-43 tabled. On the other hand, the province of Alberta did some time ago hold a popular consultation for the filling of a Senate vacancy. When that seat comes due, I will recommend to the Governor General the appointment of Mr. Bert Brown.

This is fantastic news for western populists who have been championing senate reform for the past 20 years.

The resignation of Hays has allowed Harper to accelerate the appointment of an elected senator and to realize an old Reform Party ideal.

Once the process of appointing senators becomes normalized, it will be difficult for Prime Ministers to make unelected appointments.

Senate reform may become a key aspect of this Prime Minister’s legacy, despite the fact that it began with the less than ideal appointment of Michael Fortier.

UPDATE: Yukon urged to follow suit

On this day in history…

…a woman named Deb Grey became the first elected Reform party MP. On March 13th, 1989 Grey was elected by the constituents of the federal riding of Beaver River in Northern Alberta.

Affectionately called the “Iron Snowbird” by constituents and supporters Grey won the 1989 by-election just months after finishing fourth place in the previous General Election. The riding was vacated due to the death of John Dahmer, a PC MP in the Mulroney government.

At the time, she was described as a better communicator than most politicians by Preston Manning, the leader of the new Reform Party which had only formed 16 months earlier. Her common sense communication style likely rooted from her profession as a school teacher, her job before being sent to Ottawa to represent Beaver River.

Her campaign reflected much of the populism for which the party became famous, including taking a letter from the residents of Beaver River to the Central Bank over inflation caused by overspending in Central Canada. Particularly memorable for people that worked on her campaign was the “cavalcade of cars” dressed up in Reform colours which assembled from all points in the riding, from neighbouring regions and indeed from all corners of Alberta to distribute literature throughout the riding to promote their candidate. Grey also took advantage of growing Western anger with Mulroney’s government and famously warned Mulroney “beware the Ides of March, because Beaver River has a surprise for you.” She was also able to gain support by attending the PC nomination battle and introducing herself between the ballots of that contentious meeting. Logically, some supporters of losing candidates saw a better choice in Grey.

After carrying the Reform banner to Ottawa, Grey served as deputy leader, interim Opposition leader (only female leader of the opposition in history). She also had the pleasure of having her coffee made and office plants watered by the current Prime Minister; Stephen Harper was her first legislative assistant.

That time when I met Elizabeth May

This week I also met Elizabeth May. The leader of the Green Party was in high spirits that day despite Garth Turner’s betrayal of everyone (conservatives, constituents, May and the Greens) just a few hours earlier. Turner campaigned for May in London North Centre, teased us all by telling us that he was considering “going Green”. He even turned his back on his constituents, which during a townhall in Halton, about 1 in 4 told Garth to go Green while not one told him to go Liberal.

Anyway, this post is about Elizabeth May. Unfortunately, we didn’t have too much time to chat.

stephen-taylor-elizabeth-may.jpg
Click to enlarge

It would be interesting to see May in a debate with party leaders during an election. However, should a party have at least one elected (or sitting) MP in order to have such a platform? What is your opinion?

If I remember correctly, Reform was allowed to debate only after Deb Grey won a by-election. If Turner had gone Green, he would have been a sitting, yet unelected Green MP. What should the threshold be? Also, consider that the laws governing the identity of a “party” have changed since 1989 when Grey became the first Reform MP.

You’ll find Liberals advocating that May should be allowed to debate because the Green vote is thought to cut into NDP support. NDPers thus are less likely to support the idea. Since Conservatives are depending on the NDP to split the left, they’re more likely to support the NDP position.

What may be certain though, is that we ought to have clear guidelines for Green Party inclusion in a televised debate.

BUT… this brings us to another topic to consider. The national networks are largely in charge of debate format and the participants invited and their decisions are largely subjective and outside of parliamentary review and jurisdiction. If a debate were held in a different forum (and medium — say… online) who would accept an invitation to debate and on what terms? If Harper, Dion, Duceppe and May accepted an invitation, would Layton turn down the opportunity to debate?

Is there such thing as an “official” debate?