Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 3: Minister of Injustice

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

From the beginning, the Harper government’s attitude towards our judiciary has been baldly partisan. In the 2006 election Stephen Harper informed Quebecers not to fear any excesses from a Conservative majority. “Liberal courts” would hold him in check, limiting his ability to impose a right-wing agenda. To so brand Canada’s strictly independent courts was an early red flag in the politicization of our judicial system. Harper’s first (In)justice Minister, Vic Toews, was a long-time critic of judges(1) and immediately began politicizing their appointment.

Two of the three mandates of the Department of Justice are “working to ensure that Canada is a just and law-abiding society with an accessible, efficient and fair system of justice” and “promoting respect for rights and freedoms, the law and the Constitution”. Clear direction for how the Minister (and government) should behave, yet we see the opposite.

Presented with a court decision contradicting their ideological sensibility, the Tories refuse to accede. They fight and delay, wasting public funds and tying up our courts. In the end, appeals exhausted, they essentially ignore the verdict and carry on unconcerned. For Toews this was old hat; as Manitoba’s (In)justice Minister in 1997 he’d refused to implement Canada’s gun registry. Is this an example to set for our citizens, especially our children? If you don’t like the rule, fight it doggedly; if you lose, break the rule anyhow. I would not call this respect for the law or constitution.

Canadians facing execution abroad traditionally had our government’s help getting their sentences commuted to life in prison. Not anymore. Shunning a series of federal court orders, our government routinely turns its back on Canadians on death row. We don’t execute our own citizens, but we don’t object when others do.

With Omar Khadr, captured in battle at age 15, the path should be clear. For child soldiers, the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates “all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.” Yet we’ve left him to rot as President Obama tries to close Guantanamo down; even abetted his illegal interrogation. Despite repeated federal court rulings, our government continues to ignore our treaty obligations.

Likewise with Vancouver’s Insite safe injection centre. Unhappy with a negative decision, the Tories appealed. The appeal court handed down an even stronger ruling against them, so now Minister Rob Nicholson is spending more of our tax dollars taking it to the Supreme Court.

Decades of acting “tough on crime” in the United States had little benefit, and measures like mandatory minimum sentencing are being relaxed in favour of greater judge discretion. Here in Canada, despite a decreasing crime rate, we go the other way, reducing the power of judges to sentence based on the specifics of a crime. Apparently what Canada needs is more one-size-fits-all incarceration at an annual taxpayer expense of $90 million.

A colleague observed: “responsible government knows its limits. We don’t want politicians running our businesses – that’s why we have a free market. We don’t want them performing open-heart surgery – that’s why we have surgeons. Likewise, we don’t want politicians deciding matters in our criminal courts – that’s why we have judges.”

Our elected Parliament has the power to write laws. It falls to our courts to interpret and enforce them. What part of this do our Ministers of (In)justice not understand? Rule of law should mean you follow the laws, not ignore them until you can re-write them in your favour.

Next week: Minister Against Fisheries.

(1) Carol Harrington, "Manitoba minister riles justice conference", Globe and Mail, 30 January 1999, A16 & Paul McKie, "Top judge takes shot at justice boss", 10 June 1999, City Page.

UPDATE For some reason this particular column has attracted a lot of attention. People have reposted it to three other sites so far:

Free Dominion

Parry Sound-Muskoka Liberal EDA blog

Canadian Election 2009

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 2: Minister Against Democratic Renewal

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; this is the original, without the Examiner's minor edits).

In the past, Canada had “Ministers without Portfolio,” but today I again describe a distressing new trend, “Ministers Against Portfolio,” whose efforts oppose what the ministry is supposed to achieve.

This week: Minister of Democratic Renewal, created under Prime Minister Paul Martin to address what the 1990s deficit-killer coined our “democratic deficit”. Certainly such deficit exists; the number of people who don’t even vote outnumber those who voted for our governing party. Add the fact that only 30,000 voters elect each Bloc MP, but almost a million Green Party voters get none, and you can see that we indeed have a real democratic deficit.

Such is to be expected with an obsolete system, designed over 5 centuries ago, not changed much since. Would you trust 19th-century medicine to heal you? Would transportation options of the 18th century get you where you need to go on time? Would a pre-industrial communications system keep you in touch? Of course not. So why rely on such an out-of-date approach to elections?

The Minister for Democratic Renewal certainly has his work cut out for him. What, then has he been up to? Harper’s first appointment, Peter Van Loan, passed the Fixed Elections Act, a great idea I wholeheartedly support. Too bad Harper decided to ignore his own law, rendering the Act meaningless.

Next Van Loan attacked voter fraud with strict new photo ID and address standards. Since voter fraud was never really a problem, this didn’t do much good, but it did see many thousands of bona fide voters turned away from the polls. (The most affected? Students and the homeless, who don’t normally vote Conservative.) His most trumpeted measure was adding a couple of extra advance polling days. Of course, when Harper broke the fixed election date in 2008 this bill died on the order paper. So Van Loan’s successor, Steven Fletcher, re-introduced it last summer, only to see it die again under prorogation. Apparently even this minor tweak can’t make it past Harper’s House games.

Fletcher has opined against the per-vote political funding. It is this which marks him as the Minister Against Democracy. In all their wailing about taxpayer money subsidizing political parties, the Conservatives ignore two of the Big Three. Each party gets 50% of their election spending back, which favours established parties able to borrow millions of dollars. Local candidates exceeding 10% of the vote likewise get a 60% rebate – again favouring old-line parties. But the privately-donated money Fletcher prefers over per-vote funding is also taxpayer-subsidized, although the Minister never mentions that. Up to 75% of each “private” political contribution is publicly refunded through income tax credits. This favours those with higher incomes who can afford to give, and pay enough tax to use the credit Advantage: parties of the rich elite.

Of these three public subsidies, the fairest is per-vote, since you don’t have to be rich to support your party, and the party needn’t be long-established to benefit. Each party gets what exactly voters give them. So naturally, this is the funding the Minister Against Democracy wants to kill. Yet not a word about restricting how much MPs can spend from the public purse promoting themselves and their own party. (Three of the top 10 spenders? Helena Geurgis, Peter Van Loan, Patrick Brown).

Next week: Minister Against Justice.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 1: Minister Against the Environment

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Decades ago, Canada had a cabinet position called “Minister without Portfolio”, used by the Prime Minister to keep a senior MP in Cabinet without having to assign them specific roles.

But now we see a whole new phenomenon, the “Minister Against Portfolio”. This is not an official title, but it might as well be for several ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. It’s a title for any minister whose words or actions seem to actively work against what his or her ministry is supposed to accomplish.

The most prominent would be Jim Prentice, “Minister Against the Environment”. Traditionally this minister’s duty is protecting our natural environment, foundation of our health and wealth, against harm. He should provide a check or balance against ministries whose actions could lead to environmental destruction. For example, he could prevent Natural Resources Canada from depleting our natural resources or destroying biodiversity in its rush to promote mining and logging interests. Likewise, someone must ensure the Minister of Fisheries will have something to administrate at the end of the day.

Prentice’s mantra is we must “balance” environmental and economic concerns. Setting aside that this feeds the false and harmful idea that business and ecology must oppose each other, his stance leaves the situation dangerously unbalanced. It is the job of the Environment Minister to provide balance by advocating for the environment. If he takes a “balanced”(*) view while the rest of Cabinet pushes the for-profit rape of the Earth, then there is no advocate for the Earth. It’s like having a referee, but no opposing team. I think we know how one-sided that game would be. Prentice is not supposed to sit on the fence; he’s supposed to take a side.

Well, actually, he has taken a side; unfortunately, the wrong one. The Navigable Waters Protection Act helped guard our streams, rivers, and lakes from harmful development for over a century. By gutting these protections, Prentice took the side of those who would divert, pollute, or consume our most precious resource, clean water, as a side-effect of depleting some other resource. Among the most water-intensive and water-polluting industries in Canada is the strip-mining of the tar sands. Prentice knows all about this, of course, because it takes place in his home province of Alberta. A Calgary MP in charge of the Environment Ministry? Can you say fox guarding the henhouse?

This week Prentice attacked Quebec’s new stricter auto emissions standards as “absolutely counter-productive, utterly pointless,” a “folly of attempting to go it alone”. He hasn’t done his homework – over a dozen states and provinces comprising almost half the North American auto market are heading this direction. A minister for (not against) the environment would know that.

Serious accusations should be supported by facts, so how about these: since becoming Minister (against) the Environment, Prentice has met with environmental groups only 10 times. In that same period, he has met with oil and other industry lobbyists 90 times! What’s wrong with this picture?

Instead of a player on the side of the environment, or even a referee with the impossible task of ensuring a one-sided game is fair, Jim Prentice is actually cheerleading for the other side. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Next week: Minister Against Democratic Reform.

* Sorry, this is actually a speech from when Jim Prentice was Industry Minister. But since his speaking points didn't change one iota when he moved to the Environment portfolio, does it really matter?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Monday, February 1, 2010

No gold medal in democracy for our prime minister

(This is based on the text of my speech to the Barrie CAPP rally January 23, and published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.)

The funny thing about Prime Minister Steven Harper's prorogation of Parliament is how many reasons he has given for it.

It's a chance to "re-calibrate" -- whatever that means.

It's so we don't get distracted from the Olympics. It's so a shuffled cabinet can bone up on its new portfolios.

It's for this, it's for that. Yet all of these shuffling reasons are just excuses. The real reason is to avoid accountability, especially for the cover-up of mistakes made about Afghanistan.

The government has been putting forward a smoke screen of excuses and accusations. It claimed it didn't know about any abuses - then respected diplomat Richard Colvin said it did.

The government denied he had warned it - he proved he had. It tarred Colvin as a Taliban sympathizer, a terrorist dupe - then he proved that other countries' officials were telling their own governments and ours the same thing as he was.

We learned the Red Cross had sent warnings as early as 2006. That Lawyers Against War had provided legal briefs to all MPs back in February 2004. The signs had all been there, the lies were running out, the truth was in danger of being revealed.

So Harper pulled the plug. The House has been prorogued, MPs sent home. Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, has been dropped from his job before he can finish. His desk sits empty.

We saw the same with the RCMP. Paul Kennedy, chair of the commission for public complaints, documented a number of serious problems. He too was dropped, with no permanent replacement expected anytime soon. We have lacked a permanent information commissioner since June - a role critical to transparency and accountability.

Canada plays a key role on the world stage as peacekeeper and rescuer. Countries like Afghanistan and Haiti need to trust us, and know that we play by the rules.

Nobody expects us to be perfect. But what Canadians need to know, and what other countries need to see, is that when we screw up, we 'fess up.

Yet that's something that our government isn't too good at. Oh, it can screw up - it can screw up with the best of 'em. But it doesn't know how to 'fess up. Instead, it covers up. And that's not transparency, that's not accountability, that's not democracy. That's not why we elect our MPs.

This is no partisan matter. It appears that Canada may have failed to live up to its obligations under the Geneva Convention and other human rights treaties going back as far as 2002. If any party is at fault, it was the Liberals as much as the Conservatives. But by covering this up, the Conservatives have drawn the blame to themselves.

And this isn't the fault of our troops. They do us proud, and do what we tell them. If we give them bad orders, it's not their fault. But when the going gets tough, they stay in the fight. They don't pack up and go home just because it's stressful, it's inconvenient, it's a hassle.

So how come Harper can just cut and run? This is not a drill.

We elect MPs to make wise decisions, to keep a close eye on our government, our bureaucracy, our military. But right now they're not. They must get back to work.

As our MPs kick back to watch the Olympics in paid comfort - on their home theatre, by satellite at the local sports bar, or from front row seats in Vancouver - keep one thing in mind: Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Be involved.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.