Friday, April 18, 2014

The Steyn Is Back ... and He Still Doesn't Get It

Mark Steyn has returned to the pages of the National Post, and he is continuing his crusade to never be held accountable for his "free speech".  (No surprise there, Steyn and Levant have been mutual cheerleaders for ages)

Mr. Steyn seems to be confused about the difference between free speech, free speech without consequences.  As always, his argument boils down to being able to say whatever the heck you want, and nobody should be able to hold you accountable for it.

He raises several instances where he claims that "free speech" is being unreasonably abrogated:

In California, Mozilla's chief executive is forced to resign because he once made a political donation in support of the pre-revisionist definition of marriage. 

At Westminster, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee declares that the BBC should seek 'special clearance' before it interviews climate sceptics, such as fringe wacko extremists like former Chancellor Nigel Lawson.
Let's give these two examples a little closer scrutiny, shall we?

Brendan Eichs resigned as CEO of Mozilla as a result of it becoming public knowledge that he had financially supported the pro-Proposition 8 campaign in California.  Nobody has said that he has no right to do that.  He's perfectly free to do so.  Similarly, the users and developers behind Mozilla have an equal right to say that they don't like the idea of being led by a man who is objectively hostile to many of their peers and colleagues.  

Open source developers are notoriously liberal creatures.  They don't like the idea of bigotry and oppression being fomented by their leaders.  So, what happened when Mr. Eichs stepped in as CEO?  A few enterprising individuals went and did a bit of digging into Mr. Eichs' public record and found that he had acted in a manner they didn't approve of.  This was publicized, and the community around Mozilla began to protest rather vocally.  

Was Mr. Eichs' right to free speech (or action) being "suppressed"?  Not really.  Nobody is telling him to "shut up", and in fact I'm quite sure that Mr. Eichs could make quite a living for himself on the lecture circuit with Mr. Steyn, I'm sure.  What has happened is the community within which Mr. Eichs resides chose to censure him for what they perceived to be an inappropriate action.  (I won't pontificate on the proportionality of the consequences for Mr. Eichs, I don't have enough information about the particulars to make much of an assessment of it)

Regarding Mr. Lawson, although I have found one or two mentions of this report from the UK House of Commons Committee, it isn't exactly widely reported precisely what was said, so I'm even more cautious about the veracity of Steyn's claims.  Of a total of 3 news results on the subject, 2 were opinion pieces - including Mr. Steyn's column), and the third was behind a paywall, so it's a little difficult to assess the details and the veracity of Mr. Steyn's interpretation of things.

Mr. Lawson's position regarding climate change is well documented, and he has been pretty clear about it for some time.  Fine.  There is nothing saying that the BBC or any other news source has to give him an audience from which to spout his beliefs.  You see, the interesting thing about this is that Mr. Lawson is free to believe whatever he wishes.  But, just as in situations where creationism crosses paths with science, he is not entitled to his own 'facts' as he chooses to make them.    Therefore, a science show on BBC talking about climate change does need to be careful when bringing in someone like Mr. Lawson as an "expert".  If the show is about the known facts, then Mr. Lawson probably is not the right person to bring in.  

Mr. Steyn seems to think that this represents a narrowing of the public discourse.  Of course, like the average creationist who argues that "the debate" should be taught in schools, he is conveniently ignoring the fact that the facts have long since narrowed things down to the point that the debate is not one of "if", but rather of "when, and how much".  When so-called "skeptics" continue to repeat the tired line that there is "ambiguity in the science" or a "lack of clarity", they eventually render themselves irrelevant to the actual discussion.  
But free speech is essential to a free society because, when you deny people 'an opportunity to act like normal political parties' there's nothing left for them to do but punch your lights out
Of course, libertarians like Mr. Steyn argue this all the time.  They seem to have forgotten the lessons that we all learned (or should have learned) during the Nazi era in Germany.  There are in fact exercises of "free speech" that need to be censured and held in abeyance, for if they are not, they can and do become the tools of oppression and violence for those who are the targets of them.

Those few who are foolish enough to "sincerely" hold those beliefs that the Nazis used to demonize Jews in 1930s Germany (or whatever other bigotry you wish to look at, such as that in Rwanda in the early 1990s) don't have a legitimate voice, for their exercise of "free speech" has consequences for others besides themselves.

The problem that Mr. Steyn's position ignores is the inherent privilege that Mr. Steyn has as a reasonably wealthy, white American.  He is not a member of a minority population subject to systemic and deliberate suppression, he is not a member of a visible minority and subject to the consequences of America's racial segregation era.  He is, in fact, quite comfortable.  As a result, he fails to recognize that in order for there to be free speech, there must also be boundaries to it.  Some of those boundaries are going to be legal, some are going to be social - matters of courtesy shall we say.

If you cannot express your ideas reasonably without violating those conventions, then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the positions that you are holding.  Are they unreasonable?  Has the society you live in moved past the assumptions that those positions are rooted in?  An excellent example of this would be the gay marriage debate in Canada:  If you raised this subject with most Canadians today, they would shrug and walk away on the basis that it has been the law of the land for close to a decade, and the world hasn't fallen apart as a result of it - holding to the argument that gay marriage should be illegal in Canada is largely seen as an archaic belief.  Society has moved beyond that issue.

Similarly, we have a fairly clear sense of what constitutes hate speech, and why hate speech is subject to censure.  I doubt that anybody would have a big problem with hauling off a white supremacist who started publicly broadcasting Nazi-era propaganda lies about Jewish people and charging them with hate crimes.  Mr. Steyn may decry what he sees as unreasonable "political correctness", and he is welcome to do so.  What is not open for debate is whether or not there should be consequences for those who not only violate the rights of others with their insistence on unbridled free speech.  There are and there will always be.

Is that an unreasonable limitation on "free speech"?  To a libertarian like Mr. Steyn, yes.  To the people who are the targets of hate speech, the question is a little different.  As I have argued many times in the past, rights and freedoms are not absolutes, rather they are a cat's cradle, where individual rights exist in constant tension with each other and the rights of others as well.  Mr. Steyn's right to free speech has limits, as does my own.  To believe otherwise is to blind oneself to the fact that we live in a social world.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

TFW: The Dark Side Of Corporate Feudalism

The Temporary Foreign Worker program has become a symbol of the worst predations of corporate thinking.  As more revelations come out, the depths that corporate groupthink can sink to are revealed.
Foreign workers recruited from Belize are accusing McDonald’s Canada of treating them like "slaves," by effectively forcing them to share an expensive apartment – then deducting almost half their take-home pay as rent. 
“When we arrived at the airport, they said, ‘We already have an apartment for you,’ so at that point we already know we don’t have a choice of where to live,” said Jaime Montero, who came to Edmonton with four others in September to work at McDonald’s. 
"We had to live there. We were told this is what we are doing," said another worker who didn't want to be named because he still works for McDonald's.
At first glance, providing an apartment that can be rented by the workers almost seems beneficent.
Five workers paying $280 bi-weekly works out to $3,030 per month. That suggests McDonald’s charged them $600 more for rent than what it paid. 
So, the corporation tried to make money off the temporary workers by charging them more in rent than the apartment actually costs the company.  Dishonourable at the least, downright crooked by my standards.  Oh, and it gets better:
“They actually said even if we leave the apartment and go rent another apartment, that McDonald’s would still deduct the rent from our salary,” said the other worker.
So, it's not even an option for the workers to move somewhere else.  The deductions for rent are happening in the payroll?  Holy cow.  This reeks of corporate feudalism at its worst.

This is exploitation, plain and simple.

Time for the TFW program to be shut down, and a detailed investigation of the practices of every company involved.  Worker exploitation is wrong.  Dead wrong.  The sociopaths who are exploiting workers should be charged and held accountable for their misdeeds.

... and the TFW program should be shut down posthaste.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On The Murders In Calgary Yesterday

Yesterday five university students were brutally murdered at a house party near the University of Calgary.

The headlines have been lurid, the details of the story as it unfolded on the radio yesterday were positively traumatizing.  My heart goes out to the families of the victims, but also to the family of the accused.

I have no doubt that in the coming months we will hear some very vocal calls for a harsh punishment for the person who committed these crimes.

But, I want people to take a step back and think about this for a moment.  The accused is facing 5 First Degree Murder charges.  If he is convicted of even one of those, he will be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.  Automatically.  The law is quite clear on this - it is a life sentence, with a minimum of 25 years before he is eligible for parole.

Consider for a moment the circumstances.  An end-of-semester party, to which the accused was invited.  He went there after he finished his shift at a local grocery store.  Then, shortly after he arrives, he picks up a weapon (a kitchen knife, perhaps), and starts killing people.  There is no known grudge involved between the accused and any of the victims; the accused has no prior history of violent crime.  Nothing about this that has made it into the public forum has the appearance being a deliberate, planned crime.

It is my hope that when the accused undergoes psychiatric assessment, that he is found to have experienced a psychotic episode.  The timing is right, with early adulthood being a primary time for schizophrenia onset.  A psychotic episode would explain the otherwise inexplicable tragedy that unfolded in the early morning hours of April 15.

At least if it does turn out to be a psychotic episode, we can understand what happened as a tragic result of a detachment from reality - whether temporary or long term.  There is at least an opportunity to deal with the causes more directly.  A "not criminally responsible" finding would see the accused placed in a secure psychiatric facility indefinitely - but under active treatment.

The other option is that the accused is some kind of horrible human being who is frankly beyond my comprehension.  I sincerely hope that is not the case for the sake of all involved.

[Update 17:08]
CBC is reporting two key pieces of information this afternoon on the matter of de Groode's mental health:
De Grood had an initial meeting Tuesday before a justice of the peace by telephone from his hospital bed, where he has been kept over concerns about the state of his mental health, sources told CBC News.
I have my suspicions as to what this could indicate.  Generally speaking nobody is kept in a psychiatric unit unless the present a danger to themselves or others as a result of their mental condition.
Matthew de Grood is now being held in a secure psychiatric facility after being accused of stabbing five young adults to death at a Calgary house party.
No surprise here, although the psychiatric assessment appears to have been moved up the priority list.    This makes me suspect that he may well have been exhibiting symptoms of a psychotic break after his arrest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Stealing Our Democracy: Linda Frum, Talking Points and the Dumbf

*Dumbf = dumbfuckery - a condition that appears to be unique to the creation of Harper Government talking points regarding Bill C-23.

On Huffington Post this morning, I read Michael Bolen's commentary on Bill C-23 which led me to Linda Frum's more verbose op-ed defending her TWITter position from earlier this week.

Ms. Frum is a shadow of her brother when it comes to writing political polemics, and the Op-Ed which the Globe and Mail had the poor judgement to publish demonstrates that in spades.

According to Ms. Frum, there's a conflict of interest in the mandated missions of Elections Canada.
Here’s the institutional conflict of interest to which I pointed: 
Elections Canada is a bureaucracy with two missions: to ensure the integrity of the voting process and also to promote voter turnout. Those two missions are contradictory. You want the biggest vote total? Accept every ballot. You want to eliminate voter fraud? Eliminating improper ballots may reduce vote totals. 
In attempting to achieve a balance between these two different missions, the evidence suggests that Elections Canada has favoured its turnout goals over preserving the integrity of the process.
Seriously?  Ms. Frum's "evidence" for this claim?
Elections expert Harry Neufeld – no supporter of the Harper government’s proposed reforms – nevertheless reported that “some 11.8 per cent of all registration activity on Election Day in May, 2011, showed serious errors, according to the national audit undertaken for this review. That … equals 114,693 voters potentially having the validity of their votes put in question.” How serious are those irregularities? We don’t know, because Elections Canada does not investigate. 
Oh ... right.  So, along come the Conservatives with a piece of legislation that responds to this issue by making it harder for so many more Canadians to vote.  Okay, the Neufeld report identifies a significant percent of election day voter registrations had errors in them.  Rather than order an in-depth investigation of the errors and addressing the causes, the Conservatives have written a law which is clearly designed to benefit their electoral goals over addressing the actual problem. 

If these "serious errors" are the result of clerical errors (incorrect transcriptions of addresses into the voter registry, misspelling names etc.), that doesn't speak to any kind of widespread voter fraud, but rather a series of issues with procedures and training.  
Consider the most problematic of all forms of voting: where the voter has no identification. In those cases, current law allows an acquaintance, friend or relative of the voter to “vouch for” that person’s right to vote. The voter in question may be a legitimate voter who genuinely lacks ID. The voter may be a visiting relative who isn’t entitled to vote in that district – or even to vote in Canada at all. Or the voter may be valid – but have already used their ID to vote once that day and is now lining up without ID to do it a second time.
This is classic Harper Government tactics - assert that something is happening, and then claim that it is an enormous problem.  Vouching has been part of our voting system for decades.  To the best of my knowledge, there is not a shred of evidence that there is any significant amount of voter fraud taking place using this mechanism, much less on a scale which has a chance of materially affecting the outcome of an election.

One of the key issues in Bill C-23 is that it is attempting to address "voter fraud", when there is precious little evidence of Voter fraud in Canada.  On the other hand, we have very clear evidence of electoral campaign fraud starting in 2006 (In-and-Out Scandal), and 2011 (Robocalls) perpetrated by the campaign machinery of the Conservatives Party.  These misdeeds are not addressed at all by C-23, and arguably clauses in C-23 are designed to further enable political parties to engage in this kind of electoral cheating.

Notable is that nobody in the CPC seems to be standing up and saying that C-23 is wrong.  Nary a peep from backbench MPs, or the party apparatus at the riding level.  Remember this next election - the Harper Government has not chosen to represent the interests of Canadians, but rather to entrench its own cynical political interests in law.

Wingnut Education In Alberta

I have a problem with these "Lifestyle Covenants" that Christian Schools seem to be in love with.

It is not that these schools are publicly funded, although I do consider it a gross abuse of public resources for them to be used in this manner which so clearly flies in the face of both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and provincial Human Rights Codes.

My primary objection to these covenants is that they reach far beyond the walls of the school itself.  It creates an environment where both students and staff are subject to constant surveillance.  If they are seen by a classmate, staff or faculty member engaging in something "unseemly", they become subject to arbitrary sanctions in their education and professional lives.

While traditionally, students are held to a certain degree of propriety outside of the school in general (e.g.  students who are caught vandalizing the neighbourhood in which the school exists may find themselves suspended or even expelled from a school), it's far from the kind of restrictions that these covenants impose:
All teachers will uphold the sanctity of marriage, defined as that between a man and a woman, and abstain from homosexual relations and sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage. 
All teachers are expected to regularly participate in the corporate worship, fellowship and ministry of their church.
Think about these.  Both are very open ended, and place what I would consider to be unbounded constraints on the staff.  The definitions used are extremely vague, and are subject to arbitrary interpretation - something which should render them invalid to start with.

For students, they impose similarly arbitrary constraints and objectives which require interpretation:
To develop the "mind of Christ" toward godliness and sin, and to teach the student how to live an overcoming life through the exercising of self-restraint and consideration of others. 
To encourage the development of self discipline and responsibility in the student based on respect for and submission to God and God ordained authority. 
To help the student develop for himself/herself a Christian world view by integrating life and studies with the Bible.
One can well imagine that this creates an environment where the student lives in perpetual fear of being "caught" doing something "wrong", and being harshly judged for it by the school, their parents and their peers.

I take great exception to these schools exercising this kind of religious control over their students and teachers outside of the school walls.  This is ultimately teaching students nothing constructive except fear and control.

Should these schools have the right to create and enforce these covenants?  If they are a privately held school, funded by tuition fees paid by the parents, then I can (to some extent) look upon these covenants as private agreements between the parties.  I may believe that they set up an environment which is fundamentally abusive to the students and unreasonably invasive in the lives of staff at the school, but the participants in the agreement are free to enter into such agreements.

However, when public money is involved as it is in the two cases recently revealed, then it is my opinion that these schools should be held accountable to the human rights legislation in Alberta and Canada.  Failure to ensure that the schools abide by the same rules that other publicly funded organizations are held to creates double standards that are profoundly troubling.

Stealing Our Democracy: The Senate Takes A Swing

Okay, now the Senate is talking about wanting to see some amendments to the Harper Government's bill to undermine Canada's democracy.
The interim report recommends: 
— Removing a provision which would allow political parties to exempt from their election expenses any money spent to raise donations from anyone who has donated at least $20 over the previous five years. Experts have called this an unenforceable loophole that would allow rich, established parties with big donors' lists to spend untold millions more during campaigns. 
— Requiring automated call service providers to retain records of campaign robocalls for three years, rather than the one year retention proposed in the bill. 
— Clarifying that Elections Canada's reduced role in promoting democracy and voter participation will not affect the independent agency's involvement in Student Vote or other educational programs aimed at elementary and high school students. 
— Specifying that both the chief electoral officer, who administers election laws, and the commissioner of elections, who enforces the law and investigates breaches, be able to inform the public of any problems they uncover in the electoral system. 
— Specifically authorizing continued communications between the chief electoral officer and the commissioner, whom the bill proposes to hive off Elections Canada and move under the auspices of the director of public prosecutions. 
— Encouraging Elections Canada to post photos of candidates on ballots, to help voters who can't read. 
— Encouraging Elections Canada to provide information about braille ballots to blind voters and to conduct a pilot project using specialized voting kiosks for the blind.
The first change on the list actually addresses one of the problematic aspects of the bill, but it is one that I consider comparatively minor.  It's a loophole that allows parties to spend stupid amounts of money contacting "previous donors" - those are people who are to a large extent already engaged in the political system.

However, it does not address the key problems with C-23 that have been identified on this blog and by others.  They have not addressed at all the issues with removing vouching, voter id requirements, the appointment of polling station officials, investigation of fraud in the electoral system and so on.

Harper's Senators are apparently acting as the trained seals that Harper likes.  They are proposing a bunch of amendments to address the "shortcomings" of the bill which do nothing to address the key problems which turn Canada's electoral system into a partisan farce on the scale of elections in Ghadaffi's Libya.  These aren't meaningful amendments, this is chaff thrown up to distract Canadians from the vileness of C-23.

Monday, April 14, 2014

TFW Program: Shut It Down NOW!

A few weeks ago, we learned of a few McDonald's restaurants abusing the Temporary Foreign Worker program by giving preferential treatment to candidates coming in under the TFW program over Canadian citizens and permanent residents.  

Today, we find out that it has been much broader in scope than just a franchise owner in Vancouver.
“I feel it’s definitely discrimination against Canadians,” said Chris Eldridge, from Lethbridge, Alta. 
Eldridge just quit his managerial job for six McDonald’s locations in Alberta, because he said he could no longer stomach denying local employees much-needed shifts to accommodate temporary foreign workers. 
“Honestly, some days I wonder, is this still Canada? Everyone is supposed to have equal rights.”Eldridge was a manager who did the worker scheduling for McDonald’s franchisee Dan Brown. He's also upset about differences in pay. Many foreign workers started at $10.80 an hour, he said, while local employees doing the same job made less.
Think about this.  We're talking about a McDonald's here.  Not exactly the kind of jobs that require a degree or specialized training to do.  We're bringing in people from overseas to fill these jobs?  What happened to the local teenagers who used to regularly fill those roles?

The TFW program was intended to fill specific gaps in the workforce where allegedly employers were "unable" to find workers with certain skills.  Then the Harper Government opened the floodgates up to allow just about any company to bring in TFWs for any reason.

The Globe and Mail published an extensive list of the companies authorized under this program.  A quick glance at the list of authorized companies shows us restaurants, fast food outlets and car washes all authorized under this program.  I find it incredible that there are shortages of workers in these areas...especially not with Canada's youth unemployment rate running between 13% and 15%.

This entire program has outlived its purpose.  It has become a tool for businesses to evade paying fair wages to Canadians.  You run a Tim Horton's franchise, and you can't find workers?  Maybe you aren't paying enough.  Oh gosh ... you might have to cut back on a couple of cruise vacations next year ... tsk.

Time to shut it down.  You want to live in Canada? - there's an immigration system for that.

Jobs for Canadians FIRST.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Implications of Flaherty's Death

Flaherty passed away suddenly this week.  I did not like Jim Flaherty's politics - a follower of Mike Harris in the 1990s, and a minister to Harper since 2006, Flaherty has consistently subscribed to following political leaders that I fundamentally disagree with.

However, I'm not writing to speak ill of the dead - that's for another time and place when I can speak more clearly and fully on the subject.  Others have already done a far more succinct job of critiquing his time as Minister of Finance than I have time for.

Even his resignation from Cabinet and the House of Commons would not have erased his voice on parliament hill.  Flaherty had been part of the political landscape in Harper's Canada for too long to not remain influential even in private life.  However, with his death, a key voice in the Harper Government has been silenced forever, and that has significant implications for the trajectory of Harper's regime.

Philosophically, Flaherty and I wouldn't see eye to eye on much of anything.

However, that said, Flaherty may have been one of the few voices in Cabinet that Harper actually listened to.  While the budget legislation that the government has tabled repeatedly has grossly abused the notion of a budget implementation bill, Flaherty's budget speeches have told a story somewhat different than I would expect from someone of Harper's ideological stripe, and recent musings of disagreement over "income splitting" tax credits suggest that Flaherty may have had a somewhat different view on the matter than Harper.

In general, I have suspected for quite some time that on economic matters at least, Flaherty has been a moderating influence on a government with little to keep its worst instincts in check.  This government has now lost that moderator entirely.

Flaherty's replacement, Joe Oliver, seems to have been Harper's axeman in his war on environmental science - which suggests strongly that he is more of a puppet to Harper's predatory desires rather than a minister who advocates for his department(s) at the cabinet table.

At the moment, looking around the cabinet table, I see few who would dare challenge Harper even if they disagreed with him.  Jason Kenney certainly isn't likely to openly challenge Harper - he's spent far too much time and energy quietly building his position as future kingmaker when Harper steps down, and frankly if Harper is a vindictive authoritarian, Kenney is cut from the same cloth, with an added stripe of religious fundamentalism for good measure.  Nor do I expect much different from the other members of Harper's Cabinet.  A few are there "for show", and are seldom allowed to speak openly; and the rest repeat talking point scripts issued by the PMO on the rare occasions they are allowed near a microphone.  Not exactly a government front bench that seems likely to challenge Harper's most destructive instincts.

I don't expect the current budget bill to be pulled and amended, but I do expect that sometime in the future, perhaps around September, new legislation will be introduced which implements policies that Flaherty might have resisted more vigorously than others in cabinet.  The new legislation will be in response to a conveniently placed "economic update" which will show that the nation's finances aren't as "good as they thought", no doubt.  What will be in it is hard to say, but I imagine it will be destructive - with a "candy coating" wrapped around it to make it seem more palatable going into the expected 2015 election cycle.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Con$ Only Want Cons To Vote

Bill C-23 is an appalling piece of legislation.  It is filled with more underhanded deceitfulness than any piece of legislation should ever contain.  If there ever was any doubt about the motivations of the Harper Government in tabling this piece of poison, I think Senator Linda Frum's comments on Twitter yesterday did that in:

Wait a second, the argument basically becomes "a fair election is one where the motivated voters win".  That is, of course, far from the truth.  In our democracy, it is a plurality of votes cast that wins. In the hyper-partisan world of The Harper Government, it is instinctive for the Con$ to argue that getting out the vote is necessarily a "partisan" activity.  If you aren't a Con$ supporter, they would really much rather that you stayed home.

Elections Canada encouraging _all_ voters to get out and vote works against the Con$ - they know full well that historically, the majority of Canadians will vote against them if they actually vote.  So, they claim that it is a "conflict of interest".  Elections Canada however, rightly recognizes that there is a threshold voter turnout below which the legitimacy of an election's outcome becomes questionable in the collective minds of Canadians.  I'm not sure what that line is, but I would imagine that if only 20% of the eligible voters turned out, that the 80% who did not vote might rightly argue that the government elected has no legitimate mandate to govern.  

A free and fair election is one not only where a government is elected, but that it is seen to be legitimately elected by a plurality of the eligible voters casting their ballots.

We all know that parties spend huge money on their GOTV efforts on voting day.  We also know that the Con$ in particular go out of their way to get out _their_ vote and if they can discourage non-supporters from voting (e.g. Robocall Scandal), they will do that too.

In an election, parties have a natural desire to ensure that their supporters vote.  However, party supporter lists do not include all voters, and _all_ voters have the right to vote and should be encouraged to do so.  

The fact that the Harper Government thieves are arguing that a non-partisan GOTV effort is a "conflict of interest" tells us that in their mind that their interests are purely to discourage those who are not partisan supporters from participating in our democracy.  This is NOT democratic.