Thursday, March 26, 2015

PM Harper stands alone but is on the right side of the ISIS-Syria debate

This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his Government plans to table a motion in the House of Commons favouring an extension and expansion of Canada’s contribution to Operation IMPACT, the U.S.-led Coalition against the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and, significantly, Syrian territory.

Canada’s original six-month military mission did not include dropping bombs in Syrian territory so this is an escalation, which has been justified by the PM who said, “The so-called caliphate’s capital is in Syria,” and “[ISIS] must cease to have any safe haven in Syria.”

As expected, opposition Leader Tom Mulcair continues to withhold NDP support for the military mission, warning about what he called a “quagmire” in Iraq.

Justin Trudeau has also declared his continued opposition to the government’s plan. I thought the Grits might come on board considering the high level of support the mission apparently has not just among ordinary Canadians, but also from some prominent members of the Liberal Party. Trudeau, though, continues to insist that Canada should be engaged solely in a humanitarian, non-military, effort.

“The Liberal Party that I [Trudeau] represent knows that Canadians want to respond to the horrors of [ISIS] in that region,” he said. “We cannot allow our indignation to impair our judgement.”

I, along with most of you I’m sure, support the military mission, along with this extension and the common sense escalation to include air strikes against ISIS in Syria where the Islamists have entrenched positions. I do worry, though, that this U.S.-led effort is too heavily dependent on the resources and efforts of Western democracies and not enough skin-in-the-game from Arab nations in the region.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are said to be sworn enemies of ISIS. Furthermore, it is quite widely believed that, at least for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, fighting ISIS may very well be a battle of survival, with the continued reigns of Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia’s newly crowned King Salman dependant on ISIS’s defeat.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have real military clout collectively. The Saudi defence budget dwarfs Canada’s as do the number of its army and air force personnel and weapons systems. Egypt also has significant military capability and a large population to draw from. Jordan with its military and, especially, intelligence assets could also make a significant contribution if it went all in. Finally, the Saudis have the treasury that could finance an all out air and ground war with ISIS.

So why are the Arab nations of the region not the primary actors in this latest Middle Eastern war? Beats me.

The nations in the area all seem to be keeping a safe distance while the Iraqis, especially the Kurds, conduct the ground war with the only boots on the ground. And most analysts agree the final outcome of the conflict will be decided not by the air war, but by boots on the ground.

On the one hand, I can see some merit—though not enough to sway me against Canada’s military involvement—in Justin Trudeau’s position. After all, there are several countries which are prepared to help with the air war, so why distant Canada’s participation is essential is not totally clear. On the other hand, Thomas Mulcair’s position lacks clarity and logic.

Mulcair has reportedly told reporters after an NDP caucus meeting on Parliament Hill earlier this week that, by attacking ISIS in Syria, Canada will be helping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“Helping Assad is shameful and we should not be doing it,” he said.

That’s true, of course, but isn’t the contrary view even more odorous. That is to say, by not attacking ISIS to help curtail their atrocities and reduce their threat to Canadians, we become bystanders and, some might suggest, their de facto silent partners.

It’s a Hobson’s choice, to be sure, but prevailing opinion is that ISIS is by far the greater evil and represents a real danger to Canada so the risk of inadvertently and indirectly helping Assad is worth taking.

Let’s not forget that a spokesman for ISIS last fall specifically called for attacks on Canadians. In an audio speech, he urged ISIS supporters to kill Canadians, regardless of whether they were civilians or members of the military. The Syrian dictator has made no such direct threat.

So, in my view, our national interest is best served by degrading ISIS’s military capability, even if it involves RCAF strikes on ISIS’s operations and infrastructure in Syria.

Of the leaders of those political parties represented in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands alone in his determination to join the anti-ISIS coalition—it has about 60 member nations—and to take a direct, though still rather modest, role in its military campaign in Iraq and Syria. And our prime minister is on the right side of this one (pun not intended).

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wearing the niqab is the antithesis of openness in a secular democratic society

The issue of whether wearing the niqab during Canadian citizenship ceremonies is appropriate continues to generate controversy and media headlines. The latest flare-up comes from remarks made by the Conservative MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Larry Miller.

Mr. Miller is quoted as telling a call-in radio show on CFOS radio on Monday, “If you’re not willing to show your face in the ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world, then frankly … if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, then stay the hell where you came from.” And he added, “I think most Canadians feel the same. That’s maybe saying it a little harshly, but it’s the way I feel.”

And while Mr. Miller issued a short statement later saying the way he felt was inappropriate, he has made it clear he believes that niqabs should not be worn during the citizenship oath.

I agree with Mr. Miller. It offends me that someone would cover her face at the very moment she wants to become Canadian.

Amira Elghawaby, human rights co-coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims is quoted in the Toronto Star as saying:

I think it’s actually very Canadian that at the moment of the oath, after the woman has identified herself and addressed those legitimate concerns, that if she chooses to wear her niqab that it would be a very Canadian thing to do, because our Charter of Rights and Freedoms does guarantee that Canadians have that right to practice their faith.”

A “very Canadian thing to do” indeed! It is just this sort of rub-their-noses-in-it attitude that breeds resentment against immigrants.

Why is this all about the rights of those who would thumb their noses at traditional Canadian values and traditions? What about the obligation of new comers to meet us halfway? Why is reasonable accommodation a one-way street? Why must those—who have helped build this society into one that is respected and sometimes envied in most parts of the world—give in to new cultural practices that newcomers bring with them, even when those practices are an affront to the majority of Canadians?

This latest round in the niqab controversy began with Zunera Ishaq’s successful Federal Court challenge of the government’s ban on wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath ceremony.

She and many of the opposition critics seem to want to turn this into a simple dress code issue. But, of course, it’s much more than that as are most Canadians only too aware. Don’t their views matter?

Apparently not. The quick rebuttal to any criticism of cultural practice is to charge racism. NDP multiculturalism critic Andrew Cash reportedly accused Tory leadership of promoting a culture of “trickle-down racism.”

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau conjured up images of the then Canadian government’s “none is too many” immigration policy toward Jews in the 1930s and 1940s—policies practiced by Liberal governments, I might add. I like David Frum’s rebuttal in the National Post of Mr. Trudeau’s muddled thinking, as follows:

The European Jews who sought refuge in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s were fleeing an ideology that defined them as inferior and demanded they wear special identifying badges of inferiority. Trudeau now urges Canada to enable and assist those who define women as inferior—and who require women to wear special identifying badges of their inferiority.”

Let me be clear: it is not racist for me to say I want someone to show her face when I’m interacting with her, its a matter of common courtesy on her part. Furthermore, tens of millions of devout Muslim women do not wear the niqab, so I don’t buy the fiction that it’s a mandated religious obligation.

The niqab in one of the many ways that show Muslim women lack equality under Islamic governments and cultural practices. Zunera Ishaq is obviously free to believe otherwise, but she should not expect the rest of us to ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence that supports my contention.

So, like I believe Mr. Miller was trying to say, if Muslim women believe hiding their faces from their fellow citizens is essential to their religious or cultural lives, them Canada is not the best place for them to move. Canada is an open pluralistic society, but we are also a society that values women as equals and are offended by any symbol that inherently represents women’s inferiority.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Beer, wine in stores, but at what cost to consumers?

The Grits at Queen’s Park are at it again. Apparently, we are about to get more access to beer and wine through Ontario supermarkets. I have long looked forward to our legislators stiffening their spines and modernizing our archaic liquor laws, which have been stuck in the 1920-1930s era for decades, but I’ll believe it only when I see it.

I thought Liberal David Peterson might keep his 1985 promise of beer and wine in corner stores, but that measure never did get passed. In 1995, Tory premier Mike Harris pledged to sell the LCBO and open up liquor sales to private enterprise, but never followed through. In 2010, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal finance minister Dwight Duncan mused about allowing some private investment in the LCBO, but that too went nowhere.

Readers might also remember former PC leader Tim Hudak opining about it being time that the government started treating Ontarians like adults and allowing the sale of beer, wine and spirits in corner stores and supermarkets. But that too went nowhere, of course, when PCs failed to unseat the Liberals in the general election that followed.

The main issue is, as I see it, our government has no philosophical or moral basis for maintaining the status quo. Instead of laws based on principle, Ontario’s liquor laws and regulations are filled with cynical contradictions and self-interest.

In the case of beer, Martin Regg Cohn’s Dec. 2014 article in the Toronto Star entitled, How The Beer Store lobby wins friends and influences politicians, tells us “[w]hy is it so hard to shake The Beer Store’s grip on Ontario’s politicians?” And, according to Regg Cohn, the primary beneficiaries of the current system—The Beer Store, its foreign owners and the union representing beer industry employees—collectively donated more than $525,000 to the three major political parties. Need I say more?

In the case of the LCBO, it’s mainly about the Grits paying off public service unions with cushy high-paying jobs for their members. In return, these unions support the Grits at election time with millions spent on anti-Tory election ads. Otherwise, alcohol could be freed from the government’s virtual monopoly and regulated and taxed in a manner similar to tobacco products. And, of course, it’s nice to have liquor board related contracts and appointments, etc., as patronage to be handed out to political friends and exchanged for political favours.

We hear a lot of nonsense from unions and government officials about government-mandated monopoly stores and their employees being best at maintaining a high level of social responsibility in the sale of beer, wine and spirits. But that’s nonsense, because the government already sanctions hundreds of private operators to sell alcoholic beverages in communities too small for the LCBO to service.

Moreover, there are more than 100 privately operated off-premises wine stores and tens of thousands of bars and restaurants that serve alcohol in the province. In the great majority of these, neither government employees nor union members of any kind are involved and our province is none the worse for their absence.

Quasi-monopolies as exist in Ontario’s alcoholic beverage industry are the antithesis of free-enterprise and have proven to be detrimental to the long-term health of societies that have experimented with socialism. Regardless of how much monopolies return to the government or on what good cause that money is spent, monopolies are wrong and harmful to our market-based economy.

Yet Ontario governments of all stripes have insisted on perpetuating this absurd system. What we have now amounts to a not-so-hidden tax on ordinary Ontarians to pay for inefficiencies throughout the value chain: high-end headquarters, wastefully expensive marketing programs, unnecessarily high retail overhead, retail price-gouging and fat management pay checks—see the Sunshine Lists and weep—and $50,000 plus a year being paid to some unionized retail workers to put a bottle in a brown paper bag.

True, this monopoly pays an annual dividend of more than $1.5-billion to the Ontario government—which is over and above the several hundreds of millions in taxes levied on wine, beer and spirits. But much of the dividend is from the hidden tax Ontarians pay in the form of hugely inflated  profit margins, which are about double what they are at a comparable retail operation in the U.S.

Here are just a few examples taken from a 2012 article in Toronto Life when the loonie was a lot closer to par with the U.S. dollar:

At Costco [U.S.], a bottle of Woodbridge sauvignon blanc costs $6.99; at the LCBO it’s $11.95. Costco sells Veuve Clicquot for $38.99 a bottle; the LCBO charges $66.30. When I [Jan Wong] asked for pricing examples for table wine, some markups were 137 per cent. For a wine that retails for $10.45 (the LCBO didn’t provide actual product names), it pays wholesalers $3.77 if it’s a U.S. or non-Ontario Canadian wine; $3.72 if it’s another imported wine; and $4.10 if it’s Ontario wine.”

And, of course, there is the muddle-headed thinking that seems to creep inevitably into too many government-run agencies. Consider this other example from the same 2012 Toronto Life article:

According to a recent report by Ontario’s Auditor General, Jim McCarter, the liquor monopoly is also minimizing profits by failing to use its enormous clout to negotiate the lowest possible wholesale prices from suppliers. Instead, the LCBO does something unique among retailers. It decides on the retail price it wants to charge for a product, and then asks suppliers to raise or lower their wholesale costs accordingly. Why? The LCBO claims it’s merely fulfilling its duty to be socially responsible—that by keeping prices high, it’s trying to discourage consumption. And yet, as McCarter reported, alcohol sales have gone up 67 per cent in the last decade.”

By all reports, we will almost certainly see the sale of beer and wine liberalized in Minister of Finance Charles Sousa’s spring budget. But increased freedom of choice will almost certainly be the sole benefit to consumers and, I bet, we’ll pay through nose for it.

To begin with, the government will likely issue costly licences to retailers—an additional hidden tax that will find its way into the prices consumers pay for these products. In other words, we may get more choice through expanded retail outlets, but the provincial government will maintain its strangle-hold on the industry, ensuring that consumers will continue to pay exorbitant prices.

The province is reported to be about to charge The Beer Store a $100-million franchise fee to keep their part of the beer duopoly so it’ll be interesting to see what that does to beer prices. And if beer prices increase at The Beer Store, count on similar (though unnecessary) price increases at the LCBO—you know, to be socially responsible, wink, wink.

Instead of limiting competition like we were some 1930s socialist state, our government could be turning the whole industry over to our robust free-enterprise system, with some reasonable regulations and taxes as is done in most parts of the modern world.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Patrick Brown victory on May 9 means eight more years of political irrelevance for PCs

The deadline has passed for signing up new Ontario Progressive Conservative party members who will be eligible to cast a preferential ballot in the one-member, one-vote election on May 9.

Early reports following the cut-off are far from encouraging when one considers that, in the past, the winning PC leadership candidates have been the ones who sold the most party memberships.

Consider that, in this leadership contest, new members will outnumber “old” members by about six to one. It seems reasonable, therefore, to expect that the candidate who has signed up the most members will have a decided advantage on voting day. For me, this spells bad news indeed as my preferred candidate, MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa), is reported to be well behind federal backbencher, Barrie MP Patrick Brown, in this numbers game.

Apparently, the PC party has fallen short of what I thought was a reasonable goal of 100,000 members—a tenfold increase over the membership roster at the start of the leadership campaign. Early reports claim membership at the cut-off to be 70,000, some 40,000 of which appear to have been sold by Brown, and only about 26,000 by Elliott. (Elliott won’t release her numbers until the party has processed membership forms and eliminated duplicated and disqualified submissions.)

These figures are surprising, to say the least, since Elliott has been the party establishment’s clear choice with the backing of 17 of the 28-member PC caucus at Queen’s Park and 25 federal MPs. Elliott seemed to have the clearest path to victory.

The field of candidates is weak, though, and was so even when MMPs Lisa MacLeod and Vic Fedeli were still in the race.

Monte McNaughton, the least-likely-to-succeed candidate, has little or no appeal outside the relatively small hard-core social conservative members of the party. And Patrick Brown—the only candidate without a seat at Queen’s Park—is a little-known federal backbencher who seems to have accomplished little in his almost 10 years in Ottawa.

From my perspective, as Patrick Brown’s prospects improve, the fortunes of the Ontario PC party declines, for I don’t see how he improves our prospects beyond those we had under Tim Hudak. I find neither McNaughton or him inspiring, nor do I see enough difference between their politics and the past two PC election platforms to give rise to my hope of another Ontario PC government in my lifetime.

What Brown’s supporters see in someone who has accomplished as little in Ottawa as he has is beyond me. Brown has not even committed to running provincially if he loses his leadership bid—at least, he would not commit to do so when asked during the last leaders’ debate. Apparently, this career politician sees his future as either an Ontario legislature frontbencher, i.e., party leader, or he’s prepared to return to relative obscurity as an Ottawa Tory backbencher.

With Christine Elliott I saw hope for real change in the Party’s fortunes. Her politics—at least my perception of them—do differ from Hudak’s.  Classic progressive conservatism is supposed to be at the heart of our party’s core beliefs. Why else would party founders have chosen a name that seems to be self-contradictory?

In recent elections, the Ontario PCs have run on a right-wing platform, not even giving lip service to policies that would be consistent with the “progressive” part of its name. And this I believe has been a mistake. As I have written before:

Many famous statesmen—dare I say conservative statesmen—have been proud to have their names associated with progressive conservatism, including Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, David Cameron, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many federal PC prime ministers who represented Canada’s conservative movement prior to Stephen Harper.

“Progressive need not be a dirty word. Nor is—as is claimed by some hard-right conservatives—progressive conservatism an oxymoron. Progressivism may very well be corrosive when deployed by left-wing parties, but that need not be an automatic consequence.”

Being a progressive conservative is not the same as being a Liberal, although a successful political party in Ontario needs to attract votes from both centre-left and centre-right where most Liberals reside on the political spectrum. Nor do we need to be at war with union members and those sympathetic to the union movement, for many union members and sympathisers in the private sector are as upset as other PCs are about overly-generous wages and benefits of their public sector counterparts and want to see some common sense applied.

Ontario’s PC party has become so closely identified with right-wing (rather than centre-right) politics that its members are often referred to in the media simply as “conservatives” as if the federal party and the provincial party were indistinguishable. To be sure, the parties share policies, membership, volunteers, etc., and the federal party—the direct successor of the right-wing populist Reform Party of Canada—has borrowed much from former premier Bill Davis’s progressive conservative style of governing.

I would say, in fact, despite its right-wing reputation in the media, the federal Conservatives govern more like a traditional Canadian-style PC government than did former PC premier Mike Harris or, I suspect, Tim Hudak would have done, judging by Hudak’s two election campaign platforms.

In Christine Elliott, I see a chance to return to a common sense approach with core conservative values informing our fiscal policy and a progressive approach to programs such as health care, education, public transit, mental health and ecology.

That’s my dream, but a dream I fear that is fading with the prospect of a Patrick Brown victory on May 9 followed by eight more years of political irrelevance for our party.