Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Israel is a third-world country in denial

It should have been a headline long ago, or at least the talk of the day Wednesday: Every fifth Israeli lives in fear of hunger, every 10th suffers from hunger. But this almost-African statistic, the kind that comes from the darkness of the third world, appeared only on the inside pages on Wednesday. Other issues were the talk of the day.

Iran, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood - other fears are implanted in us with deliberate and malicious regularity. Some are futile fears, others are exaggerated, and compared to them this fear, the fear of hunger of every fifth person among us and the serious hunger of every 10th person, interests nobody but the victims. They have empty bellies, but no voice. Most Israelis have no idea what it's all about.

After all the self-congratulations over our flourishing economy, after all the nauseating glorification of the wealthy, even after the dwindling summer protest and the radiant joining of the OECD, comes this bad news. And it didn't slap us in the face. Israel has come a long way from the days when the country - which was far more egalitarian - was in an uproar over the comments by the hungry girl from Beit She'an. It has become fat and insensitive.

The GOP's War on Voting Comes to Washington

Republicans in state legislatures across the country have spent the past year mounting an all-out assault on voting rights, pushing a slew of voter ID and redistricting measures that are widely expected to dilute the power of minority and low-income voters in next November's elections. Now that effort has come to Capitol Hill, where the House* will vote Thursday on a GOP-backed bill to eviscerate the Election Assistance Commission (EAC)—the last line of defense against fraud and tampering in electronic voting systems around the country.

[UPDATE: The bill passed 235-190 on a mostly party-line vote.]

The EAC was created in the wake of 2000's controversial presidential election as a means of improving the quality standards for electronic voting systems. Its four commissioners (two Republicans and two Democrats) are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The commission tests voting equipment for states and localities, distributes grants to help improve voting standards, and offers helpful guidance on proofing ballots to some 4,600 local election jurisdictions. It also collects information on overseas and military voters and tracks the return rate for absentee ballots sent to these voters.

On Friday, a House subcommittee on elections will vote on Rep. Gregg Harper's (R-Miss.) bill eliminating the EAC along with the longstanding public financing system for presidential campaigns. Republicans claim that the commission has already achieved its aim of cleaning up elections. Its responsibilities, they argue, can be reabsorbed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which oversaw voting machine certification prior to the EAC's creation in 2002. Ending the EAC, Republicans estimate, will save $33 million over the next five years.

A Call to Abolish the FEC

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are as far apart on the political spectrum as possible, but both cry foul at the capture of government by special interests. Left and right alike agree that elected officials shouldn't finance their campaigns with contributions from the industries they regulate.

But even stanching the flow of favor-seeking dollars to our representatives won't address the potential corruption that flows from soft money spent by supposedly "independent" groups. To safeguard our democracy, we need strong rules that will bring transparency and accountability to this outside spending -- and an oversight agency that can, and will, enforce them.
The Federal Election Commission isn't up to the task. It has refused time and again to enforce the campaign finance laws its commissioners are sworn to uphold. It should be replaced.

The dangers of outside money are growing. Non-candidate political spending rose significantly in the last election cycle, and it's poised to shatter historic records this time around. In 2010, during the first election after the Supreme Court's Citizens United case paved the way for unlimited spending by corporations and unions, outside spending increased more than 400 percent compared to the prior midterm election. Almost half came from groups that didn't disclose their donors. If spending increases at the same rate in 2012, we'll see more than a billion dollars worth of political spending by groups that aren't accountable to the public.

FBI Spied on Muslims Through Community Outreach

There's been plenty of reporting on how the FBI uses sting operations and confidential informants to spy on Muslims, but a new ACLU report claimed on Thursday the bureau actually spies on them through its own community outreach programs. The documents posted online by the ACLU detail the FBI's outreach efforts since Sept. 11, 2011, which the Washington Post called "a major priority since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks." The Post sums up a few of the new allegations:
Some of the papers show agents speaking at career days, briefing community members on FBI programs and helping them work with police to fight drug abuse. But the files also depict agents as recording Social Security numbers and other identifying information of people after they meet, and, in at least one instance, noting their political views. It appears that the agents are conducting follow-up investigations in some instances, but heavy redactions in the documents make it impossible to determine how far any examination might have gone.
The ACLU says the Bureau's tactics are illegal under the Privacy Act, which the Post explains is "a law that bars federal agencies from maintaining information about activities protected by the First Amendment, such as freedom of speech and association." The FBI, meanwhile, told the Post it only keeps information in accordance with the law, and doesn't use the data it gathers through community outreach for investigations.

The allegation sure puts the bureau on the spot after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder criticized it for anti-Muslim training exercises in November. At that time, Holder lauded outreach, saying anti-Muslim training could "undermine the really substantial outreach efforts that we have made" with Muslim Americans who are "essential partners in the fight against terrorism." Well, if the bad press about the training program didn't alienate the FBI's Muslim allies, the ACLU's allegations really could.

Source: the Atlantic Wire 

Bishops vs. Women: Which Side Is Obama On?

Who matters more to President Obama, 271 Catholic bishops or millions upon millions of sexually active Catholic women who have used (or—gasp!—are using right this minute) birth control methods those bishops disapprove of? Who does Obama think the church is—the people in the pews or the men with the money and power? We’re about to find out. Some day soon the president will decide whether to yield to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has lobbied fiercely for a broad religious exemption from new federal regulations requiring health insurance to cover birth control with no co-pays—one of the more popular elements of Obama’s healthcare reform package. Talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

There’s already an exemption in the law for religious employers, defined as those whose primary purpose is the “inculcation of religious values,” who mostly serve and employ people of that faith, and qualify as churches or “integrated auxiliaries” under the tax code. That would be, say, a diocesan office or a convent or, for that matter, a synagogue, mosque or megachurch. Even this exemption seems unfair to me—why should a bishop be able to deprive his secretary and housekeeper of medical services? The exemption is based on the notion that people shouldn’t have to violate their religious consciences, but what makes his conscience more valuable than theirs? I would argue that it is less valuable—he’s not the one who risks getting pregnant.

The exemption becomes truly outrageous, though, if it is broadened, as the bishops want, to include Catholic hospitals, schools, colleges and social service organizations like Catholic Charities. These workplaces employ millions; and let’s not forget their dependents and the roughly 900,000 students enrolled at Catholic colleges. Now we’re talking about lots of people who aren’t Catholics, who serve non-Catholics and whose workplace may have only a tenuous connection to the institutional church. The Jewish social worker, the Baptist nurse, the security guard who hasn’t seen the inside of a church in decades—all these people, and their spouses and other dependents, will have to pay out of pocket, even as most Americans applaud the advent of vastly broadened access to essentially free contraception. It’s not a small amount of money at stake, either—the pill can cost $50 a month. The IUD, wider use of which would do much to help lower our high unintended pregnancy rate, lasts for many years but costs $800 to $1,000 up front. How is it fair to make millions of women live under old rules that the rest of society is abandoning precisely because they are injurious to health and pocketbook? Is there a social value in a woman’s having to skip her pills because she’s short $50? If it was any medication other than birth control—sorry, the Pope thinks you should control your cholesterol through prayer and fasting; no statins for you!—more people would be up in arms.

Rick Perry's War on Women

Governor Rick Perry took the lectern at the annual “Life & Liberty” fundraiser for the Texas Alliance for Life with a smile on his face. It was 2010 and he was in the thick of a re-election campaign, but this was not a crowd he needed to woo. “I kind of feel like I’m at a family reunion,” he told the audience.

Reflecting on his years of collaboration with the group, Perry said, “We have promoted in this state a culture of life. We have strengthened families. We have protected our children’s future.” And, he added, “although our shared efforts have made Texas a safer place for the unborn, our work is far from over.”

Perry’s presidential campaign may be doomed—it’s too early to count him out entirely—but the far-reaching effects of his disastrous decade as Texas governor are just beginning to emerge. For women, things look particularly grim. Perry has presided over a wave of anti-choice legislation that has shredded healthcare services for the state’s most vulnerable. It reached its apex during the 2011 biennial legislative session, which saw a dismantling of Texas’s budget to provide women—especially the poor and uninsured—with access to basic healthcare, including reproductive health and family planning.

“I use the phrase ‘war on women.’ That’s how it feels,” says Regina Rogoff, CEO of People’s Community Clinic in central Texas, which serves thousands of low-income patients. “I’m sure that’s not how the people involved intended it,” she adds magnanimously. “But the consequences [of the budget cuts] are disconnected from any legitimate purpose.”

Canada Income Inequality: Trickle-Down Tax Policy Is Alive And Well In The True North

NDP leadership hopeful Brian Topp launched the latest salvo in the clash between rich and poor Monday. Declaring growing income inequality to be today’s central economic issue, Topp detailed a series of proposed tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy aimed at narrowing the earnings gap.

Topp's proposals would see a rollback of some $18 billion in tax breaks enacted under successive Liberal and Conservative governments. His ideas come as many on the left in Canada have begun to question the direction in which Ottawa's tax policies have taken the country. Pointing to the income gap, they argue tax policy simply isn't as good at alleviating income inequality as it used to be. And new tax breaks — Tax-Free Savings Accounts and the proposed expansion of income-splitting to families— may only make things worse.
More on income inequality at Mind The Gap: Living In Unequal Cities A Health Risk.. Canadians Earning Less As Inflation Outstrips Wage Gains.. How The Income Gap Raises Home Prices For All Of Us.. Full Coverage..
Though the ideas are timely, they are part of a wider, generations-long ideological conflict.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan declared that “There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

School Districts Shortchange Low-Income Schools: Report

It's been long suspected that schools serving low-income students receive less money to pay their teachers than those in nearby affluent schools. Now there's data from the U.S. Department of Education to back that claim up.

"The facts are out there like they've never been before," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

And the spending disparity affects teacher quality: As veteran teachers move to more affluent schools that can pay them more, students in poorer schools are more frequently taught by unseasoned teachers with little classroom experience.

In the the 13,000 districts surveyed, which encompass 82,000 of the nation's 100,000 schools, more state and local money went to teacher salaries in high-income schools than in the district schools serving poor children, according to the new data. And 40 percent of low-income schools spent less on school employees in the 2008-2009 school year than other well-off schools within their districts.

"Low-income students need extra support and resources to succeed, but in far too many places, policies for assigning teachers and allocating resources are perpetuating the problem rather than solving it," Duncan said.

Unemployment Extension Uncertainty 'A Truly Scary Situation'

WASHINGTON -- Vincent Brandon of Pittsburgh had been driving a bus for two years when the Port Authority of Allegheny County laid him off along with nearly 200 other employees as part of a 15 percent transit service reduction.

Brandon has had no luck finding work since then, but he said he's been paying his rent, keeping the lights on and buying food thanks to $400 a week in unemployment insurance. On Wednesday, he came to Washington, D.C. along with hundreds of other union workers to ask Congress not to kill the benefits at the end of the month.

"If that happens, I don't know what I could do," Brandon, an Army vet, said during a rally with congressional Democrats in the Capitol Hill Visitors Center. "I would have to give up my apartment and would no longer be able to keep up with the bills or even food. This is truly a scary situation. It would be harmful and cruel for Congress to just walk away and turn its back on millions of hardworking unemployed Americans like me."

Unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless is among a raft of programs set to expire in January without congressional reauthorization. While Democrats have been making the most noise about renewing the benefits, Republicans have been quietly supportive. An extension seems likely, even though in 2010 partisan squabbling repeatedly delayed checks to millions.

Kyoto might be finished, but what next?

The policy Stephen Harper’s government on climate change has been so weak that anyone interested in the issue could be forgiven for assuming that the official Canadian stance going into this month’s negotiations in Durban, South Africa is indefensible.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has been brushing aside questions about persistent reports that Canada plans to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol at the close of the conference, which is meant to set the stage for a new phase in the global protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Kent’s tactical evasiveness looks shifty. It would be better for him to come clean now that the question of Canada’s intentions is such an open one. Still, it’s worth considering that pulling out of Kyoto might be a respectable outcome—if there’s a real prospect of something better taking its place.

The fundamental question is whether the accord can be widened, as it surely must be, to require fast-developing countries, like China and Brazil, join the rich industrialized nations in accepting mandatory emissions cuts. That’s the Canadian government’s basic position. And it is also put forward this month in an editorial in the highly regarded science journal Nature.

Back when Kyoto was being negotiated in the 1990s, the editorial points out, it was still possible to divide the world into rich (high emitting) and poor (low emitting) countries. But now 58 per cent of global emissions are coming from developing economies. That can’t be ignored.

Nature contends that even if  ”a handful of rich nations still bear a heavy historical burden for global warming, it is unrealistic to expect today’s politicians, who can barely look forward more than the next four or five years, to look back two centuries into the past.”

To get the the two biggest fossil-fuel burners, the United States and China, to agree to mandatory controls, the next stage of global climate-control action must somehow be made much wider than the Kyoto—and so Nature concludes the protocol should be allowed to die in Durban.

What might come next? Well, there’s news of European Union pressure on China to explain what sort of obligations it might be ready to adopt. Skeptical that Beijing will ever agree to anything substantial? That’s understandable. Yet I’d rather far see the Canada siding with the EU in at least trying to forge ahead, instead of being lumped in with Russia and Japan as a country that merely refuses to agree to any new goals.

Nature‘s stance might give a responsible intellectual justification for letting Kyoto lapse, but it hardly lifts the obligation from the Canadian government to make constructive efforts to be part of what comes next. So far, there’s no sign of that.

Source: Maclean`s 

Frozen assets

In a nondescript government office in the middle of Ottawa’s downtown core lie more than 10,000 years of the Arctic’s climate history. Ice cores drilled from Canada’s northernmost ice caps and ice fields are packed into dog-eared, insulated cardboard boxes and loaded onto floor-to-ceiling shelves in a walk-in freezer in a government building on Booth Street. Notes duct-taped to the outside divulge the distant origins of their contents: Agassiz, Prince of Wales, Penny. There are more boxes stashed in freezers outside the walk-in at the offices of the Geological Survey of Canada, and still more in rented commercial space, stored between frozen fish and ice cream.

Each core contains the sea salt, dust and air caught in the snow as it fell on the glaciers over thousands of years. They contain the records of past environmental changes, a history of human impact on greenhouse gases, atmospheric pollutants and global temperatures. And they have been collected over four decades at great expense.

But the ice core library’s future is far from certain, as the Geological Survey of Canada’s research priorities have changed and the Booth Street building is slated to be sold.

Tories have yet to prove case for e-snooping bill

Suppose you read an online article – not this one, hopefully – that makes you so angry you post a comment under your online pseudonym, “Irate Canuck,” saying that someone ought to shoot the author. The police notice.

Under legislation that the Conservatives will soon be introducing, the police could order your Internet service provider to hand over your personal information so that they could have a talk with you.

If they are sufficiently concerned, they could get a warrant and begin tracking your every move. You really should have turned off the GPS on your smart phone.

All of this has Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, alarmed. She describes some of the bill’s provisions as “reprehensible.”

“You will have no idea who has access to where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing,” she said in an interview. “And that should give everyone pause.”

‘Execute’ U.K. strikers, says host of BBC’s Top Gear

The host of a popular British TV motoring show who has made a career out of being outrageous and offensive has set off a new firestorm by suggesting striking public service workers should be executed.

“I'd have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families,” Jeremy Clarkson said on the live BBC program One Show Wednesday evening.

Clarkson is a host of the automotive program Top Gear and writes columns for the British newspaper The Sunday Times that appear in syndication in the Star’s Wheels section.

“I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are being guaranteed while the rest have to work,” he said of the 2 million doctors, nurses, teachers and other public service employees who staged a one-day walkout Wednesday.

The audience laughed. Later, One Show presenter Matt Baker apologized.

Unison, a union representing 1 million public service workers, said Thursday it was consulting legal advice about seeking police charges against Clarkson, 51.

Council debating lifting of gun controls

In a stealth procedural attack, the right-wing at city council has set in motion an attempt to undo gun restrictions in Toronto.

Shortly after council resumed Wednesday morning, councillor Peter Milczyn, a Rob Ford executive committee member and committee chair, said he had an urgent OMB issue.

Council agreed to hear the issue and debate it.

Only after it landed on the agenda was it clear that Milczyn's motion could undo a 2008 bylaw that restricts shooting ranges and the manufacturing of firearms in the City of Toronto.”

Councillor Adam Vaughan said they had been purposefully deceived and demanded speaker Frances Nunziata re-open the vote.

“There's a reason that gun crime and murders in this city are down and you're undoing that,” Vaughan yelled at Ford's chief of staff, Amir Remtulla.

Milczyn said there was no attempt to mislead anybody.

“All I did was bring forward the issue for debate. Its entirely reasonable for us to debate this,” he said.

After the city's 2008 decision, the bylaw was challenged with the OMB. One claim was settled privately. City staff has recommended a settlement with the other.

If council agrees, it will allow shooting ranges and firearm sales in industrial areas in Toronto.

The details were kept confidential and discussed in camera shortly after.

Source: Toronto Star 

Gitmo Law Could Someday Apply to American Citizens

Defenders of the detention provisions in the defense funding bill currently under debate in Congress are arguing that they do not authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens. They're saying the Supreme Court already did that.

"There is no bar to this nation's holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said during his floor speech defending the detention provisions Tuesday. "That's not me, that's not Sen. Graham, that's not Sen. McCain. That's the Supreme Court of the United States recently."

Levin was referring to 2004's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Yaser Esam Hamdi, a US national captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, could be held in military detention but not without habeas review.

That case, however, involved an actual battlefield in an actual war. The current version of the defense funding bill—formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA—goes further. It says the military can detain anyone deemed to be "a part of" or deemed to have "substantially supported" Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or "associated forces." Terror suspects would not have to be on an actual battlefield or fighting in an actual war, as Hamdi was, to be detained by the military. And although Americans, unlike foreigners, are not required to be held in military detention if apprehended on American soil, the NDAA affirms that they can be, based on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda. (Levin said in his floor speech that despite its threat to veto the bill, the administration had approved that language.)

Even Conservatives doubt crime bill, May say

There are many Conservative MPs with serious doubts about the government’s omnibus crime bill, and if they were allowed to vote with their conscience, many would support amendments, Green Party leader Elizabeth May charged Tuesday.

May made this statement at a press conference in Ottawa where she said she is putting forward amendments to rein in the crime bill’s “worst excesses.”

“The insistence on voting on party lines means that no one across Canada — and I can’t say this strongly enough… can tell what your MP really thinks based on how they vote,” May said.

The crime bill, Bill C-10, is set to return to the House for debate at the report stage and one of the many amendments May is tabling is to the mandatory minimum sentences portion, which critics believe will result in billions spent on additional prisons as incarceration rates increase.

MP raises alarm over border talks

Canadians - especially residents in border cities like Windsor - should be alarmed over a border agreement that may include an entry-exit system using digital fingerprints or eye scans to track everyone entering the U.S. and Canada, MP Brian Masse (NDP - Windsor West) said Tuesday.

"We are agreeing to tell the U.S. about every single person that comes in from Canada," said Masse, a member of the federal government's Canada-U.S. border relations committee. "What happens if it's someone they say they don't like?

"What's their response going to be and how will we deal with that?"

But details of the plan are not being released despite indications in Ottawa a new Canada-U.S. security perimeter agreement called Beyond the Border could be signed by Prime Minster Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama next week when they meet in Washington.

Privacy concerns are at the top of the list should the agreement be approved because digital fingerprinting or iris scans for everybody crossing the border may be included.

"We don't know what they are talking about," Masse said. "I've met with the privacy commissioner (Jennifer Stoddart) and she is still in the dark about what's being promised.

Clement slams 'self-serving' union leaders

OTTAWA - The gloves appear to be off between the federal government and one of its largest unions.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement slammed the leaders of the Public Service Alliance of Canada for being "unconstructive and self-serving" in a letter Clement wrote this week to PSAC president John Gordon.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by QMI Agency, Clement said he had hoped that the union, which represents more than 150,000 mostly federal government workers, would come up with their own ideas to help the government find $4 billion a year in savings.

"To date, I have not received a single constructive recommendation from you as to how we can make the federal government more efficient and provide better value for taxpayers," Clement wrote.

Union officials said they were surprised by the tone of the letter and that it further heightens tensions between the government and its employees.

Harper's PR obsession fostering paranoia and paralysis in public service

Nobody should feel bad for the reporters in the parliamentary press gallery.

During the day, we do interesting work in beautiful buildings, and in the evenings we can guzzle free wine at receptions — although, admittedly, too often it is watery Ontario red.

But as good as we have it, in a way these days we are like frogs in a pot of water on top of a stove. The water is getting warmer and we haven't really noticed.

The government of Stephen Harper has gradually increased the level of political control over public information to an extent that is unprecedented in Canada or similar countries, to the point that we are starting to think it is normal.

The government has the legal authority to act as it is acting, and the political mandate to do so, since the gallery made this an issue in the recent electoral unpleasantness, and Harper won a majority.

That doesn't mean, though, that we should pretend that this is normal. It is not normal.

When I came to Ottawa, in 2004, reporters were able to get officials on the phone and interview them. Departmental communications officials answered their phones and spoke freely.

There were bullies in the some of the political offices, and the Liberals had been in power so long that the staffers did not always behave as humble servants of the people, but it was usually possible to get responses to queries from public servants in a timely way.

How unemployment is tearing America apart

Eight months ago, Deborah Burnley, an administrative assistant in Baltimore, suddenly found herself among America’s growing army of unemployed. Losing her job at a cash-strapped non-profit was a demoralizing and debilitating experience, she says, and to keep her spirits from crashing she’s sought solace in, of all things, the bleak arithmetic of her job hunt: 226 positions applied for, six temp agencies engaged, and countless miles travelled across the region for interviews. “I try to think of it as a numbers game, that each day is basically one more step closer to being employed,” says Burnley, 52. In other words, if she applies for enough positions, and meets enough prospective employers, some day— eventually—she’s bound to find work. But even as she clings to that hope, Burnley acknowledges she and her husband, who also lost his job as a facilities manager six weeks ago, have depleted their savings and almost maxed out their credit cards. “It can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Two-and-a-half years after the Great Recession was deemed officially over, that light has never seemed dimmer for the close to 25 million Americans who are either out of work or underemployed today. Like a gaping wound at the heart of the economy, the U.S. job crisis has cast a vast swath of the population into a state of semi-permanent unemployment. At the same time, America’s housing market is in a shambles and poverty is on the rise. Even if economists weren’t already once again warning of another global recession, a realization is slowly setting in: the United States is suffering from an outright economic depression, and it threatens to leave a deep scar on the American psyche for decades to come. As Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a former secretary of labour, put it recently: “America’s ongoing jobs depression, which is what it deserves to be called, is the worst economic calamity to hit this nation since the Great Depression.”

Conservative MPs 'hypocritical' if they attend commemorations of the 1989 Montreal massacre after helping to eliminate the long-gun registry, says Rathjen

PARLIAMENT HILL—Lines hardened between supporters of the federal long registry and its opponents Wednesday as a member of a coalition opposing a bill to dismantle the gun-tracking system said Conservative MPs would be “hypocritical” if they attend remembrance ceremonies next week for victims of the 1989 shooting massacre of 14 women engineering students in Montreal.

Heidi Rathjen, a survivor of the attack who went on to help form local and national gun-control groups, told The Hill Times Conservatives should stay away from any commemorative ceremonies on Tuesday Dec. 6, one of which is scheduled for Parliament Hill, because legislation the government forced through a Commons committee this week will destroy current protections under the registry and licensing and gun sale system and increase gun violence against women.

In the wake of Bill C-19’s passage on Tuesday through the Public Safety and National Security Committee—and Ms. Rathjen’s earlier comments that the Conservatives will have “blood on their hands” because untraceable gun sales and transfers will result in firearms ending up in the hands of people who could not otherwise obtain them, —diehard opponents of the registry and licensing system sent a small flurry of emails to The Hill Times to condemn Ms. Rathjen and groups who have long opposed Conservative promises to dismantle the system.

The Commons: Tragedy of numbers

The Scene. Recently returned from Attawapiskat, Nycole Turmel attempted to enlighten the Prime Minister this afternoon on the situation there. ”It’s terrible,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s worse than anything you can think of.”

She described the shacks and the tents and the trailers and moldy mattresses and the lack of heat and water. When, she wondered, staring him down, would the Prime Minister show some leadership and go see so for himself?

The Prime Minister didn’t have much more to say this than what he’d said the day before, except to say that the Aboriginal Affairs Minister would have more to say soon enough. For his own part, Mr. Harper offered his impressive-sounding number of choice. “Mr. Speaker, as I said yesterday, this is not acceptable when the government invests more than $90 million, to see such a result,” he said.

For sure, $90 million sounds impressive.

Toronto library chair defends multilingual collection

The chair of the Toronto Public Library board defended the circulation of foreign-language books and DVDs after their value was questioned by the city's budget chief.

Coun. Paul Ainslie, chair of the TPL board, said Wednesday that non-English materials are vital for Toronto's changing demographics.

"They are an excellent resource tool for people to acclimatize themselves to the city of Toronto, […] to learn English as a second language, for example," Ainslie said.

"It goes a long way to helping them integrate into our city."

Coun. Mike Del Grande suggested that libraries might be able to preserve current library hours if fewer resources were spent on non-book material, in response to proposed cuts to library hours on Tuesday.

He also questioned spending on foreign-language books and DVDs.

Attawapiskat finances put under 3rd-party control

The federal government has put Attawapiskat in northern Ontario under third-party management and ordered an audit to find out where federal funds were spent as the James Bay community struggles with a housing crisis.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, who announced the measure in question period Wednesday, told the House of Commons that "urgent health and safety issues" needed immediate action.

"The government of Canada has informed the chief that we are placing the community in third-party management to ensure community needs are addressed," Duncan said.

"Part of the manager's role will be to administer my department's funding, which is normally managed by the First Nation directly."

Duncan has also requested a comprehensive audit to identify how money has been spent in the community of about 1,800, and what oversight measures have been taken in the past five years.

Unions brace for war against the Tories — and each other

Big labour is in big trouble in Canada’s biggest province.

Morale is down. Unionization is down.

And members are increasingly down on each other: The Ontario Federation of Labour is bleeding support from several key unions that boycotted its latest convention and are still withholding funds.

The labour movement is a house divided at the worst possible time in Ontario politics. The Legislature has also been a House divided since the Oct. 6 election, and now a resurgent Progressive Conservative party is targeting big labour.

PC Leader Tim Hudak’s daily ritual in Question Period is to demand the minority Liberal government freeze wages, fix the arbitration system and fend off union influence over apprenticeship rules. Against the backdrop of this Tory trifecta, labour leaders are too busy attacking one another to defend against the frontal assault coming their way.

The OFL once loomed large over Ontario politics. Today, the province’s umbrella union for workers — supposedly a showpiece for labour solidarity — is a shadow of its former self. Its finances are in a shambles and its flamboyant president, Sid Ryan, is in bad odour with much of the movement.

Rob Ford boycotts the Star, but we’ll fight it and here’s why

For the Toronto Star, covering local news is fundamental.

It is, quite simply, our bread and butter — and a journalistic responsibility we take most seriously.

If our local democracy is to flourish, it is essential Torontonians be well informed and conversant on all local issues.

Which brings us to the “Ford freeze” — the specific order by Mayor Rob Ford that all official notices and pronouncements from his office not be provided to this newspaper.

The ban has been in place ever since Ford won the mayoral race more than a year ago. It stems from Ford’s rage over a piece the Star ran during the campaign about his conduct as a football coach.

There is no purpose served in rehashing the details. However, the Star has always stood by the story, noting it was carefully checked by our lawyer before publication.

Occupy DC Plans To Target High-Dollar Democratic Fundraiser

WASHINGTON -- The Washington arm of the Occupy Wall Street movement plans to target a high-dollar Democratic fundraiser near the group's McPherson Square encampment Thursday night. The cost of attending the dinner for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is a pricey $5,000 to $75,000 a plate.

"This elitist event is indicative of how the Democrats represent a major part of our government's failure to represent 99% of its citizenry," reads an Occupy DC action alert.

By marching on the Frontline Member Holiday Reception, the protesters seek to send a message to the Democratic Party that its reliance on corporate contributions makes it part of the problem -- or all the problems.

"Between 2009 and 2011, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. In that time, unemployment reached its highest level since the Great Depression," the alert states. "The big banks that crashed the global economy were not broken up, and are still 'too big to fail.' Taxes on the extremely wealthy stayed low. Health care and financial reform were deeply flawed, handicapped by lobbyist influence. Promises to take action on climate change, immigration reform, and anti-worker labor laws were forgotten. Wars expanded and dragged on. Banks got bailed out, while crushing debt burdens on American households have still not been relieved. Now, 15 Senate Democrats have voted against the Udall Amendment to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act -- essentially voting to dissolve habeas corpus in this country."

A Democratic operative, responding to the action alert, noted that there may be a political upside: Republicans will have a harder time accusing Washington Democrats of orchestrating the Occupy movement.

Feds Should Reclassify Marijuana To Allow Medical Use, Governors Say

WASHINGTON -- Govs. Lincoln Chafee (I-R.I) and Chris Gregoire (D-Wash.) on Wednesday called on the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would allow it to be dispensed for medicinal use.

This move by the governors marks the latest development in a larger struggle to curb the threat of a federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries operating in accordance with state drug laws.

Rhode Island and Washington are just two of 16 states that have legalized the use of medical marijuana, but which in recent months have faced ramped-up enforcement actions from federal prosecutors. In California, for instance, U.S. attorneys have shuttered multiple state-licensed marijuana dispensaries that had been operating in accordance with local laws and government for as long as 15 years.

"The divergence in state and federal law creates a situation where there is no regulated and safe system to supply legitimate patients who may need medical cannabis," wrote the governors in their letter. "State and local governments cannot adopt a regulatory framework to ensure a safe supply is available for - and limited to - legitimate medical use without putting their employees at risk of violating federal law."

If the summer rioters really were all criminals, why don't they rampage more often – and why did they stop?

Just to reassure you, this column is not "political". It is about that strange blip earlier in the year when some people went crazy and rioted. How quickly we moved on from that moment of madness. While insurance companies have still to pay out for some of the worst damage and some people are still homeless, the narrative established by the government has been pretty much stuck to. This was criminality "pure and simple". The incredibly harsh sentences have been largely supported by the public. Amelia Gentleman documented the reality of some of them in this paper last week. Nineteen-year-old Danielle Corns has been sentenced to 10 months in prison for stealing two left-footed trainers during riots in Wolverhampton. A bloody stupid thing to do, but 10 months? It was not only during the five days of rioting that somehow normal law was suspended. In the aftermath, judges and magistrates were ordered to come down heavy and they have.

Illinois House Votes Against Supporting 'Occupy,' Suburban Rep Calls Protests 'Un-American'

The Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday rejected a resolution that would have expressed support for Occupy Wall Street protesters' "peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights."

The bill, filed earlier this month by State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago), was voted down by a margin of 37-58, according to an AP report. Fifteen legislators voted present. The lawmakers voting "nay" in the midst of the state's busy fall veto session in Springfield included both Democrats and Republicans.

Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. (R-Mundelein) called the Occupy protesters "un-American" and said he had read reports of demonstrators involved with the movement "raping and pillaging and beating people up and murdering," AP reports. He voted against the resolution.

"Do you recognize the violence, the crime at these protests?" Sullivan added, according to the Illinois Review's report. "If you don't believe in capitalism, then vote for this. I will not stand for it."

GOP Threatening Middle Class Through Anti-Union Bills: Dems

WASHINGTON -- Democrats and labor leaders went on the offensive against anti-union House Republicans Wednesday, accusing GOP members and business groups of threatening the country's middle class through a raft of legislation that could weaken unions.

At a forum hosted by the AFL-CIO, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued that Republican efforts to strip power from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces labor law, were part of a broader attack on collective bargaining rights across the country. The fight, he added, was ultimately about "fairness and equity" in the economy.

"We've got to quit being on the defensive," Harkin said. "We have to take our case to the American people ... attacking [Republicans] for what they're trying to do. The American people are starting to understand how unfair the economic system is, how unfair it is for banks and the wealthy to get all the government largesse and for working people to get nothing."

New York AG Eric Schneiderman Investigating Foreclosures On Active-Duty Military Members

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is launching an investigation into possibly illegal foreclosures on homes owned by members of the military and their families, Shahien Nasiripour of the Financial Times reports.

The investigation is part of a broader probe by Schneiderman to investigate the mortgage practices of major banks, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

About 5,000 homes owned by active-duty members of the military and their families may have been foreclosed on by 10 leading lenders in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which aims to protect members of the military from financial distress, according to data released last week by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Bank of America and Morgan Stanley reached deals with the Justice Department earlier this year to settle claims that they foreclosed on more than 175 active-duty servicemembers without court orders.

GOP Would Beg Millionaires For More Tax, Freeze Federal Workers To Fund Payroll Tax Cut

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans unveiled a plan Wednesday to cut payroll taxes that asks the rich to pay more tax if they feel like it, freezes and cuts the federal workforce, and means tests for government benefits.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), is the GOP answer to a Democratic plan to extend and expand a payroll tax holiday through 2012 by slapping a 3.25 percent surtax on incomes above $1 million.

Many Republicans oppose such a tax as "punishing job creators." But they are not above requesting alms from the wealthy in a part of their proposal that sounds like a plea to millionaires.

A fact sheet the Senate GOP leadership released says the plan: "Gives Millionaires & Billionaires Another Opportunity To Help With The Deficit" and "Includes Sen. John Thune's 'Buffet Rule Act of 2011' which makes it easy for millionaires like Warren Buffet who want to pay more taxes to reduce the federal deficit with a voluntary contribution via their tax returns."

Erik Prince, Former Blackwater CEO, Threatens Jan Schakowsky Over Her 'Defamatory Statements'

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) has been one of the harshest critics of Blackwater USA, the military contractor tied to a 2007 shooting in Iraq that killed 17 civilians. The company's former CEO, Erik Prince, has evidently had enough, as he is threatening to sue the congresswoman if she doesn't stop commenting.

On Oct. 7, Prince's counsel Victoria Toensing sent a letter to Schakowsky accusing her of making "false and defamatory statements" about her client.

"Your malice cannot be questioned," wrote Toensing. "You have a multi-year history of making derogatory comments about Mr. Prince and his former company, Blackwater. You have abused your Congressional power to request that Mr. Prince be investigated."

Toensing referenced a Sept. 8 article in the UK Independent about a new Blackwater video game that paraphrased Schakowsky: "If Mr Prince had not emigrated to the United Arab Emirates, which does not have an extradition agreement with the US, he too would now be facing prosecution, the Congresswoman said."

City laying off almost 1,200 workers

Mayor Rob Ford’s administration is launching the first mass layoff in the modern city’s history, kicking almost 1,200 workers off the payroll and eliminating a further 1,148 vacant positions.

City staff on Wednesday revealed the breakdown of the 2,338.5 positions set to disappear as part of Ford’s proposed 2012 austerity budget, unveiled Monday.

Ford is proposing $88 million worth of cuts, most aimed at shrinking the city workforce, and putting a $139 million surplus from 2011 into capital projects and a rainy-day fund. A key Ford mantra is that the city workforce is bloated and must be cut.

For city divisions, a total of 714 people — 666 union members and 48 supervisors — will receive pink slips if all the cuts are approved. A further 737 vacant positions will be eliminated.

Hill Dispatches: Peter Kent once warned Canadians about global warming...

On Jan. 24, 1984, the CBC television program The Journal broadcast a full edition documentary called "The Greenhouse Effect and Planet Earth." It was hosted, narrated and written by Peter Kent, who is now Canada's environment minister.

You can find the program here.

And you may want to hurry. Evidence of this sort has a tendency to mysteriously disappear from the web.

In his introduction to the documentary, Kent says that it may seem like science fiction but "the scientific community is virtually unanimous": the planet is getting warmer.

The "greenhouse effect" was a little-known phenomenon at the time of this broadcast, more than 27 years ago. This broadcast may have been one of the first major media reports on the subject.

"The greenhouse effect will wreak total havoc ... there will no Canada and the United States as we know it today..."

Flaherty's bid to increase in fines puzzles financial industry

Canada’s banking sector is questioning why the Conservative government wants to more than double the maximum fines that can be levied on financial institutions for breaches of consumer-protection laws.

Examples of consumer rules that would be subject to the heavier fines include requirements that banks obtain written permission from customers before raising credit-card borrowing limits and rules that bank ads promoting interest rates include an explanation of how rates are calculated.

The Financial System Review Act tabled last week by the government in the Senate would raise the maximum penalties for breaching such rules from $200,000 to $500,000.

The heftier fines are creating some confusion in the banking sector.

“It’s unclear what the rationale is behind increasing the fines when the existing maximum fine has rarely been levied,” said Canadian Bankers Association president Terry Campbell in a statement.

A federal agency called the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada is responsible for looking into potential violations and issuing fines. Last year it levied a total of $175,000 in fines, down from the $450,000 total a year earlier.

Minister accuses EI union of working to rule

The number of jobless Canadians who managed to connect with an agent when they called Service Canada looking for their employment insurance cheques reached its lowest level in six years this fall.

Service Canada employees say the decline in staff size is the cause of the jammed phone lines – and the problems that many unemployed people are having in getting their benefits applications processed.

But Human Resources Minister Diane Finley suggests the workers in her agency are deliberately cutting back on service as part of a backlash against the changes being made by the Conservative government to automate the EI process.

In a letter to the Charlottetown Guardian dated Nov. 21, Ms. Finley says it is most interesting that “in the month that we announced we will be overhauling and improving EI processing to better serve Canadians – before any changes were introduced – productivity and performance went from being on par with last year's performance at this time, to the worst in five years.”

More than 1,000 processing agents have been let go since the spring. Ms. Finley says they were temporary employees hired specifically to deal with a balloon in EI claims during the recent recession.

Remember the Reformers? They’re still here

The Reform Party is dead; long live the Reform Party.

Almost a quarter of a century after its birth, Reform still animates Canadian politics. Yes, it changed its name to the Canadian Alliance, and the Alliance died in the merger with the Progressive Conservatives to create today’s Conservative Party. But Reform’s ideas remain alive and kicking inside the Conservative Party – see the Harper government’s use of a majority to push through legislation eliminating the Canadian Wheat Board, toughening the criminal justice system and abolishing the long-gun registry.

These policies were vintage Reform, popular in the rural Prairies and in many parts of B.C. outside the Lower Mainland, and among those who sharply differentiated Reformers from Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives.

Mr. Mulroney’s party, enjoying two huge majorities, never moved on these fronts. The PCs had a minister of state for the Wheat Board who was committed to the institution’s proper functioning. They tweaked the criminal justice system but they never dreamed of an all-fronts “tough on crime” approach in the face of overwhelming evidence that such an approach wouldn’t work. And, if anything, they wanted to toughen gun-control legislation, not weaken it, although, in fairness, the long-gun registry came after Mr. Mulroney left office.

Stephen Harper, himself an early Reform MP, always supported these policies, whether in opposition or as Prime Minister in minority Parliaments. The policies were “present at the creation” when Reform took shape, and they remained tenets of the Alliance and the Harper Conservatives.

Kenney defends IRB appointments

Conservatives naming people who 'are just instinctively less receptive to refugee claims,' critic says

Only two people appointed to the Immigration and Refugee Board on the recommendation of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney have links to the Conservative party, Kenney said Tuesday.

He was responding to questions in the House of Commons about allegations by a former IRB chair, Peter Showler, that the board was no longer fully independent of the government. The Citizen reported Showler's comments Tuesday.

Under questioning by Don Davies, the NDP immigration critic, Kenney said he has recommended the appointment or reappointment of more than 140 IRB members during his time as minister.

But unlike the Liberals, who used the IRB as a "partisan dumping ground," Kenney said the Conservatives "have respected its role as an independent quasi-judicial organization."

While the Liberals appointed "failed campaign managers" and the spouses of Liberals MPs and senators to the IRB, Kenney said he was aware of only two people he had recommended who "have any association" with the Conservative party.