Canada was Complicit in Torture, Diplomat Says

November 19, 2009 · By

Well, the news is here.  After the Conservatives failed to keep Richard Colvin silent or ignored, we learn that Canada may have sent Afghan prisoners to be tortured.  Mr. Colvin, a diploma with Foreign Affairs, described a pattern of misbehaviour among Canadian officials in Afghanistan that facilitated torture.

Colvin said he was specifically told by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former foreign affairs adviser, David Mulroney, to use the phone instead of putting anything in writing about prisoner abuse, which Colvin said contradicted Canadian policy and international law against surrendering to the risk of torture.

“There was indeed a policy, but behind the military’s wall of secrecy, that’s exactly what we were doing,” said Colvin, who is now the deputy head of intelligence at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives and military brass have a bit of a different take on the subject.

The Conservative government and senior military brass were in full damage control Thursday as they sought to discredit accusations from a top diplomat that Canada turned a blind eye to reports that Afghan prisoners were tortured after Canadian soldiers surrendered them to local control.Defence Minister Peter MacKay dismissed Richard Colvin’s allegations that virtually all Afghan prisoners were tortured as “nothing short of hearsay, second- or third-hand information, or that which came directly from the Taliban.”

As MacKay went on the offensive in the House of Commons, the recently retired head of Canadian forces overseas, Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, said there was no way that Canada would have knowingly participated in a “war crime” of handed over detainees to torture.

So, who do we believe?  The Liberal’s Foreign Affairs critic, Bob Rae, suggests we should trust Richard Colvin’s account:

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said that [Defence Minster Peter] MacKay’s attacks on Colvin — a man who is now Canada’s head of intelligence at the Canadian embassy is Washington and presumably considered credible enough to hold the senior post — are “reprehensible.”

Rae also pointed out that MacKay contradicted himself in the Commons by insisting that Colvin’s story was “full of holes,” but then later saying that the diplomat’s concerns played a part in Canada’s decision to strengthen its transfer-of-prisoners arrangement in 2007 to allow for followup visits to ensure detainees weren’t tortured.

My guess is that Colvin’s story is a little embellished.  Without any corroboration, I’m hesitant to believe that the Canadian establishment in Afghanistan was so completely infested with corruption and criminal activity.  Nonetheless, on the whole, I’m ready to side with Mr. Colvin.  The government’s argument is weak and implausible.  It seems unrealistic that no prisoners whom Canada turned over to Afghan authorities were tortured.  Mistakes are going to happen, sadly, but the Conservatives’ offensive is just a little bit too much.

Even if the government was not complicit in any wrongdoing by senior officials in Afghanistan, its refusal to properly confront this issue after the fact makes them accomplices.  If they want to return to side of the righteous, they must make sure that this never happens again; they must take the NDP’s advice and create some sort of public investigation.

It is imperative that any investigation be public.  Stephen Harper’s government has already made too much of an effort to hide inconvenient testimony to be fully trusted to take care of this matter on their own.

Moreover, considering that Canadian investigators in Afghanistan are willing to turn a blind eye to the rape of children – even when our soldiers alert them to the tragedy – how can the public trust them to ever hold the guilty accountable?

One Life the Gun Registry Couldn’t Save…

November 4, 2009 · By

it’s own.

MPs voted by a clear margin Wednesday to repeal the federal long-gun registry, signalling for the first time since the program was adopted 14 years ago that it is headed for the scrap heap, despite police assertions that it saves lives.A private member’s bill, sponsored by Conservative backbencher Candice Hoeppner, had the backing of all the Tories, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper down, and enough opposition MPs to clear its first major hurdle of winning support in principle.

The bill passed by a surprising 164-137, winning more supporters than expected as 12 New Democrats, eight Liberals and one Independent cast their votes with the government.

The Gun Registry has been a supreme waste of tax money.  That alone should be sufficient to kill it off (even if it has taken 14 years).  This is pretty much a no brainer for conservatives and libertarians.  What’s great to see is a number of MPs from left wing parties supporting it also.

The thing is (and conservatives and most libertarians will admit to this), sometimes it is necessary for the government to do things.  Sometimes, they have to spend our money.  It is for this reason that progressives, liberals and big government conservatives (and anyone else who supports lots of government intrusion in our lives) should be especially horrified by the Gun Registry.  It has become such a punch line – such an emblem of wasteful, useless government – that it damages the credibility of the government.  By extension, it hurts our democracy.

The Greenest of Jobs: Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada

November 1, 2009 · By

Meet the Players

In 1980, a newcomer to the game of politics set out to challenge the powerful, to force those in government to take notice of matters relating to the environment.  In the election of that year, Elizabeth May ran for Parliament in the riding of Cape Breton Highlands – Canso.

She earned 272 votes, and it would be 26 years before she would again seek office.

In the meantime, Ms. May – a writer, lawyer and activist – held numerous positions within the environmental movement.  She was a founder of the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund, held the position of Associate General Council for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and was the founding Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. She was even a Senior Policy Advisor in the Mulroney government.

In 2006, she again became an active politician, securing the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. That fall, she ran in the by-election in London North Centre, finishing second with 26% of the vote. Next, she took on Peter MacKay, a senior cabinet minister, in the 2008 election. Again she was the runner-up, this time garnering 32% of the vote.

Come the next federal election, Ms. May will be the Green Party candidate in Saanich-Gulf Islands. Being both friendly and tenacious, Ms. May has the political chops to be a threat to Gary Lunn, Minister of State (Sport) in the current Harper government.

Jonathan McLeod (JM):  I would just like to congratulate you on the nomination in Saanich-Gulf Islands.

Elizabeth May (EM):  Thank you, although it was really not in doubt.  It was only because of the strong support I had in this area that we made the decision as a party that I should move here.  I’m a strong believer in living in any community in which you are running for office, other than a bi-election, of course.  To make the decision to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands I’d already moved, was living here, so it was something of a surprise that a Green Party member who doesn’t live in the area would decide he wanted to contest the nomination. But you know, fair enough, it does demonstrate that the Greens are very grassroots and that there is no top down decision making, even in the case of the leader’s riding.

JM:  Well that’s fantastic.  And it is great that you are actually going to be a representative there rather than just a carpet-bagger.

EM:  Exactly, and it’s a very exciting move for me.  You’re younger, but try to imagine being a 55 year old single woman whose daughter has just gone off to university.  It’s kind of a good plan to move to a new place.  It’s very encouraging.

JM:  Alright, so to begin with my questions:  why did you, and why should anyone select the Green Party? Would your talents not be better used within a larger, more established party with similar philosophical underpinnings, like the NDP or the Liberal party?

EM:  Well if those other parties had similar philosophical underpinnings, that would be possible.  My life in what you might call politics – small-p politics –  has been  one where I’ve been asked numerous times, because of being well known in the environmental movement.  I’ve been flattered to be asked numerous times by various NDP leaders, by the liberal party and even by the Progressive Conservatives, in their day, to be a candidate federally for parliament and often offered something that was supposed to be a safe riding or as a “star candidate”.  They’re very good at dazzling you with these types of offers, and whenever it came right down to it, as much as I could see my way clear to working with and liking lots of people in those parties -working with and finding acceptable some of their policies – when it really came down to it, I couldn’t accept these really nice offers for an easy route to Parliament.

So, if I wanted an easy route to Parliament, I wouldn’t have decided that the right thing to do was run for leadership of the Green Party of Canada.  What I’ve been desperately concerned about, and more as I’ve gotten older, is to watch the deterioration of civility in Parliament; the abandonment of principles at a moments notice by all the parties in Ottawa right now, with the weird  exception, I must say,  of the Bloc Quebecois, which has stuck to its guns on climate as an issue in ways that the other parties haven’t.  But of what relevance is that when you’re a party that wants to see Quebec sovereign and doesn’t care about the rest of the country?  So it’s a very strange political climate right now, and my conclusion at the end of the 2005/2006 election was that none of the existing parties could be relied upon to raise issues consistently.

And injecting respectful discourse and ideas whose time had come – ideas with the power of history behind them – that was not going to come unless there was a new kind of politics and a different voice.  So that’s why.  I actually think that your question is also flattering, that I have talents and skills that might be used anywhere.  The truth of the matter is if I were elected in any of the other parties, I would be squashed by the top down political partisanship system that requires of members of parliament to do what the leader tells you to do.  And that would be a situation in which I would be entirely unhappy and likely would resign the first time it happened.  So I think I’m better staying with a party whose philosophy I completely embrace and where, as leader, I know that when I have a caucus in the House of Commons, I won’t be squashing anyone – just as we didn’t squash Mr. Hertzog’s attempt to run against me for the nomination.  We respect people who come forward and have a view, even if it’s not the official party view.  If we have a vote in the House of Commons and we have a caucus of Greens and a member says ‘look my constituents, the people who sent me here, simply will not tolerate it if I vote the party line on this.’  Well, that’s something you have to respect because that’s how democracy should work; that’s how the parliamentary system should work. So I think I would be utterly miserable in any other party.

JM:  Well that’s a good reason not to join them.  I’ve found dealing with a lot of these politically involved people that they are getting tired of the partisanship.

EM:  Yes, it’s gotten to the level that it actually is corrosive to the functioning of democracy and to the health of government.  So, our constitution calls for Peace, Order and Good Government, and we’ve got… well thank goodness we’ve got some peace, but we’re also apparently at war in Afghanistan; and we have order but it’s of a stultifying Nixon-era like order; and we have absolutely putrid government, so this is not good and something needs to fix this.  And I think that the presence of Greens in the house will be a tonic to the whole system and to other MPs who feel the way I do, who would like to say, ‘yes let’s form a non-partisan caucus on climate; let’s form a non-partisan caucus to address issues of poverty or what we do about immigration – how we should respond to refugees on our shores.’  These are issues that really matter, and there are bright engaged committed people in all the other parties, but they can’t break out of this partisan straightjacket which really is the enemy of democracy.  We have to face it and reduce the power of organized political parties, because five of them can run rough shod during an election, but once their MPs have formed government, that political party structure should back off and let MPs work together to come up with the best possible solutions.

JM:  Now moving on to the political game, if you will, I read that in 1980 you ran for the Small Party.

EM:  Yes, I started it.  It is worth noting that I started it not because I want credit, but I paid dearly for it, because it was the days before internet and to find twelve candidates to run in six provinces, we tried to get a candidate in every province… anyway, to make a long story short, at the end of the campaign, I had this horrific telephone bill for long distance calls which prompted me to sell my car to pay my phone bill.  Which made a very good decision in changing my life and I didn’t end up owning a car between 1980 and 2007, so that was a good outcome of starting the small party.

JM:  But in the race you were against Allan MacEachen who was a very decorated politician.

EM:  Yes, he was Deputy Prime Minister at the time.

JM:  And I think he held other cabinet posts throughout his career.  It must have been a real learning experience.

EM:  Well it was great.  One of the things that was a surprise for me was – and I really admired Allan MacEachen for lots of reasons: the fact that the agenda for decent social programs in those days; he made a real difference in terms of pensions, and unemployment insurance schemes, and all kinds of things that improved, the health care system, which came in during the era of his time in parliament – there was a lot to admire about him, but he didn’t have any notion that environment mattered, and the Trudeau government was busy building up the nuclear enterprise in Canada, and we wanted to make sure those were issues.  So the big surprise for me was that there were no all candidates meetings.  There wasn’t a single all candidates meeting.  So I never did get to debate him on any issues, and he wouldn’t go into any communities in the riding unless they’d raised a minimum amount of money for the liberal party.  But where I did know that I affected him was that I spoke in a lot of schools, and high school teachers would tell me that when McEachen would come, if all the questions were on environment and nuclear, he’d say to them, somewhat testily, ‘was Elizabeth here already?’  It was the only time he got any hard questions.

But we’ve remained friends over the years.  And I didn’t expect to win; the point was to raise issues and change the tenor of the election campaign.

JM:  Speaking of important issues, and poverty being a big one these days, going through the Green Party’s web site, I noticed that your party supports going towards a Guaranteed Annual Income.

EM:  Yes.

JM:  Now some of our readers might be interested to know that this is a position that was also supported by the noted University of Chicago economist, Milton Friedman.

EM:  Was it?

JM:  Yes, he supported doing it more through a progressive income tax system, but he supported some sort of Guaranteed Annual Income.

EM:  Well, I don’t think that Milton Friedman’s approach looks anything like ours.  The person we quote in our policy document is Martin Luther King.  Milton Friedman’s approach is so antithetical to Green Party values that even if he supported what we wanted and were alive to say so, I would reject his support.  A more relevant example is Senator Hugh Segal, who is a Conservative, but comes from the last – well I don’t think he’s part of Harper’s circle – part of that caucus who actually represents something of a Red Tory.  But his view and my view aren’t that far different, and the party did a lot of policy research on it.  We actually called it a Guaranteed Liveable Income, because it’s very important that the amount people receive is actually something on which you could live, but which would impel you to want to live better so that you could actually earn more money on top of your Guaranteed Liveable Income cheque; there wouldn’t be a clawback.  We could eliminate all of the shame-based poverty programs, whether we’re talking about disability payments, welfare or EI… or even minimal pension programs – all could be replaced with this one simple plan, administered through the tax system.  There are a lot of savings to be accrued through it, but I’d have to go back and look to see what Milton Friedman’s approach was, because, given his vision of an economy, this can’t be the same program.

JM:  It is often surprising where viewpoints overlap for people at different points on the political spectrum, and why it is worthwhile not to just get caught up in your own partisan circle.  That being said, if you were to form the government next time, what three people outside of the Green Party would you seek for guidance?

EM:  Can I just say, first of all that I’m not delusional, and that we’re not going to form government at the end of the next election.  Where we will be useful, immediately at the end of the next election because I will be a member of parliament and I hope other Greens will be there with me, is that we can advance ideas and advance a co-operative approach to solutions immediately.  I see the Greens in a political evolution as being about where Tommy Douglas was at the point that Canada embraced universal health care.  He didn’t wait to become Prime Minister to bring about an idea that was critically needed and for which all Canadians are deeply grateful.

That said, what three people outside of the party would I consult regularly?  That is a very interesting question.  Peter Victor comes to mind, because I think his most recent book – he’s a professor of economics in Toronto – Steady State Economy by Disaster or Design is an extremely useful guide to how one could re-invent an economy in such a way that it both was more resilient and not as prone to bubbles that burst as the wildly speculative financial markets that got us into the current recession.  So I think Peter Victor would be someone.  I do consult him now, as it is.

Another person I consult now actually is Jim McNeil.  You may not know his name but Jim McNeill is one of Canada’s leading international diplomats.  He is retired.  He worked with Tommy Douglas, actually.  He worked with the Saskatchewan government, and was one of the national figures in the CCF in his day.  He then went to Ottawa and became a deputy minister.  He then led a number of U.N. summits, including the Habitat Conference in Vancouver, and then went to the OECD and ended up being the Secretary-General to the Commission on Environment and Development.  Jim McNeil is actually the author of the Brundtland Report: Our Common Future.  I find on almost every issue that we end up discussing together, he has the most clear eyed, realistic assessment of where we are on the planet and what needs to be done.  And he doesn’t get fooled by political rhetoric, so he’s been a really important political advisor for me.

And the third person, if that covers economy and sustainability, I think Gro Harlem Brundtland, actually.  I’d like to talk to another woman who’s been Prime Minister, who brought in a carbon tax, who made it work, who was head of the World Health Organization so could advise me on health issues, and who I know will answer my call.  So that would be it.  If I could get advice from the former Prime Minister of Norway and from Jim McNeil and from Peter Victor, I’d be getting really good advice.

JM:  That’d be a pretty strong team to have helping you out.  Do you have a couple more minutes for what we call our lightning round?

EM:  Oh sure.

JM:  BlackBerry or iPhone?

EM:  Blackberry.  Canadian technology, please.

JM:  Facebook or Myspace?  Or Twitter?

EM:  Facebook, and Twitter, I do both.

JM:  Mac of PC?

EM:  Oh, here’s the ideological rift.  I’m a PC person and I try not to fight with my Mac friends.

JM:  Less filling or tastes great?

EM:  Tastes great.

JM:  Favourite band?

EM:  It’s still The Beatles.

JM:  The Great One or Sid the Kid?

EM:  Sid the Kid, I mean I’m from Nova Scotia.

JM:  But you’re out west now…

EM:  Yeah, but I’m not in Edmonton, so I don’t have to abandon Sidney Crosbey.

JM:  But you might have to go with Roberto Luongo, now.

EM:  I really like Steve Nash.  Different sport, but way impressive, and impressive politically.

JM:  Really, I’m not actually aware of his political views.

EM:  Well he wore an anti-Iraq War t-shirt in a workout with his team, I think in Houston TX, a few years back.  And I thought, “now I’m proud; I’m proud of that young Canadian lad.”  I don’t know anything about him except that he’s the Most Valuable Player.  I think you’re the Most Valuable Player when you’re willing to put yourself out in any way out there like that in Texas.  I can’t remember what the slogan was, but it was pretty explicit and he wore it in front of media at a workout in Texas.

And he’s from Victoria.

JM:  Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory or Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Social Forces or do you care either way?

EM:  I don’t believe in either.  It’s not The Great Man theory and it’s not social forces.  It’s a combination of both and it’s a large dose of serendipity.  Often it’s people who aren’t the so-called Great Man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  I think the fact that both of those theories come from men might explain the fact that they missed the effects of networks, serendipity.

I’m more in the school of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory, that is a bit of both.  I’m much more of that school of thought of what makes change.

JM:  Who is the real Captain Canada: Steve Yzerman or David Suzuki?

EM:  David Suzuki

JM:  Who’s the greatest Canadian?

EM:  Tommy Douglas.

JM:  And who’s the greatest Prime Minister?

EM:  Tommy Douglas, though we never had him.  I’m going to go with Sir John A. Macdonald, for what he did, for what he pulled off.  He came from a coalition.  It was the great coalition and to pull together a country and make all the regional divisions work and to have the vision of a national train – which we need again; we need high speed rail coast to coast.  The mediocrity of recent leadership; the failure to see any bold vision for the country makes me kind of nostalgic for Sir John A. Macdonald.

That, and that he was a leader who ran in Victoria for a seat when he couldn’t win at home.

JM:  Well, yes, that’s definitely a good thing.

___

Meet the Players: Interviews with Political Strategists and Candidates

Stephen Harper: I Heart Torture

October 3, 2009 · By

Well, what else am I supposed to believe after reading this story:

All three opposition parties have demanded that a diplomat who may have crucial information about the alleged torture of Taliban prisoners be allowed to testify before a military watchdog inquiry.

The Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois each took turns peppering the Tory government Friday with questions about Richard Colvin, whom government lawyers are trying to strike from a witness list.

In this situation, being part of a cover up is as bad – as evil – as being part of the original transgression.  Torture has no place in the military operations of a liberal nation.  I’m not trying to put my head in the sand and say that it will never ever happen if it is not sanctioned by high-level decision makers, but when suspicions arise, our military and political structures have to be tuned to identifying and eliminating these abuses.

If the Conservative government wants to maintain a hawkish foreign policy, that’s fine; they’re the government and they get to take the lead in setting policy (though they don’t have the only say).  If, as part of this philosophy, they feel that certain interrogation techniques are valid, techniques that the rest of us might consider unacceptable, then they should be open and direct when questioned.  They should defend, in both practical terms and ethical terms, the interrogation techniques that our military sanctions, and they should do so in an open and robust debate.  They should not try to control the participants to an official inquiry.

Even the rhetoric they are employing is offensive, both to our intellects and to our soldiers.  Check out this exchange:

[Liberal MP Marlene] Jennings said the “honour and dignity” of Canadian soldiers demanded that the government be more open and stop “stonewalling” – something [parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, Laurie] Hawn, a former military officer, interpreted as a slight against those in uniform.

“To suggest the Canadian Forces or this government does not take seriously the type of allegations – allegations only – that have come forward is obnoxious,” he said.

This is utter nonsense, and Mr. Hawn should be ashamed, as I would think a man of his position is smarter than to actually believe the tripe he let out.  Ms. Jennings was defending our troops.  Our troops, on the whole, are honourable and they respect the inherent dignity of humanity as they carry out their difficult and dangerous tasks.  In order to maintain any sort of integrity in the military structure, when allegations of torture are presented we must shine as much light on the situation as possible.

This is the practical application of an interventionist liberal foreign policy.  Assuming that our soldiers are not, inherently, torturers (which was Ms. Jennings’ point), and deciding to fully investigate any allegations of torture is not “obnoxious”.  “Obnoxious” would be an obstinate stance that claims there can be no reason to be concerned about the possibility that the government and military are not doing there utmost to investigate and eliminate crimes against basic human decency.

I’m with Jim Manzi on the issue torture.  Even if we put aside the ethical issues relating to torture, torturous nations do not thrive; they do not persist.  This is not the type of nation that Canada should become.  Further, attempting to hide information about torture will serve us no benefit, either.  As a nation, we cannot survive by avoiding the truth and walling off information to the public.  Sticking one’s head in the sand serves no purpose but to expose one’s neck.

With Bill 198, Ontario Could Hurt the Poor, the Middle Class and the Wealthy

September 24, 2009 · By

Bill 198 is, potentially, a very harmful piece of legislation.  It will empower municipalities to enact policies that will drive up housing prices, cause rental shortages and hamper economic growth.  Worst of all, it could do the greatest harm to the poor.

MPP Cheri DiNovo (NDP) has introduced Bill 198, an amendment to the Planning Act that would allow municipalities to require developers set aside a certain percentage of new housing units for affordable housing (inclusionary housing appears to be the new buzz word), and the government has given their tacit approval.  Sure, the province won’t actually enact price controls with this legislation, and zoning laws rightfully belong with municipalities, but the implications of this legislation could be severe.

“Affordable” housing requirements do anything but create affordable housing.  The requirement for affordable housing will act as a cost on new development, thus deterring companies from building new housing units.

Price ceilings like “affordable” housing have the same effect as increased taxation.  They shift the price of a good away from its equilibrium point.  At the artificial price, demand will be higher but suppliers will create less of the good (in this case, housing).  The deadweight loss will rob society of wealth and we’ll have fewer housing units available.  Further, not all rents will be kept artificially low.  With lower development, and, thus, lower supply of housing, we will witness an an upward pressure on rent for all non-affordable housing units.  Vacancies will drop precipitously, and fewer people will be in the homes that they would have chosen had the government not intervened.  This will be a sub-optimal result for everyone.

This past year has been arguably the worst year, economically, that Ontario has witnessed in quite a long time.  We’re worried about economic expansion; we’re worried about people being able to pay rent.  This is not the time for the province or any municipality to put in place regulations that will stifle growth, increase the cost of housing and create a net drag on the economy.  It doesn’t matter what your motivation is; you’re going to hurt people; you’re going to hurt the poor.

This is pretty basic economics.  Surely Premier Dalton McGuinty or the Ontario Housing Minister, Jim Watson, or someone either in the Liberal caucus or advising Liberal MPs knows this.  Surely, not every Liberal is blinded by the nice talk of “affordable” housing.  The economic illiteracy on display is especially sad considering that Jim Watson was mayor of Ottawa in the late 1990s when such housing policies drove skyrocketing rental prices and led to an estimated 2% vacancy rate for rental units.  (The sadness is compounded by the fact that the Premier is also from Ottawa and must have been aware of what was a huge story in the city.)

If we are worried about people being able to afford housing, the last thing we should do is institute policies for “affordable” housing.  If we have to help people pay the rent, there is a simple way to do it; give them money.  Direct wealth transfers have the least distortionary effect on the economy; do not, directly, stifle economic growth; and would actually allow those receiving them to make choices for themselves.