Where Did All the Baby Bottles Go? Interest Groups, Media Coverage and Institutional Imperatives in Canada’s Regulation of Bisphenol A

Author: Simon Kiss

Published in Canadian Journal of Political Science

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.

 

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

Published Mar. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As Canada lurches unsteadily toward a general election, something important is missing. That “something” is a sense of national purpose – or vision – from any of the three major parties. How do the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Liberals envisage the future of the country they aspire to lead for (let us say) the next decade or beyond?

We know, broadly, where they are coming from. But do they have a roadmap? How do they see the Canada of 2025 or 2040? Will we still be a moderately liberal society, committed to equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens? Will we still welcome immigrants? Will we still embrace the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (or will we let the charter be reduced to a relic of a bygone era)? Will we still respect the supremacy of Parliament and the Supreme Court? And looking beyond Canada’s borders, will we be content to play a modest, if useful, role in a world dominated by bigger powers and their agendas? Continue reading

Of course, all three parties are dedicated (or say they are) to the service of the “middle class,” however they define it. But accommodating the middle class does not a vision make. It’s as though the leaders of the parties are so busy struggling with minutiae of the present (what should Muslim women wear on their heads; should rural dwellers be encouraged to keep guns by their beds; is income-splitting a good or bad idea) that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They become preoccupied with politics on the margins, slicing and dicing the electorate into interest groups where they hope to gain electoral advantage.

Elections should be an opportunity, for bold thinking, for big ideas. You can say what you will about John Diefenbaker, but he was not afraid to proclaim his vision (he even called it a vision) for Canada, based on northern development. So many Canadians embraced his vision that his Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. A decade later, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority with his vision of a Just Society.

Judging from the polls, Canadians are confused. They have elected Stephen Harper three times, but they still don’t love him or trust him very much; his poll numbers reflect that. The people like Thomas Mulcair, as long as he is leading the opposition. They would like to like Justin Trudeau, and they told pollsters that for two years; now they are not so sure.

As of early last week, the online poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com had the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat. Later in the week, however, a new poll by EKOS Research showed an apparent four-point shift from the Tories to the Liberals, putting the Trudeau party ahead of the Harper party by 32 per cent to 30, with the NDP holding at 21.

Frank Graves, the head of EKOS, suggested the movement, which he found significant, could partly be blowback over Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill. “The more likely explanation, however, is that the security and culture narrative is beginning to lose strength as the threat of a stagnant and eroding economy takes root in voters’ minds,” Graves reported.

The federal budget is due in the next month. But if the economy is struggling – and if the fear card is losing its potency – the Conservatives will be in trouble this spring.

Trouble for the government generally spells opportunity for the opposition. But for which opposition party? Talk of an NDP-Liberal coalition is very much in the wind. It may be the moment for a bold idea – say, a joint announcement by Mulcair and Trudeau that if (as seems likely) no party wins a majority of the 338 seats, their two parties have agreed to join forces to replace the Conservatives.

A risky idea and maybe dangerous, but its very boldness would make for an exciting election.

Where did all the baby bottles go? The regulation of bisphenol A in Canada

The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.

This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada’s regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was “toxic” according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that “at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical”. Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as “limited” (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces. Continue reading

In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.

This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: “I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system.” In research I’m doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don’t know this or don’t care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.

Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I’m pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt’s) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt’s reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as “inherently toxic”. While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found “inherently toxic” to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover — and my paper spells this out — this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn’t want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.

And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they’ve helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.

Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains – such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides – failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.

Forget Robert Munsch, kindergartners need skills training

Published Mar. 21, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it would be asking employers and industry groups to participate in a process designed to transform how universities are funded and operated in Ontario.

In many ways, this announcement is unsurprising in that it is simply the latest development in a long-term trend toward pushing universities to become places that focus more strongly on training students to meet the needs of the Canadian economy.

Universities, according to this vision, need to become sophisticated versions of community colleges, providing students with high-end skills and training to meet the current and future demands of the marketplace.

Predictably, this recent announcement has generated considerable opposition and disgust among my academic colleagues. I, on the other hand, applaud the government for taking this bold and visionary stance in provincial education policy.

Read more…

Appeal to politics of fear worked for Netanyahu

Published Mar. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

The Israeli election results are yet another reminder of what travails can be produced by a proportional representation voting system in complicating the democratic process.

Even with a minimum threshold of 3.25 per cent support to gain representation, Tuesday’s election produced 10 legislative parties in the new Knesset (Israel’s parliament), none of which receive more than 25 per cent of the vote. This means the task of forming a government requires cobbling together a deal among a wide range of prospective coalition partners, each with their own demands and agendas, which are frequently incompatible with other parties.

For example, a secular party like Yesh Atid has demands that are incompatible with the different Jewish religious parties (Ashkenazi and Sephardic). There is also a party that appeals to Russian immigrant voters, a party to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and one to the left of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union (formerly Labour), not to mention a newly aggregated bloc of Arab parties that would prefer to see the Jewish state disappear.

Read more.

Terror bill creates havoc in Harperland

Published Mar. 16, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3

With the House of Commons in recess this week for yet another mid-session breather, it is a perfect moment for everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and bring some calm to the debate over Bill C-51. To leash the dogs of war, as it were.

This could have been a civil debate. If the government felt it needed to top up police powers to deal with terrorism, it could have introduced a modest measure to that end, explaining to Parliament why additional powers were needed, what precisely those powers would be, whether they would be temporary or permanent, and what controls would be put in place to ensure the police did not abuse their new powers. And the Conservatives could have agreed to accept reasonable amendments from the opposition.

Continue reading

Parliament, I think, would have passed such a bill fairly quickly, assuming it represented an honest attempt to strike a balance between public safety and the protection of individual rights. The problem with the Harper government – or, perhaps more accurately, one of its problems – is that it cannot resist excess.

A measure that was introduced in response to the murders of two soldiers by lone-wolf assassins in unrelated incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, somehow escalated into a holy war against the jihadis of international Islam, then, courtesy of the personal intervention of the prime minister, branched into an attack on the dress code of Muslim women.

Why should the prime minister waste time worrying about what Muslim women choose to wear? The niqab or hajib have about as much (or little) to do with good governance and public safety as the ridiculous-looking Stetsons that Harper wears at the Calgary Stampede. In a free society, even prime ministers are permitted to make their own sartorial decisions.

It took Stephen Blaney, minister of the Orwellian-sounding department of public safety, to crank the fear factor up a nasty notch. It’s not just women with scarves on their heads that Canadians need to fear. There are “jihadist terrorists,” he assured a parliamentary committee, who have declared war on Canada “simply because these terrorists hate our society and they hate our values.”

How do we prevent them? Well, we start by making the “promotion of terrorism” a criminal offence. This, it seems, may mean limiting freedom of speech in Canada. “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words,” Blaney explained, sort of.

From jihadis to head scarves to our hateful values to the Holocaust – if it weren’t so serious, it might be funny, more Gilbert and Sullivan than George Orwell. But it’s serious because the Conservatives seem actually to believe this nonsense.

They believe it deeply enough to ram through Bill C-51, cutting off debate at every stage, as they rush to give the security forces powers they probably don’t need to deal with a threat that looms large in Conservative imaginations, and rejecting all opposition attempts to improve the bill with amendments to provide oversight of the police powers.

In the process, they are prepared to risk stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, thereby alienating some of the minority communities that they – Jason Kenney, in particular – worked so hard to woo in the 2011 election.

If the Conservatives seem to be panicking, it is because they see the headlight of the next election racing down the track at them. I think the Tories miscalculated. They thought playing the “fear card” would have brought them to a sweet spot in the polls by now, a spot where they would enjoy a tidy lead over the Liberals and NDP. Instead they are deadlocked with the Liberals with the New Democrats not too far behind.

Right now, a Liberal-NDP coalition or cooperative government is as good a bet as another Conservative government. Bill C-51 is simply creating havoc in Harperland. It’s time to step back.

 

What is Community-Engaged Research? A Conversation with Dr. Leah Levac

Over the last decade or so, community-based participatory research has become a more prominent feature in the discipline. This fact is especially true in the area of Indigenous studies, where research partnerships with Indigenous communities have become almost the norm. Although I certainly appreciate and respect the idea of community-based research, I’ve also tended not to use it mainly because I’m uncertain about the tradeoffs involved. Luckily, I am visiting professor with the department of political science at the University of Guelph this term and just down the hall from my office is Dr. Leah Levac, assistant professor of political science at UofG. Her research, which has been supported by the Trudeau Foundation, the CIHR, and more recently, SSHRC, looks at how government and civil society actors engage “marginalized publics in public policy development and community decision-making”. In particular, she uses community-engaged research methodologies and approaches to study the participation of women and youth in Canada. The following is a conversation I had with her regarding her work and in particular, how she uses community-based research to work with marginalized populations and individuals in the pursuit of common research goals.

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Alcantara: What is community-based research?

Levac: Community-based research is one of several methodological orientations to research that have, at their core, a commitment to social justice and equity, and to working directly with people in communities to address research questions that are important and relevant to their lives. Participatory action research, feminist participatory action research, community-based participatory research, and action research are other names used by community and academic researchers who uphold similar commitments to working with communities to bring about social change. Community-based research is committed to the principles of community relevance, equitable participation, and action and change (Ochocka & Janzen, 2014). Emerging from different contexts and histories, forms of community-based research have developed and been practiced in both the Global North and the Global South. In all cases, community-based research pursues the co-production and dissemination of knowledge, through both its process and its outcomes.

Alcantara: How do you use these methodologies in your work?

Levac: Over the last several years, I have been working with various community partners and academic colleagues to develop and use a feminist intersectional approach to community engaged scholarship (Levac, Stienstra, McCuaig, & Beals, forthcoming; Levac & Denis, 2014). The idea is that we use the principles of community-based research combined with a commitment to feminist intersectionality; a self-reflexive theoretical and methodological orientation to research that recognizes gender as a dimension of inequality, and understands that power exists and operates through the interactions between individual or group identities (e.g., gender, ability, age), systems (e.g., sexism, heterosexism, colonialism), institutions (e.g., governments, schools, family), and social structures (e.g. social class, economic structures, societies). We draw on the work of Collins, Dhamoon, Hankivsky, and others to inform our work. Practically, we apply this methodological orientation by engaging with (primarily) women in communities, along with academic colleagues across disciplines, to develop partnerships that lead to asking and answering research questions that are pressing for our community partners. Based on this commitment to developing shared research goals, we use one or several methods (e.g., community workshops, interviews, focus groups, surveys, photovoice) depending on the question(s) being asked. For example, I collected data through community workshops and focus groups, and then analyzed the data with members of the community, as part of the process for creating a Community Vitality Index in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. In another case, I used key informant interviews and community focus groups to identify the key challenges facing women in Labrador West. The result, Keeping All Women in Mind, is part of a national community engaged research project focused on the impacts of economic restructuring on women in northern Canada.

Alcantara: Why have you decided to make this methodology central to your work? What advantages does it bring to your research and to your partners?

Levac: My commitment to community engaged scholarship emerged in part from my personal and professional experiences. I returned to school to pursue graduate studies after working with community organizations and community members – young people in particular – where I witnessed disconnects between researchers’ goals and community’s experiences, and where I learned more about the lack of equitable public participation in policy development. As I continue along this path, I am motivated by the ways in which this methodological orientation invites the voices of historically marginalized community members into important public conversations. I also appreciate that the approach brings ecological validity. Through our work, we see important instances of leadership emerging, especially in places and ways that the conventional leadership literature largely fails to recognize. Finally, the theoretical grounding of our work points explicitly to social justice and equity goals, which I feel obligated to pursue from my position.

Alcantara: One of the concerns I have long had about this methodology is the potential loss of autonomy for the researcher. Is that a real danger in your experience?

Levac: I think about this in two different ways. On one hand, I do not think it is a danger that is unique to community engaged scholarship. As I understand it, the core concern with autonomy in community engaged scholarship is about how the relationships themselves might influence the findings. However, the lack of relationships can also influence findings (e.g., if there is a lack of appropriate contextual understanding), as can funding arrangements, and so on. What is important then, is to foreground the relationships, along with other important principles such as self-reflexivity and positionality, so that the rigor of the scholarship can be evaluated. Another way to think about this is to consider that within a community engaged scholarship program, there can be multiple research questions under pursuit; some of which are explicitly posed by, and of interest to, the community, and others that are posed by the academic researcher(s). As long as all of these questions are clearly articulated and acceptable to all partners, then independent and collective research pursuits can co-exist. Having said this, I do find that I have had to become less fixated on my own research agenda per se, and more open to projects that are presented to me.

Alcantara: How do you approach divided communities? Here I’m thinking about situations such as working with Indigenous women on issues relating to gender and violence, identity, or matrimonial property rights. How do you navigate these types of situations, where some community members might welcome you while others might oppose you?

Levac: These are obviously difficult situations, and I certainly do not claim to have all of the answers, particularly in Indigenous communities, where I have not spent extensive time. Having said that, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. First, the ethical protocols and principles of community engaged scholarship demand attention to the question of how communities are constituted. So, for example, an interest-based community and a geographic community are not necessarily coincidental. As a result, a community engaged scholarship project would be interested in how the community defines itself, and therefore might end up working only with people who identify themselves as victims of gendered violence, for example. Second, because relationships are central to all stages of community-based research projects, these methodologies can actually lend themselves to these difficult kinds of contexts. By this, I mean that similar to reconciliation processes, there is an opportunity for community engaged scholarship to play a role in opening dialogues for understanding across social, political, and cultural barriers. This is one of the reasons that community engaged scholarship is widely recognized as being so time intensive.

Alcantara: What kinds of literature and advice would you offer to scholars who want to use this type of methodology in their work for the first time?

Levac: My first and biggest piece of advice is to get involved in the community. All of my research – including and since I completed my PhD – has come about through existing relationships with community organizations and/or other researchers involved in community engaged projects. There are a number of books and authors that can provide a useful grounding, including Reason & Bradbury’s (Eds.) Handbook of Action Research, Minkler & Wallerstein’s Community-Based Participatory Research for Health, and Israel et al.’s Methods for Community-Based Participatory Research for Health. There are also several great peer-reviewed journals – including Action Research and Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement. Finally, there are many organizations and communities of practice that pursue and support various facets of community engaged scholarship. Guelph hosts the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship. Other great organizations and centres include Community Based Research Canada, Community Campus Partnerships for Health, and the Highlander Research and Education Centre. Finally, beyond connecting with communities and community organizations, and reading more about the methods and theories of community engaged scholarship, it is really helpful to reach out to scholars using these approaches, who have, in my experience, been more than willing to offer support and suggestions. Feel free to contact me directly at LLevac@uoguelph.ca.

 

Is opportunity knocking at Trudeau’s door?

Published Mar. 9, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Justin Trudeau has no policies.

Justin Trudeau is not ready for prime time. That is to say, he is too young, too inexperienced politically, and just too darned flighty to be taken seriously as a potential prime minister.

Trudeau has been hearing those allegations for months, mainly from the lavishly funded attack machine of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but also from ordinary voters who are attracted to the man but are apprehensive about his qualifications for high office. Continue reading

Of the two sets of allegations, the paucity of policy is the easiest for Liberals to deal with. They don’t know when the election will be, but they do know that if they put their major policies in the window too soon, they will simply attract fire from the Conservatives. So they are proceeding at a deliberate space, advancing concepts more than specifics. In Liberal strategy, details can come later.

For example, speaking at his party’s policy conference in late February, Trudeau sketched a reasonable picture of the economic direction a Liberal government would take. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom (who happens to be an economist as well as a journalist) described it this way: “This is Trudeau’s formula for the economy: Keep resources moving; embrace free trade; don’t raise taxes; spend any surplus on education and useful infrastructure.” As Walkom concluded: “It may or may not be correct. But it is pretty clear.”

The second set of allegations, concerning Trudeau’s lack of experience, are harder to deal with. By conventional political measure, his early resume is thin. He has two university degrees (and dropped out of a couple of other academic programs), taught high school, lobbied on behalf of environmental causes, and chaired the national youth service program, Katimavik.

He could have ridden on his name to an easy seat in Parliament. Instead, he challenged an established Bloc Québécois MP in the Montreal riding of Papineau and beat him in the 2008 general election. Now he has been in Parliament for more than six years and leader of his party for two. He is 43.

There are no established prerequisites for political leadership. When his father Pierre entered the Liberal leadership race in 1968, his detractors – many of them in the Liberal caucus and party – argued he wasn’t truly a Liberal and had never had a real job. He was a lawyer by schooling. a university teacher and sometime journalist – none of which added up to “real” work in the skeptics’ minds – before he became an MP, parliamentary secretary and justice minister, all in less than three years as his career was fast-tracked by Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

When he became prime minister, at age 48, he was known to most Canadians as an intriguing “swinger” – a bachelor who loved fast cars and beautiful women – and as the unconventional minister who had declared that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation.

In comparison to his father, Justin seems conventional, although perhaps not as staid as Stephen Harper, another politician with a skinny early resume. Harper came on the national scene out of the Reform Party in Alberta. A transplanted Ontarian with a degree in economics, he was a policy wonk and an admirer of American Republicanism. He worked with right-wing causes and ran the lobby group, the National Citizens Coalition. If anyone had examined Harper’s credentials back in March 2004, when he became leader of the reconstituted Conservative party, they would not have bet more than a dime on his chances of beating the mighty Liberals. He was not ready for prime time.

Yet two years later he was prime minister – at age 46. He’s won three elections and is on his way to becoming one of Canada’s longer-serving PMs.

The morale in all this: credentials are dandy and resumes are lovely, but opportunity is what turns mere leaders into prime ministers. It worked for Harper and Pierre Trudeau. It might work for Justin, too.

Mr. PM, please think twice about five debates

Published Mar. 2, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper

24 Sussex Drive

Ottawa, Ontario

My very dear Prime Minister:

I am writing to you again as a steadfast admirer of your inspired leadership, your splendid cabinet and your exceptional caucus. Sir, be assured Canada has never been so well served.

Permit me to begin by apologizing for intruding on your solitude this week. With Parliament in recess, you are freed from the aggravations of recent weeks. You don’t have to deal this week with that troublesome Eve Adams person who wouldn’t go away even after you threw her under the bus; with Thomas Mulcair and his motley band of jihadi sympathizers who refuse to recognize that the way to protect democracy is to give more unsupervised power to security agencies; or with all those do-gooders who think you should care enough about 1,200 missing aboriginal women to order a public inquiry into their disappearances. Continue reading

Don’t they realize you are too busy for such distractions? You are our prime minister. You have a government to run, a deficit to slay, and an election to win.

It is in this last connection, the election, that I am writing today. I fear you may have a quisling or two in your party. I came to this conclusion when I read a leaked story on the front page of the Toronto Star that quoted Conservative “insiders” and “strategists” – “speaking on condition of anonymity” (of course) – as saying that your party is considering a plan to hold no fewer than five leader debates in this year’s election campaign. Not the usual two (one English and one French) but five (one for each region of the country).

Five!

According to your anonymous insiders and strategists, five debates would give you five chances to trip up Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, opportunities to demonstrate to voters in every region just how ill-prepared he is for your high office. Canadians would see young Trudeau for what he is: a callow twerp who thinks he can be prime minister just because his daddy was.

Don’t do it, Prime Minister, I beg you. Please consider my three reasons. First, debates are inherently risky because they put all leaders on a level playing field; the advantage of incumbency, which you enjoy in the Commons, is lost in a TV debate. Voters might actually see your opponents as potential, even credible, candidates for prime minister.

Second, beware Mulcair. With respect, Prime Minister, you are not the world’s most spellbinding debater. You are pretty good at slagging your critics in Question Period, but in TV debates, the goal is to persuade audiences, not to abuse the other chaps. Meanness and nastiness don’t win over voters. Sincerity does. As a debater, you can’t hold a candle to Mulcair. He’s one of the best Parliament has seen in decades, in both official languages. I don’t know anyone who would want to go against him five times.

Third, don’t underestimate Justin Trudeau. Now that his honeymoon fling with the pollsters is over, people are inclined to under-rate him. Yes, he lacks your experience. Yes, he makes stupid mistakes. But he has done a good job of putting the Liberals back on a firm financial footing. He has attracted a cadre of strong candidates. And he projects a quality that not all leaders can claim. That’s likeability. When voters meet him or hear him, they like him. This is particularly true among young people, but he attracts older ones as well.

When he debates on television, audiences may not remember much of what he actually says, but they will come away with an impression – like or dislike. Chances are the impression will be more positive than negative. It was like that with Ronald Reagan in the United States; his likeability was his greatest (some might say, only) asset. And he was a pretty successful politician.

So please be careful, Prime Minister. You are too important to lose.

Your faithful lickspittle,

etc., etc.

Israel-U.S. ties strong despite leaders’ friction

Published Feb. 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Much has been made of the personal animosity between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the two men clearly have had differences and don’t play well together.

However, even if we assume the invitation to the Israeli leader by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on March 3 — bypassing the president and the U.S. State Department — was a bush league stunt used for partisan advantage, the long-term implications of it are minimal.

American support for Israel in its conflicts with the Arab world was not always as automatic as in recent times. That support grew over the years in the face of Palestinian alignment with the Soviet Union during the days of the Cold War, and then the emergence of Islamic hostility to America, the West, and even modernity, among its extreme elements.

Read More. 

Anti-terrorism bill shows bad judgment

Published on Feb. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in the olden days, as the storybooks might say, societies venerated their elders. They respected their experience and wisdom. They looked to those who had been there and done that to give guidance to their community or nation on the issues of the here and now.

That’s not so much the case these days. We live in a time – not solely in Ottawa, although it is pronounced there – when history does not register on the Richter scale of the present, where the lessons of the past are routinely ignored.  Columnist Allan Fotheringham once described Stephen Harper’s Ottawa as a capital run by ”kids in short pants” – young ideologues who have no appreciation of anything that went on before they got off the bus from wherever and assumed  positions of influence in the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet. Continue reading

Because they have no sense of the past, they do not understand the present. Everything is political. They do not see the difference between principle and partisan strategy or between carefully considered policies and short-term tactics.

This brings us, albeit circuitously, to Bill C-51, the Harper government’s anti-terrorism bill, a thoroughly bad piece of legislation. Although the kids in short pants may not be aware, or care, we have been there before – in 1970 at the time of the FLQ and the War Measures Act and in 2001 following 9/11.

What we learned, or should have learned, from those experiences is that our security services, principally CSIS and the RCMP, have ample existing powers under the Criminal Code and other statutes to deal with domestic terrorism and security. They don’t need more weapons. What they need is more resources – money and manpower – to be able to do their job in dangerous times.

A second point. This being a democracy, any increase in police powers, if deemed necessary to calm a nervous public, must be balanced by an increase in legislative or judicial oversight to make very sure the new powers are not abused.

A remarkable thing happened last week. Four former prime ministers, all of them experienced in national security matters, wrote an open letter to the Globe and Mail, to address the oversight issue. Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and John Turner (three Liberals and one Conservative) wrote the letter, which was co-signed by 18 other elders (including retired judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, ministers of justice and public safety and solicitors general).

Essentially, their message was to slow down; don’t hand out new powers to infiltrate and disrupt what may only seem to be suspicious activities unless and until a “strong and robust accountability regime” is in place to make sure security agencies exercise their powers lawfully. Citing the Maher Arar case, they wrote,  “Experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security.”

One of the co-signers of the letter was Roy Romanow, the former premier and attorney general of Saskatchewan, who – with former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent – had written an open letter a few days earlier on the same subject. They went further than the four prime ministers.

They called on Harper to withdraw Bill C-51 –  “If it is not withdrawn, Parliament should vote it down. Possibly, then, a more limited and focused statute would be worth debating.” And this: “The exercise of security powers must be made subject to review by an open, publicly observed review process.”  

This is scary stuff, handing the police powers they have never had in peacetime without any transparency, without an effective means of ensuring they do not overstep.

The prime minister has shown no inclination to amend the bill. The chances of him withdrawing it are approximately nil. He has too much riding on it, including his re-election.

The experience of elders, those who have actually been there, counts for nothing in Harper’s Ottawa. He is riding a runaway train to election day.

The Senate gets its election marching orders

Published Feb. 17, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

You know the government is getting serious about calling an election when it starts issuing marching orders to its supporters in the Senate.

The Senate? That’s right. Senators don’t actually have to get elected in Canada.They are spared that inconvenience. But they do have roles to play – and pitfalls to avoid – as they were put on notice at a two-hour, closed-door meeting on Jan. 30.

According to the Hill Times, the newspaper for the denizens of the village known as Parliament Hill, the meeting was convened by Jean-Martin Masse, chief of staff to Senator Claude Carignan, the government leader in the upper house, and was attended by the executive assistants and policy advisers for all 52 Conservative senators. Continue reading

They were told that the prime minister wants no surprises from the Senate. He expects the Conservative majority to deal expeditiously – that is to say, to pass quickly – the government’s priority legislation, including its new anti-terrorism Bill C-51 and the controversial changes to the Canada Elections Act in Bill C-50.

Other than that, senators should stay out of the way. “Absolutely” no comment to be made to the media about the anxiously awaited auditor general’s report on senators’ expenses. No comment on the Mike Duffy trial, which is due to begin in April. No tweeting. In fact, no communication with journalists on any subject, or use of social media, without clearing it first with Sen. Carignan’s office.

Although government leader in the Senate is no longer a cabinet position – Prime Minister Harper made that change to distance his administration from the ongoing Senate expense scandal – Sen. Carignan is his point man. And he appears to be blessed with adequate staff resources.

According to the Hill Times, “Some of the senior staffers from Sen. Carignan’s office who attended and led the (Jan. 30) meeting were: Jean-Martin Masse, chief of staff; Natalie Fletcher, director of parliamentary affairs; Yana Lukasheh, parliamentary affairs adviser; Éric Gaganon, parliamentary affairs adviser; and Anaida Galindo, parliamentary affairs adviser.”

I don’t like to be rude, but why does a senator, who doesn’t even have cabinet responsibility, need one chief of staff, plus one director of parliamentary affairs and three – three! – parliamentary affairs advisers? And, let us not forget to mention, one “communications coordinator,” named Sébastien Gariépy, who also attended the meeting and in true Harper fashion, refused to comment on anything and everything that went on there.

What does a “parliamentary affairs adviser” or “communications coordinator” to a senator actually do? Are these real jobs?

In my day in Ottawa, many senators were accommodated two to an office with a shared secretary. MPs generally had private offices, although some shared. Cabinet ministers had an executive assistant who ran the office, a secretary who answered the phone and typed letters, a special assistant who wrote speeches and press releases, carried suitcases and drank beer with reporters, and perhaps a departmental assistant, seconded from the civil service, who acted as liaison between the minister and the officials in his department.

That would never do today. In those days, a couple of dozen people worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, about half of them in the correspondence section, answering the mail. Today, Harper has 12 “directorates” in his office with a political staff that fluctuates in size, but generally is in the 90-100 range – plus, of course, the Privy Council Office, whose 900-odd public servants report to the PMO.

These numbers must explain why Canada is so much better governed today than it was in the bad old days when it was all a government could do to introduce the Canadian flag, bring in medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, abolish capital punishment, overhaul the Criminal Code and enact the Official Languages Act. Think how much more productive they could have been if the prime minister then had a proper complement of “directorates” and if senators had a band of “parliamentary affairs advisers” to help them march to the Prime Minister’s tune.

 

Harper has trust issues with MPs, SCOC

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Stephen Harper doesn’t like Parliament very much, to put it politely. He is certainly not the first prime minister to harbor dark thoughts about the institution and its inmates (Pierre Trudeau comes to mind), and he won’t be the last, but Harper carries his disdain to a higher level. Even though he has a majority government – and thereby has effective control over everything Parliament does – he does not trust the place or its members.

Bill C-51, the government’s new anti-terrorism legislation, is a case in point. Given the importance that the government attaches to the bill, it should have been presented first to elected representatives in Parliament. Instead, Harper went off-site, to a Tory-friendly political rally in Richmond Hill; he’d pulled the same stunt before with the government’s fiscal updates.

Bill C-51 raises two issues that need to be addressed by Parliament. First, do the security agencies really need increased powers?  Are the powers already vested in the Criminal Code and other federal statutes truly inadequate? Second, who will watch the watchers? What sort of oversight will be put in place to ensure that the new powers are not abused?

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For example, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is our national spy agency. It gathers intelligence on groups and individuals that it believes may be a threat to national security. Bill C-51 would increase the scope of CSIS from spy agency to secret police. Not only would it gather information and monitor suspicious activities, it would have new powers to disrupt those activities.

Currently, such oversight as there is of CSIS is entrusted to the grossly underfunded Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a five-member body that until recently was chaired by the notorious Dr. Arthur Porter, a patronage appointee chosen by the prime minister; at last report, Porter was in jail in Panama fighting extradition to Montreal to face major fraud charges, his wife already having pleaded guilty.

The case for parliamentary or legislative oversight is compelling. That’s the way it is done in Washington, Britain and Australia where all-party committees of elected representatives, meeting in private, review the operations of the spy services. Those committees are accountable to Congress or Parliament. The system is not perfect, but it is preferable to leaving oversight to a shadowy group like SIRC, which appears to be accountable to no one.

Parliamentary oversight is not going to happen in Ottawa. Harper has made it clear through his parliamentary secretary that he is happy with the system as it exists. He is not about to give authority to MPs who, heaven forbid, might want to ask to ask him questions he wouldn’t want to answer – just as, a few years ago he refused to answer questions about the costs of new prisons and the F-35 fighter aircraft program.

Parliament is not the only Ottawa institution that Harper dislikes. The list is quite long, but the Supreme Court of Canada would be near the top. It frustrates him. He has appointed seven of the nine members of the current court – and where is their loyalty, their gratitude? They no sooner don their ermine-trimmed robes than they turn on him.

Last year they prevented him from appointing Marc Nadon, a Federal Court judge whose conservative bent he liked, on the ground that, as the government well knew, he was not eligible for the Supreme Court. Harper didn’t like that at all.

Last week, the court opened an issue that Harper very much wanted to avoid: the right to doctor-assisted suicide. Reversing a ruling it had made 21 years ago in the Sue Rodriguez case, the court ruled that desperately ill Canadians have a constitutional right to assistance to end their lives. The decision was unanimous, 9-0, all seven Harper appointees supporting the ruling.

The court set down a number of safeguards and gave the Conservatives one year to write a new law. It was not a message Harper wanted to hear in election year.