Archive for January, 2016

In the doldrums of a Canadian winter.

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Not even Bonhomme Carnaval can cure the January-February blahs this year. Eating and drinking too much in Quebec City might be a popular pastime at this time of year but you also used to have the option of heading south soon afterward. Sure you can. If you can find a warm spot where our 70-cent loonie is appreciated?

Even those of us staying at home are looking at prices in the grocery store and grinding our teeth. And we are still paying a lot more for gasoline than we should be at the current prices of crude oil. We even growled at the nice people down at the tire place when they had to replace a valve in one of our snow tires. Mind you, for $40, you are entitled to growl about it.

Catching up on the current flag debate in New Zealand yesterday shows how desperate we are for new topics to comment on. It is about time the Kiwis got themselves a flag that can be distinguished from the Aussie flag. The only problem is that the most common term used for the debate on a new flag there is “desultory.” Compared to the rousing Canadian debate of half a century ago, the Kiwis are putting people to sleep.

The other problem for New Zealand is that they were fearful of a debate over the monarchy and they have shoved that subject to the back burner. That is just as stupid as us Canucks with our heads in the snow and ignoring the need to rid our country of the British monarchy.

The Brit monarchy is not half bad compared to the spawn of Victoria giving monarchs a bad name on the continent but you do realize do you not that this is the 21st Century? Here we are trying to promote equality between our citizens, our genders and our preferred languages and we continue a silly anachronism such as the monarchy.

We can change our constitution in a civilized way or we can have a revolution. The idea of revolution might appeal to some of us but they would have no clue as to who to shoot.

And we could never have a revolution in winter anyway. Not enough Canadians want to go outside to play at this time of year. And then in summer, we are too busy mowing the lawn at our cottages.

And the other problem is the otherwise healthy readership of Babel-on-the-Bay drops like a rock when we discuss such boring subjects as the monarchy. So what would you like to discuss next?

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

Justin: On electoral versus constitutional reform.

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

In a sit-down conversation with Justin Trudeau about six years ago, it was immediately obvious that he is an emotional person and as easy to read as an open book. Other than being eager to get him into a poker game, it was interesting to test his reaction to some basic political propositions. While he is fervent on electoral reform, his eyes cloud over when you mention changing the constitution. He does not see dealing with Canada’s constitution as anything other than a lose-lose proposition.

Despite still being a teenager at the time, Justin obviously absorbed more of his late father’s attitudes about the Meech Lake machinations and the failed Charlottetown Accord than he admits. As a Quebec MP, Justin has obviously tried to leave these issues behind while emulating the more modern Québécois. His approach seemed to be working on election day as Quebec contributed handsomely to the Liberal majority.

Trudeau’s stance on electoral reform is also more emotional than considered. His stated preference for the ‘instant run-off” of a preferential vote would have likely provided his party with more than 30 additional seats in parliament in the October election. As he won a majority anyway, he did not need those potential second votes.

And cooler heads in the Liberal Party will warn him against giving in to the smaller parties’ desire for a proportional voting system. Majority governments are rare with proportional voting systems.

But Justin’s basic problem remains that there is too much real change needed that requires constitutional rather than electoral reform. The silly elitist solution he has come up with for Senate reform is going to come back and bite him. If he really does appoint non-political independent elites to the Senate, they will act that way and his government will have just as hard a time passing legislation as he would have without making any appointments to the Senate.

He did not disagree when we delved into a list of problems that Canada’s constitution had built up in the more than 140 years our country had existed at the time.

In our conversation those six years ago, we suggested changing the role of the Governor General. He liked the idea but ruled it out when we suggested turning all Canada’s constitutional problems over to an elected constitutional congress. Mind you, he looked thoughtful when we mentioned dumping the monarchy and looking at a presidential system of government.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

How far can electoral reform go?

Friday, January 29th, 2016

Because it is 2016, the question should be asked: Will we have thorough discussion on the question of electoral reform? Or will the questions be decided just by votes in parliamentary committee and parliament? And the question is important as the Trudeau Liberals are hoping they can find a solution that can be supported by the New Democrats and Greens.

But finding common ground is not all that likely. Trudeau hopes he can sell the smaller parties on a form of preferential voting but they appear to have their hearts set on some variation of proportional voting. Even if the Liberals and the smaller parties do find a place to meet, their next problem is the voters. Changing the way Canadians vote will be a very tough sales job.

When Ontario took a stab at a modified form of proportional voting and British Columbia proposed a modified form of a preferential ballot, it was bad news in both cases. The weakly supported Ontario proposition lost by two to one in their referendum while BC took two tries at reform and did even worse the second time.

What will frustrate all the discussions is that there is no system simpler than First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting. All the voter needs to do is find the name of the person they want to elect and make a mark in the right spot. While psephologists (people who study elections and voting) might consider some other methods almost as simple, you also have to know more about the voters themselves.

The statement that all politics is local applies in Canada even more than in some other jurisdictions. It is not often the first thing mentioned but Canadians have local rivalries and regional rivalries, rural/urban rivalries and provincial rivalries, ethnic rivalries and language rivalries, religious rivalries and the lists go on. You have to wander this country as a sponge to absorb just today’s attitudes. And remember that while everyone laughs at the Toronto Maple Leafs, Canadians will pay outrageous amounts to see them play.

Even if the Liberals and small parties can find an accommodation, the Conservatives will be ready to tear it apart. There would be no succour for them if either a preferential or proportional voting system is adopted. A preferential voting system would leave the Conservatives with no allies and little likelihood of every again achieving power. Conversely a proportional system would encourage the development of many breakaway parties and they would be forced to make the deals needed to win the government.

Canadians are hardly warmed to this debate as few have yet to pay much attention. The worst time for them to pay attention is if changes are made before the next election. The wrong time for them to discover the changes would be when they go to vote.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

You don’t get much for $300 million!

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Inflation is an unfeeling brute. By the time the Trudeau government brings our six aging F-18s back from the Middle East, Canadians will have spent close to $300 million on the exercise. Obviously it is not cheap to maintain modern jet fighters half way around the world from home. The question is will they have little figures painted on the sides of the aircraft to represent the jihadists each aircraft has killed?

But your guess is as good as anyone else as to the number of extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) our pilots have bombed back to their maker. If we have only killed 300, that will be a million dollars per head. If we have blown 30,000 of the miscreants away, it could be a bargain at just $10,000 per head.

There are also munitions dumps and gasoline for the ISIL fighters’ pick-up trucks that can be bombed. When you do that, they start moving things around at night and spreading out the high-risk targets. And you would not want to waste an expensive guided bomb on a single pick-up truck.

We sure have come a long way from Dawn Patrol over the Ardennes in the First World War. There is no Red Baron out there in the Levant whereby a stalwart airman can earn the esteem of his comrades and the occasional good-looking nurse! The important thing is that he makes it back to base and the clean sheets on his bed.

With all the cameras on a modern jet fighter, there is no way a pilot can find an easy target of opportunity to use his expensive ordnance. If no worthy target can be found, the pilot has to bring the damn bomb back to base.

But we should be sympathetic for the hardships our air crews have suffered during their time in the Middle East. You can be sure that there were no legal off-base drinking and carousing establishments in those countries. And the fleshpots of Cyprus are just not worth the flight time for a little R-and-R..

Realistically, Canada’s pilots, ground crews and support staff have already been in the battle against ISIL for too long. The Trudeau government is right to stop the foolishness and bring our planes and personnel home.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

Justice denied: The Yatim trial.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

At one time the Toronto police force was among the most respected in Canada. It had the overwhelming support and trust of the citizens it served. That is no longer true. The trial of Constable James Forcillo for murdering Sammy Yatim has told Toronto citizens that the police consider themselves above the law.

The lesson of the trial is that it is alright to shoot a drugged young man for not doing what the police were telling him to do. He was given less than a minute to comply with instructions to drop a penknife and come down out of the streetcar. The jury decided that it was alright to shoot Sammy Yatim three times—and kill him.

But it was not alright to shoot him six more times. That, the jury opined, was attempted murder—even though Sammy Yatim was already dead. It took the jury six days of deliberations to come to that conclusion. You can just imagine the arguments in the jury room over that stroke of genius.

What is particularly galling in this situation is that the Toronto Police are closing ranks around their still-being-paid fellow constable Mr. Forcillo. It seems that police union boss Mike McCormack believes in the Nuremberg Defence. What that means is that Forcillo says he was only doing what he was trained to do. That means his defence for murder is that he was doing what he was told. To accept that defence, the courts would be denying international legal principles more than half a century old.

The best weasel of all in this fiasco is the stand taken by current Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders who claimed that the verdict showed that Toronto police are responsible to their public. He went on to say that the police are considering changing how they train officers. And if that is how they have been training police then more than Chief Saunders should be fired.

The disappointing note in all of this is the impact it is having on many of the youth in our cities. The message they are getting is that the police believe they can use lethal force at their discretion.

You can compile a long list of misdeeds by police but you need to remember that real reform starts at the top. We have many effective and competent police officers in Canada. They are desperately in need of good leadership.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

Is that Alberta bitumen still flowing?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

It will never have the panache of “Bombs bursting in air” but someone in Alberta needs to write a patriotic song about the products of Alberta’s tar sands. The current battle between Alberta politicians and Montreal area mayors is on that grand a scale. In a battle between Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and TransCanada Pipelines over the Canada East pipeline project, we are betting on Coderre. And Justin Trudeau will be unable to keep his nose from being bloodied in the scrap.

There is no neutral ground for bystanders on piping Alberta bitumen across Canada. For Trudeau to say the responsibility rests with the Calgary-based National Energy Board (NEB) is just too facile. The board appointed by Stephen Harper is a joke. Its terms of engagement for hearings are weighted on the side of the pipeline companies. The Trudeau government has said they will do something about it. Nothing has happened yet. Until we have a National Energy Board we can trust—located on neutral turf—only the federal cabinet can rule on this one.

This is unlike Enbridge’s Line 9 that runs through heavily populated parts of southern Ontario such as Toronto. The approval for pumping bitumen to Quebec was given by the NEB at the end of last September. That 76-centimetre pipe is almost ready to start running bitumen to the Quebec refineries that are being forced to process bitumen into synthetic oil. And what those refineries are going to do with the huge residues of highly polluting bitumen slag is anyone’s guess.

Bear in mind that Enbridge’s Line 9 is a 39-year old pipeline that has been switched around a couple times now. Enbridge is still adding new pressure systems, tightening bolts and doing pressure tests with water. There is no rush at current prices of bitumen in turning on the bitumen taps. It is currently an exercise in losing money.

But when crude oil starts to sell for over $50 a barrel again, sometime in the next few years, Enbridge and TransCanada Pipelines want to be ready to cash in on the flow. The fact that there will only be a finite amount of time before there is a catastrophic blow-out of either line will be a problem for insurance companies.

It looks as though the British Columbia government, the indigenous peoples and the courts have put a stop to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and the Northern Gateway pipeline plans on the West Coast. That will just mean more bitumen and money for the East Coast pipelines.

And if Denis Coderre and his legion of Quebec mayors can stop TransCanada, Enbridge might be the only pipeline player left.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

Justin’s chorus demonizes first-past-the-post.

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Nowhere in the Canadian voting handbook does it say that we are committed to voting for all the promises of the party we choose in an election. Even as a card-carrying Liberal, we have the right to tell the Prime Minister that one of his promises is foolish and should not happen. Specifically, his promise to change how we vote for our member of parliament should be shelved.

In reading the Insight Section of the Toronto Star last Saturday, we found the name of our Liberal riding president appended to one of a page of letters-to-the-editor lauding the potential demise of first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting. The riding president’s letter simplistically equates electoral reform to the historical importance of women winning the right to vote.

Sorry, buddy but that is an apples and oranges argument. Giving the franchise to women was a long overdue legal right. Change how we vote in a hurry and we can regret it at our leisure. Before you change how we vote, it is critical to understand what you are doing.

Any change in how we vote will have long-term implications. For example: proportional voting is supported by small national parties because they know that they will gain seats in parliament. It has been shown around the world to create more special interest group parties. It practically guarantees that you will never have a majority government. It means a government that has to constantly wheel and deal to get anything through parliament.

The reverse of that is preferential voting. Preferential voting would be likely to reduce the number of parties as they consolidate to add to their voter preference. With preferential voting, that October election would have given the Liberals as much as 70 per cent of the seats in parliament and a carte blanche to put through their program.

There are of course many variations of both proportional and preferential voting systems. Before you change to any of them, you need to recognize that Canada is, in its constitutional structure, a confederation. It is not structured as a single country but is the sum of its provinces and territories. Our electoral system is based on so many representatives from each province and territory. Our MPs are elected to represent an electoral district.

Now think about what Canada needs. Change is not impossible but real change requires a much broader consensus. Without the express consent of the Canadian people, Justin Trudeau has no franchise to change how we vote.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

You betcha it’s the Trump team!

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

The leaders of America’s Republican Party have already picked the team that will take on the world when it wins the November election. They are betting on billionaire Donald Trump and the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

And here you thought that the Republicans would want to temper Trump’s tirades with a more politically acceptable running mate. With former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at his side, Americans would have a greater incentive to keep Trump alive.

While Sarah is more Tea Party than mainstream GOP, you have to admit that she makes Donald Trump seem sane and practical. Her ringing endorsement of Trump in Iowa the other day was designed to sabotage Texan Ted Cruz’ presidential hopes and also open the door for the darling of the Tea Party Republicans to have another 15 minutes of fame. Where Tea Party extremists have been somewhat lukewarm to Trump because of some of his Democrat-like tendencies, it is Sarah who can bring him into the Tea Party fold.

The GOP leaders are betting that in November they can capture the lot, House and Senate and President, with the Trump-Palin ticket as the star attraction. As Palin said in her endorsement of Trump, her Tea Party “rock ‘n’ rollers and holy rollers’ in the crowd were prepared to see him kick ISIS’ ass and no more “pussy-footin” around. While Trump might have been surprised to hear it put that way, he forced a smile as the crowd roared its approval.

Many observers were convinced eight years ago that it was Sarah Palin who destroyed John McCain’s chances of winning the White House. Now the question is what could she possibly do worse for Donald Trump? He would be the calmer older brother. Maybe idiocy runs in the family but then look at the people voting for them.

And what do you think their opponents could do to them? How will they possibly handle the tag team of Trump and Palin? Can you imagine if Hillary Clinton chose Bernie Sanders as her Vice President what would happen in the debates? Hillary can handle Donald Trump with ease but Palin would drive Sanders to calling her an idiot and walking out on the debate.

And if you think American politics is nothing but a carnival sideshow now, can you imagine Donald Trump renovating the White House?

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

Will nobody come to Canada’s party?

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

Canada will be 150-years old next year. Even the Harper Conservatives were going to celebrate that. As it looks now, there might not be much of a party. “Hard times” we are told. The private sector wants to save its money. The public sector does not want to be seen spending money. So cake and candles are out.

It is just that we remember birthday 100. That was a fabulous party. We had year-long festivities centred in Ottawa and Expo 67 in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Great pride was generated. Fun was had. We met the world in Montreal that year. Nobel Prize winner Lester Pearson was Prime Minister. The world looked to and admired Canada.

And it is hardly practical to wait for the celebrations when the country makes it to 200 years. You want to be able to enjoy the party. Milk and soft cookies can hardly replace champagne and caviar.

There is also the possibility that we might not like Canada when it turns 200. If the country cannot overcome some of its inertia by then, it might not be much of a party. Can we continue that long with our constipated constitution? Can Canadians not make common cause to strengthen our democracy and build a stronger economy?

Will Canada remain a country of failed potential? Will we continue to waste the talents of our youth by refusing a universal right to education? Will we deny our citizens the national drug plan that can improve the lives of many? Will we continue to just exploit our resources instead of challenging our entrepreneurs?

Having once helped a national charity to raise money in good times and in bad, it was found that bad times simply called for more creativity. Canadians have that creativity.

Prime Minister Trudeau told the world the other day in Davos, Switzerland that Canada was a land of resourceful people. His government needs to understand its own rhetoric and show some understanding of what that Canadian resourcefulness needs. Fixing our infrastructure is something that needs to happen in any event. It is the release of capital to new ideas and new businesses, to the arts and to challenges that builds something for our future. It is not a time for the conventional. It is time for the creative.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me

Babel-on-the-Bay gets its share of comments.

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Readers must have thought we were asking for comments the other day when we wrote about a “Path for New Democrat Mulcair.” The discussion of a merger of the Liberals and NDP is certainly a lightening rod subject. Mind you the first reader to contact us wanted to know the meaning of the term “promiscuous progressive.”

The term promiscuous progressive came up a number of times last year with Canadian progressives who wanted to get rid of Stephen Harper. Some were unsure of whether they had to get in bed with Liberals or the New Democrats. There were those who kept going back and forth between the two parties and were therefore considered promiscuous. While this writer has always been true to liberal principles, that did not prevent him in the past from flirting with both the New Democrat’s and Mel Hurtig’s National Party when he did not feel the love from fellow Liberals.

One of the more interesting letters from New Democrats was one that accused us of using the subject “as a measure of… success to count the number of people who respond … to silly and unoriginal posts?” As we have been writing on this subject for many years, the answer to that question is probably both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

And ‘no’ we do not expect the NDP membership to suddenly come to its senses and join the Liberals. This is not a casual fling we are suggesting. It would be traumatic for both parties. In fact, it is needed more by the Liberals than the NDP. There are New Democrats going back to the days of the CCF who wanted to be the conscience of Canada. By staying in that role as an independent party, they are forever going to be an also-ran party. If they bring that conscience to the Liberal Party, they strengthen that conscience for the Liberals. They can hold the Liberal Party to its left-of-centre role in Canadian politics. It enables us to confront and compete with the do-nothing Conservatives. We might not always be running things but we will have a fairer shot at it.

What that particular NDP reader appears to want is a proportional parliament in Canada where all governments will be a cobbled together collection of aligned parties. He wants voting blocs rather than party structure. While Canada might need better checks and balances on its system of government, voting blocs can constipate government, lead to frequent elections and frustrate voters.

But the real purpose of our commentaries is to get people to think. The purpose is certainly not to generate vituperative comments. There was another e-mail that complained bitterly about not allowing anonymous comments on our commentaries. We thought about that comment for a bit and finally decided to honour it by not responding.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to peter@lowry.me