Wednesday, May 28, 2008

There’s Much More to the Bernier Affair than Meets the Eye

Not since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned a Sherlock Holmes story titled “The Second Stain”, in which the wife of a cabinet minister sells a top secret document to a foreign spy has there been a drama to equal the Maxime Bernier affair.

Just what documents did the hapless foreign minister leave in Julie Couillard’s apartment? Exactly who was bugging the former model’s quarters, including her mattress? Was it a unit of the Harper government itself or even a rogue outfit in Stephane Dion’s party? Can we exclude the possibility that a sting operation has been mounted by the Barack Obama campaign to get back at Harper for NAFTAgate?

Perhaps more probable, and even more unnerving, is the very real possibility that the biker gangs in Quebec have their own foreign policy and have been pursuing it assiduously. At first glance this may seem unlikely but in light of the botched flight of French daredevil Michel Fournier’s balloon in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to which I will return, this sinister affair snaps into focus.

Is it credible that Bernier and Couillard just happened to meet by chance? Isn’t it much more probable that their meeting was carefully crafted to enmesh the minister in a web of intrigue? There are just too many supposed coincidences here for my liking. Anyone who has seen The Day of the Jackal will know that they always dispatch the beautiful and wily woman to seduce the dumbest member of the government, precisely as a way to obtain government secrets. And it didn’t take long for Couillard to parlay her relationship with Bernier into a face to face meeting with George W. Bush. Coincidence? What did she say to the President and what did he reveal to her?

How often do you tune in the BBC News, the news on France 2, and CNN’s Situation Room to see two Canadian stories reported in one day? Story number one was the revelation that Bernier had left top secret documents chez Couillard and that he was out of the cabinet. Story number two showed a red faced Michel Fournier storming out of his capsule as his balloon wisked away from him into space. And it was a Russian made balloon!

What we have been watching is no less than an elaborate ploy to make Canada appear ridiculous on the international stage. And it didn’t happen any old week. This was the week the Harper government had to decide whether to put Canada up for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Who benefits from all this? Cui bono? Clearly, those who don’t want the Harper government to have a seat on the Security Council are the major winners. We are already aware from the analysis above that the “who” includes Quebec’s biker gangs. Taking this one step further, who else is involved? It is well known that the country that will get the vacant seat at the UN if Canada doesn’t is Portugal.

Portugal? At first glance, a rather harmless country not much marred by organized crime, Portugal has a long and exposed coastline. Could the Algarve be the next target for criminal gangs? And will Fournier’s next, and perhaps successful, leap from a balloon be mounted over the Algarve?

All of this is much too important to be left in the hands of a parliamentary committee, or an aging judge at the head of a Royal Commission. The Harper government needs to fight fire with fire by sending one of its own into a liaison with the bikers to ferret out the truth, the way Ingrid Bergman did in Alfred Hitchcock's film Notorious.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Sometime over the past decade or two the CBC lost its standing as the people's network, the place where Canadians could turn on television or radio for an interpretation of their country and the world through a Canadian lens that was often a progressive lens. The CBC now feels the way a public sector corporation does as it is being prepared by its management for privatization, which for CBC television at least, will be its fate if the Harper government wins a majority in the next election.

Managers of publicly owed corporations have always made a killing in the transition to private ownership. Those who do a good job shedding labour, thereby appearing to raise productivity usually at the cost of lower quality, can expect to be hired on with a much fatter pay packet as the first managers of the new private company. Whether it's a railway, an airline, a water utility, a telephone company, or a petroleum company, in Canada and in Britain, the experience has been that the new shareholders do brilliantly, while the old owners, also known as the citizenry, get hosed. The same will be true if CBC Television goes on the block.

Since the programming results are much the same, it's hard to know whether the executive producers of news and public affairs shows such as the National or Politics, are trying to inoculate the CBC against privatization or to prepare for it,. The other night I sat through another double-double of the much touted At Issue Panel followed by the wit and wisdom of Rex Murphy.

The regulars on the At Issue Panel range ideologically from the near to the hard right, from Harper apologists to right-wing ideologues, from Chantal Hebert, through Allan Gregg to Andrew Coyne. From time to time, when the need is felt for even more right-wing muscle, Don Martin, from the Asper Empire papers, or David Bercuson, a historian at the University of Calgary, who never encountered a war he didn't want to fight, are welcomed to the set. (Of course, if I want programming with greater balance, I can always tune in Wolf Blitzer at CNN's Situation Room.)

Perhaps the producers at the National would make the case in their defence that we live in a post-ideological age in which differences between right and left are out of date. Therefore, who needs anything as old-fashioned as balance? This right-wing clunker of an argument, of course, is nothing more than the insistence that we now live in a world in which all the basic socio-economic questions have been settled leaving only personalities, scandal and political tactics to be gossiped about. Might I suggest they rename this item, the Post Issue Panel.

Then comes the chaser---Rex Murphy, whose verbal acrobatics apparently make him the appropriate and sole mortal privileged to present his personal and dependably right-wing viewpoint night after night. Back in the days when Earl Cameron hosted the National----you have to be of a certain age to remember him---viewpoints were presented by many individuals, with diverse outlooks. Admittedly some of them didn't know how to look into a camera with Rex Murphy's angry stare, presumably an argument for dispensing with other voices.

But all is not lost. Every afternoon, those who desire a dish of politics can tune into Don Newman's show. The warhorses---here partisan balance is observed---are lined up to explain the daily tactics of their parties in Question Period, Parliamentary Committees and on Votes of Confidence. Whenever a guest inadvertently says something that resembles an idea, Newman gavels the offender back to the trivia of back room game playing. The guests who are not party hacks opine in conventional ways about the economy or the state of the world.

All that is genuinely political, having to do with alternative visions of the state and society, is expunged from the broadcast, whose motto should be: Where The Spin Never Stops.

In its day, the CBC was a stunning Canadian creation. It opened a Canadian dialog that made it possible for the people of a vast country, living in the shadow of American media, to learn about each other, to critically examine ideas on a vast range of subjects, and to see the wider world through eyes that were non-American.

The CBC helped offset the predominantly right-wing bias of Canadian newspapers. The extreme concentration of newspaper ownership in this country and the ever greater domination of the printed page by the political right---I love the right-wing line about the liberal bias of the media---poses a direct and serious threat to Canadian democracy.

We need to face reality. Serious political discussion is almost never encountered on the CBC today. While the CBC may return one day from the dark side, we urgently need to contribute to the creation of progressive media. Two of the best voices, in my view, are and Let me urge you, right now, to log onto one or both of these sites to take out memberships or make donations.

Friday, May 16, 2008

McCain's Rich Fantasy Life

Yesterday, I chanced upon the live broadcast of Senator John McCain's verbal portrait of the world in 2013. McCain looked like a cherubic ghost standing in front of a row of over sized American flags, and for a second or two, I thought I had gone to my reward and that this was to be my eternal punishment. Because I encountered McCain in midstream, I had to get with the paradigm to understand that with the senator we had all migrated to 2013 and were celebrating the accomplishments of his first term as president.

Most U.S. combat troops have come home and Iraq is now a functioning democracy. Illegal Mexican migrants are no longer slipping across the border into the U.S., and the American economy has enjoyed several years of robust economic growth. Taxes are lower and the public school system is much improved. While avoiding the horrors of universal health care, Americans now have greater access to health care than at any other time in history.

In a disembodied way, McCain was serene, cheerful, and spooky. Because his forecasts are so absurdly out of keeping with reality, I have to assume that he's on something. I'm going to check with my doctor to see if I can get some.

Monday, May 05, 2008

What it Means When Hillary Clinton Says: “We Could Totally Obliterate Them (Iran)”

Hillary Clinton has been chastised by many including the editorial page of the New York Times for saying that if Iran attacked Israel "we could totally obliterate them." Her comment on Iran, which she refuses to retract, has been explained by some as the desperate effort of a losing candidate to fall back on populist hyperbole to defeat her opponent.

Chastising and explaining are not enough. Clinton's threat was criminal. If a major leader in any other country talked about obliterating a country, that leader would be condemned as contemplating mass murder, even genocide. The word "obliterate" extends far beyond the usual American bluster about promoting "regime change" in this or that country, and that bluster has opened the way for invasions and the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

  When the would be leader of the only nation ever to drop atomic bombs on human beings threatens the obliteration of a country through the use of nuclear weapons----what else could her remarks possibly mean---the world is awakened to the ultimate meaning of the American Empire. It is a military empire that is capable of killing every man, woman and child on earth. At a time when the economic power of the empire is in serious decline and its conventional forces are failing to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nuclear threat is the trump card, the card that makes us all pay attention.

  In the 21st century, empires are dangerous beasts. Our survival literally depends on their good humour. Americans who wonder why so many people around the world don't trust their country need to understand that what appears to them as little more than a campaign tactic on Clinton's part, is a reminder to the world of a wholly unacceptable state of affairs.

Friday, May 02, 2008

America’s Energy Crisis: The Realities the Politicians Won’t Talk About

The United States faces a severe energy crisis that is compounding its broader economic and military predicaments. The highly visible tip of the energy crisis can be seen at the gas pumps where Americans are paying an average of $3.60 a gallon for regular gas this week.

On the campaign trail, Senators McCain, Clinton and Obama have been debating the 18.4 cent a gallon federal excise tax on gasoline. While McCain and Clinton want to remove the tax for the busy summer driving season, Obama correctly notes that this is a diversion from serious discussion of energy issues. Although the Illinois senator has a grip on reality on this minor issue, the major politicians are not telling Americans the hard truths about the energy crisis:

· Americans pay much lower gasoline prices than people in other industrialized countries. Their average price tag comes out to 95 cents a liter, which compares to $1.25 a liter, the average price this week in Canada. Looking further afield and going back to gallons, the U.S. price of $3.60 a gallon is low compared with the $7.60 paid in France. The difference in price between the U.S. and other advanced countries is a consequence of the lower gas taxes paid by Americans.
· Lower gasoline prices in the United States are one reason the American automobile fleet is so much less efficient than the fleet in other countries. The average American vehicle (there is a wide range depending on the vehicle) gets 22 miles to the gallon, compared with over 40 miles per gallon in the countries of the European Union, and over 45 miles to the gallon in Japan.
· The United States, which accounted for half the global output of petroleum as late as 1950 now imports over half the petroleum Americans consume. Most Americans believe they receive most of their imported oil from the Middle East, which they do not. Their largest foreign source is Canada, which is followed by Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria. While they may regard Canada as a safe and secure supplier, they are going to have to grapple with the fact that about half of the oil from Canada comes from the oil sands in northern Alberta, and over the next decade that source will make up an ever larger proportion of the Canadian imports. The oil sands, as Canadians are aware, are a problematic source of oil. Huge amounts of natural gas and water are used in separating the bitumen from the sand to produce synthetic crude oil. Oil sands operations scar the landscape. This week five hundred ducks died because they landed in a tailings pond at an oil sands (Syncrude) plant. And the greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands production are enormous. They are the single biggest reason Canada is getting nowhere near meeting the targets it signed onto when it ratified the Kyoto accord. (The current Conservative government, with its close ties to the petroleum industry has abandoned Canada’s efforts to meet the Kyoto targets.)
· The United States will soon be paying close to half a trillion dollars a year to import oil. This is simply unaffordable. The annual American trade deficit is already $827 billion and this is going to grow much larger very quickly as the oil bill skyrockets. The U.S. current account deficit (which includes profits, interest payments and tourism as well as goods) is running at $738 billion a year. This is why the United States is plunging into debt with the rest of the world, a net debt that is now well in excess of two trillion dollars. And that’s why foreign central bankers in China and Japan who hold two trillion dollars in U.S. treasury bills and other government securities have now become so vital to keeping the U.S. dollar from plunging even further against other currencies.
· The bleeding of the U.S. dollar against the Euro and other currencies is tempting petroleum exporting countries to set their prices in Euros rather than dollars. When this happens, the price shock for Americans will be immediate and enormous.

Those who would occupy the White House ought to level with Americans about these realities. Americans are going to have to make enormous changes in the efficiency of their vehicles---and this means getting the SUVs, vans and pickups off the roads---and they are going to have to make vast investments in improving urban public transit, and establishing inter-city high speed rail systems. They are going to have to redesign their cities. The day of the low density suburb is coming to an end. American cities in the future are going to have to be more densely populated than they have been in the age of cheap oil, to allow public transit to work. And the redesign of the cities will have to be carried out so as to be socially fair----otherwise the rich will invade the city centres, take the most desirable properties and drive everyone else to the peripheries. (This has already happened in Manhattan and has gone much further in London.)

The investments required to prepare the United States for the realities of the new age are enormous and make the tax plans of people like Senator John McCain utterly ludicrous (what can you expect from a man whose economic ideas are poorly learned versions of 18th century thought). In fact, Clinton and Obama have not done much better in facing up to reality.

The good news----and it is really good---is that if the United States faces up to the changes it has to make, Americans will no longer have to import petroleum, from the Alberta oil sands or from anywhere else, and will no longer feel compelled to listen to politicians who claim that it is in the vital national interest to control the lands of the Persian Gulf by dispatching young men and women to a war zone.

Come to think of it, cutting the defence budget in half, which would still make the U.S. by far the largest military spender in the world, would free up the capital to make the changes America needs.

Earlier this week though, I saw footage of George W. Bush decked out in a green tie as he told his Rose Garden audience that the only way ahead is to drill for oil in the lands of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. He ought to change his middle name from Dubya to Nero.