Northern Lights

by Barry Weisleder

Canada Post-Election Blues:

Harper’s Hubris

The ancient Greeks called it arrogant pride or presumption. Seldom has a freshly sworn-in prime minister displayed hubris so abundantly, so rapidly, and on such a slim electoral basis as the new Canadian P.M. Stephen Harper.

Within days of the January 23 federal election, in which a mere 7 per cent shift in the popular vote tilted the Parliamentary seating plan from a Liberal minority government to a Conservative minority, Harper swiftly violated two of his vaunted principles, and created one big furor in the process.

Harper enticed David Emerson, who was re-elected as a Liberal in British Columbia’s Vancouver Kingsway riding, to cross over to the Tories in exchange for a Cabinet portfolio (International Trade, the same one he held in the Paul Martin Cabinet). Never mind that Harper criticized then-Tory Belinda Stronach for jumping to the Liberals eight months earlier. And after campaigning for a political lifetime in favour of an elected Senate, Harper appointed non-elected Montreal businessman Michael Fortier to his new Cabinet via the Senate. That these acts of hypocrisy did not sit well with Tory MPs (two complained publicly), let alone with most of rest of the country, should have come as no surprise to the former head of the right wing National Citizen’s Coalition.

Nonetheless, faster than a born-again Richard Nixon, Harper revealed his thin skin and strong disdain for media criticism by rudely waving off reporters and then by firing his communications chief (who held the post for less than two weeks — was this another record?).

Meanwhile, residents of Vancouver Kingsway held rallies and collected thousands of signatures demanding that Emerson resign and run in a by-election as a Conservative. The labour-based New Democratic Party jumped on the turncoat issue and filed a “conflict of interest” complaint with Parliament’s ethics commissioner.

Regardless what happens to Emerson and Fortier, Harper’s faux pas is a perversely welcome development for several reasons. It exposes the emptiness of his populist rhetoric, and immediately takes the gloss off the new regime. It dulls Harper’s blade for the next assault. It underscores the lack of mandate for radical rightist policies (during the two month federal campaign Harper kept his “social conservative” candidates under wraps, and he talked like a clean government moderate). And it may even shorten the life of his minority government.

Harper scrambled to put this controversy behind him by appointing a Paul Martin Liberal nominee to the Supreme Court, and by trying to heal the rift in conservative ranks by designating Michael Wilson, a former Finance Minister in the Brian Mulroney 1980s Progressive Conservative government, as Ambassador to the United States.

But these steps were countered by swift cancellation of the Liberal national childcare programme, depriving the provinces of $5 Billion dollars, followed by Conservative Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor’s untimely admission that his government is willing to consider joining Washington’s ballistic missile defence scheme.

The Liberal Party is not in much better shape, under interim leader Bill Graham. Several former cabinet ministers, and ex-ambassador Frank McKenna, have ruled out running for Leader, leaving among the current front runners ex-Tory billionaire Belinda Stronach, and Harvard academic and pro-imperialist freshman MP Michael Ignatieff.

One hopes that when folks see how similar Tory economic policies are to recent Liberal ones, it will dash more than a few illusions in both big business parties.

NDP, Lift Suspension of Hargrove!

New Democratic Party federal leader Jack Layton disagrees with the decision of the Ontario NDP to suspend the membership of Canadian Auto Workers’ President Buzz Hargrove. The NDP Socialist Caucus (SC) agrees with Jack Layton on this one.

In a February open letter the SC argues, “Although we disagree strongly with so-called ‘strategic voting’ and the actions of Hargrove during the most recent federal election campaign, we oppose his suspension on general democratic grounds. The priority for the party should be free and open debate on the conduct of the latest NDP federal campaign. The suspension sends a chill into the body politic, substituting a stern sanction for the frank and constructive discussion needed now. Moreover, it is being done on a rather hypocritical basis.”

As the Socialist Caucus argued in a statement issued in December, Layton is campaigning to win “more NDP seats,” not to form a government. Though some claim this is a matter of “practicality,” it is really one of principle. It implies that the prize is another Liberal minority government, propped up by a somewhat larger NDP contingent. This is only a short step away from CAW chief Buzz Hargrove’s explicit call for re-election of a minority Liberal regime, backed by a few more New Democrats.

Will Hargrove’s suspension make the NDP leadership more accountable for its own shortcomings? NDP support for the anti-Québec Clarity Act, its over-adaptation to law and order sentiments, and its silence on Ottawa’s military intervention in Afghanistan and Haiti come to mind. Or will the disciplinary action simply divert attention from the shift to the right, while tightening party ranks against dissent of any kind?

Hargrove says he will not appeal the suspension, on the grounds that it was arbitrary and unfair to him. He makes matters worse by now proposing an NDP-Liberal coalition to defeat the Conservatives in the next election.

Nonetheless, party and labour activists should fight to lift the suspension to avoid needlessly alienating CAW members from the NDP, and to foster an unfettered and penetrating discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the recent NDP campaign.

Defend Muslims, Palestine and Iran

While protests continue worldwide, thousands in Toronto have rallied repeatedly in February against the provocative anti-Muslim cartoons and propaganda emanating from Denmark and other imperialist capitals. An anti-imperialist radicalization among a significant portion of the Islamic population in Toronto is evident and may change the face of working-class politics here. This is sparking a range of discussions on the left as the anti-war movement gears up for protest actions on March 18.

A small example was the Toronto Socialist Action forum on February 24 where 25 people gathered to hear Zafar Bangash, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, Diana Ralph, representing the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, and Bahman Yedi, a veteran Iranian solidarity activist and member of Socialist Action, address the topic “Free Speech or Hate Speech? Defend Muslims, Iran and Palestine against Imperialist attack.”

Bangash pointed to the recent bombing of a sacred mosque in Samarra, Iraq as indicative of the divide and rule tactics employed by the US rulers to control the oil-rich region, even if it means dismembering Iraq.

Ralph referred to what she called “the production of Islamophobia” and the labeling of opponents of the US empire as terrorists, as a direct a product of political strategies devised by Washington, including the Defense Policy Guidance of 1993, and the subsequent Project for a New American Century.

Yedi reminded the audience of the CIA-engineered overthrow of elected Iranian President Mossadegh in 1953 after he nationalized that country’s oil industry, and how the US supplied and pressed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to wage war on Iran following the 1979 popular revolution that ousted the US-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Other speakers linked the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestine Authority election to rising anti-imperialist sentiment on a global scale. Beneath the religious indignation provoked by reactionary media attacks is a deep desire by millions of Muslims for social justice and radical change, including a rejection of local rulers who submit to the dictates of Washington and its powerful allies.

Socialist Voice supporter Suzanne Weiss, who chaired the SA forum, urged everyone to counter the attack on Muslims and on all who stand up against imperialism by working for the broadest possible unity in anti-war action on March 18.

Force Kingsley to Answer for Haiti Role

René Préval, a former ally of deposed President Aristide, handily won the election for Haiti president on February 7. Despite facing dozens of opponents, some financed by big money from the US, Préval enjoyed an initial 60 per cent lead — that is, until dirty tricksters shifted into overdrive, absconding with dozens of ballot boxes later found smouldering in a garbage dump, and adding thousands of blank ballots that appeared to lower Préval’s majority.

In fact, of the 2.2 million votes cast, 5 per cent were declared invalid, and 10 per cent were not counted a week after the vote — when much of the country erupted into a massive protest that ground the economy to a halt. That is when the national election commission, no doubt nudged by the forces of military occupation operating under the U.N. flag of convenience, “declared” Préval to be elected. Was Préval forced into making a “deal” involving concessions to foreign interests, or was the act of “declaration” (done to conceal a failed attempt at stealing the election) sufficient for the imperialists to sully Préval’s victory and undermine his mandate to effect change in the poverty-stricken nation? Time will tell, and it may be soon as Préval signals he will welcome the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from his exile in South Africa.

But a nagging question persists. How is it that Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Election Canada’s chief, and the head of the International Mission for Monitoring Haitian Elections, flatly rejected the likelihood of fraud in the days immediately following February 7? Indeed, Kingsley said the Haitian election was one of best he has ever seen. It makes one wonder how many elections Kingsley has seen where there are no polling places in huge urban slums, where rural voters must walk several kilometres to vote, and where thousands of marked and unmarked ballots are found aflame in a dump. Quite apart from the gross involvement of foreign money in partisan campaigns, and the hundreds of millions devoted to the ongoing military occupation and training of police who terrorize the poor population and murder civilians wantonly, what purpose was served by the $30 million spent by the Canadian government to help run this election?

Kingsley’s remarks smell like a foul cover-up, in aid of the ongoing subjugation of Haiti by Canada, France, Brazil and the US, and the wealthy sweat shop owners who stand to continue to profit.

Responding to critical and persistent pressure over his silence, during the recent federal election campaign, concerning the crimes of Canadian imperialism in Haiti, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton seems to be taking a different tack by issuing this demand: “The NDP calls on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to direct his Minister of Foreign Affairs to carefully review Canada’s role in Haiti since February 2004 and to report his findings to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs.”

Although the call is remiss in exempting the period prior to 2004 (e.g. the coup that overthrew Aristide was planned at a government sponsored conference held in Ottawa in early 2003), it is still a positive step to put this issue on the parliamentary agenda (since standing committees report to the House of Commons) — provided that the NDP vigorously presses it forward in the days ahead, rather than discards it as a token gesture.

The Canada Haiti Action Network, anti-imperialist and anti-war forces, and the labour movement would be wise to press the NDP, and the new Conservative government on this very point.

Stephen Harper’s obnoxious call on René Préval to foster “national reconciliation” in Haiti is part of the cover up of electoral duplicity, and part of the imperialist drive to cripple Préval’s capacity to effect meaningful change, whether Préval intends to do so or not. Harper (along with the former Paul Martin Liberal regime) should be challenged on this file, and exposing Kingsley’s role in Haiti could be the linchpin.

Tuition Woes in Ontario

Fear and foreboding weigh heavily on the minds of many Ontario university students these days as they wonder how much tuition will rise. Will it be close to the 2 per cent reflected in the familiar Consumer Price Index, or the 4.6 per cent claimed by universities in their own inflation calculus weighted more towards their salary and energy costs?

Speculation is that Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty will soon let institutions hike fees for some programmes more than others — law and medicine up 10 per cent, say, with arts and science up just 2 per cent — as long as a school’s overall average fee hike comes in under the expected target of 5 to 6 per cent.

Tuition at the law faculty of University of Toronto is already the highest in Canada at $16,000 a year, and heading towards $22,000. Undergraduate tuition has jumped 139 per cent in regulated programmes since 1994, and Ontario grads owe the highest average debt in Canada — $22,700.

Canada ranks 11th out of 16 developed countries for affordability in higher education, according to the non-profit Education Policy Institute based in Toronto and Washington, D.C. Sweden, France, Ireland and Germany charge no tuition at all.

In Canada, tuition covers about 30 per cent of the cost of post-secondary education outside Ontario. But in Ontario, fees cover 44.6 per cent.

So how is it that medical school students at U of T pay $16,000 a year, while at McGill University in Montreal, Québec the fee is only $3,500?

The answer is simple: political action. Québec students, backed by the Québec labour movement, have mobilized in massive general strikes every decade or so, and as recently as March 2005, against provincial government threats to raise fees or to reduce grants. Will the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario branch follow suit, or will it just watch fee and debt numbers continue to zoom-zoom northwards?

The Case of the Incredibly Shrinking Pensions

Why do employers try to reduce workers’ pensions?

To pad profits. To enhance “competitiveness.” To take advantage of decades of labour retreat. In short, because they can.

Canadian federal regulators report a marked increase in companies asking for approval to cut pension benefits. Already, requests for reductions in the range of 10 per cent affecting up to 8,000 plan members have been approved, said Nicholas Le Pan, federal Superintendent of Financial Institutions, in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada on February 16.

Le Pan estimates that three-quarters of pension plans do not have enough assets to support all benefits earned to date. He says this is largely due to low interest rates and long life spans.

Maybe, in part. So what’s the solution?

After twenty years of stagnant wages, buoyant profits, and reduced corporate taxes, how about increasing employer pension contributions?

That, however, is not what the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions has in mind. It suggests cutting benefits and giving management more discretion over who gets to take early retirement. In other words, delay retirement, undermine pensions (which is a deferred wages fund for workers), in order to pay for bosses’ past profit taking. And what about making pensions portable for all those workers forced to change jobs during a lifetime of work? Forget it.

Meanwhile, readers will be happy to learn that banks and insurance companies are in good financial health. Insurers of homes, auto and commercial property report strong profits, close to 20 per cent return on equity.

It would be interesting to know how their CEO pensions are doing.

Sedentary Living Takes a Toll

Baby boomers may come to the rescue of insolvent pension funds…by dying younger than their parents do. Canadians born between 1945 and 1959 weigh more, and are less active than they were a decade ago, says a report by the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Thirty per cent of baby boomers are obese, compared to 19 per cent a decade ago; 24 per cent of today’s seniors are obese. Fifty-two per cent of boomers are physically inactive, up from 43 per cent a decade ago; 50 per cent of today’s seniors report a sedentary lifestyle. While smoking rates have decreased among boomers, 29 to 21 per cent in the last ten years, they are still higher than the 11 per cent of seniors who smoke.

About 1.3 million Canadians 45 to 59 years old have already been diagnosed with heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure. Experts predict a major rise in cardiac procedures, along with wait times for bypass surgery, angioplasty, and pace maker implementations.

Does this suggest that a heavy tax on fast food providers and big tobacco to promote healthy living and chronic disease prevention would be in order?

A generation of Ronald Macdonald addicts deserve a break today — because the way things are going they won’t have much opportunity to worry about the pensions they lack.