Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Let's link future electoral reform and Citizens Assembly proposals to the Initiative Process

I can see another role for the initiative process--as a next stop for decisions made about electoral reform or other subjects bruited in a Citizens' Assembly. Going directly from an isolated island of deliberation into a referendum campaign didn't work in BC or Ontario, simply because reflective citizens chosen by lot are very different from unreflective citizens in the context of an election campaign. If the Citizens' Assembly had submitted its proposal to the Legislature, the Legislature either could have passed it, or proposed amendments to the Citizens' Assembly. If the Assembly didn't accept the amendments, then it could then have opted to go to a referendum.

The value of this to-and-fro of institutionalized dialogue between Citizens assembly and the BC Legislature would have been twofold. First, it would have dispensed with the fiction that our elected representatives were disinterested parties. The BC Liberal caucus prevailed upon Gordon Campbell to raise the threshold to 60%--which is what defeated BC-STV in 2005. The decision to eliminate the reference to the Assembly in the 2009, combined with the ability of politicians on both sides of the aisle to avoid discussion of the proposal, were critical factors in determining the outcome. Our politicians should have been put back in the deliberative hot seat, forced to defend their positions rather than simply being given a free pass to avoid doing so, while still influencing the outcome behind the scenes.

Second, the effect of this exchange between the Assembly and the Legislature would be to greatly increase the overall involvement of the population, raising the deliberative quality of the Legislative debate and (if it goes to referendum) the referendum debate as well. The controlling assumptions and procedural constraints that guide the Assembly to its (some would argue, overly perfectionistic and politically unrealistic) positions could then be relaxed as the Assembly and Legislature either hammer out a mutually acceptable compromise or (if the Legislature doesn't pass the initiative into law and the Citizens' Assembly doesn't accept any amendments put forward by the Legislature), the impasse necessitates a referendum on the question.  The original rationale for raising the referendum threshold to 60%--the insufficiently deliberative quality of referenda campaigns--would no longer apply, so the bar could be lowered once again to 50%.

It is not hard to imagine how this could have played out in 2009. The Legislature could have proposed a moderation of the BC-STV proposal in order to avoid monster ridings in the interior and monster ballots in the urban population centres--e.g. a STV lite or "Preferential vote" featuring single member constituencies in the Far north, dual ridings in the interior and 3-member ridings in the cities. The Assembly might well have accepted this as a clear improvement over the status quo. OR the Legislature might have chosen to defend the existing system. OR , the Legislature might propose a MMP party -list system, which the Assembly might well have argued went too far in terms of parties retaining control of the process. In the subsequent referendum, British Columbians would have been able to choose between the two main models for reform.

The crucial difference that such an institutionalized dialogue would have made was that the yawning gap between our three main "modes" of democratic decision-making --deliberative, representative, and plebiscitory--would have been greatly reduced.  Our democratic constitution would have been made much more coherent than it is now. and ,  I would add, much more democratic.

Monday, July 29, 2013

(Book Review) Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

This is an excellent bedtime book, because it consists of short pieces (typically 4-6 pages in length), many of which appeared in Vanity Fair, on a wide range of topics of current as well as historical interest.

On the negative side, iconoclastic contrarianism is a somewhat unsatisfactory vocation--as soon as the wind shifts and one's formerly outsider position is popular, one has to move on to bigger prey. At his worst, Hitchens typifies a blustering punditocracy that occasionally slips into inaccurate exaggerations--for example his piece about North Korea,entitled "A Nation of Racist Dwarves", was originally published in Slate in February 2010. In that piece he states that "a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean" (P.558). (The truth is closer to two inches.) And once Hitchens had torn Kissinger, Mother Teresa, and Bill Clinton, he naturally had to take on the ultimate target, God Himself.

On the positive side, I felt that Hitchens's biographical reflections upon many intellectuals and literary figures  filled some important lacunae in my own education. Examples include essays on Saki (H.H. Munro), Jessica Mitford, Somerset Maugham, Stephen Spender, Philip Larkin, Edward Upward, C.L.R. James, J.G. Ballard, George MacDonald Fraser, Anthony Powell, Stieg Larsson, Victor Klemperer and Hitchens contemporary and  friend Martin Amis. Even when writing about authors and historical figures that I had thought I knew well--Vidal, Updike, Pound, Rebecca West, Edward Said, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Waugh, Orwell--Hitchens never fails to make an astute observation about how their characters were shaped by events and vice-versa.   His 2005 account of his visit to Iran, titled "Iran's waiting game" , contains an account of his visit to the Museum of Omar Khayyam, a scholar and poet in the city of Neyshabur in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. "In his four-line stanzas, he praised wine, women, and song, found speculation on the afterlife pointless, and ridiculed the mullahs of his day"(463). Hitchens even writes out a particularly subversive quatrain of Khayyam in the visitors' book of the museum.

The bulk of the book, however, is reserved for the literary and political titans who  contended with the tumult of the mid-twentieth century. "Saki's great gift was being able to write about children and animals," (375)--P.G. Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by him, just as Saki (unhappily) repressed his own debt to, and affinity for, Oscar Wilde. Maugham was a young man during the Oscar Wilde scandal, and "he developed all of the habits of subterfuge that were necessary to his survival"(244). In fact, Maugham's greatest work of fiction was himself: Hitchens vividly describes his Mediterranean-villa milieu and exquisitely crafted and executed "mass wants class" literary style--worthy of his O.B.E. for "services to literature, rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world."

Stephen Spender's unique oddness also stems from having been a bullied schoolboy (this may be the most common thread that Hitchens, a graduate of Leys School, Cambridge and Balliol College, finds in his subjects). His article on Edward Upward's passing is in contrast a  respectful homage to the  "last survivor of his generation"; one almost senses that Upward's self -imposed isolation on the Isle of Wight was the key both to his longevity and his unwavering socialism. C.L.R. James, another great Marxist writer of the mid-twentieth century, had none of Upward's illusions about the Soviet Union. Hitchens appreciates him as a kind of Trinidadian Orwell, who was "disappointed by the place-seeking and frequent viciousness of his former comrades in Ghana, Trinidad, and Grenada" (351).

Throughout, Hitchens manages to keep faith with his hero Orwell, who subjected his own ideals and beliefs as unsparingly to the test of truth as he did the beliefs of others. Out of this affinity, at least five new 'must reads' emerge:

(1) Victor Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev--ironically described by HItchens this way: "In its remorseless emphasis on the ineluctable along with its insistence on the vitality of individual human nature, [it] is one of the most Marxist novels ever written--as it is also one of the least" (594).

(2) Martin Amis, Experience (2000), a "superb memoir" , which among other things interprets the current evolution of the world through the lens of his relationship with his father Kingsley Amis: "Be very choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are, and be careful not to confuse the state of the world with that of your family, or your own internal organs" (639).

(3) David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (2005) "Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people" (33).

(4) Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2010): Hitchens perceptively observes that the Vatican's 2009 overture toward Anglicans was "another salvo discharged in one of Europe's most enduring cultural and ideological wars: the one that began when the English Reformation first defied the divine rights of the papacy. On the origins of this once-world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty, Hilary Mantel has written a historical novel of quite astonishing power" (146).

(5) Victor Klemperer,  I shall bear witness: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41  and To the bitter end: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-1945. (1999). "Is there not something fabulously grotesque about a regime that in the midst of total war will pedantically insist that Jews and their spouses either euthanize their own pets or surrender them to the state for extermination? ... Never much interested in Marxism, [Klemperer] also manifests an abiding distrust of the Zionism to which so many of his fellows are drawn...There cannot have been many victims in 1942 who told their diaries that they planned an essay entitled 'Pro Germania, contra Zion' from the contemporary standpoint of the German Jew" (655-656).

I must add to this incomplete list at least two old must-reads as well: Homage to Catalonia and Darkness at Noon. The spirits of Orwell and Koestler are alive and well in these pages.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mr. Mulcair to Blame?

{The government has adopted a   "wait and see" attitude to the Transportation safety Board's recommendations, and the $3.1 million cut in its railway safety budget, at the same time that the amount of oil being transported by rail quadrupled over the past two years, and has gone up 28,000 per cent since the beginning of 2009. I want to know whether this was a gross failure of policy coordination , or whether it was a deliberate act of coordination (which would be even worse). And I don't mind if the Leader of the Opposition wastes no time trying to find out--especially since Mr. Harper is expected to (you guessed it) prorogue Parliament in the fall.}

Attempts by the Conservative government  (and even some Liberals),to deflect blame for the Lac Megantic disaster by attacking the Leader of the Opposition for "exploiting" the tragedy are simply mistaken, in my view, and in the view of many more responsible commentators.

Consider this excerpt from an editorial in the Globe and Mail written by Grant Bishop, a petro-chemical engineer and economist: 
"I part company with Thomas Mulcair on many policy issues. But his call to scrutinize the regulation of oil transportation by rail was entirely legitimate. ... The TSB has been on record with safety concerns about the tank cars in which oil can be transported. From Statistics Canada data , shipments of fuel oils and crude petroleum by rail accelerated from 68,000 carloads in 2011 to 113,000 in 2012 and 41,000 in just the first quarter of 2013.There were red flags about this increased volume of oil-by-rail even before the Lac-M├ęgantic tragedy. With the reality of increasing oil shipments passing through populated centres, the public has every right to know how the risks from these shipments are being managed on its behalf. ...
...The limited liability corporation is an effective mechanism for marshaling capital and efficiently organizing production. However, any belief that “corporate social responsibility” is an adequate substitute for rigorous regulation misapprehends the primacy of profit maximization in corporate decision-making. ...
Other federal parties may deride Mr. Mulcair’s calls for scrutiny of how we are regulating rail transport of oil as mere partisan maneuvers. But such dismissals show blindness to potential risks and, worse, abdicate the urgent responsibility to ensure the public is protected." 
 Or this passage from Elizabeth May's MP Website:
"Media pundits are busy saying what politicians should and shouldn’t say in times of crisis. I have a hard time faulting Tom Mulcair for saying what seems rather obvious. The legality of leaving that train, unattended, engine on, with 74 railcars full of light crude oil, perched in a spot where should brakes fail, gravity and momentum would send the train barrelling into the community below, was specifically approved by Transport Canada. It is far too early to know all the answers, but I think common sense dictates that some observations are obvious. The failure of the federal government under Stephen Harper’s watch is one of them.
Or this piece by Montreal journalist Ethan Cox:
"Mulcair drew fire for stating two points of fact. That rail transport of oil is becoming "more and more" common (an understatement if anything, as such shipments have increased by 28,000 per cent since 2009), and that the Harper government "is cutting transport safety in Canada." This latter statement based on the fact that the Harper government has cut the safety budget for railroads from $36.9 million in 2012-13 to $33.8 million in the 2013-14 estimate, a drop of $3.1 million. ...
Mulcair couched his remarks in repeated expressions of compassion for those affected, and insisted that questions needed to be answered, for no one as much as for those same victims and their families.
This was enough for many members of the national media to abandon any question of whether Harper or his cuts could have contributed to the accident, and spend the day waxing eloquent on the inappropriate, crass and politically motivated nature of the NDP leader's comments.
Former Liberal leader Bob Rae took the opportunity to make Mulcair's "politically motivated" questions a politically motivated story, tweeting: 'Tom Mulcair blaming Harper for the tragedy in Lac Megantic is a new low, and as you know, I'm no fan of Mr Harper's politics'."

Right now, I am no fan of Mr. Rae's politics, either.  Thomas Mulcair was simply doing his job, and doing it better than either the prime minister or  the Liberal leader were.  Although I do not necessarily believe that all DOT-111 tankers must be replaced (the cost would be exorbitant for temporary surge in oil traffic) obviating the requirement for second crew could be tied to the acquisition of safer cars or other technologies.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lac Megantic was a Disaster Waiting To Happen

About 8 years ago I was between teaching contracts, so I decided to work for a few months  as a labourer on a railway track maintenance and repair crew in the  Williams Lake and 100 Mile House area.  I learned how heavy a railway tie is, and how heavy the tools are that are needed to repair track failures.  I also learned something else that I had previously been unaware of: just how common train derailments are. In that brief period I had been called to maybe half a dozen repair jobs and one serious derailment that was something of an emergency. I heard about a man who had been killed in Williams Lake a few years earlier because a derailment had caused a railway car to fall on top of him.  Whenever a train went by, the entire crew stood well back. I thought about how many derailments and deadly accidents and potential accidents there must have been in the entire country, given the number of towns and cities that had grown up around railway lines in Canada—places like 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Prince George and Prince Rupert.  

What brings all of this to mind, of course, is the recent disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec.  Although this was technically not a case of track failure ( it was a runaway train, that probably failed to negotiate a curve or piece of track because of its excessive speed ), it is a reminder of the omnipresent risk posed by the transportation of large amounts of flammable materials through populated areas. We must ask: have recent changes in policy or technology contributed to this disaster? Should recent increases in the amount of oil and fuel being transported on Canada’s railways have prompted a revision of rail transportation and safety policy?

Fact:   The Harper government cut the safety budget for railroads from $36.9 million to  $33.8 million --  even though  the rail transport of oil has increased by 28,000 % since 2009.  To me, this looks like the government’s  fiscal left hand was not coordinating with its energy-obsessed right hand. If it was understandably frustrated by the slowness of action in pipeline oil construction, and authorized this huge increase  in rail oil transportation, then it should have revisited a 2007 report from the Canada Safety Council, which had  raised the alarm about the dangers of allowing railways to regulate themselves, and  which had called Canada's railway network a “disaster waiting to happen.”  After a Via Rail derailment in 2012 killed 3 engineers and injured dozens of passengers, the Transportation Safety Board also  called for a major safety overhaul, but all the government would do is “recommend” the installation of audio and video recorders.

Both Conservative and Liberal governments share some of the blame for this disaster. Although  I appreciate the general logic of moving away from heavy reliance on  prescriptive rules and toward  more economically efficient “results-based” regulation and “self-regulation”, it is plainly evident that this approach did not  automatically adjust safety standards to meet the added risk entailed by the huge recent increase in oil traffic.    As I see it, the government should have increased the safety budget  instead of cutting it by $3.1 million; and should have returned to Transport Canada the oversight of rail safety that the Liberals had removed in 1999. 


Saturday, July 06, 2013

Should We Be Boosting--even Subsidizing-- Bitumen Exports to China?

The attached link to the Munk Debate between Michael Byers and Brian Lee Crowley provides a good summary of the opposing views of  educated protaganists on the expansion of the tar sands.

A couple of years ago the government of Alberta ran fancy ads on TV showing schematically the operation of carbon sequestration in the tar sands. After a year or so they dropped the ads. Why?

Because critics had forced the government to admit that it didn't describe an operational reality, only a technology that wasn't yet economic. Crowley's proposed solution--export as much bitumen as possible and hope that the investment thereby generated will result in the technological improvements needed---is not sufficiently sensitive to the genuine crisis that is climate change. We are far too close to the tipping point of runaway climate change to allow such logic to govern our policy-making.

I suspect that the unspoken fear of conservatives is that cleaner energy alternatives WILL appear in the future--meaning that a window of opportunity to cash in on the trillion dollar bitumen bonanza will have been missed.  That is not an acceptable attitude.  We should limit bitumen exports until technology makes it as clean as conventional energy reserves. That is the only responsible path forward.