Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Zunera Ishaq has made Canada look stupid

After much internal deliberation about all of the symbolic dynamics of this story that make it a controversial and provocative one, I decided that I absolutely do not give a shit if Zunera Ishaq wears her niqab in her citizenship ceremony.  Why? I think the fact that she has managed to make Stephen Harper look stupider than the two opposition leaders makes her deserve to wear it, if nothing else.

Let's start by getting one thing out of the way.  The reason she is allowed to wear it under the law is that she is not harming anybody else by doing so.  Nobody else's rights or freedoms are impinged upon, and no undue burden is placed on the state,  Yes, it does feel at first like you are being played for a fool and how far does tolerance go in the name of political correctness, but if we are afraid of a regressive and oppressive islamic culture permeating the Canadian state, let's talk about matters of substance rather than little pieces of cloth.  There will be no legally recognized sharia court.  And "cultural customs" that cause or could cause harm to free Western citizens - honour killings or genital mutilation or whatever it is, will not and cannot be defended within a Western legal framework.  Niqabs and burqas are not a "gateway drug" that will plant these things at our doorstep.  Just look at the Shafia family in prison.  The system works.

One inconvenient truth of our modern, western, liberal democracy is that we have to tolerate free expression and free speech no matter how offensive they may be.  Whenever some blowhard politician starts talking about "things going too far" and "where do we draw the line", you know that you have to stop taking them seriously.  You cannot open that can of worms saying that you speak for the "majority of reasonable, common sense people" because then you arbitrarily get to decide what is acceptable and what is not.  This is a slippery slope that society cannot be permitted to slide down.

The gold standard we have to settle for is zero tolerance for intolerance.  That is why, despite all of Bernard Drainville's resurgent demagogic drum-banging for his no-religious-symbols-in-public-spaces  crusade in Quebec following the Ottawa and St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu soldier shootings and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, the PQ got destroyed in the last Quebec election.  Sure, the emotional appeals get momentum early on (I think "burqas" probably occupy the spot between "root canals" and "Chad Kroeger" on the "Things the general Canadian population loves" list), but the crusading turns into a massive liability as the politicians are forced to twist themselves into pretzels to defend a position that they themselves are making up on the fly ("No, no one will lose their jobs over this.  OK, maybe some people will. But only after a five year easing in period.  But not in this category.  But only for religious symbols with this degree of ostentatiousness").  Now, as Stephen Harper doubles down on his anti-niqab position, he is taking possibly the biggest risk of his political career, as Chantal H├ębert and other seasoned veteran political observers have duly noted.

Because make no mistake, this is pure and simple politics.  2015 is shaping up to be a volatile and bumpy year for Canada's economy, and people out there are hurtin' pretty bad.  Layoffs are mounting, real GDP growth is anemic despite a zero interest rate policy and materials, financials, and oil & gas - the cornerstone sectors of the TSX, are all susceptible to intense speculation, downward pressure, and extreme volatilty.  Amidst this backdrop, the country struggles with an unimaginable housing bubble (average Canadian home price: $431,000) the feds did nothing to prevent.  Just bear with me here for a second.  Median house price is $431,000, let's say the average Joe and Jill save 5% down (meaning the mortgage is now insured by the taxpayer), and now owe about $405,000.  Their monthly payment is $1900 for 25 years, but the average family income is only $68,000. That means they only have about $1400-$1700 a month left for property taxes, electricity, cars, gas, phones, groceries, cable, beer, shit I hope they don't have any kids because we just about broke the bank here already.  You see where this is going.  People across Canada are awash in debt.  Cashing out what meagre savings they have in futile attempts to service the mountains of it that they have.  Robbing peter to pay Paul.  I know its happening because I see it myself every single day.

Amidst this backdrop, oil's mini-recovery in February looks to have been a head-fake following the outright crash in the commodity in Nov-Dec-Jan.  Now crude is testing new lows and inventories are sky-high.  So when Joe Oliver said in February that the government was "delaying the budget until April to assess the impact of low oil prices", I'm sure what he meant that he was waiting until March so he could assess when they were lower still.  Every smart finance minister wants less dollars to spend on his budget than before.

As I said in my last column, there is no guarantee that Stephen Harper will lose the next election, due to the ineptitude of the two opposition leaders, but it is pretty clear that there are finally some macroeconomic conditions that make his hokey and worn out "steady hand on the tiller" argument weaker than ever (especially given the amount of public debt his government has rung up).  But maybe his terrorism/fear strategy will pay off.  This is a democratic country and polls say he has the support of the population to pick useless fights with Zunera Ishaq and ram through undemocratic, privacy-violating digital surveillance bills in the wake of the radical Islam fad.  But after nine years of endless tempests in teapots that saw the Conservatives duly sent back to Ottawa despite no end to the righteous indignation they provoked (Who can forget Michael Ignatieff's unbelievably dorky table-pounding: "Mr Speaker, when will the minister do the honourable thing and resign?!"), the economic picture might be shitty enough later this year to finally provoke a sea-change among the non-partisan undecideds.  At the end of the day, jobs and debt will trump niqabs.

And we will all remember, back in march, when modern, liberal, enlightenment democratic ideals prevailed.  We may not like Ms Ishaq's niqab, but we must defend to the death her right to wear it. Just like we must defend equally to the death Chad Kroeger's right to produce his shitty music.  By obsessing over things that offend us we become the parody of ourselves that loses all credibility.  Keep calm and throw on Nickelback's latest album while kicking back with the Sports Illustrated Burqini Edition.  Spring is here, baby

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Choiceless Canada

In Canada, if I want to buy groceries from a supermarket, there is a 97% chance that the store will be owned by Loblaws, Metro, or Empire (the Sobey family).  If I want to go open a bank account, there is a 97% chance it will be with one of the big six banks, since that is the percent of the country's inhabited area that their branches are present in.  Need internet, TV, or cellphone service?  You are almost certain to be dealing with Bell, Rogers, or Telus, or some combination thereof (you could take them up on their offer for one of their enticing "bundles" and thereby only deal with one annoying customer service department, but the real best option is to deal with one of the discount providers they own).  Okay, there is Videotron in Quebec and Shaw out west in this sector, but lets not split hairs.  Gas for your car?  We have it on tap from our national treasure, Petro Canada (Suncor), as well as from Dutch (Shell), American (Esso), and Chinese (Husky) sources.  Need to ship goods by rail? You can use Canadian Pacific or Canadian National. Booking a flight? You have a choice between Air Canada or Westjet.  The Panda bear doesn't do long hauls so I'm leaving him out.

Do you see my point? Most critical sectors of the Canadian economy are dominated by 2-6 players, not more.  I'm not here to attack them or accuse them of choking free enterprise with oligopolistic practices (there are, after all, hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized independent businesses in Canada), just to make the observation that, as a nation our consolidator instincts seem to have gravitated to the sectors which happen to be the most visible, the most used by the most people (like, everyone), and therefore the most profitable.  None of these companies are inherently evil; they all employ tens of thousands of Canadians and their income flows back to Canadians in many forms like through the dividends that flow from their shares on the TSX and in all of the institutional (pension fund and mutual fund) ownership of them.  You could make similar cases for other sectors -  with media (Globe, Torstar, Postmedia, Quebecor, Irvings), fertilizer (Potash and Agrium), auto parts (Linamar, Martinrea,and Magna) and natural gas pipelines and delivery (Enbridge and Transcanada), this country is just not that diversified.  As much as that often repeated and nauseating quote about our stable and heavily regulated banking sector gets held up as to why our nation's economy "weathered the storm" during the 2008-09 financial crisis, it seems pretty clear that stability - in the form of big, boring, profitable, cash machine companies that never have more than a couple of direct competitors - dominates the Canadian economy as a whole.

We could have an economics discussion about whether this composition of the economy makes us better or worse off collectively.  We could have a psychology/social science discussion about whether our national psyche craves stability and predictability.  We could talk about how if we were more entrepreneurial as a nation we would have hordes of young bootstrappers failing fast, failing often, and smashing these oligopolies.  And some grumpy right-wing populists and professional left-wing union type people, the two biggest whiners in the public square who often succeed at poisoning the debate quite successfully, could complain about "price gouging" and "unsatisfied customers" and "protecting Canadian jobs" and "big companies paying their fair share". I am not here to engage in any of that unproductive ax-grinding.  Rather, I want to focus on the area of our society where we suffer from the most abysmal lack of choice, which is our political system. These companies are all governed by laws, regulations, and legal and governmental mechanisms; the fact that we have no choice who governs us in our democracy is the real tragedy, and the lack of choices in this area is the one from which our society will suffer the most in the long run.

The Conservative government in Ottawa is old, spent, totally bereft of ideas and hollowed out of many of the brighter ministers who served in it earlier on.  It has endured a lot of criticism over the years from mainstream media and nobodies like me, 80-90% of which was deserved.  The government turned out to be a lot more moderate over time than I think a lot of people would have predicted, but make no mistake: on drug sentencing, environmental regulation, the legal system, digital surveillance, and taxation they have enacted pernicious and harmful policies that represent long-term detrimental effects to the country.  I have never voted for them and always opposed them, both on principle for these issues and for the authoritarian central control the Prime Minister's office exerts on the government and the secretive and deceptive ways he severely limits access to himself as if he was some third world dictator or billionaire.  This behaviour is unbecoming of what we have a right to, which is a democratically elected Member of Parliament who has the confidence of the House of Commons to lead the government - A person who is a normal citizen like any of us whose duty is to serve Canadians, first among 308 equals.  Not this smirking wannabe pretend oilman/economist who is probably still stimulated imagining his armoured car and security detail and his smirking sidekick retired investment banker finance minister whose job seems to consist of trying to sound smart while deflecting attention from the country's actual finances.  I cannot think of two people less deserving of the public offices they hold.

And yet, who do I have to support to replace them? Who do I go to bat for in 2015 when I'm talking to less politically-attuned friends and family? Nobody.  I can't vote Conservative, and I don't know a single coherent, reasonable, thinking person who has one positive thing to say about either opposition leader.  This NDP official opposition has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster, the so-called "social justice party" being wholly, entirely, invisible to Canadians.  Rather than hammering the government day in and day out over its one-sided foreign policy, its irresponsible depriving of hundreds of billion dollars to the treasury through needless tax cuts, and its shameless distribution of pork for curling arenas in one-horse prairie towns, we are treated to the Thomas Mulcair show which has about as many Canadian viewers as Australian rules football.  The two episodes that sum up this guys performance to me are the following: In May 2013, following one bitter laid-off middle aged employee's revelation to the CBC that RBC outsourced some IT operations to a California-based, NASDAQ-listed company called iGate with employees in India, Mulcair wasted no time pouncing on what he perceived to be a political opportunity.  He scheduled a press conference on the steps of Place Ville Marie, the tallest building in Montreal which RBC has their logo on the front of and where they lease some space, pounded his fist for the TV cameras for a few minutes and fired off some righteous indignation soundbites.  Him, his cars, the people, and the cameras arrived, unloaded, got the segment done in a flurry activity, and were gone before you knew it.  The whole thing took maximum 20 minutes on a blustery weekday morning.  This guy is supposed to be in Ottawa holding his government's feet to the fire and he is here in Montreal to...to do what, exactly? Bitch about how shitty a big bank is to Canadians?  Complaining about banks.  Why not complain about taxes and the weather and houses prices while you're at it? That makes you look like a real prime minister in waiting.

I didn't notice the NDP again until about a month ago, when CP rail was in a labour dispute with its employees who the Conservative government would have just immediately legislated back to work anyway, as is their custom.  Mulcair convened the media for a press conference at 1:30 P.M.with Alexandre Boulerice, one of the five or so out of 107 NDP MPs who has uttered more than 2 words in public since 2011.  And lo and behold, CP came to an agreement with its employees in the morning before it started.  I can just imagine the soup nazi standing there yelling "NO NEWS CYCLE FOR YOU!"  The NDP has this incredibly self-destructive tendency to see itself as this stern, paternalistic moral compass whose job it is to discipline Canada's large companies, when in fact they have no jurisdiction over said companies and the average Canadians they are supposed to be championing and winning over couldn't give a hoot.

It really is a shame that the NDP is so inept and so pointless as an opposition party, squandering this golden opportunity to really get Canadians' attention and occupy their rightful place in the mainstream.  Because the Liberal Party really committed hari-kiri in selecting Justin Timberlake as their leader.  The cringe-worthy yet truly predictable result of this ill-considered decision cannot be fully assessed here until we see election results, but I will say this.  To consider what a dumb move the Liberals made in selecting Trudeau as their leader, imagine what would happen if the Conservatives selected Ben Mulroney as their leader.  It would never happen, because Ben has the job that is suited to him, which is covering celebrity gossip on TV.  Trudeau would actually do great at something similar, and what's scary is you could apply his "pluses" as easily to Ben. "Really nice guy" "Really good looking" "great at connecting with people" "prime ministerial pedigree" "Dad of young kids" "Bilingual".  Apparently the requirements for being the leader of a Canadian political party now are the same as for being on a reality show, and if anyone wants to explain to me how Justin's tenure as Liberal leader has resembled anything other than a reality show, I eagerly await your conscientious objections.

And I continue to be sad as I pine for the day I will actually have a proper political choice as a voter in Canada, with a candidate worth voting for.