Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Canada's Parliament Broken or Not?

They belief that Canada's Democracy is broken has been growing. It is not merely a matter of position; where the party(ies) presently out of power decry the abuses of government, that a few short years ago could be heard from those members presently going about abusing said government. I do think Canada's democracy is going through a period of decline; it is decades old and has not yet reach its apogee. What it isn't is broken. It is rather like a clock that runs too fast or too slow, it must be periodically reset, but still tells time after a fashion. The clock is not broken, it runs according to its specifications, but the tolerances are a bit wide.

Our Parliament is similar. It functions according to its laws and traditions or specifications and tolerances. In our case the tolerances are getting too wide and the effect is a Parliament functioning in a degraded fashion.

We can remedy the problem by adjusting the rules and traditions upon which Parliament functions. What does Canada's government look like?

In Canada the head of Government is Queen Elizabeth the Second, represented in Canada by the Governor General. Some of the powers of the Governor General are the signing of legislation, appointing Prime minister. At the next level we have the executive branch made up of the Prime minster and Cabinet drawn usually from the House of commons. The PM and cabinet propose laws and policy. The Legislative Branch which is an elective House of Commons and an appointed Senate. Here is where the the proposed laws are discussed debated and passed. The Judicial Branch makes up the third piece. The purpose of the this branch is ensure that that legislation conforms to to the constitution.

Ideally the system is bound together with checks and balances regulating the exercise of power. Abuses are prevented or mitigated and eventually reversed by competing branches of government. In reality checks and balances have a more voluntary or at best a time delay quality.

So how do we come to the place where the average citizen feel that government is broken? That is firmly rooted in the nature of our parliamentary system, Majority and to a small extent Minority governments. The House of Commons is where legislation is debated, passed or defeated. The Senate plays a part in legislation but as an appointed body its role is restricted; it can and has defeated legislation but usually it may consents to pass legislation whole or with some amendments; usually suggested by the PM. Legislation is passed on a straight up and down vote; so a Majority government should have no trouble passing legislation.

In a Majority government the Loyal Opposition can do little to stop legislation, they may delay it for a a time but can not defeat it. Governments knowing they have no substantial problems passing their agenda will work with Opposition parties to reduce rancor and make for smother passage of Bills. If they don't the tools available to the Opposition are to galvanize the public by exposing through debate, flaws in the proposed laws and shame if a piece of legislation is egregiousness. The only hope is to scare the Government or government MPs by way of future electoral defeat into altering or scraping a Bill. The Courts can act only after a law is passed so its effect is limited; though if consulted ahead of time by Government they can offer their private opinion on whether such and such a provision is legal. The only other check on the Majority government is the Governor General. Here we again come up against the nature of Appointment over elected official. The GG has the powers to prevent  but will not by tradition use those powers. The GG  takes "advice" from the PM, suggesting choice but effectively a PM's "advice" is an order.

Our Democracy is a combination of legal frameworks, what is allowed and Traditional and Conventions what is done. The abuses we complain about today follow not from legal changes but from the alteration of convention. That is conventions on the part of Government. Recent examples include prorogation of government to avoid accountability. Prorogation occurs at the end of a Governments legislative agenda. It has only one purpose to the reset of  parliament. Harper has used it to avoid answering to the House. There is now law against using prorogation this way but it is clearly not the intended purpose. That is a convention. The GG was given "advice" by the PM to prorogue, and acting within convention did so.

Convention is malleable. Any PM with sufficient cause or bravery will overturn convention, at need. They can do so and remain safely within the legal frame work. The problem is that the other elements of our Democracy can't or won't alter their actions in response to the Executive. The GG should have and would have been with their rights to deny prorogation, as it was intended for a purpose other than ending a completed legislative session. But it didn't happen, the PM violated convention but the GG didn't.

Our Democracy works according to its framework but because it leans heavily on convention is open to abuse. The checks and balances are not effective because they are either elective or or effectively non existent. The parliament of Canada is not broken, it is working but as with the slow clock with too wide a set a tolerances.

It is my feeling that the necessary step is a reduction in convention; it is an unreliable check. Codify in law the powers and procedures of government and reduce as much as is reasonable and possible, the role played by convention.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Supreme Court to Hear Prostitution Case

The Supreme Court is going to hear the appeal of of a prostitution case that has been in the works since 2009. Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior handed sown a 2010 decision that struck down provisions of the criminal code, sections-210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c). The effect was a de facto legalization of prostitution. The relevant provisions can be found in the Canadian Criminal Code . Those sections dealt with Bawdy Houses, living off the the avails of prostitution and communication for the purposes of prostitution.

Having appealed the initial decision in 2010 by Justice Susan Himel and after being turned back by the Ontario's Court of Appeals in March 2012, it's now in the hands of Canada's top court. The Federal Government will finally have the case heard by the Supreme Court.

The question is will the Supreme court up hold the lower court rulings. I don't know if they will but I know they should.

From a rights standpoint a woman's body is her own, period. She should be free from unreasonable prohibition or restraints imposed by the state. This is something women have fought for over a very long time, make the largest strides in the last 90 years. The right to vote, to be persons separate and equal to men, sexual and reproductive rights. To be sure, the right to be a sex worker was not specifically pursed but it does follow from command over your own body.

The sex trade has been around for a number of millennial. It has been at times been promoted, banned or ignored. The prevailing attitude in the West has been one of Church censure and illegality and a Secular authority that shifted from bans to regulation and sometimes outright recognition.

Our present Laws on sex work reflect the moral sentiment of the Church and rather less a practical method on how to deal with issues surrounding the sex trade. It is not an accident. The duty of the Church is to guard the moral fiber of society, to prepare the flock for the afterlife. Sex and Women are to really sore points for the Church. Women figure unfavourably in the literature, unless confined in or to their proper role. Over the centuries religion has lost its grip; Western Societies reflect this decline the expression of their Laws. We have tried to remove those moral elements that prejudiced our laws. Most specifically those dealing with the rights of religious minorities or Women.

So we have moved on, from the sexual revolution, the pill; embraced the notion that women are equal. The anticipated Armageddon never arrived. But some of our laws still bear a hint of that moral censure directed at women; and to be fair also male sex trade workers, but that is an issue that runs parallel to this one. Canada's top Court will finally get to rule on this issue and hopefully brush of the moral bits while keeping the bits that matter.

What our Criminal code must to be able to do is protect the Sex trade worker, presently it exposes them to harm.  There are occasions of assault, rape or the simple act of a customer failing to pay. You can't rely on the police, the civil courts can not enforce contracts commercial because you are engaged in an illegal enterprise. When you are outside the law you are vulnerable, exploitable.

The remedy is to treat a sex worker in part like other trades persons, offering civil and criminal protections. It is not an endorsement of the sex trade but a recognition that the sex trade exists and our first priority is safety of the workers not to fix moral opprobrium. What the Justice left in place gives you an indication of the thought process. All provisions dealing with coercion of any kind through drugs,violence or threat, remain in force. By far the greatest harm is centered on the ruthless exploitation of sex workers rather than a moral failing of selling sex.

To be frank, I may question privately the choice to be a sex worker, but it should remain that person's choice. The more informed the choice the better.

I do have some reservations. They revolve around the notion of selling your body, for however short a time. I have tried to consider it in the same vein, once again, as the trades person. They sell their labour. You contract with the electrician you don't own them. The issue of intimacy is different in detail rather than level of exposure, say with your Doctor or divorce lawyer. The real difference is in the social acceptance, or at least tolerance.

I also recognize that in a world where women are sexualised from an early age and their worth seemingly calculated on a scale of attractiveness, normalizing the sex trade might make life worse for women. I think perhaps my concern is premature. Removing from our society the myth of the Courtesan, by normalizing the nature of the sex trade, could be beneficial. Their is nothing less exciting than the banal. As well, returning to the women the control over their bodies that prostitution laws had appropriated, can be seen as a measure of good.

I expect that legalization will bring an improvement to women and men in the sex trade; a first step that removes the fear, the violence, and the moral turpitude from their lives.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Supreme Court ruling Opitz v. Wrzesnewskyj

The supreme Court of Canada handed down its ruling in Opitz v. Wrzesnewskyj . It all began as a very close election win for Opitz in 2011. He won by 26 votes. Accusations or irregularity resulted in a lower court ruling tossing out the results. This lead to an appeal to the Supreme Court and the decision today. In a 4-3 split the Justices declared the 2011 election in Etobicoke to be valid over turning the lower court ruling. I would have preferred Opitz's appeal be denied and a new election be called, but I perused the ruling and find I can accept the decision. I'm not a lawyer, but here is how I understand the Courts decision.

Four of the judges found no evidence of deliberate fraud concerning the irregular votes. They acknowledged that the paper work attached to these votes, was filled out improperly, but that the proper procedures for establishing eligibility were followed. In effect a clerical error not fraud. Having come to that conclusion they asserted that the right to vote must be upheld in cases of recording errors.

I can follow the logic and I agree with that conclusion. The right to vote is the basis of the Democratic society. The right to select our own leaders should be as wide and as little encumbered as is reasonably possible. Where there is no evidence of deliberate fraud benefit must be given to the voter. In effect establishes the belief that it is likely that more people would be disenfranchised than voter fraud prevented; if clerical errors/procedure were allowed to effect eligibility. Anyone following the American politics has noticed attempts to legislate vote suppression through ID laws. This in the face of little no evidence of in person voter fraud.

The dissenting judges looked at it differently. They also saw no deliberate evidence of fraud either, but maintained that voting is combination of action and eligibility. This means that establishing eligibility is part of the voting process, as is the recording of that fact properly. If the act is not carried out in whole then, while not being fraudulent it is still not allowable. This is easily understood as the "maintenance of a systems integrity" the appearance as well as the fact of being correct. The consequence is that it disqualifies a vote that can not be shown to have met the standard. This would certainly prevent fraud, but also through error disenfranchise.

So we are here; that voter eligibility must be confirmed but errors occur, but that such errors can't be allowed to disenfranchise citizens. We can't with certainly reduce all fraud or error, but it would appear we can do better than we do now. Those that work these elections must be prepared to carry out their duties. It is incumbent on Elections Canada to provide for better training of those who undertake the responsibility of manning our election stations. I don't expect error free elections. Though I do think we can spend the money necessary to make them as close as reasonably possible. It is the least we can do.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Authenticity: Experience,Context and Awareness

This morning I discovered the the Wall Mounted Electric Fireplace. I sighed dramatically, bemoaned the steady decline of Western Civilisation, made a comment on twitter about authenticity. What a start to my day; to be faced with such an assault on authenticity. I finished my coffee; dressed for running; did my stretches and went outside. The day is sunny and cool; the grass still wet from last nights rain; drops clinging to the leaves. You could smell that pleasant odour of decay from fallen leaves and the smell of manure was in the air; farmers preparing their fields for the spring. Now, I thought to myself "that's nature, authentic nature", a far cry from electric wall mounted fireplaces. That brought to mind my father growing up in rural Newfoundland; and what I'm sure would be him laughing at what a suburbanite called nature. I'm faced now with the idea that authenticity is mutable. 

I'm reminded of a story he used to tell; waking up early in the morning, adding wood to the stove. Some days rigging up the horse heading into the woods to fell some trees; bringing them back, and cutting them into firewood. That story suggests quite forcefully that my notion of nature and fire is different from my fathers. From his perspective it's downright inauthentic.

What fire played a central role in my fathers life. Warmth through long winters, from cooking, bathing to clean clothes; fire was a necessity. When I was growing up the fireplace is redefined, becoming an accessory. In my experience, beautiful to look at, warm, pleasant smelling wood smoke; but not integral to life.  My experience is as true as my fathers but it can not be authentic, within his context and experience. 

So during the run I have to address my idea of authenticity, of what makes one experience valid the other fake. What is authentic is a declaration first and foremost. Some authority says that "this and not that " is a true thing. This is easiest to understand in the world of objects and provenance. When authenticity is tied to a recognized author or practitioner there is little to dispute, this is an authentic Rembrandt the other is fake. Fake meaning that it was done by someone other than the Dutch Master. But if you can't tell the difference what then?

Authenticity is tied to awareness. I love chocolate chip cookies. I like the real ones best of all. If I eat and enjoy cookies made with artificial vanilla, artificial sugar, artificial butter and artificial chocolate, then the cookies must be authentic, at least to me. When i become aware of the substitutions the next bite won't taste different but my understanding of it will change. The cookies I liked have now become fake. The authority of "real" ingredients determines authenticity. 

Authenticity without a supervising authority becomes entirely subjective. My father's experience of the Fireplace is different than mine, but without authority intervening, neither is less authentic than the other. So I find that while I can laugh at an Electric Fireplace hanging from a wall and say "that is not real" It should be understood only in terms of the object itself not the experience. For many that may be the only fire place they every see, and will be authentic within that frame work. 

It should be said that where it is required to separate out the real from the fake, do so. Where it is not relax and allow others the validity of their experiences.

Omnibus Bill 2 C-45, Orwell Title: Jobs and Growth Act, 2012

The second omnibus bill hit Parliament October 18th 2012. 

Title: A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and other measures

Orwell Title: Jobs and Growth Act, 2012

I will endeavour to read this or the next little while. Feel free to do the same.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Word Usage Matters: Anti-Choice not Pro-Life

It is my habit to refer to people in the manner that they prefer. I find it causes me no problem to use First Nation, or if i know, by their Tribe or Band name. The use of Developmentally or Physically Disabled to refer to a person so affected seems reasonable to me. I don't find this in anyway restrictive to my freedom of speech or Kowtowing to the masters of  Politically Correctness; it is being respectful. Communications between people should not be a humiliating experience for either party. So when i found myself in conversation with Anti Choice advocates, I quite natural used the term Pro Life.

After receiving a polite comment or two about the usage of "Pro Life" instead of Anti Choice. I accepted the critique and looked at what I was doing. On a narrow level I was carrying on my normal habit of referring to a party or person in the manner of their own choosing. But was it the same circumstances as using LGBT when talking about the Gay community. I came to the conclusion that it was not the same. The flaw in my thinking was idea that self description was the same as accurate description. Using First Nations to describe our founding people is accurate and full. It doesn't mislead the listener or by using confusing or partial definitions.

"Pro Life" is accurate within a narrow space. They care about keeping the fetus alive till it is born, they express less interests after the birth. They seem to care little or nothing for the woman. Their stated goal is the elimination of Reproductive Choice. No choice means the fetus gets to live. So to call them Anti Choice is an accurate description because it encompasses the totality of their position.

So is there hypocrisy in my position now? Not at all. I am obliged to be respectful and conscious of other people and their naming conventions. But not to the point where is shifts from polite and honest recognition, to the participation in a masquerade. When the purpose is to draw the listener into some fictional space, I retain the right to disagree and call it as I see it.

Prorogation: Harper was Wrong and so is McGuinty

I sometimes employ a test to see if I'm being overly partisan.  So i pose the question "would I oppose a conservative policy or piece of legislation if it were instead promoted by the Liberals or NDP". This framing helps me to focus on the issue and not on the party responsible. An objective assessment of an action is necessary and only possible if rancour a partisanship is but aside .

Yesterday Dalton McGuinty resigned as leader of the liberal party. A surprise to the general public and perhaps to the elites as well. Then he dropped the other shoe, prorogation. Peter Loewen of the Ottawa Citizen offers up this analysis. For those needing a quick reminder of the definition of Prorogation is here is a handy reminder. Its use is quite specific.

"In the Canadian parliamentary system, the legislature is typically prorogued upon the completion of the agenda set forth in the Speech from the Throne..."

This is in my opinion, the only acceptable use of this singularly powerful tool. The executive brings to a halt all action in the legislature.

The principal effect of ending a session by prorogation is to terminate business. Members are released from their parliamentary duties until Parliament is next summoned. All unfinished business is dropped from or “dies” on the Order Paper and all committees lose their power to transact business, providing a fresh start for the next session. No committee can sit during a prorogation. Bills which have not received Royal Assent before prorogation are “entirely terminated” and, in order to be proceeded with in the new session, must be reintroduced as if they had never existed.

You can see the appeal of prorogation, for Governments facing legislative opposition, contempt allegations or loss of power. Harper has used it to avoid accountability in the house, 3 times. McGuinty is doing the same. Prorogation must be placed in the context that it occurs. Under the circumstances of a completed legislative agenda then prorogation carries no taint. But when used to avoid accountability it becomes odious.

Mr. McGuinty's reasons for the prorogue are spurious. He says that the need to act on public service pay  cuts and to engage in consultation on this issue with opposition parties requires the legislative break. So to carry on the business of government you need to close government. The purpose of the legislature is to deal with these issues, in public, not behind office doors. Yes the legislature is fractious and time consuming and work is delayed that might otherwise be moved swiftly forward. That is sometimes the cost of democratic government. A bill I am most willing to pay.

McGuinty has done good things for Ontario, in Education and Health. They have also done poorly on Energy, Ornge or E-Health. When they are facing real criticisms for damage done it is not appropriate for the Liberal government to side step these calamities by closing the Legislature. I would be appropriate if the Lieutenant Governor denied the request to prorogue, but that is unlikely. I surmise that the Liberals having taken a page from Harper's book on "Prorogation and avoiding accountability" hope to be as equally successful in retaining public support as Harper was. 

It was wrong for Harper to do it. It is wrong for McGuinty. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sports-Doping and Competition

A few months ago Lance Armstrong quit fighting the USADA. He  has been at the center of a doping scandal for a number of years. Teammates claiming he was doping his way to 7 Tour de France wins. Now it's October and Lance Armstrong is still popular, still has his fans. This respect is a carryover from his cancer fighting foundation as much as an unwillingness of supporters to give up on a hero.

We are entering a phase of the Armstrong saga where some ask "how does this effect his legacy". This is not a question I want to address. Armstrong will be judge on what he did; by the knowledgeable and the ignorant. I'm more interested in the notion being raised on the periphery, if everyone is doping what is the problem. The wide spread belief that competitions are rigged, either through doping or match fixing. Match fixing and doping are not the same kind of cheating. The former requires one or more players to lose a match or perhaps not to win by too wide a margin; money is involved, bribes or illegal betting; the latter, doping is performance entrancement, often dedicated to personal enrichment, better stats mean bigger paychecks, or in a team environment more wins. 

I approach doping in sports from the perspective of what competition means. What are the expectations of participants and spectators? Fairness, is at the core of any competition, the idea that what we are seeing is a true account of effort, and not a rigged show. Fairness does not mean equal, nature gives us talent, training hones that ability, and competition is where that hard in skill is measured against our fellows. 

In the long history of recorded competition, fairness has a role to play, not always as I define it. Two warriors in single combat, status is gained from fighting an opponent. The notion of fairness is tied to worth, a strong adversary is preferable to a weaker one. Winning is good but beating a clear inferior has little honour to it. This maybe an idealized version, expressed more in theory than in fact, but it had an impact in literature and so probably in life. Fairness, in a life death circumstances is likely to be observed more often in the failure to be applied than its observance. 

We enter the modern era and the rise of the sporting world, where competition is less costly, socially or physically. The idea of Fairness is able to find fuller expression through a life of sport. Two people or teams compete, only there skill and training will determine the outcome. My notion of fairness are human beings competing without biological enhancement. Coaching, training and dedication to the chosen sport provided the edge that gave victory. It's not perfect, the United States has an edge over most countries in sports technology. This may not seem fair, but money and equipment does not reach the level of cheating, implied by doping. 

So our expectation for any competition is that it be between humans without external chemical aids, anything else is fraud. That is my answer to "why not doping". Doping undermines our idea of fair competition, because it involves a lie. The non doping participants and the audience are being fooled into believing that what they are engaging in and seeing is authentic, fair competition. Nobody likes a cheater. 

So what are we to do about doping? Should we openly accept it, by placing it in the realm of training tools, just another piece of equipment? Probably not a workable solution, because chemical enhancement provides more of a boost than coaching or training facilities can to performance. Anyone person competing drug free will be at a disadvantage, save for the most talented people. 

We can split competitions into drug free and drug enhanced athletes. This gives us the transparency. Everyone involved knows that what they are witnessing is enhanced humans competing. There can be no outrage or fraud if everyone knows what is going on. Whether it is workable to create parallel competitions or even desirable is hard to know. Do we want to begin going down the path of legitimizing Human Enhancement? At a minimum the notion of what is fair remains somewhat intact, though greatly diminished in meaning.

I think we are left needing to maintain an Idea, however romantic, of what fair competition means.I support continued efforts to find cheaters where and when we can, and suspending them from competing. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Human Nature and Belief

I'm reading a biography on Voltaire. I don't mention this to appear lofty. Voltaire is an interesting man and I have wanted to read about his life for a long time. I went to the library and picked up a copy of  "Voltaire: A Life" by Ian Davidson. It's a good read. as soon as I am done; it's off to Madame de Pompadour and Joan of Arc. It is often the case that one book leads to another.The  Madame was a figure in his life; Joan in the form a poem, that caused him no end of trouble. Intrigued, I decided to learn more about both. Let me put that aside now, for it is not the point of this piece, just a bit of background.

Early into the biography I discovered Voltaire was antisemitic.  What does that mean, other than he held the same view of Jewish people, that was common in his day. Voltaire can't be characterized as a frothing at the mouth, racist, but it is definite he had no love for the Jewish people. I accept the notion that people must be understood within the context of their time. It is only exceptional men and women that can transcend their eras and carve new and independent directions. Voltaire is one of those men. Calling for tolerance between Christens, reform of the Justice system and Freedom of Expression. Just not the one, that was able to look past societal racism. We are the totality of our actions, the good or the bad, and is improper to apply a filter. That lead me square to the point of this piece: Belief.

Our human nature is the framework, beliefs we hang upon it, the sum is who we are..What we believe changes, a lot, but not our natures. Throughout the biography are examples of our nature. All of those strengths and weakness that encumber us as a species, love, sacrifice, avarice, greed, ego and so many more positive and negative emotions. The 18th century human differs from us only in what they believe; and how such beliefs, guide by nature formed action. The slave owner is not a different species of human, even if today he would appear so. The only thing that separates us from him is that slavery is now believed to be wrong. That idea came gradually, refined over time to include more and more groups of people till there was none left to enslave. Slavery faded because it could no longer be defended; not its utility nor its purpose. Yet met still many clung to the idea regardless of the harm it inflicted on them personally. It is important to note that we didn't become incapable of enslaving people, we just decided not to do it any more. It  began with the elites of the day. First a few, then more, they raged on against it, the public intellectuals-philosophers, men and women of God. They worked hard to change the minds of those that could alter the course of events.

So I arrived at this point, if we can be moved away, by thoughtful conscientious elites, from the acceptance of slavery, of the oppression of women, LGBT or other minorities; we can be moved back.  Nazis Germany; a case study in the failure of elites to safeguard political and social advances. Some tried, but the current was against them, more were engaged in advancing an set of ideas that would give rise to the Nazis. But by no means was Nazi Germany's rise was inevitable, it was merely possible.  

So I arrive at the conclusion that no advance is safe because no idea and the belief that follow from them is permanent because we aren't. The more complacent we are; the greater our need for public intellectuals is. In our era, Elite is almost a swear pushed out through thin, tired lips. Science is held in disrepute by our fellow citizens and also far to many of those that govern. Our Rights are parsed and segmented till we are left with nothing, a phrase gutted, that no longer has the power to protect us. 

Our times are tougher, more information at the disposal of more people than ever before, at the same time seem less able to filter the good form the bad, false and misleading information has an easy appeal, hard to deny.  

Every generation has to learn about our fundamental freedoms and why we need to keep them in order to remain free. Our Elites need to be out front, engaged in dialogue with us, the citizens. Talk to us about our responsibility to the society in which we live. For it is the citizen that confers the power to govern and they must choose as wisely as possible.