Saturday, April 04, 2009

Goin' South: Canadian Democracy Under Siege

Muzzled MPs. A powerless cabinet. Politicized senior bureaucrats. Unaccountable parties. Canada's democracy is in trouble. To fix it we have to connect the dots

April 04, 2009
James Travers
National Affairs Columnist

OTTAWA–For a foreign correspondent reporting some of the world's grimmest stories, Canada in the '80s was more than a faraway home. Seen from the flattering distance of Africa, this country was a model democracy. Reflected in its distant mirror was everything wrong with what was then called the Third World. From Cape to Cairo, power was in the hands of Big Men. Police and army held control. Institutions were empty shells. Corruption was as accepted as the steeped-in-pessimism proposition that it's a duty to clan as well as to family to grab whatever has value before the state inevitably returns to dust.

By contrast and comparison, Canada was a cold but shimmering Camelot. Ballots, not bullets, changed governments. Men and women in uniform were discreet servants of the state. Institutions were structurally sound. Corruption, a part of politics everywhere, was firmly enough in check that scandals were aberrations demanding public scrutiny and sometimes even justice.

Canada today is not Africa then or now. Our wealth and health, and our communal respect for legal, civil and human rights position this favoured country on a higher plane. Still, 10 years of close observation and some 1,500 Star columns lead to an unsettling conclusion: Africa, despite popular perception, despite the Somalias and Zimbabwes, is moving in one direction, Canada in another. Read the headlines, examine the evidence, plot the trend line dots and find that as Africans – from turnaround Ghana to impoverished Malawi – struggle to strengthen their democracies, Canadians are letting theirs slip.

There, dictatorships are now more the exception than the rule and accountability is accepted as a precondition for stability. Here, power and control are increasingly concentrated and accountability honoured more in promise than practice. Canadian politicians flout the will of voters and parties. Once-solid institutions are being pulled apart by rising complexity and falling legitimacy. Scandals come and go without full public exposure or cleansing political punishment. If not yet lost, Camelot is under siege.

Laughter or disbelief would have been my '80s response to any gloomy prediction that within the next 20 odd years Canada's iconic police force would twist the outcome of a federal election. I would have rejected out of hand the suggestion that Parliament would become a largely ceremonial body incapable of performing its defining functions of safeguarding public spending and holding ministers to account. I would have treated as ridiculous any forecast that the senior bureaucracy would become politicized, that many of the powers of a monarch would flow from Parliament to the prime minister or that the authority of the Governor General, the de facto head of state, would be openly challenged.

Yet every one has happened and each has chipped away another brick of the democratic foundations underpinning Parliament. Incrementally and by stealth, Canada has become a situational democracy. What matters now is what works. Precedents, procedures and even laws have given way to the political doctrine of expediency.

No single party or prime minister is solely to blame. Since Pierre Trudeau first dismissed backbenchers as nobodies and began drawing power out of Parliament and into his office, all have contributed to the creep toward a more authoritarian, less accountable Canadian polity.

Some of the changes are understandable. Government evolves with its environment, and that environment has become more complex even as the controls have become wobblier, less connected. The terrible twins of globalization and subsidiarity – the sound theory that services are most efficiently delivered by the administrative level closest to the user – now sorely test the ability of national legislatures to respond to challenges at home and abroad. Think of it this way: Trade, the economy and the environment have all gone global while the things that matter most to most of us – health, education and the quality of city life – are the guarded responsibility of provinces and municipalities.

Politics and politicians being what they are, the reflex response is to grasp for all remaining power. Once secured, it can be used to exercise political will more easily by overruling rules and rewriting or simply ignoring laws. Power alone is effective in cross-cutting through the silo walls that isolate departments and frustrate co-ordinated policies. Important to all administrations, unfettered manoeuvring room is that much more important to minority governments desperate to maximize limited options and minimize opposition influence.

Good for prime ministers, that's not nearly good enough for the rest of us. It fuels an inexorable power drift to the opaque political centre, creating what Donald Savoie, Canada's eminent chronicler of Westminster parliaments, calls "court government." It's his clear and credible view that between elections, prime ministers now operate in the omnipotent manner of kings. Surrounded by subservient cabinet barons, fawning unelected courtiers and answerable to no one, they manage the affairs of state more or less as they please.

Prime ministers are freeing themselves from the chains that once bound them to voters, Parliament, cabinet and party. From bottom to top, from citizen to head of state, every link in those chains is stressed, fractured or broken.

One man's short political career helps explain how those connections fail. David Emerson, a respected former forestry executive and top B.C. bureaucrat, is recalled as one of Paul Martin's most competent ministers. Almost forgotten now is his corrosive effect on public trust.

In 2006, Emerson ran for re-election in Vancouver-Kingsway, winning easily as a Liberal. Weeks after promising to be Stephen Harper's "worst nightmare," Emerson was named to the Conservative cabinet in the trade portfolio he had long wanted and was well-suited for. His rationale was simple: There's no point in being in the capital if there's no real possibility of influencing the nation's course.

Emerson is an honest man and his motives genuine. But in severing the link between ballots and voter choice, he made nonsense of the electoral process.

Emerson was not alone in dripping acid on that rare winter election. But where he applied an eyedropper, then RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli emptied a bucket. With Liberals nursing an opinion-poll lead and Martin on track for a second minority, Zaccardelli dropped an unprecedented, still unexplained bombshell. In a private letter to the NDP, one the RCMP went to extraordinary lengths to ensure became public, the force confirmed its criminal investigation into rumoured leaks of the Liberal decision not to tax income trusts.

Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan candidly identifies that letter as the election's tipping point. Liberal scandals and ethics soared again to the top of voter minds, sending Martin tumbling and Liberals packing.

No political malfeasance was found – one bureaucrat was charged with gaining personal benefit. More remarkably, neither Zaccardelli nor the RCMP has been forced to fully deconstruct such an egregious intervention in the electoral process. To their lasting shame, all three federal parties, each to protect its interests and minimize embarrassment, chose to leave hanging the rotten odour of banana republic politics. Zaccardelli, defrocked for conflicting testimony in the Maher Arar affair, is in France, safe and quiet in an Interpol sinecure.

If Zaccardelli's intervention was wrong, Emerson's analysis was right: Being a bright, competent and energized backbencher in an increasingly ritualistic, theatrical and impotent House of Commons is an exercise in futility.

Parliament's problem is that it is patently dysfunctional. Its list of recent failures is long and instructive. It didn't notice the millions of Quebec sponsorship dollars shifting from the treasury to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's office or the runaway costs of the Liberal long-gun registry. Starved of resources and already ineffectual, its committees became a standing joke when Conservatives secretly wrote a 200-page manual to discourage curiosity about, say, alleged attempts to buy dying Chuck Cadman's Commons vote, or the ruling party's suspect in-and-out campaign money-laundering scheme.

It's so essential for the ruling party to keep Parliament in the dark that its independent officers are now forced to struggle for the funds and freedom to do their jobs. Need proof? Liberals and Tories nurtured a cottage industry that taught how to hide public information vital to open democracy by, among other tricks, insisting on untraceable verbal reports and scribbling sensitive information on removable Post-it notes. Conservatives in opposition promised to create a budget officer to follow how Ottawa spends hundreds of billions. In power they are yanking the leash on Kevin Page, the newest watchdog.

Given those frustrations – and others ranging from voting as the party demands, not as their conscience dictates, to the growing irrelevance of the Commons as a forum for shaping public policy – it's hardly surprising that most MPs, like David Emerson, want to be where the action is – in cabinet. Except that it's not.

Strong cabinets are dusty relics. Long gone are the days when powerful regional ministers could flex their muscles with prime ministers who were merely first among equals. Under Chrétien, cabinets became little more than focus groups. Stephen Harper is going farther, making most ministers anonymous and keeping others silent when tough questions are asked.

Far more powerful than ministers are the political professionals who form a protective inner circle beholden only to the prime minister, not voters. Those appointed apparatchiks are now so entrenched that even senior ministers – Martin's deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan was one – have trouble penetrating the barrier around "The Boss."

So who influences the prime minister, who moulds the putty of public policy? Well it's certainly not deputy ministers, those non-partisan civil servants who once took personal pride in speaking truth to power and kept resignations ready for the moment ministers crossed the line separating public interest from partisan advantage. For mandarins, Job One is no longer providing policy options, it's protecting ministers and the prime minister from political blowback. How much that's changed is measured by last year's report on the leak of a sensitive Canadian diplomatic memo suggesting Barack Obama was saying one thing publicly and another privately about renegotiating free trade.

In finding no culprit, an investigation led by the Clerk of the Privy Council, Ottawa's top public servant, pointed fingers at bureaucrats for circulating the memo too widely. But as the Star exposed at the time, civil servants didn't leak. It was political operatives in the Prime Minister's Office and in Canada's Washington embassy who recklessly jeopardized this country's interests to assist U.S. Republicans. Once again, the guilty went free.

If not Parliament, ministers or mandarins, who can hold the Prime Minister accountable? Apparently not political parties. On their way to their party's Winnipeg convention last year Conservatives, those grassroots activists who planted the seeds of the Reform movement and nurtured them until they grew into a government, were told they had become only one among many "stakeholders." Then, in a cameo convention appearance, the Prime Minister broke the news that hard times rendered the party's defining conservative framework at least temporarily null and void.

Liberals, facing a crisis of their own, responded with even more extreme pragmatism. Having reached the conclusion Stéphane Dion had to be replaced before Parliament reconvened for a critical January session, Liberals bent, folded and mutilated party rules to narrow the leadership contenders to one and anoint Michael Ignatieff interim chief. Whatever the urgency or justification, chattering-class Liberals effectively stripped the rank and file of the right and responsibility to choose a leader.

With parties pushed to the sidelines, only the Governor General remains as a political check on the prime minister. But even that control is suspect after last year's pre-Christmas coalition crisis. Here's how far outspoken minister John Baird said Conservatives were willing to go to hang on to power. "I think what we want to do is basically take a time out and go over the heads of the members of Parliament, go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General, go right to the Canadian people."

Going over the head of the de facto head of state is a radical notion. But so, too, is the accelerating erosion of Parliament, cabinet, independent oversight and political parties. Extreme is now ho-hum in a country where the prime minister can override his own law to force an election, where accountability is little more than a campaign bumper sticker, where the police play politics and where there is no connection between scandal and punishment for those in privileged places.

Without meaningful engagement, participatory democracy is an oxymoron. Why vote if the winning candidate then switches sides? Why be a member of a powerless Parliament? Why be a minister in a cabinet without influence or a mandarin in a politically polluted bureaucracy? Why join a party to be spectator?

Responses can be found in the record low turnout of the last election. Or the dwindling number who consider federal politics relevant to real life or bother to join parties.

Fortunately, there are fixes. As Barack Obama proved in the U.S presidential campaign – and Premier Dalton McGuinty learned in Ontario when teenagers used Facebook to drive proposed drivers' licence restrictions into a dead end – the combination of motivated citizens and enabling technology is extraordinary.

If mad-as-hell voters can take back a riding, as they did in Vancouver by rejecting Emerson's adopted party, then surely MPs can recapture control of Parliament. It's possible, too, that ministers, bureaucrats and police officers can be forcefully reminded that their public duty is to the people, not to politicians. Even prime ministers can be told they are not monarchs.

Appealing as it sounds, advocacy requires effort. It's so much easier to go with the flow, to let situational democracy evolve with each reflex, stopgap, jerry-rigged response to every new policy demand and political threat. But that leads away from accountability and toward the Big Man culture that Africa is finally throwing off and has no place in Canada.

If war is too serious to leave to generals, then surely democracy is too important to delegate to politicians.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Faith and Epic Crimes

Fake Faith and Epic Crimes
by John Pilger

These are extraordinary times. With the United States and Britain on the verge of bankruptcy and committing to an endless colonial war, pressure is building for their crimes to be prosecuted at a tribunal similar to that which tried the Nazis at Nuremberg. This defined rapacious invasion as "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." International law would be mere farce, said the chief US chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, "if, in future, we do not apply its principles to ourselves."

That is now happening. Spain, Germany, Belgium, France and Britain have long had "universal jurisdiction" statutes, which allow their national courts to pursue and prosecute prima facie war criminals. What has changed is an unspoken rule never to use international law against "ourselves," or "our" allies or clients. In 1998, Spain, supported by France, Switzerland and Belgium, indicted the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, client and executioner of the West, and sought his extradition from Britain, where he happened to be at the time. Had he been sent for trial he almost certainly would have implicated at least one British prime minister and two US presidents in crimes against humanity. Home Secretary Jack Straw let him escape back to Chile.

The Pinochet case was the ignition. On 19 January last, the George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley compared the status of George W. Bush with that of Pinochet. "Outside [the United States] there is not the ambiguity about what to do about a war crime," he said. "So if you try to travel, most people abroad are going to view you not as ‘former President George Bush’ [but] as a current war criminal." For this reason, Bush’s former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who demanded an invasion of Iraq in 2001 and personally approved torture techniques in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, no longer travels. Rumsfeld has twice been indicted for war crimes in Germany. On 26 January, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, said, "We have clear evidence that Mr. Rumsfeld knew what he was doing but nevertheless he ordered torture."

The Spanish high court is currently investigating a former Israeli defence minister and six other top Israeli officials for their role in the killing of civilians, mostly children, in Gaza. Henry Kissinger, who was largely responsible for bombing to death 600,000 peasants in Cambodia in 1969-73, is wanted for questioning in France, Chile and Argentina. Yet, on 8 February, as if demonstrating the continuity of American power, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, said, "I take my daily orders from Dr. Kissinger."

Like them, Tony Blair may soon be a fugitive. The International Criminal Court, to which Britain is a signatory, has received a record number of petitions related to Blair’s wars. Spain’s celebrated Judge Baltasar Garzon, who indicted Pinochet and the leaders of the Argentinian military junta, has called for George W. Bush, Blair and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to be prosecuted for the invasion of Iraq — "one of the most sordid and unjustifiable episodes in recent human history: a devastating attack on the rule of law" that had left the UN "in tatters." He said, "There is enough of an argument in 650,000 deaths for this investigation to start without delay."

This is not to say Blair is about to be collared and marched to The Hague, where Serbs and Sudanese dictators are far more likely to face a political court set up by the West. However, an international agenda is forming and a process has begun which is as much about legitimacy as the letter of the law, and a reminder from history that the powerful lose wars and empires when legitimacy evaporates. This can happen quickly, as in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of apartheid South Africa — the latter a spectre for apartheid Israel.

Today, the unreported "good news" is that a worldwide movement is challenging the once sacrosanct notion that imperial politicians can destroy countless lives in the cause of an ancient piracy, often at remove in distance and culture, and retain their respectability and immunity from justice. In his masterly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde R.L. Stevenson writes in the character of Jekyll: "Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter … I could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and, in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete."

Blair, too, is safe — but for how long? He and his collaborators face a new determination on the part of tenacious non-government bodies that are amassing "an impressive documentary record as to criminal charges," according to international law authority Richard Falk, who cites the World Tribunal on Iraq, held in Istanbul in 2005, which heard evidence from 54 witnesses and published rigorous indictments against Blair, Bush and others. Currently, the Brussels War Crimes Tribunal and the newly established Blair War Crimes Foundation are building a case for Blair’s prosecution under the Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention. In a separate indictment, former Judge of the New Zealand Supreme Court E.W. Thomas wrote: "My pre-disposition was to believe that Mr. Blair was deluded, but sincere in his belief. After considerable reading and much reflection, however, my final conclusion is that Mr. Blair deliberately and repeatedly misled Cabinet, the British Labour Party and the people in a number of respects. It is not possible to hold that he was simply deluded but sincere: a victim of his own self-deception. His deception was deliberate."

Protected by the fake sinecure of Middle East Envoy for the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia), Blair operates largely from a small fortress in the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, where he is an apologist for the US in the Middle East and Israel, a difficult task following the bloodbath in Gaza. To assist his mortgages, he recently received an Israeli "peace prize" worth a million dollars. He, too, is careful where he travels; and it is instructive to watch how he now uses the media. Having concentrated his post-Downing Street apologetics on a BBC series of obsequious interviews with David Aaronovitch, Blair has all but slipped from view in Britain, where polls have long revealed a remarkable loathing for a former prime minister — a sentiment now shared by those in the liberal media elite whose previous promotion of his "project" and crimes is an embarrassment and preferably forgotten.

On 8 February, Andrew Rawnsley, the Observer’s former leading Blair fan, declared that "this shameful period will not be so smoothly and simply buried." He demanded, "Did Blair never ask what was going on?" This is an excellent question made relevant with a slight word change: "Did the Andrew Rawnsleys never ask what was going on?" In 2001, Rawnsley alerted his readers to Iraq’s "contribution to international terrorism" and Saddam Hussein’s "frightening appetite to possess weapons of mass destruction." Both assertions were false and echoed official Anglo-American propaganda. In 2003, when the destruction of Iraq was launched, Rawnsley described it as a "point of principle" for Blair who, he later wrote, was "fated to be right." He lamented, "Yes, too many people died in the war. Too many people always die in war. War is nasty and brutish, but at least this conflict was mercifully short." In the subsequent six years at least a million people have been killed. According to the Red Cross, Iraq is now a country of widows and orphans. Yes, war is nasty and brutish, but never for the Blairs and the Rawnsleys.

Far from the carping turncoats at home, Blair has lately found a safe media harbour — in Australia, the original murdochracy. His interviewers exude an unction reminiscent of the promoters of the "mystical" Blair in the Guardian of than a decade ago, though they also bring to mind Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times during the 1930s, who wrote of his infamous groveling to the Nazis: "I spend my nights taking out anything which will hurt their susceptibilities and dropping in little things which are intended to sooth them."

With his words as a citation, the finalists for the Geoffrey Dawson Prize for Journalism (Antipodes) are announced. On 8 February, in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Geraldine Doogue described Blair as "a man who brought religion into power and is now bringing power to religion." She asked him: "What would the perception be that faith would bring towards a greater stability …[sic]?" A bemused and clearly delighted Blair was allowed to waffle about "values." Doogue said to him that "it was the bifurcation about right and wrong that what I thought the British found really hard" [sic], to which Blair replied that "in relation to Iraq I tried every other option [to invasion] there was." It was his classic lie, which passed unchallenged.

However, the clear winner of the Geoffrey Dawson Prize is Ginny Dougary of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Times. Dougary recently accompanied Blair on what she described as his "James Bondish-ish Gulfstream" where she was privy to his "bionic energy levels." She wrote, "I ask him the childlike question: does he want to save the world?" Blair replied, well, more or less, aw shucks, yes. The murderous assault on Gaza, which was under way during the interview, was mentioned in passing. "That is war, I’m afraid," said Blair, "and war is horrible." No counter came that Gaza was not a war but a massacre by any measure. As for the Palestinians, noted Dougary, it was Blair’s task to "prepare them for statehood." The Palestinians will be surprised to hear that. But enough gravitas; her man "has the glow of the newly-in-love: in love with the world and, for the most part, the feeling is reciprocated." The evidence she offered for this absurdity was that "women from both sides of politics have confessed to me to having the hots for him."

These are extraordinary times. Blair, a perpetrator of the epic crime of the 21st century, shares a "prayer breakfast" with President Obama, the yes-we-can-man now launching more war. "We pray," said Blair, "that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will." To decent people, such pronouncements about Blair’s "faith" represent a contortion of morality and intellect that is a profananation on the basic teachings of Christianity. Those who aided and abetted his great crime and now wish the rest of us to forget their part — or, like Alistair Campbell, his "communications director," offer their bloody notoriety for the vicarious pleasure of some — might read the first indictment proposed by the Blair War Crimes Foundation: "Deceit and conspiracy for war, and providing false news to incite passions for war, causing in the order of one million deaths, 4 million refugees, countless maiming and traumas."

These are indeed extraordinary times.