Category Archives: Parliament

Are these senators representative?

There are three aspects that I want to consider about the four Canadian senators who are under scrutiny at present over claims for allowances for second residences.

Do senators have any kind of ‘obligation’, ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ to the public?

‘Should’ senators have to pay back taxpayers’ money/public funds that they obtained via claims that turn out not to be true or valid? Do those who aspire to the highest public offices in the country demonstrate any kind of ‘obligation’ to the people who pay their salaries, pensions, benefits, perks? Obligation raises related terms such as duty and responsibility. Yet, the language of obligation, duty and responsibility, the ‘should’ as it were, only appears more archaic or obsolete when mentioned in the same sentence as the present government (it is not necessarily restricted to just one party, though the Conservative government appears to be especially resistant to such arguments).

‘Should’ there be a ‘penalty’?

The second aspect is raised by the respective Conservative and Liberal party leaders in Senate, who ‘represent’ two of Canada’s three largest parties, saying in their joint statement that their peers ‘should be required to repay immediately all monies … with interest’.

Returning money that does not belong to you cannot be a ‘penalty’ (i.e. a punishment) since you end up where you started — i.e. without money you didn’t have to begin with (although, perhaps, if you hadn’t been caught…).

The only ‘penalty’ raised here is the interest to be paid on the amount claimed. Will they be charged ‘credit card’ or ‘pay-day loan’ interest rates on the sums they obtained? That would definitely be a ‘penalty’ for most Canadians, but probably not for those so well connected to the corporate and political elites, would it?

These senators, if guilty, have betrayed the public’s trust and further instilled distrust of both the politicians that appointed them as well as Senate itself — and, indeed, of many other democratic institutions, even those unconnected to Senate.

A ‘penalty’ worthy of the meaning of punishment ‘should’ at least mean that the senator is stripped of his/her position, title, salary, benefits, pensions, the way that so many working Canadians in the private sector have been stripped of their jobs, pensions, salaries, wages and benefits because of the same political parties — to which these senators are affiliated — which, when in government, passed laws that enabled corporations to ransack pension plans and let CEOs get paid bonuses, even when their companies were declaring ‘bankruptcy’ (Nortel?). Shouldn’t senators be treated the same as everyone else? Or are they ‘above’ or ‘exempt’ from the law?

The third aspect that one should think about is whether Senate or senators are ‘representative’?

Even though they are ‘unelected’, I would suggest that these senators (all senators in fact) are ‘representative’. Of course, they are not ‘representative’ in terms of being elected by citizens voting in a democratic process. But, they are very much ‘representative’ of the values, attitudes, beliefs, idea(l)s, perspectives of those who appoint them. Indeed, they are representative of the political parties of which they are members, regardless of whether the party rejects them when they are under public scrutiny.

Otherwise, you should ask: ‘Why were they appointed in the first place?’

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What we might learn from Weimar….

They say that you always know when a political discussion or argument is degenerating — and quickly. It’s when your opponent (or perhaps you have done so on some occasions yourself?) sinks to invoking the name of ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazis’ to discredit some left- or right-wing political leader, group or party (depending on your political leanings). These over-the-top comparisons are a sign that there is probably little point in continuing to engage in a debate with such an individual.

Equally, in the USA during the 1960s the hippies and anti-war protestors were apparently fond of using the term ‘fascist’ to refer to the establishment, the Democratic Party, the police and so on. Later, when people used the term to refer to leaders like Thatcher or Reagan or Mulroney, I always objected pointing out the historical meanings associated with the term that had represented a particular political movement (and moment) of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Nazi-ism was but one permutation.

(Of course, there has been a rise of neo-fascist movements and parties since the Second World War, and these have organisations have invoked or acknowledged their historical predecessors or identified with them in some way.)

Yet, there is a danger in throwing out the lessons of the Weimar Republic when we avoid mentioning Hitler’s name. It’s not that I think calling one’s opponent or their hero(es) Hitler or similar names is a useful tactic — I don’t — but that this attitude has meant that it is almost impossible to get beyond the detritus that exists about Hitler and his henchmen.

There were lessons that Weimar has for democratic societies that remain unlearnt, for the most part. First of all, there is confusion about how Hitler came to power in January 1933. The most frequent question that I remember from my undergraduate course on ‘inter-war Germany’, which frequently evolved into debates with my classmates, was whether the Nazis ‘seized’ power or used the system against itself? (I assume that it remains a question in history classes that focus on the Weimar Republic to this day.)

From what I could determine from my readings (and what I believe I argued for) was that they had used the system against itself, passing laws forbidding demonstrations, restricting rights and freedoms, establishing the first concentration camps (but for political prisoners first, before Jews and other so-called ‘sub-humans’) and so on.

That, in essence, the Nazi Party used ‘legal’ means to undermine the Weimar Republic, turning the democratic state into the authoritarian (or totalitarian) state.

I also remember being introduced to articles that argued that had the Weimar Republic had the same system of first-past-the-post governance as Canada/UK/Australia/New Zealand/USA, Hitler would have actually come to power one to two years earlier than he did. This argument clearly contrasted with the Allied re-organisation of West Germany after the war in which Parliament was restricted to political parties that obtained at least five percent of the popular vote before they would get representation. The argument by the Allies was that all those small parties, of which the Nazis (NSDAP) had been only one, had been a threat to the stability and longevity of Weimar.

Yet, what the Allies (and others) did not recognize, or at least did not take into account, in their reshaping of the political structure of West Germany, was that all kinds of local, regional and national elites (political, business, cultural), the judiciary (for the most part), elements of the military and police (although there were exceptions to the rule, such as Berlin, where the police force had not been supportive of the Nazis) as well as the suburban and rural middle classes had supported the Nazis. Many of those who supported the Nazis did so for reasons of ‘security’: that is, they feared ‘democracy’ more than they did fascism or Nazi-ism. Indeed, it was the SPD, the German socialists, who were the only force that fought to defend the Republic from the Nazis and the German Communist Party (KPD), which attacked both the SPD and the Nazis (but that is another story).

Democracy is a ‘messy’ form of governance but the rise of forms of ‘fascism’ or authoritarianism, which exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of democracy have to be opposed. It’s not encouraging in a democracy when we are expected to bow down to ‘bureaucratic correctness’ rather than encouraged to stand up and speak for ourselves and for others who are disadvantaged under the system. See, for example, the kind of twaddle peddled by critics of Idle No More or Occupy Wall Street about the ‘correct’ way to protest or ‘register’ disagreements with the system. What I remember from my courses and from my own studies of this era, and which I think is important to be aware of, is how a democratic system was used against itself.

Are those who undermine or exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of the Parliamentary system, and/or use exploit the ‘letter of the law’ (rather than keep to its ‘spirit’), to advance their own political party and/or corporate power, against the public interest and the public generally, guilty of a form of authoritarianism? Or of usurpation of power won at the ballot box? Fascism was one historical form of authoritarian or totalitarian power, which exploited the weaknesses of representative democracy. When fascism comes again, it won’t necessarily be dressed in black or brown shirts and hob-nailed boots. It could quite easily come dressed in expensive suits, sipping Chardonnay and beaming with a big friendly smile.

Postscript: I forgot to add that we shouldn’t forget about the judiciary’s collusion with the Nazis, as well as the military’s and support from the academy.

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Majority of new jobs are public sector, so Tory ‘slash-and-burn’ of public sector may cut short economic recovery

The report in the Toronto Globe and Mail today about ‘Corporate Canada hiring on the cheap’ (different title to the online version) highlights an interesting contradiction for Stephen Harper’s Tories.

The majority of 192,000 jobs created so far this year, at ‘a faster pace than in 2010 and an illustration of the Canadian recovery’s strength compared with other Group of Seven nations’ (http://tinyurl.com/3nxnjol), are in the public sector.

The article also points out caution on the part of cash-rich corporations, which means relying on public sector workers to provide the ‘stimulus’ for consumption. Since we do live in a consumption-driven economy, this becomes an important factor in thinking about what will happen to an economy where the one group of workers with decent wages and pensions are about to be hit hard.

Thus, Conservative plans to engage in a Scott-Walker-style cut of public sector workers, one which was not discussed during the last election, may jeopardize Canada’s economic recovery (and leading position amongst the G-7).

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June 30 – What does a pension mean to you?

As a young child, I remember awaking in the wee hours of the morning and listening in the dark as my father prepared to go out to work as a deckhand on ferries moving crew, cargo and passengers between various islands in cold, sleet, rain, fog, wind, and sun, too!

My father, along with thousands of other seamen, got millions of passengers, employees and employers, families, relatives, tourists, and others, travelling between various islands and the mainland, safely to and from their destinations.

While I learned to hate the idea of what work might mean for me (I was too young to realise how it might change), I knew all too well what it meant for my father: early to rise, away for five days, a week or more at a time, and sometimes also away from home at Christmas and birthdays. His family grew up and experienced life as he spent (reluctant) time away from family – and at times appeared remote from our concerns.

Yet, once he got full-time – unionised – employment, my siblings and I (there were eight of us, including foster children) benefitted from the fact that my father’s earnings during the late 1960s and 1970s ensured that my mother could stay home with the children. (Talk about a ‘family-friendly’ policy – something you won’t hear these days from Tories or Republicans!!)

My father dreamed of retiring after a life-time spent at work, helping companies make profits, ensuring passengers arrived safely at their destinations and raising a family where the children were able to become relatively socially (and financially!!) mobile: moving up and out of the working class into the middle class. A result of both my father’s and my mother’s love of education, learning and books, as well as their belief that, while they made sacrifices for us in terms of their job prospects, respect and dignity on the job (and in life generally – since so many people’s sense of their own self-worth was dependent upon their occupations in life!) and ‘creature comforts’, they could reasonably expect that we would have a better life ahead of us.

And they, at least, would be able to view that from the comfort of a small, tidy pension which would enable them – unlike their own parents and grandparents – to be free from the compulsion to work until their death, as my father’s father – my own grandfather – had done (had to do!).

A small, but decent (and well-earned) pension that rewarded them for the diligence and loyalty for working hard at unsung jobs, that recognised the work that was still necessary for the movement of goods and people, and for the personal sacrifices that people, like my father, made to do a job in the present to enable a future for their/his children.

My father, left school at 13 years of age, but was self-taught. At a time when merchant seamen had only books (rather than satellite telly) to entertain them (after gambling and/or drinking away their money!!), my father became not just an auto-didact, but a parent who wanted to teach his children to experience a real life of education, knowledge and learning. An education that would take them away from being stuck with getting up at an ungodly hour to do a thankless task for decades.

Pensions are also a recognition that when you give up a part of your life to ensure that certain tasks are carried out, you lose the opportunity to engage in other activities and (possible alternative career paths) – and it is this loss of opportunity which is part of what pensions also represent.

It’s not just the potential that their own lives might have had that people lose, when they do these thankless tasks, but that their own lives may be shortened or become otherwise less fulfilling because of a lack of opportunity to realise their own potential.

That is, pensions are not just a means to which people have contributed as part of their financial planning for life after work, but that we have to recognise that people lose out other possibilities, other potentials that remain unrealised, because – for whatever reason – they chose, or were forced to choose, a life that excluded other opportunities.

My father always talked about how much he would have loved to have been a teacher, a second-hand bookseller, a writer and so many other things. The opportunity for my father never arrived. However, he had hopes that we would not have to live the lives that he had: moving in and out of unemployment; moving from job to job; being ripped off by employers; and so  on.

Knowing that a pension would allow one enough to live on in at least minimal comfort at the end of 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of working is an expectation that should be offerred to every man, woman and child, regardless of their position or which position they have ended up in!

Everyone should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, shouldn’t they?

When people think that governments and politicians should just be able to rip up people’s pensions, they never consider perhaps how those people made sacrifices that enabled the economy to function, goods and people to be transported, and so on.

And, that these working people made great sacrifices during their working lives. Why shouldn’t they be able to retire?

Why do we think that only CEOs should enjoy the fruits (profits) of your labour?

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