Thoughts on the Coup in Egypt

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square in 2011

In the early hours of 12 April 2002, with massive anti-government protests filling the streets, members of the Venezuelan military abducted President Hugo Chávez and, promising new elections, installed an interim leader of their own choosing in his place. Large swaths of respectable international opinion praised the action — which was not called a coup — with The New York Times crowing in a now-infamous editorial that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”

When Chávez, with the assistance of military loyalists and massive street protests of his own, returned triumphantly to office less than 48 hours after he was ousted, the Times was forced to issue a half-hearted admission of error. The abortive coup became widely acknowledged as a huge mistake, and its numerous defenders around the globe walked away with egg on their faces.

Respectable international opinion will likely take longer to come around after this week’s events in Egypt. President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by his country’s military on Wednesday — “not a coup,” it is once again claimed — but unlike Chávez, Morsi probably won’t be coming back. The military has always been closer to the levers of power in Egypt than in Venezuela, and Morsi’s public support is not nearly as widespread as his late Venezuelan counterpart’s. But the one thing both events have in common — and let’s not fool ourselves here — is that they are both military coups carried out against democratically elected leaders.

None of this is meant to defend Morsi; he has autocratic tendencies and issued a decree last year concentrating excessive power in his own hands. Nor is this meant to dismiss the movement of millions out in the streets protesting against Morsi’s rule; the economic difficulties they face are immense, and they are right to expect accountability from their leaders. But once the immediacy of this week’s events has receded, once the history books are written, Morsi’s ouster will be remembered as a coup d’état not unlike other coups d’état. A tinge of inspiring “people power” perhaps, but more than the recommended dose of old-fashioned authoritarianism.

To spurn the 52 per cent of the Egyptian electorate that voted for Morsi in last year’s run-off presidential election is no solution to the heavy polarization the country faces, just like many other democracies, young and old. Before being overthrown, Morsi suggested the formation of a consensus coalition government in the lead-up to parliamentary elections. Was his offer sincere? Maybe, maybe not. But as his country’s elected leader, Morsi at least had a more legitimate claim to spearhead efforts at national reconciliation than the generals who have given Egyptians nothing but tyranny for decades.

Even if the military does facilitate new elections as promised, it almost certainly won’t allow Morsi, now in detention, to run, and the crackdown currently underway against his Muslim Brotherhood is sure to have a chilling effect. This is not a step forward for Egyptian democracy. Despite Morsi’s many faults, despite the unprecedented size of the protests, despite the celebrations and fireworks among the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, this week’s coup d’état in Egypt is an unequivocal step back.

This post appears in rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

A letter of mine found its way into the Vancouver Sun today. This one comes in response to a piece last week by Senator Mobina Jaffer about the role of Canada’s Senate in protecting minority rights. In my letter, I argue in favour of abolishing the Senate and ensuring fair representation for minorities in the House of Commons by means of some kind of proportional representation. Please click here to read it.

Of the Greens and the Gutless

Green PartyThose who know me know that I want nothing more than for the Green Party to succeed, but this objective is imperilled if the voting public does not think of the Greens as real contenders.

Today, BC Premier Christy Clark announced July 10 as the date for the Westside-Kelowna byelection in which she will attempt to win her way back into the legislature under the Liberal Party banner. Both the NDP and the Conservatives have named candidates to take her on; conspicuous by their absence, however, are the Greens. In a press release last week, leader Jane Sterk said, “The BC Liberals won the May 14th election decisively and the riding of Westside-Kelowna by a wide margin …. It is clear that the premier deserves to be in the legislature and we are following the tradition of respecting the wishes of the voters in this regard.”

With all due respect to Jane Sterk and the aura of civility she seeks to instill, voters can speak for themselves, thank you very much. It is not Clark who won last month’s provincial election, but her party — or more specifically, most of her party’s nominees. There is no inherent sense in which the decidedly un-green Premier “deserves” a seat. Just like any other candidate, she must convince the people of a local community that she is the best politician to represent them. That is how Canadian parliamentary democracy works.

If Sterk believes that we should switch to some kind of presidential or semi-presidential model in which we elect our leader directly in a province-wide vote (not entirely a bad idea), then she is welcome to put the suggestion up for public debate. But otherwise, it just looks like the Green Party, despite its historic and well-deserved breakthrough in May’s election, is falling back into old habits and virtually dropping off the political map outside the writ period.

When the Greens do not bother to run in byelections, they are not taken seriously and neither are their ideas. It is one thing to refrain from fielding a candidate as part of a principled campaign for electoral cooperation, as the federal Greens recently did (although I had some qualms about that being a unilateral act without any other parties on board), but it is something else entirely to stand aside on the grounds that a Premier has a right to a seat simply by virtue of being Premier, regardless of her ability to win a fair fight at the riding level.

The only real way to go about “respecting the wishes of the voters” is to give them a broad range of electoral options and allow them to choose freely amongst them. To do otherwise does not put the Green Party above the fray. Frankly, it just makes them pushovers.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Three Solutions to Mark Canadian Environment Week

EarthIn honour of Canadian Environment Week — currently underway amidst accelerating tar sands development, hot on the heels of withdrawals from the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification — let us reflect upon what the federal government, if it were so inclined, could be doing differently. In other words, broadly speaking, how might Canada move beyond the symbolic in pursuit of true environmental sustainability?

1. Get serious about climate change.

By and large, there are three basic policy tools available to the government here: standards, carbon taxes, and cap-and-trade. To the extent that they have acted at all, the Harper Conservatives, in line with the Americans, have primarily gone the route of standards (such as fuel efficiency requirements and sector-by-sector regulations). This is a somewhat surprising move since standards are known for being “command and control,” while carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, regularly decried by the Conservatives (although they did briefly favour the latter), are considered more market-oriented.

Unfortunately, the standards that have been implemented so far by the Canadian government do not go far enough. The three major types of policy tools may have different implications with respect to simplicity, predictability, cost-effectiveness, and comprehensiveness, but in the end, the most important question is how stringent they are. We are getting rather late in the game of dealing with climate change, and it is high time we exploit every mechanism we have at our disposal.

2. Take advantage of our federal system of government.

In a federation like Canada, where responsibility for protecting nature is shared between the federal and provincial governments, environmental policy can get messy. But if this overlapping jurisdiction is accepted and handled wisely, then sometimes environmental progress can emerge out of competition between the two levels. Political scientist Kathryn Harrison dubs this kind of arrangement “unilateralism,” in which the feds and the provinces pursue their environmental goals independently. That way, they effectively check one another’s work. If one level of government abandons its responsibilities, there is still the second to fall back upon.

Sadly, this approach is not one that is embraced by the current federal government. The Harper Conservatives have pursued equivalency agreements with their provincial counterparts, in which provinces forfeit their rights to implement independent environmental assessments on certain key projects, allowing the feds alone to call the shots. This may avoid duplication of efforts, but the savings come at the expense of the natural world. The environment would be far better off if we embraced all the advantages Canadian federalism has to offer.

3. Enshrine environmental rights in the Constitution.

Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd came out with two books on environmental rights last year. He finds that 147 countries from virtually every region of the world have explicitly inserted environmental rights or responsibilities into their national constitutions. His work shows that the impact of these measures extends far beyond mere symbolism, with countries that boast green-tinged constitutions demonstrating stronger environmental performance. In many cases, governments rewrite legislation to comply with the environmental provisions of their constitutions and courts even force their governments to change course.

Anyone who recalls the last few decades of Canadian history knows that amending the Constitution is no easy task, but the fact that we are part of a dwindling minority of nation states that do not prioritize environmental protection in this manner should serve as a wake-up call. The natural environment is not some trivial matter to be tossed back and forth by the government of the day. It is the life support system we all depend upon, and it deserves at least as much pride of place in the supreme law of the land as freedom of speech and the right to vote.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Exxon’s Love for the Poor

Rex TillersonAt Exxon Mobil’s annual meeting in Dallas this week, shareholders rejected a motion to set greenhouse gas reduction targets for the firm. CEO Rex Tillerson argued that such an extreme measure would hurt the world’s poor, stating, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

So begins, I expect, the newest form of corporate philanthropy, wherein titans of industry the world over seek to ease their troubled consciences and aid the downtrodden by — what else? — frying the planet. Companies like Exxon already benefit from myriad government handouts, so why not do the obvious and simply relabel their tax credits “charitable”?

Never mind the fact that the effects of climate change will hit poor people the hardest, reducing crop yields and increasing food prices globally, threatening hundreds of millions with homelessness and possibly statelessness at the hands of rising sea levels. And never mind the devious misdirection at play in implying a clean separation between “planet” and “humanity,” as though the former were not where the latter so happens to spend most of its time.

After disparaging climate models and the atmospheric carbon threshold of 350 parts per million identified therein, Tillerson went on to say, “We do not see a viable pathway with any known technology today to achieve the 350 outcome that is not devastating to economies, societies and peoples’ health and well-being around the world.”

This common line of reasoning assumes a world marked by an unbridgeable chasm between environmental and economic well-being — identifying social justice and poverty alleviation solely with the latter — which, if true, would showcase a fundamental irrationality at the heart of our economic system. We can avert one kind of catastrophe or the other. Never both.

It is no wonder so many people seek alternative models, in which economic laws are recognized not as immutable, but as social constructs that can be bent, broken, and reconceived if we so desire. Alternative models in which — and I’m just spitballing here — the whole purpose of the economic system is to benefit the poor directly, instead of multimillionaire CEOs who make transparently self-serving excuses for climate inaction.

Crazy, I know. But a blogger can dream.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

On the Limits of Scandalmongering, or Why I Don’t Care About Rob Ford’s Alleged Crack Use

Rob FordFor all my political ideals and self-conceptualizations, I cannot for the life of me seem to get myself more than superficially interested in the scandals that plague the holders of public office. The Rob Ford crack video hubbub is a case in point.

Yes, it is funny. Yes, there is hardly a politico more deserving of being knocked down a peg. And now, with even Ford’s brother being brought in on the fun with allegations of a drug dealing past, the entire country seems to be locked in the grips of an overpowering case of SchadenFord (no, I am not the first to think that one up).

Yet there is something disturbing in the idea that for all the regressive initiatives embraced by Ford during his two-and-a-half years as Toronto Mayor — for all his ill-advised crusades against labour, cyclists, libraries, and transit — it is the as yet unproven crack video, surely the least of his transgressions, that now threatens to do him in.

A similar point can be made about the Senate expenses scandal currently underway in Ottawa. True, this one is different from the crack case insofar as it involves the misuse of public funds, but if we focus solely on the “bad apples” like Wallin and Duffy and Harb and Brazeau, then we lose sight of the wider issue, namely the culture of entitlement inherent in an unelected upper chamber that makes the cultivation of such bad apples practically inevitable. The NDP is taking the enlightened position with respect to this scandal — criticizing the individuals involved, yes, but also connecting them to something more profound, more systemic, taking the opportunity to renew its longstanding call to abolish the Senate entirely.

And that, precisely, is what’s missing from most scandalmongering, defined as it is by an overemphasis on personalities and an underemphasis on institutions. The Fords and the Duffys of the world, entertaining though they are, do not affect us nearly as deeply as the offices they hold and the policies they implement. Of course those who do wrong deserve to be punished, but the news coverage generated by these individual wrongdoings are completely out of proportion to their true impacts.

We’d do a lot better focusing on what really matters.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Five Lessons — Real and Imagined — from BC’s Election Results

electionIn a stunning upset of “Dewey Defeats Truman” proportions, the BC Liberals have defied all the polls save one and returned to power with a fourth straight majority government. No doubt, there will be much soul searching and wound licking over the coming weeks. I believe that five lessons — real, imagined, and not-quite-clear — will be gleaned from the experience.

1. Proceed with caution when predicting the future.

In last year’s US Presidential election, statistician Nate Silver made fools out of all those television pundits who privileged “gut feeling” over quantitative analysis. But sometimes even the data geeks get it wrong.

So what happened in British Columbia? Did voter support swing at the last minute? Did New Democrats fail to get out their vote? Were there methodological problems with the polling? All we can say for sure is that the political landscape is littered with failed predictions (albeit rarely so shocking as last night’s), and that in the future, partisans and non-partisans alike are probably better off displaying greater humility when speaking of what is yet to come.

2. Going negative works.

This is a very depressing development. Early on, NDP leader Adrian Dix admirably vowed to run a positive campaign, and although that strategy began to shift in the final days, his team never attempted anything on the scale of the unrelenting attacks unleashed by Premier Christy Clark and the Liberals.

While negative campaigning can sometimes backfire, it appears to have worked this time around, as the Liberals successfully tapped into the sizable block of BC voters susceptible to red scare tactics. All the Premier had to do was remind us of secret NDP plans to steal our hard-earned tax dollars and distribute them to greedy union bosses, or something to that effect, and BC’s “free enterprise coalition” dutifully flocked into action.

If I were inclined to ignore lesson #1 above, I would predict an NDP emulation of this campaign style for the next several elections.

3. Campaigning on the environment doesn’t work.

This is even more depressing — and not necessarily accurate. But in politics, it is perception that matters.

During this election, the NDP adopted a moderately progressive environmental platform. The strategy evidently did not pay off. Conceivably, the problem may have been that its environmental policies did not go far enough; perhaps a more stringent stance, like opposition to LNG, might have chipped off a few extra Green votes and energized the party’s base. But New Democrats are most likely drawing a different conclusion. I predict (again, with all due humility) that in the next election, the NDP will focus more on capturing the ideological territory of the Liberals than the Greens.

But there are different strategies to consider.

4. The NDP and the Greens must cooperate.

This call is likely to grow louder over the coming months and years, but electoral cooperation won’t be easy to implement. Green Party support comes from across the political spectrum — more so from the NDP than the Liberals, to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so. Plus, it is hard to determine exactly how Green and NDP transfers of support would break down on a riding-by-riding basis.

But while such a scheme is not guaranteed to succeed, neither is it guaranteed to fail. A pre-election alliance in targeted ridings is at least worth further exploration. And with Jane Sterk’s probable impending departure from the Green Party leadership, possibly to be replaced by new MLA Andrew Weaver who said he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government, bad blood between the two parties may yet diminish.

5. It’s now up to civil society.

Regardless of what happens in 2017, BC will spend the next four years governed by a party that believes itself to have a mandate for pipeline ambiguity, LNG development, and climate inaction. Environmental and social justice groups must mobilize to demonstrate to the government that its priorities for the province are not embraced by the majority of voters who wanted someone else.

“Well, that was easy,” Christy Clark joked in her victory speech last night. It is now up to all of us to make sure that the next four years are anything but.

This post appears on rabble.ca.