Quebec’s Election: Endorsements and Analyses

Green Party of Quebec

Quebec politics are unique in North America because of the two distinct dimensions along which political battles are fought. In addition to the standard left-right dimension, there is the sovereignty-federalism one. For whatever reason, sovereigntists in the province have, as a general rule, tended to align themselves with the left, while federalists have tended to align themselves with the right.

This state of affairs leaves two gaping holes in the province’s crowded field of political parties. Right-wing separatists are largely without a home, and — somewhat surprisingly — so are progressive federalists. I say this is surprising because Quebec is widely regarded as the most left-leaning province in the country. And according to recent opinion polls, more Quebeckers would vote “no” in a sovereignty referendum than would vote “yes.” How could such apparently fertile ground for a successful left-wing federalist provincial party be overlooked? Have we learned nothing from the NDP’s surge in Quebec in last year’s federal election?

Instead, only three parties are thought to have any shot at governing at the provincial level: the Parti Quebecois, the Parti liberal du Quebec, and the Coalition Avenir Quebec. The Parti Quebecois now appears almost certain to win the upcoming election on September 4, but there remain two unknowns. First, who will form the Official Opposition? The incumbent Liberals are no longer guaranteed a second-place finish, but they cannot be ruled out yet.

Second, will the PQ win a majority or a minority government? The latter might yield the best of all possible worlds from a progressive federalist standpoint. The inevitable negotiations between parties that accompany minority governments could result in some heretofore unexplored political compromises — namely, the passage of left-wing legislation without risk of secession.

But it is risky to count on something like that. Theoretically, a minority government could just as easily result in right-wing sovereignty. So what are progressive federalists to do? In casting their ballots, should they prioritize the national question or the left-right spectrum?

The opinion-makers of English Canada will not like to hear this, but the case could be made that the latter is more important. Even if the Parti Quebecois gets a majority, a separate, stand-alone referendum will be necessary before Quebec declares independence. No such second vote will take place on socioeconomic issues like taxation, spending, and regulation.

Does that mean that progressive federalists should feel perfectly fine about voting for sovereigntist parties? Of course not. I certainly wouldn’t. But sometimes difficult choices have to be made.

With that lengthy introduction out of the way, I hereby present my endorsements for the 2012 Quebec election (not that anyone asked!). Here I rank the major parties in order of preference:

1. Parti vert du Quebec

Anyone who regularly reads this blog (anyone?) knows of my well-established bias in favour of Green parties. But this is especially so in Quebec, where the Greens are literally the only progressive federalists among the six largest parties. Plus, they’re green! Sadly, since they are only running candidates in just over half of the ridings, any Quebec voter who does not have the opportunity to vote Green is advised to keep reading.

2. Quebec solidaire

“A party of the ballot box and of the street” as it styles itself, Quebec solidaire is the electoral wing of radical left-wing social movements in Quebec. Composed of environmental, social justice, and anti-war activists, the party seeks to fight the neoliberalism it identifies with the larger parties, and is the electoral force most enthusiastically supportive of this year’s student protest movement against tuition hikes. Unfortunately, Quebec solidaire is also a sovereigntist party, but it does not value independence for its own sake. Rather, it envisions a nation-state of Quebec as part of a broader project of social progress and inclusion.

3. Parti Quebecois

As far as I am concerned, the widest gap in this ranking is between my second and third choices. The Parti Quebecois, this election’s likely victor, is a moderate social democratic party. On the downside, not only is it Quebec’s foremost advocate of separation, but as has been widely reported in the English Canadian media, it has in recent years taken a turn for the xenophobic. The party is proposing a “Charter of Secularism” that would bar public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs,¬†yarmulkes, and turbans on the job, although inexplicably, Christian symbols would be exempt. The only reason I am not ranking the PQ lower on my list is that such discriminatory legislation will almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

4. Parti liberal du Quebec

Don’t let the name fool you. The Liberals are Quebec’s conservatives. Their leader was the head of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and during their recent years in power, their agenda has been defined by draconian cuts to taxes and spending. Just this year, the government inadvertently unleashed a hellstorm in the streets all over Quebec when it drastically increased university tuition fees and subsequently limited the rights of students to protest. On the national question, the PLQ is federalist, but that does not exonerate its reactionary policies.

5. Coalition Avenir Quebec

The upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec in some respects combines the worst of the PQ and the PLQ. Like the latter, it is a party of austerity. But despite silence on the subject from the fawning English Canadian media, it shares some of the Parti Quebecois’ discriminatory policies against religious minorities. The CAQ also tries to have it both ways on the sovereignty issue. While its leader, a former PQ cabinet minister, is widely believed to still be a separatist, the party is proposing a moratorium on sovereignty referendums until the province has put its economy in order.

6. Option nationale

An offshoot of the PQ, Option nationale is more stridently focussed on separation than its parent party. Unlike the mainstream sovereigntist movement, this small left-wing party does not want to wait for a referendum. A majority Option nationale government would consider itself to have a mandate to seek immediate autonomy from the Canadian federal government, which it would eventually formalize as full-on sovereignty after a referendum on a new Quebec constitution. Granted, Quebec’s independence would not be official until this final popular endorsement, but the fact that the party would start to put the wheels of secession in motion before it is approved by a majority of Quebeckers strikes me as fundamentally anti-democratic. As I have stated before, I have always considered the principled insistence on a referendum by Quebec separatists a sign of respectability in a movement I otherwise disagree with.

Twisting the Facts on the Environment

Infographic courtesy of sumofus.org

Case #1: BC Premier Christy Clark has a job creation plan. One component of said plan involves three liquefied natural gas plants in the northern part of the province. Unfortunately, this runs afoul of the provincial Clean Energy Act. So what does Premier Clark do? In June, she redefines “clean energy” to include natural gas — a resource that emits greenhouse gases just like any other fossil fuel — provided that it is used to power those plants in northern BC. Just like that, everybody wins!

Case #2: Scientists advising North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission recommend that the state plan for a sea level rise of 39 inches along its coast by 2100 due to climate change. Business groups complain that the resulting restrictions on coastal development will damage the economy. State lawmakers respond by introducing a bill that would bar officials from taking such pessimistic predictions into account. Instead, they would be required to consider only historical trends. In July, after North Carolina is widely mocked for trying to declare rising sea levels illegal, state legislators agree to a compromise and instruct the Coastal Resources Commission to come back with another report in four years. In the meantime, officials are still to ignore the scientists’ original advice.

Case #3: As a signatory to the Copenhagen Accord, Canada is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Peter Kent announces that Canada is halfway there. This must mean that the country has already lowered its emissions to 8 or 9 percent below 2005 levels, right? Wrong. By “halfway,” the minister means only that if we continue along the same path, we will be halfway to our target by 2020. Furthermore, this 2020 “halfway” projection does not use 2005 emissions as a baseline, but rather hypothetical 2020 emissions assuming inaction on the government’s part. The upshot is that by 2020, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently projected to drop to only 2.7 percent below its 2005 emissions, rather than 17 percent below. Halfway indeed!

Case #4: Enbridge would like to build a pipeline pumping Alberta oil to the BC coast for export. Sadly for Enbridge, people are increasingly concerned about accidents and the possibility of oil spills. To reassure the public, the company puts out several promotional videos. Earlier this month, it is discovered that in two of these videos, a string of islands in Douglas Channel, with a combined area of over 1000 square kilometres, is completely erased from the map. One must admit, the tanker route certainly looks a lot safer this way.

The PR lessons from this summer have been fascinating. If the facts are not convenient, simply invent new facts. Staying on message is the important thing. Who are we to let reality get in the way?

Israeli Settlements and the United Church Boycott: Three Common Distortions

Detailed map of Israeli settlementsAfter months of controversy and negative media attention, the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, finally made it official. The church’s General Council voted today to call on its members to avoid buying products coming from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the United States have made similar calls.

Despite the tameness of such proposals (the full text of the United Church resolution can be found here and the report it is based on here), we may expect a continuation of the widespread and exaggerated complaints that have saturated the Canadian press. In the interests of honesty and clarity, I would like to address three common distortions.

Distortion #1: Why Israel? The world is full of tyranny and injustice. Of all the places and issues, why focus just on boycotting the Middle East’s only democracy?¬†

Three assumptions are packed into this distortion: that the United Church is boycotting Israel, that Israel’s critics routinely let others off the hook, and that Israel is a democracy. All three assumptions are false.

First, while it may be true that the United Church never previously boycotted any country other than apartheid South Africa, it is not boycotting Israel either. Its economic action is restricted only to Israeli settlements, not the country as a whole. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by Israel in 1951, the settlements are illegal. To quote the Convention’s text: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” If international law means anything to us, then what else are we going to do? As far as proposals to pressure Israel go, the Church’s action is limited, moderate, and entirely non-violent.

Second, I am not sure who is responsible for the myth that the Palestinian solidarity movement is fine with atrocities not committed by Israel, but it has proven to be very persistent. Contrary to common right-wing talking points, the movement was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring revolutionaries trying to topple their authoritarian leaders, while the Israeli government has been consistently hostile to democratization in the region. The Canadian contingent of the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza even named its ship the Tahrir.

As for the United Church itself, its General Council passed resolutions on numerous issues ranging from the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Aboriginal rights. And within the last month alone, the Church condemned recent acts of violence around the world committed against other Christians, Sikhs, and yes, even Israelis.

Third, Israel is many things, but a democracy is not one of them. There are currently 10 to 11 million people living under its sovereignty, and 3 to 4 million of them (Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. It almost seems ridiculous to have to explain this, but a country without universal suffrage is not a democracy. If Israel wishes to gain this status, it must either give the vote to Palestinians under occupation or relinquish all control over Palestinian land, airspace, and coastal waters so that Palestinians may form a state of their own.

Distortion #2: Why not Palestine? Isn’t it unbalanced to concentrate blame solely on one side in this longstanding conflict?

I wonder where the people making this objection were when Canada put Hamas on its list of terrorist groups and applied sanctions to the elected government that it led. Could it be that balance is not the priority after all?

I won’t discuss the merits of pro-Israel one-sidedness in its many unquestioned manifestations. The topic at hand is the United Church proposal on Israeli settlements. Is it true that the resolution (notwithstanding the explicit demand that both sides abandon violence) asks more of Israelis than of Palestinians? To some extent, yes. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and forced notions of neutrality (that are never applied consistently anyway) ought not to enter into the equation. Israeli settlements contravene international law and sabotage any reasonable shot at ending the conflict. Whoever defends them in the name of even-handedness clearly does not take such concerns seriously.

Distortion #3: In passing a resolution that singles out Israel for condemnation, the United Church is jeopardizing its ties to Canada’s Jewish community.

Most people are not slaves to their ethnic or religious affiliations, and Canada’s Jews are no exception. Despite attempts to sway us with infuriatingly inappropriate Nazi analogies, the caricature of Jews as monolithically supportive of Israeli military policy is false. Many of us are perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves without being blinded by oversimplified tribal loyalties. To claim otherwise is akin to labelling all criticism of Iran as Islamophobic, or all protest against China’s occupation of Tibet as anti-Chinese. Surely we must be beyond that.

And what about the clause in the United Church resolution expressing regret for a previous demand that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? Here we must try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of Arab Israelis. In Israel (not including the Occupied Territories), 20 to 25 percent of the population is non-Jewish. How must it feel to members of this large minority, knowing that the state in which they live is not meant for them — that they are somehow lesser citizens than members of the Jewish majority? This would be like Canada officially identifying itself as a “Christian” or “European” or “white” state. Even in Israel today, there are calls for the country to become a “state of all its citizens.”

The real question is this: should Israel be held to the same standards as the rest of the world or not? Its backers claim that Israel is held to unrealistically high standards — that it is unfairly singled out for blame — and I do not want to see that any more than they do. But is equality really enough for them? Or do they want Israel to escape critical attention altogether — deserved or otherwise?

In passing a resolution calling on its members to boycott Israeli settlements today, the United Church is refusing to play this disingenuous game. And for that, in my opinion, it is to be applauded.

Update 21/08/2012: This post has been republished here on rabble.ca.

A Formula for Nuclear Disarmament

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Naga...

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there’s a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword.

Jacques Chirac

Today marks the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On 6 August 1945, the United States dropped a single bomb on the city that instantly killed 80,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that instantly killed another 40,000. Many tens of thousands more eventually died in both cities from the effects of radiation, resulting in total deaths of over 200,000.

The use of nuclear weapons in war has thankfully never been repeated, but there are still an estimated 19,000 such weapons in the world — a mere five percent of which could render the planet virtually uninhabitable. These stockpiles are split between the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. And while some leaders occasionally pay lip service to the ideal of a nuclear-free world, it is not often that countries undergo unilateral disarmament.

Why? Because of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), according to which a country will be deterred from attacking another country provided that doing so risks self-annihilation. But even if it is true that a nuclear arsenal causes the national security of its possessor to improve by discouraging attack, the world as a whole becomes a much more dangerous place. Accidents can happen, nuclear materials can be stolen or sold to non-state actors, and there is no guarantee that military and political leaders will invariably respect the logic of abstract game theoretical models. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the probability of their use increases with time. In fact, there have been numerous close calls already. The prospect of destruction is made no more tolerable by virtue of its mutual assurance.

So how do we convince the nine countries currently in the nuclear club to give up their weapons? Relentless pressure on their governments by regular people all over the world is an obvious part of the answer, but it is almost certainly not enough. What else?

States must be assured that not only they but also their geopolitical rivals will be expected to disarm. And they must be confident that their rivals will not be permitted to renege on their agreements. So perhaps a stepping stone is needed — one in which full global disarmament does not take place right away. Instead, nuclear weapons could be taken out of the hands of nation states and given to the United Nations. Such an arsenal — belonging to the international community as a whole — would be meant to deter individual states from rearming themselves. However, the bar for its use would have to be set very high via the requirement of a large supermajority — say, 12 out of 15 members of the Security Council, or perhaps a similar percentage in the General Assembly. Only something along these lines would be high enough to prevent the weapons’ frivolous use, but not so high as to eliminate the deterrent effect.

Once again, this would only be a temporary measure, with complete nuclear disarmament remaining the long-term goal. The important thing is that nuclear weapons be taken out of the hands of unaccountable and potentially trigger-happy nation states. The loss of military power and prestige would be a small price to pay for the increase in overall global security. And on Hiroshima Day of all days, we owe it to the countless victims of the two nuclear massacres 67 years ago to prevent their tragedies from recurring.

Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Chick-Fil-A

Chick-Fil-A

In honour of Pride Week here in Vancouver, I can think of no better time to wade into the growing Chick-fil-A row currently ruffling the feathers of our southern neighbours.

For those who don’t follow American news (it’s not like we’re a different country or anything), Chick-fil-A is a US-based fast-food chain whose President, Dan Cathy, is known for supporting anti-gay Christian groups. The controversy boiled over in recent weeks with a couple of high-profile interviews in which Cathy expressed his opposition to gay marriage: “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” and “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'”

While some regard such literal interpretations of scripture as praiseworthy (no word yet where he stands on mixing more than one fabric in a single garment), the mayors of Boston and Chicago responded by saying that the restaurant’s expansion is not welcome in their cities. Predictably, anti-gay apologists like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee declared this past Wednesday Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, and the hateful hordes turned out right on cue.

To my mind, the sight of thousands of Americans lining up at Chick-fil-A locations across the country to show their support — clogging their arteries for bigotry — suggests that government efforts to silence hate speech do not work. The pattern is a familiar one. Preachers of intolerance claim they are being persecuted by an intolerant government, and public sympathy for the poor little martyrs is cultivated. What is really a civil rights issue — marriage equality — is being turned into a free speech one, and millions of Americans are now convinced of the absurd notion that homophobes are the ones being victimized.

A much better approach than that taken by the Boston and Chicago mayors is for reasonable people to make reasonable arguments on why Dan Cathy is wrong. And, of course, for comedians to ruthlessly make fun of him and his supporters. Nothing more effectively demonstrates the ridiculousness of a position than its well-deserved ridicule. But to give homophobes the opportunity to distract the public with charges of censorship is counterproductive and puts at risk the trend of steadily increasing support for gay marriage in American society.

After all, if the goal isn’t to convince the public, then what is it?