Friday, December 02, 2005

Singapore's Cruel "Justice"

The ancient Code of Hammurabi and the biblical book of Exodus—both of which advocated the legal principle of “an eye for an eye”—seem almost enlightened and compassionate when laid next to the laws of some modern nations. This morning, news came from Singapore that 25-year-old Nguyen Tuong Van had been hanged for trafficking in heroin. This Australian citizen had been convicted of drug trafficking after being caught with two packages of heroin, which he was reportedly carrying as a “mule” for a drug syndicate to which his twin brother was hopelessly indebted. While I cannot condone Nguyen’s actions, neither can I accept that his was a capital offence. Indeed, the compassion that Nguyen showed for his brother’s plight stands in sharp contrast to the complete absence of mercy shown by Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his indifferent cabinet.

I believe that state-sanctioned murder is never justified. Violence begets violence. But even most supporters of capital punishment would surely concede that, in this case, the punishment was utterly disproportionate to the crime. Even among those with a more rigid view of law and order, a compassionate person might yet have been moved to show mercy in this case.

In recent weeks, pleas for clemency had flowed in from around the world. Too often I have remained silent on the eve of an execution but this time I found myself moved by the plight of Nguyen. Like countless others, I wrote to the prime minister of Singapore and other senior government leaders to ask that Nguyen’s death sentence be commuted. The response to that plea was received this morning.

Singapore is governed by a calculating and heartless oligarchy masquerading as a modern city state. Proportionate to its size, Singapore executes more people than any other country on the face of the earth! And most of those executed have been convicted of drug offences, not the kind of violent crimes that most advocates of the death penalty have in mind when they try to make their specious case for medieval forms of punishment.

While Prime Minister John Howard of Australia hosted a cricket match and German chancellor Angela Merkel entertained the prime minister of Singapore in Berlin, the trap door swung open ending young Nguyen’s life. I can somehow picture these three leaders sipping on Singapore Slings, callously indifferent to the grotesque miscarriage of justice at Changi prison. Like too many leaders of the world’s democratic nations, Howard and Merkel seem more concerned about business than human rights—and Lee Hsien Loong is no doubt happy to know that an execution or two won’t adversely affect Singapore’s ability to do business. While making his own pleas on Nguyen’s behalf, Prime Minister Howard was quick to suggest that the matter wouldn’t be allowed to impact trade, investment and military relations between Australia and Singapore. Talk about a mixed message!

People need to understand that when they purchase products originating in Singapore, travel there on vacation, or even fly on its national airline, they are supporting the very regime that perpetuates this brutality. There is no real difference between “Singapore, Inc.” and the Republic of Singapore. Those of us who every day enjoy the privilege of living in free nations, where the laws are mostly just, even if they are at times imperfect, have no business sustaining the economies of tyrannical states around the globe. If the leaders of the world’s democratic nations will not link trade agreements with human rights, then the world’s consumers must take matters into their own hands by boycotting goods and services emanating from the those rogue states. Singapore Inc. would be a good place to start.

But the response of civilized people cannot end there. Showing that he really doesn’t understand how the actions of his own government contributed to the execution of Nguyen, the prime minister of Australia turned the whole affair into a trite morality play when he intoned, “I hope the strongest message that comes out of this ... is a message to the young of Australia—don't have anything to do with drugs, don't use them, don't touch them, don't carry them, don't traffic in them.” While I share the prime minister’s sentiments about drug use, he completely missed the point. The real message that comes out of this sordid affair is that it’s time for the leaders of the world’s democracies to start putting human rights ahead of trade agreements.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Is a Stable Parliament Possible?

Many Canadians seem to hold a sentimental attachment to the notion of minority government as a good thing. Perhaps they believe that minority governments, by their very nature, are compelled to be more sensitive to the wishes of voters or at least less arrogant in their exercise of power. When surveyed in recent times, however, Canadians have expressed a desire not only for a minority government but for a particular kind of minority—a Liberal government with the New Democrats holding the balance of the power. There seems to be a marked preference for Liberal management tempered by a social democratic conscience, which is a little surprising given the recent evidence of Liberal mismanagement. Could it be that Canadians would really prefer an NDP government but they’re a little afraid of so dramatic a change? Or maybe they just believe that electing an NDP government would be almost impossible to accomplish, so they’ll settle for a Liberal government as long as the NDP holds enough seats to keep it honest and progressive.

The problem with minority governments, beyond their inherent instability, is that the parliaments that produce them happen as if by accident. The voters cannot know ahead of time just which party will find itself on the government benches, nor can they know just which party will end up holding the balance of power. For all the talk about “strategic voting,” it is simply impossible for the voters to intentionally elect a parliament where no party holds a majority, yet which produces the government and balance of power that the majority of voters would prefer. There are simply too many variables involved.

In Canada, where parliament consists of three federalist parties with differing ideologies, along with a separatist party committed primarily to parliamentary mischief, it is increasingly difficult to elect a workable government, whether majority or minority. Indeed, when the separatists can count on holding 15-20% of the seats in parliament, a government needs what amounts to a super-majority of the remaining seats (i.e., 59-63%) in order to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. When there is fundamental agreement about the constitution and value of our confederation, then minority parliaments favour compromise between competing approaches to public policy; but when parliament includes a sizeable number of members who reject federal institutions (like Québec separatists), or who would weaken them (like Western regionalists), then minority parliaments favour the interests of regionalism and division while threatening the well-being of the country.

So, what conditions might lead voters to return a more stable parliament in 2006? Well, Canadians might recognize that Paul Martin is fiscally the most conservative prime minister since Louis St. Laurent. If this were to happen, then fiscal conservatives might be motivated to shift their votes to the Liberals, leaving the official opposition with only their socially conservative base while returning the Liberals as a majority government. Alternately, those who share the government’s fiscal conservatism and pro-business agenda might decide to vote for the real thing instead, or might rebel against hints of Liberal corruption, shifting their support to the Conservatives in numbers large enough to put the Tories within striking distance of a majority.

Yet another possibility might see progressive Liberals recognize, at last, that they’ve lost their hold on the Liberal Party and shift their votes to the NDP, either returning enough New Democrats to firmly hold the balance of power or, if the fates are with them, perhaps even elect a government. Some of us think that Canada is overdue for such a fundamental political realignment.

Or how about a real longshot? Is it too much to hope that Québec voters might weary of elected representatives who are content to sit on the opposition benches? If Québeckers sent a parliamentary contingent of Liberals and Conservatives and New Democrats to Ottawa, based on their proposed programs for governing, rather than Bloquistes with their tiresome agenda of mere opposition and opting out, everyone would be better off. All three of the federalist parties would be enriched by strong parliamentary contingents bringing the values and vision of the people of Québec. And without the need for a super-majority of seats, or the real concern that Québec might find itself excluded from the government benches, then a stable, productive government might still be within reach.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

An Even More Unstable Parliament?

If early polls are any indication, the next Canadian parliament may be even more unstable than the one just dissolved! As the election campaign begins, an Environics Research poll suggests that the Liberals are down nearly two percentage points from 2004, the Conservatives are up by a hair, the New Democrats have jumped more than four points and the Bloc Québecois is up by a point and a half. While these changes hardly seem monumental, they are significant in terms of the likely distribution of seats, potentially changing the outcome in anywhere from 30 to 40 seats.

With the Environics poll in mind, I quickly scanned the 2004 results and discovered that, if these numbers were to hold until election day, the new House of Commons would likely include 108 Liberals, 103 Conservatives, 60 Bloquistes and 37 New Democrats—more or less. Another minority parliament—and one that is far worse than the last one, since no party would enjoy a mandate to govern alone, while the influence of the separatist Bloc Québecois would be magnified. The NDP would have nearly twice as many seats as now but only a fraction of the influence! (It's bad enough that the first-past-the-post system gives the Bloc nearly half again as many seats as it deserves, without the added insult of giving it the balance of power in a divided parliament.)

Only three governments could emerge in such a divided parliament. The best scenario, perhaps, would see a “grand coalition” of Liberals and Conservatives, akin to the current government of Germany, which would make the old “unite the right” movement look timid in its aspirations. If the Bloc maintained its earlier position when it once found itself as the second-largest party in the House, then the NDP would become the official opposition. The second scenario would see either the Liberals or the Conservatives enter into an unholy alliance with the separatists, in return for concessions that might leave most Canadians longing for the days of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. The third scenario would see the Liberals continue in office, governing timidly to ensure that either the Conservatives or the Bloc were always onside, until once again the two latter parties came together to bring down the government and force another election—undoubtedly before a year had passed.

Canadians can only hope that public opinion shifts during the course of the election campaign, so that the election returns a government able to govern, either alone or in partnership, without being beholden to those who would balkanize our parliament on their way to destroying our country. Unless things change dramatically between now and election day, we will find ourselves in need of either dramatic electoral reform or a fundamental political realignment in this country, so that the affairs of state aren’t dominated by the party that finishes in fourth place when the popular vote is tabulated—a party that seeks to destroy the very country that tolerates its existence.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Assiniboine Park and the Mayor's Folly

Earlier this month, the accidental mayor of Winnipeg, Sam Katz, announced a plan to lease part of Assiniboine Park to private developers to construct condominiums. Our city’s grandest park rivals the great parks of North America’s leading cities and it should be preserved as a public trust, not parceled off for private development.

During his short political career, Mayor Katz has shown that he is, it seems, constitutionally incapable of distinguishing between private interest and the public good. Winnipeg voters should hardly be surprised, since this mindset was plainly clear before they elected him mayor. Like so many celebrities, whether in business or entertainment, Mr. Katz came to office with dubious credentials and no real platform, other than the thinly-veiled intention to serve the private interests of the so-called "business community" over the public good.

It's time to take back City Hall from the developers and other private interests who long ago captured it and have held it hostage ever since. Luring voters with promises of lower taxes, those elected officials who are beholden to private interests rent or sell off the city's capital assets to pay for their folly, while generating private profits for their friends. If Assiniboine Park is in sad shape today, it is only because the present city council and its predecessors have lacked the courage to maintain taxes and other sources of revenue at a level that would have allowed proper maintenance of what is truly a public treasure. The same is true for our city's crumbling streets and declining infrastructure.

So I say let's take the mayor's latest venture into undermining the public good in the name of so-called development as a signal to begin the campaign to throw him out of office, along with those burnt-out and unimaginative councillors who support his agenda. Winnipeg deserves a city council that values parks over parking lots, community centres over corporate interests, libraries over landfill, and public servants over private profiteers. It's time that this city replaced the pirates at City Hall with a progressive alternative.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

From Journaling to Blogging?

Several times over the years, I have started to keep a personal journal. Each time, the effort has failed, if one considers continuity of production to be a mark of success. All I have to show for my attempts at journal-keeping is a small collection of incomplete volumes and the knowledge that, unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson or Virginia Wolff, the world will never come to know me through daily jottings in some leather-bound chronicle of my life. It may be just as well -- I've been known to say and write things I later came to regret.

So I've turned my attention away from keeping a journal towards keeping a blog! Perhaps I just need an audience, or the fantasy of an audience, to stick with it. Journal-keeping is like talking to yourself on paper. Blogging feels more like a conversation, or at least one side of it. Even if my ramblings prove to be nothing more than a one-sided conversation, I can at least imagine that there may be someone out there reading it.

Moreover, blogging seems a more promising vehicle for expressing my views than the collection of unpublished letters to the editor and unanswered memos to public officials that clutters my filing cabinets. Of course, as a preacher, it's unlikely that blogging can compete with the power of the pulpit and the satisfaction it brings. It does, however, give me somewhere to preach the other six days of the week. Stay tuned!