Saturday, March 28, 2015

Harper extends Iraq mission for a year and expands mission into Syria bombings

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has presented a motion before parliament that would renew its mission as part of the coalition led by the US that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS).
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The entire text of the motion can be found here. The original mission that involved air attacks and special forces advisers lasted six months. One Canadian soldier was killed in a friendly fire incident at a Kurdish checkpoint near the front lines during the present mission.
The mission has not just been extended for a year rather than another six months, it has also been expanded to include air strikes in Syria. When Harper first made his case for joining the coalition, he specifically noted that Canada would attack the Islamic State only where it had the clear support of the government of the area being attacked. Now he has simply ignored that proviso along with the US and some other members of the coalition. Harper said: "In expanding our air strikes into Syria, the government has now decided that we will not seek the express consent of the Syrian government." NDP defense critic Jack Harris asked why the Harper government has now decided that consent of the Syrian government is not required. The foreign minister Rob Nicholson said that it was the same basis as used by the other coalition members that the IS posed a threat to everyone. They are claiming the same type of "self-defense" argument that is used by the US. When Tom Mulcair the NDP leader asked about the legality of the operation: In response, Harper referenced a letter the U.S. government sent UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in September that set out the Americans’ rationale for strikes in Syria – but which itself was criticized as playing fast and loose with international law.
An article in Macleans magazine shows in detail the similarities between the Canadian argument and that of the US. Harper claimed that Canadian special forces would not be operating in Syria. Canada also will continue an extensive humanitarian operation to help refugees from the conflict.
Both New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau complained that the government had not been up front about the role special forces were playing. They also were concerned about the seeming lack of any exit strategy.No doubt the US urged Canada to expand its role to bomb the IS in Syria.
The New Democratic Party leader promised that if the NDP becomes the government after the next elections all Canadian troops would be withdrawn from Iraq. The Liberals did not go that far but promised to change the mission to concentrate on humanitarian help and training of Iraqi forces. Both leaders claimed that bombing of the IS in Syria could consolidate Assad's power. Canadians must go to the polls before Oct. 19 this year.
The Conservatives politics of fear appears to be working. A recent IPSOS poll shows that two thirds of Canadians are in favour of an extension of the Canadian mission with just 34 percent opposed. A majority of supporters in each of the three main parties support the extension: A majority of Conservative (86%), Liberal (67%) and NDP (56%) voters support extending the current mission against ISIS, but only 38% of Bloc voters support an extension.
The Bloc Quebecois is a Quebec-based federal separatist-leaning party. 65 percent of Canadians support the use of Canadian troops in a combat mission against the IS with only 35 percent disagreeing. However, the 35 percent opposed is actually 4 percent more than last month.
Daryl Copeland a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute argues that Canada's participation in US-led wars such as that against the IS in Iraq and Syria undercuts whatever is left of Canada's former reputation as a peace-keeper. Canada's participation he claims was not necessary in the first place and to continue the mission and even expand it will simply increase the costs. Copeland argues that the intervention will not work as is shown by what has happened after earlier US interventions, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Blowback from these interventions is what has generated support for the Islamic State. Copeland lists five reasons in all for not intervening. Given that the intervention is politically popular and that it will allow Harper to demand more money for the military as well as fitting in with his politics of fear, no doubt five reasons not to intervene will have zero influence on Harper's great leap forward into Syria.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Canadian Bar Association critical of new anti-terror legislation

Mar 23, 2015 
Ottawa - The Canadian Bar Association(CBA) harshly criticized the Conservative Harper government's new anti-terror bill C-51, claiming it has measures that would deprive Canadians of liberties while not increasing their safety.
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The Bar Association objected to changing the mandate of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to allow it to actively disrupt terror plots, claiming that "vague and overly broad language" would allow disruption of legitimate activity including environmental and aboriginal protests. The CBA represents over 37,000 lawyers, judges, notaries, law teachers, and law students.
The targeting of environmental and aboriginal activists is no doubt one aim of the legislation. The RCMP has recently warned that environmental activists are more of a danger to Canadian security than radical Islamists at least in the energy sector. Jeffrey Monaghan of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University in Kingston Ontario notes that monitoring of environmental activists by police and security agencies has become the "new normal". He claims that police and security agencies are more and more conflating terrorism and extremism with peaceful citizens, exercising their democratic rights to organise petitions, and protest government policies.
The Association was very critical of a section of the legislation giving judges the power to authorize the Canadian Security Intelligence Service(CSIS) to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The CBA said that this power puts “the entire Charter into jeopardy, undermines the rule of law, and goes against the fundamental role of judges as the protectors of Canada’s constitutional rights.” The CBA also suggested that there should be a sunset clause with the bill expiring and forcing a parliamentary reviews no more than five years after passage. Representatives of the CBA are to appear before the House of Commons committee that is studying the bill next week.
Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien submitted an extensive critique of the legislation that can be found here. Even though opposition parties had Therrien near the top of the list of people they suggested should testify he was not invited to testify. Over a hundred academics, many of them lawyers signed an open letter claiming the bill has major problems and threatens Canadians privacy and freedom of speech. They argue that the provisions are too broad and lack safeguards against abuse. As with the Bar Association the academics are very concerned about expanding the role of CSIS to disruption of activities. The text of the letter written on February 23rd can be found here. It was sent to all members of parliament.
Aboriginal groups as well as environmentalists fear that they will become targets under the legislation. First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde said before the committee hearings: "We don't want to be labelled as terrorists in our own territories, our own homelands, for standing up to protect the land and waters." He indicated that the bill will be challenged in the courts since the government did not consult with the First Nations about the legislation. There have been many protests against the legislation including a Day of Action on March 14th with protests in many Canadian cities.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reduces growth rate projection for Canada

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) has cuts it growth rate prediction for Canada in both this year and also in 2016.
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In its economic assessment released today, March 18, the OECD said: “Overall, the near-term outlook remains for moderate, rather than rapid, world GDP growth. [But] real investment remains sluggish and labour is not yet fully engaged. Lower oil prices will boost global demand and have created conditions for many central banks to lower interest rates.”The Canadian central bank has already lowered interest rates in the hope of stimulating economic activity. Prior to the drastic drop in oil prices the OECD had predicted that Canada would gradually begin raising interest rates around the middle of this year. The opposite has happened, as in January, Stephen Poloz, the governor of the Bank of Canada, lowered interest rates from 1 percent to 0.75 percent.
The report claimed that overall the effect of lower oil prices should be positive:“Lower oil prices both raise the real incomes of households and reduce costs for firms, and should therefore be beneficial for global growth, notwithstanding the loss of real income for oil producers. The fall in energy prices also puts downward pressure on consumer prices. Many central banks have responded to the shock by cutting interest rates or signaled a more accommodative policy stance.”This is little comfort for provinces such as Alberta whose economy is very much dependent upon oil production and royalty revenues. Alberta's construction industry is predicted to face three years of job losses.
The OECD predicts that Canadian GDP will increase just 2.2 percent in 2015, down from a predicted 2.6 per cent gain last November. In 2016 growth is also down at 2.1 percent compared to an earlier estimate of 2.4 percent. US growth has remained the same at 3.1 percent in 2015 and 3.0 percent in 2016, outpacing Canadian growth.
The Royal Bank of Canada(RBC) earlier had also reduced its growth forecast for Canada. For 2015 RBC predicted growth in GDP as 2.4 percent down from a December forecast of 2.7 percent. However, Craig Wright, RBC chief economist said: “We see the hit to the economy from a pullback in oil and gas activity as targeted and regional, and unlikely to derail Canada’s economy this year.” The slump in oil prices wlll hurt growth prospects for oil-producing provinces such as Alberta and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador. On the other hand, the lower oil prices will be positive for Ontario,, British Columbia, and Quebec, that are oil consumers. The lower Canadian dollar will also help exports along with the growth of the US economy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Conservatives use hearing on anti-terror bill as propaganda platform

Ottawa - In the first hour of testimony Thursday on Bill C-51 the Harper government;s new anti-terror legislation, the Conservatives asked only one question. The hearings are before the Commons Public Safety Committee.
The question came from Conservative MP Rick Norlock who asked Carmen Cheung of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association(BCCLA): "Are you fundamentally opposed to taking terrorists off the streets?" The question has no relevance to whatever particular recommendations were presented. It's function is to suggest that the presenter may "oppose taking terrorists off the streets".
In these committee hearings, a small number of members of parliament with knowledge of the bill under consideration are to hear from expert witnesses as to ways in which a bill is lacking and could be improved. The committee then will take any changes they find desirable back to the House of Commons as suggestions as to how the legislation can be improved. Under the rules, the MPs are given half of the time estimated for questions, in this case two seven minute sections. Before his only question, Norlock spent his time criticizing the BCCLA website as "long-rambling" before launching into an extended preamble to his question lasting over five minutes. The following segment included a presentation by Roxanne James, parliamentary secretary to the public safety minister who spent her time clearing up what she called "misconceptions of the government bill". No question at all, pure propaganda on behalf of the bill.
In the second hour, Conservative MP, Ted Falk, asked human rights lawyer Paul Champ if he believed Canada had experienced a terrorist attack. Of course, Champ said he did. This prompted a followup question:"Do you think it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure its citizens are safe from terrorism?"
For some strange reason, none of the witnesses thought that terrorists should roam the streets or that the government had no responsibility to ensure the safety of citizens from terrorism. I am sure that those at the hearings all gave a sigh of relief to have these questions settled in this manner.
On Thursday night, Ihsaan Gardee made a presentation on behalf of the National Council of Canadian Muslims(NCCM). Instead of asking questions, Conservative MP, Diane Ablonczy,used her question time to "put on the record" accusations that the NCCM had ties to groups that had expressed support for "Islamic terrorist groups" including Hamas. She wanted the NCCM to address those allegations. Of course this has nothing at all to do with whatever comments the NCCM made about the bill. Gardee actually responded to the request, an obvious error in my view. He should have simply pointed out that the woman knows nothing about logic and her questions were irrelevant and in effect suggest an ad hominen argument. He simply denied the allegations: Gardee pointed to the group's history as an independent, non-profit, grassroots Canadian Muslim civil liberties organization with a "robust and public" track record."These are precisely the types of slanderous statements that have resulted in litigation that is ongoing,"
The last thing that the Conservatives intend to do is have a serious discussion of the shortcomings of their legislation. If their antics at the hearings do not make this obvious, their actions in preventing a key witness from attending should make this crystal clear. The Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien has not yet been invited to appear before the committee. The two main opposition parties the NDP and the Liberals had Therrien's name near the top of the list of their suggested witnesses. Valerie Lawton, spokesperson for Therrien confirmed he had not been invited and said:"The commissioner has said that, given the significant implications for privacy, he would welcome an opportunity to appear to discuss his submission in more detail with committee members,"
Therrien has already released a letter with his evaluation of the Bill C-51. The full text can be found here. The legislation would allow sharing of all sorts of information between 17 various agencies including information from income tax returns that is now well protected. Therrien includes a series of amendments to the legislation that would narrow the sharing of information and provide more privacy protection. In his letter he concludes: In its current form, Bill C-51 would fail to provide Canadians with what they want and expect: legislation that protects both their safety and their privacy. In my submission, the amendments recommended here are necessary to achieve an appropriate balance which is currently lacking. I would welcome the opportunity to appear before Committee to discuss these recommendations and speak to any other points I have raised in this letter.
The former chair of the Security Information Review Committee, Ron Atkey, warned the government that parts of the bill are unconstitutional and will be successfully challenged in the courts. The Harper government will not worry, since they will use taxpayer money to fight any challenge and will take the opportunity to paint the challenger as "soft on terrorism".

Canadian personal debt is over 160 percent of disposable income late in 2014

Canadians' disposable income is not growing as fast as their borrowing. Canadian personal debt grew to 163.3 percent of disposable income in the fourth quarter of 2014.
With interest at historic lows and the cheapest mortgages in years, many Canadians are assuming larger debt amounts. Last month five-year conventional mortgage rates fell 4.74 percent, the lowest since records started in 1975. The Bank of Canada cut the interest rate even further in January as the drop in oil prices threatened parts of the economy in areas such as Alberta. New homes prices fell 0.1 percent in January as builders try to entice new home buyers.
In January this year according to a Royal Bank study, Canadian household debt grew by 4.6 percent. This is close to the fastest growth in two years. Household debt in Canada was $1.82 trillion in January greater than Canadian GDP which on an annualized basis was below this at $1.65 trillion in January. Much of the debt comes from mortgages that grew 6.3 percent last year. While debt is rising, some forms of expensive debts are being cut back. While Credit card debt did rise by 2.7 percent last year, that is less than the increase in other forms of debt. In January of this year Credit Card debt fell 22 per cent from the month before. Of course, December is Xmas month.
However, in the last three months, the amount of personal loans declined by 16 percent as well. Putting the situation in the lingo of finance, Royal Bank of Canada(RBC) economist Laura Cooper writes:“There is a risk that highly accommodative financial conditions could exacerbate household imbalances as evidenced by the recent strengthening in mortgage accumulation,”As worries accumulate about the long-term health of the economy, businesses are turning to short-term rather than long-term loans. Short-term loans were up 12 percent this year in January compared to last year.
Analysts worry that Canada's personal debt is now outpacing that of most developed countries. The McKinsey Global Institute claims that Canada and Australia, together with a number of countries in northern Europe " now have larger household debt burdens than existed in the US or the UK at the peak of the credit bubble" according to their new analysis. The Institute analysis looked at 47 different countries and identified seven with"potential vulnerabilities" including Canada, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands. The report was based upon data from the second quarter of last year. Since then oil prices have crashed putting Canada's economy even more at risk.
Susan Lund, of a McKinsey partner in Washington, said: “What the financial crisis showed us is that when you have rising real-estate prices and rising household debt, it can be a deadly mix. You have to manage each carefully,”The Bank of Canada rate cut is a tempting policy designed to spur growth but it makes monitoring of debt levels even more crucial. It might be wise to tighten rules for lending if mortgage debt increases too much. Mortgage amounts have increased as house prices in Canada have risen 89 percent in Canada between 2000 and 2007. Data for Canada may be somewhat warped by the fact that debt of unincorporated businesses in Canada is counted as personal debt whereas in some countries it counts as corporate debt.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp (CMHC), Canada's federal housing agency, has also issued a warning to the finance ministry back in 2014 about high household debt levels and very high house price levels in some markets. Blacklock's Reporter said the CMHC made these comments in a confidential memo. Blacklock claimed the memo said when it called for a "soft landing adjustment" for the housing market that has been rising quickly because of lower interest rates: "We are, however, concerned about reduced household flexibility resulting from elevated debt levels as well as diversion of capital into residential housing investments, Likewise, elevated prices in some urban markets further compound affordability concerns."The CMHC would not comment on the memorandum.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Manitoba Premier Greg Sellinger survives bitter leadership battle

- Manitoba Premier Greg Sellinger was able to fend off two challengers at the New Democratic Party leadership convention held in Winnipeg on Sunday.
Premier Sellinger was challenged by Steve Ashton, the MLA for the northern constituency of Thompson, and Theresa Oswald. Oswald was one of the so-called Gang of Five cabinet ministers who challenged Sellinger's leadership last fall along with Jennifer Howard, Erin Selby, Stan Struthers, and Andrew Swan. She along with others resigned their cabinet positions in early November last year. One result of the challenge was the present convention and leadership race.
Ashton was a candidate who attempted to be the peacemaker whose aim was to unite the party. At first, he seemed to have the most support but the first ballot showed him trailing. Ashton received 502 votes, Oswald 575, and Sellinger 612. A list of who was supported by unions, MLA's and others is given in this article.
SInce Ashton came third on the first ballot, he was dropped out of the race leaving just Sellinger and Oswald on the second ballot. Ashton had stayed above the conflict between Sellinger and his critics. He stayed consistent on the issue and left his delegates to make up their own mind how to vote on the final ballot. One block of strong union supporters of Ashton moved over towards the Sellinger bloc. However, the final vote was close and Ashton's voters split fairly evenly.
In the final tally Sellinger receive 759 votes to 726 for Oswald only a 33 vote margin. However, Sellinger loyalists won key positions in elections for the party executive including First Nations leader Ovide Mercredi who was elected party president. The next election will probably take place in April next year. However, Selligner will face an uphill battle to rebuild and promote his party that is lagging in the polls. In 2011 Sellinger led the NDP to a record 37 of 57 seats in the legislature. However, the party is now quite unpopular and has been in power for 16 years. One reason for the party's decline in the polls is Sellinger's raising the Maitoba sales tax from 7 to 8 percent. This is not out of line with the rates in several other provinces but he had promised during the campaign that he would not raise the tax. A Probe Research poll last December showed that support for the NDP had dropped to a new low:One-in-four decided Manitoba voters (26%) would now cast a ballot for a NDP candidate. This is down four percentage points from September and is tied with the party’s lowest-ever level of support previously recorded in a Probe Research Inc. quarterly survey (26% in December 2013).The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, are surging (48%, up from 42% in September). Province-wide, the Liberals continue to enjoy the support of one-in-five voters (19%, -1% versus September). .. Seven percent of voters, meanwhile, would cast ballots for the Green Party and other parties not represented in the Legislature (-1% versus September). Fourteen percent of those surveyed were undecided.
The NDP has a huge gap to overcome to win over the Progressive Conservatives in the next election. The statistics may be somewhat misleading in that the PCs have always had a huge lead in many rural areas whereas the NDP usually takes many of the seats in the largest city, Winnipeg. However, the PCs at present even have a small lead in Winnipeg in the polls.