Charter for Compassion

The Charter seeks to change the conversation so that compassion becomes a key word in public and private discourse, making it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt, be it religious or secular, has failed the test of our time.

 

The Charter for Compassion is the result of Karen Armstrong’s 2008 *TED Prize wish and made possible by the generous support of the Fetzer Institute. It will be unveiled to the world on November 12.

The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy – moral imagination – to put ourselves in others’ shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions that would cause them harm.

The Charter, crafted by people all over the world and drafted by a multi-faith, multi-national council of thinkers and leaders, is a cry for a return to this central principle so often overlooked in our world. It reminds the faithful that, in the past, leading sages of all the major traditions insisted that the Golden Rule was the essence of religion, that everything else was “commentary” and that it should be practised “all day and every day.” They insisted that any interpretation of scripture that led to hatred or disdain was illegitimate and that exegesis must issue in practical charity. 

Like the Charter of Human Rights, this Charter for Compassion is a yardstick against which the laity as well as religious and secular leaders can measure their behaviour; it can empower congregations to demand a more compassionate teaching from pastors and preachers; it can mobilize youth, who have seen at a formative age what happens when bigotry becomes rife in a society; it can make interfaith understanding a priority; inspire exegetes, scholars, educators and the media to explore the role compassion has played in the traditions, and ensure that compassion is a focal point in the curricula of schools, colleges and seminaries.

The Charter seeks to change the conversation so that compassion becomes a key word in public and private discourse, making it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt, be it religious or secular, has failed the test of our time.

We need everybody to participate – atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims – everybody! Our polarized world needs to see compassion practically implicated – politically, socially and economically – and show that in our divided world, which so often stresses difference, compassion is something on which we can all agree.

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is one of the most provocative, original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world. Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. She has written more than 20 books around the ideas of what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common, and around their effect on world events, including the magisterial A History of God and Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. Her latest book is The Case for God. Her Her meditations on personal faith and religion (she calls herself a freelance monotheist) spark discussion, especially her take on fundamentalism, which she sees in a historical context as an outgrowth of modern culture.

In February of 2008, Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize and wished for help in creating, launching and propagating the Charter for Compassion.

Made possible by the Fetzer Institute

A private operating foundation based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Fetzer Institute engages with people and projects around the world to help bring the power of love, forgiveness and compassion to individuals and to community life.

The Institute’s work rests on a deep conviction that each of us has the power to transform the world by strengthening the connection between the inner life of mind and spirit with the outer life of service and action. While the Fetzer Institute is not a religious organization, it honors and learns from a variety of spiritual traditions.

www.fetzer.org

*A project of the TED Prize

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It is an annual conference, which brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes). TED.com makes the best talks and performances, the ideas worth spreading, from TED available to the public, for free. The TED Prize is designed to leverage the TED Community’s exceptional array of talent and resources. It is awarded annually to three exceptional individuals who each receive $100,000 and, much more important, the granting of “One Wish to Change the World.”

 

The Battle of Seattle – Looking back 10 years

by Geoff Olson

Peaceful WTO protestors succeeded in their goal of “shutting down” the most powerful organization in the world. Photo by Elaine Briere.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of protests against the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle. In preparing for the November 30th opening of the WTO’s “millennial round of talks,” the mayor’s office and local police had no contingency plan for one inconceivable possibility: that protestors would succeed in their goal of “shutting down” the most powerful organization in the world.

How did this happen, and what, if anything, has been the legacy of the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999? Law enforcement officials, civic leaders and trade delegates were unprepared for the hallucinatory events that unfolded in the so-called “Emerald City.” Lifted out of their consensual Kansas by a tornado of democratic dissent, officials found themselves stranded somewhere between a bad mushroom trip and Munchkinland.

By the morning of November 30, Seattle’s streets were transformed by a massive, colourful wave of street theatre, while passively-resisting protestors in the downtown core kept trade delegates from conducting their Oz-like deliberations. To add a nightmarish L. Frank Baum touch, police in riot gear dispensed truncheon blows, tear gas and pepper spray. The only things missing were the flying monkeys –unless you count black-clad anarchists brandishing hammers, crowbars, paint bombs and spray paint.

What’s been forgotten is how massive this event was and how it rippled across the world. Throughout the week, the firefighters’ union refused authorities’ requests to train firehoses on protestors. Longshore workers closed down every West Coast port from Alaska to Los Angeles. Just before, during and after the WTO protest, thousands of Indian farmers marched to Bangalore in solidarity. In 80 cities across France, 75,000 people took to the streets and 800 miners clashed with police. European activists stormed the WTO world headquarters in Geneva. In Turkey, peasants, trade unionists and environmentalists marched on the capital of Ankara. Thousands marched in sympathy in the Philippines, Pakistan, Portugal, South Korea, Turkey, and across Europe, the US and Canada.

This was not a simple gathering of aging, disaffected American lefties or bongo-playing kids with dreadlocks, with a trendy grievance against the world. This WAS the world, saying ‘no more’ to secretive, unelected officials with the power to expand transnational corporate power past the control of all governments.

The Battle of Seattle was not the first successful pushback against international trade agreements. In 1998, an international coalition of NGOs, environmental groups and labour organizations succeeded in its campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The broad support against the MAI was reflected by the city of Seattle itself in April of 1999 when the city council declared the city a MAI-free zone by unanimous vote, in concert with other cities across the world.

Leaked documents subsequently revealed that European officials had decided to shift the entire MAI agenda to the WTO conference in Seattle. Activists prepared to take their fight to the Pacific Northwest.

Non-governmental organizations from across the world, environmental groups, labour unions, student groups and even religious groups spent months preparing for the WTO protests. Many of their plans incorporated European-style street theatre and culture jamming. As a trailer for the main feature, thousands of hoax editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hit the streets on November 24. The front cover wraparound, inserted into piles of newspapers awaiting distribution, contained bogus stories such as “Boeing to move overseas” and “Clinton pledges help for poorest nations.”

“Many activists have romanticized Seattle as a semi-spontaneous rebellion that arose as if by luck. This ignores the key strategizing, mass mobilizing, networking, education and alliance-building that made Seattle possible,” wrote Art and Revolution founder David Solnit in a 2008 article in Yes! Magazine. “We won because we were strategic, well organized and part of strong local, regional, national and international networks.”

With such a wide divergence of interests, it was inevitable that the activism would have many facets. This was to be the first large-scale protest in the US that wasn’t wholly committed to the ideals of Gandhi and King. The AFL-CIO organized the labour rally and parade into the city (bypassing the protest area), with the intent of influencing national trade policy and the impending presidential election through a peaceful show of numbers. The so-called black bloc of anarchist groups targeted specific corporate outlets in Seattle for property damage. In between these two poles, the Direct Action Network immodestly sought to shut down the WTO by blocking access to the Washington State Convention & Trade Centre, through passive resistance.

The Direct Action Network was a coalition of environmental and political activist groups, including the Rainforest Action Network, Art and Revolution and the Ruckus Society. Long before its members hit the streets, DAN “had coordinated nonviolent protest training, communications and collective strategy and tactics through a decentralized process consultation/consensus decision making,” writes Paul de Armond in his 2000 paper Netwar in the Emerald City.

Well before the demonstrations began, de Armond explains, DAN had full multimedia access, through the use of the Internet, cell phones, police scanners and video cameras. The Battle of Seattle was the first full-fledged information war, with DAN having an advantage over the city police, who seemed to be caught on the wrong side of the cyber-divide, unable to adapt their tactics to fast-changing circumstances. DAN, which eschewed a top-down chain of command that could easily be decapitated, used protest tactics partly honed in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Early on the morning of November 30, Direct Action Network protestors seized control of empty intersections, locking themselves together with bicycle locks and tubes and blocking access to the Convention Centre and surrounding hotels. Within hours, police were caught in an untenable situation: supporting the tens of thousands of people in the permit-approved AFL-CIO march from the stadium to downtown, and suppressing the crowds hunkered down at intersections. What happened next would turn the tide for the protestors.

I arrived in Seattle that morning on a bus carrying other reporters from Vancouver to the Seattle labour rally at the Key Arena. The AFL-CEO rally had extended invitations to other organizations to join – a mix of social justice, environmental and human rights groups. It made for an estimated crowd of 20,000 and an extraordinary mix of people. Forest workers mingled with tree-huggers, machinists and wonkish-looking types in expensive Gore-Tex jackets. There were clean-cut students with notepads, senior citizens in rain gear and retro hippies with placards.

After the speeches, streams of marchers flowed from the rally into the streets. The plan was to march downtown and then take a wide turn back, bypassing the protest area. Thousands of people ignored the parade marshals and made their way toward ground zero where DAN protestors were chained together in the intersections.

In his Netwar paper, Paul de Armond explains how DAN had fielded a hard-core contingent of “first wave” protestors for key city intersections. They had voluntarily chosen to risk violent confrontation from police and arrests once the demonstrations began. “The first wave consisted of 200-300 people in ‘lockdown’ affinity groups – those who had opted for nonviolent civil disobedience and arrest. Their job was to penetrate the area close to the conference site, seize the dozen strategic intersections that controlled movement in the protest target and hang on until reinforcements arrived… The second wave included several thousand protesters, also organized as affinity groups, who had opted for nonviolent demonstration and not being arrested. Their task was to protect the first wave from police violence and plug up the streets by sheer numbers and passive resistance. Many more people joined this second wave than DAN expected.”

The “third wave” was supplied by labour members who split from the designated AFL-CIO parade route, along with several thousand people constituting the People’s Assembly, a coalition of environmental and humans rights groups. With the added numbers of people in the streets, the surrounded police, with their cordon broken and cut off from officers outside, could not properly carry out their arrests of the lockdown groups.

By midday, members of the Direct Action Network learned they had succeeded in “shutting down” the WTO. They would succeed in shutting it down for the rest of the week.

“As police fought our blockades with armored cars and fired rubber, wooden and plastic bullets, as well as tear gas, pepper spray and concussion grenades, the corporate media looked for ways to dismiss a popular uprising as merely a few dozen people window- breaking corporate chain stores,” wrote David Solnit. The anarchist’s ‘black bloc’ was later estimated at between one hundred members, slightly less than the lockdown “affinity groups” of DAN. While they may have only constituted a vanishingly small fraction of the crowd, the anarchists captured the mainstream media’s attention through deliberate vandalization of Seattle corporate outlets.

Local media left the impression that the violent police response followed the trashing of Seattle shops. Yet the police attacks on the crowd began several hours before when DAN protestors had taken control of a five-block area around the convention centre. According to multiple sources, the King County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle Police Department fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, stun grenades and eventually rubber bullets at protesters at several intersections. With the release of tear gas around 10 AM, the mood in the streets changed. The black bloc saw its cue and began its spree of property damage, mostly in a two-block area.

Other protestors, witnessing the black bloc members smashing windows, began scuffling with them in the streets, demanding them to stop. Though the anarchists were greatly outnumbered by the nonviolent protesters, and their commercial damage limited, their “propaganda of the deed” instantly became the meme associated with the Battle in Seattle.

At one major intersection mid-afternoon, I discovered upended dumpsters blocking traffic, with protestors calmly standing atop them. Thousands of people milled about, some singing and chanting, others looking dumbfounded that they had taken control of the streets. It looked as much like a costume party as a protest. A kid in a Flash costume leapt around next to me as a young African-American with a megaphone climbed on to a dumpster to address the crowd. “We’re here to look out for one another,” he said, “ but remember; this is a non-violent protest. No craziness.”

Two nervous-looking guys in trench coats, who may have been trade delegates, crossed the street in the midst of this strange oasis of calm. “Nice briefcases,” someone yelled out. I ducked down a side street and tuned back to see the intersection I had just left, now blocked with riot police. There was some jostling at the police line and I watched as a tear gas canister spun into the air and down into the crowds. As smoke billowed down the street, I turned to see a small group of kids, who couldn’t have been more than high school age, in neat, pressed uniforms. They pulled gas masks and drum kits out of their backpacks, struck up a tattoo, and marched in formation toward the melee down the street. They disappeared into a tear gas fog, armed with no more than a steady beat. It looked like a children’s crusade against the WTO.

This is one aspect of the Battle in Seattle that went largely unreported and unanalyzed. An estimated 50,000 people came into the city that day, in a mood that was mostly earnest and festive – at least before the police response changed the tone of the protest. There was an immense outpouring of creativity, the kind later associated with Burning Man celebrations. I appreciated the set of life-size coffins bearing labels such as “worker’s rights,” “health,” “biodiversity” and “real food.” But my personal favourite was a Speedo-wearing protestor wearing a globe on his head, with two holes cut out for eyes. “I’m out of control, I’m out of control,” he hollered as he weaved down Seattle’s steep streets on roller skates.

It was, in essence, an out-of-control megablock party, turbocharged by groups like Art and Revolution, which put together an eight-day series of workshops and trainings leading up to the November 30 protest, involving street theatre, puppet building, mask making, costume design and music. In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2006), Barbara Ehrenreich elaborates on this new protest phenomenon that extends past Seattle in space and time:

“In fact, there has been, in the last few years, a growing carnivalization of protest demonstrations, perhaps especially among young ‘antiglobalization’ activists in Europe, Latin America, Canada, and the United States. They wear costumes – most famously, the turtle suits symbolizing environmental concerns at the huge Seattle protest of 1999. They put on masks or paint their faces; they bring drums to their demonstrations and sometimes dance through the streets; they send up the authorities with street theatre and effigies… The urge to transform one’s appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress,” Ehrenreich writes.

At one locked-down intersection near ground zero, I witnessed a spirit consonant with the parade: grinning protestors holding hands and chanting as police converged on them. The media’s accounts of the carnivalization were sparse, but telling. The Seattle Post- Intelligencer noted how protestors danced in the streets on Friday, December 3, as word spread that delegates would leave Seattle without agreeing on an agenda for future trade talks. “The scene… resembled a New Year’s Eve party: People banged on drums, blew horns and tossed flying discs through the air. One landed at the foot of a police officer, who threw it back to the crowd amid cheers.”

The creative possibilities undoubtedly attracted thousands more protestors to the streets of Seattle, the kind of folks who weren’t disposed to locking themselves together at intersections or smashing windows with crowbars. Their immense numbers tipped the balance in favour of the Direct Action Network’s goal of shutting down the WTO and fixing The Battle of Seattle in the history books.

By Wednesday, the second day of the protests, the Seattle police forces were augmented by more than 500 state and regional police, plus several hundred National Guard. The additional forces brought in from outside Seattle were less cautious about making distinctions between curious locals, nonviolent protestors and any remaining anarchists. Six hundred people were arrested in the days that followed, as the police action escalated into increasingly aggressive attacks on people in the streets. For two days, hundreds of protestors held vigil outside the Public Safety Building, singing and chanting and demanding the release of hundreds of fellow protesters. Nearly all the protesters were released by Sunday on their personal recognizance. In January, all of the mass arrest cases were dismissed because the overwhelmed Seattle police had failed to fill out arrest forms.

The city of Seattle went $3 million over their estimated budget of $6 million for hosting the conference. In part, the excess was attributed to city cleanup and overtime billing by police. The damage to commercial businesses from vandalism and lost sales was estimated at $20 million.

On Wednesday morning, I revisited the momentarily calm streets. Several city blocks looked like someone had picked them up and dropped them from a three-foot height. Repairs were already underway to broken windows and graffiti-covered columns. (Who said the WTO doesn’t create work?)

Paul de Armond summed up the strategic dimension to the WTO protests: “The Direct Action Network strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience had succeeded against the black bloc’s efforts to escalate the police violence, the AFL-CIO’s strategy of controlling and marginalizing protests in favour of a symbolic parade, the attempts of the Seattle police to clear the streets with tear gas, and media efforts to frame the issue in terms of ‘violent protesters.’”

The Millennium round of trade talks collapsed in Seattle and the WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, fell apart in 2003 because of farmer-led protests. Although the Battle in Seattle wasn’t directly responsible for the successive failure of the North-South agreement on trade policies, it definitely brought the world’s consciousness to bear on the interrelated issues of human rights, labour demands and health and environmental protection. This extraordinary experiment in democratic dissent also created a template for later protests in Quebec City, Genoa and beyond. Mainstream media, for the first time, had to seriously address the issues behind the agitation. An immense upwelling of people power was beginning across the planet, rejecting the top-down model of transcorporate rule.

Then came 9/11. The ‘day that changed everything’ certainly changed the antiglobalization movement, sucking an enormous amount of energy out of a shaky coalition of common interests. Suddenly, the threat of “terrorism’ could be conjured by the media at the slightest hint of social unrest. In the post-9/11 mass protests across North America and Europe, law enforcement began to take a more pre-emptive and punitive approach, including new methods of crowd control, such as constitutionally and charter-of-rights bogus “Free Speech Zones.” In a post-9/11 culture of hi-tech surveillance, your freedoms are respected only to the point you exercise them.

Ten years ago this month, men and women, young and old, rich and poor – from farmers and machinists to young university students and loggers – marched in step, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” A window opened, briefly, to a more sane and sustainable future. There was a dizzying glimpse, just before the window came down. But it didn’t shut all the way. The hinges have been loose ever since that epochal week in the Pacific Northwest.

Were it not for the antiglobalization movement’s visibility in Seattle, it’s unlikely that mainstream North America would have today’s level of awareness about genetically modified foods, environmental toxins, species decline and global wealth disparities. Once-fringe ideas about “bioregionalism” – such as community-supported agriculture, sustainable energy production and civic limits on plastic products – are becoming policy realities in communities across the world.

Since November of 1999, millions of people around the world have been alerted to a new landscape beckoning beyond the battered window frame. At present, this landscape is somewhere between a mirage and a miracle-in-the-making. It’s a vision of people doing what is necessary to survive as a species, by choosing doubt over dogma, education over ignorance, health over wealth, ecology over economy, wisdom over cleverness, compassion over confrontation and love over fear. This is what democracy could look like.

www.geoffolson.com

 

First Past The Post Mortem

by Peter Sircom Bromley

ON MAY 12, British Columbians voted against a new system of proportional representation by a majority of 61 percent to 39 percent. Yet less than half of BC’s eligible voters showed up at the polls, meaning that less than a third of BC’s electorate rejected a proposal that might have made such displays of apathy and imbalance a thing of the past.

Is voting a sacred cow?

Where were all the other voters? Some have speculated that they were more concerned about the playoff fortunes of the Vancouver Canucks than the pros and cons of some arcane government regulation. Not hard to believe – but maybe a little hard to accept, especially if you are partly to blame. Provincial elections are now permanently set to occur every four years during the spring playoff season; when questioned about this after the May 12 vote, Premier Campbell was reported to have said, “I think people are quite capable of dealing with hockey and an election.”

But this wasn’t just an election. The concurrent Referendum on Electoral Reform was about a complicated governance issue. The public required unbiased, non-partisan information in order to make an important decision. People were offered an opportunity to improve how things work.

And God knows there’s a lot to improve. While our transportation and communications systems have developed with staggering speed in the last hundred years, we continue to organize our civic affairs in a way unchanged since the days of the horse and buggy. Voting, the singular act that props up government, has remained a primitive instrument while social issues have become multi-faceted and complex. While voting is a sacred right, it also seems to have become a sacred cow.

Since World War II, more than 70 countries worldwide – including Norway, Ireland, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Austria, New Zealand and Germany – have developed and adopted systems of proportional representation to help modernize the way they govern themselves. There was a recognition that voting systems can contribute to problems in the political system. If British Columbians have any interest in following suit, they will need a better understanding of the forces that affect social change. It might help to review some of the key events that carried us through this latest attempt at electoral reform.

Politics as usual

After two bitter BC election results in 1996 and 2001, the provincial government admitted that the first past the post voting system had some clear disadvantages, most notably that majority governments could be elected with a minority of votes. Gordon Gibson, a prominent author and former politician, was therefore appointed to find a way out of the conundrum. Gibson proposed setting up an independent body to make recommendations on electoral reform. An assembly of randomly selected citizens, two from each of the province’s 79 electoral districts, would study the issue and come up with a solution. His recommendations were adopted, and in August 2003, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created.

The Assembly held public hearings every second weekend for 11 months, examined the fairness, representation and proportionality of the current voting system. They and came up with a “made in BC” single transferable vote (STV) system. Party politics were absent from the discussions and the social and geographic realities of BC were taken into account.

The Assembly’s recommendations were put before the people in a referendum on May 17, 2005. At that time, the Referendum Information Office, a branch of the Ministry of Attorney General, was responsible for informing the public about the new voting system. Although the system was complicated in certain ways, 58 percent of eligible voters and a majority in all but two of BC’s 79 ridings cast their ballots in favour of proportional representation.

The numbers, however, fell just short of the required 60 percent. Those who had actively promoted fair voting in BC were perturbed. Sixty percent is a rather high proportion considering that the 1995 Quebec referendum – which could have split up the country – only required 51 percent. In 1993, a referendum in New Zealand approved of electoral reform by a margin of just over 53 percent.

Four months later, the government of British Columbia pledged to take action on the close result in the Speech from the Throne. A throne speech is typically drafted by the premier, with the assistance of high-level ministers, deputy ministers and staff. It’s essentially a business plan, laying out a general vision along with a budget. The speech announced another referendum, acknowledging that “a solid majority” supported proportional representation. It then went on to discuss what it called a “troubling” issue: why had so many people voted to change the electoral system?

“…and yet that was not enough to pass, according to the rules this Legislature unanimously established. Your government has been clear that it does not intend to rewrite those rules after the fact, or pretend that the vote for STV succeeded when it did not.”

Interesting choice of words. Substitute the word “recognize” for “pretend” and we might see a crack forming in the stone tablets. Is there a note of defensiveness here? Were the results of the referendum making our political leaders question the rules? Were the premier and his associates concerened about the constitutionality of setting the bar too high at 60 per cent?

Whatever the reason, a clear preference for politics-as-usual could be surmised when the throne speech went on to say how public education would be improved in preparation for the next referendum: “Equal funding will be provided to support active information campaigns for supporters and detractors of each model.” According to sources at the premier’s office, the idea was “to stimulate debate.” Evidently, many other politicians agreed. In due course, the idea to fund “active information campaigns” was tabled, passed unanimously by the Legislative Assembly and enshrined in Section 4 of the Electoral Reform Referendum Act.

Let the games begin

What happened next represented a sharp shift in approach, one that distinguishes the 2009 referendum from the first one. Whereas the neutral Referendum Information Office handled the task of public education in 2005, two opposing advocacy groups – British Columbians for BC-STV, and the NO-STV Campaign Society – would now each be given $500,000 to run what the government called “information campaigns,” supposedly to complement the work of the Referendum Information Office which also received $500,000. The two groups – now with clearly defined partisan roles – were expected to come up with their own campaign strategies. In other words, public debate would be played out like a kind of sporting event. The task of education would be combined with the tactics of winning.

Some of those who volunteered with British Columbians for BC-STV were alumni of the Citizens’ Assembly. For them, it must have appeared that months of non-partisan work would be subsumed by the very political machinations everyone had managed to avoid earlier.

For the few who volunteered with NO-STV, things were looking up. NO-STV was an updated version of KNOW-STV, a group that opposed the single transferable vote in the 2005 referendum. KNOW-STV was a bit of a rag-tag group in 2005. Revitalized, and with $500,000 to play with, NO-STV had experienced leadership. The organization would continue to be led by Bill Tieleman, a skilled political strategist, communications professional, and former communications director in the BC premier’s office.

As the referendum campaign lurched into gear, it looked like the pro STV team might coast to an easy win. In mid-March 2009, Angus Reid conducted an online poll indicating that 65 percent of British Columbians, especially younger voters, supported proportional representation. There was a sour note in the festive news, however. The same poll revealed that only 44 percent of British Columbians were aware of the referendum.

Meanwhile, game plans on both sides were being developed, reworked and implemented on the fly. And the plans were very different. It seemed that BC-STV organizers were not clear on the concept of social marketing, a discipline that uses methods similar to advertising but which, out of necessity, focuses on unbiased, clear information. Social marketing audiences just need the facts. So it might not have been a good idea for the BC-STV campaign to use a cartoon super hero theme that trivialized the rather sober issue of social reform. Their slogan may also have been ill advised. “Power up your vote” skewed the concept of proportional representation, a system that simply makes all votes count; it doesn’t give voters special super-hero powers.

For its part, NO-STV presented its case against the single transferable vote in straightforward terms. Its website featured a banner with smiling, ordinary people. However, its message played on fear and ignorance. One of its main arguments was that the new system would be too complicated. It made a highly misleading comment about how votes would be unaccountable, saying, “You may never know where your vote went.” To emphasize its point, NO-STV cleverly presented a rather amateurish video produced by the Citizens’ Assembly. The information in the video was good; presentation was not. Point scored by the no side. Perhaps NO-STV’s most effective strategy was to use television and large print advertising just days before the referendum. Their slogan “don’t take a chance with British Columbia’s future” sowed seeds of doubt but conveyed nothing of substance.

It was left to the Referendum Information Office to provide information in a way that would allow people to make an informed decision. It placed a few newspaper ads and had a website. The website provided a quick comparison of the existing and proposed voting systems and had links to the Electoral Reform Referendum Act and to the BC-STV and NO-STV campaigns. Perhaps they thought that was enough. Was there more? Not sure. One thing is for certain: the Information Office had a low profile.

A non-partisan issue

In the final analysis, achieving electoral reform in BC – or anywhere for that matter – is as much about the way the issue is perceived and handled as it is about the issue itself. And bringing change to government seems to require an extra, and perhaps unnecessary, level of effort and debate. Other kinds of social change, such as the replacement of typewriters by desktop computers, happen all the time. People adjust. What’s so precious about a voting system?

New Zealand’s experience with proportional representation was no less difficult than ours. It had similar numbers and was hotly contested, but unlike BC, New Zealand had a two-step referendum: one in 1992 and one in 1993. The first allowed voters to decide if they wanted a change and, if so, which type of proportional representation they would prefer. A year later, the second referendum allowed voters to decide between their old first-past-the-post system and the new system chosen in the first referendum. Turnout for the first referendum was just over 50 percent, but the result was 84 percent in favour.

The second referendum brought in proportional representation with just 53.4 percent of the vote, a plurality of five percentage points less than that achieved in BC’s first referendum. New Zealand also had special interest groups campaigning for and against reform. However, voters were treated to a massive non-partisan government-run information campaign. The difference between success and failure seems to have been a lower bar and a higher level of education.

In BC’s case, one million dollars divided between two partisan groups could have been better spent by the neutral, and experienced, Referendum Information Office. If we are to grant free speech to special interest groups, then voters at least need to be literate about the subject at hand. According to Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, the quality of information delivered to the public was not only poor, but there also wasn’t enough of it. A damning enough assessment in itself. But there was also a basic lack of understanding of process set in motion by the premier’s office, followed without question through the Legislature and followed with resignation by those who supported positive change. After all the expense, time and effort put into the work of the Citizens’ Assembly, the rug was pulled out and the issue divided into opposing camps. The referendum was run like a contest rather than an educational process.

And to some, it seemed unacceptable that, in order to win, the yes side required 60 percent of the vote. In a postmortem letter to his fellow campaign workers, BC-STV organizer James Douglas Roy wrote that his group “played by the unfair, blatantly self-serving and illegitimate rules set down by the same political establishment that benefits from the current electoral system.”

Social reform is, and always will be, a non-partisan issue. It can be dramatic, especially if there are extremes of opinion involved, but it has to be handled dispassionately and with respect for due process. Differences of opinion can’t be left to the tactical skill of one side or another. If there are legitimate reasons to doubt the value of the single transferable vote, and if the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations need a fresh perspective, then revisit the issue and broaden the scope of the debate.

Proportional representation is not a new idea. It has been around for more than a century and since the Second World War has come to dominate European politics. It’s not perfect, but it can be fine-tuned as it is put into practice – an important point to remember. And it is certainly more democratic and inclusive than a voting system based on good guy/bad guy, winner-take-all values.

Partisan contests are fun if you’re a hockey fan. Definitely not fun if you’re serious a voter.

Peter Sircom Bromley has worked as a journalist, designer, writer and art director. He also fulfilled the role of communications consultant with the non-profit sector for 10 years and served on several boards, including the Sierra Club of BC and the Stanley Park Ecology Society. www.perubluesky.ca

Spies, lies & whistleblowers

 

by Annie Machon

Annie Machon on tour

Vancouver:
Friday, May 22, 7pm
Vancouver Public Library, Alice Mackay Rm., 
350 West Georgia St.
Tickets: $15 available through 
www.vancouver911truth.org

Victoria: 
Sunday, May 24, 7pm
Alix Goolden Performance Hall
907 Pandora St.
Tickets: $10 available through www.hightideconcerts.net and at the following bookstores – Victoria: Chapters, Ivy’s, Sorenson’s, Cadboro Bay Books. Sidney: Tanner’s

MY NAME is Annie Machon and for six years in the 1990s, I was an Intelligence Officer (IO) in MI5*, the UK Security Service. In 1997, along with my ex-partner and fellow spy, David Shayler, I blew the whistle on the crimes and incompetence of the British intelligence agencies. In doing this, we had to give up our careers, go on the run across Europe, live in hiding for a year and then spend two years in exile in Paris.

We, and many of our friends, family, supporters and other journalists, were intimidated, arrested and put on trial for trying to expose the crimes committed by the spies. David was imprisoned twice: once in France in 1998 when the British government failed to extradite him and again in 2002 after he voluntarily returned to the UK. He was put on trial and convicted of a breach of the draconian Official Secrets Act – all this for blowing the whistle on the crimes of the spies.

I am now a speaker, political activist and writer and despite the British government’s best efforts to suppress my book,Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers, in which I wrote about our experiences, it was published in 2005.

During my tour of Canada, I shall be speaking about the role of intelligence agencies in the current era of the unending “War on Terror,” how they monitor us and the implications for our democracies. The “War on Terror” is, of course, predicated on the tragic events of 9/11.

In the name of protecting national security, spy agencies are being given sweeping new powers and resources. Their intelligence has been politicized to build a case for the disastrous war in Iraq. They are failing to stop terrorist attacks and they continue to collude in illegal acts of internment and torture, euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition.” Most Western democracies have already given the spies so many new powers that we are effectively living in police states. Throughout my tour, I will be asking the question, “As an informed community, what can we do about this?”

I shall also be telling the story of my time as a spy and the whistle-blowing years. I will also talk about what it was like to be recruited and work for MI5 and the crimes of MI5 and MI6, which include:

  • MI5 files held on government ministers
  • Illegal MI5 phone taps
  • IRA bombs that could and should have been prevented
  • Lying to the government
  • The 1994 bombing of the Israeli embassy in London by Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, and the subsequent wrongful imprisonment of two innocent people
  • The illegal MI6 assassination attempt against Colonel Gaddafi of Libya

The illegal MI6 plot to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in1996 was the primary reason Shayler and I blew the whistle. MI6 had funded a Libyan military intelligence officer, codenamed Tunworth, to organize the attack using a group of Islamic extremists with links to Al-Qaeda. The attack occurred as Gaddafi was returning from Sirte in a car cavalcade and an explosion occurred beneath the wrong car. While Gaddafi obviously survived, innocent people were killed in the ensuing security shoot-out.

As well as being an unethical and highly reckless act in such a volatile part of the world, the operation was also illegal under UK law. MI6 is supposed to be governed by the 1994 Intelligence Services Act. Under this law, MI6 officers can have immunity for illegal acts carried out abroad (the real “James Bond” licence to kill), but only if they have prior written permission from their political master – the Foreign Secretary. In this case, they had no such permission.

We repeatedly tried to give evidence about the Gadaffi plot to the government; to this day, it has refused to accept it, even though an MI6 document was leaked in 2000 proving the plot, and sources in French and US intelligence were aware of it. When Shayler exposed this crime in 1998, he was thrown in prison in Paris because the British government tried (and failed) to extradite him. There was huge pressure for an enquiry, but the government managed to spin its way out of one.

I will also be talking about how to go “on the run,” what it’s like to cross the secret state and how to survive and the lack of accountability and oversight. The spies literally get away with murder.

The current situation

Despite glaring intelligence failures, both in the run-up to the Iraq war and in a number of recent terrorist attacks on the UK, our government still continues to grant more resources and powers to the spies. During my talk, I will also address the implications of these new laws for our democracy and the failure of the mainstream media to effectively hold the spies to account.

What can we do? We have a probably limited window of opportunity to halt this slide towards totalitarianism. It’s time for us to reclaim our democracies.

*The Security Service, commonly known as MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5),[1] is the United Kingdom’s counter-intelligence and security agency and is part of the intelligence machinery alongside the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS).

For more information about this issue, please visit www.anniemachon.comand vancouver911.truth.org

BC-STV is a big step forward for women

Vote yes for BC-STV and help shatter the glass ceiling

 

rebick
may grey

Clockwise from top left: Supporters of BC-STV, Denise Savoie, NDP MP, BC; Judy Rebick, former president, Nat’l. Action Cttee. on the Status of Women; Elizabeth May, Leader, Green Party of Canada; Deborah Grey, former Deputy Leader, Reform Party of Canada

WHEN IT comes to electing women, Canada ranks 52nd in the world. Of the 51 countries ahead of us, 46 use proportional voting systems. British Columbia currently uses a voting system that consistently produces the worst results for women across the democratic world. Our flawed system marginalizes new voices, re-enforces the status quo and generates male-dominated parliaments.

Proportional systems key

Proportional voting systems, used around the world, produce much better results, giving women their deserved place in government. BC-STV is a modern, well-tested proportional model designed specifically to increase diverse representation in government. Members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, half of whom are women, overwhelmingly chose STV for its accountability and stabilizing effect on BC politics.

Multi-member ridings an advantage

The math is simple. BC-STV uses multi-member districts in which parties can run more than one candidate. That offers parties a greater opportunity to present both women and men to the electorate.

Other facts

The Australian Capital Territories has one of the highest rates of women being elected in the world, using STV.

Ireland, using STV, elected 38 percent women to the European Parliament while the UK, using a regional party list system, elected only 23 percent women.

The negative nature of political campaigning can discourage women from participating in elections. BC-STV encourages more constructive debate, as candidates try to secure the “second choice” support of their opponents’ supporters.

In Australia, suffragette Catherine Helen Spence and women’s organizations such as the Federation of Women Voters campaigned for many decades for the adoption of STV.

We deserve better. It’s time to end politics-as-usual in BC. We are a growing grassroots movement of people from across the province uniting to define a new vision for BC.

Women who support BC-STV

  • Denise Savoie, MP, Victoria BC
  • Deborah Grey, former Reform Party deputy and interim leader
  • Jane Sterk, leader, BC Green Party
  • Jean Crowder, NDP MP, Nanaimo-Cowichan
  • Cara Camcastle, SFU Political Science
  • Adrianne Carr, former leader, BC Green Party
  • Elizabeth May, leader, Green Party of Canada
  • Sylvia Bashevkin, former president, Canadian Political Science Association
  • Judy Rebick, Ryerson University, former president, National Action Committee on the Status of Women
  • Lois Wilson, former president of World Council of Churches, former Senator.
  • Andrea Horwath, Leader, Ontario New Democratic Party
  • Blaize Horner Reich, SFU Segal School of Business

Scholars argue that women are likely to be elected in greater numbers under STV because it will encourage parties to change their nomination practices to put forward gender-balanced slates. That, along with more readily available childcare and other supports, would make it easier for women to serve as MLAs. – Donna Stewart, former southern BC representative on the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (1984-6), former federal NDP candidate for North Vancouver-Lonsdale.

From British Columbians for BC-STV, 604-484-2979. www.stv.ca

BC-STV more choice for voters

by Nick Loenen

IN BC’S CURRENT electoral system, the political parties – and increasingly only the party leaders – control which names will appear on the ballot. Voters are given a list of candidates from which they may choose one name only. The public is forced to express absolute support for a local candidate, a party leader, a party and a complete set of policies, thereby having to reject all other options.

BC-STV is very different because it de-links this bundle of choices to make voting more meaningful and less frustrating. In everything from business to leisure activities, we have seen an explosion of progress with people having more choice. A 500-channel TV universe is open to us and breakfast cereals come in 30 varieties while our politics remains frozen in time, effectively stifling democracy and citizens’ engagement.

Instead of being forced to select only one candidate, in the proposed BC-STV system, voters may rank any number of candidates. Parties will offer multiple candidates and voters may rank within one party slate or among the slates of different parties. By ranking candidates, voters express a preference among candidates, which is far more realistic as very few people believe that one candidate is absolutely good and the others totally bad.

Nor will voters have to worry about wasting their votes on losing candidates. If a particular candidate is eliminated, votes are not lost. They are transferred to the remaining candidates of the individual’s choosing.

Choice gives voters power; it places them in the driver’s seat. With the BC-STV system, elections will be less about parties and candidates and more about the wishes of voters. Election results will display voters’ true wishes.

The predominant complaint heard by the Citizens’ Assembly concerned voter frustration. Vote splitting forces many people to vote strategically, meaning that they do not vote for their preferred candidate. Over the course of 20 years, in seven elections, Social Credit leader WAC Bennett claimed, “A Conservative or Liberal vote is a vote for the Socialists.” In the 2005 election, potential vote splitting between NDP and Green prevented many voters from casting their vote for the candidates they really believed in. This should not be the case in a democratic system and it can change on May 12.

Party apologists suggest voters don’t want too much choice because it makes voting too complicated. No one wants to do research on 15 or more candidates, we are told. This is nonsense. Voters may rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. Someone may decide to rank only one candidate. That is a perfectly valid ballot and would work exactly as the present voting system. Again, this is choice for voters. The BC-STV ballot can be used very simply or with more options; it is up to each voter.

Those who wish to vote as they have done in the past may do so. The proposed voting system places no obligation on anyone. If you want to keep voting the way you always have, you are not prevented from doing so. No one will be forced to change their ways or habits, but BC-STV presents a new opportunity for a more meaningful ballot box experience than is now possible.

In 2005, a high school class in Smithers, BC, showed the difference between the current electoral system and the proposed BC-STV in choosing pizza toppings. Using the current system, 36 percent ended up with pizzas that were not among their top three choices. When they voted for the toppings using the BC-STV model, only two of the 74 students didn’t get one of their top three choices. It is a telling example that we can do better.

On May 12, the choice is really about who will end up being empowered: the citizens of BC or the political parties. The choice is yours.

Nick Loenen is a former Richmond City Councillor and MLA. Contact: nick.loenen@stv.ca      More BC-STV info:
www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public or www.stv.ca, 604-637-3551

You, me and STV

Let’s make it fly

You have to ask yourself; why don’t we adopt STV in BC? Are we a bunch of chickens or what? Are the politicos a little worried about losing control of the flock? Perhaps too few of us give much of a cluck about democracy? Don’t be chicken; let’s make this bird fly.

– Alan Cassels
drug policy researcher
University of Victoria, BC

heatherA fresh start for democracy

On May 12 in BC, we can have a fresh start for democracy. We have an historic opportunity. The UK has the same dysfunctional system as we do and they have been trying to change their electoral system since 1875. The UK never even had a referendum! We can lead the way. We can bring in a new system in which citizens know their votes count, where politicians can be held to account and where elections give genuine results. Voters will have more incentive to vote because every vote counts. We can bring in a system that creates a legislature that reflects the views of voters and the diversity of the electorate.

– Heather Dale, LL.B, MA
Vancouver regional organizer
YES referendum campaign

donEvery vote should count

I have long been convinced of the need for proportional representation. Every vote should count and every voter’s voice should be reflected in the legislative body. Although I believe that a mixed member proportional format is the best system, I think that any electoral reform that introduces proportionality is a positive step. I look forward to discussing STV with all British Columbians in the weeks ahead.

– Don Davies
M.P. Vancouver Kingsway
www.dondavies.ca

fredGovernment for the people

Under BC-STV, each person gets to rank candidates in order of preference 1, 2, 3, etc. If your favourite candidate is eliminated, your vote is not wasted; it is simply transferred to your second choice, and so on. No need to vote strategically for the “lesser of two evils” as we do currently. I truly believe that BC-STV is a tool to get our democracy to work better, to get governments more responsive to the people and to improve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as per Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying.

– Frédéric Van Caenegem
SFU student
Centre for Sustainable Community Development

davidCloser to what voters want

BC-STV will improve our democracy. It will give us a legislature which is what we want and voted for. It gives voters the power to choose the MLAs they want for their preferred party. It moves power from the party leaders down to the MLAs and moves power down from the MLAs to the voters. It gives women and popular independent candidates more opportunity to get elected. BC-STV will often lead to coalition governments which have to work on a consensus. They will have policies much closer to what the voters want, and voters will be more satisfied because they will see the system as being fair. FPTP is an unfair system which does none of these things.

– David Huntley
Professor Emeritus
Department of Physics
Simon Fraser University

maharaHere’s our chance BC!

I remember the night of our last federal election. I scurried down to the local pub to get the election results in the warm buzz of dedicated neighbours. What a shock to find only 58 percent of Canadians had voted versus 30 years earlier in 1978 when close to 80 percent had! What’s up with that? Clearly, two reasons: a rising disillusionment with politicians and secondly, an antiquated voting “First Past the Post” system that has left many Canadians asking, “What’s the point?” Finally, we can do something about the second. Here’s our chance BC to make some good history. Okay everybody; let’s do the referendum!

– Rev. Mahara Brenna 
speaker, mediator, community builder
Vancouver

Back room drug deals

 

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society and we are, as a people, inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. ”

– John F. Kennedy

ARE YOU familiar with the line, “If you’ve nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear?” That’s the slogan often used to attack those who express concern about personal privacy – the ones who say they’re worried about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, databases and other data-collection devices that track us like bloodhounds, recording our every encounter with the legal, commercial, educational and medical systems. Where is all that information kept? How correct is it? Who is using it? Can it be used for purposes for other than which it was intended? Will it ever come back to haunt us even if we have “nothing to hide?” Scary thoughts indeed.

While personal privacy is an issue that gets a lot of attention, leading to a growing level of public concern about exactly how personal data are being used, there’s another side to the secrecy issue. And that’s the fact that many decisions, especially vital decisions that affect healthcare, are made in secret, not open to the sunlight of public scrutiny. Most people would find it astounding that, in Canada, millions are spent on healthcare decisions made behind closed doors. Even if these decisions are being made by well-meaning policy makers fully preoccupied with advancing the public interest, secretive decision-making, by its very nature, means there is no way for third parties to verify whether or not the public interest is best served.

One example on my radar, although details are sketchy, is the way different provincial drug plans cut deals with drug companies about listing their drugs. These so-called product listing agreements allow companies to get their new drugs on the formulary – the list of drugs the province will pay for – without having to reveal how much or how little they are paying the government. They also don’t have to reveal how much more patients and private insurers may have to pay outside the government plan for the same drug. The public may be getting a real steal on a certain product, which just might be providing incredible value for taxpayer money, but the name of the game is secrecy; no one is supposed to know.

Let’s say a company wants its new drug listed on the Ontario Drug Plan and it asks the Ontario government for a certain price. After negotiations about the number of doses and the number of patients likely to use the drug, the product will be listed. If the company sells more of the drug than it projected, it might be required to pay back some of those additional costs to government. These agreements may have research requirements built into them to better monitor how the drug is being used in the general population. This is all conjecture, of course, because the deals are made in secret. What actually happens within a product listing agreement is a big, black box and no one, except the government negotiators and the manufacturer, knows what kind of money the drug is costing the taxpayer or the consumers who are not covered by provincial plans.

Are these fair agreements? Should they be made in the open? That’s my default opinion, but without knowing the specifics of these deals, it’s necessary to withhold judgement. Hopefully, given all the pressure exerted on governments to keep costs down, such secret deals are actually resulting in maximum value for the dollar.

Let’s broaden this question and ask ourselves if we’d welcome governments secretly negotiating on our behalf for other public goods. Would we allow the building of a new Port Mann Bridge or a new Sea-to-Sky Highway to be negotiated in secret? What would we say if prospective builders got together with government officials and hammered out financial deals where the public couldn’t know how much money is changing hands?

Some say the secrecy is necessary because of the way the drug industry and the different public pharmacare programs are structured in Canada. For instance, Quebec has a “most favoured nation” clause that requires manufacturers to provide the Quebec government with the lowest price among all the provincial plans. Maybe doing deals in secret is the only way any other province can get the fairest price. It’s hard to tell, but a recent paper published by Aidan Hollis, an economist in Alberta, found that BC carried out a sole-sourcing contract with a drug company that involved secret rebates to Pharmacare. The problem he saw was that the alleged price reductions for Pharmacare recipients meant higher prices for everyone else not covered by Pharmacare. Hollis concluded: “A tendering process with secret rebates is not transparent, nor is it fair to impose high costs on those patients whose purchases are not covered by Pharmacare.”

“Transparent.” That’s the word that seems most antithetical to the word “secrecy” and one that pharmaceutical companies absolutely love to fling at governments for being secretive. In fact, if you’ve been listening to the comments from drug lobbyists and their favourite disease groups about public agencies that critically evaluate drugs – Canada’s Common Drug Review and UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative, for example – the word “transparency” is thrown down like a gauntlet. Why aren’t these organizations more “transparent” they ask?

Am I the only one to notice the faint whiff of hypocrisy when drug companies are cutting secret deals with provincial governments to list their drugs, even as they publicly demand transparency in government-sponsored analyses of new drugs?

The drug companies’ version of the word transparency is simple: these groups want to know who’s at the table and they want to know the name, rank and serial number of the key lobbying targets. They want to know which levers to work, hence demanding greater and greater transparency around the decisions governments make about drugs because the more opaque the decision-making process, the less chance the drug companies have of influencing governments’ decisions.

Fair enough, right? Yet these demands from the pharmaceutical industry lead to some hard questions regarding the industry’s offerings in terms of their own transparency. Sure, they are companies and companies need to keep secrets – proprietary information, ya know – and I can accept that. However, we in the public know almost nothing about what the industry is doing to influence healthcare decisions, such as how much they spend to influence physician prescribing.

Dr. Joel Lexchin, a Canadian expert in pharmaceutical policy and author of one of the best books on the drug industry in Canada –The Real Pushers, New Star Books, 1984 – has estimated that the drug industry in Canada today spends about $50,000 per doctor, per year, marketing its products to physicians, but we don’t know for sure. (With 6,000 practising doctors in BC, that’s about $300 million per year.) Do we know how the money is spent or to what extent it influences prescribing decisions? Of course not. All of that information is confidential, secret and non-transparent.

Another worrisome aspect of transparency relates to the way Health Canada respects drug manufacturers’ requests for confidentiality of unpublished data – that is, the company’s clinical data our regulator examines before it allows a drug to be sold in Canada. We researchers who are interested in what those data show –especially in terms of drug safety – can’t get them. That information is considered confidential and we can only see summaries of the data that support the approval of a drug.

Data on drug safety, data on what provinces pay for drugs and data on drug company spending to influence prescribing are certainly on my menu of what I think needs to be brought into the light of day under the banner of greater transparency.

Yet even while governments in Canada jump to satisfy the industry’s strident desire for greater transparency, they tend not to demand, in return, greater transparency for those things obviously in the public interest. At the very least, we would hope they would strike a balance so that the glare of transparency can shine on both public and private matters. However, the way the companies and governments currently deal with transparency issues reminds me of the slogan used to describe the recent spate of bailouts of private banks in the economic slowdown: “The privatization of benefits and socialization of costs and risks.”

Maybe our democratically elected governments need to say this to the drug companies: “We’ll give you transparency of our decision making processes when you provide us equal clarity on your business decisions. You can’t have us working in a glass house while you work in a batcave.”

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and author of The ABCs of Disease Mongering: An epidemic in 26 Letters.

cassels@uivic.ca

 

Obama and the return of the real

by Jonathan Schell

The inauguration of Barack Obama, whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant, is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the Republic – “all men are created equal” – which have been fulfilled in a new way, even as they resonate around a world in which for centuries white imperialists have subjected people of colour to oppression. The event fully justifies the national and global jubilation it has touched off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.

But what of the hour, the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face? If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year’s crisis is attended by, or embedded in, at least four others of even larger scope. The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have fallen sharply from their peak of last summer, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back those prices will rise with it?

A third crisis – less on the public mind, perhaps, because it is so old it is taken for granted – is the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the wholesale human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortage and much else. Like nuclear danger, the planetary ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the natural foundations of life upon which humans and all species depend for survival. Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.

At a glance, this tangle of crises might seem merely to be the result of a colossal accident – a world-historic pileup on the global thruway. Yet in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or perhaps hyperactivity. The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one’s own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic crash is the result of investment run amok: The “masters of the universe” are the authors of their own (and everyone’s) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading toward collapse because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion of Iraq was the American empire’s self-inflicted wound – a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.

All the crises are also the result of excess, not scarcity. Too much credit was packaged in too many ways by people who were too smart, too busy, too greedy. Our energy use was too great for the available reserves. The nuclear weapon overfulfilled the plans for great-power war, making it – and potentially ourselves – obsolete through over-success. The economic activity of humanity – the “throughput” of productivity, to use James Gustave Speth’s term for the sheer quantity of natural stuff processed by the economy and dumped back into the ecosphere – was too voluminous to be sustained by fragile natural systems. The environmentalists’ word “sustainability” applies more broadly. The collateralized debt obligations, the oil use, the spread of WMDs, the military pretensions of empire, all are “unsustainable” and crashing at once. Taken together, the crises add up to a new era of limits, which now are pressing in on all sides to correct overreaching.

All the crises (but especially those that are endangering the ecosphere) involve theft by the living from their posterity. It’s often said that revolutions, like the god Saturn, devour their children. We are committing a slow motion, cross-generational equivalent of this offence. My generation, the baby boomers – ominously nicknamed “the boomers” – has been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their food, cutting down their cherry orchards. Intergenerational justice has been a subject more fit for academic seminars than for newspaper headlines. The question has been what harm are we doing to generations yet unborn? But the time frame has been shortened and the malign transactions are now occurring between generations still alive. The dollars we have spent are coming directly out of our children’s paychecks. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The nuclear weapons we cling to for a dubious “security” will burn down their cities. The atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines. A “new era of responsibility” must above all mean responsibility to them. If it is true that all the crises are part of this larger crisis, then the economic crisis may simply be the means by which the larger adjustment is being set in motion, in effect dictating a forced march into the sustainable world.

All the crises are characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions. One group of nations, led by the United States, lays claim to the lion’s share of the world’s wealth, to an exclusive right to possess nuclear weapons, to a disproportionate right to pollute the environment and even to a dominant position in world councils, while everyone else is expected to accept second-class status. But since solutions to all the crises must be global to succeed, and global agreement can only be based on equity, the path to success is cut off.

Finally, all the crises display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is “bubble.” A bubble, in the stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies. When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses and people are hurt. Disillusion and tangible harm go together; as imaginary wealth and power evaporate, so does real wealth and power. The equity exposed as worthless was always phony, but real people really lose their jobs. The weapons of mass destruction in the invaded country were fictitious, but the war and the dying are actual. The “safety” provided by nuclear arms is waning, if it ever existed, but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy. The “limits on growth” were denied, but the oil reserves didn’t get the message. The “uncertainty” about global warming – cooked up by political hacks and backed by self-interested energy companies – is fake, but the Arctic ice is melting anyway.

A new stance toward reality

One day, someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money or war-hungry decision makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system, but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered, but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports.

A concluding chapter of the study will note that the rudiments of a new stance toward reality began to be articulated. Its motto can be the famous comment a senior Bush adviser made to writer Ronald Suskind, whom he belittled as belonging to the “reality-based community,” which, the adviser said, believed that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” But that was no longer true, for “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Over at the American International Group, the recipient of $152.5 billion in federal bailout funds, then-chief Maurice Greenberg was saying much the same thing in happier days: “This is never going to get any better than it is today. We’re so big, we’re never going to swim against the tide. We are the tide.” In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.

Obama, of course, cannot wait for such a study to appear. He must batter his way out of the various bubbles and lay his hands on what is real immediately. It will not be easy. His election has done part of the job, but the mists of illusion still hover over the land. Fantasies of wealth and power, not to speak of superpower, die hard. Happy hour is more pleasant than the morning after. For bubble thinking was projected beyond the deluded institutions to national politics as a whole. The falsehoods that led to war, the fact-averse ideology that inspired the bid for empire, the investments based on fictitious ratings and the denial of the evidence of global warming – none of these grew in a vacuum. They were supported or tolerated or insufficiently discredited by the media and other organizations that inform and constitute the mainstream. The credit and debt booms were national, corporate and personal, symptoms of a nation living beyond its means at all levels. The facts of global warming, it is true, were increasingly accepted by the public, but not by the president it put in office, and there was little appetite for measures, like a gas tax, to cut back carbon emissions. As global warming intensified, the iconic American vehicle of the era was the gas devouring, pseudo-military Hummer, an imperial auto if there ever was one. The grandiose conceptions of American power found a ready audience, as reflected in election results. They linger still as troops shift, with Obama’s blessing, from the unpopular Iraq quagmire to the better accepted Afghanistan quagmire.

In short, the mainstream, like a river that jumps its bed and ravages the countryside, has overflowed the levees of reality and carried the country to disaster after disaster in every area of national life: military, economic and ecological. These depredations have paradoxically led a groggy public to yearn for the stability that Obama’s centrist cabinet choices seem to promise. But they know – Obama, who denounced the “dead zone that politics had become,” told them in the campaign – that these appointees had a hand in creating the ills they are now charged with addressing.

“Reality” has bifurcated in a manner confusing to politicians and citizens alike. On the one side is political reality, which by definition means centrist, mainstream opinion. On the other side is the reality of events, heading in quite a different direction. If Obama makes mainstream choices, he is called “pragmatic.” And it may well be so in political terms, as the poll results attest. But political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls. The danger is not that Obama’s move into the mainstream will offend a tribe called “the left” or his “base,” but that by adjusting to a centre that is out of touch, he will fail to address the crises adequately and will lose his effectiveness as president.

Jonathan Schell is the author of numerous books, including The Fate of the Earth and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Fair voting in BC

The Citizens’ Assembly worked it out in 2004.
We can make it happen in 2009

by Nick Loenen

On May 12, 2009, British Columbians will take to the polls to vote for BC’s next premier. They will also vote to replace the current “first-past-the-post” voting system with a proportional voting system known as the BC single transferable vote (BC-STV), which was almost unanimously recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. This will give British Columbians:

1) Fair election results.
2) Effective local representation.
3) Greater voter choice.

You can help. Learn more at:

www.stv.ca 
www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/

The Citizens’ Assembly at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue

On October 24, 2004, after nearly one year of discussion and deliberation, the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform voted to recommend replacing BC’s current voting system, known as “first-past-the-post,” with a single transferable vote system adapted to our province’s needs. It is called BC-STV. The randomly selected 161 members of the Assembly, consisting of one woman and one man from each constituency, supported the recommendation almost unanimously.

The historic vote followed three hours of final discussions. At the end of that debate, Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun’s senior political columnist, turned to Les Leyne, his counterpart at Victoria’s Times Colonist and asked, “Les, have we ever seen a political debate of such high calibre conducted with so much civility and goodwill?”

That was a fine tribute to the ordinary British Columbians who made up the Assembly, their work and their public mindedness, but it is also a shameful indictment of the legislature, the political parties and our political culture. Civility and goodwill? Why can our governing institutions not be more like the Citizens Assembly? Is that not what Canadians want?

The Assembly recommended a preferential ballot. Instead of voters selecting one of many candidates, voters rank any number of candidates. Voters don’t vote many times. Each voter gets just one vote. Think of it as one dollar’s worth, but the dollar might be spread around in support of more than one candidate, based on how the voter ranks the candidates. That is the essence of the preferential ballot.

What does a preferential ballot do for politics? It has a civilizing influence. Two real, live examples: I was a candidate in the 1993 federal election. The party nomination meeting was contested by five and conducted by preferential ballot. It was clear from the start that no one would win on the first count. The winning candidate would need second and third place support from members whose first loyalty was with a competitor. Is that conducive to negative, personal attacks? Of course not. I was constructive and found common ground with some of the other candidates and their supporters and hence won the nomination.

Some years ago, the then president of the Richmond non-partisan association phoned to say that prior to an upcoming nomination meeting to fill one slot for a by-election, membership numbers had suddenly swelled from the normal 300 to 400 to nearly 3,000.

Three competing blocks of instant voters were determined to get the nomination. I advised the president to go with a preferential ballot. They did and not one of those three big camps won. Those large groups competed with each, but a fourth candidate had built bridges to all three of the big groups and won on the fourth count.

First-past-the-post, our current voting system, is a winner-take-all system. Only one candidate can win. Only one party can win; all others are losers. In our system, there is no constructive role for losers. Politicians win by attacking and diminishing others. Canadians don’t like attack ads, but under first-past-the-post, that is how it is done.

Legendary BC premier WAC Bennett often said, “Politics is war by another name.” Winston Churchill said, “The difference between war and politics is this: In war you get killed but once; in politics, often.” Must it be thus? No. Politics is not war and should not be conducted as if it were.

A preferential ballot rewards constructive behaviour; you win by building bridges, by reaching out. It promotes the politics of inclusion, cooperation and consultation. It does not thrive on conflict; it thrives on conflict resolution.

You want the legislature and parliament to be more like the Citizens Assembly? Change to BC-STV. Are you offended by the recent events in Ottawa, a politics that thrives on placing party interest ahead of the public interest? Change to BC-STV.

Today, faced with unprecedented public policy challenges and the need to rescue an economy destroyed by excessive self-interest, we need politics that are constructive, a system that rewards politicians for placing the common good ahead of partisan interests. We need the Citizens Assembly’s recommendation – BC-STV.

Electoral reform will not solve all our problems, but no parliamentary reform or lasting democratic reform will take root until we have a voting system that rewards those who place the common good ahead of partisan advantage.

Electoral reform is not sufficient, but it is a necessary condition for all other reforms. It must be thus. Why? Politics are about power and the voting system allocates power. Under a changed voting system, political power is dispersed and shared political behaviour becomes more civilized.

Changing the rules by which political power is allocated is the first and highest priority.

The question is can we change the voting system? Yes, we can. In 2005, British Columbians came within a whisker. This time, the movement for electoral reform is better organized with more feet on the ground and voters are more knowledgeable. Building on that solid majority of 58 percent who supported the Assembly’s recommendation last time, people will be invited to join that majority, and perhaps, perversely, but best of all, recent events in Ottawa have angered Canadians who know we deserve better.

It can be done, but it is up to ordinary British Columbians. On this issue, political leaders will follow only if the people lead. Without you, it will not happen.

We have just one last chance on May 12 and I ask you to make a commitment.

Let each of us resolve, and all of us together resolve, to commit our energies and our resources for the next few months to this great undertaking that was born in the Citizens Assembly among the people’s representatives. This is an undertaking that transcends all of us. It is an undertaking to make politics more civilized and to rekindle the promise of democracy for our province and for our nation.

Can we do it? Yes, we can!

 

Nick Loenen, a former Richmond councillor and MLA, has written extensively on voting system reform and can be reached at nick.loenen@stv.ca To learn more and to get involved, visit www.stv.ca


The Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Proportional representation by the single transferable vote (STV) method rests on the assumption that voters can choose between candidates rather than parties. Voters rank candidates in order of preference by numbering the candidates on the ballot. The ballots are then counted in a way that insures the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

The principle is straightforward:—that a variety of minority and majority opinions are represented in government. A candidate needs a certain number of votes to be elected, and this quota can vary according to the particular STV system used.

Source: Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform