Political crisis boils over Afghan occupation

by Barry Weisleder

For the second year in a row, the Conservative minority government asked Governor-General Michaelle Jean to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for the winter months in order to avoid political accountability and a potential loss of office. Shamefully, the G-G agreed. Thus, all Bills in process were abandoned, and a new session will begin with a brand new budget on March 3.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to release documents that would shed light on Canadian Forces’ handling of Afghan detainees was set to provoke a crisis on January 25, when the House of Commons was to return. On December 10, the Commons ordered the government to produce uncensored documents dealing with detainee transfers. But Harper refused, citing ‘national security’, troop safety, and relations with allies.

Former number two Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, Richard Colvin, raised concerns in 2006-2007 about prisoners being routinely beaten and tortured by Afghan authorities. So did the Red Cross, Britain, Netherlands, the media and human rights groups. General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of Defence Staff, confirmed that Canadian troops did hand over a detainee in June 2006 to the Afghan police, who promptly beat him, until he was taken back into Canadian custody.

But Ottawa continues to deny that a problem existed. Instead, the Tories attacked Colvin’s credibility, made an issue of the Opposition’s ‘patriotism’, and proceeded to boycott a special sitting of the Parliamentary committee probing detainee abuse.

The question arises: Why are Harper and company being so pig-headed?

The issue goes beyond parliamentary decorum, beyond the centralization of power in the PM’s Office. The treatment of detainees has become a lightening rod for mass popular opposition to the war of occupation in Afghanistan. It highlights the nature of the corrupt regime of war lords and drug barons in Kabul which NATO, including Canada, sustains.

For the Canadian ruling class, the treatment of Afghans is far less important than the economics of energy pipelines and the politics of western domination of the Middle East and South Asia. Tory intransigence in Ottawa is proving to be a costly political impediment to the realization of larger imperialist foreign policy aims. A major section of the Canadian business elite would rather cut their losses in Afghanistan (where the 134th Canadian soldier died on December 23), make a superficial concession to public opinion, and re-deploy troops to another theatre of neo-colonial occupation, like Haiti.

Setting aside all the hypocrisy about ‘the rule of law’, the supremacy of Parliament, and the promotion of ‘democracy’ abroad, the division of the rulers over the war is a good thing — even better if it leads to an early exit from Afghanistan, and an early end to the Harper government. But neither should be taken for granted, as the Tories seem as determined to tough it out, as they are to make working people pay for the economic crisis.

Pension ‘status quo’ is not an option – CLC

by Barry Weisleder

Pension plans and retirement savings have been hit hard by the downturn. The security of many Canadians is at risk. Some companies even want to cut defined benefit plans that employees paid into throughout their working lives. (That’s a big issue in the United Steelworkers’ strike at Vale Inco.) People with Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) and other private pensions that invested heavily in stock and financial markets have seen their investments lose much of their value. There is an urgent need to expand public pensions and reduce reliance on financial markets for economic security. Public pensions remain secure, but they replace only a modest share of previous work-related earnings.

In fact, 11 million Canadians (one-third of the total population) don’t have a workplace pension. 1.6 million seniors qualify for Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits (and therefore earn less than $11,300 per year). Employers use bankruptcy courts to shirk their pension promises. In the Nortel bankruptcy case, retirees stand to lose a third of their pension incomes. Average fees gouge a third of workers’ RRSP earnings.

Thus, pension reform is in the air. The New Democratic Party is pushing a Canadian Labour Congress plan. The federal Conservative minority government is resisting. The Liberal Opposition, following the lead of British Columbia and Alberta, wants a CPP supplement to which individuals could voluntarily contribute. The banks, fearing that a beefed up CPP will cut into their lucrative RRSP business, are notably hostile to the idea.

The CLC proposal asks the federal government to:

*Phase in a doubling of payouts from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and the Quebec Pension Plan (QPP). (The average CPP payout is about $600 a month.)

*Immediately increase by 15 per cent Old Age Security (OAS), which is about $500 a month, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is about $450 a month for all retirees.

*Create a national pension insurance fund to ensure that workers’ defined benefit pensions aren’t at risk when employers go under or speculative bubbles go bust. (The United States has a pension guarantee fund covering up to about $50,000 of pension income.)

Working people and nature are the source of all the wealth. It is appropriated by Capital. Workers shouldn’t have to beg for crumbs in retirement. In the face of the economic crisis we did not cause, and the bail-out of banks and big businesses we did not approve, our demand is that, in addition to doubling the CPP and QPP, the OAS and GIS be increased sufficiently to ensure that no senior is condemned to subsist below the poverty line (approximately $30,000 a year in large urban centres).

The federal and provincial Finance Ministers met in Whitehorse, Yukon in December, and will meet again in May 2010. Several of them said there’s nothing wrong with the existing pension set up. So, it’s time to start organizing and agitating. They need to hear the CLC’s message amplified many fold: The pension status quo is not an option!

Will Copenhagen Make a Difference?

– Toronto Socialist Action Public Forum Presents –

Will Copenhagen make a difference?

World leaders gather for the climate change conference in Denmark, after ten years of market-based ‘solutions’ set out in Kyoto have failed miserably to effect real reductions in carbon emissions. Will it take a social revolution to make the energy revolution needed to stop our planet from burning?

Judith Deutsch, president of Science for Peace
John Valleau, member, Science for Peace; professor (retired), University of Toronto.

Q & A, and discussion period will follow the presentation.
Friday, December 11 7 p.m.
OISE, 252 Bloor St. West, Room 2-212
(at the St. George Subway Station)

Everyone is welcome. $3 donation is requested.
For more information, visit the SA web site at:
http://www.socialistaction-canada.blogspot.com or call 416-535-8779

Will OFL Join OPSEU to Fight Ontario Cuts?

When Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan declared October 22 that his Liberal provincial government faces a $24.7 billion deficit this year, it was a signal that a major assault on public service wages and programmes for the poor is in the works.

This is the major challenge facing delegates at the biennial convention of the Ontario Federation of Labour, November 23-27 at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto. Firebrand CUPE Ontario leader Sid Ryan is set to replace retiring OFL President Wayne Samuelson. Many labour activists wonder whether this will mark a shift towards mass action to challenge labour concessions, disappearing pensions and benefits, and rising unemployment (expected to stay above 9 per cent, officially, in Ontario for the next three years).

A Workers’ Agenda is urgently needed to oppose the coming attacks on the Ontario public service, and to support the strike of the Vale Inco workers, now in its fourth month at Sudbury and Port Colborne, Ontario and in Labrador. Required is a programme to reject further labour concessions in the auto sector, to nationalize industry instead of dishing up corporate bail-outs, and to demand steeply progressive taxation of big business and the rich.

A good place to start would be a commitment to mobilize labour’s strength in numbers along side the 115,000 member Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union as it takes on the Liberal McGuinty government’s likely targetting of wages, jobs and vital public services.

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas issued a statement on October 23. Here are some excerpts:

“Finance Minister Dwight Duncan promised a “sweeping review” of government spending. Premier Dalton McGuinty would not rule out unpaid days off for the million Ontarians who earn their bread in the provincial public sector. And the spectre of privatization now looms over every public service worker.

“The Liberals’ plan is to make us pay.

“Dwight Duncan won’t have much luck looking for waste in public services (except, of course, for the hundreds of millions he’s throwing away on private consultants). We already had a “sweeping review” from 1995 to 2003. It was called the Common Sense Revolution (of Tory Premier Mike Harris), and public services still haven’t recovered from the brutal trauma of those years.

“As far as unpaid days off, a lot of us remember (then-NDP Premier) Bob Rae’s “Social Contract” all too well. But much has changed since the Rae days.

“For one thing, the Social Contract would be struck down by the courts today. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that (British Columbia) Premier Gordon Campbell was wrong to tear up the collective agreements of health workers in that province. Since then, collective bargaining has been recognized as a protected right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“McGuinty can’t legislate his way out of this. If he wants to use public employees to buy Ontario out of the recession, his two main options are: a) privatization; and b) mass layoffs.

“Privatization is a stupid idea. It cuts services, it destroys jobs, and it usually comes with major cost overruns. And from a budget standpoint, selling off assets like the (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) LCBO – which right-wingers are already barking for – would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

“As for more layoffs, they can only weaken local economies, destroy the services people need, and generate headlines the Liberals really don’t want to see.

“So what’s their plan? My guess is, they think that just the threat of layoffs and privatization will force public employees to agree to the wage cuts or “Dalton Days” he wants.

“How is it fair that a part-time secretary at a community college, who makes maybe $27,000 a year, should be the one paying off the deficit when the Bay Street banker is not?

“Which is more important, providing professional help to a child with a mental illness, or giving income tax breaks to profitable corporations and obscene bonuses to their CEOS?

“Public services aren’t just for public employees. They exist because we all need them. And that’s why saving them is not the responsibility of public employees alone.

“We chose careers in public service not to get rich, but because we care – for people, for families, for communities. It’s time our commitment got the respect it deserves.
“We are already planning a bold strategy to fight the coming attack. It will take courage, commitment, brains, resources, and leadership.

“Working together as we have done so many times before, I know we will do whatever it takes”, Smokey Thomas concluded.

Will the Ontario Federation of Labour “do whatever it takes”? Will OPSEU undertake mass job action, and invite all workers and allies to join the struggle?

Therein hangs a tale. –Barry Weisleder

Recovery? In a Pig’s Eye!

Wishful thinking usually dominates the financial pages, especially after an economic crash. So goes the coverage of the current ‘recovery’. It bears closer scrutiny.

Yes, in September, Canadian house sales jumped 17 per cent from a year ago. The Conference Board of Canada predicts the economy will grow 2.9 per cent next year, and up to 3.6 per cent in 2011. There’s just one catch. The gains are largely the result of government stimulus programmes — which governments are now rushing to reel in and curtail.

Looking to the south, auto sales in the United States plunged 10.4 per cent in September. Overall retails sales were down 1.5 per cent, the worst decline since retail sales fell 3.2 per cent last December. Factory sales in Canada dropped 2.1 per cent in August, due largely to declining automobile shipments.

A record number of U.S. homeowners were forced into foreclosure in the third quarter. More than 930,000 homes received a default notice or were repossessed, a jump of 23 per cent from the year before. Job losses rose another 263,000 in September, pushing America’s official unemployment rate to 9.8 per cent, and that’s not counting the 571,000 workers who simply gave up and stopped looking for work. As a result, the number of bad loans will likely increase in the coming months.

The number of Canadians filing for bankruptcy in August was up 17 per cent compared to the same period last year. Canadian exports and imports fell in August, and the trade deficit rose (for the fifth consecutive month), now at $2 billion. Exports declined 5.1 per cent and imports were off 2.8 per cent. New housing starts dropped 4.6 per cent in September.

So, while investors and brokers are cheering recent market gains — the sharpest rally ever seen in the midst of a downturn — some observers are wondering out loud: Is it too good to be true, given the fragile state of the economy? Is this another bubble?

Indeed, is this another wake up call…. for socialist measures? –Barry Weisleder

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