Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How many nuclear-armed countries are too many?

It is alarming to think about North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. Or Pakistan or Israel or Russia.
But I read The Atomic Bazaar on the weekend. William Langewiesche makes the argument that it's inevitable that many countries will get nuclear weapons. The technology isn't all that challenging. The fuel can be found. There are people and companies willing to sell the components.
And there's great pride in a country like Pakistan or North Korea over building a nuclear bomb.
There is also a legitimate grievance. The five original nuclear powers - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France - aren't giving up their nuclear weapons. But they don't want other countries to have the same capabilities.
Langewiesche says proliferation is inevitable. The emphasis should be, he argues, on slowing it and - more importantly - on keeping the weapons out of the hands of terror groups. People willing to sacrifice everything for a cause are immune to all the deterrent of mutually assured destruction. If they can steal or buy a bomb or two, everything could change. Consider the changes since 9/11. Consider the changes after a nuclear blast in Mumbai or New York or Tokyo, with 50,000 dead.
It's sad though. I grew up with nuclear war as a real threat. Calculated whether Clarkson was worth a Soviet bomb - there was an oil refinery nearby. And what if they aimed at Buffalo and missed? Froze when the sirens went. Had a nightmare about being separated from my family when the night sky turned into day as the bomb fell.
It was a great thing when those fears faded. It would be a great step backward if a new generation, perhaps far away, had to live with them again.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why it's a good thing that Wally Oppal lost

Wally Oppal is an affable person, with a good pre-politics reputation.
But he's been an ineffectual minister, often appearing poorly informed and out of touch on issues that were his responsibility.
Over at, Sean Holman offers a small, but telling example, based on an FOI request.
And the biggest train wreck of a scrum I've seen in years came during the controversy over the death of Sherry Charlie. Oppal was responsible for the Children and Youth Officer at that point. On a hugely critical issue - the death of a toddler for whom the government had a responsibility - he was slapdash, uninformed about his responsibilities and hadn't read the basic report. It was dismal.
More positively, the result - if it stands up after a judicial recount - means that the voters in Delta South decided they wanted an independent candidate they respected and believed would represent them well.
It's a solidly Liberal riding, or should be. The result indicates how badly the people there feel abused by the government, over health care, a treaty settlement they believe ignored their concerns, unwanted roads and controversial power line forced in the community.
And it shows the price that can be paid if MLAs - like Liberal Val Roddick - are seen as more loyal to the party than the community.
Independent Vicki Huntington will be wooed by the Liberals. It would be better for democracy - or more interesting - if seven Liberal MLAs joined her as independents. That would mean that in any vote, the MLAs voting the party line as ordered wouldn't decide the issue. The independents would.

Be scared, very scared, about the coming cuts

Dave Obee of the Times Colonist says that unless there is an immediate change of direction in the Liberal government, the province is facing program and service cuts that will affect everything from schools to hospitals to community service agencies.
Read it here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mulroney and the privileges of princes

I wasn't going to write about Brian Mulroney. But the TV coverage of his testimony at the Oliphant inquiry was weirdly compelling.
Mulroney, in his pompous, self-aggrandizing, self-pitying way, revealed more than his own character flaws. His performance showed much of what is wrong with politics.
Mulroney was mostly asked about why he spent a great deal of time with Karlheinz Schreiber, a fixer for arms manufacturers. Mulroney took, on three occasions, envelopes full of $1,000 bills - $225,000 in total. (Or maybe $250,000, or $300,000.)
He said he was supposed to help, in some undefined way, sell military vehicles from a Canadian plant internationally. Schreiber was trying to promote the project on behalf of a German corporation. The plant didn't exist. He never had a contract, or even any written directions or reports. The cash was stashed in safes and a safety deposit box. The money never showed up on his books.
Mulroney didn't declare the income when he got it, or when he says he did the work.
When he did, six years later, his lawyer negotiated a deal with Revenue Canada so he paid tax on half the actual amount he had received as income. (The deal was common, apparently, for Quebec resident who didn't pay tax when they were supposed to and came forward letter. Better half than none, Revenue Canada thought. The rest of us paid proper taxes.)
It was all sordid.
What was also striking was the disconnect between Mulroney's world and the place where almost all other Canadians live.
I met Mulroney a couple of times, and was creeped out. When I was in Saint John, in perhaps 1989, he did an editorial board at the newspaper. There was an advance visit - the security guys wanted the conference room drapes closed, in case of snipers. We'll call when the motorcade is close, the said, and you can wait to greet the prime minister in the entrance.
No worries, I said sincerely. The front desk person was great. She would call me as soon as he arrived.
They explained it didn't work that way. People waited for the prime minister; he didn't wait for them. (I should note that Mulroney charmed everyone as he made his way through the building once he did arrive.) People carry their bags and clean up their messes and tell them how smart they are.
So Mulroney thought it OK, once he had left office, to take envelopes of cash for ill-defined assignments. He should have asked for cheques, he allowed, or deposited the money - even if only to get the interest.
But, Mulroney testified sadly, he had no support staff when he took the first envelope of cash. What could he do? Most Canadians manage their finances without support staff. Not big-time politicians.
In 1996, Mulroney was suing the federal government for $50 million. He was called to given sworn evidence about his relationship with Schreiber.
When lawyers asked about their dealings, Mulroney said they had coffee a few times. Schreiber talked about hiring Liberal lobbyists, he said.
But Mulroney didn't say he had taken envelopes of cash to work for Schreiber. The lawyers didn't ask the right questions, he explained.
As for his tax deal, that wasn't his doing either. Mulroney said he didn't think he had to declare the income until he judged the assignment was over. And when he told his tax lawyer to sort it out, the lawyer negotiated a deal to declare just half the actual income. I didn't know about that, said Mulroney.
Most Canadians know those things. They tell the truth and pay their taxes. They don't have support staff or tax lawyers. They don't get envelopes full of cash. No one tells them how smart they are or carries their briefcase.
Increasingly, too many of our politicians live a life apart. How can they govern for Canadians, when they have forgotten how we live?
Footnote: Whatever Schreiber paid, he didn't get much value for the money. Mulroney says he chatted about the idea of the United Nations buying military vehicles of its own with a few world leaders, but nothing came of it.