On electoral reform, Trudeau disappoints us, once again

On electoral reform, Trudeau disappoints us, once again

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scuffed his once-shiny political image again yesterday by discarding yet another campaign promise.

In his first throne speech after the 2015 federal election, Trudeau boasted triumphantly that Canada had seen the last of its whoever-gets-the-most-votes-wins voting system. But he didn’t present a clearly defined alternative. He just promised to change the system before the 2019 election.

A few months ago, Trudeau surrendered the grandiose commitments he made to environmentalism during the campaign and at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris by approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline that promotes Alberta’s dirty tar sands oil and potentially fouls the Salish Sea.

So, was Trudeau nothing more than just another politician who will say anything to get elected? That’s how opposition parties will portray him now.

It’s more likely we’re seeing a naive young prime minister who may not have expected to win the election and now, faced with the reality of delivering on his campaign promise, has butted heads with the impracticality of reaching national consensus on altering a fundamental democratic right in less than four years.

Almost every candidate for elected office makes a promise they don’t or can’t keep. Some are outright liars, like Donald Drumpf, who will say or do anything to fool people in order to get their votes.

Consider the U.S. Republican Party, which campaigned for years to repeal Obamacare without any idea of what to do next. Now they’re scrambling to create a replacement health care plan that doesn’t implode on them.

But I prefer to believe Trudeau had honest intentions. He’s just learning that it’s easy to criticize something; it’s more difficult to devise an alternative that transcends criticism.

He made a foolish promise because there’s no clear-cut better alternative to the popular vote. Proportional representation encourages partisanship. Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called a preferential ballot, is prone to electing people nobody really wanted.

Had the popular vote decided the U.S. presidency, Americans would not have elected Donald Drumpf. So what’s not to like about that?

Perhaps the greater problem with Canadian governance lies within the political parties, and specifically the rule that requires block voting. Members who exercise independent thought and vote outside the party line are cast off into political limbo. That makes individual candidates a secondary consideration to party policy for voters in Canadian elections.

I’m with the millions of Canadians who are more concerned about Trudeau’s flip-flop on climate change and protecting the environment than cancelling a divisive national debate over electoral reform.

But there’s a lesson in this for voters. One we never seem to learn. Be wary of any candidate without detailed plans behind their promises. That candidate is bound to disappoint.

The mistrust of government begins at home

The mistrust of government begins at home

The strong undercurrent of government mistrust that shades the American landscape is something relatively new to Canadians. But the recent Comox Valley Regional District open house on the HMCS Quadra sewer line replacement shows how and why that mood is changing.

The open house meeting should have been an opportunity for citizens, bureaucrats and elected officials to communicate in a collaborative manner that resulted in some positive meaningful action.

Instead, the HMCS Quadra meeting erupted into a vitriolic condemnation of the CVRD’s lack of transparency on this project. You can read a report of the meeting here.

It’s a sad commentary on the openness of local government in general that this expression of anger and frustration surprised no one at the meeting, including the presenter, CVRD Senior Engineer Marc Rutten, who appeared to accept the citizens’ mistrust as routine.

Throughout the contentious meeting that at moments threatened to spin out of control, Rutten never once acknowledged the possible veracity of a citizen’s concern. But why would he? The project’s details were presented as a fait accompli which “are too far along in the process to change now.”

Rutten couldn’t have done a better job of fostering distrust in the regional district.

If governments don’t genuinely want input from citizens, especially those directly affected by a specific project, then why invite them to a meeting on the pretence that their input might matter? It’s disingenuous and elevates people’s rage. And it creates mistrust of government. People start concocting conspiracy theories to explain what might seem like simple logistic solutions to CVRD staff.

Open house public meetings are usually held before finalizing a project’s details. For example, the CVRD presented several options to Royston and Union Bay residents at an early open house on the South Sewer Project, and residents picked their preferred one.

But the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission and CVRD engineers have turned a deaf ear to public concerns about its sewerage system planning, which has caused widespread suspicion, mistrust and anger.

Some of the blame for perpetuating government mistrust lies with elected officials who make these decisions but intentionally avoid the open houses they know will be contentious. Their absence forces staff to take all the heat.

Sewage Commission Chair Barbara Price and Courtenay director Bob Wells made token 15-minute appearances at the beginning of the open house, while everyone looked at informational posters and mingled with coffee and cookies in hand.

But they both left before the serious work of the question and answer period began. Why didn’t they stick around and absorb the public reaction to their decisions?

No other members of the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission showed up at the HCMS Quadra public meeting. Even the CFB Comox representative, Major Marc Fugulin, was absent.

The lack of good watchdog journalism in the Comox Valley contributes to the mistrust of local government. Not one reporter attended the question and answer period. And no local media has reported on the meeting.

Without a public watchdog to hold elected officials accountable, governments naturally adopt a less communicative and responsive attitude.

Elected officials are, after all, volunteer public servants. Most of the time they are sincere about achieving the common good. But the public needs to know if and when apparent altruism cloaks a personal agenda or a conflict of interest, or when governments steamroll projects over powerless citizens.

At the end of America, Trump

At the end of America, Trump

For as far back as I can remember, people have warned me about the certain implosion of America. They made comparisons to fall of the Roman Empire and Sodom and Gomorrah. The unmistakable signs were everywhere, they said.

As a teenager coming of age in the midwest during the 1960s, it was the length of my hair and the music I listened to that apparently signaled the End of the World, or at least the fall of America. Trivial matters, but the top of a slippery slope, they said.

Sometime in 1965, I went to a music store in Willemar, Minnesota, with my rock and roll bandmates to find a 45 rpm copy of the Rolling Stones new hit song “Satisfaction.” When we enquired, the owner of the store physically chased us out while lecturing us on how filth, smut and evil music would damn our souls, and tear down the clean white fabric of American society.

That man was right, of course, because the America that existed in his mind was about to come crashing down.

Long hair, hippies, marijuana and rock music picked up the message of the Beat Generation and wallowed in its individual freedoms. Audacious people marched for civil rights and women’s rights. College campuses roiled in protests over an unjust war. Comedians publicly flouted four-letter words.

The collapse of America continued. Gay people started coming out. Same-sex couples demanded marriage equality. Environmentalists warned of climate change. The era of white European privilege started to fade into more diverse faces.

And, then, I’m sure the music store man would say, the final blow was delivered in 2008 when voters elected an African-American as the President of the United States. That was too much. It pushed the music store man, and millions of other people like him, over the edge, and into the waiting arms of Donald Trump.

And so, at the climax of his inauguration speech yesterday, the 45th president promised that the “American carnage stops now!”

Those “rusted-out factories” littering the landscape like “tombstones” over a post-Armageddon wasteland will be shined up and made new again. Factories will hum with workers loving their jobs. Climate change won’t exist. Men can freely assault women. Pesky journalists seeking truth will be discredited. We’ll bomb more of the people we don’t like.

We’ll chase all the bad Muslims and Mexicans out. No more racial unrest because, well, what did African-Americans have to lose, anyway?

And so, I have to admit, my music store man had a point back in 1965. My generation did take America on a slippery ride. But the tragic fall he envisioned wasn’t the expansion of human rights or a realization that the destruction of this planet might means the end of human existence. But it did, somehow, give us Trump.

The decline of America will not occur because of how America has changed over the last 50 years, and probably not at the hands of terrorists or a crazy dictator.

America is more likely to fall because a false Messiah does not understand his place, and his nation’s place, in this world. Because he sees permanence in the riches and comforts he enjoys today, and which he promises for tomorrow, not realizing they are only temporary and that he cannot turn back time.

Trump fact-less claims cause problems for journalists

Trump fact-less claims cause problems for journalists

In the era of modern journalism, reporters have operated on a few professional standards — like detachment and objectivity — and some ethical values — like fairness and balance.

But what’s a reporter to do when she’s assigned to cover a potentially dangerous narcissistic provocateur whose rhetoric goes beyond the pale of truth and decency? A person who might, when asked fact-based tough questions, ban the reporter from press conference or eliminate access to the entire staff of a major newspaper.

This is the dilemma confronting journalists covering Donald Drumpf. The most unusual U.S. presidential campaign in history has caused journalists to question their standards and ethical values, and to change the way they traditionally cover the news.

And that, in turn, has rankled Drumpf’s defenders. Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh says, “The media is trying to take Donald Drumpf out.”

In a weekend column, Ottawa Citizen journalist Robert Sibley argues the media unfairly covered Donald Drumpf’s speech accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. He compares the headlines after Drumpf’s speech to those after Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech and concludes there is a liberal bias in mainstream media.

Sibley stops short of suggesting a left-wing media conspiracy to defeat Drumpf, though he considers it. Instead, he says: “What we’re getting here is the complacent, monolithic mind of progressivist ideology.”

In other words, Sibley says there was no organized effort against Drumpf. It’s just that mainstream media are controlled by progressive minds. And only by “removing their blinkers” could they have reported Drumpf’s speech fairly.

Sibley draws his conclusions from the fact that Clinton’s speech got more favourable headline treatment. This is because, he says, liberal bias dictates that the only legitimate message is a positive message, and he specifically notes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways.”

But despite the conservative blinders that shade the premise of Sibley’s column, he has exposed the heart of a problem facing journalists assigned to the Drumpf campaign.

How should journalists cover a presidential candidate who espouses racist and misogynist views, who praises dictators and urges anti-American countries to hack into his opponent’s computer? How does a reporter cover a nominee who ridicules a disabled reporter or the family of a U.S. soldier killed in action, disparages Mexicans as rapists and all Muslims as terrorists, and exhibits a fascination about the use of nuclear weapons?

When the source is irrational, does the coverage have to be balanced?

Sometimes there is only one side to a story. If a candidate says rape is bad, for example, there is no moral or professional obligation to find someone who believes rape is good.

Drumpf’s views on multiple issues have deviated so far beyond what is considered legitimate controversy, much less consensus, that journalists have changed their approach toward the concept of balance. The growing number of Republicans who have openly criticized or completely abandoned Drumpf gives this change legitimacy.

No reporter would seek out a balancing quote from someone who claims, as Drumpf did after the killing spree at an Orlando nightclub, that President Barack Obama was responsible. No reporter writing about veterans would quote someone who believes that POWs are losers because they were captured.

Since Drumpf’s nomination became official, his views have been taken seriously and analyzed in the context of the possibility that his finger could hover over the button that starts a nuclear war. That might seem unfair to Drumpf supporters, but responsible journalists must report how Drumpf is likely to behave in the Oval Office.

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) calls this journalistic dilemma “A Murrow Moment,” referring to the landmark report in 1954 by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow that condemned the bullying tactics of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy used the fear of communism during the height of the Cold War to cast insinuations on people he didn’t like, and ruin their lives.

Murrow departed from traditional journalism when he concluded his McCarthy report this way: “He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully … This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Murrow decided that McCarthy’s views had become dangerous, the CJR said, and that not speaking out against them made him complicit.

Critical and analytical reporting of the Drumpf campaign does not reveal a bias within the news media, or a conspiracy to treat him unfairly, or a means to promote his opponent. It represents the burden of journalists to tell readers the truth with facts that can withstand current and historical scrutiny.

The IRS won’t stop me from voting for Hillary

The IRS won’t stop me from voting for Hillary

After watching the Republican and Democratic party conventions this week, I’m glad that I haven’t given up my right to vote in U.S. federal elections. This election is too important for the whole world.

But, in the last six years, many American citizens living abroad gave up their right to vote in order to avoid filing U.S. tax returns. That’s unfortunate because every vote counts, especially in close races.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA). It’s a requirement for U.S. citizens living abroad to file yearly reports on their non-U.S. financial accounts. The intent was to impede tax cheats and money launderers, and apprehend them.

Law abiding, ordinary middle-income Americans living abroad were never the target of FACTA. It was aimed at wealthy people who hide untaxed earnings in offshore accounts. But it caused considerable inconvenience for every citizen living outside the country, and for some an extra expense.

For that reason, many Americans living in Canada gave up their U.S. citizenship. And with it, their right to vote.

I moved to Canada in 1973 and continue to maintain my dual citizenship. It’s not fun, or easy, to file a U.S. tax return every year. It’s easier to hire a professional accountant to do the work, but not everyone living abroad can afford to do that.

The alternative — revoking my U.S. citizenship and my right to vote — has never appealed to me. A democracy depends on citizen engagement. Of all the avenues open to individuals in a free society to influence the direction of their government, voting is the most important.

Congress has often rectified the unintended consequences of legislation to unburden innocent victims. I hope it will create such a safe harbor from FACTA reporting.

But I’m not holding my breath. Three years ago, the current U.S. Supreme Court ripped a key provision from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had banned voter suppression tactics used against the poor and mostly African-Americans in the South. That has recently encouraged conservative states to pass new laws that discourage people from voting.

Because most U.S. citizens living abroad lean Democratic, a Republican-controlled Congress may keep FACTA in place.

In the meantime, I’m not sitting out the 2016 U.S. federal elections. I’m registered to vote in Pierce County, Washington, and can’t wait to mark my ballot for Hillary Clinton and my friend U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer.

The stakes are too high this time. Not only is there a clear choice between Hillary and Drumpf on the issues, and on mental stability, but the next president will also shape the U.S. Supreme Court for future generations.

Either Hillary or Drumpf will nominate at least one and probably two new justices, and so determine the future of money and politics (whether Citizens United stands), the reach of the Voting Rights Act, civil rights (LGBTQ issues), women’s reproductive freedom, religious liberty (Hobby Lobby, etc.), defining the Second Amendment in relation to gun violence, and other important issues.

After listening to speeches at both conventions, I’m more convinced than ever that retaining my right to vote was the correct choice.

George Le Masurier, a Comox Valley resident, has lived in Canada since 1973. He is a citizen of both the U.S. and Canada and has faithfully filed his U.S. tax returns.

Our hope for U.S. politics: Make America Think Again

Our hope for U.S. politics: Make America Think Again

The message of the Republican convention, repeated in a thousand ways over four days, was simple: be afraid; be very afraid.

Here’s the executive summary of four days of fulmination: Our country is falling apart. The Black Lives Matter movement is destroying the social order, leading to the killing of police. Obama has made us more racially divided than ever. The Middle East is worse than it has ever been. Our allies are freeloaders bilking us out of free defense, and nations all over the world are ripping us off in international trade.

Our good jobs have been moved to other countries. Islamic extremists and illegal immigrants are pouring across our borders, bringing drugs, and coming to kill us all. ISIS or their ilk may soon detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city. Our military is depleted and our weapons are obsolete. The IRS is beating down the doors of innocent taxpayers. We are mired in debt. Our public schools are run by union bosses, and our universities are indoctrinating people to become Democrats or worse.

And yet . . . the United States of America is the greatest country God ever created. And if we elect Donald J. Drumpf, we will start winning again. “We’re gonna win so big, believe me, we’re gonna win so big.” And it’s going to happen fast. Law and order will be restored. America will be safe again, America will work again, America will be first again, America will be one again. We will have safety, prosperity, peace, jobs and pay raises for all.

Oh, and energy independence – we’ll have that, too. Harold Hamm, the nation’s fracker in chief, noted that “our most strategic weapon is crude oil,” but that Obama has been “crucifying the oil and gas industries.” Drumpf, on the other hand, will support unbridled fracking, and, perhaps even better, “Drumpf digs coal.”

As a special bonus for electing Drumpf, we will also have a first family of successful, hardworking entrepreneurs, and a first lady who is the ultimate exemplar of beauty, elegance and grace.

The alternative – electing Hillary Clinton – is doom. She is singlehandedly responsible for every bad thing that has happened in the Middle East since 2009. She is the avatar of “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.” She is responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, for the kidnapping of 200 girls by Boko Haram, and for the “stupid wars” we are engaged in. She is more concerned with the rights of illegal immigrants and criminals than the rights of our citizens. In fact, she is a criminal who should be locked up.


Most news commentators described the Republican convention as “low energy” until the last day. They focused on the many empty seats in the arena, Ted Cruz’s refusal to be a “servile puppy dog,” and the flap about Melania plagiarizing Michelle Obama.

But to actually spend four days listening to the speeches and watching the crowd’s response was to witness a high fever of fanaticism. When the crowd, inflamed to hating Hillary, waved their signs and chanted “Lock her up!” at every opportunity, it transformed from crowd to mob.

When Drumpf insisted that “America First” would be our “brand new slogan,” he was rejecting not only that slogan’s history of anti-Semitism and sympathy for Nazi Germany; he was rejecting history itself. When he called for “Americanism, not globalism,” he rejected reality itself. And when he insisted that “other nations must treat us with the respect we deserve,” he had already laid out a version of America that would not deserve the world’s respect.

When Drumpf insisted that our allies have to pay us to protect them, he was proposing to replace a system of alliances based on shared values with a protection racket. When Drumpf refused to commit to coming to the aid of NATO allies and threatened to pull out of treaties and trade deals, he was promoting a breathtakingly dangerous level of American unpredictability.

And when Drumpf entered the arena and paused in profile in a dramatic pastel mist, he embodied a narcissistic form of nationalism that was apparently a balm to the bruised egos of his followers, many of whom seem to feel left behind by automation, technology, diversity, and a global economy.

The deep well of alienation and fear that Drumpf has tapped reveals to all of us just how dangerous this country’s growing economic inequality is, and how easily our halting progress towards full racial and gender equality can be derailed.

But fear is not a foundation for an agenda for our future. Facts are. The truth of our 21st century world – its complexity, its challenges (like climate change, for instance), and its possibilities for progress were not discussed in the Quicken Loans Arena.

So here’s our hope for the Democratic convention: Make America think again.

Jill Severn wrote this originally for The Olympian, the daily newspaper in the Washington state capital.