Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bikeday Sundays

Every Sunday from Victoria Day to Labour Day, the National Capital Commission closes 65km of parkways in both Ottawa and Gatineau to traffic. This practice, called Bikeday Sundays, has been around since 1970. Every Sunday about ten thousand people get out between 6am and 1pm, exploring the region by biking, walking, skating, running, and longboarding.

I rode my first Bikeday Sunday last June, and I rode every Sunday that I was in Ottawa last year. I have the ambition to do the same in 2012. I think that it's important to support a movement like this because it breathes so many valuable positives into a community.

There are very crucial physical benefits to Bikeday Sundays. They promote being physically active - an important lifestlye requirement for everyone. Given that less and less Canadians are getting enough exercise, the importance of a free and local activity is significant. Also, the event makes cycling accessible and safe. I've always maintained that "if cycling infrastructure is built, people will use it". However, another critical piece in the puzzle is getting people to feel safe and comfortable when on a bike. When people feel security on their bikes, they are likely to have a great time. In fact, they may start to bike more and make cycling a more central part of their lives.

There are also important social benefits to Bikeday Sundays. The part that strikes me most is the shared use of space, something which is dwindling in our society. Bikedays is, effectively, people taking back the roads and using them in a democratic and co-operative way. Moreover, the fact that so many people are participating on a weekly basis means that cycling has become, for many people in the National Capital Region, part of the culture. This is something I remark on frequently - whenever I am riding in Ottawa-Gatineau I am surprised at the number of cyclists I encounter. Cycling is a growing trend in Ottawa, and despite the rather lethargic action of the local government, Ottawa tends to appear in lists of best places to cycle. This is more and more becoming part of what it means to live in Ottawa. The fact that Bikeday Sundays is so well supported by the police and by local volunteers also speaks to the fact that the state, business, and community all value a programme like this for its social capital.

With all the political talk around cycling today, such as the removal of bike lanes in Toronto, Ontario potentially introducing legislation to make wearing a helmet mandatory, and municipalities like Kingston creating a more comprehensive cycling infrastructure network, it is heartening to see a non-issue in cycling - something that everyone can get behind with the acknowledgement that a programme is good for individuals, the community, the environment, and the economy.

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Tale of Two Leadership Conventions

2012 has been an interesting year for politics in North America - and the year has just begun. In both Canada and the United States the opposition parties will select new leaders in 2012. While both contests have been exciting and well-covered by the media, they could hardly be more dissimilar. In this post I am going to explore the differences between the NDP Leadership Convention in Canada and the race for the Republican Nomination in the United States.

In the past year a lot has happened politically in Canada at the federal level. In the 2011 General Election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives won their first majority government. They accomplished their rather unpredictable feat largely through none of their own work. The collapse of large parties in the House of Commons, the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, led to a greater splitting of the vote than ever. This had the duel effect of propelling the Conservatives to a majority and netting the NDP over one hundred seats in the legislature, their best ever result. The euphoria was short-lived, however, with the passing of NDP leader Jack Layton in August of 2011. In the seven months since the party has recovered from this blow and selected a new leader.

In the United States, the primaries have been going on for what seems like an eternity. In the wake of the poor performance of the Republicans (or GOP) in the 2008 election, the party has undertaken a long process of selecting someone to run this November. In the elections for Congress in 2010 the Republicans made a comeback both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, mostly because many "Independents" felt that Obama was not moving forward with "repairing the economy". The leadership race in the United States is far from over. At this point, nearly half of US states have yet to vote, and the convention where a leader will be chosen, will not take place until the late summer.

But what exactly are the differences between these two political competitions? As best as I can tell right now, there are at least four significant differences between the NDP and GOP leadership races. Here they are below:

The most obvious difference is in terms of duration. The NDP race has been cited as taking seven months; however, the competition did not even start until November, meaning that four months would be a more appropriate characterisation of length. In the United States, meanwhile, the race for the Republican nomination has already lasted nearly a year, and the competition charges on.

The main purpose that Americans take so long to choose a candidate is generally because they want to thoroughly vet the candidates. The process of the primaries will examine if the leader has the physical and mental stamina on the one hand, and if they are electable on the other. That said, the NDP leadership candidates were well-known by the media and by delegates within the span of about four months, and the field of candidates was nearly twice as large.

Secondly, the participation in selecting the leaderships is quite different. In the United States, the vast majority of the population is participating in selecting the next leader of the GOP. While this is widely seen as more democratic, it doesn't allow the party membership, or even the party supporters, to select a leader of their choosing. Democrats in the United States are allowed to vote, and they are affecting the leadership choice significantly. In Canada, however, only the card-carrying members of the NDP participated in the selection of the leader. This process, though mired in other logistical and ideological problems, allows the party organisation and its membership more control over its future.

The third difference I see is in the degree to which the races are competitive. In the NDP, the debate was largely friendly, with the primary goal of selecting a leader who can unite progressives under the banner of the NDP. Naturally, this is rhetoric, but it is an important component. NDP supporters are not monolithic on their views on a wide variety of topics, and it is not surprising that the top three candidates happened to be a labour, a green, and a centrist. It is entirely unsurprising that Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair ended up in the top two spaces given that they were effectively othered against one another (principled socialist versus a centrist reformer).

In the United States, however, the differences in beliefs and policies was perhaps much wider. Moreover, the way in which this often manifested itself was in personal attacks. Beyond criticising one another's platforms and performance in professional and public spheres, members of the GOP openly attacked each other on personal grounds, such as their sexual lives and their familial arrangements (neither of which, in my opinion, have anything to do with politics). This is not, in my opinion, the fault of the GOP, as this is widely part of the political discourse in the United States, and something that the general public finds interesting when it comes to politics. Republicans want to maintain media attention and Democrats want to make sure that attention is negative. The bipartisan atmosphere in the United States is certainly toxic. Regardless of where you decide to lay blame, however, the race for the nomination is hyper-competitive, to the point where the unity of the party may be seriously damaged.

Finally, there is a distinct difference in the diversity of candidate. The field in the United States was relatively narrow to start with, and it has grown narrower since Christmas. There were no serious candidates who represent any minority group: no women, no young people, no indigenous people, no non-Christians. Admittedly, there is a reasonable amount of diversity in terms of policy, from libertarian to Christian conservative.

This stands in stark contrast to the NDP's leadership race. Serious contenders for the title of leader included a Greek immigrant, a Cree, and a Sikh, not to mention to the presence of women, people of all socio-economic classes, and francophones and anglophones. Perhaps even more interestingly, candidates represented urban, rural, indigenous, and northern communities from all across the country. In Canada, where there is a entrenched regionalism, this was an imperative part of the selection process. Although the field was certainly deep, the top three candidates were all middle-aged, white, secular, heterosexual, and male.

Ultimately, both races have been interesting and set the stage for the larger political contests of the future: the 2012 elections in the United States and the 2015 General Election in Canada. With one leadership race out of the way, the other is charging on, hoping for a dramatic climax in August. Whether you love these proceedings or you have entirely checked out, this is democracy at work!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Canada's Economic Future

Although I have now lived in Ottawa for two years, I haven't taken the time to visit Parliament until recently. Since the spring I've now attended three sessions, and I must admit they have all been very interesting - and for rather different reasons. Last week I caught the end of question period and stayed around for a ninety minute debate that stood to change the course of formal public support for the co-operative sector in Canada.

I recently started a new position, working for an organisation called the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. Not only am I new to the CWCF, I am also inexperienced with the world of co-operatives. In October 2011 I was fortunate enough to meet Mark Goldblatt of the Canadian Co-operative Association. I was active in the Occupy Ottawa movement, and Mark wanted to put on a workshop about the power of co-opeartives as an alternative to business corporations. I helped him get his word across, and a friendship was formed. Over successive lunches he gave me a deep appreciation for the values, the history, and current climate of co-operatives. I learned that co-operatives were special because they were a democratic way of providing goods and services. Moreover, these businesses can share profit fairly - a way that a investor-owned corporation would never even dream of.

I am now someone who proudly works in a vibrant sector, but I am leery of just how sustainable co-operatives will be able to remain given the position of the Canadian government. In April, a release from the Ministry of Agriculture announced that the Co-op Development Initiative (CDI) was going to be cut. This was devastating news. The thousands of struggling co-opearives across Canada will lose a valuable financial lifeline. Additionally, the federal Co-operatives Secretariat has been almost eliminated, meaning that valuable statistics-gathering, research, and partnering with the sector will no longer be a role seriously played by the federal government. Moreover, co-op owners and members will lose the sense of socio-political support from the government, a critical player that can keep co-ops competitive in a sloped playing field. To add insult to injury, this injustice was coming during the United Nations International Year of the Co-operative.

Resistance to the cuts, however, has been minimal. The general public, for one, has not been aware of the cuts. Traditional news outlets have failed to make this a news story - not even CBC Radio One. Alternative news sources have led the charge but this content is only online, where it competes for attention with myriad other important social, environmental, and political issues. The response from the co-op sector has been interesting. While some organisations (the CWCF included) have written letters and lobbied the government, many co-ops have been silent. Broadly, this can be explained two ways. Firstly, it seems that there is a general sense that this one can't be fought. The fact that the general public is essentially unaware of this issue lends credence to the prevailing idea that it may be best to wait until 2015. Secondly, the co-op sector is replete with individuals who are pushing their limits with their involvement. There are physical and monetary obstacles that are preventing many from trying to organise an effective campaign to fight the decision.

Despite the general unawareness of the public and the inability/unwillingness of the sector to reply, the Liberals appointed Mauril Bélanger as "Advocate for Co-operatives". Though no such formal title has existed in federal politics before, this shows the commitment the federal Liberal Party is taking on an important socio-economic issue. Though he has only recently taken on this position, he immediately started working on bringing a motion to the House of Commons to address the severe cuts that the Conservatives have made.

This motion, presented last Wednesday, set to establish a special committee on co-operatives. Bélanger's vision was to create a standing committee that would report to the House of Commons on the state of the co-operative sector in Canada. Formed of twelve parliamentarians, the committee would conduct analysis, bringing forth witnesses and experts from within the sector to determine whether of not continued economic support would be necessary. Moreover, it would address specifically how the state would provided assistance to co-ops (such as reinstating the CDI or creating a comparable programme).

Thankfully, it passed a vote in Parliament. However, despite the cheery attitude of agreement, there is some serious work that needs to be done to ensure that the establishment of this committee will result in meaningful social, economic, and political support in the long-term. Overwhelmingly, it appears that the NDP, the Liberals, the Bloc Québecois, and the Greens showed real support for the co-operative sector in a rather non-partisan way. The four parties demanded that the government reevaluate its position. However, the Conservatives, who were represented by Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Industry Mike Lake, spoke in platitudes about the co-op sector while simultaneously failing to explicitly state that they would continue formal support. In fact, Lake wanted to make an amendment to the committee so that its scope would be far wider than simply co-operatives, eclipsing the need that the special committee is designed to meet.

This was recognised by Malcolm Allen, NDP member for Welland and Critic for Agriculture Canada (and thus co-operatives), who stated that there is a significant difference between rhetoric and action. Moreover, he told an anecdote about how co-ops serve all Canadians - including his parents when they were new immigrants. He remarked that Canadians should "trust the credit union and be leery of the bank".

Overall, it is good news that the co-op motion passed. However, I am concerned about what the establishment of the committee will mean. Firstly, there are seven members of the committee chosen from the Conservative bench, against five from the opposition parties. This means that, should the government not wish to do anything, they can prevent a solution that would have positive benefits for the sector. Secondly, it was rather evident from the proceedings in the House of Commons that the Conservatives were only interested in paying lip service to the idea of supporting co-ops - presumably because it would have made for bad press if they refused to even talk about the possibility of helping co-operatives. Thirdly, before the committee even starts to function, each party must appoint the requisite number of members, by Friday 8 June - and it's not entirely clear that will happen. Finally, my concerns are with the fact that the government does not seem to recognise that co-ops aren't a fringe movement - they are an integral part of economies, rural and urban areas alike. Taking co-ops seriously means not only supporting the sector, but also examining the existing relationship between the neoliberal state and corporate interest. All told, I am cautiously optimistic about last Wednesday, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next six months.