Category Archives: Politics

Nature blasts Swiss anti-immigration referendum

As part of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, Swiss voters recently approved immigration caps by a narrow margin. This means that the country, which has remained independent of the European Union, will no longer be able to continue to allow the free movement of labour with its neighbours (a fundamental plank of the EU).

It’s not clear yet how much the Swiss government is going to clamp down on immigration but the vote has already attracted condemnation from the editorial board of the leading scientific journal, Nature. They note that the move was fuelled by xenophobia rather than rational debate:

But direct democracy becomes problematic if it is driven by populism and irrational fears, such as those over unemployment and crime (Switzerland is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world, and the current unemployment rate is barely 3.5%). Certainly, immigration there has increased over the past decade — but this is in large part because the economy and health system rely heavily on the services of foreign workers. Ironically, the initiative to ‘stop mass immigration’ got the highest level of support in rural areas, where there are relatively few foreigners. In cosmopolitan cities, such as Zurich, Basle and Geneva, a majority of voters rejected the initiative.

I’m encouraged to see Nature weigh into this debate. Often scientists are wary of stepping into political debates – either for pragmatic reasons (you need to keep everyone happy to keep funding up) or personal disinterest (they’d rather focus on their experiments). But in USA under George Bush and in Canada under Harper, we see a continued assault on science and pure research by those who would rather focus on industry and climate change denialism.

Similarly, immigration debates have a huge impact on the exchange of ideas. Here in the UK, there are many stories of professors, professionals with PhDs, who are unable to secure the proper visa to begin employment, due to draconian anti-immigration laws.

Discriminatory engineers?

One of my undergraduate classmates linked to an article on a recent Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal finding that Alberta’s professional association for engineers (APEGA, formerly APEGGA – which it’s referred to in the decision) discriminated against an international applicant. APEGA is already planning to appeal the decision.

The 67 page decision is available on the APEGA website.

So what happened?

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Supreme Court strikes down Canada’s prostitution laws

A few weeks ago I did a “mini-cruise” to Amsterdam. We spent two nights on a ferry (which was really a small cruise ship) and had about 6 hours to explore the infamous capital of The Netherlands.

During that time, we walked through De Wallen, Amsterdam’s red light district where prostitutes stand in windows in their undergarments, advertising to potential clients. The entire practice is fully legal, regulated, and generally safe (though perpetually controversial).

It may now be a glimpse of Canada’s future as the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, has ruled that the governments laws against prostitution do not stand up against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, the exchange of money for sex is not illegal in Canada, but (1) living off the profits, (2) advertising, and (3) running a brothel were. This combination of rules made it effectively illegal as one could be arrested for soliciting sex on the street, could not operate out of their own or a shared premise, and could not hire security or bodyguards.

Because of the dangers created by working the streets, a number of sex workers and their supporters from various civil liberties and legal defence groups in Ontario challenged the laws in the Ontario Supreme Court. That court overturned the laws but the government won appeal at the Court of Appeal.

This lead to the showdown in the Supreme Court of Canada today, which has the final say on the issue. Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, who tends to write brilliant decisions, wrote for the unanimous majority:

The appeals should be dismissed and the cross?appeal allowed.  Sections 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) of the Criminal Code are declared to be inconsistent with the Charter.  The declaration of invalidity should be suspended for one year.

This verdict is very similar to the Morgentaler decision, which ruled that Canada’s abortion laws infringed upon a woman’s right to security of the person but granted Parliament a year to draft new legislation.

Brian Mulroney’s government actually did pass a bill through the House of Commons but it died in the Senate (our unelected chamber) in a tie vote. Since then, Canada has had no legal restriction on abortions (instead it is now treated as the medical procedure that it is).

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are now in the awkward position of having to draft a law on a highly controversial topic – something they have opted not to do at every turn for the entirety of their time in power.

Not that I like to be in the position of giving advice to the government, but one potential option might be to criminalize prostitution itself. The entire ruling dealt with Canada’s way of making a legal activity incredibly dangerous. I suspect that this is the direction that will likely come about (although I haven’t read the full background to the decision) and would also probably be supported by the Liberal Party and maybe even Mulcair’s NDP (because unfortunately no one really wants to be seen as on the side of the prostitutes).

Despite the progress Canada made in the 1990s and early 2000s, I don’t think it’s quite reached the permissive attitude of The Netherlands.

Today’s required readings on revolution

Following his manifesto for a revolution, Russell Brand received ample praise and criticism, which he explores in a piece in yesterday’s Guardian.

I think he makes a lot of good points in there, key among them is an admission of his own potential faults and biases:

One thing I’ve learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol’ sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let’s face it, a bit racist. I don’t want to be a sexist so I’m trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.

Watching people receive criticism online, I’ve come to expect the double-down defence, where rather than stop and consider that there may be some legitimacy to the complaints, the author denies, obfuscates, and attacks to defend himself (and it’s typically him). So II was actually really surprised to see this admission in Brand’s writing.

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Same old politics or revolution?

Progressives are buzzing after British comedian-turned-revolutionary Russell Brand released his revolutionary manifesto as guest editor of the latest issue of New Statesman and went on an anti-capitalist rant when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight.

The editorial is worth reading in its entirety. It wanders quite a bit but combined with the interview identify the core complaint that galvanized the support behind the 2011 London Riots, the Quebec protests, and the Occupy Movement: The system is broken and it won’t be fixed from within.

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Albertans choose progressive mayors

After a surprise victory in the 2010 purple wave, Naheed Nenshi became one of Canada’s most popular mayors during his handling of severe floods in Calgary earlier this year.

Few predicted any chance of him losing his position in yesterday’s election and perhaps the only shock was the size of his victory, with 74% of the city voting for him.

Meanwhile, Edmonton saw a heated race as popular incumbent Steve Mandel opted to retire on a high note (rather than be unseated like most of his predecessors). Three councillors stepped forward to challenge for the seat, with Don Iveson’s ‘policy wonk’ campaign taking over 60% of the vote in the end. Iveson’s campaign drew on his time at the University of Alberta and engaged a number of my friends.

Both mayors have promised to slow urban sprawl by investing in urban density, mass transit, and bicycle lanes. This approach is familiar and popular in Vancouver, where Gregor Robertson is equally popular.

The results aren’t too surprising for anyone who closely follows Alberta politics. Despite the province’s tendency to vote overwhelming for Conservative provincial and federal parties, the cities tend to be more liberal and many mayors of both major cities have been further to the left than their provincial and federal colleagues.

Meanwhile, a right-wing slate of candidates for Airdrie’s city council was rejected in favour of the incumbents.

And congrats to my aunt who was re-elected to the Rocky View Municipal Council.

Give everyone money

Following a successful petition initiative, Switzerland is set to be the first Western nation to vote on whether to implement a basic income program.

The idea has various names: Basic Income, Negative Income Tax, or Guaranteed Annual Income, which have the same basic premise of giving everyone money. Rather than rely on complex welfare or unemployment systems that require the un(der)-employed to jump through various hoops in order to collect benefits, the state simply provides a cheque every month to top people’s income up to a living wage, regardless of how much work is done.

Perhaps most interesting was that this policy was actually tested experimentally in Manitoba, Canada during the Liberal 1970s. The Mincome Program ran for five years and measured a number of social outcomes. Unfortunately, when the Liberal government fell in 1979, the following Progressive Conservative government shut down the experiment and locked away the results were locked away for 30 years until researchers managed to gain access.

Their findings were quite impressive.

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