Another old article, this one a review of Marci McDonald’s 2010 expose on the influence of the Christian Right in Canadian politics. Still relevant given that Harper has since gained his majority government and faces another election in October.
As part of my attempt to get back into writing this blog, I’ve been going back through my list of published articles and making sure they’re all still live. Many of the links have changed in the years since I wrote many of those articles, but luckily I copied most to this blog. A few were missed, so here is one of the first republished articles.
Last night, I attended a discussion hosted by the pan London Humanist group on what new opportunities there are for greater democratic engagement following the Scottish referendum on independence. It featured Ian Scott and Gary McLelland from the Humanist Society of Scotland (Ian is Acting Chief Executive and voted yes in the referendum, Gary is the Policy & Public Affairs Officer and campaigned for no), Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association), Will Brett (Head of Campaiggns at the Electoral Reform Society) and Alex Runswick (Chief Executive of Unloock Democracy). Anoosh Chakelin (Deputy Editor of New Statesman) stepped in as the chair for the evening.
It was an interesting discussion despite being, as Alex said, “in danger of everyone agreeing with one another.” That agreement included:
- Electoral reform
- Lowering the voting age to 16
- A citizen-led constitutional convention for the UK
While some non-humanists see tradition as a way to keep society structured, the humanists on the panel agreed that we should critically evaluate our political structures and apply a more rational design, based on evidence and tested against other countries. Humanism is about rejecting dogmas and putting the state in service of the individual. We should ask what we can do to enhance one another’s lives.
They also worried about some of the bitter nationalism seen during the referendum debate. Andrew Copson reminding us that Bertrand Russell frequently spoke out against nationalism, saying that it offered simple silver bullet solutions to all of life’s problems (like Scottish Independence or leaving the EU). Nevertheless, the speakers were optimistic about the engagement generated by the referendum.
The most disagreement in the night came from the questions posed by some members of the audience. One worried that we are just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” by not dealing with the problem of big business’ influence on politics. Another said we should have compulsory voting – to which Gary said he was against anything compulsory as a humanist and Alex pointed out that compulsory voting in Australia had failed to drive up turnout rates at the local level (where it isn’t compulsory). Another questioner asked how you keep small parties out of government in in proportional representation, and he pointed to Israel where (in his words) the Jewish far right has wielded so much influence their airlines can’t even fly 7 days a week – the answer is given by countries across Europe which have threshold levels before a party gains any seats.
The bet comment of the evening though has to go to Andrew Copson, who said the venue, the Palace of Westminster, “was the least democratic building in the Western world, architecturally.” A point I tried to illustrate recently.
I passed a billboard today advertising the British Medical Association (BMA)’s new media campaign. It calls for all political parties to stop playing games with the NHS.
I’ll give them credit – it’s catchy and many people (myself included at times) think politicians too often use promises of reform to the healthcare system as a way to score cheap points. But what does #NoMoreGames actually mean?
We should want, and expect, politicians to lay out their plans for what they’d do differently if elected. It’d be one thing if the BMA were campaigning for specific pledges but instead they’re headline is a shallow complaint that politicians are campaigning too much.
Granted, the BMA expands a bit on their website about what they’d want to see, but overall the message is as shallow as they’re blaming politicians for.
I really don’t see what they’re hoping to accomplish.
But at least there’s already a good theme song for their campaign.
Many legislative debating chambers have been designed and built in the past 50 years. Living in the UK, I’ve been able to travel to and see a number of them.
Continue reading Rounded democracy
Late in 2014, I wrote to my MP, Lynne Featherstone, following a call to action by the British Humanist Association. I’ve just received a response from my MP expressing her support for humanist marriages and a copy of a letter she wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron on our behalf.
Please write today to tell the BC government not to press through its reforms to the BC Societies Act. Email email@example.com before the end of 15 October 2014.
Clark’s Liberal government is looking to overhaul the law that regulates over 27,000 non-profit societies, including almost every active freethought organisation in the province. Many of the reforms are likely good ideas, like allowing societies to be registered and file documents electronically; however, at least one section would potentially allow members of the public to sue non-profits if they feel they are “carrying on activities that are detrimental to the public interest.”
Given that every non-profit is already required by the same law to operate in the public interest, there seems no reason to open non-profits up to the risk of frivolous lawsuits. Vancouver community advocate Sandy Garossino believes this proposal is designed to allow the province’s oil and mining industries to sue environmental NGOs. By the same logic, religious groups could use this same clause to persecute atheist and pro-choice organisations by claiming they are a threat to “traditional values.”
Most frustratingly, the government’s White Paper has been hiding on their website for months with little notification to the thousands of non-profits that are going to be affected by this. Every organisation in the province should have been told about this consultation and given the chance to respond.
The paper is 166 pages. There is simply not enough time to know what other changes will impact non-profits in the province. A quick glance suggests extra reporting requirements and changes to what needs to be in the by-laws.
The government needs to extend the deadline for responses and seek feedback from those who are set to be affected.
Moving to London (details eventually coming) has allowed me to attend more great events. Last night, I attended the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Hustings all-candidates forum for the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections. The event was held in Conway Hall, London’s freethought home.
To my mind, no humanist group in Canada has ever hosted a similar event, but the first major difference here was how, in their opening speeches, nearly every candidate identified as either being a member of the BHA or an atheist. This was especially surprising for some as all major parties, including the Tories and UKIP, were in attendance.
I live tweeted the event, so you can find my reactions under #HHEP14. I thought I’d just post some additional thoughts here.
First, the strongest speaker was, by far, UKIP candidate Tony Brown. Faced with a largely antagonistic audience, Brown made his best case to connect with the audience, discussing his upbringing in an “atheist family” and noting his admiration for Richard Dawkins. He repeatedly tried to draw a link between the EU, and particularly the large European People’s Party (representing numerous Christian Democrat parties), and the Catholic Church. It was a fairly novel argument and could appeal to a nationalistic secularist. Nevertheless, his line that “I’m not a climate change denier, the climate has always been changing” and subsequent denial of man-made climate change was met with heckles.
The other stand-out speaker was Caroline Allen of the Green Party. Her smartest line was to admit that the Green’s science policy had been pretty weak in the past but that they’ve done a lot of work on it and people should give it another look (I will, the link is here). Unfortunately, she lost some credit on this front (in my mind) by maintaining the party line against fracking and GMOs.
Otherwise, the Liberal Democrat, Matt J McLaren, and Tory, Caroline Attfield, both sounded a bit nervous, although McLaren caught his stride near the end and made a strong argument about secularism as a core Lib-Dem value. Attfield, meanwhile, went off policy on a couple points, suggesting that Europe could play a bigger role on security issues (she clarified that she meant foreign policy when probed) and that the role of the Church of England is shrinking.
Dr Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party made a spirited defense of the NHS and represented her single issue party well. On other issues, she sided between Labour and the Lib Dems (ironically also where she was seated).
Finally, Mary Honeyball, representing Labour and the only sitting MEP at the debate, gave a decent defense of her party, but I got the sense after that she didn’t really inspire anyone. Whether she was aiming to play it safe or not, I think there was a missed opportunity by Honeyball.
My question, prefaced with a thanks to the parties that voted for recent clinical trial regulations (#AllTrials), was on how the candidates would involve evidence in their decision making in the future. Each gave a relatively predictable answer (evidence is widely seen as a good thing), with Dr Irvine mentioning the value of publishing all clinical trials and Brown admitting that the UKIP vote against the regulation was about keeping the policy within the UK, rather than being personally against the idea.
I realised later I should have asked if the candidates would publicly change their mind if evidence proved them wrong. When I asked this to Brown after, he pointed out that Nigel Farage has repeatedly done just that, in particular, noting where his party has been far off.
After the event, I went for a couple drinks and finally managed to meet Andrew Copson, the BHA’s Chief Executive, who very expertly chaired the evening.
Stephen Harper and Canada’s Conservative government received rare praise from people in my social media circle for his quick decisions to recall Canada’s ambassador to Russia in condemnation for their occupation of The Crimea in Ukraine.
Continue reading Canada, Ukraine, and Missing Internationalism
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.