Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Reform Will Fail

Source: CBC News: Conservative MP Michael Chong Makes Bid to Fix Parliament

Even with Perrin's e-mails being found amongst the clutter, and some shake ups in the Senate, let's take a bit of a break and look at a 'non-releated-but-totally-releated' consequence of the Senate Scandal fallout.

Ontario Conservative MP Michael Chong is bringing forward a bill to redistribute some of the power of the Prime Minister, and all party leaders. It would take the leadership establishment out of the nomination process, and even establish a method by which the party caucus could remove a leader from power.

The biggest change here, obviously, is going to be felt in Electoral District Associations; but not in all of them.

All parties are scrambling to say that their party doesn't have a top down leadership structure when it comes to nominating candidates. I can speak to my experience as a NDP candidate, and there certainly wasn't any top down control there. The only real outsider presence felt was the need to undergo a criminal background check, as part of the nomination package. Other than that, I never needed a 'green light' from Jack Layton to seek the nomination.

So, from my own experience, the NDP is already pretty good at letting EDAs run the show in their own ridings.

However, Liberals and Conservatives don't have the same legacy.

Liberals, dating back ages, have been accused of (and caught) parachuting in candidates to ridings. There was complaints in 2008 from Saskatchewan politician David Orchard that he was being squeezed out of running in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, after then leader Stephane Dion appointed Joan Beatty rather than have a nomination.

The Conservatives suffer from the same perception. As seen in the nomination battle for Brandon-Souris, which saw two candidates disqualified for 'late paperwork' which led to the party's preferred candidate being acclaimed as the candidate in that riding.

So, when it comes to finding candidates, the record for the NDP looks best when compared to the rest.

However, I suppose there is an argument being made that this will have the largest impact on incumbent candidates. After all, the argument seems to be that current MPs need their leader to sign off on their nomination papers for the next election; which, not being an MP, I couldn't speak to a record for any party on this issue.

By removing this check, and putting into the hands of the EDAs, makes for an interesting dynamic. After all, it would give MPs a bit more liberty in what they say and do in Parliament as they are beholden to their EDAs over their leader. Of course, this could also lead to an increase in problematic issues being brought forward and debated. (Such as the number of Tories chomping at the bit to reopen the abortion or same-sex marriage debates.)

Handing over nomination signing to the EDAs, however, isn't a sure fire fix.

If a MP runs afoul of their party/leader, I'd imagine we see an increase in contested nominations in incumbent ridings. After all, the party could likely find a replacement who is a better fit for the party and work towards getting them nominated over the incumbent. And while this doesn't spell the death knell for all incumbents, since many will likely continue to enjoy the support of their constituents, it would be a new hurdle for incumbents prior to the election.

But, the main thing I want to discuss is the leadership review being proposed.

Conservatives already seem like they're getting ready to defeat this bill; as Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poiliever has already spoken out against the bill. And while it may look like bad optics for the Cons to vote down a bill on democratic reform in a time when many Canadians are looking at the abuses of consolidated power; I would suggest they will go a different tact.

The leadership threshold is 15% of caucus members. This is a number that I imagine the Conservative leadership will see as far too low. I'd imagine a 'Rathegabering' of this bill is going to happen; with the threshold being lifted to 50% or higher in the aim of 'protecting stable government'. Which in turn, I imagine, would lead to the willing members of the opposition to condemn the bill; which the government will then use as sound clips for them being anti-democratic.

It's the most likely scenario I can see from this.

The Conservative majority will not allow this bill to pass as it stands; the statements and reactions from the front bench members of caucus highlight this. So, it will either be killed outright or neutered of any real power through amendments. It's also looking like the NDP and Liberals will allow a free vote for their members on this issue, while the Conservatives have stayed silent.

In the end, it's a good attempt at reform and of returning a modicum of power to the electorate; but in its current form, it won't survive. And if it does, I imagine it will be amended beyond recognition and usefulness.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

With Freedom and Liberty for Some, Sometimes.

I know, I know, the senate scandal had some interesting things happen this afternoon. But, as I started this post prior to those revelations, we'll talk about this first and senate tomorrow or so. 

Somehow, I have ended up on the mailing list for Conservative MP Joy Smith; I would assume this blog has something to do with it, but who can say for sure. As such, I was treated to today's media release on her inviting a known "pornographic expert" to Canada to speak on the perils of internet pornography.

Smith made some news earlier in the year, as one of the MPs in Canada that lauded the UK's "opt-in" requirement for citizens to be able to access internet pornography. In a nutshell, the UK plans to put an automatic block on access to XXX rated websites; in order to view them, a person would have to call their internet provider and opt in.

Naturally, this has raised a great deal of privacy concerns; with some people going as far as to suggest that a list of "opted in" citizens could be used for nefarious means. (Say in an election campaign; or even perhaps to deny someone a job because they are known to be on the list.)

While those are extreme examples, I would point out that our health records (especially in Saskatchewan) continuously are found in dumpsters, alleyways, street corners, etc; and the concept of such a list falling into public knowledge does exist. Heck, there's even just the occasional 'office snoop', as we've seen with celebrity health records in the US, who is just curious to see what's there.

It also doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the real problem, in that an opt in list is about as effective as a magic rock for keeping away tigers. Opt in lists sounds good to people who don't know the first thing about technology; it's something that sounds effective and foolproof, but is far from.

An opt in list would work likely based on the user's IP address, the means that is used by your service provider to identify your computer. But there are dozens of free, online proxy services at reroute your traffic under a different IP address. These services can be both through your web client, or through a standalone program, and would most likely circumvent the opt in ban.

After all, a proxy can be used to set your traffic as coming from another country ( in the way some enterprising Canadians do to allow themselves access to American Netflix movies and services such as Hulu), so your IP could appear from a country that has no such opt in requirement.

These services are not hard to find, nor do they need a computer science degree to understand. And much like when I was in school, there will be the one kid who knows how to do these things and passes that information along to other students. This is part of the real problem, in that parents are not staying up to date with technological advances.

I self taught myself a computer at 12, with a bit of help from school computer courses that used Macs instead of my home PC; and a lot of trial and error gave me a pretty decent understanding of how to use a computer.

The next generation is even better at it than I was at that age; and I would expect this trend to keep continuing. 

Parents have at home options, such as 'nanny blocker' software that blocks keywords and access to certain sites. Again, for a technologically savvy kid, it won't stop them. Neither will an opt in ban, for the reasons we already discussed.

Older generations, like Joy Smith, see this as a solution to a problem they don't fully understand. While neglecting the fact that those who do understand it, already have seven ways and then some around their solution. 

There is one thing that actually does work, that no tech savvy kid can get around: parental supervision. Keeping computers out of bedrooms, and in public rooms of the house, for example. While that may not stop kids from accessing pornography completely, it's the only real solution, and it requires an effort by parents.

It's also never been fully enforced. That lesson has been around since the advent of home computers, yet I've very rarely seen a computer in an open space for parents to keep watch. Ultimately, it is only the parents who can enforce this kind of rule in their own homes; as legislation will only prove costly and ineffective. 

Or to borrow a phrase from the Conservatives around the gun registry; it criminalizes legal users, and doesn't prevent any crime.

Which brings me to the level of cognitive dissonance that continues to exist in Conservative caucus members and their supporters. The right has always demanded that the government stay out of their lives and bemoaned the creation of the nanny state. 

Yet, conservatives are quick to call for stricter measures and tighter bureaucracy then "left wing"counterparts. You cannot be the party that calls for social libertarianism and decreased government, while also being the party that wants to increase bureaucratic regulation or restrict the free action of others.

As stated, this is the kind of monitoring that does not work well against the tech savvy; of which, children are amongst (especially when compared to parents and grandparents). Direct parental monitoring is cheaper, and far more effective. 

If the conservatives want to protect children from the horrors they might find online, they should give parents the means and the know how to do so. Let's increase tech literacy for adults; let's encourage computers in open rooms, not bedrooms. 

Harper said at the Conservative Convention that they put money and decision making into the hands of real child experts "mom & dad", in reference to the child tax credit; well the same is true on this issue. It's time to let mom and dad watch their children, and expect mom and dad to stay up to date on technology and how their children use it. It will be far more cost effective, and far more effective in general in the long run.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Deja Harper

With much more of a whimper than a bang, Harper's three 'disgraced' Senators have been suspended from the Senate. No doubt, Conservative insiders are patting each other on the back and sitting back and assuming that this headache is finally about the pass.

But is it?

Recent polling data has shown that the government, and particularly the Prime Minister, have taken a hit in popularity. Harper's own personal credibility is in tatters, as many Canadians have stated that they do not believe Harper's chain of events. Perhaps the biggest success story here is what Mike Duffy accomplished when he returned to the Senate: He didn't make this issue about his expenses, he made it about Harper and his office.

Since Harper ascended to leadership, over people like Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach, he has always been seen as the 'control freak'. And it was understandable as to why.

Having effectively crushed the 'progressive' from Progressive Conservative, Harper knew that his party needed to reach out from its core base if it ever wanted to form government. And while it was certainly helped by the Liberal Sponsorship Scandal, it was Harper's meticulous approach to control that also helped propel him to power.

After all, we all remember the 'muzzling' of Conservative candidates. In Saskatchewan, outspoken pro-lifers Brad Trost and Maurice Vellacott often found themselves in hot water over speaking their minds during election campaigns. They gave soundbytes that often went national, and served as a gentle reminder to Canadians that the Conservative Party had some hard-right ideologues in it.

So, rather than stamp down the candidate, Harper muzzled them. No answers to reporters without it being 'approved' first. Avoiding public debate forums, or anywhere, where you could be ambushed into saying something that embarrasses the party. It's a strategy we continue to see, as I understand the current by-election in Toronto Centre has been plagued by Conservative candidate no-shows at forums...An approach the Liberal candidate is also using, it must be noted.

From that onset, we saw a leader who was obsessive over staying on point and ensuring complete control over his caucus. We know, it is well documented, that Stephen Harper is a control freak.

And so, when Harper stood up before the House of Commons to announce that he'd been deceived by his own office; people who have watched this Prime Minister since 2006 were understandably doubtful.

However, this is not the first time Stephen Harper has been misled.

Recall back to 2004, just before the fall of the Liberal Government. The budget bill was coming down, the Sponsorship Scandal was approaching full swing, and the Conservative opposition was looking to bring down Paul Martin by defeating the budget.

It was going to be a close vote, and the entire thing hinged around a single person: Independent MP Chuck Cadman.

Doug Finley and now disgraced former adviser Tom Flanagan met with Cadman in an attempt to convince him to vote with the opposition and bring down the government. On his deathbed, Cadman told his wife that the offer included a $1 million dollar life insurance policy for his support.

Conservatives have long denied this claim, even going as far as taking the Liberals to court for defamation (a suit which was later dropped without settlement paid to either side). At the heart of the suit was an audio tape by author Tom Zytaruk, who was writing a book on Cadman. Zytaruk brought up the question of the life insurance policy, prompting this answer from Harper:

"I don't know the details. I know that there were discussions,"

This was in direct contradiction to Harper's previous claim that he knew nothing about any offer, or that any offer was made to Cadman at all. Conservatives were quick to condemn the tape, suggesting that it had to be edited. However, one of the audio experts hired by Harper and Company found that the tape was not edited. More importantly, it found that the part containing the question about the life insurance policy was not edited; which was the part of the tape that Harper had contested.

And while Conservatives deny any offer was ever made to Cadman; James Moore said in the Commons that "There were three people at the meeting that we are talking about here and all three of them said that no offer was made."But this is starting to sound like Rob Ford's excuse of the wrong question being asked.

Cadman was made an offer, which the Conservatives have admitted to, outside of the life insurance offer. Cadman was to be welcomed back into the Conservative caucus, and his nomination was to be secured by the party for the next election. In addition to an uncontested nomination, Cadman would be targeted as a 'high priority' candidate for the party, and be privy to a high amount of financial support for his re-election campaign.

Jeez, why does all this sound familiar?

Oh, that's right, Mike Duffy and the Senate.

Like Finley and Flanagan, Nigel Wright made an offer to Duffy that Harper didn't know the details of. And according to the Conservatives, yet again,  there was no offer to Duffy or any kind of deal in place.

Yet, we have the the man at the centre offering a different story. Duffy and Cadman provided alternate versions of the story coming from Harper, his office, and his caucus.

Duffy, however, seems to have documents to at least cast a further shadow of doubt. Though, in fairness, one has to wonder if we shouldn't have given a lot more weight to the words of a man on his deathbed.

And again, according to Duffy's version, we see a deal in the works. A retaining of his Senate seat, a handling of kid gloves with the Deloitte audit, and the support of his Conservative colleagues.

There's a few things we can take away from the similarities in these stories.

Firstly, it would seem for a control freak, Stephen Harper makes horrible decisions when it comes to his inner circle. Finley, Flanagan, Wright, and numerous others have gone out of their way to keep the Prime Minister in the dark about unsavory details. Harper at least admits that Finley presented the deal of welcoming Cadman back into caucus, and a guaranteed election spot, but denied the life insurance claim.

Much in the same way he now denies knowing a single thing about Wright and Duffy's deal, despite the fact that more and more Top Conservatives are becoming embroiled in the scandal with each passing day.

Secondly, if anything, it shows what sort of culture Stephen Harper has fostered in his tenure as leader and Prime Minister. While the RCMP declined to press charges over the Cadman Affair, as there was no proof towards the life insurance claim, there is a question to be made over the offer that was made.

Which brings us to the Rob Ford "asking the wrong question" question. There is a strong case to be made that offering an independent MP an uncontested nomination, and high priority party financial support in the next election, exists as a direct violation of the Parliament of Canada Act. (Section 41, Articles 1, 2, and 3)

Had the Liberal complaint focused on the offer of a guaranteed nomination, as opposed to just focusing on the life insurance policy, would the outcome have been different for Finley and Flanagan? An interesting question, but one that will forever exist in the 'what if' category of life.

Finally, what we can really take away from this, is that the Harper Government has used the same kind of tactics over and over when they find themselves in political hot water. Protect Harper, deny his involvement, and lay the blame on the opposition whilst finding a staffer to throw under the oncoming bus.

And what we've seen, looking at the Cadman Affair, is that at the very least Harper always seems to know more than he's let on. Of course, the Cadman Affair died a quiet death after the 2008 election. Conservative court action kept the Liberals from using the Cadman Tape, or even mentioning it too loudly, during the campaign that saw Harper returned to power with a strengthened minority government.

The defamation case was settled, and since then we haven't heard a damned thing about it.

And that is the lesson we need to take away from this, above all else. The Conservatives have used the legal route to shut down their wrongdoings in the past, and have done so rather successfully one must admit. In a court case between Duffy and the Conservative Party, there is no guarantee that any details will make their way to light.

Worse, Duffy has now been robbed of his 'safe zone' for revealing his side of the story. Without Senate privilege, Duffy now risks libel, slander, and defamation suits if he names names and calls out anyone else involved. The Conservatives have not been afraid of litigation in the past, and it would seem to me, that they would be all to happy to induce Duffy's silence by threat of a lengthy, and costly, court process.

Canadians have a little under two years until we go to polls. An election wiped the Cadman Affair from the circuits of our memories, and that was just the tip of the iceberg showing the rot in the Conservative Party. Canadians have been denied the full story on numerous allegations against the Conservatives; from Chuck Cadman, the ETS Scandal, and now Duffy and his fellow Senators.

An election campaign does not erase the need for answers to be provided. History thus far, at least in seeing how the Conservatives deal with scandal, show that they have a lot of answer for. Canadians must demand those answers, and not allow this government to continue to tuck away the truth.

It is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. There isn't anything said about those who are forcefully denied the truth of history, but I can only imagine what happens to people in that situation. Canadians deserve answers; the government answers to the people, not the other way around. And while suspending Duffy and the others has denied them due process, and a place to report their version of events free from litigation designed to slow them down, it has not delivered justice that any Canadian should be proud of.

This is not about Senate expenses; it is about the manner in which we expect politicians to act once elected, and how much truth and transparency we deserve by those who serve at our leisure. And right now, it seems like the truth be damned by our current government.

Government exists to serve the people, not the success of the party in power. And while denying, obscuring, and half-truths are good for the Conservative Party's future electoral fortunes; they are damning for the Canadian public.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Throw Away The Key

As promised during our talking about the throne speech, though slightly detoured due to Senate revelations, I think it's time we sit down and talk a bit about prisons.

Prisons are arguably one of those 'flashpoint' topics in politics; the sort of issue where you find extremes on both sides, and very little room for compromise in the middle. People typically fall into two groups, represented by an old metaphor, the carrot and the stick.

The carrot group believe in rehabilitation. Prison exists as not only as a punishment, but also as a means of attempting to correct the offender. It is not enough to simply lock them away for their sentence; rather, we must offer the ability for betterment.

The stick group takes the opposite extreme. Prison is for punishment and punishment alone. These people violated the rights of another individual, and as such, they're forfeited their own rights in the process. We have nothing to give them, nor should they expect anything, other than punishment for their offense.

These tend to be the two 'majority' viewpoints when it comes to the discussion of prisons. As mentioned, there also seems to be little to no middle ground when it comes to this issue. I remember an all candidates' debate I attended during the 2006 Election campaign. The Liberal candidate drew a good laugh and response from the crowd when he responded, "No one says we can't let them shower, but no one says we have to give them warm water."

It's one of two memories from that campaign that has always stuck with me.

And it's also a reason why we need to be able to talk about the state of prisons in Canada, and the future of them.

However, before we get to that, there's a few key issues and definitions we need to settle upon first. So, let's do a small crash course on history before moving forward. My apologies, if my legal history is a little spotty, but I will do my best to make sure I don't make any glaring errors. As always, corrections are welcomed.

We'll start with the idea of codified law. The idea that a list of offenses were drafted, with punishments set for offenses continues to form the existence of modern law. The most famous of these sets of ideas is the Code of Hammurabi (LINK), which dates back to around 1772 BC. While not the oldest set of codified law, it remains one of the oldest that we have a complete set of. And as joked about in the Daily Show's book, America, "redefined the social contract from 'I will kill you' to 'I will kill you if you do one of the following 282 things."

Effectively, it established the limits and scope of law. It also helped to establish the presumption of innocence before guilt; as it applied means to provide evidence for both the accused and accuser. And while it may be extreme in punishment, and many of the laws no longer apply to modern life, it is indeed a major cornerstone in the foundation of modern law.

Hammurabi's Code, also, can be argued to be the source of the idea of punitive law. Punishments according to the code were often harsh, often ranging to death, and based on the idea of the victim receiving a means of retaliation against the accused.

For example, one law states " If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death." Imagine a better business bureau having to undertake that kind of investigation against a contractor.

Effectively, Hammurabi's Code established the idea of retaliation over 'justice'. For example, another of Hammurabi's laws states: "If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out." This speaks volumes to the level of recourse the victim had under Babylonian law. It also stresses that 'justice' was equal to direct punishment, rather than an infringement upon certain rights.

Hammurabi's Code promised, as the Daily Show joked, that if you made a violation you would be harshly punished.

Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato with his work "Laws", began to challenge some of the finality of vengeance in justice. Detainment, as a legal punishment, took quite awhile to catch on. For the most part, detainment was used as a means of punishing offenders who could not afford to pay fines; or in most cases, used as a means of securing hard labour from offenders. Effectively, for the longest time, detainment was not seen as a full means of punishment. In fact, detainment was often used before a more permanent sentence, such as execution, was passed on the offender.

It would be until the Middle Ages that detainment became seen as a tangible idea for punishment. In Europe, with the construction of castles and fortress and other 'strong' buildings, it became possible to place a person under a state of detention for a long period of time. No doubt, many of you will be aware of the history of the Tower of London. While the name often invokes a sense of dread, people often forget that the Tower served as one of the most secure buildings in London.

It was not uncommon for the Monarch, or the heir, to spend time in Tower as a guest for an extended period of time. This remains the case for 'noble' offenders throughout the Middle Ages. Being the 'prisoner' of another noble was more like an extended vacation than it was confinement; at least, if you were of noble birth and the charge against you wasn't too extreme.

Suddenly, we start to see what the notion of "courtesy" had on the notion of punitive law. It becomes incomprehensible to inflict the harshest punishment imaginable on a fellow member of the gentrified classes, and as such, we must extend all courtesy towards them during their time in my remand. Granted, it would take quite a bit of time until this level of courtesy was extended to the lower classes, but it's a starting point to see where change began to develop.

Not to say that all nobles were immediately excused of their crimes with a lavish detainment. Depending on the mood of the Monarch, the harshest punishment was still an option, though considerations other than guilt often determined the course of action. But, as stated, it was a start. It was move away from the demand for vengeance as the qualifier of appropriate punishment.

Now that we've sort of fleshed out the idea of punitive punishment, and where it came from, we need to look back on why these punishments exist in the first place, and whether our punishments are justified or not. That means taking a closer look at the Social Contract.

The Stanford Philosophical Encyclopedia is a great resource for philosophical ideals, and I highly recommend checking it out, as we will be relying on it quite a bit for this next bit. (LINK)

The modern idea of the Social Contract is usually traced by to Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argues that without law, man would exist in a state of nature that is marked by excessive violence. This is because everyone would be free to do whatever they want, in any amount that they want. For example, A could kill B, simply because A wanted to.

As such, free man subject themselves to the will of a civil society (a monarch, a ruling body/parliament, etc) and surrender 'rights' based on the idea of achieving protections from a state of nature. Later philosophers, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau placed greater emphasis on understanding that securing rights for ourselves means guaranteeing rights for other people.

Effectively, however, it comes down to the general idea that citizens of a state will surrender 'absolute freedom' in order to secure basic rights. So, while A has the capacity to murder B, A will refrain from doing so due to the social contract that protects A's life from C. Or put more simply, a person agrees not to kill someone else in the hopes of ensuring that the state will protect their life from someone else as well.

As such, as part of the surrendering of absolute freedom, we expect the state that we've empowered to have the means to punish those who step outside the bounds of the Social Contract. After all, if the state is powerless to enforce the contract, then the individual is surrendering rights without receiving anything in return.

And this is where we start to reach the problem of modern capital punishment, and one of the issues where the 'carrot' VS 'stick' group tend to argue with one another.

The violation of the social contract calls for the state to take action against the violator. It is an affront to the entire society if a person who violates the social contract, by refusing to curtail their own 'absolute freedom' (like the rest of us), is allowed to enact this freedom without some sort of rebuking.

The problem is now found in what happens to the rights of the violator under the Social Contract? The 'stick' group would argue that by violating the contract, they have nullified their own protections or entitlement to the rights enjoyed by the law abiding citizens of the society.

The 'carrot' group would argue that although the person has violated the contract, the social agreement between the entire society and the state, still applies to a person's basic rights as defined by the state.

Let's put that into simpler terms.

The 'stick' group argues that a violation of the social contract invalidates all rights afford to a person by that contract. The 'carrot' group argues that a person who has violated the social contract still has basic rights.

This is the foundation of perhaps the biggest gap between these two groups. After all, the 'stick' group sees the offender as now existing outside of the social contract. As such, we have no commitments to honour with them. Whereas the 'carrot' group, would say that regardless of a violation of the social contract, the fact that they remain a citizen of the state provides them the same basic protections afford to non-offenders.

This mindset creates a very different reality when you try to measure what prison is supposed to accomplish for an offender.

Like Hammurabi, the 'stick' group would advocate for a harsh justice that ensures the victims of the offender receive a form of retaliation for the offense. This could be a simple striping away of all their rights; or life imprisonment, or in some countries, the death penalty.

Like Plato, the 'carrot' group would see the fault of the offense as a failing of the person; and to some degree, a failure of the society. As such, an emphasis should be placed upon rehabilitation and fixing the fault inherent in the individual.

Though, in fair disclosure, Plato did argue for the death penalty for certain individuals who were deemed beyond redemption and saving.

And this brings us to the question of how we should be using prisons in today's society. Since the Middle Ages, our legal system has been evolving. We've moved away from the cold brutality of Hammurabi, and instead have tried focus on the more noble goal of rehabilitation laid out by Plato and other philosophers.

The problem, however, is that the people who agreed with Hammurabi's extremism in justice have not disappeared with the practice. In fact, political parties now base entire sections of their platforms around the idea of strengthening the punishment of prisons. As noted, the Throne Speech included a call for the government to make a life sentence exactly that, a lifetime detainment.

We're going to talk about the practicality of such an idea in a moment, but for now, we're going to stick with the philosophical view on the issue.

Firstly, we need to talk about whether stripping an individual of their rights for a violation of the social contract is indeed a punishment we should be enacting.

In 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It contains several Articles, establishing rights, that we will be talking about:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

"Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law."

"All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination."

Effectively, this establishes the fundamental human rights of all people; even those who have violated the social contract. People who favour the 'stick' approach in establishing the behaviour of prisons, are indeed advocating 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.' I refer you back to my 'no one says they need hot water' comment that I opened the post with.

Prisons exist to take away one key component from a person's rights: their right to liberty. After all, it was their adherence to absolute freedom that led to them being imprisoned. They refused to curtail their freedoms, as society expects, and as such have placed in remand where the greatest freedom of all has already been taken from them.

This lack of freedom just doesn't extend to physical mobility, but to the very aspects of control one's life in general. After all, prisoners are told when to wake up; when to eat; when to go to sleep; and whether or not they're allowed to step out into the 'yard'. So, prison exists to crush and curtail absolute freedom.

For the 'carrot' group, this seems to be punishment enough. For the 'stick' group, it barely scratches the surface. It also calls to mind the old familiar chant, 'don't do the crime, if you don't want to do the time'.

But that in itself exposes the truth about the punishment of prison, doesn't it? The time. The punishment is the time. It is the inability to control one's life, to dictate your own actions and be master of your own decisions, for a set amount of time. After all, what greater punishment could there be than to deprive someone of the ability to make their own decisions for set amount of time?

However, there are arguments for the 'stick' side where they begin to harken back to noble courtesy. For many people who favour stronger prison punishments, they cite the idea that prisons have become an almost holiday for the prisoners who reside within. It seems to conjure up images where prisoners have a bed, television, computer, and individual toilet in their cell.

Though, this is often not the case.

In Canada, prisoners make a wage for the work done while in prison. In fact, prisoners are currently 'on strike' over a pay reduction in the face of an increased cost to essential items, like shampoo or deodorant. (LINK) Furthermore, according to Corrections Canada, prisoners also incur costs while under incarceration. For example, an inmate will have pay deducted from their work to go towards food and accommodation. (LINK)

Inmate also have to purchase items from canteens, based on availability determined by the regional 'allowed' list. (LINK) I think this is worth mentioning as many people seem to be under the idea that prisoners have 'everything provided' for them. Quite honestly, this is not the case. Inmates are paid a stipend for their work, and can use this to purchase items that they may need.

If you look at the appendix in the last link, this includes items like razors, nail clippers, toothpaste, toothbrush, tampons, etc. Essentially, items that a person WILL need at some point and time. This items are not simply provided to inmates, they have to purchase them. And that money comes either from the work that they've done while at the prison, or from friends/family who have provided funds for their use to the prison.

The same goes for television sets and computers. 'Stick' proponents make it sound like Corrections Canada provides a TV and computer to every single inmate; but this is simply not the case. Once again, access to these types of electronic devices comes from friends/family from outside the prison. They also must conform to the rules laid down by the prison regarding these devices. (LINK)

So, while 'stick' people might want you to imagine a prisoner with a 50'' flat screen watching the latest blu-ray release; in reality, this cannot be the case due to the restrictions placed on both television sizes, and the types of media allowed within the prison.

The important thing to remember is that Corrections Canada does not provide these items; but prisoners who have friends/family on the outside are able to provide items that meet the requirements put down by the prison. As such, the prison allows certain luxury items to exist within the prison; but they by no means provide it for all prisoners.

The same goes for the cable packages is use on these television sets. Payment comes from the prisoners, not from Corrections Canada. This was brought up when Mark Twitchell, who based his crime off the Showtime series Dexter, was reported to be enjoy the series while in prison as part of his cable package. (LINK)

Keep in mind, however, that the CSC has final say over 'approved' cable packages. And channels that rebroadcast Dexter, like Bravo, ofter are included in packages that contain less objectionable channels like A&E or TLC. It's more a fault of predicting programming than directly providing access to questionable content for an inmate.

'Stick' proponents would have us completely ban these items; not just from individual cells, but from the prison population entirely. Or as Vic Towes might have said, "To hell with pizza parties!"

Which brings us to the question of whether or not televisions or computers should be banned from prisons. In Canada, we already ban internet access by inmates. So, even if an inmate has a computer they do not have the capacity to take it online. Some will falsely argue that the banning of the internet is proof that they should ban television access as well.

However, this is a false argument. Access to the internet poses a direct means of communications with other people outside of the prison, and even access to the means to commit crimes while in custody. Whereas television does not provide this medium. As such, it is logical to push for a ban (or limited use) internet for inmates due to the inherent risk of another crime being committed.

This doesn't come down to an argument about 'comfort' or 'right to access'. The internet is far and away and much more 'wild beast' than simple television access.

The Ontario NDP, a few years ago at this point, commented on access to 'premium cable packages' in prisons throughout the province. While the PCs were incredulous about prisoners getting access to these packages in the first place, the NDP presented an argument that made far more sense: That televisions were being used to 'babysit' prisoners in the way they were used to babysit children throughout the country. (LINK)

And perhaps they are quite right about that. While television might been seen as a comfort that prisoners aren't entitled to; others might see it as another means of keeping prisoners docile while under detainment. After all, an occupied prisoner who is able to watch their favourite television program is likely far more docile than an unoccupied prisoner who has hours upon hours to sit and stare at a wall.

In this way, perversely, there is an argument to be made for creature comforts as a means of ensuring peace within the facility. An occupied prisoner is a prisoner that is not a risk to staff or other inmates. Or quite simply, 'idle hands are the devil's playthings.'

It's an interesting train of thought, and as much as I'd love to continue exploring it, I think we need to get back onto the topic of prisons and punishment; not just the role of television within prisons.

Which does indeed bring us to the often forgotten people in prisons: The guards and administration. In addition to the prisoners, there must be the people who are in charge of watching them. And with regards to their punishment, scheduling their days.

In addition to considering the treatment of the inmates, we must also consider the treatment of the people who work in these facilities. An argument against the 'stick' mentality, is two-fold in that increased punitive conditions in a prison would pose a risk to the safety of the staff. After all, prisoners who are being denied human rights, or being mistreated, would be more likely to strike out at authority figures.

Secondly, we do indeed need to bring up the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Much like the Milgram Experiment, where people administered electrical shocks to people under orders from a single authority figure, the Stanford Prison Experiment found that 'guards' were willing to enact extreme authoritarian measures against 'prisoners'. The general consensus is that the 'guards' were willing to use psychological torture methods, and extreme measures against 'prisoners', due to the complacency of the professor leading the experiment to allow such methods to be used.

Effectively, what you can take away from this, is that when you establish a punitive system where all rights are disregarded and 'guards' have any means of punishment at their disposal, the nature response seems to be to immediately administer the maximum amount of authority, if not more. For example, the experiment had a solitary cell where prisoners were to be kept to a maximum of one hour. A 'troublemaker' prisoner was held in the solitary cell for three hours; well past the one hour maximum.

If you dehumanize prisoners, you are given implicit consent for them to be treated as less than human. And giving 'guards' a blank cheque with use of authority, and no consideration to human rights, makes the guards worse than the prisoners they are administering.

You cannot deny a prisoner basic human rights without dehumanizing them. And once you do that, you are allowing anything to happen to them while they are detained.

"Stick' people should be nodding in agreement, thinking that this is exactly what should happen to prisoners. However, this is a short sighted approach to the problem.

After all, there are numerous prisoners who are not life long inmates. People who have committed crimes that will be out of prison in four to five years; as opposed to those serving sentences to a minimum of twenty-five years.

And this is where we start to see the problem of the 'stick' approach.

These are people who will be reintroduced to the community. And the purpose of prison is two-fold: one, firstly deprive them of personal liberty as punishment for their crime. Two, provide the means to correct the behaviour to prevent recidivism.

If we fail to rehabilitate a prisoner, they will end up back in prison. For example, in 2003, the recidivism rate in Canada was between 41 - 44% for prisoners within their first year of being released. (LINK) It's now that we also have to consider policies that have a direct impact on recidivism rates.

The Harper Government has been very fond of mandatory minimums for certain offenses; which is odd, given that many nations are now in favour of removing mandatory minimums. The problem with this is that a first time offender is treated the same as repeat offender; there is no wiggle room, a judge must prescribe the minimum sentence as dictated by the federal government.

The risk here is that you take a first time young offender, and risk turning them into a lifelong criminal. After all, you are incarcerating them with serious, higher risk offenders. You are exposing them, in many cases, to a gang lifestyle; by which, an offender will join a prison gang and then continue to exist within the gang structure upon release.

Instead of rehabilitating, you have instead created a new repeat offender.

This calls for the need to ensure that first time offenders are given options outside of incarceration, depending on the nature of the crime, to increase the odds of successful rehabilitation and avoiding recidivism.

This also speaks to the need to ensure prisoners exist in an environment conductive to rehabilitation. John Hutton, of the John Howard Society, makes a point that when you pay prisoners a fair wage that they can actually save and use upon release, you increase the chances of successful rehabilitation. (LINK)

If you send a prisoner out in the world, with only $100 to their name after a four year prison term, they are not going to have that $100 for very long. Furthermore, job prospects for a person who has not only been charged with a crime but that has served a prison sentence, aren't the greatest. There is still a stigma attached to those released from prison that sees many potential employers see them as a liability, and not worth the risk in hiring.

So, you're creating an underclass that has little to no money to their name; might have established ties to criminal organizations while in prison; and who cannot find a legitimate job to provide for themselves. These are the same conditions that likely drove them to become an offender in the first place, and now you've recreated it for them.

All the rehabilitation in the world will fail if a prisoner leaves prison and their only prospects exist within committing another offense.

And this is where the 'stick' view fails so spectacularly. Punishment sounds fine, after all a person shouldn't expect a complete cakewalk if they've violated the social contract; but we must ensure that our punishment doesn't in turn pigeonhole the offender permanently into a life of crime.

If we have a responsibility to punish someone who has violated the social contract, we also have a responsibility to ensure that they are released in a manner that encourages them not to reoffend.

Monday, October 28, 2013

And Justice For None

You'll have to forgive my late commentary on the issue that has been percolating this entire week, and promises to take up as much time next week as well. I speak, of course, about the state of the Canadian Senate and the dramatic fireworks that have come out from the three 'exile' Senators.

Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau stood before their colleagues this week and attempted to explain why they should be allowed to keep their jobs. To no one's great surprise, this straightforward idea has been anything but. It's been a week that has seen cries of conspiracy, vendettas, deception, and breaking of the public trust.

It's the sort of drama one expects to find in the latest political thriller, not Canada.

And while the Senate has long been a thorn in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's side, this week it became a dagger that threatens to do to him what 31 daggers did to Julius Caesar. Conservative Senate leadership has been quick to call for the suspension of the three Senators, and no doubt many in the Conservative Party expected this to be the cure for their ills.

Instead, it has become a fox and pony show that has Canadians paying more attention to their government than they have in recent years. And acting as though he were an expert contortionist, Stephen Harper has tried to bend and evade to no avail. In attempting to dodge the issue, Harper has instead found himself front and centre in a series of questions that have changing answers; and it isn't just the House of Commons listening, it's all of Canada.

So, let's recap.

Mike Duffy spoke at length in the Senate about a conspiracy from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and how he was a victim in it. Duffy threw a firebomb in Harper's storyline, suggesting that he met with Harper and Nigel Wright to discuss repayment of the $90,000 in expenses he claimed. He further suggested that he was 'bullied' into repayment through phone calls from then Government Leader Marjory LeBreton and Harper's now Chief of Staff Ray Novak.

He also spoke about a deal that was struck prior to the Deloitte audits in which the Senate would 'white-wash' his report, in exchange for his repayment.

This has caused Harper to go from suggesting that Nigel Wright was a 'rogue agent' who acted alone, to admitting that a few people in the PMO knew about the repayment Wright provided for Duffy. This is the first, of many, changes to Harper's story and the NDP Opposition led by Thomas Mulcair have done an exceptional job at pointing out these changes and keeping pressure on Harper.

At the very least, Duffy proves to be the most interesting factor in play in all of this. Provided he does indeed possess the documents he's made claim to, he could indeed implicate a large amount of Conservative insiders and perhaps even Harper himself. It will be interesting to see what comes out once Duffy releases those documents.

Wallin continued the 'conspiracy' angle played by Duffy, and suggested that Senators Marjory LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart-Olsen had personal 'vendettas' against her. Brazeau railed against the lack of due process.

Let's focus on those issues before we start to discuss the myriad of other ones that came up.

I can't speak to personal vendettas between LeBreton, Stewart-Olson and Wallin; but it is interesting that both of those other Senators crop up with regards to Duffy. LeBreton has been doing the talk shows to defend the government and her good name, but she's been torpedoing both in the process. LeBreton certainly raised eyebrows when she admitted that the government wanted this entire affair over with before the Conservative Convention in Calgary this coming weekend.

It also raises the question many have been asking: Why now?

After all, news of the Senate expenses scandal broke almost six months ago. And in the beginning, the Prime Minister was less 'fire and brimstone' towards his star Senators than he was their chief defender. If you will recall, Harper defended Nigel Wright for days after it came out that he had given Duffy the $90,000. (LINK) In fact, Harper was incredulous over the Opposition demanding Wright's resignation; choosing instead to keep Wright in place and ensuring Canadians through his then spokesman that "Mr. Wright has the full confidence of the prime minister." Wright resigned two days later, with Harper thanking him for his years of service to the PMO.

In fact, the Conservatives even lauded Wright for his action. After all, his payment ensured that taxpayers were not on the hook for the expenses. (LINK) Harper now says he had every right to be kept in the loop on this issue by Wright. He also says that he would never have approved this 'scheme' of repayment; despite the fact that Harper and several cabinet ministers praised Wright's repayment on behalf of taxpayers.

All of this from a man who, two days before his resignation, enjoyed the 'full confidence of the Prime Minister.'

Of course, though, this is hardly the first time the Prime Minister and his cabinet have changed their minds. When news of Pamela Wallin's involvement became known, for example, Thomas Mulcair asked the Prime Minister about it.

The relevant portion is at the 1:06 mark; or you can just read what he said here:

“I’ve looked at the numbers, her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian, traveling from that particular area of the country over that period of time."

It wasn't until the audit numbers from Deloitte came out, and Wallin's travel budget of $120,000 raised public ire, that the Prime Minister tossed her aside with Duffy and Brazeau. But then that raises a unique question: What numbers did Harper look at?

If he looked at her numbers, you would assume a 'trained economist' could see the trouble with her expenses. So, either Harper looked at her numbers and lied in the Commons about what he saw; OR he didn't look at her numbers, and lied about saying that he did. Either way, the Prime Minister lied about something here.

I suppose you could argue that Harper may not have seen all of Wallin's receipts; but that is troubling in and of itself. And, if you take it with Nigel Wright holding back secrets, it makes it look like Stephen Harper is a Prime Minister who consistently has things hidden from him by his inner circle. That's a troubling thought, as it makes you begin to wonder just who is leading the country at that point, so I'm sure the Conservatives would never dare dream to use it as a defense.

And as noted, this is now almost month six of this scandal. With each passing month, it got worse and worse and it was becoming clear that it was not going to go away. Yet, the Prime Minister and his party did not dream about punishment for the Senators. Apparently, not being allowed to be a Conservative is the highest punishment they can dream up.

There was no push for their suspension. There was no push to completely remove them from the Senate. Hell, there was barely a push to garnish wages for Wallin and Brazeau as a means of repayment for their expenses. It was almost as if Harper thought he could make the issue go away by doing nothing.

Instead of dealing the Senators immediately, Harper did nothing. He even prorogued Parliament, effectively preventing the Senate from debating action. And now, in the face of overwhelming public anger, he finally seems ready to do something about those troublesome Senators of his...Except for the ones he apparently still has a use for.

On the fringes of this argument over expenses, there has been the lingering question of Senators always taking from the public purse. After all, it was only recently that a reform was passed that changed the nature of per diem claims while in Ottawa. In fact, there are other Senators that are underfire for expenses and misuse of Senate resources. Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, one of the Senators called out by Wallin for a personal vendetta, for example is one such Senator.

Stewart-Olsen served on the Senate Committee that oversaw the audit process; in which Duffy claims she and Senator David Tkachuk white-washed his audit after his agreement to repay his expenses. Stewart-Olsen has since excused herself from the committee and is under investigation into claims of overspending and claiming housing expenses and per diems while not on Senate business. (LINK) (LINK)

Conservatives LeBreton and Tkachuk have some things to answer for with their alleged roles in white-washing the Duffy audit (LINK); which seems to confirm at least that Duffy did indeed have a deal in place with regards to the audit and his repayment. 

Many online commentators have already called attention to the double standard being put to use here by the Prime Minister; as Stewart-Olsen stands accused of committing the same breach of the public trust as the other three, yet there has been no call for her suspension from the Senate. Add to that a role in 'amending' a Senate document, and there should be calls for her and Tkatchuk's head in addition to the Senators they were investigating.

Yet no cry is coming from the PMO, the Cabinet, The Prime Minister, or the Conservative Party. Furthermore, all three Senators have yet to have charges laid against them in this matter. Brazeau has charges pending in an unrelated matter, but as far as the Senate Expenses go, they're all in the clear for now. The same cannot be said about former Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Dean Del Mastro. Del Mastro has been charged of being in violation of the Elections Act, with regards to overspending.

Despite this, and it being a case which directly relates to his standing as a Member of Parliament, his resignation from the Conservative Party has been his only punishment. He is still allowed to sit in the Commons, and collect his wages and benefits despite criminal charges. For a Prime Minister who has talked about being tough on crime, and been in favour of 'removing' those who violated the public trust, this is a glaring absence. There is also growing cries of impropriety over newly minted Minister Kellie Leitch and her lack of declaring income from Dundee Reality Corp. (LINK)

So, why so tough on the Senate and not on his Cabinet?

In another case of the right hand apparently not knowing what the left hand is doing, Government Senator Leader Claude Carignan found himself in an awkward position when Patrick Brazeau stood on the Senate Floor and suggested Carignan offered him a 'backroom deal' for a lighter penalty. (LINK)

I'll give Carignan credit for at least admitting he spoke to Brazeau, but he is still trying to spin it as something less than a deal and more as a friendly word of advice.

Carignan has since gone on to say, in general, that he is open to amendments and other punishments for the three Senators. In the course of a few short days, we've gone from hearing the Prime Minister demand the suspension of the three members immediately, to his party's leader in the Senate musing about other possible options.

Carignan seems open to leniency for Wallin and Brazeau (LINK); Wallin for making a good case and plea, and Brazeau for possibly making an honest mistake in his expense. He has no such mercy for Duffy, who he wrote off as being more interested in settling political scores.

It seems unlikely that Carignan will actually accept lesser punishment for any of the three Senators; after all, his boss (Harper) has made it clear that he will accept nothing less than suspension for the three. But there is a small number of Conservative Senators, including past Party President Don Plett, calling for a slower and more processed response.

Liberal Senate leader James Cowan has called for a Senate Committee to be created to hear and deal with this issue; a prospect which must scare the hell out of the Prime Minister, due to the potential for more documents, witnesses, and other factors to come into play that may contradict his 'out of the loop' defense.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the Senate; and whether or not the three Senators will survive long enough to be given a chance to fully present their side of the story. And while the three have violated Senate rules, unquestionably, there remains questions as to why these three were singled out against other violators like Carolyn Stewart-Olsen; or people under investigation by the RCMP who have charges laid, like Dean Del Mastro.

The audits revealed improper spending, there is no question about that. But it is slowly becoming less and less about that as the Senators have essentially neutralized the issue.Wallin has begun making repayments. Brazeau is having his salary garnished until repaid (by the way, if they suspend him without pay, what happens to the repayment structure?)

But what matters more is Duffy and the $90,000 cheque from the PMO. The story here has changed so many times, it's hard to keep track of all the permutations. At first it was a gift between friends. Then it was discovered that Wright and Duffy were less than friends. Then it became Wright's conviction that it was the right thing to do. Then it was the Conservative Party itself that was going to pay back the expenses, but change their mind when the number was three times higher than expected.

Throughout it all, Harper has said Wright acted alone. But more and more people from the PMO, and the Senate Conservative Leadership, have been implicated as time goes on. In fact, Conservative Defender Extraordinaire Arthur Hamilton's name has been added to the list of potentially included individuals. The law firm Hamilton works for was mentioned as handing the bank draft that paid Duffy. (LINK)

Occam's razor would suggest that Harper indeed knew what was going on in his own office, with his own key players. And now, we're just waiting for the final piece of evidence that confirms what the majority of Canadians already feel: That the Prime Minister knew of, and was complacent in this issue.

The real problem rests with what happens after that. After all, he already has one motion of contempt under his belt and his political career survived just fine. Without any real teeth to punish him, other than the death of his political career, it's sort of surprising that Harper just hasn't come out with the truth already.

And that's why this issue matters.

It's not just about breaching the public trust in the Senate, it's about how we deal with those who violate the public trust. And right now, contempt of Parliament is an empty measure. So what if Harper is found, again, in contempt of Parliament? He still has two years to push through any agenda he wants until the next election.

If anything, this issue needs to call attention to the fact that Canadians have no real lever against politicians who mislead the public. And that is where our system fails us, and the three Senators in question. There is no clear cut disciplinary actions that can be invoked without majority support. There is nothing that can be done to a Prime Minister who has been found to be lying to the Canadian public.

And that should concern you. If we're going to throw three Senators under the bus, let's at least have some good come out of it and see some reform in establishing clear disciplinary actions. After all, we may have cause to use them against certain Parliamentarians when the smoke finally clears.