Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The right to food

Although man may not live by bread alone, he still needs food to survive. Food is a human birthright so essential to life that without it life is not possible.

Growing constitutional recognition

Ecuador, which straddles the equator and from which it takes its name, is one of only 15 countries in the world that explicitly recognizes the right to food in their constitution. The Constitution of Ecuador which was approved in a national referendum on September 28, 2008, contains several provisions on food, an inclusion that was promoted by the Food Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Article 13 of the Ecuadoran Constitution stipulates the right to food as the right to have unrestricted and permanent access to sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, for a healthy and dignified life. In short, it expressly recognizes and guarantees the right to food sovereignty. These provisions are in line with the latest developments in international human rights law, in particular, with the United Nations’ Right to Food Guidelines.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s fourth largest city, the city administration has declared healthy food a right of citizenship. “If someone can’t afford to buy food, they’re still a citizen and we’re still responsible for them,” a city official of Belo proclaimed. This beautiful concept, in fact, helped her lift her Workers’ Party to victory in the city’s municipal elections. Belo Horizonte’s innovations range from twenty-five fair-price produce stands supplied by local farmers to open-air restaurants serving 12,000 subsidized meals daily to city-sponsored radio broadcasts leading shoppers to the lowest-priced essentials.

The UN General Assembly Resolution

Last November 24, 2008, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the right to food by a vote of 180 in favour to 1 against. Guess who voted against the resolution?

In approving the resolution, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed that hunger constitutes an outrage and a violation of human dignity, requiring the adoption of urgent measures at the national, regional and international levels, for its elimination.

According to FAO, more than 6 million children die every year from hunger-related illness before their fifth birthday, while the number of undernourished people had grown to about 923 million worldwide at a time when the planet could produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, or twice the world’s population.

Why then would the United States vote against the UN resolution on the right to food? Did the Bush administration (the dissenting vote happened under the watch of President George W. Bush) consider it tolerable that 6 million children die every day from lack of food? These are children who could easily be fed if the United States were not wasting its billions of dollars on its military arsenal so it could wage unjust wars and deter other nations, such as Iran and North Korea, from building nuclear weapons for themselves.

How much better an economic stimulus, both for America and the world would it be to mobilize American might for good instead of destruction?

The meaning of the right to food

The right to food implies that governments must not take actions that result in increasing levels of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. It also means that governments must protect people from the actions of others that might violate their right to food. The right to food is not about charity, but about ensuring that all people have the capacity to feed themselves in dignity.

To have access to food is a human right, and this is a binding obligation under international law, recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Under international law, the right to food is defined as “the right of every man, woman and child alone and in community with others to have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement in ways consistent with human dignity.”

But the shocking irony is that global hunger continues to grow year after year. Many of the women, men and children suffering from chronic undernourishment suffer from what the FAO calls “extreme hunger”. This means that their daily intake of calories is well below the minimum necessary for survival. Malnourishment also heightens vulnerability to other illnesses and almost always has serious physical and mental consequences.

The United States against the world

What is the basis for the U.S. resistance to a right to food?

We can trace the root of the U.S. opposition to the internal contradictions in the United Nations system. On one hand, UN agencies emphasize social justice and human rights. On the other hand, the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), which the U.S. government and the World Trade Organization that the U.S. dominates, oppose in their practice the right to food, emphasizing liberalization, deregulation and the compression of state budgets – which in many cases produce greater inequalities.

Until now, the United States has not ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Although President Carter signed the UN document, it has been rotting in the U.S. Senate which continues to refuse to ratify it. The United States takes the position that the right to food cannot be considered a human right which an individual can claim against the state, or where it generates individual entitlements and related state obligations that may be enforceable in national and international courts.

According to the Bush Administration, the issue of adequate food can only be viewed in the context of the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, the United States believes that the attainment of the right to an adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively that does not create any international obligation or any domestic legal entitlement. The United States understands the right of access to food to mean the opportunity to secure food and not a guaranteed entitlement.

Making the “right to eat” an essential framework for fighting hunger scares the United States even more because it carries the presumption of an eventual mechanism for enforcement. Brazil, for example, has already started investigating what is called by its National Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Food, Water and Rural Land as “violations of the right to food.”

Other countries like India and South Africa are more active in the protection of social rights, such that when there is a violation of the human right to food, the courts assume a legitimate role in protecting that right. Recently, Nepal’s Supreme Court cited the right to food when it ordered help for needy rural areas. In other words, governments become obligated to do something about hunger by granting remedies to victims of violations of the right to food, which is the only way to hold governments accountable for being passive in the face of threats to the right to food or massive violations of the right to food.

The world has spoken

United Nations agencies along with, trade unions, environmentalists, farmers, fishermen, and nongovernmental (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) have argued that there will be no genuine progress in eliminating world hunger without a reversal of current polices and trends that emphasize trade liberalization – the greatest force undermining livelihoods around the world. They maintain that such policies have diluted the human right to food, enhanced neoliberal structural adjustment in the guise of HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) programs, emphasized biotechnology and genetic engineering, and failed to support strengthening of production by the poor themselves for local markets.

Many have criticized that the U.S. policy of promoting “free trade” and neoliberal reform through the IMF/World Bank has resulted in literally promoting starvation, and thus is responsible for the world food crisis. In manipulating food around the world, the IMF creates opportunities for transnational corporations to rake in huge profits. Haiti, for example, received tons of highly-subsidized cheap U.S. rice, but only in exchange for loans from the IMF. Unable to compete with the low prices, Haitian rice farmers went out of business and locally grown food shrank to a fraction of what it used to be.

The United States stands alone in opposing the resolution on the right to food as the United Nations continues to assert that the issue of hunger requires stronger grounding in the ethical and social justice implications that a rights-based approach provides.

Ban Kim-Moon, the UN Secretary-General has stressed the need to address other issues such as the exclusion and discrimination of the most vulnerable, the increasing uncontrolled power of transnational corporations over the food system, desertification, armed conflict and agrofuels.

“The sudden, ill-conceived rush to convert food, such as maize, wheat, sugar and palm oil into fuels is a recipe for disaster,” the Secretary-General warned. “In this rush, there are serious risks of creating competition between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water.”

As the rest of the world asks for a slice of good old American bread to feed the hungry, the Bush government balked. It seems that American policy-makers don’t have a problem if people starve, but then again, they have never been hungry a day in their life.

With a new kind of change in Washington D.C. right now, let’s hope that the Obama administration will be different and accept what the right to food means so that the poor and the hungry can be empowered to claim this human right.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Labour migration – the great debate

Listening to arguments for and against labour migration can be very confusing, leaving you torn between two extremes, i.e., (a) to support the decisions made by people to migrate and work overseas, or (b) to condemn your government’s failure to provide a sustainable economy where jobs are for the picking. Forget the possibility of a compromise in the meantime, this is what one gets from the current debate. Either you’re for or against it.

Let’s examine this great divide in the context of Canada’s current Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).

In a speech before a business group last November 2008, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed that more jobs are waiting for Filipino migrant workers. No wonder that Arroyo calls them the Philippines “greatest export.” Among others, she stated that there will be a demand for 30,000 overseas foreign workers in Canada. Arroyo must be talking about the demand for live-in caregivers, mostly nannies who take care of pre-school children of affluent families in Canada.

A statement like this coming from the Philippine president is what drives those against labour migration even more cynical of Arroyo’s administration, accusing her of selling Filipinos overseas to save the economy at home. Forced migration of people, according to these naysayers, is not a sign of development, but rather a manifestation of the government’s inability to provide proper jobs and decent living for their people. And it is forcing people to be modern-day slaves.

Siklab-BC, a national advocacy group for overseas Filipino workers in Canada, wants to have the federal LCP scrapped. Its chairperson argues that the program is a trap for many women workers. Because of the “exploitative and restrictive policies of the program,” says Siklab, “most workers end up without status in Canada and are deported.”

Canada’s LCP is unique from temporary worker programs in other countries. It offers caregivers the opportunity to apply for permanent resident status after completing two years of work in the three years after arriving in Canada. But because of the requirement that caregivers live in with their employers, this has been criticized as unrealistic and unreasonable since the employer’s economic circumstances may change, or the parties may not get along, or there could be abuses or violations of the employment contract. When any of these circumstances happens, it becomes difficult for caregivers to look for another job and start the process again. In many instances, caregivers lose their temporary work status and are ordered to be deported.

Others find this requirement to perform full-time live-in domestic work as a form of “indentured servitude.”

Take the case of Maria who was hired as a live-in caregiver for an elderly person who needed around the clock supervision. She worked 22 out of 24 hours daily preparing meals, attending to housework duties and blood sugar-level testing, leaving her only a two-hour break to take care of her own personal needs. She slept in her employer’s bedroom because the latter wanted to be able to ask for Maria’s assistance any time during the night, although the LCP requires that the live-in caregiver have her own room with a lock on the door. Countless women like Maria but who cared for little children were also asked to sleep in the room of the children so that their parents would not be disturbed in the middle of the night to soothe a crying baby or take the child to the bathroom. Worse, in Maria’s case and the others, they were not paid overtime for the hours they rendered beyond 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week.

Maria’s experience is not unique but highlights the exploitation and oppression live-in caregivers suffer daily, according to LCP detractors. It underscores the context of the modern-day slavery of caregivers in Canada.

Critics of Canada’s LCP also cite instances where highly educated Filipino women who, in order to enter the program, have to devalue their educational and work qualifications, and as a result these women suffer from emotional strain and low-self esteem, not to mention their consequent de-skilling and deprofessionalization. Spending two years or more in jobs beneath their qualifications could cause negative consequences later when they attempt to enter and qualify for their actual professions.

The live-in requirement has also been criticized for causing strains on the families of caregivers because of lengthy separation from families, which in some cases have led to family breakdowns or emotional difficulties in reunification.

Advocates for Filipino migrants demand that instead of promoting migrant labour, the Philippine government should create jobs by developing sustainable strategies at home. They argue that what the Philippines needs is “a sound domestic economic base that will provide genuine development for the country and jobs for its people.” Instead of scavenging job opportunities abroad, they urge the government to “assure full employment through industrialization that in turn would build up a whole new set of fiscal, monetary, trade, industrial and other policies.”

But what if the government fails to do exactly what these advocates for migrant workers demand?

A Filipino caregiver in Toronto said that there’s no need to scrap Canada’s LCP. To her, the LCP is the only temporary workers’ program that allows workers to apply for permanent residency, unlike the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program where one can never become a permanent resident. She thinks scrapping the LCP will put caregivers in a similarly vulnerable situation or worse.

Responding to Siklab-BC and other disbelievers of the LCP, she said that “not everyone coming as caregivers are nurses and engineers or ‘professionals.’” By scrapping the LCP, she believes that “there is no other way for people who do not have high education or who are not professionals to come to Canada.”

She further explains: “For Filipinos like me, coming from a poor country that has no jobs, Filipinos will try to leave one way or another. There are 3,000 Filipinos leaving the country everyday to work in 198 countries around the world. Many of these countries have worse labour rights and human rights conditions but they still go. Meanwhile, now that they have a chance to come to Canada as caregivers with a chance to stay permanently, why would they want to scrap the program?”

A Montreal-based Filipino caregiver prefers that changes be made rather than scrap the LCP entirely. Simply allow caregivers to work live-out, she said, or make it optional to work live-in. This way, caregiving would be regarded as a normal job and not as susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

She is not even concerned about family breakdown. According to her, “it [family breakdown] is also happening even to those who are not going abroad. Filipinos will still find their way to go abroad even not in Canada. Even in Hongkong, Singapore, Taiwan, the Middle East, etc., many Filipinos suffer exploitation. Let us accept that that it is more difficult for us who are not rich to just stay in the Philippines. Unemployment, underemployment, low salary that cannot support your family, these are our problems. We chose to go abroad to give our family a chance to have a better life. It is not the LCP or our going abroad that destroys some of us. Broken families, drug addiction, etc. ... the root cause is poverty, difficult life, the system in our country. Our government is the problem. Actually, LCP is one way to help fellow Filipinos to go out of the country.”

Because of shortage of jobs and low wage rates in poor countries, particularly in the Philippines, Canada’s LCP has attracted many Filipino women, especially those with only two years of college education, a smattering of English and home-grown child rearing skills. Add the incentive of earning the opportunity to become a permanent resident or eventually a Canadian citizen, the LCP has become a floodgate when alternative means of acquiring permanent residency in other rich countries such as the United States has become more and more increasingly difficult for low-skilled workers.

Low-skilled and less educated workers, without family connections in Canada and no genuine basis to claim refugee status, would not qualify as skilled workers or protected persons, or under the business category. As a result, a temporary worker program like the LCP may be the most feasible way for low-skilled workers to get permanent resident status in Canada.

Canada’s response to its child-care problem by installing the LCP is more than a neutral response because, as a matter of legislation and policy, the LCP actually promotes the separation of families, exploits immigrants, and legitimizes some negative gendered norms, while having very little effect on international poverty and instability issues.

Just because many participate in the LCP does not mean it must be the best option available. Arguably, the attraction of higher wages and permanent resident status outweighs the nature and environment of the work that a caregiver finds herself in, and the separation from home and her family. But this is not enough justification. The issue is not what are the various injustices and hard choices faced by LCP participants, but whether the program is a legitimate, effective, and normatively desirable government action.

If Canada must draw guidance from its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular, the Section 7 right to life, liberty and security of the person, and the various human rights codes of its provinces, by perpetuating the notion that exploiting cheap foreign labour is acceptable, then the government can be faulted for eroding the moral foundation of its society.

The LCP has a very negative effect, too, of perpetuating the international image of the Filipino woman as a domestic servant. It is a niche the Philippines has made in the global economy, in part because the government itself has chosen to be the primary purveyor. The Philippine government has reaffirmed the ideal of the low-cost, low-skill, submissive female caregiver. By exporting cheap labour and relying on caregiver remittances, the Philippines can only go so far in addressing problems of poverty and instability for these funds are by and large spent on consumption rather than investment.

Achieving a balance between a caregiver program that appeals to employers and one that is fair to caregivers seems the only way to open up borders by providing incentives for Canadians and helping migrants from poor countries escape poverty. But in the end, as one writer puts it:

“Most human beings do not love to move. They normally feel attached to their native land and to the particular language, culture, and community in which they grew up and in which they feel at home. They seek to move only when life is very difficult where they are.”

And as the swelling ranks of migrant workers show, the disenchantment over a home government that does nothing to curb poverty and the futility of finding hope in their own homeland drive many more to seek that opportunity elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Debunking “deprofessionalization”

A professor at York University in Toronto, in collaboration with a Filipino social activist group, recently completed a study of the experiences of Filipinos in Toronto in entering the labour market. The first part of the study, conducted in 2005-2006, focused on gathering baseline data on Filipino immigrants, their educational attainment, professional training, work experiences, and their observations on the barriers to achieving their full potential in the labour market. It was followed by in-depth interviews of two focus groups in 2006-2007, one for the regulated professions, and the other, for no-licence required occupations.

This wasn’t a novel study of the experiences and struggles of new immigrants in the labour market. Previous researches have already been conducted on access issues, including studies of what helps or hinders immigrants seeking to enter their trade or profession in Ontario. One critic has wryly commented that the issue of access has been studied to death: so many recommendations have been made from these studies that all that appears lacking is action, or the will on the part of the government or bureaucrats to act on these recommendations.

So, what does this recent study of Filipino “deprofessionalization” contribute to our understanding of the barriers to access and integration into the labour market?

First, we need to clarify the concept of “profession” as it applies to immigration.

Here, we talk of engineers, architects, accountants, nurses, lawyers, physicians or physiotherapists, a list of occupations that are not included in Canada’s top priority targets for immigrants. Presumably, the study was referring to “professionals” who came to Canada either as spouses or under a lower occupational category. Truly, it would be very difficult for any Filipino from among these professions to access the market laterally. One has to pass accreditation, go back to school for a year or two, and undergo a period of apprenticeship like completing an internship in a hospital if you’re a doctor or a year of articling in case of a lawyer. But to lay the blame on barriers in entering these professions when you’re not accepted as an immigrant based on your professional qualifications is rather unfair, even if these barriers seem to be racially motivated.

Let’s take the licensing of foreign medical graduates, for example. Each year, close to 500 foreign graduates seek internships in Ontario; the number would vary depending on the level of immigration. But the government has to guarantee every medical graduate from the province an internship position and has restricted licensing of foreign medical graduates from 323 in 1985 to 24 per year after 1989.

Meanwhile, Ontario has been experiencing a shortage of doctors for general and family practice throughout the province. Although there may be several hundred physicians who cannot practise their profession in Ontario and could be tapped to fill in the vacancies, there is no sufficient number of internships available even if they pass the required examinations. No wonder that many foreign-trained physicians in Ontario are driving taxis for a living.

The Filipino study highlighted the class origin of most Filipino immigrants as one factor that militates against their integration into the labour market, which explains the fact that many arrive in Canada without significant financial assets. But this is likewise true for most immigrants who have chosen to move to Canada for better work opportunities. New immigrants usually arrive with only their suitcases. Harsh economic conditions in their home country most often drove them out in search of a better life.

Unable to upgrade their educational or job skills and saddled with the responsibility of sending financial assistance to their families back home, Filipinos find it difficult to compete for higher paying jobs and simply settle for whatever jobs that come up to survive. This inability is not a function of class origin, however. There is bitter irony in the argument that one chooses to leave his class origin only to be burdened by it when he competes with others in the labour market for his skills.

Asking respondents in the study what prevented them from achieving their full potential in the labour market does not necessarily yield useful and relevant information about barriers to jobs or trades, which are mostly institutional or systemic and of which most of the respondents may not be aware of. Separation from their families, for instance, is a natural result of working as a live-in caregiver due to their status as temporary workers.

Sending money to their families and relatives is also a much-abused scheme that is probably rooted in the nature of the extended Filipino family kinship system. Many of the husbands of these women who work as live-in caregivers in Canada have chosen to stay at home on the pretext of taking care of the kids, but in fact are content to depend on their wives’ incomes which in practical terms are much more than what their families would earn if the husbands also worked. There are many instances of family breakdowns when the wives find out that their husbands are spending the hard-earned money they send home for drinking and entertaining with friends, gambling, or keeping affairs with other women. These are responses which you will never get from this study; to avoid the stigma of shame, most women would rather keep these facts to themselves.

The study also failed to account that many live-in caregivers who came to work in Canada would not be successful in entering the domestic labour market in the Philippines had they opted to stay. If they went to pursue college education, it is highly likely that they did not take it from the best or most reputable schools in the Philippines, where employers usually put a high premium on where potential employees complete their education. With a high rate of unemployment and shortage of jobs, the prospect of gainful employment for these caregivers would be nil. When they become permanent residents and are able to sponsor their families here, they bring in family members whose level of skills and education is probably similarly very low, so these newcomers entering the labour market would yield very low expectations too.

It is disturbing to read observations made in the study about the impact of Filipino cultural traits in the workplace and how these norms reduce the chances of Filipinos for promotion and upward mobility in the managerial hierarchy. This again could be skewed by the sample of respondents chosen by the study, whose answers are predetermined by their present economic situations. If the study were to focus more on the difficulties of live-in caregivers or lower level-skilled workers, on the other hand, their personal reflections on career change or opportunities for upward mobility would by and large be limited by their own circumstances and thus may not reflect the current experiences of the larger cohort of Filipino Canadians in the workforce.

When we arrived in Canada in 1987, there was only one practising lawyer of Filipino descent in Toronto, a handful of doctors and dentists, and a sprinkling of education professionals. The ranks of our professionals have grown in numbers since the last two decades, with more Filipinos moving up in the corporate ladder, both in government and industry. If we include Filipino children who were born or raised and educated in Canada, the numbers of successful professionals and skilled-workers would be on the rise, debunking the myth of deprofessionalization which this study seems to suggest.

Canada has a history of preferring immigrants who look like its racial majority, and its immigration policies have always had a significant impact on the people who were allowed to come. In 1896, Canada only wanted peasants in sheepskin coat, born to the soil, with a stout wife and a dozen children. Back then the land needed to be tilled and white-bred farmers were considered good material for the rural areas.

There were periods in Canadian history marked with hatred of immigrants, particularly those belonging to races deemed unsuitable, or what they had termed the “Asiatic” race. A head tax was imposed on Chinese immigrants to deter them from coming to Canada after completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. In the 1930s, there was overt targeting of Asian immigrants, to the point of barring wives and children. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were also required to renounce their former citizenship before becoming Canadian citizens.

Canadian immigration policy began to open up in the mid-1940s, after the Second World War, but the government continued to refuse immigrants on grounds of nationality, ethnic group or customs. It was only during the seventies when multiculturalism was adopted that Canada truly opened its doors to immigrants and refugees from new-source countries. During this period, many women came to Canada under the Domestic Worker Program, the predecessor to the Live-in Caregiver Program, which has attracted a lot of Filipino women.

Today, immigrants are the lifeblood of Canada’s economy and society. More than one-fourth of Canadian immigrants come from developing countries and are visible minorities. The Philippines has also overtaken China as the primary source of Canadian immigrants and temporary workers.

Are there racial barriers to access to professions and trades for the foreign-trained in Ontario? The answer is both yes and no. Accreditation of credentials is a long process, sometimes quite expensive. While there could be some acceptable equivalency standards for foreign diplomas or work experience, the process is not yet fine-tuned to make it easier for immigrants to practise their professions or skills in the labour market. Indeed, much still needs to be done.

The immigrant experience is not unique to any specific race or nationality. What Filipinos have been experiencing is not a strange phenomenon. A country like Canada, a nation built on the shoulders of a dominant race, needs to be jolted once in a while to ensure that it honours its declared ideals with actual policies of multiculturalism and openness to all races.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Abuse of power

How often do we hear someone abusing his or her power?

Just this last Christmas in the Philippines, a young woman witnessed a town mayor and his bodyguards beat up her 56-year old father and 14-year old brother who were playing a round of golf. While the beating was taking place, the mayor’s father, the current Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform in Philippine President Gloria Arroyo’s cabinet and head of the government’s panel in peace negotiations with the insurgents in Southern Philippines, did nothing but watch, implicitly condoning the violence. All because of a misunderstanding of golf’s rules in which etiquette is of paramount importance and conformity to the rules is mandatory.

The woman’s father and her younger brother were playing ahead of the mayor and his friends (later identified as his bodyguards) who reportedly violated golf’s long-standing rule of allowing the flight ahead to play the next hole. But the mayor and his bodyguards jumped the order of play; this annoyed the woman’s father who then approached the mayor to enforce his right to play first. “Don’t you know who I am?” the mayor barked back, turning the meeting into a nasty physical encounter. Naturally, the mayor and his burly bodyguards were too much for the father and son to handle, so they ended up not only losing their right to play the hole but being beaten like pulp into the ground as well.

In October 2008, an investigation initiated by the Alaska legislature found Gov. Sarah Palin has abused her power when she fired her public safety commissioner, a scandal that haunted her vice presidential bid. It was believed that Gov. Palin dismissed her safety commissioner for refusing to take action against a state trooper under him who had been involved in a messy divorce with the governor’s sister.

Sometime in August 2007, Republican Sen. Larry Craig was allegedly caught doing something gross and sleazy in a men’s bathroom in Minneapolis. The senator was said to have made overtures to a man he thought could be gay by tapping his toes a few times and swiping his hand beneath the bathroom stall divider. Little did the senator know that a police officer was there solely to catch homosexual men soliciting others for consensual sex. During an interview with the press, Sen. Craig denied he was gay.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper almost lost his grip of his minority Conservative government when opposition parties united to form a coalition to force Parliament to a vote of confidence, and thus bring down the government. By resorting to a seldom-used parliamentary prerogative, Harper asked Canada’s Governor General to prorogue (or suspend) Parliament until the last week of January 2009, thus affording him and his cabinet with the opportunity to revise their political strategy and to offer a budget that will include an economic stimulus to help turn around the country’s failing economy, and in the process, dampen the opposition’s plan to bring his government down.

But this did not prevent Harper from appointing unelected senators before the House of Commons reconvenes, angering the opposition that the Prime Minister was abusing his power of stacking the Senate when he does not have the confidence of the House of Commons, or the full legitimacy to move forward. Apparently, Harper was afraid that a coalition of opposition parties which was not elected to be the government would appoint the senators instead.

Last December 9, 2008, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested for trying to sell president-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. Federal authorities have put a wire tap on the governor’s phones whom they suspected was already canvassing bidders for Obama’s seat even before the first votes were counted in the last presidential election. The Illinois governor has not been formally indicted on any charges and has been signing bills and conducting other state business despite pleas for him to resign.

Then on December 30, 2008, Gov. Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris, a former state attorney-general to represent Illinois despite warning from nearly everyone not to do so after the governor was heard on tape contemplating the sale of the seat for personal gain. But under Illinois law, the governor believes he has every legal right to do so. He’s still the governor of Illinois and has not been impeached or convicted of the corruption charges against him. Meanwhile, the Majority leader of the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid and Washington democrats are refusing to seat Mr. Burris, never mind their lack of authority to do so.

Obviously, the Philippine town mayor and his cabinet-ranking father may rightfully be censured for abusing their positions in office. Breaking one of golf’s hallowed rules may be forgiven, but the town mayor and his golf buddies should be charged with assault for beating up the old man and his young son.

As for the cabinet secretary, for doing nothing but watch and ignore the criminal behaviour of his son and bodyguards, he does not deserve to stay a minute longer in his lofty position in government for utter lack of sound judgment, and for disregard for human values and morality. As head of the government panel that is negotiating for peace between the government and rebel Moslems in the South, it was a very dismal image of a warlord that the secretary projected on the golf course where all he had to contend with were golf clubs and umbrellas, and the massive fists of the mayor’s bodyguards. If he could not maintain peace between his family and others on a golf course where gentlemen usually relate in a friendly game, how could we expect the secretary to broker peace between heavily armed groups at war? But the real irony in this incident is the secretary’s boss who has remained mum on the issue. Yet, another story of the power to abuse.

Gov. Sarah Palin lost in the recent U.S. presidential elections, so the allegation of abuse of power as governor of Alaska will eventually be ignored as not being newsworthy anymore. The Alaska governor has maintained that she did nothing unlawful or unethical, that it was “important for a governor to take on the responsibility of making sure that everybody in her cabinet is in the right place at the right time to best serve the public.”

The same can be said of Sen. Larry Craig’s misadventure in a Minneapolis public washroom. Sen. Craig’s political career is probably over. But did he abuse his power as a senator of Congress or was it the media’s, who pick and choose whose privacy they will violate on a partisan basis?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have saved his minority government and spared Canada of another costly general election, which may also have tamed Harper’s arrogance and chastised him as well. Instead of ruling under a coalition, the Liberals have chosen their new leader and probably would be aiming their sights at a general election after two years of minority Conservative government. How about the new senators appointed by Harper? They will not impact much in terms of senate reform since the majority of senators are still Liberal Party appointments.

Did Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois abuse his power in ignoring the pleas for him to resign and appointing a replacement for president-elect Obama’s Senate seat? The governor said that the Illinois public deserves its full measure of representation in Washington. He appointed Roland Burris, a former state attorney general who is untainted by the charges against the governor.

Apparently, the federal prosecutor in this case, Patrick Fitzgerald, already knew that Gov. Blagojevich has been peddling the senate seat even prior to the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. So, what stopped Fitzgerald from arresting the governor if he had substantial evidence that Gov. Blagojevich had put a “for sale” sign on the Senate seat? Had Fitzgerald done so, of course, it could have damaged Obama. But the federal prosecutor made it clear that nothing ties Obama directly to the Blagojevich scheme.

Under existing Illinois law, the governor has final authority to appoint someone to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat which Gov. Blagojevich actually did when he appointed Mr. Burris, who is not by any stretch linked to the governor’s indiscretion. Sen. Harry Reid, the Majority Floor Leader, does not want to seat Mr. Burris because his appointment was made by a tainted governor. But there is nothing in the law that says a Senator must have not been appointed by an embarrassing Illinois Governor caught on tape selling a senate vacant seat.

If Sen. Reid wants to banish Mr. Burris, he must first seat him and then persuade two-thirds of the Senate to expel him. But that would create more turmoil among Democrats by expelling an African-American Democrat whose only offence has been to accept an appointment to serve. It would be politically difficult for Senate Democrats to deny Mr. Burris the seat because he would be the lone African-American in the chamber.

Sen. Reid has insisted that the best route to filling Obama’s vacant seat would be for Gov. Blagojevich to step down because of the federal corruption charges against him and let his Lieutenant Governor take over, who then could appoint Mr. Burris or anyone else to the post.

The Blagojevich scandal raises not only the question whether a seating governor accused of criminal offence and who faces impeachment from his State Legislature can still appoint someone to a Senate seat, but rather the spectre of wiretapping into telephone calls, a practice that has become so common and so pervasive in the United States today. Warrantless wiretapping is already allowed in national security cases, but because of new technologies, the greatest assault on the privacy of American citizens is undergoing an even more rapid expansion of data collection, storage, tracking, and mining, creating what the American Civil Liberties Union calls a new “surveillance society” that is unlike anything Americans have seen before.

Who abuses whom and how are not the relevant questions to ask anymore. Sometimes the characters involved are both guilty and innocent of abuse of power depending on which side of the fence you are standing. How they abuse their power also seems so common that the outcome has become so predictable. Perhaps, the best option is to simply keep to the minimum the powers that we delegate to government officials. In this way, any abuse of such powers will be so insignificant as to do harm to anyone.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Obama on the spot

No other American president in history will be under utmost careful scrutiny than president-elect Barack Obama. Being the first African-American to be elected U.S. president, whether Obama likes it or not, his race will always be a significant factor in the public judgment of his record in the Oval Office. This would be a tough challenge for Obama: whatever he accomplishes or fails to accomplish during his presidency will be the yardstick used to measure up future non-white U.S. presidents.

Running on a mantra of “change we can believe in,” Obama was able to ride on a wave of enormous popularity no one in America has heard of, except perhaps during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. But that celebrity status can easily be shattered by a single misstep. The public who adored Obama could easily become his greatest critic.

Obama is assuming the U.S. presidency amidst an economic maelstrom that resembles the economic depression of the 1930s. His economic advisers will be torn between the orthodoxy of the free market economy and deep-rooted fear of government spending and private regulation. The decision his government chooses will always be attributed as his own, and rightfully: the buck stops at the Oval Office.

Once he assumes office, Obama cannot continue blaming the Bush administration for pushing the country to the brink of economic collapse. It’s easy to blame and discredit an incumbent administration when you are running to replace it with your own. This time, he will be the new captain of the ship, and that ship will either float or sink on the skill of his command.

Economic stimulus package

An economic stimulus package was passed by Congress under Bush. How much of the money earmarked to help Wall Street is still to be accounted for. The balance of this package or additional outlay required to stimulate the economy will be under much scrutiny. Obama’s record will hinge on the success of this stimulus in turning the economy around.

Obama will have to be more truthful, and simpler in his message to America. No more of the lofty rhetoric that filled most of his speeches during the campaign. The free-fall in the market cannot be solved by an economic bailout alone, a rescue package that seems to provide a safety net for the financial giants and not much else about their losses. Nor by a single stroke of cutting down interest rates. Any meaningful and effective government stimulus must also address the ordinary people and their problems such as unemployment, housing mortgage defaults, lack of access to health care, rising costs of education, aging road infrastructure. A masterful broad stroke is required of Obama and his administration, and the expectations are high.

Foreign policy and security

On foreign policy and national security, Obama needs to be more definite and decisive. He cannot retreat, as his predecessors had done time and again in the past, in the language of diplomatic double-talk.

As in the current crisis on the Gaza Strip, Obama needs to regain the effectivity of negotiations versus military interventions. He cannot continuously assure Israel of its right to retaliate militarily against attacks on Israeli settlements when it is disproportionate and is founded on the discredited logic that negotiations will be successful only when your enemies have been destroyed. This has not worked in previous Israeli military engagements with Arab militants in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon. Every ounce of military might that Israel presently has is tied to U.S. aid, thus Obama has the power to direct its use only for the purpose of achieving peace, and not destruction. If the Arabs and the Israelis need better adult supervision, it must come now and not later when Iran has developed its nuclear capacity to threaten Israel.

Bringing home U.S. troops

Obama must keep his promise to bring home the troops from Iraq. For standing against the war in Iraq earlier in his career, Obama has seen the fallacy of going into war. It is now up to him to deliver what he promises.

Rearranging the theatre of war by bringing more American troops to Afghanistan is not a wise alternative. In invading Afghanistan, the U.S. rationale was to punish Al Qaeda for its 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil. It was never against the Taliban, which was the ruling regime at the time in Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban is resurgent and becoming more efficient in its drive to topple the corrupt American-supported regime, perhaps now is a better time to explore diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban and the warlords that the U.S. installed in Afghanistan to explore a power arrangement scheme between them, provided that none of them continues to provide a haven for Al Qaeda.

Obama will have his hands full in his first one thousand days in office. He may not be successful in rescuing the country from its most serious economic downturn since the 1930s, in brokering peace between Israelis and Arabs, and in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as long as Obama has laid down an effective roadmap to accomplish all of these, he would have earned the right to be adored by every American. Not because of what he is, but because he is the president of the United States.

The French poet, Paul Valery, wrote that “the trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.” Well, Obama could have the unprecedented opportunity of rewriting it if he’s able to make the future better.