Celebrating 2010 in a banana republic

31 Dec

Happy 2010! I hope everyone had a fun and safe New Year’s Eve, and that today’s hangovers aren’t too bad (as long you didn’t wake up to find a tiger in your bathroom, you should be okay). Let’s all hope the coming year is full of more good than bad.

For me, 2010 is already set to be great as I’ll finally accomplish the goal I’ve been working toward for literally half my life. My book comes out in March and, as I’ve said before, if it doesn’t sell a single copy, I’ll still be incredibly proud and immensely fulfilled. For me, March can’t get here soon enough.

As luck would have it, I ended 2009 on a good note - I finally got the last of my photos and illustrations together and sent them off to Penguin. The last thing I have to do is write up the captions and credits for those photos, which I plan to do over the weekend, and then I’m pretty much done the book. The next time I see Sex, Bombs and Burgers, it’ll likely be in galley form in late January. Hallelujah!

But as the new year dawns, it’s not all roses and sunshine. Our government here in Canada decided to give us a belated Christmas present just before the new year: no government at all! Alas, if only it were some sort of new anarchical experiment, but the reality is we’re once again facing the suspension of democracy, which is something I find very, very concerning, and - at the risk of sounding like a party pooper on a day that is supposed to be all about hope for the future - it’s also very, very depressing.

If you live outside of Canada and don’t know what’s going on, or if you’re typically Canadian and just don’t care enough to know, what’s happened is that our government on Wednesday decided to prorogue Parliament. That actually has nothing to do with pretending to be Han Solo in a professional manner, but rather it means a suspension of all Parliamentary activity, in this case for the next two months. That means no new laws can be discussed, and any that were under discussion must go back to the drawing board when Parliament eventually reconvenes.

Proroguing has historically been used rarely, and in most cases only when the government had accomplished most of its agenda… a vacation of sorts for a job well done. But now, for the past two years, it’s been used as a political tactic by Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government. Last year it was used to head off a coalition government being formed by opposition parties, and this year it’s being used to avoid having Harper and his pals answer uncomfortable questions about torture in Afghanistan.

Doing it once for such self-motivated reasons is outrageous, but twice is completely reprehensible. The Globe and Mail ran a rare front-page editorial yesterday condemning the move as an “underhanded manoeuvre” that will “diminish the democratic rights of Canadians.” Exactly.

What’s worse is when you consider this in a broader sense. In the most recent 2008 election, fewer than 60 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots - a record low that amounts to only about one-third the population. There’s only one reason for such low turnout in any country: people are jaded about their politicians and don’t believe their vote counts. Put another way, Canadians believe that it doesn’t matter who’s in power because they’re all the same.

Our successive governments have given us plenty of reasons to believe this. Remember that the previous Liberal government got booted earlier this decade largely thanks to a sponsorship scandal. What’s worse: misusing public money or misusing Parliamentary procedure? Take your pick or don’t, which is the option an ever-growing number of Canadians are going with.

So what does this have to do with Sex, Bombs and Burgers? Very little, but it has a lot to do with technology - and more specifically, the economic, social, educational and cultural opportunities that technology provides us. Canada is way behind the rest of the world in many technological measures: cellphone usage, internet speeds, venture capital investment, research and development spending, web usage by business, and the list goes on. These are all issues that government can and should play a role in, and it has - in other countries.

Unfortunately in Canada, our technology policy is run by lobbyists, who very rarely have our national interests at heart. Consider the recent launch of Wind Mobile, the upstart company that plans to be Canada’s fourth (almost) national wireless company. In early December, the Harper government stepped in and overruled our national telecommunications regulator and allowed Wind to open up shop. The regulator had previously rejected Wind on the grounds that it was financed by an Egyptian company, and therefore not Canadian enough to operate here (that’s an absurd rule, but besides the point here). Wind wasted no time in launching and there were cheers from every Canadian who doesn’t cut a cheque from one of the existing cellphone providers.

Was it a good move by a government that was in touch with what the people wanted? For sure. Too bad, as the Globe and Mail reported, that it was the well-connected-to-Harper lobbyists hired by Wind that likely did the trick. In other words, it didn’t really matter that Canadians wanted more cellphone competition - that demand just made Wind’s excellent lobby job an easy sell to the public. (Interestingly, the Globe apologized for and retracted that story - we don’t know why but I’m guessing it was the implication that Wind’s parent company Globalive did something improper, which by our lobbying laws, it didn’t. It is worth noting that Globalive registered at least 25 official meetings with government officials and bureaucrats in 2009, a number surpassed in the telecom industry last year only by Bell Canada’s 30+.)

Does that sound overly cynical? Perhaps, but consider another decision on internet access the government made the very same day it gave Wind its blessing. Despite mounting evidence that Canada is falling behind in the internet access it provides to its citizens (some of which was excellently done), and despite close to 100,000 letters to politicians from concerned internet users, the government effectively ruled that small internet resellers are parasites to the networks owned by phone companies. The government told the regulator to reconsider whether these small ISPs, who rent portions of large phone companies’ networks to provide their own services, should be allowed to continue doing so on a regulated basis.

The rationale was telling: the government said the regulator needed to reconsider how these so-called open-access rules diminish phone companies’ incentives to invest in new infrastructure. That’s language directly from the mouths of phone company lobbyists (I’ve heard it many, many times over the years, and some simple Google searching will turn up dozens of examples). What’s most ironic about the situation is how the small ISPs reacted: they were bang on when they suggested the government was using a double standard. While three cellphone providers was insufficient choice for consumers and therefore the government had to step in, they pointed out, two internet providers (a phone company and a cable company) was plenty. Something about that does not compute, so it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than lobbying was at the heart of both decisions.

Let’s not pretend this is endemic to the Conservatives. Back in late 2007, the government decided it would open up Canada’s wireless market to new companies by reserving a portion of airwaves for them in an auction to be held in 2008. Liberal Industry critic Scott Brison stood up at the press conference and said it was a bad move, that it represented a “$200 million windfall for the new entrants.” I asked him three or four questions - things along the lines of “but won’t this ultimately be good for customers?” and the like - to which he kept coming back to the same $200 million sound bite. Not only was it clear that he didn’t know what he was talking about, he had also been fed the line by the existing cellphone companies, who had been trumpeting it for months beforehand.

And why shouldn’t politicians parrot what their lobbyists are saying? The Conservatives are the government despite only getting 5.2 million votes in the last election - or 15 per cent of the population. There is no realistic reason to expect that our political situation will change any time soon, that an effective opposition party will emerge, or that Canadians will suddenly care enough to elect one. What we’re left with, at present and for the foreseeable future, is a government that doesn’t speak for or represent the people.

In the realm of technology, a government that is listening to the wrong voices means we are at risk of falling even further behind economically, socially, educationally and culturally. I’m not qualified to say how our apparent democratic failure will affect us in other ways, but I’m fairly certain there are far more serious - and potentially dangerous - issues that can and inevitably will arise.

What is a banana republic? Other than a source of modern, refined clothing for men and women, plus shoes and accessories, it’s a term often reserved for the sorts of corrupt, politically unstable countries found in Central America. Popularly, though, it’s often used to describe a country where democracy simply isn’t working for one reason or another - like Canada. If that isn’t enough to depress you as we enter this new decade, I don’t know what is.

As someone said to me earlier this week, if we’re going to live in a banana republic, shouldn’t the weather at least be nicer?

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Posted by on December 31, 2009 in government, telecommunications


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