Friday, February 26, 2010

in Okinawa

I have not been blogging lately as I have been on the road, although there have been some interesting developments in Alberta politics, not least being the boundary change proposals. To make the most out of my Japan Rail Pass it was go-go-go this past week.

This Saturday morning (in Okinawa`s capital, Naha) I was woken up by... an earthquake. The noise of the shaking was as much a wakeup call as the movement itself. I happened to be in the capsule of a Japanese capsule hotel, which is evidently a good place to be since nothing would land on me and it is, in fact, extremely rare for buildings to pancake because of earthquakes in developed countries; - most people who are killed are those who tried to run outside and where hit by falling masonry while going out the door, etc. Peeking my head out the capsule it was apparent that the rest of the capsule occupants on my floor were all woken up as well. For all that, no objects seem to have been displaced anywhere such that there was any evidence that there had been as much shaking as I felt.

My first concern was that I was far from the epicenter and there was a disaster in the making, possibly from a tidal wave, for those closer. But as it turned out, I was already in one of the closest communities, and although I thought 80 km constitued close to the epicenter, apparently that is not that close unless it is a truly massive earthquake. Although Haiti was also hit by a magnitude 7, some Haitians were right on top of the epicenter and the effect of an earthquake on a developed and undeveloped country are furthermore, it seems, enormously different.

I searched for "earthquake", and nothing recent came up for quite a while, after which it occurred to me to check the US Geological Survey website. The USGS map indicated that I was on the Okinawa coast that was opposite to the epicentre, and so while there is some wraparound effect with tsunamis, for there to be much danger on my side of the island it would have to be an enormous tsunami on the directly exposed east coast.

Although a couple people went to check a television for news, most were back snoring again quite quickly. Interestingly, newsflow to seemed to mostly come in a rush as the story briefly topped the headlines. The USGS indicated that it received just a half dozen reports from Naha, population 300 000 plus, but more than 100 from equidistant from the epicentre Chatan, population 25 000, which led me to the (correct) assumption that there is a US military base there. As an aside, the US military presence in Okinawa is reportedly THE issue between Japan and the US right now, since Japan`s new centre-left government is keen on seeing the Americans ship out。

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Alberta at the Olympics

Below is the gift package they were handing out at the Alberta Pavilion.

Perhaps there is an association between the province and chapped lips?

Media celebrity for Edmonton? CFRN sports host Don Short:

I watched Lindsay Blackett take the stage to announce some prizes for correct answers to trivia questions (a sample correct answer: a giant easter egg). Cindy Ady was supposed to arrive later in the day but the Premier was reportedly fogged in in Alberta... meanwhile it was glorious sunshine in Vancouver on Wednesday.

A protester completed the scene.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Canadian Conservatives underperforming in polls

The Progressive Conservatives' massive landslide in 1984 should be considered together with Reagan's sweep of 49 out of 50 states' electoral college votes in November of that year, and with Maggie Thatcher's landslide in Britain of June 1983. In eastern Europe, seeds were being sown that led to the collapse of several communist regimes by the end of the decade. A lot of people scoff at the idea that conservatives could really be riding high in 2010/2011 when the global economy took a nosedive in late 2008 and early 2009, but one should just look at what happened at the polls in the wake of the recession of 1981/1982.

Those who went through Junior High or High School during the 80s are now appearing in US polling as one of the most conservative demographics. These Alex P Keatons (Reagan reportedly said Family Ties was his favourite TV show) are thought to have gone decisively for Scott P Brown in last month's Massachusetts Senate election. Scott Brown's election underlined a year long decline in popularity for President Obama and the Democrats. A Gallup poll in late August found that 45% of Americans identified with or leaned towards the Democratic Party vs 40% for the Republicans. In January 2009, it was 52% Dem and 35% Republican. European elections in 2009 also showed a distinct move to the right. The dominant question concerning the next British election, which must be held by June of this year, is not whether Gordon Brown's Labour government will be defeated but whether the scale of Labour's defeat will approach the nadir the party registered in the early 80s. Although British MPs voted today to hold a referendum on ditching the first-past-the-post system, the referendum would not be held for many months yet.

To be sure, the 2010s appear unlikely at this stage to represent the conservative renaissance that the 1980s were. But the reality is that Canada's federal Conservative party should be doing better than it is in the polls given international trends of the last 12 months. EKOS' latest poll, for example, shows the Liberals ahead 31.9% to 31.0%. This suggests that the party may be losing support for reasons other than conservativism losing popularity. I cannot see how proroguing Parliament could have helped the party, and strikes me as an example of how the culture of the party is limiting its appeal. The party could use more transparency and more ideology on economic issues. With respect to the latter point, I recommend, as usual, Andrew Coyne.

As one can see from the Cato Institute graph below, the move towards smaller government in the 90s under Clinton south of the border and under the Liberals north of the border stalled out with the election of GWB in November 2000 and the Tories' electoral emergence in 2004, which forced a minority Parliament (Harper then moved into the Prime Minister's residence in 2006).

This graph is now getting dated, as 2009 and 2010 are seeing significant increases in government spending relative to the size of the economy in both countries. Of note here is that there is no clear popular mandate for this government expansion. As the graph below based on President Obama's 2011 Budget indicates (note: this graph just refers to the federal government, unlike the previous one) federal spending set to significantly exceed its long term average relative to the US economy.

As problematic as it is to assert a popular demand for smaller government at this point in time, it is pretty easy to claim that the American public is clearly not happy at the moment, and that alone should be enough to suggest that more political dangers exist on the overspending side than underspending. Will the next Tory budget reflect this, or will the Harper Conservatives continue to obsess over politics at the expense of policy?

There is an interesting side note to the EKOS poll. In Alberta, the Greens are third after the Liberals, with 13%. The share going to "Other" is 6.2% in the province, versus 2.4% nationally. According to EKOS, "This may reflect some disenchantment with the Conservative brand in provincial politics, where the Wildrose Alliance Party is challenging the Progressive Conservatives."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

a first attempt with Windows Live Movie Maker

I took the photos and short video clips that I shot a little over two years ago of an odd sight in the former capital of South Vietnam and put them together with the Movie Maker utility that came with the Windows 7 installed on my new Sony laptop. In terms of production it's no Avatar, but when I came across Bobby Vee's 1961 tune "Walkin With My Angel" I decided I must attach my orangutan media to the track. I reckoned the video was a bit short so extended it and added some audio sung by 10 year old Aaron Carter... seemed the macho thing to do!

I should say that I am alive to the contention that orangutans walking upright could potentially be analogous to dancing bears, which in Europe have led to protests against forcing animals to perform unnatural stunts. But given the fact that orangutans will apparently walk upright for extended periods of time on their own volition, and this particular spectacle not being organized for an audience, I thought it fair to conclude that it's just cute, absent the contrary opinion of an orangutan expert.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Edmonton city council races a lot less interesting

Last July, the Edmonton Journal ran a story headlined "Ward shakeup offers interesting races in 2010". That was before the current council decided to come to what Councilor Don Iveson calls a collective "understanding" that would see councilors shuffle around to preclude their having to run against each other (aside from odd-man-out Tony Caterina).
Cllr. Anderson and I came to a working understanding late last year that we would not run against each other, desiring instead that the bulk of our current Ward 5 constituents should have an experienced representative on their ballot.
Aside: I don't recall hearing much about the value of "an experienced representative" from the Iveson campaign in 2007...

Now, to be sure, Iveson says he has an understanding only with Bryan Anderson. But Iveson declining to run in Ward 8 is very good news for Ben Henderson and/or Jane Batty, who have their own arrangement that sees one of them running on the southside in Ward 8 despite both living north of the river in Ward 6. Aside from living in Ward 8, Iveson's connections to the university and his political style make him a natural for Ward 8. Anderson, in turn, is a natural for Ward 10. He lives there, and his politics fit. It nonetheless appears that Iveson asked Anderson to shuffle over to Ward 9 so he could in turn shuffle into Ward 10.

The big loser in this game of musical chairs is everyone who hoped that business and taxpayers would have a voice on council (and anyone hoping for some seriously contested elections). Former Liberal MLA Karen Leibovici will be easily re-elected in the west end ward of her choice (Ward 1 or 5) while her former Liberal caucus colleague and notorious lefty Linda Sloan will take the other west end ward ("Coun. Linda Sloan said she won't run for mayor, but the ward she runs in will be influenced by whether any of her colleagues seek the position.)" A third former Liberal MLA, Ed Gibbons, has locked down Ward 4 in the northeast. With respect to Wards 11 and 12 in the southeast, both union advocate (when he's actually working) Dave Thiele, and the NDP associated Amarjeet Sohi will be seeking re-election. Ben Henderson, husband of Edmonton Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, seems to have cleared the field by virtue of his understanding with Jane Batty, while Ron Hayter (first elected in 1971) and Kim Krushell will be unassailable in north end Wards 3 and 2, respectively.

Tony Caterina would not able to beat either Hayter or Gibbons, meaning having to run in the open Ward 7, but Ward 7 is not really open to a conservative candidate. Brendan Van Alstine is the safe bet to take Ward 7 and add to council's left lean, given that it is early February and Van Alstine has already been campaigning in this NDP territory for months.

So there you have it: 12 city councilors after October 2010, all re-elected incumbents except for #toncat, who is replaced by a candidate far to Tony's left. The number with ties to the provincial PCs, never mind the Wildrose Alliance? Zero.

Obviously not everyone is going to shed a tear about the fact conservative candidates are likely to be shut out. But I think non-partisans would find it regrettable that incumbents have gone to the lengths they have to entrench themselves. There is a reason that term limits exist, and it is to ensure new blood in government, which otherwise faces long odds against all the advantages that accrue to incumbency. In 2004 when Allan Bolstad retired, Kim Krushell - by her own account - knocked on 6000 doors seeking the vacant seat, and in 2007, when running for re-election, less than 1000. Her reward? Moving up from a 2nd place finish in a system where the top two are elected to 1st. A city council grasping for the advantages of incumbency by collusion amongst incumbent councilors to minimize competition would be described as a cartel were it a private organization.

As for the likely political end for Tony the Cat, that may not, in fact, be the worst outcome given that he was never an ideal conservative candidate anyway. Mike Nickel was more effective, and even Nickel had his limitations as he was too oppositional. But disappointing to me is that fact that no sitting councilor resides in the new Ward 9 and 90%+ of the ward overlaps with the provincial riding of Edmonton Whitemud, where I have seen quite a lot of success organizing on behalf of the Wildrose Alliance: the news that Bryan Anderson - who seems to be all things to all people - will run in 9 is unfortunate, despite the fact that Anderson is a reasonably competent councilor by most reports (the Edmonton Sun gives him a C+). For all the talk about how Don Iveson knocked off a city councilor, Iveson did not knock off Anderson despite going directly against him in 2007. In fact, Anderson pulled in more than 1000 votes more than Iveson did in 2007, and the further south ones goes (i.e. towards Ward 9 and away from Ward 8) the weaker Iveson's electoral performance. 2nd was nonetheless good enough for election under the old ward system. The Riverbend and Terwillegar area would have been a prime launching pad for a conservative candidate, but now the number of distinguished candidates who will be interested in contesting the ward will be significantly lower. Finding volunteers and donors for a compelling candidate conscious of the importance of stimulating the growth of the tax base will also be difficult given the odds of beating Anderson, who despite not being conservative can't be classified as a leftist at odds with a relatively right wing ward either.

As I pointed to last month, bond rating agencies have noted that the city's spending "has the potential to push tax-supported debt to a level no longer consistent with the current rating." How is it that the capital of a supposedly conservative province has the third-highest (out of 21 municipalities) taxes and fees in the country? Annual tax and fee increases under the current council have approached double digit levels, yet Iveson still felt it necessary to advise his colleagues that he was tired of "this city cheaping out." Councilor Henderson has also dismissed concerns about tax competitiveness, warning against what would happen "if you cheap out". Iveson actually adds quite a lot to council, don't get me wrong, but having the council dominated by spenders is neither in the city's interests nor representative of the city's diversity of perspectives.

Last month's news about how none of the incumbents are going to challenge each other electorally suggests a council that gets along together rather too well!