Oil, war and democracy: Government by kids in short pants

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How many words beginning with the letter "d" can be associated with "democracy"? Debate, dialogue, discussion, discourse and dissent come quickly to mind. When it comes to Parliament, words such as dignity and decorum should be added.

The recent Parliamentary exchange between Paul Calandra, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Tom Mulcair, Leader of the Official Opposition, suggests that Canada is headed in a different direction. Mr. Calandra did not just side-step Mr. Mulcair's questions about military involvement in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- he  refused to answer them and went on a digression about Israel.

Canadian Armed Forces' (CAF) role in the campaign against ISIS is a serious matter. As a Government of Canada website explains:

"The CAF are an entity separate and distinct from the Department… headed by the Chief of the Defence Staff… [who] is responsible for the conduct of military operations and to ensure that the CAF is always ready to carry out the tasks that Parliament assigns through the Minister of National Defence." [emphasis added]

Why, then, is Stephen Harper acting as if he alone is responsible for putting troops in a war zone in the Middle East? Did Mr. Harper's office direct Mr. Calandra to provide nonsense answers when Mr. Mulcair raised this matter in the House of Commons? 

Mr. Calandra tearfully apologized three days after his exchange with Mr. Mulcair.  Calandra said that "kids in short pants" in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) did not direct him to provide nonsense answers. But a CBC report indicates otherwise: "sources tell CBC News that Calandra was handed material by Alykhan Velshi, director of issues management in the PMO… and was told to use it in his answer no matter what question was asked in the House."

Mr. Velshi, a 30-year-old Toronto native, obtained a law degree from the London School of Economics and went to work in 2005 at the American Enterprise Institute, a U.S. neo-conservative policy think-tank and architect of George W. Bush's policies. Velshi has written articles supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, encouraging "regime change" in Iran, and defending the current Israeli government. When Jason Kenney was appointed as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity in 2007 he hired Mr. Velshi as senior special assistant and then Director of Communications. In 2008 Velshi worked for then-environment minister John Baird and was instrumental in developing the Conservative Party's attack against Stephane Dion's proposed "green shift" in the 2008 federal election. Velshi briefly left the Harper government to lead EthicalOil.org, a pro-oil-sands lobbying effort, before returning to join the PMO as Director of Issues Management in November 2011. This U.S. neo-conservative background plays a key role in formulating the Harper government's pro-oil, pro-war, pro-Israel, anti-environment, anti-democratic policies. 

Mr. Velshi can count on support of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) in these matters. One of the first issues he "managed" in the PMO was passage of Bill C-38, the 2012 omnibus budget bill that gutted Canada's environmental protection regime, notably the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the federal Fisheries Act. 

In the book The War on Science, Chris Turner reports that briefing notes for an Environment Canada official attending an oil-industry function in early 2012 acknowledged that CAPP had urged that these changes to environmental laws be made through omnibus legislation in order to "severely reduce the amount of time Canadians would have to consider the changes and debate them." 

Aided by willing staff like Mr. Velshi in the PMO, CAPP has resisted years of effort by federal and provincial environment officials to regulate carbon emissions from the oil and gas sector. As long as Harper remains in power, his government will do its utmost to block global action on climate change. The price of inaction: increasingly frequent violent climate events.

ISIS derives much of its operating revenues from oil sales, leading the U.S. and U.K. to bomb oil facilities in ISIS-held territory. Will the world be driven into a rapid downward spiral by the nexus between oil, war, and climate change? 

It is time for democratic debate on these and related issues -- such as how Canadian society has evolved into one in which young men become ISIS fighters. A wise person once said, "What you resist, persists." Over-emphasis on identifying and fighting with enemies amounts to mutual assured destruction in slow motion. Military action can be necessary, but is never sufficient. We all share one planet.

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Dave King/flickr

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