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Why Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Uber are spending billions on local politics

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SAN FRANCISCO —In the Seattle City Council election on Tuesday, one of the most closely-watched races was between pro-labor socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant and small businessman Egan Orion, who’s spent years supporting the gay community.

It was not an unreasonable lineup in a very liberal part of a generally liberal city. What is unusual is the decision of Amazon and some of its executives to pump $1.45 million into that and other City Council races to support pro-business candidates.

Tech companies — long focused on national and global issues — are increasingly getting involved in the nitty-gritty of local politics in ways they haven’t in the past. It’s a shift that’s been coming for some time, experts say, in many ways similar to efforts by companies such as Ford, Coca-Cola and U.S. Steel to mold the towns they were built in.

Seattle was not the only place where tech money was out in force this week. In Washington state, Amazon and Microsoft donated heavily to oppose a tax-reduction proposition that will hurt transit.

And Apple pledged $2.5 billion last week toward new housing in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Seattle outcome wasn’t immediately known. As of Wednesday afternoon, Sawant was trailing Orion but too many votes remained uncounted to call the race.

“Councilmember Sawant is Amazon Enemy Number One. If she loses this race, Amazon has to consider their efforts as a success,” said Jeffrey Shulman,  a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster school of business who studies Amazon’s effects on Seattle.

Tech gets local

This attention to local races is relatively new for tech, said Jessica Trounstine, a professor of political science and local politics at the University of California, Merced.

For a long time, many tech executives assumed their companies were mobile and they could set up shop anywhere, she said.

“So you see this long period of time in American history where these businesses were out of playing the local politics game,” she said.

Then the companies seemed to realize that while the internet was global, their workforce was local — and very picky about where it lived. The quality of life in a city directly affected the ability of the companies to hire the best and the brightest workers, said the University of Washington’s Shulman.

“It’s in their best interests to have a place people want to live. As Seattle transforms, there are a lot of questions about how we tackle these issues and Amazon’s trying to be a part of that,” he said.

The requirement of a flourishing city was underscored when Amazon announced its search for a second headquarters last year. The laundry list of attributes the company required included vibrant culture, good transit, business-friendly and excellent infrastructure.

The search didn’t go well for Amazon. It chose New York City and Crystal City in Northern Virginia as dual additions, then was spurned by local New York politicians opposed to its plan. The company eventually decided to give up on New York entirely.

Housing becomes a tech priority

The other realm tech is increasingly involved in is housing, at eye-popping sums.

Thousands of incoming residents making six-figure incomes combined with a lack of sufficient construction has resulted in rising prices and an affordable housing crisis up and down the West Coast that many blame on big tech companies.

The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is now $3,870, according to the site RentJungle. This year, the city counted 8,011 homeless people on its streets and in its shelters.

Apple last week pledged $2.5 billion for housing and the homeless. while Facebook pledged $1 billion last month. In June, Google committed to $1 billion, as well.

“The benefits to being in a San Francisco or a Seattle or an Austin or a Boston are so high that these companies would rather pay substantial sums on housing than decentralize somewhere else,” said Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political behavior.

There’s nothing altruistic about the donations, which focus primarily on creating affordable units and resources for the homeless because the bet is that eventually, they’ll increase the supply for everyone, says Trounstine.

The amounts set aside for housing, while large, are nothing compared to the market value of the companies themselves. Apple is worth $1.14 trillion, Amazon $890 billion, Google $890 billion and Facebook $546 billion.

In their broadest strokes, these efforts recall actions taken by the great industrialists of the Gilded Age such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies the political history of the tech world.

“Their personal philanthropy was, in part, an effort to redeem their public image and give back, but spending on their own terms,” she said.

A history of fighting regulation

While tech attempts to push certain candidates haven’t previously been front and center, efforts to affect regulations certainly have. There’s a long list of such fights going back years.

In 2018, efforts to thwart a proposition to tax big companies in San Francisco to fund housing and homelessness programs got millions from tech executives, as well as $5 million from liberal Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to support it. The measure passed.

That same year, Seattle first passed a controversial corporate head tax aimed at Amazon and other large businesses, meant to fund homeless programs. The City Council rescinded the tax a month later, after Amazon, Starbucks and other companies pushed back.

In 2015, Airbnb spent more than $8 million to defeat a San Francisco measure that would have restricted short-term rentals.

What seems to be changing is that tech executives are realizing they must turn toward local politics to keep their hometowns livable and enticing to work in. Amazon donated $500,000  and Microsoft $650,000 to defeat Washington’s anti-transit measure, for example.

“The big difference now is that large companies are to a certain degree in panic mode,” said William Riggs, a planning strategist and professor at the University of San Francisco.

“A lot of corporations are saying they can’t continue to only focus on job creation. If they don’t think about things on a human scale, they’ll lose out on human talent,” he said.

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Canada voted for a UN resolution in support of Palestinians’ right to self-determination

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Canada voted for a UN resolution this afternoon in support of Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

The vote marks a major departure for Canada, which has declined to support substantially the same resolution through 14 consecutive votes since Stephen Harper came to power in 2006.

Tuesday’s resolution was opposed by Israel, the United States and three Pacific island nations that depend heavily on U.S. aid and tend to vote with Washington at the UN: the Marshall Islands, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Speaking on background, an official at Global Affairs Canada said the vote sends a message that Canada does not agree with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion on Monday that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories are “not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is claiming that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories are not ‘inconsistent’ with international law. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

The official added that Canada has in the recent past opposed motions that are consistent with its own policy positions — to send a message that it considered the UN’s focus on Israel’s sins one-sided and inconsistent with the treatment of other nations. The official said that today’s vote reflected core Canadian principles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which include embracing a two-state solution with viable borders for both peoples.

A significant reversal

The vote represents a sudden shift in the direction of Canada’s policies on the Middle East, which began to drift toward a more pro-Israeli stance under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. That trend accelerated dramatically under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

There are 16 UN resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that come up every year, dealing with issues such as sovereignty, refugees, East Jerusalem, human rights, settlements and holy places. All of them are passed by overwhelming majorities while being opposed by the United States and Israel, which are sometimes joined by a handful of other nations. Those other nations typically include an assortment of Pacific islands — none of which can boast the population of Kelowna, B.C. — and Canada.

Canada was not always a member of the small pro-Israel voting bloc, though.

In 2003, Canada voted yes to 13 of the 16 resolutions on Israel and abstained on three. In 2004, it recorded its first two “No” votes, alongside the U.S. and Israel, and supported only 12 resolutions. After Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, the “No” and abstention votes gradually increased.

After Harper won a majority government in 2011, Canada voted “No” on 14 of the 16 resolutions, abstaining on another. From that point onward, the only “Yes” vote before today was on a non-controversial motion calling for assistance for Palestinians displaced by conflict.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the UN Security Council September 24, 2014. Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird listens in at left. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Trudeau’s Liberal government has maintained the voting pattern it inherited from the Harper government — until now.

That voting pattern continued in spite of the fact that it clearly undermined another Canadian foreign policy goal: winning a seat on the UN Security Council.

Resolution condemns occupation, barrier

The resolution that Canada supported today does not include harsh language condemning Israel — language Canada has objected to in the past. It does, however, contain language that criticizes the barrier wall Israel has built close to (but not always on) the 1949 armistice line that most countries consider to be the real border of Israel.

It also stresses “the urgency of achieving without delay an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967” and calls on all states “to continue to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self-determination.”

A Global Affairs Canada official, speaking on background, told CBC that of all the resolutions, this was the easiest to adopt. The official said Canada could vote differently than it has in the recent past on resolutions regarding Israel that are coming up in November and December, although there are no current plans to do so.

Strong reactions at home

It is unusual for a country to switch votes at the UN directly from a “No” to a “Yes” on the same issue. Usually, nations signalling a change of policy simply abstain from the vote. By reversing its vote, Canada’s UN delegation sent a clear message that immediately caused strong reactions at home.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs condemned the vote in a statement:

“This afternoon, Canada joined with the anti-Israel chorus at the UN and voted in favour of a General Assembly resolution co-sponsored by North Korea, Zimbabwe and the PLO that condemns Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and characterizes it as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’.

“Canadian support for the resolution represents a dramatic departure from a 10-year record of principled opposition to UN resolutions that single out Israel for condemnation and ignore Palestinian intransigence and provocations aimed at sabotaging efforts to advance peace and reconciliation.”

CIJA National Co-Chair Joel Reitman added that “while Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland offered assurances that no other changes in vote were being contemplated, we are very disappointed that the Government of Canada did not stand firm in opposition to the annual Israel-bashing ritual at the UN General Assembly.

“That neither this resolution nor any other currently being considered even acknowledge the obscene barrage of Palestinian-launched rockets and missiles raining down on Israel’s civilian population reflects just how distorted and one-sided these resolutions are.”

‘A slap to Trump’

But the change was welcomed by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, a group which has long lobbied for what it calls a more even-handed approach to the conflict.

Was Canada’s UN vote meant to rebuke U.S. President Donald Trump? (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

“We are extremely pleased that the Liberal government has voted in support of Palestinian self-determination at the UN,” said CJPME’s Miranda Gallo. “This is a long overdue step and is entirely consistent with the government’s support for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. In fact, Canada could not support a ‘two state’ solution if it did not support the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Noting that “the Liberal government has changed its position as compared to previous years,” Gallo added: “This may be a slap on the wrist to the Trump government to communicate that, given Pompeo’s outlandish statement in support of illegal Israeli colonies, Canada feels the U.S. is failing to provide fair leadership on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“The Liberal government may have also concluded that it can no longer ape the lopsided positions asserted by Israel and the U.S. on these resolutions, which have overwhelming support at the UN and overwhelming support among many Canadians.”

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Abortions rights advocates urge Liberals to turn politics into policy

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned for re-election on a promise to support abortion rights, a stance that put his Conservative rival on the defensive, and now advocates are anxious to see the Liberals turn those words into action.

“It’s good that we are getting the federal support at least in words, but words don’t mean very much when it comes to people’s lives,” said Olivier Hebert, an LGBTQ advocate involved in efforts to save Clinic 554, a family practice in Fredericton at risk of closing without provincial funding. The clinic includes abortions among its services.

The clinic received national attention last month when Trudeau stressed he would remind New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs that his province has an obligation to fund out-of-hospital abortions, or risk having Ottawa enforce such requirements under the Canada Health Act.

The practice, which also serves the LGBTQ community, is up for sale due to financial difficulties stemming from the provincial government’s refusal to expand its health-care funding to include surgical abortion procedures at private clinics, a stance held by both Higgs’s Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals who governed before them.

“A Liberal government will always defend women’s rights, including when challenged by conservative premiers,” Trudeau said Oct. 15 in Fredericton.

The issue of abortion played a prominent role in the federal election campaign this fall.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was pressed to clarify his stance abortion over several weeks, eventually confirming that he remains “personally pro-life” but would oppose any attempt to revive the issue in the House of Commons. The Liberals drew attention to the confusion throughout the campaign, especially as the Bloc Quebecois began to surge in Quebec, where anti-abortion views are unpopular.

Now, abortion-rights advocates are watching closely to see whether Liberal politics become policy.

Sarah Kennell, director of government relations for the advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said she would have liked to see Trudeau raise the issue in his one-on-one meetings with opposition leaders this past week, particularly with New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Singh, who criticized Trudeau for being slow to push the issue, campaigned on a promise to enforce the Canada Health Act right away. One of the ways to do that could include holding back the funding that Ottawa transfers to New Brunswick to pay for its health-care system.

Kennell said she also wants to see the mandate letter for the new federal health minister include a clear commitment to resolve the issue quickly.

“It’s imminent, the closure of the clinic, and that’s why swift action is needed now,” she said.

The issue did come up in Trudeau’s meeting Friday with the Greens’ Elizabeth May, though she was the one to raise it.

“It’s abortion access that’s about to be closed. We need desperate help from some level of, I think the federal government,” she said in front of Trudeau before their formal session began.

May emerged encouraged.

“I was very pleased that there was common ground on acting to stave off the loss of abortion services in New Brunswick,” she said afterward. “Clinic 554 is in danger of closing imminently and I am pleased that he also is concerned about that and wants to take steps within the Canada Health Act to ensure abortion access in New Brunswick. I’m not quite sure what he’ll do with it in terms of the emergency of this particular clinic closing that provides services for abortion services as well as health care services for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Ginette Petitpas Taylor, a New Brunswick MP who has been the health minister since 2017, sent a letter to her provincial counterparts in July warning them that making women pay out of pocket to terminate pregnancies, even at private clinics, went against the Canada Health Act.

The timeline for picking things up where she left them remains unclear.

Matthew Pascuzzo, a spokesman for Trudeau, said it is too early to comment on the content of the mandate letters or the speech from the throne.

He did leave the door open to the topic coming up when Trudeau sits down with Higgs.

“As the prime minister has said, we will ensure that the New Brunswick government allows paid-for access, to clinics that offer abortion services outside of hospitals,” Pascuzzo said in an email. “The prime minister is eager to work together to keep making progress, and looks forward to meeting with all premiers one-on-one in the near future, including with Premier Higgs.”

Higgs, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, accused Trudeau last month of playing politics with the issue of abortion services.

He also noted the provincial regulation limiting funding to abortions performed in hospitals had also been there under the previous Liberal government of Brian Gallant.

Abortion-rights advocates are not the only ones anxious to see how the Liberals will handle the issue.

Campaign Life Coalition has said that it welcomes the news that 46 Conservative candidates identified as being against abortion were elected in October.

At the same time, its November newsletter suggests the anti-abortion organization is worried the fact that the Liberals won a minority government means they will go even further to expand access to abortion services in Canada and elsewhere.

“We are concerned that Trudeau will co-operate with the NDP, Greens, and Bloc Quebecois to further liberalize euthanasia, the legal drug regime, and promote abortion throughout the land and abroad,” said the newsletter from the organization, which did not respond to an interview request.

Meanwhile, Alberta is another province where abortion rights advocates could end up urging Trudeau to intervene.

United Conservative Party backbencher Dan Williams introduced a private member’s bill in the Alberta legislature earlier this month that would reassert the Charter-protected freedom of conscience and religion for physicians and other health-care providers.

Williams has said his Bill 207 is a response to a decision from the Court of Appeal for Ontario this spring, which affirmed a lower-court ruling that found physicians who object on moral grounds to things like abortion or medically assisted death must offer to refer patients elsewhere.

He has also denied the charge from his Alberta NDP critics that his legislation, which would face an uphill battle without government support, is an indirect attempt to limit access to abortion services. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said he would not reopen the debate on abortion.

The Prime Minister’s Office was asked whether the federal Liberal government has a position on the bill.

“Our government has been clear that women have a right to access reproductive services. We will use all options available to defend a woman’s right to choose, including those that exist under the Canada Health Act,” Pascuzzo said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2019.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

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Jason Kenney hopes of returning to federal politics

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Well, if nothing else, we know he’s not interested in running federally.

When Alberta Premier Jason Kenney delivered his fiery “fair deal” speech last weekend, he was not only burning bridges with Ottawa but torching any lingering ambitions he may have had to become federal Conservative leader.

Oh, Kenney might have said he had no desire to return to the federal stage but the speculation has never faded since he entered provincial politics three years ago.

In a question-and-answer session on Facebook two weeks ago Kenney declared, “I have absolutely no interest or intention of pursuing federal office.”

But it was an answer that left wiggle room.

Might he have a sudden interest or intention tomorrow?

The conjecture only intensified after the federal election, which saw a bumbling Andrew Scheer unable to defeat a badly wounded Justin Trudeau.

The question around the provincial water cooler: was Kenney interested in replacing Scheer?

This was no idle speculation.

This was speculation that worked really hard.

On paper Kenney would make an ideal candidate for leader of the federal Conservatives.

Besides being a former cabinet minister and acolyte of Stephen Harper, Kenney is bilingual, a skilful organizer and tireless campaigner. Since becoming premier in April he has criss-crossed the country building alliances with other Conservative premiers. He was even called in to campaign for the Conservatives in Ontario and Manitoba during the federal election.

In many ways he already is the spiritual leader of the Conservative movement in Canada.

And Kenney is so obsessed with defeating the federal Liberals that during the Alberta election campaign he attacked Trudeau as much as he did his actual adversary, NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

This is a guy straddling two worlds: with one foot in Alberta and the other on the prime minister’s throat.

You could certainly argue Kenney’s socially conservative background would prove an impediment in a federal campaign, as Scheer discovered about his own history. But Kenney is more politically nimble than Scheer and Kenney managed to overcome that handicap in the Alberta election despite being aggressively targeted by the NDP.

Taken together it almost seemed Kenney was destined to return to federal politics.

Then came his “fair deal” speech in Red Deer last Saturday.

“Albertans have a right to be fed up,” declared Kenney. “I get it. I’m as fed up as anybody else is in this province.”

Kenney is fed up with delays in getting a new energy pipeline to the West Coast. He is fed up with “hostile and discriminatory policies that are being aimed at our province.” He is fed up with “the divisions that welled up in Canada during the Trudeau government’s first term.” He is fed up with anyone not supporting Alberta’s oilsands.

Most of all he is just fed up with Trudeau, who managed to irritate Kenney by surviving with a minority government in October’s election.

Kenney’s solution: he wants Alberta to have a “fair deal.”

That includes possibly withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, having Alberta collect its own income taxes and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta provincial police force.

He has appointed a panel of “eminent Albertans” — including former Reform Party leader Preston Manning — to see if the ideas are feasible. If they are, Kenney would put them to a vote by Albertans.

Alberta has been down this bumpy road before.

In 2001, a band of disgruntled Alberta Conservatives (including Stephen Harper, before he became a politician) was so upset after the federal Liberals won yet another election that the unhappy group wrote what came to be called the “firewall letter.”

They wanted Alberta to distance itself from Ottawa by collecting its own income taxes, forming its own provincial police force and creating an Alberta pension plan.

The idea was to make Alberta something of a western version of Quebec but this would be a province seemingly acting out of spite, not a province trying to protect a unique linguistic and cultural identity.

Ralph Klein, premier at the time, didn’t support the letter but, to quell grumblers within his own party, he did create a panel to look into the suggestions. The panel concluded that many, particularly collecting income tax and creating a provincial pension plan, would be cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary.

Here we are again, but this time the main grumbler is Alberta’s premier.

“We’ve had it with Ottawa’s indifference to this adversity,” said Kenney, referring to Alberta’s economic downturn. “Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long, it’s time for Ottawa to start working for us.”

This is Kenney as Captain Alberta. He has wrapped himself in the provincial flag and it’s difficult to imagine how he can ever untangle himself to run one day as Captain Canada.

In Canadian history, no provincial premier has ever won a federal election to become prime minister. Premiers are seen as too parochial, too regional, too insular.

Viewed from anywhere but Alberta — and probably Saskatchewan — Kenney’s speech is arguably all three.

Stephen Harper, of course, did manage to become prime minister despite co-authoring the firewall letter. But he wasn’t premier when he wrote it.

Besides, Kenney didn’t pen a mere firewall letter; he delivered a fire-breathing speech.

In so doing, he ignited the passions of many Albertans. However, any ambitions he might have had to run federally have been reduced to ashes.

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