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A decade of upheaval in Quebec politics: Religion, corruption, the CAQ, activist youth – Montreal Gazette

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The period was bookmarked by divisive debates over religious symbols. The political landscape was upturned as two historic parties crumbled and two upstarts rose. The first female premier was elected. And activist youth shook the province – twice.

The last decade was tumultuous in Quebec politics and there wasn’t even a referendum.

The period was bookmarked by divisive debates over religious symbols. The political landscape was upturned as two historic parties crumbled and two upstarts rose. The first female premier was elected. And activist youth shook the province — twice.

Here’s a portrait of an eventful decade in Quebec political history.

Dark clouds for Liberals, PQ

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Early in the decade, a Liberal — Jean Charest — was premier and the Parti Québécois was the official opposition under Pauline Marois. But in 2010, storm clouds were gathering for the two parties, which had alternated in power in Quebec for more than four decades. Liberal support was collapsing. Media were swirling with stories about corruption in government contracts and criminal control of the province’s construction industry. And voters were telling pollsters they didn’t think Charest would do anything about it. Over at the PQ, Marois’s leadership was under scrutiny. Polls showed francophone voters would happily abandon the party René Lévesque founded for one that didn’t even exist yet. They were intrigued by news that behind the scenes, former PQ minister and businessman François Legault was building a new right-of-centre party that would shelve sovereignty.

Corruption clamour

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For two years, just about everybody in Quebec was calling for an inquiry into corruption in Quebec. The key holdout: Charest. He finally relented in October 2011, launching a public inquiry to investigate 1) collusion and corruption in public construction contracts, 2) whether such crimes were linked to political party fundraising, and 3) the role organized crime played in the construction industry. With Justice France Charbonneau at the helm, its hearings were broadcast live and Quebecers were riveted to 261 days of public testimony. Civil servants were being paid off. Above-board contractors were being harassed. Construction and engineering firms were rigging bids. In some cases, the Mafia controlled which companies won contracts, how much they would charge, and got a percentage of the take. The machinations were producing substandard infrastructure and costing taxpayers untold millions. It took four years for the $45-million Charbonneau Commission to publish its final report, a period during which Quebec twice changed government, first turfing Charest in favour of Marois and then replacing Marois with Liberal Philippe Couillard. In its final report in 2015, the Charbonneau commission said corruption and collusion was “widespread and deeply rooted; it made 60 recommendations. A year later, most recommendations had not been implemented, an anticorruption monitoring group said at the time. And three-quarters of Quebecers surveyed said corruption under Couillard was as significant or more significant than under previous premiers.

Youth in the streets, take 1

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Quebec youth took to the streets en masse in 2012, demanding a university tuition freeze. They were up in arms against a Liberal government plan to hike tuition fees, among the lowest in Canada, by 75 per cent via annual $325 increases over five years. With small red squares of fabric safety-pinned to their clothes, tens of thousands of protesting CEGEP and university students boycotted classes, regularly paralyzing Montreal streets. Some demos turned violent, making international headlines. Dubbed the Maple Spring, the movement fizzled out in the summer. An election was in the offing and the protesters had an ally in Marois; the PQ leader had worn a red square in the National Assembly for months and at one point clanged pot lids together as she joined a demo. After she won power in September 2012, Marois cancelled the Liberal tuition hike. But she also slashed university funding by $124 million and later hiked tuition by three per cent, or about $70. That hike led to more demos in the spring of 2013, with some now calling for the abolition of tuition fee. Today, Quebec’s tuition is the second lowest in Canada, after Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2019-20, fees jumped by 3.7 per cent, almost twice the rate of inflation.

Historic election

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Quebec made history in 2012, electing its first female premier. But Marois’s election night celebration at PQ headquarters was marred by a burst of political violence, a rarity in Canada. The new PQ premier was whisked off the stage as she gave her victory speech. Richard Henry Bain had opened fire outside, killing stage technician Denis Blanchette. Bain later wrote to his psychiatrist that his plan was to kill “as many separatists as possible” and that he would have killed more people had his gun not jammed. Marois’s ascension to power came as another woman was soaring: Françoise David of the left-wing sovereignist Québec solidaire, one of Quebec’s most popular politicians at the time. David’s impressive performance in the leaders’ election debate helped her party siphon votes away from the PQ, depriving Marois of a majority. Marois’s reign was short-lived. After just 19 months, she was defeated by Couillard.

Religious symbols, take 1

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Quebecers had spent part of the previous decade arguing over “reasonable accommodation” — the relaxing of rules in favour of people threatened with discrimination. In 2013, Marois tried to exploit resentment among some Quebecers by proposing a Charter of Quebec Values under which public workers — including teachers, professors, civil servants and doctors — would be prohibited from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols such as burkas, hijabs, kippahs, turbans and “large” crosses at work. The proposal, complete with diagrams to show what could and could not be worn, was highly controversial, with some institutions saying they would defy the law. But the PQ’s charter failed to become law after Marois called an election and was defeated by Couillard. Some attribute her 2014 loss in part to the backlash over her proposed charter.

Rise and fall of PKP

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Pierre Karl Péladeau, head of the Quebecor business empire launched by his father, entered politics with a bang in 2014. Standing next to Marois, who had recruited him as a star PQ candidate, Péladeau passionately pumped his fist in the air, saying his main goal was to make Quebec a country. The candidacy of the rich, powerful businessman sent shock waves through Canada; one national magazine ran a photo of a determined-looking Péladeau on its cover, asking: “Is this the man who will break up Canada?” It didn’t work out that way. The fist pump became an enduring image of the ensuing election campaign. That put sovereignty on the forefront, to Marois’s detriment, as many Quebecers were not keen on another referendum. After Marois’s government fell, Péladeau took over as party leader in May 2015. But his tenure was short: he quit just under a year later as leader and MNA. In the midst of a difficult divorce from TV personality Julie Snyder, he cited family reasons. But Péladeau remains a key figure in politics. Quebecor is a print, broadcasting and online juggernaut that is dominated by nationalist voices. And Péladeau is still personally present: he stole the show at a Bloc Québécois rally in August, and he’s not afraid to publicly castigate the Legault government.

The CAQ era begins

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Beginning in 1976, two parties dominated Quebec politics, but over the course of the last three elections the Liberals and PQ saw their fortunes sink as Quebecers increasingly looked for fresh ideas. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, a centre-right, nationalist party that brought together federalists and sovereignists, won a decisive majority in 2018. More than a year later, the honeymoon continues. The CAQ easily won a byelection in December and Legault is the most popular premier in Canada. Another relatively new party is also on the upswing. In the 2018 election, Québec solidaire attracted left-wing sovereignists and environmentally-conscious voters away from the PQ. Québec solidaire, born in 2006, has 10 seats in the National Assembly, one more than the fourth-place PQ. The Liberals, for their part, came second in 2018, but that result belies its dire situation. Polls show francophones, who make up the majority in the vast majority of Quebec ridings, want nothing to do with the Liberals. Today, the party, which traces its roots back to 1867, has no MNAs east of its Montreal bastion. Rudderless, the PQ and the Liberals both end the decade desperately looking for a leader who can breathe new life into them.

Religious symbols, take 2

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When it comes to religious symbols, the CAQ succeeded where the PQ failed. Buoyed by a rise in nationalism, one of Legault’s first acts as premier was to introduce Bill 21, a law that prohibits government workers deemed to be in positions of authority — including teachers, police, judges — from wearing symbols such as the hijab and the kippah at work. Opposed by many among religious and linguistic minorities, the law, which came into force in June, is popular among the majority, largely Catholic population. The government invoked the notwithstanding clause, which prevents citizens from challenging a law for violating parts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, lawsuits contending the bill is discriminatory were launched. In December, Quebec’s Court of Appeal rejected a motion to suspend the law while the Superior Court examines whether the law itself is unconstitutional. That court is expected to start hearing the case in the fall of 2020.

Students in the streets, take 2

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Seven years after the red-square protests, a new youth movement arose in the dying days of the decade. Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, Quebec young people again took massively to the streets in 2019, this time to demand action on climate change. They held weekly Friday rallies, often skipping school, culminating in what was described as the biggest rally in Quebec history. Led by Thunberg herself, an estimated crowd of 500,000 dominated by young people took over Montreal streets in September. The youth-led demand for action helped make the environment a major issue in the federal election, held three weeks after the rally. And after largely ignoring climate change during its rise to power, Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government also took notice. Criticized for sitting out this year’s United Nations climate summit, Legault now says he’ll be there next year.

Where were they then?

A decade ago, some of today’s political leaders were not on the front lines.

  • Legault quit politics in 2009, lamenting that “Quebec is going into a quiet decline.” He launched the CAQ two years later.
  • Interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand, a former broadcasting executive recently arrived in politics, was Quebec’s environment minister in 2010.
  • Manon Massé, co-spokesperson for Québec solidaire, worked for the Centre des Femmes de Laval, while her co-spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, was a prominent student activist.
  • Pascal Berube, now the PQ’s interim leader, was an obscure opposition critic focusing on tourism, wildlife and fisheries.

Quebec by the numbers: Then and now

Population
2010: 7.9 million
2018: 8.4 million

Number of people 100 years old or older
2010: 1,773
2018: 2,340

Mother tongue, Montreal Island
2006:
French: 48.7%
English: 16.8%
Other: 31.8%
Multiple: 2.7%

2016:
French: 46.1%
English: 16.1%
Other: 33.2%
Multiple: 4.6%

Average single-family house value, city of Montreal
2010: $398,000
2019: $601,000

Minimum wage
2009: $9
2019: $12.50

Per capita greenhouse gas emissions
2010: 10.4 tonnes
2018: 9.6 tonnes

Top source of immigrants
2007-2011: France
2012-2016: China

Unemployment 
2010: 8 per cent
2018: 5.5 per cent

Support for sovereignty
2010: 42 per cent
2018: 31 per cent

Sources: Institut de la statistique du Québec, Statistics Canada, City of Montreal, —Léger Marketing , Ipsos

ariga@postmedia.com

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Confessions of a slow learner: American politics really is sexist – POLITICO

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C’mon, Mike Bloomberg is not sexist. He told us he isn’t. And yet there was Elizabeth Warren claiming he is, even though he just said—did she not hear him the first time?— that he is not. Geez, no wonder the camera caught him rolling his eyes with impatient disdain.

The exchanges over Bloomberg’s record on women and discrimination at the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas were entertaining. If we can’t enjoy a self-confident billionaire being thrown back on his heels by an equally self-confident inquisitor like Warren—and look forward to the rematch tonight—then there is nothing left to laugh at in presidential politics anymore.

Beneath the surface, though, that confrontation and other gender-related dynamics on display as the Democratic nomination battle reaches a critical stage are dispiriting. They reveal a political culture stuck in a rut.

What’s more, the encounter—combined with the fact that the two remaining Democratic women running for president, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, find themselves clinging to viability in the race—have converged in ways that made me realize how often, over how many years, my own reporting career has involved covering that same rut.

The inescapable conclusion: American politics, especially at the presidential level, remains shaped by sexist double standards. These are amplified by the prism through which much of journalism covers politics, with our emphasis on personality, style, and impressionistic perceptions of amorphous factors like strength and charisma.

There’s a large portion of the audience that surely is responding to that last paragraph with something like: Duh. Probably I’ve earned a few disdainful eye rolls of my own.

Think of this as a column for slow learners, written from the perspective of a slow learner. Our ranks are large, and obviously include Bloomberg but I suspect also, to varying degrees, the other male candidates.

I am not actually that clueless. Rest assured that I am not just now acquainting myself with the notion that politics—like wide swaths of American professional culture, including media—is shadowed by sexism. I have sources and friends who have written books on the subject.

My revelation is not about the historic reality of gender prejudice but about its durability.

Before I covered national politics, I covered state politics in Virginia. In the past three presidential cycles the state has gone Democratic but in those days, the 1990s, it had voted Republican at the presidential level since 1964. Democrats could win statewide office but only if they presented themselves as practical-minded moderates who didn’t offend Old Dominion sensibilities.

One person who seemed especially adept at this was a Democrat named Mary Sue Terry. She had twice won big in statewide races for attorney general. In 1993, she started her race for governor as an early and commanding favorite. She had a solid record, a conscientious work ethic, an impressive fundraising network and the backing of all manner of respectable establishment figures.

Her biggest obstacle, it seemed to me and many others, was her public persona—painfully cautious, almost purposefully dull. This was not how I experienced her in private settings, in which she was an interesting and engaging presence.

I once asked her what explained the gulf—why was she so restrained and opaque and downright uncomfortable in public? She looked at me incredulously and asked me to put down my notebook. A quarter-century later I will paraphrase but not quote: Do you honestly have no idea how difficult it is for a woman in public life?

The answer was no, I honestly did not buy it. The year before, 1992, was in national politics “the year of the women,” when five female candidates were elected to the Senate—a record at the time. And Terry herself had already knocked down the gender barrier. If she lost the governorship because she couldn’t get voters to connect with her leadership style, it seemed to me then, this had nothing to do with gender. As it happened, Terry did lose handily to Republican George Allen, whose folksy, towel-snapping style gave him 58 percent of the vote.

With the passage of time, I’ve wondered whether Terry was explaining something more elemental than I realized. To state the obvious, we have not yet elected a woman as president. It occurred to me just the other day something less obvious: Since 1989, when Terry won re-election as attorney general, there have been 31 state and federal elections to hold statewide offices representing Virginia, all at a time when the state has been trending steadily more progressive. The number of those elections won by women has been precisely zero.

This year’s Democratic presidential contest offers reason to wonder anew. Warren’s decline in the polls in late summer and fall of last year coincided with media coverage designating her frontrunner. Much of the coverage of her debate performances (including some of my own, in a fashion not too different than my old stories on Terry) puzzled on the variance between moments when she seemed “commanding” or seemed to recede and saw her percentage of speaking time diminish. Jennifer Palmieri, an adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016, wrote in her post-campaign book “Dear Madam President” about how the Clinton team grappled with the way some voters are turned off by ambitious women.

After the most recent debate, when Klobuchar was grilled over not knowing the name of the Mexican president, the split in post-debate chatter was a Rorschach test: Some thought former Mayor Pete Buttigieg had skillfully exploited her lapse, others thought he was smug and patronizing. Kloubchar was in that latter camp: “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”

At a minimum it is notable that we are still talking about gender. There are some bridges in politics and broader society that get crossed and somehow stay crossed. Twenty years ago, Joe Lieberman’s status as a Jewish person on the national Democratic ticket was covered and talked about as a big deal. This year the fact that Bernie Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews attracts scant interest. The same with the fact that Bloomberg is unmarried and lives with his long-term companion, and that he, Sanders and Warren, like Donald Trump, have been divorced—a status that until 1980 was regarded as a severe liability in presidential politics. We don’t know for sure how Buttigieg’s same-sex marriage would play in a general election, but in the Democratic contest it has been a fund-raising and reputational asset; he’s usually the one who brings up the subject rather than other people.

One reason gender prejudice in politics is hard to grapple with is that the insidious nature of double standards can never be isolated as the sole factor, or even the primary factor, behind a candidate’s success or failure. Klobuchar is most of the things many establishment Democrats say they are yearning for: smart, centrist, experienced, with a proven record of winning. She’s running behind Buttigieg, who is smart, centrist, but not as experienced or a proven winner. On the other hand, Klobuchar has done a lot better than fellow Sen. Michael Bennet, who checked most of the same the boxes she did. Who’s to say what role gender played?

That’s why Bloomberg’s debate performance offered a useful window on the question. His words, tone, and body language made it pretty easy to guess his thought bubble: Give me a break, I am not sexist and these critics don’t really think I am—they are just saying that to score political points.

There’s no evidence that Bloomberg is a Harvey Weinstein type. Upon reflecting after last week’s debate, he reversed himself and said he’d be happy to waive non-disclosure agreements from women who sued his company, Bloomberg Media, over sex-related discrimination.

Warren skewered him, as have opponents in previous elections, on quotations attributed to him in a booklet called “The Portable Bloomberg,” presented to him as an affectionate gift by co-workers on his 48th birthday. She said it reveals a “billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.” The booklet quotes Bloomberg as saying the financial data terminals sold by the company, “will do everything including give you a blow job. I guess that puts a lot of you girls out of business.”

Here’s a test. Imagine that the Portable Bloomberg had contained equivalent lines resting on racial stereotypes, or religion. Then ask yourself whether a candidate could successfully brush aside controversy by saying, as Bloomberg did last week, “maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.”

The answer may explain why our politics is still stuck in a gender rut.

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Malaysian politics has been plunged into chaos, it may take a long time to recover – CNN

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That seems to be the main lesson from three days of political chaos in Malaysia, as the 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad managed to resign both the premiership and leadership of his party, but keep both jobs, and have accusations of betrayal turn into pledges of loyalty and support from all sides of the parliamentary divide.
Appointed interim-Prime Minister by the king following his resignation, Mahathir is likely to form a new government within a few days, though negotiations could continue through the week and the country could still be on track for a snap election at some point in the near future.
How did we get here? The answer to that involves a decades-long rivalry, accusations of backstabbing, a mess of acronyms and Malaysia’s sometimes fraught religious and ethnic divides.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad waves after he was granted an audience with King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

Political crisis

After louder and louder rumblings of internal turmoil, the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition abruptly collapsed Monday amid accusations several high-profile members, led by Mahathir, were negotiating with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to form a new government.
UMNO was Malaysia’s traditional party of government, fielding all the country’s post-independence leaders, until the 1MDB financial scandal and subsequent unpopularity of Prime Minister Najib Razak saw it turfed out of office by the PH coalition in 2018.
How 1MDB finally caught up with Najib RazakHow 1MDB finally caught up with Najib Razak
That coalition was led by Mahathir, a one-time UMNO leader and prime minister, who joined the opposition in order to bring down Najib, who he regarded as massively corrupt. Najib is currently on trial over numerous charges relating to the 1MDB scandal, which he denies.
While some members of PH were suspicious of Mahathir’s motivations, his star power and ability to appeal to traditional UMNO supporters undeniably helped in their ultimate victory. He subsequently became prime minister under an agreement that he would eventually hand over power to fellow PH leader Anwar Ibrahim.
It was that transition that appeared to be in doubt this week, yet another wrinkle in the decades-long saga that is Anwar and Mahathir.
Anwar was once the older man’s heir apparent, until he was fired by then-Prime Minister Mahathir in 1998, and charged with corruption and sodomy. He would spend much of the next two decades in and out of prison, as first Mahathir and then Najib brought more prosecutions against him.
In 2018, with more and more revelations about Najib’s alleged crimes emerging and public clamor for his removal growing, Mahathir formed a breakaway party of former UMNO members, Bersatu, and joined the PH coalition.
Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, endorsed Mahathir and served as his deputy. Following their victory, Anwar received a royal pardon that allowed him to enter politics again. He was elected to parliament in October 2018, clearing him to assume the premiership.
Despite suspicions that Mahathir might backtrack on this deal, given his long and not-exactly-collegial history with Anwar, many of his critics were reassured by his statements that he saw himself more like a temporary caretaker, helping the government get back on track. After all, when he assumed office at 92, Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader, how long could he really expect to stay in power?
Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad, chairman of Pakatan Harapan (The Alliance of Hope), wait for Mohamed to be sworn in as Malaysian prime minister, outside the National Palace 'Istana Negara' on May 10, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad, chairman of Pakatan Harapan (The Alliance of Hope), wait for Mohamed to be sworn in as Malaysian prime minister, outside the National Palace 'Istana Negara' on May 10, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
As Mahathir showed this week, however, his age has not dented in the slightest his political wiliness and ability to play all sides at once.
The latest crisis appears to have arisen from within Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the perpetual prime minister in waiting’s own interpersonal relationships, or lack thereof, with his main rivals. Writing Monday, Malaysian politics analyst Bridget Welsh said that “divisions over leadership, racial politics and reform had split the (PH) coalition for some time.”
“The more Anwar Ibrahim pushed for a date of the transition, the more the forces opposed to his leadership worked to consolidate an alternative,” she said.
Following a weekend of frantic closed-door meetings between all sides, Anwar came out in support of Mahathir on Monday, blaming the attempted political coup on a PKR faction led by deputy leader Azmin Ali, who he promptly sacked.
The cartoonists who helped take down a Malaysian prime ministerThe cartoonists who helped take down a Malaysian prime minister
“Those from my party and outside are using his name. He reiterated what he said to me earlier. He had no part in it. He made it very clear in no way would he work with those in the past regime,” Anwar told reporters Monday.
Another top PH leader, Lim Guan Eng, also voiced his support of Mahathir and condemnation of Azmin and other PKR defectors, who he said were attempting “to form a back-door government to replace the existing democratically-elected PH government with a new coalition.”
“In objecting to this nefarious attempt to subvert and undermine the people’s mandate given to PH, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had submitted his resignation as Prime Minister,” Lim said in a statement posted online, adding that his Democratic Action Party (DAP) would support Mahathir remaining as premier.
Indeed, that seems to be the one thing everyone agrees upon. In a statement widely reported by Malaysian and regional media, Azmin and 10 other former PKR lawmakers accused Anwar and his allies of being the “real traitors,” attempting to force Mahathir into a lame-duck situation.
“Last Friday, we saw an attempt by some of PH top leaders forcing the prime minister to set a date to resign and proceed with the transition of power to PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim,” the statement said. “The campaign, which started a few months ago, has gained momentum to divert the people’s attention from efforts to restore the country’s economy and make institutional reforms.”
Najib Razak, outgoing Prime Minister of Barisan Nasional party speaks during a press conference following the 14th general election on May 10, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Najib Razak, outgoing Prime Minister of Barisan Nasional party speaks during a press conference following the 14th general election on May 10, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Ethnic strife

If a new political realignment does emerge from the chaos of this week, it is likely to be of a very different flavor to the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
When that grouping came to power, it was the first time in the country’s post-independence history that the dominant parties in government were multiethnic ones. The new cabinet also included numerous Chinese and Indian Malaysians in prominent positions. While PH was hailed by many observers as more representative of Malaysia’s ethnic makeup, its mix of parties made it vulnerable, with several, including Mahathir’s own Bersatu having Malay-first leanings which led to tensions within the PH alliance.
In the new Malaysia, signs of an older, uglier politicsIn the new Malaysia, signs of an older, uglier politics
In Malaysia, over 60% of the country’s 32 million population belong to the Bumiputera — a group known as “sons of the soil,” which includes ethnic Malays, and natives of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo. At 21%, Chinese Malaysians make up the country’s next largest ethnic group, followed by Indian Malaysians at 6%.
The potential members of a new coalition are primarily Bumiputera parties, similar to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition helmed by former UMNO leader and prime minister Najib Razak.
Najib himself oversaw a strongly Malay-first administration and increase in racialized politics, a strategy he has doubled down on in opposition, while he awaits his various trials for corruption. Many observers believe this strategy to be the driving force behind UMNO’s alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a former rival.
The presence of PAS in any potential new coalition, as well as the almost entirely monoethnic makeup of it, will alarm many urban Malaysians and ethnic minorities, and would be a major step back from the post-racial political transformation some were hailing in 2018.
Nor is there any guarantee that such a monoethnic coalition would actually be any more stable than its predecessor.
“Like the one that has just crumbled, the would-be new coalition also comprises strange bedfellows who until recently were fighting like cats and dogs, be it in Parliament or the media,” wrote Malaysian commentator Joceline Tan this week. “Malaysia is in for another roller coaster ride, assuming the new government that may be formed soon will last till the next general election.”

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Canada Oil-Sands Plan Collapses Over Politics and Economics – The New York Times

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A major effort to expand development of Canada’s oil sands has collapsed shortly before a deadline for government approval, undone by investor concerns over oil’s future and the political fault lines between economic and environmental priorities.

Nine years in the planning, the project would have increased Canada’s oil production by roughly 5 percent. But it would have also slashed through 24,000 acres of boreal forest and released millions of tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide every year.

Some Canadian oil executives had predicted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet would approve the project by a regulatory deadline this week, though with burdensome conditions. But in a letter released Sunday night, the Vancouver-based developer, Teck Resources, declared that “there is no constructive path forward.”

The unexpected withdrawal relieves Mr. Trudeau of a choice that was sure to anger environmentalists or energy interests, if not both.

Conservatives were quick to blame Mr. Trudeau for the loss of a project that they said would have created thousands of jobs and given an economic lift to the western province of Alberta, the hub of Canada’s energy industry, which has suffered from low oil prices over the last five years. They suggested that the government felt pressure from weeks of protests by Indigenous groups opposing a natural gas pipeline, even though some Indigenous groups supported the Alberta project, known as the Frontier mine.

“It is what happens when governments lack the courage to defend the interests of Canadians in the face of a militant minority,” Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, said in a statement.

The chief executive of Teck Resources, Don Lindsay, said in a letter to federal officials that global capital markets, investors and consumers were looking to governments to put “a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change, in order to produce the cleanest products” — something that he said “does not yet exist here.”

While environmental concerns were part of government and company calculations, there was no guarantee that the Frontier project would have gone forward even if it gained final regulatory approval. Mr. Lindsay had said the company needed a deep-pocketed partner to help pay for the project, and higher oil prices.

Canada supplies nearly six million barrels of oil a day, making it the world’s No. 4 producer and the biggest source of American imports. The oil sands contribute over 60 percent of that output and are vital to the west’s economy. Canadian output continues to grow because of investments made when global supplies were tighter.

The oil sands are a watery mixture of sand and clay soaked with a dense, viscous form of petroleum known as bitumen. But in addition to being a fossil fuel, bitumen is difficult to extract and energy-intensive to process.

And when Teck Resources proposed the Frontier project, the energy world was very different. The American shale-drilling frenzy was in its infancy, and the Keystone XL pipeline was seemingly going to deliver the oil-sands output to the American market.

Now the United States has an abundance of relatively cheap oil, prodigious deposits are being tapped in Brazil, Norway and Guyana, and the Keystone project is still awaiting completion. Delays in pipeline approvals have prompted the Alberta government to mandate production cutbacks over the last two years to drain a glut of oil in storage.

Kevin Birn, a vice president and oil-sands expert at the consultancy IHS Markit, estimated that for a project like Frontier to break even, the price of West Texas intermediate oil, the North American benchmark, would need to average $65 a barrel over a decade or more of operations. That is roughly $15 above the current price, and other analysts put the break-even figure at $80 to $85.

But until Sunday night, despite a regulatory review that cost it hundreds of millions of dollars, Teck Resources refused to give up. The company argued that its project, at a cost of 20.6 billion Canadian dollars ($15.5 billion), would create 7,000 construction and 2,500 operational jobs and eventually generate more than 70 billion Canadian dollars in local and national government revenue.

Andrew Leach, a professor of energy economics at the University of Alberta, said some might read the project’s demise as a fatal blow to oil-sands development, but he interpreted Teck Resources’ decision as a pragmatic one.

“Teck was clear that it does not want a situation where one project has to answer for all of Canada’s climate policies and climate commitments,” he said. Moreover, he added, “global investors are not prepared to help a company the size of Teck to build a multibillion-dollar project. The global market was not prepared to be part of the political football.”

No new oil-sands mine has opened since 2018, but more than a dozen proposals are awaiting regulatory approval or investment decisions. Mr. Leach said some of those were economically and environmentally more viable than the Frontier project.

But resistance to new pipelines and high production costs have steadily reduced investments in oil-sands fields. There has been an exodus of international oil companies, including ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and Equinor of Norway.

At the same time, there are questions about the market outlook. While world demand is roughly 100 million barrels a day, a figure that increases by 1 percent every year, the International Energy Agency projects that growth will begin to slow considerably in 2025. The agency says demand could fall to 67 million barrels a day in 2040, especially if governments increase regulation and electric cars become commonplace.

Reduced demand would focus production on places where it is cheapest, like Saudi Arabia.

“Companies like Teck are realizing that global capital markets are changing rapidly,” said Simon Dyer, executive director of the Pembina Institute, a leading Canadian environmental research organization. “There was never an economic pathway for this project under global demand scenarios consistent with the Paris climate agreement.”

A federal-provincial panel that reviewed the project, he said, “didn’t properly assess the climate impacts.” The national parks agency also raised concerns about the possible effect on a national park downstream that is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Alberta Energy Regulator wrote in July that “there will be significant adverse project and cumulative effects on certain environmental components and Indigenous communities.” Nevertheless, it approved the project after finding it in the public interest.

Two federal officials — Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan — issued a joint statement welcoming Teck’s decision. “A strong economy and clean environment must go hand in hand,” they said.

Ian Austen contributed reporting.

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