Rethinking Citizenship

Two concurrent events have recently had me thinking a great deal about what citizenship really means. The first has been the horrifying events surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, most notably the tragic loss of life on the shores of Turkey, and heart-breaking footage of children washed up on desolate beaches. Those images have profoundly affected me and I find it difficult to look at my three year-old son and not superimpose the mental image of a similarly aged boy lying face down on the beach, almost as if asleep, but never again to awake.

The second has been an incredibly disappointing and “un-Canadian” turn events with the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), enabling citizens (notably, dual-nationals) to be “stripped” of their Canadian citizenship if implicated in acts against the state, including acts of terrorism. The language of the act opens a serious crack in the door of the ‘robust’ notion of citizenship and gives government considerable discretion over how it chooses to repeal the grant of citizenship.

I’m a Canadian-Australian dual national. I was born in Calgary and have maintained close ties to Canada all my life. I return to Canada regularly to be with friends and family. I own property in Canada. I take interest in Canadian political and national affairs. I identify with Canada’s multicultural and international reputation for fairness, freedom and institutional integrity. Yet, this change in Canada’s stance on what it means to be “Canadian” is truly shocking, especially at a time when sovereign identity and the role of the international community needs to be balanced with the basic human needs and rights of the displaced.

There are four fundamental flaws with the Canadian Government’s changed notion of citizenship. The first is that is destroys the true sanctity of the definition of citizenship, and what it means to achieve it. The vast majority of people that become a Canadian citizen do so through hard work, commitment and an often difficult journey to become part of something great. In creating the potential for the discretionary revocation of citizenship, with fairly wide purview, the absolute meaning and aspiration of citizenship is diluted. For example, how could we ever allow Syrian refugees to become Canadian “conditionally” after everything they have been through (don’t get me started on Canada’s political and military intervention – or lack thereof – to begin with).

The second tragedy of this law is that it effectively creates a second class “citizenship”. It establishes a class of citizens that remain vulnerable to the discretion of government. Governments make mistakes, governments over-reach their authority, and this law opens the door for all kinds of abuse and corruption that has the potential to permanently threaten vulnerable segments of the populace. Canada’s institutions may be more robust than that of many other countries, but no executive branch of government is flawless.

Thirdly – and somewhat related to the second point – is the disappointing side-effect that it is no longer acceptable to be Canadian and “something else” as well. I always thought that one of the great things about being Canadian was that it was ok to be a Canadian-Pakistani, or a Canadian-Afghan. Unlike the USA, where I would argue cultural identity is constantly pressured and subjugated to the “ideal” of America (you are, first and foremost, American goddammit), with considerable racial tensions that result, Canada always seemed to more peacefully allow multiple identities to co-exist. This legislation will threaten Canada’s multi-cultural tolerance.

However the worst – and most ironic – thing about this legislation, is that it will effectively make Canada less lawful on the international stage. The upstanding moral compass, the “decency”, Canada’s hard-earned international reputation for fairness, integrity and freedom is threatened by this legislation. Why? Because in stripping individuals of their Canadian citizenship, they are no longer subject to Canada’s extraterritorial laws. Let’s take a hypothetical example – you have a Russian-Canadian dual national that decides to go and fight for ISIS, and Canadian citizenship is repealed. Instead of being able to subject that individual to Canada’s terrorism laws, the government effectively wipes their hands and leaves them to the jurisdiction of the “other” nationality. If that other country has a weaker legal system, then less control and less recourse is able to be exerted.

For example, Australia has extra-territorial laws regarding pedophilia. If an Australian goes abroad Thailand on vacation and has sex (consensual or otherwise) with a minor (by definition of Australian law) they are subject to prosecution in Australia upon their return. It doesn’t matter that the offense was committed offshore, it is an illegal act of citizenship. In my opinion “statutory rape” is just another kind of terrorism, no different than the barbarian acts of ISIS – often committed against women and children.

Instead of stripping Canadians of their citizenship, the government should be holding them ABSOLUTELY to the standards of Canadian citizenship at home and abroad. That would not only strengthen and define what it means to be Canadian, but it would serve to project the power and integrity of Canada around the world.

In Defense of Mother Russia

Like most people, I initially followed the opening of the Sochi Olympics with a combination of mirth and disgust. Yes, I was amused by photos of dysfunctional construction projects (the famous “twin toilets”, the result of purloined resources that couldn’t even deliver a separation wall between two loos) and vast infrastructure that seemed to be mid-completion with only days to go. Yes, I was disgusted by the corruption, the budgetary blowouts and the waste of resources in a country that has an awful lot of poor people.

The media has certainly had a field day, reveling in the [apparent] incompetence of our former Soviet comrades. Well, “we” did win the Cold War, right? So any opportunity to gloat and cajole…

I do think it was appropriate to review Russia’s human rights record in the lead up to the Games, and to put a lens on Russia’s domestic and regional tensions. This is part of the “price tag” of hosting the games, all your peers are granted license to judge you in a public way. This has always been the nature of the Olympics. Given some of the flashpoint potential in Russia’s geographic sphere of influence, there is little doubt that everyone will breathe a sigh of relief if the Games really do go off without a major security breach. I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed for a totally peaceful event.

It was probably also reasonable for there to be a bit of backlash regarding LGB rights, in concert with the opening of the Games. If Russia really does aspire to be a world-leading nation, then these sorts of issues need to be openly debated and not simply oppressed by the passing of autocratic directives thinly disguised as Law. Gay rights are important and a highly diverse country of 150m people deserves better.

But now I am bored of the heckling and I have had enough.

International journalism has gone too far. The politics of the Games, though always there, should not overshadow what is otherwise supposed to be a celebration of human endeavor and spirit. The games go beyond one man, one government or one culture and we, the world, should show that we are capable of being better house guests – a little less critical of the décor and a bit more appreciative of the sentiment.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with Russia – and a fascination for how complex the country can be. I have not travelled exhaustively around the country but probably more than the average punter. I married a Siberian, I have family in Moscow and we are raising my son bilingually, fully recognizing that language = culture and the consequential need for immersion as he develops. I want my son to grow up being aware of the strong, complex and fascinating part of his heritage, however controversial aspects of it may be.

Russians are also incredibly hospitable people – something that many people don’t appreciate because it doesn’t fit with the brusque, stoic stereotype. Russians are fully aware of what is wrong with their country and the Sochi “fiasco” is entirely lacking in novelty. I can assure you that notwithstanding the pride of hosting the Olympics, there are plenty of Russian jokes in circulation about pointless construction projects, government dysfunction and corruption – such humor is the raucous soul of any decent session with the vodka bottle. Sochi is, in fact, a quintessentially Russian situation. I should also note that Russians are not apathetic about the limitations of their government and social institutions; they simply have other ways of achieving their objectives that are a little more opaque.

But I think what has finally irritated me is the international community’s holier-than-thou attitude, going far beyond using the Games as a legitimate opportunity to provide feedback to Russia about its place in the world. When we gloat about how hotels in Sochi are dirty and unfinished, we would do well to reflect that Washington has no shortage of crap hotels – indeed I recall waking up during the night at a prominent DC venue to the smell of fecal toilet run-off dripping through my ceiling. I can confirm despite travelling through 80+ countries, the only times I ever got bedbugs were from central London hotels with global marques (twice in fact).

When we criticize Russia for its human rights record we might do well to consider that Australia has an appalling track record with asylum seekers that can essentially rival anything “Vovo” Putin might come up with. The “gulags” of the West just have palm trees instead of permafrost. When we consider the growing gulf between rich and poor, look no further than the mounting social and racial instability in the UK – even this week’s distressing news that it was a British-born Muslim that pulled the trigger on a tragic suicide bomb attack in Aleppo. Indeed, we would do well to reflect on the extraordinary ethnic, religious and geographic diversity within Russia’s borders and perhaps appreciate that effective government would never be a trivial undertaking, even if it aspired to be more transparent and democratic.

I would even go so far as to argue that it may not be entirely a coincidence that Russia has a long history of Tsars, that perhaps a slightly more authoritarian style of rule may be the only way to effectively “contain” the intrinsic volatility of a State made up of regions never meant to be united under a single economic identity. Perhaps Putin is just a kind of modern day incarnation of a Tsar, possibly even by necessity. Certainly it is my view that culturally, Russians respond to power.

We should not be so naïve as to universally declare western-style democracy to be the guiding light of a functioning government – and let’s be realistic, democracy is certainly not doing America much service right now. This month the US faces yet another debt ceiling disaster and once again cannot seem to mobilize functioning government. Methinks a little Lee Kuan Yew-style benevolent dictatorship would probably do wonders for America right now.

What is more tragic – failure to be democratic or to be a leading democracy that is failing?

Canada might consider taking a less scathing stance on Russia’s dysfunctional government – as I recall, the mayor of the country’s largest city is (allegedly) a crack head and user of prostitutes and, entirely like his Russian counterparts, is apparently unable to be dislodged by any kind of functional administrative process. Even countries like Sweden that are normally the bastion for immigration and tolerance of diversity, have seen a growing nationalist sentiment driven by the type of socioeconomic disparity that underpins much of Russia’s instability. In my opinion, the rise of extreme right politics in many European countries marks a worrying move away from tolerance of diversity and ultimately robust democratic representation of that diversity. On that basis, the gap with Russia is probably shrinking.

My opinion is that when we excessively criticize Russia for its corruption and largesse, we have conveniently forgotten that anything we might contemplate in regard to Sochi positively pales in comparison to some of the recent examples of fraud, greed and corruption on Wall Street. The celebrated “Wolf of Wall Street” (out this week in cinemas, and guaranteed to be a box office hit because, let’s face it, we will love anything that echoes of Gordon Gecko) would be an oligarch by any other name. America’s capitalist system is still, in my opinion, the most remarkable in the world … but Bernie Madoff’s fraud equaled the entire budget for the Sochi Olympics. Let us not forget this.

Back to gay rights.

The international community was absolutely right to condemn Russia’s position on this human rights issue but it would be a mistake to have it overshadow the Olympics. Whether fully intended or not (hard to imagine how it couldn’t be), I consider Germany’s “protest” to be cute but ultimately somewhat in poor taste. We condemn Russia for its stance on LGB rights but we haven’t exactly nailed it in our own societies, have we? Except maybe if you live in New Zealand. The truth is that we all have a very long way to go.

Rightly or wrongly, Russian culture is sensitive to the issue of homosexuality and it is – on the whole – not an openly discussed topic. I personally don’t feel that the Olympics should be dominated by specific minority issues, they are supposed to be about recognizing and celebrating the broadest possible diversity and inclusion and I fear we risk losing this by amplifying a single issue to such an extent. Just because ski fashion and gay rights protest may have natural synergies (I must grudgingly admit, I thought the German ski outfits looked fabulous…), doesn’t mean we should forget about all the other benefits that come from treating Russia with some respect and as an inclusive part of our international community at this time.

To conclude…

Little more than a decade ago, Russia was a closed country. On the whole, Russia has opened up enormously and Russia is an important country. We should respectfully deliver constructive criticism and Russia should listen because this is an obligation that comes alongside the privilege of hosting the Olympics and welcoming the international community to its door. But then we should also take a step back and let Russia enjoy a period of prominence in the hope that dialog, friendship and appreciation of the really remarkable aspects of Russia forge new opportunities for a more open and trusting relationship with the rest of the world.

Удача – good luck – Sochi

Krill oil : yeah, let’s wipe out the bottom of the food chain too

I’m sitting on a plane and watching the “Last Ocean” –a visually stunning documentary about the Ross Sea (Antarctica) and the “Tooth Fish” (a.k.a the Chilean Sea Bass). It’s a very remarkable and thought-provoking exposé on how we are depleting our world’s oceans and how our insatiable demand for fish is rapidly turning our oceans into deserts.

It was while scrolling through movie options on my in-flight entertainment system that I saw this particular title. Ordinarily, I must confess I would have probably chosen Hollywood “escape” over something like this at the end of a long day where a bit of comedy or a mindless action sequel is a better mental fit. But it just kind of drew me in…

This documentary is simply beautifully filmed and nothing short of fascinating … but also sort of depressing when you think about how dysfunctional and destructive we humans are as a species.

However, today – quite by coincidence – this part of the world was already on my mind. Earlier today I happened to drop into a drug store to pick up a prescription and walked past the nutritional supplements and vitamin isle. Every week there seems to be a greater diversity of offerings in this part of the store. The health supplements business certainly seems to be very much alive and well (I am clearly in the wrong business). What really caught my eye was a whole shelf dedicated to Omega-3/5 supplements and a promotion on krill oil.

Yep. Krill oil.

I picked up one of the containers and read the description and nutritional information. Basically krill oil is a kind of hyper-potent “fish” oil that is made from vast schools of tiny crustaceans that live in our southern oceans. Krill is about as far down on the bottom of the food chain as you can get before hitting plankton – it feeds everything from tiny fish to gigantic whales and is arguably a cornerstone of the world’s ecosystem.

So, basically the effect of fishing for krill to make krill oil supplements is to wipe out the bottom of the food chain while we also (rather successfully) wipe out the top of the food chain by over-fishing everything with a set of gills (and plenty besides that happens to get snared in our nets). I did a few minutes of surfing and while the quantity of krill reserves seems staggering in numerical terms – the tonnage being fished is also not small. Proponents argue that krill can be sustainably fished and that the fishery reserves are vast compared to demand, but to me these statements kind of remind me of historical accounts of when bison roamed the Great Plains of North America in such vast numbers that fields were turned black.

Abundance, only until decimated by us.

I am not an ecologist. I’m not an expert on marine habitats. But I suspect that one day we will look back at when we fished for krill oil to make “health pills” and it will seem as barbaric as the days when we took pot-shots at bison from a train, or turned elephants into foot stools. My son will come home from school and ask his Daddy why our generation “killed the krill.”

I will never buy this product.

By the way, check out the Last Ocean Trust. This is something worth supporting… by all accounts, our Antarctic oceans are a magic place to protect forever, for our children.

Oh yeah, and don’t eat Chilean Sea Bass either. If you do, it means you don’t give a damn about the planet.

Apparently, the future is “Monoversities”

Last week I was back in Melbourne and in between catching up with my home life (playing with my little boy!), taking a breather from a brutal April travel schedule and trying to reconquer a mountain of unfinished work that tends to accumulate during travel, I made a trip down to Monash University to listen to the Hon Christopher Pyne MP talk about the “coalition” government’s vision for education.

As many readers will be aware, I care deeply about education. I think it is the cornerstone of building a better a world. It can lead to improvements in child mortality and health. It links to environmental sustainability. It is the driving force behind innovation and economic productivity. I’m a big fan of HSBC bank’s “in the future” advertisement series (genius) – one of the best and truest captions goes something like “In the future, education will be the best investment.” Profound stuff… and utterly true.

…but I digress.

Australia is heading into an election cycle and so I have been trying to understand what rubbish our politicians are trying to serve up this time around. By the way, I’ll throw out there that Australia has the WORST politicians in the world. It’s not that they’re particularly corrupt (though, Craig Thomson’s fraud and sex scandal suggests otherwise), it’s not that they’re xenophobic (though, according to Cory Bernardi, gay marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality); it’s just that they are mostly underwhelming, white and a bit liver-lipped. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, deserves much kudos for being the first woman PM but I don’t have much positive to say about her or her party’s politics.

My mother always told me, if you can’t say anything nice – say nothing at all.

Sometimes lawyers tell me the same thing.

I will say one thing, however, and that is Tony Abbott is a buffoon. I can’t believe he’s Oxford-educated. His party seemingly has no policy other than to slander the Labour government. His budgetary ruminations don’t make sense (either in economic terms or basic accounting), his stance on climate change is irresponsible and he has no game plan for how to build a financial reserve to support Australia’s future infrastruture and economic diversification needs, other than “we can’t tax mining.”

Er…

I’d like to say, however, Mr. Pyne is a very polished guy. Charming. Gave a great speech, dammit I liked him… But to my dismay he reiterated a lot of opposition government mantras that I didn’t really want to hear (and don’t really believe) and he certainly upheld the party dogma of simply attacking existing policy, rather than formulating and proposing bold and clever new ideas. It’s also clear that an important facet of the party rubric is to wistfully hark back to the days of Howard government, obviously the last time that the country could have possibly been responsibly run…

But, what of education?

Well, the good news is that the coalition government acknowledges that education and R&D is important to the economy. They believe that there have been too many cuts to education and research and that this needs to be addressed. I’m not sure which money pot they were thinking of pulling it from, but this was a fairly consistent theme in the speech. It’s clear that their policy wonks have recognised some of the problems with the allocation mechanisms of research grants and that it’s not very “egalitarian.” There was some waffle and rubbish about the fact that with only a 20% chance of getting a grant funded, academics waste too much time writing grants … whatever. Let’s just hope that whatever the more “efficient” system is that they come up with that our stellar politicians at least still make it a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

However, there were two issues in the Minister’s speech that slightly concerned me.

The first is that Mr Pyne suggested that it was ok for universities to become “segregated” into institutions that excel at research, and institutions that excel at teaching. Now, to some extent, I agree this is true. Or rather, I do believe that there are many vocationally-directed courses that don’t need to be taught by people with strong research backgrounds. However, we need to be very careful about the degree of separation between the two. There is no doubt that unless you have people who are aware of “best practice”, teaching loses efficacy. Similarly, if you have great research institutions but don’t inspire and develop the next generation, you also get stagnation. Considering the pace of knowledge, is it really wise to separate the two? Should we be forgetting that “University” is short for universitas magistrorum et scholarium – a “community” of teachers and scholars? Will we stop educating great people if we separate the two?

This issue reflects, at its heart, growing political momentum behind the idea that universities are just there to create a trained workforce. This is certainly an important deliverable to society, but it is far from the only one. The problem is that politicians see universities as either a consumer of public R&D budget, or a headcount allocation for tertiary education – and nothing else. This gross simplification helps to propagate the argument for instilling the teaching/research divide. Unfortunately, it fails to consider a very important part of our modern world, namely the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the equal (in my view) importance of teaching and research to enabling innovation. There is no doubt that our universities are ripe for systemic and conceptual overhaul, and disruptors (i.e. MOOCs, immigration/population movement) are going to drive completely redefine the university environment in the next decade, but I am not sure this is the redefinition it needs.

However, what is going to become ever more important is that universities are places where truly interdisciplinary thinking can be nurtured. Mr Pyne talked about eradicating universities that offer “everything”, creating institutions with a focused and limited repertoire rather than the whole “smorgasbord.” Instead, he’d welcome universities that choose to excel in particular areas, to build centres of excellence where resources around a particular discipline are concentrated. In concept this sounds like a nice, efficient idea – but is it really practical? As a fairly small country, I don’t mind if we only build one “cracking” petroleum engineering school or mining department. I don’t mind if we only have once “Institute for Advanced Energy Research.” In a way, it probably also makes sense to try and distribute these centres around as much as possible otherwise only one or two universities are going to end up getting the monopoly on public funding and that will lead to a lack of competition.

Unfortunately, I think that if a university is going to have an engineering school, it probably wants a law school, a medical school, education and arts… and vice-versa. Why? Thinking no longer happens in silos. We live in an interdisciplinary age. We don’t innovate in traditional “fields” anymore, we innovate where fields bump into each other and blend ideas from disparate areas of intellectual endeavour. From an intellectual hygiene vantage, I couldn’t imagine a university not being a place where people from diverse disciplines couldn’t readily interact. Replicating an MIT or a Caltech in science/technology MIGHT work, but even those institutions thrive through diverse research and teaching collaborations with other universities – usually proximal.

I’m not sure I want our universities to become “monoversities” quite yet…

So, despite the fact that I am now encouraged by my (new) belief that not everyone in opposition government is as underwhelming as their leader, for now there is nothing really apparent in coalition education policy that makes me think that there are refreshing new ideas just waiting to transform our university system.

Ho hum.