All posts by Julie MacArthur

Julie MacArthur is a researcher, writer and academic currently living in Auckland, New Zealand. She works on the social and solidarity economy, politics of renewable energy, restructuring in academia and gender issues

A Not-So-Public Hearing

Yesterday I gave my testimony to the Joint Review Panel for the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project.

Protesters in Vancouver January 2013
Protesters in Vancouver January 2013

Some might argue it was an exercise in futility because ultimately Bill C-38 gives decision-making power for these projects to Cabinet. Perhaps. Yet yesterday on the fourth floor of the Wall Centre hotel person after person put on record their opposition to the project. Their stories were powerful despite the fact that the public is physically shut out of these hearings, distanced by some 15 blocks (a public viewing area was set up at the Westin Bayshore). The separation of presenters from a supportive public actually seemed oddly appropriate to me given that this review process has been all about separating things from context: the pipeline from the marine effects, from climate change, from discussion of our addiction to oil. Why not separate people as well? Fear not though, Enbridge representatives didn’t have to listen to the webcast or watch with the public: they had a prime viewing table right in the room beside the review panel.

Everyone in my section of 35 yesterday afternoon signed up in 2011 to speak. The group was made up of a diverse collection of fishermen, engineers, students, retired biologists, artists and software programmers. All opposed the project as did the 253 in Victoria the previous week.

It was a moving experience. As one young man put it yesterday: “we will stop this pipeline, whether you’re with us or not…but we’d like you with us”. His mic was cut soon thereafter for pointing out that people would put their bodies on the line to stop it.

Another speaker started with a joke: “Why did the ship’s captain pull the oil tanker over?…..To take a leak.” Continue reading A Not-So-Public Hearing

‘This is a Catholic Country’: Birth, Death and Abortion in Ireland


Savita Halappanavar is dead. She joins millions of women who die every year from complications with their pregnancies. What makes her case particularly tragic is that  she was refused a medical procedure that may have saved her life. Why? Because the procedure was an abortion and she had the misfortune of being pregnant in the Republic of Ireland, a country with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Savita was admitted to hospital, informed that she was miscarrying and the fetus was not going to survive but according to her husband Praveen denied an abortion because the fetus still had a heartbeat. So the hospital staff waited until it didn’t. And then she died too.

For a deeper glimpse into what anti-choice policies really look like in ‘real life’ let’s trace the Titanic back across the Atlantic: to Ireland and its 100-year-old notions of women’s reproductive rights. The most radical modern-day U.S. Republicans would find little to complain about in a country with a constitutional ‘right to life’ for the unborn and an 1861 act inherited from the UK banning abortion. More than 4,000 women are forced to leave Ireland’s shores every year to deal with unwanted and dangerous pregnancies, essentially ‘exporting’ this medical issue to other countries and downloading the costs to women and their families.

Continue reading ‘This is a Catholic Country’: Birth, Death and Abortion in Ireland

Canada’s Scorched Earth Hour

8:30pm tonight is Earth hour, where towns and cities in more than 135 countries turn off their lights. For one hour. To save the planet from climate change.

To be fair, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature conceived of Earth Hour as an awareness-raising tool, to get people engaged and thinking about how much carbon dioxide our use (and over-use) of electricity pumps into the atmosphere. The symbolism of all those millions of people “powering down” is supposed to lead to bigger and better action. Because, the argument goes, the more people demonstrate they care the more action we will get on climate change.


Continue reading Canada’s Scorched Earth Hour

Why I Am Going to Attend Occupy Vancouver

I am white, middle class, educated and, by all accounts, an extremely fortunate woman.

I live in Canada where my parents’ (sometimes life-threatening) health issues are covered by a provincial medical plan.

My water and air are clean, and food is plentiful.

My husband and I are employed.

I am not desperate, but I am angry; I am not sick, but I am sickened.

I know I will never be able to own a house in my home city without winning the lottery, or paying on a mortgage until I am 70.

I know that in our society I am ‘overeducated’ and, as a contract university instructor/researcher, will always be underpaid when compared to other professionals.

I know that we are killing innocent people with our invasions and occupations.

I know that, as a woman in this country I will disproportionately pay in lost income and career advancement for having children.

I know that despite the—often herculean—efforts of committed citizens organizing across the province, the federal and provincial governments are more interested in building pipelines and transmission lines and highways to export every resource we can dig, dam and cut out of this place of ours.

I know that citizen action sometimes wins, but not often enough to save our watersheds, or fish or our climate.

I am often told that I am lucky to be a Canadian, and certainly when I read the testimonials emerging from the OccupyWallstreet movement, I feel that way. But I am not alone. We here have our own stories, and the growing exceptionalist sentiment in this country is dangerous. Dangerous because we are not unique, we colonized this country on native land. We are infected by the same democratic malaise affecting people around the world. A short historic window existed where (admittedly flawed) collective institutions and public policies helped to equalize some power and some income in Canada: creation of environmental programs, Status of Women, equalization and social security, a national system of health care and progressive taxation. These institutions are eroding today, victims of a greedy class—a 1% if you will— winning a broader culture war wherein greed is good, brown is green and might makes right.

I’m tired of feeling powerless. I know that every time I walk downtown I pass men, women and sometimes children sleeping on every other corner of our streets while billions of dollars is poured in to stadiums, into war machines and corrupt business people posing as political leaders.

The Americans occupying Wall Street are not alone today, not because of some need for international solidarity (though there is that) but because their problems are literally our problems. Income inequality in Canada grew faster than it did in the US since the mid 1990s. Inflation adjusted (real) wages in this country are falling, and this while the richest 1% of Canadians take historically unprecedented growing chunks of the national pie: 32% of all income growth between 1997 and 2007, in fact. The abortion debate is being re-opened. The Keystone and Enbridge pipelines are ever closer to construction and with them comes an exponential increase in environmental destruction. I don’t have one reason to be in the streets this October, I have a hundred.

I am going to Occupy Vancouver (despite the issues with the word ‘occupy’) because we multitude, we majority, need to (re)create spaces where genuine democracy can flourish: on the streets, in our places of work, our homes and force change. We need to create places where the concerns of the disappeared women are not minimized and silenced, nor are those of our schoolteachers, wilderness advocates, farmers, health care workers, veterans and other diverse citizens. These are not the voices that echo in elite-controlled buildings in Victoria, in Ottawa, on Bay Street and Howe Street. This movement may be disjointed, it may be difficult, but it is a start of something very sorely needed in this country.

I am part of the 99%. We, together, are the 99%. Occupy Vancouver, and not just on October 15.

Sporting a Uterus

Following the Women’s World Cup this year has been an enlightening experience for me. So far, some matches have been heart-stopping (Brazil-USA), and some have been crap (Canada-France), just like any tournament. The Canadians ended up knocked out in the first round bottom of their pool despite (overly) high expectations pumped up to justify the fact that CBC was covering matches at all.

I’m both delighted and disgusted with what I’ve observed so far. First off, watching women like Marta sprint down the field at amazing speeds, swear, cheer, celebrate and just generally express a whole range of human (rather than typically celebrated ‘feminine’) actions/emotions is brilliant. I have to admit at getting fairly choked up seeing all-female teams, officials, and attendants sell out 74,000 seater stadiums for the first time in my life. I love that athletic bodies of many nations are disturbing common tropes of what women should look like. And am happy that, for the first time in Canada, CBC (and Sportsnet) have provided full coverage of all the matches, which is peachy because in many places (like England) the matches aren’t actually being shown on regular TV channels.

I’m disgusted, on the other hand, with the sexism—institutional and socio-cultural—and outright misogyny that the women’s game provokes in (mostly) men. Astonishing displays of athleticism are met with nauseating displays of sexism from many, if not most, sports writers, commenters and, indeed, FIFA’s own president, Joseph Blatter. You’d be hard pressed to find stories with more comments blocked for ‘violating acceptable terms of use’ (where they’re moderated). Some of the tamer critiques proceed along the following lines:

“Women’s bodies just aren’t made to play this game”
“Tennis is a better sport for women, it’s sexy”
“In a competitive marketplace for viewers, watching women is a waste of time”

These are not new prejudices by any means. In the 20th century, one finds that women’s soccer was prohibited and defunded in a number of nations (Germany and England, for example). Women were banned from playing in Germany in 1955 since, apparently, “this combative sport is fundamentally foreign to the nature of women” and that women’s “body and soul would inevitably suffer damage”. You know what’s damaging to our bodies and souls? Sexism. The multitude of messages given to girls and women reminding us continually that we, despite making up more than half the planet, are somehow less. Heaven forbid you run, pass, kick or do anything ‘like a girl’.

Continue reading Sporting a Uterus

Of Fenians and Financiers: James Connolly and the Irish Meltdown

A spectre is haunting Ireland—the spectre of James Connolly.

Connolly was shot to death by a British firing squad for his role in Ireland’s 1916 rising for home rule. Celebrated as a hero of Irish independence by Irish political parties of both left and right, his socialism is all too conveniently overlooked. It is vital, however, for the Irish struggle is one that speaks to the challenges of independence, sovereignty and democratic freedom, both then and now, for people of all countries. What value is formal political independence if it is not backed up by economic control; if the real decisions of public policy are made in boardrooms and backrooms rather than main streets and parliaments? For Connolly:

If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole army of commercial and individual institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. (Socialism and Nationalism, p. 25)

A who’s who of global finance descended upon Dublin in November to ‘hoist their flags’, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB), to the Rothschild investment bank, Merrill, Barclays, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. These power brokers arrived to prevent ‘contagion’ from the financial crisis in the small country of 4.5 million people by lending the Irish state billions of Euros to recapitalize insolvent banks and shore up the country’s finances.

Unfortunately for the Irish, these actors came armed with the same ideological and policy tools that caused the crisis: a commitment to neoliberal growth models, open markets and the primacy of financial interests over those of labour, sovereignty or independence. Moreover, alternative ideas and paths are lacking from elites in Ireland’s two major parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, as both are devotees of free-market fundamentalism. Indeed, it was their desire, proclaimed loudly through the 1990s and 2000s, to be ‘closer to Boston than Berlin’ in regulation and finance.

Debt: To Infinity, and Beyond

The reasons for Ireland’s economic collapse were well covered by the global press in recent weeks. These include: an unsustainable growth model built on extremely low corporate taxes (12.5%) and multinational investment, a property bubble fueled by cheap international credit, and politicians far too cozy with domestic banks and developers to regulate sufficiently.

What is rarely highlighted in the press is the fact that Irish public spending was the casualty—not the cause—of the crisis. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 and credit markets seized up, Ireland’s property bubble burst. As a result, a significant portion of bank assets became worthless and the country’s construction and property sectors came to a standstill. The Irish government recapitalized banks with government bonds (totaling more than 176% of GDP in 2009) in return for worthless property assets.

Dublin announced the deepest spending cuts in the history of the Republic to meet the conditions of the November 28 €85 billion IMF and European Central Bank (ECB) loan. The state plans to raise income and sales taxes by €5 billion and cut spending by €10 billion by: reducing welfare payments by €3 billion, eliminating 25,000 public sector jobs and raising sales taxes by 2% (to 23%) by 2014.

According to economists Simon Johnson and Peter Boone “each Irish family of four will be liable for €200,000 in public debt by 2015.” In all, €20.7 billion from this public pension fund was funneled to the banks over the last year and a half. Perhaps most significantly the November 24 budget plan outlined no change in the corporate tax rate of 12.5% (one of the lowest corporate tax rates in Europe) “under any circumstances”.

There were alternatives. The government could have required creditors to bear a share of the costs by allowing defaults and some bank failures. They could also have required the companies who have benefitted for years from the corporate tax policy to pay an equal share. Google, for example, reportedly saved $3.1 billion in taxes over the last three years by setting up in Ireland. More recently, calls to withdraw from the European Monetary Union (EMU) have emerged in order to follow Iceland’s lead of currency devaluation (an option denied Ireland). They chose to draw from the public purse instead.

While the IMF asserts that its work pushing austerity in Ireland is ‘technical not political’ the Irish public disagrees, and so do I. What could be more political than the socialization of bank debts and transfers of public wealth into private hands?

Popular Backlash

As the costs of propping up corrupt officials, developers and international bankers becomes increasingly unpalatable, politics in the Republic is shifting left; according to a December 2 poll, Sinn Fein—‘we ourselves’ in Irish— was two points higher than ruling party Fianna Fáil. They won a historically unprecedented by-election seat in Donegal November 25 and their support in the south has doubled in the past month, from 8% to 16%. Political heavyweight Gerry Adams is giving up his seat in Westminster to run in the Republic’s early 2011 election. These gains have opened up the possibility of a coalition with Labour in the New Year. This represents a colossal swing in post-independence Irish politics dominated by 60-years of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Political opposition to the status quo also transcends electoral politics. On November 27, 2010 close to one hundred thousand people (the equivalent of 785,000 in Canada) marched through the streets of Dublin. The banners and placards quoted James Connolly and other heroes of Irish independence. These protests have been growing in size and frequency over the past year.

These political developments may be short lived. Free-market party Fine Gael is also gaining politically as more conservative voters swap one establishment party for another. Furthermore, nearly one in three Irish youth are predicted to leave the country in coming years, to make ends meet in countries like Canada and Australia, thus eroding some momentum for change. Finally the Congress of Irish Trade Unions (CITU)—the organizer of the largest and most recent rally—is seen as tainted by years of “social partnership” with ruling parties. Taken together, these factors may undermine the development of a cohesive and coherent political countermovement.

The Coming Storm

What has transpired to date is just the beginning. Despite the guarantees and billions of dollars of austerity measures disproportionately targeting the poor and weak in the Irish population, the financial markets remain unconvinced of Dublin’s ability balance the books. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Irish sovereign debt by two grades on November 24. The government is poised to topple, and the banks are still far from solvent. Credit default swap markets are now betting that Ireland will default on its debt within five years.

The markets are right in their assessment. With an interest rate of 5.8% on the ECB-IMF bailout package, interest payments alone on state debt will be more than 20% of tax revenues in 2014.

Put simply, austerity measures are not working. The “green shoots” in Irish GDP for the first quarter of 2010 were entirely due to multinational exports. In Ireland, wages are dropping, prices are dropping (except in health and education), and demand is dropping. This is disastrous for the Irish economy since, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out in the 1930s, business cycles are not self-correcting. Currently, there is no climate for investment, for a real economy based on jobs, taxes and spending to take root.

At the household level, a mortgage crisis is poised to send another wave of shocks through Ireland. To date, people have been borrowing from friends and family to make payments. The state extended the mortgage relief in 2010 by 6 months (to 12 months) to stave off a rash of repossessions. Continued mortgage lending by banks has artificially held up the price floor on the housing market. These factors are all set to change as money (and time) runs out. As economist Morgan Kelly points out, the impending mortgage crisis in Ireland may further strengthen politicization:

If one family defaults on its mortgage, they are pariahs: if 200,000 default they are a powerful political constituency…The gathering mortgage crisis puts Ireland on the cusp of a social conflict on the scale of the Land War.

The struggle today is just as much about independence and democracy in Ireland as it was a century ago. Connolly urged his people to beware the trappings of political independence while ceding the economic control of the country. His warning is haunting the Irish people today. Sovereignty means very little without power to change course, to make a choice about what costs are reasonable, are just and are justified.

The strength of today’s Irish opposition, in terms of its longevity and depth, remains to be seen, but the stage is set for yet another contest over the competing visions of what, and who, Ireland is for.