Alroy Fonseca

July 3, 2013 at 1:45am

Public Service growth under the Liberals and Conservatives

There is no doubt that the Harper Conservatives hold a marked disdain for the public service, having trimmed thousands from the federal bureaucracy over the last couple of years, and characterized public servants as abusive of sick leave, requiring aggressive performance management. Moreover, the public service, responsible as it is for the regulatory, redistributional and welfare functions of the state, is at some natural odds with the pro-corporate libertarian views espoused by many Conservative ideologues.

Even so, progressives’ counter-disdain for Conservatives often obscures the reality that the Liberals—perhaps the best formal political manifestation in Canada of what Chris Hedges terms the ‘liberal class’—often had regressive effects on the country not too dissimilar from those of their Tory counterparts, though perhaps with more palatable public relations.

Take the example of federal public service employment in Canada. In late June, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) issued updated employment numbers for the period spanning 1990 and 2012, which allows us to see how the bureaucracy (i.e., core public service including separate agencies) changed in size over the period of Liberal (1993-2005) and Conservative (2006-2012) rule.

What is immediately clear from these figures is that the public service actually shrank by roughly 3.4% during the 12-year Liberal tenure, while it has grown by some 14% during the 7-year Conservative period ending in 2012.

Let’s take a closer look at the Liberal period first. In 1993, when Jean Chrétien became Prime Minister with a Liberal majority, public service employment stood at 252,566. Soon after, however, the Liberals undertook Program Review, “a review of all non-statutory spending programs and a re-examination of the federal government’s role in delivering these programs.” These cuts ultimately involved massive reductions in transfers to provinces covering healthcare and education programs, which had long term effects on things like hospital waiting lists.

By the time the outcomes of Program Review and its second phase (presented in 1996) were fully implemented in 1999, the public service had shrunk to 203,476, a 19.4% drop from 1993 levels. (Indeed, Finance Minister Paul Martin made the remarkable claim in his 1995 Budget Speech that: “Relative to the size of our economy, program spending will be lower in 1996-97 than at any time since 1951.”) Notably, this approach was heavily praised by the right-wing Fraser Institute in 2011, with the organization’s Niels Veldhuis imploring Conservative “Finance Minister [Jim] Flaherty to take similar, decisive steps that would allow him to balance the federal budget within the next two years.”

From 1999 on, the public service began growing under the Liberals until it reached 243,971 in 2005, which still amounted to a net 3.4% drop from 1993 levels.

In contrast, the federal public service grew under the Conservatives between 2005 (the Conservatives assumed power in January 2006) and 2010, from 243,971 to 282,955, respectively, a 16% increase. This positive trend ended in 2011, however; that year, employment growth effectively flatlined, with the public service losing 603 jobs, and then in 2012 employment dropped to 278,092. Between 2005 and 2012, then, the federal public service experienced net growth of 14%.

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As one might suspect, growth in the Conservative years was led by dramatic hiring in security organizations, like the Canadian Border Services Agency (54.6%), Public Safety Canada (53%), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s civilian contingent (40%), and Correctional Services Canada (31%), while departments charged with the delivery of regulatory, redistributive and welfare services, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Service Canada (which administers social programs like Employment Insurance and Old Age Security) and Veterans Affairs, were cut deeply.

As an aside, it is worth contextualizing public service growth with overall population growth: while Canada’s population grew in the 1993-2012 period by about 22%, Canada’s federal public service grew by only 10.1% in the same timeframe. In other words, the federal public service is today serving a greater number of Canadians with relatively fewer bodies.

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Source: PBO

May 12, 2013 at 10:25am

Economic Action Plan #fail

The contractionary effects of austerity programs on economies have been well documented and, a few weeks ago, it was even reported that a 28-year old graduate student debunked key ‘research’ by two Harvard professors that served as a central intellectual justification for austerity by a slew of politicians, academics and corporate  executives. Not surprisingly, then, Canada’s economy, which has endured austerity measures implemented by the Harper Conservatives since 2008, is showing increasing signs of trouble.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen a report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (issued on April 29) noting that “government spending restraint will act as an additional drag on growth and job creation. The projected weakness in growth keeps the economy well below its potential GDP through 2015…”

Moreover, the report estimates that “in the absence of these [austerity] measures and revisions to spending levels,” packaged for the public by the Conservative spin-machine as the Economic Action Plan, “projected employment would be higher by 67,000 jobs” in 2017.

Meanwhile, in mid-April, the International Monetary Fund, which itself has a reputation for pushing austerity measures across the globe, cut Canada’s economic outlook for the year by 0.3 percent and urged the government to continue supporting growth. In response to the announcement, Bank of Montreal Capital Markets chief economist Douglas Porter observed that “the IMF has seen the light, to some extent, that austerity — especially in Europe — had become self-defeating in some countries that were trying to consolidate fiscal finances much too rapidly and it was seen to be counter-productive.”

(Indeed, the IMF’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, effectively admitted earlier this year that the Fund didn’t really know what it was doing when it dished out advice to Greece and other European economies; in a technical report, he wrote that “Forecasters significantly underestimated the increase in unemployment and the decline in domestic demand associated with fiscal consolidation.”)

And then earlier in April, Statistics Canada reported that 54,500 jobs were lost in March across the country, pushing the national unemployment rate to 7.2%.

With these kinds of results, we can see why the Harper Conservatives spent some $21 million just in 2011-12 promoting the Economic Action Plan via ads, which continue today with television commercials during the current NHL playoffs.

April 12, 2012 at 12:00pm

The problem with Liberals

A little post-budget common sense today from the Public Service Foundation of Canada, which issued an interim report following the public proceedings of the Ontario Commission on Quality Public Services and Tax Fairness. The Commission, organized around 12 public hearings across Ontario, was launched in response to the Drummond Commission, whose carefully-crafted mandate did not allow for a review of the province’s revenue-generation side (i.e., the tax system). 

At 96 pages, the report is lengthy, but it does zero-in on two sets of proposals the McGuinty Liberals—beholden to their wealthy corporate friends—appear incapable of pursuing: moderately reversing corporate tax cuts and moderately increasing taxes on the very wealthy. These two matters are dealt with in Chapter 9 and I present a few enticing extracts here:

  • The Commission was provided with information from surveys of CEOs which show that corporate tax rates are rarely a major factor in a company’s decision regarding where they will invest or locate. These surveys show that taxes consistently rank around seventh place in terms of priority, behind such factors as: an educated and healthy workforce; access to resources and markets; low-cost power; good physical infrastructure; property rights; a peaceful society; and a democratic government. (p. 72)
  • Other research shows that in 1999, federal and Ontario corporate taxes totalled 44.6% and corporate investment was 8.3% of GDP.15 However, in 2011, combined corporate taxes dropped to 28% and investment dropped to 6.0% of GDP. (p. 73)
  • Restoring the corporate tax rate to 14% would provide the Ontario government with an additional $2.5 billion in revenue. It was noted that, at this rate, corporations in Ontario would still be paying less than all but four U.S. states. (p. 74)
  • Reversing the elimination of the corporate capital tax would restore $1.8 billion in revenue.
  • The research shows that the median effective tax rate paid by the top 0.01% of taxpayers declined by 10% over the past two decades, while the median rate paid by the bottom 95% dropped by less than 1%. (p. 74)
  • The evidence provided to the Commission estimates that a 2% increase in tax rates for people earning more than $500,000 could generate $500 million a year for the provincial government. (p. 75)

But instead of pursuing these common sense and, again, very moderate, proposals, the Liberals would rather hold back increases to the Ontario Child Tax Benefit, eliminate the Community Start-up and Maintenance Allowance and maintain previous cuts to the Special Diet Allowance, amongst many other policy decisions attacking the poor.

In its response to the provincial budget, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty cited the 1930s Depression-era slogan: “United we eat, divided we starve.” Indeed, the assault on the poor and middle class by the very wealthy and their Liberal political pawns can only be stopped and reversed by strong solidarity between community organizations, unions and ordinary but motivated citizens, who will assert their collective power in our deeply troubled political system.

November 9, 2011 at 12:23am

Flaherty reneges on election promise…but not on his commitment to big business

Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty delivered his economic update before the Calgary Chamber of Commerce today, and now admits that “[w]e have to be realistic about what’s going on in the world.”

For Flaherty and the rest of the clan behind Canada’s Economic Action Plan, November has so far been a rather lousy month. Just last Friday, Statistics Canada revealed that in October the country shed 54,000 jobs, the greatest monthly loss since March 2009. And now a key promise from the seven-month old May 2011 election—that the federal government’s books would be balanced by 2014-15—will not be fulfilled until, Flaherty claims, 2015-16, when a $600 million surplus will be registered.

He also claims that “we will not be bound by ideology when it comes to making decisions to keep our economy strong and protect Canadians, their financial security and their jobs.” This is a markedly curious statement, for the Harper regime has been absolutely ideological in pursuing an agenda of corporate tax cuts, which it argues will promote greater investment in the economy by corporations, resulting in more jobs.

In 2006, when the Conservatives first came to power, the statutory federal corporate income tax (CIT) rate—applicable only to profit, unlike personal income tax—stood at 21%. As of January 2012, that rate will have decreased to 15%. Combined with provincial tax—say, in the province of Ontario, which has a general rate of 12%—the effective CIT would be 27%. In contrast, many Canadians might be surprised to learn that the US federal CIT rate stands at a much higher 35%.

To be sure, this precipitous decline in the CIT rate began much before the Conservatives assumed power. Beginning in 2000, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien cut the CIT from 28% to 21% in 2004. Indeed, both of these parties are in bed with big business. But the worse part is that these big business tax cuts don’t even lead to more jobs.

An April 2011 study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) tracks Canada’s largest companies over the 2000-2009 period and finds that though their combined profit increased by 52% in that period, they paid 20% less tax. If one were to subscribe to the standard Conservative-Liberal dogma, one would think that these companies successfully invested the saved money into job creation. Not so, says the CCPA. Over the 2005-2010 period, these same companies reported 5% growth in staff (both in Canada and at overseas operations), while the Canadian economy recorded 6% employment growth. In other words, big business underperformed the broader economy in generating employment despite the profound tax breaks.

What is more, Statistics Canada reports that as of the second quarter of 2011, private non-financial corporations are hoarding a pile of cash totaling $476.6 billion—about $325 billion in Canadian currency, and another $151 billion in foreign currencies.

All this begs the question: if a decade of evidence shows that these big corporations can’t translate massive tax breaks into an above-average (or even average) job creation rate, and if they are, in any case, already sitting on close to half a trillion dollars in cash, what sound argument can be made to continue with, or even maintain, these tax cuts?

According to the government’s own 2009 budget calculations, business tax cuts introduced since 2006 will mean $60.2 billion less in federal revenue over the 2008-2014 period, money that could have dramatically advanced the date by which the federal budget would be balanced, presumably staving off cuts to the public service…..but as Flaherty said, “we will not be bound by ideology…”

November 7, 2011 at 1:00am

Dan Mangan in Ottawa

My video production studio recently partnered up with Apt613.ca to interview Dan Mangan just before his October 14th show at the Bronson Centre. We talked to him about his great new album, Oh Fortune, playing in Ottawa and, of course, the meaning of life. In a segment not featured in the above video, I also asked him about the Occupy movement, to which he responded:

I think the Occupy Wall Street thing is really fascinating in a lot of ways, and I’m glad that people are listening…and I’m glad that it’s happening….Every healthy society that has really existed in a peaceful way, democratically, has a large middle-class, and that’s just the way it is. So to be in a position where that middle class is being stretched towards the lower and upper [sic] is a dangerous thing, because when there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, people get frustrated, people get angry.

November 25, 2008 at 12:00am

Hopelessness of the Congo war

In the news again is the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo—a new wave of violence has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and massive displaced persons flows in eastern parts of the country. What follows are some reflections on Congo’s conflict, the global context and the hopelessness of the situation.

Eastern Congo has been burning for the last 15 years. They say that the Second Congo War— which began in August 1998—came to an end in 2003-04 when a transitional power-sharing government took hold in the capital of Kinshasa. Yet, in the ensuing period, the fighting hasn’t really stopped, particularly in the Kivu and Ituri regions stretching along Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda. Indeed, the current crisis stems primarily from battles between government forces and Laurent Nkunda’s rebel fighters in North Kivu, which have displaced an estimated 150,000 people. Meanwhile, a secondary set of battles are taking place in Ituri-Dungu, where rebel groups—the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Popular Front for Justice in Congo—have been fighting each other, resulting in an estimated 50,000 displaced people.

This past January, the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has surveyed mortality rates in Congo over the years, reported that the conflict continued to claim the lives of some 45,000 people every month—a rate unchanged since the last survey at the war’s “termination” in 2004. The organization’s head, George Rupp, observed that: “The conflict and its aftermath, in terms of fatalities, surpass any other since World War II. Congo’s loss is equivalent to the entire population of Denmark or the state of Colorado perishing within a decade.” In numbers—depressing numbers—the death toll may have been as high as 5.4 million.

The attack of September 11 was a tragedy, but a rather minor one by any serious assessment—a point, though clearly evident, nonetheless worth making given the scale of attention the destruction of the twin-towers generated. To contrast, at the end of 2001, when US Special Forces were hunting down elusive cave-dwellers in southeastern Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region, estimated fatalities in Congo already totalled well over 2.5 million. But, alas, the real concern for the West was in Central Asia, where, it was claimed, the terrorists were planning their next spectacular attack. Was it going to be chemical, biological, nuclear? The world was in grave danger—a new threat had reared its ugly head, we were told. Therefore, the “war on terror” had to be launched to stop the “evil-doers”—wanted dead or alive—and make the world safe again. 

The ‘world’, however, did not include the millions living in Congo along the western shores of the African Great Lakes, whose lives had already been at grave risk since at least the October 1993-April 1994 period, when refugees fleeing intense turmoil in neighbouring Burundi and Rwanda ignited the region’s delicate ethno-political tinderbox. 

Nevertheless, popular calls for so-called humanitarian military interventions to stop conflicts in places like Congo cannot be assessed without a wider analysis that accounts for the current global political context. Consider, for example, the situation in the northeastern Ituri region of Congo during the first six months of 2003. 

Early that year, it became increasingly evident that interethnic warfare – loosely pitting Hema-led militias against their Lendu counterparts – had reached a critical point, with the very real possibility of degeneration into genocide. In early April, a small and inadequate United Nations mission deployed in the area reported the discovery of some 20 mass graves containing nearly 1,000 bodies. At around the same time, the IRC issued a report estimating that between 3 and 4.7 million people had died in Congo as a result of the four and a half years of warfare. The following month, moreover, while Oxfam warned of the increased risk to civilians in Congo’s northeast, senior UN relief coordinator Carolyn McAskie attested that she saw “shades of Rwanda in 1994” in the region’s fighting.

Despite these ominous warnings indicating that the already horrendous situation had actually become worse, there was no commensurate action from North American and European powers. Instead, on March 20, 2003—the same day that Amnesty International declared that the Ituri region was “suffering one of the world’s gravest humanitarian and human rights crises”—a courageous “coalition of the willing” led by the great transatlantic powers began the invasion of Iraq on the basis of flagrant lies and in violation of international law, quickly unleashing levels of carnage that by most measures surpassed those reached in Ituri.

Attempts to initiate any kind of meaningful UN intervention in Ituri moved at a glacial pace. Little to no leadership was shown by the permanent Security Council members. Eventually, in June, after much dithering, France committed around 1,400 soldiers to a three month deployment in the region, which, along with subsequent contributions from a few other countries, reduced some of the fighting, though not very effectively. Richard Boucher, the US State Department’s spokesperson, graciously observed at the time that “the [UN] force is critical to stabilizing the region,” but American soldiers would not be placed under UN command. 

The Americans, of course, bear special responsibility for putting Congo on the fast lane to hell. Back in 1960, when Congo freed itself from Belgium’s colonial tentacles, the Central Intelligence Agency undermined and conspired to murder the country’s first legally elected leader, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, though local clients were allowed the honour of actually performing the dirty deed. Moreover, the US extended strong diplomatic, economic and military support for the madman, Mobubu Sese Seko, who eventually replaced Lumumba as Congo’s leader, treating the country’s treasury like his personal piggy-bank and ensuring that indigenous attempts to restore something resembling a democracy would fail for more than three decades. 

In his book, The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo de Witte notes that the populist Congolese politician was “the leader of an incipient nationalist movement which, had the West not won, could have influenced the course of history in Africa for the better” —conceivably, a profound understatement in light of the mortality figures referenced above. But yes, if only the West had not won…the same West that liberal internationalists today imagine can save the wretched across the world. 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported in June that global military spending totalled a stunning US$1.339 trillion in 2007, a 45% increase in real-terms since 1998, the year when the Second Congo War began. All expenses incurred, of course, to make the world safer. Eastern Congo will likely continue to burn as it has for the last decade and a half. The West is too deluded to do anything serious about it. 

April 21, 2008 at 12:00am

Why the commercial seal hunt is wrong

On 28 March, 2008, sealers launched the annual commercial harp seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, aiming to slaughter 275,000 seals. And, just as in past years, this year’s hunt was accompanied by its share of controversies and debate over the same set of issues.

In recent times, those who support the hunt have oftentimes taken issue with the photos of white-pelted baby seals used by animal welfare activists in their campaigns, which they say mislead the public. They argue – correctly – that in Canada it is illegal to hunt these ‘whitecoat’ seals, and that only the older (less attractive) silver-pelted ones are targeted. Yet, this line of argument is rather meaningless given that baby seals shed their white pelts 12 to 18 days after birth. What exactly is the difference between shooting and clubbing to death a 10-day old seal versus doing the same to an 18-day old seal? Why is one somehow acceptable and not the other?

An April 2004 account of the hunt appearing in the New York Times illustrates the point: “Here on ice patches of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the hunt looks nearly as brutal as ever. For as far as the eye can see, dozens of burly men bearing clubs roam the ice in snowmobiles and spiked boots in search of silvery young harp seals. With one or two blows to the head, they crush the skulls, sometimes leaving the young animals in convulsions. The men drag the bodies to waiting fishing vessels or skin them on the spot, leaving a crisscross of bloody trails on the slowly melting ice.” Taking issue with activists’ use of white-pelted seals is disingenuous because all those white seals in the hunt zone are just days away from a brutal death.

This brings up another point raised by proponents, namely that the killing is acceptable given that various studies have shown that shooting or clubbing a seal is ‘humane’. But for every such study cited by the proponents of the seal hunt, there is a study presented by its opponents attesting to its barbarity. The truth of the matter is that, like other scientific inquiries pertaining to the cognitive capacities of animals, there is no comfortable certainty in the conclusions of the various studies. And, when there is insufficient certainty on such an important issue – that is, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of living beings – it seems like the ‘humane’ thing to do is to adopt the precautionary principle and assume that suffering is experienced. At the very least, those who support the hunt should not pretend certainty when claiming that studies show that the killing is ‘humane’.

But the debate between the various studies serves more to distract than to clarify. The hakapik, the tool often used to kill seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (versus riffles in the northern fronts), is extremely crude. It’s difficult to imagine how such a tool could be used to render any killing spree ‘humane’ in character.

Mary Richardson, the former chair of the Animal Welfare Committee of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, commented in the pages of National Post in June 2005: “Given the size of the animal and the weapons the men are allowed to use, a quick death cannot be guaranteed…There is also a time constraint. The sealers are paid per seal they kill, not by the hour. They compete against each other to fill quotas, making it necessary for them to collect huge numbers of animals in a very short time. This means sealers rarely take the time to ensure each animal is dead before moving on to the next one… And finally, the conditions for the seal hunt are precarious. The ice floes shift and break, never ensuring a firm footing.”

So forget the scientific studies. The very context of the killing – its incentives, its speed, its location, and its tools – make the hunt inherently more likely than not to cause great suffering. There seems to be a strong element of wishful thinking informing assertions that the slaughter of seals – or any animal for that matter – can be ‘humane’ under these kinds of circumstances. With respect to riffles, furthermore, the same environment and pace makes it very difficult to hunt with precision – again, no need for a scientific study to see something so obvious. 

Despite growing demand for seal products from markets like Russia, there is a growing global trend against the hunt. The United States already bans the commercial seal hunt and a growing number of countries are working to ban the importation of seal products. In January 2007, Belgium became the first European Union (EU) country to institute such a ban, following a September 2006 European Parliament resolution in favour of a union-wide ban. Moreover, the EU is now considering a ban on the importation of seal products into all member-states. To this end, Stavros Dimas, the EU’s Environment Commissioner, complained that last year Canada blocked an EU observation team from determining if the hunt is humane:  “If a team of experts wasn’t able to look at what is happening, and how it [the hunt] is being conducted, why do they (the Canadian government) claim that [the] other evidence is not correct?”

As an important aside, it should be noted that groups that have been very active on the campaign to stop the hunt, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), have clearly stated that they do not oppose subsistence hunting of seals by the Inuit, and that exemptions should be granted accordingly.

A ban on the seal hunt would, however, have economic consequences for communities that are involved in it. According to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, between 5,000 and 6,000 sealers from the province participate in the hunt, and more than 90% of harp seals are harvested by this group. Yet, it is important to understand that the seal-hunt represents only a tiny fraction of the overall fishing industry. In 2005, the value of landed seal pelts was approximately $16.5 million (in 2007, it was $12 million), with an after-processing market-value of a couple of times higher. In contrast, consider that in 2005, in Newfoundland alone, the fisheries industry was valued at $600 million, while the entire economy– that is, the province’s gross domestic product – was pegged at $17.1 billion. Even so, it needs to be acknowledged that for some individual sealers the hunt can, by some accounts, constitute as much as a third of the year’s income. 

The flip side of all this is that the federal government spends millions of dollars annually patrolling the hunt (for monitoring and rescue), managing it (via a large bureaucratic apparatus), promoting it (by funding overseas visits by various delegations), and litigating on its behalf (including through the recent lodging of complaints at the World Trade Organization in Geneva against the Netherlands and Belgium for their work to ban the importation of seal products). All this leads one to tentatively conclude, in the absence of accurate figures from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, that the net economic gain resulting from the seal hunt is actually quite small. In the event that the seal hunt is banned, money used for the above activities could – in fact, should – be redirected to provide financial support to affected communities.

Additionally, the $16.5 million figure (or even the market value figure, which is no more than $40 million) should be compared to the billions in tax dollars that are used for corporate welfare in Canada. A 2007 study by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation found that between fiscal years 1982 and 2005 numerous publicly-unaccountable corporations received very large sums of public money in the form of “grants, contributions, loans, interest contributions and loan guarantees.” Topping the list were Pratt & Whitney at $1.496 billion, Bombardier at $745 million, General Motors Canada at $361 million, Bell Helicopter at $339 million, and CAE at $321 million. Furthermore, just in fiscal year 2005-06, Industry Canada assistance to corporations amounted to a whopping $1.017 billion. So, if as a society we can afford to give these corporations billions of dollars in assistance (whether we should do so is a question for another day), there is no reason why we cannot give individual hunters and their communities the necessary funds to alleviate the financial pain that would result from a seal-hunt ban, while also helping them develop new skills to supplement their incomes (for example, eco-tourism is one idea that has been tossed around).

Sealers seem to be a little confused by the opposition. One Jason Pence, captain of the Ryan’s Pride, told a journalist as his ship set sail for the hunt from Newfoundland a few years ago, that seal hunting was like “taking the heads off chickens, butchering cows, and butchering pigs. People are just trying to make a living.” True enough, there is a tension here waiting to be resolved one way or another. The mass slaughter of chickens, cows, and pigs in factory farms is, for all intents and purposes, just as barbaric and inhumane as that of seals. It should be stopped, and many of the animal welfare groups active on the sealing issue are also quite active in fighting factory farms. So which way do we go? Accept the seal hunt, because the other animal slaughters are also barbaric? Or, work to end the seal hunt, and use any progress on this front as a launch pad for further progress on other concurrent animal welfare initiatives? The latter seems like the most reasonable option, consistent with the notion – which I will assume is uncontroversial – that we should strive to reduce suffering in the world if we can.

It is quite likely the case that a significant portion of the public’s support for the anti-seal hunt campaign is attributable to the physical beauty of the animal. Seals are cute and fuzzy, no doubt. But another important and often overlooked reason for the public’s support is that, being an open-air hunt, it is much easier for well-funded activist groups to produce good footage of the brutality of the killing. Indeed, over the years, various organizations have amassed an impressive quantity of high-quality video documenting the hunt, and this can be easily shown on the news and distributed through other media. By contrast, footage of the abuses and brutality perpetrated against cows in slaughterhouses are very hard to get, and whatever film is gained clandestinely tends to be quite dark and grainy; slaughterhouse operations are kept closed to the public for obvious reasons. Moreover, the large corporations that own the factory farms – or rely on them – are also big television advertisers (for example, meat producers like Kraft Foods/Oscar Mayer and Maple Leaf Foods, and fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King) making it unlikely that such footage would receive much coverage on the major news networks, which all heavily depend on ad dollars to function. But if good slaughterhouse footage were available, and if (somehow) it were broadcast on the evening news, it would likely have a significant impact on public opinion, much like footage of the seal hunt. So it’s not just about the seal being cute. In any case, that public support may be significantly reliant on the image of a cute seal being killed should not lead one to dismiss the real ethical problems with the hunt.

It’s difficult to foresee where things will go in the immediate future, and whether the EU will institute a ban, but there is good reason to believe that substantial gains will be made in this campaign over the longer term. Indeed, the campaign to ban seal-hunting is an important advancement on the path towards sensitizing the public to the poor treatment of animals by humans.