Saturday, 17 December 2011

Even with a majority, the bullying goes on

Jeffrey Simpson: Even with a majority, the bullying goes on
Those who thought the Harper government would ease up a bit after winning a majority were wrong. Noblesse oblige is out, or, rather, was never in. If anything, the Harper government is more bullying, scornful of dissent, intent on controlling every utterance, contemptuous of the media and determined to carry on political war at all times and by all means.

The Conservative war machine engaged in what House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer called this week “reprehensible” conduct in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal. There, the Conservatives hired a firm to phone voters and tell them that Liberal MP Irwin Cotler was thinking of resigning.
Bruce Anderson: Do Conservatives now think they have carte blanche on dirty tricks?
People of whatever political stripe who care about reasonable conduct in Canada’s political life might want to press on with a couple of outstanding questions.

1. Does the leadership of the Conservative Party interpret the ruling as carte blanche to do more of this kind of “wet-work”? If this tactic were carried out on a broader scale, would anyone really think it is nothing more than sporting politics? (As an aside, do we really think the Speaker would have arrived at the same decision if the tactic was used against 50 or 100 opposition MPs?)

2. Do other leading Conservatives share the views of Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, who said that the calls made into Mr. Cotler’s riding were vital free speech and a sign of good health in our democracy? If Mr. Van Loan truly is speaking for cabinet… well, that would be kind of frightening. If not, he should seek an opportunity to step back from that argument and acknowledge that a line was crossed.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

NDP MP stands by Twitter profanity as Conservatives end debate on omnibus crime bill

John Ibbotson, writing in the Globe and Mail:
[Pat] Martin’s use of numerous four-letter words to express his displeasure raised eyebrows – though if you think about it, referring to Conservative “jackboot” tactics, as he did, is probably a more serious slur – but the NDP rightly points out that no government has ever imposed closure so often on so many bills over such a short period of time.

Since winning their majority, the Conservatives have limited debate on the bills to end the gun registry and to scrap the wheat board’s monopoly; on omnibus crime legislation; on the bill to add more seats to the House of Commons; and on two budget bills.

Mr. Martin’s profane tweets “are a clear reflection of the frustration we’re all feeling,” Opposition House Leader Joe Comartin said. “Pat just expressed it more vigorously than the rest of us have.”

Thursday morning, the Conservatives moved to shut off debate on Bill C-10, the crime legislation, in committee. Debate must end by midnight on a bill that has 290 different sections.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Taking a break

Taking a break. I don't expect to start posting regularly again until the next election campaign starts up (although I may post from time to time if Harper does something particularly outrageous).

Some other Harper commentary:

Lawrence Martin, author of Harperland.

Jeffrey Simpson.

Commentary by Canadian economists: Economy Lab, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Lawrence Martin on Layton's death

Lawrence Martin: Layton’s death a devastating blow to the left.
Jack Layton was the left’s great hope. The great hope is gone and the timing for the country’s social democrats could hardly be worse.

For a country channelling swiftly in a Conservative direction, Mr. Layton’s was the one big voice on the other side that was heard, that was respected, that had the potential of slowing and maybe even reversing the tide.

Jack Layton was the little guy’s politician, a rock-hard champion of the underdog and social justice. He was to the New Democratic Party what Jean Chrétien, particularly in his earlier incarnation, was to the Liberal Party. The departure of Mr. Chrétien left the Liberals without an anchor, and the passing of Mr. Layton could well do the same to the NDP.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Jack Layton's last letter to Canadians

Jack Layton passed away yesterday, at 61. His final letter to Canadians:
Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

... To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

... My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,

Jack Layton

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Doug Griffiths on Alberta's fiscal gap

From Alberta, Canada's richest province: Most Tory leadership hopefuls say taxes, royalties won't rise.
Of the six candidates - Doug Horner, Gary Mar, Rick Orman, Doug Griffiths, Alison Redford and Ted Morton - the majority believe their provincial government has a problem with its spending, not revenue generation.

Five of the six hopefuls say they won't adopt or aren't considering any sort of tax hike, with Griffiths the lone candidate to suggest a review of taxes and revenue may be needed.

He points to the glaring gap between the roughly $12 billion in corporate and personal income taxes raised and the $39 billion in annual spending - including $15 billion on health care alone.

The rest of the cash comes largely from non-renewable resource dollars, federal transfers, and liquor and gambling revenues.

"We don't pay for the services we get. We rely on royalties and then we wonder why we ride this roller-coaster? Maybe we should review the tax system and pay for what we get. That's all I'm saying. That's why it's part of that whole big fiscal discussion we need to have," Griffiths said in an interview.

Indeed, a report released in the spring from the 12-member Premier's Council for Economic Strategy, chaired by former federal Tory cabinet minister David Emerson, said Alberta must stop using royalty revenues to fund day-to-day operations.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

What happens if the US fails to raise the debt ceiling?

Konrad Yakabuski, in the Globe and Mail: Debt-ceiling deniers court economic disaster.
An analysis by [Jay] Powell, a visiting scholar at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, shows that the U.S. government is projected to take in $172-billion in revenues between Aug. 3 and Aug. 31, but face bills totalling $306-billion.

The shortfall of $134-billion would not only force the government to choose whom to pay among its millions of debt holders, pension recipients and employees. The sudden plunge in federal spending – equivalent to a staggering 10 per cent of U.S. gross domestic product in August – would by all accounts pull the rug out from under the economy.
What's going on?

I think the source of the deadlock is that the Republicans and the Democrats represent two views which may be irreconcilable.

One view is that government is a huge waste, and government spending should be as close to zero as possible. Let’s call it the anti-government faction.

The other view (the status quo faction) is that government is a critical part of society as it exists today, providing the traditional functions of war, diplomacy, and justice; dampening the wild swings of the business cycle; and helping to close the gap between rich and poor, by funding services like public education and health care through a tax system which falls more heavily on the rich than the poor. It’s not difficult to have a society where the rich live in extravagant luxury and the poor struggle to keep from starving; see any ancient empire or modern Third World country. It’s far more difficult to maintain a middle-class society of broadly shared prosperity.

The only common ground here is that the status quo faction is willing to look for spending cuts, to make the government more efficient. I don’t think it’s going to be enough for the anti-government faction. And it’s going to make the recession worse.

Update: the Republicans have agreed to a deal, avoiding default.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Feds silence scientist over salmon study

Ottawa Citizen:
Top bureaucrats in Ottawa have muzzled a leading fisheries scientist whose discovery could help explain why salmon stocks have been crashing off Canada's West Coast, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News.

The documents show the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister's Office, stopped Kristi Miller from talking about one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years.

... The Harper government has tightened the leash on federal scientists, whose work is financed by taxpayers and is often of significant public interest — be it about fish stocks, air pollution or food safety.

... Researchers, who used to be free to discuss their science, are now required to follow a process that includes "media lines" approved by communications officers, strategists and ministerial staff in Ottawa. They vet media requests, demand reporters' questions in advance and decide when and if researchers can give interviews.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Toxins locked in Arctic deep freeze released by melting ice

Vancouver Sun:
Environment Canada sleuths have found that toxins such as PCBs that have been locked in an Arctic deep freeze are being "remobilized" as the climate warms.

In a report published Sunday, they say that persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs, which were banned decades ago, are being released in the Arctic as sea ice retreats and temperatures rise.

"Our results indicate that a wide range of POPs have been remobilized into the Arctic atmosphere over the past two decades as a result of climate change, confirming that Arctic warming could undermine global efforts to reduce environmental and human exposure to these toxic chemicals," Hayley Hung, an Environment Canada research scientist, and her colleagues reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Large amounts of the toxic chemicals were transported to the North from factories and farmers' fields on air currents and ended up trapped in Arctic ice, and frigid northern soils and sea water.

Until recently scientists and regulators thought the Arctic toxins would stay out of circulation permanently, but Hung says that view changed with some "very abnormal' readings in recent years.

Scientists have measured the old pesticide hexachlorocyclohexane, which was banned years ago, coming out of open water in Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea.

And polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, widely used as coolants and lubricants until they were banned in many countries more than two decades ago, have been picked up at the edge of the ice in the Atlantic Arctic.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Coal power plant races against regulation

Globe and Mail, earlier this month:
Maxim Power Corp. is racing to beat proposed federal emission regulations that could derail its plan to build a 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant in the mountains of western Alberta.

The Calgary-based, TSX-listed company won approval to build the $1.7-billion plant from the Alberta Utilities Commission last week, after arguing it needed an immediate decision to meet an ambitious time line that would allow it to avoid the tough new federal regime.

Environment Minister Peter Kent is expected to release the government’s electricity regulations later this month, but Maxim says the company received assurances from Mr. Kent that it would not be subject to the regulations so long as it began operations before July 1, 2015.
Andrew Leach, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta, has further comments.
So when you add it all together, the AUC provided an expeditious approval to a coal-fired power plant so that it could sneak under the wire and not be covered by new federal regulations. Approval was granted without any of the conditions attached to the approval of a similar plant 10 years ago – conditions recently upheld by the same AUC. Perhaps most importantly, despite the world’s eyes being focused on Alberta’s actions on environmental issues, the AUC found a new coal-fired power plant to be clearly in the public interest despite the fact that it will likely make our environmental commitments billions of dollars more expensive to achieve, not to mention that it will harm our health, air quality, and waterways in the process.

Someone has to fill in the blanks for me on this one, because I don’t get it.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Canada's crime rate at lowest level in almost 40 years

From the Globe and Mail:
New statistics show the national crime rate is continuing its 20-year decline – reaching levels not seen since 1973 even as the federal Conservative government prepares legislation that would put more Canadians behind bars for longer periods of time.

It is a juxtaposition of politics and reality that has prompted critics to accuse the government of ignoring facts at taxpayers’ expense as it pursues a criminal-justice agenda focused on punishment rather than prevention.

Statistics Canada released its annual survey of police-reported crime on Tuesday. It shows the overall volume of criminal incidents fell by 5 per cent between 2009 and 2010, and the relative severity of the crimes took a similar dive.

Homicides, attempted murders, serious assaults and robberies were all down last year from the year before. Young people were accused of committing fewer offences. Even property crime was reported less frequently with reductions in both break-ins and car thefts.

... Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to introduce an omnibus crime bill early in the fall that will incorporate a number of former justice bills that died when his minority government was defeated in March. It will include measures to put more young offenders in jail, end house arrest for a wide variety of offences, and impose mandatory minimum sentences for sexual offences against children and a range of drug crimes.

“Unlike the Opposition, we do not use statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals. As far as our Government is concerned, one victim of crime is still one too many,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in an e-mail Thursday evening.

... If the legislation becomes law, the prison population is expected to increase substantially. The government is preparing for the influx by retrofitting and expanding its correctional facilities at a cost it has estimated at about $2.1-billion. Other projections have suggested the costs will be much higher.

The budget for the Correctional Service of Canada has already increased 86.7 per cent, from $1.597-billion annually since 2006 when the Conservatives took office, and is expected to climb to $3.147-billion by 2013-14.

Meanwhile, some critics say the government’s crime bills will actually increase the number of crimes committed by people who have been hardened by the prison system.

“The government doesn’t even try to pretend to present research anymore to suggest that their measures will actually reduce crime,” said [Steve Sullivan, former federal ombudsman for victims of crime]. “If you just have longer sentences and you keep people there [in prison] until the end of their sentences, you actually increase the chances that they will reoffend. Even the Republicans in the U.S. now are saying we need to move away from that kind of approach.”

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Why are so many young Quebecers still sovereigntists? It's cooler

Andre Pratte of La Presse:
For the past 30 years, support for independence has been remarkably stable at 40 per cent, except for two brief periods (after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and in the last weeks of the 1995 referendum campaign). That stability has frustrated separatists, whose constant efforts to convince Quebecers to follow them has fallen on a majority of deaf ears. It also confuses Canadians outside the province, who wonder why on Earth so many Quebecers still believe that separation would be good for Quebec. Hasn't the province become one of the most prosperous regions on Earth (Statistics Canada announced yesterday that Quebec's unemployment rate had gone down to 7.3 per cent, significantly lower than Ontario's)? Aren't French-speaking Quebecers in control of their province's political and economic affairs? Doesn't Quebec receive billions in equalization payments, thanks to which Quebec taxpayers can afford very generous social programs?

For older separatists, these facts do not compensate for the historical wrongs – their list is endless – suffered by French Canadians since the 1763 conquest. Theirs is generally an emotional nationalism, although rationalized by political and economic arguments.

Younger separatists' reasons for supporting independence are different. They are full of confidence in themselves and therefore do not fear separation. They travel all over the world to study, work and visit but have never found a reason to go to Toronto or Vancouver, let alone St. John's or Regina. To them, the rest of Canada is a foreign country, with a different culture and different values. They see the election of a majority Harper government and Quebecers' massive vote for the NDP as the latest demonstration of the unbridgeable canyon between Quebec and English Canada. They believe the federal system is inefficient and that Quebec could better tackle the challenges it faces if it had all the tools of government in its possession.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Tories cite deficit in eliminating auditing jobs

Tories cite deficit in eliminating auditing jobs:
On the chopping block is Audit Services Canada, an auditing shop available for a fee to all other departments that bills itself as having “a 50-year track record of helping to improve public sector accountability and operations.”

Officials at Public Works concluded, however, that the audit work could be done more cheaply by the private sector, so the office will be shut down. The department insists this will not impact the government-wide internal audit role, which was recently praised by the Auditor-General.

In all, 92 auditor positions across Canada will be terminated.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Senior Conservative hints Harper could go nuclear on Senate reform

Senior Conservative hints Harper could go nuclear on Senate reform:
Jason Kenney is suggesting his boss Stephen Harper could do away with the Senate if his Conservative caucus in the Red Chamber doesn’t play ball and accept his reforms.

Choosing his words carefully, Mr. Kenney avoided saying the word “abolish.” Rather, he said the Prime Minister is prepared to “entertain more dramatic options” if Tory senators continue to balk at his proposal.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Harper speech on foreign policy

Harper speech fires up convention crowd:
Canada has a purpose now that the country has a Conservative majority government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday night in a speech to 2,300 party delegates.

Harper painted a dark picture of the world around Canada near the end of his mostly upbeat speech, and said there are forces rising that Canada must resist.

"Power is shifting. New forces are coming to the fore," Harper said.

"Some we will be pleased to work with. Some we must resist. In such a world, strength is not an option; it is a vital necessity. Moral ambiguity, moral equivalence are not options, they are dangerous illusions."
I would argue that it's moral clarity that's the dangerous illusion. Hans Morgenthau discusses the importance of recognizing clearly that power (the "strength" Harper refers to) and morality are not one and the same.
Intellectually, the political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere, as the economist, the lawyer, the moralist maintain theirs. He thinks in terms of interest defined as power, as the economist thinks in terms of interest defined as wealth; the lawyer, of the conformity of action with legal rules; the moralist, of the conformity of action with moral principles. The economist asks: "How does this policy affect the wealth of society, or a segment of it?" The lawyer asks: "Is this policy in accord with the rules of law?" The moralist asks: "Is this policy in accord with moral principles?" And the political realist asks: "How does this policy affect the power of the nation?"

... In 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland. This action confronted France and Great Britain with two issues, one legal, the other political. Did that action violate the Covenant of the League of Nations and, if it did, what countermeasures should France and Great Britain take? The legal question could easily be answered in the affirmative, for obviously the Soviet Union had done what was prohibited by the Covenant. The answer to the political question depends, first, upon the manner in which the Russian action affected the interests of France and Great Britain; second, upon the existing distribution of power between France and Great Britain, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and other potentially hostile nations, especially Germany, on the other; and, third, upon the influence that the countermeasures were likely to have upon the interests of France and Great Britain and the future distribution of power. France and Great Britain, as the leading members of the League of Nations, saw to it that the Soviet Union was expelled from the League, and they were prevented from joining Finland in the war against the Soviet Union only by Sweden's refusal to allow their troops to pass through Swedish territory on their way to Finland. If this refusal by Sweden had not saved them, France and Great Britain would shortly have found themselves at war with the Soviet Union and Germany at the same time.

The policy of France and Great Britain was a classic example of legalism in that they allowed the answer to the legal question, legitimate within its sphere, to determine their political actions. Instead of asking both questions, that of law and that of power, they asked only the question of law; and the answer they received could have no bearing on the issue that their very existence might have depended upon.

The second example illustrates the "moralistic approach" to international politics. It concerns the international status of the Communist government of China. The rise of that government confronted the Western world with two issues, one moral, the other political. Were the nature and policies of that government in accord with the moral principles of the Western world? Should the Western world deal with such a government? The answer to the first question could not fail to be in the negative. Yet it did not follow with necessity that the answer to the second question should also be in the negative. The standard of thought applied to the first--the moral question—was simply to test the nature and the policies of the Communist government of China by the principles of Western morality. On the other hand, the second—the political question—had to be subjected to the complicated test of the interests involved and the power available on either side, and of the bearing of one or the other course of action upon these interests and power. The application of this test could well have led to the conclusion that it would be wiser not to deal with the Communist government of China. To arrive at this conclusion by neglecting this test altogether and answering the political question in terms of the moral issue was indeed a classic example of the "moralistic approach" to international politics.

Monday, 13 June 2011

G8 spending in Clement's riding left ‘no paper trail'


G8 spending in Clement's riding left ‘no paper trail'
Senior Conservative officials broke federal rules to shower $50-million on the riding of the minister now overseeing Ottawa’s austerity plan, according to the final audit of a G8 program that fuelled opposition charges of pork-barrel politics.

In her last report, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said the funding for the G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund was approved by Parliament under the guise of a border initiative. The money was then distributed to projects in the riding of Treasury Board President Tony Clement without any input from civil servants, in a clear breach of federal policies dealing with transparency and accountability.

“It is very unusual and troubling. There is no paper trail behind the selection of the 32 projects,” said John Wiersema, the interim Auditor-General who recently took over from a retired Ms. Fraser. “I, personally, in my career in auditing, have not encountered a situation like that.”

Mr. Clement showed up at a news conference to defend the spending in his riding, but Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird physically shielded him from questions at times. The two stood behind a podium and single microphone, and Mr. Baird, who was in charge of Ottawa’s infrastructure program when the spending was approved, often fielded questions the media directed at Mr. Clement.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Opposition blows gasket as PM jets to Canucks-Bruins game

Opposition blows gasket as PM jets to Canucks-Bruins game:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is being accused of wasting taxpayer dollars for his decision to use a government jet to attend the Stanley Cup finals in Boston on Wednesday.

As the Conservatives are scrambling to find billions in cuts in Ottawa, Mr. Harper will reimburse the cost of tickets to Game 4 of the Boston/Vancouver finals for himself and his daughter, as well as the equivalent cost of a commercial roundtrip for two.

However, the Prime Minister is forbidden from going on commercial flights for security reasons, which forces him to use a Canadian Forces jet for the trip. According to the government’s estimates, a flight on the Challenger costs more than $10,000 an hour, which the opposition deemed too expensive two days after the government announced a new wave of austerity in Ottawa.

“Using those types of tax dollars for his personal entertainment? No, that’s simply not on,” NDP MP Peter Stoffer said. “He should do what we all do, which is watching the game on TV and hoping the Canucks score a victory.”

... The PMO said Mr. Harper, his daughter and Mr. Moore will each be paying $500 for their tickets, and $530 each for the flight.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Forget what Tories say, Ottawa has structural deficit

Stephen Gordon: Forget what Tories say, Ottawa has structural deficit
Yesterday’s budget was an implicit admission of a problem whose existence the Conservatives had spent quite some time denying: the federal government is running a structural deficit that will not go away on its own when the economy fully recovers from the recession. If the deficit were purely cyclical -- that is, if the deficit could be completely explained by recession-induced increases in spending and reductions in revenue -- then the government wouldn’t be in a position where it would feel obliged to commit to large, unspecified spending cuts in order to balance the budget.

Many commentators have suggested that the structural deficit was created by increased spending, so spending cuts are the appropriate remedy. I don’t see how this hypothesis fits the data, and the fact that the necessary spending cuts have yet to be specified suggests to me that there’s no expensive new program that can be blamed for the structural component of the deficit.
Gordon's analysis is that the GST cut was responsible for the structural deficit.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Harper's Throne Speech delays dealing with hard decisions

Jeffrey Simpson: Harper's Throne Speech delays dealing with hard decisions
Financial crises are a real drag. They pull down economies very quickly, but recovery is prolonged, tough and uncertain.

That tough recovery provides the context for Friday’s Speech from the Throne and, more important, Monday’s budget. The economic picture has soured from the pre-election budget to today, especially the economic news from the United States. The souring will mean much harder decisions for Stephen Harper’s government than it appeared would be necessary a few months ago.

... This summer, a subcommittee under Treasury Board President Tony Clement will begin reviewing government spending, with cuts presumably to be contained in the budget of 2012. These cutting exercises have failed more often than not in Ottawa. The Conservatives now have a majority government that should steel their resolve, but they have also been a party that let spending rip before the recession.

Hard spending decisions have never been a hallmark of Mr. Harper’s governments, which have cut taxes, dramatically increased the number of civil servants, driven up spending, eliminated the surplus and produced big deficits, but will now be preaching restraint and cutbacks.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Harper loyalist Dimitri Soudas stepping down as PMO spokesman

Harper loyalist Dimitri Soudas stepping down as PMO spokesman
When Mr. Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, Mr. Soudas was closely linked to the PMO’s efforts to impose greater control on communications, including making up a pre-determined list of journalists who could ask questions of Mr. Harper.

He also ruffled feathers in the party, especially on issues in Quebec – where he was seen to have more sway than a number of senior ministers from the province. His departure has been rumoured in recent weeks, with a number of Conservative officials stating his retirement would have a positive impact on the party, especially in Quebec.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Trade Minister launches blistering attack on NDP

Trade Minister launches blistering attack on NDP:
In a downtown Ottawa speech Thursday morning, International Trade Minister Ed Fast launched a fresh partisan attack on the new Official Opposition, accusing New Democrats of being set on policies that would “stall growth, kill jobs and set Canadian families back.”

Listeners could be forgiven for wondering whether the 41st election campaign was still being contested. The broadside against the NDP suggests the perpetual campaign the Tories waged during their minority government years will not be wound down soon.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Battle to slay the budget deficit continues to stall


Economist Stephen Gordon: Battle to slay the budget deficit continues to stall
The steep decline in the 12-month moving sum that was produced by the recession finally turned around in early 2010, but the rebound lasted only a few months. The deficit has been stalled in the $35-billion a year range for the past 8-10 months.

The graph also makes it clear that the trend to deficit began in early 2008, several months before the recession began. The federal government’s decision to cut the GST would have produced a deficit even if the economy had remained stable.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Tories set to steer new course on health care funding

Andre Picard: Tories set to steer new course on health care funding
Instead of a long-term deal with all 13 provinces and territories, we can expect a short extension of the current deal – which would fulfill the Conservative campaign promise of maintaining annual increases at 6 per cent – followed by a fundamental revamping of federal transfers.

Bill Tholl, an Ottawa-based consultant who was the long-time secretary-general of the Canadian Medical Association, said instead of an omnibus deal with all provinces and territories, he expects the new majority government to propose signing a series of bilateral agreements.

... in the long term even more significant changes are coming. Mr. Tholl said the Conservatives have been clear that they are going to revamp the federal-provincial fiscal arrangement, and the Canada Health Transfer will be affected in the process.

One of the most talked-about proposals originates with Ken Boessenkool, a long-time Harper adviser and now an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. He has suggested that Ottawa do away with the myriad programs it has for transfers and equalization payments and instead turn over the monies collected from the federal GST to the provinces.
Boessenkool's proposal: press release, PDF.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

On Israel, Harper stands alone at G8 summit

On Israel, Harper stands alone at G8 summit:
Alone among G8 leaders, the Canadian Prime Minister refuses to embrace the U.S. President’s plan to begin peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of a return to Israel’s de facto borders as they existed before its 1967 war with neighbouring Arab countries – a precondition, accepted by Arabs and by many previous Israeli leaders and Canadian governments, that would be necessary to get Palestinians back to the table.

Mr. Harper made his opposition to that position clear through a spokesperson shortly after Mr. Obama’s Middle East speech last week in a pre-G8 briefing, making him the lone leader in the G8 not to back the U.S. preconditions.

A unified statement on a negotiated path to a Palestinian state had been a key goal of the Deauville summit, in large part because such a statement might have pre-empted an attempt to pass a United Nations resolution that would declare a Palestinian state against Israel’s will.
Also: On Mideast peace and Arab Spring, Harper stands apart.

I'm not sure what's going on with Harper. Besides the importance of Canada's relationship with the US, Canada's interest is in a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Netanyahu appears to want to hold onto the land rather than trading it for peace. Jonathan Kay, writing in the National Post: Netanyahu just made it harder to stand up for Israel.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Auditor General retires

Retiring Fraser urges vigilance over watchdog’s independence
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is waiting until the fall to appoint the next Auditor-General, but he will face political pressure to choose a watchdog who will match Ms. Fraser’s ability to hammer home critical findings that force the government into action.

... “Independence of the legislative audit office is absolutely critical to our credibility, so we have to be independent in fact, and in perception as well,” Ms. Fraser told reporters. “We have to always be vigilant that there is no inappropriate interference from government… I think the office has to remain always vigilant to ensure that that independence is protected.”

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lawrence Martin: Has the fourth estate lost its tenacity?

Lawrence Martin:
Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.

It’s not because journalists don’t sense there is something very serious going on. The conservative Sun chain recently went after the government’s penchant for muzzling critics. The conservative National Post wrote that there is no excuse “for the paranoia, secrecy, rule-bending, shirking of due process and committee bullying that has rightly become the subject of opposition ire in recent years.” That list is quite an indictment. It’s the type of stuff that in the 1970s would have spawned all kinds of Woodwards and Bernsteins. Not today, though.

During the election campaign, there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Gwyn Morgan: tough decisions needed to update Canada's fiscal house

Op-ed by Gwyn Morgan: Tough decisions needed to update Canada's fiscal house.
Well before the election, the Harper government was working on becoming more efficient through a strategic review process requiring each ministry to reduce costs by a mandatory 5 per cent. This push to greater efficiency needs to be taken further, through more efficient, lower-cost private contractor provision of government services. And Ottawa should follow the private sector’s lead by converting public service pensions from open-ended defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution programs that include significant employee contributions.

Along with becoming more efficient, governments need to become smaller. In terms of social programs, this means reducing the number of people receiving government support. The universality paradigm must be replaced to focus dollars on those who actually need help. Why insist on paying benefits for the well-to-do? This logic should be applied to all social programs, but first priority should be health care, where rapidly rising costs are ravaging federal and provincial budgets.

The Canada Health Act should be amended to allow Canadians to purchase health insurance and to seek treatment either through the universal publicly financed system or at user-pay private clinics, the same freedom enjoyed by citizens of every other developed country.

The op-ed doesn't mention tax increases, which is interesting. Usually, if you're trying to close a fiscal gap, you would use both spending cuts and tax increases.

Harper attempted to appoint Morgan to head a new review board for patronage appointments back in 2006, but Morgan was rejected by Parliament. Harper then cancelled the board.

Maclean's profile from 2003, noting Morgan's skepticism on global warming.

Morgan also heads Christy Clark's transition team.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Samara: exit interviews with MPs

A series of reports based on exit interviews with MPs, discussing what MPs do and how Parliament could be made to work better.

The Accidental Citizen?: how do MPs enter politics?

Welcome to Parliament: what they do in Parliament

It's My Party: how the political parties work

Friday, 20 May 2011

Ontario outlaws dirty tricks that surfaced during federal election

Ontario outlaws dirty tricks that surfaced during federal election
The Ontario government is cracking down on the kind of bogus automated phone messages that caused widespread disruptions on voting day in the federal election by misleading people about the location of their polling stations.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Cabinet shuffle

Globe and Mail editorial: A talented, overstuffed cabinet.

I'm curious about how important the cabinet really is, given Harper's reputation as a micro-manager. My impression is that they're basically spokesmen responsible for communicating and defending the government decisions in a particular area, but Harper would be the one making the actual decisions. Tony Clement defended the decision to cancel the mandatory long-form census, for example, but that doesn't mean he made the decision.

Tony Clement is now at Treasury Board (civil service cutbacks), John Baird is at Foreign Affairs. The Industry Minister is now Christian Paradis. For Industry Minister, a steep learning curve.

On the same day, Harper named three defeated Conservative candidates to the Senate. Adam Radwanski: Audacious Senate appointments are Harper's gift to Layton.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

First he routed Liberals – and now Harper hopes to bankrupt them

The Globe and Mail:
Stephen Harper is expected to move quickly to kill the per-vote taxpayer subsidies to political parties in an effort to kill the Liberal Party of Canada, according to a former colleague of the Prime Minister.

“Ever since his days at the [National Citizens Coalition], Stephen talked about eliminating the Liberals as a political force in Canada,” former NCC executive Gerry Nicholls said. “This was both for personal and tactical reasons. He didn’t like Liberals – he always viewed them as biased against Alberta.”

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Parliament resumes June 2

The Globe and Mail
The Conservatives announced Monday that MPs are returning to the Commons June 2 for a whirlwind session that will make headway on passing the 2011 budget before breaking for the summer. This new start date is a month after Mr. Harper secured a majority at the polls.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Harper campaign architect Patrick Muttart worked for Sun Media at the same time


Canadian Press, April 28:
A former senior Harper aide says he worked both sides of the journalism-politics fence this month, providing free corporate advice to Sun Media, while being paid as a political strategist to the Conservative election campaign.

Patrick Muttart, the former deputy chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told The Canadian Press on Thursday he gave periodic unpaid advice to Sun Media in recent weeks to help it launch its new television news channel. Until this week, he was also on the Tory payroll as a consultant to the party's election war room.

Muttart was a key backroom player in Harper's two previous election victories and served as deputy chief of staff before leaving to join the American public affairs firm, Mercury LLC.

Muttart left Harper's campaign after it turned out he planted a false story with Sun Media about Michael Ignatieff having been in Iraq.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

U.S. pokes fun at Harper's Arctic pledges: WikiLeaks



CTV:
The United States thinks Prime Minister Stephen Harper's tough talk on Canadian Arctic sovereignty is little more than chest-thumping meant to attract votes, according to a new WikiLeaks cable.

... The cable notes some of Harper's promises have long been forgotten, such as building armed icebreakers and Arctic Ocean sensors.

"Once elected, Harper hit the ground running with frosty rhetoric," the notes says, referring to his 2006 election.

"Harper (who was still only Prime Minister-designate) used his first post-election press conference to respond to the United States Ambassador's restatement the prior day of the longstanding U.S. position on the Northwest passage."

The note says Harper once again brought out the Arctic issue for the 2008 campaign, but failed to bring it up even once during a January 2010 hours-long meeting with U.S. Ambassador Jacobson.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Tories back off campaign pledge to show a surplus by 2014-15

Globe and Mail:
With the election results barely a week old, Conservatives are muddying the waters around a central – and surprising – campaign pledge.

The revised 2011 budget that the government will present next month will not show a surplus by 2014-15 as promised in black and white in the Conservative campaign platform, even though the government insists it still intends to deliver on the election promise.

... The Conservative election platform states that: “Through accelerated reductions in government spending, a re-elected Stephen Harper government will eliminate the deficit by 2014-15.”

Friday, 6 May 2011

Rebuilding a viable opposition

If the Conservatives have a monopoly on power, that's not going to be healthy for anyone. Even if you agree with Conservative policies and priorities, they need a viable opposition, or they'll get as complacent and arrogant as the Liberals did when the right was divided.

Voters are often fed up with the continuous arguing and bickering of politicians, but our political system is inherently adversarial, just like our justice system: when we conduct a trial, we expect the lawyers on both sides to make their strongest possible arguments. Politicians can be faulted for making weak or irrelevant arguments, but not for arguing in the first place--that's their job.

Given the limits of strategic voting under the first-past-the-post system, what options do the NDP and the Liberals have to prevent Conservative dominance?

1. Continue fighting a three-way battle, with the NDP on the left, the Liberals in the middle, and the Conservatives on the right.

2. Unite the left. We end up with a two-party system, with the left party's base in Quebec, and the Conservative base in Alberta and Ontario.

3. The Liberals compete with the Conservatives for the centre-right vote, particularly in Ontario.

Option 2 doesn't look that promising to me: my guess is that the Conservatives would still be able to defeat a united centre-left party.

Option 3 looks most intriguing. The Liberal pitch would be for fiscally responsible government: surpluses and debt reduction would take priority over either tax cuts or new spending. (The federal debt is projected to be $650 billion in 2015-2016, up from $480 billion in 2005-2006, and we can expect increased health-care costs for Canada's aging expectation.)

John Duffy comments that in Ontario, the Liberals appear to have lost about half of their 2004 voters, with two-thirds going to the Conservatives and one-third to the NDP.

Calgary Grit on rebuilding the Liberal Party.

Of course, "moving to the centre-right" is very crude, and easier said than done. A Conservative blogger named "hosertohoosier" has a much more subtle analysis: Historical narrative. Social classes.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The limits of strategic voting

By taking over the Progressive Conservatives, Harper was able to end vote-splitting on the right. This gave the Conservatives a major advantage over the Liberals and NDP.

In theory, the Liberals and NDP could have compensated for this weakness through strategic voting, coordinated through websites such as www.projectdemocracy.ca: anti-Harper voters would have voted for the NDP in NDP-Conservative ridings, and for Liberals in Liberal-Conservative ridings.

In practice, though, strategic voting is just too complicated for people who don't follow politics closely. Frankly, politics can be extremely boring. So-called "low-information voters" take their cues from the media, which focuses on the leaders; they often don't know which riding they're in, or who their local candidates are.

It'd be great if everyone paid close attention to politics, but that's unrealistic.

Consider Vancouver South (where I was volunteering yesterday). In 2008, Ujjal Dosanjh (the former BC premier) won the riding over the Conservative candidate by 20 votes, with the NDP a distant third. If there's any riding where strategic voting against the Conservative candidate would be the obvious choice, Vancouver South would be it. Judging by lawn signs, the NDP certainly wasn't campaigning hard in the riding. Yet the NDP vote in Vancouver South increased from 2008 to 2011.

The vote-splitting problem for the NDP and the Liberals is likely to be aggravated further by
the Green Party.

In addition, the strategic voting sites aren't that reliable. In particular, they didn't do a great job of identifying close races. A post-mortem from James McKinney.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The new landscape: Conservatives vs. NDP

Harper's long-term goal is to make federal politics look like provincial politics in BC. There's a dominant conservative party (Social Credit and then the BC Liberals in BC) facing off against an NDP opposition. It's very polarized: you get wide swings in policy whenever government changes hands.

We'll see if Harper succeeds in keeping the Liberals out of the game. He's promised to eliminate the $2-per-vote subsidy, which will affect the Conservatives less than the other parties--they get a tremendous amount of money in direct donations from their base. I'd also expect more attack ads against both Layton and the new Liberal leader. (Why wait until the next election?)

Jeffrey Simpson:
Mr. Harper got what he wanted almost as much as an overwhelming victory: an overwhelming Liberal defeat. Not just the defeat but the destruction of the Liberal Party was Mr. Harper’s political objective, because he believed the Liberals’ disappearance would pave the way to a long period of Conservative dominance.

Mr. Harper believes that Canada is fundamentally not a social democratic country but a conservative one. To put matters another way, in a straight-up fight between conservative and left-wing forces, conservatives will win most of the time. The big, sprawling Liberal Party got in the way of this right-left showdown (and a left-wing surge, until this campaign). The Liberals’ demise spells long-term good news for the Conservatives.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Harper wins a majority

Looks like I'll be continuing this blog!

The Conservatives have taken 166 seats, with 39% of the vote; the NDP have 108 seats (including 60 in Quebec). The Liberals are down to 33. The Bloc only has four seats, so they no longer have official party status.

Harper to move fast to use his new authority
Mr. Harper’s long game, as he’s discussed in years past, is to shift Canada rightward politically so that the Conservatives replace the Liberals as the “natural governing party” in the eyes of voters. That’s not going to occur overnight and it’s not going to happen by spooking voters with radical changes from a party the Tory Leader has acknowledged is more conservative than the Canadian public.

The Conservative Leader will likely seek to change Canada more incrementally.

As pledged, the Tories will move rapidly on a far-reaching rewrite of Canada’s crime laws. They’re planning to bundle 11 pieces of law-and-order legislation they’d failed to enact as a minority government into one omnibus bill that will be passed within 100 days of taking power.

Measures would include an end to house arrest for serious and violent criminals, tougher sentences and mandatory jail time for sexual offences against children and a crackdown on the handling of violent and repeat young offenders.

Say goodbye to the long-gun registry and $2-per-vote subsidies for political parties now that Stephen Harper has full control over the levers of power in Ottawa.

And get ready for term limits on senators and greater foreign ownership of companies that offer telecom services such as cellphones.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Vote Monday May 2

If you're voting for Anyone But Harper, see the Project Democracy website. Enter your postal code and it'll tell you who the best candidate is in your riding to beat the Conservative candidate. Here's Edmonton-Strathcona, for example.

If you're voting for the first time, see the Elections Canada website for information on how, where, and when you can vote.

The election results will be online here.

If you want to make a final donation to a party or a local riding association: Donate to the Liberals. Donate to the NDP.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Anyone but Harper: a dissenting endorsement

Anyone but Harper: a dissenting endorsement
In tough times, we need an honest, trustworthy and transparent government. Mr. Harper and the Conservatives have consistently fallen short on this count, making honesty an expendable virtue more than a few times in the past several years.

Conservatives often speak of having respect for law and order, an issue that resonates with all Canadians and crosses party lines. Why, then, did Mr. Harper choose to ignore the police report on the long-gun registry, which clearly describes the registry as a crucial weapon in fighting crime and gang violence?

When the Tories promised to spend billions building new prisons, Stockwell Day was asked about the value of such an investment, given that crime rates are declining. He answered by describing a phantom crime wave - one that had not been documented anywhere but, he insisted, did indeed exist.

On the census, Maxime Bernier suggested his office had received thousands of complaints about the purported invasiveness of the mandatory long-form survey; but when asked to produce evidence of such complaints, he couldn’t deliver the goods.

More recently, and most disturbingly, Bev Oda thought it perfectly acceptable to alter the intended meaning of a legal document by 180 degrees after it had been signed. Most Canadians know that if they did such a thing while on the job, they would be out of one. Mr. Harper stood by her, effectively condoning such an act.

This dishonesty transcends the kind of white lies that people expect of politicians; it suggests hostility toward the truth. Indeed, in some of the government’s stranger moments, the Conservatives appear to have lost touch with reality altogether, blinded by ideology while caught in their own spin cycle. Witness their response to being the first government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament. To the Tories, this was a mere difference of opinion. The Globe endorsement made no mention of that.

To me, this election goes beyond ideology: it’s about trust. The very fact that Mr. Harper and his entourage could behave in such a dishonest manner and still get The Globe’s endorsement is an indication of how cynical we've become about our political process under this government.

The Globe’s endorsement correctly pointed out that Canada will face serious challenges in the years ahead. Like many Canadians, I’m convinced that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party are not up to the job. My alternative endorsement echoes the now-famous one by Newfoundland and Labrador's former premier, Danny Williams, during the last election: Anything But Conservative. Both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton have given us far more reason to believe they are trustworthy, honest leaders who have a grip on the reality Canadians face.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Oops, we forgot to destroy Layton

Tom Flanagan, Conservative activist and former advisor to Harper:
Conservative advertising attacks on Michael Ignatieff began two years ago, ran steadily on TV for three months before the writ was dropped, and continued during the campaign. Practically all observers, whether they approve of the strategy or not, believe they have been highly effective in undercutting Mr. Ignatieff’s credibility. In Quebec, the Conservatives focused their attacks more on the BQ, accusing the party of ignoring “the regions” in favour of Montreal. All three opposition parties ran extremely negative campaigns against the Conservatives, accusing Mr. Harper of being a liar, a dictator, etc.

Amidst this welter of negativity, the NDP got off relatively unscathed because no opponent focused on them. (The Conservatives did run one anti-Layton ad early in the campaign, but it was only a tiny part of what they did.) The other three parties did a fine job of destroying each other’s credibility, leaving Mr. Layton as the last man standing....

Friday, 29 April 2011

Aiming for a smash-and-grab majority

Will Harper regret strategy of running not to lose?
[Harper] has been convinced – through the bitter experiences of Canada’s right-of-centre parties over the past two decades – that Conservatives must make do with a low ceiling of support. And so he has become a leader unwilling to make a broad appeal to the electorate.

Mr. Harper was convinced as far back as his Reform Party days that it was folly to seek a big swath of voters. Preston Manning wanted to make a populist pitch that would appeal to Canadians, regardless of their political ideology. Mr. Harper always wanted an incremental approach.

... Following [the 2008 election], Mr. Harper started aiming primarily for what pollster Nik Nanos refers to as a “smash and grab” majority.

Rather than trying to usher in a blue wave, even in a key province or two, the Conservatives began trying to cobble together a voting coalition that would give them just enough votes in just enough ridings.

That meant, for instance, targeting certain ethnic minorities that could help them win in the suburbs. It meant solidifying support within the Jewish community, to help win a few urban seats. It meant trying to ensure strong voter turnout among their support base, largely through their law-and-order agenda. And it meant furiously ramping up their ground organization in ridings where they had fallen just short previously.

... [If the 35% Conservative base does prove enough for a majority], Mr. Harper might well have the least popular support of any majority prime minister in our history.

... by some accounts, he would actually prefer a narrow majority, since a larger coalition would be harder to keep together.
The Globe describes Harper's micro-targeting tactics in more detail.
In simpler times, political parties aimed at broad swaths of the population. Tailoring a message for women voters or blue-collar workers was considered the height of sophistication. But the new thinking suggests that’s a waste of time and money. Why examine broad categories when you can narrow your message to the five per cent of people you really need to sway?

What the parties are starting to do instead is called “micro-targeting,” aiming their policies and messages at narrow bands of the population to shift just enough votes to win. The Conservatives are by far the most sophisticated in Canada at this technique, which tries to understand population in new ways. They use market research data on buying habits and combine it with census data, internal polling and focus groups to shape their campaign’s direction and rhetoric.

This tactical shift has contributed to significant Conservative gains in 2006 and 2008. It also explains why their policy announcements have been relatively small-scale and focused.

... The dominant group in Surrey North [a single NDP/Conservative riding in BC], at 43 per cent, is what Environics identifies as fairly well-off, blue collar ,South Asian families, both Canadian-born and immigrant. They’re more likely to have large households and to speak a non-official language at home. Let’s call them Aspirasians.

In the 2008 election, 10 per cent of this group’s votes shifted toward the Conservatives, mostly at the expense of the NDP. That meant a gain of 1,600 votes for the Conservatives, and a loss of 1,300 votes for the NDP. The Conservatives gained a little less than 1,000 votes from two of the next largest groups, Canadian Tirekickers, mostly white exurban families, and Rust Collars, a low-income, mobile, working-class population.

Those swing votes are the difference between winning and losing. ...

What the Conservatives did, starting in the 2006 campaign, was combine their internal polling data with market research to develop profiles of the voters they thought they could reach. How to reach them is another question. Environics research shows the South Asian group’s values tend toward concepts such as “belonging to the global village,” an “ecological lifestyle” and “joy of consumption.” They are less likely than the average Canadian to identify with a Canadian identity or to have a flexible definition of family.

André Turcotte, a professor of communications at Carleton University who has worked in this field, says the Conservatives likely have a group such as the South Asians broken down into several smaller segments. Those from the Indian Punjab would be separated from those from Vietnam, those who have been here 15 years or less separated from the Canadian-born, as well as stats for those with children or grandparents at home.

It’s because they have that kind of data on the ridings they need to win that the Conservatives are employing micro-targeting in their policy platform, Prof. Turcotte said.

Income-splitting for couples with a stay-at-home parent, for example, appeals to young, suburban, traditional families. They tend to live in hotly contested ridings such as those in Surrey and Brampton.

... Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a professor and expert on political marketing, said the idea with micro-targeting is to use party resources more efficiently, but it also means small slices of the electorate become disproportionately significant. “It’s supposed to be a more practical and effective use of resources,” she said, “but democratically it’s problematic because they only bother with a tiny group of voters.”

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Do-nothing federal government

John Duffy:
... What matters here is the attempt by the Liberals to have the government do something positive for individuals and for the country. That’s a very different thing from what Mr. Harper offers, which is a tax cut for its own sake.

Liberals fundamentally disagree with how Mr. Harper governs, namely by shrinking the federal government, its role in the federation, in the economy, in our society. Those who say he is betraying his conservative principles aren't noticing the policy areas – taxes included – where Mr. Harper simply downs traditional federal government tools, often without fanfare. We have no energy policy. We have no climate-change strategy. Can anyone say we have a broadcasting policy? Or a telecommunications policy? A social policy to deal with the erosion of the middle class? An industrial policy to address our productivity slippage? A health-care policy, now that the 2004 accord is about to expire? A national unity approach? An aboriginal strategy? And for all that vacating of important policy fields, the government still spends more than it ever did.

Mr. Harper’s is a kind of laisser-tomber conservatism, quietly letting go of the federal role in key public policy fields. I don’t think this approach serves anyone terribly well, and I think it is uniquely ill-suited to a country like Canada. No one is nostalgic for the Big Ottawa of the Trudeau era; that’s what’s so smart about Mr. Ignatieff’s stripped-down Learning Passport. But I’d welcome an outraged Conservative charge of creeping centralization. At least we’d be getting some real debate, instead of this relentless, silent withdrawal of our national government from Canadian life.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

There's a dirty secret in Tory greenhouse gas plan

Andrew Leach, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta:
There’s a hole in the Conservative platform…a hole so big, you could fit Canada’s oil and gas sector or every single one of our fossil-fuel power plants into it. The hole is projected to get bigger, and will be large enough to fit every single car, truck, SUV, train, bus, and ATV in Canada into it by 2020. These are not figures from David Suzuki. They are taken from speeches by Conservative Environment Minister Peter Kent and reports provided by Environment Canada earlier this year.

The Conservatives do not have the policies in place to meet commitments in their platform. The platform re-iterates Canada’s Copenhagen commitment to reduce GHG emissions from current levels of around 730 million tons (Mt) to 607 Mt, or 17 per cent below our 2005 levels, by 2020. Mr. Kent called the target “ambitious,” and he was not kidding. To get there, even if you ignored the potential for economic growth, it would take the equivalent of shutting down every single coal- and natural-gas-fired power plant in the country.

The story gets worse when you consider the economic growth we expect to see over the next eight years. In his first speech as Environment Minister, Peter Kent admitted that, “there is a great deal to do,” since without any new policies, Canada’s emissions will likely grow to around 800 Mt per year, and we would miss the Conservatives’ pledge by 178 Mt, as you can see in the graph below from Environment Canada. To put that into perspective, you could eliminate the emissions from every single car and truck on the road today, and we would still not get there.

The Conservatives are clearly aware of this hole in their platform, but they have failed to introduce any substantial new programs to close the 178 Mt gap. The only real policy announcement came on March 31, when Stephen Harper announced that the Conservatives would provide a $4.2-billion dollar loan guarantee to the Lower Churchill River hydro project, which is expected to reduce annual GHG emissions by 4.5 Mt. Today’s announcement from SaskPower puts the price tag of their new CCS project at more than $1-billion, to achieve annual emissions reduction of approximately 1Mt. The Conservatives only need to find 38 more projects of this size to reach our 2020 goal. If the cost of these projects remains in the $1-billion per Mt range, it would seem that the NDP isn't the only party with a hole in its green budget.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Changing Canada, one backward step at a time

The late James Travers, writing in June 2010:
Imagine a country where Parliament is padlocked twice in 13 months to frustrate the democratic will of the elected majority. That country is now this country.

Imagine a country that slyly relaxes environmental regulations even as its neighbour reels from a catastrophic oil leak blamed on slack controls. That country is now this country.

Imagine a country that boasts about prudent financial management while blowing through a $13-billion surplus on the way to a $47-billion deficit. That country is now this country....

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Margaret Atwood: "I can't tell you that"

Margaret Atwood: Election 2011, a dark fiction
I am a fiction writer. So here’s a fiction.

A vacuum cleaner salesman comes to your door. “You must buy this vacuum cleaner,” he says. “Why?” you say. “Because I know what’s good for you,” he says. “I know things you don’t know.” “What are they?” you say. “I can’t tell you,” he says, “because they’re secret. You are required to trust me. The vacuum cleaner will create jobs.”

“Where is the vacuum cleaner made?” you say. “In another country,” he says. “So the jobs will be created in another country? Not here?” you say. You believe it’s your right to query: It’s your money and, come to think of it, you pay this guy’s salary.

“Stop bickering,” he says. “I am competent. That’s my story and I’m sticking it to you.” “I’m not bickering,” you say. “I’m asking relevant questions. How much will the vacuum cleaner cost me?” “I can’t tell you that,” he says. “Why not? Because it’s more than you claimed at first?” you say. “Or because you don’t really know the cost?” “I can’t tell you that, either,” he says. “But you have to pay.”

“Just a minute!” you say. “You want me to commit to an unknown, very large sum? That’s not fair! And it’s not competent, either.” “More bickering!” he says. “We need stability!” “But I might have to go on paying huge sums for decades!” you say. “We’re already up to our necks in debt! I’ll have to give up other things – I won’t be able to pay for the doctor, or support for special needs, or drinking water, or care for the elderly, or the kids’ education, or … and what happens if there’s a pandemic, or a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake, and you’ve already spent the money that could have helped in a disaster?”

“You are a very negative person,” he says. “You are not welcome here.” ...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Elections agency probes harassing calls

Elections agency probes harassing calls
Elections Canada has launched a formal investigation into complaints by various Liberal candidates in Ontario that someone is making repeated phone calls to voters, purporting to be Liberal supporters — often at odd hours, including the middle of the night.

The Liberal Party is blaming rival operatives for setting up the harassing, late-night phone calls that ask residents to vote Liberal. The calls seem to be targetting ridings expecting close races.

A CBC News investigation has been chasing down numerous complaints from local Liberal campaign offices across Ontario, including Oakville, St. Catharines, Haldimand-Norfolk, Simcoe Grey, Guelph, Eglinton-Lawrence, St. Paul's and Mississauga East-Cooksville. The calls have also happened in Egmont, P.E.I., and St. Boniface, Man.

... Conservative spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the party isn't involved, "period."

"The only party with access to the Liberal Party member list is the Liberal Party. Are you certain they aren't making the calls to their members?" he said.

The call targets are not limited to Liberal Party members, however. CBC News' Dave Seglins has spoken to NDP and Conservative supporters who also got bombarded with calls.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Conservative headquarters tells candidates not to go to local debate

All-candidate debates, without all the candidates
A teacher who organized an all-candidates debate for two Toronto-area ridings says the Conservative Party's national campaign headquarters told its local candidates not to show up.

James Blair said he spoke to the campaign manager for Corneliu Chisu, the Conservative candidate for Pickering-Scarborough East, and was told officials in the national campaign war room instructed Chisu not to attend.

Chisu and a neighbouring Conservative candidate, Chris Alexander, did not attend the event at Dunbarton High School in Pickering on Monday.

Corneliu Chisu is the Conservative Party's candidate in the Ontario riding of Pickering-Scarborough East. "The general sense was [the candidates] were very interested in attending but it was pretty well given to them that no, that's not the case," said Blair, a politics and physical education teacher who has organized candidates debates at the high school for the past three elections.

Blair said the directive "was not coming from their campaign but from on high from some place."

In an email, Conservative spokesman Chisholm Pothier said Blair is incorrect, and that Tory war room staff did not stop Chisu from participating.

"The [Chisu] campaign consulted with us and we supported their decision that his time could also be better used by campaigning directly with voters in his riding in this instance," Pothier wrote.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ministers intervened after Harper spokesman lobbied Montreal Port Authority

Ministers intervened after Harper spokesman lobbied Montreal Port Authority
Stephen Harper’s top two ministers in Quebec intervened on behalf of the Montreal Port Authority after they were told the Prime Minister’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, was interfering with the board’s efforts to appoint a new president, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Michael Fortier, the minister of public works and the Conservative lieutenant for Montreal at the time, said his office contacted port officials in 2007 and urged them to disregard any political pressure, after learning that Mr. Soudas was lobbying the board to appoint a Montreal engineer, Robert Abdallah, as head of the port.

While the federal government directly appoints the presidents of many agencies, the Canada Marine Act clearly states the port’s board has sole responsibility for the appointment of its president.

... Mr. Fortier’s comments, obtained as part of a joint investigation by The Globe and Radio-Canada, amount to an unusual rebuke by a former cabinet minister who felt actions by Mr. Harper’s staff did not reflect positions staked out by the Prime Minister.

Bernard Côté, a former staffer in Mr. Fortier’s office, said Mr. Soudas called him afterward and told him to back off.

“The tone was aggressive and there were no pleasantries exchanged,” Mr. Côté said. “He asked me why I was getting involved in the Prime Minister’s nominations.”

... The arm-twisting continued. After the restaurant meeting, Mr. Bruneau said he was warned by a Conservative ministerial staffer, whom he felt was relaying a message from a superior, that his position was at stake if he refused to jump on the bandwagon.

“I was told directly they’d think twice before renewing my nomination,” said Mr. Bruneau, who only received a one-year extension to his mandate in 2008 instead of a three-year renewal.
This sounds like more than lobbying. Lobbying doesn't usually involve threats, does it?

Soudas's response:
Mr. Soudas insisted Tuesday he did nothing wrong, and that the federal government merely indicated its preference for Mr. Abdallah. The board ultimately chose a different candidate, Patrice Pelletier, who was president of L-3 Communications SPAR Aerospace Ltd..

“There was no interference whatsoever,” he said. “We expressed a preference and made it crystal clear that the decision was ultimately for the Board of Directors of the Port of Montreal to take.”

However, in sworn testimony before the Commons Operations Committee in 2008, Mr. Soudas said that he “did not remember” contacting board members on the matter of Mr. Abdallah’s candidacy, and denied even meeting board members on the issue.
If he lied in sworn testimony, what happens next?

Why would Soudas--or Harper, presumably, since Soudas wouldn't have any power over board appointments on his own--have such a strong interest in this in the first place?
The port presidency is a powerful role, overseeing an operation that generates $2-billion in annual economic activity. At the time of the executive search, the port was also planning to spend $2.5-billion as part of a massive expansion plan dubbed Vision 2020. Several Montreal business groups at the time were seeking to purchase port land for private development.
Harper certainly doesn't have any scruples about using the levers of government to benefit the Conservative Party, and then lying about it (for example). But we don't have all the pieces of this particular puzzle yet.

The Globe and Mail article notes:
Mr. Soudas was not the only one who wanted Mr. Abdallah, a one-time Director General of the City of Montreal, appointed president of the port. Controversial construction industry boss Antonio Accurso was also supportive of Mr. Abdallah’s candidacy. Mr. Accurso’s construction firms recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and he has generated headlines for his close ties to a number of union and political officials in Quebec, several of whom vacationed on his luxury yacht.

Among these was Montreal councillor Frank Zampino, who also pushed for Mr. Abdallah to head the port. Mr. Zampino was criticized for going on Mr. Accurso’s yacht amid a controversy surrounding the city’s ballooning water-metering contract – a contract that was ultimately awarded to a group including Mr. Accurso.

In an interview, Mr. Accurso denied any involvement in the lobbying effort at the port. After his failed bid for the president’s job, Mr. Abdallah went on to work for Gastier Inc., a company that is part of Mr. Accurso’s business empire.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Harper and the subtle erosion of medicare

Thomas Walkom:
As the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported last month, at least five provinces (including Ontario) are turning a blind eye to private clinics that break the law.

Some defy the federal Canada Health Act by charging patients for medically necessary services. Others ignore provincial laws aimed at maintaining the integrity of medicare — such as those that prevent physicians from operating both inside and outside the public system.

Harper’s federal government has been even more remiss.

Medicare exists as a national program for only two reasons. The first is money. As long as Ottawa gives cash to the provinces, it can require each recipient to operate a provincial medicare program that adheres to the Canada Health Act.

The second is enforcement. The Canada Health Act permits (and in one case requires) Ottawa to withhold money from provinces that break the rules.

Most of the time, Ottawa prefers not to confront recalcitrant provinces. Still, between 1984 and 2006, the federal government levied penalties averaging about $400,000 a year.

Since Harper came to power, however, federal medicare penalties have shrunk to about $84,000 annually.

This, presumably, is what Harper was referring to when, in last week’s televised English-language debate, he talked of giving the provinces free rein in medicare.

... medicare requires a federal government willing to enforce the Canada Health Act. If, in the name of allowing provincial experimentation, it chooses not to do so, the system simply atrophies.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Tory minister's office hired niece of Carson’s girlfriend in 2008

Tory minister's office hired niece of Carson’s girlfriend in 2008
In 2008, the office of Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn hired a relative of Bruce Carson’s then-girlfriend, a former prostitute who was convicted in the United States of money laundering, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Though she had no particular relevant experience or Conservative Party background, Sarifa Khan worked from March to September of 2008 as a ministerial staffer in Mr. Lunn’s office, a job usually coveted by young staffers to Tory MPs.

... After pleading guilty to money laundering and being deported to Canada, Barbara Lynn Khan started dating Mr. Carson in 2006, when he was an adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and purchased a condominium with him after he left the PMO in 2009.

Barbara Lynn’s niece, Sarifa Khan, was in her early 20s when she was hired by Mr. Lunn, then the Natural Resources Minister, for a job with the title of special assistant, parliamentary affairs and a salary of at least $53,700.

As the Prime Minister’s point man on the environment and energy, Mr. Carson frequently worked with Mr. Lunn during his time as Natural Resources Minister, and the two men had a friendly relationship. But Louise Girouard, Mr. Lunn’s chief of staff at the time, said that neither she nor Mr. Lunn spoke to Mr. Carson about hiring his girlfriend’s niece and that Mr. Carson wasn’t involved.

Canada's F-35s: Engines not included

Canada's F-35s: Engines not included
The multi-million dollar F-35 stealth fighter that the Conservatives want to purchase comes with all the accoutrements of a high-tech aircraft — everything, that is, except an engine.

The government will be required to provide engines for the 65 planes to be delivered by U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin, according to newly released Defence Department documents.
This recalls another issue with the F-35: it lacks a second engine.
Canada’s next fleet of fighters will be packed with high-tech gizmos but lack one comforting feature: a second engine.

For pilots who will fly patrols over Canada’s vast expanses of territory in the Far North, it means no back-up.

So what happens if the sole engine in the new F-35 Lightning fails?

... Canada chose its current fleet of CF-18s precisely because they had dual engines. As the Cold Lake Air Force Museum’s website notes, Ottawa selected the Hornets “mostly because of twin-engine reliability” in case one failed during flights between Canada and Europe or sucked in a bird during low-level operations.

Vancouver's safe injection site cuts overdose deaths

Vancouver's safe injection site cuts overdose deaths
The number of drug-overdose deaths on Vancouver’s notorious downtown Eastside fell sharply after the opening of a safe injection site, new research shows.

... the federal government has argued that the evidence of benefit is unclear and tried to shut down Insite.

This has led to a protracted legal battle – one that has become an important jurisdictional struggle between the provincial and federal governments. Both the B.C. Liberals and New Democrats support Insite and the program has the strong backing of the provincial health officer.
Patrick Brethour notes that the issue demonstrates the Conservatives' "unnerving propensity to bend facts to their opinions."

Whistleblower watchdog not releasing report

Whistleblower watchdog not releasing report
The federal whistleblower watchdog is refusing to publicly release a report that shows how many cases it bungled in its 3½ years in office, suggesting it was inappropriate to do so during a federal election campaign.

To help clear its image, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner hired an independent firm, Deloitte, to review 221 complaints of wrongdoing it received and to determine how many were closed without cause and how many now require further investigation.

Interim commissioner Mario Dion hired the firm after Auditor-General Sheila Fraser slammed its former commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, for failing to investigate the overwhelming majority of cases that landed on her desk. Only seven of 228 cases were probed during Ouimet's tenure, which began in April 2007. Ouimet abruptly resigned in October--just before Fraser tabled her report--and received a $400,000 severance package from the Conservative government.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Harper defends pay raises for political staff at time of budget belt-tightening

Harper defends pay raises for political staff at time of budget belt-tightening
Mr. Harper was asked Saturday about new rules which could result in a financial win-win for Tory aides in ministerial offices regardless of whether the Conservatives win or lose the May 2nd election.

The guidelines quietly went into effect on April 1, boosting the maximum salary political staffers can be paid. They also hike by 50 per cent the maximum separation pay they can receive should they find themselves suddenly out of work.

Those changes come into effect as Harper's Conservatives are vowing to cut $4-billion a year from the federal budget.

Mr. Harper suggested the pay boost is strictly due to the fact that political staffers' salaries are tied to those in the civil service, which are in line for an increase. He didn't mention that it was the rule changes earlier this month that tied the two together.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Liberal and Conservative narratives

A digression from my usual anti-Harper focus, to talk about the Liberals:

Someone on MetaFilter asked: why should people vote for a Liberal government, rather than against a Conservative one?

Politics is about ideas as well as interests. The Liberals are pushing two ideas, one negative, one positive. Similarly, the Conservatives are pushing two ideas as well.

1. The negative Liberal narrative, of course, is that Harper is "out of touch and out of control"--that his priorities (fighter jets, jails, corporate tax cuts) are all wrong, and that he's willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way. That's why we're having the election: Harper's too contemptuous of everyone else to be able to work with any of the other parties. You can't trust him with a majority, especially when it comes to health care.

The positive narrative is the set of policies proposed in the Liberal platform during the first week of the campaign, the so-called Family Pack, which I'd summarize as "helping families who feel squeezed": by the cost of post-secondary education (hence the Learning Passport), by the cost of child care (hence the Early Childhood Learning fund to create more child care spaces), by the need to look after elderly relatives, by inadequate savings for retirement. As the Liberals have done since 1993, they've included cost estimates in their platform, showing where the money is going to come from (primarily from cancelling the most recent corporate tax cuts), to make their promises more credible.

The underlying idea is that Liberals have a different set of priorities from the Conservatives: they think families are more important than corporate tax cuts. Bruce Anderson describes it as the "chicken in every pot" tradition: the idea that government should ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. It's not difficult to have a society where the rich live in extravagant luxury; see any ancient empire or modern Third World country. It's far more difficult to make prosperity--employment, housing, education, health care--available to nearly everyone.

The Liberal platform got a fair amount of media coverage during the first week of the campaign, but it seems like people hadn't really tuned in yet. I'm not sure you can fault the Liberals for this, though. I'm pretty sure Ignatieff's been talking about the Family Pack at every Liberal rally and event since then, but of course it's no longer new, and therefore no longer news.

At this point we're in the "ground war", where candidates and volunteers from every party are knocking on doors and talking to people, and of course undecided voters are talking to their friends and family. (And these days, people are passing around information through Facebook and other social media--like this blog.) So people are still hearing about the Liberal platform, but it's below the media's radar. At the media level, the last two weeks of the campaign are going to be about damage control.

2. The negative Conservative narrative: the opposition parties are a threat to Canada's political stability, bringing down the government and attacking the Conservatives only to further their own ambitions. You can't trust Michael Ignatieff and his coalition. If Harper doesn't get a majority, there'll be chaos. "King or Chaos!"

The positive Conservative narrative: that the Conservative record shows they've provided sound economic management. Canada was the last into recession and the first out. On unemployment, we're doing a lot better than the US. There's a deficit now because of the recession, but if you give them a majority, the Conservatives will cut it faster than anyone else. Once they've balanced the budget, they'll put more money in your pocket, through income-splitting and TFSA expansion.

(The actual record is that when Harper took over in 2006, the Liberals had run surpluses for 10 years: they left a $13 billion surplus. Harper quickly dug us a new hole, a $10-20 billion structural deficit, before the recession even hit. Today, of course, we have a $50 billion deficit.)

3. One advantage Harper has is that by taking over the Progressive Conservatives, he no longer has to worry about vote-splitting on the right, whereas--outside Quebec--his opposition will be split between the Liberals, NDP, and Green Party.

The Liberal platform appears to be aiming for the centre-left, rather than the centre-right. For the Liberals, that has a couple advantages: they want to solidify the anti-Conservative vote behind them, and if they end up with a minority relying on NDP support, it'll be easier for the NDP to do so on a centre-left platform.

The Liberals and NDP have a common interest in opposing the Conservatives. They also have conflicting interests because there's a number of Liberal-NDP ridings, but for the most part they appear to be directing their fire at the Conservatives rather than each other; they know they may well end up working with each other.

After getting burned in 2008 with the carbon tax shift, the Liberals haven't tried to appeal to the Green vote by promising action on climate change. Their platform does include a commitment to cap-and-trade, but the Conservatives had already committed to cap-and-trade themselves. (That hasn't stopped the Conservatives from attacking it as "dangerous" and "un-Canadian".)