Saturday, October 15, 2005

Growing the party

Coyote has a great list of suggestions for the NDP if it wants to capitalize on the obvious potential for gains in the next election. Give it a read.

Trust me

Let's see how long the wingnuts keep criticizing any potential tax on income trusts now that the Cons' strongest provincial base is planning on implementing the same policy:
Alberta is considering its own levy on income trusts -- as soon as next year -- to stanch the outflow of tax dollars from the oil patch, a senior cabinet minister says.

Greg Melchin, Alberta's Energy Minister and its former revenue minister, says the provincial government is concerned about the gap between the taxation of corporations and trusts, including the effect on the province's tax base...

Alberta has never publicly estimated how much corporate tax has been lost to the trust sector, but federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale said last month that one Canadian province had told him privately that it was forgoing $350-million a year. Observers in the private sector say that province has to be Alberta, and Mr. Melchin said yesterday that the $350-million figure was a "plausible" estimate.

While Melchin does suggest corporate tax cuts as his preferred alternative (being the standard Con response to any issue), he seems to accept that taxing the trusts will likely be the way to narrow the current gap in incentives. Which is precisely the best way of dealing with the problem. The income trusts have evolved through a tax loophole, and the proper response is to close the loophole rather than to make major tax system changes in response to a relatively minor problem.

Now, you'd never get the idea that moderation is possible based on some recent commentary on the issue. Some commentators have taken to defending income trusts through sob stories, while ignoring the fact that any improved investing position is based on an obvious market distortion. Meanwhile, others have gone way too far in the opposite direction by equating tax planning with robbery.

It's entirely natural for some people to seek to find hidden advantages in the law. And by the same token, it's entirely necessary for government to respond by ensuring that any hidden advantages are minimized. In this case, the loophole has been allowed to stay in place long enough for the practice to seep into mainstream investment. That's not reason to avoid removing the distortion; rather, it's reason to remove it carefully, and to make sure that future loopholes are closed more quickly.

Oh, the irony

The AP gives the background on the Dujail massacre which forms the subject matter of the current charge against Saddam Hussein. And this allegation, even more than most others which could be leveled at Saddam, is one which could equally fairly be leveled at Bushco for many of its own actions:
The events in Dujail began July 8, 1982, when Saddam and his entourage visited the farming community for a meeting with tribal leaders. The town was a stronghold of the Shiite Dawa party, which was staging terrorist attacks on Saddam's secular regime to protest his then-ongoing war with predominantly Shiite Iran.

Dawa believed the visit was a chance to strike back for the execution of its key figures, including a party founder, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr.

As Saddam's motorcade entered town, Dawa gunmen opened fire from palm groves, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for hours. Iraqi army helicopter gunships and infantry rescued Saddam, who allegedly promised no reprisals.

But Iraqi secret police reportedly rounded up whole families, razed the town's fruit groves, destroyed houses and systematically executed nearly 150 people, some as young as 13. Others were herded off to prison...

(T)he Dawa party was widely perceived in the West as an instrument of the Iranian intelligence services. A year after Dujail, U.S. officials accused Dawa of bombing the American Embassy in Kuwait.

Now, nothing in the background does anything in the least to justify Hussein's actions. And it's a perfectly legitimate prosecutorial move to go forward on the strongest charges first, though the effect (especially if Saddam is put to death) may be to suppress the truth about much more serious charges.

The irony, though, is that the charge going forward is one based on action which mirrors Bush's mindset for the last four years. In effect, Saddam will likely be given a death sentence as punishment for a claim that he was entitled to exercise unlimited power in response to terrorism. A less shameless U.S. administration would at least have to stop and consider whether it should reconsider its self-professed entitlement to do the same.

On encouraging cynicism

Is it just me, or is this a particularly dubious move even for the Liberals?
The federal government may delay its much-anticipated economic update until after Mr. Justice John Gomery's November sponsorship report so the Liberals can gauge whether they're in danger of being defeated and need to put pre-election goodies in the statement.

Government officials are debating whether to push back the statement until after the Gomery report to determine whether it might be used by the opposition to bring down the Liberals and force an election. If the report is critical of Prime Minister Paul Martin, or if polls show Canadians are upset with the findings, the government could use the statement as a mini-budget that could include items such as tax cuts and money for postsecondary tuition.

If the report is relatively mild, then the government would probably move the items to its traditional winter budget and use that as a campaign document...

A source said the government is also considering whether it should bring in the economic statement before Mr. Gomery's report, to ensure that it at least gets some publicity for the statement before the report dominates the news pages in November.

The reason the Cons in particular have looked bad over much of the last year is their insistence on elevating the Gomery inquiry far above every other pressing issue facing Canadians. But it looks like the Liberals are taking that to an even higher level: rather than merely ignoring other policies in favour of Gomery, they're tailoring policy to the results of the inquiry.

Politically, it may make some sense to have a ready means at hand to try to turn the tide if the inquiry is particularly damaging. But even there, I'd think that emphasizing the same policies in a campaign should have a relatively similar impact regardless of whether or not they've already been introduced before Parliament.

And from a good-government standpoint, the position is ludicrous. The question of whether a policy is worth implementing doesn't depend on the results of the inquiry. When even the Liberals acknowledge that they're defining the former based on the latter, the end result is to make government seem all the more self-absorbed and disconnected from reality.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The party of ideas

While the Cons complain incessantly about ethical lapses among the Liberal government without suggesting any way to improve, Ed Broadbent is once again the one actually putting forward some suggestions:
The seven-point NDP package proposes:
— MPs should not be permitted to change parties without resigning and running in a byelection.
— Election dates should be fixed and held every four years.
— Reforming the electoral process by combining proportional representation with the current first-past-the-post system.
— There should be spending limits and transparency conditions on leadership contests within political parties.
— Tougher laws to end unregulated lobbying and political cronyism.
— A fair process for government appointments to end unfair and unethical patronage practices.
— Better access-to-information legislation to make government more transparent.

The ideas won't be without some controversy, and indeed I disagree with a couple of them. In particular the party-switching legislation strikes me as pointless, and fixed election dates seem both impractical in a parliamentary system, and potentially dangerous in their tendency to lead to perpetual (and ever-expanding) campaign cycles like in the U.S.

Those doubts aside, the NDP platform contains several great ideas which will make both elections in particular, and governance in general, more accessible to the public. And with neither the Libs or Cons looking to actually propose any substantive reform, it looks like once again any positive change will come because the fourth-largest party in Parliament is still #1 on substance.

All talk, no action

As if there was any doubt about the futility of the Cons' "just call Bush" stance on softwood lumber, the CP discusses the results of Martin finally making the call:
Martin spoke with Bush by phone Friday but they failed to make any progress on the softwood issue.

Neither leader budged from his original position during the 20-minute chat, officials said.

Bush maintained that he would prefer a negotiated settlement, said a spokeswoman for Martin...

During Friday's phone conversation, the two leaders also discussed the U.S. plan to drill for oil in an Alaska Arctic wildlife refugee - something Canada opposes.

Bush insisted he must move forward because his country needs the oil.

Unfortunately, the next time that Bushco genuinely listens to criticism and adjusts policy based on the public good rather than political considerations will be the first. From the sound of it, the call merely delayed the actions that actually could have some impact on U.S. policy (and the suggested PR blitz is certainly a good plan on that front). And to think this is pretty much the extent of the Official Opposition's ideas to deal with softwood lumber.

The good news is that there are other opposition parties around who have put forward much better ideas to deal with the dispute. We'll see whether Martin's next move is to start looking at serious action, rather than merely debating whether he should waste time by doing nothing at all or by making pointless phone calls.

Nothing to be proud of

Amnesty International has conducted a periodic review of Canada's human-rights actions...and the results aren't pretty:
Canada ignores its international legal obligations when it maintains it has the right to deport people to countries where they risk torture, Amnesty International says in a report card to the United Nations...

The Amnesty report, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva next week, also takes the federal government to task for imprisoning four Muslim men without charges as alleged security risks and failing to implement a long-promised independent appeal process for people making refugee claims...

The report also says the federal government does not provide adequate social services for aboriginal people, especially women who are victims of violence and children who are in custodial care. Federal financing for child and family services is on average 22 per cent below the level provinces provide to non-aboriginal people.

The article focuses mostly on the torture-related issues, and not without some justification. But the aboriginal-rights issue, tossed in as the last paragraph of the article, should be by far the more difficult to justify from the federal standpoint.

While I don't agree in the least with the pro-torture side, there's at least room for some rational debate as to whether or not torture could lead to results that could make it worth the loss of individual safety in "exceptional circumstances". It's far more difficult to find any logical basis for systematic underfunding of social services where those services are all too likely to be more needed. (Assuming, of course, that neither apathy nor ignorance is a "logical basis".)

Unfortunately, there's no indication that the federal government is interested in changing its failing grades on either issue. The Liberals are actively trying to uphold the torture policy, while presumably ignoring the recommendations on aboriginal funding until they fade out of the public view. We can only do our best to make sure the issues aren't forgotten.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sound familiar?

A well-respected writer on Northern affairs points out the reason why the two sides haven't been able to negotiate an agreement on funding. And it's a huge checkmark in the "PMPM hypocrisy" column:
Mr. Berger accuses the federal government of using technicalities to impose its will. He points out an arbitration board established by the land claim has never met because Ottawa refuses to be bound by it.

“The Inuit can be forgiven for seeing the refusal to arbitrate the issue of adequate funding as a mechanism for simply imposing Canada's determination as to appropriate funding levels,” Mr. Berger wrote.

What's left are talks where one side seeks as much as it can and the other tries to get away as lightly as possible. What's lost is what Nunavut's land claim was supposed to be.

Nunavut may be easy to ignore based on its seat count...but sometimes, things line up perfectly to apply pressure on Ottawa, and the timing couldn't be better for Nunavut now. Ottawa's actions toward its newest territory are stunningly similar to the U.S.' softwood lumber position that Martin considers to be "nonsense"...and if any meaningful public attention gets directed to the contradiction, Nunavut may soon be one of the few groups to manage to force PMPM to keep a promise.

Information pollution

For those wondering about yesterday's claim that the U.S. has done a far better job than Canada in reducing air pollution over the period 1995-2002, Canadian Cynic thoroughly eviscerates the claim.

A couple of other notes based on the report in question:

- The data is "as reported by facilities". Anybody want to speculate as to which country is more strict in ensuring that industry-provided data is accurate?

- Does it seem a bit suspicious that the data is limited to common pollutants which weren't subject to any changed policy over the period? From the sound of it, if Canada had banned a pollutant prior to the start of the period while the U.S. spewed it out in ever-increasing amounts, that wouldn't count against the U.S. at all. And if Canada did move to ban a substance or reduce its use, that would take the substance out of the study.

- Does the data take into account a probable move of particularly damaging plants from the U.S. to Mexico in the wake of NAFTA? Surely that can't be to the environmental credit of the U.S. government.

Note also from the CEC program's front page:
While this report can provide answers to many questions, readers may need to go to other sources for more information. The report does not provide information on all pollutants, all sources of chemicals, data from facilities in Mexico (with the exception of criteria air contaminants), environmental damage, or health risks.

It seems fairly clear that even the creators of the report don't give it as much credence as Pollution Watch did.

None of this is to give Chretien, Martin and company any credit for environmental management. As CC points out, the particularly sketchy claim is the one of reduced emissions in the U.S. - and there seems to be ample reason to doubt the accuracy of that report.

Update: CC's comments contain even more and better reasons to be skeptical about the numbers.

(Edit: typo.)

On original decisions

Go on. Try to find the specific statutory authorization for today's order on the B.C. teachers' strike. I dare you:
The B.C. teachers' union will not be stuck with a hefty fine, for not abiding by a labour relations board decision, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled Thursday afternoon.

The union had been expected to receive a fine for defying a government back-to-work order of up to $150,000 a day.

Instead of fines, Judge Brenda Brown of the B.C. Supreme Court placed restrictions on how the union can use its assets.

Judge Brown essentially took control of the B.C. Teachers' Federation's assets and cash for 30 days to ensure neither union funds nor third-party donations can be used to pay strikers their $50-a-day picket pay.

Now, lest the introduction be taken the wrong way, that's not to say that original orders are a bad thing. On the contrary, it's completely necessary for courts to have the ability to look for an unprecedented solution - and that's as true in criminal sentencing as it is in civil proceedings. Bookmark your favourite wingnut's response to today's decision, and point it out next time they want to tie a judge's hands.

As for the substance of the decision, I'm very curious to see the union's response, which hadn't yet been posted in the article's current form. Counsel for the employers was happy with the outcome, and the union finds itself in an unusual position: while it's better off as an organization not to have the funds frozen, the effect of the order is to create all the more hardship for its members (who weren't exactly living large on $50 per day to begin with).

While the ruling may be a test of the will of the striking workers, that could work both ways: if they're sufficiently committed to the cause to stay on the picket lines, the strike will be seen as more of an individual sacrifice than would usually be the case. And if maintaining some say in how classrooms are run is worth that much to the teachers, it'll be an awfully heavy burden on the government to claim that it's in the right in refusing to negotiate.

Punting the issues

I don't often agree with Steve Maich in light of his business-at-all-costs take. But while I disagree with his policy preferences, he rightly criticizes the Liberals' refusal to even debate serious economic issues:
If you're wondering how the latest controversy over income trusts is going to work out, listen to the silence emanating from the bank merger file. The tax treatment for corporate trusts is a critical issue. On one hand, they have stimulated investment in a host of low-growth businesses. On the other hand, they're a potentially crippling drain on the tax system. But for now, most Canadians wouldn't know an income trust if they found one in their soup, and Ottawa is happy to keep it that way until a quiet compromise can be found -- preferably one that doesn't invite too much discussion.

There is a splendid irony in all this. Back in 1993, Kim Campbell's political career crumbled when she said election campaigns are a bad time to debate serious issues. Little did anyone know that the Liberals would soon take Campbell's approach to absurd extremes. Not only have complex ideas disappeared from the campaign trail, nowadays in Ottawa it's never a good time to tackle a difficult question.

What's particularly noteworthy about the issues put forward by Maich is that each of them has seen substantial opposition-party support which would be sufficient to pass any proposed legislation.

Does anybody think the Cons would want to force an election by voting against corporate tax cuts, particularly if the bill was introduced around a time when opposition days are imminent? Or that the NDP would rather go to the polls than pass a bank merger bill that meets the party's stated criteria for consumer protection?

There might be a legitimate argument for leaving issues to a majority government if they couldn't be dealt with now. But it should be fairly obvious that it's Liberal government, and not minority government, that's keeping us from having a full debate on Canada's economic policy - and that's a bad result no matter which way you'd like to see that policy go.

Giving in

Who says Canada has no influence abroad? Based on this story, it looks like Canada's "soft power" was enough to completely undermine an effort toward nuclear disarmament:
The planned resolution, which was abandoned at a UN committee as Canada withdrew its sponsorship, sought to jump-start the negotiations after the international community failed in May to agree on measures to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the danger posed by existing arsenals...

Six countries -- Mexico, Sweden, Brazil, Kenya, New Zealand and Canada -- had been urging a UN committee to pass a resolution to establish working groups on disarmament and non-proliferation...

Mr. Tovish said other nuclear-weapons states -- including Britian (sic), France, China and Russia -- were prepared to allow the resolution to be adopted, while only the United States was adamantly opposed.

The sad part is that Canada's power lay mostly in its ability to do harm rather than good - and in addition to undercutting the global good of better nuclear monitoring, Canada has also shot itself in the foot twice.

First, Canada has probably made a lot of enemies out of the current working group with this move. After all, the other states involved will surely be much more reluctant to work with us on future issues if they see us as unlikely to follow through on our plans.

Second, by buckling under, Canada has sent a strong message that its supposed principles will always come second to U.S. pressure. And that's so even when an initiative is part of a diverse multilateral group, and when the U.S. position (substantively, that other states should eliminate both civilian and military nuclear use while the U.S. faces no monitoring or limitations; procedurally, that the world's leading multilateral body should hold no role whatsoever on a key security issue) is based on sheer arrogance rather than anything approaching a reasonable argument.

It's far from clear that the move will carry any reward. From most of the world, Canada will receive all the scorn that rightfully comes to a lapdog, without even getting any appreciation from the lap it's sitting on. And even if a reward from the U.S. is forthcoming, nuclear proliferation isn't an area where we should be looking to make trade-offs.

Canada has at best delayed, and at worst torpedoed an initiative that had the potential to make the world safer. And that's not a power that we should want to exercise.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

How not to build trust

The agreement between Iraq's governing coalition and one of the main Sunni parties is undoubtedly a good sign. But can one blame other Sunni actors for being suspicious of the deal?
The Sunnis' leading political organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, endorsed the compromises, which conceded some sticking points and put off others until a new National Assembly is elected. Other major Sunni parties withheld support, however, splitting what had been solid Sunni opposition to the proposed document.

State television, controlled by loyalists of the Shiite religious party that leads Iraq's transitional government, aired what it described as live footage of crowds dancing in the streets of the Shiite holy city of Najaf to celebrate the accord. The scenes were actually filmed earlier in the week -- before the agreement was reached -- as shopkeepers and a reporter watched. No such celebrations were seen in the streets of Najaf on Wednesday...

The changes mean Iraqis will vote Saturday on what is essentially a promise to write key parts of the constitution later. The alternative, scrapping the current draft, would mean starting over: A new parliament would have to be elected to write another draft constitution.

As if the earlier series of constantly changing deadlines wasn't enough reason to be skeptical about anything the governing coalition had to say, the media manipulation has to call its sincerity into all the more doubt. Which is particularly problematic if, as appears to be the case, the agreement will make change much more difficult to make later on.

Working together

The fishing wars between Canada and Portugal had already diminished in intensity over the past few years. Now, they may be at an end:
Federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan signed a bilateral pact with his Portuguese counterpart Wednesday, praising the nation whose fishermen he once called pirates and whose vessels Canada has seized and cited for multiple fisheries violations.

The two leaders vowed to work together to bring order to the lucrative fisheries in international waters after years of sparring over illegal fishing in the North Atlantic, including the detention of one Portuguese boat in St. John's, N.L...

Regan said the Portuguese have already started restricting fishing activity in waters outside Canada's exclusive 200-mile limit that are managed by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, or NAFO.

As the article indicates, Portugal's record is far from perfect. But the willingness of the two governments to work together should make it a lot easier to ensure compliance in the future, in addition to defusing the past conflicts. Kudos all around.

On fighting one's own troops

You'd think that at least once during the course of the Cons' pilgrimages to Brian Mulroney, the supposed godfather of the party would have mentioned that suppressing would-be Cons in Quebec isn't the best idea:
Frustrated party members established a new Quebec wing just before the party's first policy convention in March. But the national council and the office of Tory Leader Stephen Harper have so far refused to officially acknowledge or fund the regional organization, party members said yesterday...

Unlike other provinces, there is no provincial Conservative Party in Quebec to provide a skeleton organization for the national party. So "if we don't have a [federal] wing," said Mr. Gaudreault, "and if we don't have some representatives by region, it is most difficult to obtain the support of the electors. Nobody has a face to put on the party in their region."

Quebec delegates to the national policy convention in Montreal overwhelmingly approved creation of the wing, known as the Quebec Conservative Association, and elected an interim executive. But sources in the party say the leader's office, while attempting to put together an election team in Quebec, has consistently worked to stall efforts to ratify the organization.

The article goes on to speculate that if the Cons were somehow to win government without a single Quebec seat, the effect would be a provide a strong boost for the separatist cause. But even leaving aside the potential national-unity implications (and I'm not sure that I see the separation concern as quite that likely a result), the decision to suppress the Quebec wing seems utterly bizarre from a strategic standpoint.

I'll grant that there are probably some differences of opinion between Harper and the Alliance cabal and their Quebec counterparts. But that doesn't seem like a reason to actively prevent them from getting organized. Surely in order to even claim to run a big-tent party, Harper would want to make sure his party held a strong presence in Quebec...and the people who are eager to play a role in the party would be a good place to start.

The only explanation that comes to mind is a fear that if such a faction were to gain a meaningful amount of input, the effect would be to undercut Harper's own leadership. This would explain Harper's preference in emphasizing his hand-picked deputies over the elected Quebec body. But it would seem to be a stunning example of putting one's self over one's party - and would offer all the more reason for the rest of the party to ditch Harper if he can't pull out a win in 2006.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

On encouraging learning

The beauty of the C.D. Howe Institute is its unerring ability to mix good ideas with terrible ones - and today's Globe web comment was no exception. First the bad:
(B)ecause skills, rather than schooling per se, drive economic growth, attention to the school system's output is the place to start. All governments should produce publicly available indicators of student and school performance based on standardized skills tests. The benefits include stronger incentives for education providers to improve outcomes, and increased competition and accountability throughout our school systems.

Increased accountability, by all means. But standardized testing isn't the way to get there, unless one's idea of accountability is to create incentives to teach to a test (or worse) at the expense of a genuine education. And the standardization is particularly out of place if the goal is actually to allow people to develop diverse skills, rather than merely to ensure that they can all pass one test in order to graduate.

Fortunately, the article quickly makes up for having gone astray:
Second, because people move across provincial borders, provincial governments have less incentive to invest in educating people who may move away. A good way to compensate for this would be to partly allocate federal transfers according to provinces' investments in education.

Third, it's vital to invest in the skills of adults who are already part of the work force. The pace of technological progress creates new skill requirements in the labour market; demographic trends will tend to reduce the relative role of one's initial education to the overall process of accumulating skills. Better incentives for firms and people to pursue job-related training and lifelong learning - particularly measures targeted at people with very low skills - would generate greater economic rewards.

The second idea is a particularly ingenious one. One of the great frustrations for smaller provinces (and in this case Saskatchewan is definitely included in that group) is putting a large amount of funding into education, then watching that investment translate into jobs a province or two away. And for those taking this as Alberta-bashing, think no such thing: based on my experience at least, Alberta too loses a great number of well-educated young workers to B.C. and Ontario. The question is simply one of making sure that an undeniably beneficial investment gets rewarded.

While adult education is a slightly less radical idea, it's an equally desirable one, particularly in focussing on added training for people in unskilled jobs rather than polarizing into either university education or supports only for the unemployed. Especially considering the desperate need for tradespeople (in Canada and elsewhere), an investment to allow more people to pursue such a career path is bound to have good results.

Unfortunately, the first idea is probably the one with the most appeal from a governmental standpoint, since it can be legislated as a pure control grab without any funding or contentious resource transfers. So the best we may be able to hope for is to get the good with the bad.

On actions out of fear

You know a party in court proceedings has nothing to support it when it can't think of any better strategy than to try to get the opposing counsel kicked off the case. Which leads nicely into the latest on Tom DeLay:
Lawyers for former House Republican leader Tom DeLay subpoenaed Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle on Tuesday as part of a campaign to discredit indictments charging DeLay with breaking Texas campaign finance laws.

The subpoena seeks to get Earle and two of his assistants to testify in court in Austin, Texas about whether they improperly sought charges against DeLay, a spokeswoman for DeLay said.

Now, if DeLay is successful in getting Earle and his assistants to testify, the effect won't be to put an end to the charge (unless there actually is something to the claim of impropriety, which is highly unlikely given Earle's non-partisan track record).

But it would make it likely that Earle would have to give way to another prosecutor, since it's generally a breach of ethics for a lawyer to remain as counsel having been a witness in any controversial part of a proceeding. And if new prosecutors were forced to start over with the same evidence, DeLay might buy himself some more time before facing the charges - maybe all the way to the 2006 election.

In the political arena, the Republicans have been all too successful at claiming that the truth is merely partisan opposition to them. But there's no reason for that claim to win any backing when it comes to the law. Presumably the judge in charge will have the choice whether or not to grant DeLay the subpoena, and unless there's some serious evidence in support of it (and no, triple hearsay from the echo chamber doesn't count), it should be considered nothing less than an abuse of process.

Whether or not DeLay pushes Earle off the case, he'll eventually have to answer for his actions. What's unclear now is whether the court will allow DeLay to live up to his name in pushing back the inevitable.

A sudden conversion

Paul Wolfowitz may have been one of Bush's biggest backers going into the Iraq War. But he's taken an impressively independent stance at the World Bank, calling on his old boss to take meaningful action against poverty:
World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz said Tuesday that he wants to see the United States contribute more to fight poverty and promote global development.

“I'd like to see the United States do more,” the former U.S. deputy defence secretary, known as the prime architect of the Iraq war, told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.

“I have to emphasize that I'm not here any longer as a (U.S. President George) Bush administration official, and I don't have to defend their record.”

I'm sure Wolfowitz is grateful for that latter point. And from the article, he seems to still be in denial as to the impact Iraq has had on the U.S.' ability to fund other priorities.

But even if Wolfowitz won't admit to past failures, it's nonetheless significant to see yet another supposed Bush loyalist willing to speak out about Bushco's failures. And it's particularly so to the extent that it shows that even a few months away from administration-controlled flows of information can lead a key policy architect to a much more thorough view of the world. The only question now is whether the administration is too entrenched in damage-control mode to listen.

Recruitment strategies

While the new plan to increase immigration is a plus, the Star points out the dangers of merely increasing the numbers without also providing resources to support the new arrivals:
Later this month, Ottawa is expected to take the wraps off its immigration vision. At its centre will be a strategy to allow up to 320,000 immigrants into the country each year, up 100,000 over current levels.

But experts say the government's immigration strategy is bound to fail unless Ottawa is also prepared to give more money and flexibility to agencies that help new immigrants find their feet in this country...

Omidvar drives home the point, saying that only four out of 10 immigrants have found work that matches their skill levels. The rest are "severely underemployed," and "not sending good news back home" about their experiences in Canada.

That matters at a time when Canada is competing with other nations to woo the best and brightest immigrants from places such as India, Brazil and China, says Omidvar.

Unfortunately, there's no indication that there's been any solution to either the well-known accreditation problems, or even to simpler issues such as connecting new immigrants to professional groups who can help them find work consistent with their training. And it sounds like word is getting out among those who might otherwise choose to come to Canada.

This sounds like one more example of the Libs offering a good idea with no resources to back it up. And as usual the long-term costs, both in underused skills within Canada and in people who choose to go elsewhere, will far outweigh whatever money is saved by not properly funding support systems now.

Monday, October 10, 2005

One more labour truce

The ugliest Canadian labour dispute this year has finally come to an end:
Telus Corp. has reached a settlement with its main union after a two-month-long work stoppage, paving the way for thousands of employees to return to work.

The Vancouver-based company announced Monday night that it had reached a memorandum of settlement with the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU), which is recommending its members accept the five-year agreement...

The agreement announced Monday “provides Telus and its team members the flexibility to compete on a level playing field and maintain Telus' Canadian telecom leadership position in data, Internet Protocol, and wireless,” Telus said in a joint release with the TWU.

No word yet about the content of the agreement. There's no reason why the negotiations had to be based on the atmosphere of complete mistrust between Telus and its employees, and it looks like it'll take a good length of time to repair the damage. But at the very least Telus' workers will soon be back on the job.

Strong polarity

The New York Times reports on a rush to exploit both resources and shipping opportunities inside the Arctic Circle, featuring some discussion of Churchill's potential role as a shipping port for much of North America. Not too much to add for now, except that the article seems to assume that Canada is much better prepared for the Northern rush than it seems to be based on past stories. Give it a read.

Leaving no evidence

Word comes out of a pattern of Liberal contracts which require that no documentation be provided:
Federal officials are under fire for a $132,000 contract signed with an outside consultant that specifies the firm must leave no paper trail in government offices...

The February 2005 contract ensures there are no documents in office filing cabinets that auditors can later verify and citizens can consult through requests under the Access to Information Act...

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Board, which sets government-wide policy for procurement, declined to say whether the "oral" report adheres to the regulations.

But Michelle Laliberte said Indian and Northern Affairs needs to be able to demonstrate to auditors that the work paid for was in fact delivered.

Based on the article, one would think that the biggest issue is whether or not any work was actually delivered for the funding. But I'll readily assume that there's at least some way to show that the newer work was performed. Even granting that assumption, the original mandate for the contracts that has to be called into question.

Note in particular the purpose behind the Access to Information Act, which the contracts appear designed to avoid:
The purpose of this Act provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution in accordance with the principles that government information should be available to the public, that necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific and that decisions on the disclosure of government information should be reviewed independently of government.

Regardless of whether or not the work was actually done, the contracts reflect a deliberate intention to undermine the principle of open government. The "government information" is restricted only to the eyes and ears of the recipients, based on a governmental decision to limit access which can't be reviewed.

For those wondering whether this is based on national security concerns, there are two reasons why that can't be the issue. First, the issues involved in such contracts have included some (e.g. bank mergers) which plainly don't involve any security interests, and indeed where full and free access is necessary for the marketplace to operate fairly. Second, the AIA specifically provides for protections where there is a genuine need to hide information. When a government goes out of its way to bypass a review process, it's generally fair to assume that it wouldn't have been able to defend its side if the review took place.

If the only problem here were a possibility that money had been wasted on preferential contracts, that would be a relatively minor story. The bigger issue is a government going out of its way both to avoid letting the public know about important information, and to avoid facing any accountability for that choice. It's only by highlighting these stories when they come out that we can make clear that such actions are completely inappropriate - and that they won't be forgotten next time the Liberals ask Canadians for their trust.

Deep-water thinking

The CP reports on a plan to build a deep-water port at Iqaluit:
The city plans to present its proposal to both the territorial and federal governments this fall when initial engineering plans are to begin. If funding is secured, construction would begin in 2008...

Iqaluit's proposed port would operate from the end of June through the end of November. It would offer a single berth big enough to accommodate oil tankers, cargo and cruise ships and would also serve as a small-craft harbour...

A facility in Iqaluit could also be well-positioned for naval and Coast Guard ships to assert Canadian control of both the Northwest Passage and the Davis Strait, where foreign fishing vessels are beginning to cause concern.

The article notes also an effort to build a similar port at Cambridge Bay, with observers operating under the assumption that it's probably an either-or question as to which will be built.

There's no reason to narrow the scope of development in that way. Canada's north is far underdeveloped to date, and putting in enough infrastructure to meaningfully decrease the level of isolation should be a starting point rather than a final goal. And if that development will also lead to benefits in terms of national sovereignty, then the investment only looks all the better.

No surprise here

The L.A. Times reports on the makeup of the panels that determined how to spend Katrina reconstruction money. And as seems too common, those who stood to gain were the ones making the decisions:
Lobbyists representing transportation, energy and other special interests dominated panels that advised Louisiana's U.S. senators crafting legislation to rebuild the storm-damaged Gulf Coast, records and interviews show.

The Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act — introduced last month by Louisiana Sens. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican — included billions of dollars' worth of business for clients of those lobbyists and a total price tag estimated as high as $250 billion...

"I was basically shocked," said Ivor van Heerden, director of a hurricane public health research center at Louisiana State University. "What do lobbyists know about a plan for the reconstruction and restoration of Louisiana?"

Van Heerden was the first participant of any of the senators' working groups to provide such a detailed and scathing account of the process and its outcome. He said he was shut out after he voiced his concerns.

The article goes on to point out that the end result was a bill which includes loads of funding for controversial proposals including a canal project, highways, and giveaways to power companies. Lest there be any doubt, the pork is a bipartisan effort...showing that whatever principled differences there are between the two U.S. parties, the tendency toward blatant opportunism is one of the great common features.

Unfortunately, the result is a set of handouts and megaprojects which primarily benefits people completely different from those who suffered the most from Katrina. Meanwhile, the poor of New Orleans (for want of their own lobbyists) appear likely to be left out of the reconstruction benefits.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

A new level of wood-burning

CTV reports on an intriguing process to generate electricity out of waste wood products:
Erie Flooring and Wood Products has been producing truckloads of wood scraps and sawdust, 70 tons a day, for decades, with little choice but to burn or transport the waste. Neither option has been good for the environment.

Now, thanks to Canadian technology and a partnership with Vancouver's DynaMotive, the waste is ground into fine sawdust, vaporized, and converted to "bio oil." The company uses the oil to power a new turbine generator that produces 2,500 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 1,400 homes.

The danger is that this might provide an incentive for even more forest destruction than already takes place. But if it can be fit into the existing amount of lumber production, it could be a highly desirable away of getting more use out of current waste products. Kudos to the companies involved; hopefully other businesses will follow their example.

On choosing one's sources

The CP notes that no matter how unpopular Brian Mulroney remains personally, he's still been a frequent source of advice for Cons looking for career direction, including Peter MacKay in deciding whether or not to jump into provincial politics:
Mulroney may have left office 12 years ago with some of the lowest polling numbers in history, but the list of those who've walked the path to his mansion door since then marks his hold on the party.

MacKay, Belinda Stronach, Stephen Harper, Jean Charest (before he switched to the Quebec Liberals), Stockwell Day, and political operatives behind the scenes - all have made the pilgrimage for an audience with Canada's 18th prime minister...

"Anybody who has his mind on a career in politics, perhaps another run for the leadership, would want to keep on Mulroney's right side, perhaps (to) have him say a good word or encourage his allies to work for MacKay," Spector said in an interview...

Fortunately, nobody on that list has yet been rewarded with the PM role that Mulroney held for too long...and the newer additions seem to have ignored that pattern, in the apparent hope of receiving better advice than the previous person to seek Mulroney's counsel.

If the Cons were serious about wanting power, they'd instead be beating down Joe Clark's door, as they're not headed back into government until they can win back the Red Tory contingent that's abandoned the party under Harper. The fact that Mulroney is still the main source of advice (and doesn't seem to have another plan to get a separatist faction back in the fold) is a good sign for those of us who don't want to see the Cons in power anytime soon.

The cultural gap

According to Heather Mallick, there's more at stake in Turkey's EU membership negotiations than just economic cooperation:
Supposedly, the fight was over Turkey being too big, or too poor, or too full of possible migrants. It wasn't about Muslims joining what former EC head Jacques Delors once called a “Christian club.”

Neither was it about whether Turkey was a European-type nation or more of an Asian-ish, wrong-side-of-the-Mediterranean kind of country. Not that they're not lovely people, of course. Fine peasants, we're sure, but we won't have them in our home. You do understand...

When we seek an explanation for the existence of young, educated, middle-class suicide bombers, humiliation fits the bill. An Associated Press interview with a suicide bomber — he changed his mind when he saw a mother and two children in a cafĂ© — suggests that bombers are driven “not by poverty or ignorance, but by a lethal mix of nationalism, zealotry and humiliation.”

Turkey had already declared that it would give up on Europe if it were rebuffed this time. The fact is, it would have been utterly humiliated.

I do suspect that Mallick goes a bit too far in presuming that the membership issue may be the "last best hope" for peace between Christian- and Muslim-based societies. But that overstatement only offsets the lack of attention generally given to Turkey's situation on this side of the Atlantic. There can be little denial that the current borders of the EU are also the borders of a cultural divide which has potential negative effects on both sides - and that bridging that divide would be an important step.

Give the article a read.

On following through

The Guardian reports on the crash of a European satellite designed to help track the condition of the Earth's ice caps:
CryoSat, the £100 million brainchild of UK climate expert Duncan Wingham, was supposed to survey the thinning of Earth's ice caps from space. Instead it plummeted into the Arctic Ocean at around 4.15pm.

The loss is a major blow for climate research - and for Europe's ambitions to become a major space power. Last night delegates, dignitaries, and senior scientists - who had gathered at Europe's Esrin space control centre in Frascati, Italy, to celebrate CryoSat's success - stood in grim huddles as they tried to digest the news of its fate...

Losing CryoSat is a bitter setback for climate science, particularly as it was constructed on a shoestring budget - which means that no engineering back-up model was built.

The idea was a great one in principle, but unfortunately even the best ideas can fail when there's a lack of commitment from the parties involved. Given the failure to so much as build a backup model, it's pretty clear there wasn't enough investment in CryoSat to make it a success.

While the shoestring budget may have seemed a good idea if the project had worked as planned, the end result is nothing short of disastrous. A large amount of money has been spent on a project with no positive results, which will likely lead to public cynicism as to the merits of any similar research. And we're still no more able to meet the goal of tracking the ice caps than we were before the project started.

Tit for tat

It was California's goofy recall system that allowed Arnold Schwarzenegger to take power originally. Now, just a year before his term is due to come to an end, the same process may also remove him from the governor's office:
A California physician launched an effort to gather a million signatures to force a recall vote on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to office two years ago following an unprecedented recall.

Kenneth Matsumura announced the campaign prior to submitting a petition to California's Secretary of State, who oversees elections.

"People are desperate, they're suffering, and I think the governor's going to have to listen," he told reporters, saying Schwarzenegger has hurt the poor and students.

"The task at first seemed daunting but in the last week the number of hits to our Web site at '' has been really overwhelming."

While it may seem pointless to put together a recall effort this close to the end of the term, the drive seems to be a fairly natural response to an unpopular governor of any party - particularly in response to the same tactic which first brought Ahnold to power.

As a result, California looks likely to bear the cost of yet another recall election...and based on the current poll numbers, it would be surprising if Schwarzenegger can reach the 50% mark to stay in office. At best, the state will have to fund two gubernatorial elections in a year; at worst, it may also face two changes in government during that time, with all the transition costs that go with them.

Keep the actual results of such similar schemes in mind next time MP recalls are proposed as a means of ensuring better government. Once the process gets started, any party seeing an opportunity to boost its seat count will face little risk and plenty to gain. As a result, the "perennial election" mode of the last year-plus could easily become the norm, minus the cooperation necessitated by minority government. And it's tough to see that as an improvement on any level.