Saturday, April 29, 2006

Rock and a hard place

Maple Leaf Politics discusses how Harper has apparently cornered the Bloc for the moment. Noteworthy in the article is the Bloc's apparent flattery-by-imitation of one of the NDP's central themes from the last campaign:
Bloc officials say their party won't be fooled again when the next federal vote rolls around.
It's hard to blame Duceppe for picking up on what was a generally successful strategy for the Dippers. But with enough repetition of a line that's rightly associated with Jack Layton, the Bloc may just end up unwittingly reminding Quebeckers of yet another federalist competitor. And if the NDP is able to take over the support of any significant chunk of the Bloc's left wing, then the Bloc may well reached its feared extinction before long.

On positive trade agreements

While Stephen Harper has been putting on a clinic in how to utterly mangle trade agreements (both in effectively ceding Canada's rights under NAFTA and in negotiating the new lumber deal itself), two stories come out today suggesting that not all leaders are similarly clueless.

First, surprising kudos to the Klein and Campbell governments for agreeing to remove barriers to interprovincial trade in a way that may help business while at the same time raising regulatory standards:
Western Canada's two strongest economies agreed to a landmark internal trade pact aimed at creating the dominant economic region in Canada, the premiers of British Columbia and Alberta announced Friday.

The comprehensive deal, which took three years to draft and goes into effect in April 2007, is intended to break down internal barriers that limit trade, investment and the movement of skilled labour across the B.C.-Alberta border. The agreement also forces both governments to harmonize rules and regulations to the higher of the two standards, a process that will take place over the coming three years...

Klein added that he hopes other western provinces will see the potential of the agreement and sign on.
Taking the deal at face value, it looks like nothing short of a brilliant means of benefitting both businesses and citizens generally. From a business perspective, the cost of researching and complying with several different sets of requirements is likely to be far higher than the cost of simply meeting a higher uniform standard. From a citizen perspective, the application of the higher standard should eliminate the usual concern that free-trade agreements tend to lead to a race to the bottom; instead the top possible level of citizen protection is included.

Of course, the details can easily undermine a positive general idea, and there are some legitimate concerns about the structure of the deal both in its current form and in any future expansion. For the present, it's worth wondering whether either Klein or Campbell has preserved any meaningful standards during their respective anti-government movements, and some sources in the article are unsure as to whether the higher of even those low standards will actually be applied.

From the standpoint of future expansion, it almost certainly would be a worthwhile effort for Saskatchewan and Manitoba to sign on in the future if their own respective higher standards are also applied. But I worry that the B.C./Alberta bloc will assume that its harmonized set of standards should take precedence over any higher requirements in Saskatchewan or Manitoba law.

Those concerns aside, and even if the model isn't well applied in the Alberta/B.C. agreement, the idea is one that could easily be replicated in both interprovincial and international agreements.

Meanwhile, on an international level, several countries are joining together to show that a U.S. model for free trade isn't the only one available to states wanting to foster closer cooperation:
Bolivian President Evo Morales was joining fellow leftist leaders from Cuba and Venezuela on Friday to endorse their concept for shared regional commerce that follows socialist principles and rejects U.S. control.

Morales has said on Saturday he will officially include his Andean country in the "alternative" trade pact presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela devised a year ago...

The agreement will allow Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela to trade some products with zero tariffs and strengthen already close ties among the three countries, whose leaders are known for their strong opposition to U.S. policy.
Again, there are some obvious problems both with the agreement and with the inferences drawn about the countries' intentions. It's dangerous to accept the article's implication that the new bloc is outright "anti-U.S." rather than merely an alternative to the current American model for partial free trade. Along the same lines, it's unfortunate that free trade in the hemisphere appears to be sprouting only within competing blocs rather than based on a general agreement which doesn't proceed only along ideological lines. Finally, it appears clear that the agreement only frees up trade to a fairly limited extent, meaning that there's plenty of room for further improvement in the future.

But those flaws aside, the agreement makes clear two aspects of free trade which are all too often forgotten.

First, free trade doesn't need to be a right-wing concept. While our current models have all too often been hijacked by corporate interests, free trade is a desirable concept for a population as a whole as long as any agreement is designed to properly balance the interests of businesses and citizens.

Second, free trade doesn't have to be entirely separate from other forms of cooperation. The agreement as drafted includes an obligation for the countries involved to work together in providing charitable programs and other common goals...meaning that within the Bolivarian bloc, free trade is to be applied as a general source of agreement rather than of irritation as has often been the case between Canada and the U.S.

It remains to be seen whether any of the good ideas contained in the above agreements will be applied on a greater scale than they are now. But both models should be kept in mind as governments look for ways to develop increased business and trade without inflicting needless human costs as a result.

On fiction-based policy

The softwood lumber file may tell us all the more about what a "mature" Canada/U.S. relationship actually means. But with the release of the U.S.' Country Report on Terrorism, it's worth asking whether it's possible to have a mature relationship (even on Harper's terms) with a country which is even more obviously than usual basing its foreign policy on fantasy rather than reality:
The Bush administration on Friday said Canada has become a "safe haven" for Islamic terrorists who exploit lax immigration laws and weak counterterrorism enforcement to raise money and plan attacks...

The State Department's harsh language on Canada contrasted with its statements in the report of Iraq, which it said was "not currently a terrorist safe haven" despite the continued attacks carried out by al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi and other groups in the country. (Ed. note: The article later notes that according to the same report 30% of all documented terrorist acts, and 55% of all resulting fatalities, took place in Iraq last year.)...

(According to the report), "The Arar case underscores a greater concern for the United States: the presence in Canada of numerous suspected terrorists and terror supporters."

Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation accused two Muslim youths from Georgia of traveling to Toronto in 2005 to plot attacks against American military bases and oil refineries. The arrests were part of an ongoing FBI investigation into Islamic terror cells in Canada, the agency said.

The State Department cited the presence of five other terror suspects -- Mohamed Harkat, Mohamed Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Almrei and Adil Charkaoui -- as further evidence of an ongoing Canadian problem with Islamic extremists.

Harkat, Mahjoub, Jaballah and Almrei are being held on security certificates in the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, dubbed "Guantanamo North" by human-rights activists. Charkaoui is free on bail.
With respect to the last paragraph, the Globe and Mail's coverage points out that such "freedom on bail" includes surveillance and reporting conditions. Also of note within the Globe and Mail's coverage is that the U.S. report doesn't bother to tell the truth about the Canadian suspects' status:
The latest U.S. report takes the unprecedented step of naming “other known terrorists in Canada” and then lists five. It doesn't mention that all but one have been detained, without charge, for years on controversial Canadian security certificates.
In other words, the Bush administration considers itself entitled to omit the fact that every example of a potential threat in Canada has already been addressed. Which to me makes it appropriate to point out the U.S.' failure to address the grave threat to Canada posed by Jose Padilla, Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui and other terrorist suspects who at last notice were "present" in the United States.

Once that minor omission is rectified, the evidence to claim that Canada is a "safe haven" is based on a total of seven suspects arriving or living in Canada, all of whom are already either detained or under regular surveillance. And the dangers associated with the monitoring of those suspects is considered to make for a worse situation than actual attacks which killed over 8,000 Iraqis last year.

Of course, it's also worth noting the U.S.' treatment of the Arar situation. The report not only refuses to acknowledge Arar's innocence in the matter, but cites the Canadian public outcry over Arar's torture as evidence that Canada is soft on terrorism. From the tone of the article, this appears to present Bushco's real problem with Canada's security certificate system: while suspects are detained or supervised indefinitely and thus pose no actual threat to the U.S. or to anybody else, their documented presence in Canada means that any suspects also face no apparent risk of being illegally rendered elsewhere. And one could technically argue that the suspects are thus to some extent more "safe" in Canada than in the U.S. or Iraq. (Even more cynically, I suppose the Canadian-held suspects are more "safe" in their likelihood of survival than Iraqi insurgency members, 360 of whom died in suicide bombings last year.)

By any remotely reasonable standard, though, the U.S. has classified one of the safest countries of the world as a worse risk than the world's leading terrorist breeding ground. And one would think that Bush's newest and best international friend would have a close enough relationship with the U.S. to be able to point out the problem. But instead, Canada's response to date seems to indicate that Stockwell Day's office will respond to the report with immediate cooperation - regardless of whether or not the U.S.' position is even faintly based in reality:
"What I can tell you is that Canada's new government believes in maintaining a vigorous counter-intelligence program to safeguard our nation's security," said Day's communications director Melisa Leclerc.

"This government does not tolerate inappropriate activities and will restore our reputation as a leader and dependable partner in defending freedom and democracy in the world."
Which means that Canada may soon look forward to being just as unsafe as the U.S. for any person (whether Muslim or Quaker, environmentalist or whistleblower) who happens to find his or her way onto one of the Bush's hit lists. The problem is that it's hard to see how anybody besides Bushco's collective imagination (and the echo chamber which sustains it) will be any better off as a result.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Standing up against Canada

Several major media sources have somehow claimed that Harper's softwood lumber deal is a victory rather than a complete concession - a fact which hasn't gone without due comment. But within one of the attempts to fawn over Harper's betrayal of Canada lies the surest indictment of Harper's actions:
There will be many complaints, protests and bellyaches from interest groups, opposition parties and sectors of the lumber industry that have been shortchanged in the agreement. They had already started before the seven-year deal was announced.

But the big political message of the day is that Mr. Harper pulled off a feat that eluded Paul Martin, by both strong-arming and smooth-talking Canada's provinces and lumber industry, and by cozying up to U.S. President George W. Bush. In doing so, he managed to get the two countries and the three major lumber-producing provinces -- Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia -- to reach a near-unprecedented consensus.
Now, I tend to the view that Canada should never have been looking to negotiate its wins in the first place. And there's plenty of reason to doubt that there's any point in negotiating another deal when the conflict itself arises out of the U.S.' refusal to live up to the last major trade agreement between the two countries.

But let's put that aside, and ask what policy should have been adopted if Canada was going to look to negotiate a settlement. From my perspective, the best strategy would have been to assemble Canada's allies on the issue...which if played right, could have included its domestic producers, its provinces, a Bush administration which for all its faults has at least tried to pay lip service to freeing trade rather than shackling it, and American industries who would be better off if Canadian lumber was traded freely rather than subject to CFLI's obstruction. Perhaps the Libs' stated animosity for Bush kept them from putting together that combination, but there's no reason why the Cons couldn't have put in more effort to band those groups together in order to counter CFLI's lobbying.

With all those groups lined up together, there would have been a serious chance to negotiate an agreement worth signing (to the extent the U.S. could be trusted to keep it). Maybe Canada would have had to leave some money in the hands of the U.S. government, or maybe it would have accepted a few lesser restrictions on its own industry...but surely an effort to negotiate the best possible deal wouldn't have led to Canada turning legal victories into negotiated defeats on every issue involved.

But instead of uniting those who share his interests and dividing his nominal opponents in order to secure the best possible deal for the country which he was elected to represent, Harper took the exact opposite tactic in order to make sure that some type of deal got done. Hence his strong-arming Canada's provinces and domestic industries, ignoring the potential for support for a reasonable deal from within the U.S., and accepting a deal which the Libs almost certainly could have achieved themselves if they'd been irresponsible enough to see it as a positive outcome.

It's been well pointed out that the end result will almost certainly be more arbitrary actions against Canadian goods as other industries (or perhaps CFLI again) decide that they'd like to take advantage of the next Harper windfall. But as bad as that end result may be, it's even worse knowing that the man nominally speaking for Canada in any conflict is perfectly willing to harm his own side for political gain.

On starting points

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released its alternative federal budget yesterday, with plenty of good ideas worth adopting. But even more interesting than the suggested policy is the CCPA's starting point in evaluating the federal government's fiscal position. From page 3 of the CCPA's Budget in Brief:
The presentation of a plausible federal forecast in last November’s Economic and Fiscal Update was a watershed in federal fiscal politics. Commentators on federal fiscal policy may no longer have to engage in arcane debates over the accuracy of forecasts and instead can concentrate on the real debates we should be having over budget policy and spending priorities. Certainly, there is now no longer any need to debate whether the federal government has sufficient funds to afford AFB priorities.

Based on this more realistic forecast, the AFB departs from past practice and relies on the official fiscal framework rather than generating an independent forecast.
Needless to say, it's an embarrassment for Canada when an accurate public presentation of our government's finances represents such a radical departure from how the country has been run in the past. As the CCPA notes, there's still plenty of work to be done to make sure that governmental resources are used for the greatest possible benefit. But that task should be easier to accomplish now that the resources involved are being more accurately assessed.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

On comparative advantages

The OPSEU points out that the results are in on a Mike Harris-fueled trial run at privatizing a jail. And based on a direct comparison between the private facility and a public one, the McGuinty government has come to the conclusion that the province is getting a better deal in the public sector:
The (Ontario) government announced (today) that the contract with a Utah-based company to operate the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene, the first private adult jail in Canada, would not be renewed...

The Mike Harris government announced in May, 2001, that Management & Training Corporation would have a five-year pilot project to operate the 1,184-bed correctional centre. It would be compared to the operation of the new Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, which is publicly-run. According to the study, the publicly-run CECC performed better in key areas such as security, health care and reducing re-offending rates.
The areas of success for the public sector are particularly worthy of notice given the central functions of incarceration and rehabilitation - both of which appear to be better carried out by the public sector. Next time a Harris type wants to ask what we have to lose by giving privatized correction systems another shot, the ready answer is security, both inside and outside the institution. And few Canadians will be happy to accept higher re-offending rates as the price to indulge a government's privatizing ideology.

Crime and punishment

It's hard to disagree with Jack Layton's take that the softwood lumber capitulation is nothing short of a crime. But at least from the Globe and Mail's coverage, even Layton has missed what may be the worst part of the tentative agreement:
The remainder (of the duties collected to date) (lesser of 20% or US $1 billion) will be split evenly between members of the Coalition and jointly agreed initiatives.
I presume there can be little doubt that the "coalition" refers to the Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, which has been pressuring the U.S. all along not to live up to its NAFTA obligations, and which for obvious reasons is one of the few groups that seems truly happy with the proposal.

It would be bad enough for any of the money to be kept by the U.S. government or used for purposes other than a return to Canadian producers. But it's all the worse if the effect of the agreement is not just to reward the U.S. for obstructionism generally, but to hand up to half a billion dollars to the obstructionists themselves for their trouble.

And it's not as if it's only Canada who's seen a problem with payments to groups such as CFLI. After all, the WTO ruled three years ago against the legality of the Byrd Amendment which allows for distribution based on trade obstruction, and Congress finally repealed the law last year. Which makes the payment to CFLI one which would properly be considered illegitimate under the laws of either country involved.

But then, the legitimacy of the U.S.' process doesn't matter as long as Canada is willing to sign away its right to defend its interests. Based on the Cons' agreement both to ludicrous restrictions on Canadian industry and to the protection payments to CFLI, it looks like Harper is a willing party to the crime. And that means that it'll be up to Canadian voters to impose the proper sentence on Bush's willing accomplice.

More results in the making

It looks like at least one part of the NDP's democratic-reform platform (albeit one which was also part of the Cons' platform) may soon become law:
The Conservative government is canvassing the opposition parties to see whether they would support fixed dates for federal elections, The Globe and Mail has learned...

The Conservatives promised during the election campaign to introduce legislation modelled on B.C. and Ontario laws that require fixed election dates every four years. The pledge was made to address criticism that former Liberal prime ministers Jean Chr├ętien and Paul Martin called early elections when they thought they could win...

The government's intention to pursue the issue may be an attempt to secure good relations with the NDP before the Tories bring down their first budget on Tuesday.

The NDP also campaigned on fixed election dates and Mr. Nicholson's overtures come amid reports that the Tories will announce more than $3-billion in spending through Bill C-48, the NDP amendment to last year's Liberal budget.
Now, there's still plenty not to like about the Cons' actions in government. And even within the democratic-reform file (and the NDP's ethics package), the fixed election dates issue is a relatively small one...which should hopefully be accompanied by at least some talk of first steps toward PR.

But at the very least, some concrete results may soon be on their way. The question now is whether the reports (which one can presume haven't become public by accident) represent only a starting point for negotiations, or the Cons' total willingness to listen to the NDP.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Privacy rights and wrongs

The big story during my absence was obviously the uproar surrounding the Cons' decision to sweep military casualties under the rug. But for all the parallels between this move and Bushco's longstanding policy, perhaps the most disturbing element to the story is the argument enthusiastically embraced by the Cons to try to defend Harper's decision:
Conservative MPs gave Stephen Harper a standing ovation during a closed-door meeting Wednesday when he told them he will not yield to criticism of the way the government commemorates military deaths.

Sources said the prime minister and Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor went to pains Wednesday during the Conservative weekly caucus meeting to explain the revised protocol for when soldiers are killed abroad...

MP Garth Turner said the issue has been characterized by Harper and O'Connor as one of privacy, and most of his colleagues have accepted the explanation.

"Whether in fact that's a truthful position, in other words whether the media would infringe on privacy, is another matter," Turner said.
Harper's government is of course far from the first to argue that the privacy interests of others should form the basis to cover up inconvenient facts. But while Harper's argument may be somewhat less ludicrous than the more extreme forms adopted by Bushco, it's worth noting that both arguments represent an attempt to turn privacy rights on their head.

After all, the essence of the right to privacy (as with other individual rights) is that it must be held by the individual affected. Which would imply that if the concern really was one of individual privacy, the logical policy would be to determine the wishes of an individual soldier (or failing that, his or her family), and decide what type of public commemoration is considered appropriate accordingly.

But then, that would come with the risk that the individual's views might not be in line with Harper's. As with any other right, different people may have different values: while some families or soldiers may well guard their privacy closely, others would like to see their sacrifices acknowledged more than once a year.

To the extent that this is a rights issue, Canada's soldiers and their families should no more be told how to exercise their privacy rights than any Canadian should be forced to publish a newspaper based on freedom of the press. But then, Harper doesn't invoke soldiers' privacy rights for the purpose of allowing those soldiers to decide how much privacy is important to them.

Instead, Harper based his argument on Bush's all-too-often-implied position that individual rights don't belong to the individual at all. In the Bush/Harper view, others' rights belong only to the government to be wielded as a weapon where politically convenient. And it's not hard to anticipate that like Bush, Harper will be all too eager to ignore those individual rights when they would serve to limit executive power, rather than to provide a specious defence of it.

So much for Harper's initial decision. But judging from today's response, the problem doesn't lie with Harper alone, as his caucus is downright happy to go along with both the argument that privacy is at stake, and the view that Harper knows better than any mere ordinary Canadian how that privacy should be handled. And the degree of support suggests that nobody within the Cons is willing to put the slightest check on Harper's ability to tell Canadians which rights they should and shouldn't see fit to exercise.

None of the above is to say that Harper's policy itself is necessarily disastrous; while I don't see a particularly strong argument in favour of it, the harm is one of the more symbolic ones being inflicted by the Cons at the moment. The bigger problem is with the defence offered by Harper and accepted by his party: if the Cons consider themselves entitled to dictate how military families should balance their individual rights, it's hard to see which Canadians will be immune from the government's attempt to make Canadians' choices for them. And that should give many Canadians pause when they get a chance to determine whether they want Harper to exercise majority - or indeed any - power after the next election.

Great risks and small rewards

The CP reports on a poll asking whether the Libs and NDP should consider a merger. But the analysis seems completely counter to the results of the actual poll, which suggests strongly that the NDP is far better off staying away from any merger:
A new poll, released as two more left-leaning candidates prepare to enter the Liberal leadership race, suggests a merger of the Liberal and New Democratic parties could be an electoral winner.

The Decima Research poll found that 25 per cent of Canadians believed the two parties should unite.

Voters who supported either of the two parties in last winter's election were even more receptive to the idea: 36 per cent of Liberals favoured a merger and 32 per cent of New Democrats...

In the last election, Decima found 17 per cent of Canadians voted strategically for a party that was not their first choice, motivated primarily by a desire to defeat the Liberals. More than one-quarter of those strategic voters cast ballots for the NDP.

While that's a relatively small number, the Decima analysis points out that the election results hinged on fewer than 20,000 votes in 14 ridings, where the split between the Liberals and NDP allowed the Tories to win. Had the Liberals won those ridings, they would have formed a minority government.
To sum up: sound majorities of the Dippers surveyed don't like the idea, and Canadians in general are even more thoroughly opposed. Even among the party which lost power in the last election, the appetite for change is limited to just over a third of those surveyed.

Meanwhile, based on Decima's own election analysis, any electoral gains for a "united left" (which of course means a Lib-dominated party with the NDP merrily agreeing to its own destruction) would only have resulted in a minority government which would then have had to seek Bloc or Con support. And even that relatively small improvement ignores a substantial portion of NDP voters who weren't at all interested in voting Lib, and may well have voted Cons as their second non-Lib choice. Which means that even for the "stop Harper at all costs" crowd, there may not have been any meaningful benefit to a merger...while the dangers of rightward drift in a Lib-type party with no NDP counterweight could lead to all the more damage in the long term regardless of who managed to win power.

It's only in the face of what sounds like strong disapproval and a lack of any great electoral gain at stake that the article tries to claim that the small group of people receptive to an NDP/Lib amalgamation is supposed to favour a merger. But the majorities in both parties seem to prefer the status quo. And for the NDP in particular, it'll take a far better deal than could possibly be expected from the Libs - and far more foreseeable gains than the Decima analysis suggests - to justify going through the trouble of convincing two-thirds of Dippers and three-quarters of Canadians generally that it's worth taking on the Libs' baggage.

Bared clawbacks

The Globe and Mail reports on another way in which the Cons' child-care plan will benefit wealthy parents far more than poorer ones:
The Conservative plan for meeting the country's child-care needs is to give families a direct payment of $100 a month, $1,200 annually, for every child under 6. The specifics of how that plan will be unveiled are expected to be in next Tuesday's budget.

But the young-child supplement of the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which currently pays $20.25 a month to parents who do not claim child-care expenses for their preschool-age children, will be eliminated at the same time. The benefit is due to increase in July to $249 annually...

The (Caledon Institute) has calculated that the families who will benefit most from the child-care allowance, after taxes and clawbacks, are those making $200,000 a year or more with one parent at home. They will keep $1,076 of the $1,200 annually.

Families with two working parents and a combined income of $30,000, by contrast, will keep just $199 annually of the new payments.
Naturally, the Cons' parliamentary party line doesn't seem to involve any acknowledgement of the lack of benefit to working-class parents. Instead, Diane Finley apparently took pride in the possibility that the entire amount of the "benefit" may be clawed back from poorer parents by only some provinces rather than all of them...while refusing to listen to the possibility that the federal government could avoid its own set of clawbacks.

Ultimately, Finley's answer only highlights a second layer of clawbacks which hadn't even been asked about. And the commitment of some provinces to do better than the Cons are willing to do federally offers only another reason why the Cons' plan is flawed - not a reason to believe that it's anything approaching fair to the parents who most need help to meet their child-care requirements.