Saturday, May 06, 2006

On defending one's position

There was some discussion earlier this week when word came out that Stephen Harper had offered to fund Bill C-48 in exchange for two years of support from the NDP. But aside from Gen X at 40, none of the commentators seem to have noticed the ultimate result of the offer. And it's worth taking a moment to compare Layton's reaction - and the outcome - to those of the other Canadian leaders in similar circumstances.

From the Star's coverage:
Sources say the NDP had no intention of accepting an offer that could spell political suicide.

Instead, the New Democrats quietly called the groups and governments counting on the cash that could be lost from C-48, such as provinces, municipalities and transit agencies, setting in motion a furious backroom lobbying effort to save the spending program.

"They were all convinced the money was secure and, in fact, it was already in their budgets," said one federal official.

It appears that effort succeeded. Last month, it was revealed the government will set up independent trust funds to distribute about $3.6 billion from C-48.
Rather than trying to win a better deal only by haggling with Harper himself, Layton instead brought other actors into the picture who had an interest in making sure the funding went through. The end result was that Harper went from making a ludicrous demand to caving completely, giving the NDP almost everything that Harper offered originally at absolutely no cost to the NDP. And it's hard not to think that Harper was worried about trying to work out a deal where the NDP gave something up for fear that Layton would keep the pressure up and get all the more for the NDP as a result.

Naturally, this should be compared to Harper's contrasting strategy on softwood lumber. There, Canada seems to have gone in with a relatively strong opening position (presuming that Harper at least brought up the possibility of full repayment and no restrictions before caving). But as I've discussed before, rather than allowing anybody with a common interest to be heard, Harper deliberately left Canadian lumber producers away from the table...and got snookered in the deal as a result. The process seemed bad enough at the time. But now that it's clear that Harper had been on the receiving end of a lesson in how to get results out of a bargaining situation, it's all the more negligent of Harper to have refused to learn from that example.

Needless to say, Harper's apparent all-or-nothing style of negotiating has its has been proven by Harper's inability to win a deal of any kind with the NDP, or a deal worth signing on softwood. But it does have its uses when dealing with another party which doesn't seem to want to learn from history. And lucky for Harper (if perhaps not for anybody else), Gilles Duceppe seems to have ignored Harper's history of bluffing then caving when it came to the budget. And it's hard to see much reason for that choice other than an aversion to personal responsibility for any results: this way Duceppe can claim (to a point) that the budget was solely Harper's doing, whereas by getting a better deal he would be forced to take more ownership of the outcome.

So much for reviewing the negotiating styles used so far this Parliament. But what can we take from all this? First, it seems rather clear that Harper's negotiating style is one that only succeeds when he's in a position to bully the other side (and/or where the other side isn't playing attention)...which is hardly a position that Canada can count on too often on the international scene. Second, Duceppe would rather be bullied into a mediocre result than be given any responsibility for a negotiated deal.

As a result, only one of the current federal leaders who will lead his party into the next election has a track record of brokering moderately strong positions into good results. And given Layton's record of working his way to solid outcomes from all parties domestically, it's worth wondering just how much more Canada could get done internationally if he got the chance to occupy Canada's seat at the table.

Support denied

While farmers have been protesting in droves seeking assurances that they'll have enough resources to plant crops this year, the Cons have responded only by holding back on the collection of money owed under the CAIS program, not by providing a cent beyond what farmers currently have in their possession:
Effective immediately, the government is deferring the collection of overpayments to individual farmers under the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program -- the so-called CAIS clawback -- until the retroactive program changes announced in Tuesday's $1.5-billion agriculture budget are calculated, Strahl said Friday during a speech at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

He also said there will be no interest on overpayments until Jan. 1, 2007.

Strahl said the announcement "assures farmers that the money they have in-hand, at least they can keep in-hand" while recalculations are underway.
In other words, any farmer with enough money on hand already will be fine regardless of any amounts owing. But for those who need a cash injection to keep their farms running? Well, there it gets more than a bit hazy:
Strahl also made note Friday of a new program aimed at helping low-income farmers find more options for the future and assist them in improving their business opportunities. He did not provide further details.
Needless to say, one has to figure that Strahl wouldn't have been holding back on the details of any program which had been thoroughly thought out. Which means that aside from not taking away money that farmers already have, the best the Cons seem willing to do is to plan to develop a plan eventually. And that can't be particularly comforting for farmers who need money - not just a delay in amounts owing - in order to keep their operations running.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The inefficiency continues

The Edmonton Journal reported today on a move by Canada's military to privatize delivery of some services at Canadian Forces Station Alert. But the reason for the change doesn't make sense under the slightest bit of examination:
The military plans to replace half of its personnel with contract workers at Canadian Forces Station Alert, a secretive spying outpost at the top of the world, by November.

"We do have excess infrastructure that we're maintaining right now," said Maj. Gioseph Anello, who is in charge of the Alert modernization project, a multi-year effort to shave the military's costs at the station...

With 72 full-time personnel who rotate in and out on six-month terms, Alert costs the military about $30 million a year to operate. Contractors could run the station for less by multi-tasking their employees, said Anello.

"As an example, the (contracted) driver of the truck can maintain that truck, off-load the truck and load the truck," he said. "In the military we would have the driver, a mechanic and a traffic guy."
Needless to say, Anello's explanation begs the question: why can't the military train a single employee to handle all three duties if a private contractor is able to? Surely that should be a simpler way to cut costs at least as much - and probably more since (presumably) the Canadian Forces wouldn't be looking to make a profit off the work, and since it'll presumably take a significant amount more planning for a contractor to decide how to get employees to the base than for the military to modify its current rotation practices.

Meanwhile, guess which programs also operating in the area are facing higher costs as a result of the move:
(O)ther groups who use Alert say the changes might increase their costs. The station is home to a marquis Environment Canada facility that has for two decades monitored the atmosphere for pollutants and global warming gases. But researchers say they expect their program to continue, since the military is not planning to reduce the number of beds available at Alert.

"There might be some different logistical arrangements or maybe some more increased costs to travel and deal with the infrastructure up there," said Marjorie Shepherd, manager of air quality measurements and analysis for Environment Canada.
In sum, this looks like just one more lose-lose privatization plan. Sadly, the question for now isn't whether that pattern will continue, but only whether any of Canada's state apparatus will emerge unscathed.

Easy target

So much for any one hidden agenda. It turns out that the Harper cabinet now has many of them - and it's going to court to keep them that way:
The Conservative government is moving to ban the release of prime ministerial agendas, a surprising change of heart after fighting the Liberals for the documents for years.

Government lawyers told Information Commissioner John Reid's office Friday that they intended to proceed with a Federal Court case over the prime minister's agendas, as well as those of other cabinet ministers...

Other requests for agendas of the transport and defence ministers, as well as RCMP records of the prime minister's agendas, have also landed in Federal Court.
And the Cons can't even claim that their about-face is based on difference people being involved, as the original case involved a current ministerial aide:
The case was born in 1999, when then Reform Party researcher Laurie Throness made six requests for then-prime minister Jean Chretien's agendas, detailing his daily appointments.

The Privy Council Office refused, Throness filed a complaint with the information commissioner, and the issue landed in Federal Court.

Now Throness is chief of staff to Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl, and in the strange position of having his name in court affidavits taken on behalf of the information commissioner.
Once again, any claim Harper ever had to a belief in accountability has been left by the wayside in favour of covering up his (and his cabinet's) activities. But if there's any bright side, it's that now that the Cons are going to court trying to keep their agendas hidden, they'll have absolutely no reason to complain when Canadians speculate as to what Harper wants to cook up outside the public eye.

On ill-conceived alliances

There's been plenty of discussion today about Harper's efforts to build links with his ideological soulmates on the provincial level. It's hard to dispute Harper's apparent intention based on his record in office so far. But there's plenty of reason to think that all the right-wing parties involved have plenty to lose in tying their fates together.

For the provincial downside, consider Murray Mandryk's take on the risks to the Saskatchewan Party:
(W)hile it might seem to make political sense to hitch your wagon to a federal government that's now slashing sales and corporate taxes and handing out cheques to young mothers, there's an inherent danger in this strategy.

It has to do with the fact that Ottawa's interests are seldom aligned with Saskatchewan's interests for very long...

(I)f the Saskatchewan Party is shifting its allegiance to the interests of the Conservative party rather than the interests of the people of Saskatchewan, it's not a very smart move.
Mandryk goes into some detail about the Sask Party's sudden willingness to accept Con actions now which it actively criticized when the Libs were in power. And that should provide rich fodder for the NDP in the next provincial election, as it'll have plenty of examples of how the Sask Party's determination to stand up for the province apparently ends on Harper's command.

Likewise in Ontario, Harper's strategy seems to rely on voters being utterly ignorant as to who it was that put the screws to McGuinty's government. But it's just as likely that McGuinty will strengthen his position by tying Tory to Harper's cuts, and thereby win an election which might otherwise have eluded his grasp.

The situation may be different in other provinces where Harper may be seen more as giving in to provincial demands than forcing provincial parties to get in line with his policies. But in both of the apparent leading examples (Quebec and B.C.), that seems likely to be a losing cause at this point. And again, there's always a risk that association with the federal Cons will only be a weight on the chances of Campbell and Charest once Harper's honeymoon period is over.

Meanwhile, there's a serious danger to Harper as well. I'm not sure how far the same phenomenon goes in other regions, but it's fairly well understood that in the Western provinces aside from Alberta, a party which governs at the provincial level tends to be seen with suspicion at the federal level. (See the history of the B.C. NDP, passim.) Which could mean that if Harper is indeed successful in winning power for his provincial counterparts, he may only succeed in making his government more vulnerable in the next federal election as voters seek a counterbalance to more conservative provincial governments.

It's anybody's guess as to how Harper's strategy will work out, and of course the Bush example might suggest the upsides of a nationwide bloc outweigh the downsides. But at this point, Harper seems a lot more stubborn than savvy in his effort to select Canada's premiers...and it may not be long before a lot of parties regret the associations.

A dirty-air act

Since we clearly needed one more example of the insanity of the Cons' made-in-Canada inaction on climate change, the Globe and Mail reports that the Cons are pulling funding which was to have assisted in Ontario's effort to phase out coal-fired power plants:
The federal government has pulled the plug on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that was supposed to help Ontario phase out its high-polluting, coal-fired power plants while it concentrates on its "made-in-Canada" approach to fighting emissions that cause climate change.

Ontario officials say that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty wrote on Wednesday to Dwight Duncan, his provincial counterpart, informing him that at least $538-million the previous Liberal government pledged to help defray the costs of the province's actions to fight global warming were off the table...

Ontario officials say the action breaks a funding commitment for an important national environmental goal. The coal phase-out is the largest effort in Canada to reduce greenhouse gases, and when it is complete in 2009, would reduce emissions by up to 30 million tonnes, or the same amount as taking seven million cars off the road, according to Ontario estimates.
In addition to the "need to reevaluate" excuse, the article notes that the funding was to have been provided under the Libs' "partnership agreement" giveaway to Ontario, some parts of which were retracted by the Cons as being national issues rather than bilateral ones. But there's no apparent reason for the Cons to maintain funding under that agreement only for areas which are supposedly Ontario-specific, while undermining national (and global) policy goals by withdrawing funding. And the article points out that to the extent the issue is a national one, there may be a spillover effect in preventing Manitoba and Quebec from being able to plan on an Ontario market for hydroelectric power - which surely won't go over well in those provinces either.

As for the environment, it's once again clear that the Cons will gladly throw important policies out the window in order to avoid the risk that the Libs might look good in the long run. And to the extent that Ontario is delayed in (or prevented from) taking coal-fired plants offline, the damage may be felt by Ontario and the rest of the world for a long time to come.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

On coalition-losing

I'll stand by my conclusion that the NDP's focus for now needs to be on making inroads in Quebec. But the Cons have made it mighty tempting to look to the West first with their inexplicable - and thus far unexplained - decision to cancel the planned transfer of a fleet of hopper cars to a coalition of grain farmers:
The new federal Conservative government has scrubbed a long-anticipated sale of 12,000 grain hopper cars to a coalition of farm groups.

Western farmers had struck a $205-million agreement-in-principle with the former Liberal government just before the federal election.

But Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon announced Thursday he will not proceed with the deal, which had been 10 years in the making.

The government will maintain ownership of the cars instead, and will cap the amount rail companies can charge farmers for maintenance.

"A decision had to be made. We made a decision," Cannon said outside the Commons.

"I think it's in the best interests of Canadians. It's also in the best interests of the people that are involved."
Of course, it helps to defend one decision with a stronger argument than "It's done. We did it. And we won't tell you why." And needless to say, the actual people involved are far from agreeing with the Cons' conclusion as to their best interests:
Sinclair Harrison, president of the Farmer Rail Car Coalition, which negotiated the sale with Ottawa, said he felt betrayed by the announcement...

The National Farmers Union said Thursday its members wanted some ownership stake in the transportation of their products...

The other problem, Boehm said, was that farmers had a plan to replace aging cars. The government made no mention in its announcement of how it will ensure that railways maintain the same-sized fleet.
On the surface, the decision seems to run contrary to anything the Cons could possibly want to accomplish. After all, it leaves the cars in government hands when a group of private operators was willing to take over. And it certainly doesn't seem to be meeting with a positive response from the Cons' rural base.

Moreover, it's hard to see how anybody stands to benefit from the decision: the railways presumably won't be too happy with the reduced maintenance rates, and there doesn't seem to be any compelling benefit for the government in maintaining ownership of the cars. We'll see if some interest affected leaps to the Cons' defence, but on the surface there's no apparent reason why anybody would.

With all those negatives, only two flimsy explanations seem to present themselves as to why the Cons would undo the deal.

First, it could be that the Cons decided that the deal fell into the category of "things which are inherently evil since the Libs had something to do with them". I tend to have my doubts on this one: it seems to me that the opportunity to take credit for the end result would be a more compelling interest than trying to avoid Chretien cooties.

More dangerously, perhaps the Cons don't want to create a positive example of what farmers can do as a united group for fear that it'll affect the Cons' plans to undermine the Canadian Wheat Board. This seems to be at least a plausible belief for Harper and company, but it could easily backfire. I have to figure there's a non-trivial chance that the Cons' action will drive the members of the Rail Car Coalition to make sure the Wheat Board is defended by an even more concerted effort, and of course the NDP will be waiting to present itself as the defender of farmers' ability to band together to improve their lot.

One way or the other, the Cons have wasted no time in showing that farmers' needs won't be any better served under Harper than they were under the Libs. And the pattern of Lib inaction followed by Con destruction is one that the NDP will be able to point out on this issue among so many others.

Update: Alex Atamanenko is on the case.

On suggestions ignored

In March, the Green Budget Coalition offered its suggestions to meet Stephen Harper in the middle, recommending ways of helping the environment while cutting government costs. Instead, Harper chose to cut positive environmental spending while continuing to toss money at harmful industries...and the Green Budget Coalition is none too pleased:
The Green Budget Coalition today expressed disappointment that the 2006 federal budget ignored prime opportunities to protect Canada's air and water, and to reduce climate change risks.

"There is virtually nothing in this budget to make good on the government's Throne Speech commitment to 'tangible' reductions in pollution and greenhouse gases," said Stephen Hazell, Coalition spokesperson, and Acting Conservation Director for the Sierra Club of Canada...

"Furthermore," added Hazell, "the federal government missed a great opportunity to announce the phase-out of the $1.4 billion in annual subsidies to the oil and gas sector, and the over $150 million annually to nuclear power. For decades, these 'pollution subsidies' have contributed to market failure, industrial inefficiency, unsustainable energy consumption, and unnecessary pollution and health damage."
Apparently dealing with such problems is a secondary concern for the Cons. Instead, the Cons took only one action supported by the Coalition (the tax exemption for donations of ecologically sensitive land), while cutting and adding spending in all the wrong places...meaning that the Cons will have to do a complete about-face from their budgetary policy if they want to create a Clean Air Act that will receive or deserve the support of Canada's environmental groups.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A growing culture of waste

It shouldn't come as a surprise in light of historical experience. But on some level, it never ceases to amaze me how parties who are supposed to be the ideologically opposed to government waste also tend to be the most wasteful. And it's clear that on issues ranging from crime to emissions reduction to economic stimulus, the Cons are proudly following in the footsteps of Mulroney and Bush.

Update: And speaking of waste...

First priorities

Greg at Sinister Thoughts tells Jack Layton that now is the time to go on the road to reclaim the populist vote. I certainly agree with the general theme, but I do disagree as to where Layton's first priority should lie. While the Prairies will certainly be a battleground for next election, the aftermath of Harper's budget seems to be the perfect opportunity to make some waves in Quebec - and it's time to strike while the iron is hot.

After all, Gilles Duceppe's immediate acceptance of the Cons' budget suggests that the Bloc's hatred of the federal government far outweighs any commitment to progressive policies, whether Kyoto or otherwise...and it's likely that some of the voters who have supported the Bloc in the past would at least reverse those priorities. Meanwhile, the Libs are plainly too busy sorting out their internal mess to regain much ground in Quebec - and thanks to their track record, they don't have a much better starting point than the NDP. The Cons may well be the only other party in a position to try to make gains as a result of the budget, but that will only create a greater need for a party capable of demanding more from its government than random tax handouts.

The end result is that the door is wide open for Layton to win support among both the unions who have backed the Bloc as a progressive voice, and Quebec voters generally who see the federal government as able to do more than just buy votes through tax credits. And it's hard to see how the opportunity will ever be better than now.

On the Prairies, in contrast, the Libs have much less chance of reorganizing into a strong position in the immediate future, and the Cons will look even worse once their lack of support has time to settle in. Which means that the opportunity to win back Prairie support will be at least as good, and perhaps better, in the few months before the next election.

With a concerted effort to win new Quebec troops to its side now, the NDP may well be able to collect enough support to start winning seats in La Belle Province next time the country goes to the polls...which of course is a precondition to any chance of forming government a couple of elections down the road. And that kind of upside more than justifies making the Prairies only the second stop on Layton's populist journey.

An absence of green

A few weeks back in the comments to this post, one Tory commenter planned to come back and offer a defence of Harper's environmental plan once the budget was released. (And in terms of the Cons' loyalty to Harper that should say a lot, given that he didn't have any idea what he was committing himself to answering.) But I wonder if that plan has changed now that the budget is out, and limited to a tiny list of environmental priorities (see p. 115-117):

- $400 million (plus $900 million contingent on a year-end surplus) for capital investment in public transit nationwide;
- the individual transit tax credit, which by all accounts is far more efficient as a vote-buying scheme than an emissions-reduction scheme; and
- $10-20 million in corporate tax breaks for a form of bioenergy.

In other words, reducing emissions in any industry besides forestry doesn't even register as a priority. And neither does reducing individual emissions from any other source besides vehicles. If that's the Cons' "made in Canada" plan to reduce emissions, then frankly it's about time to see what can be imported to do the job better.

Amazingly enough, in the Con view, that's apparently more than enough environmental action for one budget. One can arguably classify the pine-beetle funding (p. 86) and the Ecological Gifts Program (p. 231) as potentially having environmental benefits as well, but the former is explicitly lumped in with all other aid to the forestry sector, while the latter is referred to only as a tax measure. From the Cons' classification of these initiatives it's pretty clear that the environment isn't their primary concern in including them, and in any event any environmental benefit is speculative at best.

With that little by way of new ideas, one would think the Cons would at least refer to the plans which already existed and were rumoured to be cut. But from what I can tell, there's no mention of funding for previously-existing emission reduction programs - which makes it unclear whether any or all of what progress had ever been made has been completely undermined.

In other words, the Cons don't have much by way of new ideas, and don't even appear to acknowledge the existence of existing environmental plans. And even the Cons' claim that the environment would be a top priority this fall seems rather empty when the government has suggested that it will be completely reworking federal/provincial relations at the same time.

In that context, does anybody still want to try to defend the Cons' environmental plan? Or can we all agree that at least to date, Harper has a black thumb when it comes to environmental issues?

(Edit: typo.)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

On weak positions

It's hard to see how anybody besides the most ideological of Cons could like today's federal budget. But whether or not it's based on the assumption that he doesn't have any choice other than to prop up Harper, Gilles Duceppe seems to be putting on an act to that effect:
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe says he's willing to support Prime Minister Stephen Harper's budget and prop up his minority Conservative government.

"This is a transition budget. The real budget will be next year," said Duceppe, whose party's 51 seats can combine with the Tories' 125 seats to deliver enough votes to pass the budget...

Duceppe said Harper's "firm commitment to settle the fiscal imbalance" within a year is the main reason his party will support the budget.

Harper campaigned on a promise to address the fiscal imbalance, or the difference between what the provinces send to Ottawa and the amount they receive back in federal transfer payments and other spending.

"This is the one thing we've been fighting for for quite a long time. The burden of proof is now on their side," said Duceppe.
From a quick review of the Cons' "fiscal balance" document, it seems pretty clear that any commitment is much less than firm: the Cons are leaving only a few months for discussion with all stakeholders, then banking on being able to win provincial agreement this fall. Which means that the Cons have plenty of built-in excuses if (and when?) the effort fails - and that contrary to Duceppe's statement today, the burden of proof may soon fall on the Bloc to justify its belief in Harper.

Out of sight, out of mind

For those who missed it, Haiti's new president visited Canada yesterday to make a pitch for aid in order to ensure that the current incarnation of Haitian democracy lasts longer than the previous one. But if you did miss the news, that may not be by accident:
Preval's visit was almost invisible, with few of the normal trappings associated with a foreign dignitary.

There were no news releases or briefings on his meetings with Harper, MacKay or Jean.

There was no joint news conference. The prime minister's office made no announcement of the visit beforehand.
Unfortunately, it appears that Harper has classified Haiti's democracy as an issue to be hidden rather than acknowledged. And if Harper doesn't even want Canadians to be reminded of what Haiti's needs are, there's little reason to think that his regime will look past ideology to help Preval develop a stable government in a country which sorely needs it.

Monday, May 01, 2006

On your marks...

For those wondering how far one may go in bashing a government before facing legal recourse, an Ontario court has ruled that municipalities and other government bodies aren't entitled to bring a civil claim for defamation:
(A)ny restriction on the freedom of expression about government must be in the form of laws or regulations enacted or authorized by the legislature; the common law position, in the absence of such legislation, is that absolute privilege attaches to statements made about government.
The ruling does note that government has the power to pass laws to address concerns about defamation against it - at least to the extent that such a law can survive a constitutional challenge. So nobody can claim to be entirely without some danger of retribution.

But my guess is that by the time any appeal is heard, there'll be plenty of added evidence to suggest why an absolute privilege may be going too far. In the meantime, it's effectively open season on Canada's governmental authorities.

(Via the Law Society of Saskatchewan.)

Second time as farce

I didn't think any of the U.S. election-year war rally against Iran could possibly be qualitatively more absurd than the pre-Iraq Bush demand that Saddam Hussein prove a negative (the absence of WMDs) beyond a reasonable doubt. (Of course, that demand was all the more ridiculous given that the jury was already firing up the electric chair even as the trial took place.) And it's downright shocking to see a nominally left-wing Canadian blogger managing the feat. But Jason Cherniak is up to the task, suggesting that military action in Iran is appropriate unless the Iranian regime can prove the future negative that it will never acquire nuclear weapons.

It should be clear that it's in everybody's interests to make our best reasonable efforts to avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons - no matter which country might be developing them. And Iran's regime makes the general principle all the stronger.

But that's a far cry from saying that there's reason to launch a military action to preempt an outcome which by any reasonable account is at least a decade in the future. And we certainly can't afford to let the issue be defined by as simplistic a theory as "we must avoid a nuclear Iran at absolutely all costs" - especially keeping in mind who would be making the final decision as to what "all costs" will include.

Labouring on

While it may be easily drowned out by both the hype surrounding tomorrow's budget and speculation about the future of the Accountability Act, the NDP is once again putting federal anti-scab legislation before Parliament:
NDP MP Pat Martin (Winnipeg Center) is introducing legislation today that would ban the use of replacement workers during labour disputes and work stoppages under federal jurisdiction...

"Workers have the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to withhold their services in the event negotiations fail," said Martin. "Using scabs to replace striking workers undermines those rights."...

"Anti-scab legislation means fewer and shorter strikes and lockouts and less likelihood of violence or property damage," said (NDP MP Yvon) Godin. "Anti-scab legislation helps keep workers on the job and businesses on the go."

"Look at jurisdictions where you have anti-scab legislation," said Godin, "there are fewer days lost due to strikes and lockouts. Disputes are settled quickly and peacefully because the system is working the way it was intended."
It'll be interesting to see whether the Libs are determined enough to polish up their left-wing credentials to actually cooperate in passing the bill now that they're in opposition. Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely that the Libs will stop sulking long enough to back the NDP's effort, meaning that the bill won't likely make it through Parliament.

Even with the bill likely doomed to rejection in Parliament, it's nonetheless worth the NDP's while to highlight both the problems in the current labour relations scheme, and the presumptive unwillingness of the Cons and Libs to be part of any solution. And Canadian workers should once again take note as to which federal party is looking out for their interests.

On backup plans

The Cons can't say they weren't warned about the lack of interest in their scheme to create child-care spaces through corporate tax credits. But in case there was any hope left that spaces would be created under the plan, a survey by CTV should put an end to the notion, as even corporate figures with an interest in tax incentives generally won't claim there's any likelihood of success:
An informal CTV News survey found that not many major employers are interested in creating new child-care spaces for their employees' children -- even if the upcoming federal budget offers tax incentives to do so...

"A day-care centre at our downtown office is not the optimal solution for most of our employees," said Karen Wensley, a human resources specialist with Ernst and Young.

"It wouldn't make sense for us to provide day care for each of these branches," said Ann Leckie of VanCity...

"I'm a big believer in tax incentives," said John Watts, president of General Dynamics Canada, whose firm has company sports teams. "Whether it would make any difference with day care, I couldn't say."
If there's any good news in the apparent lack of interest in the program, it's that the Cons surely can't argue that there's no need for a backup plan when the targets of the tax credit have absolutely no interest in making use of it. And that could sow the seeds of a compromise on child-care space creation.

After all, the Cons' current plan involves continuing to fund the provinces until March 31, 2007. Assuming companies can be required to notify the federal government in advance of any intention to use the tax credit, it should be abundantly clear by then whether or not any of the money allotted to child-care space creation will be used for the 2006 taxation year. (Even if an advance notice requirement can't be built into the credit, it shouldn't be difficult to monitor any announced intentions to offer child care under the plan.)

Since the Cons themselves would presumably consider it a failure for the pool of child-care money go untouched without any spaces being created, it would only make sense to work out a deal with the provinces to transfer any unused amount of the credit in order to allow for space creation under the existing provincial plans (or better yet, an NDP-drafted child care framework).

Naturally there'd be plenty to be worked out about such a plan. In particular, there would be an obvious need to expand the pool of money available: even with advance notice both the NDP and Lib plans involved substantially more money going to the provinces than the Cons have set aside, and any deal would have the added disadvantage that provinces wouldn't know for sure how much money was available under the first few months of each year. The exact terms of any transfer to the provinces would also have to be hashed out...which could be complicated all the more by the need for multiple federal parties involved.

But on the whole, a solution along these lines would seem to be one of the better possible outcomes. The Cons could claim to have made their best effort to give the private sector the first crack at expanding child care, while the provinces would likely receive enough money at the end of the day to proceed with at least part of their previous plans. And assuming that businesses don't take the Cons up on their tax incentives, it shouldn't be long before the provinces would make a concerted push for increased stable funding, this time armed with proof that the Cons' own plan for private-sector expansion has failed.

(Edit: cleaned up wording.)

Sunday, April 30, 2006

On solutions

While all federal parties seem to operate under the assumption that the national debt should be largely left alone for the moment, Robert from My Blahg presents a simple yet realistic plan to pay off the federal debt within 15 years with no spending cuts, and with only one tax increase (which would still leave corporate tax levels well below the percentages in place a few years ago). Naturally the plan is far too sensible to ever be implemented. But it should be an interesting exercise to compare the priorities funded by Canada's federal government to a straightforward path to being debt-free - and to ask whether tax cuts with a small individual impact are worth the long-term debt which Canada will continue to carry.

Promise and reality

The CP reports that the Cons' next set of major priorities (to be implemented this fall) will be headlined by a new Clean Air Act. If such legislation is actually going to be based on viable environmental ideas rather than Bushesque newspeak, then it could be a terrific step for both the party and the country. But it's hard to be optimistic when the Cons' current blueprint for the environment is to plow money into only the least efficient program possible.


As already pointed out by the Galloping Beaver, Stephen Colbert delivered a fairly brilliant performance at last night's White House Correspondents Dinner. Click here and here for some of the highlights, and here for part of the video.

(Edit - only part of the video is at Crooks and Liars - I'll be on the lookout for a full one.)

Suspicions confirmed

The Canadian Press confirms my concern that while every possible voice against Canada's position was consulted during the softwood lumber negotiations, Harper deliberately left Canada's stakeholders away from the table in order to force them to buy in afterward:
Canadian industry leaders, who'd been closely consulted in past talks, were kept out of the loop initially. The concern was too many voices might create static before the outlines of a proposal were ready.

U.S. negotiators, meanwhile, consulted directly with the Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, whose trade complaints produced the duties.
Keep in mind that even the historical composition of past talks had failed to include some stakeholders with an interest in eliminating the tariff, including particularly lumber importers and construction groups who just a month ago were urging Canada to defend its position. But rather than seeking to strengthen his side to move negotiations toward a more favourable result, Harper secured his deal only by ensuring that Canadian interests wouldn't be represented (or even consulted) at the negotiating table.

Also unsurprisingly given the outcome, the Cons' focus was purely on short-term gains rather than the long-term implications of the deal - and that fact was made clear in the Cons' message in trying to secure agreement:
Federal officials pushed Canadian producers to think of the big picture. Would they be any happier, any better off, a week from now if they rejected this deal?
Had the time frame been expanded beyond the honeymoon period of the next week, producers would surely have had a different perspective. The cash infusion may well be a strong short-term incentive, but it's not hard to anticipate that years down the road, producers will wish the government had pursued one more line of litigation to secure payment of the illegal tariffs, rather than locking the industry into managed trade for the next seven years or more.

Not that anybody should be surprised with a short-sighted, poorly managed effort from Harper's government. But seldom are the facts laid bare quite as thoroughly as they have been on softwood lumber...and that will give Canadians a strong frame for comparison next time a similar situation comes up.