Saturday, June 17, 2006

Forecasting a thaw

A U.S. think tank suggests that Harper's repeated attempts to ingratiate himself to Bushco are doomed, as it'll take a new U.S. president to improve relations between the two countries:
Christopher Sands told a security conference on Saturday that Canada has sent mixed signals to the U.S. on issues such as Iraq and missile defence. In both cases, Sands said Ottawa had considered joining U.S. efforts only to decide against doing so, which hurt relations...

U.S. President George W. Bush is constitutionally barred from running in the 2008 election, so a new president will take power the following year.

Canada would have a clean slate under a new president, Sands said.
It's hard to see why Bush would hold a grudge against Harper's government generally, but Sands' analysis appears right to a point. The two issues in question are obviously ones where the Cons can't afford to buck world opinion to side with the U.S. without paying a price at the polls...and they're plainly not ones where Bushco is about to change its position anytime soon.

All of which means that to the extent there is any need to repair the current relationship between the U.S. and Canada, the necessary precondition is a new U.S. administration which repudiates Bush's "with us or against us" stance. And no matter how much Harper pretends to have the ability to improve matters, nothing he does now can bring that about any faster.

Plausibility Freedom Day is here again

The Fraser Institute's tedious Tax Freedom Day concept is once again eating up far too many headlines (particularly compared to the potential alternatives which haven't been similarly publicized). But Bruce Johnstone points out one of the many reasons why even if one accepts the core assumption that taxes are somehow paid into a black hole with absolutely no redeeming return, the Fraser Institute's calculation does nothing but misrepresent the amount actually paid by Canadian (and particularly Saskatchewanian) citizens.

On branding

Greg rightly slams both the Libs and Cons for their transparent efforts to paper over weak spots by associating themselves with words which couldn't be a less accurate description of their underlying philosophies.

While the Cons and Libs go over the top with pretense, however, I wonder whether the NDP should be looking to expand on its brand from the past election as well - albeit with much more plausible language than Anne McLellan and Rona Ambrose are using for themselves. The "getting results" message from the 2006 has laid the groundwork for the NDP to be seen as far more than just a protest vote, but that leads naturally into the question of what kind of results the NDP will be looking for in the future.

So, up for discussion: what should be the NDP's next step in looking to expand the scope of its brand? A "responsible government" message, with frequent references to the fiscal success of NDP provincial governments? A "good for business" message focusing on how the NDP's policies can boost the economy? A "strong role in the world" message to counter the Harper/Ignatieff axis of machismo?

In any event, it seems clear that the NDP needs to go on the offensive to help shape its own reputation as well as keeping the Cons' and Libs' feet to the fire. And while it may take more work for the NDP to do that without the media attention that the Libs and Cons receive, it'll be worth the effort if it takes the NDP into the next election with a more positive public perception.

Friday, June 16, 2006

On poor recruitment tactics

A few choice quotes from Con MPs on one of the sitting Libs who was apparently on the receiving end of Harper's recent recruiting effort:

From David Tilson:
If I could have just one wish for Christmas, it would be a straight answer from the immigration minister.
The ever-diplomatic Rob Anders:
The minister is no longer just an international embarrassment, she is now a security threat...I would like to know what the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has planned for a New Year's resolution. Will she reduce the stress in her life and just resign?
Paul Forseth:
It seems the minister has compassion for cases that might help her politically, yet the minister or the system cannot help real refugees. The credibility of the minister is in shreds.
Peter MacKay:
The minister has abused her position, ducks accountability, refuses to answer questions, and now misleads the House. Having lost public confidence, will she now resign her post?
Jim Prentice:
The minister has been repeatedly misleading the House. This amounts to nothing less than contempt. When will this disgraceful minister resign?
Helena Guergis:
The immigration minister has shown time and again to both sides of the House and to Canadians across the country that she is completely incapable of running her own office, let alone a government department. When is she going to step down?
And a couple from Harper himself:
What is disgusting, Mr. Speaker, is that the minister will never answer a straight question until she is caught red-handed.

The immigration minister's indiscretions grow daily. Today we learn that she has been divulging confidential information on immigration files in order to save her career. In addition to information she has released in the House, she apparently has directed staff to discuss the stripper case with various members of this chamber.

This is completely improper. Will the minister do the honourable thing and resign?
Needless to say, it shouldn't be much surprise that Sgro apparently turned down the Cons' overtures. But it speaks volumes about the Cons' desperation to try to create a perception of positive momentum now that they'd have bothered sending out feelers to somebody who was on the receiving end of these types of Con attacks in the past.

A bit of relief

For all the disturbing similarities between the Bush and Harper administrations, we can take some solace in not being stuck with a John Bolton just yet.


Pope Awesome brings the snark over CBC's decision to pull Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story from all scheduled airings.

(Edit: typo.)

A lack of credit

From a substantive standpoint, it's a plus that the government is at least making an effort to determine whether it can get a better deal on RCMP headquarters than one which would have spent $600 million on a property which sold for only $30 million a few years ago. But would it really have been too much trouble for the Ottawa Citizen to mention the MP who got the ball rolling sometime before the third-last paragraph of its article?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cause and effect

The Globe and Mail reports on an alarming drop in the proportion of women in the work force in Alberta. And the apparent primary cause isn't wealth, but a lack of child care:
Women in Eastern Canada are piling into the work force as never before, but in the West they are pulling out...

The pattern is particularly noticeable for women with children under six years old. In Alberta, the participation rate for this group dropped by a full percentage point in 2005, to 64.9 per cent. That's 10 points below the comparable rates in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

If mothers of young children in Alberta and British Columbia had kept up with Quebec, there would be 30,000 women in the work force there — at a time when employers complain frequently of labour shortages.

And that's not because the mothers' husbands are rich from Alberta's oil and they choose not to work, Ms. Roy said. She found that family income levels made a difference for only 2,000 Alberta women.

Rather, she points to availability of daycare. Alberta has the smallest share of children in daycare — 43 per cent, Statscan said. Indeed, daycare capacity has actually fallen over the past decade, and now the province has fewer than 48,000 spots for 163,400 mothers of pre-schoolers.
It'll be interesting to see how long it takes the corporate sphere in Calgary and Edmonton to figure out that government investments in real child care (both federally and provincially) could do wonders to ease the province's labour shortage. In the meantime, the combination of both federal and provincial governments going out of their way to avoid providing the needed spaces is only hurting the financial base for both parties...not to mention the standard of living for those families facing little choice but to leave a parent at home.

Mission creep

A month after the Cons barely won a motion on Afghanistan in Parliament, Gordon O'Connor lets Canadians know that the Cons plan to ignore their own statements as to the meaning of the vote:
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says Canada will have to send more troops to Afghanistan if it takes command of NATO forces in the country.

O'Connor has formally told NATO that Canada is willing and able to take command of a larger military force in southern Afghanistan...

O'Connor says it will mean a larger commitment of troops - but only about 100 more than the 2,300 currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Most of the additional soldiers would likely be involved in non-combat roles.
The problem with today's position is that at the time of the motion, the motion itself made no mention of additional troop deployment, and the Cons suggested that there would be at most minimal further deployment to facilitate the leadership role.

From the actual motion:
That the House support the government’s two year extension of Canada’s deployment of diplomatic, development, civilian police and military personnel in Afghanistan and the provision of funding and equipment for this extension.
In other words, the motion as written involved support for increased funding and equipment, but merely for an extension of the existing deployment.

In fairness, the Cons did interpret the motion at the time to involve a small additional deployment, but only a minimal one based on sending one additional general and associated staff. In question period, Stephen Harper described the planned increase as follows:
One addition is being made to the military mission: Canada is requesting general command of the International Security Assistance Force, which requires the deployment of a high-ranking general and subordinates for one year, probably in February 2008. This is the only addition to our military mission.
And then during the debate:
(A)ll the engagements that we are asking Parliament to back, with the one exception of command of ISAF as I mentioned, are all engagements as undertaken at the present time. These are extensions to Canada's current involvement, not changes.
In other words, it could fairly have been assumed that any additional commitment of troops would reflect only the necessary staff to support the commanding general. And it would certainly be expected the increase would not encompass additional combat troops.

Today's message, on the other hand, makes clear that the increase in troops is a sizeable one in comparison to the scope of the mission (a boost by roughly 5% of the current deployment). And moreover, O'Connor is now qualifying the presumptive lack of additional combat troops with a declaration that "most" of the additional deployment would "likely" be for non-combat purposes.

In other words, the Cons are predictably using last month's motion as justification to extend Canada's involvement as much as Harper sees fit, with no apparent regard for what was actually voted on in Parliament. And while that only vindicates the concerns of those who chose not to follow Harper blindly, it'll take some quick public attention to make sure that the Cons' perceived authority to expand the mission ends with O'Connor's announcement.

Delay tactics

A white paper on the banking industry was released yesterday, with the recommendations including a range of new measures to ensure that consumers are better informed:
(The proposals) include:
Providing greater and more timely disclosure to consumers in areas such as deposit-type investment products and complaint-handling procedures;
Lowering the mortgage downpayment consumers are required to make to 20 per cent from 25 per cent before the law requires the purchase of mortgage insurance;
Encouraging the adoption of a voluntary consumer protection code;
Reducing the maximum time banks can put a hold on consumer and small business cheques to seven days from the current 10 days, and then reduce the holding period further later to four days;
Streamlining ministerial approval for a broad range of financial sector transactions, such as changes in the ownership or structure of financial institutions;
Making it easier for credit unions to establish co-operative credit associations as a means of expanding their business opportunities; and
Making it easier for some foreign financial institutions to set up shop in Canada.
Jim Flaherty is quoted as approving of the proposals. Which naturally means that rather than actually working to implement any of them, the Cons are holding off on any changes for as long as they can:
While the legislation to implement the proposals will be introduced this fall, the government has extended the sunset date for the existing financial institutions statutes by six months to April 24, 2007, suggesting it does not expect the legislation to pass before next spring, and possibly after the next election.
It remains to be seen whether the Cons' main intention is to avoid having any change in banking on their record, or to claim once again that nothing can be done in a minority Parliament. But it's absolutely clear that the Cons are more interested in making excuses in advance now than in passing needed legislation. And bank customers will have them to thank for half a year more of banking under the same rules which the report aims to improve.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

On a loss of control

Think Progress reports on yet another shady side of the softwood lumber deal, as the money to be spent on jointly-agreed "meritorious initiatives" may find itself turned into a Bushco slush fund:
ThinkProgress spoke with a lawyer familiar with the case, who said the following about the agreement:
– The United States is requesting $480 million for “meritorious initiatives” and just $20 million of the joint initiative benefiting the North American Lumber market.
– The agreement contains a complicated escrow system that may allow the $480 million to be funneled from the Treasury Department to the White House.
– It is the position of U.S. negotiators that Congress does not need to have any involvement in the deal.
Now, I'm far from agreeing with Think Progress' take - both in its characterization of the settlement as "obscure", and its focus primarily on internal U.S. controls. From a Canadian perspective, it's hard to share the concern as to any lack of Congressional oversight when the intention of the fund was to allow for jointly agreed initiatives between the U.S. and Canada.

But the flip side is that Canada should have at least some meaningful ability to determine the eventual use of the money to be used for joint purposes. From the sound of things, the deal as structured will give Bushco total control over how the money is spent, and won't likely wind up benefitting the lumber market to any meaningful degree...presumably leaving Harper to beg for some input as to how the money is used, and then to claim victory if Bush so much as listens to Canada's suggestions.

Updates on the softwood lumber talks: the U.S. Commerce Department, apparently not having been told enough times that its tariffs are illegal, has issued a preliminary decision which could boost the tariff to 14% starting in December. Meanwhile, negotiations may soon break off now that the Cons have missed their own needless deadline.

On gestures

Two Con parliamentary secretaries have lowered the bar once again on parliamentary behaviour:
The opposition is complaining that two Conservative MPs who act as parliamentary secretaries to ministers made obscene arm gestures across the floor of the House of Commons.

Daniel Gourde and Pierre Poilievre made the gestures moments apart as MPs voted on a farm bill Tuesday evening...

Gourde is parliamentary secretary to Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl, and Poilievre is parliamentary secretary to Treasury Board President John Baird.

The arm gesture involves two arms crossed at the elbow, one moving upward.
I've discussed before how the Cons seem to interpret maturity when it comes to foreign policy. But at home, the Cons' plan to be "mature" must have a different meaning, referring to an effort to ensure that the political process is unfit for the eyes and ears of children. And with Poilievre as the point man, the Cons appear well on their way to winning a parental advisory for parliamentary proceedings on CPAC.

Minority support

The results from the Nova Scotia election have been well-reported so far, and I don't have a ton to add to some of the other commentary. But it's worth noting that the voters of Nova Scotia are proving wrong the conventional wisdom that a minority situation inevitably means legislative chaos which naturally leads in turn to a majority government. And if Nova Scotia's minority continues to produce good results for the province, then there'll be a strong counterexample to Harper's inevitable claims that he needs a majority federally in order to accomplish anything.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

On needless giveaways

Predictably, the Cons are far more committed to rewarding supporters than to taking a sound environmental step, as Jim Flaherty has flatly rejected the idea of eliminating tax breaks to the oil industry:
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has rejected a request from environmental groups to end an estimated $1.4 billion in annual tax breaks to the booming oil industry.

In a seven-page response to the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Flaherty defends special tax treatment for the resource sector noting its importance as a source of investment and jobs...

Albert Koehl of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund said the oil and gas sector - a major source of greenhouse emissions - is making record multibillion-dollar profits and should not be getting any subsidies at all.

"Subsidies are for industries in transition," he said. "This is an industry no longer in transition and it has gotten over the last three decades about $40 billion from the federal government."
So how vital is the preferential tax treatment for the industry?
Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers denied the $1.4 billion tax-break estimate, which is based on research by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute.

He said the estimate is based on outdated information but couldn't provide a current estimate. The industry made $27 billion after taxes last year, he said, a return of 14 per cent.
One would think that returns of 14% would be incentive enough for future investment in the oil patch - particularly when the most recent estimates suggest that the current tax breaks represent roughly 5% of the total after-tax profits of the industry. But while the Cons have happily scrapped environmental programs pending an evaluation of their efficiency, today's announcement demonstrates their complete lack of interest in ensuring that corporate tax giveaways are serving any useful purpose. Which, I suppose, probably will ensure that all the more investors find their way into the sector to benefit from the Cons' continuing largesse.

On playing by the rules

NDP MP Pat Martin is calling for an investigation into the possibility that concerted political contributions by top executives of TD Bank may violate the Canada Elections Act. We'll find out soon whether any Libs and Cons are committed enough to electoral rules to join the call...or whether both will be perfectly happy with possible violations as long as they each benefit.

Update: Not surprisingly, the answer from the Cons so far is to change the subject.

The power to shift costs

Dalton McGuinty insists that nuclear power is the only way to add enough capacity to keep Ontario running. But at the same time, McGuinty's government is going out of its way to offload the costs and risks of any new plants:
In unveiling today its long-awaited plan to address the province's looming electricity crisis, Ontario will include measures to protect consumers from cost overruns associated with building new reactors.

As part of that plan, government officials have been in talks with the federal government about having AECL build the reactors for a fixed price and by a fixed date, government and industry sources said. The contract would include penalties for not meeting these performance guarantees.

The federal government has been involved in the talks because it would ultimately be on the hook for providing the guarantees as the sole shareholder of AECL, the government sources said.
Now, I recognize the value of government guarantees when it comes to minimizing unknown risks to create an incentive for new developments. But the nuclear industry should surely be well-enough developed by now for all parties to know the costs and risks involved. And it speaks volumes that the same premier who insists that there's no other option refuses to be stuck with the downside of nuclear development.

Ultimately, McGuinty's request begs the question of why the federal government would be willing to provide substantially more support for nuclear power than for any other type of power generation. And if the only way nuclear power can be cost-effective is for Ontario to offload a chunk of the costs, then surely it's worth seeing whether or not other forms of energy can do the job given the same level of support.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Negotiations with a two-by-four

Apparently Harper and company are still trying to keep relatively straight faces while claiming that the softwood lumber cave-in is really a great deal for Canada. But if it was, would the U.S. be making demands like the ones reported by the Globe and Mail?

First, there's the clause designed to ensure that future trade disputes are no more easily or successfully resolved than this one:
Ontario officials said Americans seek to set up a process for tackling future softwood battles that wouldn't return duties collected before those disputes are settled.

“That's a deal breaker as far as we are concerned,” Mr. Ramsay said.
And rightly so, given that the entire reason why Canada is now signing away its right to make forestry policy is the U.S.' insistence that it hold onto the proceeds of its theft. But apparently Harper has shown his cards around the table enough that the U.S. isn't the least bit embarrassed asking for Canada to consent to going through the same mess again in the future.

One would think it couldn't get worse. But then...
Ontario's second major concern is that the United States is pushing to divide Canada's export quota into monthly allotments, Mr. Ramsay said. If companies don't meet their monthly share of the cap, they would lose the unused quota room, unable to carry it forward.
So having successfully capped Canada's share of the U.S. market isn't enough: now the U.S. also wants to set caps within the cap, and ensure that Canadian producers can't make up for slow months or take advantage of positive market conditions. (Speaking of comical attempts at a straight face, keep an eye out for Bush's next admonition that the U.S. is trying to lead the way toward free markets.)

Mind you, the worst of the demands might well be only a way of making Canada's ultimate additional concessions look small by comparison. But the direction in which the final negotiations have gone should remove any remaining doubt about who's been pushing who around at the bargaining table.

Shirking responsibility

It's a plus to see the federal government finally doing something about payday lenders. But it would be all the better if the Cons were willing to do anything more than punt the issue to the provinces:
The Conservative government is preparing to introduce legislation that would finally rein in Canada's mushrooming payday loan industry, delegating power to the provinces to regulate the business and protect consumers...

Rather than tinker with the interest rate in the Criminal Code, the government will make an exemption from the law for provinces that come up with their own consumer protection legislation and interest rates.
Hopefully most of the provinces will follow Manitoba's lead quickly to try address the issue. But the need for a series of provincial actions could have been avoided if Harper was willing to confront a national issue (and one properly under federal jurisdiction, for those determined to draw the lines) rather than passing the buck.

On public will

One of Harper's more amusing actions after taking office was his call for people to write letters to MPs in support of the Con platform. Today, CanWest reports that at least based the comments received in response to the Cons' budget plan, Harper's request was something less than a smashing success:
A majority of citizens urged the new Tory government to abandon plans for a GST cut, in the first-ever Web-based consultations carried out before a federal budget.

More than 500 people -- responding to the Finance Department's call for submissions -- sent the minister e-mails commenting directly on Goods and Services Tax policy, documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show.

Of those, 239 people opposed cuts to the GST promised by the Tories during the last election campaign, while 209 said they supported them.

Another 72 people offered other suggestions, such as using GST revenue for highway improvements...

Finance Canada did not specifically ask for suggestions on spending increases, but people offered them anyway. Ignoring obvious write-in campaigns, only one area stood out clearly: the environment.

"If one discounts write-in campaigns, more Canadians supported increased funding for the environment than any other single priority," says one document.
Note that the listed results doesn't include orchestrated letter-writing campaigns (as identified by the reporter in any event). Which means that despite Harper's call for all the public support he could muster, the citizens who took the time to write in with their own views lined up generally against the Cons - particularly in the citizens' demand for action on the environment.

Not that Harper could be bothered to listen when it came time to put the budget together. But there should be all the less doubt that the Cons' priorities are far from reflecting those of Canadians generally. And contrary to Harper's presumed plan, the lesson to opposition MPs is that the public doesn't want to be subject to any more of Harper's budgetary choices than it can avoid.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Of like mind

Was there ever a chance that Ujjal Dosanjh wouldn't endorse Bob Rae for the federal Lib leadership? And could anything do more to help the NDP move past its also-ran status than to have the symbols of its two worst provincial electoral disasters now sublimated in the same Lib effort - whether or not it succeeds in winning the leadership?

On self-reinforcing bias

Robert commented a couple of days ago about the near-complete lack of media coverage of the NDP's Greener Homes Strategy. It's certainly outrageous that the plan received as little attention as it did, but put in context the media blackout looks even worse than at first glance.

After all, based solely on the lack of coverage of the article one could always argue that the NDP hadn't put the media on notice or highlighted the issue...if not for, well, the fact that such a view would be dead wrong. The NDP mentioned its impending series of proposals several days in advance, and followed up the release of the strategy with further measures to keep the party's proposal in the public eye.

But it gets worse. At the same time the media was happily ignoring or spinning the NDP's major policy announcement, the Ottawa Citizen's Susan Riley was complaining about a supposed lack of opposition in Ottawa, particularly based on the "fitful" work by the NDP and the Bloc on Kyoto. For those keeping track at home, the NDP's allegedly fitful work included
asking multiple questions about Kyoto during the week's Question Periods and commenting on both National Clean Air Day and World Environment Day, in addition to unveiling and following up on its own plan.

In other words, not only is the media utterly failing to pay attention to meaningful policy suggestions, but it's also blaming the NDP for that failure. And with that apparently happening at the same time as editors swallow without question Stephen Harper's editorial suggestions and the Libs receive daily attention for their leadership race, there shouldn't be any doubt which federal party is getting the short end of the stick.

More patriotism than brains

The Ottawa Sun reports on Con MP Guy Lauzon's warped sense of priorities:
Conservative Guy Lauzon hopes Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry will leap into prominence as the federal riding which displays the most flags on Canada Day. If earned, the record would be for "most patriotic area in the world."...

Chairman of Cornwall's Canada Day celebrations for several years running, the second-term MP sees his flag effort as a way of building U.S.-style national pride and counteracting the recent wave of bad news in the riding, most of it surrounding job losses.

Among employers to bite the dust are Nestle Canada at Chesterville and Domtar of Cornwall, tossing hundreds of residents out of work. It's time to refocus with a dose of patriotism, the MP said.
It would seem fairly obvious that the top priority of an MP whose riding is losing jobs should be to try to actually turn the economic situation around. And it's not as if a government-party MP lacks the means to try to make that happen - whether that's through changes in general public policy to improve the competitive advantage of Canadian employers through improved health care and meaningful child care, or through more specific efforts to talk with potential employers and encourage them to set up shop in one's region.

But for Lauzon, the primary goal is to create some piece of good news on the assumption that it'll cancel out the economic problems. Which means that the MP is asking Cornwall's newly-unemployed residents to spend part of whatever resources they have left on a Canadian flag in order to prove their patriotism and help feed his ego.

Needless to say, Cornwall residents shouldn't be the least bit happy to be pawns in their MP's attempt to win attention. And that should lead them to push for a new MP who's willing to work to improve the lives of the riding's citizens, rather than using his pulpit to try to divert attention from the issues which ultimately matter to his constituents.

The stenography begins

It's tough to take Christina Blizzard's introduction entirely seriously in light of the rest of the column. But if Blizzard is right in suggesting that editors are telling columnists not to write about equalization because "no one cares", then it sounds like at least part of the media has gladly and unquestioningly accepted Harper's spin on the topic.