Saturday, January 06, 2007


The Citizen goes into detail about how John Baird managed to delay (and ultimately undermine entirely) Ottawa's plans for a commuter rail system:
Treasury Board and Department of Finance officials were satisfied with the City of Ottawa's $880-million commuter rail plan, but federal minister John Baird took it upon himself to ask for a financial audit that led to the delay and subsequent death of the project, documents obtained by the Citizen show...

Among the documents, a confidential briefing note for Premier Dalton McGuinty, chides Mr. Baird for his "unusual" intervention, pointing out that the city presented a "strong justification" for the project.

"Treasury Board and Finance officials did not request a value for money audit, and Transport and Infrastructure Canada officials and the Minister were satisfied enough with the project to sign off on it to go to TB," the briefing note said.

"He (Mr. Baird) is effectively saying that he is a better judge of value-for-money than the experts in the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Department of Finance, and the Treasury Board Secretariat."...

(A)ccording to the documents obtained for the Citizen by researcher Ken Rubin, public servants in the Ontario government cabinet office took a harsher view of Mr. Baird's action. While acknowledging the need for the city to make a business case for the project and provide a cost-benefit analysis, provincial officials say the city passed the test. They noted that the project wouldn't even have landed on the Treasury Board agenda without numerous consultations to convince key departmental officials that "the federal government was receiving value for money."

In particular, cabinet officials took umbrage at the impression left by Mr. Baird that "due diligence" was not done, pointing out that "federal officials have been performing due diligence for two years" on the project.

"This is the only circumstance known of in Ontario where a Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund contract was revisited after being awarded," the documents lamented.
While Baird's apparent excuse lies in the then-impending municipal elections, it should be clear that such reasoning doesn't stand up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny given the amount of time that had already gone into the project. And indeed, if Baird really believes that action shouldn't be taken in the lead-up to any level of election, that would likely keep the Cons from doing anything throughout much of this year in light of the anticipated stream of provincial elections.

Of course, Baird may well want to continue his history of claiming to know better than the mere experts in his field...and will probably similarly search for every excuse in the book to avoid committing to any real changes now that he's been moved to Environment. But with even industry agitating for environmental action rather than another round of delays, Baird can expect to pay a far higher price if he follows the same strategy again than he has for the commuter rail fiasco.


Stephane Dion managed to embarrass himself due to his team's bumbling attempts to keep the media posted on his comings and goings. But apparently, even with the resources of the PMO at his disposal, PMS' track record for keeping the media informed continues to be even worse:
The Prime Minister's Office loves to keep the parliamentary press gallery in the loop. Reporters were given about half an hour's notice to be at Rideau Hall on Thursday for the cabinet shuffle, about half that much to get over to Parliament Hill this morning to see Stephen Harper welcome ex-Liberal Wajid Khan to the Tory fold...

(T)his notice was sent out at 4:23 p.m. this afternoon. (That's 16:23 in 24-hour-clock talk.)

Date: Jan. 05
Time: 16:00 Approx.
Participant(s): Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Location: Office of the Prime Minister, 307-S, Centre Block, Ottawa.
Subject: Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make a congratulatory phone call to head coach Craig Hartsburg on the victory of the Canadian men's junior hockey team.
In the case of the phone call, the PMO at least had the excuse that the event was a reaction to an external which couldn't be entirely planned. But even granting that difficulty, it's hard to see what value there is in sending out a "notice" only after an event has already happened.

Moreover, that argument wouldn't apply to the other events this week, where PMS had complete control over the time and place for events which were widely leaked in advance, and still seems to have made the choice to force the press to run out at the last minute. Which means that unlike Dion whose failures can be traced to a group of handlers still learning the ropes, Harper can only be taken to remain more interested in making life difficult for the media than in enabling them to carry out their job.

Deceptive growth

Eugene points out that the Cons' cabinet shuffle seems aimed in part at direct confrontation against both public-sector and private-sector workers. But it's worth noting that the Cons' stay in power so far already looks to be softening the economic foundation underlying Canada's working class - despite what the job headlines suggest:
(A)nalysts warned there's more sizzle than steak in the gravity-defying performance of the labour market that created 62,000 jobs, four times what analysts had expected, and reduced the jobless rate two notches to 6.1 per cent in December, matching the lows of last spring...

(T)he job growth in 2006 was driven by gains in paid, full-time, and private-sector employment, all reflections of underlying economic strength.

In December, however, the gains were divided between full- and part-time employment, and nearly 50,000 of the new jobs were in self employment, with only 4,700 being in paid employment, the smallest gain in four months.

"The bottomline is that the Canadian economy is creating jobs, but at nowhere near the pace suggested by this morning's headline number," National Bank of Canada analysts cautioned, adding they still expect the Bank of Canada will further downgrade its economic growth projections in its monetary policy report later this month.

Further, unlike the drop in unemployment, which is a lagging economic indicator, they noted the total number of hours worked during the month, a leading indicator of the future direction of the economy, suffered its steepest drop in more than two years...

"Nor does the report square with the economic backdrop as a whole," observed TD Securities economist Marc Levesque, warning last month's pace of job growth is not sustainable.

"Canadian economic growth has clearly been downshifting in recent months," he said. "In fact, GDP growth is likely to struggle to even remain in positive territory, and the odds are high that it will come in below one per cent way short of the Bank of Canada's estimate of 2.8 per cent ... ."
Of course, it's always possible that future results will defy expectations, and/or that the current growth in low-hour jobs will somehow translate into longer-term employment.

But given that perception plays a significant role in shaping economic reality, it seems likely that the analysts' concerns will come to pass. And that may lead the Cons to want to go to the polls before a stalled economy gets placed on their shoulders - even if that means that their new hatchet men won't get to carry out their intended missions just yet.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Continued loyalties

While Wajid Khan's defection has certainly received plenty of comment so far, one key element of the move seems to have slipped by unnoticed so far. Unlike his fellow Lib-turned-Con David Emerson, Khan appears likely to maintain at least some support from the organization that helped him to win his seat:
In an interview with the CBC following the defection, riding association president Khalid Sagheer said Khan "is my friend, I support him and I will continue to support him."

Asked whether backing Khan would mean switching party memberships himself, Sagheer said "that decision will come in due course."

"I agree with him and my own personal opinion is that the Liberal party has been taking us for granted — immigrants that have worked and supported the party so much, it's been so far only a one-way street," Sagheer said.
It remains to be seen whether Sagheer and others ultimately will follow Khan in his party switch. But if so, then the Libs now touting Mississauga-Streetsville as a cakewalk for a star candidate of the party's choosing may face a much tougher battle than they're anticipating. And if Sagheer's apparent views are shared by other Lib organizers, then the loss of a single MP could be the least of the Libs' worries going into the next election.

Let's make a deal

Much of Greg's analysis of the potential problems in any environmental deal between the NDP and the Cons appears to be spot on. But there is one area where there's more reason for hope than he seems to suggest:
NDP supporters are very suspicious of Harper's motives and his willingness to follow through on anything Layton can squeeze out of him. Without an iron clad guarantee that Harper will move and move hard on greenhouse gas emissions (which I for one do not see coming), Layton will face a revolt among his base and all this maneuvering will have been for naught. If, on the other hand, Layton does somehow get those guarantees from Harper and it looks like he might actually do something substantial on this file, Harper may face his own revolt from his base.
In my view, it's far from clear that Harper would necessarily face much of a revolt based on an effective environmental plan. It shouldn't be hard for Harper to sell the position that the alternative to his taking action now would be a similar Lib move toward strict regulation after a future election. And if that message takes, then the question for the Cons' corporate supporters will be that of which of Harper or Dion will do more to counterbalance the perceived downside.

Which could hint both at where there's some wiggle room in the NDP's current position, and where Harper will go with his budgetary policy.

It originally struck me as curious that Harper would distract from his cabinet shuffle by discussing the Cons' plans for future tax cuts. But it might serve the Cons well to play up that angle as the first message to its corporate base, with the "but..." yet to come consisting of the need to invest in serious greenhouse gas emissions reduction with part of the spoils.

Meanwhile, the NDP can easily enough place its focus on ends rather than means, and argue that however distasteful it may be to offer tax reductions or incentives to the oil patch and other big businesses, it'll be worth it if the result is a real reduction in emissions. Moreover, any general tax measures (as opposed to specific incentives aimed at emissions reduction) would likely be included in a budget where the Cons are counting on Bloc support, not in any environmental legislation - meaning that the NDP wouldn't even have to vote for the side of the equation which would be most distasteful to Dippers.

In sum, it's readily foreseeable how the Cons could commit to strong emissions reduction targets without either doing any substantial harm to their base, or demanding terms which the NDP couldn't accept. And given the track record of Harper's attempts to negotiate with Layton, it's not unlikely that Layton may get Harper to move from his current position without surrending much (or any) territory in the process.

Granted, it's entirely possible that the Cons will instead refuse to do anything more than try to win NDP approval for a plan just as pitiful as their initial Clean Air Act. And I'd agree entirely with Greg that if the Cons do take that position, there's no reason at all for Layton to play along. After all, the NDP would still have the opportunity to broker an opposition deal - and if the Libs continue to insist on doing nothing in the current Parliament, then the NDP will be far better served presenting itself as the lone party fighting for immediate and effective action than as a willing fig leaf for the Cons.

But while that looms as the downside outcome, there's no reason why the Cons couldn't sell a legitimate piece of legislation to their base. The only question is whether PMS recognizes that to be in his party's best interests - and proving that point may be the most important part of the NDP's sales pitch in seeking a deal.

An implausible reaction

The Cons' Invisible Minister seems to be looking to make a name for herself in the government's ever-burgeoning spin department, as Carol Skelton is claiming to be happy to be on the receiving end of the sole unmitigated demotion in Harper's cabinet shuffle:
Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar MP Carol Skelton, who remains Saskatchewan's lone representative at the cabinet table as minister of national revenue, loses the portfolio of Western Economic Diversification to Alberta's Rona Ambrose, who was demoted from environment to intergovernmental affairs.

In an interview Thursday, Skelton said she was happy with the move, adding it was unusual for the national revenue minister -- who oversees the country's tax system -- to hold another portfolio.

"I'm extremely excited about what the prime minister has done. When he appointed cabinet to start with, he gave lots of us two and three different areas of expertise to look at. We've done our job and they've decided that possibly it's time to move some of these around to different departments," said Skelton, who was also moved off of cabinet's operations committee -- which charts the day-to-day course of the government -- but remains on cabinet's Treasury Board and economic affairs committee.

Clay Serby, Saskatchewan's deputy premier and a member of an NDP government that has been embroiled in a number of disputes with the federal Conservatives and its 12 Saskatchewan MPs, said he's troubled by what he says is clearly a "demotion" for Skelton.
Naturally, there's no explanation as to why Skelton would prefer the national revenue position to one which would allow Saskatchewan's lone cabinet minister to at least have some say in regional issues. And the committee demotion also seems to signal Skelton's removal from the ongoing administration of the Cons' government in favour of a wider planning role whose work product doesn't seem likely to survive the next election.

That said, Harper must surely be glad to know Skelton is such a loyal foot soldier as to take a strong public stand in favour of her own demotion rather than worrying about her province's loss of representation. Which means that if the Cons hold onto power long enough to shuffle their cabinet again, she figures to be in line to improve her position - unless, of course, she'd genuinely rather be demoted once more.

Update: Apparently Skelton is just as invisible in her own party as in the public at large.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A taste of what's lacking

The apparent floor-crossing by Wajid Khan nicely highlights just how much the Libs have squelched anything resembling internal democracy, as multiple Lib partisans seem entirely happy to have an outlet for internal renewal which wouldn't have been available if Khan had remained a Lib incumbent. But for those who are so pleased with the opening in Mississauga-Streetsville, shouldn't it be a matter of real concern that none of the other ridings now held by Lib MPs will receive any such opportunity?

Shuffling the deck

A few notes on the Cons' cabinet shuffle:

- While John Baird will presumably hold up to questioning better than Rona Ambrose did in the Environment role, it's worth noting his own dubious record to date.

Baird's previous assignment likewise involved the Cons' signature piece of legislation for the year. But by the time the Accountability Act became law, it had been drained of many of the Cons' promises and had undergone major revisions to clean up serious drafting oversights...resulting in an awful lot of work for a very small increase in actual accountability. And while that kind of outcome may have been acceptable on a file where the Cons' main competitors genuinely preferred to see nothing done, it won't be good enough in an area where every other federal party has taken up the cause.

Moreover, it was Baird's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the realities of existing election law that exposed the Cons' convention fee scandal. And PMS surely can't relish the prospect of the Cons' similarly-flawed assumptions on the environment coming to light.

- With Wajid Khan apparently not crossing the floor (yet?), it's all the more odd that he wouldn't state any commitment to the Libs when asked about the possibility.

- But while floor-crossing may not be an issue this time out, PMS does seem to have managed to toss yet more cabinet responsibility into the Senate which he so decries - this time by making Marjory LeBreton the Secretary of State for Seniors (in addition to her previous role as Senate governent leader).

- Meanwhile, the streamlined Cabinet which Harper once boasted about seems to be expanding in a hurry with the addition of five new "secretaries of state".

- As for the ministers shuffled around within Cabinet, few of the changes appear likely to make much difference in substance. But it'll be worth keeping an eye out to see whether Rob Nicholson brings a less extreme stance to the Justice role than Vic Toews did - or whether he's simply seen as a more believable voice for the same reactionary policies.

Eyeing the jump

It remains to be seen whether or not Wajid Khan actually will jump to the Cons as speculated by Susan Delacourt. But it can't be a good sign for the Libs that Khan himself doesn't even pretend to have a preference to stay in his current party:
(W)hether Khan intends to stay as a Liberal or cross the floor to the Conservatives became more of a mystery yesterday when neither he nor the Prime Minister's Office wanted to answer any questions about the political future of the MP for Mississauga-Streetsville.

"You are best to go to Khan directly on this," said Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"I will not comment on speculations and rumours," said Khan.

Nor would the PMO, on the eve of today's expected cabinet shuffle, answer questions about whether Khan had been approached to join the Tory caucus, as has been expected.

The mystery may not be allowed to last for too long, though. New Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion is due to sit down with Khan by the end of this week.

A spokesperson for Dion said yesterday that the discussion would include questions about the MP's future political allegiance.

"He is scheduled to come in and meet Stéphane later on this week. ... I'm sure it's something that will be addressed when they meet," said André Fortin, Dion's spokesperson.
Mind you, it would have helped if the Libs had insisted on some of that discussion last summer when Harper first recruited Khan as an adviser. Instead, they've allowed the issue to fester for several months, offering PMS a prime opportunity to offer Khan whatever inducements he may want in exchange for a party swap. And Khan's public silence only seems to suggest a refusal to acknowledge any party loyalty - which has to call into question whether he really has any preference as between the Libs and the Cons.

Of course, the Libs were entirely willing to ignore their own member's nonexistent loyalty as a factor last time one of their MPs crossed the floor. But the more often Canadians see the apparent interchangeability between the Libs and Cons in the eyes of the MPs jumping back and forth, the less likely they are to believe the Libs' protestations that there's a real difference between the two.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Uncertain benefits

CBC reports that the Cons have managed to make their fitness tax benefit unclear enough to leave many parents (and others) with no idea which activities are included. Needless to say, the end result appears to be that sports associations will be forced to try to plead their case in court...which doesn't seem to be the kind of activity the Cons were supposedly trying to encourage.

An impending appointment

Carol Goar notes that it's only been through the efforts of several federal leaders - and without any single agreement to cooperate - that Canada's election laws have been revised to reduce the impact of big money. But the new laws will only be as effective as the agency which enforces them...which leads against to the question of who will become Canada's next Chief Electoral Officer.

And the intrigue in that department only seems to be beginning. As noted by Kady O'Malley, while an appointment may take place by a majority resolution in Parliament, all prior CEOs have in fact been appointed unanimously. And it would be difficult for PMS to justify any change from that precedent for the moment.

But it's worth watching whether Harper will offer up a strategic nomination based on the CEO age limit of 65. Presumably no party would bother opposing a well-respected, neutral nominee in his or her early 60s to act as a caretaker for the next federal election, particularly given that the ability to take over quickly is a must.

That could push the decision on a longer-term CEO off into a future Parliament. And if Harper is gambling on winning a majority in the next election, then it wouldn't be particularly surprising to see a Gerry Nicholls-approved partisan put in place over opposition objections at that point.

Of course, PMS may yet surprise by nominating someone who'll stay in the role for a longer period of time (though in that case the nominee's record would likely come under far more scrutiny). But given the Cons' obvious Republican influences, both the opposition parties and Canadian voters will need to be wary of the possibility of Harper stacking the electoral deck. And if PMS is able to force one of his allies into the CEO position, then it may not be long before all the good work that's been done to try to clean up federal politics will prove to have gone for naught.

Grudging progress

For those wondering what it would take for the Cons to at least pretend to listen to anybody who doesn't share their ideology, we now have an answer. After a year in power, an utter flop of a Clean Air Act which was itself delayed for supposed consultations, two leadership races and a byelection which made clear that the environment isn't going to be easily dismissed, and public prodding from the Cons' own party godfather, the PMO is finally willing to meet with environmental groups to discuss greenhouse gas emissions.

But in case there was any doubt whose interests the Cons have in mind, the explicit purpose of the meetings is to "beef up the government's record heading in to a key winter session". Which makes it all too likely that even these meetings will lead to more hot air from the Cons rather than any action which isn't forced on them by the opposition parties.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

On benchmarks

Jason Cherniak's position against a reasonable boost to Ontario's minimum wage has been rightly slammed today. But there's another point which seems to have been missed so far: even Cherniak's own precondition for the proposed raise is one that has been met if one looks at the issue fairly.

According to Cherniak:
If you want to convince me to support an increase in minimum wage, then convince me that profits have grown by 25% without an equivalent growth in wages over the past year or two.
Now, I presume that Cherniak is well-enough informed to know that the need for a boost in the minimum wage isn't based solely on the last two years. I presume further that Cherniak wouldn't much want to have to defend Mike Harris' record of inaction on the minimum wage. Of course, if that's wrong, then I'll encourage him to show just how little difference there sometimes is between staunch Libs and Cons when workers' interests come into play.

That preface aside, let's look at how Ontario's minimum wage has changed compared to its corporate profit levels over the last decade for which data is available (1995-2005, since Ontario's economic data goes only to 2005). As inflation should affect both figures equally, I presume it doesn't need to be included in the equation. (But in case you were wondering, the consumer price index has increased by roughly 23% over the decade.)

The chart below includes four columns: the year, the actual minimum wage, the corporate profit level, and the minimum wage if adjusted to match the increase or decrease in corporate profit levels.

Year - Min(Act) - Profits - Min(Adj)
1995 - $6.85 - $33.1 Billion - $6.85
1997 - $6.85 - $37.5 Billion - $7.76
1999 - $6.85 - $49.7 Billion - $10.29
2001 - $6.85 - $49.3 Billion - $10.20
2003 - $6.85 - $56.9 Billion - $11.76
2005 - $7.45 - $64.4 Billion - $13.33

In other words, if the minimum wage had actually been adjusted by Cherniak's suggested benchmark over the past decade-plus, the minimum wage would have exceeded the $10/hr which Cherniak now considers unreasonable as early as 1999, and would currently be well in excess of $13.

Not that I expect Cherniak to continue referring to corporate profits as a measuring stick once the numbers show just how far behind minimum-wage workers have fallen. But the real numbers show clearly that there's an awful long way to go to make up the ground that Ontario's workers have lost. And if the Libs really don't see anything out of whack about a minimum wage that's still far below even inflation over the past decade (let alone corporate profit levels), then that should say all we need to know about their lack of respect for workers.

Update: And the goalposts have been moved.

About time

Good on the CCPA for tracking the minute at which an average top-100 CEO earned as much as the average Canadian will this year - which for those paying attention took place before most Canadians took their coffee break this morning:
By the time the average Canadian grudgingly drags his or her still-hungover body into work Tuesday, swaps holiday tales with the stiff in the next cubicle, and hunkers down to work, the country's highest-paid CEOs will have already earned the worker's annual salary.

Minimum-wage workers would have barely rolled out of bed on New Year's Day by the time the country's top earners pocketed the $15,931 that will likely take the low-paid workers all of 2007 to make.

A study released Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says the 100 highest-paid private-sector executives will have earned an average Canadian's salary of $38,010 by 9:46 a.m. Tuesday...

Mackenzie crunched the numbers based on 2005 salary figures from Statistics Canada and Report on Business magazine's most recent listing of the 100 best-paid CEOs of Canadian publicly traded companies.

According to his figures, by the time Canadians flick on the 6 p.m. news Tuesday, the average CEO will have pocketed a staggering $70,000.

"I was kind of hoping it would get into the second week of January. As it turns out, it was not even close," Mackenzie quipped. "Once people get over how stunning the differentials are, I think it really raises a lot of questions in people's minds."

"How can somebody possibly be worth that amount in income and ... if those people are taking that much money out of the company or out of the economy, what does that mean for what's left for the rest of us?"
Of course, pointing out the problem is only a small first step. But it's still far too rare for the gaping chasm between Canada's highest-paid executives and the bulk of its citizens to be exposed this vividly. And the acknowledgement can only lead to important questions about how the gap has evolved, and what can be done to start narrowing it.

(For those wondering, yes, I have been looking forward to just this type of analysis for quite some time.)

(h/t to Indiescribe.)

On minor contributions

The Star points out just how little benefit there is to be had in relying on voluntary contributions to a government end:
(W)hile (Greg Sorbara) still likes to blame former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris for leaving Ontario's finances in a mess after eight years of tax cuts, there is some money that keeps rolling into provincial coffers year after year thanks to Harris and his successor, former finance minister Ernie Eves.

It's the Ontario Opportunities Fund, where a few Ontarians – and few they are – contribute all or part of their tax refunds to defray the provincial deficit. There's a box to tick on the last page of the annual income tax form.

Last year, the fund raised $121,202 – not even enough to pay the $157,633 annual salary of a cabinet minister...

The fund was launched in 1996, the year after Harris surged to power with his Common Sense Revolution promising to cut taxes and slash government spending. In the end, that political formula left the province with an annual deficit of more than $5 billion when the Liberals took power in 2003.

Perhaps fittingly, that's also the year Ontario taxpayers – no doubt feeling flush with cash from all those tax cuts – ponied up $254,419 to the opportunities fund, a peak it hasn't reached since.
And lest anybody accuse Ontario's Cons of having figured out how insignificant any voluntary contributions would be:
(T)he opportunities fund could bring in bigger contributions if the Liberals did more to make taxpayers aware of it, says Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory.

"If they bothered to promote it at all they could probably get the number up quite significantly and that would be good for Ontario as well."
In fairness, the fund certainly can't be seen as a bad idea in principle, and its participants deserve plenty of credit for their willingness to help out Ontario's financial situation. But the failure of the fund to have more than the slightest impact on the province as a whole should cast all the more doubt on any claim that voluntary participation is likely to be a viable means to any important end.

Meanwhile, it also speaks volumes about Tory's mindset that he apparently hasn't learned anything from the fund's minor contribution under the Harris regime as well as the current one. Even if it's indeed true that the fund could be brought back to its original numbers through more consistent reminders, it's entirely likely that that amount could be recovered many times over by even a relatively minor crackdown on back taxes (or choice not to extend a single random tax benefit as Tory's federal cousins seem so eager to do). Which means that for a province looking to eliminate its deficit, the most important step has to be to empower a government with a better sense of proportion than Ontario's Cons past or present.


The Cons' impending cabinet shuffle already ranks as one of the more overreported stories of the past month. But Jane Taber takes the reporting to new depths, combining an utter lack of meaningful information with a remarkable amount of pure Con spin:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is wasting no time getting back to work, scheduling a series of meetings with senior ministers beginning Tuesday amid rumours of a pre-election cabinet shuffle.

Alberta MP and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, one of the Prime Minister's must trusted and top performing ministers, was scheduled to fly back to Ottawa Monday.

He is one of the ministers scheduled to meet with Mr. Harper, according to a senior Tory source.

“. . . [The meetings] suggest at a bare minimum a focused government carefully planning its way forward, whether or not a shuffle is in the cards. Though it seems more likely than not,” the source said about the individual meetings...

Like Mr. Prentice, Mr. Flaherty has been a key member of the Harper cabinet and seen as being able to deliver. So have Industry Minister Maxime Bernier and Treasury Board President John Baird.

Industry types such as Mr. Bernier would not want to see him shuffled.

However, there is some speculation that Mr. Baird, who is a bilingual, an aggressive performer in Question Period and a good communicator, could be moved to a portfolio that needs a greater profile.
Now, it's debatable whether it's more problematic for Taber herself to be lavishing unvarnished praise on PMS and his cabinet (even Rona Ambrose is painted as a victim of circumstances rather than someone who's shown no qualms about simply making up false answers), or for her to give such prominent and uncontradicted play to the Cons' own self-promotion. But it does seem clear that the Cons are taking full advantage of those like Taber who are willing to act as stenographers for the government - which should only highlight the need for any self-respecting reporter to present something more than merely what PMS wants the public to hear.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A burning question

Erin raises one of the big questions about Stephane Dion which the Libs probably don't want to have to deal with anytime soon. Namely, is Dion anywhere near as progressive economically as his media image suggests?
The only grounds for optimism seem to be that Dion has said very little about economics and some good things about the environment. However, unless Dion says something different about economics, we have to assume that he accepts the right-wing orthodoxy of the governments in which he was a cabinet minister. Dion’s legacy as environment minister was a bunch of bogus voluntary programs.

There are significant grounds for pessimism. In the last three parliamentary votes on anti-scab legislation, Dion opposed it twice and did not vote once. During the Liberal leadership race, he sneered that “the NDP do not understand the market economy” and defended the “compassion” of Paul Martin’s 1995 budget cuts.
In addition to this track record which doesn't seem to have been substantively challenged, it's worth again mentioning Dion's apparent position against any federal involvement in areas which could possibly be construed as provincial jurisdiction - even where the provinces are perfectly happy to see Ottawa involved.

There's no doubt that Canada needs a strong progressive voice to oppose Harper's attempts to first starve the federal government, then tie it down to keep it from recovering. But barring a major change from his past positions, it looks far too likely that Dion's views are disturbingly close to PMS' on both counts. And if so, then Canadian voters may only have one choice willing to stand up for a federal government which looks to act for the good of the country, rather than looking for excuses not to.

Costs and benefits

The Globe and Mail reports on an effort to wring some extra money out of Canadian citizens living abroad:

As Ottawa finally begins to review Canada's citizenship policy -- one of the most generous in the world -- critics are calling for a special tax for overseas Canadians...

This summer's $94-million evacuation of 15,000 Lebanese-Canadians from war-torn Lebanon finally prompted Ottawa to announce a review of Canada's citizenship policy. Immigration Minister Monte Solberg won't divulge details about the review, but he has said it is time to review the obligations of citizens who live abroad while drawing on Canada's social programs.
Mr. Kurland advocates the introduction of a special new tax for non-resident citizens. Canadians who have been living overseas for more than five years should pay $500 for a passport, he said.
This idea has also been endorsed by John Chant, a retired Simon Fraser University economist, in a study titled the Passport Package, released this month by the C.D. Howe Institute...

Such a tax would raise about $200-million a year, based on the estimate that 80 per cent of the 2.7 million overseas Canadians would choose to maintain their citizenship.
The policy would be less cumbersome and bureaucratic than requiring Canadians living abroad to pay income taxes.
It's obvious why the idea could be a winner among the Cons, combining a ready excuse to start cutting into the nature of Canadian citizenship with a flat-dollar tax system. But for those same reasons, the policy looks to have serious flaws from a less reactionary standpoint.

On the question of treating citizens equally, the plan would appear to set up highly differential treatment based on relatively trivial distinctions. There's no apparent reason why a four-year degree abroad should have no impact on one's citizenship while a further year of work would render a person un-Canadian (subject to payment of a special levy). Meanwhile, a person could easily be resident elsewhere while still making substantial contributions to Canada over the course of visits - a factor which would go completely unaccounted for in an analysis based solely on residency. And the problems with those distinctions are all the worse where (as appears to be the case in the proposal) the effect of non-residency and non-payment is the loss of citizenship outright.

Of course, there is another possibility: that the payment (or non-payment) would affect only the citizen's passport itself, rather than citizenship status. But in that case, the plan either provides an excuse for Canada's government to utterly neglect Canadian citizens abroad based on their lack of a single document, or serves as nothing but a cash cow if Canadians abroad will still receive proper support from Ottawa in the absence of a passport.

Meanwhile, even if it could be assumed that there's a sound basis to divide up citizens based on their recent residency, the flat tax structure can only be seen as yet another attack on progressive revenue collection. Under the usual guise of labelling any analysis of ability to pay as too "cumbersome and bureaucratic" to be worth bothering with, the scheme would present a virtually nonexistent cost of business for anybody using Canadian citizenship as a commercial jumping-off point, while imposing a potentially serious burden on dual citizens living in poorer countries and/or living abroad for reasons other than profit. Which can only help to tilt Canada's already money-heavy immigration policy toward further prioritizing wealth over all other factors.

Accordingly, it'll be for the best if the proposal isn't taken more seriously than it deserves to be. But it remains to be seen whether the Cons will want to take the opportunity to move toward a couple of their ideological goals - regardless of the obvious problems with doing so.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all, and to all a good year!

Note that to ring in 2007, I've switched Accidental Deliberations over to the new Blogger. I haven't noticed any problems so far, but don't hesitate to point out any issues which may turn up in reading it.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006: A Brief and Incomplete Look Back

A few notes on the Canadian political scene over the past year...

Story Which Deserved More Attention:
The TILMA (Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement) - which figures to become much more familiar over the next year if the federal Cons really do plan on pushing it across the country.

Story Which Deserved Less Attention:
The Quebec "nation" debate, which shifted from an internal Lib discussion to a multi-party strategic war to a potential albatross around the Cons' neck, all without any substantive contribution to Canadian public policy.

Story Which Should Have Developed Further:
The NDP's proposed tenant's revolt to take back House of Commons control over the use of the Parliament buildings.

Story Which Thankfully Received Little Attention:
Paul Hill's proposal for an "economic union" between Saskatchewan and Alberta - which would presumably make the TILMA look like a free-government agreement in comparison. (Though it's worth wondering whether this will resurface in Saskatchewan's upcoming provincial election campaign.)

Story Which Bears Attention in Early 2008:
The status of the candidate loans from the Libs' leadership race, and particularly whether any of them will decide to go the Paul Hellyer route. (Though we may know by the end of this year whether the Libs will have a realistic shot at paying off their debts.)

Least Catchy Chant:
“I was a Michael Ignatieff supporter, and I decline to cast my ballot.”
- Attributed to Bob Rae supporters at the Lib convention by Vijay Sappani

Most Excessive Feigned Outrage in Response to the Year's Least Catchy Chant:
"Rae organisers are bringing in the dirt from nasty NDP type politics to the Liberal convention...This is the problem we have with cross over dirty old experienced politicians who bring their baggage with them. Worse he has betrayed Ontario and his friend of three decades, what makes you think he will not betray the Grits and Canada?"
- Vijay Sappani

Least Newsworthy Scoop (tie):
In year-end interviews, two writers lavished credit on themselves: for getting Stephen Harper to "admit" that he's "having a great time" as Prime Minister; and for securing the "candid admission" that Harper prefers being in government to being in opposition.
- Licia Corbella and Bruce Cheadle, respectively

Most Gullible Journalist:
Any reporter who honestly expects to be "the first to know" about the Cons' much-rumoured cabinet shuffle based solely on Stephen Harper's word.
- The Star's Political Notebook

Easiest 2007 Prediction:
That the impending Ontario election campaign won't lack for negative advertising.
- Ian Urquhart

It's definitely been an interesting year in Canadian politics - but with surprisingly little long-term development to show for the intrigue, as it's entirely possible that the bulk of the Cons' attempts to change Canada's political landscape could be undone by this time next year. Which means that 2006 is more likely to be remembered for laying the groundwork for the future (either through the Cons' election, the NDP's change in focus toward pursuing government, or the Libs' election of Dion as leader) than for its actual substantive results.

Truth suppressed

Not many in the corporate media seem to have been willing to consider any of the harms associated with Saddam Hussein's execution (aside from valid general concerns about the death penalty itself). But Eric Margolis recognizes what's now been lost:
No one can accuse me of sympathy for Saddam or his fellow thugs who terrorized Iraq. But I was thoroughly disgusted and ashamed by the kangaroo court created and stage-managed by the U.S. that condemned Saddam.

It was a disgraceful farrago of Soviet-style show trial and judicial circus. Washington, which claimed to be bringing the fruits of democracy to the benighted Arab World, put on a sinister legal farce worthy of, ironically, Saddam's courts.

Iraq's deposed president, whom Osama bin Laden called "the worst Arab despot" should have faced real justice at an international legal tribunal like the UN Hague Court. That would have served warning to other despots who violated human rights and committed aggression.

The United States did right to hand over Serb tyrant Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague. But Saddam had to be silenced before he told the world about his long collusion with the United States. Dead men tell no tales...

Saddam should have faced trial for his unprovoked 1980 aggression against Iran that ended up causing one million dead and wounded.

But in this crime, Saddam was covertly backed by his principal accomplices, the U.S. and Britain. Donald Rumsfeld even went to Baghdad to offer Saddam arms, finance and intelligence. Hanging Saddam eliminated the main witness.
Of course, there are other crimes in Saddam's past equally deserving of a full trial aside from the Iran invasion. But it's beyond doubt that the rest of his would-be rap sheet - along with the U.S.' strategic contribution to it - will now likely be ignored in the longer term for lack of the highest-profile defendant and most important witness. Which only makes it all the more likely that the same pattern will repeat itself under new Saddam figures in Iraq and elsewhere in the future...with the U.S.' involvement once again getting glossed over in the final account.