Saturday, February 03, 2007

Selective challenges

Thomas Walkom notes that for all the Cons' hatred for the dearly-departed Court Challenges Program, they don't seem to have the slightest concern about tax money supporting the efforts of right-wing interest groups to challenge Canadian laws:
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper axed the Court Challenges Program last fall, Ottawa's rationale was that taxpayers shouldn't have to support interest groups trying to take elected governments to court...

(W)hat Baird didn't mention is that taxpayers are still subsidizing interest groups that want to take governments to court. The big difference is that, now, proportionally more public money goes to fund conservative causes – including attempts to dismantle medicare.

The poster boy for what is, in effect, a hidden court challenges program is the Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation. Founded in 2002, it opposes what it sees as the watering down of constitutional principles by governments and left-wing interest groups.

To that end, it is directly subsidizing a long-running court challenge against the 2000 self-government treaty between Ottawa, British Columbia and the Nisga'a people of that province. Executive director John Carpay says it is also helping to fund a constitutional challenge against Alberta's medicare system, launched last September by Calgary accountant Bill Murray...

Until its demise last fall, the Court Challenges Program was front and centre among those dark forces. Its sin, in Carpay's words, was to give money "to special interest groups to advance their politically correct causes through the courts. ...

"Requiring people to pay for advocacy with which they disagree does violence to a person's conscience," he wrote in the Calgary Herald. "How would (pro-choice) supporters feel if their tax dollars were used for court challenges to recognize the right of unborn children?"

Which would be a reasonable argument if the legal playing field were level and if no advocacy group of any political persuasion received government money.

But in the real world, neither of those conditions holds. First, the playing field is not level. Constitutional court cases are prohibitively expensive for anyone without access to a lot of money. Second, the end of the Court Challenges Program may have reduced federal subsidies, but it has not ended them. It has merely redirected them.

The mechanism for this redirection is the registered charity. Thanks to the Canadian Constitution Foundation's charitable status, anyone who supports its particular political causes gets a tax writeoff that, in effect, all other taxpayers – including those who disagree with its aims – have to cover.

The more successful the foundation is in encouraging wealthy Canadians to support its particular brand of political advocacy, the greater will be the tax loss that other Canadians will have to make up.
Walkom notes that some left-wing groups, notably the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, also receive charitable tax status which goes to fund legal challenges. But to date there's been a major practical difference: while LEAF takes only intervenor status at the appellate level, it doesn't directly fund cases from the beginning - meaning that an individual has to have enough resources individually to get a case to that level before LEAF will get involved.

In contrast, the Canadian Constitutional Foundation funds litigation from day one - even though from the sound of it, its participants and beneficiaries don't appear to fall into the class of people particularly needing the assistance to get a case into court.

Of course, even if there were a perfect parallel between the left wing and right wing in the charity-based funding structure, that wouldn't eliminate the need for a Court Challenges Program to assist individuals whose cases can't be easily fit within the mandate of an existing charity. And it only fits with the Cons' polarizing philosophy that their "balance" manages to maintain governmental support for those with a political cause on both sides of the spectrum, while so proudly removing any funding for challenges by Canadians who don't have an interest group (of whatever political stripe) supporting them.

On limited uses

CanWest reports that the Cons appear set to break one of their few promises which actually deserved support, choosing to set up smaller military refuelling sites rather than building a promised deep-water port in Canada's Arctic region:
(T)he Harper government appears to be backing off its election promise to build a deep water port in the Arctic, as well as an ambitious plan to build a fleet of armed icebreakers. Instead, according to the government's Canada First Defence Strategy paper, it will construct a forward operating refuelling and berthing site for navy ships and build six Arctic patrol vessels...

Now, it's arguable that the icebreaker plan was worth scrapping - particularly given the likelihood that by the time the fleet is built, the amount of ice left to break will be far less of a factor in the ability of Canadians and others to move around the Arctic region.

But as the Arctic becomes more accessible, it'll also become a virtual certainty that shipping will start happening through the Northwest Passage. Which in turn will lead to more opportunities for an improved supply of goods to Canada's northern areas, and perhaps a significant increase in the settlement of the Arctic coastline.

Unfortunately, though, such opportunities will require some infrastructure available for both commercial and military use - not sites designed solely for the use of Canada's navy. And the Cons' backtracking on the deep-water port will only send the signal that Canada's government isn't interested in the area for anything but defence purposes...which can only send a negative message both to current northern residents, and to the suppliers who otherwise might be interested in improving the accessibility of goods in the area.

Hot air rising

For all the hysteria about the NDP supposedly "propping up" the Cons (which they've apparently miraculously managed to do despite the conspicuous lack of any votes lately which could result in the Cons losing power), it's a prominent Lib who's providing undeserved political cover for the Cons' plan to allow greenhouse gas emissions to keep increasing:
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and Toronto MP John Godfrey, the party's former environment critic, "have acknowledged that intensity is the way to go," (said John Baird).

But Godfrey, now chair of the Liberal caucus environment committee, agreed intensity targets could be acceptable if they're part of a long-term strategy to achieve cuts.

"If it leads to an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it's okay," he said.

Many scientists oppose such targets because they'd let emissions keep growing, and environmentalists condemn that as a phoney policy.

"The Canadian public won't stand for intensity targets," said John Bennett, executive director of the Climate Action Network, a coalition of environment groups. "They are nothing more than fakery. We have to have absolute caps."

"Intensity targets are a means for politicians to pretend they're doing something when, in reality, they're allowing emissions to increase," said Matthew Bramley, Ottawa researcher for the Calgary-based Pembina Institute.
So, to sum up: while Lib bloggers rightly condemn the Cons for refusing to move past the bad joke that is an intensity-target scheme, their own party is perfectly happy to support exactly that type of plan - leaving open only the question of how far down the road to punt the need to actually reduce emissions. Or to use Greg's analogy, "let's just slow down the flow of water for now, and we'll see about draining the tub in a decade or so".

I hope we'll see at least some outcry from the Libs supposedly committed to real emission reductions when it's their own party buying into the same false promises that the Cons are trying to push. But it's hard to be optimistic at this point.

Update: To Scott's credit, he's right on top of it.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Friday, February 02, 2007

On incentives

The Globe and Mail reports that the Cons are moving to ensure that the oil industry isn't the only source of air quality problems benefitting from federal tax breaks, as Jim Flaherty has declared a giveaway to Ontario tobacco processors:
(T)he Harper government doled out a pre-budget tax break to a select few firms in the tobacco industry on Friday, saying the measure was necessary to protect about 200 jobs.

But it's refusing to say which companies get the surprise break.

The relief, which amounts to $500,000 in forgone tax revenue, will benefit leaf tobacco processors that are not affiliated with tobacco manufacturers, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said...

Mr. Flaherty argued that the tax break doesn't mean the Tories are relaxing anti-smoking efforts.

“Taxation of tobacco products remains a key element of government efforts to control consumption, particularly among our youth.”
Remember that the Cons' track record includes cutting funding to First Nations smoking prevention along with today's giveaway to tobacco producers. In that light, the Cons' supposed dedication to limiting smoking bears a rather disturbing similarity to their claimed interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions - and Canadians will have yet another reason to breathe easier once the Cons are out of office.

(Edit: typo.)

On idolatry

I'm sure it's not the first example of a Liberal messiah complex, but can anybody recall seeing one go this far?

On true colours

Since the Cons' continued cluelessness on greenhouse gas emissions demands more than just a passing reference, here's a shorter (or at least restated) John Baird on his commitment to the issue:

"I'm not a member of the Flat Earth Society. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't still make 'not falling off the edge of the world' my main goal when I navigate."

Update: Needless to say, I agree with the many other commentators who are less than happy with the Cons' effort to once again repackage the same old nonsense and pretend it's a revolutionary new idea. And that attempt should entirely eliminate any trace of "good faith" the Cons could claim to have shown with their funding for the Spirit Bear Rainforest.

But there's still at least some chance that some good can come of continued effort to put together a new bill on climate change. And that's true even if the Libs remain entirely disinterested in working toward an opposition plan.

After all, it's possible that the reannouncement is mostly for show - perhaps an effort to convince the oil patch that the Cons have done everything in their power to avoid absolute emission limits, and can't help but to give in to the resulting outcry. Or maybe the Cons honestly believed that a slight change in message/messenger would salvage their initial inaction plan - and a strong enough counterattack now will convince Harper that nobody in his party can pull off the trick.

Of course, it doesn't speak well for the Cons that even the best-case scenario involves them being either dishonest or utterly clueless.

But it shouldn't be news that Harper is determined to do as little as possible on the environment without it being fatal to the Cons' electoral chances - or that the Cons have a habit of underestimating what that minimum standard is. Which means only that there's still every bit of need that there ever was to ensure that nothing is left either to chance or to the Cons' judgment in any eventual legislation.

Brokers and barriers

I've seen a few commentaries lately criticizing the lack of multi-party cooperation on the environment. But from what I've read, Don Martin's column today is the first mainstream article to point out that there's already one party doing everything it can to bring about that kind of cooperation on an actual plan:
Sitting in the middle of the debate wearing looks of wide-eyed disgust are the New Democrats. And while this praise doesn't come easily to me, there's not much doubt they're the honest brokers of the debate. They've pushed for speedy action on the government's bill and have proposed a series of amendments to expedite it along.

"It is like a pantomime between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton," cracked New Democrat MP Denise Savoie as she watched accusations of climate-change inaction being exchanged between Liberal and Conservative MPs.
Of course, it's awfully tough to be a successful "honest broker" when trying to work out an agreement with parties which are either trying to minimize the scope of what needs to be done, or to delay in hopes that nothing will be accomplished at all. And as Martin notes, that explains both the NDP's current frustration, and the lack of progress to date.

But if enough attention gets paid to the difference between those looking to posture on the issue and those looking to get something done, it's hard to see how any party could stay in the former category without paying a serious political price. Which means that we can only hope that more commentators will reach the same realization as Martin - since that may be the only way to push the Libs, the Cons or both to cooperate in a real discussion on emissions reduction.

On summary executions

CBC reports on the latest developments surrounding the Canadian Television Fund, as the much-ballyhooed meeting between Bev Oda and the cable industry seems to have led to predictably one-sided results:
The heritage committee in the House of Commons approved hearings beginning next week into the future of the beleaguered Canadian Television Fund.

New Democrat heritage critic Charlie Angus made a motion in the House on Thursday calling for the hearings after reading a cable industry website that boasted the CTF is "dead, done, gone."

Heritage Minister Bev Oda met with Canada's five largest cable companies on Tuesday to talk about the CTF, which funds Canadian television programs such as DeGrassi Next Generation, Da Vinci's City Hall and Trailer Park Boys.

A cable industry website published an analysis of the meeting on Thursday that quotes Ken Stein, the senior vice-president of Shaw Communications in Calgary, saying: "The fund can't be fixed. It's dead, done, gone. The fund has failed."

The cable companies believe the minister supports their position that the CTF should be shut down, Angus said.
It should be noted that the CTF's current funding was received partly from the cable companies and partly from the federal government - which claimed last week that it planned on keeping up its part of the funding for another two years. So there's no apparent reason why even a complete capitulation to the cable companies' concerns would ever lead to the outright elimination of the Fund.

But then, reason seldom seems to win out over the Cons' hatred of effective government. And with Oda herself speaking only in vague platitudes in response to Angus' questions rather than even making reference to the supposed government commitment to the Television Fund, it looks all too certain that Canadian television production has joined so many other important priorities on the chopping block.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A dangerous disease

The Tyee has had another couple of excellent articles this week on the damage being done to B.C.'s health-care system by Gordon Campbell's Lib government. Will McMartin started off by pointing out the incestuous relationship between big B.C. business and the health-care structure set up by Campbell. But even more striking is Tom Sandborn's report today that Campbell's anti-public sector stance has been so extreme as to force one of the province's big-business appointments (among others) to resign over the constant interference:
Top officials at the Fraser Health Authority opposed the provincial government's preferred P3 form of privatization in health care this summer, only to have Premier Campbell overrule their recommendations, recently released documents show.

The chair of the Fraser Health Authority at the time, Keith Purchase, made headlines last week by resigning his post, a move said to be caused by his frustration at being "out of the loop" in the budget process.

The revelation that the Fraser Health Authority also was at odds with the premier's office over how to finance facilities may shed further light on Purchase's frustration.

Excerpts from minutes of the health authority's facilities committee meetings in February and June of 2006, obtained through a freedom of information request by the B.C. Health Coalition and released to the public Jan. 31, 2007, show that Purchase was directed to meet with deputy health minister Penny Ballem and deputy finance minister Tamara Vrooman to convey the view of the Authority's top officials that "P3s are not the first choice of the committee."...

Both Ballem and Purchase have since resigned from their positions, Ballem in June and Purchase last week. Ballem cited her disagreement with the direction B.C. was taking in health care as reason for her resignation, and Purchase's unexpected resignation last Friday was widely reported to be in response to the government's decision to fire Vancouver Coastal Health Care Authority chair Trevor Johnstone, a longtime friend and business colleague.

In (an) excerpt from committee minutes dated Feb. 13, 2006, the point is made that "...if we undertake the traditional partnerships strategy (P3) there is a lesser ability to control design, longer lead times and additional risk."...

Today's revelations come at a time when some observers say the administrative structures controlling B.C. health delivery are in serious disarray. Vaughn Palmer reported in a column in the Vancouver Sun Jan. 31, for example, that Purchase had explained his sudden resignation from the Fraser Health Authority in an e-mail to senior colleagues that said he was leaving in part because of Johnstone's firing, but also because of government demands that he follow "a budget process which compelled me to keep my board colleagues out of the loop."

Purchase went on to say "I feel that decisions beyond our control are about to take Fraser Health rapidly backwards and this has become an affront to my personal integrity."
Now, if Campbell and his administration really believed that the P3 structure was the most efficient based on a fair comparison, it would only make sense that they'd try to make that case for B.C.'s health regions rather than simply imposing it by fiat. Instead, though, it appears that those who know the health-care system best have been able to see through the empty promises of P3s.

In response, given the choice between pushing his preferred structure or allowing the province's health-care system to operate effectively, Campbell has made clear that the former is going to be his top priority. Which should only offer yet one more indication that the only reasonable outcome of B.C.'s current health-care "conversation" is a conclusion that the greatest obstacle to a sustainable system is the party currently in power.

Not quite thought through

Stephane Dion's Kyoto motion sounds well and good to the extent it calls for Parliament to reaffirm Canada's commitment to Kyoto's principles and targets. But does he really want to see the Cons "create and publish a...plan" of their own rather than consulting with the other parties to work toward some agreement on what needs to be done?

And if the motion passes and Harper decides the Cons should go it alone, can a mailout of "choice in emission reduction" cheques be far behind?

More medical negligence

The story surprisingly seems to have been overlooked following Tuesday's Question Period. But Tony Clement has apparently backed off even the Cons' meek initial response to Quebec's plan to facilitate health care double-dipping, leaving any enforcement of the Canada Health Act to the same provincial government which has already indicated its intention to allow patients to pay their way to the front of the line:
Ms. Penny Priddy (Surrey North, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, public health advocates are worried about a wait times plan in Quebec that will have far reaching effects. The new legislation would create a new industry in Quebec: for profit hospitals being paid for by public money. The health minister must immediately take steps to protect our public medicare system. What action has he taken so far?

Hon. Tony Clement (Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, as the Prime Minister indicated during the election campaign and as we have indicated as a government, we support the Canada Health Act and the principles of the Canada Health Act which include universal accessibility and universal coverage.

I had a conversation with my Quebec counterpart this morning. He is investigating the situation involving a Montreal clinic. I have every confidence that the Government of Quebec will support the Canada Health Act and universal accessibility.
In case there's any doubt, that's the same Quebec counterpart who's himself responsible for the legislation which formed the subject matter of Priddy's question. Which means that in addition to failing to respond to the question (though in fairness, the diversion was atypically from one relevant issue to another), Clement's answer signals that the Cons are perfectly content to let the provinces have the sole say as to whether or not their health-care schemes meet federal standards.

And that would be bad enough if the problem was merely the Cons' dereliction of duty. But then there's also the question of whether there's any reason for "confidence that the Government of Quebec will support the Canada Health Act". So let's take a look at what Couillard's office has had to say as to what standards it's concerned about:
When asked whether such fees were legal, an aide to Health Minister Philippe Couillard responded that the new law will resolve the question.

"Under Bill 33, accessory fees will be outlined in detail - what can be an accessory fee and what cannot," said Isabelle Merizzi.
In other words, Clement is entirely willing to leave the enforcement of federal standards to the judgment of a provincial government which (a) doesn't even consider those standards to be relevant to the question of what is and isn't legal, and (b) is itself responsible for one of the two likely breaches of federal law in question (and indeed the one which Clement was asked about initially).

Needless to say, any continued neglect by the federal government can only damage single-payer health care in Canada - both by allowing private funding to take a larger role, and by signalling to provinces that they can ignore the Canada Health Act with impunity. Which means that Priddy, the NDP and anybody else who values universal accessibility should be doing everything possible to highlight the danger both in Couillard's legislation, and in Clement's complete refusal to do anything other than pass the issue off to the source of the problem.

On effective pressure

The Star joins the crowd trying to paint every interaction between the NDP and the Cons which falls short of a bar brawl as evidence of an alliance between the two. But the real story is that least some progress to preserve B.C.'s rainforest has been made as a result of the NDP's pressure on the Cons - and that more may be yet to come:
(I)t was at a Vancouver meeting of Layton, NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley) and Environment Minister John Baird that the NDP's political demands started to bear fruit, sources said.

At that Jan. 11 meeting, Layton presented his list of demands to the Tories – primarily a series of amendments to be made to the government's Clean Air Act – if they were to regain credibility on the sensitive environment file...

Before consenting to anything, sources in B.C. and Ottawa said, Layton told Baird he wanted to see a sign of good faith showing the Conservatives were actually committed to the environment, and not just trying to save their minority government from defeat...

Then, last week, the environment minister arrived in Vancouver to announce a $30-million contribution to an investment and incentive fund to help conserve the Spirit Bear Rainforest. It was matched with $30 million from the British Columbia government for economic development and $60 million in private funds...

Layton confirmed that he raised his concerns about the rainforest with Baird.

"Fortunately, on that occasion, they were listening," he said. "Let's hope they will adopt that pattern more often."

Cullen said in an interview yesterday that the NDP presented "no ultimatum."

"There was no deal to any of the offers we made."

"If you want Canadians to give you a second chance, this is the way to do it, to roll something constructive out the door," he said of the conversation, noting that neither Stéphane Dion as Liberal environment minister, nor Rona Ambrose, who held the post for the Tories, were prepared to act...

The combined federal-provincial funding "will be directed toward economic development opportunities for First Nations businesses involved in activities such as sustainable fisheries, forestry and tourism," (a news) release says.
Of course, the conservation of B.C.'s rainforest is only one of many of the NDP's concerns on the environment - and the Cons haven't shown much sign yet of a wider environmental plan worth supporting.

But it should go without saying that the more of the NDP's environmental demands the Cons can be pushed to act on, the better off Canada's environment will be. And even if nothing more comes of the talks - which could well be the case if the Cons wrongly think that they don't have much further to go and the Libs continue to try to stonewall against any action as long as they're not in power - at the very least Layton and Cullen can take credit for bringing about one more positive action than the Cons would ever have undertaken without the NDP's push.

Update: Based on Rob's comment to this post as well as Scott's typically-fair post, I was all set to credit the Libs generally for their reasoned response to a misleading headline. Sadly, some of the commenters at Scott's blog put that on hold. Then these posts went up, claiming the NDP has sold its body and/or soul by managing to win some environmental improvement without giving up anything.

Suffice it to say that these bloggers are set apart by the fact that if the NDP and the Cons did get into a bar brawl, they'd still try to claim it was a sellout on the part of the NDP. "You call that a haymaker, Denise Savoie? When it only took out two of Monte Solberg's teeth? This just proves that the NDP is in Harper's back pocket."

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The disenfranchisement continues

Last month, Robert pointed out the less-than-subtle timing of the Cons in working toward a strict ID requirement at the polls while decimating programs aimed at helping homeless Canadians to replace lost IDs. Today, Joe Fiorito points out yet another ID program in trouble due to the Cons' neglect, rightfully slamming the Cons for failing to do anything to help programs funded by the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiatives (SCPI) know where they stand for the next fiscal year:
Street Health, which among many other things runs an identification clinic for the homeless, is facing the same uncertainty. Jane Kali said, "We've received no information about where the money will come from or what the criteria will be. We hear the same money will be available, but we hear it will be offered to other communities across the country – which is good – but it will mean more competition for funding."

In the meantime, homeless people in this town who have lost their identification are up the creek. With no identification, you cannot get social assistance, nor can you get housing, nor can you get a job, nor can you open a bank account, nor can you get OHIP.

One small ID clinic still functioning, but it cannot cope with the numbers of people who need help.
Now, it isn't too late for the Libs to withdraw their support for changing the election rules (or make any cooperation conditional on the Cons properly funding measures to make the required ID accessible). But barring a change, homeless Canadians across the country stand to be deprived of their right to vote by the machinations of the Libs and Cons. And it can only speak poorly about the state of Canadian democracy if the two largest parties' sole agreed reform to our electoral system is to try to strip such a group of access to the polls.

Up in the air

PoliticsWatch reports on Peter Julian's plan to question Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon about last fall's secureity screening failure at Pearson International Airport:
NDP MP Peter Julian wants Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon to appear before a Commons committee to explain how 250,000 passengers weren't properly screened at Toronto's Pearson International Airport last fall.

Julian will have his motion calling for Cannon to appear debated at the next meeting of the Commons transport committee...

A work-to-rule campaign by screeners, who worked for the security firm Garda, created long lines for passengers. Screeners said in letters to Transport Canada that Garda managers took control and allowed 250,000 passengers to rush through security with minimal screening.

The Transport Canada report said that as a result no bags were searched and screening x-rays were ignored at Pearson on October 11...

Julian said he wants Cannon to explain what happened and whether the issues associated with it have been rectified.

The NDP MP also said he has questions for Cannon about why the security company had its contract renewed just weeks after the incident.

Canada's Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) exercised its option to extend Garda's security contracts at Pearson and 27 airports across the country on November 6...

Julian also said the committee should also deal with the "broader issues" surrounding recent problems at CATSA.

Earlier this month, CATSA's chair of the board of directors, retired general Maurice Baril, resigned.

Cannon told reporters last week that Baril announced his intentions to leave "a few days after" the two men met to discuss the findings of a special examination report of CATSA by the auditor general.

The auditor general's report found that CATSA could not assure its airport screening procedures can be conducted "economically, efficiently, effectively, and in the public interest."
Needless to say, it looks there are plenty of open questions surrounding CATSA over the past few months. And there doesn't seem to be much reason why the other opposition parties would want anything but to get the answers as well, giving Julian's motion an excellent chance to pass.

Of course, Cannon seems likely to try to claim that pushing CATSA's directors out the door constitutes enough change for now. But there's little reason to think that any of the problems at Pearson or elsewhere have been solved to any meaningful extent, particularly given the renewal of Garda's contract. And with the Cons apparently asleep at the switch until CBC uncovered the breaches, it'll fall to the opposition to make sure that Canada's airports are kept safe.

The selloff begins

The Globe and Mail reports that the first substantive step toward a Con government selloff is a doozy, as Public Works is looking to sell off $1.5 billion worth of office buildings in order to lease them back from the private sector:
Ottawa is preparing to sell $1.5-billion worth of office properties across the country as part of the first phase of a plan that will see dozens of federal buildings go to the private sector with the government as a long-term tenant, sources say.

Sources in Toronto and Ottawa said nine buildings are likely to go in the first phase of the sell-off, including properties in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.

The deal could hit the market within weeks and would be among the largest offerings of Canadian office properties...

The government is expected to use a process known as a “sale-leaseback,” by which it sells the buildings to the private sector and then rents them. The government is expected to use 25-year leases, sources said.

Mr. Fortier argued the government doesn't have the $4-billion needed to maintain adequately its portfolio of 6.8 million square metres of office space.

Under the planned “partnerships,” sources said, the private-sector companies would renovate the buildings at their cost and make money by renting them to the government...

The plans still have to be approved by the Treasury Board and the cabinet, which will have to decide among a number of options being put forward by Public Works. That decisions will be made next week, but others argue that an announcement is farther away, some sources said...

Selling buildings and becoming a tenant is seen as a way to make maintenance someone else's problem.

The previous Liberal government had considered privatizing the government's real estate holdings, but it explored solutions that could be applied to all buildings at once.

The Conservative government has opted to approach the issue much more slowly.
Now, it's fair to be concerned about the condition of buildings which haven't been properly maintained. But any need for maintenance can be addressed equally effectively today by having Public Works carry out the needed maintenance on its own - which would have the added benefit of not turning the federal government into a cash cow for the putative landlords through a long-term lease.

Instead, the Cons seem eager to falsely claim they can't meet the current maintenance costs in order to push toward a process which involves multiple future inefficiencies, including the likely higher cost of borrowing on the part of the private-sector actors and the cost of the lease payments themselves.

For the Cons, the goal of getting public property out of public hands may be seen to be worth the price. And indeed the Libs have plenty of explaining to do for their own intention to engage in the same type of process. But for Canadians who don't want their government looking for excuses to auction itself off piece by piece (to be rented back at a premium), the fact that the plan seems certain to move forward as long as Harper remains in power highlights the need for a change in government to stop the sell-off as quickly as possible.

Update: The NDP has more.

Update II: Still more from Greg, Dan and Paul Wells. Odd that it's the latter two who also picked up on the previous Lib connection, while the NDP didn't point out Brison's similar plans.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

And they say the NDP doesn't understand business

Can anybody imagine trying to have a productive negotiating session with people like this on the other side of the table?

I can just picture Jeff Davidson talking to the would-be vendor of a car: "You're willing to meet to talk about the car at my suggested time and place? That means you concede entirely, and have to accept my price as well! I win, you lose! Sucker!"

(And the fact that the position only parrots David McGuinty's headline quote shows that it isn't merely the Libs' bloggers who suffer from the problem.)

Another step toward equality

NDP MP Bill Siksay notes that while the Cons' (however half-hearted) attempt to turn back the clock on same-sex marriage in Canada failed last fall, the Cons were still doing their best to avoid recognizing similar marriages performed outside of Canada - that is, until today:
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Diane Finley has informed the Standing Committee of Citizenship and Immigration that her department’s interim policy on same sex marriage, which did not recognize legal marriages performed in The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, South Africa, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States for immigration purposes, has been annulled. Last December, on a motion proposed by Siksay, the Standing Committee had called on the government to take this action.

“This is another important victory towards full equality of gay and lesbian Canadians”, noted Siksay. “The failure of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration to treat legal gay and lesbian marriages performed in jurisdictions outside Canada was clearly discriminatory.”

“Gay and lesbian couples legally married outside Canada will now be recognized as part of spousal, family class immigration sponsorship applications. This is good news for many gay and lesbian couples in Canada and for those who support the full equality of gay and lesbian Canadians,” concluded Siksay.
Of course, it's entirely likely that other similarly-discriminatory policies remain to be addressed. And the Cons can unfortunately be counted on to do as little as possible to remedy those policies without substantial pressure from other parties.

But it's still good news that even the Cons are no longer trying to defend discrimination based on foreign same-sex marriages. And today's success should only emphasize the fact that continued discrimination can indeed be eliminated if it receives enough attention.

On obstruction

The Globe and Mail reports that the overall timeline wasn't the only area where the Libs went out of their way to stall the committee working on environmental legislation:
While the Question Period rhetoric is sure to carry on for some time in this vein, the real battleground over the coming weeks will be in a Commons committee room. Parliamentarians on a special legislative committee decided yesterday to wrap up their work on the government's Clean Air Act on pollution and climate change no later than March 30.

The committee met yesterday, and while it was devoted primarily to logistics, the political dynamic in the room quickly took shape.

The NDP and Conservatives often agreed and both parties frequently accused the Liberals of delaying tactics...

(W)hen the Bloc Québécois suggested a timeline for the committee, one of Mr. Baird's officials quickly met in the back of the room with an NDP aide. Moments later a joint NDP-Tory counterproposal emerged.

"Clearly they've cut a deal," grumbled Liberal MP David McGuinty...

The NDP's environment critic, Mr. Cullen, denied that he has struck an alliance with the Conservatives. He said he attempted to create working relationships with the Liberals and Bloc Québécois, but they weren't interested.

Throughout the 2½-hour meeting, the Tories and NDP made various proposals to fast-track the committee's workload, but faced persistent opposition from the Liberals.

It was the Bloc's environment critic, Bernard Bigras, who frequently played a mediating role between the two sides.

The committee's timeline essentially puts off the hard questions until after the March break. Only then will MPs be able to put forward amendments, and observers say it is hard to see where the NDP and Conservatives can come to terms.
Sadly, the article (spurred on by McGuinty's whine) tries to paint the cooperation on process as something more - despite the fact that it's the opposition parties who continue to agree that the short-term goal of any legislation should be to meet Canada's Kyoto targets, and despite the absolute certainty that the NDP's view on process would (and should) be to cooperate with whichever other party or parties was willing to try to get something accomplished without the distraction of a budget in between. If anything, it should be an embarrassment to the Libs that they're the one party most determined to prevent anything positive from coming out of the committee.

That said, it's not too late for the Libs to start cooperating. If their immediate goal is merely to find some excuse to claim that there's a "deal" between the NDP and the Cons, then hopefully the machinations over the committee's process will allow them to be less standoffish when it comes to the substance of the bill. But if the Libs really are more interested in trying to score political points against Layton than in working toward results on greenhouse gas emissions, then they (and any other party trying to ride their coattails) could lose any claimed credibility on the environment in a hurry.

Monday, January 29, 2007

In case you've missed it...

For those who haven't yet found their way over there, John at Dymaxion World has been on fire today. You'll find my favourites of the posts here, here (can we start a movement to make "Taliban Ham" a standard phrase just to ridicule the Cons' Layton-bashing routine?) and here, but the blog as a whole is worth the trip even more than usual.

On needless delays

The CP reports that the Libs and Bloc are so eager to see action taken on climate change that they've voted to make sure that a consensus bill can't get through committee until after the budget. I can only wonder how much longer Dion and company in particular would want to delay on an issue that wasn't "too important to be partisan".

An ordinary focus

Looking slightly deeper than most at the current debate over ATM fees, Macleans' Aaron Wherry picks up on the federal NDP's messaging aimed at "ordinary Canadians" and "average Canadians":
(T)here it was atop the National Post's front page: "Tories, NDP eye ATM fees" - the newspaper of conservative record heralding news of Layton's latest adventure in leftist populism.

Granted, the NDP and Layton weren't referenced until the eighth paragraph, the Post choosing to see this as a Conservative initiative. But it was Layton who put his mustachioed face to the issue, posing beside an ATM machine in downtown Toronto to demonstrate the daily gouging of automatic tellers. And it was Layton who the Canadian Bankers Association attacked soon thereafter...

Sticking with the rallying cry of the last election night - "Our Canada puts ordinary Canadians first and tonight ordinary Canadians in their millions put the trust in the NDP" - the New Democrats continues to style themselves the voice of the ordinary, average and everyday. And while the Conservatives drive their "New Government" chant into into the ground, the determinedly finding new ways to express a fondness for the common folk.
What's not entirely clear is why the messaging is seen as only becoming worthy of comment lately. After all, in addition to the election night reference, the "ordinary Canadians" wording can be found within the first five sentences of the 2006 election platform.

But if the NDP's emphasis on a populist message is just now registering in the mainstream press, then better late than never. And hopefully Layton and company will continue to receive due credit for being able to fit that central view into a variety of issues - making it possible to stay on message without being forced to recite a limited menu of options as the Cons did in 2006.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Playing with firearms

I'd figured the Cons would at least follow through on demolishing the long-gun registry before looking for their next gift to the gun crowd. But according to the CP, Stockwell Day is hinting that reviewing gun owner suitability through a license renewal process every five years is far too much of an imposition in the eyes of the Cons:
Contrary to some victims' demands in the wake of the Montreal college shootings last fall, the Conservative government is still considering a one-time application for lifetime gun licences.

Applicants would still have to fill out the proper forms, provide references and undergo a criminal record check to obtain a licence to possess or acquire a firearm.

After that, only a complaint from the public or a criminal conviction would trigger a review, according to internal RCMP documents obtained by The Canadian Press using access to information legislation.

"The Minister of Public Safety has indicated that the government is considering introducing a one-time, lifetime licence for firearms ownership and acquisition," say the heavily edited documents...

Currently, a licence has to be renewed every five years...

Although the RCMP documents have been heavily edited, they do note that licence renewal on a regular basis allows a review of an applicant's personal history for "new risk factors," citing specifically divorce, separation or the loss of employment.

All further discussion has been withheld.
Interestingly, even the National Firearms Association's complaint about the status quo is only that the cost of renewal amounts to a cash grab. Which in turn would seem to suggest a problem which can equally be solved by ensuring that the payment helps to fund an effective review system.

But even that position is apparently too moderate for Day. Instead, the Cons appear to be looking to remove any ongoing check as to whether the owners of deadly firearms have become dangers to the public in handling them. And that only seems likely to make an already-imperfect system all the less effective in trying to prevent gun crime before it happens (rather than merely responding with a lengthy sentence after the fact).

Worth highlighting

D. Aristophanes' brilliant smackdown of Michelle Malkin and her ilk has already received some attention today. But I'll take a moment to point out the post as well, if only to point out how we in the progressive Canadian blogosphere - whatever our partisan stripe - tend to have enough respect for our readers not to pass off like-minded bloggers' idle speculation as fact through a self-congratulatory feedback loop.

That is, most of us, if not quite all.

Update: Since Saskboy seems to have completely missed the point (in taking the Malkin comparison to refer to Shae as well), let's look at this in a bit more detail.

Shae's original post was explicitly based on a thought experiment predicated, among other things, on the future actions of the NDP. The logical structure would look something like this:

If A (you are a progressive voter who is disillusioned with the Libs over their lack of principle and drift to the right), and B (the NDP winds up striking a deal which results in the Cons staying in government until 2008, representing a triumph of politics over principle), then C (you should vote Green instead of NDP in order to be more true to progressive principles). While C is more implicit than explicit in Shae's post, it's hard to see what sense the post would make with any other conclusion.

For the reasons pointed out by Jamey Heath among others, that pattern of thinking is itself highly questionable. But let's assume it to be accurate for the moment.

Even if one agrees entirely with Shae's analysis, it depends completely on the truth of A and B. Indeed, it could be argued that by implication, if B proves to be untrue, then the opposite of C would be true: the NDP would have refused to engage in the action defined to consist of putting politics ahead of principle, leading the voter in question to have another reason to vote for the NDP on principle.

So what does Saskboy's post do? It cuts B out of the equation entirely, implicitly claiming that Shae's analysis, which is predicated on a future action of the NDP, offers a valid reason to switch one's support from the NDP to the Greens before that action ever occurs. Or in other words, "I'm prepared to pretend that B is true whether or not it is or ever will be, and therefore C is true now".

Which naturally serves two goals for Saskboy: it presents a (however flawed) push toward C (the ultimate end goal), and the act of eliminating the "if" related to B could help convince others to believe B to be true if they're not paying close attention to the sleight-of-hand.

To the extent any responsibility lies with Shae, it's in constructing a thought experiment on hypothetical future premises which are at best speculative, and at worst directly contrary to the evidence available to date. And that's exactly what I noted in the comments to that post. But it takes another step to try to turn that speculation into a state of fact intended to justify changes of action in the present - and it's Saskboy alone who escalated the problem that way.

Let's tie this back to the Malkin example surrounding Jamil Hussein. There, the logical structure in question would look something like this:

If A (the AP's credibility varies directly with the accuracy of reports including those cited by a source named Jamil Hussein), and B (the source named Jamil Hussein does not exist), then C (the AP lacks credibility).

In the Hussein case, the truth or non-truth of B was based on past facts rather than future actions. But the wishful thinking and speculation underlying B were similarly elevated to the level of fact for the purposes of supporting C. And when B was eventually proven to be false, that led only to a change of subject rather than an admission of error - hence the switch to "well, that was just one example of the AP's lack of credibility, we'll make up another A and B if necessary" for the sake of preserving the ultimate conclusion.

Which, unfortunately, would seem entirely likely to be the response from Saskboy as well if the NDP in fact continues to be the only opposition party to vote consistently against the Cons' confidence issues.

Thankfully, that type of mangling of logical structure in the name of partisanship is indeed a rarity in Canada's progressive blogosphere. And I only hope that by pointing out such problems when they do appear, we can keep from falling into the same fact-free black hole which the American right so happily occupies.

Edit: fixed typo & wording.

Well said

For those who haven't yet read Jamey Heath's demolition of James Laxer on the question of whether the NDP should put blind support of the Libs ahead of any progress on environmental policy, give it a look.

Update: Of course, it's worth noting that it's the Libs and the Cons who are working together to try to delay any resolution on the environment.

Anything but soft

Peter McKnight takes on the pervasive "soft on crime" myth, pointing out that contrary to the Cons' rhetoric in particular, Canada actually jails significantly more of its citizens than most countries:
(A) review of the evidence reveals that Canada is not, and never has been, soft on crime, that the putative laxity of the criminal justice system is perhaps the most persistent, pervasive and pernicious myth in Canadian society today...

Canada is, and always has been, far tougher on crime than most industrialized democracies. While we have always had a love affair with jailing people, incarceration rates rose so dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century that Canada became the second- or third-most enthusiastic jailer among western nations.

Consequently, in 1996, Parliament passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which was aimed at bringing our incarceration rate in line with other western countries. According to Statistics Canada, the act proved somewhat successful in achieving its aim, as the incarceration rate fell in the latter half of the 1990s, and then stabilized in the early part of this century at about 130 people per 100,000, where it remains today.

While this represents an improvement over the past, Canada's rate is still higher than most European countries'. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, which monitors prison populations, the median incarceration rate for western Europe is 91 people per 100,000, for northern Europe, 85 per 100,000, and for southern Europe, 80 per 100,000.

Similarly, the median for countries in Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands) is 111, and for south central and southeastern Asia, the median is 94. Even South American countries, some of which have serious drug problems and many of which have unenviable human rights records, are only a little more enthusiastic jailers than Canada, with a median rate of 152...

The country with the highest rate should come as no surprise: The United States jails an astonishing 714 of its citizens per 100,000. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were battling for jailing supremacy, but the U.S. solidified its position atop the world thanks to the tough on crime wave that rolled over the country in the 1980s and '90s. This was primarily a result of Americans erroneously believing that the U.S. was soft on crime, but the Americans have apparently recognized their mistake, as I discuss below.

Until recently, though, the U.S. lagged behind one other western country in the imprisonment of youth. And the country? None other than kinder, gentler Canada, which, until the enactment of the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003, imprisoned significantly more children per capita than the U.S., making us the top jailer of children in the western world. If Vic Toews or Rob Nicholson doesn't believe this, he need only look at the Department of Justice website, which states exactly that...

Interestingly though, as we head for the cliff (of increased use of mandatory sentencing), the U.S. seems to have recognized the error of its ways. Many states are abandoning mandatory sentencing, which greatly increased the U.S. prison population, and as Chris Suellentrop explained in a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine, there is now impressive bipartisan support for the federal Second Chance Act, which emphasizes rehabilitation and reintegration over punishment.
The article doesn't go on to mention the added costs associated with indiscriminate incarceration. But those numbers have already surfaced with respect to the Cons' sentencing plans, and it shouldn't be too difficult to see how the costs could similarly be changed based on additional variations in sentencing policy.

Meanwhile, those massive costs need to be weighed against both the fact (pointed out by McKnight) that Canada's current system already results in an unusually high incarceration rate, and the lack of any apparent connection between higher sentences and crime reduction in any event. Based on that comparison, it becomes all the more clear that we should indeed be looking toward more flexible and effective sentencing options, not trying to force our justice system to turn a blind eye to differences between offences and offenders.

How low can you go?

Plenty of others have already weighed in on the Cons' anticipated ad campaign against Stephane Dion. But Globe and Mail's coverage offers a subtle twist, as well as a truly sad example of apparent insider spin (and self-delusion) going unquestioned:
The federal Tories have produced a new series of ads expected to be unveiled Sunday and aimed at boosting their image in the wake of the selection of Stephane Dion as new Liberal leader.

Sources have told The Globe and Mail that MP Jason Kenney will brief the media on the content of the ads Sunday. They are expected to include television commercials, sources said...

Reports indicate that the ads, which will air during prime time and the Super Bowl, will mock Mr. Dion's leadership abilities and his environmental record.
Now, I presume that the "sources" in the second paragraph are tied to the message contained in the first - i.e. that the "boosting their image" language comes from the Cons themselves. Which wouldn't be the least bit surprising, given that it would sound better than saying outright that the Cons' purpose is to smear Dion.

But how can insulting one's opponents be seen as a "boost" to oneself? I can only see two answers - and either of them would speak very poorly to the Cons' fitness to hold any responsibility at all.

The first possibility is that the Cons are viewing politics as a game seen solely in relative measurements, such that to the extent they can add a few disapproval points to Dion's score or shift the polls slightly in their favour in the short term, their image will somehow improve.

At best, though, such an approach would have to be described as short-sighted and cynical: surely anybody with any familiarity with politics should recognize how quickly an immediate boost can turn around. Any gain in the longer term would require both that the ads actually lead to such a temporary boost, and that the media pick up on that boost as evidence of longer-term momentum - but it seems far more likely that one or both of those requirements would fail to materialize, and at least as likely that a backlash would result instead.

Mind you, the second possibility looks even worse for the Cons. They may well suffer from such an infantile insecurity that a public show of "neener neener" actually will lead their base to be more motivated. In that sense, the ad campaign could be aimed at "boosting" the self-image of Cons and their supporters - albeit through the kind of boost that should seem entirely hollow to anybody over the age of 8.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that if the Cons were genuinely proud of any of their accomplishments in office, then both goals could be equally easily met through a much more positive ad campaign. One would think that the Cons could come up with a way to shift the polls slightly in their favour by buying air time for their own positive message if they had one with any chance of winning public support - and the base could equally rail against the Libs for failing to match the Cons' own priorities as for the Libs' own words.

Instead, the Cons seem to have reached the calculation that neither the Canadian public nor even their own base is particularly interested in buying what they have to offer - which leads to a need to sling mud at the competing brands instead. And no matter how many attack ads they launch in the short term, it seems highly unlikely that the Cons can keep either the public or their base happy with that focus for long.