Saturday, February 27, 2010

The stragglers' list

Oddly enough, the Libs' response to the Cons' list of Harper Holiday work has included only the number of Con MPs with zero days' work, rather than a complete list of the offenders. So having started with the Saskatchewan contingent, let's name and shame the Con MPs who - according to their own party - didn't do anything at all reaching the work level of such listed activities as "(attending) Scotties Tournament of Hearts", "(touring) Detroit Auto Show" or "(participating) in a Lunar New Year event".

For ease of reference, I'll list the MP along with the riding which should soon be seeking better representation. Note that my numbers don't entirely match the Libs', as I get a total of 60 MPs rather than their 77. I'm not sure why that is, but would invite corrections to the below if I'm off in any of the listed or omitted MPs.

British Columbia (11): Ed Fast (Abbotsford); Dick Harris (Cariboo - Prince George); John Cummins (Delta - Richmond East); Ron Cannan (Kelowna - Lake Country); Jim Abbott (Kootenay - Columbia); Mark Warawa (Langley); James Lunney (Nanaimo - Alberni); Colin Mayes (Okanagan - Shuswap); Alice Wong (Richmond); Russ Hiebert (South Surrey - White Rock - Cloverdale); Dona Cadman (Surrey North)

Alberta (14): Lee Richardson (Calgary Centre); Devinder Shory (Calgary Northeast); Rob Anders (Calgary West); Kevin Sorenson (Crowfoot); Tim Uppal (Edmonton - Sherwood Park); Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton - St. Albert); Laurie Hawn (Edmonton Centre); Peter Goldring (Edmonton East); Rick Casson (Lethbridge); Earl Dreeshen (Red Deer); Leon Benoit (Vegreville - Wainwright); Brian Storseth (Westlock - St. Paul); Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin); Blake Richards (Wild Rose)

Saskatchewan (8): David Anderson (Cypress Hills - Grasslands); Rob Clarke (Desnethe - Missinippi - Churchill River); Ray Boughen (Palliser); Tom Lukiwski (Regina - Lumsden - Lake Centre); Brad Trost (Saskatoon - Humboldt); Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon - Wanuskewin); Ed Komarnicki (Souris - Moose Mountain); Garry Breitkreuz (Yorkton - Melville)

Manitoba (2): Joy Smith (Kildonan - St. Paul); Rod Bruinooge (Winnipeg South)

Ontario (22): Gordon O'Connor (Carleton - Mississippi Mills); David Tilson (Dufferin - Caledon); Jeff Watson (Essex); Pierre Lemieux (Glengarry - Prescott - Russell); Harold Albrecht (Kitchener - Conestoga); Peter Braid (Kitchener - Waterloo); Bev Shipley (Lambton - Kent - Middlesex); Scott Reid (Lanark - Frontenac - Lennox and Addington); Gord Brown (Leeds - Grenville); Ed Holder (London West); Bob Dechert (Mississauga - Erindale); Dean Allison (Niagara West - Glanbrook); Rick Norlock (Northumberland - Quinte West); Terence Young (Oakville); Colin Carrie (Oshawa); Dave MacKenzie (Oxford); Gary Schellenberger (Perth - Wellington); Daryl Kramp (Prince Edward - Hastings); Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew - Nipissing - Pembroke); Patricia Davidson (Sarnia - Lambton); Richard Dykstra (St. Catherines); Michael Chong (Wellington - Halton Hills)

Quebec (2): Maxime Bernier (Beauce); Jacques Gourde (Lotbiniere - Chutes-de-la-Chaudiere)

New Brunswick (1): Tilly O'Neill-Gordon (Miramichi)

Needless to say, the above makes for an interesting mix of fairly big names (Maxime Bernier, Gordon O'Connor, Dick Harris and Laurie Hawn in particular), cases where the Cons will face obvious challenges trying to hold onto the ridings (Peter Braid, Bob Dechert, Ed Holder, Colin Carrie, Terence Young, Ray Boughen, Peter Goldring and Dona Cadman), and ridings where a sense that the Con incumbent just can't be bothered to get anything done might well make an opposition message far more effective than it would have been otherwise. And hopefully the holiday taken by so many of the Cons (along with the pitiful amount of "work" put in by another substantial chunk of the Cons' caucus) will encourage voters to give them a permanent forced retirement from Parliament at the next opportunity.

Well said

Thomas Walkom nicely sums up the Cons' brand of class resentment focused on attacking the benefits of working Canadians:
Today, class resentments have been turned on their head. The focus of anger is not the silk-hatted capitalist but his unionized workers, with their job protection guarantees, their pension plans and their good wages.

Increasingly, in the world of media and popular culture, it is not the rich who are blamed for their excesses but the poor – the undeserving welfare recipient, the shiftless single mother, the employment insurance cheat. Resentment has become a potent tool of the right.
The left's resentments were predicated on the notion that if some are privileged, all should be. For all of its problems (and resentment is a difficult force to control), it was at least optimistic. At its best, it encouraged people, through their governments, to improve the lot of those who were hurting.

The new resentment is based on the presumption that if I don't have something, neither should you. Its aim is not to improve anyone's lot but to cut down to a common level of misery those uppity enough to think they deserve better.

It is pessimistic, antithetical to any kind of common action and angrily passive. It rarely focuses on the bigger questions because it assumes that, at high levels of state and economy, nothing can be done, that the best anyone can hope for is to protect his tiny bit of turf from a marauding neighbour.

It is a form of resentment that suits those in charge. For Stephen Harper's Conservatives, it is a most useful passion.

Burning questions

Has the CTRC threatened to strip CTV's broadcasting license if it doesn't provide Stephen Harper with at least one appearance every 10 minutes at Olympic events he attends? And if not, why is he getting nearly as much face time as some of the athletes?

Edit: fixed title.

On privileged classes

There's been plenty written about Helena Guergis' airport meltdown. But only a couple of commentators have even hinted at what looks to me to be the most important part of the story in assessing the source of Guergis' behaviour - and what it says about the Harper government in general.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the starting point for Guergis' behaviour is that she was already being treated as a VIP, with she and her aide being allowed to board her flight at a time when any member of the general public would have been told that it was too late. So Guergis was already being granted indulgences not available to ordinary Canadians at the start of the incident.

But that level of special treatment was apparently nowhere near enough for Guergis. Instead, she threw tantrums over having to comply with any of the rules which apply to every single air traveller - while also showing thorough disrespect for her aide in demanding that she pick up Guergis' boots.

Moreover, the mere mention of some of the privilege which had been applied to Guergis sent her into a rage about her "working (her) ass off for you people". Which looks like rather irrefutable evidence of a belief in Guergis' mind that there's a radical difference in kind between the likes of herself, and the mere "you people" who should presumably consider themselves fortunate to occupy the same country.

Now, there are certainly issues worth raising as to whether the incident justifies considering Guergis as petulant or mean. But the greater issue is Guergis' apparent sense of self-superiority - which has seemingly reached levels where even damning words like "entitlement" fall far short as descriptors. (Though additions like "rude" and "imperial" do come closer to the mark.)

In effect, Guergis' tirade reads like a lost Leona Helmsley anecdote, where a violent outburst is merely a particularly dramatic manifestation of the speaker's complete contempt for anybody who doesn't occupy the same social circles. And Guergis' after-the-fact half-apology focuses completely on the former issue (responding "emotionally" and behaving inappropriately as matters of one-time concern) rather than the latter.

Which isn't to say that I disagree with Devin's view that the Libs' calls for Guergis' resignation are rather pointless. But I reach the same conclusion from an entirely different starting point.

Sure, Guergis' outburst may make for a particularly visible example of the Cons' detachment from and distaste for mere common folk. But there's little indication that most of the Harper cabinet sees its place any differently - and indeed plenty of reason to think that from Harper on down, the Cons have been conditioned to adopt the attitude of a royal court marked by bottom-up fealty and top-down patronization.

So the proper response isn't to pretend that replacing Guergis with another Harper sycophant will have any positive effect. Instead, the core problem is a government which firmly believes that "you people" - defined as mere Canadians in general outside their circle of power - fall into a lower class of citizen who should be overwhelmed with gratitude at the chance to be ruled by their betters. And the only way to change that attitude in government will be to remove the Cons from power as a party.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Musical interlude

Curve - Coming Up Roses

An exercise of supremacy

I'm not sure I'd make it the top priority compared to restructuring the ongoing functioning of Parliament. But this looks to be a nice start in shifting the balance of power between the PMO and the House of Commons - at least, if it's actually brought forward with agreement among the opposition parties such as to force the Cons to accept it or fight it.

Buying the Podium

Dan Gardner points out the absurdity of claiming any national pride based on programs like Own the Podium which really only prove that it's possible for a country to buy its way to Olympic medals:
"(The) best predictor of success in winning medals is the absolute amount of funding allocated to higher performance sports," writes Peter Donnelly, director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.

Spend more money and, other things being equal, you will get more medals. It's that simple. Analysts and officials know this. They even make dollars-per-medal calculations.
Canada's "Own the Podium" program is unique neither in its goals nor its ruthlessness. All that set it apart is its foolish name -- which promised the impossible and thus created the impression that anything aside from a first place finish in Vancouver amounted to failure...

Stand back and look at Olympic funding around the world and it's obvious that nations are locked in an arms race. Each seeks to beat the other by boosting funding but they find it is harder and harder to pull ahead by spending more. Worse, "it costs more and more money even to stay in the same place in the medal tables," notes Peter Donnelly.

Now, does any of this sound like a fair athletic contest? Not really. It's a funding competition. The "winners" are those countries most willing to take money from health care and jobs and other national priorities and spend it on the Olympics.

Canada could win this competition, if that's what Canadians want. We're a rich country. We could outspend the Chinese. For a while.

But would that be something to be proud of? No. It would be foolish. And shameful.

A resounding gold in hackery

Shorter Kelly McParland:

Nothing could be more heroic than to cultivate an irrational, unfocused anger at the abstract idea of government, then take it out on the nearest public servant who had no role in causing one's frustration. Embrace the hate!

On deadwood

I'd figured that yesterday's post on Ray Boughen's Harper Holiday would make for only the tip of the iceberg of Con laziness - and not surprisingly the national numbers have already been crunched. But let's take a slightly more detailed look at the numbers close to home among Saskatchewan's 13 Con MPs - a listless and uninspiring lot at the best of times which looks to have been particularly useless as a result of prorogation.

To start off with, Ray Boughen was far from being alone in accomplishing absolutely nothing of note to his party during the course of the Harper Holiday.

It may not come as much surprise that Garry Breitkreuz, Brad Trost and Maurice Vellacott did zilch, nada and nil respectively according to the Cons' own account. But one might have expected at least some activity from the Cons' former Saskatchewan caucus chair Tom Lukiwski, relative neophyte Rob Clarke, or veteran MPs David Anderson or Ed Komarnicki. And they too put up a big fat goose egg during their Harper-approved vacation.

So of the Cons' 13 Saskatchewan MPs, a grand total of 8 turned their time away from Ottawa into absolutely nothing worth noting - even by the low standards of Con self-promotion.

Meanwhile, even the Cons who showed up at least once have exceedingly little to brag about in terms of accomplishments. Randy Hoback, apparently needing to atone for having called from a California vacation to deny he was on holiday, put in a grand total of one event's worth of work. Kelly Block also showed up exactly once, and Andrew Scheer twice.

That covers all of the Cons' Saskatchewan backbenchers. In the wake of the cancellation of 22 days' of work each, these 11 elected members of Parliament managed to summon up a grand total of...half a day's work between them. And that's generously allowing an hour of work for photo-ops such as "attend(ing) opening of housing for seniors".

Of course, the Cons' two Saskatchewan cabinet ministers put in slightly more time. Gerry Ritz showed up for 7 events spanning 5 days of work, and even fit in a couple of meetings rather than having all of his "activity" consist of announcing funding. And Lynne Yelich attended 9 events over 6 days, including a few "roundtable" events.

But even counting the cabinet ministers, the Cons' Saskatchewan MPs combined put in 15 documented days of work over the prorogation - less than each one was supposed to put in before Stephen Harper told them to take a break.

It's never particularly been news that the Cons' Saskatchewan contingent consists of a weak assortment of lukewarm Reform leftovers, socon clowns, party hacks and substance-free ciphers. But now Stephen Harper's own attempt to brag about keeping busy in the time he shut down Parliament has given us some particularly striking evidence as to just how unmotivated and ineffective his Saskatchewan MPs actually are.

Needless to say, that should provide a compelling reason for Saskatchewan voters to throw the lazy bums out. And with any luck, we'll soon be represented by some of the hardest-working MPs in Parliament - rather than having a majority of our province's MPs unable to summon up any interest in doing noticeable work for a month at a time.

Edit: fixed wording.

Attacking the watchdogs

Shorter hand-picked cronies of Stephen Harper:

Down with accountability! We must make the federal government answerable to the Dictator-For-LifePrime Minister and nobody else!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Harper Holidays - By Their Own Account

Wouldn't it be nice if your job allowed you to do nothing your boss could discern for a period of over a month? Clearly Palliser MP Ray Boughen is just one of many Con MPs living the dream.

Of their own motion

The Gordon O'Connor letter to his fellow party whips reported on by Susan Delacourt is certainly interesting enough as a matter of curiosity, particularly in the fact that O'Connor apparently can't so much as write to his counterparts without including partisan slams. But the most significant part of the letter released so far looks to be the part which isn't yet publicly available (emphasis added):
With respect to the next session of Parliament:

- It is our position that all committees, including the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan be reconstituted quickly, upon the return of the House. I have attached for your and the other Whips' consideration, motions in this regard.
So what makes that statement significant? I've posted several times about my view that the prorogation should have served as an ideal opportunity for the opposition parties to hit a reset button of their own, using the convening of a new sitting of Parliament as an opportunity to coordinate the structure of committees and otherwise work on amendments to existing Parliamentary procedures to permanently shelve the Cons' dirty tricks manual. And hopefully they'll have made some progress on that front.

But O'Connor's letter signals that the Cons are looking to foreclose that possibility by offering their own motions - which presumably wouldn't have to be reviewed in advance by the opposition parties if they were merely pro forma materials. So I'm not sure anybody should be surprised if the Cons are now including requirements that, say, all questions for witnesses must be pre-cleared with the PMO.* And it would be even less surprising if the Cons demand that the opposition parties agree to whatever rules they want to set as the price of having committees back to work "quickly".

Which makes it doubly important that the opposition parties have their own plans to put in place new rules which prevent the Cons from torpedoing committee proceedings. And if the opposition is faced with a choice between a delay in getting started and a set of rules which lets the Cons hide from accountability at any time, then this looks to be a battle worth fighting.

*No, not really. Right? RIGHT?

Compare and contrast

The Harper Cons' official response on an issue where they're not interested in trying to play both sides:
“This document is absolutely not, in any way, an initiative of our government or our party,” said Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in an emailed statement. ”This is a personal initiative of MP Goldring which we strongly disapprove of."
The Harper Cons' official response to Maxime Bernier's climate change denialism:
"I did not talk to Maxime about that [letter] before it was published. As you know, there are many points of view on the science debate that is currently circulating around," said Mr. Prentice in an interview in Washington, where he is discussing climate and energy issues with U.S. officials.

"The views that Maxime has put forward are his personal views. They are not the government's view. I don't specifically share them. He is certainly entitled to his perspective, but it is his perspective as an individual. It's not the government's perspective."
Granted, the fact that the Cons have acted like a government with its head in the oil sands on climate change is still the best evidence that Bernier's view is actually the one driving the party's (lack of) policy. But the fact that Prentice is going out of his way to tiptoe around any criticism of wilful ignorance on the issue sends a rather strong signal of its own - particularly when anybody actually calling for meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions receives exactly that kind of knee-jerk attack that the Cons levelled at Goldring.

Without a trace

Earlier this week, I noted that the main lesson one Con source seemed to have taken from Christian Paradis' office's illegal suppression of information was to simply avoid leaving a paper trail while continuing to engage in the same activities. Now, Lawrence Martin writes that the idea is in fact far from a new one - and one of the Harper PCO's orders to the public service is to similarly avoid documenting what's actually happening within the federal government:
There's an easy way to prevent anyone from getting access to your records, a veteran bureaucrat explained this week – don't keep records. Team Harper is catching on, he said. There's far less documentation, far less record-keeping. It's the formula for deniability. Why not make it the way of the future?

The bureaucrat was at the Department of National Defence, where the Afghan detainee affair has brought controversy, some of it prompted by journalistic prying through access laws. “I get a call from the Privy Council Office,” he said. “They're setting up a conference call. The first thing that's said is ‘No note-taking, no recordings, nothing. We don't want to see anything in writing on this.' … That's the way they develop policies now and, for my money, it's scary.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On test cases

Kady has the text of Wayne Wouters' letter responding to Marlene Jennings' complaint about a partisan departmental press release. And it's even worse than I'd thought this morning, as it seems to leave the door open for the Cons to insert whatever partisan attacks they want into departmental materials as long as they're said to originate with a minister.

Or to put Wouters' distinction in simple terms...

Inserting "Neener neener neener, Ignatieff's a weiner" in a departmental press release: not OK.

Inserting "According to the Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture), 'Neener neener neener, Ignatieff's a weiner'" in a departmental press release: OK.

Needless to say, I'm skeptical as to whether that's where most Canadians think the line ought to be drawn in the use of public resources for partisan purposes. And if the individual currently charged with interpreting the rules thinks otherwise, then Parliament may want to take a close look at how it can go about making reality reflect what people should expect.

Some needed attention

Since the real damage done to public finances by reckless corporate tax slashing seems to be virtually ignored by most of the corporate press, full credit goes to the Star for actually pointing it out:
Faced with skyrocketing debts, the federal Conservatives say they will begin cutting spending on government programs in the March 4 budget. But the massive corporate tax cuts that are deepening Ottawa's deficit hole every year will not be touched, officials say.

Despite a record annual budget deficit of $56 billion, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will look elsewhere in a bid to start putting the federal government's financial house back in order.

In fact, the government is expected to continue phasing in deeper business tax reductions over the next few years.

In all, between 2008 and 2013, these cuts are reducing the cash-strapped federal government's tax take by a cumulative $60 billion.

While these major tax savings for business have attracted little public attention, they are an important factor in the financial mess that has arisen since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives took power.
For the next step, it would be all the better to see the Cons' free-riding "sacred cows" placed side by side with the public servants whose benefits are being attacked with a message that everybody needs to share in some pain. But at least pointing out that the corporate sector is being handed billions in tax savings even as the federal government is mired in red ink makes for a start.

On half measures

It's undoubtedly for the best that Wayne Wouters has acknowledged that the Cons' use of departmental press releases for partisan attacks was improper. But it's hard to see much prospect of improvement based on Wouters' conclusion as to how the matter was handled:
Canada's top bureaucrat admitted a news release from the Justice Department announcing the appointment of new Senators to clear the way for the Conservatives law and order agenda was partisan and didn't conform with federal communications policy.

In a letter, Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters said the breach was discovered the same day as it was posted and publicly released, but it was 'swiftly' handled to clarify that the partisan statements were the views of the minister and not the department. The changes were made the same day.
Of course, it's certainly a problem for the Cons to be imputing their views to federal departments. But that's far from the only - or even the most important - problem with the release reviewed by Wouters.

What's obviously left out of Wouters' letter (at least as reported so far) is any analysis as to why it's supposed to be acceptable for minister to use a public department's resources to broadcast his or her own partisan views - which seems to be the inevitable inference if the "clarification" is seen as having brought the Cons back within the rules. And given the Cons' track record of pushing the limits of non-stop partisanship, it'll be a shock if we don't get to see that apparent loophole in Wouters' decision tested in the very near future.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wall Government to School Boards: No Responsible Budgeting In Our Province

Sean Shaw points out that the Wall government hasn't only handled the province's finances recklessly, it's also apparently gone out of its way to discourage long-term planning at the school board level:
Many School Boards have, in the past, put away a portion of their tax revenue into Reserve accounts – some carrying balances of millions to upwards of $15 million.

Apparently, funding allocations to these school boards will be structured in such a way that those reserves must first be spent before the Province directs additional funding to each board. If true, this new policy removes the ability of School Boards to maintain reserve accounts (I’m not sure if this includes reserves earmarked for building maintenance, etc..) and puts their year-to-year budgeting at the mercy of the Provincial Government.
Of course, there was never much secret that school boards were going to going to be almost entirely dependent on the province due to the Sask Party's decision to strip school boards of the power to set mill rates. But it takes an extra dash of gall for the province to also dictate that any school board which was careful enough to cultivate a reserve fund will have that effort nullified as a condition of receiving provincial funding. And the demand looks particularly unreasonable at a time when the Wall government is in the process of shredding its previous promises due to its inability to budget.

On belated disclosure

There's little doubt that the Harper Cons have managed to take information suppression to new depths. But it's worth noting that the McGuinty Libs have followed exactly the same pattern of suppressing relevant information until it's too late when it comes to the HST.

Remember that the McGuinty government didn't bother actually providing the public with any detailed information as to what the HST would mean - leaving it to outside actors to provide their own estimates which allowed for multiple conflicting talking points to try to sell the HST. But that doesn't mean the government didn't crunch the numbers for itself. And it's just now starting to release its own information as to the costs of harmonization after it's already forced through the enabling legislation:
The Harmonized Sales Tax will cost you about $225 a year — before you even flick a switch or touch your thermostat.

That’s according to Ministry of Finance estimates of what the coming HST will do to your monthly electricity and natural gas bill, obtained by the New Democratic Party through a Freedom of Information request.
The NDP had requested seven months ago to find out what the government was assuming the impact of the HST would be on household energy bills — currently taxed 5% under the federal Goods and Services Tax.
The document the government released reveals little else about what the Ministry of Finance assumes will happen when the HST takes effect. Only four paragraphs were actually released, with the remaining sections of the four pages the NDP received marked “non-responsive.”

On long-term costs

As promised yesterday, let's look at how P3s fit into the fiscal assumptions made by far too many Canadian governments and political parties.

To start with, it shouldn't be news that the Harper Cons have exhibited a regular pattern of pairing permanent and costly tax cuts with one-time spending in an attempt to pretend at balance between the two. And anybody questioning that choice is met with the claim that massive tax cuts never have budgetary consequences, while even far lesser projections in terms of government spending are fiscally irresponsible.

Now, the Cons have gotten away with that strategy largely because they aren't alone in the philosophy. Instead, the federal Libs have similarly hidden from the concept of "structural spending", and many provinces have fallen into the same trap. At best, social spending is thus allocated on a one-time basis in hopes of generating some sustainable non-profit or private institutions in the long run; at worst (as with the Harper Cons), it's instead orchestrated solely for immediate political benefit with no regard for whether it produces any positive policy outcomes.

Unfortunately, after a barrage of the same assumptions (with far too few exceptions), the result is that far too many people seem prepared to accept on faith that two types of action which are functionally equivalent in their impact on government budgeting should in fact be treated as having radically different effects, even though the costs of reversing either are exactly the same (i.e. the political cost of changing a structure which may benefit some individuals).

So the problem when it comes to the respective perceptions of tax cutting and social spending involves treating like things differently. From there, let's bring P3s back into the picture.

In effect, P3s (at least the typical model of signing a long-term contract to have a private entity build and operate a facility) actually suffer from the weaknesses normally and wrongly attributed to social spending. Unlike either tax cuts or spending programs, P3s create binding commitments which serve to tie the hands of governments for decades at a time. And even political will isn't enough to reverse the long-term costs since the government has entered into an enforceable contractual commitment to keep paying the money.

So if there was any genuine concern for effective use of government money and future freedom of action, P3s should be the first type of spending on the chopping block. But the amount of elite concern about multi-decade commitments to keep taxpayer money flowing to private operators to perform public services? To describe it as "crickets chirping" would be an insult to the volume level of crickets.

Instead, a perceived need for compromise between public and private interests has given rise to an incestuous cottage industry to promote the use of public funds in a way which is supposed to be unacceptable when it comes to direct benefits to citizens. But while the task of pointing out the real problems with P3s becomes more difficult with every government investment in promoting them, the costs deferred to the public sector for decades to come make the battle one which needs to be fought before it's too late.

On independent reporting

Along with the story on the Cons' systematic throttling of information, the other major story yesterday was the Star's report on Peter Van Loan's suppression of a report on the federal gun registry. But I have to wonder if there's a relatively simple solution available to at least part of the problem with the gun report:
Van Loan told reporters he had the report in hand for "several days." He went on to accuse firearms staff of inflating numbers in the report to justify the existence of the gun registry.

In fact, the document trail shows the RCMP – as required by law – submitted the report to the minister's office on Sept. 18. The RCMP anticipated it would be released within the usual 15 sitting days.

But it was held until Nov. 6 while Van Loan's staff pored over the statistics within and tried to parse data that showed the firearms registry's use and popularity is on the rise.
Unhappy with the contents of the report, ministerial staff asked for further explanations of statistics that showed a rise in police queries to the firearms registry, and greater satisfaction with service provided over the Internet or telephone.

The minister's office demands an explanation for "why the minister has been presented with an inked, bound and printed final draft not long before the document needs to be tabled," and appears to challenge why a report was produced at all, since the minister hadn't issued a direction or instruction on it.
Now, the Cons' efforts to pressure the RCMP about the contents of the report are obviously a problem. But the largest issue looks to have been the timing, as the report was hidden by Van Loan until after a vote in Parliament on the registry being evaluated.

Which raises the question: why should it be left to ministers to decide when and how to release or table statutorily-mandated reports which don't involve any political direction?

Of course, the government shouldn't be caught off guard by a report's release. But there's a difference between making advance copies available a day or two in advance to allow the government (and other parties) to craft their responses, and putting the release timing entirely in the hands of a government which goes out of its way to hide inconvenient facts. And at least some of the Cons' information suppression would seem to be relatively easily countered by ensuring that important reports don't have to flow through ministerial channels.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Must-reads of the day

You shouldn't need me to point out that Paul Wells' latest posts on Rights and Democracy are worth a look. But if you need a sample...
What to conclude from all this? I take it as a sign of progress. That last time the Conservatives sicced a notorious separatist with a shaky ethical past on a politically-motivated witch hunt, they had the separatist do the witch hunting. Now they are farming the witch hunt and the separatist-hiring out to different branches. Diversity is good!

Just so we're clear...

...the Cons are now declaring that they needed their extended Harper Holiday in order to decide to do absolutely nothing.

On lessons learned

The Hill Times' report on Con obstruction of the federal access to information system may not be surprising in substance. But it's a rather important step that at least least one Con operative is now willing to acknowledge just how thoroughly the system is being manipulated by the PMO - and now that the story had been broken, it's hard to see how the Cons will be able to keep a lid on future reports of just how widespread their law-breaking actually is.

Unfortunately for those hoping the now-public incident in Christian Paradis' office which resulted in the current scandal will result in any improvement, though, we're also told that the Cons have learned exactly one lesson from the matter:
Meanwhile, after seeing Mr. Togneri hung out to dry, the Conservative source told The Hill Times extra caution will be taken not to leave a paper trail.

"I'm a lot more careful now with any conversations I have with my ATIP officer," the staffer said. "They're all in person now, whereas before I would sometimes send emails."
Needless to say, there wouldn't be any reason for the Cons' political staffers to be concerned about what they're sending in e-mails to ATIP officers if they had any intention of following either the law or Dimitri Soudas' supposed instructions in the future. So we'd best make sure the Cons pay a due price for the actions of Togneri and others who have let their orders get put down on paper - because the next wave of Cons staffers has the elimination of any evidence at the top of its priority list.

Edit: fixed wording.


I'll post later on how the continued push for P3s makes for a stark contrast with how far too many Canadian governments and political parties treat spending which actually serves to benefit society at large rather than corporate benefactors. To whet your appetite, though, here's Toby Sanger on the Conference Board of Canada's latest infomercial posing as research:
The Conference Board of Canada published a report late last month, Dispelling the Myths, which purports to show that public-private partnerships (P3s) have delivered major efficiency gains for the public sector, a high degree of cost certainty, and greater transparency than conventional procurement.

While the report maintains it provides an impartial assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of using P3s, it is astoundingly superficial and biased in its analysis.

A major flaw with the report is that it takes the superficial “value for money” reports produced by P3 agencies at face value without questioning of their assumptions or methodologies for its claim that P3s have delivered efficiency gains.

In doing so, it also completely ignores recent reports by provincial auditors general that have been highly critical of the value for money methodologies used by these agencies.
Even though the report’s authors interviewed over 30 people for the report, they don’t appear to have interviewed one person from a public auditor’s office. With the exception of one academic, all the people interviewed were from P3 companies, P3 promotion agencies, government officials in this capacity, from agencies directly engaged in delivering P3s, or on the record in supporting P3s.
It should be no surprise that this Conference Board study was entirely funded by the federal and provincial P3 promotion agencies. The source of the funding shouldn’t necessarily disqualify the research, but in this case, it appears to be clearly crafted for the interests of its sponsors.

Rob Anders: I Get By With a Little Help From the Dead

The Hill Times has the latest on the Cons' efforts to protect Rob Anders in Calgary West, including one tidbit about the party's farcical "vote" on nomination races which I hadn't yet heard:
The council last year deflected an earlier attempt by members of the association to schedule a nomination meeting, using a controversial poll of all the party's incumbent ridings. The poll, billed as a new element of the party's policy of shielding Conservative MPs from nomination challenges, asked members to mark mail-out ballots and return them if they wanted a riding nomination.

Members were told that unreturned ballots would be considered votes against nomination meetings and no riding, including Calgary West, met the required threshold of two-thirds support.

The Calgary West rebels say ballots that were sent to a handful of deceased former members and went unreturned were included in the count, a point acknowledged by Anders' supporters.
Now, there were plenty of obvious problems with the Cons' review process from the beginning. But it seems to take matters to a whole new level if the Cons are acknowledging that their count to prop up Anders includes the "votes" of deceased former members - signalling that rather than Anders' Zombies merely being names on a list (as is normally the case in similar disputes), their imputed votes were actually used to defeat those of the living.

Needless to say, that practice should serve to permanently shut down any claim the Cons might make to caring about clean elections either internally or externally. And one has to wonder whether the split within the Cons will only be amplified once members who once stood for democratic principles under the Reform banner realize that their voice within the Cons can be drowned out by the dead.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

On non-consultation

Lawrence Cannon has a rather interesting definition of consulting with Canada's political parties - at least, if his spin on what's to come with Rights and Democracy is any indication:
Interviews to select a new president are under way, and opposition parties will be consulted once a successor to Mr. Beauregard has been chosen.
So just as soon as it's too late to change anything, the opposition will be told which Con hack has been put in charge. Don't you feel better about Rights and Democracy's future knowing that cross-partisan interests are being protected with such care?

Shine on, you crazy Dymond

Enough column inches are given to blatant pro-corporate shilling that it's tough for any particular piece to stand out as more obviously deserving of criticism than any other. But W.A. Dymond manages the feat with a remarkable combination of non sequiturs and outright contradictions - so let's give it the full treatment it deserves.

Of course, Dymond starts off with the usual garden-variety corporate cheerleading:
Any tax change produces a lightning-rod effect. The decision by the Ontario government to harmonize the provincial sales tax with the GST has generated strong lightning strikes, both positive and negative. In my view, the positives outweigh the negatives by a wide margin for several reasons.

First, the harmonized tax is part of a major tax package which tax specialist Jack Mintz calls “the sharpest reduction in the tax burden on capital investment in any one province” he has ever seen. It should have, Mintz argues, a profound effect on business investment in Ontario through the virtual elimination of tax on capital goods and business intermediate goods. It will result in a dramatic improvement in the international competitiveness of the province. Mintz predicts that within ten years, the lower tax burden will increase capital investment by $47-billion, annual incomes by between 4% and 8%, and jobs by almost 600,000.

Second, the tax shifts the burden of taxation from income to consumption. It removes a major distortion in the current system by taxing only the value added at each stage of production rather than at each point of sale. This will be a major benefit to service providers such as electricians, plumbers and computer specialists who now have to pay the provincial sales tax on the tools and supplies they need to do the job. The harmonized tax will allow them to claim tax credits on these goods and pay tax only on the value added. Further the harmonization eliminates the need for business to comply with two separate and different sales taxes, which will be a major cost savings especially for small business.
Blah blah blah, what's good for your corporate overlords is good for everybody. Nothing much to comment on here that hasn't already been thoroughly debunked before. But then it gets a bit more creative.
Third, the harmonization will make a major contribution to removing barriers to the internal Canadian market. While Canada and Ontario have long benefited from the global reduction of trade barriers, internal barriers such as conflicting provincial regulatory regimes on transportation, health, safety etc. have long weakened Canada’s international competitiveness by making our small market even smaller. Ontario is as guilty as any province in creating such obstacles. However, by adopting the harmonized tax the province will join British Columbia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador in removing a major obstacle from an integrated domestic market.
Now, this is a remarkable bit of spin from Dymond. Whatever one's view of the HST, it has nothing at all to do with "trade barriers" in any meaningful sense of the term, particularly as compared to "regulatory regimes on transportation, health, safety etc.". While these factors might carry at least the theoretical potential to affect how business is done in different jurisdictions (albeit with zero current examples of how any of them actually do justify the government-flattening agreements normally proposed in response), it defies belief to suggest that having to pay sales tax in some provinces somehow creates some disproportionate difficulty in conducting business across provincial borders.

As a result, it seems most likely that Dymond is simply taking any opportunity available to him to get the pro-TILMA line in print even where it makes absolutely no sense in context. And one can't help but to salute his brazenness on that front.

Of course, there is another alternative: it could be that in order to pretend that trade barriers exist, corporate Canada has reached the point of having to argue that the very existence of separate provincial policies - even in areas other than what's normally identified as business regulation - runs contrary to their idea of an "integrated domestic market". But normally that seems to be treated as the unspoken endgame rather than an explicit goal, precisely because neither the provinces nor their citizens figure to take too kindly to being informed that any attempt to government themselves is inconvenient for business.

Fourth, as Kevin Lynch, former secretary of the federal cabinet points out, Canada has a major productivity problem. Among the advanced industrialized countries, Canada ranks only 17th in productivity performance. In 2007, business productivity was 75% of that in the U.S. compared to 90% in the 1990s. A poor productivity performance is a drag on growth. Getting the tax framework right by encouraging investment in new technology and machinery is part of the answer.
Check "productivity" off your Buzzword Bingo card, and we'll return to this later.
It is no surprise that the harmonized tax is controversial. It will apply to services and a broader range of goods than the provincial sales tax. However, transition payments by Ontario with significant federal financial support will for a time offset the additional cost faced by consumers. Ontario will also introduce a permanent sales credit for lower income families.
So as long as we throw a few pennies at the poor, nobody should have any reason to worry about our handing billions to big business based on nothing more than their view that they'd like more money. Natch.
It is no surprise that the harmonized tax is controversial. It will apply to services and a broader range of goods than the provincial sales tax. However, transition payments by Ontario with significant federal financial support will for a time offset the additional cost faced by consumers. Ontario will also introduce a permanent sales credit for lower income families.
Keep in mind, this comes a mere two paragraphs after Dymond lamented the fact that Canada's productivity has done nothing but lag since the time when his ilk claimed that NAFTA and the Martin round of corporate tax cuts would FIX OUR ECONOMY FOREVER!!!

For anybody looking at the consequences of policy choices, that would seem to point to the glaringly obvious: that decades of free-trade agreements and corporate tax slashing haven't done squat to improve Canadian productivity. But for the likes of Dymond, the fact that the previous round of business-centred policies didn't perform as advertised merely suggests that we need to double down. And if that fails, then maybe a negative corporate income tax will be enough to finally do the job.
The recession delivered a heavy blow to the Ontario economy. Massive job losses in manufacturing, a ballooning budget deficit, and becoming a have-not province have thrown into sharp relief how outdated the province’s business model has become. The easy days when Ontario rode the top or close to the top of the charts as the most prosperous province in Canada are gone. In the sea of gloom that has enveloped what was once the richest province of Canada, reasonable people should support the harmonized tax as part of a larger package of tax reform which, taken together, will create the conditions for the resumption of strong and sustained growth in Ontario.
Translation: I didn't expect to enjoy "The Shock Doctrine", but found that it contained some excellent ideas which I've been able to put to use.

In sum, it's nice to get at least a slight break from the same old already-debunked rhetoric in favour of something which at least rearranges the arguments with no regard for consistency or logic. And I'm almost looking forward to seeing where Dymond goes from here with his apparent tactic of putting boilerplate corporation-first blather in a blender and serving what comes out to the media.

Harper's Canada: That Creepy Guy Nobody Wants to Be Seen With Since 2006

For those wondering whether it's just governments around the world treating the Harper Cons as an international pariah, the answer is, not by a longshot - as even the Cons' ideological allies are doing the same. Shorter UK Tories on whether they're listening to unsolicited debate suggestions from Harper strategist Patrick Muttart:

No idea who he is. Not interested in his advice. Wish we'd never heard of him.

(Edit: fixed title.)