Saturday, August 06, 2005

The national interest

The Globe and Mail points out that it may not be long before Alberta's oil sands get taken over:
“I believe there will be a disappearance of the publicly traded companies, once the SEC comes out with its rulings,” he said in a conference call yesterday. “I believe Big Oil is going to want to go in and buy these companies.”

He said companies with existing oil sands operations are certain to be snapped up, even though their market values have grown as the price of crude has soared and interest in the sector has intensified. “The wealth of the oil companies have also grown by leaps and bounds,” Mr. Coxe noted.

There are a couple of different strands of this story which merit attention.

First, if there is a sudden move toward such wide-scale foreign ownership in a lucrative and now domestically-owned industry, will that be reason enough for the Liberals to start taking seriously the review process under the Investment Canada Act? And if not (which seems most likely), can the NDP duly highlight that lack of response?

Second, it's no great secret that the U.S.' large oil producers have just received massive payoffs through the new American energy bill - which could be all the more significant if it position the U.S. companies better as compared to Canadian ones, leading to a faster takeover. If that happens, should Canada be looking to file trade complaints? And if none of the current trade agreements seem to cover the issue, should we be looking to change that?

So far, we have only questions rather than answers. But stay tuned.

Lest there be any doubt...

...the federal budget deal will be entirely affordable given the government's current finances:
The federal government recorded a surplus of $3.1 billion in the first two months of the fiscal year.

In April, Ottawa took in $2.2 billion more than it spent and added another $900 million to the coffers in May, the Finance Department reported Friday.

The April-May figure was well up from the same period last year when the surplus was $1.8 billion.

And thankfully, as a result of the NDP's deal some of that added money will be put to much better use than it would have been otherwise.

Let the games begin

Some of the events have already started, but the Canada Summer Games officially begin at 5 PM today. Pick an event, check when it's on and go have some fun.

Devils Lake Agreement

It took far too long, but Canada and the U.S. have mostly agreed on how to handle Devils Lake:
The agreement provides for new rock and gravel filters at the start of the new drainage system as well as extensive monitoring of the water in the basin to be sure that pollution levels are not rising and that species from the lake do not get into the other water systems and crowd out existing fish.

North Dakota says its system of pumps, pipes and canals will stabilize Devils Lake at current levels, channeling excess water to the Sheyenne River, and on to the Red River and then over the Canadian border.

From the sounds of it, this has worked out pretty well for all parties concerned. The big issue now is to make sure that the agreed monitoring (and consequent change if necessary) takes place as planned.

Bringing people together

A new housing project in Vancouver plans to integrate multiple classes:
Two hundred units of non-market housing will shelter low income people who may be plagued by mental illness and addictions. They will live alongside 350 units of market housing made up of lofts and condominiums.

On the street level, non-profit community organizations will be given spaces to knit the neighbourhood together.

But some people now in the area are skeptical:
"People don't want to move into this neighbourhood to learn about the people down here," said Muggs Sigurgeirson, vice president of the Carnegie Centre Association, a community centre and meeting place for homeless people and drug users.

"They want a good housing deal. And then they want to protect their investment and want their property value to go up, so they fight to push homeless people out."

There may be some reason for concern, but there should also be a counterweight in that the upper-class people buying into the project will presumably be ones who are more receptive to living closer to poverty.

Of course, that fact may dampen the positive effect as well - rather than creating much intermingling between people who otherwise would not plan to live near each other, the project will merely provide a gathering point for people who don't see class as too much of an issue, as well as offering some opportunities for neighbourhood development. That's progress for sure, but it's a long way from raising sufficient awareness of poverty issues.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Bad Credit = Bad Idea

Judging from the lack of recent talk on the subject, we're apparently avoiding wide-scale problems linked to consumer debt so far. But a word of warning: the UK hasn't been so lucky:
Department of Trade and Industry figures showed a 37% jump in the number of people becoming insolvent in the second quarter of the year. The three-month total of 15,394 is the highest quarterly figure since records began in 1960.

The low interest rates of recent years pushed Britain's total personal debt levels above the £1 trillion level for the first time last year. The recent slowdown in the economy and last year's interest rate rises are being blamed for pushing some people over the edge.

One of the credit-card companies hardest hit by the wave of bankruptcies is responding by cutting credit limits and refusing more applications. That's one way to cut down on future debt, but perhaps not a positive step. The flexibility to spend is a clear plus if exercised wisely; the problem now is a bubble has deflates enough to expose a lot of unwise choices.

The bigger issue is ultimately one of consumer responsibility. Those now enjoying Saskatchewan's jobs boom, and even more importantly those not yet benefitting from the progress, should remember that payment deferred isn't payment avoided.

Sheer brilliance

Plutonium Page at Kos points out a true work of art. My personal favourite:
I became aware that my spectacles were not sitting quite correctly on my nose. Using my hand I moved them slightly, thereby making them feel more comfortable. This adjustment completed I continued with my activities.

It's the weekend. Go wild and read it all.

The need for vigilance

The Tyee points out the all-too present difficulties in trying to shop progressively:
Lots of us try to shop green. We buy unbleached paper towels and recycled products, some with more than 5 percent post-consumer content. Commend McDonald's for banning Styrofoam, and shun them for lying about beef fat in the fries. Save our paychecks because we suffer from Prius envy. Wouldn't be caught dead at Wal-Mart because, well, it's Wal-Mart. But a green consumer is still a consumer, and the evil marketing geniuses who run the world know this. They prey on our longings: love your mother, do well by doing good, live simply that others may simply live ... They put symbols of renewal on plastic packaging. They market products with terms the FDA has yet to define. They overcharge, because they know eco-chumps pay more, eagerly, if it helps us feel a reverent connection with all things.

There's probably a role here for truth in labelling as well. But as long as that's not entirely present, when voting with one's consumer dollars, be careful about seemingly friendlier products where the "natural" or "green" label is little more than a waste of ink.

On high opinions of one's self

There's little doubt that politics are playing a role in Marc Emery's arrest.

But can we also all agree that this is going a bit too far?
"If I thought my death or my lifetime imprisonment even at great suffering would bring about the liberation of hundreds, thousands and millions of people around the world who are oppressed, I am looking forward to that," Marc Emery said in an interview...

He said the people he admires most - Gandhi, father of India's independence, anti-apartheid leader Mandela and King, the revered U.S. civil rights leader - spent time in prison for their beliefs.

Frank Roncarelli, I'll grant as an analogue. But there's a difference between fighting for equal rights for a group discriminated against from birth for no reason, as Gandhi, Mandela and King all did, and fighting for all people to be able to do something of their choice, as is the case for both Roncarelli and Emery.

Which isn't to say that Emery's cause lacks justice...just that he might be able to win support from a greater proportion of Canadians if (like Gandhi, Mandela and King) his humility matched his devotion to his cause.

Exploring eBay

A friendly public service announcement: for those who have been in the market for a well-maintained, second-hand icebreaker, here's your chance.


The Globe's web comment discusses how the CNOOC/Unocal saga puts to rest any claims that true globalization is happening:
Globalization is not global. Instead, relatively equal participation in a globalized economic system is limited to a select few countries, and in a select few areas. Interdependence in economic affairs can only really be found in two regions - North America and Europe, with Japan added for good measure. Anyone not in that group may gain access from time to time, but on terms set by the club's members (for example, the matter of agricultural subsidies and the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization)...

On same day that CNOOC's bid for Unocal ended, Kinder Morgan Inc. (a U.S. energy company) agreed to purchase Terasen Inc. (formerly BC Gas, an important Canadian company with development interests in Alberta's oil sands) for $3.1-billion, with little fanfare on either side of the border or in either national capital. China isn't allowed to play the game that way. Very few others would be allowed to either.

Go read.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

On fairness and balance

You'd think the Leader-Post would at least pretend to try to show both sides of an issue. As all too often, you'd be wrong.

I noted earlier the plan released today by Saskatchewan's NDP government to deal with substance abuse.

The Leader-Post's front page features two stories on the plan.

One story, left over from this morning, features two paragraphs setting out the rough facts, followed by six paragraphs of Saskatchewan Party quotes, followed by two more paragraphs of facts, followed by six more paragraphs of SP MLA June Draude. Pause for a bullet-point list of Sask Party policy proposals, then finish off with two more paragraphs of Draude.

Then there's this one, posted later today, which makes the story the Sask Party's reaction rather than the policy itself. It leads with a paragraph saying that the opposition is disappointed...presents a small amount of the new policy in two paragraphs...then goes to three paragraphs of quotes from SP MLA Ted Merriman before closing by noting a policy still under consideration.

The result: two articles on the most important news story in Saskatchewan today, not one word of NDP input.

Now, there are two possibilities here.

One is that the NDP managed to release a much-anticipated report and consequent policy without a single MLA bothering to say anything about it. (Hint: The NDP's caucus website may have a quote or two.)

The other is that the Leader-Post has once again chosen to pay attention to only one side of Saskatchewan's public policy debate.

Draw conclusions as needed.

UPDATE, Aug. 5: Miraculously enough, today's story was actually on the balanced side. Now was that so hard?

Telus more

According to the Tyee, Telus blocked many more sites than we knew - and the result may be much closer scrutiny over the actions of ISPs in general:
In the past, ISPs such as Telus argued that they served the role of a common carrier, similar to telephone companies, which are not liable for the content of calls made on their telephones.

As neutral carriers, ISPs in the past have blocked sites only after being ordered to do so by a court. But by unilaterally moving to block access to Voices For Change before a court issued an order, Geist said, Telus appears to have taken a step away from that neutral approach...

So far, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has largely taken a hands-off approach to the Internet. But Telus’s action may lead the commission to revisit that decision, Geist said.

(T)here appears to be legal authority for intervention under the Canadian Telecommunications Act, Geist said.

Section 27(2) of the act, for example, prohibits unjust discrimination in the provision of a telecommunication service. Section 36 states that a “Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”

Ottawa is already reviewing a broad range of issues related to telecommunications policy and the Telus issue may well affect the outcome of that review.

For the sake of trying to win a labour battle, Telus has opened it - and all ISPs - up to the argument that they are responsible for the content conveyed. After all, if ISPs reserve the right to block access solely to improve their hand in a labour dispute, why can't access be blocked for any other purpose the CRTC (or any government) sees fit to impose?

Telus' argument is that this was a unique situation, but the only difference appears to be that the sites were blocked purely as pressure in a labour dispute rather than out of any sort of public service. And that's not a difference that works in Telus' favour. It seems plain that Telus has violated at least the second of the above statutory provisions; what's not clear is what action will be taken in response.

As I noted yesterday, the aftermath of the lockout doesn't look good at this point...and it may be all the worse if Telus feels the need to gain more from the lockout to make up for added regulation and liability. But there's much more at stake now than simply the contents of the next CBA.

In fighting dirty in a minor battle, Telus has opened up a war which could fundamentally change the way the Internet is regulated in Canada. We'll see how long it takes the CRTC to fire the first shot in response.

The news from space

If anything will eliminate Bushco's desire to fund NASA, this is it:
Commander Eileen Collins said astronauts on shuttle Discovery had seen widespread environmental destruction on Earth and warned on Thursday that greater care was needed to protect natural resources...

"Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It's very widespread in some parts of the world," Collins said in a conversation from space with Japanese officials in Tokyo, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

One of the fun consequences of the military-industrial complex relying on scientific development: sometimes, those pesky scientists start pointing out the obvious. We can safely bet that this won't be the topic of conversation once Discovery gets back to Earth.

Stocking stuffer

Ujjal Dosanjh may be doing little to nothing as Minister of Health. But full credit to him for giving the NDP an early Christmas present:
In an interview Thursday, Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh welcomed the stay of the court's ruling, but gave no indication that he will take action to prevent the introduction of two-tier care in Quebec during the interval.

Dosanjh declined to offer a view on whether the Supreme Court judgment conflicts with the Canada Health Act, which requires that health care be provided to all on the same terms and conditions...

Asked whether he hoped to preserve the single-tier system, he said: "Our first priority is to strengthen the public health care system and I believe we shouldn't be ideological about these issues," he said...

Mike McBane of the Canadian Health Coalition said he interprets the comment about "rigid ideological positions" as referring to defenders of single-tier health care.

"I would say that's extremely disturbing to hear that coming from the minister of health who up until now has told Canadians he thinks private delivery is not in the public interest," said McBane.

A Dosanjh spokesman later tried to take back the gift, saying that the "ideological" comment referred only to advocates of private health care. But Dosanjh has brought the health-care issue back to the front pages, and also made it clear that he and his party don't stand for much when it comes to health care.

I just hope the NDP unwraps this one and starts showing it off in a hurry.

Positive steps

Saskatchewan's government releases its plan to address crystal meth and other drugs:
Premier Lorne Calvert has announced a new three-year plan to prevent and treat substance abuse.

The government says it will spend $10 million a year on the project, and will triple the province's capacity to treat drug-addicted youth.

The money includes a new residential youth drug treatment facility in Prince Albert.

The province also says it will create a new alcohol and drug prevention and education unit within the health department.

The capacity issue was probably the most important one given the current lack of rehabilitation spaces, and it's great to see that being addressed along with added education. Better yet, the NDP hasn't bought the SaskParty claim that extending the scope of mandatory treatment is the only (or any) answer.

There's still a lot of work to be done with respect to youth addictions, but thanks to today's announcement, progress is being made.

Suspended sentence

The CP reports that the Government of Quebec has received a 12-month stay of the Chaoulli health-care decision, based on the new quasi-constitutional norms imposed by it.

For those looking at the actual ruling and wondering about the "partial re-hearing", don't get your hopes up. That reference seems to refer only to the motion for the stay.

And for those following Greg's tracker as to how much time Ujjal Dosanjh has wasted, it's now officially just under one-sixth of the time before the ruling takes effect.

(Edit: second paragraph for clarity.)

Planning the handover

The U.S. may be sending mixed signals about its intention to stay in Iraq, but there's no doubt that it's leaving Afghanistan:
NATO-led international troops will be ready to assume responsibility for security across all of Afghanistan by the end of next year, freeing up thousands of American forces, a top NATO general said Thursday.

There has long been a plan to expand the 10,000-strong NATO force here into Afghanistan's volatile south and east, but the timing for its completion has never been specific. Washington has long sought such a move, hoping to relieve many of its 17,600 front-line troops still here.

It's still questionable whether anything much has been accomplished in Afghanistan; there as in Iraq it's only the occupying troops keeping the country from complete chaos, and even any current stability is only relative.

But because the U.S. had an true international coalition there, it's able to at least call on other states to pick up most of the burden now. Oddly enough, Albania and Estonia haven't been able to do the same in Iraq.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Telus something we don't know

There was a rightful firestorm last week when Telus was found to be blocking access to union websites during their lockout. According to the a Telecommunications Workers Union press release, Telus didn't stop there:
"Telus is now refusing to let locked out employees make changes to their Telus Mobility or wireline accounts. Some of these people are attempting to reduce their monthly expenses during the lockout. Others are moving. Still others want to boycott the company. Regardless of the reason, Telus's refusal to honour their requests is outrageous...
"Telus has actually told some of our people that they cannot cancel their service and that if they refuse to pay for the services they have but want cancelled, they will be taken to a collection agency."

Now, I'm sure Telus thought ahead far enough to have some provisions in the service contracts that allow it to delay processing requests. And even if the action is judged in the proper context of the labour dispute rather than as an individual contract issue, there probably won't be any meaningful chance for enforcement.

As another point of interest, note the rationale for the blocked websites: supposedly Telus was concerned that photos of replacement workers on those sites would lead to violence. The company then went out of its way to parade replacements past a worker picket line and to film them for TV exposure.

Ultimately, Telus holds an awful lot of cards in this one, and seems to be pulling more out of its sleeve at every turn. All the workers have is public pressure. Drop Telus and and the CRTC a line - again, if necessary.

Responsible commentary

Another one to file under obvious comments from surprising sources:
Atlantic Canadians struggling to cope with some of the country's highest gasoline prices should consider compact cars, suggests one of the region's best-known gas retailers.

Dave Collins, a vice president at Wilson Fuels — an independent retailer based in Nova Scotia — said today that the surge of gas prices in Atlantic Canada will only stop when demand for gasoline decreases...

Still, Collins predicts that as demand for gasoline shrinks, prices may once again retreat by 2006.

"We say nothing cures high prices like high prices. The simple reason is that demand changes. We're starting to notice it now, and it will start to bite in the next year and my guess is that prices will slacken off," he said.

We can only hope that the prediction is as accurate as the advice.

Major vacancy

While one prominent position is filled today, another opens up earlier than expected with John Major's retirement from the Supreme Court.

Ahab's Whale has already pointed out the paucity of coverage from CBC's article, not to mention the lack of mention of the fact that the new justice will come from the West.

To fill in the most obvious blank from today's coverage, a brief summary of the top candidates is available here:
Described as hardworking, no-nonsense, tough-minded, outgoing and ``extremely bright,'' (Georgina) Jackson, 52, was not politically active before she was appointed directly to Saskatchewan's Appeal Court in 1991. She is popular with her fellow judges, and spent many years at Saskatchewan's Department of Justice where she oversaw the development of civil laws...

(Freda) Steel, a member of the bars of both Ontario and Manitoba, also had no political affiliation before her appointment to the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench in 1995. After graduating near the top of her class at the University of Manitoba, she earned her master of laws at Harvard and went on to teach law until her appointment to the bench. Steel, 52, has extensive experience as a labour arbitrator and provincial human rights adjudicator...

(Robert) Richards, also 52, also holds a master of laws from Harvard and is called to the bars of both Saskatchewan and Ontario. After graduating with distinction from the University of Saskatchewan's law school, he clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada. He then became chief of staff for former federal Conservative cabinet minister Ramon Hnatyshyn for a year during the mid-'80s. Richards went on to join the Saskatchewan Department of Justice as director of constitutional law, arguing more than 45 cases in the Supreme Court before his appointment to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal last year.

Note from these summaries the lack of partisanship in past appointments (not to mention in the proposed candidates): two of the candidates had no political affiliation, while Justice Richards was appointed to the Court of Appeal by a Liberal federal government in consultation with the NDP provincial government.

Whoever gets appointed now, our Supreme Court should get a highly qualified judge regardless of political affiliation...and without millions of dollars and hundreds (thousands?) of hours being spent in a pointless confirmation battle. Now why is it that people are proposing to model our confirmation system after the U.S. rather than the other way around?

The new GG... Michaelle Jean:
Jean, a journalist, is probably best known to English Canadians as the host of The Passionate Eye on CBC TV and Rough Cuts on CBC Newsworld.

But her television career was launched in Quebec where she has worked as a journalist, producer and host for the CBC's French language services, SRC and RDI, since 1988...

Jean has received many awards for her own documentary work including the Amnesty International Journalism Award, the Anik Prize and the Galaxi Award for best information program host.

Looks like a solid appointment based on the CBC summary, very much in the Clarkson mold (media-savvy more than politically involved). I suppose the big question now is whether she'll face a political meltdown in the next couple of sessions of Parliament...and whether she'll wish a politician had been given the job if that happens.

Change is happening

Hybrid cars may not be the norm just yet, but Toyota has plans to make them just that:
Toyota Motor Corp. plans to introduce 10 more gasoline-electric hybrid models globally by early next decade in a push to boost total sales of hybrids to 1 million, a top Toyota U.S. executive said.

The world's second-biggest automaker is also aiming for hybrid vehicles to account for at least 25 percent of its U.S. sales in the same time period...

The plan may be a bit of a mixed blessing, as it seems to be linked to an effort to make bigger hybrid vehicles (including pickup trucks), and to apply the efficiency of a hybrid to increase power rather than to improve gas mileage. But at the very least, a slightly more environmentally-friendly option is on the verge of being mainstream.

Nuclear risks

The refurbishment of New Brunswick's Point Lepreau nuclear station was announced last week, but it's the Globe's web comment that tells us who's on the hook:
The province's utility, New Brunswick Power Corp will proceed with the refurbishment of Point Lepreau nuclear power station, with AECL as the general contractor...

In 2002, the New Brunswick Public Utilities Commission turned down N.B. Power's request for approval to refurbish Point Lepreau. Mindful of the disastrous nuclear-refurbishment experience at Pickering in Ontario, the main concerns of the regulator were the significant risks of cost overruns and delays.

The regulator's concerns proved justified. The current refurbishments of two Pickering reactors are three and five years behind schedule and four and five times over budget, respectively. AECL was a general contractor at Pickering during the first four years of the project...

Ominously for federal taxpayers, Mr. Lord promised to "hold the federal government accountable" for AECL's refurbishment commitments. New Brunswick officials will not release the terms of AECL's guarantees, so federal taxpayers have no way of knowing how much they might be on the hook for.

The part about planning ahead for power needs is a plus. It's the part about entrusting the building to a contractor with a history of going three times over budget that should raise concerns - with that kind of track record, New Brunswick had might as well have hired Halliburton for the job.

And then there's the question of whether nuclear power is still something worth pursuing at all. It appears that AECL gave the Public Utilities Commission a sweet enough deal that it didn't bother to consider that issue. We'll see whether it's a topic of conversation a few hundred million dollars down the road.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Operation Enduring Mistrust

The Washington Post has the scoop on even more military cover-ups in Iraq. Though this time, the crime is far worse than the cover-up:
Although Mowhoush's death certificate lists his cause of death as "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression," the Dec. 2, 2003, autopsy, quoted in classified documents and released with redactions, showed that Mowhoush had "contusions and abrasions with pattern impressions" over much of his body, and six fractured ribs. Investigators believed a "long straight-edge instrument" was used on Mowhoush, as well an "object like the end of an M-16" rifle.

"Although the investigation indicates the death was directly related to the non-standard interrogation methods employed on 26 NOV, the circumstances surrounding the death are further complicated due to Mowhoush being interrogated and reportedly beaten by members of a Special Forces team and other government agency (OGA) employees two days earlier," said a secret Army memo dated May 10, 2004.

Hours after Mowhoush's death in U.S. custody on Nov. 26, 2003, military officials issued a news release stating that the prisoner had died of natural causes after complaining of feeling sick. Army psychological-operations officers quickly distributed leaflets designed to convince locals that the general had cooperated and outed key insurgents.

The U.S. military initially told reporters that Mowhoush had been captured during a raid. In reality, he had walked into the Forward Operating Base "Tiger" in Qaim on Nov. 10, 2003, hoping to speak with U.S. commanders to secure the release of his sons, who had been arrested in raids 11 days earlier.

Good to know that the U.S. military is so far out of control that it can't even tell which torture technique was the precise cause of a prisoner's death. (Of course, that fact should keep any individual from being held responsible for the death in current court hearings.)

The rest of the article is mostly a blow-by-blow description of Mowboush's beating...but there is a big finish:
"The interrogation techniques were known and were approved of by the upper echelons of command of the 3rd ACR," Cassara said in a news conference. "They believed, and still do, that they were appropriate and proper."

Truly frightnening, even if it's only one of many examples of just how far the U.S. military has gone off the rails.

Cleaning up

Stephane Dion's announcement probably isn't the biggest story of the day, or the one most affecting Canada's power structure, or the one with the most potential for hilariously snide commentary. But it could be the most important:

Federal Environment Minister Stephane Dion has announced more than $150 million in funding to clean up toxic sites across Canada.

Most of the money is headed to the Arctic to deal with a poisonous legacy that includes abandoned mines and old military sites...

Projects include the ongoing cleanup at the Giant Mine outside Yellowknife, where poisons left by the now-bankrupt Royal Oak mines include 237,000 tonnes of arsenic stored underground in huge drift piles.

Another cleanup site is Port Radium where a Cold-War-era radium and uranium mine poses environmental and health concerns for the people of nearby Deline, N.W.T.

Another mine at Colomac, 210 kilometres north of Yellowknife, has left two tailings ponds heavily contaminated by cyanide, a highly toxic chemical used in gold refining.

Dion said many of the problems in the North are a result of old mining regulations. The federal government was often left assuming the environmental liabilities of bankrupt mining companies.

Today, we saw part of the bill for our failure to monitor development carefully enough in the past - and we shouldn't forget to add in how many people have already been hurt by these sites.

We can now be somewhat reassured that current companies aren't allowed to walk away from their obligations in the same way. But it'll take a lot of effort to make sure that future governments keep this lesson in mind.

The bare minimum

While the load on Ontario's power supply may not be going down, the supply itself is due to maintenance:
Four of the five units - nuclear power generators at the Pickering station east of Toronto and the Bruce plant on the shores of Lake Huron, plus two fossil-fuel units in Nanticoke, southeast of London, Ont. - were expected to be down for the day. The fifth, a Lambton coal-fired unit in Sarnia, was expected to return to service Tuesday. Several other units in the province also weren't operating at full capacity...

Tuesday's projected peak demand was expected to reach 25,400 megawatts, with the province only capable of generating about 23,700 megawatts, he added.

Constraints in those U.S. states that ship surplus power to Ontario could force the province to take more drastic steps, including brownouts and rolling blackouts, Young warned...

It wasn't immediately clear why several generating units were taken out of service but Young said it's not unusual for repairs to be required in a summer when generators have been working full out.

"You're seeing a system that is very strained," he said.

While it makes sense that some generators will need repairs after facing as great a load as they have this summer, there's no explanation as to why the system hasn't been planned to take into account for such readily apparent risks. But the answer to that can be found fairly quickly.

Today's Globe web comment includes the ever-fun spectacle industry apologists trying to make the case as to why Ontario is supposed to be better off under its privatized system. The comment claims that privatization will transfer risk from the public to investors...while conveniently ignoring the risk of power becoming unavailable entirely. This is the obvious risk of a system designed for profit: there's less incentive to provide any leeway, and thus more likelihood that peak demand totals will exceed supply. Just when it's needed most, the power most likely won't be there.

Of course, the comment does take time to lecture people about the need to plan added capacity. It conveniently neglects the time and effort that were spent planning the privatized system itself which could have been put to more productive uses.

All this isn't to say that the pre-privatization system was sustainable on its face: if rates were $2 billion per year below the cost of production, then the system was bound to run into problems no matter who was running the show. But there's no reason whatsoever why the now-higher rates couldn't have been used by a public utility to make added investments in the existing grid, without either the expense of privatizing or the risks inherent in a system designed to operate with a lower margin of error.

Now, power needs are soaring, the system not only can't keep up but needs to be shut down for repairs, and future projects to try to meet the needs are merely in a negotiation phase. Could continued public-sector management have worked out any worse?

The truth about Bolton

As weak as Bush looks being unable to get his chosen candidate through the Senate, the New York Times points out that it's an even bigger weakness that forced the Bolton nomination in the first place:
"Most of the reforms sought by the United States are well on their way to completion," said a senior administration official, speaking anonymously to avoid undercutting the rationale for the Bolton appointment. Another said that because so much had been achieved, there was little concern that Mr. Bolton's combative personality would jeopardize the agenda...

United Nations and American diplomats are predicting that the main challenge facing Mr. Bolton will be less to "reform" the United Nations than to convince his conservative admirers in Congress that recent changes are real, particularly those put in place after scandals in the oil-for-food program and in some peacekeeping operations.

So the sole reason for thumbing his nose at most of the world was...because otherwise, Bush couldn't count on his own party supporting his plans for the U.N.

Suffice it to say that this isn't the action of a leader working from a position of strength.

#2 (and climbing?)

Yet more evidence that when given an honest comparison, investors, tourists and others around the world like Canada just fine the way it is:
The Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index, an analytical ranking of the world's nation brands, placed Canada just behind Australia in terms of brand power.

The group's second quarterly report surveyed 10,000 people on their perceptions of a country's cultural, political and tourist appeal, as well as investment potential.

Canada, a new country in the survey, bumped Britain out of the second place.

It was the second choice among countries for investment, immigration, people and governance, and third in the tourism category.

The one area of concern was a very low ranking in culture, which probably merits more attention than it receives.

But the most important finding from the survey is that despite a tax-slashing, regulation-ignoring regime to the south of us, Canada still ranks as a more attractive place for investment. (And in fact, the U.S. ranked 11th out of 25 overall.) Funny what a healthy, well-educated and hospitable populace can do.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Better information leaks out

The Washington Post notes that according to the U.S.' current estimate, Iran is a decade away from being able to produce nuclear weapons - twice as long as it would have taken based on the previous National Intelligence Estimate. No wonder Iran is willing to accept inspectors rather than completely isolating itself.

Of course, you wouldn't know the facts from Bushco's party line:
The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."

The NIE, ordered by the National Intelligence Council in January, is the first major review since 2001 of what is known and what is unknown about Iran. Additional assessments produced during Bush's first term were narrow in scope, and some were rejected by advocates of policies that were inconsistent with the intelligence judgments.

One such paper was a 2002 review that former and current officials said was commissioned by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who was then deputy adviser, to assess the possibility for "regime change" in Iran. Those findings described the Islamic republic on a slow march toward democracy and cautioned against U.S. interference in that process, said the officials, who would describe the paper's classified findings only on the condition of anonymity.

It'll take a frightening amount of chutzpah for Bush to try to push for regime change in Iran in the face of now-public intelligence stating that not only is Iran not a threat, but it's likely headed toward democracy without outside intervention. Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that the administration has a lot more chutzpah than competence.

Positive force

While the U.S. may be going out of its way to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations, other states still take the U.N. seriously. Take, for instance, Iran:
Iran agreed late Monday to a two-day delay in reopening its nuclear processing plant here after receiving a request from the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency.

Mohammed ElBaradei asked Tehran for a "maximum of two days" to send its inspectors to Iran's nuclear facility where they can oversee the dismantling of UN seals, said Ali Agha Mohammadi, spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

With observation in place, both Iran and the international community are better off: Iran is able to resume operations at its plant with somewhat less worry about repercussions, while the presence of inspectors will help the rest of us to know what is and isn't going on at the facility.

Which is good news for everybody except those who depend on fear of the unknown to impose their will on the world.

On basing policy on science

Precious natural resources are being lost because a government has not only decided to ignore sound science in favour of the unsubstantiated position of its donors, but also decided to harass the independent third parties who can demonstrate that its position is wrong.

Sound like Bushco on oil? Nope - it's Gordon Campbell on salmon:
The last report on Broughton, by a blue ribbon scientific panel led by Dr. John Volpe of UBC, traced the lice directly to the responsible fish farms and these findings were published by the Royal Society in London. They’ve been supported by every independent scientist in the world who is familiar with the subject, including Dr. Dan Pawley of UBC, named by TIME magazine as one of the top 50 scientists in the world.

What have the governments done in these circumstances? Notwithstanding the independent evidence, and having none of their own to contradict, they’ve nevertheless embarked upon a policy of harassing Ms. Morton, denying overseas reports and simply refusing to accept the independent evidence of our own independent scientists. DFO scientists, we have reason to believe, support the independent scientific findings but are suppressed by their politically controlled seniors.

The reaction of the fish farming companies is interesting. “There are no lice” they say until you point out that for years they have been using a highly poisonous compound, called Slice, consumed by the farmed fish, to get rid of this problem that doesn’t exist!

Rafe Mair suggests that the longer-term goal may be to eliminate wild salmon outright so as to allow rivers to be dammed. Whether or not that's the case, the science here gives an obvious answer to an important question: fish farms seem to directly cause damage to wild salmon, and all the diversion tactics Gordo can muster can't change that fact.

If only more media than the Tyee were making the fact known - but then that's what we're here for, right?

A handy suggestion

A quick note to Morley Watson of the First Nations University. While a task force to present ideas to improve a university facing bad publicity isn't a terrible idea, it might help to consult the people who are supposed to join the task force:
The appointment of a task force was seen as crucial to the future of the institution, which has seen a number of its top academics quit, and others asked to leave. Some have charged the board with politically interfering in the institution's operations.

But the first person Ducharme named, Judge Mary Ellen Turpel Lafond of Saskatoon, says she was shocked to hear her name mentioned, and she had not committed to sitting on the task force...

Board chair, Morley Watson later said the board may have acted in haste in naming Lafond.

Of course, acting with lots of haste (and very little apparent reason) was exactly what created the current mess for FNUC. As an institution, FNUC is a great step - but its potential seems on the verge of being wasted due to the current administration.

Accuracy in reporting

Yesterday, I pointed out that any media coverage of the trucking dispute would have to paint the companies as being in the wrong. I may have underestimated the ability of the dailies to euphemize their way away from accuracy in their headlines, even while the content of the articles tells the truth.

The Globe's headline suggests that the companies merely rejected "proposals", giving no hint that the proposals were from a third-party mediator...even though later on the story covers the fact of the matter:
"Since there is no deal, they are not going back to work," said Ken Halliday, a negotiator for about 1,200 independent short-haul truck drivers who have been on strike since June 27. The truckers parked their rigs to support calls for higher pay to offset the impact of soaring fuel prices.

Mr. Halliday said he was shocked by the results of yesterday's vote since transport company representatives were sitting across the table from the drivers when the terms were being negotiated.

"Now they are saying they can't afford it," he said.

And even the federal minister involved can tell which side has made some effort to reach a solution:
"The truck drivers have gone a long way to put their best foot forward and try to find a solution," Mr. Emerson said, noting his disappoint (sic) with yesterday's voting outcome.

Instead, the companies are now demanding a cooling-off period - presumably an end to the strike with no changes in the current terms of operation - while a task force examines possible solutions. Curiously, they seem to have left out any reason to think that the task force's findings will be given any more credence than those of the mediator.

The National Post's headline mentions that the deal was "scuttled", but doesn't point out who did the scuttling. The article then has some even more choice words from Emerson:
(Emerson) said the Ottawa had done everything the companies had requested to find a resolution to the dispute.

"Then they turned around and just gave us the finger," he said.

Now wouldn't that have been a catchier headline? Or for a more accurate one, wouldn't "Trucking companies reject mediator's settlement proposal" have done the job?

It's clear that the people paying close attention will know who's seeking a reasonable solution and who isn't. It's much less clear whether the public at large knows, thanks to the incomplete headlines at both national dailies.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

A minor issue

According to the New York Times, the Iraqi constitutional committee has resolved to finish its work by August 15 after all, at the expense of some of the most contentious issues. But it's the Los Angeles Times that points out what the most contentious issue actually is:
The key, when it comes to Iraqi politics, is the map. And what it shows is that in the Shiite Muslim south and areas close to the Kurdish north lie vast oil deposits worth billions of dollars per year. In the center, where most Sunni Arabs live, lie sand and scrub.

While other issues remain under debate, including the rights of women and the role of Islam, there is only one that could provoke violent upheaval: whether political power and oil revenue will be controlled largely by a centralized national government or by regional authorities...

One increasingly likely scenario is that the drafters, in their reluctance to confront the difficult issue and force a compromise, will put in vague language that defers the hard choices.

The effect of the forced deadline is to make it likely that the most contentious issue, the ownership of Iraq's most valuable resource (and perhaps only hope of rapid development), will be left unresolved. This may result in a plausible enough process to allow Buch to bring home some troops before the '06 elections, but it's obviously a recipe for civil war in the long term.

Which may be exactly what the administration wants: to get out as quickly as possible while claiming victory, then argue later that the civil war is completely unrelated to U.S. involvement and thus not its problem.

Show trials revealed

From a Kos diary: the Guantanamo trial process is such a farce that two different prosecutors consider it to be rigged.
The first email is from prosecutor Major Robert Preston to his supervisor...

"I consider the insistence on pressing ahead with cases that would be marginal even if properly prepared to be a severe threat to the reputation of the military justice system and even a fraud on the American people, Maj Preston wrote...

"(W)riting a motion saying that the process will be full and fair when you don't really believe it is kind of hard, particularly when you want to call yourself an officer and lawyer."

And even worse:
Capt Carr says that the prosecutors have been told by the chief prosecutor that the panel sitting in judgment on the cases would be handpicked to ensure convictions.

"You have repeatedly said to the office that the military panel will be handpicked and will not acquit these detainees and that we only needed to worry about building a record for the review panel," he said.

Not much to add that isn't in the article...except to say that it's a good thing the truth is out now, so that the review panels will be able to hear the full story as to just how unfair the process has been.

Cattle crisis followup

It may not count as a postscript just yet, but the CP points out a couple of the less-mentioned effects of the border closure.

First, Canadian cattle producers have lost enough equity in their ranches that they're now largely controlled by American interests. I'd be very curious how many of the new owners are the same member of R-CALF who argued against allowing the border to open.

Second, Canada's added slaughter capacity will continue to move processing northward, as even American cattle may be shipped here in larger numbers as a result of newer and better facilities. Good news for us in the short term at least, though we'll need to try to keep ahead of the curve in processing.

Third, our government's support for Canadian ranchers, while insufficient to allow farmers to actually maintain their equity, is about to result result in NAFTA challenges from American producers. Did we really need more reasons to follow Ian's advice and tear up the agreements that allow for this kind of insanity?

Just who's being unreasonable?

Yesterday, Digital Memoirs posted on the issue of the B.C. truckers strike. I was going to wait for DM's followup to respond, but today's events add a whole new dimension to the issue:
Truck companies involved in a dispute with truck drivers have rejected a deal that would have returned the Port of Vancouver to full operation.

The vote Sunday afternoon was unanimous. The port could have been moving back to full operation by Tuesday if the deal had been ratified.

About 90 per cent of the 1,000 striking truckers who haul containers had already approved the tentative two-year deal in a vote earlier Sunday.

DM had expressed concerns that the mediator was only involved in the process at the behest of other businesses, who had lobbied the provincial and federal governments to get their products moving again:
As always, big business wants these pesky glitches in profit pumping, called 'strikes' to end as soon as possible, and without change.

While this may well be true, the actual result of the mediation makes it clear just who's responsible for the continued strike. There's always risk involved where third parties are brought into labour disputes, but the more reasonable party should always be glad to have a neutral observer to validate its position, and in this case that's exactly what happened.

The truckers were willing to accept a contract recommended by a neutral third party in order to get back to work and also help the other industries who are affected by the strike. It's the companies who refused to accept a reasonable deal, leaving the truckers on strike even though they've voted for a fair resolution.

While the mediation process could have had negative effects, its actual role has been to make the respective merit of each side very clear to the public - something that may not have happened without the mediator's solution being on the table.

Now the battle lines are the truckers, the rest of the economy and the two levels of government who want to get products moving again, against the companies who refused a fair solution. No matter how thoroughly the media covered the initial arguments of both sides, that division may never have been as clear without third-party involvement.

Defending the Arctic

CTV points out that Hans Island is the least of Canada's sovereignty worries in the North:
The United States is challenging Canadian sovereignty in six other areas of the Arctic, including the Northwest Passage.

If sea ice continues to thin due to climate change, the Northwest Passage will eventually open up as a major shipping route. More and more, the U.S. and other countries believe that the Arctic waters are international waters -- as is the case in the Antarctic.

The article cites some efforts now being made to patrol the Arctic, which certainly helps matters somewhat.

But as few as one or two successful trips through the Northwest Passage by other states could take away Canada's sovereignty under international law, effectively gutting any capacity to monitor environmental compliance by foreign ships. In turn, foreign use of the Passage might lead to settlements which could come under foreign control, ultimately undermining Canada's authority over the Arctic.

I'm not a hawk on most military issues, but the stakes in this one are massive, and Canada's general knowledge of the problem is sorely lacking. The current steps are a start, but they're far from enough...and Hans Island, while perhaps worth paying attention to, shouldn't be the top story among northern issues.

(Edit: typo.)

By the numbers

StatsCan is an absolutely vital piece in our ability to understand the current position of Canada and the people inside it. Which makes stories like this particularly disturbing:
The erroneous data on Canada's 2004 trade in cultural goods, such as CDs and videos, were first placed on the Statistics Canada website March 29.

The agency then posted a correction to the material May 19, and alerted users to the corrected numbers in a website notice five days later...Trouble is, the so-called corrected numbers were themselves incorrect.

By June 10, Statistics Canada had verified that its correction indeed needed correcting.

But internal dithering and red tape prevented the agency from dealing with the problem until June 21, when it finally withdrew the bad numbers from the website and posted an apology...

A spokesman for the agency said the problems began when a programmer developed new software, then left for another job.

A second programmer took over, but "obviously, (the software) was not tested properly," Francois Nault, director of Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics, said in an interview.

While it's a plus to have timely numbers, it's all the more important that they be accurate...and in particular that the current contents of StatsCan's publicly-available material reflect the best current knowledge. This incident suggests that StatsCan currently doesn't have enough coordination either internally, or with the other organizations that gather data.

Not making progress

It hasn't taken long for the U.S.' conditions for Iraq withdrawal to be declared unreachable:
Key members of the committee writing the new Iraqi constitution said Sunday they need another month to finish the draft, threatening U.S. efforts to maintain political momentum to combat the insurgency...

Mr. Talabani met with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and afterward insisted the deadline must be met. Mr. Talabani, a Kurd, began urgent consultations with parliament leaders to head off a delay...

Under the original deadline, the National Assembly had until Aug. 15 to approve the charter and submit it to a national referendum in mid-October. That formula was strongly supported by the Americans.

But major differences remain among the ethnic and religious groups represented on the committee, including disputes over such issues as federalism, dual nationality and the role of Islam.

In sum:

The only thing that the constitutional drafters have agreed on so far is that they need more time to actually reach a workable agreement. But the U.S., having decided that some arbitrary timetables are entirely to its liking, wants whatever the committee can produce by mid-August, regardless of whether or not all (or any) ethnic groups are satisfied with it.

Somehow this doesn't strike me as a recipe for stability. Not that anything the U.S. has done in Iraq can be classified as that.