Saturday, October 29, 2005

Radio active

Word comes out that PMPM is going to start giving weekly radio addresses similar to those in the U.S.:
Faced with a daunting list of challenges, Prime Minister Paul Martin is taking a tip from his U.S. counterpart by delivering a weekly radio address to the country starting Sunday.

Unlike the American presidential broadcasts every Saturday, however, Mr. Martin's talks are considered commercials and the air time will be paid for by the Liberals, said party director Steven MacKinnon.
What the article doesn't mention is that in the U.S., the opposition party also gets air time to deliver a weekly message. Obviously the Liberal party won't be funding that in Canada, but the other two national parties should be eager to take the chance to speak directly to Canadians...not to mention get their issue of choice in the headlines for the week.

And whether or not the opposition parties follow suit with paid messages, it might be worth examining whether air time should be provided to all parties under the Broadcast Act. Of course, that might result in a bit more democratic discussion than the Libs are eager to see.


In contrast to the many other contentious labour disputes over the past year, Saskatchewan's nurses had little trouble reaching agreement with the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations:
A contract agreement that will provide Saskatchewan nurses with a base 7.5-per-cent pay raise over three years was reached Friday.

The tentative deal will also provide senior nurses with five years or more experience an additional two-per-cent pay raise at the start of the third year of the agreement.

Kudos to both sides for getting the deal done. It's great to have a reminder that it doesn't take a lengthy strike or lockout to reach a contract that's all parties can be happy with - and that indeed avoiding unnecessary combativeness is a great way to ensure a positive end result.

On equal attention

The CP releases an otherwise exhaustive article on the political implications of the impending Gomery report. But while all three other parties with seats in Parliament receive both multiple paragraphs within the article and a specific reference in the headline, any mention of the NDP is limited to this:
If it's scathing, the Tories and Bloc Quebecois could decide to topple the government in their first available opportunity later this month - although that would mean an election around the Christmas holidays. Those two parties probably have enough MPs to defeat the Liberals but the Tories are reluctant to fight that battle without help from the NDP.

Now, surely any thorough coverage should actually take the time to at least explain what considerations would influence the NDP's choice. Or perhaps to explain the NDP's middle ground between the Con/Bloc desire to force an election at all costs, and the Libs' desire to avoid one.

Instead, the writer chooses to utterly ignore the party. Which means that as much as the NDP has managed to win attention in the populace at large, it still has a ways to go in getting the media to recognize that fact.

Update: See the Globe and Mail's similar article as an example of how to actually cover everybody involved.

Friday, October 28, 2005

On judging the judges

I didn't think anybody would waste their breath trying to argue that the Harriet Miers nomination fiasco was a mark of a system worth copying. But leave it a prominent Con to prove me wrong:
Conservative justice critic Vic Toews said yesterday that Ms. Miers's move, rather than reflecting badly on the U.S. system, "demonstrates the accountability of the president to the elected houses for his nominations." The fact that Ms. Miers was forced to drop out after her qualifications were questioned "demonstrates that transparency is a good thing," he said.
It's bad enough that Toews claims that the reason for the withdrawal was based on "the elected houses" rather than pressure groups from the religious right. But it should be all the more obvious that it was an initial need for political calculation that led Bush to nominate somebody who was seen across the spectrum as something short of the best available candidate. And despite that consensus, Miers may well have been confirmed if she'd gone up for a vote, as senators themselves would have cast their votes based on their own political considerations rather than truly answering the question of whether anybody else was a better candidate.

Meanwhile, the arguments against questioning judicial candidates in Parliament aren't based only on criticism of the U.S. process. A realistic appraisal of Canada's political scene suggests that Canada's own political system isn't well-designed to handle such a process:
One roadblock that may slow any future move to give Parliament a bigger role in the selection process is the committee system itself, said Frederick Vaughan, a retired political science professor from the University of Guelph and author of two books on the Supreme Court.

"I think the parliamentary committee system as it works in Canada is in such disrepute that I can't imagine how it would improve the selection of judges," he said. Committee sessions are so "bitterly partisan" that it would add little to the nomination process to subject a candidate to them, he said.
It's easy to forget at times that the Canadian system is unlike the U.S. system in that it's characterized almost entirely by party-line votes and rhetoric rather than individual positions and perspectives. Meaning that as terrible as the partisan wringer can be in the U.S., it could be many times worse here. And that's doubly unjust when past nominations in Canada have been far less politically-based than those to our south.

There are always some political aspects to Supreme Court jurisprudence. But it doesn't improve matters at all to explicitly politicize the process in response, particularly in the absence of any plausible need to change the status quo. The only end result of a U.S.-style hearing process would be to drag Canada's top judicial institution closer to the low levels of trust associated with typical partisan political wrangling. And we're all worse off if the effect is to cause less respect for the law and the people who interpret it.

The right direction

It may be sparking controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, but the EU has made an important offer to reduce its internal agricultural subsidies:
Peter Mandelson offered to cut EU farm subsidies by 47% today in an attempt to prevent world trade talks collapsing, but his proposal received a cool response from both French officials and US farm groups.

The EU trade commissioner put a new offer to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that stated Europe would reduce the highest tariff rates by 60% and eliminate all subsidies for farm exports if trading partners made similar moves at a WTO meeting in December...

The commission said its new proposals bridged the different plans tabled by other WTO members and "must unlock immediate progress in other areas of the [WTO] negotiations, particularly trade in industrial products and services"...

Agriculture has been the main stumbling block to progress on the Doha "development" round of trade talks. Unless there is a deal on farm subsidies, the prospects for progress at the WTO ministerial talks in Hong Kong in December look bleak.

Unfortunately, key actors are trying to undermine the move from both sides. France is criticizing the lowering of subsidies at all, and claiming that the E.U. lacks the authority to make the offer. The U.S., meanwhile, doesn't want to look at opening markets generally unless deeper cuts are made to agricultural subsidies.

There's little doubt that the result of the E.U.'s proposal may not be the ideal scenario for anybody...and indeed, the longer-term goal should be greater cuts to both the subsidies, and other trade barriers toward the developing world. But all parties involved should recognize the move as both a necessary step, and a useful starting point which can be built on through further negotiations.

Making progress

Yesterday, PMPM promised to deal only with the issues surrounding Kashechewan. Today, his promises have extended to dealing with drinking water issues on reserves across the country:
Prime Minister Paul Martin said Friday that the government will do “whatever is necessary” to make drinking water safe on Canada's native reserves, including committing more federal dollars.

He said a government program already in place will provide $1.6-billion to correct what he calls a 100-year-old problem on reserves.

In 2001, Indian Affairs found that nearly one-third of 740 water systems tested in native communities posed a potential high risk of poor water quality. Only 25 per cent were in the low- or no-risk category, the study reported.

There's still plenty of reason to be suspicious, particularly given the lack of any apparent action over the 4 years since the study addressing on-reserve water quality. And it can't be a good sign that Martin seems to think that present commitments will deal with the problem.

But at the very least, the Liberals seem to be very much aware that they can't pretend the current problem lies only on Kashechewan...with the result that a meaningful nationwide plan may not be out of the question in the near future.

A long time coming

The good news is that all parties involved have agreed to a plan to rebuild Kashechewan:
Last night's deal allows for the construction of 50 new homes to be built in Kashechewan in 2006 and 50 more annually for the next 10 years, and money will be made available immediately for renovations to at least 60 houses. There will also be an increase in family services, counselling, family violence and suicide-prevention services and for federal facilities to house those who have been moved from the community.
It's definitely a huge plus for the people of Kashechewan. But lest this be seen as a due response to an immediate emergency, the precise problem has been known to the federal government for nearly a century:
Chief Friday said that the federal government had been urged to build the community on higher ground during construction in 1912 and the community urged the same thing in 1957 when the current houses were built, again on flood-prone land. Flooding from James Bay has forced people to leave the community in the past and has caused significant damage to the local houses.
If anything, Phil Fontaine's response to the agreement was too generous: while it may appear "wonderful" to have one agreement worked out, there appear to be far more first nations still in need of similar attention. And they shouldn't all have to wait to make the headlines individually in order to get their concerns dealt with.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Some of us aren't surprised

Did it really take the word of a law professor to make it clear to government officials that the Canadians rendered to Syria were tortured once they got there?
Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew called in Syrian ambassador Jamil Sakr today following the release of the fact-finder's report that says the four men tell credible stories of being brutally abused in Damascus prisons.

Pettigrew said he expects Syria to investigate the findings and prosecute the jailers responsible: "These people should be convicted."

The report, prepared by law professor Stephen Toope for the federal inquiry into Arar's case, concludes the Ottawa engineer was repeatedly tortured in Damascus...

Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan said she had yet to review the document in detail, but made her concerns clear.

"It is a shocking (report) of what Syrian officials did in the case of Mr. Arar and others."

What should be shocking is that government officials are just now taking action when much of what happened has been publicly known for at least two years. While counsel for the Arar commission points out the value of having the stamp of official fact-finding, it shouldn't have taken that to cause Canada to start seeking answers from Syria. And now, there's little chance of Canada's concerns ranking as a top priority in light of Syria's other diplomatic problems. Meaning that as is so often the case, the Liberals' outraged response is all bluster with no prospect of substance to follow.

The larger issue

PMPM is predictably promising as little action as possible, trying to limit any federal action or responsibility to Kashechewan itself...
Prime Minister Paul Martin promised swift action Thursday to help hundreds of residents of a northern Ontario reserve who have been sickened due to tainted water.

He told reporters that Ottawa will begin to take action "today," when asked whether the Liberals were embarrassed by the situation, in which more than half of Kashechewan's residents have been made ill by drinking water laced with E. coli bacteria.

Note that Martin made no effort to explain the complete lack of action to date, but merely suggested that his government will meet with community and provincial leaders and present some proposals. Even when PMPM is embarrassed into action, it's amazing not only how quickly the scope of action gets reduced, but also that the reduced action is supposed to erase all memory of the original embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Jack Layton and Phil Fontaine rightly took the opportunity to demand action on the nation-wide problem of which Kashechewan is only a symptom:
NDP Leader Jack Layton and Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine called on the Liberal government Thursday to address severe housing shortages on Canadian reserves by immediately releasing funds from an NDP-Liberal budget agreement for housing.

After the two discussed a coming first ministers meeting on aboriginal issues in Ottawa, Mr. Fontaine said the native housing situation has been highlighted even more this week because of water problems on the Kashechewan community in northern Ontario...

Mr. Layton and Mr. Fontaine said they will ask for a commitment to address a backlog of about 80,000 housing units.

Needless to say, there shouldn't be much doubt which federal party actually wants to take meaningful action to deal with the housing shortage. It's a shame that it took Kashechewan to bring the issue to the forefront...but now that it's there, the Liberals have an awful lot of neglect to answer for, and PMPM's attempt to minimize the problem shouldn't be able to fool many.

Unhealthy decisions

Yesterday, the Tyee covered the issue of public-private parnerships generally. Today, Murray Dobbin examines the role of P3s in the medical system in particular. And it's not a pretty picture:
The mix of profits and hospitals is deadly and costly, as revealed by McMaster University studies published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. "Canadian governments would pay an extra $7.2 billion in annual health care costs if Canada switched to investor-owned private for-profit hospitals," reported the study. According to Dr. P.J. Devereaux, the lead author of the study, "With for-profit care, you end up paying with your money, and your life." He based his statement on a previous study by the group that showed the switch to for-profit hospitals would result in an additional 2,200 unnecessary deaths every year.

It could also result in massive fraud, as it has in the US. In the mid-1990s, health-care fraud by U.S. corporate giants was estimated as high as $100 billion annually. Washington actually started catching up with some of these crooks by 1994 -- the year that National Medical Enterprises paid a then-record $379 million in fines and restitution for fraud in psychiatric services. In 1997, the mega-giant Tenet Healthcare Corp. agreed to pay $100 million to settle claims that patients were kept in psychiatric hospitals simply to maximize insurance payments. Columbia/HCA Health Corp., America's largest hospital company, agreed to pay $745 million to settle civil fraud charges for systematically ripping off Medicare.

As models worth following go...well, this isn't one of them.

But then, the U.S. system is a more private-based one where there probably isn't as much government input into the initial costs. Surely there must be some record of success elsewhere, whether in Canada or abroad, to explain the provincial move toward P3s?
The record of P3 hospitals in Britain is so appalling that the Labour government (still inexplicably committed to the model) has said it may have to raise taxes to pay for the huge additional costs attributed to the P3s. The P3 promise of cost-saving has been debunked so thoroughly that most advocates no longer even make the claim. The P3 contractor not only pays a higher interest rate for financing but also extracts a return on investment averaging 16 percent. Add to that the astronomical executive pay packages and you can see why costs skyrocket. The only course left to "save" money is to decrease staff and downgrade their qualifications. In Britain, after almost fifteen years of P3s, the number of nurse managers was down 35 percent, registered nurses down 14 percent and untrained staff was up 24 percent.

The P3 hospital in Brampton, Ontario provides a good example of how costs get out of control. The original price was set at $350 million. But then the government sat down and negotiated with the overall contractor and all the individual service providers. By the end of this process the price was $550 million. The Abbotsford example is just as telling. Before the 35-year contract was even signed, the payments to lawyers and consultants were a staggering $24 million. The total cost went from $210 to $355 million; the cost of the yearly operating contract went from $20 million to $41 million.

It should be fairly obvious that reduced services for a higher price means a bad deal for the taxpayer. But in fairness, the immediate political benefits of a low cost estimate can make such a move appealing to a government. The essence of a P3 is to lock the government into an inefficient long-term commitment solely for the sake of being able to present an artifically low current cost number...but that lower number undoubtedly looks nicer on the current balance sheet. And if the costs under the contract soar under a subsequent government, that's all the better politically for the party which first signed the deal.

In order to prevent that sort of political calculation, we need to remind our elected officials that the long-term costs of P3s will come due eventually...and that they'll be held responsible for imposing those costs on us. We know the dangers of deficit spending; we shouldn't be fooled into what amounts to a less efficient, more dangerous way of accomplishing the same thing.

Nomination accepted

Good news: I've been nominated for two Canadian Blog Awards. Better yet, thanks to Robert's criteria for inclusion, I've been able to confirm that this is indeed a blog, dumbass.

I'm especially pleasantly surprised to have been nominated in a couple of the higher-ranking categories (Best Blog and Best Liberal Blog) despite having only run the blog for a few months. While I suspect I'm a year or two away from having the reader base to compete, it's great to be included in such elite company already.

Thanks to both Dale and Deanna (see comments section of this post) for the nominations. And I'll do my best to produce as much nomination-worthy content as I can.

Getting by

It's taken far too long since popular demand forced the Regina Public Library to reconsider plans to close several branches, but the library finally has a plan to keep running in the longer term:
Board chair Darlene Hincks announced Wednesday the first step will be their first-ever home lottery set for next spring.

Hincks said the lottery could potentially bring in $500,000 annually toward the RPL's goal...

The plan for the new direction came after a widespread public campaign prevented the closing of three library branches as well as the Dunlop Art Gallery and the Prairie History Room.

A new board has since supplanted the board that recommended the closures and moved toward the fundraising and donations system.

It may not be the ideal way of keeping afloat; I have to wonder whether there's room to make much money off a new home lottery given how many are already in place, and it's certainly a less stable source of funding than the city should be. But at the very least there's now a plan to avoid cutting long as Reginans are willing to vote with their donations as well as with their signatures and words.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Opening markets

There doesn't seem to be much doubt that it's in our best interest to expand our export markets for our goods. And this week's trip by provincial officials is a step in the right direction...both on oil:
With its oil consumption continuing to soar, China has been increasingly anxious to develop a reliable new chain of energy supplies, including foreign oil sources and an expanded domestic nuclear industry. Saskatchewan could be a vital source of supplies for both of these sectors, according to provincial leaders who held two days of meetings with senior Chinese officials in Beijing this week.

Mr. Calvert Tuesday reached agreement with the chairman of China National Petroleum Corp., the biggest Chinese state-owned oil producer, to set up a high-level working group to pave the way for Chinese investment in the Saskatchewan oil patch as quickly as possible. The goal is “to take our conversations to tangible action,” the Premier said in an interview in Beijing last night.

CNPC is keen to invest in the heavy oil sector in Saskatchewan, he said. “They are demonstrating some real interest. They floated some ideas for the actual purchase of [oil field] properties that they would develop themselves. They gave every indication that it's on their option list. And they mentioned the possibility of joint ventures with Canadian players.”

...and on other Saskatchewan products:
China's nuclear industry, meanwhile, has a strong appetite for possible investments in Saskatchewan uranium mines, according to Eric Cline, the Saskatchewan Minister of Industry and Resources.

He said the Chinese are beginning to realize that Saskatchewan's uranium is much richer than the uranium in Australia, its main rival. Some Chinese investors have already visited the head office and mining sites of Cameco Corp., the province's main uranium producer...

China is also a major customer for two of Saskatchewan's biggest commodities: grain and potash. Chinese demand for both is likely to increase because of the growing affluence of Chinese urban consumers and their rising appetite for more expensive food products, Mr. Calvert said.

Chinese consumers are buying more products such as pasta and beer, for example, which helps creates a market for Saskatchewan's durum wheat and malting barley, he said. Saskatchewan potash, meanwhile, helps China grow its own variations of these crops.

As the article focuses mostly on the reaction of Calvert and Cline, it's tough to say what the Chinese position is coming out of the trip. But it seems readily apparent that Saskatchewan's leaders are in position to both develop more of the province's resources, and diversify the country's export markets in the process. And their own initiative is just as much a factor as the natural fit between our products and China's needs.

(Via the Saskatchewan Desk.)

Scratching the surface

While McGuinty's well-deserved tirade against the federal government seems to be winning headlines, did anybody else notice this little tidbit from the Globe and Mail?
(A)bout 50 other native communities in Ontario are operating under a boil-water advisory.

David Ramsay, the provincial minister responsible for native affairs, said he has given up waiting for Ottawa and the province is now conducting its own assessments of other reserves.

The article doesn't follow up as to which ones are involved, or how many more there may be across the country. But that should be the biggest story here: that as appalling as the conditions are at Kashechewan, they reflect a far-too-common problem when it comes to the standard of living on Canada's First Nations reserves.

Due credit goes to Ramsay for at least starting the assessment process in Ontario. But this should be a nationwide issue rather than a provincial one. And it looks like if the heat is kept on, the federal Liberals may just be embarrassed into finally taking action.

Public-private politics

The Tyee also discusses the economic implications of public-private partnerships...and points out that studies which purport to claim that these are a better means of development tend to leave out a crucial detail:
The private sector has always built the infrastructure we need. The key difference with P3s is that the developers, not government, borrow the money needed to pay for the projects. The government just has to pay an annual fee to use whatever is built...

The rhetoric in support of P3s is no longer about private sector contributions to public infrastructure projects in B.C. They understand that the private financing of public infrastructure projects does not allow government to undertake projects it otherwise could not afford. Their rationale is more subtle, based on 'value for money' studies purporting to show benefits from P3s compared to more conventional contracting arrangements.

The shocking problem with these studies, however, is that they consider only the potential benefits of P3s while they explicitly ignore the extra cost they entail. It is much more expensive for private developers to raise the money needed for these projects than for government to borrow the money itself. The cost of private financing could add 3 percentage points or more to the interest cost taxpayers must ultimately pay.

I'm not one to be a slave to ideology when it comes to service delivery: if it's genuinely possible to save money while delivering the same quality of service, then every government should be looking to do so. But that process will be utterly useless if the government involved wilfully ignores some of the costs involved in one of the options.

It seems that in many cases, governments eager to privatize have chosen that wilful ignorance over a realistic evaluation of costs and benefits...leading to added expenses on every project undertaken as a result. And that's the kind of government waste that we should all be able to agree to eliminate.

Following blindly

The Tyee reports on the upcoming election in Haiti, in an article which I'll criticize only in that the analogy between Haiti and Iraq underestimates the added injustice of a democratically-elected leader being toppled while the perpetrators of past massacres are set free:
Human rights have taken a step backwards since Aristide's departure.

"The scale of which human rights abuses are taking place - there's no comparison," said Anthony Fenton, a Vancouver-based activist and co-author of the recently published Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority.

"This was a very young democracy that was overthrown and there were problems, but the seeds for democracy were being planted," said Fenton who returned from a two-week visit to the country on October 4th. "Now those seeds have been torn out and the soil has been overturned. Haiti's gone back 50 years."

A May 3rd Supreme Court decision mirrors Fenton's words: the sentences of 15 members of the military and a paramilitary organization, who had participated in a massacre of pro-Aristide villagers, were rescinded...

Amnesty International said that the decision to overturn the sentences "constitutes a major setback in the fight against impunity in Haiti."

I've said before that notwithstanding any unfairness surrounding Aristide's ouster, Canada's role now should be to accept a peacekeeping role in exchange for reason to believe that the upcoming elections will be fair. Based on the article, though, it appears that not only is situation deteriorating generally, but Canada's involvement has included training some of the same police officers who have targeted potential Lavalas supporters, and defending the holding of prisoners without trial.

It's probably still not too late for Canada to demand a fair election in exchange for its involvement in Haiti. Unfortunately, there's been no action toward that to date...meaning that we're only a part of the problem.

Recognizing the current

For those trying to figure out why neither conservatism nor separatism is winning out in Canada, a new poll posted by the Star has many of the answers. First, on Quebec:
The poll asked Quebecers about various advantages to being part of Canada and 67 per cent said they drew benefit from Canada's international reputation, 65 per cent said they enjoyed the protection of the Canadian charter of rights, 64 per cent said they liked having access to federal transfers for social programs and 62 per cent said Canada helped protect them against terrorism.

The result regarding Canada's international reputation is especially interesting in light of the Quebec government's recent calls for more leeway to operate internationally.

Next, the particularly fun numbers:
(T)he poll reveals other potentially significant findings about what is knitting together the Canadian identity today — not just in Quebec, but in the nation overall. Again, some of the results are surprising. For instance, while it could be expected that 87 per cent of Canadians would say that the country would be worse off without public health care, strong majorities also said the same about bilingualism, the CBC and increasing the number of visible minorities in Canada.

A full 79 per cent of respondents said that a Canada with no more bilingualism would be a "negative" change for the country, while 81 per cent said the same thing about the potential loss of the CBC and 80 per cent wouldn't want us to be without Canadian peacekeepers.

While there's something to be said for sticking to one's principles even in the face of public disapproval, it's fairly obvious that the Cons' desire to turn the focus away from the above issues puts them at odds with the vast majority of Canadians. And no number of diatribes from Manning and Harris will change that fact.

Of course, there's still the question of why Canadians keep voting for a governing party which prefers to let those institutions die a slow death instead. But there shouldn't be much doubt which side of the political spectrum better reflects Canadian values.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Focusing attention

More word from the CP on the water problems at Kashechewan: the provincial government will evacuate more than half of the reserve's population starting tomorrow:
David Ramsay said the province plans to fly roughly 1,000 of the Kashechewan First Nation's 1,900 residents off the reserve on the western shores of James Bay starting late Wednesday.

"It is a medical emergency so these people really need to be removed," Ramsay said after a two-hour meeting with native leaders and Premier Dalton McGuinty.

It's good to see some action taken toward the most immediate health concerns. And it looks like any decision to move the reserve generally will be made by its residents rather than being imposed from either level of government - though it's worth watching whether funding concerns are used to try to encourage one choice or the other.

While there are some positives in the action now being taken, the evacuation shouldn't be seen as a meaningful fix for anything. As pointed out by the MPP for the area, it's only a small measure to deal with one of many reserves facing substandard conditions, and was only dealt with due to a media blitz:
New Democrat member Gilles Bisson, who represents the riding of Timmins-James Bay, believes the province would not have acted if the native leaders did not come to Toronto to fight for their community.

"It's rather unfortunate that we have to drag people down from Kashechewan and have to show pictures to get this government to act on what I think is a most basic issue: the question of people's safety."

If Walkerton helped to highlight the issues associated with privatization and encouraged other communities to also watch their water management, hopefully Kashechewan can lead all levels of government to take a serious look at improving conditions on reserves across Canada...rather than refusing to act elsewhere until similar public pressure is applied, and then only once the existing structure is too far gone to salvage.

Time to start selling gold

I'm not quite sure which audience Condoleezza Rice's statement was targeted toward, but it certainly can't give much comfort to Canadians:
The United States' word is "as good as gold" when it comes to international agreements and the current Canada-U.S. dispute over softwood lumber — while important — needs to be kept in perspective, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday...

On Tuesday, Ms. Rice acknowledged the differences between the two countries on the issue — which the U.S. says it would like to resolve through negotiation — but insisted that those differences don't characterize overall trade relations.

"I know that the softwood lumber issue is extremely important to Canada and extremely important particularly to parts of Canada," she said.

"It is a small percentage of our overall trade, and most of the time, as a matter of fact, the great majority of the time, our trade simply goes on.

"When we have disputes we resolve them."

Unfortunately, given the U.S.' gleeful ignorance of existing dispute resolution procedures, the statement would have been more accurate if the last sentence had been left out. There's not much to take away from the rest of the statement except that the U.S. isn't interested in anything but business as usual...i.e. with no Canadian recourse against illegal U.S. actions. And in the U.S.' view, even at its most diplomatic, that still constitutes a difference of opinion rather than a problem worth solving through any means other than Canadian surrender.

(Edit: typo.)

Excessively wide scope

Need more proof of how far anti-terror legislation has gone overboard? Thomas Walkom points out that now, even former Defence Minister David Pratt acknowledges that the legislation went too far:
Known as a military hawk during his time in the Commons, David Pratt now says Canada's post-9/11 anti-terror laws are so broadly — and so badly — written that they leave those working for the Red Cross and similar humanitarian agencies open to criminal prosecution for just doing their jobs.

Even someone who simply donates money to a legitimate aid agency could be liable to 10 years in jail says the former Liberal MP, now special ambassador for the Canadian Red Cross...

"What's key to us is to get aid to vulnerable people," Pratt said in a telephone interview from Ottawa yesterday.

"And sometimes aid does get diverted. It's a fact of life in a conflict zone."

Yet when such diversions occur, he said, the law as written makes the Red Cross, as well as its workers, donors and supporters, vulnerable to criminal prosecution.

The provisions are now under review before a Senate committee, and hopefully a bit more thought will be put into any replacement provisions. But it's a testament to the political obsession with being seen as strong on terror that this issue doesn't seem to have been identified when the bill was first passed. And it'll be an even stronger indictment of all MPs who don't act on the obvious problems pointed out by Pratt now that they've been publicly identified.

And the verdict is..."hard place"

As expected, Iraq's constitution has officially passed, with no indication that the suspicions of ballot stuffing will be seriously investigated. It's a step in some direction for sure...but whether that direction is a stronger insurgency feeding off a more-entrenched anti-Sunni framework remains to be seen.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Reality-based foreign policy

Jim Reed writes one of the first reasonable discussions of Iran to find its way into the media recently:
The invasion of Iraq has altered the balance of geopolitical power in the Middle East, and Iran is emerging as a big winner. It may be time now for the rest of us to acknowledge this. If we are ever to win the war against terrorism, we need a prosperous Iran to be onside.

A confrontation at the UN in the Security Council would be doomed to failure because China and/or Russia would veto any attempt to impose sanctions against one of their principal economic partners and energy suppliers.

So we are left with only one rational approach. That is to work harder at trying to understand what Iran is all about, to refrain from bellicose rhetoric, and to listen to, and perhaps even heed, what the Iranian leadership has to say.

In case anyone was wondering (see the comment) why the CBC is such an important part of the media, commentary like Reed's is just one of the reasons why. Give it a read.

Noxious emissions

The Guardian comments on the Suzuki Foundation's environmental rankings - and shatters Stephane Dion's attempts to criticize them. Dion's criticism focussed on Turkey being at the top of the rankings, and Mexico supposedly ranking higher in water quality. But those critiques don't come close to standing up to the slightest prodding:
Only Belgium and the US ranked lower than Canada in their environmental performance overall. Turkey was the least blameworthy but, the report says, that is because its economy is less developed than other nations in the OECD. The same went for Poland, ranked fourth, and the Slovak Republic, fifth...

Canada's environment minister, Stephane Dion, while conceding the country had room to improve on the environment, was critical of the report when it was released last week.

"Who can give a lot of confidence to a study that said the country that had the best performance regarding the environment is Turkey," he asked. "Mexico is 13th. Mexico! Would you drink Mexico City water from the tap?"

The report considered the consumption of drinking water per capita rather than its quality. Canadians drink double the OECD average; Danes use one-10th the water Canadians consume.
(Emphasis added.)

It would be a plus if Canada's Environment Minister would at least pay attention to basic elements of a report before pretending to be able to debunk it - or at least noticing if the very elements that he criticizes have already been explained. But then, the Liberals have never had much more than pretense on their side when it comes to the environment.

The popular will

Once again, the Canadian public seems to be going in precisely the opposite direction from its political leader. While PMPM seems to be retreating on softwood lumber, 77% of the public backs retaliation through restricted oil and gas exports. But the issue is one of trade fairness rather than America-bashing:
Three of every four Canadians believe Canada should restrict oil and gas exports to the United States if the U.S. does not repay the $5-billion in softwood lumber tariffs that were ruled a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a new poll suggests...

An overwhelming majority of the 1,001 adults surveyed -- 81% -- disagreed with a statement that the United States is Canada's best friend, a secure market for Canadian goods, and that Canada should let the United States keep the billions of dollars in softwood tariffs and move on to other issues...

Seventy-one per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: "I value and respect the United States and its citizens -- it's just that I disagree fundamentally with their government."

Martin's position, meanwhile, has been to essentially concede the U.S.' position that the next step is to negotiate a new agreement. And through the ever-popular "senior government source", it's also clear that Canada won't be demanding repayment of the withheld money before entering into talks.

The only demand from Martin's side has been "an indication that the United States understands the importance of fulfilling the terms of NAFTA", with absolutely no suggestion as to what that indication might be. Essentially, a mere change in Bush's public posture can be seen as enough of a "sign" to bring Canada to the table, where we'll once again face both a stacked deck and an opponent who'll walk away from the table if the results don't go his way.

Which means that while Martin may once again have won political points by seeming to stand up to the U.S.' bullying, it appears that he's also once again giving away precisely what he claims to be standing for. And that's a political point that should be held against him - particularly by those 77% of Canadians who simply want us to do the most we can under the rules.

Update: According to another poll, a plurality would rather see negotiation than either of two other options (retaliation or expanded exports). The difference seems to be based on the all-or-nothing nature of the latter poll: as phrased, it seems to imply that the U.S. would have no chance to repay the tariffs, while the earlier one is based on the premise of continued refusal to pay. Which seems to be the all-too-likely outcome.

Finding fault

South of the border, the cost of litigation is normally cited by the right as the sole reason for spiralling health-care costs. But given an opportunity to correct any such problem while at the same time protecting injured patients, the Liberals have dropped the ball:
The judge who presided over the public inquiry into the tainted-blood tragedy is sharply criticizing the federal government for failing to create a no-fault system insurance plan for victims of medical errors.

In a rare public comment, Mr. Justice Horace Krever told the Canadian Healthcare Safety Symposium that there is an "urgent need" for a no-fault scheme because the adversarial litigation route is failing patients who suffer harm from medical procedures such as blood transfusion, vaccination, anesthetization and surgery.

"While we must strive to reduce risk, risk cannot be eliminated," Judge Krever told more than 500 safety experts gathered in Calgary.

"We must incorporate that reality into public policy."

Justice Krever highlights the fact that a no-fault scheme would be better for patients than having to fight their way through the courts. But it's worth emphasizing that the same should also be true for medical practitioners who would face less time taken away from their practice due to litigation. While (contrary to the position of the U.S. right) it's essential that patients be able to recover for their losses, it's hard to see how either doctor or patient is better off under the status quo.

A national embarrassment

The Globe and Mail goes into more detail about the conditions at the Kashechewan reserve. No comment necessary.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Providing good advice

The Guardian reports on a proposed UK program to make financial advice available to lower-earning workers:
A former insurance broker who made millions when his company merged with a rival earlier this year will today call on the financial services industry and the government to create a national network of advice centres to help lower-paid families make better financial decisions...

According to Mr Cowdery, most advice from the state caters to the needs of the unemployed, while the financial services industry ignores those earning less than the average because they are simply not profitable. "We all have four or five big financial decisions to make in life. Basic-rate taxpayers have the most to gain from getting these decisions right and the least access on doing so," he said.

I'm not entirely in agreement that the focus should be on "four or five big decisions": it seems to me that while making the big decisions wrong can be fatal to one's financial standing, so too can enough small expenditures easily undo the good of a solid overall plan. And any effective financial-advice program should take that fact into account. But aside from that quibble, the idea is one which we too should strongly consider.

Shot down

So much for Brazil's big gun control idea, as it appears that the referendum to bar gun sales is headed for defeat:
Brazilians appeared to soundly reject a ban on gun sales in a national referendum Sunday that stirred a fierce debate in a country with one of the world's highest gun death rates.

With results from over 71 per cent of the polling places tallied, 64.78 per cent of Brazilians voted against the ban, while 35.22 per cent voted in favour of it, according to the Supreme Electoral Court, which oversees elections.

Brazil has 100 million fewer citizens than the United States, but 25 per cent more gun deaths at nearly 40,000 a year. While both sides in the debate agree that violence is excessive, opponents of the gun ban have gained support in recent weeks by playing on Brazilians' fears that the police can't protect them.

While I'm disappointed not to see the initiative pass, particularly when its failure seems closely tied to an NRA-style vigilante message, it's fair enough that Brazilians decided that the measure wasn't for them, particularly when other controls are already putting a dent in the death toll.

The tragedy for the rest of the world is that we won't get to see how such a policy could work in practice...which could be essential information in allowing other states to consider similar measures. It appears someone else will have to take the lead. And there's no indication yet as to who will fill that role.

The influence of activism

We may find out soon just how influential Jeffrey Sachs actually is, as the prominent economist has joined the chorus calling for PMPM to meet the 0.7% benchmark for foreign aid:
The world can and must do more to end poverty and cannot continue to ignore the billions of people dying needlessly, said Sachs, who has been named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people.

At a speech Saturday before executives, researchers and politicians at the annual conference of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Sachs said Canada needs to reconsider and agree to the terms of the United Nations Millennium Project, which is based on a Canadian idea...

He said many people have come to blame the poor for their misfortune, or find excuses with their local governments to avoid helping.

"A day doesn't go by in my work for the United Nations or as a specialist in development where the claim is not made that there's nothing that can be done because (of) the level of corruption and mismanagement," he said.

"That's such a poor diagnosis and such a weak misunderstanding of the realities of the planet. It is shockingly negligent of the lives we're losing."

Of course, Martin has ignored many public pleas in the past, and likely won't pay any more attention to this one. But Sachs is right in pointing out that it's the general public which has the capacity to force a change...and that few people would choose not to help given a full picture both of the actual problems, and the degree to which they can be solved through reasonable investments. We'll see how many more calls to action it takes before the message begins to seep into the public consciousness.

An end to selective tracking

More bad environmental news, this time from CBC: for all the attention given to the problem of Amazon deforestation, the actual damage is twice as bad as previously estimated:
The area of land cleared of trees in the Amazon is twice the estimate, according to a new study of the environmental damage from previously undetected logging...

Using new high-resolution satellite imaging techniques, researchers at the Carnegie Institution of Washington have detected openings in the forest canopy down to one tree.

Once selective logging is taken into account, the deforested area is estimated to be 60 per cent to 128 per cent larger than the official records for 1999 and 2002.

It definitely helps to have a better idea of the extent of the deforestation. The question now is whether any meaningful action will be taken in response. The researchers have provided the data to the Brazilian government in hopes that they'll be better able to fight against illegal logging as a result...but unfortunately more reason to fight a problem doesn't necessarily equate to more resources for the task.