Saturday, November 26, 2005

A show of unity

I'd wondered earlier whether the Commonwealth countries would be able to agree on the direction which the WTO should take in its upcoming round of negotiations. It turns out that they didn't have much trouble at all:
The leaders of the 53 Commonwealth countries, who have been meeting in Malta, called for more flexibility at the World Trade Organization negotiations in December in Hong Kong.

"We call on all developed countries to demonstrate the political courage and will to give more than they receive ... particularly in the negotiations on agriculture and market access, as their own longer term prosperity and security depends on such an approach," the leaders said in a group statement issued after a day of meetings on Saturday.
Obviously the tougher task will be to get similar agreement at the WTO meeting. But at the very least, the Commonwealth's message should help to push negotiations in the right direction.

Perverse incentives

While the auto industry is willing to move toward hybrid vehicles, a study commissioned by the U.S Chamber of Commerce has proposed trying to reverse any movement in that direction:
Less than four months after President Bush signed a six-year, $286.4 billion highway and public transit act, a report commissioned by the US Chamber of Commerce said that the federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money and that Congress needs to think about new revenue sources...

Proposals for the longer term could be more controversial. One is that owners of hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles pay a vehicle fee, the argument being that drivers should bear their fair share to fill potholes and fix bridges, regardless of how much or what kind of fuel they use.
Note that the proposal is being made in response to Bush's threat to veto any bill which would raise fuel taxes - even though the fuel tax (unlike all other major U.S. taxes) isn't indexed to inflation, and hasn't been raised since 1993. Which means that the fuel tax already favours less efficient vehicles than it would if the most basic of adjustments had been made.

And given how few hybrid vehicles are on the road so far, there isn't any reasonable argument to be made that hybrids are themselves responsible for any decline in fuel tax receipts.

But apparently a deck already stacked in favour of gas guzzlers isn't enough for the drafters of the proposal. Their suggestion would place an added cost up front to dissuade buyers looking at more efficient vehicles...and that in turn could put a large dent in any effort by the auto industry to offer more efficient vehicles for sale.

It's bad enough that the U.S. is one of the key countries trying to undermine any global agreement on climate change. But it would be all the more ridiculous for the U.S to actively place barriers in the way of cleaner technology. Hopefully the study won't lead to any policy results...but it's still worth pointing out that such damaging suggestions are actually receiving serious attention.

(Edit: typo.)

(via Suburban Guerrilla.)

Once privacy is lost...

If anybody actually believed that added surveillance powers in the name of fighting terrorism would be limited to terrorism concerns, this should put to rest any doubt about how much the scope may expand:
The music and film industries are demanding that the European parliament extends (sic) the scope of proposed anti-terror laws to help them prosecute illegal downloaders. In an open letter to MEPs, companies including Sony BMG, Disney and EMI have asked to be given access to communications data - records of phone calls, emails and internet surfing - in order to take legal action against pirates and filesharers. Current proposals restrict use of such information to cases of terrorism and organised crime...

If the demands were met by European legislators, it would open use of such private information across any number of criminal cases. "Even the Bush administration is not proposing such a ludicrous policy, despite lobbying from Hollywood," said Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International.
Fortunately, it doesn't look like the governments involved have been overly receptive to the argument yet. But the industry groups' claim highlights that any added surveillance is bound to have many more uses than originally anticipated.

Once the equipment is in place, it only takes one misguided policy decision to eviscerate privacy in ways that protect only corporate interests rather than national security. And even if there's a genuine basis for added surveillance (which itself is far from clear), that risk has to be part of the discussion of whether that surveillance is a good idea.

The welcome mat

While some groups want to set immigration policy back 100 years, saner heads are finding innovative ways to make immigrants feel at home:
At first glance, the idea of settling refugees from equatorial African (sic) among the white farmers of conservative Altona (population 3,800), in one of the coldest regions in Canada, might seem uninspired...

But if the experiment seems ambitious, it appears to be paying handsome dividends, offering a safe and close-knit environment for more than 20 vulnerable refugees, some of whom are still struggling to adapt to life outside Africa despite having lived in places like Winnipeg and Toronto...

Mr. Loewen said part of the problem is the failure of provincial authorities to give newly arrived refugees enough support, and that making smaller, less glamorous communities attractive to refugees might be part of the solution.

"The provincial government sponsored 700 refugees last year and that's great. But then, in many cases they drop the ball. There need to be more support systems in place," he said.

"In large centres it's easier for refugee families to fall through the cracks. In a smaller community that doesn't happen."
To the extent that the Altona model can work, it seems to provide ample benefits for all parties involved. For the immigrants, it ensures a more natural support system than can realistically be put together in an urban seeting. And for any given community, an influx of new Canadians (along with their positive impressions of the area) could be part of the answer to help reverse declines in population.

Kudos to those who have made the Altona project work so far, and hopefully the same principle will start to gain wider application across the Prairies.

Building is only the first step

The Star reports on an investigation into the Kashechewan water crisis. And it looks like the crisis was caused by a view that once the new water treatment plant was built in 1996, everything else would take care of itself:
(Ontario's chief drinking water inspector) said providing clean water would have been "doable" at the plant, if not for a number of critical issues outlined in his report. They include:
- Use of sub-standard chemicals to disinfect water that are barred from use in Ontario-run facilities.
- Cross-connections between pipes carrying clean water and raw sewage.
- No mandatory facility inspections.
- No manuals on site to help under-trained water operators understand how to do their jobs.
And how did all that happen?
The results of their three-day investigation of the $3.6 million plant were presented to band members and federal Indian Affairs officials in a closed session earlier this week. (Chief Leo) Friday said he wasn't surprised by the results.

"We couldn't do everything we were supposed to have done because we never had enough money, including for sending the guys for training," he said in an interview yesterday. Friday would be happy to have the recommendations in the report implemented "if they can do it with the amount of money they can get."
While it's well and good for the federal government to have promised added money to First Nations, the bigger issue lies in the details which have yet to be negotiated. All the capital funding in the world won't help if First Nations lack both sufficient operational funds and sufficiently-trained employees to keep facilities running properly.

Unfortunately, that's both the part of the equation that requires constant attention, and the one that seems most easily forgotten. And even in the wake of both a public crisis and the promises made at this week's summit, it doesn't look like that issue has been dealt with seriously either for Kashechewan itself (where repairs to the water system are again on hold for lack of funding) or for First Nations generally.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Democracy delayed, democracy denied

As if there weren't enough problems surrounding the upcoming Haitian election, today we find out that the election will be pushed back yet again:
The nine-member Provisional Electoral Council set a new date of Jan. 8 for presidential and legislative elections, followed by a Feb. 15 runoff.

Council members said they would be unable to set up polling sites by Dec. 27 — the election date announced last week by interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue — because of crumbling infrastructure and a lack of trained election workers in the poorest nation in the Americas...

(T)he latest postponement means Haiti will now miss an important deadline.

Under the constitution, the five-year term of the president is supposed to begin and end on Feb. 7, to mark the anniversary of the 1986 demise of the 29-year father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship. The new election date makes it impossible to have a new government installed by then, election officials said.
Once again, the countries involved in Haiti at the moment (including Canada) deserve nothing but criticism for failing to provide enough resources to allow Haitians to vote. And the delay will be all the worse if it allows for more anti-democratic planning to take hold in the interim.

Mainstream exposure

It's not clear yet whether the Canadian blogosphere will have as much impact on the upcoming election as the American one has had in the past. But if not, it at least won't be for a lack of opportunity. Kudos to whichever major media outlet is making the effort to include blogs as part of its coverage...and I'll look forward to seeing the results.

The downside of income trusts

Tom McFeat discusses the less-reported side of income trusts:
Some investor advocates are worried that many holders of income trusts aren’t fully aware of the risks. Income trusts, after all, are all about the income. Their unit prices rise and fall on the health of that distribution. And when they fall, they can fall hard.

Take the case of FMF Capital. It generates sub-prime residential mortgages in the U.S. and then sells them to institutional loan buyers. But interest rates have been rising in the U.S. lately. That has reduced the premiums it receives. The cash available to distribute has shrunk. So on Nov. 15, the company suspended its distributions indefinitely. The price of FMF Capital units plunged 77 per cent. In one day.

And there are other concerns. Just hours before Goodale put an end to the income trust review, a group of forensic accountants came out with a report that questioned the financial reporting, the valuations and the aggressive marketing of many trusts.

Accountability Research Corp.’s main targets were not resource or real estate trusts – many of which have been around for decades. Their biggest concern lies with the newer business trusts. They looked at the 50 biggest business trusts and found that, on average, a significant portion of their cash distributions (more than a third) were not actual income from the business, but were simply a return of the investors’ own money.
The public debate about income trusts has thus far been framed by the people who have thus far made plenty of money off of those trusts, and who surely want that success to continue. And it's tough to fault the investor groups for succeeding in shutting out the opposing viewpoint. But the one-sided debate has left some important considerations out of the public sphere.

For all the talk about how retirees desperately need the higher rate of return associated with income trusts, little attention has been paid to the associated risk. And that risk looks all the worse if many income trusts are viable in large part only due to continued investment. If indeed more than a third of cash distributions are based purely on investors' money, that suggests that the projected rate of return should be slashed significantly to compensate for the purchase rate stabilizing in the future.

Of course, this will all likely be ignored now that Goodale has rendered his verdict. In the meantime, all investors now relying on income trusts should keep in mind what they say about things that seem too good to be true.

The blueprint

The results of the review committee on corporate taxes in Saskatchewan are in:
(T)he committee recommends the province:
- Eliminate (the) corporation capital tax (CCT) (of .6%)...
- Reduce the general corporation income tax (CIT) rate from 17 to 12 per cent...
- Increase the small business limit to $500,000 by 2008...

Vicq believes the province can afford the business tax cuts, estimated at $180 million annually in 2009-10, which includes the recovery of $45 million a year in tax "leakage" to other jurisdictions.
The NDP government deserves plenty of credit for taking a measured approach to the cuts, rather than following the Sask Party angle of cutting taxes first and hoping the money could be made up for later. But the committee's recommendations do make sense in the long term, particularly since they come at a reasonable cost. Hopefully Vicq's recommendations will find their way into the next budget alongside the NDP's other priorities.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

On recognizing opportunity

It figures that the same Health Minister who can't be bothered to even try to rein in private delivery of medical services is now introducing legislation to restrain one of the areas where market forces currently work to Canada's advantage:
Federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh is set to table legislation Friday to ban the bulk export of prescription drugs to the United States and set up an early warning system to detect drug shortages caused by the cross-border trade...

The minister decided to go ahead with the bill because he told stakeholders and members of the Commons Health Committee earlier this month he would take action before the end of November, a federal source told The Canadian Press...

The Internet pharmacy industry was founded in Manitoba and the province remains home to the majority of the estimated 6,000 jobs and overall trade of about $1 billion a year.
I'll agree that the early warning system makes some sense to ensure that exports don't result in limited availability in Canada. But the proposed plan doesn't sound likely to dissuade the export of drugs to any meaningful extent - and it's far more likely to result in shortages than another readily available policy option.

Which is to say: given the massive U.S. demand for Canadian drugs, wouldn't it make a world of sense to to encourage an increase in the supply instead?

Surely it has to be a plus to ultimately reduce prescription prices on both sides of the border while further developing the Canadian drug manufacturing industry. And what's the downside supposed to be - forcing the U.S. to regulate drug prices more in keeping with the rest of the world when its own politicians are eager to make use of those same prices? If the worst that could happen is the market equilibrium that Dosanjh is trying to instead impose by statute, that doesn't strike me as a particularly dangerous downside risk.

Fortunately, Dosanjh's bill will join the others set to die on the parliamentary order paper. And hopefully by the next time Parliament gets together, somebody with a bit more foresight will be in charge of the health file.

(Edit: typo.)

False dichotomies run amok

If Decima's latest poll results are to be believed, 92% of all people planning to vote for the Liberals have absolutely no reason not to vote NDP:
The poll suggests Harper's personal unpopularity helps sustain the Liberal party; almost 40 per cent of people who said they would vote Liberal cited Harper as their main motivation.

Another 52 per cent said they favoured the Liberals because they disagreed generally with Conservative policies.
Mind you, it would have helped if the poll included any criteria which could have helped sort out voters among the various reasons to vote (or not vote) NDP as compared to Liberal. And in keeping with that lack of options, both stated reasons to vote out the Liberals were based more on Liberal action than anything related to the opposition parties:
The Decima survey turns conventional wisdom on its head by suggesting voters' inclination for a change in government dwarfs their anger over sponsorship. Only 35 per cent of respondents who said they wanted to replace the government cited the scandal as their prime motivation.

A far greater number - 57 per cent - said it was because the Liberals have been in power too long and they wanted a turnover after 12 years.
What's even more odd is that the wording of these options suggests that any scandal on issues other than sponsorship itself should be placed in the latter column rather than the former. As a result, even the most-publicized finding from the poll could be based more on the wording of the question than on any genuine measure of the public's views.

Polls are probably overused and overanalyzed as a means of measuring public opinion anyway. But if they're going to be commissioned, it helps if they at least try to approximate the range of options actually available to respondents.

Poor policy

Campaign 2000 reports on the woeful lack of progress in combating child poverty in Canada:
The group's annual report says 1.2 million children in Canada – one out of six – continue to live in poverty; a rate that hasn't changed in almost 30 years.

Food banks across the country continue to do a bustling business.

In Toronto alone, 175,000 people use them every month – and it's not just the unemployed.

According to the study nearly half of all poor children, 48 per cent, live in families with working parents.
It's bad enough how little progress has been made over the past three decades. But it should be all the more shocking that this is one of the few issues where even the impending election campaign can't induce the Liberals to inject any money:
Minister of Social Development Ken Dryden says he's reviewing the problem.

"Everybody is really ready to come up with a really workable definition, a definition that the public understands and accepts, and then out of that there's a much better chance ot setting targets," he said.
The answers listed in the report itself are rather obvious, including policies such as improving access to EI and providing better funding for social housing. Not coincidentally, those are precisely the issues that have been ignored or undone throughout the Libs' term of office.

That leaves voters interested in reducing poverty with a choice between a Liberal party still interested more in arguing about definitions than taking action, or the NDP which has already forced more action in one budget than the Liberals have ever been willing to take. Hopefully after another election that gives enough added clout to the NDP, the numbers actually will change for the better.

(Deleted double post.)

Income distrust

Apparently Goodale's office managed to mess up the income trust issue in message as well as in substance:
The haste of this decision was readily apparent. Mr. Goodale's parliamentary secretary, John McKay, gave a television interview shortly before Ottawa formally announced the dividend tax cut, and mistakenly suggested the government also planned to levy a modest tax on income trusts.

Mr. Goodale denied that Ottawa was seriously considering a tax on trusts and suggested Mr. McKay was mistaken.
Meanwhile, one tax expert who was planning on preparing a submission to the supposedly-going consultation process noted that his submission was never heard - and that the problem underlying income trusts wasn't addressed either:
"It was absolutely rushed. You realize they haven't dealt with the issue," (Jack Mintz) said. He pointed out that pension funds, non-residents, and RRSP holders will continue to "prefer income trusts automatically," and said the government may very well have to revisit the issue if its moves yesterday do not slow down the pace of trust conversions and initial public offerings.
So what we have now is a decision that was made without full consultion, and in such a hurry that Goodale's own parliamentary secretary went public with what proved to be wrong information. And predictably, that rush may lead to a need to revisit the same issue later on.

I've said many times that there was no reason for the income trust issue to be ignored as long as it was - but it's doubly harmful to then make a snap decision after ignoring the issue, rather than at least getting it right once it is dealt with. We'll find out before too long just what surprises await. But it should be clear that the income trust issue is a prime counterexample to any claim that the Liberals deserve credit for good management.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Making the IRS look good

It's always fun to see ideology trump sanity and common sense, especially when it isn't one's own country on the hook for the bill. For today's example, look no further than the interaction between the IRS and the U.S. Congress:
The government began this month to accept bids from debt-collection agencies that it hopes to begin using as early as next summer to go after billions of dollars in unpaid taxes...

The government decided to turn to the private sector when it became clear that Congress was unlikely to increase the agency's budget to allow it to hire enough workers to go after all the outstanding debts...

And it turns out the government is due a lot. According to the GAO report, Americans owed $120 billion in collectible taxes, including interest and penalties, in 2003. That was up from $112 billion the year before...

"These are cases that the IRS doesn't have the resources to get to right now in terms of staffing or funding. It's basically uncollected tax revenue just sitting out there that the IRS cannot get to," Lipold said.

In soliciting bids, the IRS said private collectors would earn from 21% to 24% of what is collected, depending on the size of the debt.
In sum: Congress is utterly unwilling to provide the necessary resources to allow the IRS to collect the amounts owing on its own. Instead, the IRS will outsource the job to the private sector. As a result, the IRS will lose a quarter of the value of the initial debt...which it could have collected in full if Congress was willing to fund the IRS in achieving the task.

Incidentally, lest anybody think this is an entirely new idea:
Use of the private sector is a major turn for the IRS, which tried the strategy a decade ago and abandoned it for lack of revenue. The idea was resurrected as the size of the agency began to shrink and the debt to mount.
Somewhere, Grover Norquist is smiling. But American taxpayers who'll now be paying Congress-approved firms to do the job that the IRS used to do for itself should be doing something else entirely.

Scratching the surface

Just wondering...but if the revelation that the U.S. wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera is merely the start of the embarrassing leaks that Blair needs to suppress, just what else is lurking below the surface and waiting to emerge? And why is Blair so eager to protect a relationship that's led to nothing but an illegitimate war and the scorn of most of the world?

The clear choice

As if the difference between Canada's political parties wasn't stark enough already, nobody should be surprised by the affiliation of the provincial government which just announced its refusal to be a party to private health care:
A showdown over private health care is looming in Manitoba, where the NDP government is threatening to impose sanctions against the Maples Surgical Centre over its plans for a private magnetic resonance imaging machine.

Health Minister Tim Sale, who said Tuesday he would wait for federal direction on the issue, changed his mind Wednesday and said the clinic will contravene the Canada Health Act if it charges patients for medically necessary diagnostic scans...

Sale said the province is willing to enforce the Canada Health Act with fines of up to $5,000 and more serious sanctions for subsequent offences.
Now, nobody should be unsympathetic to the people currently on Manitoba's waiting lists - and hopefully the government will back up today's action with added resources to put a dent in those. But Sale's action helps to emphasize that the NDP is the sole party standing up to fix the public system, rather than encouraging people to buy their way around it or simply refusing to take a meaningful stand in either direction. And that's exactly the contrast that Layton and company need to highlight when the writ drops.

Wrong answer

Goodale announces the verdict on income trusts - and it's hard to see how the matter could have been bungled much worse:
Income trusts are poised to rise Thursday after Ottawa decided not to hit the sector with a new tax regime, but instead level the playing field by cutting taxes on corporate dividends...

Just last week, Mr. Goodale said the government's new policy on the sector would not be ready until January. The news was likely fast-tracked because of the imminent federal election.
Keep in mind that the income trust sector was built on a long-standing tax loophole which should have been closed back when PMPM was still FMPM. Now, after years of inaction, Goodale's plan is to not only reward the sector built on that loophole, but to make sure that the corporate sector essentially receives a tax break equal to the loophole - even though recent public consultation was only with respect to income trusts, and not corporate taxes generally.

Today's decision is only a recipe for more loopholes - and more consequential tax cuts - down the road, rather than a system that creates incentives to play by the existing rules. And that means a comparatively greater share of taxes for those Canadians who don't have sufficient resources to develop the new loopholes.

A push in the right direction

If the upcoming Commonwealth meeting can live up to its advance billing, then maybe the upcoming WTO talks aren't doomed after all:
Commonwealth leaders will present a united front and demand progress on global trade negotiations when they gather in Malta this week, the 53-country group's Secretary-General said Wednesday...

“Commonwealth leaders are all in agreement that this must be a successful round,” Mr. McKinnon told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Malta. “There must be benefits for developing countries. ... I believe we can present a united front on what are the great expectations from this round.”...

Commonwealth countries' priorities in the trade talks vary widely. Australia is demanding further cuts to European farming subsidies, while Britain, as current president of EU, wants India to open up market access for industrial goods and services.

Meanwhile countries such as Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad – the Caribbean's leading sugar producers who enjoy special access to the European Union – fear that reform of the EU's sugar-aid scheme will damage their economies.
If the Commonwealth can put forward a united front based on a genuine free flow of trade (rather than the demand of free trade except where it would affect politically powerful industries), that could work wonders in highlighting the common interests of developed and developing states. But it won't be easy, as reaching such an agreement now will require the Commonwealth states to stand up to those internal industries now in the knowledge that there's another huge hurdle in the way of the ultimate goal.

Hopefully McKinnon's optimistic take on the Commonwealth meeting will help to generate some positive momentum, both within the Commonwealth and in the wider WTO. If so, then one of the most important ingredients in both third-world development and wider economic stability may yet become the norm at the Hong Kong meeting.

Sage commentary

Maclean's features Kenneth Whyte's Q and A with Ed Broadbent:
Virtually all the proposals that I've made on behalf of my party have been put in place in western European governments. We're one of the few places that still have these political appointees. It goes hand in glove with this culture of entitlement that we think is normal. It wasn't that long ago, in a certain province, where a premier who shall go nameless would sit down in a church basement and put $10 bills in envelopes for people coming to see him. Well, we've progressed beyond that...(B)y cleaning up the rules you won't affect the number of people who will work for political parties, but you will deter a number of the people who are in it for their own benefit.
Amen to that. Give the interview a read.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Compare and contrast

Bushco claims that allegation contained in the U.K. memo which stated that the U.S. planned to bomb Al-Jazeera's headquarters is "outlandish".

The U.K considers the content of the memo a sufficiently serious issue that it's gagging the media under the Official Secrets Act on the basis that it's been damaged by the release of the information.

Is there any doubt as to who's giving a more accurate impression about the significance of the memo?

(Edit: typo.)

Junk science and junk politics

Not that we needed more reminders of the problems we're already having in implementing Kyoto - but Ralph Klein has officially decided to throw a wrench in the works:
Alberta will not be bound by federal regulations on greenhouse emissions, says a spokesman for the province's Environment Department.

Robert Moyles said Tuesday that Alberta will introduce its own regulations to govern greenhouse emissions - and they will take precedence over federal rules...

He said Ottawa has committed itself to emissions-reduction targets that Alberta considers unrealistic.

Alberta has repeatedly said it does not accept the targets of the Kyoto protocol, which calls on Canada to cut emissions six per cent from 1990 levels by 2012.
As if that wasn't bad enough, it appears that Alberta's supposed justification for the action is its continued reliance on a principle so far removed from reality that even Bushco stopped trying to push it years ago:
The province has set a target of cutting in half the so-called "greenhouse intensity" of its industry by 2020 - that refers to the amount of greenhouse emissions for each unit of economic output.
In short, Canada's wealthiest province utterly refuses to use any of its wealth to actually try to deal with climate change, and plans instead to implement a standard where any economic growth is taken to be an environmental improvement even if emissions don't change at all.

If Canadians are paying any attention, this combined with Klein's privatization fixation should more than undo any positive perception arising out of the Alberta centennial scholarship program. But the more important question is whether the next federal government will fight back - and with actions to enforce the federal standards, not mere words which will then be ignored by the provinces.

Klein's recent actions show only that he thinks Canadians will willingly sell out their environment and their health for a pittance. And no federal party willing to accept those terms should get anywhere near the government side of the Commons.

On credible leadership

The David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute release a report on what all too many people seem to want to wilfully ignore:
A new report says industrial countries must commit themselves to far deeper emissions cuts than those in the Kyoto Treaty if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Emissions should be cut 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, says the report by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute...

The report says Canada should adopt the deep-reduction targets to show leadership at a UN conference on climate change which opens in Montreal next week.
It would be great in a sense to see Canada take the lead as proposed in the report - particularly since it should be clear that the developed world would have to cut even more deeply than the stated numbers to make up for development elsewhere. But that type of promise wouldn't have much meaning given the complete lack of action toward our existing obligations.

Moreover, there would also be costs to promising to meet the Suzuki/Pembina targets. Any commitment to such large-sounding numbers could easily backfire, with talk of the projected cost of making the emisson cuts leading to a counterattack of "we can't afford to do that much, so let's keep doing nothing".

For now, the focus needs to be on getting some momentum in the right direction to begin with, rather than on promises to be dealt with decades down the road. And if the result is effective enough action now, then maybe we'll be able to realistically and credibly commit to the Suzuki/Pembina targets before too long.

The chosen priorities

As expected, four bills were approved by the House of Commons yesterday and should make it into law before Monday based on streamlined Senate procedures:
The four bills that were passed earlier yesterday include a home-heating rebate, stiffer laws relating to drugs and organized crime, new options for natives to manage oil-and-gas revenues and a bill protecting a maximum of $3,000 in wages per employee in the event of a company bankruptcy.
Due credit to all four parties for ensuring that these initiatives were approved quickly. Hopefully the example of these four bills will help to point out the difference between genuine (and worthy) government priorities, and the pre-election grab bag which nobody expected to pass.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Unhealthy alliance

Good news: the traditional Ralph Klein Undermines Stephen Harper At Every Turn election tour is underway:
“We're at point right now where we've hired a firm, a controversial firm undoubtedly, to do an assessment of whether people — as to whether there would be an insurance agency willing to accommodate people who wish to buy insurance for non-essential non-emergency services. That's where we are right now," Mr. Klein said.

He says he discussed the matter, and health care in general, in a meeting with Opposition Leader Stephen Harper Monday and that Mr. Harper gave the idea the thumbs-up. "His response is that's fine."
Of course, Harper had already given up any hope of challenging the Liberals on health care. But now he'll face the ever-pleasant choice of either alienating core voters in Alberta by calling Klein a liar, or facing the same "supporter of private health care" claim that has long dogged the Cons (even as the Libs allow the system to move in the same direction by omission).

Mind you, there is one party that's neither wilfully ignoring privatization, nor actively encouraging it - either on the provincial or federal level. Ideally, Klein's attention to the issue will also call attention to the privatization within two parties, rather than merely allowing the Libs to paint themselves as the saviours of health care again.

On cleaning up one's messes

The Globe and Mail reports on the environmental disaster that is the former Winisk air force base - and the complete lack of any action beyond finger-pointing:
The abandoned buildings are still standing but the windows have long been smashed. In the frigid cavernous interiors, the wind scatters pads of deadly asbestos lying on the chipped concrete floor.

Outside, lie rusting hulks that were once diggers and trucks, their paint peeling and toxic chemicals from their batteries and ancient radiators seeping into the fragile permafrost.

Nearby, stands a small mountain of rusted metal drums. Locals say there are as many as 10,000 of them scattered throughout the area and hundreds more lie at the bottom of a small pond nearby...

And Winisk isn't the only area still left with severe environmental damage left over from several decades ago:
Winisk is not the only former radar base in Northern Ontario with severe ecological problems. Base 415 at Cape Henrietta Maria, deep in the Polar Bear Provincial Park, was also part of the Mid Canada Line.

An environmental study commissioned in the 1990s by the Mushkegowuk Council, an umbrella group for many of the native groups in the area, found asbestos, PCBs and other pollutants at the site. The study also found evidence that a large above-ground storage tank was still leaking diesel fuel into the tundra.

Another study shows that a third former site, known as 06 and located between Moosonee and Cochrane, is also badly contaminated.
The article indicates that the federal government's reason for inaction is a claim that the bases were built on provincial land. But that's something less than a compelling explanation when the damage is solely the result of a federal project. And even if the explanation is technically correct, the sole result should be to make all provinces wary about cooperating with federal efforts in the future...since they've apparently been left to deal with all the consequences of abandoned federal projects to date.

What little credit should be given goes to the Ontario provincial government, which has cleaned up one former base site due to a particularly urgent need. But that's small consolation to those still in the path of toxic substances whose effects won't stay buried.

Lowered expectations

It has to be a bad sign when this is the operating mindset going into a round of negotiations:
A deal on a new global trade treaty is unlikely to come out of next month's World Trade Organization meeting, but the Hong Kong summit won't collapse like the previous meeting, India's trade minister said Monday...

While members at one point expected to reach a new deal in Hong Kong, "divergent and contentious issues" mean an agreement "will not be possible," Indian Commerce Minster Kamal Nath said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Unless there's a strong respose to this from other states involved - particularly those trying to defend farm and manufacturing subsidies - it looks like the WTO (like the summit of the Americas) will at best be an exercise in damage control. And that makes it all too likely that last summer's promise to pair third-world debt relief with meaningful market access will be long forgotten by the time the issue is seriously discussed again.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Still up in the air

Will they? Won't they? Will they after all? The latest report has the federal government once again planning to go ahead with the purchase of military aircraft, albeit only a part of the original plan that was apparently undermined by heavy lobbying from Bombardier.

It's not a terrible political move to split the difference between Bombardier's needs and the military's requests for more aircraft, but it still leaves serious questions both as to whether a two-bidder process is really an open tender, and as to how Bill Graham went from publicly stating that no procurement decisions would be made before an election, to strong-arming his party into the purchases.

No light issue

The AP reports on a plan to use mirrors to bring light to a town which normally faces three months of darkness each year:
The sun has stopped shining in Rattenberg. But with the aid of a few mirrors, the winter darkness that grips this small town could soon be brightened up with pockets of sunshine.

That's because sun is plentiful less than 10 minutes' walk from the town and from Rat Mountain, the 915-metre hill that blocks its sunlight between November and February each year.

The solution: 30 heliostats, essentially rotating mirrors, mounted on a hillside to grab sunshine off reflectors from the neighbouring village of Kramsach...

In the Tyrol region of the Alps alone, about 60 communities suffer the same fate in winter as Rattenberg. Peskoller says about six other towns in Austria and neighbouring Switzerland have expressed interest.
Obviously ideas like this can only be used in limited circumstances. But Rattenberg's example shows that there are still significant areas of developed countries where the simplest of technology can still be used to improve lives.

On surveying the landscape

The Washington Post reports on the rebuilding effort in Afghanistan...and all indications are that while the war was more justified initially, the end results aren't much better than those in Iraq:
By September 2004, congressional figures show that the effort's centerpiece -- a $73 million U.S. Agency for International Development program -- had produced only 100 finished projects, most of them refurbishments of existing buildings. As of the beginning of this month, only about 40 more had been finished and turned over to the Afghan government.

Internal documents and more than 100 interviews in Washington and Kabul revealed a chain of mistakes and misjudgments: The U.S. effort was poorly conceived in a rush to show results before the Afghan presidential election in late 2004. The drive to construct earthquake-resistant, American-quality buildings in rustic villages led to culture clashes, delays and what a USAID official called "extraordinary costs." Afghans complained that the initial design for roofs made them too heavy to build in rural areas without a crane, and the corrected design made them too light to bear Afghan snows. Local workmen unfamiliar with U.S. construction methods sometimes produced shoddy work...

Last summer, Post reporters made an unannounced visit to (a) 15-month-old clinic, which was filled with patients. Mold and mildew stained the ceiling. In one room, the ceiling had fallen. Paint inside and out had blistered and peeled off in sheets. Cracks crawled across exterior walls. In a side yard, two girls labored in vain to pump water from a new, U.S.-built well. Mohammed Saber, a clinic guard, said the pump had stopped working days earlier...

In his October 2004 confidential memo, USAID's Fine answered the question of "What Went Wrong" with a sweeping indictment."The schools and clinics program has been marked by a series of missteps and miscalculations that resulted in a flawed business model, inadequate supervision and poor execution," wrote Fine, who at the time was the third head of USAID's Afghanistan program in a year.
The impetus to be seen getting things done appears to have led to a complete lack of incentive to plan for the best possible long-term result. Now, the combination of excessive promises and little foresight has led to nothing but frustration for all sides involved. The U.S. is facing added costs to try to accomplish a fraction of what it promised originally, while the Afghani citizens see large amounts of time and money put into construction which is of no benefit to them.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan appears to be one of the prime examples of the U.S.' assumption that what works at home (or at least, appears to work at home until Brownie's responsibilities come into play) can be exported abroad without any need to recognize local realities. And that apparently applies equally to such simple and verifiable realities as the layout of the terrain as it does to the complexity of local culture and values.