Saturday, April 08, 2006

The critique continues

The NDP continues its commentary on the Lib leadership campaign - and the contrast between the leadership rhetoric now and the Libs' action while in power is rather striking. The question now is whether the leadership contenders (and the Libs as a whole) will be held to account for that gap, which is only bound to grow as the contenders spend more time in the spotlight. But if not, the NDP has made sure that it won't be for lack of a convenient source for comparison.

Stevie the Human Bottleneck

While Greg points out the bizarre formalities which seem to fit Harper's view of himself, the bigger issue in the Globe and Mail's article lies in the degree to which Harper is micromanaging his government:
(A senior Conservative) staffer (said) that work is already backing up in departments because the PMO's approval is required for so much.

“There are only so many things you can run by them, so decisions don't get made,” the official said. “If you're looking for the negative spin, it's killing initiative. If you're looking for the positive spin, they're keeping a close eye on everything everybody's doing.”
Of course, even the positive side doesn't sound like anything more than a mixed blessing. And when the ponderous decision-making process is combined with the Cons' insistence on blowing up all existing programs and starting over, it seems pretty clear that the end result of Harper's management will be a severe lack of ability to get anything done.

But then, that lack of action will only be a symptom of a far bigger problem within the Harper government:
Peter Donolo, a former communications director and senior adviser to Mr. Chrétien, said concentrating too much on the small stuff will clog the machinery of government and circumscribe ministers in their roles.

“Three-quarters of the job of being prime minister is knowing what's important enough to warrant your attention,” he said. “It's a recipe for disaster because the system gets constipated and secondly, you're essentially telling your people that, ‘We have no confidence in you. You're stumblebums and we wouldn't trust you five yards away from us.'"
Not that the complete lack of trust is anything new even at the highest levels of authority in the Con government. But when Harper doesn't trust his own staff to do anything right, there's no reason for Canadian voters to have any more confidence than he does. And that, combined with what's bound to be a woefully thin record of accomplishment due to Harper's insistence on being a human bottleneck, could spell serious trouble for the Cons before long.

Standing up for tyranny

Reporters Without Borders notes that while it's a relief that Frederick Lavoie has been released from a Belarussian prison, the Canadian government doesn't seem to have done much to make that happen:
Reporters Without Borders Canada is delighted that journalist Frédérick Lavoie was released 15 days after he was arrested while covering the elections in Belarus. However, it deplores the attitude of the Canadian government which settled for improving conditions of Mr Lavoie's detention rather than press for his immediate liberation...On March 28, Reporters Without Borders Canada and Frédérick Lavoie's brother, Jérémi Lavoie, immediately requested a meeting with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay to ensure the immediate release of the Quotidien and La Presse correspondent. Their request was unsuccessful...

Frédérick Lavoie...was arrested during the crackdown and sentenced to 15 days in prison for "participating in an unauthorized demonstration" at the end of a summary trial in which he was denied consular assistance to which he was entitled.
To the best of my knowledge, there's not yet any comment from Colin Mayes. But Canadian journalists can apparently be assured that their freedoms and due process rights abroad are among the areas in which the Con government considers it "mature" to look the other way.

Friday, April 07, 2006

On unwanted changes

When Stephen Harper said that his government wouldn't continue the Libs' rural neglect, he wasn't kidding. Instead, the Cons have taken the step up to active destruction, doing their best to ensure that farmers can't take the final step in a process to take control over the federal fleet of grain cars.

Once again, the Cons seem determined to torpedo absolutely any program that could possibly have been to the Libs' credit - regardless of how long it'll take (and how much it'll cost) to try to put any alternative in place. And while farmers would be best served with an option far better than the evils, it may not take long before even that Lib neglect starts looking relatively good.

On forward thinking

While the first week of Parliament has by and large been a successful one for the NDP, the one obvious problem (aside from the usual outright lack of any attention on some stories) has been the degree to which the NDP has been portrayed as agreeing with the Cons. Which makes Jack Layton's response to the Cons' Kyoto discussion the right one:
NDP Leader Jack Layton said part of the blame (for the Cons' conclusion that Canada won't meet its Kyoto targets) falls on the Liberals, who ratified Kyoto without a plan on how to meet the targets.

But Layton said the Conservatives are tossing in the towel too early, because there is still six years to meet the targets.
There's still plenty of frustration to go around with respect to the Libs' failures in office. But contrary to Harper's apparent assumption, spending the entire time in government screaming "They had 13 years!" isn't an effective use of the opportunity...and with the Libs still in denial about their own record, the NDP is the only national party which is able to point out that there's a lot which can - and must - be done.

The more time the Cons spend pretending they're still in opposition, the less likely they are to turn around any of the Libs' governmental failures. And Layton's position nicely highlights what has to be a popular desire to actually make positive changes, not only to assume that what the Libs broke can't be fixed.

On poor value

The CP reports that not only are the Cons planning for Canada not to live up to its Kyoto Protocol commitments, but their few ideas to deal with climate change appear likely to be far less efficient than some of the programs now being torn down:
Internal federal documents indicate that one of the Tories' main proposals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be far more costly than anything in the Liberal plan they're dismantling.

The proposal, included in the Conservatives' election platform, would give public transit riders a federal tax credit to cover the cost of their monthly transit passes. Internal documents provided to The Canadian Press suggest that such a measure would increase transit use by only five to seven per cent, and would cost $2,000 for each tonne of carbon dioxide saved.

Under the Liberal plan, dubbed Project Green, initiatives were estimated to cost $20 to $200 per tonne of carbon saved.
Of course, it's always possible that the Libs' own estimates may have been based on unrealistic assumptions. But at the very least, more efficient possibilities to help improve the environment are something the Cons should be looking at in tandem with their own ideas - not something to be thrown out the window merely because the Libs were once associated with them.

(Edit: typo.)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

On mature policy

A few days ago, word came out that the Libs had negotiated a deal in Afghanistan which provides Canada with no assurances of access to prisoners transferred to the Afghani government, only a "trust me" from Afghanistan that prisoners would be accessible to the Red Cross and that the Geneva Conventions would be applied. (And there's nothing which apparently prevents a Bushco-style creative application of the Geneva standards.) Meanwhile, the Netherlands' comparable deal featured full access for Dutch authorities, as well as notification upon any charges or transfers. More than a few words and phrases could apply to the result for Canada, with "poorly negotiated", "negligent" and "hosed" coming readily to mind.

Surely this Lib failure would have been a chance for the new government to point out the Libs' unwillingness to stand up for Canadian interests. The Cons, however, apparently have another word entirely to describe Canada's abdication of its obligation to avoid complicity in torture:
Hon. Gordon O'Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, to my knowledge the previous government knew about the arrangement because it was done under its watch.

With respect to the second question, this is a more mature arrangement than the Netherlands has.
O'Connor's answer would have been scary enough if "mature" wasn't Harper's chosen description for his planned means of dealing with Bush. But based on the consistent terminology, the Con foreign policy has come entirely into focus.

Lest there be any doubt, the Cons' idea of "mature" policy is for Canada to avoid taking responsibility for either its own actions, or the actions of those with whom it does business. And when those deals go wrong - as U.S. files such as softwood lumber already have, and as Afghani prisoner treatment could easily do in the future - our response will be only to cut another deal based on the word of the same party who has already let us down.

There's certainly a time and a place to deal based on trust in the word of a partner. But a foreign policy based on a refusal to look behind others' promises is the height of naivete, not maturity. And the main question now is which file will result in the Cons' oddly (if selectively) trusting nature blowing up in Canada's face first.

Promising signs

I'll reserve any final judgment until we see some more substantive policy effects rather than victories that are more symbolic than substantive. But Robert makes a strong case that Layton has managed to largely set the parliamentary agenda so far. And it isn't hard to foresee that being only the beginning of the NDP's ability to shape how Ottawa does business - both in this Parliament, and in the future as voters compare the NDP's results to the Libs' unwillingness to do anything but sulk about not being in power.

Reasonable differences

Saskatchewan Health Minister Len Taylor nicely points out the problems with Tony Clement's apparent plan to impose a wait-time guarantee without including additional funding as part of the package:
(Taylor) flatly dismissed a suggestion made by federal Health Minister Tony Clement that guarantees could be funded from the 2004 first ministers' health accord, which included a $5.5-billion fund for reducing wait times.

That money has been allocated to reduce Saskatchewan's long waiters' list and to develop the province's diagnostic imaging system and network, Taylor said.

"Saskatchewan's position clearly is any additional wait time guarantees or additional pressure on the province must also be matched with additional federal dollars," he said...

"We are monitoring in this province every surgery that's done -- not just three or four or five as mandated by a guarantee list and as a result, we know where we're at in all cases," Taylor said. "Our goal in Saskatchewan is to first and foremost reduce our long waiters' list and some of those on the long waiters' list may in fact not show up anywhere in a national guarantee...

Taylor said every province also has unique needs and he's concerned health problems in other jurisdictions that might be put on a guarantee list might not be a concern in Saskatchewan and the province could be penalized.
So far, Clement's public discussion so far has been largely devoid of any meaningful the Cons may yet have enough room for compromise to find a way to include extra funding to match any extra demands. But if the federal government wants to try to set arbitrary time limits on certain procedures with no regard for the system as a whole, then it'll face a rightful backlash both from the provinces involved, and from patients who are better served by a province which takes a more thorough view.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On a lack of focus

The CP discusses one of the hidden factors in the Cons' GST plan - and points out why a cut based solely at household essentials would do much more to target relief toward the Canadians who need it:
The Conservative's GST policy - which Harper says will include another one percentage point cut in five years - will form the centrepiece of his government's budget expected in the next month or so.

That first cut to the consumption tax is estimated to carry a pricetag of about $32.3 billion over five years to federal coffers.

Yet about 17 per cent of that - more than $5 billion - won't lead to savings for families or individuals but instead will be claimed by banks, insurers, some professionals including doctors, and residential landlords, according to calculations by Toronto tax lawyer David Robertson.
The article includes some debate as to whether or not any of those savings will be passed on to consumers dealing with the businesses in question. But even if a few of those dollars to find their way back, it's hard to see much efficiency in a tax scheme supposedly targeted toward the average Canadian which instead hands a billion dollars annually to businesses in the vague hope that consumers will benefit in the long run.

Voting with their feet

According to StatsCan, Canadian parents started making their decision as to what type of child care they need long before the federal government ever got involved...and the Cons are trying to push in the wrong direction:
According to the government agency, about 54 per cent of children aged six months to five years were in child care in 2002-2003, compared with 42 per cent in 1994-1995.

In the most recent period, three forms of child care — daycare centres, child care outside the home by a non relative and care by a relative inside or outside the home — each accounted for about 30 per cent of all care...

In Wednesday's report, Statscan said care outside the home by a non-relative — while remaining one of the top options selected by families — there was a decline in that kind of care over the eight-year period.

That, it said, was offset by an increase in the use of care by relatives and a rise in the use of day-care centres.
Will Cons take a look at the numbers and start trusting the choices parents have been making over the past decade? Or will they continue to insist that they know better than both the parents who have already made use of daycare centres, and those who would make the same choice if they could afford it?

While the throne speech hinted at some compromise on the issue, the numbers suggest that the Cons have a way to go in order to be in touch with the established needs and preferences of parents. And their choice as to whether or not to account for the reality of child care could go a long way to determining whether the minority can get anything accomplished in Parliament.

(Edit: typo.)

Excuses, excuses

The Globe and Mail reports that much like the Libs, the Cons now seem determined to ignore the stated terms of the opposition parties in order to claim that bank mergers can't be dealt with in a minority Parliament:
Mr. Flaherty told CTV Newsnet that he doesn't expect banks to approach him with merger proposals. "I am not anticipating that," he said.

However, he conceded that the question of whether to allow bank mergers could nevertheless arise this year because the legally mandated review of the financing legislation includes the Bank Act.

"I am sure the parliamentary committee will have a thorough look at all the issues," he said.

Mr. Flaherty's comments gave Canadian banks some clarity on one of the most time-worn issues on Bay Street. Unfortunately for them, it was the wrong kind of clarity, confirming what many senior executives had been expecting -- that a minority government would be leery of addressing controversial issues such as bank mergers.
The interesting question which may come up is the outcome of the committee review. It isn't hard to foresee at least some agreement in principle to the effect that mergers can be approved as long as consumers are protected in the process. And there's no apparent reason why the Cons would want to bear the burden of explaining why that consumer protection is too much of an imposition for them to be willing to make a deal on those terms.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On needed discovery

The CP reports on an unprecedented Canadian military mission in which three separate patrols are meeting up in Canada's far north:
In efforts to reinforce sovereignty and prepare for emergencies arising from increased use of northern skies and waters, three patrols from widely separated points successfully navigated thousands of kilometres over snow and rugged ice to rendezvous on a scrap of rock jutting from a frozen ocean...

A big part of Operation Nunalivut, Inuktitut for The Land Is Ours, is cataloguing and assessing various camps, airstrips and other structures that have been built and abandoned in the North, said Artus. Knowing what's out there and what kind of shape it's in could come in handy during an emergency.

"We are putting together a list of the available things in the Arctic and we are actually (developing) some concepts of operation to allow us to move quicker through the Arctic - maybe like have a central depot and be able to branch out from there until needed."

Two abandoned weather stations along the route could become "turnkey" base camps that could be quickly activated in an emergency.
It's a shock that we haven't yet even catalogued all the equipment available for use in the Arctic. But while there's plenty more to be done before Canada can be seen to exercise a proper amount of control over its northern regions, both in order to respond adequately to emergencies to and to ensure effective sovereignty under international law, it's certainly a plus to see that some first steps are being taken.

Common interests

A group of Canadian labour leaders joins forces to point out that despite the CAW's recent shots at the NDP, the interests of workers generally and the NDP are still closely aligned:
Labour leaders must reflect on the choice that is being offered to sever their ties with the NDP. Let's do politics differently, it is suggested. Taking a page from the old school of AFL-CIO “Gomperism,” unions would support parties and candidates on an issue-by-issue basis. At the same time, we would ask our members to support a new type of politics that challenges the power of transnational corporations and global capitalism. Thinking members will correctly answer that you cannot credibly do both.

If the NDP and those in labour who now feel estranged would take a step back from divisive accusations, it may become clear that the present political moment offers the social democratic movement a tremendous opportunity. Both arms of the Canadian business party are mired in a justly deserved minority status. The NDP has elected a strong caucus with a record number of women and including MPs from the labour movement. Jack Layton is trusted by Canadians and held in high regard by everyone in this debate.

Our members, and Canadians generally, are open to a bold political alternative. We say to progressive Canadians, this is our moment to seize. Together, labour and the NDP are that alternative.
There's plenty of room for debate as to the precise role that unions should play within the NDP. But as the NDP has done all along, the column rightly focuses on what should be beyond dispute: that the interests of Canadian workers are best served through the strongest NDP possible, and that both the unions and the party should be seeking to build on the progress so far - both in NDP support, and in the consequential benefits for workers.

On target selection

After seemingly planning from the moment they took office to eliminate the gun registry by regulation, the Cons now seem prepared to set themselves up for defeat on the issue in Parliament instead:
The federal gun registry has been “a dismal failure” that has done nothing to reduce gun violence, Justice Minister Vic Toews said Monday, and the Conservatives will move to bring in legislation to abolish it.

His comments come after months of speculation the Conservatives were planning to avoid a vote in the Commons by dismantling the registry through regulations rather than amend the law.
At best, one might see the attempt as a test case: while the gun registry presumably wouldn't be a confidence issue, it could allow the Cons to determine how serious the Libs in particular are about opposing the government. But then the lack of any incentive for the opposition parties to cooperate makes it awfully likely that the result will be nothing more than a parliamentary embarrassment for Harper.

About the only other explanation available might be as an attempt to blame the other parties for refusing to play along, particularly in rural areas where the initial creation of the registry drove many votes into the hands of the Cons and their predecessors. But there's already been plenty of talk about the readily-available regulatory structure which the Cons gave every signal of applying...meaning that if the Cons are indeed thinking along those lines, then they're essentially hoping for their own supporters to be utterly ignorant about the parliamentary system. And it seems far more likely that the gun owners who have parked their votes with the Cons would rather see results than games.

Monday, April 03, 2006

An end to terminators

Murray Dobbin reports that while Canada's farmers may have been unable to push the Harper government toward a reasonable position on terminator seeds, the Canadian delegation's pro-suicide-seed position has once again been soundly rejected internationally:
The Brazilian government, chairing the meeting, announced that the 188 member governments of the CBD agreed to reject language that would have undermined the six year old moratorium on terminator. Promoters, including Canada, have called for a "case by case risk assessment" of terminator seeds, with the intention of allowing the technology to be approved through existing legislation for genetically modified crops...

That Canada would continue to pursue the commercialization of terminator technology is inexplicable from any practical standpoint. Not a single company in Canada has a stated interest in using this technology and virtually every farm organization in the country opposes it. The impact of the terminator, also called "suicide seeds", has been calculated to be in the hundreds of millions in lost annual income for Third World farmers.

According to the ETC Group, which monitors the issue "Brazilian soybean farmers would see their seed costs increase by approximately $515 million each year. Argentina's soybean farmers would pay an extra US$276 million. Wheat farmers in Pakistan would face a price rise of US$191 million. Rice farmers in the Philippines will pay another US$172 million."

And it is not just farmers of the Global South who would suffer. Terminator wheat, if it were ever commercialized, would cost Canadian farmers an additional US$85 million dollars per year, according to ETC.
It's a relief to see that other states have continued to take a more reasonable stance on the issue. But the lack of any harm done so far is no excuse for the willingness of both Lib and Con governments to ignore both the explicit wishes and the obvious interests of Canada's farmers. And it may not take long before those farmers start recognizing the degree to which Harper's government is now complicit in an effort to make their livelihood even more precarious.

On popular will

The Globe and Mail reports on an international poll spanning 68 countries. But in searching for a post-Gomery hook, the article diverts attention away from the issue which is most important both to the Canadians in the poll and to respondents generally:
Over all, 26 per cent of the poll's 53,749 respondents said the most important problem facing the world was poverty, more than twice those who chose terrorism, at 12 per cent. Canadians' top pick was also poverty, but the environment was seen as the second-greatest challenge. Eight per cent of Canadians chose wars and conflicts. Six per cent said terrorism.

"Everywhere in the world, the main problem is the same. The main problem is not terrorism, the main problem is the gap between the rich and poor people," Mr. Léger said. "That means that on this planet, people think the same way."
While Canada's numbers as to belief in "the will of the people" have declined since previous years, the problem seems to far less associated with Gomery, and far more linked to the fact that neither of the parties which have formed government in the past year have made meaningful progress on the issues most important to Canadians. And it's no wonder that few people from any of the countries listed see their will expressed by their government when the most important issue for those polled receives as little attention as it does on an international scale.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Efficient investments

The Leader-Post reports that Saskatchewan's program to encourage the use of programmable thermostats to save energy has been a huge success so far:
Since the Saskatchewan Energy Share program was unveiled five months ago, almost 3,500 homeowners have taken advantage of the programmable thermostat rebates, a news conference at Cochrane High School heard Friday.

Under the plan, Saskatchewan residents who buy an Energy Star qualified programmable thermostat between Sept. 1, 2005 and March 31, 2007 are eligible for a $45 rebate, which is applied to their SaskEnergy bill.

In the last five months, more than $152,000 in thermostat rebates have been issued.
The program should serve as a prime example of how low-cost investments in efficiency can pay off. And with the program receiving added attention now, hopefully even more homeowners will take part during the next year.

Corporations of the world, unite!

Shorter Terence Corcoran: Individual decision-making in a competitive market is the highest ideal possible. And that's why corporations need to stick together to beat back any suggestion of social responsibility, rather than trying to compete through a positive public image.

More leadership by imitation

While the CP notes that Bono is reserving judgment on whether the Cons will increase foreign aid, it's hard to be inspired even by Harper's high-water statement as to his goals in foreign aid:
Just 10 days before the January election that propelled him to power, Harper promised to increase foreign aid spending by $425 million over five years, and bring it to the average level among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a promise the Liberal platform didn't match.

The point, Harper said at the time, was to make foreign policy decisions that were not only "independent," but "actually noticed by other powers."

But even with the promised multimillion-dollar boost, Ottawa's foreign aid budget will still fall far below the generally accepted target of 0.7 per cent of GNP, the annual total of all goods produced and services provided.
It's hard to see how pegging Canada's foreign aid levels to the average of other OECD countries would be either the least bit independent, or likely to be noticed by anybody. And while Harper's standard would indeed be an improvement on the status quo, that's more a testament to the Libs' negligence than any sign that Harper's plan will put Canada in a position that even vaguely resembles leadership.

Canada's commitment should be to meet its earlier .7% promise and to encourage other states to do the same - not merely to fall short by roughly the same amount as most other countries. And while holding the Cons to their promise may be a step in the right direction, neither Bono nor anybody else should be completely satisfied if the Cons follow through with that small step.