Friday, April 14, 2006

Spring break

I'm off for a week and a half of vacation, and likely won't be blogging in the meantime. Enjoy the meantime, and I'll be back on the blog soon...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

On clear messages

A mere two months into power, the Cons are already telling a novelist that he'll have to toe the line on climate change as part of his other job with Environment Canada, and sending signals to other government employees to the same effect:
A scientist with Environment Canada was ordered not to launch his global warming-themed novel Thursday at the same time the Conservative government was quietly axing a number of Kyoto programs...

Publisher Elizabeth Margaris said that Mark Tushingham, whose day job is as an Environment Canada scientist, was ordered not to appear at the National Press Club to give a speech discussing his science fiction story about global warming in the not-too-distant future.

"He got a directive from the department, cautioning him not to come to this meeting today," said Margaris of DreamCatcher Publishers.

"So I guess we're being stifled. This is incredible, I've never heard of such a thing," she said...

"I obviously not only hope, but expect, that all elements of the bureaucracy will be working with us to achieve our objectives," Harper said at an appearance in Wainright, Alta., Thursday.

The prime minister's comments might be seen as a clear warning to public servants thinking of straying from government orthodoxy.
In the short term, the move is bound to backfire to at least some extent, since it'll likely grant tons more attention to the novel than would have been available without the warning. But for other civil servants, the message more than counters any claim to encouraging dissent that one might try to imply from, say, a small reward for whistleblowing under the Accountability Act. And if this is just the beginning for the Cons, I'm not sure I want to speculate as to what's next in Harper's effort to create his own made-in-Canada echo chamber.

On instincts

Apparently Rex Murphy is eager to join the ranks of Harper-friendly media figures, gushing over the Accountability Act while ignoring some of the notable exclusions:
(The Accountability Act) is a ripe, thick, sprawling piece of legislation, 274 pages, that very largely redraws the map on everything from fundraising to transition of aides and party functionaries to the civil service or lobbying, that expands the eagle and much-dreaded eye of Sheila Fraser to Crown Corporations and Trusts, sets up a parliamentary prosecutor.

This is big stuff. In essence, Mr. Harper has said, "You wanted accountability. I'll give you accountability."
The problem is that Murphy ignores the next sentence in Harper's implicit statement: "I just won't accept any for myself."

Granted, Murphy's rant can be justified to the extent that he prefers Harper's instincts on accountability to those of the Libs. But that's not a credit to Harper by any means. Instead, that comparison only works in Harper's favour due to the Libs' absurd calculation that they're better off trying to defend PMPM's record in anticipation of retaking power, rather than to try to hold Harper's government accountable.

If Murphy and his ilk were more willing to challenge Harper on his strategy of focusing attention everywhere but on himself, then Harper would properly be facing public backlash against the differences between his campaign message and his actions in power...and the opposition Libs would likely have to make a similar move. Unfortunately, though, the one instinct of Harper's which appears to be correct so far is the view that the media will let him get away with it. And if that proves to be the case, then Murphy and company will only have themselves to blame.

On planned inefficiency

Remember the Cons' plan to rein in government spending by ensuring that resources are used on programs that are "efficient and effective"? Apparently, the Cons are applying a rather unusual definition of those terms:
The new Conservative government has decided to slash spending on Environment Canada programs designed to fight global warming by 80 per cent, and wants cuts of 40 per cent in the budgets devoted to climate change at other ministries, according to cabinet documents obtained by The Globe and Mail...

The documents said that while the Tories are trying to save money by cutting the programs designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, they won't cut government staff positions, so most of the money earmarked for climate change will be going to salaries for bureaucrats.

"Only $375-million was approved for climate spending, with most of the dollars covering staff salaries until the new government determines next steps.

"What is clear is that staff will have little to do and that they will have no budgets to spend over the next year and that more cuts are coming."...

The global-warming programs are being eliminated even though a Treasury Board review of government spending found that the vast majority of 166 such programs run by Ottawa were considered cost effective.
Obviously the fact that the Cons are slashing environmental funding is bad enough. But it's doubly so when money is explicitly being put toward bureaucracy whose role has effectively been eliminated due to a complete lack of program funding. And whether the current step is merely an excuse to then eliminate the bureaucracy as well (since in the absence of supported programs it can easily be classified as "wasteful spending"), or reflective of a Con intention to generally ensure that funds are kept away from any useful purpose, it's hard to see how any good can come of the strategy.

Of course, that'll leave a high-profile Environment Minister with plenty of explaining to do. I'll be interested to hear Ambrose try to argue how maintaining a bureaucracy while cutting all program funding can possibly be an "efficient and effective" use of government funds. And if the response is as weak as expected, then Canadians who may have expected something positive based on Ambrose's first few days in the role may not be any more patient with her than the Cons have been with the existing climate change programs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Kerrying the burden

I don't often indulge my sports fanaticism on this blog, but I can't let the Riders' acquisition of Kerry Joseph (with a side of Jason Armstead) go without comment.

From a talent perspective, the move is sheer genius. Joseph's upside is second to that of no other quarterback in the CFL, Holmes' value will never be higher (and his main contribution, the special-teams ability, is more than replaced by Armstead), and Gordon and an uncertain draft pick are acceptable losses in exchange for that much of a skill upgrade.

But by trading the Riders' most popular player, Shivers has essentially punched his (and Barrett's) ticket away from Regina if the team is anything short of dominant this season - regardless of whether that's due to a rash of injuries like the one that hit last year. And even a year in the 12-6 range - which by all accounts should be a success - might not satisfy the fans if it isn't accompanied by playoff success...particularly if there's any sense that Joseph hasn't fulfilled his potential (or that Holmes could have helped the team do better).

The Riders are now better positioned to win in 2006 than they have been in ages. But if they don't, the architects of their current team will probably be run out of town, and the team could be headed for some serious lean years ahead.

On the need for a third party

Blevkog rightly criticizes Bernard Lord's apparent willingness to put public resources toward ensuring that independent MLA Frank Branch isn't around to vote down his government. But let's not pretend the NB Libs are free of responsibility in the matter either. From the CBC story:
The Liberals have refused to negotiate a pairing agreement that would allow members of Lord's government, particularly cabinet ministers, to leave the legislature in order to conduct public business without fear of the government being voted down.
Now, New Brunswick residents should certainly be concerned about the apparent benefits to both Tanker Malley and to Branch in exchange for their refusal to vote down the government. But the current goings-on also reflect the lack of a reasonable opposition party to ensure that the assembly can function. And when both the Libs and Cons go to the voters demanding a majority next time out, voters should respond by asking why neither is willing to bring even a minimal standard of civility or decorum to the table.

On fiery leadership

Stephen Harper hasn't left much doubt that metaphorically speaking, he wouldn't complain if much of the Canadian media went up in flames - its contribution to his electoral success notwithstanding. But even I didn't think he'd start actively taking steps to cause that to happen:
Officials in the prime minister's office have been picking who asks questions at news conferences since he was sworn in Feb. 6. Reporters advised prime ministerial aides before the news conference that they would refuse to play by Harper's rules...

The media tried short-circuiting Harper's strategy Tuesday. They prepared to install their own set of microphones in the foyer outside the House of Commons — which is standard practice when events are held there.

Harper's office responded quickly upon learning of the plan. Officials switched the event location to a tiny, cramped room down the hall.

Their chosen venue had no stand-up microphones. House of Commons officials were investigating Tuesday afternoon whether the move created a fire hazard.
In fairness, the risk wasn't entirely with the media: from the sound of it, Harper may well have been putting his own well-being at risk as well in order to exercise control over the questioning process. But there's no apparent reason why Harper's ability to micromanage the media at all times should be a higher priority than his safety or the reporters'.

At the very least, one would think that if the Cons were determined to fight the media tooth and nail, they'd have thought ahead somewhat, taking into account all the possible upsides and downsides in contingency plans for dealing with reporters. Instead, officials apparently came up with a plan on the spot, then were left scrambling to figure out after the fact whether they'd put anybody in danger. Which can't inspire much confidence in all those Canadians whose lives are in Harper's hands in one way or another.

It's clear that the Cons don't have much of a plan to try to keep a lid on the media, but that they're not afraid to put people at risk in order to improvise. And that combination of obsessive control, warped priorities and poor planning isn't going to do anything to win the media back to Harper's side.

Update: See Far and Wide, Maple Leaf Politics and 1337hax0r for more on the substance of Harper's insistence on choosing his questioners.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

On selective rule-making

As if we needed yet another example of the Cons seeing rules as something to be wielded against others rather than something of any real value, the Cons are apparently arguing against their own campaign platform in order to avoid added scrutiny on Harper's cabinet:
In their campaign platform, the Conservatives promised to implement Information Commissioner John Reid's recommendations for reforming the 23-year-old access law.

The Federal Accountability Act tabled Tuesday would expand the scope of the access law to cover three foundations, several agents of Parliament and seven additional Crown corporations - including Canada Post, the CBC and Via Rail.

But the legislation does not include Reid's proposals to make cabinet documents more accessible and limit the scope for withholding sensitive information from release...

Instead of including Reid's full slate of recommendations in the Accountability Act, the government bundled them into a "draft bill" for consideration by a parliamentary committee.

The Tories also issued a discussion paper that raises questions about a number of Reid's proposals. The document says several elements of access reform are "extremely complex and require further analysis, discussion and debate."
In other words, added oversight is just fine for Crown corporations (which the Cons are presumably happy to put to added expense given the opportunity). But when it comes to extending accountable government to those who actually govern, Harper seems to want to delay and distract rather than making the changes promised during the campaign.

Of course, with the Cons holding a minority, the other parties can presumably team up to make sure that Harper can't set more stringent rules for everybody but himself. And hopefully they'll be able to work together to at least that extent, so as to make sure that Harper can't further insulate his cabinet from any public access or attention.

One question answered

While the Cons' show of false outrage prevented any meaningful questions from being answered in last night's take-note debate, the afternoon's Question Period revealed the answer to at least one of Gordon O'Connor's questions from last year:
While Harper has previously vowed that Canada is in for the long haul, yesterday's comments mark a more definitive time frame from the new Conservative government.

"Our troops are already deployed in Afghanistan, have been deployed for some time and as we know, will be there in some form in the next few years," Harper told the Commons during the afternoon question period.

Canada now has 2,200 troops in Kandahar, a commitment that ends in February. Harper said a decision on the next deployment would be made in the "very near" future but left little doubt that more troops would be deployed.
In other words, there is no exit strategy to speak of. Instead, Harper's plan is for a continuation strategy: the Cons will feel free to make additional commitments of troops without further consultation, regardless of whether any answer exists for the rest of the questions surrounding the mission. And that can't be a positive answer for those troops who can now foresee being put in harm's way for the "long term" even as two governments have now refused to so much as define the scope of their mission.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Cynicism vs. action

Last week, Stephen Harper went of his way to claim that no political party is capable of being principled when power is at stake. This week, Manitoba's NDP government is proving him wrong:
Manitoba's NDP government has tabled legislation that would ban members of the legislature from crossing the floor.

Under the proposed Manitoba Elections Reform Act, a politician who wanted to change parties would have to sit as an independent or resign their seat and run for their new party in a byelection.

Doer says a ballot is a sacred trust between the voter, the candidate and the party that receives their support.
Harper and others may well honestly believe that the only definition of a good political system is one that keeps them in power. But Doer is making clear that for the NDP, that definition isn't good enough. And voters across the country may soon decide to put democratic reform in the hands of the one party which truly believes in creating a better system for all parties rather than in manipulating the system for personal gain.

Showing the way

Terilyn Paulgaard nicely summarizes how Klein's Third Way leads in entirely the wrong direction:
PIPs (private insurance providers) won't cover everyone, or do so at great cost. Your grandmother had breast cancer? That would make you "high risk." Such a family history would produce the same effect as a drunk-driving charge: insurance rates so high as to be prohibitive, if you could find someone to cover you at all.

The Third Way assumes these people would remain in the public system for health care. That's when they would discover another interesting detail about the Third Way plan: Many current services are being delisted. The extras that keep a condition at bay – such as insulin for diabetes – are being stripped from the system. For people without private health care, these extras would come out of pocket and could add up to thousands of dollars a month. To counter this, the government would follow Australia's lead and subsidize private-care premiums. So much for the savings of privatization...

For all the havoc Action 13 could potentially cause, the most tragic consideration is that the whole premise behind the Third Way is flawed. Remember, the two main incentives driving it are the assumptions that the current plan is unsustainable and wait times must be shortened.

As The Bottom Line points out, wait times are already being shortened. And PIPs will not shorten wait times, only shift who waits in which line.
Of course, there are certainly some who stand to gain from those shifts...but there's no reason why their financial health should be prioritized ahead of the physical health of Albertans. And hopefully a few more articles like Paulgaard's will make that point clear enough to make Klein reconsider what legacy he wants to leave.

Empty gesture

It's always a plus when Canada takes meaningful action to demonstrate (and give effect to) its sovereignty over its share of the Arctic. It's rather less so to put time and resources into a war of words:
It's one of the most celebrated and mythic areas on the Arctic map, but in the parlance of the Canadian military the Northwest Passage is no more.

"We're calling it the Canadian Internal Waters now," says Lt.-Col. Drew Artus, the chief of staff for Joint Task Force North, whose mandate includes protecting Canadian sovereignty over the vast area north of the 60th parallel.

"That's the guidance that we received. ... Sovereignty and the security of Canada and Canada's lands are important to (the government), and I guess that's part of their mandate to exercise authority, if you will, over what they believe is theirs."...

Several members of the Northern Forces said the direction to omit references to "Northwest Passage" came down their chain of command from Foreign Affairs in January.

However, it's unclear whether the direction came before or after the Conservative victory under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who made Arctic sovereignty an election priority.
Wherever the name change originated, it should be clear that it's not about to have any impact on the underlying debate. As the article points out, the real question is whether Canada can effectively control the region...and rewriting internal documents to imply that we can doesn't help at all in that effort.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

On keeping one's deals

A report on the federal government's obligations under the Nunavut Land Claim suggests that Canada can't claim to meet a job requirement without offering training to allow Inuit citizens to fill those jobs - and that the necessary money to provide the training would pay off several times over:
"The schools are failing," wrote (former justice Thomas) Berger. "They are not producing graduates truly competent in Inuktitut; moreover, the Inuit of Nunavut have the lowest rate of literacy in English in the country."

That failure, he calculates, costs some of Canada's poorest people $72 million a year in lost employment - and costs taxpayers up to another $25 million a year in recruiting, training and housing southerners for jobs that could have gone to Inuit...

Berger proposes a system that uses Inuktitut in all 12 grades, with gradually increasing amounts of English throughout...

Kaludjak argued that the $20-million annual price tag for the recommendations can't be seen as another subsidy to the Nunavut government. He says that money is owed to the Inuit under the terms of the land claim.

"It's money earmarked for this claim that was never delivered," he said. "We have a contract here that hasn't been paid for."
The issue is currently under discussion with Jim Prentice - and the claim seems far too likely to fall into the Cons' classification of agreements which they have no desire to continue. But in addition to forming part of what should be a binding agreement, the recommended investment in education seems likely to pay large dividends. And if the Cons recognize that reality, then there'll be a much better chance for Inuit students to gain a relatively even footing compared to their counterparts across the country.

On a failure to hold to account

If you're looking for a remotely critical view of the Cons' selective-accountability legislation, CTV may not be the place for you:
Another key feature of the legislation is a mandatory five-year break before former ministers and other senior public officials can lobby government.

"Someone said this is going to potentially cost us a lot of very good staffers or cost us a lot of very good public officials and perhaps that's true," said Baird.

"But, if people want to come to Ottawa, get involved in the federal government to make a difference for their country that should be the motive, not to look at what they could do to set themselves up later for a lucrative career."
The article doesn't mention the Access to Information provisions promised in the Cons' platform which are apparently being removed from the legislation, nor the unduly limited definition of "staffers" that will allow anybody with Con connections from past Parliaments to lobby as they see fit. Instead, the only doubt implicit in CTV's article is as to whether the Cons may be going too far. And that willingness to present the story through Con-coloured glasses does nothing but undermine any hope that this government will be kept accountable in the least.