Saturday, May 27, 2006

On unfortunate imitation

Alberta's provincial government is apparently taking up the strategy of the federal Cons, claiming to be dealing with global warming in hopes of winning praise, despite ample evidence that the effort is something less than serious:
Alberta says it will shortly clamp down on emissions of greenhouse gases -- perhaps as early as next year -- introducing regulations that the oil-producing province's Environment Minister claims will be the toughest in Canada...

Alberta has had climate-change legislation for two years, but Environment Minister Guy Boutilier said this week he aims to introduce enabling regulations by September. The details of the plan are still being formed, but this much is clear: Alberta's regulations will focus on heavy industry and they will require companies to do less than would be the case under Kyoto, over a longer period of time.

Environment Department spokeswoman Kim Hunt said the province is contemplating regulations that will set goals for reducing the emissions intensity in industries. Using such goals, a firm operating in the oil sands, one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases in Canada, would be required to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases generated from each barrel of production. But overall emissions could still rise substantially as production increased.
Fortunately, neither environmental nor industry groups are rewarding the province with the press it wants just yet:
"The environment doesn't care about intensity targets," said Marlo Raynolds, executive director for the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development...

Pierre Alvarez, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said his industry has been working with the province on greenhouse-gas regulation for several years, but will need to see the specific regulations before voicing an opinion. Mr. Raynolds of Pembina echoed that view, saying it is difficult to know whether to praise or condemn Alberta's plan at the moment.
It's a plus to see that provincial governments in general are at least acknowledging the need for action. But we can't afford to have the jury out much longer while the effects of global warming continue to pile up...and it'll take a lot more willingness to genuinely address the issue (rather than merely pretending through "intensity" targets) before there'll be any chance of real progress.

On high-yield investments

For all the talk about the need to encourage research in Canada, shouldn't it be a no-brainer to spend the $30-40 million per year needed to keep federal research buildings from falling apart?

Well said

Randy Burton tears into Harper for his media policy:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he's not talking to the national press anymore.

Instead, he'll be taking his message on the road to local reporters across the country. They, at least, still want to know what his government is doing, or so he believes...

One can only hope that Harper will be more amenable to straying from the script than the last time he was here. That was in the midst of the 2004 election campaign, when he refused to answer any questions about agriculture in Saskatoon because his schedule dictated that he speak only about health care.

You can see the problem. Local questions are useless without local answers.
I don't agree with Burton's later discussion of whether media coverage of politics is needed at all; it would seem to me that a lack of reporting on politics in general would be the best-case scenario for a government looking to put one over on the public. But it's nonetheless great to see local media refusing to leap at the opportunity to act as Harper's mouthpiece.


It's only a start, but today's news stories have the Cons ceding to public pressure to at least some extent on both Kyoto and media access to soldier repatriation. While Harper and company naturally aren't admitting to having changed their position on either, it's fairly obvious that Harper is in retreat from his earlier attempts to dictate the interests of Canadians. And the door is now wide open for the child-care movement and the provinces, among others, to gain some ground as well.

Update: Politics'n'Poetry has more.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A needed complaint

While I don't agree with Democracy Watch that election promises should be enforceable through the Parliamentary Ethics Commissioner, it never hurts to point out the long list of Con promises which have already gone by the wayside:
The lobby group Democracy Watch has launched a formal complaint with the federal ethics commissioner accusing the Conservative government of breaking election promises...

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch says Bill C-2 - the federal Accountability Act - breaks or omits 13 specific promises made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the run-up to the Jan. 23 vote.

Included on Conacher's list were Tory promises to require ministers to record all contacts with lobbyists, to protect all whistleblowers, to promptly disclose whistleblower complaints, to close conflict loopholes for ministers and to allow the public to launch ethics complaints.

Conacher says the new Accountability Act also deletes from the ethics code a clause requiring politicians, their staff and senior public servants to "act with honesty."
Of course, it's pretty clear that the lack of a public complaints mechanism itself undermines any chance of action on Democracy Watch's list. But with one of the groups which threw much of its support to the Cons last election now rightfully decrying Harper's broken promises, there should be plenty of opportunity for the opposition parties to find common cause with Conacher in holding the Cons accountable.

On message management

It was just a few weeks ago that Harper claimed that the public comments one of his more rabid MPs couldn't be taken to represent the views, or be the responsibility, of his government:
(T)he member for Saskatoon—Wanuskewin has already said that these are his own personal views and that they do not represent the position of the government. They certainly do not represent the position of the government...

Mr. Speaker, as I just said, as the member himself said, his position does not reflect that of either the Conservative Party or the Conservative government.
But it hasn't taken long for the government to take full control over the message of its non-cabinet members:
The Prime Minister's Office has warned Conservative MPs not to comment on the marriage next month of two gay RCMP constables.

The gag order went to all MPs but was aimed at "the small minority who might say something stupid," said one caucus member.
In other words, the precedent has been set for Harper determining what may and may not be subject to a Con comment. Which means that next time one of the Cons goes off the deep end, it can fairly be said that Harper either wasn't paying enough attention to anticipate the comment in keeping with past practice, or didn't disagree with the message enough to try to stop it. Either way, the result should be all the more residual responsibility lying with the government as a whole.

Greg at Sinister Thoughts has more, including the exciting "guess who's being specifically muzzled" game.

On honest assessments

It remains to be seen what the Cons do with regard to foreign investment, but based on briefing notes of Industry Minister Maxime Bernier the operative principle seems to be a desire to make any review action less transparent and publicly accessible:
However, the notes point out that there are also a variety of direct and indirect barriers to foreign investment in other sectors of the economy, including broadcasting, entertainment, books and film, transportation, banking, and uranium production.

"While Canada has no general restrictions on the establishment of new foreign businesses, the Investment Canada Act allows the federal government to review large acquisitions for 'net benefit.'"...

"Most of our trading partners do not have a systemic screening process," the notes state, although they add that those trading partners use other less visible methods to screen out unwanted investments, including security measures.
So just how much investment has been kept out of Canada by the review process? By all indications, only investors who are utterly failing to pay attention to the facts could consider the Investment Canada review to be a significant obstacle:
The current rules for foreign investment in Canada are governed by the Canada Investment Act. Under this act, since 1985, a total of 10,928 foreign acquisitions were reviewed. Stunningly, 87% acquisitions were automatically approved without review and the remaining 13% were reviewed and approved. No proposals brought forward by foreign investors have been rejected.
In other words, the Cons' apparent goal of gutting the Investment Canada process wouldn't have the slightest effect on whether foreign investment is approved. The difference would be the lack of even a pretence of being able to evaluate investments...which would presumably leave Canada in the same position as other countries in having to make up reasons to reject deals if necessary.

From the article, it doesn't sound like there's any strong commitment one way or the other so far. But it'll be one more indication of the power hunger of the Cons if they end up going out of their way to create a less honest and transparent system to deal with foreign investment.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Just wondering...

While I can understand some of the motivations behind the bloggers supporting David Karwacki's campaign in Weyburn-Big Muddy, shouldn't it be a bit of a warning sign when a party's second-biggest issue is the script of a movie which has long since been filmed and aired?

An embarrassment to journalism

While Harper continues his hissy-fit over allegations of anti-Con bias in the media, Linda Frum goes out of her way to prove that ample space is already available for the most blatant of Con hackery. Among the questions from her Q & A with Gwyn Morgan:
Why not, though? If you lose the courage to point out the obvious -- who else will do it?...

So if revenge was part of it, and intolerance for the truth was part of it, do you have any sense that part of why you were shot down was because the Liberals were embarrassed about the very need for a public appointments commission?...

What was the political motivation of the Bloc members who voted against you?...

So once again, they didn't like your ideas. But isn't this the whole point? The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc shot you down not because you weren't qualified -- but because your personal political opinions do not reflect theirs. Weren't any of them embarrassed to be acting in such a partisan manner on an initiative that was designed to wipe out partisanship in appointments?...

As so many of the country's editorialists have pointed out, there is a fear that as a result of your experience, other highly capable, leading Canadians will look at this as one more reason to shun public service. And that's a terrible loss for a country that craves a higher calibre political class...

Well, I hope you won't give up on your vision because it's a good one...

But at the same time, I hope you will never be tempted to temper your remarks or refrain from telling the truth as you see it...
Not that the Frum name is generally associated with anything less these days. But suffice it to say that Harper's petulant attempts to work the refs can't hide the fact that the Cons are already on the receiving end of far too many puff pieces. And the willingness of some in the media to spout Harperspeak unquestioningly should only ensure that those media figures interested in being independent try all the harder to avoid allowing such a trend to progress any further.

On practical applications

Word comes out that scientists are working on an invisibility cloak. The article cites potential military uses as the current plan, with no word yet as to whether the Harper cabinet is also at the top of the customer list.

On targets

While Harper may yet believe he can win a large number of Canada's premiers to his side when it comes to equalization, at the moment he's losing provincial support by the day with his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the importance of the Kyoto Protocol:
Yesterday, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said he has no intention of changing the province's commitment to its Kyoto targets, even if the federal government backs out of the agreement.

"I support Kyoto," Mr. Doer said. "We supported Kyoto before the Liberal government committed to it. We supported it after they committed to it and we support it now."

Mr. Doer said Manitoba will exceed the accord's emissions targets...

Quebec Environment Minister Claude Béchard said if Ottawa agrees to fund Quebec's emission-reduction targets, other provinces will demand the same treatment. "The first step is for them to give us the money. The second step will be for other provinces to demand equivalent amounts. That will make it difficult for Ottawa to reject Kyoto," Mr. Béchard told reporters yesterday.

Mr. Charest said Tuesday that Quebec would meet its Kyoto targets, regardless of whether Ottawa pulls out of the agreement...

"We are partially disappointed with the federal government's retreat on Kyoto, because we have been working on this for 10, 15 years. Many Quebec companies did the efforts to reduce emissions, and now it's as if we were being told that it was all for nothing," Mr. Béchard said.
It's particularly noteworthy that even as Harper tries to claim that the Kyoto targets can't be met, at least two provinces have made clear that they're under no such illusion, regardless of whether or not the Cons decide to direct federal funding to other priorities (or inefficient means of dealing with emissions). And if Harper decides to ignore the unanimous will of Quebec's National Assembly as well as the majority of Parliament, he'll look all the worse in the long run as his defeatist rhetoric is proven wrong.

Update: The CP goes into more detail about the existing agreements now being ignored by the Cons:
The federal government appears set to walk away from Liberal agreements that would have given the provinces millions of dollars to cut greenhouse gas emissions...

The Liberals had promised $538 million to Ontario and $328 million to Quebec for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Memorandums of understanding had also been reached with Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Balanced arguments

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives offers an oft-neglected view on federal/provincial relations:
(The CCPA report) proposes that provinces relieve their cash crunch by actually ceding some powers to Ottawa.

Among other things, the report suggests Ottawa take over responsibility, and pay, for a national pharmacare program, social assistance and labour market training...

Lee contends the imbalance in Canada, one of the most decentralized federations in the world, is less than that of many countries.

He notes the provinces have access to all the same sources of tax revenue as the federal government, plus exclusive access to natural resource royalties and profits from lotteries, gaming and liquor. If they need more money, they could simply raise taxes, but instead provinces have cut taxes by an estimated $30 billion.

"To the extent that provincial finances are in bad shape, provincial governments deserve much of the blame due to tax cuts over the past decade," he wrote...

Lee argues that giving the provinces tax room "in the name of fixing a phoney fiscal imbalance would actually worsen regional inequalities." He points out that poorer provinces would have to raise their taxes much higher than rich provinces to generate the same amount of revenues.

Moreover, oil-rich Alberta might choose not to raise its taxes at all, putting pressure on other provinces to keep their tax rates competitive, even if it means shortchanging social programs.
Now, I wouldn't want to see the federal government starting up new programs as recommended by Lee without a large degree of provincial agreement. And it seems likely that with few exceptions (possibly including the drug-purchasing aspect of a pharmacare program), the provinces would prefer to see federal funding for provincially-controlled initiatives than new programs administered solely by the federal government.

That said, it's worth noting the degree to which provincial tax-cutting policies have exacerbating funding problems...and the strong likelihood that a tax-point transfer would do nothing but continue a vicious cycle. And Canada will be much better off in the long run to pursue an agreement which leads to direct federal funding for national priorities, rather than another round of passing the bucks without a purpose.


Harper raises the stakes in the fight he can't win, declaring that he'll no longer speak to the national media. It doesn't look like the media side is upping the ante again just yet...but when it does, the logical next step is to extend the same treatment to (and about) Harper. And it's hard to see Harper managing to keep his pouty face on for long after losing access to the country's most visible media sources.

A fair request

Judy Wasylycia-Leis points out the costs to small businesses of the Cons' GST cut, and has a reasonable suggestion to put the cost where it belongs:
NDP Finance Critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis today called on the Conservative government to provide assistance to small businesses to relieve the financial burden of converting to the new GST rate.

“It’s unfair to expect small businesses, many with few resources and tight cash-flows, to pay hundreds of dollars out of their pockets to accommodate this Conservative policy change,” said Wasylycia-Leis. “The government has an obligation to provide substantial help to ensure that the cost of delivering this tax cut doesn’t fall in the laps — and on the books — of small businesses.”

A recent poll by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found that 40 per cent of small businesses expect to pay outside firms to change over their accounting systems to the lower 6 percent GST rate announced in the recent budget. The average cost is expected to run between $500 and $600.
Considering the amount of money thrown around in tax cuts in this year's budget, it would seem a reasonable investment to ensure that smaller businesses aren't worse off as a result of the Cons' tax policy. We'll find out soon whether the Cons really are interested in enabling entrepreneurs to survive and thrive...or whether they're content making matters tougher for Canada's small businesses.


Declan at Crawl Across the Ocean puts anti-Kyoto sentiment in context.

Same old same old

So the much-ballyhooed Conservative plan on renewable fuels is to hold another meeting in six months, and to answer none of the questions from grain producers and owners of current ethanol-based stations who are ready to expand the industry now. And this is supposed to be a change from PMPM's proud tradition of dithering?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

On minority rule

CanWest reported earlier today that both the NDP and the Libs have called Harper's bluff on a public appointments commission, and plan to vote to keep that commission in the Accountability Act.

Sadly, the Bloc doesn't appear to be onside, which should allow the Cons to pull the language from the statute (along with utterly cementing the Bloc's lack of interest in an effective and accountable federal government). But if the Bloc can be persuaded to work with the other opposition parties, a successful move to keep the provision in would put the Cons in a severe bind.

Would the Cons try to ignore the current bill and introduce a new act in order to avoid a vote to keep the current language? Would they torpedo the entire Accountability Act as a response to the opposition's attempt to pass this part of the legislation as the Cons originally wrote it? Or would Harper admit that Gwyn Morgan isn't the sole Canadian capable of heading up the commission, and put up a new nomination which at least one of the opposition parties could live with?

We may never know the answers. But it's not hard to see how much more interesting the current Parliament would be if we did get to find out.

First steps

It's well short of the outright blackout which seems to be required for Harper to really take notice. But nonetheless, kudos to much of Ottawa's press gallery for sending the message that it won't be taken for granted.

Unhealthy effects

CBC reports that crackdowns on illegal immigrants may be creating a major public health risk as undocumented residents avoid medical care for fear of being deported:
Some Toronto doctors are asking the federal government to ease up on deportations after recent high-profile removals have spooked many illegal migrants into cancelling appointments at clinics serving the uninsured.

"If they keep pushing these people further underground, it's going to be not just a tragedy for these people's health but a huge public health concern down the road," said Dr. Meb Rashid, of Toronto's Access Alliance Multicultural Community Health Centre.

"This population is most vulnerable to infectious diseases such as typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. If an epidemic breaks out, there's no way we'd be able to control that."...

No statistics are available, but physician volunteers say they noted an increase in the number of medical cancellations after several high-profile removals precipitated rampant rumours about deportation round-ups in public places.
Whatever one's view on how best to deal with the presence of illegal immigrants, there shouldn't be any doubt that both immigrants themselves, and Canadians in general, will be worse off if medical problems go untreated due to fear of deportation. And it shouldn't be too much to ask that the federal government respond to the fear with assurances that that immigrants won't have to choose between their health and their presence in Canada.

Rewarding failure

I've already discussed Sheila Fraser's criticism of the Canada Revenue Agency's collection department. Now, CTV reports that rather than trying to make changes to an unsatisfactory system, the Cons plan instead to hand even more duties to the CRA, transferring responsibility for the collection of student-loan debt which currently lies with Service Canada:
The collection agency contracts were signed while the Liberals were in government. The Conservatives have taken steps to transfer responsibility for collecting the loans from Service Canada to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Development, says transferring the loans to the CRA will be more "efficient" and should cut down on the frequency with which the federal government has to hire collection agencies.
From a principled standpoint, I'd generally agree with a move to keep government functions within government. And based on the way private collection agencies have treated student-loan recipients quoted in the article, there are plenty of reasons to look for a better way to collect on the loans.

But while the general principle would support keeping the function in government, there's always the matter of who should perform the function and how. It doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that any reasonable mechanism for collecting debt should lie somewhere between merely writing letters then writing the debt off (as the CRA seems wont to do), and hounding debtors over matters as trivial as a changed phone number (as one private collection agency is noted to have done). And it's the government that has the capacity to ensure that such a mechanism is created - preferably by making needed changes to the CRA.

Unfortunately, the Cons' selective attention doesn't seem to have taken into account Fraser's actual criticisms...with the end result that they seem perfectly happy to reward a department which apparently hasn't done anything to fix its own decade-old problems. And that can only mean that the agency's current ineffectiveness will have all the more impact on government receipts in the future.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Fair deal, poor coverage

Last week, two columns addressed the recommendations on EI and other issues released by the Fair Deal Coalition. I held off on commenting at that time in hopes that more details (either in terms of the content of the report itself, or at least in terms of reaction) would go public in the meantime.

Unfortunately that hasn't happened, making it seem all too likely that the Coalition's apparent goal of turning public attention to the issues has already fallen by the wayside. (That's particularly a shame given how easy it would presumably be for the Coalition to at least make the report publicly available through a website.) But before EI reform falls off the radar once again, I'll take a quick spin through some of the key points from the columns.

First, from Thomas Walkom, discussing the difficulty in implementing many of the report's recommendations to stop asking Canada's less wealthy citizens to bear the brunt of as many policy choices as is currently the case:
Sometimes, it's important to underline the obvious. Unemployment insurance should be available to the unemployed. A minimum wage should bear some relationship to the cost of staying alive. Programs designed to reduce poverty should help the poor...

(T)he basic thrust of refocusing attention on poverty and income gaps makes sense. Exactly what will come of it though is unclear. Last year, Paul Martin's former Liberal government agreed to study tax-based wage subsidies, one of the task force's key recommendations. But there was no mention of the idea in this month's Conservative budget.

Other task force proposals will be equally hard political sells. The federal government is making good money from an employment insurance scheme into which almost everyone contributes and from which almost no one is able to draw. It's going to be reluctant to reform that cash cow.

So too with Queen's Park. The Harris government successfully downloaded much of the province's welfare costs onto municipalities. As the task force points out, that makes no sense. If the economy were to spiral into recession again, cities like Toronto could go bankrupt trying to pay their welfare bills.

But having managed to get rid of this cost, will any provincial government be anxious to pick it up again?

The task force says that if we don't act now, we're liable to get hammered later. In a reasonable country, that warning would be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, John Geddes noted that many of the planned program increases would be balanced out by an effort to turn EI into a true insurance program rather than a cash cow:
(A)n unusually wide-ranging alliance, representing everyone from hard-nosed Bay Street economists to soft-hearted social policy advocates, plans to try to make it hard for Harper to ignore (EI) entirely...While their recommendations will try to make sense of the whole ragged patchwork of income-support programs, the push for serious EI reform is the hottest hot button in the mix...

(T)he report's authors know they need to present their blueprint as one that could overcome stiff regional resistance. While they were keeping details secret last week, sources familiar with their proposals said they aim to make an EI overhaul saleable by at the same time calling for Ottawa to substantially boost its funding for other income-support measures. A key goal is to raise the incomes of the working poor, especially in big cities. When he was Paul Martin's finance minister last fall, Ralph Goodale summed up the problem when he noted that reductions in various forms of government assistance can cost an individual going back to work after a stint of unemployment 80 cents for every dollar earned in a new job.
Without seeing the report for myself, I don't have a ton to add to the commentary. It seems obvious enough that Canada would be better off taking the recommendations seriously, and at least taking a close look at the pros and cons of the Coalition's suggestions.

Unfortunately, based on the near-complete lack of coverage it doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon. And the result is that many of the Canadians at the base of the country's economic growth will continue to see few of the spoils in the foreseeable future.

A bizarre incentive

The CP follows up on the $18 billion in unpaid income taxes revealed by Sheila Fraser's report last week. And for a government supposedly committed to rewarding those Canadians who play by the rules, some of the problems seem relatively simple to fix:
A tendency in the Canada Revenue Agency to choose "what's easy" over "what's right" is to blame for $18 billion in unpaid taxes uncovered in the auditor general's latest report, some of its current and former employees say.

It's a system plagued by inefficiency, one that rewards managers with financial incentives regardless of whether debts are actually collected, a debt collector at the Toronto North tax office told The Canadian Press...

To meet the budget, collection agents must erase a pre-determined amount from their books. That number can be resolved in two ways - either the debtor pays their taxes, or the collector writes off the account by declaring it "doubtful" or "uncollectable."

"They have big pushes. We have weeks where everyone says there's a deadline coming, we have to write off as much as possible because they set a budget from headquarters," said the employee.

"Everyone goes nuts and writes off all these accounts. It's just weird."
So part of the solution may be as simple as not paying CRA managers to write off debts. Unfortunately, the article notes that some of the same problems have been constant for Canada's tax collectors since the Cons' godfather handed over power to the Libs over a decade ago...meaning that there's a substantial amount of inertia behind the current system, and that the Cons may well see the issue as one which they can ignore due to the Libs' failure to solve anything when they last gained the government benches.

Out of sync with reality

CanWest serves up some undiluted Harper spin in reporting on a new gun-registry poll. The national results:
Overall, the survey results show that 48 per cent of Canadians want the government to maintain a hand gun registry, but support plans to end the long-gun registry, while 47 per cent want to keep both the hand gun and long-gun registries, according to the survey.
Now, this would seem to be a fairly appropriate time for a headline along the lines of, say, "Country split on (gun registry)...". But then, that wouldn't do much to help the cause of forcing a change which would undo the current work put into the registry. So instead, CanWest ignores the general balance to try to make it sound like the provinces with a majority in favour of keeping the long-gun registry are a rare exception to a national consensus.

The most egregious spin is in the headline ("Ont., Que. out of sync on gun registry"), but the article itself also spends more time discussing the provincial divide than noting that there's nothing even remotely approaching a national consensus either for or against the registry.

Another interesting tidbit: take a look at the second question in the poll:
The survey also found there's widespread support for the idea of dismantling at least part of the gun registry and funnelling more money into hiring more police officers.

Nearly half, or 49 per cent, of those surveyed said they want the government to maintain the hand gun and long-gun registries and put more money toward hiring police, while 45 per cent said they want the long-gun registry dismantled and greater funds put toward hiring more police officers.
It's not entirely clear how the two issues are supposed to relate to each other, as it should be obvious that maintaining the gun registry and funding police officers aren't mutually exclusive. Indeed, the only people who seem interested in trying to conflate the two are the Cons. But despite the Cons' effort to link the two, when police funding is brought into the picture, public support for Harper's position actually drops.

Based on that result, it seems that hiring more police officers is a higher priority for most Canadians than scrapping the registry: when it's recognized that it's possible to fund both police officers and the long-gun registry, that position wins more support than either of the options involving the registry alone. With that prioritization in mind, a fair poll surrounding the Cons' plan should also consider whether Canadians want to see RCMP resources used up running a revamped registry. And it seems highly likely that presented with an accurate portrayal of the Cons' plan as opposed to the status quo, a majority of Canadians would support the latter.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A rush to judgment

CTV reports on the latest attempt by the Cons to pick a fight with Canada's judges:
Canadian judges will not be getting the 11 per cent pay hike an independent commission recommended two years ago, CTV News has learned.

Justice Minister Vic Toews will ignore the recommendation -- something he attacked back in December 2004...

Constitutionally, judges aren't allowed to negotiate their salaries, which is why the commission was set up in the first place...

Since the commission reported, the judges have been waiting for the federal government to act.
On this file like so many, some responsibility clearly lies with the Libs for sitting on their hands for a year after the commission reported back. But it apparently isn't taking Toews long to take ownership of the problem by permanently junking the recommended result.

It doesn't seem likely that such a decision will go unchallenged: even if judges themselves would prefer not to see the issue brought into court, a previous set of disputes over judicial compensation led to a wave of applications to have criminal prosecutions dismissed on the basis of compromised independence. In that regard, it's worth noting that the article seems to imply a standard different from the one set out by the Supreme Court of Canada (emphasis added):
25 The government can reject or vary the commission’s recommendations, provided that legitimate reasons are given. Reasons that are complete and that deal with the commission’s recommendations in a meaningful way will meet the standard of rationality. Legitimate reasons must be compatible with the common law and the Constitution. The government must deal with the issues at stake in good faith. Bald expressions of rejection or disapproval are inadequate. Instead, the reasons must show that the commission’s recommendations have been taken into account and must be based on facts and sound reasoning.
The test for judicial review of the government's decision is then as follows (see para. 31 of the linked case, emphasis again added):
(1) Has the government articulated a legitimate reason for departing from the commission’s recommendations?
(2) Do the government’s reasons rely upon a reasonable factual foundation? and
(3) Viewed globally, has the commission process been respected and have the purposes of the commission — preserving judicial independence and depoliticizing the setting of judicial remuneration — been achieved?
It remains to be seen what public justification will be advanced for the Cons' decision to scrap the Commission's recommendations. But based on Toews' comments at the time the commission first reported, it doesn't seem out of the question that the decision could face a serious challenge even on the question of whether his reaction to the recommendation fails as a "bald expression of rejection". And even if the Cons can clear that hurdle, given the well-known antipathy that Harper and his inner circle seem to have for the judiciary, it seems highly likely that the Cons could lose out on the question of whether the process has been unduly politicized.

Of course, it's not hard to see how the issue might appear to be a political winner for the Cons. At the very least, it will presumably help to stir up some parts of the rural base. And it may well succeed in picking a fight which could harm the judiciary more than the Cons. After all, most Canadians won't have considered the inputs before the commission which led to its recommendations. As a result, it may sound to a lot of people as if judges are unfairly demanding a pay hike, when in fact their sole role in the process is in ruling on whether the federal government has met its obligation to be reasonable in rejecting the commission's report.

But then, there's a difference between an issue with political benefits and one worth pursuing in the interests of the country. The Cons' apparent willingness to undermine one of the fundamental pillars of a democratic society for their own personal gain only helps to highlight their disinterest in governing in the best interest of Canadians. And in time, the Cons too will face judgment for that kind of mismanagement.

Question and non-answer

Even by Question Period standards, Rob Moore has set the bar for sheer lack of content - and on a question where one would expect at least some type of prepared answer:
Mr. Wayne Marston (Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, NDP): Mr. Speaker, on Monday the United Nations will release a report on Canada's human rights record. In recent years Canada has done more to ignore its human rights commitments than it has done to honour them. It is time to end the Liberal legacy of inaction and start complying.

What has the government done to conform with the recommendations that will be made on Monday and what measures has it put in place to ensure an open, transparent and publicly accountable process for coordinating the implementation and compliance of human rights in Canada?

Mr. Rob Moore (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, CPC): Mr. Speaker, this party and this government support human rights. We support human rights in Canada and we support human rights throughout the world.
It's certainly reassuring to see the Cons taking such a strong stand in favour of the right to say absolutely nothing. But it has to be a concern that they haven't apparently shown enough interest in either the U.N. report or anything else to do with human rights to be able to name a single positive initiative. And as poor as the U.N. report promises to be, matters can only get worse with a government in power so unwilling to pay attention to the problem.

All for show

In case anybody is still under the illusion that John McCain would represent a meaningful upgrade over Bushco's utter contempt for human rights, his comments on Guantanamo should put that to rest:
Senator John McCain agreed that the U.S. should ensure that no prisoner at Guantanamo is subjected to torture. But, he said, closing the prison is premature without a legal resolution to the prisoners' cases.

"I don't think they deserve a fair jury trial, but there should be some sort of adjudication" to decide whether detainees are held for life, executed or released rather than held indefinitely, Mr. McCain said.
In other words, McCain seems to think that a good old-fashioned kangaroo court, with no need to be "fair" to the accused, should resolve all concerns about the way the Guantanamo prisoners have been treated. And moreover, by virtue of having fallen on the wrong side of Bushco, the detainees apparently can't "deserve" anything better.

Sadly, the suggestion is all too likely to eventually find its way into practice, as it would provide a convenient way to deflect some responsibility away from Bush himself while still assuring that the status quo wouldn't change. But for those who think the U.S. should respect the rule of law sufficiently to avoid show trials, it's clear that McCain holds his country to a significantly lower standard.

On just choices

The Edmonton Journal reports on a criminal justice program that's working wonders for the Alexis First Nation. And not surprisingly, it's flexibility and rehabilitation, not blanket sentencing, that's getting the job done:
When an offender comes before the court in Alexis, (Judge Peter) Ayotte and the other three provincial court judges will usually refer the offender to a justice committee, made up of 12 to 16 Alexis community leaders.

If the offender is willing to admit his crime and wants to change his life, the justice committee will set up a rehab program.

The offender will then face the judge again, who will put the offender on probation, rather than send him to jail. Only in the most serious and violent cases do the judges send an offender to jail without input from the justice committee...

"We give people this opportunity, and we are prepared to be as flexible as possible, but (offenders) know, and I say it on the record all the time, 'If you don't comply with the direction of the court that has given you a break, I will ask for jail, and it won't be 14 days, it will be a real jail sentence.' And we do that."

The process has transformed many lives and led to fewer criminal cases at Alexis, (prosecutor Wes) Dunfield says. Court days are not nearly as long as they used to be.
The article notes that similar systems are now being contemplated by several other First Nations reserves. What's less clear, though, is why a similar model couldn't be applied on a much wider basis.

So far the program appears to have reduced both costs and crime, which should surely be positive signs for the system as a whole. And if the program is predicated on close connections between prosecutors, police officers and the community, then that should be a reason to try to build a more community-based model where it doesn't exist now - not a reason to assume that similar initiatives can't be undertaken elsewhere. Indeed, at least some commentators have already suggested wider application of a similar principle.

Of course, the Cons almost certainly won't be interested in a criminal justice system that defines justice in terms of positive post-offence outcomes rather than anger and vengeance. But it'll be worth watching how the Cons' plan for stricter sentencing compares to the Alexis principle of giving a second chance combined with an assurance that any non-compliance will be caught. And based on the results so far, there's every reason to think the Alexis model will come out ahead.