Saturday, January 27, 2007

A strong appointment

The Globe and Mail reports that despite the Cons' best efforts, the CRTC has recruited a new chairman. And while it's still an open question whether the Cons will listen to him any more than his predecessors, it's hard to doubt Konrad von Finckenstein's qualifications:
Mr. von Finckenstein, a Federal Court judge who was commissioner of the Competition Bureau from 1997 to 2003, was named chairman of the CRTC on Thursday for a five-year term. He will take over from Charles Dalfen, whose tenure ended last month...

Mr. von Finckenstein's tenure at the helm of the federal Competition Bureau was marked by several high-profile interventions on major files. He also changed how the bureau operated, opening the watchdog to regular reviews of the legislation he administered.

Known as a no-nonsense administrator, he blocked the takeover of ICG Propane Inc. by Superior Propane Inc., and overruled the CRTC when it allowed Astral Media Inc. to buy several radio stations in Quebec from Telemedia Communications Inc.

Mr. von Finckenstein, 61, was unavailable to comment yesterday. He takes the job at a crucial time for the CRTC, which has just completed an extensive review of its telecom policy, including deregulation of the home phone and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone services. But several key broadcasting decisions are on the horizon. Two industry-changing takeovers -- the purchase of CHUM Ltd. by CTVglobmedia Inc. and the acquisition of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. by CanWest Global Communications Corp. -- loom large...

The CRTC is likely headed for a makeover as well, with several commissioners approaching the end of their terms. Since the chairman and commissioners each have one vote on regulatory matters, the makeup of the CRTC will have a different look under Mr. von Finckenstein.
While the article doesn't discuss specifics about von Finckenstein's tenure as a Federal Court judge, it's worth pointing out his most famous decision - which both refused to allow the recording industry to force ISPs to disclose customer identities, and helped to shape the current law on file-sharing by calling into doubt whether existing copyright law even covers the activity.

Needless to say, that background may bode all the better for his refusal to allow big businesses to trample on the interests of the public at large based solely on its own word. But since Maxime Bernier has shown he's entirely willing to overrule the CRTC when its concern about consumers gets in the way of an anti-government agenda, the question now is whether any move by von Finckenstein and the CRTC to protect consumers will be allowed to stand.

(Edit: typo.)

Willing to change

A Strategic Counsel poll for CTV and the Globe and Mail has found that contrary to the protestations of those looking for excuses to do nothing, Canadians are more than willing to make lifestyle changes in order to help the environment:
An increasing number of Canadians are willing to make sacrifices for the environment, according to a poll conducted for CTV News and The Globe and Mail.

About 93 per cent of those surveyed said they were willing to make some kind of sacrifice to solve global warming, according to findings from the poll conducted by the The Strategic Counsel.

According to the results:
* 76 per cent are willing to pay to have their houses retro-fitted to become more energy efficient
* 73 per cent would reduce the amount they fly to times when it is only absolutely necessary
* 72 per cent would pay more for a fuel-efficient car
* 62 per cent are willing to have the economy grow at a significantly slower rate
* 61 per cent would reduce the amount they drive in half.
This should put to rest the oft-heard complaint that the general public's interest in the environment ends where the potential cost of improvement begins. Which leaves only the question of whether the Con government is anywhere near as committed to improvement as Canada's citizens are - and what excuse will be presented next if not.

(Edit: typo.)

The wrong course of treatment

CanWest reports that the federal Department of Health is at least pretending to be taking a critical eye to Quebec's apparent Canada Health Act violations. But for the moment, the public posturing seems to be more an excuse not to take action than any reason to think the Cons will really fight for universality:
The federal government has concerns about private clinics in Quebec whose surgeons bill both medicare and patients at the same time, says an aide to federal Health Minister Tony Clement.

"If it is found that services that they are charging for are a violation of the (Canada) Health Act, we would be taking some action at that point," said Erik Waddell, Clement's spokesman...

Waddell said the federal government also has questions about Bill 33, the law adopted by Quebec's National Assembly last December that allows for the establishment of private surgical clinics.

Of particular interest to the federal government is a clause in the law that could let private clinics charge patients "accessory fees" while the doctors still bill medicare.
Now, it's understandable that Clement and company wouldn't want to jump to conclusions without a full analysis. But it's also hard to see how the case could be much more clear. From the Canada Health Act itself:
12. (1) In order to satisfy the criterion respecting accessibility, the health care insurance plan of a province

(a) must provide for insured health services on uniform terms and conditions and on a basis that does not impede or preclude, either directly or indirectly whether by charges made to insured persons or otherwise, reasonable access to those services by insured persons;...

19. (1) In order that a province may qualify for a full cash contribution referred to in section 5 for a fiscal year, user charges must not be permitted by the province for that fiscal year under the health care insurance plan of the province.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply in respect of user charges for accommodation or meals provided to an in-patient who, in the opinion of the attending physician, requires chronic care and is more or less permanently resident in a hospital or other institution.
Needless to say, a scheme couldn't violate the above two provisions much more clearly than Quebec's appears to. If a "charge" can be considered to "preclude...reasonable access" (which must be the case for s. 12(1)(a) to make any sense), then the accessibility criterion must be violated by any facility fee large enough to affect access or even alter the uniformity of health-care availability. And s. 19 couldn't be much more clear in drawing a distinction between legitimate accommodation charges for hospitals, and costs strictly associated with delivery of an insured health service.

What's worse, the Cons have a readily available means for consultation under the Canada Health Act itself which is intended to provide for discussion. Indeed, any action against a province under the Canada Health Act is subject to a consultation and resolution process before funding is to be withdrawn - see s. 14(2) in particular. (Yes, that would be the same process which Clement put to an end in a few cases when the Cons first took power.)

Which means that if the Cons plan on jawing in public rather than invoking the rules under the CHA (when it's the Minister himself who's responsible to get the consultation process started), then it's all too clear that nothing's going to get done. And all the public statements in the world won't help to preserve a universal system if the Cons are more interested in going to the press alone than in taking even preliminary substantive steps.

Friday, January 26, 2007

On market opportunities

The Leader-Post highlights the role the Canadian Wheat Board plays overseas, as the security that comes from the CWB as a supplier has helped to make Canada an integral part of China's food supply:
Saskatchewan strengthened its arguments for the retention of the Canadian Wheat Board’s role as a single-desk marketer of western wheat and barley by adding the Chinese government and industry’s voice to the debate...

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Mark Wartman, who is on a trade mission to China and Japan, told reporters Friday in a teleconference from Beijing that there was strong support for the CWB as it exists today.

“We met with people who have been buying grain, a major corporation here, the Chinese Oil and Food Corporation (COFCO). COFCO was very clear with us about how important the Canadian Wheat Board was as a single-desk seller to providing them with quality grain and malting barley and wheat," he said.

“Clearly we have heard that echoed from a number of sources here that they just don’t want to see an American-style open market."

Wartman said the food and grain processors he met with expressed a desire to continue their relationship with the CWB. Since the 1960s the CWB has sold more than 115 million tonnes of wheat to China.

“One of the positive thrusts is that they are putting more land into corn production. The people we spoke to (Friday) said that it is their expectation they will be wanting to buy more wheat from us. The sales of malt barley are very important, they like our barley and are interested in continuing those sales relationships," Wartman said.

“They want to know that they can get the quality wheat we can provide and the high quality malting barley we can provide."

The Chinese have had a good long-term relationship with the CWB and in their discussions with the federal government they have urged Ottawa not to undermine the CWB which is the foundation of the trading relationships between the two countries, Wartman said.

In 2005 China purchased $752 million in exports from the province, according to Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food.
Now, it would take a rare observer indeed to conclude that such a present impact on Saskatchewan's economy isn't something worth taking into account. And if indeed China's current agricultural plans are based in substantial part on the secure source of Canadian wheat provided by the CWB, it seems entirely likely that the future opportunities may only expand as China moves away from growing its own wheat - while even a temporary loss of the CWB's ability to deliver grain could force China in another direction and permanently affect our ability to export to the world's most populous country.

Not that such considerations are likely to put a dent in the Cons' distaste for the Wheat Board. But it should be a significant factor both when producers vote on what role they want the Board to play, and when Saskatchewan voters decide whether to hold the Cons accountable for putting ideology ahead of the best interests of the province.

Another stacked process

If nothing else, the Cons clearly know how to bury the part of a story they don't want to put in the public eye. Take for example today's news surrounding the Canadian Television Fund, where plenty of attention is paid to the Cons' plan to continue funding from the government side for two years, but much less to Bev Oda's concurrent plan to give cable companies a chance to rewrite the rules for the Television Fund without including any other viewpoints in the discussion:
For its $250-million annual budget, the fund usually receives $100 million from the government, as well as contributions from Canadian cable and direct-to-home satellite providers, which are required by CRTC regulations to contribute a percentage of their revenues to support Canadian programming...

Oda also spoke about the current controversy surrounding the TV fund, reiterating her late Thursday announcement that she would be meeting with the CTF's principal contributors (BellExpress Vu, Shaw/Starchoice, Rogers, Vidéotron and Cogeco) in Ottawa early next week.

The meeting was prompted by the recent decision of cable giants Shaw and Vidéotron to suspend their CTF payments.

At a Parliament Hill news conference, Oda said she is interested in hearing any complaints, in particular about how the fund is governed.

"Obviously there's still some concerns and discomfort with the structure that was set up," she said. "I would like to hear what those discomforts are."...

"I'm confident that we can find a resolution," Oda said.
Now, it's odd enough that Oda's response to a threat to break the law is to try to change the law to appease the would-be violators, rather than at least starting from the position that the law should be followed (as recommended by the Television Fund's chair). Though of course that tends to fit all too nicely with the Cons' usual system of double standards - with the cable industry falling in the "Cons and friends" group which can do no wrong no matter what a pesky law may say.

But even that double standard aside, the composition of Oda's meeting should be setting off alarm bells. After all, Oda seems to plan to work out a "resolution" based on the "concerns and discomfort" of the cable companies without input from the figures on the receiving end of Television Fund money (i.e. the Canadian television production industry), or from other actors whose interests diverge in the least from the cable companies (notably broadcasters who aren't under a cable-company umbrella such as the CBC).

Needless to say, the end result of that process figures to be one which unduly favours the sole side represented. Which will all too likely mean a reduction in the cable companies' responsibility to maintain the Television Fund and resulting windfall to their shareholders, combined with either an immediate reduction in the Television Fund's role or a temporary increase in government support to kick the can down the road. And it wouldn't be the least bit surprising for any such increase to then be cut back by the Cons at the first available opportunity.

Of course, it could be worse if Oda had come out and stated an intention not to continue the Television Fund past this spring. But the continued government funding is only one of the necessary elements in ensuring that the Television Fund can continue to do its job - and judging from Oda's willingness to hear only from one side of the issue, it'll take some significant public pressure to keep the rest of the necessary conditions in place.

Update: Charlie Angus has more following Oda's announcement.

Weighty calculations

There's been plenty of discussion over the past week about how Boeing's contract to built long-range military transports will be divided up between various regions of Canada. But the Ottawa Citizen reports that Boeing's contract itself was based on political choices, confirming that the Cons managed to eliminate any competitive bidding by making a major, last-minute change to the project's requirements:
Just weeks before the Conservative government announced its controversial plan to buy $3.4 billion worth of Boeing long-range military transports without a competitive bidding process, the military changed a key requirement that eliminated the only competitor - the Airbus Military consortium.

Documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen show on June 13, 2006, Defence Department planners were under the impression two planes could satisfy its requirements for long-range airlift: the Boeing C-17 and the Airbus A400.

But planners changed a key specification: they doubled the payload requirement of their desired fleet, deciding each of their new planes now needed to carry 39 metric tonnes of cargo instead of the original specification of 19.5 tonnes...

In a backgrounder issued on June 29, 2006, touting the new Conservative government's "Canada First" defence strategy, one of the key requirements that justified purchasing the C-17 plane was that it needed a payload capacity of 39,000 kilograms.

In the months leading up to that announcements, the military documents show the military appeared content to make due with a smaller plane with a maximum payload capacity of 19,500 kilograms.

Military planners understood if they upped the payload requirement, they would eliminate all competition.

"If we want to maintain the status quo in terms of contenders, I suggest an amendment," wrote Col. Dave Burt, of the military's procurement branch in a May 1, 2006 e-mail. "Cargo Compartment Volume: Adequate cargo compartment size to transport NATO standard palletised equipment - and all tracked and wheeled equipment up to 19,500."
Of course, now that the regional battles are starting to heat up and pit the Cons' cabinet ministers against each other, the Cons probably have other problems with the deal on their mind. But enough attention to the flaws the Cons have already introduced into the process could hopefully highlight the problem with yet another round of politicized decision-making - at least for the next major purchase if not for this one.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Distinguishable statements

Shorter Jack Layton on ATM fees: These are unfair and serve no purpose. Get rid of them through legislation.

Shorter Jim Flaherty on ATM fees: Let's give the big banks a platform for their own spin about why the fees are needed. And if any problem exists, I'd rather let the "market" take care of it.

Shorter Reuters coverage of the above two statements: Difference? What difference?

Edit: Fixed link.

Can vs. Con

Earlier this week, Antonia Zerbisias noted that Shaw Cable seems to consider itself above the rules requiring Canadian broadcasters to contribute to the Canadian Television Fund. And it appears that Videotron plans to follow suit. But today, the NDP made clear that neither the broadcasters nor Bev Oda will be allowed to neglect the Television Fund without public justification:
NDP Heritage Critic Charlie Angus says he is not going to sit back while thousands of television production jobs are put on the line following the decision by Shaw Cable Systems and Videotron Ltd. to walk away on their obligations to the Canadian Television Fund (CTF). Cable and satellite companies are required by the CRTC to contribute 5% of their annual revenue to the fund. Angus says the cable giants are blackmailing the CTF and are getting away with it because Heritage Minister Bev Oda simply refuses to do her job.

“I’m sick and tired of how companies like Videotron and Shaw are pushing their weight around because Bev Oda is either unwilling or unable to put in a day’s work. These companies are pampered and protected from competition by the rules of the CRTC. They need to be held accountable for their side of the bargain.”

Angus points out that there was complete silence from Oda following the unilateral decision by Jim Shaw to walk away from the CTF. Its not surprising that Videotron has picked up on the silence from the Minister and pulled their funds as well...

Angus has already gone after Oda for her failure to renew the government portion of the CTF. He is challenging her to issue an immediate statement to explain what steps she will take to enforce the obligations of the cable giants to pay into the CTF.
It's worth noting a few points from Zerbisias' article which bring a bit more context to the issue:
(T)he CTF has its roots in a complex Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications (CRTC) decision of 1993, one that arose out of a lengthy structural hearing.

At the time, cable companies were spreading panic over the so-called "deathstars" – satellite TV to you and me – that would supposedly wipe them and Canadian TV off the map.

The CRTC, in its infinite wisdom, gave them a gift. In order for them to have the money they needed to upgrade their systems, basic cable fees were deregulated. The deal was that the cablecos had to plunge some of those increased revenues – 5 per cent – back into the production industry.

And so a precursor of the fund was born. In 1996, it was merged with the broadcast side of Telefilm as well as other federal monies in a public-private partnership known as the CTF...

Which means that, whether it's public or private, it's still coming out of your pocket if you're a taxpayer and you subscribe to any TV service.

Don't bet that, if the CTF collapses, you'll get a tax rebate or a cable rate decrease. This would be a bonus for Shaw shareholders.
But it gets worse, as the very question of whether the Television Fund will be continued this spring is in the hands of the same Heritage Minister who appears unwilling to enforce Shaw's obligations:
Shaw's timing is exquisitely awful. That's because the CTF is up for renewal this spring. The Harper government can continue it – or not.

The CRTC, which established the fund, is in no position to squawk. It is without a chairperson and has a number of commission positions up for grabs.

CBC, which schedules many of the documentaries that the CTF subsidizes, is also without a chairperson and has a lame duck president in Robert Rabinovitch.

Even Telefilm lacks a chairperson and is short of board members. The National Film Board has no commissioner.

All of these are federal appointments. But Heritage Minister Bev Oda is silent.

No wonder some feel that Shaw's bravado stems from the fact that he is an Albertan, and that he can sniff the scent of deregulation in the air ... waves.
In sum, the Television Fund itself exists as the broadcast industry's tradeoff for deregulation which they demanded not that long ago. Now, broadcasters are looking to get out of paying the relatively small amount which they seemed to have no problem with before (while of course continuing to reap the benefits of the other side of the deal). And in addition to refusing to enforce the rules as they exist now, Oda seems to be following the Cons' pattern of leaving one side of the issue without a voice in which should be a major public debate as to the role of the Television Fund going forward.

If anything, the only problem with Angus' stand today is that it's too narrow in light of the spring deadline. What's at stake is the very existence of the Television Fund, not only the enforcement of Shaw's and Videotron's current obligations - and indeed it would be a completely empty victory to get Shaw and Videotron to do what they're required to now while allowing the Televion Fund to be disbanded within months.

That said, the public and parliamentary debate called for by Angus is probably the best way to ensure that issue gets brought to the forefront as well. And hopefully the other opposition parties will heed Angus' call to ensure that Canada's television production industry isn't levelled by the Cons' disinterest.

On accessories

CanWest reports that while the province which tried to undercut single-payer health care most vocally has changed its message under new leadership, Quebec's provincial government has moved to the front line of the health-care battle by specifically allowing double-dipping:
A new legal loophole in Quebec will allow private surgical clinics to bill patients and the government at the same time, in apparent violation of the Canada Health Act.

Under Bill 33, adopted by the National Assembly last month, clinics will soon be able to charge patients "accessory fees" for the use of a private operating room, equipment and even some personnel.

Such a loophole, a McGill University legal scholar warned Wednesday, will lead to wealthier patients jumping the queue for "priority access" to surgery as long as they pay an accessory fee.

Yet at the same time, taxpayers will be paying part of the salaries of the physicians in these private clinics, said Marie-Claude Premont, associate dean of graduate studies in McGill's law faculty...

The government adopted Bill 33 in response to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that overturned the Quebec prohibition on private surgical insurance. The legislation now makes it possible for private surgical clinics to open in Quebec.

The doctors in those clinics would still remain in the public system, however, billing the provincial medicare board for surgery. That means patients could go to a private clinic and use their medicare card to pay for the surgery.

However, Bill 33 also allows doctors in such clinics to "post in public view ... the rates for services, supplies and accessory fees."

The implications of the loophole did not come to light until this week when a Montreal doctor and some partners opened a private surgical clinic. Doctors at the clinic will perform knee arthroscopies, hernia repairs and other day surgeries, billing Quebec health insurance for each procedure.

At the same time, patients will be charged $1,300 for the use of the facilities, equipment and some personnel...

When asked whether such fees were legal, an aide to Health Minister Philippe Couillard responded that the new law will resolve the question.

"Under Bill 33, accessory fees will be outlined in detail - what can be an accessory fee and what cannot," said Isabelle Merizzi.

"There will be an obligation on the part of the clinics, if they decide to go that route, to post their accessory fees so that that there is never a misunderstanding for the patient."

At no point in the interview did Merizzi explicitly rule out the kinds of fees the clinic now charges. She added the government will sign agreements with the medical federations in the coming months to decide on the various fees. Although Bill 33 was adopted on Dec. 13, it will only come into effect by government decree.
Needless to say, there's a serious problem with Quebec purporting to "resolve the question" by declaring that "accessory fees" are somehow legitimate despite their apparent violation of both the Canada Health Act and Quebec's existing health insurance legislation. But since Couillard doesn't seem to have budged from his long-standing pro-privatization stance, the question now is who's going to be able to do anything to correct the situation.

Unfortunately, the only other potential means of redress is through the federal government - and it's hard to be optimistic that the Cons will be willing to enforce the Canada Health Act to prevent an obvious case of two-tiered health care from coming to pass. While Harper was willing to criticize Ralph Klein's privatization measures, that was based purely on posturing rather than taking action against any actual Canada Health Act violations. In fact, the Cons put an end to what little enforcement was already taking place when they took office.

And those didn't involve issues of Quebec's health-care system, which only complicate the picture even more. Are the Cons willing to risk a confrontation with a provincial government whose fate is seen as intertwined with their own? If they were actually concerned about preserving universal accessibility, the answer would be "yes" - but it's hard to be optimistic that the Cons won't value the perception of pandering to Quebec more highly than access to health care.

Of course, it's worth pressuring the Cons to prove that their claimed commitment to universally-accessible care was more than just lip service. But it seems far too likely that Quebec's move to legitimize double-dipping will go unchallenged. And if that proves to be the case, then despite his claims to support the principles of the Canada Health Act, Harper may well go down in Canadian history as the PM who did the most to undermine universal health care.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Telling the same old story

While Stephane Dion's reopening of the party's sponsorship-scandal era may look the Libs look bad, two other recent stories based on the Libs' own words seem aimed at making them look merely irrelevant. With the Libs happily supplying the Cons with policies while going out of their way to mimic Harper's strategy, wouldn't even the most die-hard of Lib supporters have to wonder just what kind of difference there's supposed to be between the two parties?

On rookie mistakes

It would seem obvious that one of the more important principles in politics is that some topics are best avoided. But as demonstrated by even some Lib supporters' reaction so far, Stephane Dion doesn't seem to have caught on:
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion is facing questions about whether he supports welcoming back in to the party one of the key figures from the sponsorship scandal.

Dion told Quebec newspaper Le Soleil in remarks published Wednesday that he has no objections to Marc-Yvan Cote being allowed to resume his Liberal membership.

Cote, a former party organizer in Quebec, was one of 10 members banned for life from the party by former prime minister Paul Martin in the wake of the sponsorship scandal.

Dion added that Cote's punishment was "exaggerated," and that he'd recognized his error and shouldn't be penalized for life.

Asked about his comments by reporters in Quebec City Wednesday following a meeting of the Liberal caucus, Dion insisted that no decision has been made on the matter and that it's up to the party president to decide.

"I have no recommendation to make on that at all," he said. "There's a procedure to be followed by the party, and we'll follow the party procedure."

Dion noted that he thought that Cote "recognized his mistakes."...

During the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, Cote testified that he received $120,000 in $100 bills from the executive director of the party's Quebec wing. He distributed that money to 12 Liberal candidates in the 1997 federal election.
If anything, the problem for the Libs may be even greater than suggested by the blog posts so far. And that's despite the fact that the spectre of the sponsorship scandal, which obviously looms large in any discussion about the scandal's central figures, is probably about the second-last thing the party wants to have to deal with.

If there's anything the Libs want to talk about less than the scandal, however, it's the Chretien/Martin divide in the party over the better part of the past two decades. And Dion's interview (which, as noted by the CP, also included a defence of Jean Pelletier) can only be seen as a direct criticism of the way in which Martin himself dealt with those implicated. However the suggestion now plays out, at least one side or the other is likely to see itself as aggrieved by the outcome - whereas a simple refusal to speculate initially could easily have allowed the issue to die off.

Instead, not only has Dion handed the Cons plenty of ammo for the battle between the parties, he's also ensured that Libs on either side of their historic internal war will once again be too busy fighting among themselves to fully defend against PMS. And it's hard to see what benefit from readmitting a few disgraced former members can justify that outcome.


The CP reports on a collaboration that looks to deserve nothing but mockery: a Fraser Institute report on "Canada's role in North America's tri-national energy market", to be written by Ralph Klein and Brian Tobin. If there's anything uncertain about the report, it's less the question of just how much independence the authors will want to give up in the name of better serving the U.S., and more whether the report has been completed and ready for the authors' signatures from the moment they agreed to lend their names to the Fraser cause.

On differing messages

The Globe and Mail reports on PMS' anniversary speech to his caucus. And if there's a reason why most of the Cons' internal caucus dealings are so thoroughly suppressed, it may be because PMS' public priorities seem to bear little relation to the ones being pushed to the Cons' MPs:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper celebrated the first anniversary of his election victory by pledging to cut taxes and resolve the fiscal imbalance in the coming federal budget...

Canadians also continue to demand safer streets, and more action against gun, gang and drug crime, said the Prime Minister.

"That's why we're going to keep pushing for passage of our crime bills: mandatory minimum sentences for the perpetrators of violent crimes, reforms to the bail system, a crackdown on impaired driving, and protecting children from sexual predators."

Canadians also want decisive action on the defence of Canada's values and interests, he said. "That's why we will continue rebuilding our armed forces."

There was no mention of health care in Mr. Harper's 15-minute, (sic) address. Obtaining a wait-times guarantee from the provinces had been one of his government's top five priorities but seems to have fallen down the list.

And although the recent cabinet shuffle that moved Treasury Board President John Baird to Environment to replace Rona Ambrose was seen as a signal that Mr. Harper was ready to focus on the environment, his speech did not reflect that change in direction. Rather than talk about new climate-change initiatives he had planned for the future, the Prime Minister instead gave a brief mention to some of the environmental announcements his government has already made.
Considering that the environment has become by far the most prominent issue within Canada's political scene, one would expect at least some effort on Harper's part to make it a centrepiece of his talk to his caucus. Instead, he seems eager to tell his own party that the environment is at best a subsidiary issue, behind the same, tired doctrine of slashing taxes and raising prison costs that's already proven to have no chance of making its way through the current Parliament.

Now, it's possible that Harper's motivation was primarily to avoid the immediate wrath of oil-patch MPs who think that any action dealing with greenhouse gas emissions is too much. But it seems far more likely that the face being presented internally more accurately reflects the Cons' intentions than the public one which has focused on the environment lately. And one way or another, the disconnect between Harper's internal and external messages is one which can only make it clear that Canadians don't have much reason to trust him.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Liberal dose of confusion

Robert has been nicely tracking Stephane Dion's ever-shifting position as to whether or not he wants to lead the Libs into an election this spring. But based on today's CP report, it looks like the rest of the Libs aren't helping Dion to make up his mind:
"Given this government's track record, including the hocus pocus that was in the last budget and all of the broken promises and, in some cases, outright lies that we've seen since then, I would think Liberals would be hard pressed to find a budget that would be satisfactory," said Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale...

Amid all the signs of election fever, Montreal MP Denis Coderre sounded a note of caution, warning it would be folly to force a federal election at the same time as a provincial election.

Quebec is likely to hold a provincial election in March or April - about the same time as the budget is expected to be brought down - and voters in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador may also head to the polls this year.

"There's a convention . . . we can not have an election at the same time," Coderre said. "That's obvious."

Still, former rival Scott Brison said the party can't allow fear of a premature election to guide its decision on something as crucial as the budget.

"I don't think we should fear doing the right thing that is consistent with the interests of Canadians and the values that we stand for," he said. "That's going to be the litmus test."

Deputy leader Michael Ignatieff said Liberals "are here to oppose" the government.

"If they offer us junk on the budget, we vote it down," he said. "If they offer stuff that seems to be in the interests of citizens of this country, we'll take another view."
So, to sum up: Coderre doesn't want an election. Brison and Ignatieff want to measure the budget against fuzzy standards which will likely have more to do with polls than the actual contents of the bill. And Goodale thinks it's all up to Layton to decide whether the budget will fall (since in his world the Bloc has apparently ceased to exist).

No wonder Dion doesn't know where he stands from one day to the next. But compared to the NDP's consistent position (both from day to day and member to member) that it'll evaluate the budget against a set of fair criteria which are now being rolled out in the public eye, the Libs' confusion can only make Dion and his entourage look like they have no idea what they're doing. And if that begins to show through in the polls, then the Libs may not have much choice about where their position goes next.

A little light reading

For those wanting to see some substantive discussion of the federal NDP's principles (which I'm sure encompasses less readers than I'd like to think), a couple of relatively lengthy reads to satisfy the craving.

First, there's Jack Layton's foreign policy address from the University of Quebec at Montreal. The short version is a focus on fighting poverty, making peace and dealing with climate change, but the whole speech is worth a read. (My only worry has to do with the timing rather than the substance, as it seems far too likely to get buried under the Cons' anniversary in government and the U.S. State of the Union address.)

Second, via Tom at Babble, a draft statement of principles for the federal NDP written by Pierre Ducasse and adopted by the Quebec NDP. While there's undoubtedly some room for refinement - in particular I'd look to remove the parenthetical examples of current policy which seem better suited to a one-time platform than a statement of general principle - the document should offer a strong starting point for those who need a reminder as to the NDP's shared philosophy.

On patchworks

I alluded to prescription drugs among the Cons' missed opportunities in my last post. But let's take a closer look at some of the current disparities in access to them, as CTV reports on a CARP study comparing the plan provided to politicians to that received by others under federal and provincial plans:
CARP, Canada's Association for the Fifty Plus, commissioned the study which compared prescription drug plans of elected and public officials to public drug plans in British Columbia and Ontario and those managed by the federal government for aboriginals, veterans and soldiers.

The study looked at 73 drugs, already approved by Health Canada, that have been submitted to Canada's intergovernmental Common Drug Review (CDR) as of Jan. 12, 2007. The CDR is the body that determines which new drugs should be reimbursable on federal and provincial drug plans in Canada, with the exception of Quebec...

For CARP, of particular concern are medicines not covered for seniors on public drug plans. Highlighted by the group are medicines for neuropathic pain, Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and diabetes -- all of which are not recommended for listing by the CDR.

"Ideally, we would like to have all drugs which are approved by Health Canada to be covered by provincial and federal drug plans," said Lillian Morgenthau, president of CARP.

"However, failing that, it is simply unacceptable that there isn't even full coverage of the 28 drugs recommended by the government's own Common Drug Review. We believe Canadians deserve better and are owed an answer."
Based on the numbers from the article, of the 73 drugs tracked in the study, 71 are covered for politicians and veterans (with the sole exceptions being ones where the manufacturer elected not to make them available for coverage). But that number is reduced to:
- 18 for Aboriginals;
- 17 for British Columbia residents;
- 16 for Ontario residents; and
- 13 for soldiers.

It's particularly striking to see that the health of a serving Canadian troop is considered the lowest possible priority among the groups studied. And nobody's holding their breath that this part of "supporting the troops" will find its way into the pro-Afghanistan mission rhetoric.

But that note aside, it's still noteworthy just how uneven the availability of needed prescriptions is among the groups covered in the study. And given both the speed with which prescription costs are growing and the importance of prescription drugs in our health-care system, any forward-looking federal government should be doing its utmost to try to level the playing field - rather than acting as if a shortage of windfall profits is the biggest problem related to prescription drugs in Canada.

A Full Year of PMS

In response to leftdog's suggestion that Canada's progressive bloggers highlight the Cons' failures and disappointments over the past year, here's my contribution. But before I get to what's gone (unexpectedly) wrong, let's look at what could have gone better.

I don't think anybody was under the impression that Harper himself would be seen as having moderate views, or would be eager to implement progressive policies. But then, it did seem fair to say that the pursuit of long-term power would likely trump Harper's desire to veer immediately to the right. And since the Cons' best chance at winning a subsequent majority would be based on their running as clean and centrist a government as possible, there was at least a reasonable chance that the Cons would seek to be demonstrably more accountable and less cynical than their Lib predecessors, and maybe toss in a single high-profile progressive program to try to claw their way to a few more centrist votes.

Needless to say, it didn't take Harper long to throw the "clean" part of government out the window. From Emerson/Fortier to the raft of patronage appointments brought in just before the Accountability Act could take effect, the Cons' stay in power so far has only confirmed my suspicion that PMS' only problem with the "Liberal culture of entitlement" was the "Liberal" part.

And that's just based on what the Cons have been forced to announce publicly. We don't have any idea just what's gone on in Harper's inner circle due to the Cons' decision that accountability shouldn't apply to their own government. And Harper's consistent strategy of stonewalling the press has led to political coverage based on ever less-significant (and more-partisan) leaks rather than anything approaching important information.

In that regard, I fear we may have only discovered the tip of the iceberg so far. Given how uniformly the Cons and their supporters seem to believe that "they did it for 13 years, surely we can't be criticized for 1!" is a valid defence to any violation of promise, principle, law or common sense, would anybody be the least bit surprised if a money-under-the-table scheme or two went in place from close to Day One? And if one was discovered, does anybody think the Cons would do anything but try to say they couldn't fairly be criticized since the Libs did roughly the same thing?

So much for clean and/or accountable government. But what about the Cons' policymaking? Again, I'd figured there'd be a chance the Cons would look to moderate their image by unexpectedly taking the lead on some progressive issue that the Libs had ignored to date, with pharmacare and mental health support looking like particularly promising possibilities. Granted, they may have done so through a No Child Left Behind-type process which would ultimately place unfunded demands on the provinces. But at the start at least it would have offered the prospect of a real progressive push, and the was a chance of such a program succeeding in spite of the Cons' efforts.

Instead, the Cons have utterly refused to get behind meaningful new investments in anything other than military equipment, preferring instead to maximize the money available to let Jim Flaherty do to Canada what the Harris government did in Ontario - death by a thousand tax cuts. And the result has been the laughable spectacle of the Cons now realizing that they're properly still seen as far-right, and trying to claim some environmental bona fides based on their reinstating the same programs which they axed without justification last year.

Of course, there is some good news in the Cons' failures. If Harper had indeed made "clean and centrist" his party's watchwords, he'd probably be at or near majority territory by now, rather than looking up in the polls at a Lib leader who hasn't yet come close to settling into the job. But the prospect of the Cons getting tossed out of power doesn't absolve them of blame for the broken promises and failed opportunities while they've been there.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On triangulation

The CP reports that the Cons have released their planned ballot for the Canadian Wheat Board barley plebiscite. And while there's ample reason to be suspicious about their motives, it looks like the wording could actually help to preserve the Board's single-desk status for at least a little bit longer:
(Chuck) Strahl announced three voting options farmers can choose from in a mail-in plebiscite that will help determine the future of the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing monopoly on barley.

Barley producers can vote to maintain the board's export monopoly, scrap the board's role as a barley marketer or allow the board to be an active participant in a free market.
For the rest of this post, I'll refer to a continuation of the Board's single-desk status as option 1, the outright demolition of the Board's role as option 2, and the "Board operating in an open market" theory as option 3.

The article quotes plenty of voices to the effect that the question is biased against the Board. But as far as I can tell, the effect of the wording (at least in the short term) will depend entirely on what kind of spin gets put on the numbers after the plebiscite.

Let's first consider what wording would be most likely to lead to the strongest possible vote for the Board. That would figure to be a presentation of only options 1 and 2 - either maintaining the Board as it now stands, or immediately eliminating the Board for everybody. In that case, a lot of voters who want to retain the option of selling through the Board would presumably vote for option 1 even if they'd otherwise be sympathetic to an anti-Board position.

Of course, the Cons weren't likely to pose that choice given their intention to secure a result which would undermine the Board in the long run. Which means that a two-option poll would likely have instead posed option 1 against option 3 (as the Manitoba government effectively did in its own plebiscite).

Comparing the actual poll to that 1 against 3 dichotomy, it stands to reason that the vast majority of those who would vote for 1 in a two-way poll will do the same in the three-way poll. Meanwhile, the would-be 3 voters in a two-way poll will be split between those who are eager to eliminate the Board outright, and those who want to simply remove the single-desk status and let the Board take its chances in an open market. Which means that the Cons' wording may actually be more likely to produce a plurality in favour of option 1 than the Manitoba wording was.

So why would the Cons decide to word it as they did? There are three possible reasons that I can see - but all can be counteracted with a successful campaign by Board supporters.

The first is that the Cons want to eliminate the Board's single-desk status immediately, and plan to do that by adding the results of options 2 and 3 as "anti-single-desk options" once the results are in. It could well be that the Cons figure they can peel off a few would-be 1 votes - both by presenting option 3 as a "moderate" choice, and by trying to convince voters that they can afford to vote for 3 over 1 based on the strong possibility that 1 would be the leading option in any event. That argument would then be followed by a bait-and-switch after the votes are counted.

But it's hard to see how such a tactic can work as long as the Board's supporters are aware of the risk and act now to move against it. Presumably any 1-3 swing voters can factor the Cons' intentions into their analysis, and vote for option 1 if they don't want to hand Strahl any excuse to undermine the Board.

Another possibility is that Strahl really only wants an excuse to say that the results are inconclusive, and that he'll then feel free to make up his own mind about what farmers want (with a strong bias toward option 3). The three-question ballot could then help the Cons' dismantling efforts to the extent it prevents any one from building majority support.

But again, this danger can be easily enough counteracted if the pro-CWB camp makes clear what's at stake: either a 2 or a 3 is effectively a vote against the Board, while only a 1 will help to preserve it. Which shouldn't be that much more difficult with a 3-question ballot than a 2-question one.

The more dangerous possibility is that Strahl is really more concerned with shaping the longer-term debate about the CWB than with winning this vote at all. And that's where the presentation of removing the Board's single-desk status as a "middle" option could do the most damage to the extent it may shape perceptions going forward.

Of course, such a strategy would only work if the Cons are in a position to follow through after a future federal election. But their seemingly accepting defeat on this vote could perhaps defuse some of the opposition which would otherwise build up among Board supporters, allowing the Cons to bide their time in hopes of a future vote against a less united pro-Board faction. And the Cons' chances of staying in government long enough for that scenario to present itself might well be better (however low they seem now) if the Wheat Board doesn't seem to be a live issue at the time of the next election.

Ultimately, an effective PR campaign both regarding the vote itself and its interpretation should at least be enough to sustain the Board's current standing through the upcoming plebiscite. The real problems lie in the long-term effect of Strahl's attempt to present the removal of single-desk status as the "moderate" option, and in the possibility that the wording will help the Cons through the next election. Which means that while it'll be vital for the Board's supporters to get the word out now both during and after the vote, it'll be equally important to ensure that the Cons don't manage to finesse their way out of the issue politically or shift the terms of the debate down the road.

Still listed

CTV reports that the U.S. is refusing to remove Maher Arar from its no-fly list based on "information obtained by U.S. authorities, independent of anything supplied by Canada" contained in the U.S.' "secret file". But while that claim eliminates from the equation the RCMP's information which proved to be so dubious based on the O'Connor report, there's no apparent indication that it also excludes the "confessions" which Arar was tortured into during his rendition.

Now, it could be that the U.S. does in fact have other information which would offer a relatively reasonable justification for keeping Arar on the list. But even if so, the Bush culture of secrecy and deceit can only lead people to be rightfully suspicious when the public face continues to be "trust us, but we won't tell you why". And in the absence of some credible statement as to why Arar and others are still being treated with suspicion (free of both any reliance on confessions obtained through torture, and any link to lawsuits related to rendition), it looks like there's still an awfully long way to go in the effort to secure justice for Arar and others.

A necessary charge

Sun Media reports that some of the electoral tricks which may have helped the Cons in 2006 are set to be fully aired, as a supporter of Con MP Colin Carrie has been charged for claiming in a flyer that NDP candidate Sid Ryan had links to the IRA:
A former campaigner for Oshawa Conservative MP Colin Carrie has been charged by Elections Canada over election flyers that allegedly implied NDPer Sid Ryan was an IRA terrorist.

Alan Clarke, a former campaign worker for Carrie's successful 2006 re-election bid, faces charges over flyers he allegedly distributed showing the Dublin-born Ryan shaking hands with Alec Maskey, the former lord mayor of Belfast.

The leaflets also asked "What Do You Really Know About Sid Ryan?" and featured photos of a gun-toting IRA militant and a picture of what appeared to be the 1998 Omagh bombing that killed 29 people...

Ryan lost to Carrie in 2006 by about 2,000 votes. In 2004 Carrie beat Ryan by a mere 400 votes.

Ryan met Maskey at an Ireland Fund of Canada dinner to raise funds for the respected non-political, non-sectarian charity. Ryan was also once part of an all-party peace delegation to Northern Ireland.

Clarke also faces a $1-million lawsuit filed by Ryan.
Now, it's not quite clear why it took so long for charges to be laid. And plenty remains yet to be brought into the public eye - both in terms of Clarke's own actions under the charge, and what links he had to Carrie's campaign at the time.

And it's the latter which looks to present the most interesting question. When the flyer was first made public, the Cons tried to distance themselves from Clarke, claiming that while he was involved in the riding's campaign in 2004, he had no connection by 2006. (Not that there's any indication who else Clarke could have been working with in the most recent election.) But Ryan's press release suggests that Clarke was later acknowledged to have participated in the 2006 campaign - which can't be confirmed since the riding's site is "closed for maintenance".

As the charges go forward, there seems to be at least some chance that the Cons will be forced into a long-overdue apology for their supporter's tactics. But the bigger question is whether the proceedings will serve to discourage similar smears from all sides in the future - both due to any penalty following Elections Canada's own prosecution, and electoral consequences to the wrongful beneficiaries.

Random tidbits

A few notes to start off the work week...

- Olivia Chow points out another serious flaw in the Cons' incarnation of the EnerGuide program, as it won't benefit anybody who can't foot the bill up front to be reimbursed later.

- If you, like Lance, "really don't care about a measly $800 million", then the Saskatchewan Party and SK Cons are the parties for you.

- Am I the only one who suspects that this post title will all too likely get used again in the future (if perhaps not for another decade)?

- Shorter Ezra Levant: "How dare Stephane Dion suggest that anybody's making 'easy money' from the Alberta oilpatch? Why, if it wasn't for our good friend George's hard work, we'd never have pushed prices to where they are!"

- The Cons have got the "Leader" part down pat. No word yet on whether it'll be modified by "Dear" or "Supreme" in the future.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Toxic releases

The CP reports on the backlash against the Ontario Libs' selective application of responsible environmental practices:
Residents and businesses in northern Ontario will be exempted from the province's proposed plan to restrict the burning of used motor oil -- a move that local environmentalists say is unsatisfactory at best.

The Ontario government is mulling a regulation that would forbid burning used motor oil in space heaters, an effort to cut down on unnecessary emissions in the most crowded parts of the province.

The ban would not apply in the areas north and west of the Mattawa River, Lake Nipissing and the French River, or in and around Manitoulin -- mainly because there's no other alternative for disposing of used oil...

The government says some 700 businesses, most of them in southern Ontario, are responsible for the release of metals, halogens and sulphur into the environment by burning the oil.

"We know that these toxins impact the nervous system and the immune system... especially in the local level," said Lindsay Mack, spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment.

Research has concluded that the practice is most harmful to those nearest the source, Mack added. The exemption is necessary simply because there's little else to do with the oil in northern Ontario, she said.

"By no means does it mean that we are not concerned about local air quality, but it comes down to the fact that we had limited disposal options."
What's left completely unanswered is the question of whether other disposal options could have been created - whether directly, or as a response to the regulation. And given that the rest of Ontario must have sufficient disposal mechanisms available to avoid burning used oil under the regulation, there's no reason to assume that some smaller-scale operation couldn't be put in place for northern Ontario as well.

Instead, the McGuinty government seems entirely happy to let northern Ontario deal with health risks which have been (justifiably) deemed unacceptable for the province's more heavily populated areas. And while the regulation itself will at least have some positive effect compared to the status quo, the exemption only signals the Ontario Libs' continued tendency toward half-measures rather than a true commitment to a clean environment.

Similar but worse

In trying to differentiate their home-efficiency credit from the program they were eager to demolish last year, John Baird seems proud of the Cons' refusal to fund building audits:
He countered claims that the initiative is nothing more than a repackaging of the EnerGuide program, one of the former Liberal government's programs that was cancelled by the Conservatives.

"It's important to note under the old Liberal program, almost 50 cents of every dollar spent went to doing audits and administration," he said.

"But even worse than that, of those people who had the audits done, only 30 per cent of those actually went on to do renovations. Seventy per cent of the people didn't do anything, and nothing was done for the environment."
Now, that lack of uptake indeed sounds like a problem worth fixing - by tweaking the program to make sure that more EnerGuide participants followed through on the second step. But are the Cons really far enough out of touch with reality to think that their program will be more efficient by providing no means to determine which upgrades will be most effective in which homes?

(Elevated from the comments here.)

Analyzing the climate

For those looking to spend a Sunday on the intricacies of climate change politics, a couple of links you'll want to check out.

First, Greg Weston sets out in easily-digestible terms how Canada's current emissions break down by sector. While the breakdown may be ripe for Rona Ambrose-style "we'd have to force livestock to reverse its flatulence 8 times over!" drivel, it also shows fairly clearly that an entirely manageable percentage cut in emissions across the various sectors can get Canada to its Kyoto targets.

Second, the Blogging Party of Canada is in the middle of a series reviewing the NDP's Green Strategy. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 so far. While I don't agree entirely with the analysis (e.g. giving no credit to the prospect of building retrofitting, assuming that solar panel technology will remain at current prices and availability levels, etc.), it's certainly worth taking a critical eye to the plan to evaluate both its strengths, and the areas which can be improved.

Update: One more via Robert, as David Akin points out what emission reductions have cost so far under programs implemented by the Libs.