Saturday, March 24, 2007

But he's just the messenger

Shorter Jason Cherniak:

Politics is about compromise. Let's bring down the volume of the debate and discuss it rationally - by casting evidence-free aspersions against our political competitors.

Verifiably idiotic

Other have pointed out the Finance Department's ludicrous decision to include inefficient vehicles in the Cons' car tax credit for political purposes. But that change alone is the least of the problems with the Cons' car tax incentive plan, as the scheme looks to be a spectacular failure as an investment in emission reductions:
Dennis Desrosiers of Desrosiers Automotive Consultants says the Vehicle Efficiency Initiative announced this week in the federal budget may be the most expensive program yet in terms of dollar per tonne of reductions of greenhouse gases:...

At $5,600 per tonne this policy has the dubious distinction of being even more expensive per tonne of GHG reduction than the previous record holder - the Conservatives' transit pass tax credit ($2,000 per tonne, because about 97% of the subsidy recipients were already daily transit riders). (In fact it’s the) most expensive environment program anywhere in the world by a wide margin.
To see just how far off base the Cons' plan is, compare the cost of any reductions through the car price incentives to the $15 per tonne of reductions established the price under the previous Lib government - or the $25-35 per tonne suggested by the TD Bank as the appropriate level to influence industrial behaviour. Or, judging from the article, to absolutely any other emission-reduction plan put in place by any other government on the face of the planet.

But the Cons apparently aren't the least bit interested in reducing emissions efficiently, or even in allowing Canadian firms to engage in international carbon trading at anything resembling a reasonable price. Instead, they're merely using the environment as an excuse to throw money at target voters - highlighting once again their disregard both for environmental progress and effective government (measured in anything other than votes received).

At this rate, next year's budget figures to include an "environmental plan" consisting of dumping money on street corners on the theory that whoever finds it might use it to reduce emissions. And the scary part is that if half a percent of the money distributed that way were in fact put into efficient emission-reducing investments, that strategy would work better than what the Cons are doing now.

I'll stop now before I give Flaherty too many ideas. But it should be clear that Canada can't afford the Cons' affinity for wasteful spending much longer - either in terms of finances, or for the good of our environment.

Update: More from Robert:
No wonder conservatives believe that implementing a plan to combat climate change will destroy our economy. If PMS is left in charge of it, it will.

Grounds for investigation

There's been plenty of talk over the past week about a renewed investigation surrounding Stockwell Day's entry into the House of Commons. I tend to think the most interesting story here is actually the sheer disorganization of the Cons as they took power: how in the world could they have apparently paid no attention to 30 boxes of documents left behind in the Opposition leader's office? (And for that matter, why was anything still left from Stockwell Day's stay which they didn't think would be of some use in the future?)

But that aside, let's take a closer look at the Criminal Code sections which may apply to those involved in the Hart/Day deal.

The potentially applicable sections are section 124 and section 125 of the Criminal Code:
124. Every one who

(a) purports to sell or agrees to sell an appointment to or a resignation from an office, or a consent to any such appointment or resignation, or receives or agrees to receive a reward or profit from the purported sale thereof, or

(b) purports to purchase or gives a reward or profit for the purported purchase of any such appointment, resignation or consent, or agrees or promises to do so,

is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

125. Every one who:...

(b) solicits, recommends or negotiates in any manner with respect to an appointment to or resignation from an office, in expectation of a direct or indirect reward, advantage or benefit,...

is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.
The main difference between the two sections appears to be that section 125 doesn't require that any deal actually be reached: the mere act of "negotiat(ing) in any manner" is enough to result in an offence. Any doubt about the final terms offered to Hart would thus be irrelevant under that section to the extent that there was any discussion of a "resignation" from an "office".

But then, given that the potential punishment is the same for both, it appears clear that both are considered equally serious offences.

So what does an "office" mean? That term is defined in section 118:
“office” includes
(a) an office or appointment under the government,
(b) a civil or military commission, and
(c) a position or an employment in a public department;
Let's note here an important difference between the Day case and some other examples which might seem similar.

In the Ontario Libs' example which Peter Van Loan used to try to deflect any discussion in Question Period, the seat in question was held by an independent MP who wasn't running again. Likewise, in the Cons' Alan Riddell fiasco, the seat was (and remains) held by the Libs.

As a result, nothing more was up for grabs in either of these questions than a party's nomination. And that plainly doesn't result in either of the offences which might apply to the Day case, since no "office" was involved - however unseemly it may be for a nomination to be purchased or sold.

In contrast, Hart's seat in the House of Commons would much more likely fall into the definition of "office". There might be a technical argument available that since the term "resignation" is linked to the term "appointment" in both sections, the sections don't deal with elected positions. But there's case law (see paragraphs 13-14 of this case to the effect that the list in section 118 is not a closed one, and that the definition is intended to include "‘a position of duty, trust or authority, esp. in the public service or in some corporation, society or the like’". As a result, I don't think many people would want to take a chance on that particular argument to defend against a serious criminal charge.

And unless there's some reason to doubt the accuracy of the documents found by the Libs, it's hard to see what other element of the offence would be missing, as Hart's own letter would indicate that his resignation was directly tied to the negotiated benefits.

Of course, it remains to be seen what any investigation will turn up. But the incident at the very least highlights what seems to be a lack of concern for the law among the Cons and their predecessors. And if the Cons' best explanation is that they consider the matter done with, they may rightly be in for a surprise.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The reality gap: wait-times edition

The CP follows up on the question of how provinces will respond to the Cons' wait-times funding. And as I'd suspected, the uptake looks to be almost entirely focused on a single area per province rather than any commitment to meet all five of the Cons' targets:
Health Minister Tony Clement says he is close to announcing agreements with most provinces for medical wait-time guarantees...

But the agreements will cover only one area of treatment per province, far short of what was promised in the 2006 election platform...

The 2006 Tory election platform committed the government to “ensure that all Canadians receive essential medical treatment within clinically acceptable waiting times,” suggesting that all essential care would be covered.

The platform identified five priority areas as a starting point: “cancer, heart, diagnostic imaging, joint replacements and sight restoration.”

But Clement conceded that the agreements will be more limited in scope. The priority list is also now open to provincial discretion.

“What we’re asking, for the purposes of this agreement, is for a province or territory to choose one guarantee they would declare in place and operational within the next three years.”
If there's any consolation in this news, it's in the fact that the wait-times concept is itself a flawed one. So at the very least, the provinces' apparent rejection of the Cons' across-the-board standards should have little negative impact on the care received by Canadian patients - and may only ensure that provinces continue to deal with a more complete view of health-care priorities rather than focusing only on the Cons' target areas. (In other words, this is likely another promise better left broken.)

But at the same time, the Cons have been awfully eager to highlight a pool of money that they apparently don't expect provinces to touch. And that massive gap between funding announced and funding actually likely to be provided shows that it isn't just in the area of tax credits that the Cons are actively exaggerating their social investment by taking credit for the potential maximum, while counting on limited uptake to minimize the amount spent and accomplished.

Which makes for yet another area where the Cons' rhetoric bears a tenuous (and shrinking) relation to reality. And their continued eagerness to keep widening that gap in turn offers one more strong reason why they simply can't be trusted.

On again...for now

As Kenn points out, Nathan Cullen's latest blog post shows plenty of optimism that the committee working on Bill C-30 will be able to "get to the brass tacks" next week and work out an agreed bill to send back to the House of Commons.

Interestingly enough, Cullen refers only obliquely to the Libs' late raft of amendments - but he seems confident enough that one way or another those won't prove to be a problem. We'll have to see whether that's because the NDP and Bloc have managed to conclude that they're worth agreeing to over the course of a day, or because the amendments figure to be voted down...either of which would seem to leave either the Libs or Cons with an excuse to try to make sure next week is no more productive than the end of this one was.

Of course, I hope Cullen is right in being hopeful about the outcome. But given the Libs' and Cons' track record - both in general, and on this committee in particular - it's tough to share that positive outlook.

Not in command

CBC reports on yet another reason why Con Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor can't be trusted, as he apparently has neither any knowledge of nor any control over what's going on in his own department:
Defence Department lawyers are trying to block investigations into the way Canadian troops handle detainees in Afghanistan, even though the defence minister has promised they would go ahead.

Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor told MPs earlier this week that an independent commission would review allegations that military police broke the law when they turned Afghan prisoners over to the Afghan government, knowing they might be tortured.

But lawyers working for O'Connor's own department are now at odds with him.

A spokesman for the Canadian Forces legal office said lawyers are reviewing whether an independent commission would be overstepping its bounds by reviewing how Afghan detainees are treated. The lawyers may pursue legal action to stop such an investigation.
To my recollection, the issue isn't a new one within the House of Commons. But even if there was any room for confusion or miscommunication before this week, surely a new set of assurances from O'Connor that his office is cooperating with the investigations should be taken as an important signal to his department.

Instead, the department is going ahead contrary to O'Connor's publicly-stated plans. That may by the result of their simply not seeing him as a leader worth listening to - or it may be that O'Connor is giving different instructions away from the cameras than in front of them. But either way, it only adds to O'Connor's complete lack of credibility...which leaves only the question of whether Harper really has so little left on the bench that nobody else within his caucus can do better.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Two steps back

Apparently the Libs couldn't deal with a stream of praise from the Blogging Dippers over their seeming cooperation on the committee reviewing the Clean Air Act - as instead of sticking with the amendments which all opposition parties effectively agreed on earlier this week, the Libs dumped into the mix a new raft of amendments which may prevent the committee from finalizing anything:
Members of a parliamentary committee studying the much maligned proposed clean air act are accusing the federal Liberals of trying to delay its work by introducing a series of last-minute amendments.

The Liberals introduced on Thursday dozens of amendments to Bill C-30, originally drafted to give the federal government power to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases.

The bill, which has passed first reading in the House of Commons, was sent last year to a special legislative committee to be rewritten.

The committee, however, has only until March 30 to report back to the Commons. One of the Liberal amendments introduced Thursday is said to be about 3,000 words long.

Committee members said after a meeting in Ottawa that the Liberals should have introduced the amendments earlier, and they fear the amendments will bog the committee down.

"I expected a delay today and I thought it would come from the government," NDP MP Nathan Cullen said. "Instead it came from the Liberal party. And why? I honestly don't know. It's truly disappointing for all of us."
Hopefully it won't be too late for the committee to deal with the Libs' new amendments. And even if it is, there's always the chance for some combination of the NDP, Bloc and Cons to simply vote down the late amendments and see if the Libs want to be seen taking a stand against the Kyoto amendments that the opposition can agree on.

But given that all parties were aware of a deadline a week earlier, the Libs were at best careless in leaving a new bunch of amendments this late, and at worst trying to prevent exactly the kind of collaboration that was earning so much praise. And if the result is to keep the committee from agreeing on a final bill to report back to Parliament, the Libs may have just taken on an added share of the blame for a continued lack of meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Even worse than expected

The corporate media has finally picked up on the Cons' laughable decision to put the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in charge of consultations on electoral reform. And the process has managed to go haywire even before the actual consultations have started:
The Canadian Press has learned that at least some of the recruitment of participants was compromised even before the Frontier Centre begins leading what the government calls "deliberative consultations."

Compas Public Opinion and Customer Research confirmed Thursday that an unauthorized sub-sub-contractor had been recruiting participants for forums this Friday and Saturday in Winnipeg and in Oakville, Ont.

Sources say Brooks and Done, a Calgary firm, was seeking up to 80 participants and accepting unsolicited applications after putting out a last-minute, word-of-mouth call this week.

Compas, which along with the Frontier Centre is jointly contracted to conduct the consultation, said Brooks and Done has been dropped and all applicants will be vetted by the polling firm. Compas president Conrad Winn said Thursday that only five per cent of the participants for the two forums were recruited by the firm.
If there's anything that could make the process even more brutally flawed than it already was, it's for the contractors involved to use "word of mouth" and a private application process to skew the sample of citizens involved in favour of another group of ideologically-friendly participants.

But then, it's clear that there's nothing the Cons would like less than for the process to produce any meaningful results. Which means that they're all too likely to overlook what appears to already be both a glaring violation of the original contract (if the subcontract was "unauthorized") and strong evidence of just how useless the process is, and claim that the foregone conclusion actually means something.

And that's undoubtedly a shamem as this among other Con abuses of power only highlights how much Canada stands to gain from an electoral process that wouldn't give Harper so much power with just over a third of Canada's popular vote.

Update: Peter Van Loan now says that the recruiting problems were "clearly unacceptable", but that we should now accept them and stop questioning the process.

The most sincere form of flattery

While Harper's Cons have proven themselves to be nothing but cynical manipulators with little regard for rules or principles, the Libs seem to be taking steps to match the Cons manipulation for manipulation - today by offering to throw both Parliamentary procedure and their own apparent policy positions out the window to avoid perceived political damage:
The Conservatives thwarted a move to fast-track four of their law-and-order bills, arguing Wednesday a Liberal motion to speed up their passage didn't jibe with parliamentary procedure.

A day earlier, a cabinet minister said Prime Minister Stephen Harper is prepared to go to an election if the opposition stalls his law-and-order agenda.

The Liberals – who have faced repeated accusations they're soft on crime – said the Tories have shown they are only interested in making political hay and not genuinely committed to their law-and-order plan.

The Liberals' motion was designed to inoculate themselves against further criticism they are stalling anti-crime bills, and take away a potential tool at the prime minister's disposal for triggering an election...

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe...ridiculed the Liberals for trying to take the bills off the table. His party would like a full debate and committee hearings on the bills, including one that raises the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14.

“It's the first time I've seen an opposition party ask to fast-track and pass laws that they said they were against just a few weeks ago,” Mr. Duceppe said. “When (Liberal Leader Stephane) Dion says he doesn't want an election, he really doesn't want it.”

NDP House Leader Libby Davies said parties have a responsibility to give each bill due process.

“We're elected as parliamentarians to seriously consider and weigh and debate legislation, and some of this legislation is very far reaching,” Ms. Davies said.
On the one hand, the move should somewhat defuse the Cons' claims that the Libs in particular are looking to obstruct the bills in question. And that may somewhat reduce the Cons motivation to go to the polls over their lock-'em-up agenda.

But then, the motion also looks like sheer political cynicism at its most destructive from the Libs. After all, it can only reflect a willingness to completely abdicate their role as an opposition - in some cases on issues which they themselves have already claimed to oppose - if it'll slightly reduce the government's ability to criticize them. Which can only make the Libs look ineffective as a true opposition to Harper, rather than a party simply practicing its machinations in anticipation of a return to power.

And that's just the impression based on today's action...but the effects will last into the future. Now, any time the Libs don't go along with the Cons' wishes, today's example can be thrown back at them along with a "why won't you cooperate like that again?". Which, combined with what's bound to be some rightful frustration from those who genuinely oppose draconian criminal laws, should rightfully make the Libs look far worse than they would have if they'd simply continued their previous stance of being willing to deal with the Cons' bills within established procedures.

Still delaying

As noted elsewhere, the Libs unfortunately followed through with their plan to reject Bill C-257 (the anti-scab bill).

But what about their claim that they'd "come back with a better bill"? Not surprisingly, despite the fact that Bill C-257 and its amendments could have been put into a new bill without any difficulty, they haven't yet bothered.

Mind you, there's one anti-scab bill still in the pipeline if anybody wants to test whether the Libs have shifted positions again. And if the Libs don't get their act together, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising if another party beats them to the punch in bringing a new bill forward.

Update: Or maybe it's already happened.

Update II: Or maybe not, as Mario Silva did put forward a bill yesterday (while Duceppe oddly enough didn't). But will it manage to make any progress before the writ drops?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Unfit for office

Today was a particularly ugly day for Con personal attacks: in addition to Harper's much-discussed Bush impression, Maurice Vellacott reminded everybody why he's normally muzzled by launching a slander that Lorne Calvert was able to dismantle in a matter of seconds.

But as poorly as those incidents reflect on the Cons' fitness to hold office (or indeed productive employment), the even bigger problem remains that of policy. And one of the worst of the Cons' plans managed to go virtually unnoticed even as the Cons brought it up again to try to influence the results of Quebec's election:
The Conservative government is promising to take historic steps to limit federal spending power - but only if federalists win next week's Quebec election.

Lost in all the budget headlines this week was a little-noticed promise to negotiate with the provinces about how to formally prevent Ottawa from spending money in provincial jurisdictions. Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated the promise in the House of Commons on Wednesday and said he wants to hold those discussions with a federalist government in Quebec.

Tory Quebec lieutenant Lawrence Cannon was asked whether that means the entire initiative hinges on the defeat of the separatist Parti Quebecois in Monday's election.

"That's what I understood," Cannon said of the prime minister's remarks.

"We'll see what happens on election night. But it takes federalists to reform federalism."
Now, I've blogged before about how damaging it would be if the Cons are successful in tying their own hands as well as those of the provinces. And that part isn't particularly new - although it too is one of the most under-reported stories of the Cons' stay in power so far. But it's a new development for the Cons to have explicitly tied their promise to the outcome of the Quebec election.

Mind you, given the rightful cynicism of Quebec voters when it came to the federal budget, it's entirely possible that the Cons will only manage to hurt the cause of Quebec's federalist parties by tying what's supposed to be a carrot to their willingness to vote in the right party. But whatever the effect, the fact that the Cons are both fixated on bad policy and attempting to use it to dictate election results in Canada's provinces should serve as a far more profound indictment of their competence than their taking a few steps further into the personal-destruction morass.

An idea worth saving

So far, exceedingly little has actually been accomplished on the ATM fee front, as the Cons have rejected the NDP's call for legislation, and the banks have predictably ignored Jim Flaherty's series of threats to continue talking. (And all this while the Cons' corporate tax cuts also figure to disproportionately benefit the banks over other businesses.)

But Duff Conacher has a suggestion which is both worthy of discussion in its own right, and likely to make action on ATM fees (whether legislated or not) seem like a compromise the banks will be glad to accept:
Duff Conacher, chairperson of the Canadian Community Reinvestment Coalition, thinks Ottawa should look at more than convenience fees.

"If the federal Conservatives are actually concerned about protecting bank customers from gouging, they must require banks to undergo an independent audit of all bank fee charges ... and require fees to be decreased wherever the audit finds excessive profit."
Of course, the terms of reference for an audit would have a huge role in influencing the outcome. But if properly designed, such an audit could both help to lower fees in the short term, and ensure that the banks couldn't simply shift fees elsewhere - particularly if such audits were designed to occur regularly in tandem with the government's reviews of the Bank Act.

And it's not as if the principle would be against the a drive for accountability in general. Instead, it would simply spread that accountability into private-sector entities whose privileged position is the result of government choices.

Of course, the Cons are even less likely to approve of Conacher's suggestion than of the NDP's plan to focus on ATM fees. But if Conacher continues to take up the call (and the NDP highlights the idea as one to consider), it may well be possible to push the banks into some real action to benefit Canadian customers.

On openings

One of the NDP's strongest pickup opportunities just got even juicier, as Stephane Dion has expelled Thunder Bay—Superior North MP Joe Comuzzi from the Libs' caucus for planning to support the Cons' budget:
Former cabinet minister Joe Comuzzi has been expelled from the federal Liberal caucus for pledging to support the Conservative government's budget.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion says it's parliamentary tradition that MPs toe the party line on important confidence votes such as the budget. The Liberals plan to oppose the budget when it comes to a vote in the House of Commons soon.

Comuzzi, who represents Thunder Bay, Ont., will now sit as an Independent.

He is not planning to run in the next election.
With Comuzzi not planning to run again, the Libs won't face the danger of him taking another shot as an independent or jumping to the Cons. (And the latter course of action would seem to be the only way for the Cons to have much chance of winning a seat where they've never ranked higher than a distant third.)

But his expulsion is bound to divide Lib voters in the riding among those who have historically supported Comuzzi personally, and those whose primary allegiance is to the party. And that can only be good news for the NDP's chances of taking the seat.

What we stand for

When Stephen Harper somehow attempted to claim yesterday that the Cons' budget represented what "every NDP leader in history has stood for", my first reaction was to think this was the Cons' biggest whopper yet. But on a closer look at a readily-available source of NDP leader quotes in the form of the Leadership You Can Trust sidebar at the Blogging Dippers, he may just have a point - if one adds in a bit of missing language.

Take, for example, James Woodsworth's quote, with the missing language added in bold:
I am convinced that we may develop in Canada a distinctive type of Socialism, which to the outside observer shall appear the antithesis of Socialism in its focus on devolution and privatization. We in Canada will solve problems along our own lines, or failing that, throw money at them then claim we could have done no more.
On that reading, it couldn't be more clear that Woodsworth would indeed be on side with the Cons.

Then there's Audrey McLaughlin:
When you finally listen to the businesses who said from the beginning that they had no interest in your child-care tax incentives, it's amazing what you can learn. When you act on what you've learned by providing a pittance to the provinces to make up for your earlier mistake, it's amazing what you can change.
That one's downright eerie in its foresight of the Cons' position. But it certainly puts McLaughlin in their camp as well.

And the same goes for Tommy Douglas:
My friends, watch out for the little fellow with an idea. Especially when that idea is a pale imitation of one announced by a previous government.
And finally Alexa McDonough:
We're a country built on the idea of community, that you help your neighbour and your neighbour helps you, and that the federal government doesn't help anybody.
So thanks to Harper for finally providing NDPers with a better idea what their previous leaders believed in. And we look forward to his future claim that a man who loved Canada as much as Douglas wouldn't have hesitated a second in granting the government whatever powers it wanted to deal with perceived enemies.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Called to account

The Cons did their best to try to hide Gordon O'Connor's admission that he misled Parliament underneath the news of the budget. But the House of Commons Defence Committee isn't letting O'Connor off the hook that easily:
The issue of enemy detainees captured by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan just won't stop dogging Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor.

O'Connor has been summoned to appear before the Commons defence committee to account for false statements about the monitoring of detainees in Afghan custody.

The minister is not compelled to show up, but a spokesman from his office said that upon receiving a formal invitation from the committee O'Connor will co-operate on scheduling an appearance date.
I'll note first off that the article wrongly repeats O'Connor's subsequent spin in asserting merely that the ICRC "is only compelled to report such abuses to the country that is holding the detainees", rather than the truth that it's outright prohibited from disclosing abuses to any other country.

But then, the committee hearing should offer plenty of opportunity to clear up that fact both in O'Connor's mind and in the media. And in addition, the committee hearing will help to open up for added public attention an issue which the Cons did their best to bury. Which is why this is one of the rare occasions when calling a Con on the carpet over an inaccuracy (rather than simply highlighting an incident as evidence that the Cons can't be trusted) is actually worth Parliament's time.

Finally working together

There's potentially great news on the environmental front, as the CP reports that all three opposition parties have proposed amendments to Bill C-30 that would result in hard emission caps matching Canada's Kyoto targets. But never ones to let good works go unpunished, the Cons have responded by shutting down the committee for the moment:
The government's centrepiece environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act, is in deep trouble and there's speculation it could become the trigger for an election.

This week all three opposition parties proposed amendments to the bill – amendments that would enshrine the emissions-cutting targets of the Kyoto Protocol, which the Conservatives have called unachievable.

After the amendments were tabled, the government cancelled a Tuesday meeting of the committee studying the bill.

Environmentalists were delighted at the unusual consensus among the New Democrats, Bloc Quebecois and Liberals, whose amendments coincide on key points such as firm limits – known as hard caps – for greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Kyoto targets...

Environment Minister John Baird gave few hints about the government's strategy when questioned Tuesday. He said he is still reviewing the opposition amendments.
The article speculates about the possibility that the Cons could either use an opposition-passed set of standards as an excuse to call an election, or simply refuse to proclaim a rewritten bill into force. But for a government accustomed to setting the political agenda, either one of those would result in a significant show of weakness, while also drawing large amounts of attention to the last policy area the Cons want to be highlighting.

Which means that there may finally be a chance of real emission reductions taking place in the very near future. And all of the opposition parties deserve credit for burying the hatchet long enough to make that the case.

Still waiting

It's no secret that many of the elements included in the Cons' budget had already been announced prominently, while some (particularly the fiscal imbalance plan) were important enough to stand out in even in the midst of a budget. But it's worth noting that what appears to be the Cons' entire solution to a main priority on coming to power was slipped in as an extra - and that there doesn't appear to be much reason for many (or perhaps any) provinces to take the Cons up on the bulk of their wait-times funding offer:
(R)eluctant provinces have been given more than $600-million to comply, even in a small way, with federal demands that they guarantee that certain medical treatments will be provided within clinically acceptable amounts of time.

Any province that limits waiting times for at least one procedure selected from five priority areas -- cancer care, heart care, cataract surgery, joint replacement and diagnostic imaging -- will share in a one-time pot of $61-million.

The funding amounts to something of an about-face for the Conservatives, who have said repeatedly they will provide no additional money for the guarantees -- requirements that the provinces pay to send patients elsewhere when treatment is not available locally in a timely manner.

At least $10-million will go to each province that falls in step with the Conservative plans, and another $500-million will be divided among those same provinces on a per capita basis. The three northern territories will share the remaining $12-million provided.

The funds can be spent any way the province or territory chooses. For Ontario, the decision to sign on to the federal demand for guarantees will mean an additional $205.5-million this year. For Quebec, it will mean $125.6-million. And even tiny Prince Edward Island stands to gain $12.1-million.
Now, it's a small plus that the Cons are at least now willing to offer some funding rather than trying to impose their promise on the provinces without offering any support. But while the Globe's coverage seems awfully sure that all provinces will sign on to the plan, such an outcome seems far from certain.

Let's note first the goofy structure of the funding. By setting up a fixed pool of funding to be distributed on a per-capita basis only among the provinces who participate, the Cons have ensured that each province which signs on will decrease the possible funding available for other provinces.

That may make for some interesting prisoner's dilemma-type situations among the provinces. But it surely isn't the most effective way to get as many provinces as possible onside. And it doesn't seem the least bit unlikely that once one of the largest provinces decides to put itself at the Cons' mercy in dictating its wait times, the others (along with most smaller provinces) will conclude that the diminished potential return isn't worth the cost of implementing the Cons' proposed guarantee.

But then, it could be that no province will see it as worth its while to sign on - particularly given the danger than any commitment will prove to be entirely one-sided.

After all, there's still the strong possibility of an election taking place before the budget passes: a province could easily commit to wait times targets this month, then see the government fall (or engineer its own demise) in April before the budget has moved through Parliament. Which would leave any province agreeing to the Cons' terms with no guarantee of receiving any funding at all...while a public promise would presumably be rather difficult for any province to backtrack from.

Of course, the Cons could have avoided this difficulty by setting a more reasonable deadline than the end of this month. And there's no apparent reason why such a later deadline wouldn't have worked for either side.

As for the smaller envelope of funding for meeting one priority, that'll likely be seen as more reasonable for more provinces based on the relative costs and benefits involved. But at that same time, it's also likely to ensure that each province focuses on meeting only the cheapest of its "guarantees".

And of course all of the above leaves aside the serious problems with a limited wait times program in general.

Notwithstanding the problems with their plan, the Cons will presumably claim that their limited offering completes their list of five initial priorities. But nobody should be surprised if many or all provinces indicate in short order that the Cons' idea of sufficient (and sufficiently-assured) funding is far from enough. Which would properly place the wait-times guarantee alongside the commitments to accountability and child care as areas where the Cons have gone through the motions without ultimately getting much done.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A look at the ledger

Since Scott has largely pegged my reaction to the Cons' budget, I'll shift to relatively-neutral observer mode to examine who stands to win and lose politically as a result:

Winners: Quebec Solidaire, Quebec Greens
All three main Quebec parties spent today rushing to support the budget - and none figures to have won any great advantage by doing so. But the door seems to be wide open to any of the upstart parties which takes the opportunity to pursue an anti-Ottawa strategy.

Loser: Bloc Quebecois
I'll have to admit to start off that I've always had trouble seeing what the Bloc brought to the table to justify its number of seats. But after giving a pass to two consecutive Con budgets, it seems the Bloc is lowering the bar even further: not only is it structurally unable to form government to implement policy of its own, it isn't even making any real effort to influence the policy of the parties who do hold power.

Mind you, there is one caveat. If by some chance the PQ pulls out a majority government, then the Bloc will presumably find a renewed focus in the possibility of another referendum. But if not, then having endorsed the Cons' federal/provincial funding platform and with no more opportunity to campaign in opposition to Lib scandals, it's hard to see what useful purpose the Bloc could serve going forward. Which means that Duceppe's acceptance of the budget may well operate as the Bloc's death knell.

Winner: Lorne Calvert
The Saskatchewan NDP gets somewhat more money to work with, yet also gets to continue rightly slamming the Harper government (and its Sask Party proxies) for a broken equalization promise. While it would have been better for the province generally for the Cons to have kept up their side of the bargain (except to the extent that might have helped the Sask Party), the result couldn't have been much better for a government which can get by without the added money.

Loser: The Auto Industry
While the Cons' plan to create incentives toward more-efficient vehicles is a plus in general, it's striking that Flaherty doesn't seem to have any qualms about kicking the automotive industry while it's already down by planning to take in more money through the inefficiency surtax than will be provided in incentives for efficient vehicles. And while I hope the long-term effect will merely be to push the industry toward producing more efficient vehicles more quickly, the effect could be to make the current trouble in the industry last longer and get worse than it would otherwise have to.

Incidentally, this should also serve as a ready-made answer when the Cons try to accuse the Libs' "carbon budget" of being a tax grab, since it's their own auto plan that actually results in at a demonstrable cost to industry (and concurrent benefit to government coffers).

Winner: Astroturf Groups
It may be a subtle change for the Cons to remove the capital gains tax from donations of publicly listed securities to private foundations - and one which looks good on its face. But while some better-meaning people may use this to benefit legitimate charities, it's all too likely that the change will also be used to facilitate additional donations to the right-wing noise machine.

Loser: Public Ownership
It didn't make the headlines, but a full $6 billion of infrastructure spending is targeted toward P3-style gateways and border crossing, and Jim Flaherty's vision of an office dedicated solely to promoting P3s will come to fruition. Of course the winners will be the contractors involved...while the public treasury will be a long-term loser as well.

Only one of many

In a shocking reversal from the Cons' usual policy of refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing no matter how glaring, Gordon O'Connor has finally admitted to misleading Parliament about the Red Cross' ability to inform Canada about any abuse of Afghan detainees.

Of course, the statement was seasoned with O'Connor's judgments about his own motivations, presumably aimed at telling MPs that his year of consistent fabrications doesn't make for any reason not to trust him completely now. But it's at least a small amount of progress for one of the Cons' cabinet ministers to admit to being something short of infallible.

By my count, O'Connor's apology leaves John Baird, Diane Finley, and Stephen Harper himself in line to apologize either to Parliament or to the public. And that's just for the misleading statements that I've blogged about this month - to say nothing of earlier statements, or ones whose inaccuracy hasn't yet gone public.

With that in mind, is there any reason why any person - let alone one out of every seven Canadians - would trust Harper more then they did when he was elected?

More from catnip and Ryan.

On refusing to act

Uncorrected Proofs points out a particularly glaring example of the Libs' strategy of refusing to act on progressive issues now in order to run on those same issues later - in this case dealing with the anti-scab bill, C-257, which the Libs supported until recently.

In fairness to Dion, he does appear to allow for some possibility that a new bill could be introduced in the current Parliament. But it's hard to see much commitment to following through:
Results will have to wait until the next election, Dion said.

The Liberal leader said the definition and protection of essential services needs to be "clarified" in any new legislation.

"We'll come back with a better bill. If there's an election before that, we'll put that commitment in our platform," he said.
So, let's keep an eye out over the next little while to see if the Libs do in fact introduce a bill along the lines of the amendments that were ruled out of order.

Which isn't to say that the Libs will be blameless even if they do: it'll still be problematic that they've delayed any passage of anti-scab legislation, and risked the possibility that nothing will be done if the current Parliament is dissolved. But if the Libs really are so crass as to fail to follow through on introducing a new bill - or to make that bill anything but a top priority going forward in light of the time lost already - then there will be all the more reason to conclude that the Libs' commitment to progressive values ends where implementation of those values begins.

On differing priorities

A Strategic Counsel poll asked Canadians what they want to see addressed in the federal budget - and the answer couldn't have been much different from what the Cons figure to offer:
When respondents were asked what they thought to be the most important issue for the budget to address, social programs were the clear favourite:

* Increasing spending on social programs: 50 per cent
* Cutting taxes: 19 per cent
* Transferring funds to the provinces for their use: 15 per cent
* Reducing debt: 13 per cent.

"Canadians are experiencing right now something that we refer to as 'joyless prosperity,'" said Gregg.

"They believe the economy is in good shape and we're having fewer people anticipating the future with economic dread. We have more people today claiming that they are better off financially than they were 10 years ago since I've been tracking (results) in the past 30 years."

Yet the mood is still not optimistic, he said.

"That's because (Canadians) believe that in the face of this prosperity, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer ... And secondly, that our social safety net is unravelling in the face of this prosperity -- our health care system is worse, our education system is worse, the quality of life in our cities is deteriorating."
It surely isn't a coincidence that the Cons are now scrambling to relabel their provincial funding into the "social programs" column rather than the "transfer to the provinces" one.

But a good chunk of that will be in the form of a revised equalization formula with no direct link to program funding. And even any amount provided in transfer payments will offer little (if any) means of tracing that funding into genuine provincial investment.

Which means that it's all too likely that even an election budget under favourable fiscal conditions will have little demonstrable positive effect due to the Cons' aversion to effective government. And that can only signal just how little interest the Cons have in getting anything done in the longer term on the issue seen as most important to Canadians.

Update: Robert has more.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Double the hypocrisy

The latest Cherniak story just keeps getting better, as the Liblogs administrator is now up in arms over the prospect that anybody would think of comparing him to "Stalin (possibly the worst mass murderer in history)".

Which makes for the following timeline:
- Cherniak claims that doing X makes the NDP "Stalinistic".
- Cherniak does X.
- Cherniak goes into a fit of outrage at the prospect that anybody would compare the act of doing X to anything Stalinistic.

So let's take stock of what kinds of actions are to be considered acceptable in Cherniak's world.

Purging people based on a perceived failure to toe the party line is outrageous. Except when Cherniak does it.

And comparing one's political opponents to Stalin is beyond the pale. Except when Cherniak does it.

This has been today's lesson in Lib principles. Carry on.

A dogged defence

Shorter Officially Screwed:

The fact that nobody sees the Cons' tax credits as worth bothering with just proves that they're working!

A periodic assessment

Notes from today's Question Period:

- Elizabeth May's riding announcement was obviously as poorly kept as a secret can be in Canadian politics. But her choice of issues may be more surprising: in addition to the environment and foreign policy, she seems to want to make a major theme out of MacKay's role in the PC/Alliance merger. Given that MacKay won 43% of the vote in the 2004 election and saw his margin of victory decrease in 2006 after the merger presumably faded in voters' memories, it's questionable why May would want to attack that relatively distant decision rather than the ample material offered by the Harper government.

- As usual, Jim Flaherty didn't have much of interest to say. This is all too likely to be true tomorrow as well.

- More interesting was that Stephane Dion wouldn't rule out essentially conceding in Central Nova, declaring only that no decision has been made as to whether or not to try to foist May onto the riding's voters. Can we safely say that any talk of a 308-riding strategy for the Libs is now in the past?

- From Jack Layton's appearance, the most significant news looks to be the apparent lack of progress to date on the committee reviewing C-30. I'd think it would have been all the better for Layton to point out that it would be equally possible to strike a deal with the other opposition parties as with the Cons. However, if the NDP is now saying little more than that the committee is still around rather than that it's likely to get much done, that seems to give a strong sense of what has (and hasn't) happened over the past couple of months.

Even lower in facts

As a follow-up to this post, here's what John Baird wants to claim (against all available evidence) as new developments from the G8 climate summit:
Baird said the most important developments from the Potsdam meetings were a new consensus that climate change exists and must be dealt with, and an agreement that technology will be a vital tool in helping developing nations reduce emissions.
It's somewhat disturbing that Baird is being allowed to represent Canada in public if he's actually unaware that every single state involved in the summit has already signed and ratified the Rio Convention, under which they recognized the problem of climate change and agreed to deal with it. Of course, I'd tend to chalk that particular omission up to the Cons' trademark strategy of "making things up" rather than any lack of knowledge.

And the concept that "technology is a vital tool"? Let's check the Rio Convention in a bit more detail, starting with Article 4:
1. All Parties, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and their specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances, shall:...

(c) Promote and cooperate in the development, application and diffusion, including transfer, of technologies, practices and processes that control, reduce or prevent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol in all relevant sectors, including the energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management sectors;
Now, Baird's line was limited to developing countries. But that doesn't make his claim any more plausible - and indeed one doesn't even have to get past the preamble to the Rio Convention to find a specific reference to the role of technology in developing countries:
Recognizing that all countries, especially developing countries, need access to resources required to achieve sustainable social and economic development and that, in order for developing countries to progress towards that goal, their energy consumption will need to grow taking into account the possibilities for achieving greater energy efficiency and for controlling greenhouse gas emissions in general, including through the application of new technologies on terms which make such an application economically and socially beneficial...
So once again, the point which Baird seeks to claim as current progress was in fact agreed to 15 years ago. What's more, on this one Baird doesn't even have the excuse that his party-mates did their utmost to undermine any agreement in the meantime. And there's surely not much reason to think there was a never-reported Luddite delegation to meetings in between which insisted on dealing with climate change without technology being involved.

In sum, while Baird may be louder than his predecessor on the environment file, he apparently isn't any more interested in dealing with facts rather than fabrications. And it'll only be a continued embarrassment to Canada if he and his party remain in a position to represent Canada while so clearly showing their contempt for reality.