Saturday, June 09, 2007

On vacancies

In response to the Cons' choice to attack Stephane Dion over Senate tinkering bills, many commentators rightly responded that the attack is likely to be ineffective because Canadians simply don't care enough about the issue. But apparently at least one Lib senator is clueless enough to have responded both by trying to raise the profile of the Senate as an issue, and taking a strong public stance in favour of the status quo:
A Nova Scotia senator wants Governor General Michaelle Jean to fill vacancies in Parliament's Upper House...

Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore said it's the prime minister's constitutional duty to fill vacancies. If he refuses, then it's up to the governor general to step in...

Moore introduced a motion in the senate Thursday. If it passes before Parliament adjourns for the summer, he will write a letter to Jean's office.

"We would do a proper address to her excellency asking her to fulfill her obligations," Moore said.

There are currently 12 vacancies in the senate. Three of them are Nova Scotian seats. Former premier John Buchanan retired from the senate 14 months ago. Michael Forrestall died last June and Michael Kirby resigned in October.
Moore's angle is apparently based primarily on the potential for Nova Scotia to have three more senators than it does. But in exchange for stoking some minor provincialist sentiment, Moore is handing Deceivin' Stephen a golden opportunity to first slam the Libs for backing a no-change option over his chosen means of rearranging deck chairs, then pretend he has no choice but to call Moore's bluff and appoint a set of partisan Cons to fill the vacant positions.

Of course, it hopefully won't come to that - and indeed the best-case scenario that Moore's call will get completely ignored seems a fairly likely outcome. But if the Libs' senators are really far enough out of touch with reality to want to call public attention to themselves, then Harper figures to get plenty more mileage out of provoking them - and all parties seeking to take down the Cons will face a more difficult fight as a result.

Plus ca change...

Remember back when the Cons' Reform base first crystallized backing the idea of empowered individual MPs as an alternative to the patronage and arm-twisting politics of Brian Mulroney?

Just wondering, since it looks like the ones who made it into office are once again in desperate need of a reminder.

Friday, June 08, 2007

On silver linings

The federal Cons' stay in office has been marked by far too few bright spots. But Robert points out one worth mentioning.


The Ottawa Citizen reports that Gordon O'Connor's Defence Department is continuing to thumb its nose at accountability and oversight, this time by trying to stall access requests for documents which have already been made public.

The theory is apparently to try to screen and limit the release of any potentially embarrassing information which wasn't caught the first time. But aside from the fact that "potentially embarrassing" isn't a valid basis for refusing to disclose information, is there really any point to trying to limit embarrassment within a department stuck with O'Connor as its public face?

Clarifying the disruption

As an update and correction to my earlier discussion of the effects of prorogation, John Robson notes that it's in fact only government bills that would be sent back to square one after a new Throne Speech. Which means that private members' bills would be no further from passage than they are now - but the amended C-30, along with a number of government bills which the Cons presumably still support, would still have to go through avoidable procedural hurdles before they could pass.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Headed for the door

Elizabeth May seems to figure that her just-revealed musings about fleeing the Greens' leadership position are a thing of the past. But how long can either Green members in particular or Canadian voters generally bother maintaining support for someone who's apparently burning out even before managing to win the responsibilities that come with a seat in Parliament?

Reason for surprise

Shorter Peter MacKay:
I would never have said our party is willing to tolerate MPs voting their conscience if I'd thought one of our members still had one.

On non-enforcement

In keeping with the recent discussions about health care, the Globe and Mail reports on the enforcement (or lack thereof) of the Canada Health Act in 2006. And while it's bad enough that only one insubstantial fine was ordered against B.C., even that insignificant penalty only highlights the fact that Tony Clement has utterly refused to allow his department to do anything to uphold the Canada Health Act on its own:
Only one province, British Columbia, was fined last year for violating Canada's Health Act after private surgical clinics there charged user fees to patients, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail under the Access to Information Act.

The lack of penalties - the B.C. fine was only $29,019 - comes despite federal government concerns about the proliferation of private clinics across the country. The Health Canada documents reveal a list of 33 for-profit MRI clinics operating in six provinces, and the government worries that if appropriate safeguards are not in place, patients could receive preferred access to medically necessary services by paying out of pocket...

Fining only one province for Canada Health Act violations is in contrast to previous years, when several provinces have been hit with financial penalties. In 2004-2005, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and B.C. were fined more than $78,000 in total...

Every year, (the federal government) writes to the provinces and territories asking whether they are entitled to a full cash transfer payment. Financial statements are then requested 21 months later to confirm the actual amounts of extra billing and user charges that occurred during that fiscal year, according to a memo sent to the federal deputy health minister.

In this case, it was the B.C. government that said private surgical clinics charged $720 for extra billing and $28,298.68 for user charges in 2003-2004, according to a memorandum to Health Minister Tony Clement dated Feb. 24, 2006. Consequently, a deduction of $29,019 was made to B.C.'s health transfer by March 31, 2006.
The existence of any fine might make it sound like there's at least some sign of life in federal enforcement. But it turns out that the lone penalty was based on B.C.'s own self-reporting - once again suggesting that the Cons aren't the least bit interested in verifying that federal public funds get spent according to federal rules.

Of course, today's news is entirely consistent with the Cons' habit of relying on nothing but the word of the same provincial Health Ministers who are responsible for any violations. But for those Canadians who don't share the view that laws about public health care are made to be broken, the report only makes it all the more clear that the Cons can't be trusted with Canada's health care system.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Building links

The lack of a Quebec provincial party with any interest in upholding the Canada Health Act is still worrisome. But the good news is there's at least no vacuum in political action at the federal level, as the NDP is backing the call of the Coalition solidarité santé du Québec to make sure that Canada's public health care system includes Quebec:
The government of Quebec has set up a working group presided by Claude Castonguay that could open the door to private two-tier health care, said NDP Quebec spokesperson Thomas Mulcair with great concern today. Mulcair also expressed the NDP’s support for a gathering organized by the Coalition solidarité santé du Québec today.

With no public consultation or transparency, the conclusions of the working group are preordained. M. Castonguay’s position in favor of user fees, subcontracting to the private sector and questioning the principles of the Canada Health Act are very worrisome.

“We’re afraid this has been rigged. Like the Coalition solidarité santé du Québec, we hope there will be a meaningful public debate and that the fundamental principle of free access to a universal health care system will be respected,” said Mulcair.

“Privatization is the wrong way to go. In the medium and long term, it will only divert public sector resources to the private sector,” stated Pierre Ducasse, NDP candidate in the Hull-Aylmer riding. “In the Outaouais, after years of Liberal MPs, the health care system is in shreds. We need to change direction, but privatization isn’t the solution.”
The questions going forward are just how strong the Coalition can grow, and how closely it'll be able to work with the federal NDP in order to make sure that the message gets heard. But any joint effort figures to offer both the best chance of preserving publicly-funded health care in Quebec, and a tremendous opportunity for the NDP to build its Quebec profile - and today's announcement is a great start on both fronts.

Canada's New Friends

From Deceivin' Stephen on down, the Cons seldom hesitate to try to undermine the United Nations by complaining that countries with questionable human rights record have too much influence. But when it comes time to seek allies in trying to shoot down a declaration of aboriginal rights, suddenly the Cons believe that the more abuses, the merrier:
Amnesty International is accusing Canada of stalling a United Nations negotiation on the rights of indigenous peoples...

It notes that Canada and Russia were the only two members of the 47-country Human Rights Council to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in June 2006.

Amnesty says that since the Conservative government came to power in January 2006, it has been lobbying the UN General Assembly to vote against the declaration, which the previous Liberal government helped draft.

The group contends Ottawa has been encouraging abusive states in Africa, Asia and Latin America to oppose the declaration.

Limited contributions

CanWest reports on a change in House of Commons procedure which will limit the number of questions available to independent MPs. And while it would be easy to sympathize with the concern about reducing the clout of independents, it's worth noting that the current problem seems to originate from some of the independent MPs themselves:
Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs supported a Bloc Quebecois motion yesterday that was prompted by Bloc opposition to the number of questions Speaker Peter Milliken has been awarding to former Bloc MP Lise Thibault, who broke ranks last April and now sits as an independent...

The motion, which still must be adopted by the Commons, introduces the term "Independent MP" for the first time in the authoritative Commons standing orders and would in effect prohibit the Speaker from allowing more than one question a week from all independent MPs combined...

Mr. Guimond complained Ms. Thibault has been allowed a disproportionate share of questions because the other two independent MPs, Andre Arthur and Joe Comuzzi, don't ask questions and Mr. Milliken recognizes Ms. Thibault in their place.
Comuzzi's impending retirement offers some reason to be winding down his role as an MP. But it's still striking that two of the three current independents don't even bother to exercise their opportunity to question the government, particularly given that the lack of any party role presumably makes the House of Commons the place where the independents are best able to make any points that need to be heard.

That said, if the blame for the current imbalance lies with a pair of silent MPs, the solution chosen is far from a perfect one. The purpose of preventing any one independent from earning a disproportionate number of questions would presumably be met just as well by limiting the number of questions for each independent MP rather than lumping all independents together. And indeed it strikes me as bizarre to assume that there's any commonality between independent MPs comparable to the caucus link that justifies the assignment of questions by party - though that seems to be the operating assumption underlying both the current practice and the proposed change.

Barring a sudden conversion by Bill Casey following his expulsion from the Cons, there figures to be one more independent added to the mix - which may well change the picture again before the motion is adopted. But for now, it looks like neither the parties now in Parliament nor independent MPs themselves seem eager to see independents either accomplish much, or be classified as truly independent.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Exceptions and rules

Good on Bill Casey for putting his constituents first by voting against the Cons' choice to break a promise to his home province. But it should be noted that none of the Cons' Saskatchewan MPs - nor any of the other Nova Scotia or Newfoundland members - showed any comparable backbone...making Casey an endangered exception among Con MPs rather than an indication that the party will rein in future promise-breaking by Deceivin' Stephen.

Update: And not surprisingly, the Cons are breaking another promise in response, making an example of Casey by booting him out of caucus.


Shorter Security and Prosperity Partnership cheerleader Robert Pastor:
Having heard nothing but support for the SPP from the corporate actors chosen to push integration forward, I see no reason why the groups excluded would feel any differently. So let's let them have a seat at the table too.

A dangerous direction

It would be easy enough to read Chantal Hebert's column on Quebec's health-care situation and figure that anything which poses political difficulties for Deceivin' Stephen can't be all bad. But based on a quick look over the Cons' history in office, there's precious little reason to think they'll do anything to stop any move toward two-tier health care in Quebec - meaning that barring a surprisingly quick federal election, it'll be the fight within Quebec that determines whether or not Canadian health care survives universally in anything approaching its current form.

Remember that potential violations of the Canada Health Act are nothing new - and when the Cons first took office, Tony Clement wasted no time in shutting down Health Canada's investigations. When questions about double-dipping surfaced in Quebec, Clement was quick to take the province's claim that he didn't need to look into it. And to top it off, Clement then publicly backed the False Creek pay-for-treatment clinic, again based on bare provincial assurances.

Sadly, none of the above received as much attention as Harper's one attempt to position himself as a defender of the Canada Health Act by writing a single tepid letter to Ralph Klein.

But there's no reason to think that a party which has happily shut down any attempt to enforce the Canada Health Act against real activities will change its mind now - especially if there's little argument against a privatized or two-tiered scheme within Quebec. And it's hard to see the Cons paying any particularly large price for their continued negligence when their past actions have barely been noticed.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A poor excuse

While Jack Layton is looking to build bridges to other levels of government, Stephane Dion is surprisingly rejecting Canadian municipalities in their call for a GST transfer:
The day after municipal leaders from across Canada voted to ask the federal government for what amounts to a share of the GST, Liberal leader Stephane Dion said he cannot support the request.

But Toronto Mayor David Miller, who led the charge for the "one cent" campaign says the municipalities will win in the end "because we're right."

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says that towns and cities need the federal funding of about $5 billion a year to fix crumbling roads, transit systems, sewers and water mains. Toronto's share would be $400 million.

The amount is equivalent to diverting one percentage point of the GST to towns and cities – one cent of the six-cent tax on each dollar spent.

But Dion told reporters after a speech to the convention that the federal government needs the money to fight poverty...

"The Prime Minister is committed to decrease the GST by one additional point, that's $5.5 billion. I will use it to fight poverty, and I will work with municipalities on that."
Of course, it's a laudable goal to make a greater effort to fight poverty. But there's no apparent reason why Dion sees the two goals as incompatible - suggesting that Dion's claim is based primarily on an effort to change the subject, rather than a meaningful attempt to direct attention to Canada's neglected poverty issues.

After all, a stable funding arrangement with Canadian municipalities could surely include assurances that the funding would contribute to housing and support programs along with other infrastructure spending. But that would involve working with the municipalities on their proposed number, rather than looking for reasons not to transfer money to the local level.

Instead, Dion seems eager to use poverty as an excuse not to provide funding which could in fact help address the problem - without having any apparent alternative plan to address it with the money that's kept at the federal level. And while Dion may be receiving some credit for not being Deceivin' Stephen, neither municipalities nor those concerned with poverty in Canada should be the least bit happy with his deflection tactic.

The right course of treatment

Bruce Campion-Smith reports that Jack Layton is continuing the NDP's push for a national prescription drug program by meeting with premiers to win their support. And the results so far look extremely promising:
NDP Leader Jack Layton is meeting with provincial premiers to drum up support for a national drug plan that would help Canadians cope with the cost of filling their prescriptions.

Layton says he's heard encouraging words already from Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, whom he met last month, and from British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell. He plans to meet soon with Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert.

"We think it's time to move," Layton said. "We intend to persevere until we get the kind of coverage that all Canadians deserve."

In a speech yesterday, Layton warned that rising drug costs are not just straining health budgets, they have also meant that many patients are unable to afford the drugs they need to get healthy.
Of course, it shouldn't be much surprise if the provinces are onside with the idea - after all, they already agreed to the prospect of a prescription drug plan in 2004. But Layton is rightly selling the message that it'll take active pressure to get anything in place.

And so far, that message seems to be resonating. Most importantly, Campbell's apparent receptiveness highlights the fact that active support for the plan cuts across ideological lines among pundits and politicians alike. And if Layton can sustain a public push over a summer when the federal Cons are in desperate need of policy ideas, then it's far from impossible that prescription drugs could finally be on the table this fall.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Selective sourcing

Bourque Newswatch is apparently calling into question the CP's actions in reporting on the Cons' Harry Rosen overreaction, suggesting through the headline "Canadian Press Fact or Fib" that an anonymously-written article citing an anonymous source must be inherently unreliable when the Cons look bad as a result.

Now, the criticism would be applause-worthy if it seemed to be based on anything approaching a general principle against gratuitous anonymity - both in the media and in government. But can anybody remember Bourque having the slightest concern in the past about the Cons' consistent pattern of anonymous and self-serving leaks? And if not, does this mean that Bourque is merely playing enforcer in ensuring that the impact of anonymous sources runs only in the Cons' favour, as anything which reflects poorly is to be considered untruthful?

Reductions for thee...

Shorter Con position at the G8 climate change summit:
It's pointless to put together any emission reduction agreement which doesn't include every country who could possibly contribute to the problem. That is, except those of us who are special.

On starting points

The Pembina Institute has crunched the numbers underlying last week's news that Canada's greenhouse gas emissions were effectively stable from 2003 to 2005. And while the analysis suggests that emission increases aren't necessarily a thing of the past, it still seems that immediate reductions are well within reach:
Canada still hasn't turned the corner on cutting its greenhouse gas emissions -- even though recent figures suggest the country stabilized the pollution levels linked to global warming in recent years, according to an environmental think-tank's new analysis.

The latest numbers from Environment Canada revealed that overall greenhouse gas emissions remained at 747 megatonnes in 2004 and 2005, up from 745 megatonnes in 2003.

Matthew Bramley, director of climate change policy at the Pembina Institute, said a range of random factors temporarily put a stop to the rise in Canadian emissions from 2003 to 2005. But he expects a steady rise of about 12 megatonnes per year if there are no new federal policies to achieve the country's Kyoto target of lowering emissions to 563 megatonnes.

"It's important not to give the impression that the stabilization in emissions is anything more than a temporary blip, because the underlying trend is (a continued and rapid increase)," said Bramley in an interview. "We very much need to keep the emphasis on the need for much stronger greenhouse gas reduction policies from the federal government than we've seen to date, otherwise we're not going to stop that increase in emissions."
Bramley is right to point out the need for continued and stronger action. But the Pembina Institute's data only reinforces the fact that action toward short-term reductions shouldn't be particularly difficult given that the anticipated rise represents a mere 1.6% of current emissions. Indeed, the impending ban on incandescent lightbulbs alone figures to take care of half of that amount.

Of course, there's still a long way to go to work toward the larger emission cuts required under Kyoto. But Bramley's analysis confirms that there's no need to waste any time griping about "slowing down emissions growth" rather than working toward real reductions. And while the Libs bear full responsibility for letting emissions get to their current levels, the blame for any present and future emissions growth figures to lie with the Cons as long as they're the only party trying to mislead Canadians about where we stand now.