Saturday, June 23, 2007

Voter beware

He hasn't often been considered by the media to be one of the Cons' weaker ministers - and indeed is being talked up as a possibility to clean up the mess Gordon O'Connor has made of Defence. But Tony Clement has managed to be the culprit in a least a couple of seeming question period gaffes which haven't managed to win media attention. And he may have topped them all in another exchange with Penny Priddy to finish off the spring session:
Ms. Penny Priddy (Surrey North, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, there has been tainted carrot juice, spinach laced with e-coli, dog food that leads to severe health issues and death. Now we find that ordinary Canadians have been exposed to counterfeit toothpaste and other personal hygiene items. Canadians are quickly losing confidence in imported foods and personal items.

With bad trade deals and understaffed inspectors, the government does not seem to grasp the severity of the issue. Releasing warnings to the media is not enough.

Why has the minister not taken the Consumer Products Association's advice and made importers responsible for the contents of their goods?

Hon. Tony Clement (Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, this is indeed a serious situation. The hon. member is talking about the possibility of tainted toothpaste which has been available in the marketplace.

I can tell the hon. member that in fact we do have inspectors and investigators who are on the scene and who are busy analyzing the products to see whether there is any kind of health hazard. That is what we do. We are responding to this situation. Indeed, we do have staff who are involved in the counterfeit situation as well. They monitor to ensure that we have a response if counterfeit products do appear on our shelves.

The best advice I can give until that investigation is complete is buyer beware.
Once again, it's surprising that Clement seems to have managed to escape much attention for what strikes me as an alarming statement. After all, Canadians concerned that unsafe products have found their way onto store shelves can only have all the more reason to worry now that the minister responsible has made it clear that in his view, it's their responsibility to figure out whether they've unwittingly bought harmful products.

Of course, it could be that the opposition is largely holding its fire from Clement in hopes that he'll still be available as a juicy target when they need one later on. And it seems likely that if actually moved to the Defence portfolio, he'd give Gordon O'Connor a run for his money in headline fodder.

But it's hard to see how that potential for future attacks justifies letting the Health Minister off the hook for saying that Canadians are on their own when it comes to product safety. And it seems likely that if Canadians knew just how far the Cons' laissez-faire philosophy seems to go, then voters wouldn't hesitate to start wondering how quickly they can trade Clement and his ilk in toward a different government.


The NDP's efforts at Quebec recruitment have paid off with the Outremont candidacy (and province-wide presence) of Thomas Mulcair. Meanwhile, the Gazette reports that the Cons' much-discussed attempt to find their own star candidate for Outremont in the person of Marcel Tremblay has met with complete failure:
Rumours of Marcel Tremblay's Conservative candidacy were greatly exaggerated.

Or so says Montreal city hall, which ended speculation yesterday about the possibility the city councillor and city executive committee member would run for the Tories in a federal by- election in Outremont riding.

A day after former Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair declared he will run in the riding for the New Democratic Party, city hall denied rumours that Tremblay had now decided to bow out of the race.

Tremblay, who is the brother of Mayor Gerald Tremblay, never dropped his hat into the ring in the first place, city hall spokesperson Darren Becker said. "He never was a candidate, and he is not a candidate," Becker said.
Mind you, the Cons will presumably take solace in their inroads into the retiring former paleo-Lib demographic. But when it comes to building any party momentum going into both the anticipated by-election and general elections beyond, all indications are that the Cons' fortunes are on the wane...while the NDP is positioned to make some significant progress.

(Edit: typo.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

On needless complexity

The Ontario Lib government's ballot question for this fall's referendum on electoral systems was released a couple of days ago. With that in mind, I'll take a moment to point out what strikes me as the biggest problem with the Libs' wording before any talk about the ballot itself gives way to an all-out push on the substantive issue.

The ballot question will be as follows:
Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?/Quel système électoral l’Ontario devrait-il utiliser pour élire les députés provinciaux à l’Assemblée législative?

The existing electoral system (First-Past-the-Post)/L’actuel système électoral (système de la majorité relative)

The alternative electoral system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly (Mixed Member Proportional)/L’autre système électoral proposé par l’Assemblée des citoyens (système de représentation proportionnelle mixte)
I have to agree to at least some extent with the Ontario NDP's concerns about the question. But Prue only seems to tangentially discuss the most striking problem I see in the question as phrased:
New Democrat critic Michael Prue said he's now even less confident that electoral reform will take place, and called the question biased since it lists the existing system first.

"Whenever you (ask people to) choose A or B, invariably, A has a much higher preponderance of being chosen than B," Prue said.

The question should have been framed with a yes or no option, asking voters if they wanted to adopt the new system supported by the citizens' assembly, he said.

Prue also complained the question wasn't presented to the legislature for approval and that the threshold to enact change is too high.
What Prue barely hints at is the clunky wording put together by the Libs - which, like so much of the process put together by McGuinty's government, seems aimed at offering a false sense of commitment to reform while subtly blocking any attempt to change the current system.

Consider by comparison what voters see on ordinary electoral ballots. Since these ballots are based solely on candidates' names and party affiliations, each candidate has two hooks to use to associate a single word with their desired message. And the ballot is arranged so that the voter will likely read both of those hooks for each candidate - without having to search for them in a jumble of words - before casting the ballot.

In a referendum process, a one-hook system is probably more feasible. A "yes/no" structure offers probably the best approximation of that relatively simple layout, while being familiar for those who have seen U.S. plebiscite advertising. (Not to mention that it would have allowed the putative "yes" side to make use of the associations it's been working on building for some time now, rather than having to start from scratch.)

But even a layout which simply asked - for example - "Which electoral system would you prefer to see used in Ontario? 'FPP' or 'MMP'", with accompanying materials to explain what those options mean for those who want to read more, would make for a far more fair playing field. With that type of minimalist ballot, both sides could try to link their message to a simple, three-letter term which will voters could find on the ballot without any difficulty.

Instead, the ballot as put together will make it unnecessarily problematic for the issue campaigns to attach their message to anything voters will read at the polls. At best, the "yes" campaign figures to try to hook into "alternative" and "Citizens' Assembly" - but both phrases figure to get lost on the ballot as planned, particularly with the clutter printed in two languages.

And for the "no" side, "existing" is hardly an inspiring or memorable message to tap into either. Though of course the combination of the needlessly cluttered wording and the high threshold for change may well create enough intertia to ensure that no actual campaign is needed to preserve the status quo.

Hopefully the push for electoral reform will be strong enough to overcome yet another needless obstacle. But between the disappointing starting point and the roadblocks put in place by the Libs, it's hard to be optimistic - no matter how popular MMP has proven to be among ordinary Ontarians given the chance to get informed.

Disproportionate contributions

There can be little doubt that the spring session of Parliament was marked by a strong opposition push against Deceivin' Stephen's Cons. But the NDP has some surprising numbers on the relative contributions of the different opposition parties:
(T)he Liberals had the worst record of any party on being in the House for votes with a staggering 16% absentee rate for any given vote. Conversely, the NDP had the best attendance of any opposition party, tabled the most private member's bills and tabled (more) written questions on the order paper than any other opposition party.

Cullen took aim at the Bloc Quebecois, who despite holding 16 percent of the seats in the House of Commons tabled 3 percent of private members motions, less than 8 percent of private member's bills and less than 7 percent of written questions...

Wasylycia-Leis said that when it comes to private member’s bills, motions and written questions, one NDP MP did the work of 9 Liberal MPs and 18 Bloc MPs.
Now, quantity alone doesn't necessarily prove anything as to the quality of a party's opposition efforts. But to my recollection, the NDP has at least held its own with the Libs in breaking stories about the Cons through its own research as well. And if the NDP has managed to accomplish no less than the Libs with less than a third as many seats (and a correspondingly smaller media platform to work from), then it has to be worth contemplating how much more it could do with additional MPs in the House of Commons.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Canadians will indeed respond by putting more Dippers - hopefully starting with Thomas Mulcair - into Parliament. And it could be that the other opposition parties will follow the NDP's lead this fall...which would be all the better news in the goal of holding the Cons to account.

But one way or another, the NDP looks to have every reason to be proud of its contribution in the spring session. And Harper and company surely can't be looking forward to seeing what more is in store for them once Parliament reconvenes.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On selective democracy

I'm surprised it took this long for the seemingly inevitable deal to be reached, but the Libs and Cons in the Senate have agreed that both the budget and the Kyoto implementation bill will be voted on tomorrow. But even an agreement reached by his own party isn't stopping at least one prominent Con from declaring that he wants to see the Senate continue to block the will of the majority in Parliament:
The Harper government has struck a deal with the Liberal-dominated Senate that will see royal assent today to a controversial private member's bill on implementing the Kyoto accord on climate change in return passing the 2007 federal budget without amendments.

The Senate's deputy government leader Gerald Comeau announced the agreement Thursday afternoon after the upper chamber's national finance committee fast-tracked the budget bill through two days of hearings this week that included Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald encouraging Liberals to pass amendments to the new equalization formula...

Peter Van Loan, the government House leader in the Commons, said he wasn't aware of any deal and added that he hoped the Kyoto bill wouldn't go through because it was bad for Canada.
Needless to say, Van Loan joins his boss in having a consistent track record of claiming that an unelected Senate shouldn't be standing in the way of bills passed by a majority in the House of Commons - at least, when it comes to bills put forward by his party. But as is the case for so many of his Con partymates, Van Loan's apparent interest in the will of Canadian voters ends at the point where he disagrees with them in the slightest.

Fortunately, it looks like Van Loan and company will be forced to accept defeat on Bill C-288. But even as the current standoff seems to have come to an end and Canada's federal politicians head home for the summer, the Cons don't seem even faintly likely to change their playbook when Parliament reconvenes this fall. And it'll be important then to keep in mind just how brazen the Cons remain in applying double standards now.


It's good enough news that the message that Harper and his Cons can't be trusted is continuing to be a main opposition theme. But it's all the better that the same analysis is also coming from the dying breed of principled Cons. Which brings us to John Cummins:
Maverick Tory MP John Cummins is criticizing the federal Transport Minister, a caucus colleague, over suggestions the government has widely consulted on plans to merge three key Lower Mainland ports.

Suggestions by Lawrence Cannon that there has been a positive response to the proposal from international shippers and carriers illustrates the problem at hand, Mr. Cummins says in a letter obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The assertion "is a reflection of the narrow consideration and lack of real consultation that has gone on to date," Mr. Cummins writes in the June 19 letter to the minister.

"Where was the reaction from local communities? This merger continues to be about the needs of shippers, not the needs of the Fraser River or the people who reside near it."...

Mr. Cummins said there was a contradiction between the minister's commitment in the June 16 edition of the Canada Gazette to seek stakeholder views and a May 30 regulatory impact analysis statement in which the minister touts positive responses from ships agents, representatives of ocean carriers that call on West Coast terminals and national supply chain and logistics companies.

"No mention was made of concerns expressed by myself or others with regard to the proposed merger," Mr. Cummins writes.
Of course, it shouldn't be much surprise that the Cons generally see back-slapping as "consultation" and criticism as something to be buried. But when even Con MPs themselves recognize the constant impulse to deny the very existence of competing views, there's all the less reason for Canadian voters to think their government is offering anything but a painfully distorted picture of reality.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On foreseen delays

The CP reports on the Cons' latest decision to put U.S. pressure ahead of Canadian interests, this time by declining to regulate trans fats for years to come. And the Cons' excuse for not acting now only hints at a delay even longer than the one they're willing to admit to:
Health Canada will delay regulation of trans fats in Canadian food products for at least two years, calling instead for industry to voluntarily limit use of the heart-clogging compounds.

Critics blame the delay on opposition from the U.S. government, whose food industry would face complications exporting to Canada if Ottawa introduced binding limits...

Clement said regulations will be introduced in two years if the industry doesn't meet the targets...

"My point is this: let's keep on that track, let's make sure that the marketplace responds to consumer demand, but if in two years we do not meet our targets, the government will regulate. Even if we wanted to we could not regulate tomorrow anyway, because it takes time to do that in an appropriate way, especially because of trade issues and so on."...

NDP critic Pat Martin was furious with the delay, calling it gutless and cowardly. He alleged that Clement backed off due to concerns about falling out of step with the United States.

The two countries have been trying to harmonize their regulations in health, environment and other areas. Ottawa has repeatedly been accused of weakening regulations in areas such as pesticide residue and auto emissions for the sake of a harmonized Canada-U.S. approach.
In Clement's view, the fact that regulation takes time is supposed to offer some reason for not acting now. But based on the Cons' apparent strategy, there won't even be any start to the process until it's possible to determine whether the voluntary targets have been met - meaning that two years from now, there'll still be a need for a full consultation process to delay any actual regulations even further.

Which will presumably suit the U.S. and its exporters just fine. But for the good of Canadians whose health may be affected by trans fats, there's no excuse for refusing to at least get a framework ready and a process underway so that the reduction targets can be made binding immediately if they're not met voluntarily. And hopefully yet another example of how Canada's interests rank a distant second in the Cons' eyes will help ensure that Clement and his ilk are far from the levers of power long before their two-year snooze alarm goes off.

On departures

It's easy to see why the Cons would be happy with reported deal to end the current sitting of the House of Commons today, which includes agreement by all parties to pass one of the Cons' bills and to reconvene if the Senate doesn't pass the budget. But what exactly did the opposition parties get in exchange for giving up their most useful platform to hold the Cons to account?

Contrasting results

Reuters reports that after banning ATM fees at bank-operated machines nearly a decade ago, the UK has now managed to push non-bank ATM operators to provide hundreds of free banking machines in poor and underserved areas:
More than a million Britons in low-income areas are set to benefit from banks and cash-machine operators installing almost 500 non-charging machines this year, the British government said yesterday. Banks and machine operators agreed with the government in December to install 600 free machines, 471 of which should be in place by the end of the year to improve access to financial services for poor and rural communities, the government said.
In related news, Jim Flaherty is seriously considering another feeble media appearance to suggest that Canadian banks could consider doing something to reduce ATM fees on their own, lest he be forced to hint at the issue again. Which in turn is expected to result in Flaherty once again being laughed out of the building.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Delays and distortions

It's no secret that backers of privatization have consistently managed to throw away public money in order to achieve their goal of pushing more activity into the for-profit sector. But Quebec's latest hospital announcement adds a new twist, as the usual illusory cost savings are also being accompanied by a two-year delay in completion:
Twenty-two years after it was proposed, Montreal's first superhospital should be ready for its first ambulance in 2013.

That's two years later than the most recent completion forecast, but the latest delay, incurred by the government's decision to proceed with the superhospitals as public-private partnerships, should save the province more than half a billion dollars, Health Minister Philippe Couillard said yesterday.

That saving does not reduce the announced $3.6-billion price tag, Couillard insisted...

(Finance Minister Monique) Jerome-Forget, who makes no secret of her enthusiasm for PPPs, said the process to determine whether new infrastructure projects would follow the PPP or conventional model would be used for future initiatives, as well.
It's remarkable that the Quebec Libs (and indeed the other two largest provincial parties) appear so completely oblivious to the history of P3s elsewhere, notably in B.C. and in the U.K. And it would seem that the attempt to push back completion of the project at no cost reduction (even before costs get inflated in the future) should only offer one more strong hint at what Quebeckers should expect in years to come if the trend continues.

But with Quebec's government offering just one more indication that it's more interested in privatizing the health sector than improving it, the need for a strong voice for public health care in Quebec has never been more obvious. Which means that the main question now is whether the parties seeking to reverse that order of priorities can get their message to the forefront before it's too late.

On reason for grumpiness

Shorter Jim Flaherty attempting to defend his party's broken promises to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland:
I've heard the Atlantic region is notorious for a culture of defeat. So I'm confident it'll eventually accept whatever we inflict on it.

On losing battles

Based on a lack of any glaring gaffes and a recent land claims proposal, Jim Prentice has been widely portrayed as one of the more competent Con cabinet members. But the Globe and Mail reports that Prentice isn't showing much more reasonable management than most of his fellow Cons, as his department is insisting on appealing a losing case in court in order to put off paying additional benefits:
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice said his government will likely appeal a major court ruling that would expand the number of aboriginals qualifying for services by hundreds of thousands.

In a statement released by his office yesterday, the minister said he would need a ruling from a higher court than the B.C. Supreme Court, which released the judgment last week...

he B.C. Supreme Court decision could transform the way Ottawa deals with aboriginals. It struck down part of a 1985 change to the Indian Act called C-31 on the grounds that it discriminates against natives who trace their roots through their female forebears. The court also raised concern about what is known as the "second-generation cutoff" in which many grandchildren of people who were status Indians in 1985 are now being denied status due to marriages with non-natives.

For the most part, Ottawa has limited its legal obligation to "status Indians," a term it created that currently applies to about 700,000 people. That leaves out hundreds of thousands of Canadians with aboriginal heritage.

Indian Affairs documents obtained by NDP MP Jean Crowder show the department was bracing for "disruption" and rising costs after an expected defeat.
Hopefully the push by Crowder and others will force Prentice to backtrack. But both First Nations in particular and voters in general have every reason to question the competence of a government which thinks it's a good use of resources to pour money into an "expected defeat" to avoid meeting the rights of Canadians.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The sellout continues

Politics Watch reports that Deceivin' Stephen apparently didn't manage to hand enough over in his initial softwood sellout to appease the U.S., and is now looking to sign an even worse deal in order to avoid the litigation that his previous giveaway was supposed to end:
Almost a year after it was signed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons Monday to defend the softwood lumber agreement with the U.S. after reports on the weekend that Canada may consider making concessions to the U.S...

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail reported Trade Minister David Emerson said opinion in government is divided over whether Ottawa should fight in court a U.S. complaint that some provincial aid programs to the lumber industry are subsidies and the Canadian companies are not paying enough export taxes under the 2006 deal...

Emerson's comments to the Globe outraged NDP leader Jack Layton who asked in question period, "Why do governments continue to make concessions when negotiations are over?"

"We're seeing the United States attacking our provinces for simply trying to manage their natural resources and what does the government do? They start looking at the idea of adding export taxes to this sector and that will cost us more than the tens of thousands of jobs that we've already lost."
Seeing as that the Cons have proven beyond doubt before that they don't much care how their deals affect actual producers within Canada, the result of any negotiation figures to be yet another disaster - particularly with the Cons no less desperate to claim any type of accomplishment (however negative) than they were in signing the initial deal.

But if Canadians realize just how eager the Cons are to concede every point the U.S. thinks to bring up, they don't figure to stand for that type of relationship for long. And hopefully today's attention will force the Cons to back off their latest move to that effect.

On power trips

It figures that the Cons can't even allow a dangerous idea like the no-fly list exist for so much as a day without looking for a way to make it worse:
The federal government has not ruled out eventually linking Canada's new no-fly list -- which takes effect today -- with technology that identifies travellers by biological features such as eye patterns or even DNA, says Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon...

In an interview with the Citizen, Mr. Cannon said the government "is not excluding" the possibility of linking the list to biometric travel documents.
Needless to say, Cannon wouldn't likely be hinting at the future expansion of the intrusiveness of the no-fly list without some significant intention to follow up. Which means that Canadians can all too likely look forward to even more reckless spending on measures which figure to cause massive problems for innocent travellers, while failing utterly to make anybody safer.

A double dose

Shorter CMA president-elect Brian Day (2 for the price of 1 edition):
(1) Because private health care exists now, it should be expanded. For this reason, I also support greater pollution, higher taxes, and increased gang presence in our cities.
(2) Speaking of hypocrites, I hear Tommy Douglas himself may have used private health care rather than waiting until Medicare existed to see a doctor. Some father of universal health care he was.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

On message

It's been a few months since I mused that it was long past time for "Harper can't be trusted" to become the central theme coming from the opposition. But based on this past weekend's headlines and leader quotes, it looks like the message is becoming the norm just in time for the summer break from Parliament:

- The NDP's website features a "Broken promises show Harper can’t be trusted" headline...

- Jack Layton has in turn echoed the message as a point made by constituents...

- And while Stephane Dion doesn't appear to have put the precise phrase together, a headline of "Atlantic dealings show PM can't be trusted, Dion says" can only help to get the word out.

We'll see whether Dion in particular veers off course again - and of course there's plenty of need to describe a positive alternative beyond pointing out Deceivin' Stephen's faults. But if this keeps up, it may not be long before the Cons pine for the days when they were in striking distance of winning even another minority government.

On inconsistency

Full credit to the Senate for ensuring that Canadians won't have to worry about identity theft and other dangers arising out of birthdate information being made available by Elections Canada. But it's worth noting that while Lib senators may have played an important role in fixing the most glaring flaw with Bill C-31, it's the House Libs (and Bloc) who were most responsible for the problem in the first place:
The Senate added a last-minute wrinkle as the Commons rushed legislation through this week in advance of a summer recess, amending a government electoral bill that proposed to give political parties access to the birth dates of every registered federal voter in Canada.

The amendment may be a blessing in disguise for the Conservatives after witnesses and senators from both sides condemned the provision as a violation of privacy rights that could increase identity theft.

The Senate returned Bill C-31 to the Commons with several amendments late Thursday...

Despite recent acrimony in the Senate over a government bill attempting to limit Senate terms to eight years, and promises of more confrontation next week over a budget bill changing the fiscal equalization formula for provinces with less wealth, Liberal and Conservative senators were united in their opposition to distributing voter birth dates to political parties...

Liberal and NDP MPs said they will support the Senate amendment, which will be taken up in the Commons when Parliament resumes in the fall.
It's certainly a plus that the Libs have come around now. And with the Cons having voted against the Bloc's original amendment (albeit while stating that they supported including birthdate information - see the committee proceedings generally), it looks like there should be more than enough votes to make sure that C-31 will be cut down in scope to remove at least the birthdate flaw.

Which is well and good as long as the House does pass C-31 in a slightly less toxic form. But based on the Libs' turnaround, it seems clear that the official opposition either hadn't thought through the ramifications of what it first voted for, or is trying to rewrite history now that enough public attention has prevented C-31 from providing more information to political parties with no regard for possible harm to the general public. And the credit for any current improvement surely has to go to the NDP and the Senate for taking a critical eye to the bill in the first place - not to a party which went out of its way to maximize the damage before thinking better of it.

H/T to Robert.

The gifts that keep on giving

The Montreal Gazette follows up yesterday's news about Deceivin' Stephen's illegally-accepted gifts by reporting on the gifts given to and from other MPs. And judging from one curious bit of censorship, it looks like Peter MacKay's love life is being treated as a matter of national security:
And what do Canada's ministers give their foreign counterparts?

A list, obtained through an Access to Information request, revealed that Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay gave U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a bottle of ice wine and a case of CDs that included Canadian singers Francine Levesque, Holly Cole, George Canyon and Michael Buble, along with music by the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The value of the romantic package was blanked out by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It remains to be seen whether MacKay merely overpaid due to leaving his shopping until the last minute, or whether there's another reason why the amount isn't being disclosed. But either way, this offers just one more example of the Cons' compulsive suppression of information - and hopefully one which will attract enough discussion to bring more attention to the bigger picture as well.