Saturday, August 23, 2008

Diverging interests

In most cases, the anti-government ideology exemplified by the Harper Cons tends to go hand in hand with a corporate desire to avoid regulation. But Canwest reports that the Cons' planned changes to the CFIA are so far removed from the realm of reasonable policy that even the meat industry wants nothing to do with them:
The decision to eliminate the Canadian Food Inspection Agency program requiring companies to get all labels approved for meat and processed fruit and vegetable products before they get to market was made quietly in November...

Robert de Valk, a food-regulation consultant specializing in labelling, says the reasoning doesn't hold up. After reviewing details of the plan supported by Treasury Board, he said the decision to terminate the pre-market label approval for domestic and imported products is the "most dangerous part" because it undermines consumer confidence.

The former member of a food policy group advising the agriculture minister said "we are taking something that works and creating confusion in the consumer's mind. When you create confusion in the consumer's mind, their confidence drops, and that's dangerous."

De Valk, the Canadian representative of the North American Meat Processors Association, joins a growing list of industry leaders opposing the move, even as the government tries to sell it as a business-friendly move to "reduce the regulatory burden by eliminating the requirements for mandatory label registration," according to the talking points.

The Food Processors of Canada says the decision to cut the program is like "playing Russian roulette with the Canadian public." President Christopher Kyte said the label review unit is composed of about eight people who play a vital role in food safety.

"They prevent mislabelling and unsafe products from ending up on store shelves. They catch things like illegal chemicals and misleading health claims. What we want to do is prevent these products from reaching the marketplace. To chase down these products in grocery stores doesn't seem like a good use of our inspectors."...

"It doesn't make sense to do away with pre-market review to save $87,000," (De Valk) said, arguing it's wiser to employ a handful of people to ensure labels are accurate instead of asking hundreds of inspectors to review labels on store shelves.
It's worth noting first just how much less efficient the Cons' plan would make the CFIA. Even as the government talking points refer to hiring more inspectors, the effect of focusing on in-store inspections rather than verification at the source is to require many more inspectors to do less effective work. And nobody would figure to gain from that result - with the possible exception of a party looking for an excuse to carry out more cuts later.

That said, the larger industry concern figures to be with consumer confidence rather than government efficiency. With even the industry involved recognizing that it's better off with added assurances that products are safe, there doesn't seem to be anybody other than the Harper government (and perhaps a presumably small minority of producers who would prefer to take a chance with public safety) with any stake in backing the Cons' CFIA cuts. But since the Cons are apparently too bent on forcing an election to even bother performing the jobs they currently hold, it seems clear that it'll take a change in government to reverse the decision for the benefit of both producers and consumers.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Shorter Gerry Ritz:
As far as I'm concerned, the real heroes are those who ensure that anybody who dares to tell the truth faces the full wrath of a vengeful government.

Heads I win, tails you lose

Cameron largely debunks the Libs' attempt to spin Jack Layton's comments on whether Deceivin' Stephen can legitimately call a fall election on his own. But let's look at this from another angle.

Much as I hate to see any discussion of policy give way to the usual Harper/Dion wrangling as to whether or not there will be an election soon, the reality is that Harper managed to push the question into the public eye with his threat to force an election. Which raises the obvious question of whether Harper could legitimately do so. And the issue only presents two possible answers on the part of Layton or anybody else: either Harper can legitimately ignore his own fixed elections date to force an early election without a non-confidence vote in Parliament, or he can't.

Now, consider what the Libs would have Layton say in response to Harper's latest gambit. Is there a Lib alive who would prefer to see Layton defend the idea that Harper would force an early election? And more to the point, is there a Lib alive who wouldn't have used such a response to try to revive the always-laughable claim that Layton is somehow in league with Harper?

Of course, the Libs need to spin reality for their own benefit too. Which offers some explanation, if not any justification, as to how they're now equating a statement that Parliament should be allowed to do its job with a party voting or holding fire over 40 times to prop up a government and its policies which they claim to oppose.

But if the best the Libs can do is to stretch the truth beyond recognition in order to pretend that Layton is anywhere near as useless as Dion, that should offer a strong signal as to who's rightly seen as the true opposition to the Cons.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Drying up

Amidst all the discussion about how the Cons are looking to dismantle some of Canada's existing civil service structure, the Canadian Press reports that the Cons are also both ignoring their own promises and putting Canada's future at risk by failing to deal with looming water problems:
Canada’s stores of fresh water are not as plentiful as once thought, and water shortages threaten to pinch the economy and pit provinces against each other, says a newly released document.

An internal report drafted last December by Environment Canada warns that climate change and a growing population will further drain resources...

The Conservatives promised a national water strategy in last fall’s throne speech but have been criticized since for announcing only piecemeal projects. The Tories, like the previous Liberal government, are also behind in publishing annual reports required by law that show how water supplies are used and maintained.

The last assessment posted on Environment Canada’s website is from 2005-06.

The internal draft report says the government currently does not know enough about the country’s water to properly manage it...

(G)overnment data on the country’s groundwater reserves is deemed "sparse and often inadequate."

That’s in contrast to the United States, which has spent more than a decade mapping its underground water reserves. Canada shares aquifers with the U.S., and the report says: "Our lack of data places Canada at strategic disadvantage for bilateral negotiations with the U.S."

No one from Environment Canada was immediately available to comment.

The report forecasts droughts in the Prairies and groundwater shortages in British Columbia and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin.

There are already signs of water shortages in the Great Lakes. Lake Superior, the largest of the five, fell to its lowest level on record last September. Lakes Michigan and Huron were about 50 centimetres below their historical average levels last fall.

The report says a 0.08- to 1.18-metre drop in Great Lakes water levels costs the hydro-electric industry between $240 million and $350 million each year.
Needless to say, there isn't much about how the Cons have handled the water issue that differs from how they fail to handle most problems. But the fact that all the problems are all coming out at the same time should give Canadians pause about how their country is being run.

After all, not only have the Cons allowed Canada to fall even further behind in tracking just how many resources we have (and how much risk they may face), but they've gone years without producing required reports to at least inform Canadians about how badly they've managed the issue. And if the Harper government indeed doesn't care about either the law or the obvious policy ramifications of Canada's water resources, then there's ever more reason to wonder how they could even pretend to be competent to run the country.

Setting the table

There's been no lack of good commentary on the Cons' plan to eliminate the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's role in inspecting meat (among other areas). But let's note that while it's only meat inspection and other specific areas which would stand to be cut now, the current set of changes would only figure to be a precursor to a wholesale demolition of the CFIA in the future.

Here's what the Cons' current plan looks like:
The Globe and Mail obtained a copy of the document. It consists of a letter from Treasury Board Secretary Wayne Wouters to CFIA president Carole Swan, followed by a table of proposed spending cuts. The agency is asked to cut 5 per cent of its budget as part of a government-wide "strategic review." However, unlike many other departments required to undergo the same process, the agency is promised in the document that the government will return the savings to it for new spending priorities.

Among the 13 areas proposed for cuts is meat inspection: "Shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks," the document states.
The Cons' spin will presumably be that for now, their plan is merely to shift some of the inspection burden from the CFIA to the private sector, with the CFIA ultimately able to do more by shifting current funding to new, unspecified priorities.

Here's one of the problems with that, though: it's hard to see how the Cons could meaningfully evaluate whether the shift would be cost-efficient when they don't yet have a clue what the money would be spent on. And the fact that the Cons don't seem to care where the money is redirected to offers a hint at what may be coming in the long run if they get their way.

After all, the Cons' decision to attack 5% of department spending under their current review process is almost certainly a product of their having just come to power in a minority government: in the longer term, their anti-government bent will demand more and bigger cuts. And there could surely be few juicier targets for demolition down the road than a Food Inspection Agency which doesn't actually inspect food.

Alternatively, the Cons may see the CFIA as a source of patronage goodies, contracting out regulatory tasks to the corporate sector with no internal ability to assess whether anything's being done (and all in the name of claiming to make government more efficient). And sadly, that may be the better of the two plausible long-term outcomes, since it might leave enough structure for a future government to at least rebuilt a competent inspection agency relatively quickly.

What remains to be seen is whether the public will stand for either of those kinds of change, particularly in the face of a vivid example of why the private sector can't be counted on to regulate itself. But it's worth keeping in mind that as harmful as the Cons' current cuts look to be, they're likely just the beginning when it comes to hollowing out the federal regulatory structure.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On sourcing

Canwest reports on a truly embarrassing example of how the Cons are going out of their way to avoid making useful information available to the public. That's right: because the Cons still refuse to make Health Canada's latest study available on government websites (as part of their well-documented history of suppressing the study), any Canadian looking for the Government of Canada's most recent and best expert study on the effects of climate change needs to seek out a blogger's posted copy rather than being able to find what they're looking for through the many public websites devoted to the topic.

On battle lines

Come to think of it, there may be ample reason why neither the Cons nor the Libs are considered competent by the public when it comes to health care. The Globe and Mail reports that while Harper and Dion bicker about how to force an election for reasons with nothing to do with policy, the Canadian Medical Association has moved from a leader who kept his support for privization on the back burner to one who plans a full frontal assault on public service delivery:
The natural next step for Canada's health system is allowing more private delivery, which will give patients more choice, and better access to care, the new president of the Canadian Medical Association says.

“My whole career has been about resolving access issues. This is my battle horse,” said Robert Ouellet, who takes over Wednesday as president of the CMA...

“I've never hidden what I do. I'm not ashamed of it. In fact, I'm quite proud,” he said in an interview in his spartan office in suburban Laval.
Fortunately, the medical community isn't lacking for members who are willing to speak up about the need to keep health care in public hands. And the more the CMA pushes privatization into the public eye, the more likely voters will be to recognize the importance of representatives in both the health care system and the political system who aren't so distracted by partisan wrangling as to lose track of the fight to improve public health care.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Partisanship run amok

It doesn't seem to be getting all that much attention in the midst of the glitz and glamour of an Agriculture Committee meeting, but Kady points out a remarkably partisan ministerial statement from Gerry Ritz. But now that it's clear that ministers under the Harper government don't have any role other than to attack the opposition in their areas of supposed responsibility, what is there left for the Cons to turn into a conduit for their talking points?

With that in mind, and knowing that we probably shouldn't be giving Korn Kob Kory any ideas, here are a few which I fully expect to see by the time the next federal election rolls around:

- New Government of Canada logo suspiciously matches that of the Conservative Party.
- Product labelling standards include a government-approved estimate of how much more all goods would cost under a carbon tax.
- New immigration rule: any Republican Party member willing to move to Canada gets first priority.
- All CBC programming now required to include an overlay of a smiling Stephen Harper. Global follows suit voluntarily.
- Cons decide to prorogue Parliament after all; new throne speech consists solely of Michaelle Jean thumbing her nose at opposition benches.
- New Canada Food Guide suggestion: replace 6 glasses of water with 6 glasses of Harper Kool-Aid.
- Canadian Armed Forces television ads rewritten to include "Fight Taliban Jack".

Monday, August 18, 2008


Shorter Tony Clement:
Canadian doctors have some nerve in failing to apply "first, do no harm to the Conservatives" as their core ethical principle.

On poor perceptions

The Star reports on another recent set of issue polling which deals with the Con government alone. And combining these results with the Harris-Decima ones which came out last week, it's striking how poorly both the Libs and Cons are apparently seen by Canadians:
Forty-eight per cent of respondents said the Tories had done a poor job "fixing climate change" and 43 per cent said they have done a poor job on health care...

Thirty-nine per cent of those surveyed said the federal government was doing a good job managing the economy, compared with 30 per cent who thought it was performing poorly.
Assuming the respondent pools are similar enough to compare the numbers, it's striking how the "poor" numbers for the Cons compare to the lack of any relative preference for the Libs.

On the economy, it would seem highly significant if significantly more Canadians see the Cons as doing a poor job (30 per cent) than think the Libs are equipped to do any better (22 per cent). And on health care, it's remarkable that a plurality of respondents could consider the Cons to be better qualified than the Libs even when as many as 43 per cent see the Cons as having done poorly (in a poll which seems to include neutral and/or undecided components).

All of which would seem to suggest that the Harris-Decima relative comparison may say far more about a low public opinion of the Libs than any actual comfort level with the Cons. And while it may be too much to ask the Libs to turn around their current public perceptions in time for a fall election campaign, the door would seem to be wide open for another party - particularly one with a historical brand based the one area where neither the Cons nor the Libs seem to have any strength - to emerge as another governing alternative.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On small print

Kady O'Malley points out that the Cons are now requiring potential candidates to "enter into any reasonable financial arrangements with the Conservative Party of Canada concerning the payment for the provision of campaign services by the Party to the candidate". And it's not hard to see how that kind of requirement would set up the groundwork for an even more extreme version of the Conadscam scheme.

Remember this from the time of the last federal election campaign:
(T)he documents assembled by the Elections Canada investigators to justify a search of Conservative headquarters last week say the party brass was not pleased when local campaigns refused to take part in what has become known as the in-and-out scheme.

"There were two outright refusals - Beauce and Brome-Mississquoi," Michael Donison, who was then party president, wrote in a December, 2005, e-mail to Conservative officials. "We have discussed and understood Beauce but what is with Brome? Why should they be allowed to just outright refuse?"
With that position looming in the background, the new language would seem to send a signal that as far as the Cons are concerned, candidates in the next federal election campaign will be contractually prohibited from refusing.

Mind you, it's highly debatable whether the Cons could make a "reasonable" demand of anybody to participate in a scheme that's already under investigation. And it's worth wondering as well how any candidate could make a binding commitment to enter into unspecified future agreements when campaign expenses have to be approved by the candidate's then-unnamed official agent to become valid.

But the Cons are clearly far less concerned with those kinds of matters - not to mention the legality of the entire scheme - than they are with adding one more restraint to keep future candidates in line. And neither potential Con candidates nor Canadians at large can have much reason for optimism about what that says about the Cons' priorities.

A change in command

I mused a few weeks ago that a likely influx of U.S. troops into Afghanistan might offer an ideal opportunity for Canada to put an end to its current combat mission. But the Times reports that the rationale for withdrawal may be even stronger than I'd figured, as the U.S.' plan involves a radical restructuring of the current multilateral command structure:
The United States is planning to take control of all military operations in Afghanistan next year with an Iraq-style troop surge after becoming frustrated at Nato’s failure to defeat the Taliban.

Plans are being drawn up to send as many as 15,000 extra troops to Afghanistan with a single US general always in command, as in Iraq, defence sources said.

The Pentagon is also pushing for a permanent “unified command” in the south of the country that would sideline the Dutch and the Canadians.

At present, control of the south is rotated between the British, Dutch and Canadians, the three countries that provide the bulk of the troops.
In other words, the planned U.S. surge doesn't just figure to add more than enough troops to offset the effect of a Canadian pullout. Instead, the U.S.' plan is also based on the assumption that the current NATO mission structure needs to be broken down - with the effect of putting all command responsibilities (and presumably plenty of associated decision-making authority) in the hands of the U.S. alone, rather than any coalition where Canada could possibly influence how the mission is carried out.

Which means that the assumptions underlying the last extension vote no longer seem to be operative. And if staying in Afghanistan under a NATO-commanded mission isn't even an option, then it should be obvious that there's a need to reconsider whether Canada wants to dedicate troops to a purely U.S.-led mission - and likely to conclude otherwise.