Thursday, December 31, 2009

Still more reviews are in

Adam Radwanski:
(T)o the extent that it helps set the narrative, it reinforces that old impression of a bullying prime minister vastly more concerned with advancing his own partisan interests than in providing good government. A prime minister, in other words, who lacks gravitas, and doesn't look that prime ministerial after all.
(T)he controversy created by proroguing won't necessarily be much smaller than the one that proroguing is meant to escape. Nor is there any guarantee, for that matter, that suspending Parliament will actually work in the latter regard; on the contrary, it could give some people the impression that the Conservatives have a big problem they need to run away from.

Again, this isn't the sort of thing that's going to make or break the government. But it does fit into a rather familiar pattern.

For all the talk of strategic or tactical genius, this is the same party that spent most of the last campaign taking the heat off Stephane Dion with a series of totally avoidable gaffes, and wound up with only a minority government in the easiest election it will ever face. The same party that, almost immediately after that election, nearly brought itself down by totally overplaying its hand. I could go on.

In the past few years, the Conservatives have committed enough unforced errors to rival the Leafs' defencemen. Proroguing Parliament may prove to be another one.
Of course, if Radwanski is right, it's because the prorogation does fit with a message that fits with Harper's existing negatives. So it'll be the task of those who recognize the danger of Harper's efforts to avoid accountability to make that message stick (while keeping the torture cover-up and other issues alive to be revived when Parliament resumes).

More reviews are in

John Geddes:
Fixes for specific shortcomings in the functioning of the House can usually be found. For example, the current impasse concerning turning documents related to the detainee issue over to MPs might be settled by creating a special committee parliamentarians sworn in to hear national security secrets. Many observers have floated promising ideas for improving the tone of Question Period and the functioning of Commons committees.

But all this depends on the executive branch, the Prime Minister and cabinet, showing decent respect for parliamentary tradition. And that means, above all, accepting the Opposition’s role as valid and integral, an idea that evolved in Britain, with the term “His Majesty’s Opposition” coming into use as a convention in the course of debate in 1826.

The Harper government has adopted a position dangerously close to the notion that opposition questioning of the government on any matter relating to Afghanistan is somehow inherently disloyal. As far back as 2007, the Prime Minister himself accused the then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion of caring more about the Taliban than for Canadian troops. In recent weeks government ministers have made a habit recklessly equating defending their own handling of the detainee file with defending the behaviour of Canada’s troops in Kandahar.

That’s not just an obnoxious debating tack. Implicit in the ploy is the notion that the Opposition shouldn’t be pressing the government in the first place on the most serious questions of foreign and defence policy. As if to do so is inherently disloyal. It’s a throwback to the 16th and 17th centuries, when British MPs were permitted to ask about local or private matters, but the big questions of state were out of bounds.

There is no quick fix to a national atmosphere in which proper regard for the House, which calls for something approaching reverence for its conventions, has been deteriorating for so long. We’ve gone on too long talking too often as if the House doesn’t deserve respect. Given that lazy habit in our national conversation, it’s not surprising that the Prime Minister believes he can slam the doors on the place without paying any political price.

On resolutions

With a New Year set to dawn in the wake of the latest Con abuse of power, now would be a good time both to get some donations in to your friendly neighbourhood opposition party before the end of 2009, and to resolve to make sure the Cons' competitors are well-equipped in 2010 and beyond. So here are a few donation links to keep in mind.

- The Cons know well that prorogation will both make opposition research more difficult since Parliament's accountability mechanisms are shut down, and give the government an easier time controlling the public message. A one-time or monthly donation to the NDP can help balance out the Cons' use of public resources for their own purposes. (I'll suggest a one-time donation of $63 - making for a dollar each day the Cons have locked the NDP out of Parliament.)

- Equally importantly, NDP riding associations need funding in order to keep pace with the Cons in the next election campaign (whenever that happens). In order to help elect Saskatchewan NDP MPs in Parliament to replace Cons as soon as possible, a donation to Nettie Wiebe in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar or Noah Evanchuk in Palliser can help to flip a seat that's well within reach. Or if you'd like to help build the NDP's longer-term efforts in other Saskatchewan seats where it already holds a solid second place, you can donate to John Parry in Saskatoon-Wanuskewin, Denise Kouri in Saskatoon-Humboldt, Valerie Mushinski in Prince Albert, and/or Darien Moore in Blackstrap.

Ever cooperative

Shorter Dean Del Mastro, as the Cons' apparent spokesflack on prorogation:

We'll give you the truth about the Afghanistan torture coverup when you pry it from our cold, dead hands.

On motives

I'm in general agreement with the consensus theory that the main motive for Stephen Harper's decision to shut down Parliament yet again is the desire to avoid accountability for the Cons' torture cover-up. But I'd think it's worth considering the possibility that at least part of Harper's motivation also involves wanting to normalize the idea of prorogation itself.

Whatever one's view of its legitimacy, the most recent example of prorogation prior to yesterday took place at a time of heightened political awareness and conflict - likely raising some public perception that we should expect prorogation to be hotly debated and questioned, not brought out of the government's bag of tricks anytime it finds accountability to be a nuisance. And perhaps more importantly, one would expect the Governor-General to take an awfully critical look at any future request which was based on avoiding a non-confidence vote if Harper established a clear pattern of only seeking prorogation for that purpose.

In other words, Harper's evisceration of convention and gratuitous recourse to nebulous executive powers might well be seen as a feature, not a bug. And the most dangerous part of yesterday's events is the precedent that prorogation can be easily obtained with a phone call at any time - and that neither Parliament nor the Governor-General has any recourse in the face of an executive decision to run for the hills.

Many reviews are in

Michael Behiels:
It is becoming patently obvious Harper now presides over a minority government that can all-too-readily be characterized as a not-so-benign dictatorship. Harper successfully exploits the first-past-the-post electoral system -- which he and Flanagan denounced as immature -- and the ideological and political divisions within the opposition parties, to impose his unflinching will on his cabinet, caucus, and what he characterizes as an utterly dysfunctional House of Commons, one made so by the government itself. With his appointment of yet more Conservatives to the Senate, Harper will exercise full and unfettered power over Parliament, a power which he will readily use to cow the judicial branch of government with his so-called tough-on-crime legislation.
Harper's continued use of such bold, provocative and intimidating tactics proves that he is morally convinced that the end -- unfettered power for his Conservative party and government and the wholesale destruction of the centrist Liberal party -- justifies the means.
Susan Riley:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to shut down Parliament for his own partisan convenience -- no more nasty questions about Afghan detainees, no more challenges from a "Liberal-dominated Senate" -- is shocking, but hardly surprising.

It is an expression of this prime minister's contempt not just for Parliament, but for government.

So much for those urgent Tory crime measures that will die on the order paper; so much for an adult debate on the deficit, or pension reform, or Afghanistan after 2011. The assumption is that we will be so wrapped up in the Olympics we won't notice the long silence from Ottawa. We will, in fact, welcome it.

If Harper is right, we deserve the government we aren't getting. This is a richly-blessed country with a well-educated, relatively prosperous population and a degraded political culture. And until its citizens move from apathy and cynicism to outrage and involvement, nothing will change.

Instead, we have seen a decline in political discourse from the theatrical jousting of the Mulroney era, to the crankiness of the Chrétien years to the imbecilic insults and bald-faced lies that dominate politics in the age of Harper.
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald:
Traditionally, majority governments prorogue Parliament when they legitimately run out of items on their agenda. But Mr. Harper is now perversely, repeatedly and cynically using such mechanisms to suit his own partisan agenda.

Prime ministers have much overt and covert power at their disposal. But to use the Constitution as a convenience store — and as a means to buck the system or to duck accountability — is to debase it, something that doesn’t faze Mr. Harper.
Andrew Coyne:
The government’s professed rationale, that this is all about economic planning, is obvious bilge: nothing prevents a government from planning and meeting Parliament at the same time, or certainly shouldn’t. The informal justification its supporters are putting about is scarcely better: it may be inconvenient to the government that its appointees do not yet control all Senate committees, but that is no reason to shutter Parliament. It is a motive, not a defense.
Each time Parliament allows one of these abuses to pass, its power is reduced a little more. Indeed, so diminished has it become that it is hard for some observers to muster much indignation at this latest assault: it’s only Parliament, after all. It’s exactly this sort of whittling away by degrees that has allowed closure, for example, to be invoked more or less routinely to cut of Parliamentary debates, where once it was to be used only in the most extreme circumstances. It was the improper use of closure, recall, that set off the wild, four-week brawl known as the Pipeline Debate. Now, nobody can be bothered.

The time has long since passed for Parliament to take a stand against its own evisceration. The really substantive issue is whether the government will yield to the Commons demand that it produce the Colvin documents, and perhaps that fight can be resumed in March. But proroguing to delay that day of reckoning, possibly in hopes of sneaking through another snap election in the interval, is worthy of some sort of Parliamentary rebuke, which is why the symbolic measure (and it could only be that) of MPs meeting in another place came to mind.
The Ottawa Citizen:
Like many an absolute ruler before him, he might find it convenient to dismiss the people's representatives when they get in the way. Despite appearances, though, he's not an absolute ruler. Eventually, he'll have to face an election.

Harper's Conservatives once promised a more open and transparent government. Instead, they take every opportunity to be cynical, secretive and radically partisan -- even when they don't need to be. It's become an ugly habit. The Afghan detainee controversy only became a problem for this government because of its defensive response. The Harper cabinet created a public-relations nightmare for itself, and is now trying to wriggle out by creating another.
We don't pay our members of Parliament not to show up for work. If Conservative MPs don't want to go to the trouble of attending committee meetings, or even going through the motions in question period every day, there are plenty of would-be MPs from other parties who would gladly take their place.
James Travers:
Apart from those partisan advantages, the timing could hardly be worse for a dark Parliament.

While Canadians struggle with recession's aftershocks, Harper risks being seen as more interested in maximizing a sporting spectacle Conservatives are doing everything possible to make their own.

Less likely to be noticed but no less important, the Prime Minister is piling on fresh evidence that accountability is a fiction, an election promise easily made and forgotten.

Whatever else it achieves, suspending Parliament first and foremost blinkers oversight. Having tried and failed to blame abuse reports on a bureaucrat just doing his job, Harper is now trying to push it under the carpet for two critical months and perhaps much longer.
The Calgary Herald:
Prorogation is a gap between sessions of a legislative body, during which time the body's activities are suspended and the usual slate of political business (the proposal, debate and passage of bills and motions) is largely wiped clean, to be started from scratch in the next session.

This is a measure which ought to be used only in times of crisis, before elections or in instances when a government believes it has completed its legislative agenda. None of these conditions apply at present. Harper's misuse of prorogation will only heighten cynicism about the political process. Many Canadians already cynically believe that their elected officials accomplish next to nothing. Now, that belief will be borne out for two months.
Stephen Maher:
Why should we labour while the television will be filled with athletes from around the world straining Lycra and breaking records in the ice rinks and snowy mountains of British Columbia? So on Wednesday, a spokesman for Mr. Harper announced that there is no need for anyone in Canada to work during the Olympics.

Workplaces will be shut down — except for emergency services — for a two-week national holiday.


Oops. Sorry. I’ve just received a clarification.

Actually, you do have to keep working. It’s just members of Parliament who don’t have to work.

My mistake.

You will be pleased to know that your parliamentary representatives can put their feet up and give the luge the attention it deserves.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Truth in Logos

pale has a great start to spoofing the Cons' attitude toward the Canadian public. But let's go with the full visual effect:

Deep thought

Those suggesting that MP shouldn't get paid during the course of a Parliamentary prorogation may just be on to something. After all, I can't think what could go wrong allowing a wannabe-despot Prime Minister's whims to determine whether or not opposition MPs have any source of income.

Update: Or put more broadly, this isn't a case of reason for outrage over MPs or the Parliamentary system in general. The prorogation is the result of the order of a single individual, and there's no reason to see it as reflecting anything other than Stephen Harper's personal disdain for Parliamentary accountability.

Simple answer to many complicated questions

Andrew Coyne:
In what other democracy is it permissible for the government of the day to hide from the legislature for months at a time? To ignore explicit parliamentary votes demanding the production of documents? To stonewall independent inquiries? Perhaps the rules allow it elsewhere, but is it the practice? Does convention not still forbid it? Is it not viewed in other countries as dictatorial behaviour, and therefore, you know … not done?
In fact, none of the Cons' behaviour is any more "permissible" or in accordance with "the rules" in Canada than it would be anywhere else. But the next time Stephen Harper shows any conscience about demolishing laws, rules, convention or any other set of principles in the name of political gain will be the first - and what we lack are enforcement mechanisms to hold a sociopathic government to even minimal standards of behaviour.

On "have-not" journalism

Pay no attention to those leftist propagandists at the likes of Alberta Oil Magazine: your corporate media overlords have now decided that Saskatchewan's ascension into "have" status - previously acknowledged to have happened under the NDP in 2005 - has been retroactively delayed until 2007 for Brad Wall's political benefit. Your immediate attention to this matter is appreciated.

On alternative compensation

It shouldn't come as much surprise that the Cons' idea of pension reform is to slash retirement benefits for public servants rather than improving them for anybody else. But let's look on the bright side: is there any more likely trigger for some real information to start leaking out about the Cons' actions in office than for thousands of public employees to be arm-twisted into sticking around long after a retirement date they've been promised for decades?

Sir Stephen's Song

Coming soon to a BT minstrel performance near you:
Brave Sir Stephen ran away.
Bravely ran away, away!
When questions reared their ugly head,
He bravely turned his tail and fled.
Yes, brave Sir Stephen turned about
And gallantly he chickened out.
Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat,
Bravest of the brave, Sir Stephen!

He is packing it in and packing it up
And sneaking away and buggering up
And chickening out and pissing off home,
Yes, bravely he is throwing in the sponge...
(Adapted from.)

Update: As balbulican notes in comments, great minds think alike. (And balb does much more with the adaptation.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The reviews are in

Susan Riley:
Dissembling, distorting and spin are, lamentably, part of politics and have been forever. But (Peter) MacKay's distortions are particularly blatant. He has a tendency to passionately advocate for some position, then, when contradicted by fact or logic, to lash out at opponents like a shrill boy backed into a corner.
MacKay (and the prime minister) accuse opponents of impugning the reputation of the troops -- more desperately as their carefully contrived defences crumble. This is not only untrue, it is deplorably cowardly. MacKay and Harper are hiding their own political mistakes behind the valour and professionalism of Canada's forces.

Now the minister is denying he ever attacked whistle-blower Richard Colvin personally and insists that he never used the words "Taliban dupe." But he did disparage Colvin for relying on the word "of people who throw acid into the faces of schoolchildren" -- implying that the diplomat's sources were exclusively Taliban fanatics.

That said, the weasel words, wilful blindness and savage partisanship that characterize the government's response has been a "whole-of- government" effort, from surprisingly incurious generals and senior bureaucrats, to timely leaks to friendly journalists, to Transport Minister John Baird's rabid, random, verbal flame-throwing.
Now there are calls for MacKay's resignation, but Harper will not want to risk a backlash in Atlantic Canada (or admit that the minister was only following orders). Still, MacKay may be moved to a lower-profile ministry in some future shuffle.

For now, he will survive with his reputation intact. That, of course, is his problem.

On advocacy

Cathie has nicely pointed out a few of the problems with the latest from the Star-Phoenix editorial board, this time slamming the idea of First Nations patient advocates. But let's ask a couple of additional questions about the editorial which seem to suggest a gap between how the Star-Phoenix has approached the FSIN proposal and how it's treated other health questions.

Here's the passage which particularly piques my interest:
There is a danger, should the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations get its wish of a patient advocate to address problems some First Nation people feel they have in obtaining health care, that it will result in longer lines, exponential cost increases and another layer of bureaucracy in a system front-line workers already complain is heavily bureaucratized.
Let's ask first: has the Star-Phoenix ever raised even the slightest concern that patient advocates or patient-first review processes make for needless bureaucracy in any context other than the FSIN's proposal? (On my first look the answer seems to be "no", but I'm curious if I've missed something.) And if not, then why would it be that the lone area of Saskatchewan's health-care system where the Star-Phoenix disapproves of advocate-type roles is the one where there are serious jurisdictional issues for patients to navigate?

And then there's the second issue raised by the Star-Phoenix' choice of cover. Since when is anybody at CanWest interested in front-line staff concerns about the allocation of resources in the health sector? And how quickly will that interest be forgotten when it comes time for the next editorial on, say, wage negotiations?

File not found

Remember the much-ballyhooed (if not entirely uncriticized) CCPA study by Ernie Lightman which proclaimed that tax harmonization would have only a small negative effect on individual citizens?

I ask only since the CCPA's previous link to the study has now disappeared. As has any reference to the key terms of the study's title off the CCPA's website:

Of course, the study's disappearance will almost certainly receive far less attention than the corporate-friendly headlines which it generated initially. But it's worth noting that the spinmeisters still pointing to the study in a losing battle to sell the HST are relying on material which has apparently been disavowed even by its own sponsor - leaving all the less reason to take the pro-harmonization case seriously.

Actions speak louder than words

Brad Wall's spin:
SP: Many people have looked at this and said the most important long-term issue in Saskatchewan is reconciling aboriginal people with the rest of the province, with quality of life, economic opportunity for aboriginal, First Nations people. Are you satisfied with what your government has done in the first two years in office?

BW: I think more needs to be done, not just on the part of government but on the part of all the partners that are involved, including First Nations themselves and industry. We're not yet complete with respect to the framework for the duty to consult and accommodate. We're very close, we've been dealing with these issues, even in the last number of days. We're very close.
Brad Wall's reality:
FSIN's Circle of Partners Advisory Committee - highlighted just this spring as an example of the Sask Party's commitment to engaging with First Nations - has apparently been "determined to be unnecessary by Enterprise (Saskatchewan)". We'll see how kindly the FSIN takes to being told by big business that its input is neither necessary nor welcome.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Federal NDP Year in Review 2009: Incremental Progress

For any NDP supporters looking for instant gratification out of the political scene, 2009 might seem to rank as a disappointment on the surface. But on a closer look, there's plenty to like about what the NDP was able to accomplish on the year even as some of its more ambitious goals may not have worked out - and there's ample reason to look forward to how the events of 2009 will position the party for the future.

In the department of what might have been, the obvious starting point is the progressive coalition. The NDP has never been theoretically closer to power on the federal scene than it was at the start of 2009, with a coalition agreement raising the prospect that the NDP would take a historic place in the federal cabinet within a matter of weeks. But while the NDP followed a shrewd political maneuver with a valiant public defence of the coalition even as their supposed partners sat on the sidelines, the effort went for naught when Michael Ignatieff decided that he'd rather leave Stephen Harper in power than try to offer an alternative.

While the coalition may have been the largest missed opportunity of 2009, it wasn't the only point where potential watershed events for the NDP wound up producing less results than may have seemed possible. The party's Halifax convention, while generally well-attended and well-received, didn't produce any of the transformational discussion about the NDP's future that some might have hoped for. An apparent opening for broad policy progress created by the Libs' fall announcement that they were withdrawing support from the Cons was quickly slammed shut by the Cons' public refusal to negotiate with the NDP. And despite two historic shows of weakness for the Libs - one after the 2008 election with Stephane Dion still in charge, one in the latter part of 2009 under Ignatieff - the NDP wasn't able to pull itself within striking distance of second place in the national polls.

So anybody projecting the best possible outcome from the potential turning points may have ended up disappointed. But for those committed to the longer-term goal of building the party, there's every reason to be satisfied with the results from 2009.

To start with, the NDP proved remarkably adept in minimizing the damage from events beyond its control which had the potential to cause significant trouble for the party. While some pundits have tried to treat that agility as a basis for criticism, it's surely a sign of political skill that the NDP was able to get its public support back to normal levels in short order both after bearing the entire weight of the progressive coalition on its shoulders last winter, and after shifting from a years-long message of voting non-confidence in order to pass positive changes to EI this fall.

What about the need to build off the current support base? The best news on that front obviously comes from the NDP's strong by-election showings - with significant gains in three of four ridings, including an 11-point boost in the party's margin of victory in New Westminster-Coquitlam even with a new federal candidate in Fin Donnelly replacing a party stalwart in Dawn Black.

Of course, the by-election results were helped by the NDP's position as the lone federal party opposing the imposition of the HST on the citizens of B.C. (and Ontario). And that position should serve the NDP well in the years to come - adding a new dimension to the NDP's traditional policy strengths in areas such as health care, the environment and consumer protection.

But perhaps the most significant trend for the NDP's future has been its continued progress in Quebec. Contrary to expectations that Ignatieff's ascension would push federalist votes back into the Libs' camp, the NDP managed to stay within range of its 2008 election levels of support even through Iggy's honeymoon period. And with Ignatieff now losing favour in Quebec and elsewhere, the NDP looks to have resumed its upward trajectory in polls both formal (i.e. the Hochelaga by-election) and otherwise.

Mind you, there's still a lot of work ahead of the NDP. And the next key steps may be among the more difficult ones in bridging the gap between a fourth party and a government-in-waiting.

In Quebec, the NDP's inroads haven't yet pushed into serious contention in more than a few seats. And it'll take a serious push to end the Bloc's hold on the province to turn respectable polling numbers into seats.

And perhaps most importantly, the Layton NDP still hasn't been able to gain much of a foothold in vote-rich urban and suburban Ontario. With the Libs and Cons already engaged in a fierce battle over suburbia and most of the urban seats firmly in Lib hands, the going looks to be tough in trying to push the NDP into contention in significantly more Ontario seats. But progress in that area is an obvious must for the party if it wants to continue down the path toward government.

With those hurdles looming, 2010 and beyond won't be any easier for the NDP than the last year has been. But while the NDP didn't come out of 2009 with seats at the federal cabinet table or a shiny new party name, it did manage to keep on track toward its longer-term goals. And we'll find out in time just how much this year's progress will contribute toward the ultimate effort to build a national governing party.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

On thick analysis

Alison has already taken on much of the Star's latest trial balloon about a Canada/U.S. "security perimeter". But there's another point of sheer absurdity in the argument that Canada should continually offer up key elements of its sovereignty in hopes of currying favour in Washington.

After all, the sole reason given as to why Canada should volunteer to give up control over its own borders is that the Canada/U.S. border is "thickening" due to American domestic politics.

But if that's the case despite the concessions Canada has already made in order to sign agreements which were specifically aimed at protecting our market access, then doesn't that offer fairly conclusive evidence that nothing we can do as a country will actually trump those domestic calculations? And wouldn't giving away the "last truly huge step" for nothing more than what we're supposed to have already simply encourage even more blatant ignorance of whatever the U.S. agrees to on paper?

The reviews are in

The Star-Phoenix editorial board slams the latest example of Senate entitlement:
Canada's senators, whose ranks are about to swell with another round of politically expedient appointments by the prime minister, have quietly given themselves access to taxpayer-funded international junkets -- a perk they admit isn't available to politicians almost anywhere else.

But, such is their sense of self-importance and entitlement that the unelected Canadian senators feel their needs are unlike those of most other elected politicians.

"The argument can be made, which we were convinced by, that given the role of our Senate -- somewhat individualistic where we have certain causes and we are somewhat thick in our own right -- in some cases there's merit and benefit to our country to allow individual senators to pursue certain activities in international travel," was the convoluted rationale offered by Liberal Sen. Paul Massicotte.

This even though, as he notes, "If you look at U.S. policy, at every province and at the House of Commons -- we should be grown up about this -- it is generally prohibited to do foreign travel without many exceptions. It is nearly a flat-out no."
The prime minister seems to be having some difficulty making the Upper Chamber a responsible arm of government. That's no excuse, however, for its members to act so irresponsibly when it comes to spending the taxpayer's money. This padding of travel privileges is unacceptable and should be withdrawn immediately.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On structural deficits

Since I haven't seen anybody else highlight the most obvious omission from Deficit Jim Flaherty's latest budget spin, let's point out that the Cons' anti-tax ideology will continue to make the federal deficit worse for years to come even if no new tax cuts are announced in 2010.

Back when the sea of red ink came into view with the tabling of the 2009 budget, I pointed out that just two of the Cons' moves alone accounted for $87 billion worth of red ink over a 5-year span. But that didn't even take into account Flaherty's multi-billion giveaway to big business, which will result in corporate tax rates continuing to fall until 2012. And what's worse, all of those tax giveaways are built into the federal fiscal structure for years to come - in stark contrast to the Cons' spending commitments which have almost invariably been short-term in scope.

Mind you, it's for the best if Flaherty doesn't plan to announce even more plans to make the federal government's fiscal position even worse. But there shouldn't be any doubt that his irresponsible obsession with tax slashing has done plenty to hurt Canada's balance sheet - and that the more sensible way to fix the damage is by revisiting some of Deficit Jim's structural tax changes, not using them as an excuse to attack social investments.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The reviews are in

Chris Selley, with a minor correction:
Ready for the punch line? Mr. Kenney pops up in the Toronto Star (a) to deny having called KAIROS anti-Semitic; (b) to deny having cut off funding to KAIROS because it's anti-Israel (let alone anti-Semitic); and (c) to deny having had anything whatsoever to do with cutting off KAIROS's funding in the first place.
Heaven only knows what went on here. Maybe it's just general hamhandedness. Maybe they hoped the benefits reaped whilst people assumed they'd taken a stand against anti-Semitism and/or for Israel would outweigh the damage reaped by disavowing the idea on a day when everyone's shopping instead of reading the Star. Maybe Ms. Oda really did make the decision on her own, and Mr. Kenney decided he'd try to score some disingenuous points with it in Israel. Whatever happened, it's a complete insult to Canadians' intelligence — and Israelis', come to think of it. And it's proof positive, as if any was needed, that nobody should put any stock in what any Canadian Conservative politician says. Ever. About anything.

Today in shoddy journalism

With the federal government doing everything in its power to prevent any global agreement on climate change and Alberta's provincial government trying to claim even that course of action doesn't do enough to favour the tar sands, it takes a remarkable amount of confusion and spin to pretend that one or both is somehow failing to be enough of a cheerleader for the oil industry. Which naturally leads us to the National Post:
Now, the findings of an Angus Reid Public Opinion survey of 810 Albertans show 50% of respondents are dissatisfied with the way the provincial government acted to deal with recent criticism of the oilsands. Only 35% of those polled were satisfied and 15% were not sure.

Albertans were similarly unimpressed with the federal government, with 49% dissatisfied with how Ottawa dealt with the same criticism. Thirty-four per cent of respondents were satisfied with Ottawa's actions, while 17% were not sure.

"It's clear that there's a fury in the land in the sense that people are using the oilsands as a whipping boy for climate change -- and people in Alberta don't like it," said Mario Canseco with pollster Angus Reid. "This definitely shows that this is something the two levels [of government] need to take into account."
Of course, anybody looking at the poll seeking anything other than an excuse to declare that an Alberta separation movement is imminent would note that there's more than one way to be dissatisfied with the response of a particular government.

Indeed, nearly all of the criticism leveled at both Harper and Stelmach on a national scale has been based on their insistence on favouring the tar sands at the expense of the economy of the rest of Canada. (After all, it's Ontario and Quebec which simply want all emissions to be treated equally, and the oil industry backed by the Alberta and federal governments who want tar-sands emissions to be treated more generously.)

Which likely explains why the poll was worded the way it was. If any option had been included to distinguish between dissatisfaction based on a government's being insufficiently loud in spouting pro-oil talking points and frustration based on a government unduly favouring the tar sands over other industries, then there would be no way to conflate the two in reporting on the poll's outcome.

But as it is, the pollster and the National Post lump both together and count them as being on the side of the oil industry. Which may produce the spin they're looking for out of the story - but signals that they don't recognize any prospect of winning even Alberta's public opinion in a fair fight.

Meanwhile, Brian Lilley's take on the Cons' attack on KAIROS manages to include a remarkable set of ever-shifting goalposts. Here's Lilley on why nobody should think the Cons' decision to publicly brag about "de-funding" the organization actually relates to Jason Kenney's public explanation:
(KAIROS), which has received funding for years from CIDA, was turned down on a request for government funding of a four-year project. They did not lose core funding that has put them on the brink of bankruptcy or closing up shop as the NDP claimed, they simply were turned down on a project proposal, this is something many groups, businesses, consultants face everyday. The difference here is that Kairos is able to mount a public relations campaign using all three opposition parties and a willing media to try and get back funding they never lost.
So why was Kairos turned down for funding?

Despite the attempts to turn this into another proxy war over the Middle East and Canada’s policy there, it is most likely that Kairos lost its funding because they didn’t fit the goals the government laid out. There is no entitlement to funding. Kairos made a pitch and they were turned down.
Now, this would make for a relatively reasonable and coherent defence if left on its own. But Lilley immediately shifts to contradicting his own point, making clear that as far as he's concerned, the Cons are fully entitled to shun KAIROS or any other group for failing to agree with their ideology:
Consider also that this is an old-fashioned left wing group, supportive of Marxist ideas like Liberation Theology, asking a Conservative government to fund it.

When the Harper government sought out a free-trade agreement with Columbia (sic), Kairos was there, with government money, to oppose it. Kairos sees plenty to be concerned about when it comes to human rights in Columbia (sic) and wants the Harper government to shun that country. Venezuela on the other hand is seen in a positive light. The message from Kairos, engagement is appropriate when a shady country is run by socialists, anything to the right deserves to be shunned.
Remember that just a few paragraphs earlier, Lilley went out of his way to point out that KAIROS received public funding only for specific projects, not for general operations. Which makes it downright stunning that he then chooses to assume without a shred of apparent evidence that it used "government money" in its efforts to protect human rights in Colombia.

Moreover, even if previous funding had been used for means which the Cons didn't like, any future funding agreement could easily be directed toward the parts of KAIROS' mandate which even the Cons couldn't find objectionable. And one would fully expect that to have happened if the federal government was interested in ensuring that a well-established aid organization was able to continue doing good work - rather than looking for an enemy to attack for political purposes.

So what is it that links the two above stories? In effect, they seem to me to signal that far too much of the Canadian media is going down the same path as the Harper government: focused solely on talking points which serve conservative causes even at the expense of accuracy or internal logic. And the less that type of mindset gets challenged either in the media or in politics, the easier it'll be for the likes of Harper to keep pushing it on a country which deserves better.

What Greg said

Harper has unlocked the secret to minority party rule, by an ideologically minority party -- no compromise, constantly stroking the base and daring the opposition to cause another "tedious" election. It is a fiendishly brilliant strategy, but dangerous for the country.

If Harper continues to get away with it, his methods will find their way into every party's toolbox. Also, if elections are seen as tedious, rather than as essential to our form of government, we risk becoming the first country to adopt dictatorship by ennui.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Compare and contrast

When it comes to the question of whether credit card companies can inflate interest rates at will, Deficit Jim Flaherty is firmly committed to letting vulnerable consumers make their own mistakes. But ask him about raising entry barriers to home ownership (for the express purpose of making sure that low interest rates only benefit businesses rather than individuals), and suddenly Flaherty can't wait to start taking away consumer choices.

The working draft of history

Chantal Hebert is looking ahead toward the next chance for a progressive coalition to replace the Harper Cons in government. And while Hebert needlessly muddies the waters by combining the concept of post-election cooperation in Parliament with that of an electoral non-opposition agreement, she hardly figures to be the last to recognize the potential for a coalition to change the face of Canadian politics.

Which means that the experience of the last exercise in coalition-building figure to become rather important in the very near future. And it's worth pointing out just who it is that's managed to shape Ottawa's view of coalitions for the future.

When Brian Topp first started putting together his series of posts on the development of the progressive coalition, I'd figured that Topp's writing would lay the groundwork for a wide-ranging discussion among NDP and Lib sources as to what happened and why. In particular, some of his observations seemed to positively demand some challenge or spin from various factions of the Libs: from Stephane Dion's attempt to use the coalition to extend his stay as Lib leader, to Michael Ignatieff backers who were willing to cooperate only as long as their preferred leader was at the helm, to Ignatieff himself "huddled" with Con strategist Kory Teneycke, to Lib negotiators who were downright embarrassed to try to defend their positions when challenged.

But even as Topp's series became required reading for political junkies this month, none of his recollections seem to have been answered publicly. And while one can perhaps understand how the Libs' current power structure may be under extreme pressure to simply avoid talking about an issue which surely makes the party's current leader look bad both inside and outside the party, it's particularly telling that nobody from Dion's long-since-deposed inner circle has challenged any of Topp's accounts either.

All of which means that Topp's take on the coalition looks to have benefitted from a rare combination of ample attention and nonexistent refutation. And the fact that an NDP insider's take on the events of 2008 looks to have become the leading public account of what happened - not to mention what lessons should be drawn for any future coalition negotiations - should help make sure that the NDP's position in any future deal is strengthened by what Canadian politicos perceive about what happened last time out.

The reviews are in

Murray Mandryk gets at part of the reason for the consistent gap between conservative parties' claims to fiscal responsibility and their actual track record of massive deficits. But unfortunately, both the provincial and federal governments are offering up ideal case studies:
The political instinct that the Saskatchewan Party premier must fight in 2010 is his dyed-in-the-wool conservative belief that we will simply grow our way out of the budgetary problems we're now encountering.

Of course, Wall and his officials are quick to dismiss any such unflattering characterizations. And with a remarkable economic upturn in its first 18 months of rule, the Sask. Party has been spared from having to put any of its philosophy to the test. However, its first taste of economic adversity (in the last few months) has really served to demonstrate how deeply rooted this Conservative economic philosophy might really be in Wall's governing Sask. Party ranks.

Facing a mid-year 2009-10 budget report that ushered in Wall's first real governing challenge (in the form of a $1.05-billion overall deficit), what we saw is a disturbing return to some old Conservative notions:

- Debt and deficit are manageable.
- That $1.8-billion overestimate of potash revenues was a blip on a market that will correct itself next year, and;
- You can always rely on your resource economy to grow your way out of deficit.

This was a wrong-headed belief made famous by former Progressive Conservative premier Grant Devine, who said early in his term that you could "mismanage the Saskatchewan economy and still run surpluses." But it was also the fervent belief of Brian Mulroney's federal Progressive Conservatives of the 1980s and, to some extent, the Stephen Harper Conservatives of today.

Unfortunately, the history of the Devine and Mulroney governments demonstrated that market recoveries...don't automatically translate into the end of a deficit cycle.

Disturbingly, it was a similar unfettered belief in the surging market that likely led the Sask. Party government this spring to ignore the better advice of its own ministry of finance and bet the budget on a repeat of 2008's record potash revenues.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On institution-building

James Travers' criticism of the Harper government for shutting down communications within the federal civil service hasn't gone unnoticed. But it's worth highlighting the fact that the Cons' penchant for secrecy also figures to cause them serious trouble in actually getting much done as long as they stay in office - while the NDP is far better equipped to navigate the government apparatus in the public interest.

Here's Travers on how the relationship between the Con government and the civil service has been poisoned beyond any realistic hope of improvement:
(Richard) Colvin is not a whistleblower; he's a coal mine canary. More revealing even than Peter MacKay's shoot-the-messenger assault on a bureaucrat is Colvin's detailed rebuttal of testimony from those above him in the federal food chain. It signals that the long-standing bargain between civil servants and the government of the day is broken. On-the-run politicians who abandon the principle of ministerial responsibility, who toss mandarins and their truth-to-power advice to the pursuing wolves, should no longer expect blind loyalty or suicidal silence.

That change pushes the relationship into uncharted territory where trouble waits. By essentially going it alone without Parliament or confidential public service counsel, Conservatives are placing their full bet on the sole-sourced party line. They are trading accountable democracy for a direct hard sell to Canadians systematically denied the information they need to decide the value of what they are being urged to buy.
Largely missed by Canadians, that new situational democracy, that what-matters-is-what-works culture, has been spotted by civil servants who now know they'll wear the goat horns when things inevitably go wrong.

Abandoned by Liberals to shoulder blame for the Quebec sponsorship scheme, bureaucrats are hurriedly adapting to a new era by discreetly distancing themselves from Conservative stimulus projects likely to fail the critical sniff test.
Until now, there's been precious little indication that the Cons' hostility toward the civil service has been answered in kind. But from Travers' account, it sounds like public servants have realized that under the Cons, they're better off playing Harper's game of pointing fingers and spreading blame elsewhere rather than actually dedicating their attention to getting much done. And the problem only figures to get worse as the Cons insist on attacking federal government operations as their lone means of dealing with Deficit Jim Flaherty's sea of red ink - setting up significant incentives for public servants to work on protecting turf rather than working on policy ideas to be implemented by the Cons or by any future government.

Of course, those of us who generally disagree with Harper's preferred direction for the country may prefer if the Cons get slowed up by their own treatment of the civil service. But it's hard to see how anybody is ultimately better off in the long run if Canada continues to be governed by a party whose ability to respond to events as they arise is limited by a complete disconnect from Canada's public servants.

But then, there isn't much reason to expect a lot better from the Libs. Travers notes that the problems within the public service actually started under the Paul Martin regime, but the more significant problem is that the Libs haven't been able to keep even their own internal party apparatus in anything better than a state of mistrust and confusion for the better part of a decade - making it highly doubtful that they'll do any better anytime soon in working with others who aren't united by party interests.

Fortunately, there is one obvious alternative to ineffective federal government. After all, the NDP's strengths in planning and negotiating which I've pointed out before would figure to be no less important in dealing with the public service than in other aspects of governing the country.

In stark contrast to the Cons' complete insularity and the Libs' lack of even internal coherence, the NDP has shown a consistent strength in developing plans which other groups are willing and able to work with. Which means that for those who see a need to change the culture of self-preservation which successive Lib and Con governments have fostered in Canada's public institutions, there's reason to want to see the NDP get the chance to make its more collaborative philosophy work for the country.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sask Party Uranium Response: "We Don't Care What You Think"

I've posted previously about the Sask Party's latest declaration of its intention to push nuclear development regardless of what Saskatchewan's citizens might think. But it's worth looking in somewhat more detail at just how thoroughly the Wall government has rejected the public's input into nuclear policy. So let's compare the findings of Dan Perrins' consultation report to the Sask Party's response.

Here are Perrins' findings on uranium exploration and mining:
There were 519 responses that dealt specifically with the province’s approach to the exploration and mining of uranium. Nearly three-quarters (70%, n=364) were against the exploration and mining of uranium, while one-quarter (25%, n=128) were supportive (see Figure 44). An additional 5% (n=27) either did not know and wanted more information, or did not state whether they were opposed or supportive.
More specifically, in terms of those opposed to exploration and mining, most (41%, n=215) said that they were opposed to any further expansion of exploration and mining of uranium.
Which naturally leads to the following response from the Wall government on the subject:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...(a)ctively supporting uranium mining and exploration...

(The government) will examine its program incentives and competitiveness of its royalties, work with the federal government on a more thorough review of licence applications and on implementation of the recommendations of the federal competition policy review panel. It will work with industry on the infrastructure needed for new mine development.
So the public says "stop", the Sask Party's response is "barge ahead". Which of course looks to be a common theme when it comes to Wall's nuclear agenda.

Nuclear research and isotope production was the closest category in Perrins' review, but still one where opposition to nuclear development trumped support:
About four in ten (42%, n=174) responses opposed uranium research, training, and development. However, one-third of responses (32%, n=136) were in favour of going ahead with further uranium or nuclear research, training, and development, as shown in Figure 54. Another sizable number of responses (19%, n=81) spoke directly to the creation of isotopes for medical purposes, either without specifying how they would be created or by saying they wanted to see isotopes produced without nuclear fission. A small number of responses (2%, n=9) were against the production of medical isotopes for any reason.
But needless to say, the Sask Party decided to respond to a clear split in public opinion by utterly ignoring one side of the question:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...(e)ncouraging investment in nuclear research, development and training opportunities, specifically in the areas of mining, neutron science, isotopes, small scale reactor design, and enrichment...

The government...(supports) the concept of a nuclear research centre of excellence and expanded mining and exploration programs at academic institutions. It supports determining investment priorities in targeted areas of nuclear research and in partnering with the federal government on a research reactor that would produce medical isotopes.
In contrast, the question of nuclear waste and storage was one where a massive majority of Saskatchewanians interested in the issue registered their disapproval:
Approximately 900 responses dealt with nuclear waste disposal and storage, which includes references to used fuel or nuclear waste. The majority of these responses (86%, n=769) from people participating in the consultation process were strongly against nuclear waste disposal and storage in Saskatchewan, as shown in Figure 21. However, some responses (12%, n=103) did support waste disposal and storage in Saskatchewan.
Which of course means that the Wall government...wants to encourage future development as soon as anybody's willing to suggest it, contrary to the views of six out of every seven people who have an opinion about it:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...reserving decisions on supporting Saskatchewan communities interested in
hosting nuclear waste management facilities to when such proposals are advanced in a regulatory process...
And then there's the area most discussed by Saskatchewan citizens in making their submissions to Perrins:
Just over 1,400 responses dealt specifically with nuclear power generation in the province. Most petitions and form letters received centred on this area.

Of these 1,401 responses, 84% (n=1,183) were generally against nuclear power generation for the province, whether that included power generation for export or not (as seen in Figure 5). Many indicated that they did not want a nuclear power plant in their area of the province. Over one in ten (14%, n=190) were in favour of nuclear power, and 2% (n=28) of responses were either not given or expressed indecision.
But naturally, the Sask Party has responded to that red light on nuclear power by telling SaskPower to push ahead:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...(d)irecting SaskPower to continue including nuclear power in the range of sustainable energy options available for additional baseload generation capacity in the medium and long term after 2020.
So never mind that a strong majority of Saskatchewan citizens with any interest in nuclear issues at all took the time to express their disagreement with nuclear power. Having received about as compelling a public statement of objection as one could possibly imagine, their reaction has tell those who made their views known that they can go pound sand, as they'll be ordering SaskPower to ignore the will of the people.

Of course, there are other serious issues with how the Sask Party is handling the nuclear issue. As a noteworthy example, having tied Perrins' hands in the type of recommendations he was allowed to make, they're now trying to frame public debate around the very UDP recommendations which were called into question by the public's input.

But most glaring problem is the fact that the Wall government has just declared that it couldn't care less what the public thinks about nuclear development. And as long as the public's views are being tossed out the window so casually, there's plenty of reason for concern that the public's interests will fare no better in Wall's decision-making.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Light blogging ahead

Off to somewhere much less frozen for the holidays - so posting will be somewhere between nonexistent and light for the next week or so. All the best to readers over the holidays, and I'll be back before too long.

Sounds about right

Mound of Sound:
In case you haven't figured that out, what Harper said (in Copenhagen) was code for, "I'm off the hook, I can scam this for years to come and that's exactly what I'm fixing to do." Harper can say that because he can get away with it. No one has the guts to stand up to him and call him a fraud.

So, after having been invited to shred Harper's blustering, what does the Liberal Party's Michael Ignatieff have to say? He responds with this: “We cannot allow Canadian environmental policy to be entirely dependent on American politics. We need an aggressive, made in Canada climate-change plan now. And we're willing to work with Mr. Harper on this if his government brings forward a serious plan that treats our provinces fairly and includes pollution reductions for all sectors.”

That's it? That's what we get for letting Iggy put Dion down? That's leadership? Does this guy not know how to go on the attack? Is he running scared of Harper? Shouldn't he be off somewhere writing a book or something?

Why doesn't he attack Harper when the scoundrel is vulnerable? Why let the guy off the hook with vague arguments over emission reductions that will never materialize while Harper has the key to 24 Sussex Drive anyway? Why not turn to this Tory jerk's abject refusal to recognize the change that's already happening and already enroute, his refusal to institute adaptation policies the far north and both coasts will need in the near future? Harper won't do that. He can't, because that would acknowledge the gravity of the threat and leave him having to explain why he's doing Sweet Fanny Adams about it.

If Iggy can't grasp how to kick Harper straight to the curb on this issue then he's worse than useless as leader of the Liberal Party. Don't give us bullshit about "working with Harper on a serious plan" when, unless you're brain dead, you have to realize Harper has no intention of doing anything remotely like that. Harper will eat Ignatieff's lunch if he goes that route. Look how he played the Liberal leader for a sucker on the Pinata Budget.

I'm sorry but Michael Ignatieff is but a meandering political disaster. You don't get moments like this all that often and, entirely true to course, he blew it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Musical interlude

54-40 - Crossing a Canyon

On fixed rates

Jane Taber rightly points out Con MP Patrick Brown's misleading claim that he and his government had nothing to do with the HST despite voting for it twice personally. But that isn't the only glaring flaw in his attempt to distance himself from his government's policies.

Brown spends most of his column space criticizing the province for not lowering the HST rate while implementing the tax. But there's just one slight problem with that complaint: it's the federal government which has insisted that the province keep the rate right where it is.

I've noted before that the preliminary agreement between the Harper Cons and the McGuinty Libs provided that the province would be required to keep the HST rate where it is for at least two years following implementation. And that's made all the more clear in the comprehensive agreement that's since been signed between Jim Flaherty and Dwight Duncan:
15. The Parties agree that the PVAT Rate in respect of the Province will be 8% as of the Implementation Date.

16. The PVAT Rate in respect of the Province may be increased, or decreased, in accordance with the provisions of this Agreement after a minimum period of two years from the Implementation Date. Following that two-year period, any change in the PVAT Rate in respect of the Province, as permitted under the provisions of this Agreement, will not occur more often than once in any twelve-month period.
So if Brown wants to know why Ontario isn't talking about lowering its HST rate, at least part of the answer is that the Con federal government won't let it. And whether Brown is ignorant enough not to know that or dishonest enough to pretend his government hasn't tied the province's hands, it's fairly clear that his constituents don't have much reason to believe what he has to say on the subject.

Paging all speech warriors

We await your immediate and outraged response to the systematic suppression of disagreement with nuclear power, expressed peacefully through signs on the speakers' private property.

This is where we pause for laughter.

On selective imperatives

I'm not quite sure who replaced the Star-Phoenix editorial board's coffee with BT Crystals this week (50% more wingnutty goodness with none of the shame!). But Monday's easily-debunked column on the HST has been followed up with two more pieces which are at best poorly reasoned on their own, and positively laughable when compared to each other. So here's the shorter version of the two taken together:

Climate change is such a crucial global issue that we have a moral imperative to push ahead with nuclear power in the name of fighting it, without considering any costs, risks or alternatives. But anyone who suggests we should agree to reduce even a gram of emissions from the oil patch is an ungrateful threat to national unity.

The reviews are in

Anybody else noticing a theme? Here's Susan Riley:
It is one thing to be irritated, even disgusted, by the Harper government's tendency to disparage or fire conscientious public servants, portray its political opponents as unpatriotic anti-Semites, dismiss parliamentary votes it doesn't agree with, or shroud its most important decisions -- climate change strategy, its deficit- recovery plan -- in secrecy.

But at what point do Canadians become alarmed at the absolute control, the intolerance of dissent and the manipulative messaging, often publicly funded, that characterizes this regime? Why aren't we worried now? We elected a minority government in a modern liberal democracy, representing a messy range of opinion. Yet that government operates like a not-so-friendly dictatorship.

In fact, Harper's no longer "hidden" agenda -- his tough-on-crime, easy-on-climate-change, pro-military and anti-tax policies -- may turn out to be less scary than his methods.
Without independent reporting and the odd, brave "watchdog," we would never know what our government is up to -- not until the big "reveal" in a glossy media campaign. For four years, the government has successfully deep-sixed its critics and confounded the opposition. Low-key nuclear regulator Linda Keen was fired (and the isotope crisis remains unresolved.) Inquisitive parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, is being starved of funds. The government refused to co-operate with the Military Police Complaints Commission looking into the detainee issue and is not reappointing its chairman, Peter Tinsley. It has taken Elections Canada to court, withheld an RCMP study on the gun registry until after a crucial vote, and ignored a vote ordering it to release documents relating to Colvin's testimony.

Short of hauling Sheila Fraser off in leg-irons, sending the dangerously popular Michaëlle Jean on an unescorted fact-finding mission to Mogadishu, or appointing Don Cherry to the Senate, it is hard to know what it will take to provoke a pro-democracy movement here in Canada.

But this we know: Harper will do whatever it takes to hold power, democratic niceties be damned.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not laudable

Following up on this morning's post, let's note that Brian Topp's latest makes for an unfortunate example of the evaluation of politics purely in terms of a zero-sum competition in which partisan advantage trumps the actual merits of anybody's actions. And that focus is particularly frustrating coming from a writer who more than understands the severity of the Harper Cons' misdeeds even as he labels them as "winning on points" for escaping the well-deserved consequences of their actions.

When no means yes

A couple of shorter Bill Boyds from his nuclear announcement today.

To Bruce Power:

That lousy public has forced us to make a show of saying "no for now" to your current plans. But move a couple of commas around and we'll talk again next year.

And to the rest of the nuclear industry:

We've decided that saying "no for now" on power gives us cover to approve absolutely anything else you throw at us. So help yourself: the province is ripe for the plucking!

The reviews are in

Lawrence Martin describes the Cons' anti-democratic practices in government:
There's an old-fashioned idea, once a Reform Party thing, that regular people – those grassroots folks – should have a sniff of the action. As nice as it sounds, don't go there. You need to amass unparalleled executive power so everything is top down and put through the filter of politics. For your own caucus, you enforce such tight discipline that no one dare cast an independent vote. You issue your members a secret handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees. For Question Period, you instruct your members to answer most queries with a putdown of the previous government's record.

A key facet of a downgrading democracy campaign has got to be cutting off access to information – so much so that you leave the Information Commissioner appalled, especially with the stonewalling at the Privy Council Office. Some sensitive documents are going to get out no matter how hard you try. So the strategy is to use national security as a cover to black out all potentially incriminating paragraphs. You may also wish to eliminate a huge government information registry (the Co-ordination of Access to Information Requests System) because the fewer the tracks, the better. You may also wish to prevent the publishing of departmental studies, especially ones that don't reflect well on your law-and-order proclivities.

It is said that a hallmark of democracy is the toleration of dissent. Best leave that one in the church pew. Exceptional measures need be used to crush the opposition. Stuff such as taking the unprecedented step of launching personal attack ads between election campaigns. Or trying to push through a measure that would effectively cut off financing to the opposition.

A heavy dose of demagoguery also can go a long way. Play on simple prejudices by accusing opponents of not supporting the troops or of being anti-Israel. If nothing's working, if the going gets really tough, don't hesitate to bring out the heavy timber. Just after Parliament has reopened, have it shut down.

If your campaign is waged effectively, you will enfeeble the checks and balances in the system and give the d-word a good clubbing, emerging very much in control.

That's effectively what's happened in Ottawa over the past four years. The Prime Minister is now in such command that he can get away with pretty much anything. And he is lauded for his conquests.
Of course, it's worth pointing out the fact that Martin doesn't go so far as to offer up an prescription to go with his diagnosis. Which is a shame, since a bit of consistency in calling out Harper for his anti-democratic actions - rather than lauding him for his "conquests" - would go a long way.

Someday, this could all be...hey, it's ours already!

The uranium mill at McClean Lake, Sask., will close next summer, resulting in about 140 layoffs, but company officials say it will reopen when the economy improves.

Areva owns 70 per cent of the mill, while Denison Mines Corp. and OURD Canada Co. Ltd. own the remainder.

Denison said Tuesday that the McClean Lake project is being placed on "care and maintenance" mode, starting in July 2010.
The company didn't provide a date for reopening, saying processing will begin again "when economically viable."

The layoffs will take place at the mill site and Areva's office in Saskatoon. Areva employs about 270 people at McClean Lake and about 200 at the Saskatoon office.
So what can we learn from the closure? Well, let's recap the interaction between the Wall government and Areva since the Sask Party took power just two short years ago.

When the Sask Party took office, it declared its intention to make the nuclear industry an economic centrepiece. And in hopes of making that happen, it handed the industry millions to draw up a wish list for future development.

Not surprisingly, Areva and other participants responded by putting together a report which claimed that exploration and mining should be a top priority for immediate expansion due to the certainty of a global boom in demand. And of course the report featured nary a mention of even a remote risk of downturns in the industry to counterbalance such optimistic declarations as "demand for primary uranium will grow substantially over the next 10 years".

But Areva's enthusiasm for provincial investment apparently wasn't matched by its own willingness to keep its existing operations going. And so when the chips were down, the Sask Party's eagerness to be the uranium sector's best friend didn't save a single job.

Just so we're clear: it's not that Areva can be faulted for the decision it's made. After all, its job is to value the interests of its shareholders over those of the province where it does business.

But while the story doesn't necessarily have a villain, it certainly stars Brad Wall as Chump #1. And hopefully the combined lessons from today's closure announcement and this year's potash fiasco will encourage the Sask Party to stop basing its expectations on unreliable and unrealistic resource development plans in time to set its direction for the industry in the future.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Deep thought

It's positively shocking that the spending announcements allotting the last slice of federal infrastructure spending have been no less patronage-based than those which doled out the previous 90%.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

HST = More Red Ink

Following up on this morning's post, Erin has the details on how the HST and related measures will increase Ontario's deficit:
(I)t is important to note that Bill 218 does not actually provide more revenue. The 2009 provincial budget indicated that the sales tax changes would generate an additional $2.2 billion annually. However, the personal income tax reductions and credits to compensate for those sales tax changes will cost $2.3 billion annually. Recent concessions on prepared food and real estate will cost the provincial government a further $0.6 billion annually.

So, the whole harmonization process will actually reduce provincial revenues available for public purposes by approximately $0.7 billion per year. On top of that, Bill 218 enacts corporate tax cuts that will cost a further $2.3 billion per year when fully implemented in 2014-15.

This budget legislation amounts to a transfer of $3 billion from the public purse - and billions more from Ontario consumers - to the corporate sector.

On factual deficits

I've spent no lack of time on this blog dealing with zombie lies and other false claims about the HST in B.C. and Ontario. But remarkably enough, the absolute worst argument I've seen for the HST lately originates not in either of the provinces which has actually been debating harmonization, but right here in Saskatchewan. So let's take some time to debunk the excuse being pushed by the Star-Phoenix to try to reopen an issue which otherwise isn't under discussion:
In Canada, where the federal government foolishly cut the GST to five per cent from seven per cent, and in the process weakened its finances, squandered its surplus and reduced its options just as the country was heading into the worst downturn in decades, economists are suggesting it would be better to increase the tax now in order to reduce the deficit.

Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, is warning that, without increasing consumption taxes, Canadians could face the kind of destructive cuts to education and innovation that took place in the 1990s.

Adopting the HST rather than resorting to the "big chopping exercise" on program spending resorted to in the past, is Ontario and B.C.'s best chance to continue reducing the prosperity gap with the U.S., Mr. Martin says in his report, Navigating Through the Recovery.
But if creating jobs, tackling deficits, competing with 130 other nations that have such a tax or increasing personal wealth isn't enough reason to convince governments and citizens to adopt a harmonized tax, perhaps one should consider Mark Carney's dilemma.
Now, one can make the argument that the editorial never quite goes so far as to directly claim that harmonization itself will reduce the province's deficit. But considering that the need to deal with a provincial deficit is repeatedly cited as an argument in favour of harmonization - and chopping program spending listed as the alternative - it's hard to reach any conclusion other than that the Star-Phoenix editorial board is trying to get Saskatchewanians to believe that harmonization would reduce the provincial deficit.

Which, needless to say, is absolute nonsense.

The usual operating premise of harmonization has been that the combination of tax increases on consumers and reductions on business - in the absence of any measures to compensate for the higher consumer costs - roughly evens out (i.e. is "revenue neutral"). Which would seem to be an easy enough theory to test if the governments involved had actually let people know what the impact of the policy would be before ramming it down their throats.

Curiously enough, though, neither B.C. nor Ontario seems to have actually provided any public estimates to show whether that's true: while the amounts of the corporate reductions and compensatory measures have been thrown around at every opportunity, I haven't seen any actual dollar amount placed on the cost to consumers of paying HST on a broader set of items by the governments who are imposing that change. And that should itself serve as a signal of just how little chance that would be of the policy surviving if people actually had full information about it.

Fortunately, at least one government has now offered up a simple, accurate set of estimates (warning: PDF) as to what harmonization would mean. And in Manitoba, the result would be $134 million less annual revenue for the provincial government based on harmonization. (Or $105 million looking only at the impact on consumers and businesses - which is probably the fair number to use given the discussion about different levels of government below.)

Put in terms that even somebody who gives John Gormley regular column space can understand: harmonization makes deficits worse. And that's before a province even lifts a finger to try to mitigate the regressive effects of the tax on individuals.

Granted, the federal money being offered as a bribe to encourage harmonization would paper over that gap: in Manitoba's case, it would cover a little over two years' worth of lost revenue. But it's not as if that money is ultimately free either. In effect, the Star-Phoenix is encouraging the federal government to carry a deeper deficit in the near term, in order to pay off the province to agree to go into deeper deficits in the medium and long term. And all in the name of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction.

Moreover, all of the above applies even without the province doing anything at all to try to mitigate the effects of increased taxes on individuals. And if the Star-Phoenix thinks that the governments in B.C. and Ontario have had trouble trying to sell the tax while being able to point to factors which could even out some of the damage, just wait to see what would happen if the tax were introduced without even a pretense of concern for the people affected.

Before I close out this post, the deficit claim looks to me to be both the biggest whopper in the editorial. But there's no lack of other claims which are equally easily debunked, including such gems as:
(P)oliticians from all major parties...promoted the shift.
Quick, name one from the NDP - which obviously has to be included for the wording to be "all" rather than "both". Yeah, didn't think so.
In the next decade, the change is expected to create almost 600,000 new jobs in Ontario alone that wouldn't exist under the current regime.
Asked and answered.
Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, is warning that, without increasing consumption taxes, Canadians could face the kind of destructive cuts to education and innovation that took place in the 1990s.
Included above, but let's address it on another front. If the goal is to increase income by raising consumption taxes, why on earth would that be done by eliminating consumption taxes on the entire corporate sector?

In sum, then, the Sask Party's mismanagement isn't a reason to bring in a harmonized sales tax. And the fact that the Star-Phoenix is so eager to present the HST as a solution to a problem which it would only exacerbate - while being so shamelessly off base in so much of the rest of its argument - should offer reason to be skeptical about anything it says on the topic in the future.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Plan B

Following up on last night's post, it seems that there's some consensus that a committee meeting can't officially operate in the absence of quorum - whether due to the clerk having to take notice of the numbers, or otherwise. So carrying on formal hearings in the absence of the Cons apparently isn't an option - as dangerous as it is for Stephen Harper to have an effective veto over any formal oversight from Parliament.

But while the Cons may have fled their workplace in order to try to silence the Afghan torture story over the holidays, there's no need for the opposition to let them avoid the damaging headlines they so richly deserve. At last notice, there still seemed to be plenty of documents which hadn't yet been publicly compared between the form supposedly redacted in the name of national security and that openly disclosed in court or through other processes. So now might be a great time to present a "cover-up of the day" to make sure the Cons' past lies get a full airing before the next time they show up to answer to the committee.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On countermeasures

I posed the question in comments at Macleans in the wake of the Cons' decision to hide out from the committee which was supposed to be following up on the Harper government's torture cover-up. But I'll ask it here as well: is there any reason why the meeting couldn't proceed until somebody entitled to participate actually raised a question as to whether quorum existed?

Not that this should let the Cons off the hook for their cowardice. But surely by now the opposition parties should have at least a few strategies in their back pocket to respond to the Cons' most obvious ways of obstructing Parliament - and this would seem to be one with an obvious potential solution.

On common interests

Shorter Chrysotile Institute:

It's not as if we necessarily agree with the climate change denialists we're promoting with federal money; it's just that their beliefs are similar enough to our own that we're perfectly comfortable throwing in our lot with them.

A zombie lie is born

Yesterday, I noted one problem with the CCPA's report on the HST. But as has consistently been the case when it comes to the HST, the most-repeated talking point is one that's based on ripping two words out of context: in this case "revenue neutral". So let's make absolutely clear what the CCPA's analysis does - and doesn't - say about the effect of harmonization.

There are two key assumptions which explain where the phrase comes from in the CCPA's report. First, as I noted yesterday, there's the fact that the HST is being compared to unrelated tax measures applied to individuals. While the "revenue neutral" declaration applies only if one compares the price hike resulting from the expansion of sales taxes on individuals to the credits being offered through other tax channels, there's no reason to actually assume that one is inextricably linked to the other. And if one looks at the HST alone (which can easily be done at page 8 of the CCPA's report), the result is a tax hike on families averaging approximately $500 each year.

More importantly, the CCPA's global conclusions are based on the effect of the HST and other tax measures on individuals only, and don't take into account the loss in public revenue resulting from corporate exemptions. Which is where the growing zombie lie comes in.

The next wave of pro-HST spin seems to involve pretending that the CCPA's study somehow shows that the HST scheme as a whole would be revenue neutral for the provincial government. But in reality, the corporate exemptions which are explicitly excluded from the CCPA's study will cut provincial revenue by $4.5 billion per year (the same number as the oft-trumpeted amount of eliminated "embedded sales taxes").

So no matter how desperately its proponents try to rip phrases out of context, the HST isn't revenue-neutral by a long shot - whether one looks at its impact on individuals (where it imposes real costs), or on the government as a whole (where it substantially reduces the public resources available for the provincial government). And as with the "591,000 jobs!!!" declaration that's previously been debunked, anybody claiming the HST to be "revenue neutral" based on the CCPA study can safely be dismissed as arguing in bad faith.

Edit: fixed wording.

The reviews are in

William Johnson:
The fundamental issue is no longer the appropriate treatment of detainees. At issue is the credibility of the government and its responsibility to answer to Parliament and so to the people of Canada.

The government has subverted Canadian democracy by its constant misinformation, by its withholding and censuring of documents, by making non-credible claims that it cannot release documents for reasons of national security.

Only an impartial judicial inquiry can determine the facts and finally restore badly abused ministerial responsibility. We cannot trust this government to report honestly on itself.

Monday, December 14, 2009

More sad than funny

Sure, the spoof press release claiming that Canada had put forward serious greenhouse gas emission reductions made fot a nice enough topic of conversation.

But isn't it usually a sound rule that proper satire has to have at least some basis in reality? And isn't the prospect of the Cons actually offering up the spoof targets somewhere in the range of "alien invasion causes recession and Tiger Woods' infidelity" on the plausibility spectrum?

Update: And this is why I need to remember to read CC before posting snark.

On self-absorption

Shorter Peter Goldring, Parliament's fifth-highest spender on ten-per-centers:

I have no opinion on whether allegations of anti-Semitism or outright lies about MPs' voting records might make for an unreasonable use of mailing resources. But dammit, any publication which might help the NDP to win my seat is by definition an affront to democracy.

On baselines

One can understand why the CCPA's study on the HST might have been designed at one time to assume that other tax moves designed to minimize the pain of shifting the tax burden onto individuals would be linked to harmonization. But considering that the McGuinty government has declared that the other changes will happen regardless of whether or not the HST is implemented, doesn't any accurate calculation now have to involve the effect of the HST on its own rather than tossing in credit for what would happen with or without harmonization?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On complex problems

This morning, I posted about the problems with a couple of the Cons' recent excuses for concealing information about torture in Afghanistan. But while it's not that difficult to dispense with those or indeed most of the Cons' other diversions, there's a more fundamental issue with the Cons' tactics which deserves to be pointed out.

There was plenty of attention paid this fall when Stephen Harper's mentor Tom Flanagan offered up his view that what a political party says doesn't have to be true, it only has to be plausible. But from what I can tell, the Cons have taken that philosophy a step further when it comes to scandals associated with their government.

Flanagan's construction seems to suggest that parties should at least care whether or not their claims are based on some rational argument. If a particular message isn't at least plausible - not just on its face to somebody who doesn't know the issues, but upon serious review - then it's a dangerous one to be make public.

But Cons seem to have cut the ultimate plausibility of their excuses of the picture altogether. Rather than worrying about whether any particular distraction even passes the laugh test once somebody with a reasonable amount of background knowledge goes to the trouble of examining it, they seem to have decided that their only requirement is that any implausibility require some work to demonstrate, creating a disproportionate burden on anybody seeking the truth compared to the ease with which the Cons can parrot talking points.

From that starting point, it really doesn't matter at all just what it is that the Cons bring up as an excuse. Sure, the fact that the Canada Evidence Act and the Privacy Act have something to do with the realm of information management might make them relatively easy ones to point to in an effort to deny responsibility for covering up documents. But the story wouldn't play out any differently if the Cons instead said they had to deny the information under the Bank Act, and accused the opposition parties of hating capitalism. Or, for that matter, if they said they were prohibited from releasing the information by Matthew 2, and accused the opposition parties of making Baby Jesus cry.

Whatever their shiny object du jour, the Cons can count on having enough mouthpieces parroting their talking points to fight a particular point to something approaching a draw for the first day of coverage when it receives the most public attention. Then, by the time somebody who actually understands the issue looks at it in detail, making it clear to those paying close attention just how devoid of merit the Cons' claims are, the Cons already have a new excuse ready for dissemination. (And as an added bonus, they can cycle through the excuses to ensure the expertise required to debunk the last one isn't of much assistance in dealing with the newest one - further stretching the resources of the media, opposition parties and anybody else with an interest in the ultimate subject.)

So the problem goes beyond secrecy and cover-ups, beyond bucket defences and shifting goalposts. In effect, the Cons have figured out how to take advantage of the complexity of Canada's system of laws and institutions - but only as a means to avoid accountability by always having some excuse at the ready which Canadians don't know enough to recognize as false on its face.

Which means that anybody trying to cut through the obfuscation - on Afghan detainees or any other issue - is always going to be at a disadvantage so long as the Cons' claims are taken seriously enough to be seen as deserving refutation. But while the detainee issue would seem to be a perfect opportunity to change that state of affairs (given that some of the documents nominally being withheld based on the Cons' excuses are already available for public inspection), there hasn't been much sign yet of the Cons being treated with the absolute distrust they've done so much to earn.