Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ask and ye shall receive

For those who received their tax rebates this week or otherwise want to pitch in to a good cause, let's take a minute to note a few of the worthy efforts going on at the moment.

First off, a couple of NDP candidates and constituencies are taking particular advantage of the Local Victories Challenge. Noah Evanchuk's Spring Fundraising Madness has been in progress (and apparently doing well) for some time now, while Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre's Help Unelect Tom Lukiwski drive is rightly setting some ambitious goals to help shift the riding back into NDP hands.

Meanwhile, there's plenty going on provincially as well. Ryan Meili's new web page has gone live, featuring a new "money bomb" along with plenty more content. (For those in rural areas in particular, check out the site for details about a creative Leadership Initiative in Rural Saskatchewan that will feature Ryan as one of the speakers.)

And now is also a great time to help out one or more of the other declared candidates for Saskatchewan NDP nominations. (And if I'm missing links for other candidates - as I know I am so far for Rob Dobrohoczki and Naveed Anwar in Saskatoon Sutherland - I'll be glad to add those as well.)

On decision makers

Following up on this morning's post, let's go into a bit more detail about exactly what it is that's being proposed in the Sask Party's move to eliminate Saskatchewan's Human Rights Tribunal - and just how far out of place that is compared to virtually every other public function imaginable.

To start with, it might be well and good to note that there are sometimes issues with how files are dealt with when they're taken in at the Human Rights Commission level, as well as that Human Rights Tribunal proceedings can often end up taking time to be completed. But the obvious response to that is to look at how to make the existing systems more efficient, not use the situation as an excuse to trash them. I don't agree with every result that comes out of our court system either - but that doesn't mean we'd be better off to eliminate any ability to decide disputes.

And it should be fairly clear that one won't speed up the process of dealing with a given number of complaints by eliminating the tribunal with specific expertise to deal with them.

Instead, as BCL notes, the obvious goal of requiring human rights enforcement to take place in court is to make it more difficult for complainants to actually take action. And it's worth noting just how far removed that is from the conventional wisdom when it comes to...well, virtually every other type of adjudication under the sun.

Have an issue with privacy or information? There are independent decision-making offices for that at both the provincial and the federal level. Want to see an environmental law enforced? The province is moving toward a ticketing model rather than requiring court hearings for all violations. Public-sector procurement concern? Labour issues? Automobile insurance claims? Workers' compensation claims? Complaints about regulated professionals? Dealt with by arbitral tribunals, every one.

And there's good reason for the shift toward separate tribunals with specific expertise in an area. Simply put, tribunal systems (backstopped by judicial review in exceptional cases) are the simplest, fastest, cheapest way for an individual's concerns about a specific matter to be dealt with by a neutral decision-making body.

Of course, there are other benefits as well. Tribunals allow for far more flexibility in managing proceedings, as the body responsible can shepherd claims through without a need for constant applications to court to keep things moving. And as an added bonus, tribunal members are able to develop deeper knowledge of the issues to be dealt with than a judge who might never have dealt with an issue before a motion finds its way into a courtroom.

Now, no system is perfect, and it may be that there's a need for better procedures to ensure that HRT hearings proceed at a faster pace. But the answer to that for anybody who actually wants concerns to be addressed would seem to be to seek to have dedicated, better-trained tribunal members to handle the task - not to eliminate any collection of institutional knowledge.

Instead, a move toward eliminating the faster, more convenient means of resolving disputes in favour of the formality of a courtroom - at a time when absolutely no other type of proceeding is moving in that direction - can't be seen as anything but a deliberate effort to reduce the ability of complainants to have their concerns addressed.

For prospective defendants, the tradeoff of less claims in exchange for more cost to dealing with them might well be a slight positive at the end of the day - though of course with greater rewards for those who violate rights more frequently. But the disincentive to individuals pursuing their human rights as complainants should be obvious.

Naturally, there are some excuses or dodges to pretend those disincentives shouldn't be a problem. But a case-by-case assessment of access to public legal funding is bound to leave plenty of complainants out in the cold (not to mention being ripe for cuts from the same government which is trying to hold out the application process as somehow representing a useful compromise). And the diversion of public money from actually facilitating complaints to setting up a system to evaluate whether complainants should be approved for a smaller pool of funds can't be seen as anything but the height of inefficiency.

In sum, then, the onus has to be on anybody seeking to eliminate Saskatchewan's human right tribunal system to explain why human rights should be seen as the lone area of public interest where the normally accepted standard for a superior dispute resolution model should be thrown out the window in favour of the more expensive and cumbersome court system. And while there's a ridiculously large body of rhetorical outrage backing up the anti-human rights position, any factual case for it looks to be sorely lacking.

They took all the rights and put 'em in a rights museum

Shorter Star Phoenix:

In order to prove that we properly value human rights, we need to make it prohibitively expensive for anybody to enforce them.

Update: Needless to say, the National Post loves the idea of scrapping the Human Rights Tribunal - but precisely because it'll force victims of discrimination to pay far more than most potential claims would be worth in order to get their complaints heard by anybody who can make a binding order.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Musical interlude

Copyright - Transfiguration

Burning question

Not that I put too much stock in any given photo of an apparently sleeping Sask Party MLA. But could it be that Serge Leclerc is only practicing catching shuteye on the job for when the Sask Party decides to force the legislative chamber open 24/7?

Closing the gap

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call the latest Saskatchewan poll results "devastating" for anybody - as on a lot of fronts it mostly reflects some seemingly unsurprising developments as Saskatchewan approaches its next provincial election. But perhaps the most interesting is what hasn't changed since Insightrix' previous polling.

Let's start with what has changed since the previous poll, as the Sask Party's numbers are down, the NDP's are up, and a number of issue polls see plenty of public disagreement with the Wall government's direction. It's easy enough to look at those as signs of major progress for the NDP, but I'd argue that they reflect more the expected trajectory of public opinion rather than a lot of new development:
The Insightrix poll reports little change in the support for Brad Wall at 68.5%. But support for the Saskatchewan Party has dropped to 58.4% down from 66.6% in a poll with News Talk Radio in November 2009.
(W)hat may be ring alarm bells for government is that while Dwain Lingenfelter's approval has dropped just slightly to 28.3%, more people would vote for the NDP now than a few months ago, 23.0% in the fall, now 28.7%.
Keeping in mind that the NDP's share of the vote in 2007 was already at a historically low level at 37%, there was no reason to think that polling numbers in the low to mid 20s were going to become the new normal. And indeed I'd think that given the back-and-forth nature of any political scene as well as the NDP's greater ability to get organized since last year's leadership race, it's probably to be expected that the party numbers will further tighten to a mirror image of the 2007 election results (or closer) by the time the writ is dropped.

As for the issue polling, it's certainly on the negative side for the Sask Party on some important points. But it was never a secret that this year's budget was going to involve some difficult choices - and it shouldn't come as much surprise that at least a few of the Wall government's choices for cuts are rightfully coming back to haunt it.

So much for what's changed as expected. But what about the areas that have suprisingly stayed the same? There, the key numbers are the leadership approval ratings for both Brad Wall and Dwain Lingenfelter.

It certainly has to be a disappointment from an NDP standpoint that the growing public unrest with the Sask Party generally hasn't yet changed how respondents see Wall personally. And the potential for Wall to personally paper over his party's weaknesses is obviously a problem the NDP will need to deal with in its planning going into the 2011 campaign.

At the same time, though, the fact that Dwain Lingenfelter's approval rating has largely stayed constant looks to reflect a complete failure of the Sask Party's biggest strategic move of the past few months.

There doesn't seem to be much room for doubt that the Sask Party's move to mirror the Harper Cons' reliance on attack ads was intended to have a similar impact in public opinion about the leader of the Official Opposition. But while the Cons have now succeeded in driving down two consecutive Lib leaders' approval ratings into the teens, the Sask Party's saturation of provincial airwaves with negative ads has apparently had no substantial effect on public perceptions of Dwain Lingenfelter.

Now, that has to be qualified with a reminder that the NDP and Lingenfelter have a long way to go in closing the current gaps. But if the public wasn't influenced by the anti-Lingenfelter message while the Wall government was at its peak level of popularity, it surely doesn't figure to become more receptive now that more and more people have been given reason to group together to oppose the Sask Party. And with lots of positive moments on the NDP's agenda for the next year and a half in the form of new candidates and a policy renewal process while the Sask Party has been forced on the defensive, there wouldn't figure to be much reason to expect Lingenfelter's approval rating or the NDP's fortunes to do anything but improve from here on in.

Deep thought

As inherent contradictions in terms go, a "tough voluntary code" is in roughly the same ballpark as a "fiscally responsible Conservative government".

Around the edges

Yesterday it was Lawrence Martin who managed to fit a positive mention of Jack Layton and the NDP's alternative into a column criticizing old-style politics. Today, it's Susan Riley's turn:
While Ignatieff debases himself, Harper absents himself as much as protocol allows. The implication is that the prime minister has more important business (a meeting with the prime minister of New Zealand?), than the triflers across the aisle. Smart.

By Thursday, even Liberals realized their scandal-mongering could backfire and they switched focus to another, more serious matter: mounting evidence of wilful blindness by Harper's senior officials to abuse of Afghan detainees.

But only Jack Layton asked questions that touch closely on people's lives: Quebec's challenge to medicare and nuclear policy. Unfortunately, neither media, nor polls, notice that kind of thing.
Of course, it would be all the better if Riley and others were willing to take responsibility for what gets noticed and pay a bit more attention to the NDP's substantive work. (And indeed, there's a prime example this week of a positive NDP initiative receiving shamefully little attention).

But it's at least a step in the right direction that Layton's focus on the issues that actually affect Canadians in their everyday lives is starting to get noticed. And the more agreement there is among opinion leaders that there actually is a better option than the usual Con/Lib back-and-forth, the better the chances that Canadians will come to expect better from all parties.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In order of importance

Following up on yesterday's votes in the House of Commons, Elizabeth May and the Greens are absolutely right in noting which environmental vote carries the most potential significance. And hopefully the Libs will cooperate with the other opposition parties in getting Bill C-311 passed into law (including by emphasizing the importance of a Con-dominated Senate following the will of Canada's elected representatives), rather than continuing to highlight their own non-binding motion.

Burning questions

So can we take it as a given that the Rod Bruinooge (and by association the Harper Cons) see no need to deal with threats or coercion forcing women to do anything other than end a pregnancy? And does that include, say, coercing a woman not to have an abortion?

Update: Great minds, etc.

The reviews are in

Lawrence Martin doesn't think the Cons will ultimately be able to avoid paying the price for their compulsive secrecy:
NDP Leader Jack Layton rose in the Commons, the storm known as Hurricane Helena on his mind. “Now, here is the so-called tough-on-crime Prime Minister,” he bellowed, “who will not even tell Canadians why he has called the cops on one of his own!”

The line by Mr. Layton, who displays more consistency and integrity than the other party leaders, was one of the better ones in a week that, on the subject of secrecy and censorship, has featured many. Secrecy has become a culture in Ottawa. It is the issue that keeps on growing – and for the opposition, keeps on giving.

The Helena Guergis controversy could very well turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. But by not revealing the reason for calling in the police to look into her activities, the government makes it bigger than it need be. It opens up another line of attack: stonewalling. Here we go again – more bricklayers in the Harper government than any other in the G20...

In the report by interim information commissioner Suzanne Legault, it was instructive to see which departments received the most abysmal grades. The Foreign Affairs department didn’t even qualify for an F. Such has been this department’s record on candour that Ms. Legault had to create a special off-the-charts “red alert” category for it. Foreign Affairs, of course, has been the department at the centre of the Afghan detainees storm for three years running.

Another department of considerable interest is the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office. It is the department that should be setting the example for all the others. It received a D.

It should be noted that previous Liberal governments received dismal grades as well. But under this government, Ms. Legault warned, the right of Canadians to obtain federal documents is at risk of being “totally obliterated.”

Off the Books

It's bad enough that the Wall government is so eager to lock Saskatchewan into long-term sweetheart deals for the benefit of the private sector. But it's even worse that it apparently doesn't think that the costs of those deals even need to be reported:
Following the release of the 2009 SaskPower Annual Report, NDP critic Warren McCall said the Wall government continues to hide the true cost of expenses from the people of Saskatchewan while pushing forward with increased privatization of the Crown power utility. McCall said expenditures due to be paid to private power generator Northland Power totaling $7.5 million per year for the next 20 years are nowhere to be found in the financial statements with the Wall government declaring in the report that it was “not an obligation” to disclose the full, long-term expenses of the corporation.
Oddly enough, the actual annual report doesn't seem to be available online even though SaskPower's news release declares that it should be. But other reporting confirms that the actual long-term costs of selling off power generation have been left off of SaskPower's balance sheet.

Which works rather well for the Sask Party in pretending that privatization doesn't have long-term costs, as well as for Northland Power in being able to book millions of dollars in future profits while the Wall government pretends that the cost to SaskPower is zero. But needless to say, Saskatchewan citizens figure to get the worst of the deal - and the more lengths the Sask Party goes to in keeping the real costs buried, the more certain that outcome appears.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Glad we're in agreement

There's some reason to quibble with the relative importance being assigned to some of the measures passed in the House of Commons today. But for now, let's give kudos to all opposition parties for positive outcomes on four key votes. And the fact that both Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff also chose today to take a national stand on health care user fees is just gravy.

On challenges

LRT breaks a noteworthy piece of news from the Saskatchewan NDP, as a "young, female challenger" will apparently be running against incumbent MLA Kevin Yates for the party's nomination in Regina Dewdney. But while that race itself may be one to watch, the more interesting question may be whether the move opens the floodgates for additional challenges for incumbents.

After all, the few non-incumbent nomination races in Regina and Saskatoon have attracted loads of strong competitors. And it wouldn't come as too much surprise if at least a few more new candidates decide they see a better chance to win a place in the Legislature by taking their chances on a difficult nomination fight for a seat the NDP already holds, rather than facing multiple challengers to contest a riding currently in Sask Party hands.

But what about the effect on the party in general? There too, I'd see it as a plus on the balance for some incumbents to face the possibility of nomination challenges. At the very least, the risk should push our current MLAs to work toward the party's membership targets in order to set an early nomination date and keep the field as clear as possible. And for those who do face a contested nomination, the extra work and energy that goes into competitors' efforts should prove a long-term advantage if the challengers aren't able to overcome the long odds facing them.

So I'll be looking forward to seeing not only how Regina Dewdney's contest plays out, but also how many more races materialize over the next little while.

On routine matters

Sask Party MLA Serge Leclerc asks: who are you going to believe, your lying public records or me?
Leclerc claimed in his autobiography, Untwisted, that his pardon was an extraordinary move, entailing a special act of Parliament. But Leclerc's parole board document indicates it was a routine pardon as per the conditions laid out in the Criminal Records Act.
Leclerc said he still believes his pardon was a special case and should not be compared with James's.
Leclerc says no matter what others may think of his pardon, he still believes it was well earned.

"I deserved it," he said. "I worked hard for it."
Now, the parole board's records would seem to be compelling enough evidence that Leclerc's claims about his pardon lack any basis in fact. But it's a rather simple matter to directly test Leclerc's assertion that his pardon resulted from "a special act of Parliament".

Here are the full lists of government and private members' bills from the 36th Parliament, 2nd session - covering the "acts of Parliament" for the time period from October 1999 to October 2000. On my review, the only bill dealing with pardons in any way was a Bloc private member's bill dealing with the costs of a free pardon.

So why does that matter? I'd argue that Leclerc's redemption story played a significant part in the Sask Party's attempt to put a friendlier face on itself in 2007. But the more of that story proves to be fabricated, the more reason there is for suspicion about the Sask Party's self-image generally.

Now, it doesn't look like even Leclerc is pretending to believe his own autobiography. And the fact that he's still looking for extra credit for having obtained a routine pardon even after the previous story has fallen apart can only cast doubt on the credibility of Leclerc and his party.

See more from Buckdog.

On core missions

Gerard Latulippe, imposed as the new president of Rights and Democracy over the objections of the opposition parties, describes the group's job:
"We have to work within the framework of government foreign policy, whatever political party is in power."
And whatever one's criticisms of the Con hacks who have taken over its board, it's tough to deny that R & D has been doing a brilliant job of furthering the Cons' foreign policy of funnelling public money to party loyalists at every opportunity.

Colour me skeptical

Let's get the current story straight.

Last summer, Rahim Jaffer was arrested on charges including cocaine possession. And notwithstanding that the cocaine presumably had to have come from somewhere, Stephen Harper went out of his way to say that the arrest had absolutely no potential impact on Helena Guergis' role in cabinet.

Instead, it took the intervening seven months, plus a direct tip from a private investigator, for it to occur to Stephen Harper that the "purchase and use of drugs" might make blackmail a risk. And at that point, he booted Guergis all the way out of caucus and called in the RCMP.

To which one can only ask: did Harper somehow conclude that Jaffer's supplier was such a fine, upstanding citizen as to raise absolutely no risk that any knowledge might be used against him or his spouse? Or did Harper simply pay absolutely no attention to a risk which he's now declared as serious enough to be worth siccing the RCMP on Guergis?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The reviews are in

Don Martin finds Guy Giorno's committee appearance today to have made for an implausible performance of a tired script:
In a startling display of bad timing, Mr. Giorno faced his tormentors an hour after Access to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault attacked the Harper government for obstruction and stonewalling.

It set up an interesting clash between a parliamentary officer giving the Harper government a severe tongue-lashing for blocking public data and a chief of staff who proclaims himself a true believer in public access to information.

Mr. Giorno was to be admired for delivering a charming imitation of a sand-buried ostrich head, refusing to acknowledge he was even in a hot seat and declaring with repetitive gusto that an effective information-release process was in place.

The way he argued it, political staff do not have the right to slow down or stop public information from being released and besides, it’s all about ministerial responsibility that has nothing to do with his PMO.

Of course nobody believed a word of the argument that this government has a hands-off policy when it comes to closely supervising the release of bad-news information.
Naturally, the official opposition parties were frustrated by Mr. Giorno’s selective hearing impediment to their questions and a brain loaded only with his own talking points. In the end, they engaged in a pointless search for insight from a guy who patiently and politely revealed only what he wanted to say and not a syllable more.

Damage done

It's great to see a healthy movement afoot on Twitter to push the Libs to vote for the NDP's Climate Change Accountability Act on Wednesday rather than dragging their heels as they've previously done with Bill C-311.

But it's worth noting that thanks in large part to the Libs' previous delay tactics, the toughest work on the bill is yet to come. After all, the Cons have never been shy about rejecting the will of elected officials when it comes to avoiding action to fight climate change. And now that they hold a plurality in the Senate, it's anybody's guess as to whether there's any prospect of the bill finding its way into law even if it clears tomorrow's key vote in the House of Commons.

Tuesday Morning Links

A few notes for your weekday reading...

- I'll echo those pointing out Open Parliament as a handy way to keep tabs on the goings-on in the House of Commons in a somewhat more convenient form than is available on the official Parliament of Canada site. But I'll also remind readers of How'd They Vote, which is a particularly useful resource to decipher how MPs have handled their most direct influence over public policy.

- After the unfortunate demise of the Sasquatch, its sibling publication Briarpatch is now putting out a call for support. And if you need some political motivation, here's part of why the publication is looking for help:
There have also been cuts to federal funding for magazines, and what we see as a dangerous politicization of Canadian cultural policy: Briarpatch Magazine...was denied grant funding from the Canada Magazine Fund for the past two years running for what we see as specious reasons. (In one case, our grant was recommended for approval by Canada Magazine Fund staff, and then rejected by the Conservative Minister of Culture!)
- Meanwhile, before the Sasquatch shuts down entirely, Jennipher Karst's piece on the need for a food system that will actually encourage small-scale farming is well worth a read.

- While I don't have much to add to what Michael Geist has been writing about the global ACTA copyright treaty negotiations, it's well worth following along to see how any comsumer interests in content are being bargained away in secret.

- Finally, Bill Tieleman nicely summarizes the current state of B.C.'s HST fight.

The right course of treatment

Jeffrey Simpson is somewhat overeager to take sides in the patented-vs-generic drug tug-of-war. But that aside, it's tough to argue with his point that a comprehensive national formulary could go a long way toward reining in the fastest-growing portion of Canadian health expenses:
One thing Ontario and all provinces should do is create a national drug formulary, a change recommended in the 2002 Romanow report on health care in Canada. Each province maintains its own formulary, and negotiates with drug suppliers to meet its needs. This is crazy, since the provinces together, representing 33-million people, would likely negotiate better prices than any individual province could.

Of course, provinces will disagree at the margin about which drugs should be included in their formularies, but they could surely agree on 90-95 per cent of the drugs common to all formularies. Drug companies don’t like this prospect, which is a good reason for doing it.

On oversights

One would hope that most governments would have the sense to consider the consequences of budget cuts before they're made official.

By that standard, Brad Wall's Sask Party administration is not most governments:
Environment Minister Nancy Heppner said that in the wake of the March 24 provincial budget — which axed $500,000 used to help combat Dutch elm disease — the government realized buffer zones in rural areas around communities such as Regina would no longer be monitored. Heppner said the ministry has since found about $100,000 within its existing budget to continue the rural surveillance.

"I'm willing to admit that it was an oversight on our part," Heppner told reporters Monday.
If there's any good news in the announcement, it's that it signals that the Sask Party itself doesn't much pretend to have done its homework in figuring out what to slash. Which means that there's reason for hope that they'll similarly be forced to acknowledge some "oversight" when it comes to, say, SCN.

But obviously the province would be far better off with a government that actually considers the effect of its actions in the first place. And hopefully the province's 2007 oversight on that front will be corrected before long.

Monday, April 12, 2010

On frozen rates

Andrew Steele is right to criticize the Ontario PCs' attempt to make hay out of a theory that the McGuinty government would try to raise the HST. But it's worth noting that the Libs themselves don't seem to want to acknowledge the reason why the accusation is so far-fetched:
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 for the same reason why the PCs' calls for a reduced HST rate were always misplaced, it's equally off base to suggest that a scheme which locks in the rate until at least the summer of 2012 somehow reflects a conspiracy to raise it.

The simplest explanation

I've wondered for quite some time why media coverage of the House of Commons has centred so regularly on Question Period to the exclusion of other debates which seem to involve a far greater likelihood of MPs saying something interesting. But I'll be hoping the answer is as simple and mundane as David Akin suggests, since there won't be any excuse anymore:
For the first time in Canadian history, reporters covering the proceedings in the House of Commons today will find power outlets near their seats in the Commons press gallery, above the Speakers chair. You may think this is trivial but I think this is a momentous thing. Having a power outlet here means you can stay in the House of Commons and keep enough juice in your portable computer to cover those all-night "take-note" debates. You may think I'm being facetious but I"m not. While there's no doubt that media coverage often focuses on the antics of Question Period, I suspect some reporters would spend more time in the House -- and in committee rooms -- covering the serious business of this place if they could stay electronically tied to their desks.

On pushback

It shouldn't come as much surprise that the Cons are looking to get away with doing as little as they can what it comes to pensions (other than finding ways to slash them). But it's good to see that the lack of action isn't coming without some significant criticism:
"What we're asking for is a kind of big nation-building moment," said Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She was referring to the labour movement's call for an overhaul of the Canada Pension Plan that would increase workers' and employers' contributions and eventually double CPP benefits.

"The recession highlighted and exposed huge cracks in our retirement system," she said. "But we're dealing with a government that would be philosophically opposed to trying to do anything in this kind of a collective way."
Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, says the Conservatives appear to be stalling.

On the throne speech, Eng said her group "wanted the government to focus on retirement security and pension reform issues, but got Seniors' Day instead."

Of the latest pension consultations, she said, "They're trying to ask the same questions over and over again, hoping to get a different answer, to see if somebody will tell them, `No, we're fine, don't do any more.'"

On environmental economics

Paul Krugman's climate change primer may offer up a reminder as to how surprising it is that an economist who buys entirely into the view that "the market" has to come first has carved out a niche as the furthest-left view accepted in the American political mainstream. But while there's some reason to question that part of Krugman's article, it's otherwise well worth a read in assessing the risks and costs of failing to deal with greenhouse gas emissions now.

On maximization

In this post, I raised some questions about the interprovincial implications of Erin's call for an agreement establishing minimum rates for resource royalties. But in the absence of any indication that Alberta is interested in that kind of step (particularly with the Stelmach PCs trying to fend off the Wildrose Alliance as the oil patch's party of choice), let's turn to the question of what Saskatchewan should do on its own.

Here's Erin's take:
I have not (yet) heard much out of the Saskatchewan NDP’s current Policy Review. However, one of its top priorities should be to adopt a royalty policy that aims to maximize provincial revenues rather than simply accelerate the pace of resource extraction.
Now, I definitely agree with the view that the province should take steps to make sure it's actually getting the best possible price for its resources, rather than offering the private sector a break on the privilege of using up Saskatchewan's reserves. But it's worth noting that setting royalty rates alone doesn't seem to me to be the only way of ensuring that the province maximizes its returns.

After all, the province's range of options is dictated by the different means available to tap into its resources. Faced with the choice between the perceived zero value of a lack of development and the ability to earn even the slightest return from setting rates which increase immediate investment, there's at least some logic behind a choice to accept royalty rates which result in the private sector skimming off nearly all of the profit. And that surely isn't lost on the oil industry as it lobbies for rates which will put more money in its pocket.

In other words, as long as it's assumed that the private sector alone will choose what to exploit and when, it's to be expected that the province will end up leaving money on the table - even if it does maximize the possible royalty rate under those circumstances. But that points naturally to another choice the province can make which will strengthen its bargaining position.

If one adds to the picture a provincial Crown which is willing to target underused resources, then the relative strength of the government and industry positions changes dramatically. At that point, big oil would see a need to accept terms closer to the province's preferred position on the understanding that the province actually has an alternative means of deriving value from a particular resource. And the government, applying Erin's principle, could calculate the appropriate royalty rates by comparison to the money it would expect to bring in by accessing a particular resource itself.

In other words, I'd see Erin's suggestion as the second step in what we should be pursuing as our resource development policy - coming after a commitment to public-sector resource development which will allow for one more means of maximizing the price. And hopefully both will figure into the NDP's policy discussions over the next year.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Well said

Ralph Surette points out one of the less obvious changes coming from Nova Scotia's NDP government that figures to serve the province well - not to mention offering an example which other governments should be eager to emulate:
That the civil service is getting along better with the NDP than with previous governments was one of the first things I heard about the new administration after the election last summer. Civil servants, I was told, were thrilled that the new ministers "read the documents we give them."

I hesitated in astonishment when I first heard this, since it implied that former cabinet ministers did not read their briefing material. Was it that bad? This would no doubt be an unfair judgment on some former Conservative and Liberal ministers who struggled earnestly amid our troubled politics; but in a broader sense, it does reflect on the many more for whom politics was the only criterion of decision, and facts and expertise could go hang.

I was told about this again recently by a public servant who seemed almost giddy with delight over it. An enthusiastic Nova Scotia civil servant! It reminded me of the last time I talked to one. That was in 1970.
To be both motivated and effective, a civil service has to be doing useful work that’s advancing clear policies, or delivering services in which the public has confidence. If you’re a public servant, there’s nothing more useless and demoralizing than writing reports nobody reads, or working to serve as political cover for a manipulating minister — then being accused by the public of doing nothing.

If the NDP is succeeding in engaging the public service to a greater degree, then its prospects of tightening it up by 10 per cent as planned are good. For public servants at the middle and upper levels, an enhanced sense of purpose is a fair exchange for what may or may not be a greater workload, although at the clerk level that will be trickier.

Thus, to sum up, the ship is in better shape and the morale of its crew higher than before.

Sure, that's one theory

Those looking for a reasonable explanation as to what likely happened to trigger the RCMP being called in to investigate Helena Guergis will want to read David Akin's latest. But as long as the Harper Cons themselves don't think the public deserves even the most basic information about the investigation, I'd think it's far too soon to stop speculating.

Has anybody brought up cannibalism as a possibility yet?

On institutional conflict

Next Year Country has posted a review of Tuny Judt's book by Chris Maisano which fits nicely with some of the current dialogue within the Saskatchewan NDP. Here's Maisano on the direction the global economy has taken for a few decades now and the forces that pushed us there:
(B)y the early 1970s, social democracy reached its political and economic limits. The welfare state strengthened the position of organized labor, reducing corporate profits and increasing workers' political power relative to capital. Social democratic parties and trade unions began to formulate plans to encroach on capital's control over the means of production; in Sweden the unions proposed the establishment of worker funds that would gradually take ownership of firms away from capitalists, elements of the British Labour Party pushed for more comprehensive forms of economic planning, and the Socialists under Francois Mitterrand moved to nationalize vast swaths of the French economy, including 90% of the country's banks. These political developments, coupled with the shocks wrought by inflation in commodity prices (especially oil) and a productivity slowdown, ruptured the underpinnings of the postwar order. The crisis could have been resolved by either moving further toward socialism or by breaking radically toward neoliberalism. As we are all painfully aware, the latter option won out. The political and economic power of capital was restored, and the labor movement and left political formations were decimated. We've lost the ability to talk about social democracy not simply because of a crisis of faith. It's because the institutions with the ability to articulate this discursive framework have been defeated (for now, at least).

This points to the fundamental limitation of social democracy, or "socialist capitalism" as Michael Harrington more accurately described it. It's a compromise between socialism and capitalism, but one that's made on capitalism's terms. As Harrington pointed out decades ago in his book Socialism, "the fact is that as long as capitalism is capitalism it vitiates or subverts the efforts of socialists. . . . In fact, capital fights back, it does not meekly accept the programming of social democratic ministers . . . economic power is political power, and as long as the basic relationships of the economy are left intact, they provide a base for the subversion of the democratic will."
Now, I don't agree with Maisano's conclusion that social democracy can't make for a desirable destination in itself, as the existence of strong forces on two sides of an issue doesn't necessarily rule out an equilibrium that ultimately results in the best possible global outcome. But his analysis does provide an important response to the view that a concern for public ownership and government as the site of solutions represents the outdated thinking of "left-wing conservatives".

Instead, I'd argue that it's a sign of realism, not conservatism, to recognize that the long-term sustainability of a political vision depends in substantial part on the type of institutions responsible for delivering it, as well as the relative strength of the forces supporting and opposing it. And the mantra about the "end of big government" over the past couple of decades seems too frequently to have resulted in trading off increased corporate control for limited policy gains in the short term - with the long-term consequence of reinforcing the former at the expense of the latter when tension arises between the two.

Which isn't to say we should refuse to consider other ideas as to how to implement policies beyond insisting on centralized government structures. Indeed, we'd do well to also promote cooperative and community-based efforts among other possible sources of new institutional strength. But while we should certainly be open to different means to our shared ends, we should also be careful about buying into the rhetoric of those who want to diminish the importance of governments, unions, and other actors precisely because they've managed to serve as counterweights to a corporate-centred worldview.