Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saskatchewan NDP Policy Review: Mental Health Services

As promised, let's start taking a look at some of the proposals in the Saskatchewan NDP's Policy Review report - starting with an issue which has often been pointed out as a desperate need by neutral observers, but seldom presented as a top priority by political parties:
Saskatchewan people want a New Democratic government to: 
- Reorganize mental health services with the following guiding principles in mind: (1) protection of human rights; (2) accessibility; (3) comprehensiveness; (4) coordination and continuity of care; (5) effectiveness; (6) equity; and (7) efficiency.

- Increase inter-ministerial coordination to ensure that those with mental illness have access to the best possible services and protections.
- Provide sufficient funding to ensure that mental health programming is comprehensive, inclusive, coordinated and sustained. This should include increased support for community treatment, crisis lines, mobile crisis outreach, inpatient and outpatient mental health services, and respite care.

- Increase public education and awareness of mental health issues and services, including components that are specifically targeted at youth through the curriculum.
Now, it's significant enough that the NDP is recognizing the need for significant systemic changes both in terms of the amount of resources allocated, and the priorities involved in mental health services. And the contrast could hardly be more stark when compared to a government which is (at best) making excuses for failing to follow through on the Calvert government's plans to update a single facility.

But the last point may be the most important of all. While public education and curriculum development figure to be relatively low-cost elements of an overall mental health plan, they have the potential to significantly reduce the public stigma associated with mental health issues which serves as an excuse for both systemic underfunding and personal prejudice. And that could be the first step in making Saskatchewan a leader in addressing mental health just as it became in pioneering Medicare fifty years ago.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted material for your weekend reading.

- It's looked for some time like the NDP has an opportunity to make some serious inroads in Quebec. And the NDP's plan looks well designed to differentiate the party from the Bloc without disturbing the Gilles Duceppe's efforts to paint the other national parties as one and the same:
The NDP is taking another route, lashing out at planned corporate tax cuts, but also trying to present a new face on sustainable development in the province.

NDP MP Thomas Mulcair said his party has been working with opponents of the ongoing exploration for shale gas in Quebec, and that its new candidate in Manicouagan, Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, was a key player in the fight against uranium development in the province’s north.

Mr. Mulcair added that unlike the Bloc, the NDP not only expresses its opposition to the oil industry in the West, but can do something about it with MPs all over the country.

“The Bloc can only talk about the tar sands in Quebec,” Mr. Mulcair said, comparing that party to a hockey team made up entirely of defencemen. “That’s the difference with the NDP, which is a social-democratic, pan-Canadian party, with a strong track record that is attracting more and more people in Quebec.”
- Rick Salutin points out how the Cons' governing philosophy is based on trying to break down public trust in democratic institutions:
There are people who don’t just have trouble trusting others, they don’t even seem to trust trust when they see it in action. They cringe at the sight. I think of Stephen Harper in this category. It’s not just his attempt to control what others say, or the flow of information. He couldn’t wait to cancel the national child-care program and replace it with small grants to families. You’ll never accomplish a lot that way but you avoid anxiety and disappointment over how a large national program might work out. Ask yourself this: Can you imagine the Harper government (as they now say) bringing in medicare?

What of Harper’s claim that this election shouldn’t be over “distractions” like trust, but about the economy? I’d say an economy is all about trust and distrust. Next Tuesday’s budget will focus on taxes, which are the concrete form of political trust. If we trust our leaders to use our taxes to do things we can’t achieve on our own, then we pay — not happily but willingly. If we don’t trust them, then we’d rather not pay and we choose leaders who will do less. The whole Harper economic program has been to lower taxes incessantly, starting with the GST, so there’s less money to do things and less reason to take a chance on the kind of public trust required to deal with large problems.

Nothing is more fragile and easier to lose than public trust, especially in the area of taxes. When bankers took tax money as bailouts and then used it for further bonuses, they hammered that trust, justifying Harperian distrust.
- Greg is on a roll in pointing out why there's every reason to be wary of the Harper Cons' motives in trying to push for military action in Libya.

- Finally, it seems to have completely escaped any mention by the media, but NDP MP Don Davies has introduced a private member's bill to lower Canada's voting age to 16. Of course the odds of such a bill passing in the near future seem low (and I still suspect that the ideal would be to go somewhat further), but it's still a huge plus to see at least one party working to ensure that more Canadians are able to have a say in the country's electoral system.

Love is all you need

Of course the headline and main theme involve the typical "pox on all their houses" analysis. But Angus Reid's polling on public attitudes toward Canada's politicians and parties actually includes little but great news for at least one party:
In 2007, 18 per cent of Canadians were “disgusted” with the Conservatives, and that number has climbed slightly to 22 per cent. The 30 per cent that felt that way about the Grits in 2007 has fallen off to 20 per cent. About 15 per cent were turned off by the NDP, but now it’s 9 per cent.

Under the heading of “fear,” 18 per cent of those polled back in 2007 said they were afraid of what Harper stood for, but that’s dipped to 13 per cent. Only 11 per cent said they were afraid of then Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion. But the poll indicates he struck fear into the hearts of fewer Canadians than Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff does today at 15 per cent. Few Canadians are afraid of NDP Leader Jack Layton.
Three per cent of those surveyed said they “love” Harper, up from 2 per cent in 2007, while only 1 per cent showed this level of affection for Ignatieff. One-fifth of Canucks profess their love for Layton, up from 4 per cent in 2007. The outcome was roughly the same for the parties.
So what's worth highlighting in the above? First, there's the fact that the NDP is carrying virtually no significant negatives - which looks particularly noteworthy since it comes after the Cons' effort to demonize the NDP as part of a possible coalition. That isn't to say that a more concerted attack on the NDP as a contender for power couldn't do some damage, but it certainly looks like a compelling indication that the smears so far haven't stuck - and that the vast majority of people may not be particularly receptive if the Cons try to start up again.

More interestingly, though, there's the fact that the NDP's efforts to build up Jack Layton as a positive leader look to have accomplished far more than the Cons' attempt to develop a personality cult around Stephen Harper. Indeed, the most significant change in attitudes since 2007 looks to be a stunning increase in the number of respondents professing "love" for Layton - while only a tenth of the Cons' usual voting base is willing to associate the same term with Harper.

Of course, it's an open question whether that personal approval will enable Layton to inspire voters to move into his party's camp. But at the very least, it can't be said that Canada lacks at least one reasonably beloved party leader - and it makes sense that such an option could be the antidote to public apathy built on the negative perceptions of the alternatives.

Update: Angus Reid has released the full report, and the portion of the article above about "love" looks to have mistaken a 5% showing for Jack Layton (still tops among leaders) for "one-fifth of Canucks". But there's still plenty to like for the NDP, including the plurality impression of each leader and party: "displeasure" for both the Libs and Cons and their respective leaders, compared to "optimism" for Layton and the NDP.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Musical interlude

Sneaker Pimps - Wasted Early Sunday Morning

On privileged communications

If Canada's current governing party wants to tell us that "(serving) as a Minister in...government" or "(exercising) real, political power" makes a person into an elitist, to the point where neither he nor his descendants could possibly understand the plight of typical (or dare we say "real") Canadians...

Well, who are we to doubt such a significant admission against interest?

So you heard the Cons. Stop listening to anything the privileged few now holding power have to say.

Update: Though in fairness, the Cons' attack does focus more on wealth than power. So I'm sure we'll see them run far, far away from the likes of, say, Larry Smith any second now on the basis that he's utterly clueless about the reality facing most Canadians.

Truly scandalous

Paul Wells is right to note where the more fundamental scandal lies in the Cons' handling of the desperate need to make clean water available to Canada's First Nations. But it's well worth noting that there's a more recent set of equally problematic developments, as hinted at by the Globe and Mail's coverage:
First nations leaders were allegedly being warned by the promoters of the H2O Pro system that new legislation before the Senate will require them to meet stringent drinking water standards but will provide no resources to do so.
Lest there be any doubt, that message wasn't simply a matter of the system's promoters making something up that wasn't already known to the First Nations involved. In fact, Shawn Atleo raised exactly the same criticism of the bill at the time - so it's only the failings of the Harper Cons to back up new rules with matching resources that made the pitch even remotely plausible.

Which leads to this...
The communities were allegedly told that government connections could be used to find money for the equipment and training if they purchased the systems.
And that's where the Carson scandal most clearly highlights the ultimate problem with the Harper government.

If the party in charge of allocating funding hadn't spent the last five years looking for more and more blatant ways to direct public funds for political benefit, or if anybody bought that the Cons would deal with anybody honestly or transparently, then a sales pitch based solely on political connections rather than merit would have been laughed out of the communities involved and immediately exposed. But given the Cons' actions while in office, the concept looks to have been taken fairly seriously - and until APTN broke the story nationally, the communities themselves seem to have been scared enough of reprisals to avoid saying anything publicly.

So the real problem underlying the Carson story is that the Harper Cons have been so thoroughly unresponsive to First Nation needs as to create the opportunity for Carson - and so thoroughly motivated by politics in doling out benefits that nobody seems to have entirely doubted the claim that privileged access to public money might be available if the right people were able to take a cut. And the fact that this particular scheme was eventually sniffed out (with no substantial help from the Harper government) doesn't mean anybody else has reason to think otherwise.

Friday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- In case there's any doubt whether public-sector alternatives are a must to avoid getting taken to the cleaners by the private sector, the answer is an unequivocal "yes". And the fact that corporate mouthpieces are actually objecting to more efficient public service should leave no doubt that the public interest is the further thing from their minds.

- Dimitri Pantazopoulos provides what may well be the worst advice I've ever heard for a political party:
Mr. Pantazopoulos, who is leaving Ottawa next month to work for Christy Clark’s government in British Columbia, says the NDP should broaden its focus and show how it can propel its working-class base to an upper-class position. “Rather than engaging in class warfare, the NDP should emphasize what every member of the working class wants – to rise out of the working class.”
Even leaving aside the logical impossibility of a call for everybody to be upper-class, does anybody really see "The NDP: Those Working Stiffs Can Eat Your Dust" as the message to appeal to the base and swing voters alike?

- Having been invited to unveil the federal government's open data pilot project, David Eaves points out where there's loads of room for improvement.

- Finally, while the book itself looks to be an absolute must-read, even Joan Baxter's review of Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World goes a long way in tracing the reasons why we're perpetually told to expect less and less from our public institutions:
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes. That was in 1789. Mr. Franklin might be surprised to learn that today his axiom no longer holds, at least not for the rich and powerful among us. Truth be told -- as it is in British investigative journalist and author Nicholas Shaxson's meticulously researched and riveting book, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World -- taxation is only certain for the ordinary law-abiding citizen, the non-rich. The wealthy and the ultra-wealthy can quite easily get by paying little or even no tax, thanks to the shadowy spider webs of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions that span the globe.

Shaxson's aims in the book, he says, are to challenge the common idea that it is acceptable for a place to get rich by undermining the laws of other places and to offer a lens through which to view the history of the modern world. "Offshore business," he writes, "is, at heart, about artificially manipulating paper trails of money across borders." It is not a "colourful outgrowth of the global economy, but instead lies right at its centre." It's not about efficiency or any genuine production or real economic growth -- it's about people and corporations making vast amounts of money through tax evasion.
Way back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to drive the tax havens "out of existence" and more recently Barack Obama co-sponsored the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act in 2008, before he came to power.

Shaxson writes that crucial reforms such as these are always blocked by lobbying from the rich and powerful. So the problem has only been getting worse, as globalization allows more and more shifting of wealth around the world in seconds from one secret place to another, out of sight of the public eye and out of reach of tax authorities. Hedge funds and private equity funds flourish in the secrecy afforded by the offshore, where tax authorities have few and sometimes no rights to tread. While the offshore financial industry didn't cause the financial crisis of 2007, Shaxson finds, it certainly enabled it.
Shaxson ends the book with a list of potential solutions and on a note of hope. "The veil of silence and ignorance can be lifted and the message spread," he writes. " If we all work together to "contain and control financial secrecy," we can avert a future in which "A tiny few will have their boots washed in champagne while the rest of us struggle for our lives in conditions of steepening inequality." This is one of those extremely rare books that doesn't just change the reader, but could also change the world -- for the better.

The definition of insanity

For those concerned that the Wall government wouldn't do anything at all about environmental damage caused by Alberta's tar sands, there is indeed a plan: to rely on Alberta's largesse to determine whether anything actually gets cleaned up.

Because surely the same strategy which has failed miserably in dealing with a federal government which has 13 seats to lose in the province is bound to work much better when the other party doesn't even face a theoretical political risk if it simply strings us along.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On business considerations

As promised, let's follow up with one more point of discussion from my column today: namely, should we avoid "running government like a business" or similar analogies, particularly in a context where the government in power is branded largely as business-friendly?

On that front, the first point I'd note is that there are different ways for businesses to be run. And the distinction drawn by Ian is obviously an important one: as catastrophic as it is for the corporate sector to be dominated by short-term thinking, the consequences are even worse when a government falls into the same trap. (And let's not doubt that the Wall government has tried to do so: does anybody else remember that the Sask Party was fully willing to trade off whatever strategic interest it later argued to be sacrosanct in the sale of PCS in exchange for a one-time election slush fund?)

But if one's starting point is a responsibly-run business which serves to aggregate and direct the resources of multiple stakeholders in pursuit of their long-term interests, then there's no reason why we wouldn't want the public sector following a broadly similar pattern. And indeed, the largest problem with the Wall government (like so many others) is the degree to which it acts for the business sector instead of acting like a business of its own.

After all, whatever alliances a business may make in the marketplace, its primary goal will naturally be the well-being of its own operation. And negotiations with other entities are quite naturally based on the assumption that the business will try to get the best possible deal for itself (and ultimately its shareholders), rather than regularly settling for less than it could in a futile attempt to win the favour of other parties who do operate based on their own self-interest.

Unfortunately, Wall's government has approached its role from exactly the opposite perspective. Instead of seeking to maximize Saskatchewan's returns for the benefit of the "shareholders" who have a long-term stake in the well-being of the province, the Sask Party ranks its desire to ingratiate itself to the corporate sector above any question as to what's ultimately best for the citizens who make up Saskatchewan as a whole.

So once one takes the time it takes to explain the difference between acting in service of business and acting like a business, the distinction makes for a useful tool in evaluating the Sask Party (or any other government). And it's hard to see how anybody who isn't on the receiving end of public largesse could try to argue that we're best served accepting the former.

Speak no evil

Just so we're clear, Bruce Carson, as a prominent former member of Stephen Harper's inner circle, lobbied Harper government officials well within the period in which he was prohibited from doing so. And the Harper Cons reported and did absolutely nothing until the media broke the story months later.

We'll have to see whether more cases turn up, particularly now that someone as prominent as Carson has turned up in a reported incident. But for all the Cons' tough talk on lobbying, Carson's case strongly suggests that their attitude toward lobbying (as with any other way of skirting the rules for the benefit of their friends and cronies) is to encourage it until somebody else stops them.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday.

- Ellen Russell is the latest to highlight how right-wing governments see deficits as a plus in their efforts to minimize the potential for future public action:
It is obvious that Harper is not too upset when it comes to the deficit. Despite his claims to be a fiscal conservative, he cannot give away money fast enough in corporate tax cuts or military spending. Parliament can't even get a straight answer out of him about the price tag of his anti-crime campaign or his F35 fighter jets. I guess that standards of fiscal accountability and transparency only apply when Stephen says they should.

Harper wants to spend freely on his political agenda, while having an excuse for refusing to implement the sorts of government programs that would make a real difference for Canadians who are struggling after the latest economic downturn. Better yet, he wants to portray his refusal to help Canadians in need as a virtue.
- Which leads nicely to Marc Lee's post on what factors actually matter in boosting the economy that Harper claims to be focused on:
So much of “competitiveness” (whatever that means) policy is focused on the supply side (tax cuts, deregulation) to induce additional gains on the margin (forget that investments made under a high degree of uncertainty, and other factors like environmental problems). But are not these microeconomic gains on the margin almost always swamped by macro forces, and in fact, investment is more determined by demand conditions, anyway. That is the one robust conclusion of a review of econometric analyses from the IMF I read a few years ago.

That is, if the economy is booming and demand is strong, business will invest even in the face of tax and regulatory hurdles. But eliminate those taxes and regulations in the midst of a recession, and they will have no meaningful effect because business won’t invest anyway due to weak demand. This is basic stuff, for anyone who’s thought about Keynes I know. But it is a big reason why most economists, business commentators and politicians that focus on supply side gains and neglect demand conditions get it wrong.
- But then, Matthew Yglesias is right to note the effect of corporate solidarity in distorting any debate about budgets (which goes a long way in explaining why useless supply-side policy is always the first to be considered):
This brings to mind the phenomenon that’s sort of the obverse of union decline—the extraordinary level of solidarity manifested by the corporate executive class in the United States of America. There are plenty of individual firms that benefit from this or that public sector spending stream, but essentially all business organizations are solidly united in opposition to essentially all possible ways to enhance government revenue. On financial reform, it’s not merely that the big banks opposed the Dodd-Frank bill, but there was absolutely no counter-lobbying from firms in the non-financial economy in favor of it. And that’s not to say that Dodd-Frank was the greatest thing since sliced brad, but there were no proposals coming out of corporate America for any financial regulatory overhaul of any kind. Yet clearly something went badly awry in 2007-2008. But the business class united behind TARP, then united to oppose any regulatory reforms, and is now united against any return to pre-Bush levels of taxation on rich people.

We’re so accustomed to this kind of thing that we take it for granted, but I don’t think it’s obvious ex ante that business lobbying should be such a simultaneously solidaristic and nihilistic venture. Presumably most American firms would, in fact, benefit from the existence of a sensible and sustainable financial regulatory scheme. But there’s no lobbying activity whatsoever dedicated to creating it.
- Scott Reid points out why it's exceedingly dangerous to let a "people don't care about politics" message take hold - particularly if we're headed into an election in the near future:
But the question remains: Why don't voters care?

Well, first of all, let's not be quite so (condescending). Actually, many people care. But Harper's team argues they're not the right people. Those offended by Harper's machine-like assault on the principles of honest conduct and fair play are already part of the Ottawa scene. Or worse, they're dedicated voters of the other parties.
It is (the media), in particular, who tell us repeatedly that "no one cares." And all too frequently, there is little, if any, suggestion that part of the media's function is to serve as a check on abuse of authority. Put another way, if Woodward and Bernstein had followed the same method we sometimes witness in Ottawa, they would surely have shrugged off Deep Throat, explaining that no one cares about such a technical, complicated story and that, in any event, Nixon's triumph over McGovern rendered the matter moot.
People don't give a tinker's damn if Harper is rotten to his political opponents. They care if he's rotten to them. And so far, the Liberals have not convincingly made the case that Harper's contempt of Parliament translates into a threat that resonates personally with the public.

If the Liberals hope to make Harper pay a price for his misbehaviour by forcing an election campaign, they have — to say the least — much labour left ahead. Standing double digits back of the Conservatives, falling behind in Ontario and floating somewhere between 23 and 26 per cent in popular support, it seems a peculiar time to call the question. Indeed, it could well make things worse.

Because, IF Harper were to wage and win an election campaign this spring, you can be certain that he — and others — would be quick to claim that he was right all along and that no one really does care.
- And finally, a special St. Patrick's Day edition of what thwap said.

Escalating contempt

In case the fact the Cons haven't bothered to get the numbers straight wasn't reason enough to conclude they're doubling down on their strategy of contempt of Parliament, this should put all doubt to rest:
While the government originally cited Cabinet confidence as the reason it could not provide the cost of implementing the 18 crime bills—a total of $631-million and a further $2.1-billion for prison expansion that will result from a separate bill for which the opposition had not sought cost estimates—Mr. Nicholson said the information he and Mr. Toews provided to the committee Wednesday did not include any information that was protected by Cabinet confidence.
So what does the Cons' stark limitation on the information produced yesterday mean?

First, it suggests that to the extent any of the information produced yesterday wasn't already provided to the opposition, it had been withheld up to that point with what the Cons admit to be a complete lack of justification - even in the face of a Parliamentary order.

And second, it signals that the Cons plan to ignore Peter Milliken's clear ruling that a government isn't entitled to shield information from view when the majority is the House of Commons has ordered that it be produced. Instead, they're repeating the same tired talking points about cabinet confidence trumping the will of elected MPs.

So in the end, the takeaway from yesterday doesn't look to be that the Cons did anything to actually comply at the last minute through a document dump, but instead that they're predictably continuing their pattern of laughing in the face of binding orders. Which leaves only the question of whether the Libs and Bloc will be willing to stand up for Parliamentary supremacy this time after caving so thoroughly last time the issue came to a head.

Update: Robert Silver has more.

On inevitable results

Apparently they'll let just anybody write a column these days. So please enjoy my debut piece in the Leader-Post.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of points worth expanding on from the column, starting with the expected result of a royalty rate review.

In principle, there's no reason why a review would result in any particular conclusion. And indeed, most of the arguments being raised against a review (such as royalty rates in jurisdictions with less potash reserves) would serve just as well to promote lower rates within a review process as to try to stop such a process before it starts.

What's more, we've seen how the Wall brand of consultation works. Any review carried out under his government would be conducted primarily by industry insiders, with the Sask Party government then picking and choosing which recommendations to put into effect - ensuring that the end result would be as friendly as possible to the same actors who are fighting against such a process.

Which makes it remarkable that both the Wall government and the potash industry seem to recognize that even with the playing field heavily tilted in favour of current producers, any even remotely defensible review is likely to lead to higher royalty rates. And the fact that nobody is pretending for a second that a reasonable look at current market conditions would produce any other result should serve as fairly compelling evidence that a review is long overdue.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On lofty goals

I think we've found our reason why the Cons might want to reach a deal on the budget. After all, how can they risk a spring election that would interfere with their dream of reaching 10,000 PR stunts in a single term in office?

On signs of contempt

Not that anybody expected the Cons to take mere repeated orders from the House of Commons seriously. But isn't it somewhat surprising that they couldn't even be bothered to make their document dump match the numbers they were claiming as a full answer to the opposition's demand to know the cost of their dumb-on-crime legislation just last month?

Wednesday Morning Links

Assorted content for your midweek reading.

- Carol Goar laments the fact that Canadian governments at all levels have been able to get away with defiantly doing nothing to combat poverty:
(Diane Finley) would not still be minister of human resources, after four years, if her words didn't reflect Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wishes. He has said repeatedly that he wants nothing to do with the design or delivery of social programs.

But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is no champion of the poor, either. Since taking the reins in 2008, he has disowned his party's comprehensive poverty reduction plan and replaced it with three measures (so far): a modest caregiver's benefit aimed primarily at middle-class families, a small increase in funding for school nutrition programs and a still-to-be-unveiled national child-care strategy.

Things aren't much better at the provincial level. All of the premiers have decided, to varying degrees, that reducing poverty is unaffordable. Dalton McGuinty's poverty reduction plan for Ontario, unveiled with great fanfare in 2008, has degenerated into a succession of studies, deliberations and excuses. The province's social assistance rate ($592 per person) now stands 59 per cent below StatsCan's low-income cut-off.

In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford is promising to slash spending and get the city's hands out of taxpayers' pockets.

Politicians at all levels are taking their cue from the public. Canadians either want them — or allow them — to overlook those tossed aside by market forces.
- But Chris Hedges notes why it's entirely predictable that a class of economic and political elites won't take others' interests into account unless they're forced to:
The liberal class is discovering what happens when you tolerate the intolerant. Let hate speech pollute the airways. Let corporations buy up your courts and state and federal legislative bodies. Let the Christian religion be manipulated by charlatans to demonize Muslims, gays and intellectuals, discredit science and become a source of personal enrichment. Let unions wither under corporate assault. Let social services and public education be stripped of funding. Let Wall Street loot the national treasury with impunity. Let sleazy con artists use lies and deception to carry out unethical sting operations on tottering liberal institutions, and you roll out the welcome mat for fascism.

The liberal class has busied itself with the toothless pursuits of inclusiveness, multiculturalism, identity politics and tolerance—a word Martin Luther King never used—and forgotten about justice.
We have tolerated the intolerant—from propaganda outlets such as Fox News to Christian fascists to lunatics in the Republican Party to Wall Street and corporations—and we are paying the price. The only place left for us is on the street...The powerful, with no check left on their greed and criminality, are gorging on money while they busily foreclose our homes, bust the last of our unions, drive up our health care costs and cement into place a permanent underclass of the broken and the poor. They are slashing our most essential and basic services—including budgets for schools, firefighters and assistance programs for children and the elderly—so we can pay for the fraud they committed when they wiped out $14 trillion of housing wealth, wages and retirement savings. All we have left is the capacity to say “no.” And if enough of us say “no,” if enough of us refuse to cooperate, the despots are in trouble.
- Meanwhile, for those still trying to pretend there's hope of the Cons being reasonable (I'm looking at you, David McGuinty), Dan Gardner reminds us what the Harper Cons think of civility and restraint:
For the prime minister and his core team, there is no such thing as honest and honourable disagreement. One either supports Stephen Harper or one is the enemy -and enemies must be defeated by any means necessary.

In the 2006 election, the Conservatives issued a press release with the headline "Paul Martin Supports Child Pornography?" It was retracted. But when Stephen Harper was asked about it, he didn't apologize. He attacked. "I'm not going to, in any way, give the Liberal party any break in its record on child pornography."

This was the template for what was to come. One of the lowest points in Canadian political history was reached when the prime minister stood in the House of Commons and insinuated that the Liberals were opposing certain anti-terrorism provisions because a Liberal MP's father-in-law may have been involved with terrorists.

Naturally, this no-limits mentality is not limited to the political arena.
The change isn't solely Stephen Harper's doing, of course. It's also the product of American influence.

The prime minister and the people around him have all followed American politics their entire lives, they all have close connections with American politicos, and many have actively participated in American politics. In the American system, the idea of political neutrality scarcely exists. Senior civil servants are political appointees. Judges are identified as Republicans and Democrats and the Supreme Court routinely splits along political lines when ruling on politically contentious cases. There is no Governor General or Queen above politics -nothing is above politics. Indeed, the closest thing to neutrality in American politics is "bipartisanship," which is quite a different creature.

It's also important that the Harper Conservatives are connected to, and influenced by, the American conservative movement. As Rick Perlstein showed so brilliantly in Nixonland, that movement was shaped in important ways less by the sunny nature of Ronald Reagan than the dark insecurities of Richard Nixon. Conservatives are outsiders. They have to fight dirty because power lies with a ruthless and entrenched elite. It's civil war. And it never ends: Even in the middle of the Bush years, when Republicans controlled the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, conservatives sincerely saw themselves as hard-pressed and persecuted insurgents.

Just like the underdogs of the PMO.
- And for those looking for a handy example, look no further than Peter Langille.


In case there was any doubt as to whether or not Canadians broadly support the NDP's priorities for the federal budget, it can now be put to rest. Here are the latest Ipsos Reid numbers on respondents' budget priorities:
Among highlights of the poll's findings:

- 92 per cent support expanding support for low-income seniors;

- 90 per cent support increased spending on health care;

- 84 per cent support expanding the Canada Pension Plan;

- 39 per cent support corporate tax cuts, while 58 per cent oppose them.
Now, I'd still think it's more likely than not that the Cons will try to provoke an election with their budget. But it may be awfully dangerous for them to do so by thumbing their nose at upwards of 90% of the electorate - meaning that the NDP's work to draw attention to issues with such broad public support may well be exactly what's needed to get some unexpected positive results out of a government which would never bother if left to its own devices.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Clingy cats.

On noxious leaks

Shorter Warren Kinsella:

Since there's absolutely nothing worth criticizing about what the NDP is actually saying and doing, allow me to bash them for what I think they might say and do.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading...

- Carol Goar chimes in on the Harper Cons' shadow civil service which combines wasteful public spending with private-sector profiteering:
(David MacDonald) He sifted through 300,000 government contracts and pored over the five years’ worth of public accounts to find out what was happening, pinpoint the big spenders and track the trends. The deeper he looked, the more troubling the pattern became.

Not only had the cost of contract workers ballooned, the nature of their work had changed. No longer were they brought in for short-term projects or hired to provide expertise the government did not have. They did exactly the same work as public servants. They sat alongside them, had government email addresses and handled confidential government information.

“They look like government employees, but they’re not,” the economist said. They are exempt from the government’s normal hiring requirements such as bilingualism and proven ability to do the job. And they aren’t on the government payroll; their remuneration comes from a private outsourcing firm (which usually means they have no job security or benefits.)

Macdonald also discovered a large discrepancy between the value of the contracts the government signed and what it actually spent. Contracts were repeatedly revised, extended and modified driving up the final price by as much 700 per cent. Once an outsourcing deal had been signed, government managers had “considerable leeway” to reach back into the public purse to buy more services.
Why should taxpayers care?

First, the government is bulking up its own workforce, while preaching austerity. Second, outsourcing is expensive. Finally, Harper is weakening one of the pillars of democracy: an impartial public service that serves all governments regardless of ideology with professionalism and integrity.
- Dan Gardner is right to note that the single example of a nuclear power plant facing explosions and radiation leaks shouldn't be the deciding factor one way or the other. But it's equally true that contrary to the spin of the pro-nuclear camp, the absence of equally major incidents for some time previous didn't eliminate the risks associated with nuclear power either. And a stark reminder of the real downside may well serve as a spur to work harder on developing lower-risk alternatives - even if the need should have been obvious sooner.

- Not that I agree with all of the CCPA's ideas from its alternative budget. But who wants to be the one to argue against the position that creating 300,000 new jobs and reducing the unemployment rate by 2% is a goal worth pursuing?

- Finally, filed under "necessity as the mother of invention", the NDP may end up making more of a push toward online engagement in an upcoming election campaign in order to ease the travel burden on Jack Layton:
The NDP leader was back to work just hours after leaving Toronto's Mount Sinai hospital last Wednesday, five days after surgery to mend a fracture in his hip.

An election call would put Layton's physical stamina to the test during what would likely be a five-week, cross-country campaign.

However, Layton suggested he would work the phones more and use technology, such as the Internet, to get his party's message across if campaigning were to become too onerous.

On flawed plans

Yes, it's well worth noting when a tax incentive isn't doing what it's supposed to. And a research and development tax credit that does little to spur actual research certainly fits the bill.

But let's also keep in mind part of the problem with the enforcement of federal tax rules generally, as the Harper Cons have deliberately weakened the Canada Revenue Agency in its efforts to monitor tax compliance. Which is great for those who are eager to follow the Cons' pattern of twisting the law to their own ends - but makes for a disastrous loss of revenue for Canadians who play by the rules.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On exclusive pricing

One would think that the Harper Cons have already done plenty to turn would-be consumers of access to information requests off of the prospect by destroying the product. But since that apparently isn't enough, there's nothing like a price hike to drive down demand even further.

Consider yourselves warned

The Liberals themselves are saying it's 1993 all over again. Treat their promises and priorities accordingly.

Monday Morning Links

A guided content tour to start your week.

- Perhaps the most striking part of Richard Brennan's story on Jason Kenney's attempts to control the content of "ethnic" media is that even he doesn't seem to dispute anything other than that there might be some carrots for supportive media to go with the sticks against anybody remotely critical:
Conservative Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney walked into The Korea Times office in January and admonished the publisher for being Liberal-friendly.

It suddenly made sense to Lawrence Kim why his staff at the daily newspaper was not given the chance to go with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to South Korea late last year while reporters from Korean weekly newspapers on the west coast got to go.

The message was clear — play ball with the Conservatives and there are rewards.

“We were not offered an opportunity (to go to Korea) ... he came and told me that they thought we are against the (Conservatives) and pro-Liberal but I told him that I am not pro or con,” said Kim, publisher of the Toronto daily.
Kenney’s office disagrees with The Korea Times’ account of what took place at that meeting, but acknowledges it has a problem with the paper’s coverage.

“Minister Kenney has had a long-standing concern with the biased, unfair coverage the government was receiving in The Korea Times,” wrote his spokesman, Alykhan Velshi.

Velshi said the minister went to the office for an editorial board meeting to simply express “our openness and good faith,” and added that Kenney wasn’t involved in deciding who was invited to the trip to Korea.
- I'm not sure if anybody can explain the news that the Cons will pour $100 million into the War of 1812 other than as an effort to goad the opposition into an election. But might this make for another couple of links to the Cons' Republican counterparts: both a desire to focus on military past at the expense of the present, and a refusal to accept that the South lost?

- Andrew Jackson counters the latest round of unfounded attacks on the civil service, while nicely highlighting how those fighting against the public sector are ultimately working to do nothing more than spread poor pay and working conditions to a broader range of workers:
While now somewhat dated, the best independent Canadian empirical studies show that a modest public sector pay advantage is mainly the product of higher pay for women in lower paid occupations, offset by lower pay for mainly male workers in managerial jobs.

The alleged ”public sector union elite” turns out not to be a bunch of overpaid archtypical bureaucrats, but to be modestly paid women such as caregivers who do much better than their private sector equivalents mainly because the latter struggle with low wages, are under-paid compared to equivalent male co workers, and rarely have access to pension and health benefits.
”A combination of factors explains government-private sector pay differences. Notable in this regard are pay equity policies, which narrow the male-female pay differentials in government, and the tendency for governments to pay more than the private sector does for service jobs and less than the private sector wage rates for managers. In other words, the spread between the top and the bottom of the pay scale is less in government than in the private sector, likely a result of political, public and collective bargaining pressures.”

These findings in turn help explain why the CFIB attacks public sector wages so fervently - they put upward pressure on them to pay more to under-paid women service workers.
- Finally, Inky Mark's criticisms of the Cons are well worth a read:
One must ask the question: What value is there having a membership in a party that doesn’t respects it’s membership? This lack of democracy at the local level is wrong. It has taken western society 700 years to take the power away from the crown and put it in the hands of the commoner. Today we have a system where the MP is appointed by the leader of the party, not the members of the party. Our young men and women are sacrificing their lives in the name of democracy around the world. Stephen Harper and Don Plett, instead of paying lip service to democracy, it s time to give the membership in Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette the right to an open and fair nomination.

On hope gaps

I'll agree with Scott Payne that there are some important differences between the current Canadian political scene and that which existed at the time of the 2006 election. But I don't entirely agree with his take on the most important distinction.

Payne gives the Cons credit for presenting far more of an alternative than they actually seem to have done at the time:
Have the Opposition parties just not found the right issue yet? Perhaps, but the sponsorship scandal wasn’t the only factor that lead to the 2006 eradication of the Liberals thirteen year hold on government. The other ingredient to that fateful turn of political events was the existence of a clear and viable alternative.

By 2006, Stephen Harper and his newly united Conservative Party of Canada had spent three years defining and disseminating a compelling counter-narrative to the then moribund Liberal legacy. It was an alternative that gave Canadians, tiered of the Liberals and angry over their corruption, somewhere to go in the face of a scandal that couldn’t be spun out of existence.

Indeed, it is that that very narrative that is now being used to tarnish this government. Integrity, transparency, accountability, openness: these were the catch words of a new government that caught the political wind of an exasperated electorate and gave disaffected voters a place to land.

It wasn’t enough that Canadians circa 2006 wanted to vote against the Liberals, they needed something to vote for instead. The Conservative alternative gave them that option and created the political dynamics in which we now find ourselves.
Now, it's well worth noting that there were doubts at the time as to whether the Cons were indeed offering much of an alternative to vote for. While they'd spent years criticizing the Libs, they didn't unveil much by way of policy of their own until the campaign, and then they were seen as doing so fairly amateurishly and without any of their own proposals serving as huge drivers of votes. So if anything, 2006 looks to serve as an example of a change in government propelled mostly by a "throw the bums out" sentiment rather than any particularly widespread support for an alternative.

But it's worth distinguishing between the message which convinced the general public to shift votes out of disgust, and the one which managed to help motivate the Cons' own supporters into putting everything they had into the campaign. And as I've noted before, that looks to be the main point of distinction between the Cons then and a Lib party which has spent years running away from any prospect of changing governments: no amount of outrage against a sitting government is going to accomplish much if it isn't paired with a reasonable hope of replacing it.

That's where the Libs' strategy of downplaying any talk of a coalition does the most damage, as it ensures that supporters of all opposition parties see little light at the end of the tunnel. And if we're indeed headed to a campaign in the near future, it may already be too late for the Libs to correct their course to motivate their own base in the interest of foreseeable change.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Of cost and content

Yes, there's every reason to be outraged about the Cons' obscene amount of publicly-funded political advertising. But while most of the attention today is to the latest dollar amount (featuring a full campaign's worth of advertising in the first three months of 2011 on a single issue), I'd think the bigger need in the longer term is to focus in on the content of government advertising.

To wit: is there nobody responsible to ensure a bare standard of accuracy in government advertising - e.g. that measures introduced long before there was any inkling of an "economic action plan" not be publicly advertised as part of that discrete plan for political purposes?

If not, why not?

And if so, how have they not resigned out of embarrassment at being ignored and/or overruled?

What thwap said

This time with pictures.

That said, I do think it's worth fighting back against the "hard work" frame as well, particularly given how few people we're supposedly trying to reward for it would want to do most of the work that results in far less financial return. In effect the dividing line between the wealthy and the poor isn't merely who works the hardest, but who is able to reach a combined threshold of ambition, connections, effort and luck, and who falls short of that standard such as to count for nothing in the current political calculus.

Sunday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your weekend reading.

- It remains to be seen whether Canadians Against 41 in 41 will get noticed by many who aren't already fully engaged in Canada's political system. But I'll fully endorse its reasons why Canadians should make the effort to vote, particularly this one:
Reason to vote #3: You deserve to be represented. If you don't cast a ballot, your values and beliefs will not be heard. The best way to make sure the things you care about are actually reflected in society is by actually supporting those things at the polling station. If you don't vote for what you believe in, no one else will do it for you.
- Darwin makes a great point as to how the Cons' refusal to follow Parliament's orders may have resulted in a precedent which will strengthen the hand of MPs in dealing with recalcitrant executives in the future (emphasis added):
Because constitutional conventions is the source of both cabinet confidentially and Parliament’s right to demand documents it wasn’t clear to me which would take precedence. I suspected that the Speaker would rule that Parliament could not demand documents that where subject to cabinet confidentiality but these documents could be demanded because cabinet confidentially does not extend to supporting documents for a decisions that had already been made. Because the cabinet had decided to move forward with these crime bills the supporting documentation, like the cost estimates, where no longer confidential.

Instead in his ruling he seemed to suggest that there is no limit to what Parliament can demand, not even cabinet confidentiality. He quoted House of Commons Procedure and Practice:
The Standing Orders do not delimit the power to order the production of papers and records. The result is a broad, absolute power that on the surface appears to be without restriction. There is no limit on the type of papers likely to be requested, the only prerequisite is that the papers exist—in hard copy or electronic format—and that they are located in Canada….

No statute or practice diminishes the fullness of the power rooted in the House privileges unless there is an explicit legal provision to that effect, or unless the House adopts a specific resolution limiting the power. The House has never set a limit on its power to order the production of papers and records.
Cabinet Confidentiality isn’t completely dead. It has been just lowered in status to the level of other documents that are not publicly available by access to information requests, like military secrets and personal information, but is available to parliament if requested.
- Meanwhile, Stephen notes that the Uncut movement is starting to develop in Canada - even if you may never know it if your news intake is limited to mainstream sources.

- And finally, Rachel Maddow points out yet another U.S. state facing an all-out Republican assault on less-connected people, as Michigan's governor has launched attacks on both the financial and democratic fronts:

But Maddow's initial riff is particularly striking given that two of Canada's largest provinces have just gone through a similar shift in their tax systems to privilege corporate activity at the expense of mere citizens, even while exacerbating the deficits that are supposedly the impetus for change.

[Update: fixed link.]