Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Healthy Society - Chapter 9 Discussion

In his conclusion to A Healthy Society, Ryan Meili sums up his overall message about how health can serve as the central theme for political organization, and notes that the message holds plenty of public appeal already (with further room to grow as people learn about the impact of policy on the broad definition of health):
The core idea of this book is not just that health should guide our policy decisions; it should also be the language of our politics. Because people care about health, they are more likely to respond to political messages that reflect that concern. This is about framing, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that connects diverse and complex issues to a core concern. It’s not an approach to advance the marketing success of one party, it’s a means of rehabilitating a sick political system. A focus on health, demanded by an increasingly aware population, can force every party to reconsider its decisions and positions in relation to the determinants. It can establish an environment in which, rather than bombarded shoppers in the marketplace of clashing ideas and conflicting priorities, people can see themselves as part of a common project, as working together toward the goal of a healthier society.
(P)eople 1) understand to a degree the role of the social determinants of health, 2) believe that large inequalities in health outcomes are unacceptable, and 3) think that something can and should be done about it. Despite this understanding and concern, for some reason the determinants of health and health inequality are not visible in much of the discourse of public policy.
If people want a healthy society they must identify that as their goal, and take the steps needed to make it happen. This means connecting with those who are engaged in civil society and social movements. It means jumping off from the starting point of this book to deeper learning and understanding. It means joining — or forming! — a political party and advocating from within that structure for greater accountability and democracy. It also means the difficult task of talking to those who don’t agree with you, of raising the uncomfortable issues of poverty and inequality and seeking common ground to address them. The idea of a healthy society, particularly one with greater equality, will certainly run up against many detractors. People will come up with all kinds of reasons why change is not possible, why we must only react to the economically inevitable, why citizens can’t be trusted to make wise decisions, why we’re stuck.

We’re not stuck. There is a lot that can be done, and successful examples abound. We need to first see that we are all in this together.
Following up on the quoted passage, though, I'll raise a few questions as to whether health is indeed the right core principle to define what we want to achieve in building a political future.

We certainly don't have a lack of competing alternatives: from the nurturing/empathetic model for progressive discourse favoured by George Lakoff to themes like equality, sustainability, security, liberty, collectivism and inclusion which regularly form the basis for political arguments against conservative counterparts. So I'll encourage readers to consider a few points for the above as well as other available central themes:
  • How consistent is the theme with both our innate understanding of the world, and our current cultural background?
  • Is the theme seen positively enough serve as a broadly unifying principle and focus for organization - both within a single party and in the general political scene?
  • Conversely, is the theme well enough defined that it gives rise to a coherent certain course of action? (Put another way, is it meaningful enough to pass Susan Delacourt's platitude test?)
My initial thought is that the "healthy" theme compares well to the other options on the first two points for the reasons pointed out by Meili.

That said, it may carry some weaknesses on the third. We'd rightly see it as absurd for any politician to argue against a healthier society - but that very lack of controversy also makes the term vulnerable to being co-opted (I presume the Healthy Oil Institute is being incorporated as you read this), rather than serving as a stable frame for organization and discussion. And there may be more work to be done in defining what we mean by a broad conception of "health", how we can measure it and how to contrast it against competing values before we can consider it a clearly superior organizing theme.

I'll close by thanking Ryan for allowing me the opportunity to review and discuss his book. And while I've found a few points to quibble with in my chapter reviews, there's plenty within A Healthy Society that should serve as a focus for progressive discussion in Saskatchewan and beyond.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Dr. Dawg responds to Andrew Coyne's suggestion about cracking down on advocacy by charities with an entirely reasonable suggestion as to how to allocate our resources:
Given that charities do essential work that the government does not fund—feeding and clothing the poor, defending the environment, offering training to new immigrants, etc., etc.—let the government take over those functions directly rather than indirectly, as arguably it should.

Advocacy, which as already noted enhances the democratic process, could be moved onto the national stage by subsidizing representative advisory groups, such as the recently-disbanded National Council of Welfare and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.
There is only one taxpayer. How my money gets to those in need is not my concern. But the latter do require, and must have, the assistance of the more fortunate: that, too, is part of our social contract. Proposing measures that would in practice simply reduce charitable revenues is inimical to the Canada that most of us believe in.
- Susan Delacourt frames her latest column in terms of frustration with an outbreak of "going forward" as a substitute for meaningful political conversation. But the more important takeaway for anybody interested in actually influencing our ultimate direction looks to be a general principle rather than a single example:
Long ago, someone gave me a simple trick to understanding political rhetoric.

Listen to what a politician is promising to do, and then put a “not” in front of the words. If the opposite is preposterous — ridiculous, even — then you’re not hearing a promise, you’re hearing a platitude. It’s greeting-card politics.

“Focusing on the economy” is one such phrase, for instance, which is just as rampant as “going forward.” If there is anyone in elected office in Canada who is not focusing on the economy, the citizens might well be concerned. Isn’t it part of the job description for politicians?
A real focus on the economy would involve a discussion of choices: raising or cutting taxes, where to cut the budget, which kind of jobs are going to disappear, and which need to be created. Focusing on the economy isn’t a policy or a choice. It’s a platitude unless it’s accompanied by substantial talk of the options.
 - And once one digs past the bare facade of "focus on the economy" which has served as the Cons' leading set of talking points for ages, it's virtually impossible to defend any of their actual choices - such as endangering refugees' health (and potentially public health as well) for the sole purpose of being seen as less welcoming.

- Finally, Terry Milewski reports on the challenge to the 2011 election result in Eglinton Lawrence - where the Cons once again seem to have used their list of outrage-generating hobby horses (in this case voting without proper verification) as an operating manual.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Musical interlude

Mike Shiver & Aruna - Everywhere You Are (Catching Sun Mix)

On tectonic shifts

I haven't spent much time discussing the spate of recent polls showing the NDP with a modest lead on the Cons, as those top-line results can easily enough be considered an expected consequence of a tired government trying to force through controversial legislation against a popular new leader. But CARP's latest member polling demands some comment - as it reflects that the NDP isn't merely holding roughly the level and type of support it had around the time of the 2011 election, but instead adding a potentially decisive new set of voters to its camp.

By way of comparison, even at the height of its campaign support in 2011, the NDP faced a double-digit deficit compared to the Cons among older voters. In effect, the election came down to a clash of younger and change-oriented voters on the side of the NDP against older, stability-oriented voters on the side of the Cons - and a turnout advantage among the latter group allowed the Cons to emerge with a majority.

But now, CARP's poll shows the NDP with a lead approaching double digits among its members (who were substantially more aligned with the Cons as of 2011 than older voters in general). And if the NDP can add that group to its 2011 edge among younger and newer voters, then there may be rather little support left for the Cons to pursue.

And what's more, a strong majority of CARP respondents are outright expecting a change in government in 2015. Which means that even leaving aside the doubts respondents have about the Cons' choice of policies and tactics, the case for "more of the same" looks likely to fall flat among the voters who accepted it just a year ago.

Of course, I'm sure the Cons will come up with some new strategy to scare voters back into their corner. But the fact that the senior base is even in play looks to be awfully dangerous for the Cons - and may serve as the first particularly strong signal that the NDP is in fact well ahead of where it was a year ago.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Erin points out that there's a relatively simple cure for Dutch disease - just as long as provincial governments are willing to put citizens ahead of resource extractors:
(S)ince resources are priced in American dollars, the higher exchange rate further reduces provincial resource revenues in Canadian dollars. Saskatchewan’s recent budget estimates that each U.S. cent of appreciation in the loonie reduces non-renewable resource revenue by $34 million.

The solution is to increase royalty rates, which would moderate the flow of foreign funds into our resource industries and collect the public revenue needed for the provincial savings funds that MacPherson advocates.

Of course, if Saskatchewan did so alone, it would have relatively little impact on the national exchange rate. That is why Mulcair’s comments were directed at the unbalanced development of Alberta’s oilsands – a larger-scale giveaway of public resources.

But Wall is defensive because he has mimicked and even undercut Alberta by guaranteeing ultra-low royalties to the private corporations that extract Saskatchewan’s non-renewable resources. This policy would be short-sighted even if it had no effect on the exchange rate. Dutch disease, including a proportionally larger loss of manufacturing jobs in Saskatchewan than in the rest of Canada, is just another negative consequence.

Mulcair has articulated a balanced approach to resource development that would generate more public revenue, a more competitive exchange rate, and more manufacturing jobs. Saskatchewan is well positioned to help implement and benefit from this approach by raising provincial resource royalties.

- Chris Selley suspects that the Cons will really be in trouble when Canadians start laughing at them - and suggests there's ample reason to do so. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't also work on building outrage where it's justified - such as where the Cons hand million-dollar giveaways to their cronies for projects which have been soundly rejected on their merits.

- Meanwhile, there are also serious issues in play as the Cons work on dismantling any semblance of environmental protection in the name of resource-sector profits. And Thomas Walkom highlights the citizen-driven opposition to the Gateway pipeline as one type of dissent the Cons may have trouble silencing.

- Fortunately, it may simply be enough for everybody who's under gag orders from the Cons to decline to comply. Which may make the Cons' partial climbdown on F-35s interesting in light of the news that the aerospace sector was ordered not to comment on the subject.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Healthy Society - Chapter 8 Discussion

In chapter 8 of A Healthy Society, Ryan Meili discusses how to improve our democratic system, distinguishing between the participatory action research model which is helping to drive development work in Mozambique and the top-down structures and cynical views of the political system that have all too often been the norm in Canada. And Meili suggests that treating the public as having an ongoing interest in politics rather than being simply a source of votes every four years may benefit both our political system as a whole, and the parties who best address the public interest:
From big picture issues like international development and energy production to local concerns around the allocation of health care resources and community economic development, it’s clear that people care deeply and want a say in the decisions that affect their lives and communities. The disconnect between passionate interest and lack of involvement stems from a growing perception that electoral politics are not a fruitful arena for public engagement. Be it the perception that the hands of governments are tied by international structures, beholden to large corporations, or simply disinterested in the voice of the average citizen, people feel they are being ignored in the democratic process.
A democracy is not a fixed and perfect system. It requires constant reconsideration to ensure that it functions smoothly and is truly representative.

Within a party, this would mean a continuous process of citizen engagement to keep it active and healthy. This goes beyond selling memberships and passing resolutions at conventions. Consultation can’t be token and inconsistent; it needs to be constant and meaningful. A party that develops mechanisms by which to compile the diverse opinions of multiple and varied constituencies can lead the way in setting a vision for change at a larger level. Structures that enforce accountability of those in leadership to the party membership will strengthen the commitment of citizens to that vision. This could lead to the commitment required to develop functional local councils on key issues: the economy, education, the environment, health care, which is to say a meaningful system of citizen leadership in addressing the determinants of health. In this way Canada could follow the example of other countries that have been successful in enacting significant reforms and increasing citizen engagement. Local areas, based on local understanding and expertise, can work with provincial and federal governments to meaningfully direct their own development. The party that leads such a transformation would be a party that had truly found its voice: the voice of one who listens.
The reason I choose to align myself on the left of the political spectrum is that while an attitude of “we’re all in this together” has room to emphasize an ethic of personal responsibility and initiative, an attitude of “every man for himself” cannot provide for all and actively interferes with the need for an organized approach to improving society. The key to a healthier society is not the elimination of government; it is the re-structuring of government to be what it should be: a mechanism for achieving the will of the people, a truly democratic institution that allows the good instincts and ideas of people to be reflected in a larger plan. It is the idea of society as a project we’re all working on, and government as the workshop.
Largely left out of Meili's focus on a localized decision-making structure is the role of the leader - which is of course in stark contrast to how politics are generally addressed by the media (and indeed analyzed within parties as well). But I'd think it's worth noting how important leadership is to a "workshop" model.

That isn't because I see all that much to be said for tight control, but because of how rare it seems for those with a position of nominal decision-making authority to offer genuine decision-making authority to anybody other than political advisers in the pursuit of maximum partisan gain. And the end result of the familiar tendency toward central control may be as much a problem for an individual leader's own goals in the long term as for the system as a whole.

In principle, the governing-from-the-centre model implemented by Trudeau (and taken to extreme lengths by Harper) allows for easier control over government in the short term. But the effect of building a party where all principles can be discarded at a moment's notice without cost - and where there are no countervailing forces listening to or representing smaller constituencies - is to make the party entirely vulnerable either to a takeover by anybody looking for the shortest path to the greatest amount of power in good times, or to utter collapse if a leadership choice goes wrong. And the federal Libs may offer a cautionary tale on both fronts - as Paul Martin's path to temporary power set the stage for what's looking like an ever more precarious existence.

In contrast, a party which builds and supports consultative and decision-making structures at multiple levels should be much more resistant to either outside domination or internal atrophy. But it only takes one leader going too far in centralizing control to alienate the citizen base that's vital to both partisan and governing success in the longer term. And so one of the most important criteria we should look for in any progressive leader is an emphasis on allowing decisions to be made by the people in the best position to make them - rather than assuming that the simplicity of top-down control is worth the long-term cost.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Jim Stanford sets the record straight as to how Canada's manufacturing sector has eroded over the past couple of decades:
(T)echnology can explain some of the job loss, but not most of it. It certainly cannot explain the disproportionate carnage in Canadian manufacturing, nor the all-out industrial warfare which now characterizes much of the sector (like the management lockouts at Caterpillar and Rio Tinto). The loss of 500,000 manufacturing jobs in Canada over the last decade was far more dramatic than most jurisdictions. Many factors contributed to this miserable record, including lopsided trading relationships, the volatile trajectory of Canada’s currency, and the unprecedented aggression with which business executives now do anything that boosts profit margins, without regard to community welfare.
Technological change applies to all manufacturing jurisdictions, so there should be no secular trend in Canada’s share of total manufacturing production. However, contrary to Moffatt’s assertion, our relative share of global manufacturing has indeed declined dramatically. As recently as 2001, Canada was broadly self-sufficient in manufacturing. Huge volumes of two-way trade entered and left, but at the bottom line we exported as much as we imported (about $300 billion each way). By 2011, however, this balanced position disintegrated into a massive manufacturing deficit of almost $100 billion, which explains 300,000 of the jobs lost since 2001.
Moffatt’s faith that technological growth makes everyone better off is unjustified by recent history. Lopsided globalization, and the aggressive actions of business leaders, have severed the traditional link between productivity and mass prosperity. That’s why real wages in Canada are no higher today than a quarter-century ago, despite a 35-per-cent increase in labour productivity in the same time. And that’s why Caterpillar executives (who receive salaries worth tens of millions of dollars) feel entitled to demand enormous rollbacks from highly skilled Canadian workers, on pain of total disinvestment.
 And Stanford also points out the issue is hardly a new one.

- Pat Atkinson wonders why the concept of "family values" doesn't extend to immigrants - who are now being told by federal and provincial governments alike to choose between Canadian work and their families.

- Jim Hightower discusses how big-money pharmaceutical ad campaigns have turned U.S. health care into a profit driver rather than a system to actually improve health outcomes.

- Finally, Alison and Saskboy offer updates on Robocon. And Jonathan Montpetit opens up public reporting on a brand new Con scandal - with the party's top Quebec organizer openly musing about how corporate interests might be able to buy off political inasiders.

New column day

Here, on how Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party wants to turn back the clock on workers' rights which have rightly gone unquestioned for near a century.

For further reading...
- The actual labour consultation paper can be found here. And I'll encourage readers to make a submission in advance of the July 31 deadline - even if only to point out the absurdity of an exercise in eliminating hours of work limits and other fundamental rights.
- And for more about the paper, see Murray Mandryk (X2), Erin Weir and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Parliament in Review - April 3, 2012

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 saw the final day of debate at second reading of the Cons' budget - and once again featured plenty of work by Peter Julian to introduce the types of perspectives the Cons would never tolerate if they could avoid it.

The Big Issue

Once again, Julian focused largely on bringing forward comments and concerns from Canadians on the Cons' budget, featuring such apt observations as this:
I particularly agree with your opposition to raising the retirement age to 67. I am 39 and really hadn't given this issue much thought until I heard you present your case. I've worked in the distribution side of the flooring industry for 17 years. I am not an installer, but many of my customers and friends are. Many flooring installers walk with limps at 45 years old, let alone 67.
They literally spend their workdays on their knees and it takes a toll on their bodies. Most of them are too busy working to get involved in politics. I'll definitely take the time to bring this to their attention. Believe me, just because flooring industry workers look at the floor when we walk into a room doesn't mean we're shy. I always love to hear a compliment on a job well done and always try to thank others for one well done today. The NDP's chances of forming government are greatly bolstered with members like your caucus who all work together with experienced members working as mentors to the younger members of your caucus.
That encouragement for the NDP's effort to ensure that different voices be heard was echoed by plenty more comments. Meanwhile, other citizens noted that he hadn't had a chance to save enough for retirement to make up for the Cons' OAS slashing (in part due to the economic failings of provincial Conservative governments), and worried about how the OAS changes would drive seniors into poverty. Other correspondents emphasized that the Cons don't speak for all Albertans in pushing unregulated oil development as their sole economic priority while criticizing their refusal to listen to constituents; slammed the anti-democratic instinct to have the most important decisions about Canada's future made behind closed doors with no public input, as well as the cuts to Elections Canada in the wake of Robocon; spoke to the value of Katimavik (including the disappointment of students who had planned to participate this year until the Cons pulled the plug); lambasted the Cons' combined attacks on the environmental movement and complete lack of climate change funding or action, while also noting that First Nations and other affected citizens were being left out of their rubber-stamping process; pointed out that we'd be better off eliminating Deficit Jim Flaherty's sea of red ink by encouraging economic growth rather than throwing civil servants out of work;

Meanwhile, Jinny Sims sought consent to table the correspondence the NDP had received and read into the record; needless to say, that was shot down as the Cons tried to hide from Canadians and their concerns as much as possible. Robert Chisholm cheekily suggested that since the budget didn't actually address jobs and development, those concerns probably shouldn't be part of the budget debate. And Julian highlighted the regional job impacts of the Cons' civil service cuts, as well as the dangers of attacking food inspection.

Finally, Julian finished by discussing the CCF/NDP's proud record of pushing for positive social change long before any other party would countenance it, then moving the NDP's budget amendment. And it's surely a sign that the NDP covered all of the important bases that Scott Brison's subamendment was limited to criticizing a lack of cuts to Stephen Harper's pension and office, rather than any policy actually affecting Canadians directly.

Not My Jurisdiction

Andrew Scheer delivered his ruling on Helene Laverdiere's point of privilege on the Cons' refusal to answer written questions (accompanied by a questionable promise to answer at some point in the future). And while he predictably refused to actually do anything about the problem, at least a couple of his observations look like rather compelling indictments of his party's failure to answer the question as it's ostensibly required to:
In the case before us, I can appreciate the member’s frustration with the reply provided. That said, the authorities are clear: the Speaker's role in such matters is extremely limited.
(T)he hon. member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie clearly feels aggrieved by the insufficiency of the response she received. I would therefore invite her to raise her concerns about our practice with regard to written questions with the Standing Committee and Procedure and House Affairs as that committee continues with its study of the Standing Orders. Indeed, as your Speaker, in light of the various complaints that have been voiced in the chamber with regard to written questions, from both sides of the House, I would encourage the committee to look closely at our current rules and to assess whether improvements can be made to our current practice to better serve the needs of the House and its members.
In Brief

NDP MPs introduced four private members' bills: Carol Hughes to create a registry of accidents and occupational disease incidents; Jinny Sims to meet Canada's longstanding commitment to foreign aid funding of 0.7% of GNI; and Joe Comartin to reintroduce judicial discretion in the face of mandatory minimums and to modernize our laws against cruelty to animals.

Meanwhile, Scott Simms spoke to his bill to allow bi-weekly payment of CPP and OAS benefits. Alain Giguere noted that the absence of an increase in benefits would limit what the bill would do for seniors, but Wayne Marston indicated the NDP's support for choice as to how benefits would be delivered - even if that was largely moot given the Cons' refusal to countenance any benefit to seniors which might involve public service jobs.

Rosane Dore Lefebvre highlighted Invisible Work Day as a much-needed opportunity to recognize how much important work doesn't count in GDP figures. Dan Harris discussed the links between the Cons, their sketchy American election contractors and their lack of interest in questioning corporate think tank funding gathered by those exact same operators. Olivia Chow questioned cuts to airline safety, while Irene Mathyssen pointed out that the elimination of the National Council on Welfare figures to cover up the consequences of the Cons' attack on OAS and Laverdiere asked why Rights and Democracy had been trashed rather than being restored to its pre-Con level of respect and prestige. And finally in adjournment proceedings Mathyssen pointed out the Cons' sad track record of gender disparity in judicial appointment committees (and subsequent appointments), while Andrew Cash highlighted that "why don't they just buy a house of their own?" isn't a valid answer to Canadians who can't find or afford rental housing?

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Martin Papillon offers up some lessons for the NDP in Francois Hollande's French presidential victory:
Being ideological does not have to mean being radical. It means anchoring your platform in a clear, coherent set of ideas that will resonate with the electorate, including more centrist voters who could lean your way. Under the current political climate in Canada, there is little risk for the NDP in campaigning on a progressive platform, as long as it is perceived as the main, credible, alternative to the Conservatives.

The socialists under Hollande used this approach with great success. Listening to some of his key speeches, it was striking to note the prominence of classic progressive themes such as equality, social justice, and solidarity. The key, of course, is how one deploys these foundational ideas. Hollande’s progressive discourse was tied to concrete themes that resonated with the French electorate. When socialists spoke about social justice, it was in reference to the growing gap between the well-heeled elite and the middle class. This was a gap that Sarkozy, nicknamed “president bling-bling,” embodied for many French.

Hollande was not afraid to ruffle some feathers, either. He demonized the greed of a “faceless” financial sector and challenged his future European allies to privilege economic recovery over austerity measures. Hollande campaigned on themes that made sense to the middle class. This is why Mulcair is on the right track with his approach to the environment and the oil sands. Development may be good, he has suggested, but it comes with a cost. Let’s be honest and make sure we don’t simply pass on this cost to future generations.
- Meanwhile, Tim Harper rightly notes that despite some highly-coordinated faux outrage from the Cons and their fellow corporate shills, it's Mulcair who occupies the reasonable ground as the NDP and Cons debate whether to make all other Canadian interests subordinate to the whims of the oil patch.

- Jim Stanford points out out that the Cons are proudly taking credit for pushing jobs toward disposable temporary foreign workers rather than developing sustainable industries in Canada.

- All of which goes a long way toward explaining the Cons' war on brains. But fortunately, they haven't been able to shut down intelligent discussion just yet - as exemplified by Charmaine Borg's effort to take the lead in studying the privacy implications of social media.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Heat-seeking cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Linda McQuaig is hopeful that Quebec's student protests against tuition hikes might remind many Canadians that we can do more than just meekly accept austerity and inequality:
What seems to particularly gall some English Canadian commentators is the fact that the Quebec students — who reached a tentative deal with the province on the weekend after a three-month strike — have been protesting tuition hikes that would still leave them with the lowest tuition in the country. Why can’t these spoiled brats be grateful, and go back games and keeping up with the Kardashians like normal, well-adjusted North American youth?
It’s that old problem about Quebec. Somehow people there manage to shake a bit loose from the rigid corporate-imposed mindset that has gripped North America in recent decades, convincing us that we as a society must cut back on things — like university education and old age pensions — that were somehow affordable in days when our society was a lot less rich.
The Quebec students, more attuned to the outside world, have figured out that this self-denial has more to do with dogma than with some new reality allegedly necessitated by the global economy.
It’s an odd form of self-indulgence. Tens of thousands of students have marched hundreds of hours in the cold, potentially jeopardizing their academic (and financial) futures, in order to champion accessible education for all as the cornerstone of a democratic society.
If only they could be less self indulgent, and stick to drinking, partying and finding themselves a comfortable niche in the corporate world.
- Drew Anderson wonders whether the Cons have lost their touch in attacking opposition leaders based on their tepid initial swipes at Thomas Mulcair:
The long waiting game is over. Finally, the ruthless attack machine of the Conservative Party has roared to life and taken aim at Tom Mulcair. A little later than expected, to be sure, but with the deepest warchest in Canadian politics and a mean streak the size of Lake Superior, surely worth the wait.

Except it’s not. It’s just a website. And a really bad one at that.
Harper’s Conservatives are worried that negative attacks might actually help the NDP unite the non-Conservative vote, something they are desperate to avoid.

Nothing would highlight that the NDP is now the main threat to the Conservatives like unleashing a negative barrage. Nothing would serve as a better rallying point for non-Conservatives. Certainly nothing would bring in more money to the NDP coffers.

The Harper Conservatives know this, and so while surely not happy to be looking up at their main opponent, they took a pass on defining their main opponent in favour of riding out the honeymoon. For now they seem resigned to snipe around the edges on amateurish websites and keep their powder dry for another day.

At least until someone pokes the dragon in the eye.
But I'll add a third distinguishing factor between now and the timing of the Cons' previous campaigns against Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff: instead of having to frame an opposition leader immediately based on the prospect of a snap election, they can count on holding power for three and a half more years no matter how ineffective their attacks are. And we shouldn't be entirely surprised if the Cons use that extra time to allow messages to build up over a period of years - rather than seeing a need to launch their strongest slams at the outset.

- Meanwhile, Dave Cournoyer muses about what Thomas Mulcair's brazen recognition of Dutch disease might do to federal politics in Western Canada. But it's well worth keeping in mind that the interests of Suncor aren't necessary the same as those of actual citizens - and as much as Brad Wall has been allowed to write his own headlines about Mulcair's comments, the message that the supposed benefits of a petro-state aren't all they're cracked up to be will find a receptive argument in a good chunk of the West as well.
- Finally, kudos to Tu Thanh Ha for not only reporting on the latest example of the Federal Court of Appeal finding a breach of natural justice in Vic Toews' treatment of Canadian citizens abroad, but also putting it in context within a longstanding Con pattern of neglect.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- The Cons' attacks on the environment and its defenders are starting to attract plenty of unwanted attention, with the Globe and Mail editorial board weighing in as the NDP, the other opposition parties and the environmental movement join forces to reject the utter demolition of environmental legislation.

- Meanwhile, the Mound of Sound comments on the Cons' complete lack of preparation for the inevitable consequences of pushing through a pipeline project without listening to the people concerned about their land and water.

- And Nathan Vanderklippe discusses the Cons' plan to suppress wages for Canadians by importing disposable immigrant workers.

- Finally, Carol Goar notes that the Cons are getting sloppy even on their own terms - which should offer reason for hope that we'll see some real change starting no later than 2015. And John Ibbitson recognizes that a contrast in interests and values between a government focused entirely on greasing the skids for the oil industry and a central Canadian electorate seeing its economy stagnate as a result figures to pose a great opportunity for the NDP.

A Healthy Society - Chapter 7 Discussion

Chapter 7 of Ryan Meili's A Healthy Society focuses on health care - with a heavy emphasis on ideas such as improved rural access and a Crown pharmaceutical manufacturer which should sound familiar to those who have followed Meili's previous political involvement. But I'll highlight Meili's link between health care and the general policy themes of redistribution and compassion:
Medicare is an active and effective form of redistributing wealth. Those who have benefited most from our nation’s wealth, and who in general have the good health to show for it, contribute to improving the health of those who have not. This is why Medicare is such a cornerstone of public policy in Canada, and a perennially popular one among the general public. It’s also why it faced such virulent resistance upon introduction and continues to be under persistent, recurrent attack in the face of the overwhelming evidence for its success.

Those pressures and attacks will only continue to mount as income equality grows. The poor and disadvantaged use a disproportionately higher amount of hospitals, medications, and physician services. In Saskatoon, residents of the low-income neighbourhoods use thirty-five per cent more health care resources than middle and high-income residents, amounting to $179 million more per year in costs. This makes it clear that health care is not the only way in which we should redistribute wealth. Not only does failing to address this issue raise moral questions, such as how to explain our willingness to help people when they’re sick and dying but not to mobilize the resources to keep them healthy, but it also poses a risk to the political feasibility of Medicare. When we don’t cover pharmaceutical costs or dental services, we increase costs not only for individuals, but for the system...

A system as fair and compassionate as Medicare needs to reflect a society that is also compassionate and fair. If all the weight of dealing with the fallout of growing social inequality falls on the health care system, the cries of crisis will rise, and the commitment of those who are being asked to contribute more than they gain will continue to erode. Before long we will find ourselves in a situation where patients like Mrs. Peters or Brandon would be asked first not, “How can I help?” but “How will you pay?”
While Meili focuses largely on the practical point, I'd think his moral observation is the one which probably deserves additional emphasis. In effect, our health care system depends on the idea of basic health security: that a lack of money will never stand in the way of one's access to the treatment needed to deal with an immediate illness. But the same principle would seem to apply equally well to housing security, or income security, or all kinds of other basic prerequisites to individual and community health.

Of course, as Meili notes, the fact that we're investing less and less in those priorities (as the price of massive upper-end tax cuts) has been used by far too many commentators as an excuse to attack health care as well. But our commitment to Medicare serves to reflect how much we cherish exactly the type of compassionate values needed to support other steps beyond the health care system we have now. And we should be looking for additional opportunities to enhance individual security - rather than accepting the spin that all we can do is hope that any given social support will escape a budgetary axe for a few more years before making way for corporate interests.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Parliament in Review - April 2, 2012

Monday, April 2 saw the second day of Peter Julian's extended budget speech. And perhaps the point most worth noting is how many Canadians outside of Parliament took the opportunity have their voices heard in the budget debate.

The Big Issue

So let's focus this review on some of the input Julian received from across the country about the Cons' budget, including this on the demolition of the National Council on Welfare:

Another, from Sault Ste. Marie, wrote, “Very sad, as a statement at home and in the world. They also shut down the National Council of Welfare because they do not want anyone reporting on how much poverty there really is. This is amazing, to think they will actually get away with this. First, the dissolution of Stats Canada, then an attack on organizations, both at home and internationally, that actually advocate on behalf of those at risk. Now substantial cuts to aid and the demise of the National Council on Welfare.”

Mr. Speaker, if you are wondering why we are spending hours criticizing the mean-spirited decisions by the government, I think that particular Facebook posting shows to what extent Canadians feel the same way. The decisions are ideologically based. They are not based on the character and values that Canadians share.
That commentary in turn led into Julian's own entirely justified criticism of the Cons' attacks on research organizations.

Another comment focused on the different standard being applied to the oil sector compared to most other parts of Canada's economy:
A person from Ontario says: “Why do believers in free market continue to feel that oil companies need subsidies from their own government? Somehow, I don't think that environmental assessments are going to stop the oil companies from taking their equipment and going home. Let them work on their own dimes and make sure that they are responsible to the environment and there are adequate environmental assessments”.
A couple of correspondents from the Cons' Alberta home base criticized the Harper government, one for its impending cuts to Old Age Security and the other for its poor economic management:
A constituent in Calgary said, “At its worst, this new policy really is a massive insult to seniors. A cynic might even say that the statisticians have crunched the numbers and realized that a few hundred, or even a thousand, people may die between 65 and 67 while waiting for their pension, and they like that idea. Then Canada would not have to pay them pensions at all. It's like saying 'cross my heart and hope you die'. Nobody knows how long they will live, but it is odd to have a government betting on you delaying reaping benefits for all those years of your earnings to the point that maybe you won't be able to reap any benefits at all”.

The actuarial tables show, tragically, the rate of passing on between the ages of 65 and 67 does go up. It is true that as a result of the government's decision for future seniors, seniors who have worked all their lives to retire at 65 will either live in poverty from ages 65 to 67 because they have no other source of funding and cannot get their pension, or they may pass on. That is just the sad reality.
A constituent in Lacombe, Alberta said, “The budget points to the Prime Minister's great fear of anything that looks like work. I can agree with the Prime Minister that Canada may be financially better off than Greece; however, I would temper that joy with the reminder of how far behind we are of countries like Finland, Norway and other involved Nordic countries. We have fallen far behind. Those who voted for the Prime Minister with expectations of the good fiscal management he suggested he possessed must be very disappointed when cutting spending rather than growing the Canadian economy is his answer for the Conservatives to continue to hold power”.
A paramedic expressed disbelief at the expectation that citizens engaged in difficult physical labour could be expected to keep working until age 67:
A paramedic in Ontario, wrote, “I am a paramedic. I serve the public. That's my life, for the good and the bad. I carry sick people down multiple flights of stairs. I get their respiratory illnesses. I put my life in harm's way for Canadians so they may live longer and with less pain and agony. Do you have any idea what I do in an average day of work? I've been in the business for 21 years now. At the present age of 45, I dream of retirement and hopefully may be able to do so with my health still intact. Prime Minister, you have just made that dream slip further into the future, raising the retirement age to 67. So at the ripe age of 66 and 11 months, I will carry many people younger than I down several flights of stairs. I will get ill from them, with less ability to recuperate at that age, and will still put myself in harm's way. Many other public-based occupations of the same nature and some with less adverse outcomes, the police and fire and even prison guards, are the workers who can retire, but I'll work 42 years in my occupation, thanks to you. Before this last budget it was only 40 years. How can I express my gratitude with you?”

He says that ironically. This paramedic knows now that as a result of the government's actions he will be forced to work two years longer. This is the point we have been making all along. The government is forcing those in manual occupations to work longer. Whether they are paramedics, carpenters or manual labourers, they have given for years and years and years. They have given all they can and they are looking to that date when they can finally put their body into retirement and heal from years of manual work.
A Conservative constituent in Nepean-Carlton expressed equal concern about the increased retirement age:
I would like to go to Nepean-Carleton since we are staying in the Ottawa region. A constituent in this Conservative-held riding say this: “OAS will leave me pretty much in the same boat. Not been working and contributing to CPP due to raising children and then due to a disability, I am a person that will need the OAS. My long-term disability through a private insurer will come to an end at age 65. I don't qualify for Ontario disability benefits. I just heard on CBC that I said to contact the nearest NDP MP. My MP is a Conservative. My question is about the delay of CPP. Currently I am receiving long-term disability benefits until I reach 65 but I didn't qualify for CPP disability. Now I won't be eligible for CPP until 67. How am I supposed to live two years with very little income? How many others will be in my situation? Thanks to the NDP for allowing me to reach out to someone other than my own MP”.
Another citizen noted that while the Cons point to increased retirement ages elsewhere, they conveniently omit the fact that Canada's retirement age is set to be pushed far higher than in comparable countries around the globe. Plenty wrote in with their own stories, experiences and discussions as to the impact of Katimavik (which the Cons of course plan to trash). And perhaps the most succinct question about the Cons' overall philosophy can be found here...
Another (person) writes, “Since when do we accommodate poverty as opposed to try to prevent it?”
So what was the point of Julian's extended address, featuring in particular plenty of concerns from constituents of Con MPs who may not see any hope that the government will listen to them? Well, here's his own explanation:
It is no secret that what we are trying to do is to make the case against this budget step by step, brick by brick, by raising constituents' concerns in ridings that are represented by Conservative MPs. I do not think anything could be clearer than to have all of these letters, tweets and Facebook comments flooding in, all of which address Conservative members of Parliament. In all cases, they are saying, “My Conservative MP is not representing me if he or she votes for this budget”. I think that is a very important thing to underscore, that what we are doing through the course of this debate is establishing the case that, effectively, Canadians living in Conservative ridings are making their voices known.

If I were a Conservative MP, with a bad budget like this that will guarantee fewer jobs, less growth, less prosperity, I would think twice and say, “Hold on. My constituents are reacting. They are reacting to all of the various components of this agenda. Maybe I have to think twice”. Perhaps we will see, over the course of the debate, Conservative MPs standing and saying, “I'm going to represent my constituents. I'm going to vote against this budget because this budget is not good for families in my riding and not good for the country”.

Maybe we will see that. As we read out these letters coming from across the country from Conservative-held ridings, maybe we will see Conservative MPs standing and saying, “We're going to vote for what's good for the country. We're voting against this budget. We're going to vote for a budget that actually creates jobs”.

One might say that is absurd and that a Conservative MP would never do that. However, when we think back, a few years ago no one would have said there would be 102 strong NDP MPs representing constituents right across this country from coast to coast to coast. It was not impossible because we believed that we could get things done and represent our constituents strongly.
In Brief

In the other main debate of the day, Elaine Michaud moved a motion on TCE groundwater contamination caused on the Valcartier military base and the municipality of Shannon. Chris Alexander agreed in principle as to the problem while claiming that talking about it made for sufficient action, while Francis Scarpaleggia tied the motion into wider water issues. And Alexandrine Latendresse discussed the history of TCE use - which should serve as a reminder as to why dumping chemicals into the environment without knowing about their potential effects is a dangerous path.

Meanwhile, Thomas Mulcair asked for a yes-or-no answer as to whether the Cons would use what they had said were sufficient tools to save jobs at Aveos; Peter Van Loan wasn't willing to admit that "no" is the Cons' response. Libby Davies criticized cuts to Health Canada, while Helene LeBlanc questioned why the National Research Canada was being turned into a Business Depot. Marc Garneau was incredulous at the Cons' attacks on Elections Canada. Megan Leslie asked the Cons to admit that they have no interest in a real hearing into the Gateway pipeline, while Romeo Saganash pointed out that the anticipated refusal to deal with concerns about development would only create years of litigation to come. Peggy Nash wondered why the Cons lost interest in a non-partisan Public Appointments Commission after having funded it for years, while Alexandre Boulerice noted that the move eases the way for yet more patronage from the Cons themselves. Glenn Thibeault and Pierre Dionne Labelle slammed an anticipated increase in pay phone rates at the behest of Bell. Carol Hughes followed up on Julian's budget speech by questioning why the Cons are determined to hide the findings of the National Council on Welfare showing that investment to reduce poverty would more than pay for itself.

Finally, in response to Peter Kent's claim that we don't need groups like the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy due to other groups providing similar services over the Internet, Kirsty Duncan helpfully queried whether Kent could name just one. Needless to say, Kent could not.

A Healthy Society - Chapter 6 Discussion

Chapter 6 of Ryan Meili's A Healthy Society addresses education. But in addition to discussing familiar themes about funding and access to existing educational systems, Meili also makes some important points about what we should include as part of a basic education if we want our students to be able to fully participate in a healthy society:
Education is about more than simply obtaining the skills to succeed financially and live comfortably. There are facts to learn, of course, key concepts and information to digest and understand. More important, however, is learning literacy, the ability to apply critical thinking and skills in knowledge acquisition to adapt to a changing world. This requires literacy in household management, personal development, environmental stewardship, and in how to find and create employment.

It also applies directly to making choices in personal health. An important element of making wise choices is health literacy, the ability to access, understand, and act on information for health. This ranges from simple things like understanding immunizations or medications to making wise decisions in diet, exercise, and addictions, and being able to manage psychologically difficult periods of life, turning the anxiety and depression of tumultuous times into opportunities for personal growth.

People who have higher levels of education are more likely, on average, to get stable, well-paying jobs or to be successful in business. More and more jobs require higher levels of education. These facts cause confusion, as people conflate the results with the underlying purpose. People start to think that, because education leads to employment and material success, that’s what education is for. As human beings, we are far more than our jobs and our bank accounts, and the goals of our learning must reflect a deeper sense of purpose.

Perhaps the greatest goal of education is not a set of skills, but the development of values. Our democracy is only as healthy as the next generation of youth and their ability to engage creatively with the world around them. Civic literacy means teaching youth not to be future subjects, observers of the news, but actors in the lives of their communities.
What's interesting about the above is that it partially echoes the language of one of the Cons' favourite alternatives to direct citizen protection. When it comes time to discuss the glaring disconnect between the interests of the financial sector and the general public, financial literacy is all too often presented as a substitute for regulation and transparency. And as a result, a selective type of economic education is normally considered the lone general subject which right-wing parties want to see added into the educational mix (which they otherwise want to push as much as possible toward both the standardized-testing model later criticized by Meili, and narrow training for a particular trade or job).

But then, a combination of improved financial education and the type of critical thinking skills emphasized by Meili might well be exactly the preconditions we need to start questioning the degree to which our economy can be controlled by a few self-interested actors. And it's well worth taking a closer look at whether our school curricula - which on their face do include some training in the areas mentioned by Meili - are actually equipping students with both the base of knowledge and the set of values they need to become productive citizens.

[Edit: added labels.]

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- There's still plenty more emerging on the Robocon election fraud scandal. The reporting combinations of McGregor/Maher and Chase/Leblanc/Mills have both discussed Elections Canada's latest court filing showing that Con campaign officials openly discussed implementing U.S.-style vote suppression efforts - including exactly the forms of fraud that materialized last year. Meanwhile, Sixth Estate wonders just how far the rot spread within the Cons' organization, while Alison has been providing a history lesson on the party's efforts to manipulate voters.

- And speaking of history lessons, Amy MacPherson serves up a dose of reality which the Cons will surely ignore. 

- But for all the criticisms of the Cons, let's never say they don't get noticed in the world. Just look at how they've managed to earn our science writers an award for press courage in the face of repression normally directed toward reporters dealing with dictators - and how they're standing out in obstructing the work of the U.N.'s Right to Food initiative as Canada becomes the first developed country to face an investigation.

- Finally, there hasn't been much reason to accuse Andrew Coyne of being too light on the Cons in recent years. But given that the Cons' crackdown on charities has taken place entirely in conjunction with their attempt to demonize anybody who's ever spoken positively of the environment, I'd defy anybody to suggest they've earned the benefit of the doubt on this rather crucial point:
It's a safe bet that a good many of the more well-known advocacy groups in the country, including the various think-tanks of the left and right, are operating in excess of this standard, and have been for years. As long as it's even-handed, I see nothing wrong with simply enforcing the law, as the government proposes.