Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher keep up their reporting on Robocon by noting that Elections Canada's trail seems to have gone cold with the use of an unsecured wifi connection to hide the identity of Pierre Poutine. But as Susan Delacourt points out, that fact only confirms that the Cons' election fraud seems to have been rather deliberately planned to escape detection.

- Meanwhile, Delacourt also laments the effect of "churnalism" in which the media serves largely as a conduit for government or business talking points:
Harper has not held a news conference around Parliament Hill since 2009 and has succeeded in drawing strict limits around media access to his government. “It’s not that he hates the media,” one Conservative MP said to me earlier this year. “It’s more that he has no respect for them.”

Why has this worked so well for Harper? Probably because the public buys the idea, frequently put forward by the Conservatives and their allies, that the media is little more than a delivery system for the “spin” the politicians like to spout.

Watching most of those MP panels on TV, or wading into the daily scrums in the foyer of the Commons, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. That’s not debate we’re seeing — it’s just people reciting well-rehearsed lines, speaking past each other, and certainly not answering any questions.

In the print realm, meanwhile, politicians and their handlers are now fond of replying to media questions with sparse, fact-free emails, timed to arrive just before deadline, so there is no opportunity for follow-up or subsequent queries.

All of this has been rightly dubbed “churnalism” — the practice in which journalists simply take the PR material handed to them and churn it out to their readers or viewers.
Any solution, though, is going to have to address this issue of the “churn” and the spin. It won’t be easy. By any rough count, the growing number of communications professionals on Parliament Hill (about 1,500 in government alone, according to a Hill Times tally) vastly outpaces the ranks of the media (around 400 in the press gallery, and shrinking, it seems, monthly.)

The number that should focus the collective media mind, however, is that 78 per cent figure south of the border — all those people who now view political reporting in the same, dim light as they view the politicians.

And that may not be because the media is the enemy of politicians, but because it’s grown too accommodating to the spin and talking points.
- And on a related note, Peter O'Neil learns not to take the self-serving statements of dirty oil advocates at face value.

- Irene Mathyssen discusses why the Cons' push for privatized pensions doesn't figure to provide retirement security for Canadians:
The regulations surrounding the administration of PRPPs are yet to be established; but unless the cost of administration is low, and unless the pooled amount of investment is high -- which is unlikely given the non-mandatory nature of the plan -- PRPPs will not be any more relevant as a retirement savings option to Canadian workers than RRSPs. In other words, the banks will profit and workers will continue to struggle to make ends meet before and after retirement.

The voluntary nature of this savings plan is not the only drawback. PRPPs as a retirement savings vehicle function like RRSPs. They are taxed on withdrawal and affect net eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS). PRPPs and RRSPs only serve middle- to high-income earners (those averaging wages of $50,000 or more) at retirement. Workers making less actually run the risk having their income drop to below poverty levels at retirement because of the fact that their PRPP income is taxed and clawed back from OAS eligibility.
- Finally, Bob Hepburn documents the remarkable story of the McGuinty Libs releasing outdated and inaccurate data as an excuse to close Ontario Place just as it was in danger of proving a smashing success.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Musical interlude

Deadmau5 - Faxing Berlin

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- pogge offers up the definitive response to the Cons' attempt to encourage a sell-off of First Nations reserve land:
When you look past the paternalistic argument that the only way First Nations communities can possibly thrive is to be more like us, this is what's left:
...businesses that want to unlock the economic potential of reserves, from real estate development to forestry and mining, need the legal certainty that a property regime makes possible.
In this context, "unlock the economic potential" looks very much like a euphemism for "streamline the regulatory and tax regime to make it as easy as possible for us to suck all the wealth out." We've been unlocking our own economic potential since around the time Reagan was elected president south of the border. We've unlocked so much economic potential that we now live in the Age of Austerity because all the money is stashed in offshore accounts. If the First Nations have any sense, they'll tell us to get stuffed.
- Meanwhile, FSIN notes that the Cons are slashing funding for First Nations housing.

- If we haven't yet turned every public service into a Con crony's profit stream, it isn't for a lack of trying - with the administration of public benefits programs looming as the next area to be handed over to the corporate sector. But there are some pieces of the Cons' work that are too dirty for even the most anti-social corporation to take on.

- The Victoria Times Colonist and Graham Thomson are duly skeptical about Stephen Harper's claim to be the slightest bit interested in science in determining whether or not to force the Gateway pipeline on B.C. And if we needed another reminder of how distant science is from the Cons' spin on the environment, Marc Lee highlights a few of the more glaring holes in the Cons' latest report on greenhouse gas emissions:
The report creates an alternative “do nothing” scenario that leads to surging emissions of 850 Mt in 2020, then subtracts estimates of federal and provincial actions taken to date, which gets us to 720 Mt. That is a lot of spin on the numbers, perhaps hoping few people will bother to read the actual report and just report the government’s line.

But even the 720 Mt number is suspect for a variety of reasons. First, the economic downturn lowers the baseline, with 2010 emissions coming in lower than previously expected. Next, the feds have included land use changes in the calculations for the first time. The decline in forestry activity means more carbon will remain sequestered in Canada’s forests, and this will lower emissions by 26 Mt. Take these out and the 2020 target jumps back to 745 Mt, slightly more than 2005 levels. Then report also arbitrarily lowers emissions from BC’s natural gas sector, relative to National Energy Board projections. And it assumes that proposed regulations yet to be ratified contribute to decreased transportation emissions. And that Saskatchewan implements carbon capture and storage for four new coal-fired power plants.

The other matter is to what extent the feds can take credit for any reductions in various sectors of the Canadian economy. Much of the heavy lifting appears to have been done at the provincial level, including BC’s carbon tax, Quebec’s cap-and-trade regime and Ontario’s phase-out of coal-fired electricity. In transportation, new vehicle regulations are touted but these just copy the new regulations established by the United States. The report makes repeated reference to new regulations being developed for the oil and gas sector, too, but these have been promised for a long time and no draft regulations have yet seen the light of day.
- Finally, Brent Rathgeber makes the case for sitting MPs to stay out of the boundary revision process. Needless to say, his Saskatchewan caucus-mates don't seem interested in listening.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Mitchell Anderson discusses the Ten Commandments that have ensured that Norway's oil wealth is preserved for the benefit of citizens. But it's particularly worth contrasting Norway's philosophy surrounding non-renewable resources against the frenzy to extract everything today at any price (which of course currently dominates western Canadian politics):
Norway was in no rush to develop their oil resources, and determined that it would only be on their own terms with a clear benefit to Norwegians. So strong was this sentiment that an all-party parliamentary white paper itemized "10 commandments" (see sidebar) for oil development, later enshrined into the Norwegian Petroleum Act.
When global oil prices shot up in 1974 after the Middle East oil embargo, the Norwegian government decided that a major tax increase was needed to ensure that oil companies would not realize windfall profits at the expense of the Norwegian taxpayer.

Professor Einar Lie at the University of Oslo researched the history of this period and describes how the government used the newly formed Statoil to gather intelligence on how far they could push foreign companies.

"The Norwegian civil servants wanted to squeeze this lemon to the maximum but they did not want to foreign oil companies to leave. So they talked extensively with Statoil, which had a lot of informed contacts with the other oil companies to find out just how much they would be able to take without the foreign companies leaving Norway. They were extremely pragmatic on how to get the maximum taxation."
- Karen Foster points out the gap between the reasonable expectations of younger workers about their ability to retire after putting in several decades of hard work, and the public policy direction set by the Cons and others to ensure that retirement is delayed and rendered less secure.

- Common Dreams documents how workers in the UK have been placed on a private employment blacklist based on suspicions of citizen activism.

- And finally, neither Thomas Walkom nor Craig McInnes buys the Cons' spin that a decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline will be anything but a political calculation by an oil-soaked government.

New column day

Here, on how the mixed-riding proposal of Saskatchewan's federal electoral boundaries commission offers at least some improvement over the current all-rurban mess when it comes to recogizing communities of interest.

For further reading...
- Joe Couture covers both the initial proposal, and reactions from parties and academics.
- Kelly Block's acknowledgment that rural voters in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar would represent her margin of victory can be found here.
- And again, anybody interested in participating in next month's public hearings should sign up here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- John Conway discusses the Cons' project of destroying Canada's social safety net.

- But the good news is that Stephen Harper is running into a few roadblocks along the way. For example, the rule of law - as a Federal Court judge has concluded that the Cons' attempt to impose an arbitrator with connections to both their own party and Air Canada to rule on a collective agreement for Air Canada's workers.

- And Thomas Walkom writes that there are limits to what the Cons can impose on the general public in trying to push the Gateway pipeline:
Harper’s hope was that this combination of toughness, smear and crass ideology — particularly if repeated endlessly in the right-wing media — would convince a big chunk of the broad Canadian middle. The strategy does, after all, work in the U.S.
But it hasn’t here. Public opposition to the scheme is so intense in B.C. that even the avowedly pro-business, governing Liberals have joined in.

Add to this the nightmare of aboriginal politics. First Nations along the pipeline route are threatening to tie up the project for years in court — which they can do.

And the broad public? My guess is that, Joe Oliver notwithstanding, most Canadians don’t regard environmentalist David Suzuki, or even B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark, as dangerous radicals funded by foreign gold.

What they do see is an increasingly shrill federal government whose bully-boy tactics aren’t working.
- Finally, Jordon Cooper comments on the costs of ignoring mental health as a public policy issue:
Across the country we have seen what happens when we underfund mental-health programs. It leads to an increase of people on the streets, it forces police into becoming mental-health workers, and in some situations it leads to deaths. Mental health is a complicated field but until we start to publicly address how we doing, how is it going to get better?

The bar to get help is too high, takes too long, and people end up too close to the edge. We deal a lot with the symptoms in our society - why not tackle the problem directly?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Crashing cats.

On provisional boundaries

Volkov has already summed up the likely effect of the preliminary Saskatchewan federal riding boundaries released today.

But before we start planning the Regina Lewvan victory party, the most important part of the boundary revision process has yet to play out. So I'll encourage Saskatchewan readers to sign up for next month's public hearings and make clear that the preliminary move away from the current rurban mess makes for a step in the right direction.

On unscientific methods

Scott is absolutely right to be skeptical of the claim that the Cons will let science play any role in their attempt to force a pipeline through northern B.C. - particularly given their general distaste for the subject.

But there's a more direct response worth pointing out to Stephen Harper's ludicrous spin, as it's his government that's decided to make sure that environmental assessment of the Gateway pipeline will be a purely political decision:
The Governor in Council will make the decision on the environmental assessment (whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse effects and if so, whether such effects are justified in the circumstances).
That's right: it was just last week that Harper publicly announced his purely political decision to make sure that nobody associated with either scientific inquiry or public consultation will get any say in determining whether the pipeline will cause "significant adverse effects". And while that doesn't mean anybody can afford not to point out the environmental issues raised by the pipeline (if nothing else for ease of mitigation once the Cons have been safely toppled from office), nobody should be fooled into thinking science is to blame for Harper's poor choices.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- The Star-Phoenix editorial board comments on the need to crack down on tax havens:
(T)he scale of the avoidance Mr. Henry detailed in his report, The Price of Offshore Revisited, drives home just how immoral is the practice of tax avoidance, particularly at a time when even rich countries such as Spain and the United States are staggering under their debt loads and deficits because they can't raise enough tax revenue.
As Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian journalist based in Britain, notes in a recent column published in Embassy magazine, despite efforts by some governments to recoup tax revenues lost offshore, the problem has more than doubled over the last five years just as debt crises and resulting austerity measures have thrown millions out work.

The fact there are relatively few people hiding so much in a relatively few places such as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Cayman Islands, and Jersey should make it simple for the international community to exert pressure to collect the taxes that governments are owed.
Since the tax revenue and corrupt funds come from all countries - from small developing nations to outlaw states to the largest economies in the world - a global agreement not only should be possible but imperative.
- But lest anybody think it'll be easy to get the 1% to live up to social obligations, the same Canadian corporate sector that's hoarding giant piles of unused cash is demanding approval not to use its reserves to properly fund employee pensions.

- Even as they claim to have no resources to provide for basic social needs, the Cons have set up a secret torture committee and plan to burn $1 billion on drone warfare. Which means it's no wonder they're so determined to silence anybody who might point out a principled need for action.

- Speaking of which, Don Lenihan and Graham Fox discuss how the Cons have inverted Canadian federalism by refusing to take any responsibility for the public policy areas Canadians care about most:
(T)he federal government seems to have opted for a more transactional approach to governance, concentrating on issues like border security, crime and natural resources. The Harper government seems uncomfortable with complex processes and relationships, so its guiding principle is to keep things as simple as possible.
By contrast, the Council of the Federation (COF) is emerging as a new kind of collaborative forum. The provinces are using it to build and test the strategies and coalitions they think governments need to solve complex issues...
...The provinces, recall, have responsibility for many of the issues that register the least confidence (and highest complexity), such as health, education and other social services.
As a result, the pressure on them to experiment and collaborate is growing exponentially.
This, in turn, is pushing them toward more pan-Canadian approaches, while the federal government, which views its responsibilities as more transactional, is returning to watertight compartments and bilateral relationships.
(I)f the provincial effort is even modestly successful, we don’t think the federal government can avoid engaging for long. We believe it has a natural leadership role in this new, pan-Canadian environment. Its networks, infrastructure, resources, and legislative authority would make an essential contribution to solving issues around energy, healthcare and innovation. Eventually, the federal government will have to come back to the table — whether it be this government or some future one.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Moira Herbst is the latest to comment on the connection between the lack of good jobs and an excess of corporate cash hoarding:
(I)t would be refreshing if the pundit-political class considered a radical but obvious idea: tapping the multitrillion-dollar stockpiles of corporate cash currently sitting on the sidelines and benefiting no one. Compulsive hoarding is unhealthy for individuals. It's even worse for whole economies.

The sorry facts are these: job growth is still half of what is needed to keep up with population growth. Meanwhile, more than 14% of the US workforce is unemployed, underemployed or discouraged from looking for work. The numbers for July aren't expected to budge much. Absent a massive inflow of tax dollars, jobs aren't going to come from the public sector. State and local governments are broke, and the fight over federal deficits has turned into an all-out war in Congress.
It turns out that US-based mega-corporations are hoarding cash. How much cash? Record sums. It's about $1.73tn in US assets, according to the Federal Reserve – 50% more than they held in 2007. When you count worldwide holdings of US companies, the figure is a staggering $5.1tn, estimates Reuters' David Cay Johnston. Apple alone has $117bn.

Banks are also stockpiling cash; they're sitting on more than $1.5tn in excess reserves in the US.

Not only are mega-companies not creating enough decent jobs with this cash, they continue to offshore work and underpay workers. Many are not even rewarding investors or accelerating their growth with the money, thereby causing harm to themselves, according to a recent survey by Ernst & Young. Economists also say that cash hoarding is blocking a recovery in Europe.
- But sadly, Tom Tomorrow makes it clear that nothing can be done:

- It's actually somewhat of a pleasant surprise that at least as of last year, the Cons hadn't yet excised all references to renewable energy from internal briefing notes. But it's all the more shameful that they continue to push a short-term reliance on high-speed, low-safety oil extraction when they can't plead ignorance as an excuse for their neglect.

- And lest there be any doubt, Alberta's drinking water sources and B.C.'s coast aren't the only sensitive areas due for a coating of petrochemical sludge if the Cons get their way.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sunday Afternoon Links

This and that for a sunny Sunday.

 - Mitchell Anderson's second article on Norway's success in converting oil resources into a massive source of public wealth focuses on the country's history of resistance to outside ownership. But I wouldn't see much reason why Canada couldn't turn its own sense of hard-earned independence from the world's dominant powers (which has always defined our relationships to the U.K. and U.S.) toward our corporate overlords.

- And in a guest post at Progressive Economic Forum, Tony Clark highlights why there's reason to be skeptical of the demands of our oil barons - as a "labour shortage" being used as an excuse for importing disposable foreign labour in fact reflects nothing more than a refusal to share the benefits of a profitable industry with Canadian workers.

- Bruce Johnstone rightly criticizes Stephen Harper's pardons to Customs Act violators for valuing nebulous economic rights far more than the real rights and freedoms his government has attacked while in power.

- Finally, I'm not sure how much circulation Yvonne Marton's profile of Thomas Mulcair's car ownership will receive. But it looks like a neat example of Mulcair fitting into the NDP's set of priorities - focusing on function and value in comparison to the Cons' preference for shiny trinkets.

On connections

Tuesday, July 31 was the deadline for submissions to the Wall government's consultation process on employment and labour law. Like hundreds of other interested individuals and groups, I took the time to put together a submission - based on the underlying view that however biased the process was from the beginning, and however unlikely a bought-and-paid-for government was to listen to anybody who offered ideas to provide a more secure future for Saskatchewan workers rather than seeking to grind them to dust, there's always some value to be found in fostering discussion between citizens and legislators as to how we should be governed.

And many others with positions starkly opposed to the Saskatchewan Party did the same - criticizing Wall for failing to provide a more thorough consultation process, but consistently expressing the view that a responsible government should seek to connect more with its citizens.

Tuesday, July 31 also marked the unveiling of an NDP effort to build on the limited consultation permitted by Wall. So how did Wall's base react to an open channel of communication?
"One of our main activities ... is identifying polls and Twitter feeds that need to go horribly wrong," [Kate McMillan] said in an interview this week. "It's all in good fun, but there's also a political statement being made."

One post the NDP flagged as offensive - "Tommy Douglas, not dead enough" - is a line that has been used for years on her blog, McMillan noted.

"This is all fair in love and war on the Internet ... Anything that's open to the Internet inviting opinions is subject for high traffic, from the left and the right," she added.

"Politicians and parties should stay very clear of social media," she opined. "The only people on Twitter for politics are people who want to hurt you."
Which offers about as clear a contrast as one could imagine. The NDP and its allies responded to a limited consultation exercise with two main messages: a principled argument as to the policy choices involved, and a concern that the government should do more to hear from affected parties.

In contrast, the Saskatchewan Party's authoritarian base considers it an important activity to ensure that any effort to build communication between policy-makers and citizens goes "horribly wrong". Which presumably helps to ensure that policy is designed by and for the few who already enjoy privileged access to a thoroughly-insulated premier, while limiting our political options to shallow personality choices developed within easily-captured top-down party structures.

Unfortunately, the right in Saskatchewan thinks it can get away with more and more extreme attacks on democratic participation based on the province's 2011 election result. And the NDP - having governed largely as a "we're not them" choice for four terms while having few spare resources to dedicate to citizen engagement - still has a long way to go in rebuilding its historic capacity to bring together Saskatchewan voters.

Indeed, relatively modest steps with the Were You Asked? site (such as a simple filter before content submitted to the site was published) would have avoided the easy manipulation by vandals and saboteurs that proved embarrassing last week. And presumably that's a lesson the NDP will need to keep in mind as it decides how to reach out to citizens.

But the more important point is that vandalism and sabotage are indeed part of the value structure of a government and its base looking to keep Saskatchewan's citizens as silent and inactive as possible. And that radical difference in how we value public participation should be one of the NDP's overarching messages as we work on developing more effective forms of engagement.