Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- For all the talk of fraud and cover-ups among the Cons this week, the most important story on that front looks to be the release of Judge Mosley's decision on Robocon - featuring findings of fact based on the best evidence presented by the Cons (and affected voters) that the 2011 election was marred by electoral fraud facilitated by the Cons' voter database, and that the first Cons covered it up by destroying the records which would have allowed investigators to determine who was actually responsible, then engaged in questionable tactics to keep the facts from seeing the light of day.

- Don Lenihan sees the glaring gap between spin and reality on the Cons' Clusterduff scandal as a revelation as to the Harper government's contempt for the truth, while Michael Harris also treats the Senate scandal as a comparatively new development. But Paul Wells is right to note that this is merely another example of a long-standing Harper philosophy that facts and other people are to be thrown under the bus whenever it suits his political interests - meaning that the bigger question is why anybody has taken the Cons' word for anything in the meantime.

- And lest anybody think that the Cons' culture of compulsive concealment is limited to scandals, Colin Horgan finds some prime examples of blatant lies about simple facts in Question Period, while Mike de Souza reports that Joe Oliver is trying to keep the contents of a $16 million, publicly-funded oil industry propaganda campaign secret from the Canadian public.

- Finally, the Senate itself is certainly looking all the worse based on David Tkachuk's remarkable admissions that he kept in touch with the PMO to make sure that his committee's report on Mike Duffy's expense claims fit with the Cons' political interests. But Althia Raj reports that there's plenty more ludicrous abuse of public trust and money where that came from - such as substantial annual payments to the chairs of committees even when they're not meeting.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- The Broadbent Institute has released a new set of polling (PDF) as to Canadians' values. And it's particularly worth noting that even on the Cons' signature issues such as tax cuts, austerity and crime - where millions upon millions of public dollars have been spent in a combined effort at branding and persuasion - 60% or more of respondents (including new immigrants) side with a more progressive option.

- But as Steven Shrybman notes in criticizing Jeffrey Simpson's blase view of universal public health care, we still have our own Village working to impose policies which favour profit over people even when the public strongly supports the status quo. And Dave Coles comments on Tim Hudak's attempt to bring Republican-style attacks on workers north of the border.

- If we need a reminder as to the disastrous results of corporate self-regulation, though, Leslie Young and Anna Mehler Paperny provide it:
The cracked pipe sleeve behind the second-biggest oil spill in Alberta’s history had been flagged as a hazard more than two decades earlier by the national regulator responsible for pipeline safety.

But this pipe fell under provincial jurisdiction, so the national regulator’s inspection edict didn’t apply at the time. And while the provincial regulator “assumed” prudent safety measures had been taken, it wrote in a post-incident report, it couldn’t be sure.
Both the Energy Resources Conservation Board and its federal counterpart, the National Energy Board, rely on oil companies to let them know when something goes wrong. The regulators rarely follow up themselves, and usually only if they know of a series of problems.

Successive audits and reports have found that regulation isn’t keeping pace with industry growth, and that even when inspectors identify problems, they rarely follow up.

This has demonstrable consequences: On a spring evening in 2011, a leak on a Plains Midstream pipe in Northern Alberta released more than 28,000 barrels of sweet crude into rural muskeg before it was shut down – eight hours and several alarms after the leak was detected. According to the ERCB’s own investigation, it took nearly 14 hours after the first signs of a leak for Plains Midstream to report the incident to the energy regulator.
[The National Energy Board] has been conducting fewer field inspections annually – and finding more cases of “high-risk noncompliance.” Inspectors found 437 such instances in 2011, up from 263 the year before. That year, 41 out of a total 362 of the drilling operations it inspected were deemed “high-risk noncompliant” – the highest proportion since 2006.
- Finally, Larry Elliott discusses Oxfam's conclusion that it would be possible to end extreme poverty on a global scale (and twice over) if not for tax avoidance and evasion:
According to Oxfam's estimates, almost $18.5tn is being held for individuals in tax havens, one third of it in British Overseas Territories and crown dependencies.

The charity said that even on conservative assumptions, the $18.5tn would yield $156bn to tax authorities around the world, whilst the cost of providing every person on earth with an income of $1.25 a day would be $66bn.

Emma Seery, Oxfam's Head of Development Finance and Public Services, said: "These figures put the UK at the centre of a global tax system that is a colossal betrayal of people here and in the poorest countries who are struggling to get by, and they put the government on the side of the privileged few. If they want to get on the right side of this debate, now is the time to take action.

"Britain's credibility is on the line; talking tough on tax, whilst continuing to usher a third of the world's wealth into UK tax havens, risks making a mockery of David Cameron's leadership at the G8 Summit in June."

New column day

Here, featuring my suggestion to minimize the damage done by the Senate even if constitutional change isn't on the table.

The column was intended largely to respond to the camp whose every reaction to Senate issues is to declare there's nothing we can do but put up with the status quo.

But there may well be more of a push for abolition than I'd anticipated: Tom Mulcair and the NDP are leading the charge, Democracy Watch is also launching a campaign, and Pat Atkinson makes the case in the Star-Phoenix. And Antonia Maioni points out how the scandal surrounding an institution linked to the other federal parties offers an ideal opportunity for the NDP to stand out.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Pat Steenberg observes that the Harper Cons' deficits are the result of conscious choices to reduce government revenue - and that we can fix our deficit and rein in inequality at the same time by reversing the damage:
(W)hen our governments say they can no longer afford something, what they are really saying is that “we” cannot afford it. But is this really the case?

Canada’s average GDP per capita — the value of total productive output divided by the population that produced it — has continued to grow, with a few minor interruptions since 1946. Our national wealth is, relatively speaking, where it has always been.

On the other hand, Canada’s median income — the midpoint income level — currently stands at only two-thirds of GDP per capita. Until the 1970s, Canadian GDP per capita and median income were roughly the same.

Obviously, we don’t have a wealth problem, we have a distribution problem.

Second, we have a revenue shortfall. Tax revenue is the interest we claim for the use of public resources which, collectively, we all own and maintain. Simply put, we are not paying ourselves enough.
(W)hy, if the total national wealth continues to grow, in absolute terms, do our governments say they can no longer afford to meet our needs?

Here’s why.

Federal corporate income tax brought in $30 billion dollars in 2012. At the 2004 rate, that would have been $42 billion. Repatriating the lost corporate tax revenues from the dead money reserves, brings us $12 billion. Restoring the GST to 7 per cent (at a cost of 84 cents each, a day) — $10 billion. Rolling back defence spending to 2006 levels — $8 billion. Altogether, that gives us an annual revenue increase of $30 billion. Given that the deficit for 2012 is estimated to be $26 billion, we cannot only balance the books this year, but do so with $4 billion to spare. 
- But in fairness, we shouldn't presume that current social programs are enough to meet obvious needs: as Guy Standing recognizes, the corporatist preference for precarious work has created a need for far more substantial income security programs than the ones we have now.

- Paul Kershaw writes that much of the B.C. NDP's election disappointment can be traced to poor turnout among younger voters - highlighting the need to expand the voter pool rather than merely trying to appear "safe" to swing voters. And Duncan Cameron notes that ultimately, the only winners in the election were business interests.

- Erin Weir points out how Regina stands to get hosed due to the costs of privatized waste water treatment, as the federal funding pursued through a P3 program will simply turn into pure profit for a private operator.

- Finally, Paul Wells comments on the Cons' miserable failure when it comes to research and innovation:
The government has known, since its first year in office, that the private sector is not doing enough applied research. Its response has been to put the brakes on pure research in universities. The result has been that the weakness has continued to aggravate, while the strength has been put in danger. At Davos more than a year ago, Harper said his government would “continue to make the key investments in science and technology necessary to sustain a modern competitive economy.” It’s not clear what he meant by “continue.” It is true that recent changes at the National Research Council are designed to bolster, or accompany, or synergize with, or somehow prop up private-sector applied research. I can only wish the NRC luck. If it manages to push Canada up 7 spots in international rankings of research intensity, the country will be back where it was, compared to peer countries, on the day Stephen Harper became prime minister.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats on the rocks.

On instructing clients

Let's once again take a slightly closer look at what's been reported about the Cons' senate scandal - as yesterday's revelations about the involvement of Stephen Harper's special counsel and legal adviser Benjamin Perrin may offer a few more indications as to who was actually pulling the strings.

To start with, here's CTV's reporting on the drafting of the agreement between Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former special counsel and legal adviser worked on the legal deal between Nigel Wright and Sen. Mike Duffy’s lawyer that called for Wright to help Duffy pay off $90,000 in invalid expense claims, CTV News has learned.

Sources told CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife that back in February, Benjamin Perrin helped draft the letter of understanding that called for Duffy to publicly declare that he would repay the money. In return, sources say, Wright would give a personal cheque to Duffy to cover the $90,000. Sources say the agreement also stipulated that a Senate investigation into expense claims would go easy on Duffy.
Perrin left the Prime Minister’s Office in April and has returned to his position as an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law.
As I noted earlier, it seemed dubious that any lawyers at all would be involved in drafting trust conditions or agreements around a merely personal gift. But Perrin's involvement raises some additional questions - no matter how one interprets the chain of events.

On one hand, it's possible that Wright was treated as being the "client" giving instructions to Perrin. That possibility raises its own set of questions: is it normal practice for publicly-funded counsel at the PMO to deliver personal legal services to staffers? Did Wright pay the PMO for receiving those services from the office's counsel? Would Wright have the authority to release the relevant documents as the client of record - and indeed, might he have waived any solicitor-client privilege by allowing the PMO to take control of them?
The PMO also declined to release the letter of agreement, saying it is now in the hands of Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, who is investigating Wright’s $90,000 cheque to Duffy.
On the other hand, it's possible that the story is one of Stephen Harper's legal advisor acting in his official capacity, taking instructions from Stephen Harper's Prime Minister's Office to draft an agreement in which Stephen Harper's chief of staff paid a Stephen Harper Senate appointee to keep quiet.

That might give the PMO a slightly better claim to try to withhold access to the relevant documents from its end (though Duffy and his lawyer would presumably have copies as well which would be relevant to any RCMP or Senate investigation). But the second scenario also includes a rather obvious common denominator - and no matter how determined he is to flee the country, it's hard to see Stephen Harper avoiding full responsibility if every aspect of the Duffy payout was carried out in his name.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Murray Dobbin contrasts the B.C. NDP's recent election loss against the type of popular focus which helped Saskatchewan's CCF to earn a twenty-year stay in office in the face of far more hysterical opposition:
You can design a campaign that projects a positive vision of the future but two things about the NDP's approach doomed it to failure. First, you can't run a positive campaign in a month. It takes time to engage people in a vision of the future, even one they agree with.  Secondly, the NDP tied one hand behind its back by failing to hold the Liberals to account for the horrible, destructive policies they implemented over twelve long years.
Tommy Douglas and the CCF (the precursor of the NDP) won power in 1944 in a province totally dominated by a Liberal, pro-business party machine for decades. It won a landslide victory in a media atmosphere of absolute hysteria (headline: "CCF will seize farms"), fearmongering and blatant lies. The CCF held power for twenty uninterrupted years. How? It started out as a movement and retained that character for many years afterward. It was deeply rooted in community. People felt ownership of it and its policies and out (of) that came government programs that met the expressed needs of the people. And that, in turn, brought enormous trust in government. 

People's distrust of government now runs so deep that it will take years of trust-building to regain some democratic equilibrium. That means a totally different kind of politics and a totally different kind of political party. Progressive parties run by brain trusts, engaging in politics as a game, will ultimately lose. For them progressive policies are simply pieces on a chess board, not part of a larger vision. And the longer this style of politics goes on, the more institutionalized and inward looking such parties, including the NDP, become.
- But if we're looking at comparing which types of politics deserve some measure of trust, we can rule out a few fairly easily. For example, Martin Regg Cohn writes about the false promise of privatized liquor sales, while Kathy Tomlinson reports on yet more examples of the temporary foreign worker program being used (with the Cons' approval) to replace qualified Canadians with easily-exploited temporary imports.

- In the latest in the Cons' Senate expense scandal, CTV reports that the paperwork for the hush payment from Nigel Wright to Mike Duffy was drawn up by special counsel in the Prime Minister's Office. Michael Harris writes that Stephen Harper's PMO is falling apart, while Lawrence Martin sees the Cons' abuses of power as reaching a critical mass. Sid Green and various Reform alumni all make the case for Senate abolition if the Cons can't be trusted to police their own. Andrew Coyne sets out the laws which the Cons had to know were violated. And while John Ivison may be the last person left to pretend accountability has anything to do with the Cons' value structure, he does nicely contrast the Cons' one-time promises against their actions once in office.

- Meanwhile, the Cons' commitment to accountability also includes blatant patronage and support for criminal bid-rigging. Try to act surprised.

- Finally, Paul Adams rightly notes that the great challenge for media participants in our time is how to manage the vast amount of available information - and that we should see that development as a massive improvement from the restricted supply which once existed. But we should be more than wary of attempts to push information back behind closed doors, whether through laws or through litigation.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Yes, there's plenty more on the Cons' Senate scandal, with Tim Harper headlining the latest discussion:
Mike Duffy is radioactive.
The one-time Conservative cheerleader is now the poster boy for the filth which envelops the party brand.
The man holed up on Friendly Lane in Cavendish, P.E.I., has brought down one of the most powerful men in Canada, shaken the Stephen Harper government to its core and blown a hole in the confidence the increasingly skeptical Conservative base has in the party.
Wright says he acted on his own, but could he possibly have acted on this without the Prime Minister’s knowledge?
Was he acting on the Prime Minister’s orders?
Did two of the shrewdest political operatives to ever land in Ottawa really believe that a handy chequebook would make a Senate spending scandal go away?
Did the government Senate leader, Marjory LeBreton, know an improper payoff was at the root of Duffy’s note from the teacher when his expenses were being audited?
We have to ask, because no one in the government is giving proper answers.
- Meanwhile, Brian Webb offers his own set of scenarios as to why Nigel Wright may have offered Mike Duffy a get out of jail free card, while Chris Plecash notes that both Duffy and Pamela Wallin may have been singled out for special treatment. Lawrence Martin poses a few more questions about Stephen Harper's involvement. And David Climenhaga notes that if the Cons believed in ministerial responsibility as anything but an excuse to keep underlings from answering questions in public, Harper would be offering his resignation for the actions of his chief of staff.

- Theresa Riley interviews Andrew Rosenberg about the corporate sector's efforts to prevent an accurate assessment of environmental damage and other externalities from intruding on their profits, while Elliot Negin writes about the Koch brothers' attack on climate science in particular. And Miranda Holmes notes that Peter Kent has been spinning on behalf of the oil sector since before he became Canada's most Orwellian Minister of the Environment yet

- All of which is to say that there's yet more reason to want to ensure that our democratic representatives and public servants work on meaningfully regulating business activity, rather than naively trusting in corporate benevolence. But on the bright side, at least one Federal Reserve governor is starting to recognize the damage that inequality does to overall economic growth - signalling that some policy-makers are beginning to come around to the concept of doing their jobs.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Deep thought

An infinite number of monkeys using an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce the Kirby report on health care reform. This is not a sound argument for spending hundreds of millions of public dollars on monkeys with typewriters.

On corrupted institutions

Plenty of others have had loads to say about the scandal surrounding Stephen Harper, Nigel Wright, Mike Duffy and the Senate generally - with Wright's resignation today serving as just the latest chapter of a story with plenty left to be told. But I'll add a couple of notes to the mix.

First, I'm not sure some commentators (especially those thinking that "the cheque" is the real story) have noticed the significance of this juxtaposition of events:
A senior government official told Postmedia News on Thursday that Wright wrote a cheque to Duffy’s lawyer “in trust.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the sole stipulation for giving the money was “that it would be used to pay back taxpayers” and putting it in trust “was the best way to achieve this.”

However, Duffy also took out a loan from Royal Bank to cover the cost of repaying his Senate expenses, according to a Senate source with knowledge of the financial arrangement. On Wednesday, Duffy told CTV in an email that he dealt with the bank alone and Wright was not involved in that transaction.
Now, to the extent that account is accurate, we can draw a couple of conclusions. First, the issue was seen as a formal one requiring the use of Duffy's lawyer rather than a personal cheque - as might be expected if the "just helping a friend" storyline were to hold up. And second, it means that there's a paper trail consisting not only of the cheque, but also of some sort of trust conditions placed on the payment of the money to Duffy's lawyer - and I wouldn't use the "sole stipulation" wording in the Cons' spin to rule out the possibility of another agreement beyond the trust conditions themselves. 

And what about the content of that agreement? Well, that's where the open question of Wright's ability to ensure a whitewash of the Senate's audit of Duffy's expenses come into play.

In effect, no one Senate leader would seem to have had the ability to guarantee the outcome of a report from the internal economy committee. Instead, Wright's payment seems to have been predicated on the assurance that a majority of that committee would take orders, rather than even questioning whether the Prime Minister's Office should be able to dictate the terms of the Senate's own proceedings.

Of course, that utterly warped sense of loyalty to Harper is far from new for his appointed senators. But it absolutely goes to the core of the Senate as an institution.

If an operator from the PMO can make - and keep - promises as to what Senate committee members will decide in policing their own members, then there's absolutely no credible argument to be made that the upper chamber is even pretending to function as an independent body. And so, abolish, abolish, abolish.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Justin Ling writes that the Cons' aversion to accountability isn't limited to their own government, as they're one of the few holdouts against transparency in resource-sector reporting of payments to governments abroad.

- Meanwhile, Stuart Trew discusses an international citizens' initiative to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnership from imposing harmful copyright rules:
A coalition website, launched this week as a 17th round of TPP negotiations gets underway in Lima, Peru, calls on TPP negotiators to "reject copyright proposals that restrict open Internet, access to knowledge, economic opportunity and fundamental rights." The website gives people an opportunity to send the same message and receive regular updates on Fair Deal campaign actions and successes.

"A fair deal on copyright in the TPP takes into account the interests of Internet users, libraries and archives, those with disabilities, educators and business innovators as well as creators," says Susan Chalmers from InternetNZ, one of 30 founding members of the new campaign. "We're all part of the Internet economy. The Fair Deal coalition is promoting fair copyright standards for the TPP that reflect the needs of the broadest cross-section of society."

These beliefs are shared by many TPP participating countries. Peru's chief negotiator, Rodrigo Contreras, wrote in a popular Peruvian magazine this week that the country should avoid limits on access to knowledge online and the over-extension of copyright protection terms for books, movies or music, that limit their availability in libraries and schools, and that would make it more expensive for lower income people.
- Paul Krugman looks at Ireland as a prime example of gross economic numbers bearing no particular relationship to the actual strength of an economy - as profits moved there out of convenience are doing nothing whatsoever to reduce 14% unemployment. (Needless to say, it's always a good time for a reminder that's exactly the model the Saskatchewan Party wants to inflict on the province.)

- And Leif Larsen reports that still more Irish workers who have lost their jobs to corporatist mismanagement are being used to hurt workers in Canada - this time to avoid the possibility that workers on Manitoba construction sites might attempt to unionize.

- Jessica Bruno writes that the Cons' cuts to research extend to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada,

- Finally, Rosie DiManno rightly criticizes the gall of Toronto's police in rewarding themselves for the civil rights abuses perpetrated at Toronto's 2010 G20 meeting.