Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne writes that the great Canadian revenue debate is well underway, with far more leaders willing to push for needed taxes than in recent years:
There is new political space to talk corporate taxes again, to talk about raising them. Rachel Notley, the new NDP premier of Alberta, won on a platform that promised fair taxation, raising corporate taxes, and getting a fair share of resources for citizens.

Newfoundland and Labrador must have the same conversation and review of resource royalties.

Even the federal Liberals have realized that the tide is turning and have been forced to talk tax fairness — or their version of it. They recently released their so-called middle class tax cut coupled with a promise to cancel some of the Harper government’s tax breaks to the wealthiest. The federal NDP has also been firmly on record about tax reform and tax fairness.

The conversation is started. Let’s keep it going. The kind of Canada we want for our kids depends on it.
- Scott Santens looks at the trucking industry as a prime example of how there's plenty more automation yet to come in our economy - and how we need to ensure people can make ends meet without menial jobs which can be shed in favour of machines.

- Scott Klinger discusses the tendency of U.S. conservatives - like their Canadian cousins - to hand out free money to the wealthy while simultaneously decrying the standard of living of people who are scraping to get by.

- Tavia Grant and Janet McFarland report on the problems with payday lenders - and the efforts some cities are making to at least reduce the damage they cause to citizens. And Gillian White points out the connection between underfunded transit in poorer areas and the inaccessibility of needed services. But on the brighter side, Jim Silver and Carolyn Young observe that Winnipeg's Lord Selkirk Park housing complex offers a needed example as to how to turn neglected buildings into an again-thriving community.

- Finally, APTN reports that Bernard Valcourt knows nothing about his responsibilities for First Nations, other than that he thinks he has none. And PressProgress provides the video evidence.

On complexities

Bruce Anderson writes that as some of us have long suspected, a true three-party federal race is developing which will create some new complications for the Cons and Libs alike. But it's worth pointing out one area where the Cons are in much worse shape than they've ever been.

Before the 2008 and 2011 elections, the Cons managed to render Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff radioactive with voters - with those leaders' approval ratings running far below the Libs' party polling results. And over the course of the campaign, an expected convergence between those numbers led to a natural decline for the Libs, while Jack Layton's personal popularity couldn't make up the gap for the NDP.

But now, while the NDP and the Libs are on an equal starting point in terms of popular support, their leaders are also well ahead of Harper (with Mulcair rating as very much liked and Trudeau roughly neutral) - meaning that the inevitable campaign focus on leadership will work to the Cons' disadvantage this time.

Put another way, to the extent the Cons have normally relied on a desperately unpopular Lib leader to lower his party's support level throughout a campaign, Trudeau isn't quite the punching bag his predecessors were. If priority one for the Cons has been to turn Trudeau into Dion or Ignatieff, that job isn't yet done.

Yet to the extent the Cons have counted on the NDP to face an insurmountable deficit in voter support which can't be made up by the public's favourite leader, that's no longer a plausible assumption either. (On that front, note that not only is the NDP higher in the polls than at the start of any recent election campaign, but Mulcair is also far more popular now than Layton ever was at the same point in any election cycle.)

So the public's appetite for change is large enough for the Cons to face serious challenges from two parties and leaders with more appeal than their own. And it doesn't look like there's anything the Cons can do to undermine either of the plausible alternatives without substantially benefitting the other: a more pointed attack against Mulcair and the NDP will only help Trudeau and the Libs, and vice versa.

Based on that conundrum, I'd think the Cons might be best off taking their chances with something truly novel for the Harper cadre: a campaign primarily oriented toward a positive case for more of the same to expand their own voter universe (however slightly) and working toward favourable splits, rather than the usual plan based on relentless attacks against a single perceived opponent. But it doesn't look like the formula which has worked in the past is going to have the same results this time.

[Update: fixed wording.]

Friday, May 15, 2015

Musical interlude

Moist - Tangerine (Remix)

Time for some adult supervision

The latest Con dodge on greenhouse gas emission regulations for the oil and gas industry is to say that they'll promise to deal with a few collateral activities, just as long as actual production continues to receive a free pass:
Aglukkaq also announced new rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, such as industrial leaks and gas flares, which makes up a significant portion of the industry's total emissions.
Notably omitted, of course, is the rest of the industry's total emissions.

So how does that painful level of parsing to avoid what has to be done sound familiar?

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Matthew Yglesias points out that a particular income level may have radically different implications depending on an individual's place in life, and that we can only address inequality by formulating policy accordingly:
The median household income in the United States is about $52,000. So go ahead and picture a median-income household. What did you picture?

Did you picture a 25-year-old with a decent job who's maybe worried about student loans but is basically doing okay? Or did you picture a married pair of 45-year-olds who are both full-time workers stuck in kinda crappy jobs? Or did you picture a married couple with one full-time worker and one stay-at-home mom? Or a 65-year-old retiree whose $2.5 million stock portfolio yields him $52,000 a year in dividend income?

These people are all in very different situations. But household income says they are all the same. In fact, it says they are all typical households earning the US median household income.
In any discussion of a broad social phenomenon, a little loss of precision is necessary. But the key things to keep in mind about household income and class are that you always need to supplement with life-cycle analysis and net worthespecially housing wealth, where otherwise similar people are often in very different situations.
- Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal charts how increasing inequality at the family level has thoroughly overtaken any basis for belief that the U.S. is a meritocracy. And Jeff Noonan writes that we can't afford austerity in our education system if we want all children to be able to participate in our society.

- PressProgress debunks the Fraser Institute's attempt to claim that improved fire safety is a reason to slash firefighting services.

- Finally, Glenn Greenwald looks at the UK Cons as a prime example of how the greatest threat to our freedoms comes from the parties willing to sacrifice them to a fight against trumped-up enemies. thwap highlights the Cons' selective definition of terrorism. And Alex Boutilier writes that CSIS continues to identify anybody even remotely associated with environmental protection as an "extremist" threat.

Support and illumination

David Moscrop laments the role of opinion polls in shaping political events - and there's certainly reason for caution in presuming that immediate polls will have a lasting effect. But I'll argue that at least as politics are now covered, polls in fact serve as an important check on the tendency of campaign coverage to become completely detached from the views of the public.

After all, the same citizens whose votes determine the outcome of a campaign are generally expected to follow that campaign with varying levels of care through media intermediaries. And I discussed the problem with the direct impact of media here, as the most subtle of campaign narratives - whether or not they're generated deliberately or based on facts - can swing enough votes to change the outcome of an election.

It's certainly fair to point out that polls can help to shape those narratives. And the effect can run in both directions: just as they can offer a signal as to which parties are viably positioned to offer an alternative government (as happened for the Alberta NDP in this month's election), they can also offer a warning that the public may wish to reconsider a trend (as arguably happened for the Wildrose Party in 2012).

But that serves only as a side effect of polling rather than a primary purpose. At their core, polls are the basic evidence-based means of measuring public opinion - which seems like rather an important factor in talking about how the public will choose to be governed.

With that in mind, let's ask this question: what's the alternative to paying attention to polls as a means of assessing where parties stand, for the purpose of both strategic voting (as identified by Moscrop) and merely talking about the progress of a campaign?

While it's easy to find elections where polls have come under fire for failing to reflect outcomes (see the UK's recent vote or Alberta's 2012 election), omitting them from election coverage won't stop pundits from offering their own prognostications - which at best reflect an unstated set of personal biases and assumptions, and at worst are downright intended to shape the campaign narrative to favour one party. And this month's Alberta vote reflects an obvious example where the polls told a far more accurate story than the insiders.

Which leads to this question: would Alberta have been better served by not knowing that enough voters were receptive to an NDP government to create the potential for change?

Before answering "yes", it's well worth questioning the alternative of having campaign narratives shaped entirely by the people who are able to spin stories in the absence of evidence - and not at all by the public whose interest is intended to be served by the election.

Of course, one might validly point out that we'd be better off with a radically different form of campaign coverage which focuses far more party platforms and values, and far less on spin from all directions. But until we've taken some giant leaps in that direction, we're best off treating polling as a check to test whether narratives match public opinion - not as a problem to be eradicated in favour of even more air time for evidence-free speculation.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Joseph Stiglitz laments the corporate takeover of policy-making processes, including by imposing trade rules which impede democratic decision-making:
The real intent of [investor protection] provisions is to impede health, environmental, safety, and, yes, even financial regulations meant to protect America’s own economy and citizens. Companies can sue governments for full compensation for any reduction in their future expected profits resulting from regulatory changes. 

This is not just a theoretical possibility. Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia for requiring warning labels on cigarettes. Admittedly, both countries went a little further than the US, mandating the inclusion of graphic images showing the consequences of cigarette smoking. 

The labeling is working. It is discouraging smoking. So now Philip Morris is demanding to be compensated for lost profits. 

In the future, if we discover that some other product causes health problems (think of asbestos), rather than facing lawsuits for the costs imposed on us, the manufacturer could sue governments for restraining them from killing more people. The same thing could happen if our governments impose more stringent regulations to protect us from the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions.
- Meanwhile, Joe Oliver provides a prime example by demanding that the U.S. abandon what little regulation it has over the financial sector under threat of a NAFTA suit. And Cory Doctorow writes that the secrecy surrounding the TPP includes having security staff keep even U.S. Senators from so much as making notes on the deal - because heaven forfend an elected official should be able to remember details of what closed-door corporate meetings have produced.

- Arloc Sherman and Danilo Trisi note that even the U.S.' frayed social safety net may be doing a better job of reducing poverty than it receives credit for. But we can never take those social supports for granted - and Lori Culbert reports on a new B.C. Ombudsman study showing how that province's welfare system is designed to discriminate against the people who most need help.

- Dennis Hiebert makes the case for charities to be able to comment on the areas of their expertise rather than being silenced by the Cons. And Elizabeth Thompson reports on Jean-Pierre Kingsley's proposal that government advertising be limited in the lead up to an election campaign.

- Finally, Antonia Zerbisias is hopeful that the Harper Cons' electoral strategy will fall apart as thoroughly as their policy plans. And Paul Orlowski theorizes that orange waves could be the new normal in Canadian politics.

New column day

Here, on how Brad Wall looks to face plenty of new political challenges now that he can't rely on an Alberta PC dynasty to do much of his dirty work for him.

For further reading...
- I briefly addressed the same issue with a particular focus on privatized MRIs in this post.
- Wall's history of relying on Alberta donors (with PC help) is discussed here, here and here among other places.
- Finally, Dave Cournoyer wonders what will become of the Alberta PCs' remaining patronage appointments. And David Climenhaga discusses the limited future of the PCAA - with Trevor Harrison's quote that it became "captive to the corporate sector and its rural (anti-tax) base" sounding much like the future awaiting the Saskatchewan Party.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On democratic blockages

I've previously pointed out a few of the worrisome ways in which the Cons might try to cling to power after the next federal election even if they'd stand to lose any fairly run confidence vote.

But let's add one more which the Cons have now publicly sanctioned: security "slippage" which has the potentially convenient effect of preventing MPs from voting in Parliament.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Andrew Nikiforuk offers his suggestions as to how Rachel Notley can improve Alberta's economy and political scene in her first term in office. And thwap comments on the right's more hysterical responses to Notley's victory.

- Meanwhile, Duncan Cameron writes that Albertans have joined the rest of Canada in rejecting a regressive tax system. And Louis-Philippe Rochon reminds us that there's still plenty more which needs to be done on that front at the federal level.

- Justin Ling discusses how C-51 fits into a wider pattern of intrusive surveillance plans - even as the U.S. reins in its own surveillance apparatus. And the Canadian Labour Congress laments the shredding of civil rights in the name of a secretive security state.

- Finally, the Star exposes the Cons' systematic purging of any watchdog who dares to live up to the title. Bruce Cheadle reports that the Cons' latest omnibus bill includes a retroactive prohibition against prosecution for what appear to have been gross violations of federal access to information legislation. And Lawrence Martin writes that the Cons can't survive an election campaign where integrity is a meaningful issue:
There was evidence beforehand that the PMO had interfered with a Deloitte audit on the expenses of Mike Duffy and other senators. But new court documents obtained by The Globe and Mail make the case stronger. In one, Corporal Benoit Jolette says the force’s investigation learned that the audit report “had made its way to the PMO, to their office and, I guess, revisions, what they wanted to have written in the report, was done.” In addition, e-mails from PMO officials speak of plans “to protect Senator Duffy.” Nigel Wright, then Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, writes of an intent to “put him in a different bucket.”

In terms of breach of the public trust, falsifying audits ranks high. The Harper Tories have been caught at it before. There was a case involving former cabinet minister Bev Oda altering a document for CIDA funding. In another they went so far as to distort a report by former auditor-general Sheila Fraser. They used her words to make it look like she was crediting their party with prudent financial management when in fact she was crediting the Liberals.

How much do they think they can get away with? Being caught once usually makes you think twice about being a repeat offender. Not these guys.

Last week’s revelations produced columns with headlines such as “The Duffy trial’s smoking gun just blew up in Harper’s face.” A telltale sign of the Tory troubles on the file is that they offered no rebuttal to pointed questioning in the Commons. Instead, they had backbencher Paul Calandra stand and issue a sheaf of non-answers. This was the same Mr. Calandra who some time ago gave a tear-drenched apology for making a mockery of Question Period with such answers. Rather than show any remorse, he was now doing it again.
The Duffy disclosures (there will be more to come) will likely turn out to be the most damaging. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair alleged in the House of Commons they constitute obstruction of justice. No such charges have been laid against PMO officials, but if they do not suffer legal consequences, there may well be political ones.

Yet again we have the integrity of this government being called into question. For the Conservatives, there is now a real risk of it becoming the ballot question. If it does, they can kiss their chances of re-election goodbye.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Packaged cats.

On powers of appointment

Andrew Coyne has rightly pointed out the gall the Senate is showing in nixing Michael Chong's watered-down Reform Act (even if there's something to a few of the criticisms). But let's not miss the most absurd suggestion of all as to who should be given increased power over a party's leadership (emphasis added):
“I just don’t think this kind of things should be left in the hands of caucus, when our process for electing leaders [is] in the hands of the grassroots,” [Con Senator David] Wells said. He suggested the bill be amended to require a minimum consent of 50 per cent of MPs and senators to call for a leadership review.
That's right: in the name of grassroots involvement, the Cons are actually arguing that unelected Senate hacks should have the authority to determine when a leadership review is necessary.

It's not entirely clear whether Wells wants a majority to be required in each chamber, or only based on the combined total in both. In the latter case, the Senate's new authority would extend to having the ability to force a review even when neither members nor elected MPs want one if the numbers allow it. (And lest that seem like a distant hypothetical, it would have been possible for Lib Senators to require a review without a single MP's support before they played around with their Senate affiliations.)

But even if Wells merely wants senators to have a veto over a possible leadership test, the end result would be to exacerbate what already makes the Senate toxic. Faced with the possibility that a party's senators might hold the power to force a leadership review, any Prime Minister would have a strong incentive to appoint the most beaten-down of trained seals rather than anybody willing to exercise an ounce of independent thought.

All of which figures to suit Harper and his party rather well. But it also highlights why Canada deserves better than a second chamber dedicated to assuring its own uselessness.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Will McMartin highlights the fact that constant corporate tax slashing has done nothing other than hand ever-larger piles of money to businesses who have no idea what to do with it. But Josh Wingrove reports that Justin Trudeau is looking for excuses to keep up the handouts to the corporate sector.

- Joseph Stiglitz offers (PDF) a thorough review of our options in lessening corporate hegemony, while Elizabeth Warren and Rosa Delauro ask why citizens should accept trade agreements being written in secret by and for the corporate sector. And David Dayen lists some of the lies being told to try to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- Meanwhile, James Fitz-Morris discusses the top-heavy giveaway arising out of the Cons' tax-free savings account scheme. And Stephen Tapp writes that an ill-advised balanced-budget law is aimed at a problem far less significant than the ones it will create.

- George Lakoff offers some messaging suggestions for progressives. And Luke Savage challenges the rhetoric of "aspiration" as a substitute for fairness:
The “aspirational middle class” is a soundbite engineered to be maximally inclusive and minimally concrete. It is Britain’s post-Thatcherite/New Labour analogue to “the American Dream” – that mythical journey of growth, personal prosperity, and self-creation which is theoretically open to all and practically open to few. The superficial elegance of this vision is that we all ostensibly have access to it, if we choose. The reality is that people belong to different classes, both social and economic, and aren’t more or less “aspirational” because of it (at least not in the commonly understood meaning of the word). Conceptualizing social disparities and economic structures in terms of personal aspiration is a convenient and very deliberate way of ignoring how these structures benefit some and constrain others. The built-in myth of self-sufficiency, in which the individual is always solely and completely responsible for her own outcome, also very deliberately neglects the inherently social nature of our lives: the schools which give us education, the libraries which give us books, the communities in which we are raised, the parents and others who give us care, the roads and transport networks on which we travel.
(I)t bears worth asking why we should privilege a particular kind of personal aspiration which mostly or wholly aspires to make and keep a small number of people extremely wealthy and which elevates the acquisition of personal wealth to the status of cardinal social value.
- Finally, Dennis Raphael discusses how Canada's choice to shred its social safety net decades ago is producing harmful health outcomes today - and asks that we be pay more attention to the future effects of our actions.

On fitting results

It will be some time yet before we see how Rachel Notley translates the Alberta NDP's election triumph into policy. But we have had a chance to see Notley's response to frivolous attacks on the NDP's newly-elected MLAs - and she's had absolutely the right reaction so far in not letting those attacks undermine elected representatives:
Premier-designate Rachel Notley says she doesn’t see Drever’s Facebook photos as a big problem for the NDP.

“I think transition and the challenges that come with transition are what happens when governments change, which is something that happens in normal, healthy democracies,” Notley said.
In other words (and as expanded on by other observers in the same report), Notley isn't about to let fabricated controversies get in the way of the NDP's work. And that looks to represent one more step along the road toward distinguishing between the trumped-up and the relevant in assessing candidates and MLAs.

Now, one might expect the opposition parties to take the hint that they're wasting their time scouring for meaningless personal details in the hope of driving MLAs out of public life. Unfortunately, the Wildrose Party has already made clear that all-out personal attacks on NDP MLAs represent a major part of its strategy.

But the more the Wildrose spends its time insulting elected officials and the constituents who voted for them, the better the NDP figures to look in comparison.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Monday Evening Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh highlights how Ontario employers are exploiting temporary workers rather than making any effort to offer jobs which can support a life:
Under Ontario’s antiquated Employment Standards Act, which is currently under review, there is no limit on how long a company can employ a worker as temporary before giving him or her a permanent job.

There is nothing to stop employers from paying temp workers less than their permanent counterparts, nothing to prevent them from hiring their entire workforce on a “temporary” basis if they so choose.

“If the employer knows that they can hire you and they don’t have to give you benefits, they don’t have to give you a pension, they can hire you for a lot less, there’s no incentive for them to hire permanently. Why would they?” says Deena Ladd, who heads the Toronto-based labour rights group the Workers’ Action Centre.

“The biggest issue is the lack of respect and dignity in (temporary) work. Nobody is seeing them for who they are and the work that they’re doing. They are completely invisible.”

In Toronto, their ranks are growing, with temporary workers outpacing permanent ones at twice the rate, their wages significantly lower.
- Meanwhile, Ben Spurr notes that unaffordable child care is preventing many parents from pursuing work which might be available. And Roderick Benns expands on Naheed Nenshi's commitment to work on a guaranteed annual income.

- Steven Lewis writes that the Wall government's determination to push privately-funded MRIs figures to do far more harm than good both for the public purse and Saskatchewan's health care system.

- Jeffrey Simpson discusses how the U.S. has learned better than to push the Cons' dumb-on-crime agenda.

- Finally, Andrew Mitrovica questions Stephen Harper's reasons for staging an Iraq photo op even aside from his choice to destroy the cover of Canadian troops.

The oppressive market

Shorter Cons:
Talking about not buying goods is officially a punishable offence.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- The Vancouver Sun interviews Andrew MacLeod about his new book on inequality in British Columbia. And Tanara Yelland talks to Guy Standing about the need for governments responsive to the needs of the precariat:
One central demand Standing makes is for the establishment of a universal basic income. Having the Canadian government provide all citizens (or all residents regardless of citizenship status, if you want to get really radical) would allow people to live without fear of things like starvation and homelessness, and would actually, according to research done on the subject, lead to low-income people working more. 

The current employment insurance system in Canada, which pays a portion of a person's last salary but ends payments once they've found work paying 20 percent more than their benefits, disincentivizes people from accepting work that might be temporary or with unstable hours. Getting a meager yet reliable amount from the government makes far more sense than taking a job whose hours you can't depend on—especially when you know that should your job end, it will be a month or more before you see any new benefit money coming in.

"In effect," said Standing, "the system for the precariat has a huge disincentive for people taking low-wage jobs and punishes them for doing so. That is thoroughly unfair."
- Meanwhile, Sarah Kendzior discusses how payday lenders exploit unstable work and unreliable income.

- Ian Welsh offers an important suggestion as to how the left needs to respond to the UK's election of a Conservative majority, while Gerard Di Trolio sees the NDP's emergence in Alberta as a prime example as to how challenges to corporate orthodoxy can be as politically beneficial as they are socially necessary. And Roderick Benns writes that Naheed Nenshi and Don Iveson are among the emerging group of politicians willing to tackle burgeoning poverty and inequality head-on - while noting that other levels of government will need to participate to develop truly effective policies.

- Peter Beinart proposes a name-and-shame approach to the outsized influence of the filthy rich in U.S. politics.

- And finally, Maude Barlow studies the Harper Cons' concerted effort to stifle citizens' voices in Canada.