Saturday, September 19, 2015

On contrasting activities

Thomas Walkom rightly notes that this fall's election has seen somewhat more discussion of government acting in the public interest than we've seen in some time. But it's worth drawing a distinction between the varieties of intervention on offer from the NDP and the Libs respectively.

As much as the latter have tried to suggest that running immediate deficits is the sole measure of progressivism, the real difference between the two lies in their longer-term plans.

For the NDP, the goal of an active government is to build up a stronger social safety net over time. Immediate funding for child care, pharmacare and other programs is intended to set the stage for the development of stable and sustainable structures which can withstand even the most harmful of governments - just as the health care system set up decades ago is still broadly in place despite the cuts and neglect inflicted by the Libs and Cons since the 1990s. (Of course, we should also see the value in putting our existing programs on a stronger footing.)

It's true that this focus on the longer term means that not everybody in need of child care immediately will get it: the goal isn't to shovel money out the door, but to develop a program that works. But in a context where no party is offering immediate implementation of universal child care, it raises the possibility - ruled out by the Libs - that a fully-implemented program will eliminate the same dilemma for all Canadian parents for decades to come.

In contrast, the Libs' pitch is for a government which leaps into action immediately, then flees from the picture equally quickly a few years down the road. (And I'll leave aside for now the issues with trying to turn short-term infrastructure into long-term P3 contracts.)

In effect, the NDP is proposing an improved nutritional regimen for the public sector to bolster its long-term health, while the Libs' plan is limited to a temporary shot of adrenaline. And while we may be at point where it's best to pursue both to reverse the damage the Cons have done, the former is surely the path most worth pursuing if we want to see benefits that last past a single election cycle.

On full responses

I'll weigh in quickly on the controversy surrounding Jean-Francois Delisle - and start by noting that his comments yesterday reflected a desire to alter law to discriminate against a particular group that we shouldn't accept from any political candidate or party.

That said, today's follow-up statement also signals that responsibility will fall where it should for a comment which has nothing to do with party policy. Delisle will answer personally for the content of his opinion, with voters in Megantic-L'Erable getting to judge his comments in the context of their other choices on the ballot.

Meanwhile, voters elsewhere can rest assured that Delisle's personal views are completely apart from the position of the NDP as a party. And it will be particularly interesting to watch whether the NDP's opponents who claim to value candidate and MP independence (and concurrent responsibility) over command-and-control politics will recognize that's exactly the principle being applied here - or whether they'll try to push the NDP into the same type of top-down termination we've seen so frequently from other parties.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Michal Rozworski highlights the deeper economic issues which are receiving minimal attention compared to deficits and minor amounts of infrastructure spending in Canada's federal election:
In the long term, two decades of Liberal and Conservative austerity have left Canada with a revenue problem, rather than a spending problem.

As the Broadbent Institute points out, if the federal government took in as much revenue relative to the economy as it did a decade ago (when taxes were already low), it would have an additional $41 billion to spend per year. This is what it means to have a revenue problem.
There is a big gap between the government's falling revenues and the increasing needs generated by stagnating wages, persistent poverty and rising inequality.

Spending cuts and freezes are one way to fill such a gap, and they have been the preferred method so far. Raising taxes and running deficits, of course, are two other candidates.
The potential for positive change is great: there are no-brainers like massive green investment in transit or a fully public childcare system, which would also provide good jobs.

However, changing the balance in favour of people and the environment rather than big money will require taking on elites and their vested interests. It makes a difference whether we produce more oil and cars, or more trams and more wind turbines, but above all the immediate question is about how we can produce goods and services that not only meet the needs of society, but empower working people.
- Rachel Gray discusses the less-than-surprising connection between poverty and food insecurity. And Roderick Benns finds yet more support for a basic income at the municipal level, this time from NotreDame-de-l’ÎlePerrot mayor Danie Deschenes.

- Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses how an uber-competitive work environment designed to extract as much as possible from workers does nothing but harm even to the people who supposedly win in the short term. And Sara Mojtehedzadeh reports on a temp agency lobby group's sad attempt to justify locking workers into indefinite precarious employment.

- Robyn Benson points out that there couldn't be a bigger difference between doing the right thing about a refugee crisis and what the Cons have done instead, while Lana Payne is embarrassed by Canada's response. Tabatha Southey duly slams the Cons for continuing to try to impose niqab bans on would-be citizens. And Peter Edwards reports on the fallout from Stephen Harper's distinction between old-stock Canadians and the rest of the country, while Tu Thanh Ha writes that the reference sends an inescapable message of exclusion to Harper's "others".

- Finally, Anna Kingston is the latest to highlight the Cons' war on the data needed to even understand Canada in full, let alone improve it based on our shared social values.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Musical interlude

Sam Roberts Band - We're All In This Together

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- PressProgress highlights just a few of the Cons' obviously-flawed claims about corporate tax rates. And Ethan Cox discusses why we should be talking about the CETA and TPP during the campaign both due to their own importance, and the potential to tap into public concerns. 

- Martin Lukacs writes about the importance of the Leap Manifesto as a challenge to a deeply-entrenched and destructive status quo. And Thomas Mulcair's response to an attempt to use it as a political gotcha is well worth a look:

- Susan Delacourt calls out the Cons' dog-whistle appeal to anti-Muslim bigotry. Noah Arney and Joey deVilla provide some context to Stephen Harper's "old stock" classification of Canadians. Murray Dobbin traces back the Cons' history of hostility to refugees in particular and immigration in general. And CBC reports on the Cons' refusal to allow theatre performers from Iraq into the country as part of their general suspicion of anybody from the region. 

- Finally, Michael Harris asks whether even core Conservatives are washing their hands of the Harper regime.

On changing standards

Paul MacLeod reports on the latest candidate to be summarily axed due to an even mildly controversial social media history uncovered by Robert Jago, while Robyn Urback suggests either a truce or a wholesale destruction of past posts.

But it's worth asking what comes next for Canada's political parties - and particularly whether they'll have to change their standards in a hurry.

Between now and September 28, it's possible for a party to nominate a replacement for a candidate. And I'd fully expect new names to be substituted on the ballot for all of the candidates nixed so far - which might explain how eagerly they've disposed of anybody who's attracted even a whiff of attention.

After that date, though, a party won't be able to replace a dropped candidate - meaning that the price of disavowing a candidate is to concede the riding altogether.

It seems almost certain that plenty of office-seekers have worse comments on record than the ones which have led to candidates being removed so far. But does that mean parties will feel the need to keep pulling candidates based on the same standard even if it makes a significant difference in their hope of winning seats? Or will they instead choose to spend the latter part of the campaign explaining a sudden change in what they're prepared to tolerate from a candidate carrying their banner?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

On wasted opportunities

Before the first federal leaders' debate, I wrote about the factors worth watching for which we might not otherwise get to evaluate during the course of a campaign. But unfortunately, we didn't get much chance at all meaningfully test the party leaders' judgment due to some poor choices in the presentation of the Globe and Mail's debate tonight.

Again, I'd expect a debate to push candidates beyond their talking points, with both the moderator and the competing candidates contributing to that effort. But that only happens if the debate includes a few key elements: questions which ask for more than repetition of a party's platform, and a moderator who both effectively manages the debate between candidates, and pushes back against talking points offered in lieu of a direct answer.

Unfortunately, those elements were sorely lacking tonight. David Walmsley's questions were either painfully open-ended such as to allow the leaders to recite their stump speeches, or aimed at trying to force leaders to reveal their platforms rather than actually serving the purpose of encouraging substantive debate. And Walmsley's direct follow-ups and interventions in the free discussion periods did little to move any conversation forward - meaning there was even less content beyond canned lines and leaders talking over each other than we'd usually see. 

The end result figures to be little impact on the campaign, since each of the leaders was mostly able to stick with his preferred style and message track and land some scripted lines with little interference. But it also means a missed opportunity for voters who should reasonably have expected more - and hopefully we'll see more effort to better manage the debates to come.

On unclear pictures

David Akin may have been right to point out that Justin Trudeau's response to the federal government's latest fiscal update was based on an avoidable lack of knowledge. But it's worth noting why it's so difficult for anybody to have an accurate picture of what's actually happened within the federal government - as Akin himself observes in a follow-up post:
In any given year, we won’t know what the final numbers are, including lapses, for the government as a whole and for individual departments until a document called the Public Accounts of Canada is tabled in Parliament. All during the budget year, several types of documents are tabled which update Parliamentarians and the public on the government’s spending plans. The Budget Plan is the best known and most widely covered but other less well-known documents with weird titles like Supplementary Estimates ‘C’ or Reports on Plans and Priorities are also important information-rich budget documents.  [A handy primer here if you want to dig deep on the federal government budget cycle] But it is the annual Public Accounts of Canada which provide the final definitive numbers for the federal government’s fiscal year and which closes the books on that fiscal year. Until the Public Accounts are published for fiscal year x, pretty much everything about fiscal year x is an educated guess by the Finance Department, the Parliamentary Budget Office or Treasury Board.  [Go deep on more info for The Public Acccounts at the Library of Parliament Web site]

We do have the Public Accounts of Canada for the 2013-2014 (FY14) fiscal year. But the Public Accounts of Canada for FY15 will not and cannot be published until after this federal election when the next Parliament convenes.

And here we have our conundrum so far as our debate about the surprise surplus in FY15. We have the Consolidated Financial Statements of the Government of Canada for the FY15. This is the document [pdf] that came out this week that told us about the surprise surplus for FY15. These statements are verified by the Auditor General. But this financial statement has only some general things to say about lapses and is not very much help in providing us detailed information about which departments or agencies left money on the table.
What Akin doesn't note is the difficulty in comparing one set of documents to another - which makes it (seemingly unnecessarily) difficult to actually see what money has been spent compared to what's been approved on a historical basis.

If one wants to compare the money actually spent in 2014-2015 compared to the previous year alone for a relatively short list of departments as well as a government-wide comparison of amounts spent to amounts budgeted, that information is indeed found in the consolidated financial statements which the Cons went out of their way to release in advance of today's economic debate.

But if you want to compare the funding approved for 2014-2015 to the amounts actually spent by department? Good luck with that, since the consolidated financial statements don't go to that level of detail, and the estimates (PDF) reviewed by Parliament (and supplemented as noted by Akin) are based on different accounting methodologies and classifications.

To take Veterans' Affairs funding as an example, the estimates indicate that funding for the year should be approximately $3.6 billion, while the consolidated financial statements indicate actual funding of just over $1 billion. 

To be clear, that doesn't mean that much veterans' affairs funding lapsed, as additional money was likely spent under other categories (largely transfer payments). But it does mean we have no way of directly comparing what the government actually approved for 2014-2015 with what was spent. And it's hard to see how anybody besides the Cons could be considered responsible for the selective release of information.

Nor do the consolidated financial statements offer any historical perspective on the comparison between approved and actual funding. It's possible for a department's spending to be up from one year to the next even as both numbers fall far short of what was debated and approved by Parliament. But you won't find that information without sifting through past documents - which themselves typically reflect at best a year's worth of historical data.

It's theoretically possible to make year-by-year comparisons between estimates and amounts spent by digging through a combination of financial statements, estimates and departmental plans and trying to trace the connections between various dollar figures. (Or alternatively, an MP can request that the information be prepared by a department.) But particularly in the context of an election campaign, we surely have to ask why the flow of information is set up to make it so difficult for anybody to put the government's self-serving headline numbers in context.

In sum, it's fair to ask opposition leaders to be responsible in commenting on the state of the public purse. But we shouldn't give the benefit of any doubt to a government going out of its way to blur the picture.

New column day

Here, summarizing these posts as to how the opposition parties can set the stage for a minority Parliament by telling us what they'll do on the first set of confidence votes - and how we can make better voting choices if they fail to do so.

For further reading...
- Having mentioned the expected outcome of a Parliament in which two of the NDP, Libs and Cons are needed to support a government, I'll point out the seat projectors which have reached that conclusion - including Too Close To Call, Three Hundred Eight, the Globe and Mail's Election Forecast and David Akin's Predictionator.
- John Courtney rightly notes that political positioning can't trump convention. But when there's room for doubt as to how a convention should be applied (as in the Governor General's discretion as to which party should be called upon to form government), I'd think it's entirely appropriate to follow the expressed agreement of the affected parties. 
- Finally, Paul Wells makes the case that the main contest from here on in will be between Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau as the leading voice for change. Which isn't to say that Stephen Harper will escape serious questions, only that the appetite for new government is strong enough that the opposition parties won't have to do much work explaining why we need something different while pointing out what the Cons have done.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Paul Weinberg discusses the need to focus on inequality in Canada's federal election, while Scott Deveau and Jeremy Van Loon take note of the fact that increased tax revenue is on the table. The Star's editorial board weighs in on the NDP's sound and progressive fiscal plan. And Matthew Yglesias includes the rise of the NDP as part of the growth of a new, international progressive movement.

- Rank and File interviews Michael Butler about the privatization of health care in Saskatchewan, as well as the role of the federal government in ensuring a viable public system. Thomas Walkom comments on Thomas Mulcair's health care promises - and the stark contrast between the NDP's efforts to build our health care system and the deafening silence from the Cons and the Libs. And the Wellesley Institute finds a similar lack of anything useful from the NDP's major-party opponent in analyzing prescription drug policies.

- Bruce Campbell compares the respective benefits Canada and Norway have managed to achieve from oil exploitation - with the result looking downright ugly due to what we've given away.

- Jorge Barrera reports on the latest revelations about the Harper Cons coming out of Bruce Carson's influence-peddling trial.

- Laura Payton reports on a deal the Cons struck with a gun lobby group - then reneged on - in order to silence opposition to Bill C-51. But Haydn Watters points out that the Cons are at least being quite helpful in branding themselves as the party of 24-hour surveillance. 

- Finally, Keith Boag writes that while we should demand more from our leaders, we won't get it unless people are also more engaged in how we're governed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Exchange highlights the World Economic Forum's observation that countries can do far more to combat inequality. And Angus Reid finds that Canadian voters are far more receptive to Tom Mulcair's progressive economic plan than to more of the same from either of the major competing leaders.

- Meanwhile, the Leap Manifesto offers an important target as to the more fair and sustainable society we should be aiming for in the long run. And Bruce Campbell, Seth Klein and Marc Lee discuss how it's well within our means.

- Aaron Wherry takes a look at the latest attempts at large-scale strategic voting for this year's election (which have at least progressed to actually trying to persuade voters) while rightly recognizing the utter failure of similar schemes in the past. But Antonia Maioni reminds us why our votes should be based on what we want out of our government, not merely based on defeating a single opponent.

- Bill Tieleman offers just a brief survey of the reasons to doubt whether the Libs' already-tepid campaign promises will lead to anything. And L. Ian MacDonald argues that it's long past time for the Libs to stop lecturing us on sovereignty.

- Finally, Michael Harris examines the Cons' willingness to look the other way on rime when it comes from within Stephen Harper's inner circle.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Elevated cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- David Climenhaga sees Jeremy Corbyn's resounding victory in the Labour leadership race as compelling evidence that progressive hope can win over centre-right fearmongering, while Michael Laxer takes some lessons away for Canadian politics. And Paul Krugman notes that there's a reason why voting members didn't take the Blairites seriously when it came to the economy in particular.

- Meanwhile, PressProgress points out that the Cons have been reduced to trying to create panic about their own economic failures in the hope that it'll somehow keep voters wanting to continue with what's failing miserably.

- Tim Harper points out that the Cons are still struggling to try to push refugees out of the political spotlight, while Andrew Mitrovica documents some of the more appalling lies they've told in the process. And Martin Regg Cohn highlights what needs to come next for us to make meaningful progress in helping refugees - both in Syria, and in a growing set of climate and political crises.

- Dan Leger raises the most important question of the election campaign at the moment - being that of where the Cons can possibly pick up support within an electorate set on change. And Mark Burgess and Abbas Rana report on some of the discord we'd expect within a party which doesn't seem to have a plausible path to hold power.

- Finally, Sean Holman takes a look at what our political parties are offering when it comes to access to information and government accountability - and points out that while it hasn't yet been included in the election platform, the NDP's plans in the last Parliament have gone far beyond anything proposed by the Libs. And the CP reports on just the latest example of the Cons' appalling secrecy, as the Information Commissioner is taking the government to court to try to bring records to light.

Monday, September 14, 2015

In need of explanation

Lee Berthiaume reports on the $8.7 billion budgeted but unspent by the federal government over the past year. And if the Cons want to try to claim credit for the government's fiscal position, then surely they have to answer a couple of key questions for the money that went unspent:

What caused them to decide between 2014 and 2015 that the funding they themselves included in the budget shouldn't be used? And if they're on such an unsound fiscal footing that they feel the need to slash this much within a year of passing their preferred funding amounts in a majority Parliament, why would anybody take their platform numbers and promises seriously?

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Ira Basen discusses the Canadian federal election campaign's focus on the middle class - as well as the reality that the economic security which looms as the most important priority within that group will require more government action than the limited policies currently on offer. And Tavia Grant comments on how precarious work is being addressed by Canada's federal parties.

- Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson discusses a new Centre for Spatial Economics study showing the positive economic effects of a long-term infrastructure plan.

- Dave Seglins, Harvey Cashore and Frederic Zalac report on how an offshore tax avoidance scheme involve "gifts" of income from tax havens has come under the CRA's scrutiny, and follow up on the significant delays in prosecuting the offenders.

- Ian MacLeod reports on Craig Forcese and Kent Roach's forthcoming book on the problems with Canada's security apparatus in general and Bill C-51 in particular.

- Michael Laxer writes about Stephen Harper's terrible week of campaigning. And Neil Macdonald argues that the Cons' repeated embarrassments are the natural consequences of an extended attempt to silence an entire political party. Which isn't to say the Cons are done on that front, as Elizabeth Thompson reports on the Cons' attempt to stifle any comment from even unsuccessful nomination candidates by withholding a deposit if they dare to speak a word outside the party's message track.

- Finally, the Canadian Medical Association Journal surveys the health issues under discussion so far in the federal election campaign. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

On caretakers

Since there's been plenty of talk lately about caretaker governments and their duty to exercise restraint, I'll raise one question as to the appointments made the last time a new federal government took office.

The day he and his Cabinet were sworn in, and two months before Parliament convened following the 2006 federal election, Stephen Harper announced the Senate appointment of Michael Fortier. And while there was plenty of outrage over Harper's first (if far from his last) breach of a promise not to appoint unelected Senators, I don't recall there being any serious question raised as to whether the appointment also went beyond what a new government leader could do before confirming his support in the House of Commons.

That said, it's worth asking the question now: should any major appointments by a new minority government be deferred until after it's established that it can win a vote of confidence in Parliament?

On simplified procedures

Following up on this post, let's also note how the right answer from Canada's opposition parties could combine with the seeming agreement between the major party leaders as to the "most seats first" principle to take nearly all of the guesswork out of a post-election minority Parliament.

Again, the range of possible outcomes absent some consensus between the parties as to what should happen next would be virtually infinite. The Cons would be entitled to hang onto power without meeting Parliament for an extended period of time, and could play all kinds of games in seeking to avoid votes even after reconvening it. And even if Stephen Harper stepped down willingly, there would be potential for mischief and confusion among the other parties: would anybody want to see the result if, say, Justin Trudeau followed a distant third-place finish by declaring that he wouldn't support anybody else, but would be willing to govern if somebody else propped the Libs up?

But "yes" answers from the NDP and Libs to the two questions would resolve effectively all of those issues, particularly if it was taken as agreed that the first (and follow-up) chance to govern would go to the party with the most seats.

If a majority of MPs in the House had resolved to vote down the Harper Cons at the first opportunity, there would be no purpose to any attempt to drag out the process. And if the opposition parties had agreed that the leader of the party with more seats would receive at least the initial opportunity to become PM with the other's support, then there would be no fear of post-election games in determining who (if anybody) could win the confidence of the House - leaving any post-election negotiations to the question of what policies to pursue after a throne speech had passed and a new government was in place.

Unfortunately, we can't take for granted what the answers would actually be. But it's well worth seeing if we can get the parties promising change to at least agree on a clean process to achieve it.

On basic questions

The National Post's editorial board offers the latest reminder as to how confidence is won and lost in Canada's Parliament. And it only highlights the need for our candidates - particularly those promising change - to offer a clear indication as to their post-election plans.

But while it's worth discussing what types of agreement might be possible between various combinations of opposition parties, there's one set of questions which doesn't require any agreement at all. So let's see what our opposition leaders and candidates have to say about these:

A. Will you commit to voting non-confidence in Stephen Harper at the earliest opportunity?
B. Will you commit to voting confidence in a government led by the leader of a current opposition party at the earliest opportunity?

Obviously, the answer to A should be abundantly clear for anybody offering change from the Cons. And since the answer to B may well determine whether the Governor-General can expect to find a replacement after a vote against the Cons, we'll have reason to be wary about anybody who's more interested in scoring points against another opposition party than making a clear statement on it.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Following his resounding win to become Labour's leader, Jeremy Corbyn describes the proper role of government as a vehicle for shared benefits:
We understand aspiration and we understand that it is only collectively that our aspirations can be realised.

Everybody aspires to an affordable home, a secure job, better living standards, reliable healthcare and a decent pension. My generation took those things for granted and so should future generations.

For the Conservatives, the deficit is just an excuse to railroad through the same old Tory agenda: driving down wages, cutting taxes for the wealthiest, allowing house prices to spiral out of reach, selling off our national assets and attacking trade unions. You can’t cut your way to prosperity, you have to build it: investing in modern infrastructure, investing in people and their skills, harnessing innovative ideas and new ways of working to tackle climate change to protect our environment and our future.

Our job is to show that the economy and our society can be made to work for everyone. That means ensuring we stand up against injustice wherever we find it and we fight for a fairer and more democratic future that meets the needs of all.
- Meanwhile, David Olive writes that the Cons' longstanding economic promises and boasts have proven to be completely illusory. Josh Bivens points out how hundreds of billions of dollars have been funnelled into U.S. corporate coffers based solely on the declining share of income going to workers. And Greg Grandin notes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other new trade agreements are designed to further push wealth to the few who already have the most at the expense of the vast majority of citizens.

- Scott Santens comments on the inescapable reality of technological unemployment. Sarah Jaffe questions the theory that workers are better off operating under the expectation that their employment will reflect the principle of "do what you love". And Deirdre Fulton examines yet more evidence as to how workers in general are far better off where unions are strong.

- Alex Boutilier discusses the need to bring Canada's access-to-information system into the 21st century. And Donovan Vincent reports on a renewed push for a restored long-form census which better allows Canadian governments and other organizations to have accurate information about the people they're supposed to be serving.

- Finally, Patti Tamara Lenard exposes the Cons' dismal record in dealing with refugees. And Dennis Gruending argues that the Cons will pay the price for their callous attempt to scapegoat the world's most vulnerable people.