Saturday, March 25, 2006

On openings

georgia10 at Kos points out that even in the U.S., the anti-war vote may be strong enough to push congressional seats into Democratic hands if it gets organized. While this vote may be based in large part on the obvious mishandling of Iraq which doesn't exist as an issue to the same extent in Canada, I have to wonder whether there's an equal amount of potential for a shift based on Canada's anti-war vote...particularly when a few points squeezed away from the Libs based on their unquestioning support for indefinite military action in Afghanistan could push the NDP ahead as the leading party on the left.

On downloading

It may no longer be Ralph Goodale's problem, but the income-trust issue is far from being dealt with completely, as the federal decision to offer dividend tax credits is now leading to an expectation that provinces will follow suit:
As the various provinces release their budgets, an air of pessimism is gathering around the notion that provinces will trim their tax rates on dividend income, consistent with the proposal laid out last fall by former Federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale...

In November, Mr. Goodale announced he would not change the tax status of income trusts, and instead opted to cut dividend taxes, putting pressure on his provincial counterparts to follow in his footsteps. But in his first budget in the Ontario legislature yesterday, Dwight Duncan chose not to cut dividend taxes.

On Friday, CI Financial Inc. returned to a previous plan to convert into an income trust structure, saying Thursday's Ontario budget failed to level the taxation playing field between income trust and companies by cutting dividend taxes.
It's taken awhile, but the readily foreseeable consequences of Goodale's decision to reward tax evasion are now coming to pass. And the result looks to be reduced revenues for a number of provinces whose dividend tax schemes were linked to that of the federal government.

Of course, that problem would never be seen merely by reading the Globe and Mail's article, which seems to buy heavily into the dogma of corporate tax cuts. And with both the media coverage and the two largest federal political parties seeming to take as a given that the corporate giveaways are beyond question, there doesn't seem to be much prospect for public debate when the legislation supporting Goodale's decision goes through Parliament this year.

Which means that while the income trust issue seems likely to have some role in the Lib leadership race, the stealth corporate tax cuts accompanying Goodale's income trusts decision are expanding in scope. And neither the public which is left with the bill, nor the provinces who have seen Goodale's wrong decision effectively imposed on them, seem to have much choice but to play along.

On predicted effects

The numbers are now in on U.S. bankruptcy filings in 2006. And as expected, Bushco's anti-consumer bill last year caused a massive jump in bankruptcies, to the tune of roughly 30%.

And what's worse, with a few prominent Dems having voted for the bill, it looks far too likely that the jump will be largely ignored come election time rather than being rightly thrown in the face of any GOP attempts to claim that the economy has helped more than just the wealthiest of Americans.

Sadly, the only lesson that seems to have been learned is by 500,000 extra bankruptcy filers...and perhaps by a few more who'll wish they'd filed earlier once they face the more strict law in the next few years.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The high road

As a follow-up to my earlier post on the CAW's shots at the NDP, the party has responded perfectly:
Ontario NDP President Sandra Clifford stated her disappointment at this week's decision of the Canadian Auto Workers executive.

"The Ontario NDP is disappointed by this week's decision by the Canadian Auto Workers executive. In the days, months and years ahead, we will continue our strong tradition of working with labour and all progressive people and organizations, to try to make life better, fairer and more just for working people everywhere," Clifford said...

"The decision to suspend Buzz Hargrove's membership followed from Buzz Hargrove, his actions, and his personal endorsement of a Liberal government in the last election, nothing else," Clifford said.

"The NDP and Canadian Auto Workers have shared common goals for many years and still do," she said.
I don't doubt that the CAW executive will continue to try to feign outrage (at least as long as Buzz is in charge). But Clifford has emphasized that the NDP's quarrel was never with either the CAW generally or with the goals of progressive Canadians.

In contrast, in trying to punish the Dippers, the CAW is only hurting the interests of both...and it shouldn't take long for the union's own members to see that fact.

A parting shot in the foot

The CAW has announced its intention to formally cut ties with the NDP through a resolution of its National Executive Board. Which is fair enough, to the extent that one accepts the contention that Buzz Hargrove is the CAW. But while that portion of the resolution can at least be rationally justified, the recommendations to members can't be considered anything but overkill:
Recommend that the CAW Council encourage CAW local leadership, staff, CAW members, as well as CAW local unions affiliated to the NDP, to withdraw all support and affiliations from the NDP federally and in all provinces and territories.
Now, it should be clear enough from the subsequent text at the CAW's website that the matter is purely a personal one between Hargrove and the NDP, as Hargrove's reinstatement (along with what amounts to a promise that Hargrove and his ilk will not be asked to live up to the terms of NDP membership in the future) is explicitly stated to be the main precondition to any reversal by the CAW.

But there could be substantially more fallout on the CAW than on the NDP as a result of the decision - particularly to the extent that the CAW's choice goes beyond formal affiliations and also extends to trying to control the political activities of its members.

I'll be particularly interested in the response of the CAW's regional incarnations. Will a majority of B.C. members prefer to risk another term of Campbell at the helm in order to help Buzz show his outrage? Will Saskatchewan's unions consider a Sask Party gutting of the Trade Union Act to be a reasonable price for Hargrove's ego trip? For that matter, will the party be satisfied with a weakened federal NDP if the result is precisely the Harper majority that the CAW claims to want to avoid? And if any region or group chooses democratically to reject the executive's message, will the national council support the democratic will of each region which does so?

Ultimately, it is for the CAW to decide which ties it wants to keep - and as has oft been discussed, a less formal relationship between the NDP and unions such as the CAW may well have benefits for both. But instead of presenting a measured response, the CAW has done nothing but live up to the stereotype of a union looking to pick fights which are completely detached from the individual values of its members. And particularly if those individual members continue to act for the party which even the CAW still concedes to be the most progressive in Canada, today's call may be only to the NDP's benefit and the CAW's loss.

On underestimation

The Star reports on two more studies on the melting of polar ice caps...and from the looks of things, even the most dire predictions from the past decade may understate the dangers of global warming:
This new research, based on a comprehensive look at global warming in the distant past, says melting the two icy domains could eventually raise sea level worldwide by as much as five metres, enough to flood low-lying regions like the Netherlands and most Pacific atolls, as well push half a billion people inland...

Marshall and the other researchers acknowledged they were taken by surprise by the breakneck escalation in the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in recent years. Since 1980 the portion of the Greenland ice cap experiencing annual melting has increased by 40 per cent.

"It's not a gradual change. It's like flipping a switch. Areas that haven't experienced melt in centuries suddenly do," said Marshall.
There's still plenty of time to make changes before the worst of the possibilities mentioned in the new study come to pass. But it'll take a lot more will from developed and developing states alike to recognize the dangers associated with a process which is already underway...and there isn't yet much reason to be optimistic that the greater dangers will give rise to greater actions.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

On inertia

Of all the files where the last thing anybody needed was a Con imitation of Liberal dithering, the residential school issue has to rank at the top of the list. And unfortunately, it doesn't look like the Cons plan to move forward with compensation anytime soon:
Payments outlined in a draft agreement by the Liberals last November are not expected until at least early next year, say lawyers tracking the issue.

Hopes had been raised that general compensation for about 80,000 eligible former students would be paid by the fall.
But surely the Cons at least know what's going on with the file, right? The strong answer from the office of the minister responsible:
A request for an interview with Heritage Minister Bev Oda was refused.

"I'll contact you when she has something to say," said spokeswoman Myriam Brochu.
Of course, all that really needs to be said is that there's no excuse for any federal government to continue ignoring the needs of residential school survivors...or for not having paid enough attention to the issue to have any comment worth making. And with the Cons now firmly entrenched in the "part of the problem" category, the only question left seems to be how much worse continued inattention can make matters for a group which has already suffered far too much.

On added unconscionability

Gordon O'Connor has commented on the outrage of Canadian soldiers having to buy their own equipment in order to stay comparatively safe. We'll see how long it takes for O'Connor to match the preferred solution of his counterparts to the south to make sure there are no more similar purchases in the future.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Well put

Mahigan at Pogge has the Libs pegged beautifully:
(T)he Liberals have served notice on the government. They have served notice that, for the next year, the minority Conservative government will be able to do govern however they want with no threat of serious interference from the Liberal Party. To be sure, the Liberals will occasionally launch themselves from the porch with much barking and growling and gum Stephen Harper's ankle a time of two only to return from whence they came smug in the conviction they have done their job...

One might have thought that, under the circumstances - you know minority government and all, the Liberals might at least pretend to be willing to hold the government accountable. Such is clearly not the case. We may have elected a minority government but, with the largest party in the opposition opting to move itself to the practice roster for at least a year, the Conservatives have been given the go ahead to govern as if they have a majority.

On diversification

CanWest reports on a conference looking to promote agroforestry in Saskatchewan:
A goal Calvert had set out in his throne speech on Nov. 7 was to transform 10 per cent of arable land to agroforestry over the next 20 years.

The conference will focus on opportunities and research requirements for developing an agroforestry industry, and is concerned with promoting farm diversification.

"We live in a world where...there are more housing starts in China this year than there are housing units in Canada. The growing market for finished wood product, worldwide, is going to be significant," Calvert said...

Rob Woodward, CEO of the Saskatchewan Forest Center, said the program looks economically feasible. At the moment, 1,500 acres of land are being used for a demonstration network...

Ken Van Rees from the College of Agriculture said (high startup) costs could be worth the effort...

"If you look at crop prices today and you look at it over a 20-year period ... your value or return on (trees) is probably more than having 20 years of an agricultural crop," Van Rees said.
Particularly given the lack of reason to believe that the province's agricultural industry can make money as currently constituted, there's plenty of potential for agroforestry to be a positive addition to the scene...provided that farmers are interested in the message from the conference and from the provincial government. Hopefully they'll be combining their understandable frustration with the federal government with an eye to the future, and can make agroforestry another growth industry in the province.

Mixed blessings

Some qualified good news from David Dodge in his much-discussed press meeting yesterday: the Bank of Canada won't be going out of its way to limit wage increases just yet. That is, as long as the increases are based in large part on money being used to lure workers to Alberta.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pressure points

The McGuinty government seems to have gone out of its way to avoid hearing from a lot of people about the problems with nuclear power. But one anti-nuclear voice evidently has McGuinty's ear, and isn't afraid to speak out:
Renowned environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki, a man Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty described Tuesday as his childhood idol, says he'll be "very disappointed" if the province chooses to expand its nuclear power base.

Suzuki, who was on hand with McGuinty for a green-energy news conference, said he's holding out hope that the premier will reject a recent report urging the province to spend up to $40 billion building or replacing up to 12,400 megawatts of nuclear capacity...

Suzuki offered to act as a pseudo-spokesman in Ontario to encourage consumers to conserve more energy. "As someone with a public persona, I'm willing to go and ask the Ontario public now to meet the challenge."

Energy Minister Donna Cansfield promised plenty more study before any new major power projects get off the ground, even after the government's formal response to the OPA recommendations, expected in mid-April.
There's little reason to be optimistic that the future study will be any less biased than the past evaluation of Ontario's alternatives...but at the very least, McGuinty's idol is making sure that Ontario's rush toward more nuclear power doesn't go unchallenged.

(Edit: typo.)

First steps

Jim Prentice's planned announcement of on-reserve water standards is an excellent start in trying to ensure that Canada's First Nations can be secure in their supply of basic goods. But the scope of Prentice's announcement gives some cause for concern:
The first-ever federal water standards for native reserves are set to be announced today by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice.

Fifteen communities are expected to be identified as most at risk for waterborne health hazards...

In 2001, Indian Affairs found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water for three-quarters of reserve systems.
It's certainly important to identify the worst of the worst situations and take immediate action to resolve them. But it should be clear that the communities to be identified today are only a small proportion of those in need of improved water supplies - and that if there's any lack of follow-up, either in the resources provided for the communities named or in extending the project to additional communities, then even this most pressing of issues facing First Nations won't have been dealt with to an acceptable extent.

Sowing discontent

For those wondering what a new, Western-heavy Con government would do to improve the lot of Canada's agricultural industry based on its better knowledge of the needs of farmers, the answer is...absolutely nothing:
There aren't any current plans to dole out more emergency farm aid to producers for spring seeding, federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl said Monday at the close of his first meeting with his provincial counterparts.
And Strahl also seems to have picked up on the Lib habit of taking credit for anything and everything, even if it came from his political rivals:
Strahl did point to the $755 million payout the Conservatives are fast-tracking to farmers. That aid money, of which Saskatchewan producers should get about $290 million, was announced late last year by the former Liberal government.
While it's fair enough to note as Strahl does that there's a need for longer-term planning to develop a more sustainable base for farmers, the current nine-figure losses in Saskatchewan alone should be the first hint that a solution coming out of a drawn-out process will arrive too late for many. And with the Cons refusing to acknowledge that problem, it shouldn't take long for rural Western Canada to stop putting its trust in the Cons at the polls.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The challenger

John Godfrey's entrance in the Liberal leadership race is an interesting one - though not because he seems to have much chance of beating out the bigger names in the race. Based on my recollections of his book, The Canada We Want – Competing Visions for the New Millennium, Godfrey seems to have exactly the type of government-as-builder message which PMPM sacrificed in favour of devolution run amok. And even if he can't work his way into the leading contenders, any extended stay in the race could force the other candidates to actually discuss the merits of similar policies...which could do wonders to add substance to a race where Bob Rae otherwise seemed to have the centre-left vote sewn up based merely on his having previously been an NDP member.

Of course, the effect would only be strengthened if Godfrey were to win the leadership race with a policy-based campaign. (Mind you, such a result would probably be the worst-case scenario for the future of the federal NDP...so it's tough to root for that outcome.) But even the most orange of Liberals can't really expect Godfrey to be the last Lib standing amidst the glare of media stars like Ignatieff, Brison and Stronach.

Instead, Godfrey will merely offer the Libs a reminder that a country is built on ideas, not on personality cults. And if one of the less substantive right-wingers happens to emerge victorious despite that contrast, then more than a few left-Libs may take greater notice of the party which has been offering equally strong ideas all along.

On creating alternatives

In news that won't get anywhere near enough attention, the National Farmers Union is asking the federal government to take action against terminator seeds:
A coalition of farmers and development groups is urging the federal government to ban “suicide seeds,” which they say will ruin farmers while enriching corporations.

Colleen Ross of the National Farmers Union says Ottawa is not listening to farmers on the issue.

The seeds are genetically modified to produce sterile offspring, meaning farmers have to buy new seed every spring instead of saving some from the previous year's crop...

A United Nations conference in Brazil this week is to decide whether or not to lift a global moratorium on the seeds.
For all the talk about how best to help out Canadian farmers, it seems to me that one of the more obvious solutions (albeit one which would take some time to have its intended effect) would be to ensure that more seed research is done by publicly-funded bodies who have an interest in developing sustainable seeds, rather than by businesses whose profit margin is based on the seeds being useful for only one year's crop.

The NFU's effort is the first step in raising awareness of the issue of terminator seeds. But in the longer term the moratorium can't be sustained if farmers don't have an alternative...and that'll require substantially more decisive government action than merely holding on to the status quo.

On chilling effects

Buried at the bottom of CBC's article on the Emerson ethics decision is this:
In the end, though, Harper did give Shapiro both an interview and a written response, the report said.
Considering the massive public outcry when Harper first communicated his intention to avoid cooperating with Shapiro's investigation, it seems particularly odd that Harper then went out of his way to avoid acknowledging that he'd eventually been willing to cooperate. And in a sense, that silent turnaround looks even more dangerous than genuine principled opposition to Shapiro's involvement. Apparently, Harper sees more value in being seen opposing any effort to question his authority than in being known to have cooperated with the ethics commissioner.

Like all too much with the reign of King Steve, there's a disturbing similarity in that tactic to one that we've seen from Bushco before. Evidently Harper prefers to publicly vilify an independent officer on political grounds rather than to admit that just maybe, Parliament's ethics commissioner should have the ability to examine ethics in Parliament. And in light of Harper's campaign declaration that the courts and the civil service are stacked against him, it's hard to be confident that Shapiro will be the only official to be publicly slammed for doing his job counterbalancing the Cons' power.

In fairness, Harper was at least willing to cooperate with Shapiro behind the scenes and without any attention - suggesting at least some recognition that he isn't entirely above any review. But Harper's clash with Shapiro seems all too likely to be calculated to send a signal to anybody else thinking of trying to keep the Cons honest - and that can't bode well for the actual honesty behind his intentions.

Another scary parallel

For a couple of weeks after the Cons took power, it looked like the Libs would join the other two opposition parties in recognizing the need for scrutiny of government action. But now Bill Graham and Stephane Dion have come down with a serious case of Joe Lieberman Syndrome, arguing that the responsibility of Parliament is somehow to avoid questioning the actions of the executive branch:
The Liberals appear to be lining up solidly behind the Conservative government over the mission in Afghanistan, rejecting NDP calls for a parliamentary vote on the matter.

"We are against a vote because it's a responsibility of the executive and because we should not second-guess when we have an important mission to succeed," Liberal foreign affairs critic St├ęphane Dion said yesterday on CTV's Question Period...

Yesterday, both Mr. Dion and Opposition Leader Bill Graham placed themselves foursquare behind the government, with no ambiguity.

"We are in Afghanistan because the Afghans want us in Afghanistan," Mr. Graham said on Question Period. "This is not an invasion or an occupation. This is going to help people."...

(T)he only dissent yesterday came from New Democrat foreign affairs critic Alexa McDonough. "It's not only our troops that are at great risk," she said. "There are increasing numbers of Afghans who are being killed, and I think we need to have a full debate and a vote on how we can best ensure that our troops have an achievable mission and that the people of Afghanistan are best served by the contribution we make."
Coincidentally, word of the Libs' decision to turn against accountability and forward-looking debate comes on the same day that Anthony Westell picks up on the parallels between Canada's presence in Afghanistan and the U.S. occupation of Iraq:
Up here in Canada, we could always see Mr. Bush's mistakes. He plunged into the war without an exit plan. He didn't send enough troops to do the job. The goal of transforming Iraq into a democracy that would be a model for others, and thereby stabilize the Middle East, was naive.

Yet, here we go repeating his history. We have no exit plan for "our boys" in Afghanistan because we have no clear idea of what will constitute victory in this misnamed "war on terrorism." But if victory in Afghanistan means waiting until there is in place a democratic government capable of defeating any insurgency - which is Mr. Bush's goal in Iraq - we shall be there for many years to come...

Canada should contribute to the NATO force charged with defeating, or at least containing the Taliban, but for a fixed term and with a clearly defined mission. Learn from Mr. Bush's mistakes and leave nation-building to the nation.
Westell's message is one that most certainly needs to be heard, as even with Parliament apparently out of the picture the Canadian public will still need to be aware of the options available to Canada in its mission. Unfortunately, the Libs' sudden change of position has given the Cons a great deal of political cover to act without any justification...leaving only one national party demanding openness and accountability in Canada's foreign policy.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The price of power...

...has been set at $3.45 million (including the entry fee).

I'm not sure what's more worrisome from the standpoint of trying to encourage broad participation: the still-high levels of spending permitted for the Lib leadership race, or the fact that the level does reflect some progress compared to the amount allowed last time out. But both factors go to show just how far the Libs' political lifestyle is detached from the means available to the vast majority of Canadians.

On essential services

Jennifer Wells discusses the reluctance of banks to offer full-service branches in the neighbourhoods that most need them...and a simple solution which apparently hasn't been put to use in Canada:
The big picture for the Regent Park project extends to drawing in commercial activity and creating incubation spaces for small business, both of which will beg the facilities of the bank-that-isn't-there. It's as if Regent Park has been, as they say in the U.S., red-lined — deliberately denied banking services.

"In Canada we don't even talk about red-line communities," says Ballantyne. Shouldn't we be? "Sure ... We always think that we have more socially progressive legislation in Canada and in many ways are more caring about communities, but there are gaps in that thinking in Canada, and banking and financial institutions has been one of those areas."...

(The solution in New York) isn't rocket science. "Comptrollers' offices have a lot of money on hand," (New York's superintendent of banking) says. "They collect taxes and the money goes into various accounts and it sits there until it's actually used ... They have to put it somewhere, so they might as well put it somewhere where the banks are doing something good."

More specifically, the state of New York will place as much as $10 million of this quiet money at below-market rates with the fledgling branch. The City of New York may match that, giving the branch a core deposit base of $20 million. In normal circumstances, it can take years to make a bank branch viable. The purpose of the BDD is to kick-start its operations to success...

Deposit-taking is one measure of success; loan extension is another. "It's just as important as a source of loans into the community for business development, for mortgages," says Taylor. "Banks are a much better place to go than your local loan shark."
As the article notes, the presence of a bank in a neighbourhood isn't itself a cure-all. But some readily-available source of financing is an essential element for small business growth on a scale large enough to help boost a community's general economic standing...and it's hard to see how that fact has been ignored so far in Canada.

At the same time, though, Canada likewise has something to offer to banks in return for any willingness to move into underserviced communities. In addition to the potential to use "quiet money" to provide seed funding for the new banks, there's also that small matter of bank mergers...where a condition requiring some movement into underserviced areas would fit nicely with the NDP's willingness to support mergers on the condition that the result not be a loss of services.

The solution would require a fair bit of coordination between different levels of government, but that can always be resolved once all levels recognize the importance of a problem. The biggest obstacle for the moment is the lack of any recognition that a lack of banking services is both a problem that needs to be dealt with, and one that can be readily solved.