Saturday, July 15, 2006

Just curious

Around Canada Day, a number of Con bloggers were up in arms over the change in the holiday's name from Dominion Day 24 years ago. Will a single one of those people who were so concerned about the "tradition" and "heritage" implicit in the name of the July 1 holiday bother lifting a finger to comment on today's word that Canada's museum system is in dire need of funding in order to preserve the tangible objects most closely linked to Canada's history?

Theory and reality

Due credit to Belinda Stronach for her suggestions on how to reform the Liberal party's internal structure. But is there any real chance that Stronach's ideas will win out when the leadership race which Stronach chose to sit out is so solidly based on Lib politics as usual?


Stephen Harper's comment when Russia limits gas supplies to the Ukraine for political reasons:
We believe in the free exchange of energy products based on competitive market principles, not self-serving monopolistic political strategies.
Stephen Harper's comment when the U.S. holds up Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization for political reasons (in this case an expectation that Congress won't settle for anything less than increased guaranteed access for U.S. agricultural products):
*sound of crickets chirping*
(Edit: cleaned up wording.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

The return of non-responsiveness

Through most of their time in office, the Cons have at least paid lip service to the environment while working to ensure that no programs which actually accomplish anything are left standing. But now the Cons are apparently back to old tricks from the campaign, deciding that when it comes to the environment, it's not worth their time to show up:
The federal government is turning a blind eye to a major oilsands development project near Fort McMurray by ducking out of assessment hearings being conducted by Alberta, a coalition of provincial environmental groups said on Thursday.

The expansion plan by Suncor Energy Inc. could see its greenhouse gas emissions rise by about nine megatonnes over the coming years an increase equivalent to adding nearly two million cars to the road over a year.

Despite the magnitude of the project, federal officials have decided not to question the project developers about their plans at the hearings.

"Just when Canada and the Canadian public are starting to really realize the consequences of developing the oilsands, it seems like a really strange time for the federal government to take a pass at one of these hearings," said Chris Severson-Baker, director of the energy watch program at the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based not-for-profit environmental policy research and education organization.

Severson-Baker said federal experts from various departments have traditionally played a crucial role in hearings through cross-examination of project developers.
Of course, it shouldn't be any surprise to see the Cons valuing oil-sands profits far more than any possible environmental effects. But one would think the federal government would at least make a cursory effort to ensure that the benefits of the Suncor project outweigh the costs.

Conservative philosophy summed up

Duncan Cameron's latest column doesn't add tons that we don't already know about the Harper government. But one quote from a Con party official perfectly encapsulates the Cons' view of government in general...and it isn't one that Canadians likely want to see in power:
(T)he Conservatives are out recruiting members in Quebec. The party already has doubled its membership, from about 10, 000 to over 20,000. The goal is to add 500 members to each riding association. A party official explained that it was difficult to sell a commercial product without advertising, and a Conservative government was the advertising needed to build the party in Quebec.
While there are plenty of areas of disagreement between the NDP, the Libs and the other national parties fighting for seats, there can't be too much doubt that all of them operate to at least some extent from a view that government is capable of being a force for good within society generally, not just a means to achieve greater glory and power for a given political party. (And much of the current dissatifaction with the Libs can be seen to arise out of precisely their drift from that core assumption.)

But for the Cons, the party official's quote says it all. Government ultimately means nothing more than access to a PR machine, to be used to market the Conservative Party above all else regardless of what's best for Canadians generally.

Of course, it's not hard to extrapolate from the Cons' impression of a minority government to see how a future majority would be wielded to benefit the party at the expense of all else. The task now for the opposition parties is to ensure that Canadians recognize that such a product isn't one they want to be buying when the next election rolls around.


CBC reports on Democracy Watch's call for an investigation into the large charter flight expenses being racked up by Con MP Greg Thompson. But if you're looking for Thompson's party affiliation in the article, you're looking in the wrong place: the article lists him as "a New Brunswick MP" and "Veteran Affairs Minister", but even in acknowledging that he's in Cabinet it fails to even mention the Conservative Party.

Now where have we heard this before?

Thursday, July 13, 2006


There's been lots of talk, and for good reason, about Paul Wells' column catching Stephen Harper playing bait and switch with his five priorities. But I'm not sure that I share my fellow bloggers' view that this is anything approaching either a mistake, or an attempt to make the change without anybody noticing.

I'll start from the premise that however insulated Harper's bubble is, it's not quite so detached from reality that he'd believe that nobody would notice the sudden disappearance of one of the main talking points spouted steadily by him, his cabinet, and the bulk of his party since the start of the 2005 campaign. (I know, I shouldn't give him that much credit. But bear with me.) With that as a starting point, why would Harper make a move to change his priorities when the change would almost certainly be caught?

I can see two possible angles on it. One is that Harper genuinely wants to see the wait times issue dealt with, and recognizes that so far the initiative has been met with rightful disdain from provinces who aren't about to tie themselves down to a guarantee for nothing in return. By selectively omitting the issue from his own priorities, Harper is getting more people to talk about it than have over the past few months...with the prospect that he'll then be able to turn that attention into an argument in favour of action later on.

In other words, the current shift could be a misdirection ploy. Rather than going out and trying to sell the issue knowing that he's bound to meet opposition in doing so, he could be counting on people opposing his choice to drop the issue, and thereby seeking a mandate to push it later on.

The other possible angle would involve Harper's wanting to buy ever so slightly into the "natural governing party" role. No, he wouldn't want to open himself up to the accusations of utter aimlessness that dogged XPMPM, but maybe Harper could see potential to seem somewhat more flexible and centrist by being willing to abandon one priority which has received little public support and lots of provincial outcry. At the same time, he'd still be carrying out the quintessential governmental role of claiming to have accomplished everything he wanted to in the process, and avoiding the show of weakness that comes from outright admitting defeat.

Sure, it doesn't fit with the "honest" image that the Cons tried to pitch last time out. But maybe Harper recognizes that such a label is going to be awfully tough to maintain anyway now that he's in power, and is instead planning to try to claim to be the pragmatic choice.

As an added bonus alongside either of the above strategies, the story should help to focus attention back on the other four past priorities long after they'd have otherwise been forgotten by everyone but the Cons' PR team. And if that means less attention for the softwood debacle which the Cons now can't avoid as an ongoing issue, then all the better for Harper's reputation as a manager.

Granted, I wouldn't see any of the above angles as the best possible political maneuver for Harper. But they all make far more sense to me than an assumption that he's clueless enough to think he could change his signature priorities without anybody noticing.

Update: If Harper's goal is indeed to win undue praise for backing off his party's original bad idea, he's picked some up already.

On positive movement

The Standing Committee on International Trade is off to a good start on the softwood lumber deal, passing two key motions including one which could well resolve the dispute faster than the negotiation process if the Cons were willing to follow it:
At today's emergency meeting of the Standing Committee on International trade, NDP Trade Critic Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster) secured majority support for a plan to review the flawed US-Canada softwood agreement.

“The Harper government would drive our softwood industry over the cliff, but resistance is coalescing," said Julian. "By passing key motions today, a majority of committee members decided to work in the best interest of Canadian producers and communities.”...

Julian's first motion calls on the committee to conduct full-day hearings on July 31 and August 21 to scrutinize the softwood document that Trade Minister David Emerson initialled on July 1 without Parliament’s approval.

His second motion calls on the government to act in Canada’s interests by unsuspending the legal process under NAFTA, which would swiftly eliminate the $40-million in illegal tariffs that the US continues to collect each month.

Julian’s motions were passed with full support from the committee's Liberal and Bloc Québécois members.
At this point, it wouldn't be surprising if a restarted legal process would resolve the issue faster than Harper's plan to shove a deal down the throats of Canadian producers. (And of course it goes without saying that in addition to potentially being faster, that result would be a far more positive outcome for Canada.)

Of course, it seems highly likely that the Cons will ignore the committee's motion...which may only serve to necessitate a full Parliamentary debate on the deal as soon as possible. But at the very least, there's no doubt that opposition to the deal will be in the public eye for quite some time to come, meaning that the Cons' chances of quietly pushing the deal on the industry behind the scenes are slim to none.


King Steve is venturing forth to see the world. But will be bother listening to it?

Same old story, Chapter 37

For all the indications that the Cons have repeatedly ignored important advice since they took office, CanWest reminds us that the Lib government may not have been any better when it came to ignoring and suppressing information:
Canada should launch a constellation of low-cost miniature satellites to conduct surveillance on the Arctic and other parts of the country, a group of Defence Department advisers has concluded.

The micro satellites, which cost about $10 million each compared to hundreds of millions of dollars for a full-size satellite, could be key in helping support Canada's claim of ownership over its northern territories, according to the report obtained by the Ottawa Citizen...

Defence officials were not keen, however, for the science advisory report to be made public. The May 2005 study was withheld by the Defence Department's Access to Information branch for almost a year and was only released after information commissioner John Reid conducted an investigation into the issue. Specific parts of the report have been censored for security reasons.
And lest there be any doubt who was in charge of the Defence Department at the time it chose to try to bury the report, that would be Bill Graham - who not coincidentally has been claiming that Arctic defence shouldn't be a priority:
Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham has criticized the Conservative government's plans to beef up Canada's military presence in North, saying there aren't any immediate threats to sovereignty...

"The challenges in the North are not really military at this time," said Graham, who is heading the Liberal party until a December leadership convention to chose Paul Martin's successor.
Of course, more thorough information about the Arctic would work wonders to ensure that Canada knows exactly what challenges it faces in the North. But apparently Graham and his department were perfectly happy with the view that what Canadians don't know about what they don't know won't hurt them.

Hopefully the public release of the report will both lead to some action toward a microsatellite system, and offer officials an example of how pointless it is to suppress information which isn't properly withheld. But it seems like both of Canada's largest political parties have an awful lot to learn on the latter front.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pretending to be powerless

The headline and opening paragraph to the CP's article on a new study on energy consumption sound ominous. But once one gets into the meat of the article, it's clear that the study's supposed conclusion that electricity use can't be reduced much through conservation is based purely on a set of assumptions designed to reach that end:
Government efforts to promote conservation could cut energy demand by only about 10 per cent by 2025 compared with business as usual, says the study commissioned by the Canadian Electricity Association and the Canadian Gas Association. That is far less than projected by environmentalists who see energy efficiency as a key strategy for cutting greenhouse emissions and smog...

Mike Cleland, president of the Canadian Gas Association, said the study is based on measures considered to be politically feasible, but admitted they do not include such proposals as charging the true cost of electricity...

If governments were to take all the measures that are technically possible the savings could be 50 per cent, he said. But those measures would be highly unpopular.
In other words, the conclusion that electricity consumption can't be reduced is based only on the premise that people don't care enough about the issue to permit anything approaching a full range of actions. But while that may offer a convenient excuse for inaction as long as citizens are willing to buy the argument that massive nuclear or coal investments are more "feasible", it does nothing to demonstrate that contined growth in consumption is either necessary or a positive policy choice.

Dehumanizing the troops

A couple of articles today discuss the death of Canadian reservist Tony Boneca and his family's resulting reaction. But underlying both is an utterly unwarranted, if perhaps not unexpected, attitude that any Canadian soldier who dares to question his or her mission must be a failure for doing so.

Let's start with CanWest's coverage, which starts off with a view in the headline that Boneca's father was "defending" his son in suggesting that Boneca had no problem with the Afghanistan mission. And lest that be put solely at the feet of the headline writer, the article isn't much better:
In a statement drafted with the help of military officials, the father of Canada's latest war casualty Tuesday took aim at recent portrayals of his son as a poorly trained reservist who was bitterly unhappy in Afghanistan and who questioned Canada's role in that country...

"My son volunteered to go to Afghanistan," Boneca said in the five-paragraph statement issued on military letterhead. "Certainly, Anthony wanted to come home, but I ask what soldier wouldn't in that situation?"

In recent days, people close to Boneca have said the reservist from Thunder Bay, Ont., hated his work in Afghanistan and questioned the military's preparedness for the mission. One friend, Dylan Bulloch, said the young man known for his boundless energy had lately complained of being overworked, telling him "no one wants to be there and no one knows exactly why they're there."...

"In all my conversations with my son, there was never any mention of him not being well enough or fit enough to carry out his military duties," he wrote.

"Anthony knew he was part of a group that stuck together to do what they were sent to do. He said it was difficult to cope with the weather, the sand, and the situation the young children (in Afghanistan) endured. He was proud to make a difference in their lives ..."
Note that the problem doesn't appear to lie in Antonio Boneca's letter, which doesn't dispute for a second that Tony Boneca had concerns about the mission. Indeed, the letter notes that it's only natural for a soldier to want to come home "in that situation" (which itself could indicate some agreement as to some problems surrounding the mission), while at the same time viewing the mission as having some positive impact.

But rather than recognizing the legitimate concern (whether presented by Tony or by Antonio), the article and headline both suggest that any implication that Tony Boneca had doubts about the mission must be an attack on him personally. In turn, the consequent "defence" involves unquestioning acceptance of all aspects of the Afghanistan mission.

While that assumption is unstated in the CanWest article, it's far less so in Lorrie Goldstein's column, which begins with the "ethical" question of whether a soldier who has questioned his mission deserves as much respect as one who hasn't:
(H)ow should we treat the combat death of Cpl. Anthony Boneca, 21, compared to the other 16 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat who have died there, and who have all been portrayed as doing what they loved?

The ethical answer is that while Boneca's death raises legitimate concerns about whether our soldiers, particularly reservists, understand what it means to volunteer for the military today, Boneca merits all the respect accorded his fallen comrades.
Granted, Goldstein reaches the right answer to the question. But it hardly needs to be pointed out that none of the previous deaths in Afghanistan gave rise to similar questions as to whether the latest casualty should be valued as highly as the previous ones. And it can only be taken as an act of disrespect to the intelligence of Canada's soliders that the mere act of wondering about one's mission should be considered a reasonable basis for drawing that kind of distinction.

Goldstein closes by posing what are indeed important questions:
Do young people signing up for our military today fully understand what the changed role of our armed forces from being "peacekeepers" to peacemakers means for them? Will we in the media, wherever we stand on Afghanistan, examine these issues in a way that respects our fallen soldiers and all who serve?

I hope so. But I wouldn't count on it.
It would indeed be for the best if the current media coverage recognized and respected the humanity of our troops: as with participants in any job or career, some will doubt the mission at times, and some will look forward to that mission coming to an end. But in light of the current conventional wisdom that any doubt about a controversial mission should be taken as a basis for criticism and devaluation, it doesn't seem likely that any due respect is going to become commonplace in the future.

On divides

The Star reports that the Conference Board of Canada has taken up the call for increased funding for Canada's cities. While it's disappointing to see the request explicitly made at the expense of smaller communities when there's a fairly plain need for restored funding to municipalities generally, the Conference Board's call is bound to make the cities issue all the tougher for the federal government to ignore in trying to rework the federal/provincial framework this fall.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A simple solution

There can't be much doubt that Nova Scotia's minority Cons are looking to open the door to health-care privatization, given both their stated openness to privatization and their new plan to hand a million dollars to a consultant which has already presented privatization plans that were rejected in the past. But is there any need for the opposition parties to merely call for a change in government action, rather than introducing their own bill to ensure continued public provision of services?

Forced accountability

The CP reminds us that Allan Cutler wasn't the only putative Con candidate in Ottawa South to apparently receive promises from the party prior to the last election, and notes that Harper's chief of staff has failed in an attempt to stonewall against a resulting lawsuit:
Stephen Harper's right-hand man has lost a three-month legal battle to avoid explaining his role in a messy internal dispute that embarrassed the federal Conservatives in the last election.

Ian Brodie, the prime minister's chief of staff, did not attend two dates last spring to give evidence in an action brought by Alan Riddell, a labour relations lawyer who was ousted as the putative Tory candidate in the riding of Ottawa South. But the Ontario Court of Appeal, in a judgment quietly released last week, put an end to Brodie's effort to stave off questioning.

The three-judge panel unanimously ruled he had demonstrated no legal reason why he shouldn't testify...

Riddell claims the Tories reneged on a deal to pay him up to $150,000 in campaign expenses and legal fees run up before he finally agreed, under pressure, to step aside in Ottawa South in November 2005.
And given the context surrounding Riddell's claim, any denial that Cutler received financial inducements sounds all the less plausible:
The Conservatives don't deny they had a financial deal of some kind with Riddell when he stepped down, but say he breached the agreement by going public and isn't owed anything now.
As with Cutler's situation, the final outcome of the litigation matters far less than the context surrounding it. The Cons have once again shown their utter disinterest in clean and open government - both in their willingness to buy out a potential candidate, and the efforts of both the party (through its insistence that any public notice of the deal lets the Cons off the hook) and Harper's chief of staff (through his refusal to testify) to hide the facts as best possible. And now that Brodie has fought tooth and nail against any obligation to tell the truth about any arrangement with Riddell, there'll be all the more public interest in what he eventually has to say.

Wasted efforts

Sun Media shows its partisan and ideological colours in its report on the Cons' decision to scrap an Ottawa orientation for new government employees. (Which principle of journalism is it that demands the use of "black pit for taxpayers" rather than any phrase which could suggest there's any potential upside to the program?)

In contrast, the Tyee's Peter MacLeod offers a reasoned defence of the program:
(F)unding a program where the police have a direct experience of Parliament, where agricultural analysts might visit Ottawa's prized experimental farm and where immigration officers have a chance to meet their department's minister sounds like a reasonable initiation to what used to be considered important, valuable and publicly-useful careers.

MPs, of course, should be the last people to grouse. They'd shout murder if anyone suggested that flying back and forth to their constituencies each week was lavish and unnecessary. And so they should. Crazy as it may seem, those air tickets are a small price to pay for keeping politicians even marginally connected to their communities. In a country as big as Canada, spending a King's ransom on travel should surprise no one.

So the problem isn't that we have too many publicly-funded government travel programs. It's much more likely that we have too few. We need programs that bring civil servants to Ottawa -- especially as the civil service struggles to replace thousands of retiring baby-boomers -- and we certainly need programs that bring Ottawa-based civil servants to spend far more time on the frontline in other parts of the country as well...

(T)here are some corollaries. Join a top-flight consulting firm and you'll be spending a minimum of two weeks at an Ivy League university, boning up on your maths, learning the company lore and all the while staying in a premier hotel. Become a taxpayer-supported academic and it's almost required that you attend a conference or two a year, which usually just happen to include cushy accommodations in comfy climes...

So low have civil servants fallen in the public's mind that even those programs designed to restore a sense of professionalism and reinforce an ethos of public purpose are immediately derided as waste.

This is the real tragedy and the real scandal. That civil servants make an easy target -- well, unfortunately, that's not news at all. The government should continue to spend this money.
Unfortunately, MacLeod proved absolutely right in his concern that the Cons would axe the program without any real consideration of the possible benefits. And in the rush to tie "bureaucrats" and "waste" together, it's gone completely unreported that the program itself was designed to improve ethical awareness among federal employees in response to the Auditor General's concerns arising out of the sponsorship scandal.

Mind you, the change in direction probably suits the Cons well in the long run. Not only will the newly-hired civil servants lose out on the benefits pointed out by MacLeod so as to feed into the Cons' anti-government rhetoric, but a less-informed civil service may also be less able to prevent Harper and company from getting their hands into the cookie jar. But for the rest of us, it would be far better to see a reasonable investment in our public servants now than to sacrifice ethics and training on the altar of anti-government ideology.

Internal conflict

I'd figured that thanks to Harper's famous micromanagement and message control, the Cons would at least hold out as long as possible before putting forward a "blame the underlings" defence to the questions surrounding their 2005 convention. So much for that expectation, as the party's executive director has come out firing at riding associations who engaged in cheque-swapping:
"The national party has no knowledge that this practice ever happened," Mike Donison, the party's executive-director, wrote in an e-mail to the Vancouver Sun Monday.

"The party certainly would not have ever approved or condoned this practice."...

In a letter to The Hill Times in Ottawa, which published a story on the issue Monday, Donison noted that Toews was not a party employee but didn't say what status she may have had as a volunteer with the party.

Donison indicated that party officials aren't necessarily aware of how riding associations handle tax receipt matters.
Of course, part of Donison's motivation is presumably to suggest that the matter should be dealt with internally rather than investigated by Elections Canada. But it's glaringly clear by now that the investigation isn't about to stop. It only remains to be seen who ends up taking the full force of the backlash...and now that riding associations have been tossed under the bus, it'll be interesting to find out whether they'll fight back with further evidence to the effect that the practice was known by all concerned.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Summer plans

The CP reports that the opposition parties have teamed to to make sure that the softwood lumber capitulation gets addressed in committee before the Cons have too much time to twist arms in the industry.

We'll see whether David Emerson accepts the committee's invitation (I wouldn't be surprised if he prefers taking up time with his own talking points rather than allowing the deal's opponents to completely dominate the discussion), but either way the push for a real defence of Canadian interests is on. And if the story gets a chance to build momentum during the otherwise quiet summer, it may not be long before the voices silenced by Harper during the negotiations help to end the Cons' (however unimpressive) honeymoon in the polls.


The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives wades into the fiscal imbalance issue once again, leaving few current assumptions standing.

First, the report takes on the claim that provincial deficits are of the federal government's making:
"The real force behind the fiscal pressures currently faced by provincial governments is competitive tax cutting by provincial governments intent on getting ahead in the race to the bottom," concludes the report, compiled by economist Hugh Mackenzie for the left-leaning think tank.

The tax cutting binge was started by Ontario but was quickly matched, to varying degrees, by other provinces, particularly in the West.

"Fiscal imbalance . . . is largely a problem inflicted by the provinces on themselves through tax competition," Mackenzie says.

Provincial officials pinpoint the 1995 federal budget, which slashed billions from federal transfers to the provinces, as the start of the current fiscal squeeze.

But Mackenzie maintains the provinces "insulated" themselves from those cuts by reducing their own transfer payments to municipalities by an equal amount.

Moreover, while the federal government has begun restoring transfers to the provinces in recent years, he says the provinces have not done the same for municipalities.

"In fact, the data demonstrate that the real fiscal imbalance involves local governments, not provincial governments," he says.
Sounds about right so far...but also sounds like what Jim Flaherty would say before daring individual provinces to start raising their own taxes. Fortunately, the report goes on to deal with that position as well:
Mackenzie says provinces are under intense pressure to keep their tax rates competitive with one another. With highly mobile companies and individuals prepared to move to the lowest-tax jurisdiction, no province wants to be the first to raise taxes.

"Provincial governments are caught in a kind of political/fiscal prisoners' dilemma in which no individual province has an incentive to take action - protecting revenue - which would benefit all provinces if they all did it."...

Mackenzie advocates a role for the federal government in defending provincial tax bases against competitive pressures. That could be done either through:

-An inter-provincial tax treaty that would set a floor beyond which provinces could not lower taxes, or

-The creation of federal "umbrella taxes" that would be applied uniformly across the country and from which pre-determined levels of provincial taxes would be deducted.

As well, Mackenzie sees a role for Ottawa in helping to alleviate the real imbalance between municipalities and provinces. He urges the federal government to invest in "national projects," such as funding to refurbish and build vital infrastructure.

Furthermore, Mackenzie says equalization should be overhauled so that it is based on the actual cost of providing an acceptable standard of social services in poor provinces, rather than average provincial revenue-raising capacity.
Particularly at a time when movements toward regulatory harmonization are winning favour both from provincial governments and from the federal finance minister, it only makes sense to add some form of tax harmonization to the mix as well.

Granted, the proposal may be a tough sell for provinces who are counting on keeping their current advantages by cutting taxes to levels which their neighbours can't match. But if enough other actors within the country take up the call, it should be possible to show that the national benefits of a relatively equal structure (both in lesser obstacles to trade throughout the country, and in a lessened need to support other provinces through equalization) outweigh the supposed costs of the measure.

Your boss knows you're reading this

CBC reports on a new study on workplace privacy, suggesting not only that violations taking place, but that managers responsible for employee privacy often aren't even aware of those violations:
Canadian employers in a wide range of industries conduct surveillance of employees at work, suggests a report to be released on Monday...

Employers view closed-circuit television cameras, listen to recorded phone calls, monitor e-mails and scan magnetic information from security passes, said lead author Avner Levin...

Human resources executives responsible for workplace privacy often have little knowledge of the potential intrusiveness of technologies at work in their own companies, he said.

They rarely know what information is being collected by colleagues running company computer systems, he said.

"The executives that are responsible for privacy in the workplace are not fully aware of the extent of ... the surveillance activity that is conducted," he said.
It doesn't come as too much surprise to know that some workplace surveillance takes place. But given an employee's right to at least know what kind of information is collected and why, it's a serious problem if the managers appointed to deal with privacy issues are themselves being kept in the dark.

The study will hopefully spur a few more employers to direct attention to their responsibility to respect employee privacy. But in the longer term, increased attention can only go so far, and a privacy law with more teeth than the current one may be needed in order to protect both employees and customers alike.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

An odd request

I can't claim to be overly familiar with the Newfoundland and Labrador constituency expenditure scandal, other than that it clearly seems to cut across party lines. But is there any apparent reason why Newfoundland and Labrador MHAs would be advised not to disclose their constituency allowance spending?

After all, it's not as if the contents of the MHA's books should be changing at all between any present disclosure and the final outcome of the investigation. And the main potential effect of general non-disclosure seems to be to leave the entire House of Assembly under a cloud of suspicion, as even a politician with an entirely clean set of books is pressured not to make that public where the effect could be to create any distance from the scandal.

While it's hard to dispute that MHAs are technically entitled to keep the books private, the Speaker's advice seems to have the effect of pushing Newfoundland and Labrador's politicians to close ranks against public scrutiny. And particularly in the midst of what appears to be a far-reaching scandal, it's hard to see how that attitude can do anything but make the institution look all the worse for the remainder of the investigation.

Electoral equalization

The CP follows up on the question of whether Paul Hellyer's forgiven loan to the Canadian Action Party may have already ushered in a strategy where political parties and candidates can take out loans with little to no intention of repaying them:
Hellyer calls it a bad loan, but critics say what happened is proof that what can start off as a loan to a party can end up being tantamount to a contribution, despite the fact the limit on individual donations will soon be only $1,000.

Several candidates for the leadership of the Liberal party are receiving loans from wealthy individuals.

Political financing rules enforced by Elections Canada require loans to be paid back within 18 months, with a commercial rate of interest applied. Extensions can be added indefinitely in order for candidates or parties to repay the money. But at some point, a creditor can simply declare the loan uncollectable after going through all possible avenues to recoup the cash.

NDP MP Pat Martin has been an energetic critic of the loans. He pushed unsuccessfully for the other parties to ban personal loans while reviewing the Conservative government's new Accountability Act.

"For all the world to see, it's candidates trying to circumvent the donation limits of the Elections Act with these de facto loans that aren't really loans if they can be written off and forgiven," Martin said.

"The whole process brings discredit to the electoral system because you've got big money buying undue influence in the campaign."
I'll note that I agree with the concerns of smaller parties that the current financing scheme fails to give them a fair shake when it comes to public funding. But that doesn't justify any party (or donor) in actions that could only open the door to even bigger long-term advantages for the larger parties. Hopefully the current public attention will lead to efforts to make sure that smaller parties are able to get needed funding through the same means properly available to the larger parties - and not in ways which already seem to have led to loopholes being adopted by the larger parties as well.

Refusing responsibility

David Emerson shows the Cons' idea of personal responsibility, claiming that it can't possibly be his fault if the softwood lumber deal is bad enough that producers prefer to keep pushing their winning streak in court. With Emerson refusing to seek any improvement to the deal, it will indeed be up to the industry to decide what's best for it - but it seems highly likely that "a federal government which can negotiate its way out of a paper bag" will be near the top of the list.