Saturday, July 29, 2006

Removing any doubt

Greg at Sinister Thoughts has already pointed out the possibility that the Cons' plan to deal only with particulate emissions rather than greenhouse gases may only have the effect of speeding up global warming. But it's worth noting that the reason for that effect also counteracts the solar variation theory which was supposed to be one of the last arguments trotted out to deny the greenhouse gas explanation for global warming. According to CTV's report, the solar radiation reaching Earth has in fact been headed steadily downward over the past few decades at the same time as the temperature has gone up - which should serve to utterly demolish any claim that increased radiation can explain the temperature increase.

Not that there should have been any reasonable doubt about the causes of global warming. And it's always safe to figure that those looking for a reason not to deal with reality will find a different excuse to ignore it. But it's all the more clear which side of the global warming issue has been based on valid science, and which has been based on demonstrably incorrect conjecture.

A necessary correction

The first meeting in Chuck Strahl's effort to undermine the Canadian Wheat Board is now over, and Strahl is only showing his contempt for farmers who support the Wheat Board in the process he plans to follow from here on in:
There have been calls for Ottawa to put any changes in the wheat board to a farmer plebiscite, although Strahl says the government has the power to act on its own in some areas.

"We will be looking at what we can do by regulations, what we need to do by legislation and if necessary what we need to do by plebiscite," he said.
The problem with Strahl's explanation is that the Wheat Board is entirely a creature of a statute which explicitly provides (see ss. 45 and 46) that regulations may be made which allow for exports outside the Board. Which means that while Strahl find it convenient to muddy the waters by pretending to be willing to hold any "necessary" plebiscite, the reality is that there's no way a plebiscite can be "necessary" or "needed". Any plebiscite could only be based on the Cons reaching the reasonable conclusion that the farmers who stand to be affected by his party's desire to trash the Wheat Board should have some say in whether the process continues.

But one has to assume that if Strahl was the least bit open to letting farmers generally have a say on the future of the Wheat Board, he wouldn't have gone to such great lengths to exclude any dissenting views from his planning meetings. And his apparent intention to use the Cons' regulatory power regardless of farmers' views doesn't do anything to improve the odds that he'll suddenly start considering approval by those affected to be a "necessary" step. Which means that for those who hope to save the Wheat Board, the only way a vote can make a difference now is if Strahl's dismantling of the Board can be pushed past the next federal election.

More of the same

In reporting on the Vancouver-Kingsway Lib nomination farce, the Globe and Mail reminds us that a lack of democratic accountability is once against being hardwired into the Libs' slate of candidates for the next election:
(Lib national director Steven) McKinnon said the party has told its 102 MPs to hold nomination meetings this fall and said it will not allow any challengers.

Uncontested nominations were the norm under prime minister Jean Chr├ętien, but not his successor Paul Martin.
Not that Martin himself deserves much credit for improvement, particularly considering his penchant for appointing candidates (like Emerson himself), not to mention his determination to push his lone leadership rival out the door. But considering how little the Libs ever accomplished on the much-staffed democratic reform front, it's all the more stunning to see the party now undoing what little internal progress was made.

Of course, there's bound to be a principled Lib willing to speak out against the new lack of accountability. But until that happens, the sole quote from anybody in the party questioning the practice (which was apparently announced this spring) is instead another attempt by a fading leadership campaign to appear relevant:
The decision by interim Liberal leader Bill Graham to allow all sitting MPs to be renominated this fall does not sit well with at least one leadership candidate, MP Joe Volpe.

"Mr. Volpe doesn't think that there should be blanket immunity for all members of Parliament -- the blank cheque that Mr. Graham gave to caucus," said Mr. Volpe's spokesman Corey Hobbs. "He feels there should be democracy at the grassroots level."
It's not clear whether the quote is a new one or simply Volpe's original response to the announcement. But it is clear that Libs hoping for a revitalized party are in for a severe disappointment. After all, the lone leadership candidate (or prominent party figure period) willing to speak up for an open nomination process is the same one proudly trying to set a new ethical standard based on questionable donations and arm-twisting (at least as long as the arm-twister sticks around). Meanwhile, the other leadership candidates have at best tepidly mused about the decision to backslide toward lesser accountability, and at worst backed it outright.

Whatever else happens before the next election, the Libs have only shown their continued contempt for democratic accountability - both through the lack of many nomination meetings, and in the process followed in those which are taking place. And that can only ensure that the Libs remain tarnished with the same perception of entitlement that earned their trip to the opposition benches in the first place.

Positions and possibilities

The Star's Ian Urquhart nicely sums up the provinces' current positions on federal/provincial funding. But it's not clear why he so quickly dismisses the possibility of prioritizing increased funding both to equalization and program funding over another round of tax cuts - an option which would both leave the provinces with little scope for concern about the outcome, and offer Harper a somewhat more plausible answer to the (now well-deserved) criticisms about funding he's pulled away from existing initiatives. It may not fit with Harper's ideology, but when it's both good policy and good politics, there's no apparent reason to pull the option off the table.

Friday, July 28, 2006

It oughta be a crime

The federal Cons apparently aren't the only Canadian politicians more interested in looking tough on time than actually preserving and strengthening measures which help to reduce it, as B.C.'s Lib government is planning to scrap its provincial parole board:
The British Columbia government plans to get rid of the provincial parole board and turn over all parole responsibility to the national board, the province's solicitor general says.

The move will mean offenders serving less than two years in provincial jails will have to wait longer to apply for parole, removing an important safety net, said the chairperson of the B.C. Parole Board.

When the federal board takes over next April, those serving jail sentences of six months or less won't even be able to apply for parole.

Currently offenders in B.C. can ask for parole in as early as 90 days and the board monitors their behaviour until their sentence is complete.

"I believe it's a good parachute," said Tracey Thompson, chairperson of the B.C. Parole Board.

"To me if someone walks out of jail at the end of their sentence they still have all the issues they walked in with. They still need some support to parachute them back into the community."

Solicitor General John Les announced the boards would be merging after legislation is passed in next spring's sitting.

He said the added parole wait for some offenders would be the only difference caused by the change.

"There might be a few individuals who, as a result of that, serve a slightly longer portion of their sentence. Personally I don't think that's a bad thing," Les said Friday.
Unfortunately, the article doesn't provide any comparative perspective on the relative costs involved. But it seems far too likely that the added cost of keeping inmates in provincial jails longer will easily outweigh the apparent $700,000 saving from the elimination of the parole board (not to mention that some of the parole board functions are merely being uploaded rather than cut out altogether). And that's without mentioning the cost of increased crime resulting from inmates receiving less support in reintegrating.

In sum, the B.C. government is setting out to pay more for worse results out of its criminal justice system, solely for the satisfaction its Solicitor General apparently gets from the prospect of increasing the time spent in his province's jails. No wonder the Harper government doesn't seem to have a problem cooperating from a federal standpoint.

Predictable results

And this is what happens when a federal government shows its utter disinterest in protecting its trade interests. Word comes out that the U.S. is backing off its earlier plans to open up the border to some Canadian cattle, with the ever-present support of everybody's favourite group of litigious cattle ranchers:
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is seeking more information about a U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to maintain a ban on imports of older Canadian cattle...

Agency spokesman Alain Charette said it is not clear whether U.S. authorities are cancelling previously announced plans to permit imports of older cattle from Canada, or just postponing them.

It had been expected that U.S. authorities would soon lift the current ban on imports of cattle more than 30 months old...

A U.S. ranchers' group, R-CALF USA is lobbying to have the ban maintained.
Needless to say, R-CALF's position looks a lot stronger now than it would be if Canada's government was willing to push back against U.S. pressure, rather than seeking to bend Canadian industries to the will of the U.S. Any guesses as to how long it'll be before we end up paying R-CALF to dictate the terms of livestock management in Canada?

(Edit: typo.)

Shameful

BCer in TO highlights the Cons' attempt to twist tragedy in the Middle East for their own financial gain. If only anybody could claim to be surprised...

On shutting out the world

I wouldn't want to downplay the importance of educational issues as a matter of national policy. But judging from today's news that the Cons are decimating funding toward international academic relations, it may be for the best if education never gets mentioned again while the Cons are in power:
The Harper government is poised to cancel federal funding for Canadian international academic programs, including Canadian participation in the Fulbright program, one of the most prestigious international scholarships...

$13.5 million in funding for international academic relations programs will expire on June 21, 2007.

Programs at risk include: $5 million for Commonwealth Scholarships; $600,000 for the Fulbright Foundation; support for the Canada-China Scholars Exchange Program; a program encouraging Mexican students to study in Canada; and all funding for Canadian studies programs abroad.
And there's outspoken opposition to eliminating exchange funding within Harper's own party:
However, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, called the decision "a calamitous misunderstanding" by Treasury Board.

"These scholarship programs have nothing to do with provincial jurisdiction," he said in an interview yesterday.

The scholarships play a crucial role in projecting knowledge and understanding of Canada abroad, and Canadian expertise about the rest of the world, Segal said...

Canadian studies programs in the U.S. are a major part of Canada's investment in awareness of Canada in the United States, and Canada's ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, is said to be very upset at the Treasury Board decision.
We'll find out soon whether Harper is any more flexible in responding to the concerns of his own party elders than he is when it's merely a good chunk of the voting public opposing wrongheaded cuts. But it seems plain that the Cons have decided that building relationships with the rest of the world isn't worth Canada's time or money. And whether or not the Cons can be pushed into reversing the initial decision, that's a dangerous attitude for a government to hold in the first place.

Update: Denise Savoie chimes in, emphasizing the sudden turnaround the from Harper's seeming support for the same programs just a couple of months ago.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Making the best of it

It's all too clear that the premiers aren't close to reaching full agreement on a fix to federal/provincial funding. But even if there's no chance of getting a full plan worked out, it's not too late for the provinces to reaffirm their previous agreements on child care, the Kelowna Accord, post-secondary education, health and pharmacare, and other individual issues to keep the pressure on Harper, and highlight the fact that the lack of agreement on a solution doesn't mean the problems facing Canada's provinces have gone away.

Taking matters into their own hands

While the Cons are busy whining about how nobody could possibly get a better softwood lumber deal than they did, Canadian producers are actually talking to their American counterparts...and may well be making progress in improving the deal:
Canada's lumber industry is talking to its American counterpart and to provincial governments about amending the Canada-U.S. Softwood Lumber Agreement, despite federal insistence that negotiations are over, sources say.

The U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, the influential industry lobby behind punitive tariffs on Canadian lumber, this week categorically denied that it or its members were discussing changes to the softwood deal initialled July 1.

But Canadian industry sources told The Canadian Press on Thursday that informal contacts did take place between individual lumber executives on both sides of the border.

The industry now is trying to compile a single list by the end of next week of proposed modifications to the complex agreement, then get governments from the producing provinces to approach Ottawa with it.
Which means that the largest holdup for now may not be unwillingness on the part of U.S. actors to improve the deal at least somewhat, but instead...
However, the sources admit the plan has a very limited chance at success in what's become a high-stakes standoff with the Conservative government staking its political future on the outcome.
In other words, Harper appears to be standing all the more strongly against Canada solely for his own political benefit. And with Canada's PM so determined to ignore both positive court rulings and the possibility of a better deal than his government could negotiate, there's all the less reason to take the Cons seriously when they claim to have Canada's best interests at heart.

A lack of improvement

The Vancouver Sun reports the latest from Vancouver-Kingsway, as the Libs are apparently following up the Emerson debacle with a nomination mess:
So hasty has organization of the nomination process been that only two candidates have come forward to contest it, one having rushed mightily to meet the deadline for filing appropriate papers.

Manuel Pereda, who has spearheaded grassroots protests against Emerson, calls what's happening now in his riding "a travesty of democracy."

Pereda is not personally interested in becoming a candidate. But the Liberal party member wants to see clean politics returned to his riding. He tried for months to contact riding executives to learn when the nomination battle was to be fought.

"All my e-mails and phone calls have remained unanswered in spite of the role I played in the community since Emerson's defection."...

The party set the July 29 nomination date on July 17. Those interested in running had only until July 21 to be approved as party candidates. The cutoff date for selling new memberships was July 14.

Wendy Yuan, one of the two candidates vying for the nomination, looks to have benefited from the haste, as opposed to her competitor, lawyer Mason Loh. Yuan's campaign manager, Mike Hillman, is vice-president of national party and would certainly have been aware of the early date for the nomination contest...

Pereda asserts Yuan "has a huge advantage since her campaign manager knew of the plans well ahead of the association members. She sent her brochures to all members two weeks prior to the announcement and had more opportunity to sign new members."
The article goes on to conclude rather bizarrely that the Libs should enjoy a "cakewalk" in the riding - a conclusion which seems entirely unjustified given Emerson's fairly narrow win over Ian Waddell, the loss of their star candidate, and the fact that the Emerson fiasco has both undermined the Libs' core message ("vote for us to stop Harper!") and strengthened the NDP's.

But whatever the starting point for the riding, the lack of fairness and transparency in the Libs' nomination process can only make the party look all the less trustworthy in Vancouver-Kingsway and across the country. And it may not take long before Libs like Pereda who are still holding out hope of finding some principle in the party figure out they're better off turning their support elsewhere.

Unleashing the watchdog

I'm generally of the opinion that genuine free trade (as opposed to the selective protectionism that currently masquerades under the title) has to be seen as a positive, particularly when it's counterbalanced by equal cooperation on issues other than trade. But that multiple-issue cooperation has to actually accomplish something to be of any value. And as the Globe and Mail points out, the pollution watchdog created to try to dull opposition to NAFTA has been utterly ineffective:
NAFTA's environmental agency is supposed to be a watchdog that alerts North Americans to pollution threats, but it often doesn't have much of a bark, let alone a bite...

The commission's difficulty in explaining these kinds of pollution problems is being noticed. Those familiar with the workings of the Montreal-based organization say it is being hobbled by government meddling and shrinking budgets that don't allow it to do extensive work.

"The CEC was supposed to be the environmental watchdog of North America, and it's been turned into a house pet by government restrictions and budget cuts," contends Stewart Elgie, a University of Ottawa professor and environmental law specialist...

(The CEC's annual) Taking Stock report isn't a truly independent look at pollution trends. Like all of its reports, the CEC allows NAFTA governments to pore over its findings and try to alter them before they are released publicly. This is an unusual practice for an agency that is supposed to alert the public to pollution threats. Prof. Elgie says the governments have "raised an ever-increasing stream of objections and complaints" about CEC reports and try to "sanitize" them...

The CEC also appears to be gun shy about going after important environmental topics that risk irking the NAFTA governments. For instance, even though the trade bloc is the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, the CEC doesn't work on climate change.

Critics say the Bush administration blocks such efforts, although Mr. Kennedy denies this...

(T)he CEC's next topic of investigation is guaranteed to offend no one. It's on energy-efficient buildings.

Mr. Kennedy says "there is a lot of support" by the governments for it. "I think we've got a real winner in this topic."
Needless to say, any remotely useful watchdog shouldn't be measuring success by its ability to act as a cheerleader. And the imbalance between trade and environmental issues is highlighted by the presence of so much political interference in the CEC even as NAFTA was designed in large part as a guarantee against political interference in trade.

It's far from clear from the article whether the CEC can be salvaged to any meaningful degree, or whether any true North American environmental cooperation will have to occur under a substantially different body (and presumably one created once some less reactionary governments are in power). But a commission with neither the resources to gather its own information nor the independence to publish anything controversial can't be making much of a contribution to public knowledge. And with the environment ranking as the top issue for a large number of Canadians, there's a plain need to ensure that Canada cooperates with its neighbours internationally to build knowledge and capacity - not only to divert attention from a trade-first attitude.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Exhibit A

As a follow-up on a previous post about the precarious state of Canada's museums, one can't blame the museums themselves for failing to try to bring attention to the problem, as the Canadian Museum Association is working to point out the need for additional resources:
The Ottawa-based Canadian Museums Association is spearheading an aggressive lobbying effort across the country this summer to convince the federal government, individual MPs, the news media and the public at large that the country's 2,500 museums need not just more money, but more importantly, stable funding. Otherwise much of Canada's heritage is going to disappear.

Auditor General Sheila Fraser said as much in a report in 2004, but that was a few elections ago, which, in political years, is at least a millennium. Besides, the residents of Parliament Hill were seized at the time only with her comments about another issue the Quebec sponsorship scandal. Consequently, Canada's crumbling heritage remained on the backburner.

The last Liberal government claimed it had a new museums policy ready to go last winter. But then came the election, which produced a Conservative government. The lobbying and policy process had to start all over again, there being little institutional memory on Parliament Hill. Hence the Summer Campaign...

The continuing uncertainty of the levels of operating funds is the biggest problem facing museums, according to the Canadian Museums Association. Under the federal Museum Assistance Program, the government pumps $9 million annually into museums across the country. That figure has remained relatively constant since 1972. Most of those funds are only given for specific projects and exhibitions. Those are not funds that allow museums to pay ordinary operating expenses, including staff salaries, artifact conservation, utilities and maintenance.

The association says that that $9 million should be boosted to $75 million, be used mainly for operational funds and allow museums to have stable funding for three to five years so they can plan ahead.

Heritage Minister Bev Oda, the minister in charge of culture, has been sending mixed signals about what will be done.

"She always told us this is a priority, we're No. 1 kind of thing," says John McAvity, director of the Canadian Museums Association. "And then all of a sudden she said this needs more time. We're starting to become concerned."
Of course, there's no reason to take the Libs' supposed commitment to the cause of museums seriously in light of their failure to do anything over their first decade-plus in power. (Not to mention their previous decade in power since the last time funding was increased.)

But at the same time, Canada's museums can't afford to see the Cons follow in those footsteps again. And hopefully the CMA will be able to convince Oda and Harper that they don't want to be responsible for causing the institutions dedicated to preserving Canada's heritage to be relegated to the dustbins of history.

Schooling

So much for the lack of discussion of the need for increased funding of postsecondary education, as the NDP moves the issue to the forefront:
As Provincial Premiers meet in Newfoundland this week in an attempt to reach a consensus on how to solve the fiscal imbalance, the federal NDP renews its pressure on the Conservative government to take action in response to the Premiers’ call for a $4.9-billion increase in transfers for post-secondary education.

“The Premiers could not have been clearer in February: the provinces desperately need core funding to be restored for post-secondary education,” stated Denise Savoie, Victoria MP and NDP Critic for Post-Secondary Education...

“Those massive surpluses that the Liberals and the Conservatives have blown on inequitable tax cuts were built on the backs of students,” said Savoie. “Tuition has tripled. Student debt has tripled. I have heard from countless students who are crushed under their debt load and who are taking twice as long to complete their programs, if they can afford to complete them at all.”

The federal share of post-secondary education costs has diminished from 80% in the 1980s to well under 60% today. Federal cash transfers to post-secondary education, as a percentage of GDP, have declined from 0.56% in 1983-84 to 0.19% in 2004-05...

Savoie urged the Council of the Federation to reaffirm its consensus of last February and re-issue its united demand that the federal government step up to the plate on post-secondary education. This is one crucial first step on the way to fixing the fiscal imbalance.
It shouldn't be too difficult for the premiers to confirm their agreement on education as they already have on the Kelowna Accord. And by pointing out yet another way in which past federal governments have fallen short of providing the funding needed for vital programs, such a move would ensure that the Cons can't pretend to have resolved the fiscal imbalance through tax cuts, smoke and mirrors as seems to be the plan.

Surprise, surprise

Was there any doubt that Harper would jump at the chance to declare some citizens to be less Canadian than others?

On points of agreement

While Gordo may be doing his best to prevent agreement among the premiers on federal/provincial funding, the provinces were at least able to agree with First Nations leaders that their last major deal shouldn't be thrown out the window:
Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, the host of this year's annual premiers' meeting which gets underway this evening in St. John's, said the provincial leaders "stand behind" the terms of the Kelowna accord.

"We, as a group of leaders, sat around the table, we came to conclusions, we reached decisions, we made commitments to aboriginal people and we intend to live by those commitments. I fully believe that the federal government will live by those commitments whether it happens to be in that format or in another format. At the end of the day, as long as the results are delivered we will have achieved our goals."

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the Kelowna accord is "in a state of suspended animation at this point.

"We have an opportunity before us (sic) am hopeful the federal government will understand how committed we are to this."
Williams' wording may unfortunately leave some wiggle room for Harper to claim that the "results" would be best delivered with his government doing as little as possible. But at the very least there should be no doubt that both First Nations groups and the provinces expect their agreement to be honoured...and there'll be plenty of opposition ready to mobilize against the Cons if they continue to insist on creatively interpreting the deal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

On obstruction

So much for the prospect of the premiers uniting behind a sensible plan to boost both transfers and equalization, as Gordon Campbell has torpedoed the effort for now by calling for tax cuts rather than any form of funding:
Canada's premiers appeared no closer to achieving consensus on the delicate issue of equalization as they gathered Tuesday in western Newfoundland for Day 1 of their annual meeting.

Despite assurances from some premiers they were willing to compromise, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell dashed hopes for a quick deal by dismissing the idea of enhancing the federal funding program, as the so-called have-not provinces are demanding.

Instead, Campbell floated the idea of introducing a new federal tax cut as the best way to raise living standards across the country.
So far, most of the provincial positions have generally at least given rise to some prospect of a constructive agreement. But if Campbell really plans on demanding a policy of duelling tax cuts at both the federal and provincial levels rather than the stable funding needed to allow provinces to provide reasonable services to all Canadians, then there may be no reason for other premiers to move from their own positions. And if that type of stalement stays in place, then Harper may well get away with gutting the federal government and calling it a solution.

The real push-poll problem

While LKO is concerned about the Progressive Bloggers poll question on Lebanon, how has the bias in the Ipsos-Reid poll and resulting commentary claiming that Canadians largely support Harper's position gone without comment?
Almost two in three Canadians believe Israel's military action in Lebanon was either somewhat or completely justified, a new poll has revealed.

The survey, conducted online by Ipsos-Reid for CanWest News Service and Global National, found that 64 per cent of Canadians believed Israel's action was either somewhat or completely justified.
In other words, the premise of the article lumps together what was presumably the middle option with one of the extremes without differentiating between the two. A quick trip to the Ipsos-Reid site breaks the proportions down as 20% "completely justified" and 44% "somewhat justified", which paints a rather different picture than the suggestion that the two can be considered equally. (Indeed, one could equally describe the poll instead as reflecting a view that 80% of respondents see Israel's response as less than completely justified.)

But having started from that biased perspective, the headline and commentary go several steps further, implying that the combined group is absolutely united in support of the extreme position:
"When you look across the country, Mr. Harper has good support in every region on almost every measure of both foreign policy and his approach to this matter, except in the province of Quebec, where it tilts clearly to an Israeli compromise," said Wright.
One would think the credibility of the article and poll couldn't get much worse. But then there's this gem of a question from the original poll:
When asked which side of the conflict should make a major compromise in order to have a ceasefire, 63 per cent of Canadians said it was "those who kidnapped the Israeli soldiers," while 53 per cent of Quebecers said it was the Israeli government.
Let's leave aside the sheer absurdity of the implication that "those who kidnapped the Israeli soldiers" would actually be at the bargaining table such as to be able to make compromises. Even ignoring that obvious problem, does Ipsos-Reid really believe it's possible to get a fair result by comparing a neutral descriptor of one side to a loaded description of the actions of the other? Or by analogy, how much credence would be given to a poll asking "Who should compromise, Hezbollah or the army currently bombing Lebanese civilians"?

In sum, it seems painfully clear that the poll is bound to receive tons of attention as a sign of support for Harper's Middle East policy. But the poll was obviously flawed to begin with, and even from that starting point the results have to be twisted beyond recognition to be described as backing Harper's view. Which should only highlight the lengths the Cons and their friends in the media need to go to in pretending that Canadians share the values of their current PM.

Ever more effects

For those keeping track of the results of global warming, two more have been added to the list: a severe reduction in the size of Lake Erie, and an extended allergy season for those allergic to ragweed. Mind you, neither approaches some of the other potential effects...but considering the range of impacts on matters both large and small, there's all the more reason to take meaningful action now rather than waiting for the dangers to materialize or increase.

Edit: Yet another one to add, as the Guardian highlights the dangers associated with summer heat waves.

Monday, July 24, 2006

On forecasts

The Cons may want to introduce even more massive tax cuts now and deal with the consequences later. But fortunately, the TD Bank is looking to the longer term, and pointing out that tradeoffs will have to be made:
Ottawa could continue to have annual budget surpluses through to 2012-13, assuming a solid economy and modest interest rates, but days of ‘easy’ budget planning are gone, a TD Bank (TSX:TD) report says...

“Under the key assumption of continuing sound economic performance and implementation of the policy agenda set out in the 2006 budget, budget surpluses would continue to accrue. But they would be quite modest,” TD chief economist Don Drummond writes...

However, the TD report also notes there are several factors that haven’t been included in its estimates, including the additional one percentage point drop in the goods and services tax that the Conservatives have said they’ll introduce...

"(W)e should not lose sight of the fact that Canada is in great fiscal shape relative to its own history and the record of almost every other country...But difficult trade-offs will need to be managed in order to introduce changes with large budget costs.”
It may take a lot more sources pointing out the obvious limitations on federal finances to ensure that the Cons can't launch more major tax cuts without public outcry. But Drummond's report at least ensures some increased awareness of the need to balance priorities...and if the Cons are willing to stake their public reputation on more costly tax cuts, it shouldn't take long for Canadians to make all the more clear that they wouldn't agree with the tradeoff.

Higher learning

As already noted by BCer in Toronto, a new debate has broken out over Canada's universities. From the CBC article (which unlike the Globe and Mail equivalent also features the counter position of the Canadian Federation of Students):
Canada's student aid system is facing a crisis fuelled by rising interest rates and a politically motivated trend by governments to broaden assistance without regard to need, according to a report released Monday...

Authors Alex Usher and Sean Junor, who both previously worked in senior research roles for the scholarship foundation, noted that many studies have shown grants targeted at low-income students serve to expand access to post-secondary education, while subsidies to higher income students have little or no effect on whether they attend.

Despite this, the report said governments are spending billions of dollars annually on tuition freezes and tax credits and making subsidized student loans more broadly available without regard to need...

The Canadian Federation of Students immediately attacked the report, calling it an attempt to distort the legitimate pressures placed on Canada's student financial aid system to justify tuition fee increases...

The federation argued that tuition fee increases over the past decade are the primary force driving up the cost of providing financial aid to students.

"Student aid can only be effective if it is delivered in an environment where fees aren't skyrocketing," Aziz said. "The authors of this study fail to understand that simple fact."
There doesn't seem to be too much doubt that aid and loans are both in need of some significant support. But it seems to me that each side is only part right when it comes to the details of how to improve accessibility.

On the question of whether improved aid or loans should come at the expense of higher tuition or be considered a reasonable government investment in improving accessibility at all income levels, it's hard to disagree with the CFS' position. A good chunk of the debt loads now borne by many students can be readily traced to tuition increases over the past couple of decades, and any effort to at least slow that trend can only help matters - regardless of how the tuition fee is funded for a particular student. And with rising interest rates making individual loans (both through government programs and elsewhere) more expensive as pointed out by the EPI report, it's hard to see how it could be a bad investment to make sure that up-front costs are kept manageable.

At the same time, once the need to maintain reasonable tuition levels is recognized, the EPI report does have a strong point in that loans and aid should be targeted as thoroughly as possible toward need. If the loans system is now creeping into areas where students could realistically find alternate funding arrangements, then it may well be necessary to tweak the system to be genuinely needs-based. And a new program to match the intent of the Millenium Scholarship Fund would indeed be a plus...though of course if the original had been made into a sustainable long-term program that would have been all the better.

In sum, there's plenty of room for improvement in both general and specific accessibility to Canada's universities. And if nothing else, hopefully both sides to the dispute in the article will do their best to ensure that the end is kept in sight, whichever means they may prefer to get there.

A time to unite

The Star reports on the Cons' plan to change federal/provincial funding, which as with everything else Harper has done seems likely to prioritize random tax hacking over effective funding:
The Conservative government plans a something-for-everyone approach to fix the so-called fiscal imbalance — offering about a $1 billion boost in equalization that would appeal to the poorer provinces, as well as additional money for post-secondary education that would particularly please Ontario.

It also envisions income and corporate tax cuts it hopes will appeal across the country...

The government has projected "quite high" revenues over the next two or three years, the insider explained, so it can afford to cut taxes, continue to spend on social programs, "and deal in a modest way with this equalization and other federal transfer programs."
Needless to say, the provinces (and Canadians) would be far better served by making equalization and transfer payments the top priorities - not by having such core funding issues dealt with in a "modest" way while yet another round of tax cuts takes top billing. But the good news is that now that the Cons' cards are on the table, it should be a lot easier for the provinces to join forces to seek a solution which will strengthen their ability to deliver programs rather than undermining it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A first move

Today's CP article on the upcoming premiers' meeting doesn't seem to pay a ton of attention to a significant shift in position. But if Dalton McGuinty's comment is any indication, it may not be long before the provinces are able to put some serious pressure on the Cons rather than arguing amongst themselves:
Mr. McGuinty, who has been firm in his stance against enriching equalization payments, risked entering the lion's den last week when he wrapped up a cross-country tour in Newfoundland to explain his position.

While he declined to reveal where he was willing to compromise, he hinted boosting the national equalization program would likely be one aspect of a solution that satisfies everyone.

“I think that's ultimately where the consensus will emerge,” Mr. McGuinty said after his meeting with Mr. Williams.
Considering that Ontario's desire to push more funding toward per-capita programs than toward equalization had been one of the largest barriers to any provincial consensus, McGuinty's willingness to agree to expanded equalization could go a long way toward getting a deal done. The question now is whether the other provinces will seize the opportunity to reach agreement - and all the provinces have plenty to gain if they can present a united front to get the best possible deal out of Harper.

On inconsistent positions

It shouldn't be much of a shock that Peter MacKay continues to trumpet an utterly one-sided take on the hostilities in Lebanon. But it's a bit more surprising that he's trying to pretend to do otherwise in the process.

First, the one-sidedness, as MacKay apparently takes the position that an end to civilian casualties on both sides would somehow be a bad result to the extent that it doesn't cause enough devastation to Hezbollah (with no regard for the equal or greater devastation caused to Lebanon's population generally):
"A ceasefire and a return to the status quo is a victory for Hezbollah," said MacKay in response to questions about why Canada has not joined other countries in calling for a cessation to hostilities.
It takes a fairly thorough abandonment of logic to consider a ceasefire to be a one-sided outcome - particularly while MacKay argues in the same interview that the justification for Israel's action is to defend itself from the same attacks which would presumably be ceased.

But leaving that lack of coherence aside, one would think MacKay would at least be prepared to defend that position by arguing some need to take sides. Instead, MacKay wants to combine the Cons' partisan analysis with a claim that it's still a neutral stance:
MacKay told CTV that Canada has not abandoned its neutral voice.

"That's not correct. We've changed nothing in the way Canada approaches these circumstances on a responsive basis."
It'll be interesting to see whether the attempt to sit on the fence will help or hurt the Con cause. It could well be that the more hawkish Libs will ultimately be able to portray that claim to neutrality as a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, anybody actually looking for Canada to stay neutral won't likely be swayed by an argument that by squinting hard enough, one can reach the government's current stance through the same type of reasoning which may have been applied in the past.

In other words, MacKay's attempt to have it both ways may only undermine his party's supposed strength of being willing to stick up for its principles. And if that opens up rifts in the voting public similar to those facing the Libs over Afghanistan, then Harper may rue the day his Foreign Minister decided to try to pretend not to be different from his Lib predecessors.

On lessons

Sheila Copps unloads on Harper for mangling Canada's role in the Middle East:
Harper's vocal support for the attacks that later resulted in the deaths of several Canadians plants him squarely in the middle of a self-inflicted political nightmare. Where was the Prime Minister's compassion when it came to the Canadian loss of life? Couple his steely response with images of angry, stranded fellow citizens, and you have a recipe for political trouble with a capital T...

(A) sage prime minister rarely supplants his foreign affairs minister as the public face of an international crisis. When mistakes are made, as was the case in the initial post-G8 declaration, the prime minister can always step in to rebalance things. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien tread gingerly when it came to overriding his foreign affairs minister. He knew a good department would respond to a supportive prime minister.

Harper's decision to manage the crisis largely from his office reinforces a dangerous trend. He, and he alone, inflicted severe damage on the government this week.
It's tough to disagree with that part of Copps' commentary. But unfortunately, her conclusion (and some of the preceding text) is a bit more questionable in its apparent willingness to give Harper the benefit of the doubt so far, despite ample evidence of Harper's refusal to take a lesson in the past:
Command and control by the Prime Minister's Office appears to have hampered evacuation efforts and sorely tested the patience of the bureaucracy. Previous complaints about Harper's insular style have largely fallen on deaf ears but this time his penchant for control could prove costly...

If Harper has any chance of turning this situation around, he must abandon his controlling style. It is one thing to be a decisive, action-oriented leader. It is another to micro-manage the activities of cabinet ministers and those public servants who have more experience in the field than their political masters...

That being said, his international faux pas can be chalked up to inexperience. Only time will tell whether he is prime minister enough to learn from his own mistakes.
At this point, experience (not to mention Harper's own refusal to back down from his initial position) should put the onus on Harper to show some desire to learn from his mistakes. In the absence of any clear evidence of change, the only possible impact of people like Copps giving Harper the benefit of the doubt is to reduce the public fallout from his stubbornness. And by the time Copps and her ilk decide the "inexperience" excuse doesn't apply anymore, it may be too late to replace Harper with someone better suited to dealing with the world.