Saturday, September 30, 2006


CTV reports on Gordon Campbell's plan for a "conversation" on health care. Is there any doubt that every second sentence from the Libs' government will be "the sky is falling"?

Same old same old

It seems so long ago that the Lib leadership race was supposed to put the sponsorship scandal, the income-trust investigation, and the rest of the party's "anything goes as long as you don't get caught" philosophy in the rear-view mirror. Now that there's power at stake in the midst of the race, however, that desire for change seems long forgotten, as epitomized by a prominent Ignatieff blog supporter's reaction to allegations of wrongdoing by Iggy's campaign.

First, take a look at the Libs' actual press release:
The Liberal Party of Canada, in conjunction with its Ontario wing, has reviewed a complaint received by a Mr. George Kunz regarding memberships and the leadership campaign of Mr. Michael Ignatieff.

The Party notes that the complainant made allegations immediately after the prescribed membership challenge period under section 9.3 of the Rules of Procedure had ended. Repeated efforts to contact the complainant were unsuccessful.

The Party has determined that there is no basis for a formal complaint and this matter is now closed.
It's hard to see how the release could be more clear in establishing that the party saw itself as lacking jurisdiction to deal with the complaint based on when it was filed. There's room for debate whether or not that's a fair justification for not investigating wrongdoing (and indeed the need for some finality may well make deadlines understandable). But there's certainly no doubt that the decision was based on a "formal complaint" process, and avoided the merits of the case entirely.

But for Ted, that distinction is completely lost:
Dirty old style politics failed to win another one yesterday, as the Liberal Party saw right through the fraudulent smear tactics and gave Ignatieff a 100% clearing.
In other words, Ted takes the fact that the rules don't allow Ignatieff's actions to be investigated as the equivalent of saying that the matter has been thoroughly investigated such as to prove Ignatieff's innocence. And just for good measure, he also seems to honestly believe that the accuser must have been engaged in "fraudulent smear tactics" in suggesting any problem could have existed - rather than, say, having honestly not known that Ignatieff's conduct would be immune from review past the prescribed challenge period.

Needless to say, that type of attitude only seems likely to discourage any efforts at whistle-blowing or legitimate investigation - whether within the party itself, or within the government were the Libs to return to power. And if any substantial portion of the Libs really believes that a possible problem hidden past the time when it can be investigated is the same as no problem at all, then there's all the more reason not to give them another chance to make those kinds of judgments where Canada's government is concerned.

The hot air continues

Rona Ambrose may somehow be receiving headlines about her "tough" language on greenhouse gas emissions. But judging from the apparent plans, Ambrose's words are the only tough part of the Cons' scheme, as the actual targets on oil and gas will be through the industry's preferred means of deferring any real action:
Oil industry sources said yesterday the Tories intend to set standards to reduce “energy intensity” in the sector, an approach that would reduce emissions for every barrel produced.

That approach, which is favoured by the Alberta government and the industry, would see emissions continue to rise as oil-sands development booms, but would slow the pace of the growth.

Environmentalist Pierre Sadik of the David Suzuki Foundation said Ms. Ambrose's strong language “sounds promising” but requires tough action to be credible.

“It has to lead to meaningful cuts in pollution emissions,” Mr. Sadik said. “Regulations in terms of intensity are a waste of time because emissions continue to rise.”
Of course, the Cons (like their Alberta cousins) are perfectly happy to keep wasting time as long as they're able to keep getting positive press based on their posturing. Which means that there'll be no realistic chance for real emission-reduction plans to be implemented as long as the media is willing to pretend that "intensity" targets are anything but an excuse to keep increasing emissions.

Update: Of course, the media could do even worse by ignoring the "intensity" farce entirely. Which brings us to CanWest's coverage...

Friday, September 29, 2006

No done deal

The Cons may be doing their best to claim that the softwood lumber capitulation is over and done with. But the reality is something else entirely, as over 20% of the industry still hasn't been forced into signing on and the small matter of Canada's successful litigation still hasn't been resolved:
(T)he U.S. stipulation that all lumber-related trade cases be withdrawn was impossible to finesse, said Mr. Gray.

"The last I heard, it was 86 companies out of the 400 or so had not signed," he said. "I think that's their single most important issue.

"Our rights are our rights in American courts and I don't know how they can take that away from us."
Of course, it's hard to know how the Cons can manage to live in an alternate reality either. Yet here's their take on how the deal came about in the first place:
Mr. Emerson was unavailable but said in a news release the extension came after close consultation and in direct response to a request from the industry.

"The Softwood Lumber Agreement was negotiated in close co-operation with our softwood lumber industry and the provinces," he said.
Needless to say, the supposed "close co-operation" in fact consisted primarily of keeping Canada's interests away from the bargaining table, then imposing a terrible deal based on a claim that it's too late to do any better. And all indications are now that the Cons are only looking for ways to "co-operate" just a bit more with the current holdouts - both by playing down yet another impending decision which could boost Canada's position, and by looking for new and creative ways to suppress the rights of the producers who haven't yet given in.

The good news, though, is that there are still plenty of producers still fighting to defend the Canadian interests that the Cons want to sell out. And now that the Cons' claims to near-unanimity (not to mention their threats to the holdouts) have been shown to be as empty as the rest of their public statements on the file, there's no reason at all for those producers to give up now.

Poor excuses

The U.S. is attempting to disavow any blame in Maher Arar's rendition based on a claim that it didn't think Arar would be tortured in Syria. After all, surely nobody (much less the U.S. itself) had any reason to suspect what ultimately happened.

Fine and dandy

The Libs have fined Joe Volpe $20,000 for violating party rules by paying for the memberships of new recruits. But Volpe is denying everything and vowing to appeal the decision:
Mr. Volpe can either pay the $20,000 fine within 30 days or drop out of the race, the party said in a release.

Mr. Volpe immediately issued a statement suggesting he'll do neither.

"The press release issued today by the Liberal party as well as the haste to proceed without due process seems designed to inflict as much damage as possible on my campaign immediately prior to the delegate selection meetings," Mr. Volpe said.

He added his campaign will mount a "vigorous appeal."
It's somewhat surprising that Volpe is willing to take the time away from his campaign to launch a challenge. But at the very least, one can safely say Volpe is serious about fighting the charge on principle when it would only take four teenagers' donations to cover the fine.

The only question now is whether it's him or the party which bears the brunt of the aftereffects of today's announcement. But even as Libs make their effort to engage in belated damage control, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the party hasn't changed a bit from the group that was rightly voted out of office.

Continued pressure

In case there was any doubt as to whether the Cons would be let off the hook for failing in their promises to Saskatchewan, Lorne Calvert is calling for Saskatchewan to receive a new "side deal" similar to those given to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland if the new equalization formula doesn't exclude resource revenue:
If the Harper government backs away from its election promise to remove oil revenue from the federal equalization formula, Saskatchewan wants a deal with Ottawa outside the program, Premier Lorne Calvert said Thursday.

Calvert said he is concerned by the Prime Minister's suggestion this week that changes to the revenue-sharing program may not be ready in time for the next budget.

"They're building a spring budget, we've had the assurance we're going to have it in this budget, then let's have it," Calvert said...

Until Thursday, Calvert hadn't publicly mentioned the idea of a side deal for Saskatchewan since the Conservatives came to power.

But with the lack of clarity from Ottawa, the premier said he wants to make sure his province is taken care of.

"We have lived with the unfairness of equalization for years," Calvert said. "Enough is enough already. We have a commitment."
Needless to say, the better result would be a full equalization program consistent with the Cons' platform, rather than having to resort to yet another round of ad hockery. But one way or another, Saskatchewan voters have a legitimate expectation of positive results from the Cons' promises. And if Harper doesn't have the political will to follow through fully on his commitments, then Calvert's call is for the next best thing.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Failures and possibilities

To nobody's surprise, Canada's Environment Commissioner has made clear that both the Libs and the Cons have utterly failed to take effective action on global warming. Now if only there was a bit less reporting of the blamefest between the guilty parties, and a bit more to the ideas to actually solve the problem.

On unwanted powers

The Cons may be eager to toss as much money and power as they can at Canada's Auditor General in order to try to find new dirt on the former Lib regime. But Sheila Fraser isn't buying into the Cons' plans:
Auditor General Sheila Fraser has turned down an offer of more funding from the Conservative government to "follow the money" and track down citizens, groups or businesses who have received $1 million or more in federal grants over five years.

Fraser told senators Wednesday she does not plan to use new powers under the government's accountability bill to audit the grant recipients because it is up to department chiefs to ensure the grants are handed out properly with spending safeguards in place.

"I expect to 'follow the dollar' only in very rare and unusual circumstances," Fraser told the Senate legal affairs committee studying Bill C-2. "We are not seeking additional funding to carry out this expanded mandate."...

(T)he Conservatives...hoped to rely on Fraser to unearth money wasted in the government-wide grant system that could be diverted to other spending initiatives or tax cuts.

"The federal government spends some $26 billion per year on grants and contributions to individuals, companies and non-government organizations," the Conservative platform said in a section devoted to strengthening the power of the auditor general.

It said Prime Minister Stephen Harper would allow the auditor general to "follow the money" by providing her with the authority to audit records, documents, and accounts of any individual, institution or company that receives grants, contributions or transfer payments under an agreement with the federal government.

Fraser said after testifying at the Senate committee she has informed the government she does not want the extra money or the job and will leave it up to the departments to ensure the grants are being handed out properly.

"We're saying no," Fraser told reporters. "We've told government quite clearly that we do not believe we need any extra funds for this because we would use those powers, if granted, only in very rare and exceptional circumstances. It would be part of our other audits. We're not planning to go and do any special work in that area."
Needless to say, Frank Luntz and his disciples among the Cons are probably disappointed that Fraser recognizes that her role isn't to meet the Cons' one-year window in which to gather dirt on the Libs.

But for Canadians generally, the move shows that Fraser is entirely willing to apply her principles consistently, and isn't eager to see her office run through large amounts of money for political purposes any more than any other government department. Which should only give her message all the more weight as the Cons' record too comes under review.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Broken deadlines

If anybody still harbored any thought that a Con-imposed deadline had any meaning, yet another fudged deadline on the softwood lumber capitulation should put that doubt to rest:
The federal government won't meet its self-imposed Oct. 1 deadline to implement the softwood lumber agreement with the United States, The Canadian Press has learned.

Sources say complications surrounding the withdrawal of more than 30 pieces of trade litigation, including resistance by some exporters to shelving their suits, make it unlikely a planned softwood border tax will start being levied as of Sunday.

The U.S. government demanded as part of the agreement that all trade litigation be withdrawn as a precondition for lifting punitive lumber duties...

If Ottawa moves ahead as planned and the U.S. duties remain in place, lumber shipments would find themselves facing a 15 per cent export tax as they leave Canada and a 10.8 per cent import duty when they cross into the United States.

A spokesman for International Trade Minister David Emerson won't not confirm that implementation was being postponed but says the government is working with the lumber industry to deal with what he called the complexities if (sic) implementing the agreement.
Not that it would be much of a surprise to see the Cons instead impose the export tax as well just to put the screws to the industry one more time. But lest there be any doubt, the Cons' attempt to pretend the capitulation is a done deal doesn't reflect the reality on the ground...which only leaves the question of just how much further the Cons will go in further trying to force the agreement on the companies who still recognize litigation to be the better option.

A growing marketplace of ideas

Several months after the NDP unveiled its plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to meet Canada's Kyoto commitments (and on the same day MPs Peggy Nash and Peter Julian called for a national transit strategy as part of that effort), the Greens have presented their plan to reach the same goal. While there's still little reason to believe the Cons will actually pay attention to the ideas from either party, there's all the less doubt now that any politician claiming that Kyoto is out of reach is either completely out of touch, or wilfully ignoring options which are plainly available to Canada's government.

On choices

In the wake of the Cons' arbitrary and unnecessary spending cuts, word comes out that the Cons have managed to find some added money to pour into advertising for new military recruits:
Ongoing recruitment challenges are putting at risk a Conservative government promise to expand the Canadian Forces by 13,000 soldiers and boost the reserves by 10,000 more, according to documents tabled in Parliament.

Spending estimates and plans also reveal the Forces will double their advertising budget to $15.5 million this year including costs associated with a flashy and sometimes controversial new recruitment advertising campaign to cope...

According to the estimates, the Forces will get a previously unannounced $7.5 million infusion into its advertising budget this year, bringing the total to more than $15 million.
It's particularly interesting to note the relatively similar amounts and aims involved in the military advertising which is being increased, as opposed to the anti-smoking advertising which was cut. For the Cons, preventing cancer and other harmful health effects isn't apparently worth public money...but when it comes to finding new cannon fodder for Afghanistan, no amount of spending or publicity is too much.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Irresponsible and ineffective

There's no lack of reason to criticize the Cons' unnecessary budget cuts. But let's take a minute to debunk their current excuse for hacking into important programs without any real regard for the consequences:
The government defended the budget cuts Tuesday in the House, arguing that that they were necessary for the government to run more efficiently.

"We believe as a government we have a very important responsibility to ensure that every taxpayer's dollar is spent effectively, is spent responsibly, and is spent accountably," Treasury Board president John Baird said.
Now, if that were actually the Cons' aim, then it would be difficult to argue with their reasoning. The problem is that if the Cons were really out to make sure that money was spent effectively and responsibly, they'd have followed an entirely different process than the one they actually carried out.

After all, the $1 billion per year number being trumpeted wasn't itself based on a thorough program evaluation. Instead, the Cons decided first on an amount of funding to cut, then decided which programs they'd like to see done away with.

As a result, there's no reason to believe that the cuts occurred anywhere near the point where a dollar spent would produce less than a dollar's worth of positive results. And indeed it's not hard at all to predict what are likely to be far bigger losses in the long run due to the Cons' decision to arbitrarily invest less in Canada.

In contrast, if the Cons really wanted to make sure that government funding was being properly spent, the logical process would have been to actually determine which programs were achieving less than full value, and cut only that precise amount. But one suspects that following such a process, the Cons couldn't have cut into many of the programs which ultimately ended up on the chopping block - and would perhaps have had to take a closer look at some of their own dollars-for-votes programs instead as failing to achieve a reasonable return on investment.

While the Cons may be pretending publicly to have been motivated by efficiency, the reality is that their actions can only be explained by a desire to slash government regardless of the effects. And there's every reason to think that the Cons' arbitary cuts will ultimately prove to be the furthest thing from effective or responsible government.

On growing gaps

StatsCan adds to the list of areas where there's a growing gap between Canada's rich and poor, as retirement savings have been just as stagnant as incomes for lower-income Canadians:
A Statistics Canada report says families at the top of the earnings scale contributed more toward their pensions between 1986 in 2003, while this wasn't the case for lower-income families.

The growing inequality in retirement contributions was seen in two-parent families, one-parent families and single individuals...

"This is something new in Canada," personal finance and tax planning expert Tim Cestnick told CTV Newsnet from Calgary.

"We're seeing a widening of the gap between the wealthy in Canada and the not so wealthy in Canada, while the size of the middle class really is shrinking."
The article notes that the average income ($25,000) and retirement contribution ($1,200) for Canadians in the bottom 20% by income were identical in 1986 and 2003 - compared to jumps in the range of 40% for the top quintile. Which should once again highlight just how little plausibility there is in the well-worn claim that "a rising tide lifts all boats" - both in terms of current income, and in retirement savings where the gap can only be exercerbated as time goes by.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the Cons would love to see StatsCan eliminate such inconvenient facts as a form of efficiency in order the justify even more regressive outcomes in the future. But regardless of whether StatsCan is prevented from pointing out reality in the years to come, there can be little doubt that Canada's working class looks to be all the worse off in retirement - and that no number of attempts to put a happy face on the economy can gloss over the growing inequality.

A not-so-hidden agenda

The Globe and Mail discusses Industry Minister Maxime Bernier's anti-government views:
(S)ince being named to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet in February, the rookie 43-year-old MP from Quebec's rural Beauce riding has demonstrated a stern resolve to get government out of the way of business. It is a perhaps an unusual stance for an industry minister.

The holder of that post is commonly seen as the champion of government programs aimed at helping Canadian companies compete with global titans and foster innovation at home. That mindset is at the heart of Technology Partnerships Canada, the $300-million-a-year Liberal loan program that helped Bombardier Inc. become a world leader in regional jets and countless biotechnology and software companies develop new products.

Mr. Bernier is now considering abolishing TPC altogether, a prospect that is sure to bring catcalls from members of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada when the minister addresses their annual meeting today. In the same vein, the new minister is largely unmoved by calls from the Ontario government to buttress with federal money its $500-million Automotive Investment Strategy. The fund has been a key factor in attracting $7-billion in new auto investment to Ontario...

Mr. Bernier, a devoted runner who often trains with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, joined the board of the Montreal Economic Institute shortly after the right-wing think tank was created in 1999, later working at the institute on a full-time basis as executive vice-president. He penned studies arguing for a flat income tax rate for all income earners (he even wrote a book on the matter in 2003) and pushed for more private sector involvement in Canada's health care sector.

“It's part of the process of politics that there are things that maybe in an abstract world you might want to push but political realities are such that you can't make them happen for now. Maxime understands that,” said MEI founder Michel Kelly-Gagnon, now head of Quebec's main business lobby group, le Conseil du patronat.
It remains to be seen just how far Bernier will try to push in the current minority Parliament, as even with the Cons' tenuous hold on power he seems eager to encourage selloffs in the telecommunications sector. But in the longer term, Canadians should take note of PMS' decision to hand a major cabinet portfolio to somebody who's just waiting for an opportunity to push toward nominal flat taxes and hand health care over to the private sector. And Bernier's willingness to try to push dangerous reforms even in a minority situation should serve as a stark warning of what may lie ahead if the Cons aren't removed from power soon.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Knives out

There's been no lack of discussion about the Cons' arbitrary spending cutbacks. But let's take a look at a few which haven't received much press:

$4.6 million in assistance to museums.
Remember that Canada's museum system is already in a precarious state due to funding which has been stagnant at the $9 million level for the past 35 years. Rather than putting any additional investment into Canada's historical institutions, and contrary to their own campaign promise to increaser funding to museums, the Cons are instead hacking away even at the small amount already made available.

Elimination of $9.7 million in support to Canadian Volunteerism Initiative.
Is it me, or are right-wingers usually the first to claim that volunteers should be taking the place of everything government does? But for PMS and company, even investment in encouraging Canadians to get involved in their communities is considered wasteful.

Elimination of $10.8 million First Nations/Inuit tobacco control strategy.
I'm not sure whether the Cons figure they'll make enough in tobacco donations to justify cutting this program...but considering that First Nations health is an area of federal responsibility, the tiny amount of money saved now is far too likely to result in huge additional expenses later on.

Of course, in the final analysis it should be kept in mind that not a single cent of the funding cuts had to happen: the Cons chose an arbitrary number to slash from an already-balanced budget, and included the above among the issues where they wanted to show their lack of support. The question now is whether Canadians see value that the Cons don't in heritage, volunteerism, health, and all the other areas which the Cons have deemed unworthy of their funding. And if they do, then it should be a simple matter to remember the Cons' unwillingness to fund those ends when PMS goes to the voters to ask for the opportunity to do even more damage.

On debunking

Will McMartin eviscerates Carole Taylor's claim that health care spending is out of control in B.C., pointing out that health care costs haven't grown significantly as a percentage of GDP, and only project as an increasingly-high amount of B.C.'s Consolidated Revenue Fund due to a tendency to shift costs so as not to count toward that fund.

It's worth pointing out in addition to McMartin's column that Taylor's particular means of shifting costs may not be the only contributing factor to the B.C. numbers or to similar claims across the country. For that matter, it's entirely possible that cuts to other programs made precisely in the name of preserving health care are now being cited as evidence that health care is unsustainable due to its increasing percentage of expenditures.

But whatever the shell game being played at a particular time, it's always useful to take the time to point out the obvious fallacies behind the immediate claim of a neocon looking for an excuse to hack into public investment. Because while it's a shame to have to use up resources pointing out a pattern which should be easily recognizable by now, it would be all the worse to let the sleight of hand go unchallenged - especially when public health care and other essential programs may ride on the outcome.


Nearly a year after the plight of the Kashechewan First Nation first received its due public attention, Kashechewan has seen little development while the Cons wait on a report and look for other excuses to avoid building a sustainable community. And in Saskatchewan, the First Nations housing situation has become sufficiently dire for the provincial government to step in with funding to try to make up for the federal government's lack of action in its area of responsibility.

But when it comes to $28 million in capital spending on government residences, including $3 million for 24 Sussex Drive, there doesn't seem to have been any hesitation at all.

Not to say that the latter spending isn't also a worthwhile expenditure. But surely any realistic determination of costs and benefits has to recognize that the human cost on reserves with a severe housing deficit far outweighs any benefit from the government property renovations. And that should result in funding being timed and allocated accordingly - rather than in First Nations once again being bumped to the bottom of the list.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

On valuation

A sustainability consultant suggests that the value of Canada's boreal forests for environmental and tourist purposes may be in the range of $93 billion per year...and that it might be a good idea to take that value into account when determining how forests are to be managed:
The environmental work of Canada's boreal forests in purifying air and water and the tourism dollars they generate are worth at least $93 billion a year, says an economist.

That value should be taken into account when making decisions about logging, mining and other industrial activity that affects forests, Mark Anielski will urge delegates at the National Forest Congress opening in Lac Leamy, Que., on Monday. ..

Boreal forests regulate the climate by capturing and storing an estimated 67 billion tonnes of carbon in Canada alone - a job worth $1.8 billion, based on the price of carbon emissions from the global insurance industry.

The water filtration and erosion control function of boreal peatlands is worth $77 billion, and forests also generate billions in tourist spending...

"As an economist, I know that what we measure we pay attention to," he said. "The point of all this is these other assets we don't value, and therefore we don't pay attention to them in general. At the very least, accounting is about taking inventory and knowing what you've got."
Of course, it's difficult to set a precise number on the value of natural resources, particularly as new uses and ecological functions of different resources are discovered with time. But Anielski's starting point should highlight the fact that eliminating forest resources is far from a zero-cost action. And any attempt to debate the actual value of Canada's forests (along with other elements of our natural environment) can only help to call attention to benefits which may currently be taken for granted.

(Edit: corrected first sentence.)

Access failures

With access to information already in the news due to last week's mudslinging over the disclosure of requesters' names, let's take a closer look at the Canadian Newspaper Association's report on treatment of requests across the country:
Over a period of two months, 60 journalists from 39 newspapers across the country visited city halls, police forces, hospitals and federal government offices to document how public officials respond to requests for public information.

While responses from government officials varied widely across the country, there was a disturbing inclination toward secrecy in many government offices, the audit found.

Basic questions about health-care spending, crime, pesticide use and emergency preparedness posed to government officials were denied in 31 per cent of cases, despite the fact the information requested was not controversial and should be readily available...

Statistics on reported crimes and resolved cases — figures that are widely published in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal and Ottawa — were shrouded in secrecy in other places.

In Pembroke, for example, police officials wanted $1,200 for the information. In Laval, it took 39 days, repeated calls and arguments with officials to get an incomplete answer. In all, close to 30 per cent of requests for the crime numbers were denied or slapped with fees...

Each request for information began with a visit to a government office, hospital, health district or police station, where reporters — acting as citizens but not concealing their identity as journalists — simply asked for the information.

In the 112 in-person visits, 46 resulted in records being disclosed — a 41-per-cent success rate.

The remaining 66 requests went to Stage 2 of the audit — formal written requests for the information under the appropriate provincial or federal information law.

In 35 cases, the information requested was partly or entirely denied, or there was no response within the legislated time limit.
Some delay could be far more easily forgiven in the case of requests for more complicated information, or if access to information legislation hadn't been around for decades. But there's no excuse at all for a failure to respond to requests for such simple data.

After all, the only way the information wouldn't be readily accessible would be if the office itself didn't have any document summarizing such a simple concept as crime rates or bonuses paid. Which seems highly implausible - and if true would suggest that a failure to respond to access requests is the least of the office's problems.

While some may suggest that the treatment of requests isn't likely to hold public attention, the information which can be revealed - or hidden - depending on the process applied can easily prove far more substantial. And when even the CNA's simple requests face barriers in current departments, there's all the more reason to wonder just what's being hidden when more complex requests are denied or ignored.