Saturday, December 02, 2006

On new leaders

I'll start off by giving due credit to the Libs: against all odds and most predictions, they eventually elected their most deserving contender as party leader. But while Dion isn't without some substantial strengths, his victory also opens up a lot of opportunities for the NDP to continue its growth.

The most interesting question will be how Dion's history in cabinet affects his candidacy. While Dion's focus on the environment has certainly won him plenty of admirers, he'll now face a difficult task in trying to make that his central issue while at the same time justifying his own ineffectiveness as Environment Minister - having contributed to the Libs' legacy of delays, then implemented a plan which by all accounts would have fallen short of Canada's Kyoto targets. And with the NDP and the Greens both able to claim greater interest in the subject while avoiding the taint of past failure, a greater focus on the environment as an issue doesn't seem likely to be a huge vote-winner for the Libs (though it could push them toward government by draining votes from the Cons toward the NDP and Greens).

Similarly, Dion's series of stances on federalism (particularly his shift from trying to undermine a Lib motion on nationhood while supporting the same from PMS) will provide something for everybody to dislike. Meanwhile Jack Layton can now put himself forward as the most prominent federalist who hasn't tried to deny the status of "nation" to Quebec or the Quebecois in one medium or another.

Then there are the plain weaknesses - which only seem likely to exacerbate existing difficulties for the Libs. Others have already pointed out the unlikelihood of a Dion-led party building much support in the West. Which only opens up the door even further for the NDP to win over disaffected Cons and other voters who didn't think that a party which had its roots in Reform would turn out to be a unprincipled as PMS' bunch.

And while Dion himself emerged entirely unscathed from the Libs' antics over the last decade, it'll be difficult for a prominent figure under their previous scandal-ridden regimes to argue that the Libs have moved past those times by electing him. Which will make him a tough sell for voters concerned about the lack of genuine accountability offered by the Cons.

Ultimately, Dion appears likely to prove far more effective at genuinely opposing Harper than any of his competitors would have been. But that also opens the door for the NDP to brandish its own credentials on progressive issues in comparison to the Libs' tepid track record. Which in the long run could (and hopefully will) be as good for the NDP's electoral chances as it is for the country as a whole.

A small victory

Now, B.C. Health Minister George Abbott has reached a compromise with the False Creek Urgent Care Centre. While it's a plus to know that emergency services will only be provided on a publicly-funded basis, it looks like the equally serious questions surrounding the attached private surgical clinic will go unaddressed - leaving open the question of whether this week's moves are the start of any real action to preserve single-payer health care, or simply an example of how much attention is needed to embarrass the Campbell government into doing anything.

(Edit: Typo.)

Still rejecting renewal

While the results aren't yet in as to what the Libs will be voting for at their convention, it's worth pointing out what they've plainly voted against. The Libs had a chance to embrace both a OMOV system which would have put power in the hands of members generally rather than allowing backroom convention deals to determine their future leaders, and to vote for a leadership contender in Gerard Kennedy whose platform (while not explicitly acknowledging ethics in particular as an issue) did involve substantial party renewal and a reduction of executive power - and the story of the convention so far is the cold reception given to both.

Which signals that whoever the Libs wind up voting for in the end, there's little reason to think the party has learned anything from its expulsion from office - and plenty of reason to think that Canadians who want an accountable and progressive government will turn toward the NDP next time the country goes to the polls.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Robbed of all credibility

CanWest's ideological side rears its ugly head in an article on Canada's anticipated economic slowdown:
The economy in the third quarter grew at the slowest pace in three years, and actually shrunk in September, prompting a warning Canadians could be robbed of future tax breaks if the downward trend continues...

If the slump deepens, and carries through into next year, it could rob Canadians of some promised tax relief, one analyst suggested.
Needless to say, it seems highly unlikely that CanWest or any other mainstream media outlet would use such loaded language to describe any other change in government policy. Which includes the Cons' unilateral cancellation of funding arrangements which actually involved multilateral agreement (and thus a much more arguable "right" to the funding) rather than mere political calculations.

And that suspicion is confirmed on a quick search of Google News for the term "robbed", as at least the first 100 current references to the term apply to break-ins and armed robberies, rather than to governmental actions. But for CanWest, there's apparently no problem in taking a term which properly refers to a criminal assault on a person or property, and applying it to a potential reduction in speculative future tax cuts from a government which may not (and indeed should not) be in power long enough to implement them.

And in case there was any doubt whether the language originates from the analyst or from CanWest's own editorialization:
"The implications of this weakness are slightly troublesome for fiscal policy," Global Insight, an economic think-tank, said in an analysis.

The latest reading on the economy, plus the slowdown in the U.S., could result in growth next year below the 2.7 per cent projected in last week's federal budget update, it said. That may mean less money available to implement tax cuts.
Which, left on its own, would be a relatively fair assessment of the actual possible effects of a downturn: a need for some marginal decision-making by the federal government, rather than a personal attack on all Canadians. But for CanWest, such a portrayal apparently doesn't go anywhere near far enough in stirring up anti-tax outrage. Which explains in part how and why Canada is already cutting taxes to the point of reducing its own competitiveness - and also signals the desperate need for an honest depiction of the role of taxation in the future.

A little less conversation

B.C.'s Health Minister is now at least going through the motions of cracking down on the province's soon-to-be-opened private emergency room:
A showdown over the future of medicare is expected to unfold in Vancouver today as the B.C. government threatens to shut down a private clinic that may start charging patients for services that should be free under the health care system.

"We need to ensure universal access to health care is maintained in this province," B.C. Health Minister George Abbott said Thursday.

In what Abbott called "an extraordinary move," the B.C. government pushed through a cabinet order Thursday that will empower government auditors to enter the premises of the Urgent Care Centre that has promised to open its doors today in Vancouver.
But while that first step is certainly better than nothing, it's worth noting that the rushed cabinet order would never have been necessary (and indeed the clinic might never have opened) if Abbott had paid attention when the clinic's director made his intentions known months ago. Which leads one to suspect that the Campbell government is looking for a fight where the odds are stacked against a single-payer health care system.

Of course, it could be that the original lack of action was a mere oversight. But given the Campbell government's track record of doing absolutely nothing when it comes to other private health care providers, it still looks like there's plenty of need to keep the heat on Abbott's department to make sure that the False Creek clinic doesn't wedge the door open for further private expansion.

(Edit: typo.)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

On one-way relationships

A senior U.S. State Department analyst confirms what anybody who's been paying attention knew all along: that Tony Blair's inexplicably loyal stint as George Bush's lapdog hasn't allowed him to influence U.S. policy one iota:
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's close relationship with President George W. Bush is "totally one-sided" and has given Britain no leverage over U.S. foreign policy, a U.S. State Department official said in a British newspaper report.

The Times of London said Thursday that Kendall Myers told an audience in Washington that Britain's role as a bridge between the United States and Europe is "disappearing before our eyes."...

Myers said the transatlantic relationship "was a one-sided relationship that was entered into with open eyes...There was nothing."

"There was no payback, no sense of reciprocity."
Not that Blair and his inner circle appear willing to confront the truth even when it's put forward this starkly - after all, it isn't just Bush himself who's been forced into a deep cycle of denial to justify the unjustifiable. But while it may be too much to ask either the past lapdog or Canada's would-be successor at the foot of the bed to acknowledge reality, the lesson is one that any realistic evaluation of our own foreign policy should keep in mind.

Update: John at Dymaxion World has more.

On dismissals

CBC reports that while Chuck Strahl may be musing about allowing farmers the courtesy of a vote over the future of the Wheat Board, he appears set on undermining the Board in other ways in the meantime - now by throwing the Board's CEO to the curb:
Federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl has indicated his intentions to fire Canadian Wheat Board president and CEO Adrian Measner within weeks.

Measner has been a critic of the federal government's plan to dismantle the grain marketing agency's monopoly on wheat and barley.

In a letter to Measner received Wednesday and obtained by CBC News, Strahl wrote, "I am informing you that I am contemplating recommending a change to the membership appointed by the Governor-in-Council to the Canadian Wheat Board, notably a recommendation that your appointment as President be terminated."...

Deanna Allen, the wheat board's vice-president of farmer relations and public affairs, said the news of Meanser's firing has thrown the organization into turmoil.

"It's a very unsettling time for all staff, and you know, Adrian has had a career here that spanned 32 years," Allen said Thursday.

Allen described Meanser as "a man of tremendous integrity and a guy who's given service to the company, service to farmers for just so many years. And I think it's a hard thing to come to grips with."
Of course, it isn't the least bit surprising for the Cons to once again value ideological fealty over competence and experience. But if Strahl's plan is to try to bolster the anti-Board side by throwing the Board itself into chaos, he may want to keep in mind the possibility that farmers will recognize the problem isn't of the Board's making - and vote out the real responsible party instead.

Rejecting renewal

While the NDP offers a guided tour of the Libs' sordid past, the Tyee's Bill Tieleman points out that it isn't just the sights that are familiar, as the B.C. back-roomers involved in the leadership race include the leading figures associated with such proud Lib events as the Chretien/Martin feud and the alleged bribery scandal surrounding the privatization of B.C. Rail. Which suggests that there may be a reason why the top Lib leadership candidates don't seem to want to improve the Libs' past record on ethics...and that the Libs' decaying party structure isn't likely to improve no matter who's installed as the new head.

A Reactionary Heritage Moment

Bev Oda has an interesting excuse as to why Canadian women shouldn't suffer from the closure of 3/4 of Status of Women Canada's offices:
(Oda) also said women in regions will be able to get service from office of the Canadian Heritage Department.
Now, a plan to make the advancement of women's issues a subcategory of "heritage" rather than an ongoing concern is perhaps an entirely appropriate conclusion for the Cons given their apparent plan to relegate SWC and its mandate to the dustbin of history. But for those who don't think that the concept of equality should be left in the past, the move only highlights just how much contempt the Cons have for the actual needs of Canadian women. And that will give voters plenty of reason to make sure the Cons' stay in power is itself put behind us before too long.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


While coverage of Sheila Fraser's latest report has focused mostly on alleged spending abuses by Ron Stewart, a far more important failing has received only a cursory mention:
Health Canada programs designed to regulate the safety of everything from cribs to prescription drugs may not be meeting their own regulatory responsibilities, Fraser found. Her report cites a drop in funding for core regulatory activities last year and says the department doesn't have the resources to tell whether it can meet its responsibilities as the regulator of drug products, medical devices and product safety.
And the discovery only looks worse when examined in more detail:
The Product Safety program has requested additional funding, but it received very little funds for special initiatives in 2005–06 to address the shortfalls presented above. Program managers indicated that their inability to carry out these responsibilities could have consequences for the health and safety of Canadians, such as exposure by consumers to non-compliant hazardous products. There is also a risk of liability to the Crown...

Drug Products and Medical Devices programs were successful in getting some additional funding for special initiatives. According to program managers, this allowed them to eliminate the backlog of submissions made by manufacturers seeking review and authorization to market a product. However, they considered the additional funding to be insufficient to address all the shortfalls identified...According to program managers, failure to carry out these responsibilities could have consequences for the health and safety of Canadians, such as exposure to unsafe, ineffective, or dangerous therapeutic products. There is also an increased risk of liability to the Crown.
It's noteworthy that for all the oft-trumpeted increases in government spending over the past few years, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety of such a wide variety of products apparently hasn't received an extra dime despite an increasing workload. And it may only be by luck that the result hasn't (to anybody's knowledge) been disastrous both for Canadian citizens who rely on Health Canada to properly evaluate products, and for the government which would have to pick up the bill for any failure.

If there's any plus to the story, it's that Health Canada agrees with the recommendations and has a process in place to try to improve matters. But it can't be much comfort to know that it'll be another year and a half before Health Canada even sets baselines by which to evaluate whether it's able to fulfill its mandate. And the combination of stagnant funding and incomplete reporting in an agency so closely linked to the safety of Canadians should be a far more important impetus for change than the disgrace of a single former athlete.

On infighting

After Michael Chong first resigned from the federal cabinet, I'd assumed the story would fade away fairly quickly since nobody seemed to have any reason to want to keep it in the press. But apparently the Cons' inner circle isn't going to let the matter drop without a public fight:
Publicly, Chong said he disagreed profoundly with the resolution Harper brought forward because it embraced an "ethnic nationalism" he couldn't support. He said he reflected for five days upon his course of action after Harper sprang the resolution on his caucus in response to a Bloc Québécois motion that the Québécois "form a nation" plain and simple...

And while he didn't cite it as a reason for quitting, Chong made clear he had not been consulted by Harper in the crafting of the "nation" resolution.

An insider called that complete nonsense. "He and the PM discussed this over the course of the summer on at least two occasions if not more. And the PM did not make the decision about proceeding with this until he had the caucus discussion last Wednesday."

Chong declined an interview.

Harper's circle feels Chong did not convey his deep-seated uneasiness to the Prime Minister and should have.

In fact, the insider says, Chong's concerns were "not unique in the party in that regard, but the idea that he might throw up a principled objection to the point of resigning? No, that was never in discussion."...

Inside the Harper government, the view is that Chong, first elected in 2004, has made a career-ending move.
Needless to say, it's unlikely that Chong would agree with the assessment that his political career is over. And while it may be clear that he won't have any more advancement opportunities in a party with PMS at the helm, he'll have plenty of options to build his own future at the expense of Harper's - whether by jumping ship, by publicly telling his side of the story and letting the Cons boot him for "breaching confidence" in doing so, or by building a competing faction within the Cons (where at least some MPs appear to both agree with Chong on the merits of the nation issue, and see him as having handled his resignation reasonably.)

But barring a quick retraction from the "insiders" in question, the one option which seemingly must be off the table for Chong is that of going quietly to the back benches - as he surely can't afford to contest an election while publicly under the thumb of a party apparatus which has decided that he has no future. And whichever way Chong chooses to fight back, it's likely that the Cons as a whole will end up weaker for the battle.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Off schedule

Nine months into her tenure as Environment Minister, Rona Ambrose still hasn't figured out the fine arts of showing up for her appointments and avoiding double-booking. I'm only amazed that PMS' micromanagement hasn't yet extended to ensuring that each of his cabinet ministers at least has a day-timer on hand.

Keeping visible

While the NDP may have seen disappointing results in the by-elections, it certainly hasn't taken long to shift gears with a creative response to the Lib leadership campaign. The reviews so far have been mixed, but the drive should make sure that the NDP doesn't get lost in the shuffle - and that Layton has a platform to challenge the Libs' new boss as the leading progressive alternative to PMS.

Bye, elections

Now that the by-elections in London North Centre and Repentigny are done with, there's plenty for each of the four top cross-Canada parties both to draw on for the future, and to worry about for the present.

The biggest winners on the night were the Libs, who fended off three high-profile candidates in the midst of their own leadership race to hold onto London North Centre. But as John has pointed out, the news was nowhere near as good for them in Repentigny, where their candidate dropped all the way to 4th place with 6% of the vote. Which isn't to say that any Canada-wide party is going to be challenging for that riding anytime, but it does indicate that the Libs have some serious damage repair to do in La Belle Province.

For the Cons, the positive spin is that they didn't really lose any ground from the general election. But their attempts to paint Repentigny as a two-way horse race were shown to be utterly laughable, and the London North Centre results pose even bigger problems for the Cons. After all, the race went from one with a high-profile Lib candidate and a relatively unknown Con to just the opposite, without any apparent impact on the proportional results...which suggests either that the Cons don't have any room left to grow, or that PMS needs to seriously rethink the muzzle tactic.

For the NDP, the London North Centre result is naturally a huge disappointment...but it also reflects the party's need to better present its candidates going forward. While there was far more to Megan Walker's candidacy than the dispute over Glen Pearson's dubious communications director, that incident was used to brand Walker as a cold and cynical candidate - which is a fairly deadly perception for any NDP nominee. The good news, however, is that with the Cons failing to gain any ground, it doesn't look like the threat of a Harper majority will be credible enough to cause a Lib surge anytime soon...and of course moving up into third in Repentigny (albeit without increasing the NDP's own percentage) is something to build on as well.

Finally, the Greens have much to be proud of in pulling off a strong second-place finish in London North Centre. But that final outcome also reflects the uphill battle the party will be facing in every riding. Even with the party's efforts focused entirely on exactly the type of vote-splitting riding the Greens figure to be their best chance, and with May receiving tons of positive press (including from the eventual winner), they still weren't able to win a seat in Parliament. And it's hard to see how May will have an easier time in a general election with the party's resources spread across the country.

In sum, the by-election (like the last couple of general elections) ultimately seems to have been more a rejection of all parties to at least some extent than an unmitigated victory for any of them. And it's the parties who generate the best ideas after going back to the drawing board who will ultimately gain the most from the experience.

Update: More post-mortem from Dinner Table Donts and Devin Johnston.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Promise breakers

While Michael Chong's departure from the Cons' cabinet may be making more news today, the bigger problem for PMS may be another prominent Con who's none too happy with Harper's regime:
The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador is warning there could be political consequences for the minority federal government if it doesn't live up to its commitment on equalization.

The province is still smarting from what Premier Danny Williams says is Ottawa's refusal to honour a written commitment that any changes to the equalization formula would not adversely affect provinces.

Newfoundland and Labrador has been reaping energy revenues, which Williams told a business group in Vancouver has somewhat offset the collapse of the cod fishery.

But he says Prime Minister Stephen Harper's refusal to acknowledge his pre-election commitment is a bad sign for what the Tories might do if they ever form a majority government.
Of course, despite his party affiliation Williams' statement is far from reflecting the view of Con loyalists. But the bigger impact of Williams' statement has to do with the Cons' desired public image.

Contrary to PMS' attempts to pretend to be a straight shooter who keeps his promises, premiers from all regions of Canada are speaking out about Harper's broken (or at least breaking) promises on equalization. And when even someone with a relative ideological affinity doesn't want to see Harper win a majority, there's even less reason for more moderate Canadians to risk letting their votes support that end.

Update: Robert points out just one more reason why the "promise-breaker" label deserves to stick on PMS.

Growing suspicions

Buried at the end of the CP's puff piece on Raymond Gravel and Elizabeth May is this interesting note about May's own plans before there was a race in London North Centre:
Before Fontana resigned, the Green Party leader said she had planned to run in Repentigny. Based on parliamentary tradition, May promised to run in the first available byelection.

"I didn't like the feeling of running in Repentigny with an opportunity created by a tragedy. It didn't feel good to me."
One has to assume that if May herself was originally planning to run in Repentigny, then the party itself would have to have been well aware of the riding's nomination process and deadlines. Which only lends credence to Marc-André Gadoury's suspicions as to whether the Greens' failure to process his nomination was intentional...and suggests that Gadoury's alternative choice is the right one for those who don't want to reward a party for stifling its own would-be candidates.

On false economies

CanWest reports on another tidbit buried in last week's fiscal update, as the procurement reform started by the Libs and much touted by the Cons has far less potential for savings than originally projected:
The Harper government said it expects to save significantly less at least $1 billion less than forecasted by overhauling the way it buys goods and services.

Jean-Luc Benoit, spokesman for Public Works Minister Michael Fortier, confirmed the government can't meet the savings target 2.5 billion over five years set by the Liberals. instead it expects to save approximately $1.1 billion.

This marks the latest blow to the Public Works' project to revamp its procurement system. The project, which has been embroiled in controversy, caused a near revolt among suppliers...

Bureaucrats are worried the government will dig even deeper into their budgets to find savings on top of the $2 billion Treasury Board President John Baird vowed to cut from government operations more than two years.
Now, a reasonable government would respond to this reality by recognizing that the same problem is likely to apply to the rest of its arbitrary cuts as well. While there's always some value to looking for genuine efficiencies, a government can't reasonably assume that it can hack away at its own expenses without a serious sacrifice in effectiveness.

But then, if the Cons have proven anything, it's that they're always on the lookout for excuses to let ideology trump reason. Which makes it all too likely that the Cons will try to make up for the poor projections by cutting even more from other services instead...while once again both overestimating the benefits and underestimating the costs of those actions.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A far-reaching fracture

The CP speculates about the possibility of Alberta's PCs getting split in two by their leadership race. But the bigger question may be whether the same factional fighting (spurred on by Harper's apparent support for Morton) also works its way into the federal Cons in time to permanently undercut PMS' hopes of holding onto power.

On takeovers

David Olive points out that contrary to the usual protestations about Canada failing to attract investment, we've in fact already been subject to far more foreign takeovers than most of our international competitors would be prepared to allow:
Throughout Europe, the European Commission's burgeoning anti-trust bureaucracy nit-picks not only domestic and cross-border mergers on the Continent, but has twice thwarted planned combinations of American firms that do business in Europe — a form of the dreaded "extra-territoriality" of which the U.S. is more often accused. No amount of lobbying in Brussels by then-CEO Jack Welch could move the EC to approve General Electric Co.'s planned merger with Honeywell International Inc. And it was the EC's blocking of a WorldCom Inc. merger with Sprint Corp. (now Sprint Nextel Corp.) that ultimately exposed WorldCom as an accounting scam, reliant on ever-larger takeovers to maintain the illusion of growth, and triggering WorldCom to file the biggest bankruptcy filing in history.

The United States has its "poison pills" by which domestic firms can thwart hostile takeovers, often in the form of laws passed by the local state legislature. China demands local part-ownership not only of acquisitions of Chinese firms but of newly launched enterprises financed by offshore interests. Remnants of command-economy practice continue to discourage offshore acquisitions of local assets in India and Japan. Takeovers and start-ups financed by foreigners in Russia and developing world countries are routinely subject to expropriation or reneging on contracts on government orders.

By any comparative measure, Canada is an acquisitor's paradise. We have no "industrial policy" worthy of the name, no ambition to create "centres of excellence" in R&D and manufacturing with which proposed takeovers in most European and Asian countries are expected to conform...

As an experiment, it would be interesting to gauge the U.S. reaction to the foreign takeover, in the space of nine months, of U.S. Steel Corp., J.C. Penney Co., Intel Corp., Walt Disney Co., Marriott International Inc., Hilton Hotels Corp. Phelps Dodge Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. (Victoria's Secret) — the rough equivalent of the type and size of Canadian firms that have lost their independence to foreign decision-makers since the beginning of this year. The effect might be just a bit jarring for our U.S. friends. Certainly it would at least raise questions about the logical outcome of such a trend.

Which is not to argue that a proliferation of proud Canadian firms slipping down foreign gullets is a bane to our industrial progress (a subject for a different column). It is to say that Canada, contrary to your local Chamber of Commerce's claptrap about unsupportable tax burdens and stifling bureaucracy, is viewed by outsiders as a great place to do business. And with its relative lack of economic parochialism, it is probably the world's happiest hunting ground for takeover artists.
Of course, that same claptrap also seems to be the main motivating belief for our current Finance Minister. But there should be no doubt that Canada has done plenty already to stimulate foreign investment, with little regard to whether the country is ultimately better off for those takeovers. And given that such an attitude sticks out like a sore thumb among developed states, it's worth wondering whether we should be paying closer attention to the costs and benefits involved in takeovers (on social and economic rather than ideological lines) rather than seeking to hurry up the process even more.