Saturday, April 14, 2007

No marginal victory

Greg at democraticSPACE reports that the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has voted overwhelmingly (84%-16%) to endorse a MMP PR system over the status quo.

In principle, this should be a strong enough showing to keep the proposal moving the right direction. But the big question as to the proposal's ultimate success remains whether or not Ontario's Libs and Cons will launch an all-out fight against what this sampling of citizens clearly saw as a major improvement for the province.

The right prescription

One more from the "stories which deserved more attention this week" file, as the NDP called on the Cons to both publicly acknowledge a report on how to make prescription drugs affordable across Canada, and work toward making that plan a reality:
“Canadians are getting sick and can’t afford to get better,” said Layton. “They are left with the choice of staying sick or going broke. Today’s families expect reliable health care for everyone, not just those who can afford to buy it.”

Layton says he hears about the prescription problem in every single province he visits. Between 1992 and 2002, household spending on prescription drugs jumped by more than 70%. Over the same period, spending on food, clothing and shelter increased by only 11%.

Layton said nearly 20% of Canadians do not have adequate drug coverage and if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot afford the medication they need, they would be forced to choose between medications or mortgage payments. Layton says access to medication should be based on need and that it should not depend on where you live or how much money you make.

“No family should face the burden of overwhelming drug costs alone,” said Layton. “Canada must provide working families with assurances that financial hardship won’t be a barrier to getting the prescription drugs they need. Canadians want to know that if they get sick and can’t afford the drugs they need to survive – the federal government will step in to help.”

“This isn't the universal health care Canadians expect from the system they cherish,” said NDP Health Critic Penny Priddy. “Health care in Canada shouldn't cost this much.”...

The Conservatives have been sitting on a report for months that outlines a federal / provincial agreement for a national pharmaceutical plan that recommends a limit that Canadians should have to pay out of pocket for drugs. “We cannot wait any longer for the Conservatives to act. We need leadership on this issue now,” concluded Layton.
The message makes for an effective counter to the Cons on two fronts. Not only does it remind Canadians about the Cons' continued habit of suppressing anything that doesn't suit their political purposes, but it more importantly also highlights an example of the type of necessary (and likely popular) social program which could easily be put into place if the Cons weren't so obsessed with arbitrary tax credits and vote-buying instead. And it shouldn't be hard to make the case that the cost of making prescriptions affordable will be more than recouped in better health outcomes.

Of course, it's anybody's guess whether the other self-proclaimed progressive parties are interested in helping to make that argument. But there's at least one party still working to point out the value of a socially-responsible government - and the NDP's emphasis on policy figures to look better and better if that remains in stark contrast to their competitors.

On weak points

Let's add one more item to the list of problems with the widely-panned Lib/Green sideshow, as it's taken attention away from issues which highlight the Cons' continued lack of fitness for office. But with only one national opposition party playing its role, James Travers steps into the breach by discussing the continued embarrassment that is Gordon O'Connor:
An awful week for Canadians in Afghanistan and a few bizarre days in federal politics are positioning Gordon O'Connor as a greater potential threat to Stephen Harper than St├ęphane Dion.

Truth is being made stranger than fiction here by a confluence of curious events. At their centre is a defence minister with the unerring ability to target Conservative weaknesses the Liberal leader misses.

At a time when the country is mourning new Kandahar losses and beginning to consider the implications of changing Taliban tactics, O'Connor is raising fresh concerns about the war, defence strategy and this "new" government's accountability. Between mid-week and weekend, a minister considered among the Prime Minister's most accident-prone made Afghanistan sound like Iraq, reversed without public debate a three-year-old defence policy by buying 100 surplus battle tanks, and awarded a $30-million contract to a firm that once hired him to lobby...

Remarkably, O'Connor's most hazardous error is drawing little notice. In searching for light at the end of the Kandahar tunnel, he imprudently raised the spectre the Harper government fears most by attaching the Bush administration's empty Iraq promises to Afghanistan.

For those who missed it, O'Connor suggested Canadian troops could be home in 2010 – more than a year after the current commitment ends – as long as Afghanistan's army and police meet international standards set in London last year. That makes superficial sense in that it accepts NATO isn't willing to stay forever and recognizes that ultimate responsibility for security rests in Kabul.

But closer examination reveals the plan is as flawed as the one now failing in Iraq. Current security and infrastructure investments fall far short of the accepted international thresholds for rescuing failed states and there's no reason to suspect that the weak and notoriously corrupt Hamid Karzai regime will gain legitimacy, or control the country, anytime soon...

Protecting lives is a self-evident procurement priority. But having a tank booster and former lobbyist promoting the purchase is awkward for a government still attacking Liberal ethics and accountability.

Remarkably, on the same day Conservatives unveiled another probe centred on the former government's contracting and just one before the tank announcement, O'Connor handed General Dynamics the multi-million dollar deal for new equipment to detect biological threats. As the late, great U.S. writer Molly Ivins liked to say, you can't make this stuff up.

War is always a bad time to have a weak defence minister. Fighting both a war and an election with one is a pratfall waiting to happen.
What's more, Travers misses another (albeit subtle) example of the current disorganization within O'Connor's department. Faced with a deadline this week to respond to a lawsuit surrounding Canadian treatment of Afghan detainees, Defence apparently didn't bother to do anything - when it would have had options to either file a response on time, or at least seek consent in advance rather than risking refusal. Which now leaves it in the entirely unnecessary position of having to seek an extension at a time when it's already failed to comply with the rules - making its claim that "the rough terrain of Afghanistan ate my documents" seem a poor attempt to cover up after the fact.

Needless to say, it would be for the best if this kind of incompetence were a far greater story than it's been to date. Indeed, the surest way to ensure that Harper doesn't remain in government for long is to draw plenty of attention to precisely what he and his party have done behind the photo-ops and public announcements. And with O'Connor still inexplicably holding Harper's confidence, there should be plenty more worth questioning as long as the Cons remain in power.

Friday, April 13, 2007

On rotten tomatoes

Let's take a quick sampling of reviews of the Lib-Green deal - and all from Libs no less. (Though the punctuation is slightly modified for added fun.)

From the CP:
"Colossally stupid!"
"It certainly hurts our voter base."
"Desperate and manipulative!"
And from the Globe and Mail:
"Goofy!" "Dumb!" "Crazy!"
"Very bad for democracy!"
And finally, my personal favourite:
"In Monty Python lexicon — we are the silly party!"
At this rate, about the best the Libs can hope for is for the picture to be quickly forgotten. But even if they're eager to move on, there's not much reason for others to stop laughing at a party which has publicly proclaimed itself a punchline.

Make or break

The most interesting part of today's developments in the agreement between the Libs and Greens is one which has received surprisingly little attention. For all the discussion of the leaders' ridings and possible cooperation on the environment, it's the prospect of action on electoral reform which will prove to be either May's crowning achievement in the alliance, or a severe disappointment in the making for progressives in both parties. And right now, the latter unfortunately looks far more likely.

Let's look first at what's been said about electoral reform by the respective parties today. From Dion and May's joint statement as posted by Saskboy:
Another issue where we believe progress could be made is in the potential for electoral reform.
Sadly, this falls short of any commitment to act in any way, and indeed two separate weasel phrases ("progress could be made" and "potential") allow for virtually unlimited deniability against any argument that either party has committed toward any change. (Let's leave aside for the rest of this post the possibility that "electoral reform" itself could be interpreted to mean many different things.)

In May's individual statement, that wording gets turned into this:
(I)n addition to not running against me in Central Nova, he has signaled a willingness to reform our electoral system.
Not surprisingly, this appears to take the joint statement up a level: there's a big difference between identifying a possible area of future change, and demonstrating any real willingness or commitment to make changes in that area given the chance.

By contrast, the Libs don't include anything about electoral reform in their press release - unless one counts a change in government as "electoral reform":
“The planet has reached its limit. The human-caused damage to our natural environment is devastating,” (Dion) said. “Currently, our two parties agree that urgent action is needed. So, too, do the vast majority of Canadians. Yet our electoral system could return to government the only political party that does not believe action is required urgently.”
Somehow this doesn't sound like the words of anybody who'll be joining Fair Vote Canada anytime soon.

Just for fun, let's go one step further to Saskboy's spin on the above passages:
May has an agreement from the Dion Liberals to make meaningful electoral reforms when he goes to power...
Do we need to go through this again?

Getting back to the substance of the matter, it seems glaringly clear that Dion hasn't actually committed to anything approaching electoral reform. But will that necessarily remain true going forward?

Unfortunately, Dion himself has demonstrated at best a tepid interest in electoral reform. Remember this from the Lib leadership campaign:
I had read previously in Miles Lunn's blog that Dion had been positive about the German Mixed-Member Proportional voting system (which combines our current system with compensatory seats that would come from some sort of party list, making the result proportional), so I began there. He confirmed that yes, he is personally in favour of a reform toward a system that would involve two-thirds of the seats being elected as they are now and a further one-third through "compensatory proportional representation," adding that he would want a "five percent threshhold in every province" (meaning that a party would have to attain at least 5% of the vote in any given province in order to gain seats there). In fact, he says that he once wrote a book chapter with University of Saskatchewan professor and electoral systems expert John Courtney, outlining the details of the proposal he favoured. All this was delightful to hear, especially after my disappointing encounter with Gerard Kennedy, who didn't even seem to know what proportional representation was. Also, the reason Dion gave for his support for this reform is one of my own main reasons for favouring proportional representation: he wants to "guarantee that each region of our country is not marginalized," i.e., to make it possible for, say, a Liberal government to have MPs elected in areas where they tend to be weaker, so that one region of a country doesn't dominate another.

For all this positive talk about electoral reform, though, he's clearly not willing to push it himself. "That is a debate that I cannot impose as a candidate in this race," he said, because "it's something that we will need to have a parliamentary review to look at." All he is willing to commit to as prime minister is "an open debate with the people discussing it and coming with their solutions and their suggestions and we'll see if a consensus may come from it." This is similar to what Paul Martin promised but didn't deliver on, and it falls far short of a real federal-level citizens' assembly on electoral reform similar to the ones they had in B.C. and currently have in Ontario, followed by a cross-country referendum. To me, this suggests that Dion wouldn't be willing to give the voters the power to make real decisions on their electoral system, which worries me.

Much more of a concern, though, is the fact that he doesn't seem to have thought beyond the theoretical details of his favoured reform to the changes that it would necessarily make in our political culture. When asked about what he would do if his party attained a minority of seats under his leadership, he said "I'm confident that we can win a majority" in three different ways. In fact, he regards the fact that a his favoured system would produce few, if any, single-party majority governments as "a problem of the reform." When asked directly about his openness to forming a coalition with another party, he ignored the question entirely, and when I later pointed out that the electoral system he favours has almost always tended to produce coalitions in other countries, he said that "Canada is not accustomed to having coalitions, and I'm not sure that Canadians are ready for that."
In sum, while Dion might be seen as sympathizing with the value of electoral reform, he's had no qualms about saying that he refuses to try to push any change within his own party. And it seems fairly obvious that a Lib party structure built on an expectation of majority government is going to need an awful lot of persuading to accept a system which will make that outcome far less likely.

So there's plenty of reason to be skeptical about Dion's personal interest in electoral reform. And today's announcement doesn't do anything to suggest that the Greens have managed to change that fact.

Which isn't to say that today's announcement can't be the start of a genuine sea change. But the next necessary step is for Dion to prove to Canadians that he actually values the possibility of electoral reform - by speaking out about it personally, making sure it receives prominent placement in the Libs' next party platform, and taking on the inertia within his party head-on. And if that doesn't happen, then today's words can only be seen an attempt to fool the Greens' base, rather than the first step toward anything positive.

In contrast, if Dion defies my expectations by following through, that would be the time for the NDP to start serious talks with both the Libs and Greens. And I'd be the first to criticize them if they refused to work with two parties who were clearly headed in the right direction on electoral reform. But even then it's worth noting that based on the Libs' track record for delaying or ignoring promises, there would be a serious need for safeguards in any electoral coalition.

Sadly, though, the issue doesn't seem likely to get down to that level of detail. After all, the logical place for Dion to start the discussion would be the announcement of the deal - yet as noted above, the issue of electoral reform didn't even get mentioned by the Libs. Which appears to signal that Dion's putative interest in electoral reform will go no further than today's joint statement...and that Green supporters have just one more reason to disbelieve their own leader in claiming to have accomplished anything.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Choosing one's advice

The CP reports on what appears to have caused the Cons' partial turnaround on child care, as even an advisory group hand-picked by the Cons to push child care further into the private sector concluded that the party's tax-credit plan was doomed to fail:
The federal government needs a system for assessing the availability of child-care spaces in Canada as a basis for future policies on the problem, says a report commissioned by the Tories.

That recommendation, and a series of others from the ministerial advisory committee in January, did not make their way into the federal budget last month.

Still, the government seems to have agreed with the report's conclusion that Canadian businesses aren't keen on opening day-care spaces themselves. It recently abandoned a $250-million plan to give funding to firms with on-site centres...

The advisory committee, meanwhile, underlined that the demand for spaces outstrips supply in Canada.

"Parental demand for child care is increasing but demand is also increasing from employers who are struggling to fill jobs that are vacant due to the increasing competition for skilled labour and the growing labour shortage."...

The committee's report was released this week following access to information requests by the NDP and media outlets.

New Democrat MP Olivia Chow said the report supports her party's view that the government needs an early learning and child care act to enshrine certain principles about quality and accessibility into law.

"It said that there needs to be evaluation and accountability, the number of spaces needs to be measured," Chow said in an interview. "You can't do that unless there's a legislative framework."
Based on the committee's terms of reference, its conclusions were bound to be biased toward the Cons' intended solutions. And indeed the article cites a list of the report's suggestions to try to accomplish something based on the Cons' original framework.

Yet even from that starting point, the committee managed to come up with ideas far more sensible than those the Cons have shown any willingness to support. And it can only be to the Cons' discredit that such concepts as "gathering baseline data" and "measuring outcomes" would make for a radical change to how they currently operate.

Of course, the even bigger issue is the report's correct conclusion that the way forward for the federal government should involve a real expansion in child-care availability - not merely a fraction of the funding which was already producing little progress under the Libs. But unfortunately (if not surprisingly), the Cons are apparently content to ignore their own advisory committee when it reports on the need for that kind of action. And that can only signal how little commitment the Cons have to increasing - or even preserving - access to child care and other services in the future.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On bad deals

It's official: the Libs and Greens have cut a deal under which neither party will run a candidate in the other's leader's riding. And it's hard to see how the end result could be much more disastrous for either party.

First, let's look at the implications for the Libs. The first problem, as has already been noted, is the party's unexplained retreat from its 308-riding strategy (and indeed track record of running a candidate in each riding). While the most significant loss for the Libs will be in Central Nova itself - as the riding association has no reason to stay interested through the next election cycle - the message will presumably be heard loud and clear in other ridings as well: any riding association can find its work entirely unraveled at the whim of Dion and his handlers if it's seen as making the road easier for the Lib's leader. And that can only drain whatever enthusiasm may have remained among grassroots Libs who may have wanted to build their party up where it isn't currently competitive.

But the problems go far deeper than that. Today's deal can only create new fissures among the party's loyal supporters: while some Libs try to get at least an explanation or point out the reasons for not following through, others will take up the call to clap louder in hopes of papering over yet another avoidable trouble spot within the party. And Dion himself comes off looking both heavy-handed (in imposing his will on the riding association), and ineffective (in starting yet another internal fire of the kind that he's shown no ability to put out).

So what do the Libs get in exchange for all those costs? Dion didn't figure to be challenged in his own seat anyway, so the Greens' willingness not to run there doesn't make any positive difference. And it's hard to see how Elizabeth May had much choice but to remain at least somewhat positive about Dion given her constant gushing over the past few months - so slightly cementing that support seems like an awfully small gain in exchange for the wounds opened up by the move.

Amazingly, though, the Greens may end up even worse off than the Libs. By explicitly endorsing Dion for PM, May has effectively taken on every bit of Lib baggage in exchange for a slightly improved chance at a single seat. And even her own chances of getting into Parliament may be lessened if Central Nova voters see themselves as having been manipulated due to the Libs' choice to pack it in entirely rather than running even a weak candidate.

Then there's the Greens' choice to echo the Think Twice (But Don't Think Deeply) Coalition's rhetoric. This would be a bizarre choice at the best of times, but it's all the more so given the party's current supporters' actual preference among possible PMs.

That's right: as the lone party leader who already holds the dubious honour of being her own party's supporters' second choice for PM, May is throwing her support to their fourth choice (or sixth if one counts "none of the above" and "unsure") in an attempt to stop their first choice. Which only seems likely to alienate both a good chunk of current Green supporters, and anybody who might otherwise have flipped from supporting the Cons.

Now, I'm not one to suggest that parties should never seek to work together, and indeed I wouldn't mind seeing a genuine concerted effort at an electoral coalition which actually had the effect of reducing the likelihood of a Harper majority. In that vein, one could make a relatively plausible argument that the above costs to the Libs and Greens could potentially have been worth it for both parties if the result had been a national cooperative effort that actually led to significant strategic advantages.

But instead, the Libs and Greens have unleashed every possible negative about running a fully coordinated campaign...while still having to compete against each other in 306 ridings as well. That is, unless they each separately decide to abandon other ridings in addition to the two included in the agreement - or decide they have no choice but to expand the deal, which if done later would serve as evidence that neither party really thought through the consequences of today's announcement.

In a sense, the closest recent political comparator to today's deal may be Jean Charest's decision to campaign on a small tuition hike in the recent Quebec election - thereby enraging Quebec's students while not doing much to win support from any group. But then, the Lib/Green deal still manages to top that by including equally damaging results for two different parties, rather than simply reflecting a one-sided miscalculation.

Of course, another difference is that Charest's announcement came at the start of a campaign where the aftereffects couldn't be avoided. For now, the best chance for the Libs and Greens is probably a delayed election to allow them to get their respective acts together to avoid the immediate fallout. But I can't help but to suspect that if Harper wasn't previously planning on an election this year, he'll now be taking a much closer look at the possibility. And we'll have to hope the NDP is ready for a battle the likes of which it's never fought before, as the Libs under Dion haven't given any reason to think they have either the unity or the competence to keep Harper short of a majority.

Suppressing the facts

Charlie Angus notes that the programs gratuitously axed by the Cons last year included volunteering initiatives which have been found by an independent evaluation to be an effective use of public money. But due to the Cons' suppression of the audit which reached that conclusion, it's just now that Canadians are able to see just how harmful the Cons' move was:
Heritage Minister Bev Oda is refusing to release a positive audit report on important volunteer programs that were axed last fall under her watch. The Summative Evaluation, obtained by NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay), clearly shows that the Community Participation Programs (CPP) including the Canada Volunteerism Initiative (CVI) were necessary, useful, and cost-effective.

The audit, undertaken as a routine procedure for programs of this nature, would normally be made public. However, the positive review stands in stark contrast to Conservative rhetoric from last fall that claimed their funding cuts were targeted at programs that were “wasteful”, “inefficient” and “out of touch with average Canadians.” Therefore the report was only discovered as the result of an access to information request.

Angus, the NDP’s Heritage Critic, says Oda needs to explain the gap between the reality presented in the report and Conservative spin with respect to the CVI. “This report vindicates volunteer organizations from across Canada who were singled out by the Conservatives as wasteful and out of touch. Bev Oda stood by and did nothing to defend a Heritage Department success story. It’s time she came clean with the volunteer sector and told them why she walked away from them when they needed her most,” said Angus.
Angus concludes by demanding that the Cons restore full funding to the programs they cut. And that would certainly help to undo the damage in this case - though it would be expected that the programs would need some time to recover from having their funding wiped out.

That said, the bigger issue is the Cons' propensity for both evaluating programs on criteria which have nothing to do with their effectiveness, and systematically covering up any information which shows how their spin conflicts with reality. And based on the Cons' consistent track record since they took power, the only way to fix that problem is to replace Harper's gang of merry fabricators with a new government.

On thinning competition

Just in case the door to NDP electoral gains in Quebec (and elsewhere) wasn't open wide enough, word comes out today that some influential Libs want their party to crash and burn in the next election to precipitate a new leadership race, while there's a movement afoot among Parti Quebecois members to disband the Bloc. Which means that the NDP may already be the default alternative to the Cons as the next-largest party which isn't actively imploding.

On departures

I'll take a moment to chime in on Belinda Stronach's departure from politics by noting how the decision fits into her wider career path. Keep in mind that Stronach jumped right into the Con leadership race after working to pull the PCs and Alliance together, then similarly ascended immediately into Cabinet on crossing the floor. And even as she chose not to run for the Lib leadership, she kept nearly as a high a profile as those who were in the race with both the Spread the Net campaign and her public calls for internal party reform.

In sum, Stronach's political career to date was marked by a concerted attempt to acquire as much power as possible as soon as possible - and she was more successful than most in achieving that.

Based on this background, it seem entirely likely that her departure can only be explained by a conclusion that she'll effectively have more power at Magna than can be offered to her by the Libs - even after she didn't apparently have a problem spending some time on the Cons' opposition benches until she was offered the chance to cross the floor. And however fallible Stronach's political instincts may have been to date, the perception that the Libs aren't likely to win any power to offer Stronach can do nothing but hurt a party whose previous departures could all be explained based on either retirement-age MPs or personal loyalties rather than such strategic considerations.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Not encouraging

In case anybody was wondering whether Jim Flaherty had given up on his well-established pattern of speaking softly and carrying no stick in dealing with banks on ATM fees, have no fear, as he made another media appearance today to prove that he's being just as ineffective as ever:
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says he's “encouraged” after talking with the major banks about bank machine fees.

The finance minister says he expects more announcements concerning banks and the fees they charge for automatic bank machines will come within days.

Mr. Flaherty didn't elaborate about what those announcements might be at a speech in Mississauga, west of Toronto.
Needless to say, the smart money is on any upcoming announcements consisting of still more media appearances where Flaherty publicly blusters about how progress is just around the corner. Though if there's any good news, it's that Flaherty's proven ability to declare optimism in the face of planned failure makes him a natural favourite to be the U.S.' new war czar.

Room on the left

Stephane Dion presents an interesting twist in the battle for Quebec votes in the contrast he draws between the Libs and the Cons:
The Bloc Quebecois is losing its relevance as Quebecers grow increasingly tired of protest politics, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said Wednesday.

"Quebecers now have the taste for an action vote rather than a protest vote," Dion said after a meeting with local party organizers in Levis, Que., just south of Quebec City.

"In the next election, we'll ask who can form the better government," Dion said. "In this debate, between the right-wing politics of Mr. Harper and the centrist politics that we propose, the Bloc will no longer be relevant."
The corollary to Dion's attempt to claim a "centrist" mantle would seem to be that neither the Libs nor the Cons can plausibly speak for the left in Quebec. And while that may be entirely true, it's not an admission that I'd have expected to hear from the Libs anytime soon.

While Dion of course doesn't mention the main federalist option for Quebec's left, it's worth noting that based on the recent SES leaders poll, Bloc voters already favour Jack Layton as a possible Prime Minister by a three-to-one margin over Dion. Which means that while now is likely an entirely promising time for the three major federal parties to put the squeeze on the Bloc, it also appears possible that both the preferences of Bloc voters and the Libs' own strategy will ensure that the NDP gets a strong share of any votes freed up by a Bloc decline.

Unaccountable

As if we needed more evidence that Harper government sees "accountability" as an excuse to inflict punishment on its political enemies rather than a value that it's even remotely interested in promoting, take a look at today's examples of the Cons' determination to cut any non-partisan sources out of government decision-making:

- The Cons are once again making Canada's laws on the long-gun registry inapplicable by fiat;

- More information has come out about the completely opaque process being used to select a new RCMP commissioner;

- Word comes out that Environment Minister John Baird has entirely avoided meeting with the scientists who know the most about the most central environmental issue now facing Canada; and

- A Con MP has vividly demonstrated his party's values by noting that eating doughnuts is a higher priority than answering for election promises.

But just in case you were worried that nobody was being asked to answer for anything, anybody who was involved in federal government polling more than four years ago will be put under the microscope.

A voice for change

Andrew Coyne has already earned plenty of plaudits for his willingness to call out those who blindly support the Cons. But while that post's appeal may have itself rested largely on a partisan base, his column today on Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform looks to have potential appeal across the political spectrum, as it offers a strong mainstream voice in favour of a move to PR:
This weekend, the assembly will decide whether to recommend sticking with the present system, known as "first past the post," or whether, as seems all but certain, to propose adopting a form of proportional representation, the system in use in most of the democratic world. The issue would then be put to the voters in a referendum, to coincide with this fall's provincial election. And if Ontario goes for it, you may be sure the idea will take on new life elsewhere.

By rights, the referendum ought to overshadow the election, a pallid affair between two cautious centrists that will change nothing. Change the electoral system, on the other hand, and you change everything, not least the predominance of cautious centrists: poll-driven, essentially interchangeable brokerage parties who wouldn't know an idea -- or a principle -- if it bit them in the leg. Electoral reform holds the potential, as nothing else does, to transform our politics, from the present squalid auction of state favours to a genuine contest of philosophies.

Which is why the two main parties, Liberals and Conservatives, are already lining up against it. (The NDP is in favour, though for scarcely less self-interested reasons.) Expect to see other interests, heavily invested in the status quo, campaign strenuously to defeat it. The Citizens Assembly? It has the support of a handful of geeks like me. But stay tuned...
Coyne notes some personal concerns with the exact model chosen by the Citizens Assembly, but ultimately concludes that the proposed system is still a significant improvement on the status quo. And if voices like Coyne's are leading the fight publicly, then the odds of Ontario blazing a new Canadian trial on needed electoral reform figure may become much less daunting than they may have seemed.

Update: Greg has more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The real choice

As a follow-up to this post, let's note that Jake McEwan's TILMA cheerleading job does stand out in one respect. Unlike most arguments for the agreement, it doesn't try to pretend that the TILMA will do anything but obliterate the ability of provinces and municipalities to act for the public good, as McEwan instead tries to paint the effective elimination of provincial autonomy as a plus:
Canadians have been hampered by an inter-provincial distrust of the power of free markets to produce economic and social benefits.

As a result, federalism has evolved into an inefficient system of provincial and municipal enclaves of economic autonomy. Provincial economic independence has created an interprovincial trading system that hampers productivity through barriers that curb the flow of goods and services...

We can continue to have barriers that perpetuate regional divisions and fragment the nation into a series of city-states and regional solitudes, or we can integrate as a whole and create a more productive Canada with free movement of goods, capital and people.
I couldn't disagree much more strongly with McEwan's conclusion or with his false assumptions about the upside of the TILMA. But it's worth highlighting that the choice facing provinces is indeed largely as McEwan describes.

On the one hand, each province can choose to maintain its authority to operate independently, which can easily include efforts to harmonize those rules which can be agreed to without a TILMA-style straitjacket. On the other, each province can throw in its lot with the TILMA in hopes that enough economic benefits result for their citizens and municipalities to not mind the fact that the provincial government (including all municipalities) is effectively unable to respond to their needs.

Given how many provinces have rightly been concerned in the past about relatively minor intrusions on their freedom to act when those are created by the federal government, it's hard to see how many (aside from the rabidly right-wing regimes which have already signed on) would have reason to be happy with the latter option merely because it's a self-imposed restraint. And that's doubly so given the lack of anything approaching a reliable indication that the TILMA will actually bring about any substantial economic benefits.

While there's been loads of misinformation about what's actually included in the TILMA, the only honest case for the agreement as drafted is to claim - as McEwan implicitly does - that the very notion of democratic provincial government is quaint and outmoded. The problem for the TILMA's backers is that there's little reason to believe that the public at large shares that view - which will hopefully push the rest of Canada's provinces to avoid signing away their autonomy as Alberta and B.C. already have.

On religious fervour

Shorter Jake McEwan:
If we have the faith to sacrifice our provinces to the Market Gods, a bounteous harvest will be our reward. - Conference Board of Canada, 3:16.

Never mind then

And to think I once worried that personal information in the hands of political parties might not be entirely secure. I should have known that they'd ultimately place a high value on maintaining the public's trust.

End of conversation

As a followup to yesterday's post on the False Creek Medical Centre, the Vancouver Sun reports that not only is the B.C. Lib government not apparently looking to take any action to deal with the new private emergency room, but it's instead taking the clinic's side in arguing against any federal action under the Canada Health Act:
Health Minister George Abbott said he doubts a private urgent care centre which reopened in Vancouver Monday will invite fines to the province by the federal government because a similar facility in Quebec has not garnered any such negative notice.

Abbott said in an interview he will contact Health Canada today to alert officials to the reopening of the Urgent Care Centre at False Creek Surgical Centre.

However, he said he doubts the federal government will regard it as breaching Canada Health Act statutes because such private centres exist unfettered in Quebec. In that province, doctors who work in such facilities are not enrolled in the publicly funded Medical Services Plan because they have opted out...

In his own press conference outside the private centre, NDP health critic Adrian Dix said the Canada Health Act clearly prohibits paying privately for medically necessary care and even if the urgent care centre has found a loophole in provincial statutes, the federal government could still levy a fine against B.C.

"If they respect the law, they have to take steps here; it's not a choice, it's an obligation," Dix said, referring to federal authorities.
It's likely worth pointing out what may be a violation of the Canada Health Act, even if the current Con regime is one which has absolutely no interest in enforcing federal law.

But it's surprising that the debate has shifted there so quickly when just last fall, the Campbell government was supposedly willing to make sure that the same clinic couldn't undermine public health care by operating on a patient-pay basis. It's the Libs who are doing nothing to close an unnecessary loophole which is being used to allow for corporatized health care. And they'll bear the ultimate blame if their negligence (or outright hostility toward a single-payer system) makes the province's "conversation" on health care moot.

See more from Eugene.

On leaders

Another day, another poll, another reason to think the NDP can make inroads in Quebec. This time, it's Jack Layton's 13% "best prime minister" vote in the province. While the number itself isn't terribly impressive (indeed it's Layton's worst regional number), it offers yet another example of the NDP's Quebec numbers being not far off from the Libs', and in this case slightly higher.

Meanwhile, as noted by Jeff, Stephane Dion's numbers have to be a serious concern for the Libs. And it's worth highlighting the most striking one of all: Dion's anemic 10% Quebec showing comes in the province which knows Dion best, and which he was chosen in large part for his ability to win.

Instead, all indications are that Dion is fighting a losing battle with the NDP for third place, rather than pushing the Libs toward dominance in Quebec. And if Layton can continue that pattern in Quebec, it may not be long before the rest of the country follows in seeing the NDP as the strongest national opponent to the Cons.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Insider trading

David Olive discusses suspicious trading of stock in Canada and abroad, noting that while Canada stands out with "aberrant trading patterns" preceding nearly 2/3 of large mergers, a substantial number of major transactions in the U.S. and U.K. have similarly followed dubious increases in trading. And somewhere, a free marketeer claims there's no reason to think the market will operate anything but fairly on its own.

False promises

Last fall, it was reported that B.C. Health Minister George Abbott had reached a "compromise" under which the False Creek Surgical Centre would operate as a publicly-funded facility rather than opening the door to private emergency rooms. But today, word comes out that the clinic in fact never operated that way, and is brazenly implementing a fully patient-funded model now that the initial outcry has died down:
A private Vancouver emergency clinic is reopening for British Columbia residents after apparently finding a loophole in provincial public health care rules.

The Urgent Care Centre at the False Creek Surgical Centre charges fees for on-site access to emergency room physicians. The...facility has been treating out of province and foreign patients since it opened last December...

The clinic was initially open to anyone but after discussions with the government, it pulled the plug on B.C. residents.

Medical director Dr. Mark Godley says the clinic has now hired emergency care doctors who have never enrolled with the B.C. Medical Services Plan, allowing them to levy private fees.
Today's announcement makes it apparent that Abbott must have been either lying about the nature of the "compromise" to begin with, or utterly negligent in making sure the clinic lived up to its side of the bargain. After all, the False Creek clinic surely can't have been seen as "operating like any other walk-in clinic" if its policy has been to refuse to treat B.C. residents in order to make sure that all payments were received from patients rather than from the publicly-funded system.

Meanwhile, it's far from certain that the clinic is correct in asserting that it's legally in the clear. On a quick review of B.C.'s Medicare Protection Act, the clinic would be subject to prosecution at least if its fees exceed the payment guidelines set out under the public system. Moreover, the linked version may not reflect amendments to the Medicare Protection Act which were apparently passed last fall to enable the provincial government to take action against similar schemes.

At this point, though, there's less reason than ever to trust that the B.C. Libs will make use of any means to protect publicly-funded health care even if those mechanisms already exist. And it remains to be seen whether the False Creek clinic's delay tactics will succeed in preventing any amount of public attention from correcting matters now.

A need for privacy

It may be awhile before it's possible to determine all the areas where the TILMA would impede on current government policy, let alone areas in which governments might want to act in the future. But on some reflection, it's worth adding one more major area to the list where the TILMA could create a serious shift against the public interest.

To my knowledge, most (if not all) provinces have legislation governing what may be done with personal health information; in Saskatchewan's case, it's the Health Information Protection Act. In addition, many provinces also have legislation governing the use of other personal information by businesses; for example, see Alberta's Personal Information Protection Act.

Given that such laws are entirely common among Canadian provinces, one would think that the TILMA would at least have taken them into account. But instead, nothing under the agreement appears to speak directly to the protection of privacy: on a quick review I don't see the term used either in the exceptions section (Part V), or the list of legitimate objectives.

For an example of what this could mean, consider what could happen where a business is able to show that it could make money selling personal health information, such that privacy legislation impedes on its ability to make a profit.

Under the TILMA, it's not even clear that a province challenged over a health privacy law would have an argument available to defend the statute. At best, the province would have to argue that the protection of personal health information constitutes either consumer protection, or part of providing health care in the province. And even then, the province would have to prove that its manner of dealing with the information was precisely the least restrictive possible from a profit standpoint - which would seem very difficult to prove with respect to statutes whose entire raison d'etre is the protection of privacy.

On losing any challenge, a province would then be left with three choices: it could essentially pay a regular tithe to private operators for the privilege of refusing them permission to sell off sensitive information; it could try to rewrite its privacy laws every time they're challenged in hopes of winning in front of a tribunal; or it could give in and make personal health information available to be sold freely.

Needless to say, such an end result would be disastrous from the standpoint of any patient who doesn't want to see their health information available for purchase by anyone interested - particularly since the choice to open up personal health information for sale would seem to be the path of least resistance for the government involved. But the TILMA seems entirely likely to make that a reality before long in the provinces reckless enough to sign on.

When it comes to information other than health information, the picture seems rather murkier. Generally, businesses are bound by the federal PIPEDA if there's no provincial counterpart legislation. But it seems entirely possible that the TILMA could be used to argue that each province should have precisely the weakest legislation which can possibly be accepted as an alternative to PIPEDA, thereby watering down existing privacy protections as far as possible.

Again, I'm sure there are many other areas where the TILMA may have equally dangerous potential effects - and I'll keep an eye for any more that can be pointed out. But it's safe to say that with each example, it becomes more and more clear that the TILMA falls far short of taking into account the legitimate needs of the general public.

Update: In the comments, Declan rightly points out that Article 7.4 of the TILMA does appear to offer some substantial protection for privacy laws. I'm not sure that the provision is bulletproof, as it could plausibly be read to apply only to information in the immediate control or possession of a province rather than the general content of privacy laws; however, the section does indicate that privacy is somewhat better protected than most other areas of public interest.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

On real costs

Erin's discussion about a federal conference on internal trade highlights the fact that while the TILMA's alleged benefits have been properly debunked in the minds of all but the most reality-averse corporate shills, its costs need to be far more strongly considered:
The academic and policy people all agreed that the material costs of alleged inter-provincial barriers are insignificantly small relative to the economy. Representatives of nursing and legal associations indicated that their members have no difficulty transferring between provinces and perceive no meaningful barriers to labour mobility...

Despite the near consensus that there is not much of a problem, there was some discussion of potential “solutions”: expanding TILMA, deepening the Agreement on Internal Trade, or applying the World Trade Organization’s rules to intra-national trade...

Many participants had not scrutinized TILMA and its likely negative consequences. Although John Helliwell and I tried to raise some of these potential pitfalls, I fear that many people have concluded that this agreement entails minor benefits but no costs...

The optimistic conclusion is that Marc, I, and others have been somewhat successful in dispelling the fantasy that TILMA will yield significant economic benefits. The pessimistic conclusion is that much more needs to be done to inform people of TILMA’s economic, social, and environmental costs.
As noted by Erin, much of the debate over the TILMA has centred on the wildly-inflated claims about the possible benefits. But that focus on debating the size (or existence) of any benefit may result in the anti-TILMA side paying short shrift to the even more important costs of any agreement which puts a straitjacket on government in the name of increased corporate profits.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to quantify what some of those costs could be - though it's not hard to extrapolate from the Sierra Club's legal analysis to see how the TILMA could constrain governments now in ways which result in far larger environmental costs in the future.

But even immediate dollar amounts aside, it's also worth noting the political cost when governments are preventing from governing. Any problem faced by governments under a TILMA-type regime will have a far more limited range of potential solutions, with a strong bias toward corporate-friendly ones even if these do less to resolve the core issue. And that real reduction in what government actually does is only likely to lead to further cynicism on the question of whether government can in fact do better.

Needless to say, that kind of shift from (relatively) people-centred decision-making to an enforced corporate-friendly focus is probably exactly what makes the TILMA so appealing to businesses. But it's also a serious danger which would itself make for reason to be highly skeptical of the TILMA even if the Conference Board's invented benefits were even close to realistic.

An unwanted suggestion

Shorter Gerry Nicholls:
If the Libs were smart, they'd set liberalism back 200 years.

(Edit: fixed label.)

Subtle movement

There's been no lack of talk about the latest SES poll in general and the Quebec results in particular. But one interesting part of those results seems to have escaped notice so far: the Libs' Quebec decline combined with a boost for the NDP has closed the gap between the parties to only 5 points (18% to 13%). And it's worth examining the implications if those numbers are an accurate reflection of Quebec public opinion - which seems fairly likely, particularly given that other polls have also shown the gap narrowing or even being eliminated entirely.

First, the NDP's gain makes it more likely that (as suggested by Nik Nanos) the Libs' drop was based on recent negative press based on the sponsorship scandal and the Cons' attack ads, rather than approval for the Cons based on the federal budget. After all, if the movement was based on the budget, one would expect the NDP to lose ground as well, while the Bloc would presumably stand to gain for its support of the budget. Instead, the movement seems to be toward "anyone but the Libs".

Which leads nicely into the second point worth noting, as the NDP's rise suggests that it's already seen by a significant number of voters as a realistic option for those who don't want to put their federalist votes behind Harper. Contrary to the claim that there's no other federalist alternative besides the Cons and the Libs, the NDP is already in a position to compete with the Libs. And any continued growth for the NDP, combined with the party's recent wave of star candidate possibilities, should put the NDP in a strong position to turn its support into Quebec seats.

Update: Jeff has more.