Saturday, November 17, 2007

Poorly covered

Shorter Peter MacKay:
Of course the Con government knew things that it pretended not to, and suppressed information which would have proven it wrong until a court ordered otherwise. But it's completely unfair to describe that as a "cover up".

On disinformation

The Star reports that the Cons are set to axe a health information network which would otherwise be used literally millions of times per year by Canadian medical practitioners. And aside from including the network in part of a set of arbitrary spending cuts, the Cons' reasoning seems to be based largely on the fact that the network contains too much useful information:
Effective March 31, 2008, the Canadian Health Network will cease to exist.

For the past eight years, it has provided citizens and medical professionals with a reliable, non-commercial source of online information about how to stay healthy and prevent disease.

Although the website ( is managed by the Winnipeg-based Public Health Agency of Canada, it is a collaboration of 26 organizations – government departments, universities, hospitals, libraries and non-profit health providers – who draw on 1,600 specialists across the country...

(L)ately, (the CHN) website has been getting 380,000 hits a month, 40 per cent of them health-care professionals. In the last year alone, its usage has increased by 70 per cent. It has established a reputation as a trustworthy portal in a cyberworld of drug manufacturers, health-care conglomerates and self-promoting quacks...

Health Minister Tony Clement launched a new website,, in October, to provide users with information about all of the government's programs – its children's fitness tax credit, its revised Canada Food Guide, its toy safety tips, its latest product recalls and its healthy pregnancy guide – designed to promote an active, well-balanced lifestyle.

There's certainly nothing wrong with centralizing all of Ottawa's health information in one place.

What's missing from the new database is any reference to the links between health and the environment, disease and poverty, or violence and gun control. Nor does it touch sensitive topics such as abortion, genetically modified foods or sexual abuse. It completely overlooks mental illness.

In contrast, the Canadian Health Network is all-encompassing. It looks at controversial questions from all sides. It is constantly updated as new knowledge becomes available.
From the usage numbers, it looks to be virtually beyond dispute that the CHN website is seen as useful by Canadian health care providers. And even if one doesn't take as proven the article's suggestion that the network might actually operate with a surplus, it seems equally clear that any program which can offer valuable information to health care providers in the range of two million times every year is more than worth the cost of the Cons' ordered $16 million cut.

But the Cons are apparently of the view that the benefit of a cheap, effective way of improving health care for Canadians is more than outweighed by their desire to remove any uncomfortable material from web pages affiliated with the federal government, as well as to focus more attention on their partisan actions (rather than information which could actually be useful to health care providers).

The end result, though, can only be to make it more difficult for Canadian health care providers to find information relating to the issues which the Cons want to sweep under the rug. And with the Cons taking active steps to ensure worse service for the Canadians who most need a responsive health care system, there's ever more reason to doubt Canada can afford much more of the Cons' course of treatment.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Perception first

Number of Con MPs who were eager to be seen supporting a former Prime Minister who acknowledges having taken $300,000 in cash from a man since charged with fraud and bribery as long as that little bit of unpleasantness was out of the public eye: 17.

Number of Con MPs who bailed on that same former Prime Minister once it became inevitable that Canadians would be reminded that he took $300,000 in cash from a man since charged with fraud and bribery: 17.

Once again, the Cons have sent a strong message that as far as they're concerned, anything can be overlooked just as long as nobody's paying too much public attention to it. Which should offer just one more reminder of both the need to keep the Cons under the microscope, and the likely rewards awaiting any effort to dig into what's currently being kept hidden.

Out of the loop

Given how transparent the Cons' diversion tactics are at the moment, I'll try to avoid allowing them to distract from bigger issues like infrastructure. But it's worth pointing out one odd aspect of the Cons' official Crime Posturing Week, as Justice Minister Rob Nicholson seems to be utterly clueless about what's going on in his own party.

Here's Nicholson today:
Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says he's on side with his provincial counterparts who want changes to the double credit criminals usually get for time served in remand.

Nicholson says he's happy the issue was discussed at a justice ministers meeting in Winnipeg this week and he plans to draft legislation making the jail credit system clearer.

But he wouldn't give a date for when he expects such a bill to be introduced in Parliament.
So what's wrong with that position? Here's the web page with information on Bill C-475, a private member's bill introduced earlier this week by Con MP Rick Dykstra - which deals with exactly the issue discussed by Nicholson. (That should also say anything one could need to know about which side likely brought up the subject within the federal/provincial talks.)

In keeping with the Cons' rule against independent thought, Dykstra's bill would have been vetted by the Cons prior to being introduced. But apparently nobody bothered to tell Nicholson - even as he's making public appearances dealing with the same issue in the same week that Dykstra put his bill before Parliament.

Not that it's much surprise that the Cons are once again failing to inform the responsible minister about decisions from on high. (See Chong, Michael.) But if the image-obsessed Cons aren't even competent enough to get their appearances right in trying to move public discussion back to less hostile turf, there's all the more reason to worry just how much more they're messing up on the substantial matters which rank lower on their priority list.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Today's story about the Cons' use of part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Trust fund for other programs may not seem particularly important on its face. But it's worth noting a few of the broader implications of what the Cons seem to have done.

Note that the discussion below assumes - as seems to be the case from the article - that the Cons have actually pulled money out of the settlement trust fund for use elsewhere, rather than simply failing to put money into the trust fund as originally planned. (Of course, there would certainly be some issues one way or the other.)

If the Cons have indeed taken funds out of the trust, that would seem to signal a complete lack of appreciation for the need to appropriately manage different pools of money. The opposition line so far has focused on the transaction as a "shell game" to shift money from one place to another, and that's undoubtedly an important consideration. But it's the particular pool of money chosen as a source which would seem especially problematic.

I'm not sure whether it's less plausible to think that the Cons could actually not know that a trust fund is supposed to be used solely for the benefit of the trust beneficiaries, or that they could manage not to care where funds come from if they can be diverted to benefit the party's public appearance. But it's hard to see how either could be anything but a clear indictment of the Cons' fitness to handle Canada's public funds.

Second, even if the Cons could paper over such a move at law by passing their supplementary estimates, any withdrawal would still look to be a glaring breach of the federal government's agreement with residential school survivors. The Trust Agreement which forms part of the residential school settlement includes this obligation on the federal government as trustee at 3.1:
The Trustee...agrees to hold...all amounts at any time forming part of the Trust Fund upon the trusts and subject to the terms contained in this Agreement and the Settlement Agreement.
On my reading, that phrase couldn't be much more clear in stating that the federal government promised to hold the trust fund - including all money which was part of it at any time - to be preserved and used for the purposes set out in the Trust Agreement.

Now, it may be that there's some provision tucked into one of the settlement documents which overrides that intention. But on a quick review of the Trust Agreement and the main settlement agreement, I didn't see anything to that effect. (And just so we're clear, the federal government's ability to retain legal ownership of the fund for the purpose of administering the trust wouldn't seem to take any priority over the use for which the money is intended.)

From what I can tell, then, the Cons would seem to have broken their own commitment to a group which already has far too much reason to distrust the federal government. And it's hard to imagine why the Cons would want to keep adding insult to the injury inflicted by residential schools.

In that respect, let's note one final point for now. Under the Trust Agreement, any surplus money in the trust fund would be used for additional Common Experience Payments for residential school survivors, as well as funding for the National Indian Brotherhood Trust Fund and the Inuvialuit Education Foundation. So if the Cons succeed in actually taking money out of the trust fund in the longer term, that's who stands to lose out.

We'll hopefully find out before too long exactly what the circumstances were behind the Cons' diversion of money. And from there we'll see if the story develops legs, whether the federal government will simply quietly repay any amounts withdrawn - or whether the story will get lost in the cacophony that is the federal political scene at the moment.

But this looks like it could be the most disturbing example of Con mismanagement yet. And nobody but the Cons can win out in the long run if it's allowed to pass without some serious scrutiny.

Setting the rules

The Globe and Mail reports that the Cons have attempted to rewrite the rulebook for Parliamentary committees to give themselves even more means of ducking any hearings which they'd prefer to avoid. But I'm curious as to why the opposition isn't looking to get some new rules in place as well to make sure the Cons can't continue their obstruction:
Conservative parliamentary secretaries arrived at the inaugural committee meetings of the new session this week with motions for changes that would include requiring 48 hours notice before the committee could debate any motion.

Motions that are not quickly debated would die, the number of questions that the New Democrats could ask would be reduced, and the presence of at least one government and one opposition member would be required for quorum.

The parliamentary secretaries also want to be added to the four-person steering committees - currently composed of a member from each party - that decide what business the committees will handle.

Opposition members outnumber Conservatives on every committee. So, while some of the rule changes have been accepted, others were flatly rejected...

The proposed rule changes mean Prime Minister Stephen Harper "is trying to run all parties the way he is trying to run his own," (NDP MP Yvan) Godin said. "It's his way or the highway."
I'll be interested to see the breakdown as to which changes were accepted and which ones rejected. While the extra notice for motions might not be the most controversial of issues, the steering committee and quorum proposals look to have absolutely no purpose other than to give the Cons the ability to shut down discussion of any inconvenient topic. (And naturally the attempt to silence the NDP looks like a serious problem.)

While the Cons' changes seem to have already been dealt with, though, I'm surprised that the opposition parties aren't apparently trying to get a few of the rules moved in the opposite direction.

Remember that under the current rules, the Cons' existing playbook has allowed them to cut off any discussion by having the committee chair adjourn a hearing abruptly with no opportunity for debate. Particularly with the Cons opening the door to rule changes, shouldn't the opposition take the opportunity to put forward some new adjournment rules to ensure that Con chairs can't unilaterally halt any hearing - and at least force the Cons to reconsider part of their current disruption strategy?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On selective listening

There have been some reports suggesting that Deceivin' Stephen's actions surrounding the latest in the Mulroney/Schreiber scandal somehow represent a willingness to break with Mulroney and his ilk. But let's take a closer look at who and what Harper has actually listened to in deciding to allow for a public inquiry.

We can safely rule out any personal principle about actually keeping government clean, since Harper's office kept the facts under wraps for over seven months.

Opposition questioning on its own didn't lead to anything more than posturing from the Cons, as they sought to reach a mutual coverup agreement with the Libs.

How about public pressure? That was enough to force Harper to want to be seen doing something. But it wasn't enough for him to even hint at anything more than a third-party report (which may itself have been for Harper's eyes only).

But when the Godfather himself asks for a public inquiry? Suddenly, Harper feels the need to claim that his plan was to have one all along.

So don't take any pity on Mulroney in being "shunned" by the Cons; he can stay secure in the knowledge that he's still far more likely to have his concerns acted on by Harper's regime than almost anybody else in the country.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On speaking out

Adam Radwanski wonders whether Stephane Dion will seek to appear before Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor commission. But it's worth wondering whether Dion is really the right politician for the job.

After all, Radwanski points out some serious potential downsides for Dion in appearing before the commission - most notably the danger that he'd put in a poor appearance, and the risk of burning bridges with Quebec's governing Libs. But the federal NDP could make an appearance with little risk of either of those downsides, as well as with far more to be gained. So is there any reason why the NDP - either through Jack Layton if he's able to speak before the commission, or through Thomas Mulcair if only Quebec residents are offered the opportunity to make a presentation - shouldn't be taking up a lead role in defending multiculturalism in Quebec?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Common issues

The CP reports that while the Cons may have put an end to one lawsuit with their settlement with Alan Riddell, they may soon face claims from Brent Barr and Mark Warner over their terminated candidacies.

Which leads to the inevitable question: how long before the set of Cons aggrieved by the party's undemocratic choices becomes large enough for a class action?

Concealed agreements

The Ottawa Citizen reports that the Cons have come full circle. Having pushed Alan Riddell out of the way to make room for whistleblower Allan Cutler as a symbol for accountability and transparency, they appear to have managed to pressure Riddell into keeping quiet and going along with the party line:
The Conservative party has reached an out-of-court settlement with Alan Riddell in the Ottawa lawyer's libel suit against Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the party's president, a party statement says.

The one-paragraph statement says nothing about the terms of the settlement and does not name Mr. Harper or party president Don Plett...

Mr. Riddell said yesterday he could not comment on the terms of the settlement...

Mr. Riddell added that now that the issue has been settled, he looks forward to supporting Mr. Harper and working on behalf of the party in future elections. The party had revoked Mr. Riddell's membership, but he was unable to disclose whether it is being reinstated.
Now, there's little indication as to why Riddell would be eager to once again start working for a party which pushed him out the door, and which indeed doesn't appear willing to publicly announce that it's letting him back in. Which leads me to wonder whether Riddell's positive-sounding statement (and subsequence silence) may have been the Cons' price for paying out what they owed.

But then, it still remains to be seen whether the Cons will later try to deny the terms of the settlement as they did with the agreement which induced Riddell to drop his candidacy in the first place.

Whatever the merits of settling from Riddell's perspective, the implications for the Cons are clear: the secrecy behind the settlement offers just one more example of the party's belief that accountability applies only to others. And while Riddell may no longer be fighting to bring this particular incident into the public eye, the fact that the Cons see something worth covering up even this late in the proceedings suggests that there's plenty more worth exposing - if anybody's willing to blow the whistle.

(Hat tip to Jeff.)


The CP reports on yet another Con broken promise, as National Defence has been forced to admit that the Cons' new funding couldn't support their promised increase in the size of the Canadian military. But even the new set of reduced targets seems to be based largely on wishful thinking:
The Defence Department's latest performance report says the 2006 pledge to increase the number of regular reserve soldiers, sailors and aircrew has been revised because of costs and the high attrition rate of serving members...

The document also warns that if more members than expected choose to leave the military over the next five years, the situation will worsen. Recruiting would then have to be stepped up dramatically or some units may be under strength...

The military based its revised expansion figures on an average attrition rate of 6.1 per cent a year. But that figure represents all occupations, and in certain fields - such as combat arms - attrition is running between 12 and 13 per cent.

Leslie said attrition in the army is running at a (sic) average of eight per cent.

The report shows the Canadian Forces are exceeding recruitment targets but trained members are going out the door just as fast.
And the picture only figures to get worse over the next few years. From Auditor General Sheila Fraser's 2006 report:
National Defence data show that there is a large concentration of members in their later years of service who are approaching the time when they will be eligible for retirement. Approximately 50 percent of Regular Force personnel have 15 years of service or more; thus they are either already eligible to leave or will soon be. Because of the potential for a large number of military personnel to leave over the next five to ten years, National Defence is predicting that attrition will rise. As the exhibit shows, there are few members behind those leaving to fill in the gap.

National Defence data show that attrition rates are also higher than average in the early years when members are getting initial training and adjusting to military life. Currently, about 31 percent of Regular Force personnel have less than six years of service. Since so many members are in their early years, the average rate of attrition is expected to increase in coming years.

The combined factors of higher rates of attrition and larger numbers of people in the early and later periods of their service are expected to lead to a higher overall attrition in coming years. While attrition in the Regular Force has averaged six percent since 2000, National Defence expects an increase over the next 10 years.
Of course, the rise to 8% itself may make for some of that increase which Fraser identified as a likely result. But if military personnel are indeed more likely to depart early in their service, then the focus on an influx of new recruits should make for reason to expect even more attrition.

Instead, the Cons are choosing to assume an unrealistically low rate of attrition in order to try to preserve a target slightly closer to their even more implausible initial promise, rather than setting an achievable goal based on what's actually likely to happen. And the more the Cons choose to plan their policies around best-case scenarios rather than likely outcomes, the worse off Canada figures to be when reality intervenes.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Surplus calculations

Remember the good old days last month when the National Post's editorial board chirped about the "ease with which the government will be able to finance (the Cons' tax cuts) out of the country's massive budget surplus"?

Apparently the Financial Post and its sources for this weekend's article on infrastructure don't. Which is why they claim that a massive wave of privately-owned infrastructure (subsidized by public money through long-term agreements which will tie government hands for decades to come) is "inevitable" due to a lack of public resources to fund needed improvements.

But don't worry too much about the federal government's fiscal position. After all, the National Post is bound to declare that it's back to being in great shape - just as soon as more tax cuts are on the table.