Saturday, December 26, 2009

On structural deficits

Since I haven't seen anybody else highlight the most obvious omission from Deficit Jim Flaherty's latest budget spin, let's point out that the Cons' anti-tax ideology will continue to make the federal deficit worse for years to come even if no new tax cuts are announced in 2010.

Back when the sea of red ink came into view with the tabling of the 2009 budget, I pointed out that just two of the Cons' moves alone accounted for $87 billion worth of red ink over a 5-year span. But that didn't even take into account Flaherty's multi-billion giveaway to big business, which will result in corporate tax rates continuing to fall until 2012. And what's worse, all of those tax giveaways are built into the federal fiscal structure for years to come - in stark contrast to the Cons' spending commitments which have almost invariably been short-term in scope.

Mind you, it's for the best if Flaherty doesn't plan to announce even more plans to make the federal government's fiscal position even worse. But there shouldn't be any doubt that his irresponsible obsession with tax slashing has done plenty to hurt Canada's balance sheet - and that the more sensible way to fix the damage is by revisiting some of Deficit Jim's structural tax changes, not using them as an excuse to attack social investments.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The reviews are in

Chris Selley, with a minor correction:
Ready for the punch line? Mr. Kenney pops up in the Toronto Star (a) to deny having called KAIROS anti-Semitic; (b) to deny having cut off funding to KAIROS because it's anti-Israel (let alone anti-Semitic); and (c) to deny having had anything whatsoever to do with cutting off KAIROS's funding in the first place.
Heaven only knows what went on here. Maybe it's just general hamhandedness. Maybe they hoped the benefits reaped whilst people assumed they'd taken a stand against anti-Semitism and/or for Israel would outweigh the damage reaped by disavowing the idea on a day when everyone's shopping instead of reading the Star. Maybe Ms. Oda really did make the decision on her own, and Mr. Kenney decided he'd try to score some disingenuous points with it in Israel. Whatever happened, it's a complete insult to Canadians' intelligence — and Israelis', come to think of it. And it's proof positive, as if any was needed, that nobody should put any stock in what any Canadian Conservative politician says. Ever. About anything.

Today in shoddy journalism

With the federal government doing everything in its power to prevent any global agreement on climate change and Alberta's provincial government trying to claim even that course of action doesn't do enough to favour the tar sands, it takes a remarkable amount of confusion and spin to pretend that one or both is somehow failing to be enough of a cheerleader for the oil industry. Which naturally leads us to the National Post:
Now, the findings of an Angus Reid Public Opinion survey of 810 Albertans show 50% of respondents are dissatisfied with the way the provincial government acted to deal with recent criticism of the oilsands. Only 35% of those polled were satisfied and 15% were not sure.

Albertans were similarly unimpressed with the federal government, with 49% dissatisfied with how Ottawa dealt with the same criticism. Thirty-four per cent of respondents were satisfied with Ottawa's actions, while 17% were not sure.

"It's clear that there's a fury in the land in the sense that people are using the oilsands as a whipping boy for climate change -- and people in Alberta don't like it," said Mario Canseco with pollster Angus Reid. "This definitely shows that this is something the two levels [of government] need to take into account."
Of course, anybody looking at the poll seeking anything other than an excuse to declare that an Alberta separation movement is imminent would note that there's more than one way to be dissatisfied with the response of a particular government.

Indeed, nearly all of the criticism leveled at both Harper and Stelmach on a national scale has been based on their insistence on favouring the tar sands at the expense of the economy of the rest of Canada. (After all, it's Ontario and Quebec which simply want all emissions to be treated equally, and the oil industry backed by the Alberta and federal governments who want tar-sands emissions to be treated more generously.)

Which likely explains why the poll was worded the way it was. If any option had been included to distinguish between dissatisfaction based on a government's being insufficiently loud in spouting pro-oil talking points and frustration based on a government unduly favouring the tar sands over other industries, then there would be no way to conflate the two in reporting on the poll's outcome.

But as it is, the pollster and the National Post lump both together and count them as being on the side of the oil industry. Which may produce the spin they're looking for out of the story - but signals that they don't recognize any prospect of winning even Alberta's public opinion in a fair fight.

Meanwhile, Brian Lilley's take on the Cons' attack on KAIROS manages to include a remarkable set of ever-shifting goalposts. Here's Lilley on why nobody should think the Cons' decision to publicly brag about "de-funding" the organization actually relates to Jason Kenney's public explanation:
(KAIROS), which has received funding for years from CIDA, was turned down on a request for government funding of a four-year project. They did not lose core funding that has put them on the brink of bankruptcy or closing up shop as the NDP claimed, they simply were turned down on a project proposal, this is something many groups, businesses, consultants face everyday. The difference here is that Kairos is able to mount a public relations campaign using all three opposition parties and a willing media to try and get back funding they never lost.
So why was Kairos turned down for funding?

Despite the attempts to turn this into another proxy war over the Middle East and Canada’s policy there, it is most likely that Kairos lost its funding because they didn’t fit the goals the government laid out. There is no entitlement to funding. Kairos made a pitch and they were turned down.
Now, this would make for a relatively reasonable and coherent defence if left on its own. But Lilley immediately shifts to contradicting his own point, making clear that as far as he's concerned, the Cons are fully entitled to shun KAIROS or any other group for failing to agree with their ideology:
Consider also that this is an old-fashioned left wing group, supportive of Marxist ideas like Liberation Theology, asking a Conservative government to fund it.

When the Harper government sought out a free-trade agreement with Columbia (sic), Kairos was there, with government money, to oppose it. Kairos sees plenty to be concerned about when it comes to human rights in Columbia (sic) and wants the Harper government to shun that country. Venezuela on the other hand is seen in a positive light. The message from Kairos, engagement is appropriate when a shady country is run by socialists, anything to the right deserves to be shunned.
Remember that just a few paragraphs earlier, Lilley went out of his way to point out that KAIROS received public funding only for specific projects, not for general operations. Which makes it downright stunning that he then chooses to assume without a shred of apparent evidence that it used "government money" in its efforts to protect human rights in Colombia.

Moreover, even if previous funding had been used for means which the Cons didn't like, any future funding agreement could easily be directed toward the parts of KAIROS' mandate which even the Cons couldn't find objectionable. And one would fully expect that to have happened if the federal government was interested in ensuring that a well-established aid organization was able to continue doing good work - rather than looking for an enemy to attack for political purposes.

So what is it that links the two above stories? In effect, they seem to me to signal that far too much of the Canadian media is going down the same path as the Harper government: focused solely on talking points which serve conservative causes even at the expense of accuracy or internal logic. And the less that type of mindset gets challenged either in the media or in politics, the easier it'll be for the likes of Harper to keep pushing it on a country which deserves better.

What Greg said

Harper has unlocked the secret to minority party rule, by an ideologically minority party -- no compromise, constantly stroking the base and daring the opposition to cause another "tedious" election. It is a fiendishly brilliant strategy, but dangerous for the country.

If Harper continues to get away with it, his methods will find their way into every party's toolbox. Also, if elections are seen as tedious, rather than as essential to our form of government, we risk becoming the first country to adopt dictatorship by ennui.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Compare and contrast

When it comes to the question of whether credit card companies can inflate interest rates at will, Deficit Jim Flaherty is firmly committed to letting vulnerable consumers make their own mistakes. But ask him about raising entry barriers to home ownership (for the express purpose of making sure that low interest rates only benefit businesses rather than individuals), and suddenly Flaherty can't wait to start taking away consumer choices.

The working draft of history

Chantal Hebert is looking ahead toward the next chance for a progressive coalition to replace the Harper Cons in government. And while Hebert needlessly muddies the waters by combining the concept of post-election cooperation in Parliament with that of an electoral non-opposition agreement, she hardly figures to be the last to recognize the potential for a coalition to change the face of Canadian politics.

Which means that the experience of the last exercise in coalition-building figure to become rather important in the very near future. And it's worth pointing out just who it is that's managed to shape Ottawa's view of coalitions for the future.

When Brian Topp first started putting together his series of posts on the development of the progressive coalition, I'd figured that Topp's writing would lay the groundwork for a wide-ranging discussion among NDP and Lib sources as to what happened and why. In particular, some of his observations seemed to positively demand some challenge or spin from various factions of the Libs: from Stephane Dion's attempt to use the coalition to extend his stay as Lib leader, to Michael Ignatieff backers who were willing to cooperate only as long as their preferred leader was at the helm, to Ignatieff himself "huddled" with Con strategist Kory Teneycke, to Lib negotiators who were downright embarrassed to try to defend their positions when challenged.

But even as Topp's series became required reading for political junkies this month, none of his recollections seem to have been answered publicly. And while one can perhaps understand how the Libs' current power structure may be under extreme pressure to simply avoid talking about an issue which surely makes the party's current leader look bad both inside and outside the party, it's particularly telling that nobody from Dion's long-since-deposed inner circle has challenged any of Topp's accounts either.

All of which means that Topp's take on the coalition looks to have benefitted from a rare combination of ample attention and nonexistent refutation. And the fact that an NDP insider's take on the events of 2008 looks to have become the leading public account of what happened - not to mention what lessons should be drawn for any future coalition negotiations - should help make sure that the NDP's position in any future deal is strengthened by what Canadian politicos perceive about what happened last time out.

The reviews are in

Murray Mandryk gets at part of the reason for the consistent gap between conservative parties' claims to fiscal responsibility and their actual track record of massive deficits. But unfortunately, both the provincial and federal governments are offering up ideal case studies:
The political instinct that the Saskatchewan Party premier must fight in 2010 is his dyed-in-the-wool conservative belief that we will simply grow our way out of the budgetary problems we're now encountering.

Of course, Wall and his officials are quick to dismiss any such unflattering characterizations. And with a remarkable economic upturn in its first 18 months of rule, the Sask. Party has been spared from having to put any of its philosophy to the test. However, its first taste of economic adversity (in the last few months) has really served to demonstrate how deeply rooted this Conservative economic philosophy might really be in Wall's governing Sask. Party ranks.

Facing a mid-year 2009-10 budget report that ushered in Wall's first real governing challenge (in the form of a $1.05-billion overall deficit), what we saw is a disturbing return to some old Conservative notions:

- Debt and deficit are manageable.
- That $1.8-billion overestimate of potash revenues was a blip on a market that will correct itself next year, and;
- You can always rely on your resource economy to grow your way out of deficit.

This was a wrong-headed belief made famous by former Progressive Conservative premier Grant Devine, who said early in his term that you could "mismanage the Saskatchewan economy and still run surpluses." But it was also the fervent belief of Brian Mulroney's federal Progressive Conservatives of the 1980s and, to some extent, the Stephen Harper Conservatives of today.

Unfortunately, the history of the Devine and Mulroney governments demonstrated that market recoveries...don't automatically translate into the end of a deficit cycle.

Disturbingly, it was a similar unfettered belief in the surging market that likely led the Sask. Party government this spring to ignore the better advice of its own ministry of finance and bet the budget on a repeat of 2008's record potash revenues.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On institution-building

James Travers' criticism of the Harper government for shutting down communications within the federal civil service hasn't gone unnoticed. But it's worth highlighting the fact that the Cons' penchant for secrecy also figures to cause them serious trouble in actually getting much done as long as they stay in office - while the NDP is far better equipped to navigate the government apparatus in the public interest.

Here's Travers on how the relationship between the Con government and the civil service has been poisoned beyond any realistic hope of improvement:
(Richard) Colvin is not a whistleblower; he's a coal mine canary. More revealing even than Peter MacKay's shoot-the-messenger assault on a bureaucrat is Colvin's detailed rebuttal of testimony from those above him in the federal food chain. It signals that the long-standing bargain between civil servants and the government of the day is broken. On-the-run politicians who abandon the principle of ministerial responsibility, who toss mandarins and their truth-to-power advice to the pursuing wolves, should no longer expect blind loyalty or suicidal silence.

That change pushes the relationship into uncharted territory where trouble waits. By essentially going it alone without Parliament or confidential public service counsel, Conservatives are placing their full bet on the sole-sourced party line. They are trading accountable democracy for a direct hard sell to Canadians systematically denied the information they need to decide the value of what they are being urged to buy.
Largely missed by Canadians, that new situational democracy, that what-matters-is-what-works culture, has been spotted by civil servants who now know they'll wear the goat horns when things inevitably go wrong.

Abandoned by Liberals to shoulder blame for the Quebec sponsorship scheme, bureaucrats are hurriedly adapting to a new era by discreetly distancing themselves from Conservative stimulus projects likely to fail the critical sniff test.
Until now, there's been precious little indication that the Cons' hostility toward the civil service has been answered in kind. But from Travers' account, it sounds like public servants have realized that under the Cons, they're better off playing Harper's game of pointing fingers and spreading blame elsewhere rather than actually dedicating their attention to getting much done. And the problem only figures to get worse as the Cons insist on attacking federal government operations as their lone means of dealing with Deficit Jim Flaherty's sea of red ink - setting up significant incentives for public servants to work on protecting turf rather than working on policy ideas to be implemented by the Cons or by any future government.

Of course, those of us who generally disagree with Harper's preferred direction for the country may prefer if the Cons get slowed up by their own treatment of the civil service. But it's hard to see how anybody is ultimately better off in the long run if Canada continues to be governed by a party whose ability to respond to events as they arise is limited by a complete disconnect from Canada's public servants.

But then, there isn't much reason to expect a lot better from the Libs. Travers notes that the problems within the public service actually started under the Paul Martin regime, but the more significant problem is that the Libs haven't been able to keep even their own internal party apparatus in anything better than a state of mistrust and confusion for the better part of a decade - making it highly doubtful that they'll do any better anytime soon in working with others who aren't united by party interests.

Fortunately, there is one obvious alternative to ineffective federal government. After all, the NDP's strengths in planning and negotiating which I've pointed out before would figure to be no less important in dealing with the public service than in other aspects of governing the country.

In stark contrast to the Cons' complete insularity and the Libs' lack of even internal coherence, the NDP has shown a consistent strength in developing plans which other groups are willing and able to work with. Which means that for those who see a need to change the culture of self-preservation which successive Lib and Con governments have fostered in Canada's public institutions, there's reason to want to see the NDP get the chance to make its more collaborative philosophy work for the country.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sask Party Uranium Response: "We Don't Care What You Think"

I've posted previously about the Sask Party's latest declaration of its intention to push nuclear development regardless of what Saskatchewan's citizens might think. But it's worth looking in somewhat more detail at just how thoroughly the Wall government has rejected the public's input into nuclear policy. So let's compare the findings of Dan Perrins' consultation report to the Sask Party's response.

Here are Perrins' findings on uranium exploration and mining:
There were 519 responses that dealt specifically with the province’s approach to the exploration and mining of uranium. Nearly three-quarters (70%, n=364) were against the exploration and mining of uranium, while one-quarter (25%, n=128) were supportive (see Figure 44). An additional 5% (n=27) either did not know and wanted more information, or did not state whether they were opposed or supportive.
More specifically, in terms of those opposed to exploration and mining, most (41%, n=215) said that they were opposed to any further expansion of exploration and mining of uranium.
Which naturally leads to the following response from the Wall government on the subject:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...(a)ctively supporting uranium mining and exploration...

(The government) will examine its program incentives and competitiveness of its royalties, work with the federal government on a more thorough review of licence applications and on implementation of the recommendations of the federal competition policy review panel. It will work with industry on the infrastructure needed for new mine development.
So the public says "stop", the Sask Party's response is "barge ahead". Which of course looks to be a common theme when it comes to Wall's nuclear agenda.

Nuclear research and isotope production was the closest category in Perrins' review, but still one where opposition to nuclear development trumped support:
About four in ten (42%, n=174) responses opposed uranium research, training, and development. However, one-third of responses (32%, n=136) were in favour of going ahead with further uranium or nuclear research, training, and development, as shown in Figure 54. Another sizable number of responses (19%, n=81) spoke directly to the creation of isotopes for medical purposes, either without specifying how they would be created or by saying they wanted to see isotopes produced without nuclear fission. A small number of responses (2%, n=9) were against the production of medical isotopes for any reason.
But needless to say, the Sask Party decided to respond to a clear split in public opinion by utterly ignoring one side of the question:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...(e)ncouraging investment in nuclear research, development and training opportunities, specifically in the areas of mining, neutron science, isotopes, small scale reactor design, and enrichment...

The government...(supports) the concept of a nuclear research centre of excellence and expanded mining and exploration programs at academic institutions. It supports determining investment priorities in targeted areas of nuclear research and in partnering with the federal government on a research reactor that would produce medical isotopes.
In contrast, the question of nuclear waste and storage was one where a massive majority of Saskatchewanians interested in the issue registered their disapproval:
Approximately 900 responses dealt with nuclear waste disposal and storage, which includes references to used fuel or nuclear waste. The majority of these responses (86%, n=769) from people participating in the consultation process were strongly against nuclear waste disposal and storage in Saskatchewan, as shown in Figure 21. However, some responses (12%, n=103) did support waste disposal and storage in Saskatchewan.
Which of course means that the Wall government...wants to encourage future development as soon as anybody's willing to suggest it, contrary to the views of six out of every seven people who have an opinion about it:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...reserving decisions on supporting Saskatchewan communities interested in
hosting nuclear waste management facilities to when such proposals are advanced in a regulatory process...
And then there's the area most discussed by Saskatchewan citizens in making their submissions to Perrins:
Just over 1,400 responses dealt specifically with nuclear power generation in the province. Most petitions and form letters received centred on this area.

Of these 1,401 responses, 84% (n=1,183) were generally against nuclear power generation for the province, whether that included power generation for export or not (as seen in Figure 5). Many indicated that they did not want a nuclear power plant in their area of the province. Over one in ten (14%, n=190) were in favour of nuclear power, and 2% (n=28) of responses were either not given or expressed indecision.
But naturally, the Sask Party has responded to that red light on nuclear power by telling SaskPower to push ahead:
The government’s general strategic direction on uranium includes...(d)irecting SaskPower to continue including nuclear power in the range of sustainable energy options available for additional baseload generation capacity in the medium and long term after 2020.
So never mind that a strong majority of Saskatchewan citizens with any interest in nuclear issues at all took the time to express their disagreement with nuclear power. Having received about as compelling a public statement of objection as one could possibly imagine, their reaction has tell those who made their views known that they can go pound sand, as they'll be ordering SaskPower to ignore the will of the people.

Of course, there are other serious issues with how the Sask Party is handling the nuclear issue. As a noteworthy example, having tied Perrins' hands in the type of recommendations he was allowed to make, they're now trying to frame public debate around the very UDP recommendations which were called into question by the public's input.

But most glaring problem is the fact that the Wall government has just declared that it couldn't care less what the public thinks about nuclear development. And as long as the public's views are being tossed out the window so casually, there's plenty of reason for concern that the public's interests will fare no better in Wall's decision-making.