Saturday, November 10, 2012

On executive decisions

My post yesterday on the Senate's choice to remind Canadians of its existence by blocking a bill passed by the House of Commons has sparked plenty of discussion. But I'll highlight one of the more stunning arguments being made in favour of the Senate's actions.

Here's Dale Smith in his own comments section:
The Senate is almost never going to turn down a budget bill because they’re confidence measures, and the Senate is not a confidence chamber.
And another commenter, James Bowden, in more stark terms:
There is no legitimate constitutional argument why the Senate should not be able to kill this private members’ bill. It is certainly not a matter of confidence and did not require the royal recommendation. The Senate poses no threat to the primacy of the Commons by voting against a frivolous private members’ bill.
So the pro-Senate line is that a private members' bill which happens to win the support of a majority of elected members can be killed without any reason to think twice - just so long it's the result of mere elected MPs debating and voting on a bill on their own, rather than the approval of the executive branch. (And the fact that the bill under discussion didn't receive a lot of debate has everything to do with the reality that very little time is allocated to private members' business compared to government business.)

By that account, the limits of Senatorial authority would be seen to begin and end with a declaration that a bill is a priority for the sitting government (as a budget or confidence measure). Which looks to me to entrench all the more power in the hands of the PMO - even as the Harper Cons have given us nothing but reason to worry about the control our current executive exercises over both MPs as a matter of party discipline, and parliamentary procedures as a matter of preventing inconvenient votes.

Suffice it to say I consider it rather questionable that a constitutional relic intended to limit democratic decision-making from day one should be accepted as a reason to treat the legislative process in the House of Commons as being no more significant in deciding on the fate of a law which meets with the disapproval of a chamber of appointed hacks than a straw poll of the Parliamentary kitchen staff. And if our goal is to make sure that MPs do their jobs better, we'll accomplish far more by asking them to justify their their actions directly than by declaring that we're just fine seeing their work rendered meaningless by unelected Senators.

On questionable advice

Shorter Zach Paikin:

In order to avoid the fate of the Ignatieff Libs, the NDP should totally abandon any principles and re-run Ignatieff's "we stand for nothing, but at least we're not that guy!" campaign.

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Andrew Jackson takes a look at the UK's strong movement for a living wage, and notes that it's long past time for a similar push in Canada.

- The most remarkable part of this week's revelations about the Cons' cuts to refugee health is their apparent position that they're required to slash funding without consultation in the name of "budget secrecy", rather than talking to anybody to determine what programs are needed.

- And one has to figure that if the Cons thought they could talk to anybody rather than imposing decisions from on high, they'd know better than to waste some of the money they're burning on self-promotion and other questionable priorities.

- Meanwhile, the Cons' determination to make policy without adequate information is all the more obvious as they insist on unregulated tar-sands development while recognizing that we're starting from scratch in studying the cumulative impact of the industry.

- Finally, Tabatha Southey observes that if U.S. Republicans want to survive as a viable contender for power, they may need to both accept evolution and facilitate its application to their own development:
But the increasingly emaciated Republican Party remains maladapted to this new environment. Not all that enthusiastic about sex, able to dine on only a single and declining resource, the GOP faithful basically just amble about in this changed ecosystem, like so many political pandas cursed to live in an era of not very much bamboo.

The response from Republican supporters to their party’s plight is almost heartwarming. Many of the GOP have spent hours painstakingly bottle-feeding abandoned Republicans until they’re ready to restate their skepticism about climate change – sometimes washing oil into the feathers of conservative congressmen, in the hopes of making them more appealing to voters.
Some days, it’s hard not to feel for Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers are the Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall of endangered conservatives. But by attempting to turn America into a giant Republican Party preservation park, they may be standing in the way of actual evolution – a process that involves natural selection, change compatible with reality, and letting go.

(Right now, the Republican Party has vestigial birthers, for example, and that is a problem for them.)

Friday, November 09, 2012

Musical interlude

Wide Mouth Mason - Sugarcane

On unwanted imports

The Mound of Sound is rightly appalled at the revelation that JP Morgan is making money off of the U.S.' food stamp program.

But lest we think the problem is limited to our neighbours, let's note that the Cons are doing their utmost to ensure that every social ill turns into a source of corporate profits on our side of the border as well:
(Diane) Finley has repeatedly rebuffed pleas for a national approach to housing and poverty, arguing that the federal government is not best placed to deal with issues that often have local nuances.

But at the same time, since the federal government provides significant funding for affordable housing, homelessness initiatives and other key social programs, Ottawa is deeply implicated in social policy whether it likes it or not.

Finley suggested she was frustrated with the lack of progress in social programs [ed note: of the type which her party has consistently refused to support], and wants to dramatically re-arrange the system...
And that re-arrangement means...
“Social finance is about mobilizing private capital to achieve social goals, creating opportunities for investors to finance projects that benefit Canadians and realize financial gains,” the government said in a statement announcing the financing mechanism.
So as far as the Cons are concerned, the main problem with poverty in Canada is that the financial sector hasn't yet figured out how to make enough money off of it. And absent some significant pushback, we can fully expect that the JP Morgan example will pale in comparison to what we'll end up paying to turn citizens' dire needs into corporate profits.

On bad bets

It's been glaringly obvious to those of us paying attention that the Cons have set up plenty of means to keep dictating the terms of Canadian politics from beyond the political grave - with the most obvious being their continued stacking of the Senate which will put at least a formal roadblock in the way of any future government for many years to come.

As a result, any opposition party with an ounce of foresight would know better than to send the message that unelected Senators should consider themselves free to overrule elected Members of Parliament - particularly when a bill has been passed unanimously among the representatives chosen by Canadian voters.

Unfortunately, the Libs' legacy Senate appointments still seem happy to show the short-sightedness that's decimated their party as an electoral force. And if we don't see an immediate move from the Libs' few remaining elected representatives to reverse that position, the result may be to tighten the Harper Cons' grip on power even past their removal from office.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Rick Salutin offers an important take on the U.S. election by pointing out that the Occupy movement and its focus on inequality laid the groundwork for Barack Obama's re-election:
The aftermath to the bailouts was the real revelation: the bailed-out were graceless and unrepentant. They resisted any similar help for the majority. Obama played along. His stimulus program was mild, like his aid to stressed homeowners. Books such as The Spirit Level (2010) pointed to the swelling damage but it was just a book. Then came Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, with its slogan about the 1 per cent versus the 99 per cent. It resonated because it jibed with what people saw and experienced. It entered mass awareness. Occupy didn’t discover the gap, but they put it out where it could get political traction.

Obama’s “strategists” noticed. They were worried with an election coming and no serious recovery for anyone but the rich. Rising inequality began appearing in his speeches. Even Republicans noticed. They went from calling Occupy a mob, to saying they too fretted over “income disparity.” Obama’s own renditions of the theme were, I’d say, unenthusiastic, culminating in his listless performance at the first debate. Then, ironically, his competitiveness kicked in, he picked up his game, and went on to Tuesday’s victory.

But none of it would have worked, had Republicans not nominated the embodiment of Mr. One Per Cent, Mitt Romney. He likes firing people. He thinks 47 per cent of Americans are irresponsible takers. He parks his money abroad and won’t release his tax returns. All he lacks is a top hat and he surely has one in one of his homes. But the attacks, in turn, wouldn’t have taken, had Occupy not already poured the mould for Romney with its “1 per cent” trope.
- Paul Krugman makes the case as to why Obama shouldn't get bullied into letting the Republicans dictate the terms of a budget deal after winning a second mandate. [Update: See also Scott Lemieux' concise take.]

- Bob Hepburn points out that Mitt Romney's campaign strategy featured plenty of anti-democratic tricks which the Harper Cons might seek to emulate. But given that all the employer intimidation, false robocalls and vote suppression couldn't actually tilt the election Romney's way, I'd think there's reason for even the most craven Con to be skeptical that the Republicans' model is really worth following.

- Meanwhile, the Cons already have to answer for plenty of campaign deception. And Saskboy draws some important links between the latest word from Robocon fall-guy Michael Sona and the evidence that's already public as to the connection between the Cons' CIMS database and the calls placed into multiple ridings.

- Finally, pogge wonders why former Con cabinet minister Chuck Strahl is being handed another patronage appointment when the public record shows him having done nothing in what should be an important role with the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

New column day

Here, on how the Republicans' electoral strategy once again included a failed attempt to prioritize fossil fuels over mere people - and how the Harper Cons look to be on the verge of making the same mistake.

For further reading on the developing resource debate in Canada, see in particular Paul Wells' repeated observations about the Cons' strategy, and my initial reaction. And you'll find plenty more worth reading about the U.S.' campaign through the U.S. Blogs links to the right - with commentary from Josh Marshall, Jed Lewison, Erik Loomis and Tom Junod particularly deserving a look.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

On lemmings

No, we shouldn't be surprised that Jim Flaherty is lending the weight of Canada's federal government to a concerted effort to attack U.S. social programs. But for those who may have missed it, the supposed "fiscal cliff" being used as an excuse to push a lame-duck Congress to cut long-term benefits is rather less urgent than advertised.

Here's Matt Yglesias on why the "cliff" metaphor is utterly misplaced:
A salient fact about non-metaphorical cliffs is that falling over them is generally irreversible. If the cliff is high enough that falling off of it would kill you, then if you fall off you're going to die and that's the end of it. The "fiscal cliff" by contrast isn't like that at all.
Rather, it's a set of policy changes—mostly tax hikes plus some steep spending cuts—that if they were all locked into place would constitute a significant drag on economic growth over the course of a year. But if the Bush tax cuts fully expire on a Tuesday morning it's not as if some catastrophe strikes on Wednesday where suddenly middle class families have no money. It's true that if the new higher rates were to be locked in, then the medium-term drag on middle class take home pay would delay the deleveraging cycle and damage the recovery. But to resolve that, all you need to do is introduce a new package of middle class tax cuts on Wednesday afternoon, have congress pass it on Thursday, and then the president signs it on Friday. The fact that taxes were higher for three days—or even three weeks—is simply not that consequential.
Obviously to the extent that higher middle class taxes is bad, one day of them is worse than zero days and three days is worse than one day. But it's a deeply banal situation. There's no particularly large virtue to "averting" the fiscal cliff on Day N-3 versus "going over the fiscal cliff" and then fixing it in retrospect on Day N+3. If "going over the cliff" gives the White House leverage to lock a better medium-term fiscal policy in place, then going over the cliff is a no brainer. Because there is no cliff.
And likewise, Suzy Khimm points out that the primary significance of the January deadline is that it will temporarily withdraw some stimulus from the U.S. economy - meaning that there's no reason whatsoever to allow Republicans to hold long-term social spending hostage or insist that wealthy Americans pay disproportionately low taxes as the price of agreement.

As Yglesias notes, some sort of deal will eventually be needed to avoid having longer-term effects take hold. (And there may well be more reason for optimism now than in the last couple of Republican efforts at crisis-making, as at least nobody can point to limiting Barack Obama's time in office as a basis for courting disaster.)

But we should be highly skeptical of Flaherty and anybody else focusing primarily on an immediate deal rather than a reasonable one - lest we otherwise encourage the Republicans to herd the U.S. toward real dangers.

[Edit: Fixed formatting.]

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Barbara Yaffe writes about the continual rise in food bank use and the underlying political choices which have brought it about:
(I)n the last decade food banks have been helping Canadians through both good times and bad.

Doubtless, the latest food bank numbers, at least in part, are related to the private-sector propensity since the 2008 recession to maintain or boost profit by reducing employee numbers.

Also, as anyone who frequents a supermarket knows, food has grown noticeably more expensive in the past few years.

And Canadians are more indebted.

The public sector also is being constricted, with the robustness of social programs being diminished.

“As governments cut the size of the public workforce, emphasize low taxes and restrict new spending, social policy ... is at risk of neglect.”
 - Gus Van Harten reviews how FIPA investment deal with China being forced through by the Cons looks to have disastrous effects for Canada. And Rick Mercer rants about the Cons' refusal to accept debate or accountability on the deal:

- Amy Minsky has been reporting extensively on the Cons' anti-union bill - first highlighting the dishonesty involved in labeling the bill as a private member's legislation when Stephen Harper's own chief of staff has been documented meeting with the anti-worker lobbyists behind it, then covering the resulting committee hearings.

- And finally, Michael Harris discusses how direct interference by the Cons has led to the termination and silencing of journalists who dare to question their actions rather than serving as meek stenographers.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

On delayed releases

I'll have plenty to catch up on over the next few days. But I'll start by pointing out the background behind what's become one of the most-discussed stories of the past week on the Saskatchewan political scene.

It's well and good that we've eventually learned the results of the report from the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and SaskFilm showing just how much return we get from investing in the film industry.

But a week ago, that report was still being hidden from public view by the parties who commissioned it. And it took a public challenge from NDP MLA Danielle Chartier to both determine who had the authority to release the report, and make sure that the facts were eventually made public - notwithstanding that the contents were apparently known to the government a month earlier:
Culture Minister Kevin Doherty said the study, which was commissioned by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and Sask-Film, was presented to him about a month ago during a meeting that also included representation from the Saskatchewan Motion Picture Industry Association.

"What the report shows is that there is an economic benefit to the province of Saskatchewan from the film industry," Doherty told reporters on Monday at the Legislative Building after question period, during which the issue was raised by NDP culture critic Danielle Chartier.

Chartier said she has heard the study shows the net cost to taxpayers from the old refundable film employment tax credit was less than the $1 million per year budgeted by the government for its new, non-refundable replacement.
And that sequence of events raises more than a few questions. For example, would we ever have heard about the actual costs of the Sask Party's decision if Chartier hadn't heard about - and raised - the issue? Why did the parties who commissioned the report choose not to let the public in on a matter of public concern? And how much more information about the negative effects of Saskatchewan Party policies is being similarly withheld from the public?