Saturday, March 26, 2016

On open debates

As promised here, I'll take a closer look at Saskatchewan's leaders' debate and what it may mean for the rest of the campaign.

Most criticism of the debate that I've seen so far has focused on two factors.

First, there's the combination of format and moderation: in particular, "open" debate period regularly led to little more than Brad Wall and Cam Broten speaking over each other.

And second, there's the fact the debate was limited to Wall and Broten rather than including additional leaders. In that respect, the conventional wisdom that the opposition party should generally prefer less leaders in the debate may not have applied here, as one of the most important questions in the broader election is that of whether the Saskatchewan Party's past governing coalition might start to break apart in a number of directions.

Those points of concern are both valid to at least some extent. And indeed they may have reinforced each other: while an open period may make sense when there's genuine doubt as to which of multiple leaders might want to speak, a more controlled back-and-forth probably would have made sense with only two leaders participating.

That said, the more noteworthy problem looks to have been based on the lack of more opportunities for direct interaction between party leaders - leaving them to try to use extremely limited time periods in the single debate to repeat a tiny number of talking points, rather than responding fully even to questions (let alone challenges from each other).

In some cases, the leaders went so far as to omit platform points which directly responded to questions. Wall was asked about having seniors staying in their homes, and didn't mention the property tax deferral plank which represents one of his party's largest platform promises. And when Broten was asked a question combining affordability and wages, his response focusing on the former left out any discussion about the NDP's plans to raise the minimum wage and promote a living wage.

In that context, the lack of depth of discussion on a lot of points and the perceived urgency in piping up at every opportunity shouldn't come as much surprise. And it's hard to see how much could have been fixed within the time allotted for the debate without cutting back into an already-limited number of topics discussed.

I'd thus think the biggest takeaway is that more debate - in time and number - might be needed to ensure that leaders have both the opportunity and the perceived obligation to demonstrate depth of thought and understanding, rather than simply trying to cover their planned soundbites.

See also Head Tale, Murray Mandryk and CBC's political panel with their views on the debate.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Christopher May writes that any full examination of political  dynamics needs to take into account corporations as sources of power, not merely economic actors:
(R)ecognising corporations as institutions of global governance encourages an analysis of the operation of power (in its various dimensions) within an important realm of the global system which remains obscured when accounts focus only on states and intergovernmental organisations. Crucially, this approach recognises that while specific corporate supply-chain constellations may be often rationalised as serving the goal of efficiency, they are actually the result of a continuing process of power relations, effective governance and the construction of legitimacy.

Research that has foregrounded private authority in the global system has gone some way in this direction, but the internal political economy of the corporate supply chain has not been extensively examined by these analysts. Thus, political economists might usefully move beyond this relative inattention to examine the realm of the supply chain as an interesting site of global governance in itself to reveal how global corporations shape their own political economic space. One way to respond to the often heard assertion that ‘corporations rule the world’ is to examine the global governance of the corporate supply chain to both offer evidence of where that rule does seem pervasive, but also to explore the limitations of such claims for corporate power’s influence across the global system.
- Meanwhile, Heidi Groover sees Bernie Sanders' campaign as a national extension of a movement to implement popular and progressive changes to economic policy over the self-serving objections of the corporate sector.

- Don Cayo follows up on the Institute for Research on Public Policy's look at the complex picture of inequality in Canada.

- Justin Wolfers takes a look at new research showing how inequality in children's living conditions leads to a massive gap in opportunity. And Robert Hiltonsmith and Sean McElwee point out that arguments against employment credit check bans (based on the specious reasoning that employers would simply discriminate in other ways instead) find no basis how those bans have worked in practice - while the case to prevent employers from limiting access to employment based on credit scores has held up to scrutiny.

- Finally, Anna Louie Sussman and Josh Zumbrun examine the spread of precarious work in the U.S., and note that it goes far beyond the more familiar examples of the gig economy. And Brent Patterson discusses the need to reform Canada's temporary foreign worker program to treat workers in Canada as people rather than commodities.

On creative reinterpretation

Shorter Bill Morneau:
Pay no attention to trifles such as a "platform". In fact, our only election promise was to draw up budget plans on the back of a napkin if given the opportunity. And promise kept!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Musical interlude

Electrostatic - Reflection

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Susan Delacourt writes that the Libs' federal budget is best seen as requiring an overriding "to be continued". And Don Martin flags a few points which may prove important later - including what might be an unexplained delay of any electoral reform.

- Meanwhile, Teuila Fuatai highlights how the budget falls short in terms of promised and expected improvements for Canadian workers. And Alison Crawford exposes apparent plans to outsource nearly half of Shared Services Canada's non-security work.

- Chantal Hebert points out that the overriding problem with the fiscal framework set up by the Cons - being heavy reliance on resource prices and other volatile sources of revenue rather than a more stable, more fair tax system - doesn't look to be changing at all.

- And Ian Young highlights a glaring example of how catering to high-wealth individuals has done nothing to serve the public good, as millionaires provided with easy immigration access are paying an average of a mere $1,400 apiece in Canadian income tax while having little economic impact other than to make housing less affordable for everybody else.

- Finally, Michael Geist rightly points out that a public consultation on the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be meaningless if the Libs aren't willing to walk away from the deal, as there's little reason to think the same actors who insisted on tilting the playing field against the public in the first place will be receptive to any changes or flexibility in interpretation.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

New column day

Here, on what the Trudeau Libs' first budget tells us about the difficulty turning around a government - and how Saskatchewan voters should take the lesson to heart in deciding whether to settle for four more years of an anti-government governing party.

For further reading...
- I linked to plenty of reviews of the Libs' budget here. And to add a few more to the list, see Paul Wells on the Libs' half-measures and incomplete tasks, John Geddes on their deferred promises in general, Pam Palmater on the especially galling broken promises to First Nations, and Hugh Mackenzie on how the budget backtracks on a promise to close the stock option loophole.
- Meanwhile, we're into the home stretch of the Saskatchewan election after last night's leaders' debate. And I'll have more to say about the debate and how it fits into the broader campaign in a future post.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Verbatim Brad Wall then:
(W)e may -- possibly -- campaign on [privatizing liquor stores] in the next election, but people will be able to decide then. In other words, we would never change the act without a mandate to do so.
Shorter Saskatchewan Party response now to every invitation to make the case for any mandate during an actual election campaign:

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives rounds up some noteworthy responses to the federal budget. Barbara Sibbald and Laura Eggertson write that while a few social determinants of health made the cut, our actual health care system will see virtually nothing. Armine Yalnizyan highlights how it falls short both Liberal promises and glaring needs in a number of areas, while Andrew Jackson emphasizes the need for increased revenue to pay for even the half-measures included in the Trudeau Libs' first budget. And Michal Rozworski opines that the Libs are doing little but following the Cons' plans for austerity:
(F)ederal spending on programs, on our social safety net, is set to rise to just 14.6 per cent of GDP one year from now, marginally higher than today. This is, however, a mere blip in the long downward trajectory since the late 1970s, when program spending was around 20 per cent. The projections in this budget do not signal a turnaround: program spending is to remain flat and fall back down to 2015 levels by 2020. All the rhetoric about rebuilding the middle class doesn’t translate into rebuilding our common social supports. The question is what will be cut in the future to make up for the boost in spending today.

Finally, a significant chunk of the deficit spending is simply due to better accounting. The Conservatives played fast and loose with the numbers and Harper performed some fiscal magic tricks to create surpluses for his final budget. The Liberals are projecting to spend more than the Conservatives but they are also projecting far lower revenues, especially in the first few years. This explains part of the headline-grabbing deficits.
- Sara Mojtehedzadeh discusses the problems for both sick workers and the people around them when paid leave isn't available.

- CBC News reports on the Prairie Spirit School Division's budget cuts caused by provincially-imposed austerity, while Austin Davis reports that Regina's public school system is scraping by with 665 unfunded students. So naturally, the response of the Saskatchewan Party (which of course took away the ability of school boards to raise needed funds) is to try to shout down anybody who dares to point out the underfunding.

- Finally, Charles Mandel points out a warning from climate scientists that we're plunging into catastrophic climate change faster than anticipated.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Clingy cats.

Saskatchewan 2016 - NDP Platform Review

I mentioned here that any attempt to review the Saskatchewan Party's platform ran into the problem that there simply wasn't anything worth analyzing, as two pages of conditional promises were buried under thirty of spin.

In contrast, the NDP's platform (PDF) includes plenty of meaningful ideas. And while the NDP's primary focus may not be where one would hope, there's ample material which could form the foundation of a highly productive term of government.

That said, let's start with the part which may be frustrating for voters seeking primarily to know what the NDP would plan to do: the first section is dedicated to "cutting Sask Party waste" rather than the planned uses for the money saved. That may serve the purpose of giving platform readers a reminder of the case against Brad Wall, but it delays any discussion of the NDP's own priorities until later on.

So what are those priorities once they do emerge? In addition to previous commitments to mental health, First Nations education and emergency services, some of the more noteworthy points include:
  • A slightly more progressive income tax system, with an increased personal exemption amount (which seems like a popular policy choice, if seldom my preferred use of fiscal capacity), balanced out by a new tax bracket for people making $175,000 and up;
  • Directly creating 2,000 child care spaces (along with a registry to assess need) and 2,500 affordable and social housing units, while also investing in hospitals and long-term care homes;
  • Promoting Saskatchewan businesses through procurement policies and "Buy Local" initiatives, while also expanding incubator funding;
  • Conditionally eliminating small business taxes only for corporations which have three or more employees to ensure a direct connection to jobs; and
  • Adopting a Housing First policy and testing a basic income as part of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy.
Lest there be any doubt, there's room to be more ambitious or make better use of available resources in a number of areas. The NDP is paralleling the Sask Party's promise to let seniors defer property taxes, holding off on any royalty rate increases even in the course of promising reviews, and making a weaker commitment to increasing the minimum wage than was found in the Alberta NDP's winning platform last year.

But if the NDP's platform may not get Saskatchewan to my ideal destination in a single term, it does suggest an important change in direction toward serving people rather than corporate backers. And that contrast deserves far more attention than the distractions which have dominated the campaign so far.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- David MacDonald argues that the federal budget should focus on desperately-needed public investments - with any revenue issues dealt with by raising taxes where past cuts have produced nothing of value. And Leadnow calls for a crackdown on tax evaders. But Paul Campos highlights the U.S. right's push in the opposite direction which has led to a disturbing amount of public support to slash taxes on large inheritances.

- Meanwhile, Karl Nerenberg points out that the Libs' invitations to discuss the budget were aimed primarily at corporate insiders. And Teuila Fuatai writes that the list of areas where the Libs are merely following the Cons' playbook now includes bargaining with Canada's public-sector unions.

- Laurie Monsebraaten reports on some of the parents hoping for this year's budget to produce meaningful steps toward available and affordable child care where past ones have fallen short.

- CBC finds that oil sands workers are looking to be retrained for renewable alternatives, rather than buying the claim that free money for oil barons is their only hope to find work. And Dario Kenner makes the case to combat inequality and climate change together. 

- Finally, Susan Delacourt reminds us that political parties are able to use our personal information in ways other types of organizations aren't permitted to - and notes that the Trudeau Libs don't seem to have any interest in changing that state of affairs.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- James Ayre points out Radoslaw Stefanski's study as to how cutting off fossil fuel subsidies subsidies (among other public policy preferences) would go a long way toward helping a transition toward clean, renewable energy.

- Mike De Souza exposes the National Energy Board's service to the oil industry, including by editing reports to suit TransCanada's wishes and by telling a whistleblower into poor pipeline safety to accept a payoff and keep quiet.
- Rick Smith calls for the Libs to keep their promise to end the Cons' targeted Canada Revenue Agency attacks on progressive charities, while Alan Freeman argues that we should demand a thorough house-cleaning to ensure the CRA focuses on tax evaders. And Alex Boutillier reports on the continued muzzling of federal scientists.

- The Washington Post's editorial board highlights the unfairness of a criminal justice system designed to impose additional punishment on people living in poverty, while Campbell Robertson discusses how Republican governors have deliberately deprived poor people of the legal representation needed to navigate the system. And Craig and Marc Kielburger discuss how poor families may be trapped by a social safety net more focused on slashing support at the first opportunity than ensuring people have some means to survive.

- Finally, Thomas Walkom notes that differences in regulation may be an important factor in giving consumers the ability to influence corporate behaviour.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

On unstable platforms

With Saskatchewan's main political parties having released their election platforms, now is the time when I'd planned to put together platform reviews to better examine voters' options.

But a funny thing happened when I went to what was supposed to be the Saskatchewan Party's platform (PDF). It turns out Brad Wall's party isn't offering a platform by any known meaning of the word. And what's most noteworthy in the Saskatchewan Party's promises is the absence of what are supposed to be priorities for Wall's government.

Let's start with the full list of "new commitments" offered by the Saskatchewan Party - which can be found in its entirety at pages 3-4 of the platform. (Seriously.)

That would be sad enough if the content of those two pages actually consisted of promises which could be considered new and/or commitments. But of the 18 bullet points which apparently make up the Wall government's entire platform for the next four years, fully half merely restate or extend plans already announced or in place. And several more are contingent on oil prices increasing - which is of course well beyond the control of any government.

Meanwhile, plenty of other past announcements which received publicly-funded hype are conspicuously left out of the platform. And most notably, even the sad excuse for a poverty reduction strategy which was hastily slapped together before the election appears nowhere - signalling that another term for the Saskatchewan Party can be taken as a mandate to let poverty fester.

Now, the most generous spin one can put on the platform document is that it reflects a stay-the-course philosophy. But does anybody buy that dozens of candidates and hundreds of staffers and volunteers would be putting in the time and effort to put together a campaign for office - with the assistance of millions of corporate dollars - to serve the grand vision of allowing home-baked cookies to be sold at coffee shops?

Somehow I have my doubts. And if not, then what's left out of the Saskatchewan Party's platform looks to be far more important in defining their direction for the province than what's included.

Sunday Morning LInks

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Peter Moskowitz highlights why we shouldn't be counting on crowdfunding or other private sources to address social needs. And Lana Payne calls out the attitude of entitlement on the part of the wealthy which has bled our public sector dry.

- Meanwhile, Rob Gillezeau points out the Libs' uncosted platform commitments to First Nations - as well as the importance of following through rather than perpetuating the pattern of broken promises.

- Peter Kuitenbrouwer reports on the Libs' plans to ramp up the marketing of weapons in the Middle East. And Stephanie Nebehay and Angus McDowall remind us of the consequences of shipping arms to regimes which don't even pretend to have an interest in human rights.

- Claire Cain Miller examines how wages tend to drop in jobs which are occupied by increased proportions of women.

- Finally, Linda McQuaig offers some insights from her time in politics:
(F)or a few days, my comment sparked a minor media rumpus that seemed to reinforce the case for tight political messaging based on the rule, as reported by Susan Delacourt in her book Shopping for Votes: "Do not talk of sacrifice, collective good, facts, problems or debate."

In other words, avoid complexity and controversy -- or anything else that assumes the voter is capable of accepting the responsibility of citizenship.

Interestingly, however, the NDP reached the height of its public support last spring when it ignored this conventional wisdom, risking controversy and complexity by standing up against legislation that initially seemed popular -- the Conservatives' "anti-terror" legislation, Bill C-51.

Back in my perch in journalism (with no plans to run again), I'm wondering if we're well served by a conventional wisdom that has reduced the voter to a simple-minded consumer who's only out for herself.

Could it be that the voter is actually hungry to be treated as a citizen -- that is, treated as someone (to paraphrase Canadian author Gilbert Reid) who's an adult, has an attention span, some knowledge of history and empathy for others, is patient, open to debate, and even willing to make sacrifices for the common good?