Sunday, September 23, 2018

To Slash And Burn

Last week, Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli announced that the previous Liberal government had saddled his province with a whopping $15 billion dollar deficit. He claimed that his predecessors had deliberately tried to "cover up" a  "crippling hidden deficit." Martin Regg Cohn writes that we've seen this movie before. Each incoming government accuses its immediate predecessor of cooking the books. But Fedeli's claims are simply not true:

To be clear, no one “hid” any numbers from anyone, least of all financial analysts. To be sure, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk disagreed strongly with the last government’s interpretations, and issued a “qualified” opinion of their recent budgets. But everyone was working from the same set of numbers and cash flows at the time. That’s why Fedeli’s fulminations about outright deception — not just different interpretations — don’t add up. In fact, his Tories quietly adopted the Liberal numbers as their fiscal framework for their own wild promises before and during the last campaign.
In any case, a partisan political cover-up isn’t as simple as it sounds. As Fedeli now knows, finance ministers and political staff don’t have sole signing authority for budget numbers, because they flow through the public servants who put their names to financial statements.

What is really at the heart of the matter is how the government accounts for public service pensions. The Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, reported that "a massive surplus, in excess of roughly $11 billion in jointly-controlled public service pensions, was improperly counted as an asset (which auditors had approved ever since the Tories were last in power)."

Whether one puts $11 billion dollars in the credit or debit column makes a huge difference. And the panel Ford hired to review the books -- headed by Gordon Campbell -- has recommended that "provisionally" Lysyk's contention that those dollars should be counted as a debit is the proper interpretation of where things stand.

It all comes down how you count. And, the way Fedeli counts will enable him to slash and burn.

Image: The Toronto Star

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Fix Is In

Michael Stern is a former prosecutor from Michigan. He admits that he found prosecuting sexual assault cases difficult:

In my early career, as a state prosecutor outside of Detroit, I dreaded handling sexual assault cases. After my first 10 cases, the ache in my stomach would come like clockwork as I sat down to open a sexual assault file for the first time. Evidence in sexual assault cases is often thin and trying to bring justice to a victim in a case with thin evidence is a prosecutor’s worst nightmare.

It all came down to he said/she said. But there was a witness to what happened between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford -- Mark Judge:

To a prosecutor, learning of a third-party eyewitness to an alleged sexual assault is a boon. Apparently, this additional evidence has had the opposite effect on the Senate judiciary committee.
Rather than embracing testimony from Judge as a means of finding the truth about Ford’s allegation, the Republican Senate judiciary committee chairman, Charles Grassley, has scheduled a hearing for Monday and has refused to call Judge as a witness.
There is a sleight of hand that has allowed Grassley to turn a blind eye to this pivotal piece of evidence. Mark Judge sent a letter to Grassley’s committee saying he had “no memory” of the incident Ford disclosed. Judge also said he never saw Kavanaugh “act in the manner Dr Ford describes”. Other Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham, have fallen in line behind Grassley, saying that there is “no reason” to call Judge to testify because they already know what he will say – exactly what he said in his letter.
But wait. If Mark Judge’s letter to the judiciary committee is sufficient to make its Republican members accept the contents of the letter at face value, why don’t they do the same for the letter Ford sent to ranking committee member Diane Feinstein? The answer simple: Republican members of the judiciary committee want to believe Judge, not Ford.

And that's precisely the point. The fix is in. As Mitch McConnell told an audience yesterday, Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Image: BBC

Friday, September 21, 2018

No Guarantee

As Chrystia Freeland tries to hammer out a new NAFTA deal, Paul Krugman writes about Donald Trump's tariffs:

Trump’s tariffs really are a big, bad deal. Their direct economic impact will be modest, although hardly trivial. But the numbers aren’t the whole story. Trumpian trade policy has, almost casually, torn up rules America itself created more than 80 years ago — rules intended to ensure that tariffs reflected national priorities, not the power of special interests.
So far, Trump has imposed tariffs on about $300 billion worth of U.S. imports, with tariff rates set to rise as high as 25 percent. Although Trump and his officials keep claiming that this is a tax on foreigners, it’s actually a tax hike on America. And since most of the tariffs are on raw materials and other inputs into business, the policy will probably have a chilling effect on investment and innovation.
But the pure economic impact is only part of the story. The other part is the perversion of the process. There are rules about when a president may impose tariffs; Trump has obeyed the letter of these rules, barely, but made a mockery of their spirit. Blocking imports from Canada in the name of national security? Really?

As the fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh confirms, Trump corrupts everything he touches:

As with so many other things, Trump has basically abrogated the rule of law and replaced it with his personal whims. And this will have a couple of nasty consequences.
First, it opens the door for old-fashioned corruption. As I said, most of the tariffs are on inputs into business — and some businesses are getting special treatment. Thus, there are now substantial tariffs on imported steel, but some steel users — including the U.S. subsidiary of a sanctioned Russian company — were granted the right to import steel tariff-free. (The Russian subsidiary’s exemption was reversed after it became public knowledge, with officials claiming that it was a “clerical error.”)
Beyond that, America has thrown away its negotiating credibility. In the past, countries signing trade agreements with the United States believed that a deal was a deal. Now they know that whatever documents the U.S. may sign supposedly guaranteeing access to its market, the president will still feel free to block their exports, on specious grounds, whenever he feels like it.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem Canada faces. Even if we sign a new NAFTA deal, there is no guarantee that Trump will live by its rules.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ignoring His Colours

The Ontario Court of Appeal has decided that what Doug Ford did in the middle of Toronto's municipal election was unfair but not unconstitutional. Ford could have waited for the ruling. Instead, he chose to exercise the nuclear option. In the final analysis, the appellate court has underscored the first court's conclusion. The premier's judgment can't be trusted. Martin Regg Cohn writes:

If the verdict was a vindication on constitutionality, there was precious little validation of the premier’s own judgment: His unilateral move to redraw Toronto’s electoral boundaries “disrupted the campaigns that were already underway,” the judges noted. “The decision of the Legislature to change (the rules) during the campaign was unexpected and perhaps alarming.”

There is a lesson for every Ontarian in all of this:

The takeaway for Ontarians is that the premier boasts of his willingness to take away their rights on a moment’s notice, in midnight sittings, while they sleep. People who weren’t paying attention may now watch closely; those who gave his government the benefit of the doubt are now on notice; voters who assumed Ford’s cabinet would keep the premier in check should now check more closely.
Will our lawmakers learn lessons from this fiasco? The premier’s honeymoon has been eclipsed by his darkest hour. He escalated an ephemeral question of municipal seat size into an existential matter for his fledgling government, flouting the fundamental protections of the Charter on a whim.

Ford has displayed his true colours. Most Ontarians knew what they were. Sixty percent of them did not vote for him. Ignoring those colours, however, could be catastrophic.

Image: Tumblr

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In A Box

Mitch McConnell is a shrewd and putrescent politician. But he did warn Donald Trump not to choose Brett Kavanaugh for his Supreme Court nominee. Walter Shapiro writes:

Mitch McConnell sent a private warning to the White House. The Senate majority leader urged the president to choose someone other than Kavanaugh because the federal appeals court judge had too long a public record dating back to his days as a top assistant to Grand Inquisitor Kenneth Starr.
It is possible that McConnell was also concerned about something personal on Kavanaugh’s record in addition to his paper trail from the George W Bush White House. But Trump, whose idea of a “listening tour” is to watch recordings of his own rallies, turned a deaf ear to McConnell’s plea. The selling point for Trump may have been Kavanaugh’s extreme belief that a president (even one who watches Fox News all day) is far too busy to be questioned by an outside investigation.

Now Trump and McConnell are in a box:

Once Republicans thought that they could politically exploit the votes of red-state Democratic senators who opposed Kavanaugh. Now vulnerable Senate Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Claire McCaskill (Missouri) have a convincing non-ideological explanation for voting against the nominee.
Not only would McConnell’s scorched-earth battle for Kavanaugh unite the 49 Senate Democrats, but it would also put beleaguered Republican incumbents like Nevada’s Dean Heller and even the fiercely ideological Ted Cruz in Texas in an uncomfortable position. Then there is Republican House member Martha McSally, who is running for the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake. McSally, who once called the Access Hollywood tape “disgusting,” had to embrace Trump to survive a vicious right-wing primary challenge last month. Now she will face an even trickier decision on the campaign trail after describing the charges against Kavanaugh as a “very serious allegation.”
McConnell is boxed. The more he fights for Kavanaugh, the more he risks alienating women voters in November. Already, political analyst Nate Silver gives the Democrats a 30% chance of winning back the Senate, despite a political map tilted towards the Republicans like a rigged roulette wheel. If the Republicans go too far in defaming Ford, they risk the greatest gender-based political uprising since the suffragette movement.
But the situation is equally dispiriting for McConnell if Kavanaugh withdraws or loses on the Senate floor. Trying to jam through the next name on the Federalist Society’s list in a post-election session would also arouse united opposition from the Democrats who remember that McConnell refused to grant Merrick Garland even a hearing in the election year of 2016. Waiting for a new Senate in 2019 would mean that pro-abortion-rights Republican senators like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are more likely to be skittish about their own 2020 reelection prospects.

But that's what happens when you make a deal with the devil.

Image: Mindful Matters

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Why Bother?

That's the question facing Ontarians. With Doug Ford in office, Martin Regg Cohn writes, why bother with democracy?

Why bother going through the motions of filing legal motions in court, notably his government’s appeal of the ruling that his plan was unlawful? While there is every possibility the government will win a stay of the verdict after Tuesday’s hearing before the Court of Appeal, why seek to overturn a decision if you can routinely override it by invoking the Charter of Rights’ “notwithstanding” clause?
Why bother with debates in the legislature if you can always outvote the other side? While it’s true that the opposition parties collectively won more votes than the 2.3 million Ford keeps boasting of, he won more seats — fair and square — and it’s the seat tally that counts. Why not settle another score by reducing the legislature to a human scorecard, where MPPs’ votes are tallied up but their voices tuned out?
Why bother with our parliamentary system of cabinet government in an era where the premier wields virtually total control over his obedient, obsequious ministers? Why bother with free votes if Ford makes a mockery of them — publicly daring his MPPs to vote their conscience, knowing full well they will fall into line behind him, with nary a single dissenter? Not even ex-PM Stephen Harper, a ferocious disciplinarian, cowed his Conservative caucus with such efficacy on Parliament Hill.
Why bother with the unelected media? What right have they to question the premier (notwithstanding protections in the Charter of Rights on “freedom of the press and other media of communication”)? Ford displayed his attitude by deploying paid government staffers to news conferences where, until recently, they cheered and clapped wildly to drown out annoying followup questions from reporters who dared to ask more than the maximum of five questions dictated by his handlers.

When Ford ran for office, Ontarians heard nothing about reducing the size of Toronto's city council. Ford has created chaos in Toronto. But Todd Smith -- the Government House Leader, and my local MPP -- says the bill the government is pushing through the legislature is all about restoring certainty to North America's fourth largest city.

Why bother with truth, when lies can get the job done?

Image: The Toronto Star

Monday, September 17, 2018

Now Is Not The Time

As Parliament re-opens today, the Conservatives have vowed to turn up the heat on reaching a NAFTA deal. Michael Harris writes that Justin Trudeau would do well not to be in a rush to make a deal:

The prime minister should get his staff to dig out the video of President Donald Trump at the 2017 NATO Summit in Brussels.
It would be good for him to take another look at the U.S. president forcefully shoving the prime minister of Montenegro out of his way, as Trump elbowed to the front of an event hilariously referred to as a “family photo.”
Shoving people out of the way is not necessarily the first thing you associate with Canadians. In fact, though generally fair and reasonable, Canadians pretty much can’t stand line jumpers or shove artists.

Mt. Trump shoves people around. That's his modus operandi.  We are about to discover if Justin will fight or fold:

Canada and the U.S. are at profound loggerheads on a host of big ticket issues that go to the heart of national identity.
Trudeau believes that the core of the NATO alliance is shared values amongst members, while Trump thinks it’s about NATO countries that are financial deadbeats who must pay their fair share or else.
On climate change, Trudeau at least says that governments around the world have to act in concert to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump believes the Paris Climate Accord is supported by a club of snowflakes who don’t seem to understand that real countries pollute their way to prosperity.
On immigration, Trudeau refers to Canada as a post-national country that doesn’t need to impose “core values” on immigrants as a precondition of qualifying to come to Canada. Trump wants to wall out Mexicans, ban Muslims and lock up the children of illegal aliens in kiddy concentration camps — often without even knowing who or where their parents are.
Trudeau wants a new deal with the U.S. to include labour standards and protection for workers. Trump has issued executive orders to make it easier to dismiss federal government workers and to weaken their unions.

Trump doesn't understand how trade works; and his ignorance makes it almost impossible to deal with him:

Trudeau is right to keep negotiating without his knees knocking. Should compromises be made on both sides, the two countries can be dance partners again. But if it’s a bad deal, even if it is a punitive one in the short term, Canada should send this message loud and clear to Trump: “You may be able to punish us, but you can’t disgrace or belittle us.”
The one thing Trudeau cannot do given under-performance on a swath of other files is to sign a bad deal with Trump and then try to put lipstick on the pig.
Nor should anyone underestimate what sort of a negotiating partner Trump actually is — and what a deal with him may end up being worth.

Justin can afford to wait:

The fact is, Trump’s presidency is in flames. He is a personal disgrace to his office and the probe of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is moving closer and closer to the White House. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort has entered a guilty plea to charges he was facing, in addition to eight outstanding felony convictions, and is now cooperating with Mueller. The pressure is beginning to take its toll.
The missives from trump@duh.con (yes, con), always thuggish and puerile, have now become tasteless, tactless and utterly untoward.

That will not stop the Conservatives from angrily criticizing Trudeau. And the corporate lobby will organize a full court press.

But now is not the time to panic.

Image: Quotefancy