Saturday, December 20, 2014

What's The Conventional Wisdom?


                                                   http://www.slideshare.net/

Parliamentary government is rooted in a series of conventions. The problem, Andrew Coyne writes, is that our political parties are no longer paying attention to those conventions. And if -- as seems likely -- we elect a minority government the next time around, what, he wonders, will happen in the wake of no political consensus:

We are notably lacking in consensus in this country on even the most basic rules of the game. We flirted with an all-out constitutional crisis on more than one occasion then. The next time we might not be so lucky.

Suppose, for starters, the Conservatives win a plurality of the seats in the election, and suppose, as seems likely, they are defeated in the Commons shortly thereafter on a matter of confidence: the Throne Speech, for example. What then? Would the prime minister go to the governor general and demand that he dissolve the House, triggering another election so soon after the last?

Would the governor general be obliged to do as he was told, or could he call upon some other party, perhaps even a coalition, to try to form a government? Mr. Harper has been adept at presenting this as dirty pool, an attempt by “the losers” to steal the election. Traditionalists like me insist that’s precisely how our system is supposed to work. We do not elect governments in this country: we elect Parliaments. The prime minister is whoever commands the confidence of the House, full stop.

All three parties now operate on the principle that we elect leaders, not parliaments. And it appears that most Canadians think that's the new convention. What happens when the conventional wisdom no longer applies?



Friday, December 19, 2014

The Curse of Petro-Politics


                                                          http://thetyee.ca/

Stephen Harper has made no secret that it is his intention to transform Canada into a petro-state.  Stanford professor Terry Lynn Karl has devoted her academic career to the study of petro-states. And she has concluded that petro-politics lead to self immolation. In an interview with Andrew Nikiforuk, she predicts that falling oil prices will have catasrophic consequences for several petro-states:

"The effects of falling oil prices will be quickly felt in Venezuela, which is extremely vulnerable. If oil keeps dropping, the country's employment, standard of living and GDP will be affected. This tends to make people not like their government.

"Venezuela, which is already extremely polarized, is in big trouble. In this respect, there is a big difference between how oil prices affect Canada and the U.S. and how they affect countries where the politics have become totally petrolized. Where there is simply no difference at all between wealth and power, where corruption and rent seeking have taken over the whole enterprise or where conflict is already very high, these are the most vulnerable countries.

Russia isn't quite as vulnerable as Venezuela, but because it is a global power its fate is more important. In the face of both sanctions and low prices, the ruble has plummeted, debt is rising, living standards are declining, and food prices are up sharply. With oil prices high, Putin took certain actions in the Ukraine and elsewhere because he felt untouchable; his popularity remains very high.

"But this could change very quickly if prices remain low.

"Most people don't understand that the decline of the former Soviet Union was closely linked to the 1986 collapse in oil prices. Putin later took advantage of high prices to build his own personal power. That could be at stake if prices stay low."

And for all petro-states:

"Debt is the Achilles heel of this picture. If prices remain low for several years, a lot of U.S. shale producers have high debt loads, especially in junk bonds. Today, energy debt currently accounts for a substantial 16 per cent of the U.S. junk bond market. If these producers start going bust, investors in junk bonds will be in for a shock.

 "Dropping oil prices affect international debt as well, creating a high risk of default by countries like Venezuela. Around the world two sets of debt are coming in -- from the high cost bitumen and shale oil producers who borrowed to help create the current supply glut and oil exporting producers who have borrowed heavily. Both affect the entire financial system.

So, just as the financial system almost brought the house down in 2008, oil could be the cause of the next global economic collapse. And Stephen Harper happily assumes oil will lead to national Nirvana.

Who would you believe -- Karl of Harper?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Should We Be Surprised?

                                                      http://www.cbc.ca/

Canadians were appalled when the U.S. Senate report on torture saw the light of day. We like to think, as John Baird said, that "Canada doesn't torture anyone. Period. Period." But, like everything that comes out of the mouths of this government, that's a half truth. Linda McQuaig writes:

The Harper government has opened the door to Canadian complicity in torture. It issued a directive allowing Canadian officials to share intelligence with foreign governments in some situations, even when this could lead to torture or to the receipt of information extracted under torture.

But like so many other disgraceful things that this government has done, the Harper crew issued this directive secretly; it only came to light through the access to information law.

Rather than simply prohibiting Canadian government agencies from sharing torture-tainted information, the Harper government’s directive simply requires approval from higher-ups, specifying that the matter should be referred to the appropriate deputy minister or agency head.

And, given the fact that "higher ups" either fall into line with this government or are fired, that protection means nothing. The goal is to get the information and let others do the torturing -- which is precisely what happened with Maher Arar. Justice Dennis O'Connor rejection of that policy was scathing:

In his powerful report, Justice O’Connor found that the RCMP’s false information likely had contributed to Arar’s year-long ordeal in Syria, and recommended Canadian agencies never send foreign authorities information that could lead to torture.

That recommendation led the RCMP to revamp their information-sharing procedures.

 O’Connor’s report went further and condemned torture under any circumstances, noting that the prohibition against torture in international law is so fundamental it has acquired the status of jus cogens — a body of “higher law” that overrides all other laws or government practices.

But the Harperites' secret directive, in effect, eviscerated O'Connor's specific recommendations.  Should we be surprised?


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

That Would Make No Sense At All

                                                   http://www.sodahead.com/

Scott Clark and Peter DeVries ask the question the majority of Canadians are asking:

Why do the Conservatives govern the way they do? Why do they treat so many Canadians with such … contempt? Aboriginals, immigrants, children, disabled and minorities — all have been pushed aside. Not-for-profit groups and associations have been deprived of the resources they need to contribute to the economic, social, scientific, environmental and cultural well-being of the country.

This government loves power but hates government. And it has a plan:

The plan is, actually, quite simple — when you remember that these Conservatives came to power not to praise government, but to bury it. This is an administration committed to reducing the size and relevance of the federal government (not counting advertising and PR staff, of course). Since 2006, federal programs and services have been cut dramatically — not to serve the short-term needs of budget austerity, but to fulfill a conservative quest for the smallest government possible … “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” to borrow a phrase from American arch-libertarian Grover Norquist.

Government can actually be quite effective. And it wouldn't take much to make the federal government much more effective. Scott and DeVries offer a modest proposal:

Suppose the government increased the GST by one point. What would that do? Well, the cost of a $100 product or service would go up by … one dollar. Ten cents on a $10 dollar purchase. The cost of a pack of gum might go up by a penny (there aren’t any pennies any more, but you get the point).
What would that do for the federal treasury? It would raise about $8 billion every year. That’s a lot of money for veterans services, for badly-needed infrastructure, for everything we’ve been neglecting. And it still amounts to just .04 per cent of GDP.

They won't do that, of course. Making government more effective would destroy their raison d'etre. That would make no sense at all.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Coalition Time?


                                                 http://www.huffingtonpost.ca

After the latest EKOS poll, there has been a lot of talk about a Liberal-NDP coalition. Frank Graves claims that's what the majority of Canadian voters want. But, Chantal Hebert writes, that's not what the two respective party leaders want:

This fall, their mutual obsession with each other has tended to blind them to other big-picture considerations with posturing and positioning regularly taking precedence over the fight against a common Conservative foe.

Think of Justin Trudeau’s opposition to Canada’s combat role in the international coalition against Islamic State extremists. It ran counter to the advice of some of the party’s brightest foreign policy minds and it was poorly articulated but it did offer the Liberal left flank some cover from the NDP.

Or think of Mulcair’s out-of-the-blue musings about a resuscitated federal gun registry. He may have hoped to score points against Trudeau but he mostly ended up bringing long-standing NDP divisions back to the surface.

Think finally of the reciprocal suspicions that attended their handling of the delicate matter of the alleged sexual misconduct of two male Liberal MPs against two of their female NDP colleagues.

The days are long gone when Liberals, under Louis St. Laurent, thought of Dippers as "Liberals in a hurry." And Stephen Harper knows that. In fact, he's counting on the new Dipper-Lib rivalry to keep him in power.

And, unless Mulcair and Trudeau can learn to talk to each other,  Mr. Harper will get his way.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Stephen Harper's Word

                                                http://www.huffingtonpost.ca

Newfoundland Premier Paul Davis was not happy after his meeting last week with Stephen Harper. "It really solidifies that you can’t trust the federal government, you can’t trust Stephen Harper’s government," he said. "We bargained in good faith. We believed that we had an agreement in place, that we had a deal set."

Davis sounded eerily like another premier from Newfoundland, Danny Williams. Michael Harris writes:

Former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, once believed he had a deal that would allow his province to keep its offshore oil revenues while still being eligible for full equalization payments from Ottawa. When Stephen Harper changed that arrangement, Williams went on the war path. With the full backing of the premier’s office, word spread across Newfoundland and Labrador — vote for anybody but Harper at the ballot box.

And then there was Harper's alteration of the Atlantic Accord. When Bill Casey met with Harper, he discovered that the agreement meant what Stephen Harper said it meant:

Casey visited the prime minister personally, armed with legal opinions from the justice department confirming that the deal had been changed and that it was illegal.

“Harper swept the opinions off his desk and said that the words meant what he said they meant. He said that I had never been with the program,” Casey told me.

Jack Layton said he discovered early on that you couldn't take the prime minister at his word. That, Harris writes, is what the next election will be all about: Stephen Harper's word.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Questioning The Orthodoxy

                                                   http://canadabubble.com/

Joe Oliver is meeting with his provincial counterparts today. Kevin Page writes that, given Canada's and the world's economic outlook, it's time to ask some tough questions:

Some of these issues cannot be ignored any longer. For instance, will any provincial or territorial finance minister confront Joe Oliver, their federal counterpart, about income stagnation? Data on Human Resources and Social Development Canada’s site shows that median after-tax incomes for all families (or real GDP per capita) has been virtually flat since 2007. Debt feels very heavy when incomes are stagnating.

Or what about income inequality? The New Canadian Income Survey on the Statistics Canada website shows that 4.7 million people or 13.8 per cent of our population lived with low income in 2012 (income less than half of the median of all households). That is a troubling number that should worry all Canadian political leaders.

It's not that our finance ministers lack brains. Page gives credit where credit is due:

Our finance ministers are smart. They know that faster growth is going to require higher investment rates and sustainable public finances. But the reality is that Canada is falling down on capital investments in both the private and public sectors.  

That's because the ruling orthodoxy these days dictates that the only way to encourage investment is to cut taxes:

Why do we continue to pursue an approach that stunts growth now and for the future? Is this public sector mismanagement? Or, is this an effort to achieve a balanced budget that allows for spending on current goods or services (for my generation that votes) at the cost of capital goods for future generations (our children and grandchildren that do not yet vote)?

And what about infrastructure spending? Will the ministers confront Oliver about the 2013-14 Public Accounts for Infrastructure Canada, which show the federal government is not getting planned transfers on infrastructure out the door. Last year, $640 million was left unspent on a range of infrastructure programs. What will this mean for future Canadians?

The austerity approach set out in the 2012 federal budget will succeed in generating a balanced budget, but at a cost: slower growth and degraded public services like support for veterans. Meanwhile, the government is responding to its improved fiscal situation not by raising the investment rate, but by cutting taxes further.

Page got into trouble because he questioned the Harper government's orthodoxy. Time has proven, however, that Kevin Page knows a lot more about economics than Stephen Harper does.