Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The King Of Austerity

The damage Stephen Harper has done to his country is everywhere.  Three years ago, at the G20 Summit, he touted Canada's economic growth. But now that he has implemented his austerity agenda, things aren't looking so good. The Canadian Press reports that Canada is no longer the fastest growing economy among the G7 countries:

Capital Economics says Canada's economy will only grow by 1.5 per cent this year, and slow further to one per cent in 2014 as the country's over-built housing market comes crashing to earth.

That would mean the U.S., Germany and likely Japan could outperform Canada in growth in one or both years.

Canada generally outperformed the Group of Seven industrialized economies during the 2008-09 recession and in the aftermath, but has seen the actual growth rate slow each year of the recovery period from 3.4 per cent in 2010, to 2.5 per cent in 2012, to 1.7 per cent last year.

We tend to forget that, besides tanking the Canadian economy, Harper has also had a hand in tanking the world economy. Linda McQuaig writes, in The Toronto Star, that the prime minister pushed for austerity at the G20 summit in 2010:

The embrace of austerity at the 2010 Toronto summit was a dramatic reversal of the stimulus spending that the world’s rich nations had quite effectively adopted to counter the devastating 2008 financial crash — in line with the lessons taught by the great 20th century British economist John Maynard Keynes.

Harper played a key role in that lamentable change of direction. At his urging, the G20 nations agreed to commit themselves to halve their deficits by 2013 — a draconian approach that returned the developed world to obsessing about deficits and ignoring unemployment.
(Ironically, the high unemployment produced by austerity reduces tax revenues and increases social spending, making deficit-reduction difficult. Much to its embarrassment, the Harper government has had to revise its deficit estimates upward. So far this year, Canada’s deficit is rising, not falling.)
But the fixation on deficits, which has dominated public discourse for much of the last 30 years, has helped divert attention from the fact that austerity is part of a larger agenda (including tax cuts and privatization) that’s redistributed money toward the top.

We don't consider Harper to be a player on the world stage. As George W. Bush liked to say, we have "misunderestimated" him. He is the king of austerity.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It's About Quality, Not Just Numbers

As each month comes to an end, we wait with baited breath to discover how many  new jobs were created in the last thirty days. But Yogendra Shakya and Axelle Janczur write that the kind of jobs we create is just as -- if not more -- important than the number of jobs we create:

In the name of “free market” policies, Canada has seen a downward push on wages and a rise in unstable, temporary and unsafe jobs. These types of jobs are broadly referred to as “precarious work” or “non-standard employment” since they are marked by limited or no stability, benefits and protection.

Several studies have documented that precarious, non-standard jobs are rapidly growing in Canada, and that this trend negatively affects a substantial proportion of Canadians.

The Harper government is focused on establishing a neo-feudal relationship between employer and worker. And, to a very large extent, it is succeeding:

A recently released report by United Way Toronto and McMaster University, It’s More Than Poverty, found that 40 per cent of workers in the Greater Toronto Area-Hamilton region are in precarious types of employment. The Law Commission of Ontario’s recent report, Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work, has documented how lax employment standards and occupational health and safety regulations are making an increasing number of workers more vulnerable to bad working conditions and exploitation. Research also shows that immigrants, racialized people (“visible minorities”) and women tend to be overrepresented in these types of jobs.

The research has also shown that precarious work is unhealthy work:

Research findings about health impacts from precarious jobs are particularly concerning. Health impacts included immediate ailments such as debilitating workplace injuries as well as chronic concerns like ulcers, chronic pain, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Most did not have extended health and dental coverage or sick leave benefits. Study participants also mentioned that they often delay or forgo seeking health care because of having to juggle multiple jobs just to make ends meet. 

And, as the government encourages unhealthy work, it cuts back on health care spending. What should be done?

The solutions and policy tools are at hand. In some cases, it is about more effective implementation or broadening existing policies (better enforcement of the Employment Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, specifically in sectors that rely heavily on “temp” jobs; expanding pay equity legislation; strengthening federal employment equity and adopting this at provincial levels; integrating robust anti-discrimination legislation in workplaces).  

But the present government is adamantly opposed to using such policy tools. The only way to change policy is to change the government.

Monday, July 29, 2013

It's In The Hands Of The Young

Frank Graves has been tracking public opinion for a long time. In his most recent survey, he asked Canadians four broad questions: 1) Do you favour more or less immigration? 2) Should Canada focus on domestic production or international trade? 3) Should we build our economy on carbon based energy or green energy? and 4) Do you favour more or less government?

In only one of these four areas do Canadians appear to support Harper government policy. We are not as welcoming of immigrants as we used to be. But, interestingly, on the question of active or laissez faire government, Canadians and Conservatives are on different sides of the fence. Graves writes:

The results are very interesting and fit in with our trends analysis which suggests that there is growing skepticism to the notion that a minimal state and lower taxes would leave the invisible hand of the market to produce a better economy for all. The invisible hand seems to be offering a visible middle finger to frustrated citizens who have tired of these promises of prosperity while their situations have stagnated or declined. This has not produced an appetite for ‘big’ government but it has produced a clear conviction that the state should have more – and not less – of a role in designing and delivering a better future. And once again, it is notable that this consensus does not appear to be congenial with the core political philosophy of the government of the day.

What is even more interesting is how closely the numbers track the results of the last election:

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that in our most recent poll, support for a smaller government almost perfectly reflects support for the current government. When asked whether they believe a more active government or a less active government would lead to a better future 25 years from now, just one-quarter of Canadians (26 per cent) put their faith in a smaller government (this compares to 28 per cent who say they would vote for the Conservative Party in a future election). By corollary, 70 per cent would like to see a more active government, compared to 72 per cent who would vote for another party.

But what is most intriguing of all is the attitude of the next generation to government in general:

One notable finding, which mirrors recent European research, is that the youngest citizenry are more muted in their support for active government. The newest cohorts may be the most progressive ever in terms of social values, but they are more individualistic and less receptive to the notion that the state can solve their problems. Whether this is a product of growing up in an era of retrenchment and austerity, which offers little for them, or something deeper, it merits further investigation.

It's pretty clear that the Harper government does not represent most Canadians. But it is equally clear that the next generation holds the balance of power. How they respond in the next election will determine Canada's future.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Speech You'll Never Hear

The evidence keeps piling up. When Hurricane Sandy tore up the Jersey Shore and flooded New York City, Americans started talking about climate change. But when Calgary was inundated last month, Jason Kenny called it a "once in a century event," claiming that everybody cleaned up and went about their business the last time Calgary was flooded, in 1892. When Toronto's subway stations were under water last month, you would think that Stephen Harper -- whose real home town is Toronto -- would have taken note.

Edward Greenspan writes, in the Toronto Star, that the event should have prompted a speech from Harper, which would have sounded something like this:

“Friends, while the cause of a single extreme weather event is unknowable, their greater frequency is irrefutable. Federal scientists are right: there is something fundamental happening out there, and Canada both contributes to the problem and suffers from the consequences.
 “Thus I want to reach out today to four groups in particular: government scientists, who will once again be allowed to speak freely; President Obama, who has reasonably challenged us to craft a Keystone proposal that ‘does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution’; the young people of Canada, starting with my children Ben and Rachel, who, while they don’t yet vote, deserve a government obsessed with a better future; and, finally, the oil industry based in my flood-ravaged hometown to whom I want to invoke a famously wise Conservative nostrum: ‘Short-term pain for long-term gain.’
 “Friends, our current trajectory is unsustainable. Let’s get on a new one.”

Barack Obama has made the pivot. Bur Harper hasn't, because he's sold his soul to Big Oil. He has pinned his future  -- and the country's future -- on black goo.

No, there will be no such speech.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Wisdom Of Direct Investment

One of  the Right's favourite shibboleths is that, when government invests directly in people, it encourages sloth. Far better to offer citizens tax credits. Government shouldn't invest, they say. It should cut taxes. But Carol Goar writes in The Toronto Star:

The C.D. Howe Institute, financed primarily by business, has concluded after a thorough analysis of the tax system that Ottawa should switch back to investing in social programs.

Economists Alexandre Laurin and Finn Poschmann found that the more a working family earned, the more it lost in clawed back benefits and higher taxes. Low-income families were the hardest hit. Their marginal effective tax rate — the amount they owed on each additional dollar — could be as high as up to 60 per cent (80 per cent in Quebec.)
 “There are better alternatives aimed at supporting low-income families through universal in-kind programs such as neighbourhood facilities and services aimed at target communities,” they said.

The Harper government considers that conclusion pure heresy. However, Laurin and Poshmann document how the present tax system encourages sloth:

Last week’s report, Treading Water: The Impact of High Marginal Effective Tax Rates on Working Families in Canada, went a step further. It followed the poor into the labour market and found they were penalized for extra effort. The more they earned, the more benefits they lost. The three big ones were the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which is phased out as a family’s income rises; the GST/HST Credit, which likewise diminishes as income rises; and the Working Income Tax Benefit, which starts to decrease at a family income of $15,509 and falls to zero at $27,489.

 To make their numbers relevant to laymen, Laurin and Poschmann created a hypothetical couple, Peter and Marie Thompson, with two children living in a rented apartment. He worked full-time and she worked part-time. Together they brought in $40,000 — just enough to make ends meet. Marie was considering a switch to full-time work to earn extra money. But once the couple weighed the costs and benefits, they realize she’d lose almost much in benefits as she’d make in income. (Her marginal effective tax rate was 68 per cent).
Well-off couples are spared this double whammy. If one of the parents worked longer hours, it might push the family into a higher tax bracket, but it wouldn’t result in lost cash benefits because most are targeted at low-income earners.

The Harper government has declared war on the poor. It has reduced Employment Insurance benefits. It has accused recipients of fraud. It has cut health care spending. It has trashed the Kelowna Accord. And it has helped the rich get richer -- claiming that helping the rich get richer will create jobs for the poor.

The evidence is incontrovertible. Their "program" is pure hogwash. If they really wanted to improve the lot of those who are just getting by, they would invest in affordable child care and public transportation. Instead, they offer sermons about laziness and their own righteousness.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Milton Friedman And Edward Snowden

Murray Dobbin writes that both men are connected, despite the years. Friedman was famous for coining the phrase "Free To Choose."  He sold right wing ideologues on the notion that the free market ensured absolute freedom. His acolytes believed, therefore, that free market capitalism was the cornerstone of democracy.

Except Friedman wasn't really sold on democracy. Dobbin writes:

At a conference on Freedom, Democracy and Economic Welfare in 1986, he challenged an audience member who had placed democracy at the pinnacle of human achievement -- not so, said Friedman. "You can't say that majority voting is a basic right.... That's a proposition I object to very strenuously." He later wrote: "One of the things that troubles me very much is that I believe a relatively free economy is a necessary condition for a democratic society. But I also believe ... that a democratic society, once established, destroys a free economy."

Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, has documented how Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago prescribed radical therapy for economies they considered weak. They could only accomplish that therapy by taking advantage of -- or by creating their own -- crises in those economies. Ultimately, the rules of democracy had to be suspended for their solutions to work. And, thus, Friedman helped Chile's Augusto Pinochet tackle inflation -- at horrendous human cost.

However, their solutions always resulted in a consumption crisis. Dobbins writes:

But this 30-year history of liberating capital has had exactly the effect that many predicted: a persistent consumption crisis. Capitalists cannot sell all the goods and services they are capable of producing. The crisis has been delayed a number of times -- most notably by the globalization of production.

But the 2008 meltdown stripped away all the camouflage from a system that could not prevail. In Canada as well as in other developed Western nations, the crisis has been delayed by cheap goods from China and other low-wage countries, and by the liberal use of credit. But nothing in nature or economies stays the same for long and these two factors can no longer save extreme capitalism from its crisis.

What Friedman created was a house of cards. Democracy -- real democracy -- would bring the house down. But, remember, Friedman believed that "a democratic society once established destroys a free economy." And that's where Edward Snowden comes in. We're told that he is destroying the bulwark which has been built to protect us from terrorists. But, according to Dobbin:

The massive invasion of privacy and violation of civil liberties in the U.S. exposed by whistle-lower Edward Snowden has been justified as the necessary price Americans have to pay to keep them safe from terrorism. It is more likely the price Americans -- and perhaps Canadians -- will be forced to pay as extreme capitalism anticipates future domestic resistance to its behaviour.

You knew Big Brother was watching you. You just didn't know why.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Canadian Custer

After the cabinet shuffle last week, commentators began to speculate about whether Stephen Harper was opening the door for his successor. The truth is, no one knows what Harper is planning. He doesn't trust anyone enough to give a hint about what he's really thinking. But we have suffered the man long enough to make judgements based on what the man has done, as opposed to what he has said.

And, therefore, Devon Black writes, it's fair to ask: What legacy will Stephen Harper leave after he goes? You can see signs of what's to come:

Given that we’re already seeing the need to mitigate the effects of climate change, I suspect that the changing climate may be the next generation’s greatest challenge – but even if I’m wrong, there’s a good chance that the greatest challenge will be access to water, or declining biodiversity, or resource depletion. Whatever other problems will need solving, they’ll all occur against the backdrop of a damaged environment.

Despite the harm that climate change is already causing, Canada’s current record on environmental issues remains abysmal. The government has instead focused its efforts on raising penalties for criminal offenders, pursuing dead-on-arrival Senate reforms, and letting Canadians know how much money they’ve put into the Economic Action Plan. Spending money and being tough on crime makes for great stump speeches, but it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable contribution to the great Canadian project.

Great leaders see what's coming and they move a country into the future. Mr. Harper is steadfastly trying to turn back the clock, even as he stubbornly refuses to admit that the future of the planet lies in the balance. Ironically, the Conservative Party -- that is, the Progressive Conservative Party -- once made the environment a central issue:

The real shame is that protection of the environment used to be an important part of Conservative policy in Canada. In 2006, Corporate Knights declared Brian Mulroney the “Greenest PM in Canadian History.” The award’s wording might have been hyperbolic, but Mulroney’s record on the environment speaks for itself.

Mulroney hassled U.S. President Ronald Reagan for years on an air quality agreement to combat acid rain, before finally getting his successor, President George H. W. Bush, to sign on. Under Mulroney, Canada was the first industrialized country to ratify both the Convention on Biodiversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Mulroney saw the passage of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and the creation of the National Round Table of the Environment and Economy (NRTEE).

Under Harper, Canada’s environmental protection legislation has been gutted. NRTEE has been shut down, and its research hidden from the public. Canada has become notorious for not just ignoring, but for downright impeding the creation of international agreements to protect the environment.

Stephen Harper has guided the country into a box canyon -- a twenty-first century version of The Little Big Horn. And he is a twenty-first century version of George Armstrong Custer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mr. Harper's Balloon

Michael Harris writes that the Harper government has a new emblem -- a "two and a half storey hot air balloon floating high in the parliamentary sky over the Ottawa River: Senator Mike Duffy, clutching a briefcase stuffed with cash."

Mr. Harper has always claimed that he is a wise steward of the public purse. There is no better emblem to torpedo that myth than the inflated Senator form Kanata. Duffy may eventually take the prime minister down with him. The list of people Duffy has already taken out is growing:

The body count alone – senators Tkachuk, LeBreton and the prime minister’s chief-of-staff, suggest there is more than a whiff of blameworthiness, if not illegality, in this matter.

The stench will get a little stronger if Senator Gerstein, one of the architects of the In-and-Out scandal, is drawn in. Since he was in charge of the Conservative Party Fund that was initially to be used to pay off Duffy’s expenses, it is hard to imagine how he will not be.

And, of course, besides Wright there are the other quietly departing residents of the PMO. Those who are left are madly trying to keep the rot from destroying anyone else's career. Whether or not that will happen depends on the RCMP:

So it all boils down to how well an RCMP wracked with internal dissent and accusations of political interference in its management structures carries out its investigation. The choice of an investigator is encouraging. Corporal Greg Horton is one of the best, currently assigned to Sensitive and International Investigations, responsible for looking into matters of significant risk to Canada’s political, economic and social integrity. This file certainly qualifies for that.

If things still work in this country, the Mounties will pop Mr. Harper's balloon.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pulling Apart

For those who view economics as a morality play, Detroit's bankruptcy is another example of an economic sinner in the hands of an angry god. For those who view economics as a Darwinian test of survival, Detroit is just another species that didn't make the cut. The truth is that Detroit illustrates the consequences of the economic policies of the last thirty-five years. For the city -- like the American middle class itself -- has been hollowed out. Consider, Robert Reich writes, the following:

Detroit is a devastatingly poor, mostly black, increasingly abandoned island in the midst of a sea of comparative affluence that’s mostly white. Its suburbs are among the richest in the nation. Oakland County, for example, is the fourth wealthiest county in the United States, of counties with a million or more residents. Greater Detroit — which includes the suburbs — is among the nation’s top five financial centers, the top four centers of high-technology employment, and the second-biggest source of engineering and architectural talent. Not everyone is wealthy, to be sure, but the median household in the region earns close to $50,000 a year, and unemployment is no higher than the nation’s average. The median household in Birmingham, Michigan, just across the border that delineates the city of Detroit, earned more than $94,000 last year; in nearby Bloomfield Hills — still within the Detroit metropolitan area — the median was more than $150,000.

The median household income within the city of Detroit is around $26,000, and unemployment is staggeringly high. One out of 3 residents is in poverty; more than half of all children in the city are impoverished. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost a quarter of its population as the middle-class and whites fled to the suburbs. That left it with depressed property values, abandoned neighborhoods, empty buildings, lousy schools, high crime, and a dramatically-shrinking tax base. More than half of its parks have closed in the last five years. Forty percent of its streetlights don’t work.

It's true that Detroit failed to adapt to the globalized automobile industry. But, unquestionably, a good deal of the blame for that failure rests with the car companies. They chose bean counters as presidents -- men who were mesmerized by numbers, but who knew nothing of the two most important parts of the automobile industry -- cars and customers.

That said, it is still true that the best way to face a challenge is to pull together. Unfortunately, in the last thirty-five years, Americans have been pulling apart.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Monday, July 22, 2013

They're Wearing Off And Wearing Thin

Perhaps the public is finally catching on. The Canadian Press reports that a recent Harris-Decima survey -- required under federal advertising rules --  found that:

Slick television ads this year for the Harper government's "economic action plan" appear to be inspiring a lot of, well, inaction.

A key measure of the ads' impact is whether viewers check out, the web portal created in 2009 to promote the catch-all brand.

But a survey of 2,003 adult Canadians completed in April identified just three people who actually visited the website.

Perhaps people know that the Economic Action Plan has come to a halt and been replaced by The Deficit Reduction Plan. Or perhaps they know the Economic Action Plan is a baldfaced lie. At any rate, they give Harper and Company less credit than they did before:

Harris-Decima also asked: "How would you rate the overall performance of the Government of Canada," the same question asked in the other eight surveys.

Previous results from 2009 to 2012 showed an average of 43 per cent of respondents rating the government from good to excellent. The latest survey found only 38 per cent giving a positive endorsement, a trough hit only once before, in 2010.

Clearly, Harper Inc. is wearing off and wearing thin.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


It was General Philip Sheridan who said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." In Canada, we like to think that our history is not as savage as that of the United States. But a study from the University of Guelph puts the lie to that sop. Our government backed a scientific experiment to study the affect of starvation on first nations people.

Phil Fontaine, Michael Dan an Bernie Farber write in The Toronto Star:

It is time for Canadians to face the sad truth. Canada engaged in a deliberate policy of attempted genocide against First Nations people. And the starvation experiments were only the first of a litany of similar such attempts to control, delegitimize and, yes, even annihilate First Nations to suit the needs of a growing Dominion.

These "nutrition experiments" were carried out in residential schools. It wasn't the first time that science -- or the lack of it -- was used against first nations people. The authors write that in 1907, Dr. Pete Bryce, Canada's first Chief Medical Officer, told his superiors in Ottawa that:

Canada’s aboriginal people in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan were being “decimated by tuberculosis and that the federal government possessed the means to stop it.” Instead, it chose a such minimalist approach that, in the medical opinion of Dr. Bryce, it “amounted to almost nothing.”

The government of the day sought to hide Bryce’s findings from the general public and chose to bury the report and relieve Bryce of his duties. This had the effect of ensuring that no real steps would be taken to help save the lives of natives on reserves and in residential schools from the ravages of this disease. Indeed, Bryce was so frustrated that in the end he charged that “the government’s treatment of it’s aboriginal peoples amounted to nothing less than an infuriating and criminal disregard to the country’s Treaty pledges.”

In Canada, we sweep what is inconvenient or unpleasant under the rug. We can no longer do that. Former prime minister Paul Martin called these nutrition experiments "monstrous." Conditions on Canadian reserves have been monstrous for a long time.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Rise Of The Spectacularly Incompetent

Amid all the talk this week of Stephen Harper's enemies list, a lot of us missed what is surely another example of how corrupt the Harper government has become -- the appointment of Harper's former bodyguard as the Canadian ambassador to Jordan. Gerald Caplan writes that, as ambassador, Bruno Saccomani is also responsible for relations with Iraq. Mr. Soccomani has no background in foreign affairs:

Because Mr. Saccomani, a middle-level Mountie, was in charge of the PM’s personal security, the government brazenly peddles him as an expert in security, ready to be an ambassador. What an insult to the intelligence of Canadians and what a slap in the face to the entire foreign service. Personal security and international security are two unrelated universes. Mr. Saccomani seems to have no background in the vast, intricate world of diplomacy, foreign affairs, the Middle East in general or Jordan and Iraq in particular.

But expertise is clearly not Mr. Harper's strong suit. As the enemies list illustrates, it's loyalty that counts with Harper:

By any normative standard, [Saccomani] has not a single qualification for the job except that Stephen Harper trusts him. Or, in Harperlandese, as articulated by Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Saccomani is a “very distinguished individual with a strong record as a professional public servant.” In other words, a good bodyguard.

Those who do know something about Foreign Affairs have figured out the real significance of Saccomani's appointment:

As Daniel Livermore, senior fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, wrote in the Globe and Mail, Canada intends to play no role in the fraught Middle East peace process. “To put the matter bluntly, the government just doesn’t care enough about the region or its issues to put experienced people in charge.

The rise of Stephen Harper has been all about the rise of the spectacularly incompetent.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Longer He Stays, The More Damage He Does

Lawrence Martin has admitted that the title for his latest book was inspired by Rick Pearlstein's examination of the Nixon administration. However, Martin writes, Harperland is not Nixonland -- at least not yet:

Harperland is not in a league with Nixonland, certainly not on the basis of what we know now. But that doesn’t mean that the abuse of power by this government is not of an extraordinary nature. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t shadings of character and behaviour that are similar to Nixon’s.

There’s been a siege mentality at work here that calls to mind those times. We have a leader who seems incapable of escaping his brooding resentments and authoritarian urges. Many observers talk of a paranoia strain in the Harper team which has led to a reliance on the dark arts, a reliance which, in terms of volume, goes beyond anything we have seen in Ottawa as far as memory reaches.

Canada, has never been immune to the abuse of power. But, under Harper, Canada and Canadians have been treated with more contempt than ever before:

Not helping the Conservative case was their leader becoming the first prime minister to be found in contempt of parliament. It was for refusing to share basic information on program costing with parliament’s democratically-elected representatives.

Not helping was the prime minister’s instituting of an unprecedented vetting and censorship system wherein all information is controlled from the centre. Resultant muzzling stories are extraordinary. The science community is so distrusted that Harper operatives, in part of what commentator Allan Gregg sees as an Orwellian obsession, shadows distinguished scientists with chaperones – media minders as they’re called – to see they don’t step out of line.

Not helping have been many other developments. Campaigns to discredit opponents were a staple of the Nixon years and have been, though not to the same degree, of the Harper years. Targets include, to name just a few, diplomat Richard Colvin, Veterans’ affairs advocate Sean Bruyea, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, and budget officer Kevin Page. Between elections, the Harper team has brought in character-assassination advertising, much of it dishonest or out of context, to a degree far beyond what our politics has seen before.

Our prime minister is a doodle. We've never had one like him before. And the longer he stays, the more damage he does.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Inequality Keeps Them In Power

Everyone complains about public apathy. We know that democracy in Canada is in trouble. But nothing seems to change. Alex Himelfarb suggests that the reason things don't change is because we lack social trust:

By “social trust” is meant something more than whether we trust our neighbour or others in our community or in similar circumstance. It is rather the generalized belief that most people in a society can be trusted, including those quite different from ourselves.

Social trust is not the same as political trust, but where it is high people are readier to trust their democracy, more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to government when something goes wrong, and less likely to see the latest scandal as indicative of the entire class of politicians. Even when governments perform so badly as to make political trust impossible, where social trust is high, citizens still participate, still try to make things better. Because they trust the future and their ability to influence it, they are still capable of outrage rather than the indifference or fatalism of the jaded.

Himelfarb notes that recent research indicates that social trust varies with the degree of inequality:

According to the research, the most important factor in determining the degree of social trust in a society seems to be its level of equality, both economic equality and equality of opportunity. In highly unequal societies rich and poor live such fundamentally different lives that it’s impossible to develop the mutual empathy essential to building trust and a sense of shared fate. When this is coupled with lack of opportunity for economic progress we get conflict, politics as a zero-sum game and a downward spiral of distrust. Highly unequal societies are also characterized by widespread corruption, which undermines all manner of trust.

The countries with the highest social trust are the Scandanavian countries. These are also the countries with the highest taxes, and the most vibrant economies. How does Canada compare to them?

Over much of the post-war period, with some exceptions, most notably our shameful treatment of Aboriginal people, Canada did pretty well in both social trust and equality, tucked in just behind the Scandinavian countries and Netherlands. The last couple of decades, however, have seen a sharp decline in social trust and an accelerating increase in income inequality, and while mobility is still pretty high it won’t stay that way if income inequality continues to grow.

Consider what has happened during the last twenty years:

Canadians are rightly proud of our universal medicare but we are allowing it to erode. Public funding for education is in decline so more of the burden and related debt fall to students and their families. Wages are under assault – witness the attacks on collective bargaining and the abuse of the foreign workers program. Fewer than forty per cent of unemployed Canadians have access to employment insurance. Our income support system is fragmented and inadequate – and too often demeaning. Huge gaps – childcare, civil legal aid, pharma- and home-care – exacerbate inequality.

It's nothing new to say that the Harperites are leading the charge for more inequality. That's what keeps them in power.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Paranoia, Not Public Safety

Stephen Harper likes to say that public safety is one of his government's main priorities. After all, that's what that new tough on crime legislation and those new prisons were all about. But in the summer of 2013 -- the summer when Calgary and Toronto were flooded and downtown Lac Megantic was incinerated -- people are beginning to wonder if Harper knows what he's talking about. Phil Gibson writes:

Harper’s approach to risk management is illustrated by his laissez-faire style of federal-provincial relations. It isn’t so much a constitutional strategy as a deliberate process of offloading costs on the provinces. It may be rationalized as federalism at work, but that line of argument is really a smokescreen for deficit fighting to restore the federal accounts in time for the next election campaign.

The prime minister’s approach to risk management moves money away from investments in people in order to spend it on technology. This way the private sector gets to spend it instead of other levels of government. Another consequence has been a reduction in support for heavy urban search and rescue teams (HUSAR) in Vancouver, Calgary, St. Boniface, Toronto and Halifax. Meanwhile, a training center for first responders that was run by Public Safety Canada has been shut down and the Canadian Center for Emergency Preparedness has ceased operations, its assets transferred to a community college.

Harper's take on safety is beginning to run thin even in Alberta. Vic Toews may be gone, but he still leaves a bad smell where he has been. Brian Cornforth, president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association was not impressed when Toews showed up in High River:

Chief Cornforth blasted Public Safety Minister Vic Toews for “posing” amid the flood recovery operation in High River, saying politicians with no operational role have no business getting in the way. The chief said he is particularly incensed by the program cutbacks to public safety and HUSAR when he hears about misspending in Ottawa.

The prime minister's claim to fame has been sound fiscal management. That was the spin. But, Gibson writes:

It’s hard to imagine what could upset some peoples’ faith in Harper’s image as a fiscal manager — unless it’s their own safety. As a bedrock value, public safety and security is as fundamental a belief as any core value shared by the Conservatives’ base. How else to explain the government’s fixation with retrenched changes to the criminal justice system?

As yesterday's news about Harper's enemies list revealed, it has never been about public safety. It's always been about paranoia.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Taking Aim At His Enemies

Stephen Harper shuffled his deck chairs yesterday. And Mike De Souza reports, in The National Post, that incoming ministers received a package which included a list of Harper's enemies:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office asked Conservative political staffers to develop lists of “enemy” lobby groups, as well as troublesome bureaucrats and reporters to avoid as part of preparations for incoming ministers named in Monday’s cabinet shuffle, according to leaked emails sent to Postmedia News by an unidentified source.

This isn't the first time the Harper government has produced an enemies list:

Harper’s government had previously distanced itself in 2012 from another internal strategy document, released through access to information legislation, that listed environmental and First Nations groups as “adversaries” and the National Energy Board – an independent regulator – as an “ally” in federal efforts to promote expansion in the oilsands sector, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

In their book,The Final Days, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported that, as Richard Nixon was losing his grip on power, he would walk the halls of the White House, semi-inebriated, holding conversations with the portraits of former presidents. Henry Kissinger is reported to have called Nixon "our drunken friend."

One wonders how Stephen Harper spends his evenings. Perhaps he's conversing with Nixon's ghost.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Making Matters Worse

Perhaps it results from reading too many balance sheets. But Edward Burkhardt clearly suffers from EDD -- Emotional Deficit Disorder. The head of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway walked into Lac Megantic last week and blamed someone else for the tragedy:

“It was our employee that was responsible for setting the brakes on the train,” Burkhardt told journalists. “That employee is under investigation and is not working.”

He also suggested that some local firefighters, who were called to put out a fire on the unmanned train, might have unwittingly tampered with the brakes.

Burkhardt's strategy is nothing knew, writes Allan Bonner:

Union Carbide blamed Indian sabotage (never proven) [for the tragedy at Bhopal] and Exxon blamed its ship’s captain (acquitted of a drinking charge). Burkhardt implicated a firefighter who may have “tampered” with the engine and brakes, and within 36 hours blamed his own engineer (suspended without pay). But Burkhardt admitted that his company had not conducted a full investigation, and thus had little way of knowing. Public sympathy is with the engineer. 

It seems that, if you're at the top these days, you take credit for profits, but you blame someone else for the societal damage your enterprise has caused. Mr. Burkhardt may know how to read a balance sheet. Bu he hasn't got a clue when it comes to handling a crisis. Bonner writes:

One of a senior manager’s jobs is to ensure there’s a good crisis plan and test it. Had Burkhardt done this, he could have arrived quietly in a controlled school gym or church basement with a francophone moderator and technical expert to brief reporters competently. He didn’t need to look nervous, ill-informed, self-centred or combative.

Once again, the best and the brightest have proved that they are neither. They only know how to make matters worse.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

They Do It Without Blushing

On May 2nd, the Harper government staged a ceremony to commemorate the Canadarm and Canada's contribution to space exploration. Curiously, Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut -- who was later made president of Canada's Space Agency, and who was the first person to operate the Canadarm  -- was not invited to the event. The Canadian Press reports:

Garneau was miffed at being excluded, blaming the lapse on the "highly partisan" Conservative government.

Two senior ministers, however, said museum and space agency staff fumbled the ball and that their own ministerial offices played no role.

But internal emails, guest lists and proposals show that the offices of James Moore, Canadian Heritage minister, and Christian Paradis, industry minister, were closely involved in the planning for more than two months.

Numerous draft lists of potential VIP guests included at least four former Canadian astronauts: Julie Payette, Roberta Bondar, Steve McLean and Robert Thirsk — with Garneau's name conspicuously absent.

The roster swelled to 62 names by the time of the event, though not all invitees accepted. Cmdr. Chris Hadfield participated by video link from the International Space Station.
Names were supplied by museum officials, the Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, the firm that recently refurbished the 15-metre Canadarm, which made its space debut in 1981.

The Canadian Press obtained the Canadarm museum file through the Access to Information Act, though no correspondence from the ministers' offices was included. Some key elements of the file were also censored.

This isn't the first time the Harperites have blamed bureaucrats for their own mistakes. But what is truly disturbing is the way they lie -- they do it without blushing. Their lack of embarrassment betrays their own deep insecurity.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ignorance Rules The Roost

Vic Toews is gone. Peter Kent thinks he's gone. And, Alex Himelfarb writes, Gary Goodyear should be gone:

Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, has presided over the most retrograde federal S&T policy in memory.

During his tenure, the government shuttered the office of the National Science Adviser, blocked asbestos from a UN hazardous chemicals list on which it clearly belongs, gutted the Fisheries Act, gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, set out to weaken the Species at Risk Act, killed the long-form census, eroded Environment Canada’s ability to monitor climate change, earned an international reputation for muzzling scientists and, at a great potential cost, defunded the world’s leading freshwater research centre.
At the same time, changes to our science-funding regime and a makeover of the National Research Council, Canada’s science agency, into a tool box for industry have dented our basic-research infrastructure and damaged our prospects for innovation.

And, like so many of Harper's ministers, Goodyear doesn't know much about his area of responsibility:

Goodyear’s training in science is limited to a degree in chiropractics. That would be fine if his performance in the job suggested he understood and was a champion of the scientific enterprise.

Instead, he has repeatedly demonstrated the opposite. He briefly made international headlines in 2009 when he dodged a reporter’s question about whether he puts stock in the theory of evolution, refusing to answer “a question about my religious beliefs.” (He later clarified that he does “believe” in the theory, but his conflation of a scientific question with a religious one disturbed many scientists.) In any case, he has been complicit, at least, in a dark chapter in the history of Canadian science. And he is a symbol of the unenlightened style of government that, more than any particular policies, Harper’s opponents seem set on running against.

The problem, of course, is that most of Harper's caucus is as unenlightened as Goodyear. When the organization is populated by know-nothings, ignorance rules the roost.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The End Of Kent?

Peter Kent signaled this week that he expects to be demoted or dismissed by Stephen Harper. Rick Smith, the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute, suggests that Kent's tenure as Minister of the Environment can't come to an end soon enough:

Since the advent of Canada’s first federal Environment Minister in 1971, there have been many bumps-on-a-log, do-nothings, and disappointments. Many governments of the past have ignored the nation’s environmental protection needs, resulting in years of stalled progress. But only Mr. Kent has stepped up to the plate, Orwell-style, to re-make the Ministry of the Environment into a green rubber stamp for destructive, ill-considered, industrial behaviour, all while glibly blaming “foreign interests” for meddling with Canada’s overwhelmingly foreign-owned oil and gas sector. Only Mr. Kent has actually spearheaded the wholesale abolition of key elements of Canada’s already threadbare federal environmental protection architecture.

Smith then goes on to list what he believes were Kent's greatest hits (to the environment):

1. Turning the environmental assessment process into a sideshow .

2. Walking away from the Kyoto climate change agreement .

 3. Giving the hook to the Federal Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act .

 4. Telling the National Round Table of the Environment and Economy (NRTEE) where it could take its advice .

5. Deny, deny, deny that the tar sands have any more environmental impact than your dog .

Kent, of course, did not develop his own policy. He was merely a willing puppet:

Mr. Kent was simply the messenger for a government that is convinced, deep in its bones, that – contrary to any evidence and common sense – environmental protection and economic growth are incompatible.

And, for that reason, he is an embarrassment to a profession he once claimed to practice.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Back To The 19th Century

This week Stephen Harper indicated once again that he wants to return this country and its citizens to the 19th century. Bob Hepburn writes in the Toronto Star:

The latest slap at Canada’s independent image came this week when the Harper government announced our army will be tossing out the Canadian-style Maple Leaf rank designation on the shoulders of officers’ uniforms and restoring the traditional British Army-style stars, or “pips,” that existed until the 1960s.

Harper also is expected to restore British insignia and rank designations to our air force and navy.

Harper's latest move is consistent with earlier Harperian decrees:

In just the last two years, he has restored the word “Royal” to the official name of our navy and air force, ordered our embassies abroad and federal offices at home to display the Queen’s portrait prominently and agreed to have Canadian diplomats share office space in British embassies.

What is surprising is how tone deaf the prime minister is to Canadian opinion:

When “Royal” was put back into the navy and air force names, [Peter] MacKay said it was done to correct a “mistake,” a reference to the 1968 decision made by the Liberal government as part of its program to unify the forces.
As Harper moves to promote our outdated British ties with silly moves such as ridding the army of the Maple Leaf insignia, most Canadians have long tired of honouring the British royalty and traditions. 

Many commentators have noted the prime minister's morose turn of mind. He appears to be perpetually unhappy. Perhaps the explanation is that he feels he was born too late. Harper would  have been happy as a member of the Raj, or giving orders to troops during the Boer War.

Perhaps his next move will be to replace "O, Canada!" with "God Save The Queen."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Board The Pequod

For me, there are two quintessential American novels. Huck Finn is about the American heart. Moby Dick is about the American soul. It is perhaps no accident, then, that Chris Hedges -- whose subject is the tortured American soul -- wrote this week that,"We are all aboard the Pequod." For Hedges, if the American ship of state continues on its present course, the result will be catastrophe, not just for the nation, but for the planet:

We, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess. We believe in the eternal wellspring of material progress. We are our own idols. Nothing will halt our voyage; it seems to us to have been decreed by natural law. “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” Ahab declares. We have surrendered our lives to corporate forces that ultimately serve systems of death. Microbes will inherit the earth.

In our decline, hatred becomes our primary lust, our highest form of patriotism and a form of eroticism. We are made supine by hatred and fear. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to Bradley Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. We are blind to the evil within us. Melville’s description of Ahab is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities and generals who through the power of propaganda fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation.

He believes a collective madness has overtaken the country, a country which has forgotten the wisdom of its founding fathers. They knew, Hedges writes, that America's salvation lies in rebellion:

And so we plunge forward in our doomed quest to master the forces that will finally smite us. Those who see where we are going lack the fortitude to rebel. Mutiny was the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. It is our only salvation. But moral cowardice turns us into hostages.

Huck Finn is about moral courage. Huck is prepared to go to hell for helping his friend Jim escape. Huck, Twain wrote, is a boy with  "a sound heart and a deformed conscience." For Hedges, America is doomed as long as those with deformed consciences continue to captain the ship of state.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

New Faces, New Puppets

Vic Toews resigned from the Harper cabinet -- and politics -- yesterday. His is the latest departure from Team Harper, as the prime minister tries to put a new face on his government. But, writes Michael Harris:

It won’t work. Everyone knows who pulls the strings, no matter who is offering up the speaking points on television — and the puppet-master himself is not popular these days.

The Harper government has always been a one man show -- and now that one man is in the doghouse. The Wright-Duffy Affair is something which Canadians instinctively understand. And they know that Mr. Harper is desperate:

The PM has been all over the map on this file. First, the government’s line was Senator Duffy had paid back the money and was displaying “leadership” in the expenses scandal. That Edsel didn’t get very far down the road.

Then Harper’s robots tried the narrative that Nigel Wright gave Duffy $90,000 because he was the soul of friendship and generosity, just trying to help out a guy who was in over his head. Stephen Harper endorsed that fiction by saying shortly after the story broke that Wright had his “confidence” and would not be resigning.

Then funny things started to happen on the way to the RCMP investigation. In the prime minister’s eyes, Senator Duffy went from being a “leader” in the expenses scandal to being a person who had some questions to answer. Gone from caucus.

Next, Nigel Wright was no longer Robin Hood and no longer had the PM’s confidence. Instead, he resigned and became the man who “acted alone” in doing the secret deal with Duffy.

Stephen Harper -- the ultimate control freak -- has lost control of the story; and, for the first time since he became prime minister, his machinations aren't working. Mr. Harper and truth have always been distant relatives. But now truth has finally caught up with the prime minister.

And, when it comes to cabinets, the truth is that all the members of the inner circle sound like Stephen Harper

Monday, July 08, 2013

Healthcare Is Next

In today's Toronto Star, Natalie Mehra and Michael McBane warn that the Harper government is taking aim at Medicare. For the system to work, the prime minister needs to meet with his provincial counterparts. However,

This summer’s gathering of the premiers marks the final Council of the Federation meeting before 2014, when the National Health Accord expires. Penned in 2004, the 10-year health accord set priorities to improve access to health care and established a new funding formula.
The meetings do not include the federal government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not be in Niagara. What many Canadians do not realize is that there are no first ministers’ gatherings of all the premiers and the prime minister anymore. Harper refuses to attend them.

Even  more importantly, Harper has refused to talk about two cornerstones of an evolving medicare program:

In 2004 the provinces, territories and federal government established a National Pharmaceutical Strategy. Finally, progress was promised toward a national drug coverage program that would actually cut overall drug costs through bulk buying and better co-ordination. But since their election, the Harper Conservative government has refused to participate in this committee, effectively killing the dream of national drug coverage and stalling progress on reducing drug prices for the better part of the last decade.
In 2004, out of the health accord discussions, the provinces and federal government also began work to discuss home and continuing care. Progress on creating a national home and continuing care strategy is vital for more than a million Canadians who struggle with high out-of-pocket costs for post-hospital care.

Harper's antipathy to public healthcare is unmistakable. Mehra and McBane write:

In fact, the federal Conservative government’s antipathy to public medicare is becoming more and more overt. Not only has it walked away from the table on a national drug program and home care, it has also bluntly refused to meet with the provincial governments about renewing the funding formula for health care. Instead, the federal government plans to reduce funding from current projections by $36 billion in upcoming years, reversing the gains made in the health accord. In the latest budget, the government cut the Health Council of Canada as well as health services for veterans and refugees. The federal health minister has done nothing to implement the National Mental Health Strategy and has taken no action to uphold single-tier medicare in the face of private clinics extra-billing patients in provinces like British Columbia.

Mr. Harper is a one man wrecking ball. He was absolutely serious when he declared that we wouldn't recognize Canada when he was through with it. He, quite literally, is a hazard to your health.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The "Primitives" Have Got It Right

In a recent article, Noam Chomsky asks the question we should all be asking: "Who will defend the earth?" The people who are desperately interested in the answer to that question are people we have traditionally thought of as "backward." But, Chomsky writes, they understand what is at stake:

That the Earth now desperately needs defense from impending environmental catastrophe is surely obvious to any rational and literate person. The different reactions to the crisis are a most remarkable feature of current history.
At the forefront of the defense of nature are those often called “primitive”: members of indigenous and tribal groups, like the First Nations in Canada or the Aborigines in Australia - the remnants of peoples who have survived the imperial onslaught. At the forefront of the assault on nature are those who call themselves the most advanced and civilized: the richest and most powerful nations.

And, the answer to that question is at the heart of the turmoil which presently roils in Turkey: 

The struggle to defend the commons takes many forms. In microcosm, it is taking place right now in Turkey’s Taksim Square, where brave men and women are protecting one of the last remnants of the commons of Istanbul from the wrecking ball of commercialization and gentrification and autocratic rule that is destroying this ancient treasure.
The defenders of Taksim Square are at the forefront of a worldwide struggle to preserve the global commons from the ravages of that same wrecking ball - a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders. It is our common possession, to defend or to destroy.

We have become obsessed with the notion of private property, while we have forgotten the concept of the public commons. And, if we refuse to accept the idea that we are all in this together, the planet will collapse. In fact, it is well on the way to collapse.

The so called advanced people are the real primitives.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

It's Happened Before

Documents released yesterday indicate that, contrary to what Stephen Harper says, there were more people than Nigel Wright involved in the pay off to Mike Duffy. Most interesting of all is the revelation that Senator Irving Gertsein, who controls Conservative Party funds, was prepared to pony up $30,000 to help Duffy pay his bill -- until Gerstein discovered that Duffy's tab was three times bigger than that.

Paul Wells writes that this isn't the first time party money was used to try and make a problem go away:

At the beginning of the campaign for the 2006 election, an Ottawa lawyer named Alan Riddell stepped aside as the Conservatives’ nominated candidate in the Ottawa South riding. The party wanted to run Alan Cutler, a public servant who had blown the whistle on the Liberal sponsorship scandal, in the riding. Besides, as a candidate Riddell was, to some extent, less than ideal. He had run for the Conservatives in 2004 and lost after the Ottawa Sun ran an embarrassing story about a prank Riddell had played in his student days. (He’d dressed up as a character from Hogan’s Heroes, and I don’t mean Corporal LeBeau. A bit of a no-no, in retrospect.) After he lost the Sun retracted much of its story, but the damage was done. So, under some pressure from the party in 2006, Riddell dropped out, the party thanked him for his efforts, and Cutler became the candidate.

Then a CBC reporter asked Riddell why he had pulled out of the race so late. Riddell replied that the party made it easy by agreeing to cover his campaign expenses. He put the cost at about $50,000. Reporters following Harper on the campaign trail promptly asked him about the deal with Riddell. “In fact there is no agreement and he hasn’t been paid anything,” Harper said. When asked again later that day — it was the end of 2005 and Harper was still the kind of guy who might deign to scrum twice in one day — he repeated himself: “The party does not have an agreement to pay Mr. Riddell these expenses, and Mr. Riddell has not been paid anything to date.”

Unfortunately for Harper’s version of events, there was an email trail, which somebody on Riddell’s campaign promptly leaked to reporters. Riddell wound up suing the party for his expenses. On January 11, 2007, Judge Denis Power of Ontario Superior Court ruled “that Alan M. Riddell and the Conservative Party of Canada entered into a binding agreement on November 25, 2005.” He could hardly reach any other conclusion. Among the evidence produced in court was a November 25 email from Mike Donison, the Conservatives’ former director general, to Riddell’s lawyer. The email read, in part: “There is now a binding agreement between Mr. Riddell and the Conservative Party of Canada.”

And, of course, there was that story about Chuck Cadman -- another candidate who Harper had dumped -- who ran as an independent and was re-relected in his riding. Harper needed Cadman's vote to bring down the Martin government in 2005. The story making the rounds was that the dying Cadman was offered a large insurance policy to take care of his widow. But Cadman could not be bought.

Mr. Harper has denied any and all suggestions that he had anything to do with such nefarious schemes. The pattern is pretty clear. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Last Progresive Conservative

Stephen Harper is about to shuffle his cabinet. And those who are presently in it -- but who will not run in the next election -- are taking their leave. Among them is Ted Menzies. Jeffrey Simpson writes:

Mr. Menzies was the last former Alberta Progressive Conservative left in the new Conservative Party created by Stephen Harper. When Mr. Menzies sought the nomination, he ran against a clutch of Reform Party types who cancelled each other out and allowed him to slide to victory. Once nominated, the election was a formality.

All the other Alberta Conservative MPs are either from the old Reform Party or weren’t involved in electoral politics before running for office. With his departure, the Alberta caucus will shift just a bit further to the right.

And, even if the players change, they will all be singing from the same hymnal:

This government’s tone and style are beginning to wear on more and more Canadians. The ferocious partisanship, the excessive secrecy, the negative television ads, the mendacity directed at opponents, the overwhelming sense that enemies (including most of the media, of course) abound, the almost manic preoccupation with spin and image and now the little scandals from the Senate have created the impression, outside the Conservative core, of a government that has ideology and agenda but not much heart, empathy, feeling or understanding for anyone who doesn’t share that ideology and agenda.

Simpson ends with a seminal question:

Ask yourself: How many senior Conservatives smile? Most are so scripted by the Prime Minister’s Office that they dare not show whatever humour they possess, or they turn it into sarcastic blasts at the opposition.

The Conservative Party -- like the man who heads it -- is now officially, and thoroughly, a nasty piece of work.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Austerity Kills

In their book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu demonstrate that, around the world, austerity has had devastating consequences on public health. Consider what economic shock therapy accomplished in the Soviet Union:

The Soviet economy collapsed in the early 1990s, erasing countless jobs. Ironically, those still working in public health kept good records of the disaster. Stuckler and Basu studied death certificates and found that "The rate of death rose by a disconcerting 90 per cent among the subgroup of men aged twenty-five to thirty-nine, in the prime of their lives."

The statistics showed that they died, in effect, from stress -- expressed in "alcohol poisonings, suicides, homicides, and injuries." And heart attacks. 

On the other hand, consider the case of Iceland:

Having hosted an offshore-banking industry that imploded, the country experienced some noisy demonstrations that forced the government to hold a referendum: Should Icelanders pay to honour the debts of their bankers, or not?

The answer was no, much to the alarm of the EU. But the Icelanders toughed out the recession without sacrificing too many jobs or social support programs. Stuckler and Basu followed the Icelandic health records: death rates kept falling, and heart-attack rates were unchanged. So were rates of depression. People were working and earning less, but self-reported as feeling pretty good. 

Or consider what has happened in Britain:

Britain coped fairly well under Gordon Brown's Labour government in the early years of the Great Recession, but David Cameron's Tory-LibDem coalition has caused a public-health disaster.

The evidence -- when people pay attention to it -- is clear:

The real key to economic growth is not to cut social programs, but to boost them. Every dollar spent on healthcare and education actually generates three dollars in the economy. And why not? A healthy, educated, economically secure population will ride out recessions in far better shape than one trying to cope with joblessness, depression, and alcohol.

In the end, Stuckler and Basu write:

Had the austerity experiments been governed by the same rigorous standards as clinical trials, they would have been discontinued long ago by a board of medical ethics. … Instead of austerity, we should enact evidence-based policies to protect health during hard times. … Ultimately austerity has failed because it is unsupported by sound logic or data. It is an economic ideology. It stems from the belief that small government and free markets are always better than state intervention.

Their conclusion is worth remembering when Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty  tell us that their economic program is good for what ails us.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Running Scared

The Harper Government, Michael Harris writes, is running scared. It's now patently obvious that its claim to fame -- competent management -- is unadulterated flap doodle:

The PM and his government are not good managers. The nauseating repetition of the claim that the Tories know what they’re doing with the country’s finances will not make it so.

They’ve pissed away more money than Madonna on a shopping spree — a billion on the G 8-20 meetings that put a dent in the world’s Perrier supply and little else.

They just plain lost $3.2 billion and the guy in charge over at Treasury Board is still there, rumoured to be on his way to Finance.

They are such good fiscal managers that we now have the highest deficit in our history. I know, I know, it’s the fault of those damn Europeans who didn’t listen to Steve about austerity.

Nor has the man who came to Ottawa to trim big government delivered on that commitment. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Conservative government has added 34,000 jobs to the public service between 2006 and 2012, raising the federal payroll by 14 per cent.

And, therefore, the prime minister now insists that secrecy is the order of the day:

Secrecy over budget numbers, secrecy over the sticker price for new jets, secrecy over where cabinet meets — all secrecy, all the time. As Jim Bronskill recently reported, the PM is now trying to enforce blanket secrecy over eleven federal agencies — retroactively and for all time.

The jig is up. The survival strategy is to hide. But it's too late for that.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Recent History Is Repeating Itself

StatsCan's latest report on household income gives the lie to the Harper government's claim that it knows how to manage the nation's economy. The Huffington Post reports that:

StatsCan’s latest analysis of income trends among families of two or more people found that 2011 “was the fourth consecutive year without significant change in after-tax income.”

Over the four years from 2007 to 2011, median income for families grew a tepid 1.9 per cent, to $68,000 from $66,700. That’s a growth rate of less than 0.5 per cent per year.

What it means is that consumers -- who the Royal Bank says are the "lynch pin" of the Canadian economy -- are tapped out. RBC predicts that:

Canada will see years of economic growth below the rates seen in the U.S., as Canadian consumers start to spend more cautiously and pay down their debt.

And government cutbacks are partially responsible for the loss of family income:

Part of what appears to be keeping Canadian incomes stagnant is declining transfer payments from government. StatsCan’s data found that the median amount of money transferred from the government to families -- things such as the child tax benefit, unemployment insurance, or welfare -- fell to $6,000 in 2011 from $6,700 in 2010.

Seniors saw their median government payments drop by $600 over the year.

The reason the United States went into deep recession in 2008 was that wealth was sucked to the top of the economic pyramid, while wealth at the much wider bottom of the pyramid dried up. Canada appears to be headed down the same path.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Keep The Militarism Out Of It

It's traditional to look back at our history on Canada Day. And on this Canada Day -- our 146th -- the Harper government has decided to review whether we teach our history the "right" way. Specifically, it feels that not enough emphasis is placed on our military prowess. Tom Walkom writes, in The Toronto Star, that Canada Day is a day for nationalism, not jingoism. The government is correct, he says, when it claims that Canadian citizenship has been devalued:

Where the Conservative government is off base, however, is in its attempts to refocus history solely on Canada’s military successes in war.

War is not unimportant. Canadians have fought in many — from early conflicts that pitted aboriginal nations against one another to Afghanistan and Libya.

But not everything is war. And not all wars in which Canadians took part were necessarily virtuous. To think otherwise is to veer into jingoism, where our team is always right simply because it is our team and the other guys (whoever they are) are always scumbags.

And, so, the Harperites spent a lot of money trying to convince Canadians that the War of 1812 was a glorious example of Canadians standing on guard for thee. The problem with that thesis is that war is never glorious.

My father was a World War II vet. Before the days of satellites, he was trained as an aerial photographer, tasked with the job of  photographing potential bombing targets. But, when he finished his training, he was given command of an anti-aircraft battery. Thus, he spent most of the war shooting at targets, rather than photographing them -- and, in the process -- becoming one himself. He survived and came home, he said, because of pure dumb luck. Most of those he trained with never came home. My mother's first husband died in Europe and, like my father's fellow trainees, never came home.

The Harperite taste for militarism is the dream of adolescents who have never been tested in the crucible of war. One suspects they couldn't survive boot camp.  Canada has always been the impossible country -- a huge land mass with a sparse population, whose constituent parts have managed to survive for 146 years. One hopes the country will survive the Harperites.