Thursday, May 31, 2012

David Wilks and Dr. Faustus

When David Wilks backed down last week -- declaring that, despite his previous comments, he supported the Harper government's Omnibus Budget Bill -- Canadians got an inside look at how raw power is exercised in Stephen Harper's Ottawa. Andrew Coyne writes:

Two things are illustrated by this episode. One, that amid the general decline of Parliament, the most degrading state of all is that into which MPs of the governing party have fallen. There was a time, after all, when even a prime minister had to mind his back bench — or at any rate, when the caucus had not yet been reduced to a mere appendage of the government. We think of them now as more or less the same thing, but they are not, in principle, and did not used to be in practice.

Until the Second World War, before an MP could take up an appointment to Cabinet — I mean an MP of the governing party — he had to resign his seat and run in a byelection. The reason? His role had changed. He was no longer a watchdog on the government, as MPs of whatever party are supposed to be, but had become a member of it. As such he was obliged to seek the permission of his electors — of his bosses, you might say. That is how people thought.

 Secondly, Coyne tells us:

Wilks’s trip to the woodshed should teach us is that the abuse of power embodied in the omnibus bill did not begin with it, nor will it end there. In a parliament worthy of the name, aware of its ancient rights and zealous against their encroachment, such a bill could never pass. The present abuse of power, that is, was only made possible by previous abuses: by the arrogation of powers in the Prime Minister’s Office that are rightfully Parliament’s, the long process of erosion by which the legislature was effectively subjugated by the executive, if not subsumed within it.

The truth is we no longer have responsible government in Canada. That is, the people we elect are no longer responsible to us, the people who put them there. That was apparent from the day Stephen Harper took office. David Emerson was elected as a Liberal, then immediately joined the Harper cabinet as a Conservative.

The sad saga of David Wilks reminds us of what people will do to be close to power. Like Doctor Faustus, they will sell their souls.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Recipe For Economic Disaster

When historians sit down to write about how radical the Harper government was, they will surely focus on how it treated labour. Tom Walkom writes that legislating an end to a railway strike is nothing new in Canada:

Canadian governments, whether Liberal or Conservative, have never let railway strikes drag on. Back-to-work legislation has been imposed on striking rail workers at least seven times since 1950.

What is dramatically new about this particular majority government, however, is the break-neck speed with which it acts. It legislates an end to strikes immediately after — and in some cases before — they begin.

It has introduced the concept of pre-emptive warfare to labour negotiations.

Conservatives across North America have declared war on public service unions -- Governor Scott Walker's attack on Wisconsin public sector workers being the most egregious. But what sets the Harper government apart is its willingness to intervene in the private sector -- at Air Canada and CP Rail -- and its refusal to do anything as Electromotive -- which received large Harper tax breaks -- packed up and moved to Indiana.

Walkom writes that there has been a distinct change from Harper's minority government years to now:

Compare that to the way in which the Harper minority government handled a similar strike by Canadian National Railway workers in 2007.

In that case, workers were either on strike or locked out for a total of 23 days over three months before the Conservative government — with Liberal support — brought in back-to-work legislation

That same year, CP rail maintenance workers went on strike for three weeks. Yet here, the Conservative government did nothing.

“The government doesn’t introduce a law each time there is a strike,” then labour minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn explained.

Harper clearly intends to put workers in their place and to ensure that wealth trickles up to the top. It's a recipe for economic disaster.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Contempt, Period

Tim Naumetz reported yesterday in The Hill Times, that the Conservatives plan to shut down the parliamentary investigation into the purchase of F35 fighter jets:

The government is set to shut down a Commons inquiry into Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s scathing report on hidden costs and broken procurement rules in the $25-billion F-35 stealth fighter jet project after Mr. Ferguson denied Department of National Defence allegations his April report contained incorrect information.

The Conservative move came just prior to last week’s House recess, when Conservative MP Andrew Saxton (Vancouver North, B.C) moved a motion during a closed-door House Public Accounts Committee meeting to end its inquiry after only seven hours of evidence and testimony from witness hearings and before opposition MPs had a chance to cross-examine the National Defence officials after they criticized Mr. Ferguson.

The motion to shut down the inquiry was revealed by Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, who now faces parliamentary censure for disclosing what went on behind closed doors.

The Conservatives argued during the last election that being found in contempt of Parliament was merely a matter of being outvoted. Now, they argue, the problem of contempt has disappeared, because they have the votes to make it disappear. They have the votes to force striking CP Rail workers back to work. They have the votes to pass the Budget Implementation Bill, even though most of its provisions are not budgetary. And, they claim, the public outcry against their tactics will fade before the next election.

Stephen Harper is not in the habit of consulting provincial premiers about anything. But he would do well to pay attention to Jean Chretien's fate. Before the Harper regime reaches the end of its mandate, there will be lots of people in the streets -- and they won't just be the kids in Montreal.

That will be the public's response to being treated with such contempt.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wither The Peacable Kingdom?

When asked to describe his vision of the new Dominion of Canada, John A. MacDonald famously quoted Isaiah:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. 

And thus was born the myth of Canada, the Peaceable Kingdom.

Like MacDonald, Stephen Harper  is hard at work propagating a myth. It's as old as Isaiah. It's the myth that austerity is good for the soul -- and the nation. And, in propagating that myth, Harper has taken direct aim at MacDonald's vision of Canada. Paul Litt writes that Harper believes in a diminished Canada. That is why he is cutting support for culture, which Harper believes is none of the government's business:

From a long-term perspective, we are witnessing a significant redirection of cultural policy. Forty years ago a national identity was being constructed on social justice values. The Canadian “Peaceable Kingdom” was a bilingual and multicultural welfare state with claims to being a kinder, gentler America. Robust programs to support a commensurate Canadian heritage and culture were part of the project. They were inspired by the humanist conviction that communities are sustained by the cultural capital of shared knowledge and collective memory.

Harper is no enemy of nationalism; in fact, he relies on it to market his wares. But he does have a starkly different vision of Canada and of the utility of culture in sustaining it. The Harper nation is embodied in state instruments of power such as the military, legal and penal systems, the basic disciplinary infrastructure required to facilitate commerce. In this new order the peacekeeping myth has been retired in favour of militaristic fables of a nation melded in the crucible of war.

The Pearsonian vision of Canada the Peacekeeper has been replaced by a vision of Canada an Energy Superpower -- a nation which rejects the instruments of soft power and, instead, inserts itself into conflicts. For the Harper government, the best defense is a strong offense. And, these days, it is determined to be as offensive as possible.

From henceforth the wolf shall go for the lamb's jugular.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Race In The Race

Frank Bruni writes, in this morning's New York Times, that race is still at the center of the American presidential contest:

Although race represents a less central dynamic for Obama now than it did in 2008, it’s a factor in his political fortunes nonetheless. It poisons some of his opponents, pumping them full of a toxic zeal beyond the partisan norm. How else to explain their obsession with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or the lunatic persistence of the “birthers,” including the Arizona secretary of state, who didn’t drop his threat to keep Obama off the state ballot until Wednesday? Even as he quieted down, Donald Trump piped up, raising questions yet again about where Obama was born, though Trump’s motivations are surely less racist than narcissistic, even entrepreneurial. For him attention is attention and ratings are ratings, no matter how repulsively drummed up. 

Life would be so much easier for Americans if the race question would disappear. But it is part of America's DNA. Perhaps it will always be so. On the other hand, it is part of the theme of hope and change which Obama ran on in 2008:

 He still personifies the hope, to borrow a noun that he has used, that we really might evolve into the colorblind, fair-minded country that many of us want. His own saga taps into the larger story of this country’s fitful, unfinished progress toward its stated ideal of equal opportunity.

And that is the essential problem Mitt Romney faces. He personifies success. But he has not established an emotional connection with voters. Nobody questions Romney's success as a businessman, as a father or a husband. But Obama speaks to America's aspirations. Romney speaks to its bottom line.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Calvinist Hypocrisy

Nothing betrays the Calvinist-Social Credit roots of the present government more than this week's  Employment Insurance "reforms." Tom Walkom writes:

Behind this week’s changes to Canada’s Employment Insurance system lie bone-headed ideology and contempt.

The bone-headed ideology stems from the Conservative government’s primitive, Economics 101 view of the world.

The contempt is that of comfortable, well-heeled politicians who, deep down, assume that those unfortunate enough to have lost their jobs lack moral fibre.

Behind the changes is the fundamentalist faith that wealth and social position are a sign that one is a member of  the "elect." And, although most workers fund EI, the elect determine who receives benefits. Thus, only about 40% of Canadians can collect employment insurance. And this week it got much tougher for the 40%. The reason, Walkom writes, is because:

The rules as they stand are biased against those who for no fault of their own must take part-time jobs to make ends meet, as well as contract workers who are technically deemed self-employed.

Added to this is the fact that the EI fund has been used as a cash cow by successive governments — either to pay off debt (as Jean Chr├ętien’s Liberals did) or to fund other programs.

Thus EI now pays for maternity, parental and compassionate leaves. It funds training programs and subsidizes self-employed fishermen.

There is nothing wrong with supporting maternity leaves or retraining. But EI was established to see workers through layoffs. And, while more people are being laid off for longer periods, fewer of them can access EI. The new rules mean even fewer Canadians will be eligible to receive EI. More than that, they reinforce one of the Harper government's prime objectives -- to drive down wages:

Thus the new 70 per cent rule: If you lose your job, you must be willing to take a wage cut of up to 30 per cent to qualify for EI benefits. Lose that job and you’re liable to another 30 per cent wage cut. And on. And on.

The Harperites have confused being elected with being members of the elect. They assume that their position makes them evangelists, whose mission is to see that the less fortunate pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Pure Calvinist hypocrisy.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tail Gunner Steve

The Conservatives have now revealed their game plan for fighting seven attempts to overturn results from last May's election. There is a conspiracy afoot, they say. In a 750 page "brief," they allege that the Council of Canadians, which is underwriting the challenges to last May's results, is motivated by “antipathy ... towards the Conservative Party.” One assumes that the Conservatives feel no such antipathy toward the opposition parties.

The Globe and Mail reports that:

The Tories ransacked the legal dictionary to make their case, arguing the Council is guilty of “wanton or officious intermeddling” in funding cases by individuals Canadians.

“It is evidence that the council’s business model is to leverage anti-Conservative sentiment in order to raise money and continue to employ professional agitators like [chair Maude] Barlow.” 

What it all amounts to, the Conservatives argue, is a back door attempt to overthrow the government -- and the villains are the NDP:

“The Council has strong ties to the NDP and the labour movement leadership dating back to at least the 1980s,” the Conservatives say.

“It has expressed, on numerous occasions, that it wishes to topple the majority government that Canadians elected on May 2, 2011 and that it would prefer NDP rule.”

Several commentators have noted Stephen Harper's Nixonian inspired politics. What the Conservative response to the court challenges reveals is that Joe McCarthy's ghost stalks the halls of 24 Sussex Drive.

For Stephen Harper, opposition means conspiracy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sun King And His Chief Courtier

Michael Harris writes that the Sun King is now ensconced on the shores of the Ottawa River. There he sits -- amid his munificence, surrounded by sycophants, who are eager to do his bidding. Not the least of these is Peter Kent. But, by far, the Prime Minister's most enthusiastic courtier is John Baird. He doles out the prime minister's largesse and punishes his enemies with gusto.

Take, for instance, the case of Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohm, who applied for a grant from Human Resources Minister Diane Finley’s department:

So did 355 other people who wanted to make their facilities more accessible to their community members. The officials responsible for administering the program by grading applicants against established criteria reduced that number to 25 – the ones who scored 82 out of 100 or higher. The Rabbi’s application was not remotely close, receiving a score of just 53 out of 100.

Then Versailles kicked in. Human Resources minister Diane Finley asked that the Rabbi’s application be re-assessed by an outside evaluator, even though that process was only supposed to apply to the top 25 proposals so that four winners could be chosen. The evaluation was undertaken using different criteria but it didn’t have the desired effect. The application from the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch went down, not up, getting 51 out of 100. After an intervention by Baird on behalf of his “dear friend”, Minister Finley decided to over-rule her departmental officials and approve an application knowing that it came “with a number of weaknesses.” And that’s how being the friend of a cabinet minister at Versailles can be worth a million dollars – and how one of the 82 or higher scores was cheated out of a fair selection process.

Baird recently shut down two institutions from the Mulroney era -- Rights and Democracy and The National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment. In the case of the NRTEE, he was blunt about why the organization needed to be shuttered:

“Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected?”

That's our John Baird. That's Ottawa under Stephen Harper.The French eventually had a revolution over this kind of behaviour.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's Time For The Courts To Take A Stand

In the wake of Justice Thomas Lederer's decision last week to overturn the election results in Etobicoke Centre, the Conservatives have filed documents to declare challenges to seven other elections mute. The challenges were filed by the Council of Canadians in the following ridings:

  • Don Valley East in Ontario, won by Conservative MP Joe Daniel by 870 votes.
  • Nipissing-Timiskaming in Ontario, won by Conservative MP Jay Aspin by 18 votes.
  • Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar in Saskatchewan, won by Conservative Kelly Block by 538 votes.
  • Vancouver Island North in B.C., won by Conservative John Duncan by 1,827 votes.
  • Winnipeg South Centre in Manitoba, won by Conservative MP Joyce Bateman by 722 votes.
  • Elmwood-Transcona in Manitoba, won by Conservative MP Lawrence Toet by 300 votes.
  • Yukon won by Conservative Ryan Leef by 132 votes.

Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton claims that the suits are "frivolous and vexatious" and that 'the applicants can't point to anyone who didn't vote because of 'irregularities, fraud or corrupt or illegal practices.'" Give the Conservatives credit for chutzpah. In the middle of a blizzard, they would claim the snow was an illusion.

Interestingly, the Conservatives used the same language in an attempt to quash Helena Geurgis' lawsuit against Stephen Harper. Rules are, indeed, vexatious when you are a government of men -- of one man -- not laws.

But Justice Lederer has laid down a marker. We will know what the future holds for our democracy when judges rule on the seven aforementioned ridings. It's time for the courts to remind Mr. Hamilton -- and the men he works for -- that Canada is still a government of laws.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who Creates Jobs

Yesterday, my son sent me a copy of this TED lecture. It features Nick Hanauer, an American venture capitalist, and is less than six minutes long. Hanauer did not turn my world upside down. He merely confirmed what I already believed. But his exposition was as clear as a Manitoba sky in summer.

Economically, we have been living in a Ptolemaic universe for the last thirty years. John Maynard Keynes was our Copernicus. What is truly remarkable is that Milton Friedman and his disciples helped re-establish the Flat Earth Society.

View the clip and judge for yourselves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Flaw in Conservative Free Trade

Jim Stanford writes this morning that, as soon as the Harper government won a majority, it began dashing around the world signing free trade deals. But free trade alone does not amount to smart economic policy:

There’s a big difference, however, between signing free-trade pacts and actually doing something about trade. Canada’s trade performance deteriorated badly over the past decade. The quantity of goods and services shipped abroad is seven percentage points lower than when the Harper government took office, lower even than back in 2000. And what we do export increasingly consists of raw resources (especially oil). Our once-impressive trade surplus has melted into deficit. Despite accelerating petroleum sales, we’re running up international red ink at the rate of 3 per cent of GDP per year.

What's wrong with the Harper strategy? Trade needs to be developed and supported. And Harper budget cuts are undermining support for trade.

Ottawa trumpets its latest free-trade pact (with Honduras) as evidence of a commitment to trade. Honduras is an impoverished quasi-dictatorship where journalists are routinely assassinated. Canada sells less than $50-million a year there (while importing four times as much). We export more to the United States in 88 minutes than to Honduras in a year – yet as we ink this blockbuster deal with Honduras, we close trade offices in the United States. What’s the net impact on trade? Clearly negative.

The government's right hand doesn't know what its left hand is doing. That's because it never does a thorough analysis before implementing policy. The justification for any policy is that the Harperites possess the moral high ground  -- truly simplistic, magical thinking.

Stanford writes:

Canada’s export failure cannot be blamed on foreign trade barriers. Instead, we must look in the mirror – at the structural inadequacy of our business sector. Canada has chronically failed to nurture and develop domestically based globally active firms that produce innovative, high-value products for world markets. Working to fix that problem (through proactive technology, innovation and sector-development strategies) would do more for our actual trade than all the free-trade talks in the world. If you truly believe in trade, don’t be distracted by the trade deals.

Despite all the Harper government's self congratulation, it really doesn't know much about doing business.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Summer Of Discontent

The Charest government's passage of Bill 78 was supposed to return order to Montreal's streets. But last night, the Globe and Mail reports,

The scenes in Montreal unfolded during a tense late-night march that, on several occasions, saw riot police use tear gas and protesters throw bottles and rocks.

Student protesters were joined by others spilling out of bars and clubs.

Together, they built the fires and cheered as the flames lit up the streets and sent plumes of black smoke billowing into the night sky.

The protests have morphed into something much bigger than a protest against rising tuition fees. The people in the streets are challenging the legitimacy of a government which they believe is corrupt and self serving. Clearly, they plan to pay no attention to the the newly minted law:

At the same time, protesters were already finding creative ways around the controversial legislation.

In an attempt to avoid hefty fines, one prominent student group took down its web page Saturday that listed all upcoming protests. Another anonymous web page with listings quickly popped up in its place — with a note discouraging people from attending.

The disclaimer is meant to evade new rules applying to protest organizers, who must provide an itinerary for demonstrations and could be held responsible for any violence.

The website also accepts submissions for future protests and suggests using a software that blocks a sender’s digital trail.

The powers that be would do well to pay attention to what is happening in Quebec. The people in the streets represent a generation who feel they have been betrayed by the baby boomers. Further evidence of that betrayal came late Friday afternoon when the Harper government released figures on what the changes to OAS will cost the next generation:

Most Canadians 65 and older currently qualify for OAS and the average payment is $6,122.52 a year. That means the loss of income for a couple affected by the new rules is $24,490.08 over two years. The change will be phased in between April, 2023 and January, 2029, meaning it will not affect anyone who was 54 or older as of March 31, 2012.

As is typical of the Harper regime, the announcement was made at the beginning of a holiday weekend. The theory was that nobody would be paying attention. The Quebec protests prove that the kids are paying attention -- and they are willing to act on their discontent.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Precedent Has Been Set

Yesterday, Ontario Superior Court judge Thomas Lederer overturned the election results in Etobicoke Centre because the number of votes he set aside exceeded the margin of victory for the Conservative candidate, Ted Opitz. Lederer wrote that what makes an election victory legitimate is certainty:

“We need to be assured that those who vote are qualified to do so. We need to be confident that those who receive a ballot have been identified as persons who are on the official list of electors or who have registered,” Judge Lederer wrote:

“If we give up these foundations of our electoral system, we are risking a loss of confidence in our elections and in our government.”

It's interesting that, in this case, both Elections Canada  and the Conservative Party were on the same side. They argued that "clerical errors" was not a legitimate reason for overturning an election. But, if unintentional errors are enough to nullify an election, what about a centrally planned and executed campaign to suppress opposition votes?

Several commentators have noted that the Harper majority rests on a little more than 6,000 votes. Those votes made the government's Budget Implementation Bill possible. Now is the time to challenge all the other Conservative victories across the country which were won by painfully slim margins.

It's clear that Stephen Harper has no regard for parliamentary precedent. All that matters is the number of seats he won. When he is forced to re-run several elections, the results will be different -- and his government will be exposed for the fraud it is.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Triumph Of The Sociopaths

Jeffrey Simpson writes that the Harper government should rename the Correctional Service of Canada. He suggests that it now be called Punishment Canada:

Just when you think this government’s criminal justice policies, which have been almost universally denounced by experts in the field, can’t get worse, they do.

So it was recently when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews rolled out more mean-spirited, politically motivated and predictably counterproductive policies to make life harder for those in prison.

The result, about which he apparently could not care less, will be more tension and resentment in prison, a tougher job for the Correctional Service and for the men and women in uniform inside prisons whom the Conservatives are supposed to admire so much.

A significant portion of the meagre salaries prisoners earn for doing printing, the laundry and construction will now be clawed back as payment for room and board. This will save the government $10 million.

The new policy will lead to more crime, not less:

You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal, or as the Conservatives like to say, someone who enjoys hugging thugs, to be concerned about where this kind of approach leads. When the emphasis moves away from corrections toward more and harsher punishment of both the physical and psychological variety, recidivism rates will increase and real correction will become more difficult. That will likely mean more crime over the long haul in a country that, apart from the United States (which is in a league by itself), has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Everything the Harper government does is about revenge -- revenge on their political opponents, revenge on environmentalists, revenge on the prison population. These Conservatives are sociopaths.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The People They Don't See

 When Stephen Harper appears on an international stage these days, he likes to toot his own horn. Canada, he says, is the best of the best.

But, yesterday, Olivier de Schutter -- the United Nations special reporter on the right to food -- gave Canadians and the rest of the world some disturbing and embarrassing information:

He said he was particularly concerned about the large number of people living on social assistance who see their income drained away by housing, and can’t afford to provide an adequate diet for their families.

“Here I have to say my concerns are extremely severe, and I don’t see why I should mince my words,” he said.

“People are simply too poor to eat decently.”

The simple truth is that income inequality leads to hunger and malnutrition. That used to be the case in Third World countries. It's now becoming the status quo in "the best of the best."

The Harper government -- which is absolutely unconcerned about income inequality -- responded with typical smugness. Jason Kenny personified that smugness:

“I think this is completely ridiculous,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said just before the envoy presented his report.

“Canada is one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world. We believe that the UN should focus on development … in countries where people are starving. We think it’s simply a waste of resources to come to Canada to give political lectures.”

When Attawapiskat was in crisis earlier this year, the Harper government responded by sending in an accountant. Now it proposes to get rid of the accountants.

One wonders if the Harperites -- most of whom claim to be Christians -- are familiar with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man only saw Lazarus when it was too late.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Repeating History

Tom Walkom writes this morning that the world economy is on the brink. As in 1931, international austerity has brought us to the tipping point:

Then, as now, the watchword among the major world economies was fiscal restraint. Government deficits were up in Canada, the United States and Europe. The overwhelming orthodoxy, then as now, was that these deficits had to be cut.

The second overwhelming orthodoxy of 1931 was adherence to the gold standard. In effect, gold was the world’s currency. Individual nations pegged their own domestic currencies to the precious metal at a fixed price.

To allow that price to vary was heresy. To exit the gold standard entirely was unthinkable.

This time around the gold standard has been replaced by the Euro. Canada, the United States and Britain control their own currencies. But the nations of Europe are caught in a straight jacket:

Eurozone countries like Spain and Greece cannot export their way out of recession by devaluation. They are stuck with the euro, a transnational currency that in terms of their economic needs is worth too much.

Even worse, they are being told they must slash wages and jobs if they wish to keep that common currency.
Understandably, the inhabitants of these hard-hit countries are loath to exit the security of the eurozone. But they are even more unwilling to pay the price of membership.

Something will have to give. As in 1931, what will almost certainly give is allegiance to an abstract monetary principle.

The questions are: What will happen when the Euro crashes and burns?  And what will happen if nations such as Canada insist that more austerity is in order?

Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It's The Oil, Stupid

The Harper government's budget is all about oil. The changes in environmental assessment and employment insurance are all about goosing Canada's petroleum exports. As an economist, Stephen Harper supposedly learned something about the wisdom of diversification. "But," Lawrence Martin writes,

in the past decade, the clock has been turned back. Because of a boom in the oil and gas sector and a range of other factors, the economy has reverted toward being a staples-driven enterprise. “In July, 2011, unprocessed and semi-processed resource exports accounted for two-thirds of Canada’s total exports, the highest in decades,” [economist Jim] Stanford wrote. “Compare that to 1999, when finished goods made up almost 60 per cent of our exports.” 

As is the case in so many areas, the Harper government is hell bent on marching backwards -- and they will smear anyone who questions the wisdom of returning the Canadian economy to the nineteen century. Stanford writes that oil has become the driving force behind a new McCarthyism:

These diatribes against anyone who even acknowledges potential downsides or side-effects of the bitumen boom seem to herald a new, dangerous tendency in Canada’s political culture.  Opposing a bitumen-exporting pipeline in Canada these days makes you a foreign-financed subversive.  And it seems that questioning the economic effects of the bitumen export strategy makes you equally seditious.  I call this “energy McCarthyism,” and it should be rejected forcefully not just by those concerned with Canada’s deindustrialization and staples dependency, but by those worried about the quality of our democracy.

Peter Lougheed knew that Alberta's oil should be used to build a diversified economy. When Stephen Harper looks at the Canadian economy, all he sees is oil. He assumes that anyone who does not share his vision is stupid. He's got it backwards.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Defining Battle

At some point in the  future, historians will note that Bill C-38 -- the Harper government's four hundred and twenty page page Budget Implementation Bill -- marked the beginning of the end. They will note that the bill sowed the seeds of revolt across the country.

They will write about how the Conservatives stupidly alienated Quebec and allowed the NDP to establish a base in that province. They will write about how they destroyed their beach head in Ontario by focusing on western oil and eviscerating central Canada's manufacturing base. They will write about first nations' active opposition to the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines -- and to British Columbians' determination to keep their interior and their coastline sludge free.

The will write about  how, under the mantra of "the economy," the Conservatives tried to accomplish a social revolution -- until Canadian seniors revolted and decided that Bob Rae was right when he said that Canadian democracy suffered "from dictatorial tendencies."

They will write that the Conservatives should have known better --  that they should have known how to bend. But, led my an anal retentive prime minister -- who departed the scene before their inevitable defeat -- they doomed themselves and their party to a western rump. They will write that, like the old Social Credit Party, from whom the Conservatives had sprung, they returned to their western bunker.

They will quote Nathan Cullen, who said, “Both in Parliament, and, in particular, outside, we will be looking at ways to bring as many Canadians to the table as possible, which is the opposite initiative to that coming from government.” And they will point to Marc Garneau who said, “Ultimately, will we stop the government if they are hell bent for leather on passing this and they are not going to listen to public opinion? No. But we will make it difficult.”

They will write that the opposition parties lost the battle but won the war. They will write that the downfall of the Harper government began with Bill C-38 -- the defining battle.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lessons From Europe

Tony Burman offers some important insights into the current situation in Europe. He suggests that there are similarities between 1912 and 2012:

No inkling yet of the Great Wars to come or which superpowers will emerge to scar the decades ahead. But there are the first feelings of foreboding that the table for this new century is being set in ways that are out of everyone’s control. In a New Year’s editorial in 1912, The Times of London writes: “The world is at peace, yet all nations feel that the tranquility which they possess is precarious and ill-assured.”

Certainly, the elections in France and Greece have shaken Europe to its foundations:

No one can predict the scale of the aftershocks flowing out of last week’s European elections, but the odds are they will be enormous. The growing public fury at Europe’s savage austerity policies and at its national political leadership was evident in the election of Hollande as France’s first Socialist president in a generation. But it was even more apparent in Greece last Sunday where support for the country’s mainstream parties completely collapsed. The prospect is now real that Greece will leave the Eurozone and delay paying off its international debts, imperiling not only the European Union and the Euro, but the global economy as a whole.

It's clear that austerity has made things worse in Europe. The American economist Jeffrey Sachs has written that what Europe needs is “increased public spending paid for with tax increases rather than deficits, to increase the role of government in education, jobs and banking recapitalization.”

That prescription will make many people unhappy. Certainly Stephen Harper won't buy it. But we should hope that the Europeans do.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Peter Mackay's Math

We're again dealing with the problem of Peter Mackay's math. Yesterday, the Department of National Defence revealed that the "instrumental costs" of the mission to Libya were $106 million. Postmedia reports that:

The $100-million figure stood in stark contrast to comments made by MacKay to CBC in late October, when he told Canadians the incremental costs were less than $50 million — which he noted was about $10 million less than the Defence Department had predicted.

But this time the folks at DND will not be made the fall guys. When asked whether or not Mackay knew the real costs of the mission, the department was unequivocal:

"He knew the estimates, for sure," Maj.-Gen. Jon Vance said. "In fact, he presents the estimates to cabinet. So yes, the minister would have known what the all-up estimated costs of the mission could be."

We have a government which is doing its best to get rid of the auditors in government departments.We are told this is happening because we can't afford them. But every time Peter MacKay opens his mouth, it becomes absolutely clear why we need those auditors.

The Harper government -- headed by a trained economist -- can't add or subtract. Or, more precisely, it chooses not to do so. And it claims that competent fiscal management is its hallmark.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Auditors? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Auditors!

In the wake of the F35 boondoggle, The Globe and Mail reports this morning that the office of the Auditor General is cutting staff:

The Auditor-General’s office is cutting 10 per cent of its staff – or 60 jobs – and other parts of government are scrapping a wide range of reports to Parliament, according to the latest details on spending cuts provided by officials.

Along with a report on Wednesday that the Parliamentary Budget Office is receiving no information about government budget cuts, the Harper government's game plan seems pretty clear. 

It's one thing to argue that the government has to economize. It's another thing, Jeffrey Simpson writes, to say that budget cuts will not affect Canadians:

Doubtless, efficiencies can be found and should be pursued. But there are not $4-billion of them to be found. Only if governments stop doing things can such sums be saved, which is what is happening, and will happen. But just what it will stop doing the government has refused to say.

As details trickle out, though, it's clear this government is wreaking vengeance on its enemies. It's the ultimate power trip -- playing God. So much for transparency. So much for accountability.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

About That Foreign Money

Peter Kent has accused environmental organizations of "laundering" foreign money, implying that they are enemies of the state. But, according to the Canada Revenue Agency, the organizations which receive the most foreign support are not focused on the environment. The Canadian Press lists the following organizations as the largest recipients of foreign financial largesse:

Care Canada reported the largest amount of foreign funding. It has accepted nearly $99 million over the years from foreign donors.

Most of that money came from United Nations agencies, foreign governments and the charity's international members.

Second was World Vision Canada, which has reported $89 million in foreign income. World Vision Canada says the vast majority of that money comes from gift-in-kind donations from UN organizations and international corporations with branches in Canada.

Third spot is interesting:

Third was Hamilton's McMaster University, which, like many post-secondary institutions, has charitable status. McMaster has reported $43 million in foreign income.

University spokesman Gord Arbeau says last year foreign students paid McMaster $25 million in tuition fees, while the school also received $13 million for research funding and $4 million from sales of medical isotopes from its nuclear reactor.

All that money counts as foreign funding for CRA's purposes.

In fourth spot there was UNICEF with $37 million. It's true that Ducks Unlimited came in fifth place, having received some $33 million. It has been around for seventy-five years -- and no one, to my knowledge, has accused its supporters of being part of a criminal conspiracy.

When dealing with anything from the Harper spin machine, it's always wise to check the facts. Clearly, the angry old men in the Conservative Party never do.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Vaughn Report

The Harper government rues the day it appointed Kevin Page to the office of Parliamentary Budget Officer. Today, it must also wish that Scott Vaughn had never been appointed Environment Commissioner. Both men have fearlessly reported on the central thread that runs through the present government -- fraud.

Yesterday, Vaughn reported that the government had no plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For the Harperites, environmental organizations are like unions: their concerns for justice and the future simply get in the way of doing business. And, therefore, the government spins fictions that have no relation to the facts. This is particularly true in the case of environmental regulation. Micheal Harris writes:

Of the pretty fictions and lurid grotesqueries that have come out of the Harper government, few can match its contempt for the environment. It is just one more subject for the PM’s wood-shed politics. Whether it’s auditing David Suzuki ad nauseam or characterizing environmentalists as radicals in the pay of foreign governments as Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver did, the environment for Harper is nothing but a troublesome obstacle to his corporate hero-worship and political unilateralism.

Vaughn highlighted that contempt yesterday:

The Harper government set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 17 percent as of 2020.  Citing Environment Canada’s own forecasts, Scott Vaughan reported that emissions will actually rise 7 percent above those 2005 levels by the target date.  It seems the only way to get the truth out of this crowd is to audit them.

Shakespeare suggested that the first thing a new regime should do is  get rid of the lawyers. With the Conservatives, the first people to be cashiered are the auditors. The Harperites tell us that they are concerned with costs. But the truth is they don't know -- and they're not interested -- in figuring out the costs -- or the savings -- of any of their policies

 The Harper government did zero analysis to establish the cost to the economy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent.  On the face of it, that is rather strange.  In dumping Kyoto, a host of prime ministerial sock-puppets cited the burdensome costs, some $14 billion.  So why not tell us how much we are going to save?  Or as Scott Vaughan put it, “We therefore expected the government would have estimated how much it will cost to meet its target and [identify] the least costly options.”  It didn’t.

Contempt is the word that defines the Harper government. One continues to hope that, eventually, Canadians will treat these pretenders with the contempt they deserve.

This entry is cross posted at Eradicating Ecocide.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Seal Of Approval

It has long been evident that both Stephen Harper's cabinet and caucus are trained seals. With Pavlovian discipline, they have been trained to honk on cue. However, yesterday marked a new low in the annals of Canadian democracy. Andrew Scheer, the Speaker of the House, became the First Seal Among Equals.

On a question of privilege raised by Bob Rae on April 5th, Scheer ruled that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Public Works and the Associate Minister of Defence had not misled the House on the F 35 file:

In my view, no clear evidence has been presented beyond this and thus, the Chair has no choice but to conclude that, it cannot find that Ministers knew or believed that what they were telling the House was not true or that it was intended to be misleading. In other words, the criteria of demonstrating that Ministers knew their statements to the House were incorrect, and that they intended to mislead the House, has not been met.

Accordingly, bound as I am by the very narrow parameters that apply in these situations, and without any evidence that the House was deliberately misled, I cannot arrive at a finding of prima facie privilege in this case.

Let's remember that this ruling comes from the same horn blower who concluded that the Conservative misinformation campaign against Irwin Cotler was "reprehensible" but acceptable. The Speaker of the House has demonstrated that he is now the Prime Minister's Official Seal of Approval.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Sad Difference

Nowhere is the difference between the Harper Conservatives and the Progressive Conservatives more apparent than in the area of foreign policy. Consider what former prime minister -- and foreign affairs minister -- Joe Clark wrote over the weekend:

The critical talents, in [our] world, are the ability to respect and bridge conflicting identities — and different values — and patiently seek enough common ground to build trust and respect and, then, collaboration. No country in the world is better at that than Canada. And our capacity increases as our population diversifies, making us more like the world. So the habit of common purpose — the sense of with whom we might empathize or co-operate — is larger than it was before. That is a significant asset.

Our present prime minister cannot cooperate with his fellow parliamentarians: so, it's no wonder his foreign policy is all about hard power -- that is, beating your enemies into submission. Clark's real point, though, is that the world can ill afford Stephen Harper, who has targeted non governmental organizations in his budget cuts:

Today, Greenpeace has more influence on public policy than most national governments. The Gates Foundation is more innovative. The Red Cross/Red Crescent employ more than 300,000 people. Of the world’s 10 biggest multinational companies in 2011, ranked by “Fortune global 500,” only five — Wal-Mart, three Chinese state companies and Toyota Motors — employ more people internationally than Red Cross/Red Crescent. And that is just the beginning of the non-state list. World Vision is in 97 countries, with more than 40,000 staff, and more than 100,000 volunteers. The NGO “BRAC,” rooted in Bangladesh, is the largest non-governmental organization in the world. Amnesty International has offices in 80 countries — more national offices than most countries have embassies.

The elections in France and Greece are a reminder that Stephen Harper is yesterday's man. Unfortunately, he -- and a significant number of Canadians -- haven't figured that out yet. And that is truly the sad difference -- not only between Stephen Harper and Joe Clark -- but between Canada today and the world of tomorrow.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Such Exquiste Timing

I doubt that Stephen Harper reads anything that Robert Reich writes. But, as a trained economist, the prime minister might take a look at Reich's latest blogpost. Reich writes that the most recent American job numbers signal that the American economy has stalled:

Most of the job gains in April were in lower-wage industries – retail stores, restaurants, and temporary-help. That means average wages continue to drop, adjusted for inflation – continuing their long-term decline. Most of the new jobs that have been added to the U.S. economy during this recovery have paid less than the jobs that were lost during the downturn.

What does all this mean? Together with other recent data showing slower economic growth during the first quarter of this year, it’s safe to say the economy has stalled.

The reason that things have flatlined, writes Reich, is income inequality:

Widening inequality is the underlying culprit here. As long as almost all the gains from economic growth continue to go to the top, the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to boost the economy on its own. And rich Americans spend a much smaller portion of their incomes than does the vast middle class. Their marginal satisfaction from additional spending falls off. The second yacht isn’t nearly as much fun as the first.

Reich's argument is bolstered by recent data on executive pay:

 Income inequality between CEOs and workers has consequently exploded, with CEOs last year earning 209.4 times more than workers, compared to just 26.5 times more in 1978 -- meaning CEOs are taking home a larger percentage of company gains.
That trend comes despite workers nearly doubling their productivity during the same time period, when compensation barely rose. Worker productivity spiked 93 percent between 1978 and 2011 on a per-hour basis, and 85 percent on a per-person basis, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

Which brings us back to Mr. Harper. Just as the American economy is tanking, he is applying the austerity solution. And part of that solution will be to pay foreign workers 15% less than the prevailing wage, thus lowering all Canadian wages.

The Harper budget is being sold as a blueprint for economic prosperity. So much of what comes out of Stephen Harper's mouth is simply Orwellian double talk. But, even more to the point, this prime minister will be remembered for doing exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Let The Bells Ring

The Harper government is intent on passing its 421 page Budget Implementation Bill in seven days. If Stephen Harper were the Leader of the Opposition, he would be up in arms. In fact, as Leader of the Opposition, he was. "In the interest of democracy," he fumed,

I ask how can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote on a block of such legislation?”

But that was then. This is now. And now Harper knows that his program runs so deeply against Canada's core values that he must accomplish his mission by stealth. Tom Walkom outlines the significant details in the omnibus budget act:

One section of the bill, for instance, repeals the entire Environmental Assessment Act.

It replaces it with another that gives cabinet the authority to press ahead with mega-projects that it wants, regardless of their environmental effects.

The bill also includes seemingly minor amendments to the Fisheries Act that would remove federal protection from a great swath of environmentally sensitive wetlands.

Another unadvertised section would repeal the federal Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. That act requires contractors working on federal projects to pay reasonable wages. Its elimination has been lauded by non-union shops.

Yet another so-called technical amendment would reduce the number of jobless who get Employment Insurance. The mechanism here is complicated, but the net effect would be to give cabinet the authority to override the courts in determining who is eligible for EI.

Harper has known from the very beginning that his mantra, "Conservative values are Canadian values" is patently false.

That is why he doesn't want to debate the details of the budget bill. That is why parliamentary committees meet behind closed doors. That is why there was a centrally organized campaign to suppress opposition votes during the last election.campaign

And that is why the opposition parties must stand up and collectively say no. They must refuse to vote on the budget bill. Let the bells summoning Members of Parliament into the House ring for months if necessary. Canadians have had enough.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Distorting History

On the thirtieth anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Harper government made no mention of the event -- other than to point out that the germ of the Charter was contained in John Diefenbaker's Bill of Rights.

The Harper version of history is highly selective. It ignores the Charter and celebrates the War of 1812. The canonization of Diefenbaker apes the Harperites' Republican cousins. Jeffrey Simpson writes in today's Globe and Mail:

In reaching back for Mr. Diefenbaker, Canadian Conservatives are contorting themselves as U.S. Republicans do.

For them, the two Bush presidencies have been airbrushed from public incantations of Republican history. Instead, Ronald Reagan has been placed atop the pedestal of Republican adulation, his missteps resolutely forgotten, his triumphs retold, his rhetoric repeated, his ideology extolled, even if that ideology was frequently at variance with his deeds.

The attempt to rewrite the Diefenbaker record fits with the Conservative narrative that it's time to roll back the clock to the good old days -- and it ignores the fact that the "good old days" weren't that good. Simpson reminds his readers of  the Diefenbaker years:

Mr. Diefenbaker was a weak prime minister, or at least that’s what Canadians came to believe after seeing him in office for a while. They handed him the largest majority then recorded in Canada in the 1958 election. Halfway through its mandate, his government was tearing itself apart, and Mr. Diefenbaker was flailing and failing.

By 1962, with the cabinet in revolt, his party was reduced to a minority. A year later, Canadians booted him and the Progressive Conservatives from office. It took four excruciating years to drag Mr. Diefenbaker from the party leadership.

By offering Canadians a distorted version of their history, the Harperites are betting that their fellow citizens will not notice the mess they are making of the present  -- and the future.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Coyne On Harper

The naive among us predicted that, after winning a majority, Stephen Harper's governing style would change. Secure in the knowledge that he had the votes to get his way, they argued, he would act like a statesman.

But on the anniversary of his victory, Andrew Coyne writes, nothing has changed:

All is stealth and indirection, surprise and ambiguity, as before. Big changes, when they happen, are done suddenly, casually, without warning or justification, as if they were of no importance: buried deep in an omnibus bill, sloughed off in the course of a committee hearing, tucked in at the end of an answer in Question Period, dropped on the table at a premiers’ meeting. The closest thing to a vision statement, the speech in which the Prime Minister mused, indecipherably, on the need to reform pensions, was delivered in the Swiss Alps. When the President of the United States wants to announce a major change in policy, he goes on national television. When Harper does it, he scribbles it in the margin of whatever mystery novel he’s been reading and leaves it on the bus.

For the truth is that Stephen Harper lacks the courage of his convictions. A courageous man --particularly a man with a majority mandate -- should be able to debate the wisdom of his case. But, in the Harper government, there is no room for debate:

Time was when a government that wished to implement some major reform would first issue a green paper, to kick off discussion; then a white paper, containing more finely tuned proposals; and only then proceed to legislation. But this government has no wish to win hearts and minds. Its strategy, rather, is to take ground in a series of lightning-fast guerrilla raids; to neutralize opposition, as by the defunding of advocacy groups, rather than to rally public opinion to its side.

Stephen Harper knows that when Canadians discover how little wisdom is behind his program, they will rise in angry opposition. So, the name of the game is to treat them like mushrooms. If you're going to throw manure on their heads, it's best to keep them in the dark.

However, that strategy has a limited shelf life. Coyne writes:

And so, a year after it was elected, having been careful throughout to avoid the public’s wrath, it nevertheless finds itself down 10 points in the polls. It has been able to rely upon guile and deception to get by until now. But what will it do for the next three years?

When Canadians figure out that the prime minister is afraid of them, he will be in trouble. Just ask Brian Mulroney.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

On The First Anniversary

On this, the first anniversary of Harperland, the Globe and Mail opines:

On most of the issues that matter, on the economy, on reining in public spending, on addressing the long-term structural challenges of Old Age Security, on immigration and on the sustainability of health-care funding, the government headed by Stephen Harper got it right.

Michael Harris quite correctly, sees through the ruse:

The curtain has been well and truly whipped away from the PM’s self-promoting deceptions and he is revealed for what he is: a power-tripper on a mission to give Canada an extreme makeover that only the super-rich and the semi-comatose could endorse. And he is doing it with virtually no debate, creating something of a new phenomenon in Canadian politics; sole-source public policy.

The Globe used to be known for its insightful commentary. Now, with the exception of Lawrence Martin, it has settled into smug self satisfaction -- ignoring  the growing contempt Mr. Harper has shown, not only for Parliament, but for Canadians in general. Harris runs through the catalogue. But there is one absolutely stark example of Harper's arrogant disregard for Canadians:

Parliament voted unanimously to end the combat mission in Afghanistan. No mixed message, no subtleties, no hedging. Yet the PM now says “all options are on the table” and that Canadian special forces may stay in-country beyond the unanimously agreed upon end of the mission. The point is unmistakable: Harper sees himself as above the institution that used to be the pinnacle of our governance. He had to choose between Parliament and the Pentagon and chose the Pentagon.

Canadians have no reason to celebrate today. But they do have reason to rebel. The questions are: Will they? And when?

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Taking Parliament Hostage

Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson writes that Stephen Harper has been "unbound." What that really means is that he has neutered Parliament. If you don't believe that's true, writes Andrew Coyne, take a look at Bill C-38, the government's "omnibus" budget bill:

When the Harper government packages legislation these days, it is in the form of  omnibus bills. That means that there is all kinds of legislation which never gets debated.

The bill runs to more than 420 pages. It amends some 60 different acts, repeals half a dozen, and adds three more, including a completely rewritten Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. It ranges far beyond the traditional budget concerns of taxing and spending, making changes in policy across a number of fields from immigration (among other changes, it erases at a stroke the entire backlog of applications under the skilled worker program), to telecommunications (opening the door, slightly, to foreign ownership), to land codes on native reservations.

Under the guise of a spending bill, the Harper government is waging war on the environment:

The environmental chapters are the most extraordinary. Along with the new Act, they give cabinet broader power to override decisions of the National Energy Board, shorten the list of protected species, and abolish the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act — among “other measures.” For much of this the first public notice was its inclusion in the bill.

There was a time, Coyne writes, when Canada's elected representatives -- including Stephen Harper -- would have risen in noisy rebellion:

Once upon a time such insults could be relied upon to produce unruly scenes in the House, obstruction of government business and whatnot. The packaging of several pieces of legislation into one omnibus energy bill in 1982 provoked the opposition to refuse to enter the House to vote. The division bells rang for nearly three weeks until the government agreed to split the bill. The insertion of a single change to environmental legislation in the 2005 budget bill, a note from the Green Party reminds us, so enraged the then leader of the Opposition, Stephen Harper, that he threatened to bring down the government.

But Stephen Harper is no longer the Leader of the Opposition. He is prime minister. And he claims his office gives him the power to blindfold Parliament and tie its hands. He has taken Parliament hostage.