Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Keeping the TPP Under Wraps


If there is one thing that distinguishes the Harper government from its predecessors, it's an obsession with secrecy. And that obsession is glaringly apparent in Mr. Harper's refusal to release any information about the Trans Pacific Partnership. Tom Walkom writes:

Exact details of the proposed 12-country deal remain secret. Leaked draft chapters suggest that the pact, like most modern trade deals, will cover far more than trade.
It will give foreign multinationals the right to challenge domestic laws and regulations that interfere with their present or future profitability.

It will give multinational pharmaceutical companies greater patent protection, thereby putting upward pressure on the price of drugs.
It will promise environmental protection but include no real enforcement mechanism.

Like NAFTA and other trade deals the Harper government has signed, the TPP is a corporate juggernaut. But, it's also an octopus:

What distinguishes the TPP from other economic pacts is its sheer size and scope.
Unlike the recently signed pact between Canada and the European Union, it will include both developed and developing nations.

Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Singapore, Brunei and Japan are parties to the TPP. But so are Malaysia, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico and Peru.
The new deal will also effectively replace the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement linking Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, as well as more recent agreements tying Canada to Peru and Chile.

NAFTA has strangled Ontario's auto manufacturing industry. There will be other casualties. That's why the Harperites are trying to keep it under wraps.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

His Waterloo

The chattering classes are praising Stephen Harper's political smarts. He has set the agenda for the next election, they say, and he has delivered  a budget that the opposition parties can't fight. But Scott Clark and Peter DeVries disagree. Harper's budget, they write, is too clever by half:

The pundits are letting their cynicism blind them to two important facts — that this budget is based on fantasy math, and that not all tax cuts are equal. We covered off the first point in our last piece. Mr. Oliver is basing his ‘balanced’ budget on asset sales and extremely optimistic economic and revenue forecasts; his government is also indulging itself in many spending promises that aren’t due to take effect for years. The media has swallowed the government’s budget message largely without criticism, but let’s be clear: Much of what Mr. Oliver is promising may never happen, no matter who wins the election.

But, more importantly, if the election is to be about tax cuts, there are much better ways to cut taxes and create economic growth. If the opposition parties supported restoring the GST to its previous level, all kinds of things are possible:

Starting with the GST, the opposition parties could then eliminate income-splitting for high-income households — a costly sop to the rich that does nothing for the average taxpayer or for economic growth — and save another $2 billion for broad-based tax relief. Eliminating the increase in the Tax-Free Savings Account limit would bring in another $1 billion; overturning the many petty, unfair and unnecessary “special” tax breaks introduced by the Conservatives would net another $1.5 billion.

Add it all up and you’re looking at about $18.5 billion in revenues that can be deployed for broad-based tax relief — not just tax gifts for demographics the government is hoping will help it to another term in office. This would be tax relief for everyone — not just the rich. It would, in fact, be the biggest income tax cut for middle-income families in Canadian history. The campaign speeches write themselves.

Of course, the Harperites would call such a plan a tax hike. However:

Here they’d have the facts against them — and they’d be fighting against a political message that’s appealing and easy to deliver. The overall tax burden wouldn’t rise by one thin dime. Neither would the debt or deficit. The plan simply would change the tax mix: much lower income tax revenues, higher GST revenues — a mere $2 for every $100 spent. Broad-based tax relief for all, instead of costly gifts for the already-comfortable.

In short, the opposition could argue that they are better economists than Harper. The budget could be his Waterloo.

Monday, April 27, 2015

He Needs Another Closet


When it comes to shifting blame, Stephen Harper is a past master. Last week, in the House of Commons, he suggested that Mike Duffy made an inaccurate claim about his residency. Harper implied that the whole mess currently in front of the court was Duffy's own doing. Michael Harris writes:

Here is the constitutional truth about Duffy and the Senate. Both the Prime Minister and the Governor General have the obligation to assure that an appointee is eligible for an appointment to the Senate before they are elevated. The GG accepts the appointment on the advice of the PM, not the nominee. They not only blew it, they knowingly blew it — unless the PM is going for the Hans Christian Anderson Award for fairly tales; that he was the only guy in Ottawa who didn’t know where Mike Duffy — or Pamela Wallin for that matter — really lived.

But, as has happened so often in the past, Harper claims his hands are clean. That's why Harper needs to be called as a witness:

Which is why the Great Marketer has to be put under oath at Duffy’s trial. The Crown has already gainsaid the PM on the issue of Duffy’s constitutional eligibility for the Senate. The Crown has said that he probably wasn’t eligible for the appointment. Unless the Privy Council and the GG’s office are full of sycophantic dolts, they would have told the PM the same thing. So why was the appointment made? We need Harper’s evidence under oath in court — the one place where political marketers don’t have the last word. Well placed sources tell me that the PM knew well about the hazards of appointing Duffy from PEI, but said the critics “would get over it.”

However, Harper will not come to court willingly. He'll try very hard to find a constitutional closet to hide in.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

It Deserves A Horse Laugh


The tabling of the budget last week signalled the beginning of the election campaign.  A careful reading of the document makes clear that Stephen Harper's election strategy will be rooted in deceit. Michael Harris wrote:

Still, no one should be surprised. This misbegotten government’s modus operandi is about much more than information control. It’s about soaring, jet-propelled skullduggery in a never-ending political campaign. It’s a power fantasy. It’s Steve’s way.

Armed with his narrative of convenience, Harper programs the electorate with fictions of prosperity, compassion and prudence. In the real world, he acts quite differently. There, he underfunds Coast Guard stations, veterans’ offices, First Nations tribal councils, railway inspections, scientific research and Employment Insurance processing.

Mr. Oliver's budget is full of the new math -- the kind that doesn't add up:

Numbers have a wonderfully elastic quality to them; like Harper cabinet ministers, they say what they’re told to say. Numbers are the favourite tool of fraudsters and politicians alike. One swindles money, the other swindles votes.

Under the old system, the minister assumed an unchanged price for oil over five years in making his projections. But Joe Oliver, viewing the resource landscape through rose-coloured bifocals, is predicting that the price of oil will increase in each of the next five years.

No matter what he says, the minister can’t see into the future. For us to believe his revenue forecast, we have to blind ourselves to some obvious facts. There’s a price war going on in the oil industry. Key producers are turning on the taps to put weaker players with a costlier product out of business. Major producers like Saudi Arabia are also hedging against any softening of long-term demand for their product — because of a working climate change treaty, for example. The last thing they want is to create a situation where demand diminishes or disappears well ahead of supply. The fastest way to diminish demand is to make oil so expensive that it encourages the rapid development not only of costlier product — like tar sands bitumen or fracked oil — but of renewables, like solar.

But besides the convenient oil calculations, there are all kinds of other examples of sleight of hand:

He didn’t, for example, explain that the government is effectively abandoning infrastructure investment until 2017, at which point it proposes to come across with chump change. He didn’t mention the national yard sale the Harper government has been running to funnel public asset value towards balancing the books. (Selling an asset to balance a budget isn’t good management. It’s desperation.)

The final item of fiscal trickery in the budget was almost too brazen to imagine. Oliver slyly waited for the new fiscal year before bringing down his budget — and promptly dumped the government’s last remaining shares it held in General Motors as a result of the 2009 auto bailout.

This allowed Oliver to use $2.1 billion to help balance the budget. It was the most expensive $2.1 billion any Canadian government ever made, given that it imposed a $3.5 billion loss on taxpayers in Canada and Ontario. Market analysts thought it was a bad time to sell. Even the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge pointed out to Oliver that had he waited just two more weeks to sell, Canada would have received an extra $100,000,000 for the shares. Prudent fiscal management — or just another costly bonbon for Goldman Sachs, the buyer?

Sound fiscal management? You bet. If there ever was a budget that deserved a horse laugh, this it it.

Just one personal note: My mother died on Friday. She died as she had lived: determined to cling to life as she became increasingly fragile. She was, as Dan Ackroyd said of Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, a doodle. And now she's free.

We'll be away for a couple of days this week to attend her funeral.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Defying The Conventional Wisdom

                                Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS file photo 

Justin Trudeau appears to have ruled out any coalition arrangement with the NDP. But Chantal Hebert believes that such an arrangement is still possible:

But what if, instead, the Conservatives finished only two or three seats ahead of the runner-up?
Would Canada then not be better served by a minority government whose stability was ensured by some form of formal understanding with one of its opposition rivals?

It was in similar circumstances that David Peterson’s Liberals struck an alliance with the NDP to replace the Tories in power at Queen’s Park in the mid-1980s.
If the result had not been as close — a mere four seats separated the first-place Conservatives from the Liberals on election night — chances are the Tory status quo would have prevailed.

No leader is going to talk coalition as he or she goes into an election. But, ultimately, voters will determine what arrangements will be necessary in the House of Commons:

If they were to make a move along the lines of a coalition or some looser arrangement to oust Harper they would have to cross the Rubicon at the time of the speech from the throne.

Likewise, the current speculation is almost always premised on a second-place Liberal party to the exclusion of a) the NDP keeping the lead opposition position in a minority parliament and b) the Conservatives falling to third place.

Conventional wisdom currently has it that the odds for such outcomes range from improbable to unthinkable.

 Voters have been known to defy the conventional wisdom.

A quick note: We'll be in Montreal for the next couple of days. Enjoy Spring. It's finally here.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Posing As A World Leader


Ostensibly, Indian Prime Minister Modi is in Canada to sign a uranium deal and ease visa restrictions between the two countries. Don't believe it. Tim Harper writes:

Take a look at the receiving line at the airport in Toronto and Vancouver for Modi.
There you will find Conservative MPs with some of the largest Indo-Canadian populations shaking hands as the cameras whirred.

There was Brad Butt of Mississauga—Streetsville, where 19 per cent of the population is of South Asian heritage, and there was Bob Dechert of Mississauga—Erindale, where the South Asian population stands at 15 per cent.
Kyle Seeback of Brampton West, where 27,000 residents claim South Asian heritage, was there. In Vancouver, there was Nina Grewal of Fleetwood—Port Kells, where 22,000 residents list their country of birth as India, and Wai Young of Vancouver South, where up to 15 per cent of the population is from India.

And, Harper continues, it was no accident that the last leader to address Parliament was President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine:

who publicly thanked Harper for his support in his address last September.

The Ukrainian diaspora in this country is roughly equivalent to the Indian diaspora — about 1.2 million — and it can swing at least 10 Canadian ridings.

We are told Harper’s Israeli support is a question of morality, his Ukrainian support is aided by a longtime suspicion of Vladimir Putin, and his embrace of Modi rooted in years when the Indian leader was shunned by many in the international community

The Conservatives swept Brampton ridings in 2011 and having incumbents smiling in photos with Modi will not hurt their re-election chances. 

The "economist" whose economy has tanked is now posing as a "world leader."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Insane And Stupid


The Harper government's tough on crime agenda suffered yet another defeat this week. Expect to hear more heated rhetoric about Canada's biased judicial system from Mr. Harper. But, Michael Spratt writes, judicial activism isn't killing the government's crime legislation. Stephen Harper is:

The federal Conservatives have reduced criminal justice policy to a simple flow chart. Step one: Promise ‘tough on crime’ legislation that’s easy to sell to the Conservative base. Step two: Table the bill while ignoring the advice of experts (both inside and outside the Justice department) arguing the new law would be both ineffectual and unconstitutional. Step three: Cling like grim death to the talking points, at least until step four — when the Supreme Court strikes the law down. Step five: Cry ‘judicial activism’, then refer to step one.

The pattern is always the same; only the bills change. The results speak for themselves — for the Harper government, one defeat after another in the nation’s highest court. They’ve been in power since 2006. They really should be getting better at this by now.

But they aren't -- even if their own lawyers tell them their legislation won't pass constitutional muster:

Had they been listening, they would have gotten an early indication that the legislation was unconstitutional from their own Parliamentary Information and Research Service department, which warned that “mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment are generally inconsistent with the fundamental principle that a sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender” — and minimum sentences “may constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”.

They didn't like that message, however, so they simply ignored it. And, quite predictably, the Supreme Court told them they got it wrong:

The court did not simply hold that the minimum sentences are a poor policy choice. It found that these minimum sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment — that the legislation offends standards of decency by imposing sentencing as a “blunt instrument that may deprive courts of the ability to tailor proportionate sentences at the lower end of a sentencing range”.

The court also found that, under the 2008 law, an otherwise law-abiding person storing an unloaded, restricted firearm at his or her home would be treated as a hardened criminal and hit with a minimum prison sentence for a minor licensing infraction.

Some would call the Harperian approach to criminal justice insane. Others would call it stupid. It's both.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Living In An Alternate Universe


Yesterday, the provincial premiers met in Quebec City to map out a strategy to combat climate change. The federal government was invited to the conference but declined the invitation:

Tuesday's meeting ended with renewed calls for the federal government to show greater initiative in addressing the issue.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said the time for action is now, especially with an upcoming get-together of environment ministers leading up to an international conference on climate change in Paris in December.

"It has to be prepared, so we call upon the federal government right now to start working with us, first technically, then with the ministers, in order to work together in establishing our targets for Paris and the way we're going to present our situation, our plans in the future," Couillard told a closing news conference.
"There's no way it can be done in isolation. One order of government cannot ask the other to do the job. It has to be done together."

Yet, on that very same day, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford claimed that his government had an "already exemplary record on environmental performance."

Tuesday was also the day that the Supreme Court found that Harperian legislation to impose mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Harperites continue to act as if the Charter didn't exist. In their anti terrorism legislation -- Bill  C-51 -- they specifically mandate courts to ignore the Charter. And, in another court, Senator Mike Duffy stands accused of 31 offences which the Harperites claim have no connection to them.

These folks live in an alternate universe. Asylums are full of such people. But, in Canada, we've given them to keys to the kingdom.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Another Ben Stein?


Joe Oliver's proposed balanced budget legislation is so inane it's hilarious. Like most Harperian legislation, the proposed bill leaves lots of unanswered questions. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries write:

In his speech, Mr. Oliver stated that the only deficit his balanced-budget law would consider acceptable would be one that results from a recession, or an extraordinary circumstance (like a war or natural disaster) with a cost exceeding $3 billion in a year. Within 30 days of a published deficit, the Finance minister would be required by law to testify before the Commons Finance committee and present a plan to return to balance. That plan would include an automatic freeze on operating spending and a five per cent cut in the salaries of cabinet ministers and deputy ministers until the budget is balanced again. Departments that helped create the deficit would see their budgets cut.

But recessions never end quite on schedule. The Harper government has posted deficits in every year since 2008-09. The deficits in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 were definitely due to the recession and the stimulus measures implemented. But what about the deficits recorded in the following years — when the economy was technically out of deficit but still too sickly to provide the kind of revenue growth that would have lifted Ottawa into the black?

Would those late-game deficits have to be offset by spending reductions under Mr. Oliver’s rule, despite the economy’s fragility? Would there be an automatic freeze on departmental operating budgets and salary reductions for ministers and their deputies? Who decides when a recession ends? Should only structural deficits be outlawed? If so, who decides if a deficit is caused by structural factors and by how much?

And what qualifies a circumstance as ‘extraordinary’? Wars, floods, tornadoes — those seem obvious enough. But what about another threat to central Canada’s automative sector? Would another $14 billion bailout qualify as a legitimate government response to an ‘extraordinary’ event?

Harperian policy has never been rooted in wisdom. It's always been about buying votes. And this legislation is aimed at Harper's base -- which is upset at a government that has never balanced the books.

Oliver presents his proposal with a straight face. And his deadpan delivery suggests that he has a future as a stand up comic. Perhaps he'll become another Ben Stein -- an economist who became famous for his flat, nasal droning in movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off,  and Dave and in television shows like The Wonder Years.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Incompetence Writ Large


There was an oil spill in English Bay last week. And we finally got a chance to see what Harperian austerity has accomplished. Michael Harris writes:

It should be noted that the oil spill, from a brand new ship on its maiden voyage, happened in calm waters. If Mother Nature had been having a bad hair day, things would have been much worse — two tonnes of toxic sludge sloshing hither and yon looking for ducks to coat and gills to clog.

Had it been bitumen, which sinks, as compared to bunker fuel that floats; had it been oozing from a ruptured tanker instead of a leaking grain ship; had it been the Burrard Inlet instead of English Bay, well, let’s just put it this way: it would have been way worse than Sharknado 3.

Six hours went by before skimming operations began. Nine more passed before encircling the leaking vessel with a boom. And while workers from other first responders showed up, Transport Canada and Environment Canada were apparently still looking for their gumboots ashore. As it was, it took 13 hours before local residents and municipal governments were even informed of the toxic spill. Thirty six hours later, it was all taken care of — except for 20 per cent of the oil that ‘must have evaporated.’

Nonetheless, Harper's acolytes took a bow:

Industry Minister James Moore thought the response was “very impressive.” More than that, fear-mongering about the event was misplaced.

“I think it’s irresponsible for people to dial up fear and anxiety,” said Moore. This from the government that made fear mongering a tactic in Canadian politics!

Moore was not the only Conservative cabinet minister who thought the feds deserved a gold star on their homework. Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford bloviated about Canada’s “world-class” safety system.

They didn't mention, of course, that:

Since 2011, when Harper received his majority and no one could stop him anymore, he cut 10 Coast Guard stations. In places like Kitsilano, Comox, and Tofino, federal cutbacks weakened the ability of the Coast Guard to monitor and manage pollution offences. As former Canadian Coast Guard Captain Tony Toxopeus told CBC, the Kitsilano station could have been on the scene of the spill with a dedicated oil pollution response vessel and 300 metres of boom “within 15 minutes.”

What has Harper accomplished? He has destroyed a world class safety system. He is, Harris writes, simply incompetent.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Contempt - Always And Everywhere


Evidence emerged last week that, when concerns were expressed about Mike Duffy being appointed to the Senate from P.E.I., Stephen Harper brushed them aside as irrelevant. The evidence should remind us that Harper's default position -- on everything -- is contempt. Frances Russell writes:

As Parliament  and Canadians ready themselves for the unrolling of one of the juiciest Conservative scandals in Canada’s colourful history – the Mike Duffy, Pamela Walin, Patrick Brazeau Senate Expenses Affair – one of the country’s leading political scientists says the sitting prime minister is going out of his way to show his contempt of parliament.

“He’s very smart, he’s very shrewd,” University of Toronto professor of government Nelson Wiseman says.

“I believe accurately that most Canadians do not understand how parliament works, don’t understand parliamentary traditions and they don’t much care,” he continued in an interview. “And he (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) was vindicated in that view in the last election when he was promoted from being a minority prime minister to being a majority prime minister.”

Canadian parliamentary democracy has evolved differently from British parliamentary democracy:

In December, 2008, Canadians got to see our governmental shortcomings up close. The newly-elected  prime minister (Harper) had lost the confidence of parliament but was able to wheedle an inexperienced governor general into doing his bidding and handing the government to him and his party during a climactic – and fated – meeting in Rideau Hall.

By contrast, Wiseman continues, “in Britain when they have an election, the prime minister who has just been defeated vacates 10 Downing Street that same day.”

Canada, he suggests, has “gone off the rails” thanks to our proximity to the U.S. and its starkly different separation of powers governance.

“The authoritarianism is completely unsettling,” Wiseman continues. “Parliament is withering away. The government has been replaced by the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and it’s just a referendum on the prime minister when you have an election.”

The next election will be about very big issues. Mr. Harper will try to convince us that it's all about balancing the budget. But it's worth remembering what Peter Russell -- professor emeritus of political science also at the University of Toronto -- said before the last election:

“Because I really fear…this may sound extreme…that if the Harper Conservatives were to win a majority in the House of Commons, it would be an indication that parliamentary crime pays…

“We’re the fourth oldest democracy in the world. I treasure it…[don’t put it] in the hands or people who don’t treasure it or respect it…[and] try to prevent a majority from killing it…

“I’ve never been more worried in my entire lifetime of democratic citizenship in Canada about the possible outcome of an election.”

If Stephen Harper wins the next election, Canadians will know contempt -- always and everywhere.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rotten At Its Core


Whether or not Mike Duffy is convicted of any of the thirty-one offences for which he has been charged, his trial will go down in Canadian history as the event which pulled back the veil on Ottawa's political culture at the beginning of the 21st Century. It is a culture which illustrates the ravages of rampant individualism. Andrew Coyne writes:

His driver’s licence may be from Ontario, his health card may be from Ontario, he may pay his taxes in Ontario, the house in Prince Edward Island he supposedly lives in may not even be winterized, but if he says he’s from P.E.I., he’s from P.E.I., and is entitled to claim a monthly allowance for expenses incurred “travelling” to and from the house in suburban Ottawa he has inhabited for many years. Because the rules don’t explicitly say that he can’t, and nobody else in the Senate’s apparently deserted corridors told him he couldn’t.

Because there are no rules, party business masquerades as public business:

But it is clear the senator spent relatively little time doing the people’s business, compared to the vast amounts of time he put in doing the party’s business, making speeches, attending fundraisers and the like, in cities and towns across the country, much of it on the public dime.

And the man who rode into town claiming that he would change the culture for the better, has simply taken it to a new level. He now insists that the rules are whatever he says they are. Duffy did his business:

with the express approval of his political bosses. When Stephen Harper signed his photo with a hearty shout-out to “one of my best, hardest-working appointments,” he wasn’t referring to the exacting scrutiny Sen. Duffy was giving his legislation in the chamber of sober second thought. One can imagine, then, the senator’s distaste for the kind of hypocrisy that would single him out for punishment.

Whether or not doing partisan work at public expense was against the Senate’s non-existent rules would seem to be a secondary question. If it isn’t, it should be; so far as the rules do allow it, it shows the problem is much worse than one errant senator. The habit of parties helping themselves to the public’s money is deeply ingrained, and one that none of them seems to feel the slightest shame over.

And, while Senators are feeding at the public trough, the government is waging its election campaign using public money for advertising:

It is instructive that even as we are discussing the improper use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes in the Senate, a similar controversy is unfolding, in another place: specifically, over the government’s use of public funds to pay for government advertising — a $7.5 million post-budget buy, 10 times as much in fiscal 2014, a half-billion over the last five years. Ostensibly, as government ministers maintain, straight-faced, this is to help Canadians take full advantage of the programs available.

Our politics is, quite simply, rotten at its core.

Friday, April 10, 2015

He Should Be Next


Stephen Harper claims that he didn't know what was going on behind the scenes in the Duffy Affair. That claim has always been hard to stomach. Michael Harris writes that, as evidence emerges, it's clear that Harper has been fabricating a narrative:

Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, read into the record a new wrinkle, yet to be laid down in testimony: Nigel Wright apparently told the RCMP that he advised the prime minister that Duffy’s housing allowance might be acceptable under the Senate’s rules.

“I was aware of the fact that I was pushing very hard to have a caucus member repay a significant amount of money to which he may have been legally entitled,” Wright told police. “I needed the PM to know this just in case it ever came up with someone else who wouldn’t repay, then you have to get kicked out of caucus, whatever, that we are basically forcing someone to repay money that they probably didn’t owe, and I wanted the prime minister to know that and be comfortable with that.”

Obviously, Wright kept Harper informed. And, if Harper didn't know something, it was because he didn't want to know -- or because he thought the information was of no consequence. Duffy's province of residence was of no consequence to Mr. Harper:

Sources say that at the time of his appointment to the Senate, Duffy had asked to be appointed from Ontario, where he had lived for decades. He was worried about blowback if he was appointed from Prince Edward Island, which was little more than the nostalgic homestead of his childhood days — though he did own a cottage and had family ties there. It was the prime minister who apparently insisted that Duffy be appointed from P.E.I., allegedly telling his appointee that his critics “would get over it.”

For the prime minister, the rules have never had any import. Christopher Waddell, Harris' colleague at ipolitcs, wrote this week:

When cornered, the Harper government’s practice is to threaten, intimidate and eliminate — or, if all else fails, to simply ignore the institutions and individuals that try to get in its way. The evidence is so familiar that it scarcely requires repeating: Prime Minister Harper’s bizarre attack on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his snide criticisms of President Obama over the Keystone XL project, the baffling decision to kill the long-form census, the serial omnibus bills that have helped turn parliamentary oversight into a bad joke, the serial justice bills that give the middle finger to the Constitution, the throttling of witness testimony at parliamentary committees (read the transcripts on Bill C-51, if you have a strong stomach).

Mike Duffy may be on trial in an Ottawa court room this week. But the prime minister should be next on the docket.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Biggest Thorn


Joe Oliver announced yesterday that he would be introducing balanced budget legislation. Asked to comment on CBC's Power and Politics, former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page said:

"Do we need the legislation? We didn't need the legislation from the mid-1990s to 2007-2008, when we had 11 years of surpluses. I think the government feels somehow it needs to constrain itself."

The Harperites blame past governments -- particularly Liberal governments -- for the deficit. But Page pointed out that Mr Harper and his confreres inherited a $12 billion surplus from the Liberals. The Conservatives created the deficit, he said, by lowering the GST by 2% and by cutting corporate and personal tax rates. 

And tax free savings accounts also cut into government revenues. Asked if many people would be able to put away $11,000 in savings every year, Page answered, "I don't have $11,000." To increase savings, he said, we have to increase wage growth -- which isn't happening.

The difference between Kevin Page and Stephen Harper is that Page is a real economist. Harper is a mere politician. That's why Page is the biggest thorn in the prime minister's side.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

$75 Million


That's what the Harper government paid for advertising last year. That figure is up from $69 million in the previous year. They've cut funding for health care and veterans offices; but they've increased funding for self promotion. Jeffrey Simpson writes:

The explanation given for this spending is shameless, the kind of explanation that gives politicians a bad name everywhere as systematic liars. We need to spend the money, the government says, in order to explain how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Yet anyone who has watched the Harper government’s advertisements knows they are there for promotion, not information.

They use government websites, too. Check out the Fisheries and Oceans one, for example. There, you will find advertisements for the government’s recent announcement of millions of spending for harbours and ports across the country.

And, remember, we're paying for those ads. But that isn't enough for self congratulation. The party has gone to its base, asking for funds to fight the liberal hordes:

Recently, the Conservative Party sent an urgent letter to its supporters asking for money. After the budget, it said, the party needs money to promote the document’s low-tax, pro-growth policies in the face of what the letter described as the “Liberal” media that always deforms Conservative accomplishments.

The letter conceded briefly that there were a few pro-Conservative voices in the media, but insisted the bulk of the media is systematically hostile. This media-baiting is typical of all Conservative cash appeals: The party is surrounded on all sides by enemies, elites and hostile media voices. Only if supporters give generously can the party’s message be communicated.

Which is ridiculous, of course, since the Liberal media argument flies in the face of AM talk radio, the Sun Media chain (whose leader, Paul Godfrey, is a strident pro-Conservative voice), the National Post, plenty of private television and many other columnists and editorialists across the country. But “them against us” is a proven money-earner for the Conservatives, so they will stick with it.

They cower in closets and expect Armageddon -- for themselves and for the world. Just the sort of people, they say, who should be running the government.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

And Now The Main Event


Mike Duffy's trial starts today. You can bet that the Harper machine will try to keep the focus exclusively on Duffy. But, Lawrence Martin writes, political scandal has a habit of sweeping away many players as it rolls across the landscape -- and that includes governments:

Going all the way back to the 1950s, ethics has been a major player in the fate of our governments. A prime reason for the defeat of the Liberals in 1957 was the defiant invoking of closure by the Louis St. Laurent government in the TransCanada Pipeline debate. A series of scandals involving his Quebec ministers were instrumental in preventing Lester Pearson from ever winning a majority. In 1984, Pierre Trudeau saddled successor John Turner with a tawdry list of patronage appointments.
They hung over Mr. Turner like a dead skunk in his subsequent demolition at the hands of Brian Mulroney.The Mulroney government’s reputation was then damaged by ministerial scandals. Sleaze, real or imagined, tarred Mr. Mulroney’s own reputation, contributing to his decision to step down in 1993 when his popularity was below sea level. And we all know the impact of the sponsorship scandal on the Liberals of Mr. Chr├ętien and Paul Martin.
With those Liberals, it took time and a major scandal before Canadians made them pay a big price. With the Harper Conservatives, ethical issues, including the Prime Minister being found in contempt of Parliament, did not factor into the 2011 election result.

None of these scandals blew up and were over like a summer storm. They took time to develop. But eventually they brought the House down. And the accumulation of evidence suggesting Harperian abuse of power is now very long:

If you wanted to go into detail, you could fill an entire page of news print with the ethical transgressions of this government that have undermined the democratic process.

They’ve become so common they hardly make news any more. A recent example is Bill C-51, the new and widely condemned security legislation that interferes with Canadians’ privacy. What did the Conservatives do? They voted to block Canada’s privacy commissioner from testifying at committee hearings on the bill. It’s a small example of how petty and pathetically partisan they are.

The Duffy trial plays directly into that narrative. What's different now is that it has become the Main Event.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Keys To His Kingdom


The Easter Season, Michael Harris writes, is a good time to consider whether or not Stephen Harper actually practises the religion he professes. There is, for instance, the Christian prescription about the treatment of one's neighbours:

Jesus could spend a profitable moment or two with Steve on the notion of sharing. For example, it’s not necessarily a good thing for the country’s gross domestic product to go up if all the growth goes to the same small number of people. It must be clearly explained to Steve that income-splitting for the wealthiest 15 per cent of the population is not the way to feed the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two small fishes. Christians share; they don’t hoard.

Jesus might remind Steve that Christians are supposed to love their neighbours, not make them get visas to visit our backyard. And even if Tom Flanagan was right when he said that you wouldn’t want Steve for a neighbour, Jesus should point out that there is still time for a conversion on the road to Damascus — even if you’re in a fighter jet. Christians can always ask forgiveness and change their ways.

And while he was at it, Jesus might review a few of the commandments with Steve -- particularly the one that deals with truth telling:

Then there’s the prohibition against what is variously called ‘lying’ or ‘bearing false witness’. Jesus would have to set aside a whole afternoon with Steve on this one. He would have to explain that there is a difference between being a ‘creationist’ in the counter-Darwinian sense and making stuff up to suit yourself that isn’t true.

And when this government lies — as it did on the true costs of the F-35, the real impact of closing Veterans Centres and its empty call for lasting ceasefires in the Middle East — Jesus would have to explain that remorse is part of the process of expiation and forgiveness. Steve would have to do an Imitation of Rob, so to speak, and choke out the words, “I’m sorry,” at a press conference or ten.
A good place for Jesus to demonstrate the kind of stretchers Steve shouldn’t tell anymore would be the impact of his corporate tax cuts. The PM said with a straight face that by cutting corporate taxes government actually got more revenues. (Same lopsided logic he gave veterans: fewer offices and personnel, better service.)

Jesus, of course, warned his listeners that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. So perhaps this meditation is a bit unfair. On the other hand, it's precisely this kind of meditation Canadians should engage in before they decide whether or not to revoke the keys to Mr. Harper's kingdom.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Truth Is It's A Lie


After Joe Oliver announced his budget date this week, he pivoted immediately to an attack on the Liberals, implying that they did not have what he had -- "a plan and the discipline to follow it." That was rich. Stephen Maher writes:

He warned voters of Opposition plans for “a debt burden our children should not bear.”

He bragged Canada’s debt is half that of the Group of Seven average, adding, “There’s a moral issue here, because to the extent we pile on more debt, we’re basically asking our children and grandchildren to pay for our expenditures.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has added $122-billion to the federal debt since he took office. If Canada has a solid debt to gross domestic product ratio, it is not because of Harper, but because of his predecessors Jean Chr├ętien and Paul Martin, who added only $33-billion in debt from 1993 to 2006.

The Tories were right to borrow to stimulate the economy during the recession, but they should blush when they brag about their record as debt fighters. They repeatedly missed their targets and drove us deeper into debt than necessary, slashing the goods and sales tax and offering boutique tax cuts that cluttered up the tax system without making it fairer or boosting productivity.

It’s the “starve the beast” technique, invented by Ronald Reagan. The idea is you cut taxes, go into debt, then cut spending, which makes it hard for your left-leaning opponents to tax and spend. It’s fair ball, but Canadians are suckers if they let themselves be convinced by millions of dollars in government advertising and endlessly repeated talking points the Tories are the anti-debt party.

The Harperites intend to spend millions of dollars -- $7.5 million -- repeating the line that they are better managers of debt than the Liberals. Paul Martin began to set the record straight yesterday. The message they are sending, said Martin, is "nonsensical."

 It's more than that. It's a lie.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Who's Afraid Of Elizabeth May?


In a recent poll, Canadians made clear that they want to see Elizabeth May in the election debates. However, that doesn't mean that they'll get to see her. In the debate to extend Canada's mission into Syria, May was not allowed to speak. Michael Harris writes:

The Tories denied May the right to speak about the government’s plan to expand Canada’s war with Islamic State into Syria without a plan and without a costing. I guess they prefer to listen to Defence Minister Jason Kenney’s lies and obfuscations. That’s what Harper specializes in: a democracy where he and his puppets always have the floor, and the rest are reduced to Lilliputians quivering in forelock-tugging silence.

And during the last election, May was banned from the table. A consortium of broadcasters refused her entry into the debates. There are no rules about who gets to participate:

The consortium itself has no clear rules or criteria to guide its decisions. Worse, other parties have manoeuvred secretly to keep the Green Party out in past debates. A total absence of rules and hidden political machinations to create an Old Boys club of the debates is not a confidence-building combination.

But what happened in 2011 had everything to do with Stephen Harper:

As [May] wrote in her book Losing Confidence, “The Consortium was told in January 2007 that if I was included in the debates, Stephen Harper would refuse to participate.”

Harper had tried to veto the Green Party’s participation from the shadows. It almost worked. May was told by by Mike Duffy — not the consortium — that she was out of the debate. According to Duffy, then at CTV, three out of four party leaders had nixed her participation. The networks had disgraced themselves caving in to politicians like Harper.

May has been the only leader who has clearly opposed Harper on principle:

May fought like a lion against Harper’s Parliament-destroying omnibus legislation. Why is this type of legislation fatal for any representative democracy? Four simple words tell the tale: Government spending goes unverified. Thank you, former Harper information commissioner Robert Marleau.

May also came up with wise amendments to the government’s “Fair” Elections Act, a creepy piece of legislation which will make cheating easier and actually work to suppress the vote. Catching ballot bandits will now be next to impossible. Nor will Canadians know of their attempted crimes unless they lead to charges. Under the provisions of this cynical and regressive piece of legislation, there will be no more robocalls warnings issued by Elections Canada.

May was the first party leader to come out against Harper’s latest eruption of Darth Vaderism, Bill C-51. If you believe that removing civil liberties and lowering the threshold for police state tactics makes us safer, this is the bill for you.

The passengers aboard the good ship Harper are jumping -- John Baird, James Lunney, Christian Paradis, Shelley Glover. If May is at the table, the reasons for their departure will become crystal clear.

Who's afraid of Elizabeth May?  You can bet that, first and foremost, it's Stephen Harper.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Upper Crust Welfare Bums


Stephen Harper claims that there are many government programs we can no longer afford. And, he says, he certainly will not create any new ones. But that is exactly what he has done. Tom Walkom writes:

Tuesday’s report by the Parliamentary Budget Office stated what should have been obvious: about a third of what Ottawa spends on its Universal Child Care Benefit already goes to families who don’t need or use daycare.

The report estimates that when the benefit is expanded this year to include all children under 18, a little over half will go families who don’t need or use daycare

More importantly, the Harper government wanted to ensure that the alternative to the baby bonus — a comprehensive, publicly funded, national child-care program — never saw the light of day.

Successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments had flirted with the idea of involving the state in child care. To the Harperites, this was ideological anathema.

But it was enough to put a hole in government revenues. The Conservative scheme boosted Ottawa’s spending by about $2.7 billion in 2006. The expanded benefit ($160 a month per child under 6 and $60 a month for those aged 6 to 17) will bring the costs of the program to well over $7 billion this year.

If the Parliamentary Budget Office’s estimates are correct, just over half of that amount will go to families whose children (perhaps because they are teenagers) don’t need or use daycare. Is that a misuse of funds? If the Conservative child-care benefit is supposed to deliver child care, the answer is yes. 

In the early 1970's, David Lewis made the phrase "Corporate Welfare Bums" part of the Canadian political vocabulary. Today we have an updated version of the same. But we should change the phrase. What we now have are Upper Crust Welfare Bums.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Oliver's Hocus Pocus


Joe Oliver emerges from hiding today. The assumption is that he'll announce a date for the budget. When things get tough, Harperites head for the closet. When the economy gets tough, Ministers of Finance should be seen dealing with the problems. Certainly other people have been doing that. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries write:

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and a number of private sector economists have made public their updated forecasts for the economy; they’ve all agreed with Poloz’s description of oil’s effect on the economy as “unambiguously negative”.

The Parliamentary Budget Office is hard at work on economic and fiscal updates for the Commons standing committee on finance, which we should see at the end of the month. The province of Alberta — which has been hit harder by oil’s decline than any other jurisdiction — didn’t delay its budget. Neither did British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Quebec. They’re all dealing with volatility. They didn’t use it as an excuse to avoid making decisions.

 And, in the past, other finance ministers have met the challenge of changing economic circumstances:

During the 1980s, the Mulroney government released economic and fiscal updates, with policy actions, in reaction to dramatic falls in grain and oil prices. In 1990, the budget was moved up to deal with rising interest rates and inflation. In 2001, a budget was quickly introduced in response to the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks.

Oliver has said that he is waiting for solid predictions on the price of oil. However:

In a recent Bloomberg article, the authors noted that the median view of 39 analysts predicts the price of oil (Brent crude) will average $69 a barrel in the fourth quarter of this year. The highest prediction was $90 a barrel, the lowest was $50 — the widest forecast range since first quarter 2007. In other words, no one has a clue.

The truth is that the folks who claimed to be economic stewards par excellence don't know what to do unless the price of oil is stable. And, lacking stable oil prices, they're playing a game of economic hocus pocus -- now you see me, now you don't.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Amazing Transparent Man


Stephen Poloz, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, says that the economic numbers in the first quarter of this year will be "atrocious" -- something that Stephen Harper knows full well. Therefore, Crawford Killian writes:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a guy who reportedly cowered in a closet while the guns roared in the hallway, has collected his wits and mapped out a whole new course to a new majority with admirable speed. By parlaying one mentally ill drug addict into a terrorist threat, he created the embryo of a Canadian police state in Bill C-51. Meanwhile, riding on the slipstream of the Americans' attacks on the Islamic State, he has found an unrelated casus belli, a cause for war, just as George W. Bush did after 9/11.

So seven months (or less) before the next election, Harper is a war prime minister like Mackenzie King -- effectively bulletproof for the duration. And the duration is likely to last through next fall and perhaps to 2020.

Harper claims that he is operating from a moral imperative. But his imperative is entirely political:

How else could he sell himself to the voters? He's touted himself as the guardian of our economic interests, while running up our deficits and promising a balanced budget real soon now. As viceroy of the Oil Patch, he bet the country on exporting expensive oil, and now the Oil Patch is drowning in its own product. We get endless warnings about a housing bubble, job growth has been at record lows for over a year, and the available jobs are crappy part-time ones.

With no end in sight, the economic downturn would demolish Harper and the Conservatives in the next election. But with a sanitary, low-casualty, far-away war to distract people, and Bill C-51 to silence critics, he might just scare enough voters into giving him four more years of the same -- while also running up as big a deficit as he likes.

His election strategy is entirely transparent. He is The Amazing Transparent Man.