Sunday, November 28, 2010

George Abbott is Good to be Lucky

Christy Clark's steady and deserved fall from being the Deputy Premier and Vaughn Palmer-anointed "future of the Liberal Party" in 2000-2001 has been followed by Carole Taylor's quasi-retirement and Colin Hanson's Icarus-like doom from flying too high and too close Gordon Campbell and the HST.  While Christy Clark remains popular within the party and has had a high public profile, she has been a repeated failure, whether as Education minister, one of the engineers of Stephane Dion's leadership, or as an impatient candidate for the Vancouver mayorlty. That just leaves five serious contenders: Kevin Falcon, Mike De Jong, Rich Coleman, Moira Stilwell, and George Abbott.

Moira Stilwell benefits from being both a woman and  being relatively unknown--a serious advantage in a party that has been in power for  nearly a decade and is in need of a facelift.   But much depends on the personal relationships between the remaining candidates. Would their mutual respect and insistence that success in cabinet portfolios cause them to pull for each other on the final ballot, or would mutual animosity cause them to pull behind someone else?  I think that if the personality clashes were that serious, they would have been obvious by now. That probably rules out Stilwell making it to the last round.  But, of the final four,  Kevin Falcon would seem to be the most compromised by his proximity to Gordon Campbell. His wings were not burned, like Hanson's, but they were badly singed.

So that just leaves Coleman, De Jong and Abbott.  Rich is the least telegenic of the three, and made a big splash when as Minister of Forests his brother became rich by having his land taken out of the Forest Land Reserve.  That just leaves De Jong and Abbott on the final ballot.

My hunch is that De Jong, who along with Farrell-Collins constituted the "fifth column" that replaced Gordon Wilson and David Mitchell with the Campbell crew way back in 1993, has the most favours to call.  But my sense is that  the avuncular Abbott, who has been quiet, competent, has more teflon and has probably tread upon fewer toes, will appeal to the Liberal Party's urge for politically expedient image renovation. Lucky, to be sure. But he also  worked hard to get into this position.

So that's my best guess, right now. Unless the 65-year-old Carole Taylor tosses down  her Chancellor's robes and makes a case for being the "caretaker" premier for the next 2-6 years, I'm putting my money on George Abbott.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Needed: An Insistence that the economy can be grown equitably and sustainably

"Canadians need to make some hard choices to tackle the key structural problems challenging the country’s future prosperity, including soaring health-care costs and a tax system that is unfair to lower-income earners"
---Ed Clark, President of Toronto-Dominion Bank
                    "A Rising Tide lifts all yachts, and leaves the rowboats behind."
                    ---Warren Buffett

If the President of theToronto-Dominion Bank thinks the tax system is unfair to low-income earners, then why should acquiesce in both federal and provincial policies that appear to assume that the only path to economic success is to shift the tax burden onto workers?  If  Warren Buffett appears on ABC's This Week complaining that the rich don't pay enough in taxes , and that the Bush tax cuts should be repealed,  and Bill Gates is arguing for a bigger and better investment in public education in the United States, and Ted Turner is complaining that the U.S. Supreme Court made a bad decision in allowing corporations to make unlimited donations to political campaigns, shouldn't we be listening?

As  Doug McArthur's Report on the BC Economy indicates, one of the distinguishing features of the Campbell government was its reliance on increased inequality as an attempt to gain competitive advantage.  As I have argued on this blog, one of the great disappointments of the Campbell record has to be the failure of this 'supply-side' thinking.  His top-heavy salary boosts for senior officials in government, his regressive approach to tax reform (including both the carbon tax and HST)  reveal this "golden goose" approach to economics, yielded very little in terms of investment and jobs. The reasons, I suspect, are at least two-fold: (1) He was mistaken, just a smany premiers before him were mistaken, to think that he could have that big an impact when employment, investment and jobs are so highly determined outside of BC's borders. (2) Even if a large general benefit could be achieved, it would merely generate pressure for surrounding jurisdictions to do likewise --in other words, a race to the bottom.

Of course there are individual communities and industries that would appear to be exceptions to these generalizations--the coastal fish farm industry would appear to be a clear example.  But even there, the benefits to the local economy have to be weighed against the larger social and environmental costs. The bent of the Campbell government was to refuse to undertake that social calculation.  But what is the purpose of government, if not to perform that function?

Monday, November 22, 2010

NDP Infighting

Curiously,  the group of caucus dissidents within the NDP Opposition in BC  actually consists of at least two very different groups--that is, one group of the usual suspects like Jenny Kwan and Harry Lali who don't like the moderate, modernizing and centrist tack that Carole James has been taking, who cater to the old line power bases in the party, and who would probably like Adrian Dix to take over as leader;  and several people like Leonard Krog and Bob Simpson, who presumably approve of James's general philosophy and direction but who nonetheless think that they (or someone else) could do a better job of  leading the party.

Interestingly, Dix is lying low, like a snake in the grass, letting others do the dirty work for him.

From what I can see, Bob Simpson was sacked simply for stating the obvious--that Carole James has not yet sold herself to British Columbians. On the other hand, the rift is ironic, because Bob represents a pragmatic economy-oriented wing of the party that James has been trying to appeal to.

James is reminiscent of Mike Harcourt in more ways than one. On the one hand, she has the right attitude of modern progressive economics (listening to business, stressing social investment and the environment) that is absolutely essential if the NDP wants to get and retain power; on the other hand she has an unconvincing hold on her party and an unconvincing leadership style. Paradoxically, she has the right general attitude about leadership style (finding a balance between the extremes of Harcourt and Clark, with a greater emphasis on the former than on the latter), but there are serious doubts about her ability to implement it.

It may be that Gregor Robertson is the answer, but for the time being the NDP should support its leader--after she lets Bob Simpson back into the caucus.  Perhaps Bob can  make it easier for her by admitting that, while there is absolutely nothing wrong with what he said, perhaps it was linen best washed in private.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Advice for Mitt Romney in 2012: Choose Lisa Murkowski As Your Running Mate

The historic victory of Lisa Murkowski on a write-in ballot in the November 2010 as the new Senator for Alaska presents a stark contrast to the former governor of that State who shot to prominence in 2008.  First, Murkowski ran --and won--as a true outsider, i.e. having lost the nomination of the Republican Party. Second, unlike all those other rogue outsiders who got their feet in the door in 2010, Murlowski is a  centrist moderate.  Third, she is a sensible woman whom millions of middle-class women can readily identify with---at least as much as they can identify with publicity-seeking  Palin.

If the establishment of  the Republican Party is worried that the Tea Party is causing the GOP to  tack too far to the right, a Murkowski nomination might make eminent electoral sense as well, balancing the Romney ticket in terms of gender and geography as well as ideology and temperment. If ever a vice-presidential running mate was tailor-made to attract  the independent voter, Ms Murkowski is it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Some obvious, but neglected, thoughts about Canada's Afghanistan Mission

Three facts about Canada's role in Afghanistan are too often neglected or obscured in political debates.

First, Canada was obligated by virtue of its membership in NATO to participate. An ally was attacked from bases in Afghanistan.

Second, after the greatest military superpower the world has ever seen was attacked on its own soil for the first time in 60 years, the country that was picked to play a lead military role in arguably the most dangerous province in Afghanistan,Kandahar, was.....Canada.(??!!!). Some people will try to argue otherwise, but this state of affairs only makes sense when you consider that the United States had 150,000 troops tied up in a dangerous mission in Iraq.  But if Canada rejected direct participation in the Iraq war on the grounds that it was unnecessary, illegal and   immoral, why on Earth should we feel an obligation to pay a disproportionate sacrifice in Afghanistan, when the reason for that sacrifice was (in large part) Iraq?  Since both Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff supported the war in Iraq, it must have been easy for them to indirectly support that war  by taking on more of the burden in Afghanistan.

Third,  the parliamentary resolution passed in March 2008 says that "Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011."   In other words,  there is no room to argue that  Canada's military "trainers" should remain in that region on the grounds that they are already familiar with it.  They should set up shop in places well away from Kandahar or Waziristan, such as Kabul, where most of our NATO partners have been safely ensconced for the past several years.  There will still be casualties after July 2011, but if Canada's mission is properly conceived and executed, Canadian military funerals should be a much rarer occurrence a year from now.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

So What Was Wrong With Gordon Campbell?

One should never presume to be able to read another person's mind, but it has always seemed to me that Gordon Campbell was badly burned in the 1996 election. He lost that contest to Glen Clark in no small part because of his own folly and naivete:  what he did was speak openly, before the election, of his intention to privatize B.C. Rail. Ass a consequence, any interior towns along the BC Rail route that couldn't stomach the thought of a NDP MLA voted for the Reform Party, led by Jack Weisgerber, splitting the "free enterprise" vote. Some ill-advised candour on Campbell's part about possible restraint in social spending further contributed to the Liberals' demise. While certainly Glen Clark's ability to capitalize on his opponent's maladroitness was an important factor in the NDP's re-election, it is more true to say that the Liberals lost the election than it is to say that the NDP won it--and that it was principally Gordon Campbell's fault that the Liberals lost.

Campbell certainly learned his lesson, and never made the mistake of excessive election candour again. But he did make the opposite mistake, several times, even though he probably interpreted his election victories in 2001 and 2005 as vindication for his hard-won political acumen. In fact, those elections were won for reasons other than legerdemain: anyone could have led the Liberals to victory in 2001, and Liberals were rescued by an Asian-fuelled surge in commodity prices in 2004-2005.

So the long fuse of the BC Rail scandal and the short fuse of the HST backlash were lit with the new strategy of cautious public opinion "management" that was a central characteristic of the Campbell years. Despite some impressive legislative achievements to his credit, he never learned to trust the people, and that fact ensured that they were unlikely to fully trust him, either.

Campbell's faith was reserved for B.C. capitalism---which is why we can charitably interpret his prediction in 2001 that "tax cuts would pay for themselves" and his clinging to a belief in only a half-billion dollar deficit in 2009 as wishful thinking on his part, rather than merely crass dishonesty. He did everything he could, within reasonable political parameters, to create a good business climate. He hoped that business would return the favour. As part of this effort, Campbell's tax policies--in particular the carbon tax and HST in exchange for cuts in progressive income taxes--- appeared to shift more of the burden onto ordinary people. These are the same ordinary people who Campbell couldn't trust with a discussion of tax policy prior to the 2009 election, the same ordinary people whom he had ("mistakenly") trusted in 1996. If, deep down, Campbell wanted these people to like him, he had a flawed strategy for achieving popularity.

But was it wrong to avoid the issue before the election and then implement the tax in the first year after the election (in order for the anger over the fait accompli to die down before 2013)?  Is that not the common political strategy  for administering painful-but-beneficial medicine upon recalcitrant publics? My advice to political leaders in this situation was (and is) twofold. First, equity matters. If the point of the HST was primarily to achieve administrative and economic efficiencies rather than to engineer a supply-side "trickle down" economy, then design and explain the tax in such a way as to make that fact perfectly clear. France and Sweden have more equitable societies despite getting close to half of their revenue from consumption taxes; that fact suggests the possibility of a more equitable HST. Indeed, much of the opposition to the carbon tax was blunted by a similar strategy of ensuring that two-thirds of BC families would be no worse off as a result of the tax.

Second, the question of tax harmonization could have been folded into the terms of reference of a commission on taxation that would have included extensive consultations similar to the dialogue on health care that the BC government held earlier. The Commission could have reported to the legislature in 2011. Whether you could call it deliberative democracy or simply management of public expectations, it would have provided an opportunity for citizens to let off steam in an environment much more controlled and less volatile than a grass-roots populist revolt led by Bill Vander Zalm.

But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.