Saturday, December 24, 2011

Is the Conservatives 3%+ limit on annual health care spending reasonable?

On the eve of federal-provincial healthcare negotiations the federal government has unilaterally announced that after 2014, federal health transfers to the provinces will be capped at 3% or the rate of growth in the economy, whichever is higher. According to  Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, anything more would be "unsustainable".

Taxpaying citizens may well consider this to be a reasonable limit. After all, simply feeding an endless provincial appetite for healthcare money may discourage provincial health care systems from making needed reforms. The federal government cannot be expected to go into permanent deficit just to help provincial governments to avoid change.

Nevertheless, there are at least three considerations that make me question the government's claim of reasonableness. They  concern the constitution, the historical context, and the question of the government's ideological agenda.

First,  it is a matter of constitutional fact that the provinces are weighed down with 90% of the responsibility for health care and its attendant costs, but only get 50-60% of the revenue. Even if a global cap on growth in spending of the magnitude that Flaherty envisions were necessary,  it might be reasonable for the federal government's share of that spending to be higher.

Second, historically we need to ask whether the demographic bulge that occurred after the Second World War would have been cared for nearly as well had the federal government restricted itself to 3% spending growth. Would there have been as many hospitals, schools, teachers, doctors and nurses caring for our children? If not, why should we apply that restriction when the same demographic bulge is again in need of more extensive health care?

Third, we should be aware that this  government is a little too comfortable with the idea of squeezing the provinces fiscally, and then not strictly enforcing the Canada Health Act (all  in the name of respecting provincial autonomy, of course). The effect will to be encourage the privatization and profit orientation of health care, the consequences of which are not likely to be less expensive for Canadians overall (even if it is less expensive for them qua taxpayers).

In sum, we can defend the interests of both the single taxpayer and our single payer system for essential medical services. We need not be as fiscally hamstrung as the Finance minister avers.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Therapy or Surgery? Don Drummond's new CD Howe Report on Health Care Reform

Normally, whenever a new report on health care reform comes out of a place like the CD Howe Institute, I brace myself  to do battle with yet another  wrong-headed prescription for privatized medicine. Yet Don Drummond's new report for the CD Howe Institute, "Therapy or Surgery: A Prescription for Canada's Health System," is an exception: a measured response that respects the potential that the single-payer system has for achieving value-for-money and sustainability.

First, let me summarize where I am coming from:  A decade ago, I began my full-time academic teaching career at the University of Victoria, where I taught Federalism and Public Policy a couple of times. Coincidentally, three major reports--those of t the federal Romanow Commission, and the Senate Kirby Report  he Alberta Mazankowski Report,--had recently come out and described the main parameters of future health care reform. Romanow concluded that our system is "as sustainable as we want it to be";  this was valid, but begged the question of whether Canadians should compromise the quality of other services to preserve the health system. The Kirby Report exemplified the New Public Management of the 1990s ( single payer plus competitive market delivery of health services).These conclusions were  good but over-drawn: competitive , for-profit hospitals were shown by a huge meta-study  to have poorer health outcomes than non-profits; in addition more competitive delivery would risk greater exposure to international trade obligations and potentially compromise governments' ability to reverse policy mistakes.  Meanwhile, Mazankowski  in Alberta contemplated greater private funding of health services.  I took the position that  the Mazankowski approach risked throwing out the baby  of the single payer system (equity with efficiency) with the bath water.  The way forward, I concluded, lay 'somewhere between Romanow and Kirby,' but where exactly?

Drummond's answer is divided into three parts, which he conveniently labels as diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.

THE DIAGNOSIS: Canada currently has the seventh most expensive system in the OECD--spending $192 billion on healthcare in 2010, or 11.7 percent of GDP. This looks good next to the US at 16%, but when one considers that many of the other countries in question actually have older populations, that figure is worrying. Canada shows several symptoms of a country that is not getting value for money, such as:
1) Health costs are rising approximately twice  as fast as the economy.
2) Canada emphasizes treating symptoms of bad health rather than prevention; it is too reactive
3) Comparatively little adoption of cost-effective treatments--e.g. way more hospital admissions for diabetes    than other countries, more caesarean sections and hysterectomies than are medically advisable.
4) 13% of all hospital days go to non-acute patients. This contributes to clogged emergencies and ambulance services, classic symptoms of a system built for acute care when the needs have shifted to chronic care.
5) The OECD noted in 2010 that Canadian generic drug prices were the highest in the OECD (why?). While some provinces are taking steps to reduce these costs, the Canada-EU trade agreement could limit Canada's room to manoeuvre in this regard.
6) A study by the Commonwealth Fund in 2010 of 7 advanced industrial countries ranked Canada second-to-last on efficiency and overall quality, and dead last on timeliness of care.
7) Canada has 19 physicians per 10,000 population, whereas the United States has 27 and European G7 countries have over 30.
8) According to the OECD, Canada has a relatively narrow scope of public coverage: essentially, medicare pays for physicians, hospitals and little else. While that may sound like a cost-saving, that encourages over-use of more expensive services and facilities.

In sum, Canada , does not deliver great value for money compared to many other countries, BUT--if you read  Drummond's list of symptoms carefully--you will notice that the single payer system per se is not to blame, but rather the collective failure to understand its pitfalls (such as reactive inefficient fee for service) and to realize its potentials (broader coverage in a cost-effective fashion).

THE PROGNOSIS: Healthcare Costs will continue to rise faster than the economy

The aging of the population is not as big a factor as is commonly assumed. Drummond breaks down the 6.5% annual increase in Ontario's  health costs this way:

1. 1 percentage point from population growth;
2. 1 percentage point from ageing (up from 0.5 over the past decade);
3. 2 percentage points from general inflation (current Bank of Canada target);
4. 0.5 percentage point from extra inflation in the health sector (consistent with
recent patterns);
5. 2 percentage points from an increase in intensity (down from 3 percentage
points over the past decade when one percentage point reflected catch-up after
the cutbacks of the 1990s), reflecting the greater per-person use of the system
from adopting new technologies and information systems, which allow new
opportunities for treatment.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that healthcare costs will continue to rise considerably faster than economic or productivity growth. Nevertheless, the fact that aging per se  is only 15% of the problem encourages one to think that something can actually be done about the other factors--and it can.

THE TREATMENT: " The proposed treatments can be accommodated within the parameters of the Canada Health Act... we must keep in mind it is the total cost that is important for efficiency, not some arbitrary split between public and private costs."--Drummond, 2011 p. 15.

1. Better integration of the system around the patient
2. Chronic care should be shifted closer to the patient, i.e. home care (Denmark is a good role model for investment in community supports rather than acute care beds)
3. To the extent that competitive private suppliers such as special diagnostic clinics or specialized surgeries are allowed they should be compensated based on quality-adjusted price rather than award contrast to the lowest cost providers. [ I would add that sensitivity to trade obligations ought to inform private delivery decisions as well, as for-profit clinics and hospitals from outside the country cannot be discriminated against.]
4. Research and develop strategies concerning the heaviest users of the system: 1% of Ontario's population accounts for almost half of total combined hospital and home-care costs (and 5% of the population accounts for 85% of the costs).
5. Better information to improve lifestyles and prevention
6. Better use of evidence-based analysis--i.e. health quality councils should be further encouraged
7. Better use of health  information records--from bottom up rather than top down e-health strategies
8. Better information available to patients concerning their use of the system.
9. Incentives should be changed to move healthcare into a team environment.
10. Fee for service gives an incentive to over-serve, but strict capitation gives an incentive to under-supply. Drummond suggests a mix of about 70% salary and 30% fee for service--along with a greater emphasis on outcomes rather than interventions
11. Fees need to be adjusted downward when cost is reduced--e.g. cataract surgery is now a routine procedure, so the fee schedule should pay less.
12. Use technology and teamwork to shift some of the functions now performed by physicians and practical nurses to nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
13. Establish a single purchaser  of drugs, and consider pre-funding for large drug expenditures; and allowing therapeutic substitutions for drug treatment wherever possible.
14. Re-think end-of life care. It should not become an excuse for every specialist in sight to bill the government.


1. The system must shift from Acute to Chronic Care and Health Promotion
2.  Canadians should be given more appropriate and equal access to pharmacare and home care. That probably means expanding the public health system. It bears repeating: what matters for efficiency is total cost, not just the cost to the taxpayer.
3. "Best to leave the Public Payer Model in Place, for Now---And at any rate, surely the incentive systems should be corrected first  before the system is opened to a two -tier approach." (Drummond, 19-20). 

 To this I would add: "surely the incentive systems should be corrected first  before raising billions more in taxes".  And if we exploit the single payer system's full potential to achieve efficiency with equity, we may not be tempted to go down the other path. The statistic that strikes me the most in this report is that Canada has lagged behind other countries in producing physicians, but has not moved at the same time to download more health care to non-physicians and out-of hospital clinics. No wonder we suffer from long wait times and clogged emergency wards! But as Bob Evans has noted in his most recent editorial in Healthcare Policy , simply moving to train more doctors, without first realizing how much we can do without them, simply shows that we have not really learned our lesson yet.  Evans's rueful conclusion (p.21):

           " Even if the growth in expenditures per physician can be reined in, the coming increases in numbers have, once again, foreclosed for decades the possibilities for exploiting the full competence of complementary and substitute health personnel, expanding interprofessional team practice and in general, shifting the mix. It will also be difficult, and expensive, for ministries of health to reallocate resources away from "doctors, drugs and hospitals" to long-term and home care, and the care of complex chronic conditions. While others talked, Canada's medical schools have acted. The money is pre-committed."


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gregor Robertson for BC NDP leader--and Premier in 2017

Yesterday's convincing general election victory for Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver in the Vancouver civic elections shows that competent centrist government is what voters really want--and if it can also be ethical with a green and progressive tinge, so much the better.

Applying those same precepts to the provincial scene, I have long maintained that what voters want is someone who can pick up where Mike Harcourt left off-- a more competent and effective version of Harcourt--and NOT some one who picks up where Glen Clark left off and provides us with a more effective version of him.

Since Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow , David Vickers and Tom Berger are not available, that just leaves Gregor Robertson.

The real question is: how do we get around the problem that is Adrian Dix?

To put it bluntly--how do we get rid of him?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sectoral Bargaining for British Columbia?

I have just returned from the Parkland Conference conference in Edmonton this weekend, at which  I heard a talk by Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil  McGowan.  He mentioned  that the #1 item on the B.C. Federation of  Labour wish list is a move to European-style sectoral bargaining, which would force major employers to bargain for the entire industrial sector rather than on just a workplace-by-workplace basis.  This would be a radical change, and the  B.C. NDP should be forced to clarify how it intends to respond to this demand.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives economist Marc Lee has recently described sectoral bargaining this way:

Unions have made some headway in the low-wage service sector, but small shops and high turnover confound organizing. Sectoral bargaining is an approach to unionizing the service sector that would give broad sectors (retail, restaurants, security, etc) a vote on whether to demand collective bargaining and if approved, different unions could then make their pitches on ability to represent those workers. This would quickly increase union density across the economy and lead to wage compression. For employers, it puts all work on a level playing field, so that there are no competitiveness issues, and wage increases would generally be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Another related model to study is the German model of regional wage-setting institutions, which goes even deeper to include works councils (shop-level management practices that include workers in decision making) and co-determined boards (that give workers in large companies half the seats on the board).

Would it be a good thing?  My experience studying and teaching comparative political economy favourably inclines me toward broader sectoral bargaining and even centralized cross-sectoral bargaining, not primarily because it makes unions stronger, but because it makes unions both act and appear to act less like narrow interest groups.  For example, in Sweden,  it is not uncommon for trade union leaders to restrain wage demands or to be receptive to technological change in one part of the economy in order to help workers in another area or to save taxpayers money.  On the other hand, it might not be good for employment and investment  to have generally higher sectoral wages than those being bargained in the rest of Canada and the United States.

'Trade unions have always had two faces, sword of justice and vested interest ' (Flanders, 1970: 15).  James Medoff and  Richard Freeman make a similar point in their article,"The Two Faces of Unionism" (1979). While a change to the B.C. Labour Code to strengthen collective bargaining is a foregone conclusion if the NDP is returned to office, a more interesting question is whether social unionism can be strengthened without simply increasing the monopoly power of unions to raise wages, thereby increasing both inequality (vis a vis unorganized workers) and inefficiency (due to labour market rigidities).  The reason that this question interests me is  that while the economic monopoly power of unions can be expected to be curtailed as soon as a right of centre party is returned to power, a successful advance of social unionism  could become a permanent achievement. At least, that is my hope.

{Economics Addendum:    "International competitiveness with respect to the U.S. and other developed countries could be a problem for B.C. only under three conditions: first, if this province's wages rose much above those in the rest of the country; second, if the real cost of production in B.C. rose relative to the real cost to our competitors; third, if the Canadian exchange rate appreciated with respect to the currency of a country specializing in the production of a principal B.C. export." --Robert C. Allen, "Trade Unions and the B.C. Economy,"  in Restraining the Economy (1986) p.227.   What needs to be said about this in the current context is that migration within Canada generally prevents the first possibility, and that the second and third conditions need to be both verified empirically.  Even if  the second or third conditions are met, it would be quite a leap  to the conclusion that 'trade unions have too much power'.}

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Order of British Columbia's Liberal, Vancouver 'Establishment' Bias

According to wikipedia, the Order of British Columbia  "is a civilian honour for merit in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Instituted in 1989 by Lieutenant Governor David Lam, on the advice of the Cabinet under Premier Bill Vander Zalm ... the order is administered by the Governor-in-Council and is intended to honour current or former British Columbia residents for conspicuous achievements in any field, being thus described as the highest honour amongst all others conferred by the British Columbia Crown".  The  B.C. government web page states that the award is decided by the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council (i.e. the Cabinet)   on the advice of an independent advisory council consisting of:

• The Chief Justice of British Columbia – Chairperson
• The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly
• The President, in turn, of British Columbia’s Public Universities, for a two-year term
• The President of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities
• The Deputy Minister, Intergovernmental Relations Secretariat
• Two past recipients of the Order
Obviously, the Chief Justice is non-partisan and above reproach, but he just serves as the chair of the proceedings; the UBCM President can usually be expected to be quite independent of government, but everyone else (with the possible exception of the president of the Universities Council) is an appointee of the provincial cabinet.
So, armed with this knowledge, we can start to make sense of the highly anomolous treatment of  former politicians and political advisors   in the making of this Award. Gordon Campbell was nominated within a couple of months of leaving the premier's office , even though he still occupies a post in London as Agent -General.  This is the political equivalent of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux having the usual 5-year waiting period waived for installation in the hockey Hall of Fame.  Campbell was described in his citation as having been a "visionary".
But Bill Bennett, the third-longest serving premier in B.C.'s history, had to wait until 2007---21 years after he retired from politics.
And David Barrett? Who brought Hansard and Question Period and MLA research staff to the Legislature, created the Agricultural Land Reserve, gave BC a modern Labour Code,  created a BC Gas Corporation that subsequent governments relied upon to balance their budgets, brought in public auto insurance, etc.?  He left the premier's office in 1975 and left active politics in 1993.   But when the 2011 awards were named,  Campbell advisors Ken Dobell and David Emerson got the nod for their "passion for making British Columbia a better place," while David Barrett did not.  Mike Harcourt, who left office in 1996 after presiding over an unusually temperate and humane government that brought in  the far-sighted Land Use Plans and a Treaty Process  that ended the "war in the woods" in BC--- as well Freedom of Information and a doubling of  the number of provincial parks---has also been overlooked, notwithstanding his additional work on sustainability, both before 1987 (as Mayor of Vancouver) and after 1997 (at the Sustainability Institute at UBC).
This pattern reveals an attitude: one that reveres Gordon Campbell for being the most perfect representative of the business and professional elites of Vancouver since the old Liberal-Conservative coaltion left office in 1952; one that grudgingly acknowleges Bill Bennett and other Socreds as politicians they once had to hold their noses and vote for; and one that considers two highly distinguished former NDP premiers as being beyond the pale.

The government could have easily avoided the impression of partisan bias simply by appointing Barrett and Bennett at the same time. And by delaying Gordon Campbell's  elevation until such time as they were ready to appoint Mike Harcourt. 
In 2012, David Barrett will turn 82 years of age.  No one has personified the passion for making British Columbia a better place to live more than he has.  He deserved to be named to the Order of BC over a decade ago.  His rival  Bill Bennett was selected ---despite a conviction for insider trading. This intentional oversight is becoming a disgrace. C'mon people--do the right thing and appoint David Barrett to the Order of British Columbia.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Conservatives new Power Base Makes Dairy & Poultry Vulnerable to Trade Talks

A couple of weeks I commented that the Conservatives' newfound ability to form a majority without Quebec was already starting to have profound consequences for the effectiveness of national bilingualism.  Now, news reports that dairy and poultry farming are finally 'on the table' at the APEC  trade talks are surfacing, alongside the government's abolition of the Wheat Board monopoly.

Although this development is presented as an inevitable aspect of international economic forces stemming from our trade partners, it is even more a product of entirely avoidable and contingent processes of domestic politics.  Brian Mulroney was the champion of free trade in the 1980s, but  his own riding of Manicougan was a the very heart of Quebec's highly protected dairy industry and the linchpin of his political power base.  Hence for his Progressive Conservative  majority,  liberalizing agriculture was UNTHINKABLE.  Now for Harper's new un-hyphenated Conservatives, exposing farmers has become very thinkable, not just for ideological reasons, but for very transparent reasons of domestic political calculation. Highly protected Quebec farmers are now politically expendable.

This is perhaps a textbook  example of how ideas and interests have to intersect for significant policy changes to occur.

An interesting footnote to this issue is what the long-term ramifications, if any, will be for British Columbia's farmers, consumers, and land developers.  Will the removal of protection for Quebec butter and milk create a local market opening for BC farmers, strengthening their local market niche?  Or will the general removal of protection mean more imports from abroad, keeping the price of dairy and poultry in check for consumers but negatively affecting the commercial viability of BC farms---and therefore their viability within B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve?  B.C.'s political leaders should be preparing themselves to deal with these questions.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Are federal Conservatives and New Democrats partners in the erosion of Canadian Bilingualism?

In last year's federal election, Mr. Layton spoke openly during the campaign of applying elements of Bill 101 – the backbone of Quebec’s controversial language charter – to federally regulated industries. More recently, the NDP has re-affirmed its support for modifying federal laws to favour the use of French in Quebec in those industries--mostly in transportation, communications and the federal public sector--in Quebec.
This week, the Conservative government appointed a highly competent accountant from New Brunswick to succeed Sheila Fraser as Canada's next auditor-general--and ignored the fact that he wasn't bilingual.  (While nobody doubts his qualifications, there are many highly qualified accountants in Canada who are bilingual.  In addition, this appointment comes after two unilingual Supreme Court judges were appointed.)
To my knowledge, nobody has linked these two events. One person who would have was the late Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who always warned that pandering to unilingualism in one part of the country would weaken support for bilingualism in the rest of the country, with possibly grave long-term implications for national unity. At his worst, Trudeau was overly dogmatic in opposing any form of special status or recognition of "distinct society".  But surely he was right to warn of a possible slippery slope in the protection of minority language rights.  
Now that we have a Conservative government that can  get an electoral majority without winning Quebec, the conditions are right for a decline in the support for, and declining effectiveness of, official bilingualism in our national institutions.  Relaxing the enforcement of rights for anglophones working in federally-regulated workplaces in Quebec and overlooking the auditor-general's lack of competence in French are both evidence that this slide is already happening.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

What was She Thinking?

Memo to Christy Clark from the Ghost of W.A.C. Bennett: THE PURPOSE OF A SNAP ELECTION IS TO CATCH YOUR OPPONENT SLEEPING, NOT TO GIVE HIM A WAKE-UP CALL. If you're going to have an early election call, don't publicly commit yourself to it 9 months in advance. That kinda defeats the purpose of a snap election.  It is not a mistake that wiley Wacky would have made-- nor would have  Adrian Dix, who has already displayed an clever penchant for hatching ugly surprises.  The main effect of Clark's rash promise was to galvanize the NDP, who launched their "Christy Crunch" commercials, chose Dix as leader, sped up their nominations, and girded themselves for battle.

Obviously, if Premier  Clark had wanted to capitalize on her popularity as a "fresh face", she needed not to wrap herself up in the HST. It would have taken courage to cancel the tax and to cancel the referendum vote on the subject, but if she had, she might well have been rewarded for her boldness.

Petitioning the federal government to reverse the Taseko/Fish Lake decision was also not a wise basis for a snap election win. Like it or not, splitting the environmentalist and First Nations supporters in B.C. was one of Gordon Campbell's greatest and most unexpected political accomplishments. Premier Clark's  touching concern for the mining industry may have stemmed some of the hemorraging  of Liberal support to the Conservatives, but at the cost of driving many marginal voters back into the arms of the NDP.

Now, Christy's best hope is that the economy will recover by the spring of 2013, and that she can take some of the credit for it. She may also need to make some overture to John Cummins: if the Conservatives are still in the double digits, her youthful good looks and winning personality will  definitely not suffice to win.  But what does she do? Instead of discreetly imploring a Jack Weisgerber or a Stockwell Day to broker a rapprochement, she instead runs ads attacking (and no doubt antagonizing)Cummins. I would have done that only as a last resort.

Overall, I have not been impressed with premier Clark's political acumen. Don't bet too much on her  winning a general election.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two Thoughts About the Late Jack Layton

I don't have a whole lot to add to what has already been said about Jack Layton, a man who regrettably I never met. There are two things, however, that deserve greater mention.

First,  I would like to commend Ed Broadbent for putting Jack Layton's name forward as leader to succeed Alexa McDonough.  Broadbent saw with remarkable clarity and prescience what kind of a leader Jack Layton would become. Specifically, Mr. Broadbent said that (1) Layton would bring a new energy to the leadership that would revitalize the party; and (2) Mr. Layton's background in civic and local politics would stand him in good stead in negotiating and forging compromises across party lines--a distinct virtue that made him the linchpin of the  three minority parliaments between 2004 and 2011.

Second, part of Layton's legacy is a paradox of political style.  He had been accused of being "plastic" a "gladhanding politician" and  a hog for the camera and microphone.  Yet  he struck many Canadians as being unusually authentic and sincere in standing up for the little guy--"Bon jack" as they say in Quebec. The explanation: it may be allright to be a "politician" if you're honest about it, good at  it, embrace the political life with gusto, and are genuinely sincere about the cause you are fighting for.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

...Then There's the Regional List Idea

A similar  proposal  that I had in mind would go back to having 50-60 single member constituencies in BC , like we had when I was in high school. The remaining members could be allocated to 6 different regional districts of 3-6 members each. The beauty of this system is that as the population shifts, there would not be a need to repeatedly increase the size of northern ridings; instead, one would just add members to the fastest growing regions. Having separate regional nominations for party lists would mean that the lists couldn't be controlled from party central or be dominated by a single region (e.g. metropolitan Vancouver).  As an additional feature, the regional lists could be "open lists" in which voters could rank the candidates offered by their favoured party. Again, the proportionality gains would be modest, as with STV-lite; but I think that we want them to be modest.  Proportionality and voter choice would be improved, without any serious sacrifice in terms of  the quality of local representation.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Brief Commercial for "STV-Lite"---and for a More Deliberative Democracy

A recent posting by Rafe Mair at The Tyee on Parliamentary Reform reminds me of some of my own recommendations in light of the failed referendum on electoral reform in British Columbia.  If you believe that British Columbia suffers from excessive polarization, and are frustrated by the fact that outcomes are determined more by how one's opponent's votes are "wasted" or"split" than by the will of the people, then there is still something to be said for preferential voting.

I see the problem of the Citizens Assembly as one of deliberation in isolation, without a broader deliberative context. The track record of citizens' juries getting validated by the wider electorate is dismal because the wider electorate is not engaged in much deliberation at all.

Imagine if BC-STV had had the status of a legislative intiative that would have to be voted upon by the Legislative Assembly. Then each MLA would have to defend their position to the public. IF the Legislature could agree to an amendment to propose to the Citizens Assembly , the Citizens Assembly could then either accept the amendment or go to the people with the referendum. (For example, if I had been an MLA I would have proposed the "STV -lite" that I described above; if I were a member of the Citizens' Assembly, I would have accepted that as a "step in the right direction" with respect to the 3 criteria of proportionality, effective local representation, and voter equality.)

A process of this kind was totally missing in BC when virtually every member of the political elite avoided discussion of the referendum, killing it with silence. A better process would have been one which --like the Oregon health care reforms--would have kept legislators in the deliberative hotseat.
The result of STV-lite would not be highly proportional, but it would be majoritarian in the northern ridings without having to create monster ridings; and it would be mildly more proportional in the southern ridings without having to create monster ballots. There would be a more level playing field, with the elimination of most "safe seats" and the creation of constituencies that more closely resemble real communities like Richmond, Surrey, and Cariboo. While it is possible that few Greens and Independents would actually get elected, they would nonetheless be certain to become more influential as the candidates of the larger parties battled for the second preferences of voters. Something close to a true majority of voters would be reflected in the calculations of the government--even if it remained a two-party legislature! And the artificial exacerbation of political polarization by the electoral system would usually be greatly diminished.

While few educated people would regard this as an ideal system, few would deny that it would be an improvement over the status quo.

Monday, August 01, 2011

How Should I Vote on the HST? A Very Good Question

Back in the day when I was still a teenager, I came across works by economist Albert Hirschman and philosopher John Rawls recommending expenditure taxes as a way of reducing the trade-offs between equity and efficiency by encouraging savings and investment. An inveterate policy wonk, I then studied the issue and began advocating a VAT for Canada--about 5 years before Brian Mulroney proposed the GST. The fact that France and Sweden had two of the more egalitarian societies on Earth while collecting nearly half of their revenue from the VAT suggested that the "regressivity" of expenditure taxes (i.e. the fact that they hurt low incomes relatively more than high incomes, since the former must spend more of their income) was not dispositive. Exemptions for basic food clothing and shelter were all that was needed to preserve a measure of social justice. The promotion of saving and investment by all income groups would be good for jobs.

Accordingly, supporting the latest version of the expenditure tax for British Columbia should be a no-brainer. A single lower tax rate of 10% over a broader range of goods is more efficient administratively as well as economically. It is easier for everyone to have a single simple tax that is easily calculated in our heads. The inherent regressivity of expenditure taxes can be offset by the improved economic trade-offs and ameliorated by exemptions on basic food, clothing, and shelter.

The problem has been the BC government's amazing ability to turn a good idea into a bad one. This stemmed from the Campbell Liberals' basic attitude: that it was important to listen carefully to big business, but everyone else's opinion was to be "managed". The successful infliction of pain in the 2001-2003 "New Era" cutbacks --which meant that voters could be made to forget in time for the next election--clearly taught Gordon to go early with the plan and to count on peoples' short memories. The successful selling of the carbon tax--a revenue neutral exercise that swapped carbon taxes for income tax cuts-- had enabled the Liberals to get away with a risky policy that no one else in North America had dared to try.  These two precedents clearly guided Campbell's reasoning about the substance and timing of the HST, which turned out to be disastrously ill-conceived,  ill-timed and poorly explained. No doubt he was also panicked by the need to remedy his embarrassingly large budget deficit, at least 3 times as big as he had maintained during the 2009 election.

The difficulty lay in Campbell's obliviousness and/or indifference to other features of the political context that made his version of the HST politically suicidal:

First, by using it initially as a revenue grab by extending the 12% (5% GST plus 7% PST) tax to a wider range of goods and services. 

Second, by using that revenue to pay for corporate tax cuts--making the sales tax even more regressive, instead of less regressive; albeit under the cover of pseudo-justice  rhetoric about "revenue neutrality".

Third, by not revealing any interest in the concept during the 2009 election campaign, and then bringing the HST in suspiciously soon afterwards.

Fourth, by introducing this regressive tax shift ($1.8 billion worth) just as the province was sliding into the worst recession in 75 years. (Deep recessions are normally the best  time to reduce the tax burdens of lower income groups, not to raise them.)

Fifth, by persisting with an Orwellian referendum question in which yes to The HST means voting "no" and saying no means "yes".

Sixth, after a huge political cock-up caused by the government's inability to trust the voters, and after gouging small businesses for over a  year, and forcing small businesses to change their accounting and computing systems twice,  the government is now asking the voters to trust it to bring in the lower 10% rate in three years , after the next election.

SO, should you hold your nose and vote "No" for the 10% HST on the grounds that that was always the best policy? Or "Yes" on the grounds that the government has obviously not earned your trust, and that to do otherwise is to reinforce and validate bad behaviour?

Let's just say that I am glad to be in Edmonton, sitting this one out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Personal Thoughts about the Second Stanley Cup Riot

My hometown of Williams Lake, B.C. has the dubious distinction, most years, of being the "crime capital" of B.C. (At 266 offences for every 1,000 residents, Williams Lake is ahead of Whistler, which is in second spot, Quesnel, Merritt and Smithers, which round out the top five.) I hasten to add that this is no reflection on the character of our residents; merely on the simple fact that as the "hub of the Cariboo" it is the place that everyone in the outlying communities comes to on the weekends to shop, have a drink, watch a hockey game, and do other things.

I mention this only because I recognized the same basic phenomenon--on a larger scale and more irregular basis--in both the 1994 and 2011 Vancouver riots. The City of Vancouver proper is only about half the size of Edmonton. But when it decides to throw a party--for Sea Fest, the Stanley Cup Finals, or the Olympics--it has to police a crowd that is drawn from the entire Lower Mainland, and to a lesser extent from the entire province.

It was obvious that a force of 500 active duty officers was inadequate to control of 100,000. And I think the resource shortfall was reasonably knowable in advance--both Vancouver city council and the provincial government should have known that.

Basically, there are 3 options for future events like this one:

1) The City of Vancouver taxpayer pay can in advance to beef up the police force (RCMP will add officers, but then present VPD the bill)

2) Other GVRD munipalities should chip in in advance (after all, a
lot of the revellers are probably white trash from Burnaby, North Delta, and Surrey)

3) The province should at least provide matching funds for security,
since the party was for the whole province.

Another personal observation, based upon my experience of the 1994 riot. I had watched the game at my firend's apartment in the West End, and on my way home experienced the first Stanley Cup riot first hand. The VPD Riot squad marched past me and I could see the look of apprehension etched on their faces, as they did not know what to expect. Once the violence mounted to the point that it started to get scary, I started toward the Granville st. SKytrain station to head back to my brother's house in North Delta. On the subway, I found myself sitting with a group of recently pepper-sprayed rioters. Their heads were shaven, they were dressed in combat fatigues, and they were discussing the evening's battles.

Not one of them even said a word about the hockey game.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Triumph of Politics

Now that the unholy trifecta of Clark' premiership, Dix's leadership and the Harper Majority has come to pass, what do we have to look forward to?

What is scary is that the Conservative majority has ALREADY moved the goalposts of Canadian politics. The best example of this in B.C. was CBC's election wrap on TV last night (May 2). There was NDP President Moe Sihota, with undisguised acceptance and at least semi-admiration, pointing out the remarkable framing of Ignatieff and the tremendous effectiveness of hitherto unprecedented "between election" attack ads.

Sihota opined that all parties, including his own, would be doing more of  this "between-election" advertising in the future. (If nothing else, Moe is a good barometer of what reflexive politicians are thinking.)

This is exactly what I was afraid of: the political lesson-learning that would happen as a result of Tory success built upon abuse of Parliament and American style character assassination.

In addition, the prime minister has already tipped his hand on health care. When asked this morning about whether he was contemplating  allowing privatized delivery , he avoided the question by affirming his support for public health insurance.  In other words, he didn't deny it.  It reminded  me of 2006, when every time the subject of global warming was raised, he would talk about all the good things that he was doing about smog.

I'll have more to say about private delivery options soon; in the meantime here is what I wrote a few years ago; it is a kind of mini-primer on the issue:

Also, for anyone interested here is the mp3 file of my commentary upon the  election for the radio station CFIS FM on May 2.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Connecting the Dots Between Ambrose, Baird, Prentice,Kent..and Carson

The blindness of the Harper Conservatives with respect to the Rule of Law and Parliamentary tradition has already received some attention in the media.There is one other comment about the Conservative record that has been insufficiently stressed, however: their attitude toward the Environment portfolio.  Do they see climate change as a real, substantive issue that Canada must take the lead on? Or do they just see the peoples' flawed beliefs about climate change as a problem to be managed? 

When the Government came into power in 2006 Rona Ambrose was the envy of every ambitious young politician in the Western world when she was assigned the job of tackling global warming.  Only this was a Conservative government , so  Ambrose's main function was to tell that incredulous world that , since the Liberals had dragged their feet on Kyoto implementation, the Conservatives would have no choice but to do the same thing.  But when Harper found that the public wasn't buying, he switched to Baird, followed by Prentice, Baird again, and now Peter Kent. 

The common thread that runs through all of these appointments is that they are not seen primarily as policy jobs at all,  but as different communications strategies.

 Rona Ambrose was the "youthful, telegenic" approach;
John Baird was the "combative and aggressive" approach;
Jim Prentice was the "soporific" approach ( and probably the most successful of the three);

When Prentice left  the job was delegated to Peter Kent, who as a professional journalist would be better able to manage the media.

And finally, there is Bruce Carson. Who else would put this  dis-barred  backroom 'old pro' in charge of the Canada School of Energy and Environment and in charge of  water contracts for First Nations reserves?  Something tells me he wouldn't be David Suzuki's first choice.
What all of these appointments show is that Harper sees the environment in general and climate change in particular  purely as  public relations problems to be "managed" by communications strategies, not as the most serious substantive policy issues of our time. I am confident that no other major  party in this country would behave in that fashion, not even the Chretien Liberals at their most cynical.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Jack Layton as PM? I doubt it....but

The election of a Conservative majority of government next week will not only usher in a new period of "stability"; it will also mean that the government will have been  richly rewarded for  being the first to intentionally cultivate and manipulate ignorance about how parliamentary government works--for intentionally sowing misinformation about  who actually 'wins' elections in a parliamentary system. Furthermore, the proposed coalition back in 2008 is repeatedly said to include the Bloc Quebecois (it never did). And don't forget the innovation of between-election personal attack ads, which apparently worked.

As someone who teaches government and politics for a living, I find these to be disturbing developments, ones that teach politicians and citizens alike the wrong lessons.

Of course, it is possible that the same NDP surge that is helping the Conservatives in most parts of English Canada will actually hurt them in British Columbia, where there are more ridings with dynamics like Edmonton Strathcona (where an NDP surge will  push a New Democrat to victory and encourage some Liberal supporters to vote strategically for the NDP) than Edmonton Centre (where an NDP surge will discourage strategic voting for Liberals and ensure a Tory victory).

This could ensure a minority. But could the lIberals then combine with the NDP to topple the government? It is hard to believe that the Liberals would want to crown the NDP after an election in which the NDP has helped to remove them from any chance of power.  I think that the LIberals under Ignatieff or LeBlanc would be inclined to prop up the Tories. But if Bob Rae gained the leadership.......

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


While the memo may have been unique in some respects (indeed Dix rarely wrote memos, in order to avoid Freedom of Information requests), it was nonetheless part of a larger pattern of obsession with information control and indifference to procedural values that was the hallmark of the Clark government, and which Dix has exemplified on practically a daily basis right down to the present day.

Consider the passage in the Auditor General's Report that mentions Clark's Ministerial Assistant's (i.e. Dix's) role in lining up ferry contractors in a manner calculated to present accountability bodies with a fait accompli. NOBODY EXEMPLIFIED THE MOTTO OF "PROCESS IS FOR CHEESE" MORE THAN DIX DID.

For me, the most telling aspect of his leadership campaign was the way he played possum in December, saying he was mulling a leadership bid, all the while having an invisible busload of ethnic voters lined up to materialize on the day of deadline for new memberships--before the competition could even respond. Once again, Dix showed his preference for secrecy and surprise over transparency or the enlightenment of dialogue. It wasn't the first time, and it certainly won't be the last.

After all, it has made him what he is today!

 P.S.  Have the New Democrats thought through the REAL significance of the memo? The purpose of the memo was to make it look like the premier (Glen Clark) was more recused, or recused earlier, from the casino application than he really was.

The nature of the BC Rail scandal is that the government allegedly acted in such a way as to make the bidding for BCR look more competitive than it really was.

More dollars were at stake in the BCR case, but the general nature of the ethical issue is virtually the same. Unfortunately, the accuser needs clean hands to be persuasive. Is this really the right man to be nailing the Liberals for this kind of  unethical behaviour? "I resigned, you didn't" might have been an answer to Gordon Campbell, but not to Christy Clark. "It was 12 years ago"  isn't very compelling either--the BC Rail prevarication was 9-10 years ago. Ethically speaking, is there really a big difference?

And Mike Farnworth, John Horgan, or Leonard Krog would be much better-positioned to do the finger-wagging.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Allan Blakeney, R.I.P.; Dix Ex Machina

I remember the first thing that my mother said when I told her that I had won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford back in the mid-1980s. "Allan Blakeney was one of those."  She was proud that her son  had graduated into an elite circle of scholars and  citizens that Blakeney  had typified.  I always had liked him-- as a thoughtful, substantial person who was never more of a politician than he needed to be. My biggest regret for British Columbia is that it never had its  own Allan Blakeney as premier.
For me, the coincidence of Blakeney's passing with Adrian Dix's ascension to the B.C. NDP leadership is highly symbolic.    I knew from the moment that  (NDP Caucus Chair) Jenny Kwan announced the need for a new leader late nlast year that Dix would win.. The absence of anyone with the stature of  an Allan Blakeney in the NDP leadership race was one of the factors that ensured his victory.

THese events constitute another missed opportunity for British Columbia.   W.A.C. Bennett's early election call in 1969 pre-empted Tom Berger's bid to be premier back in 1969; in 1984 it was the NDP's own fault when it failed to choose David Vickers over Bob Skelly.

Still, Dix has evolved as a person and is fairly bright and articulate.  He might even speak French well enough to play a constructive cameo role in the next installment of the National unity debate. Like Gordon Campbell, he will have the benefit of a very long learning curve and could  surprise his critics. 

But there is good reason to be skeptical.  B.C. needs to pick up where Mike Harcourt left off, and to accomplish what he couldn't; not to pick up where Glen Clark left off and accomplish what he couldn't. Dix's  success is built upon a political operative's lifelong and well-honed instincts for information control and spin, as well as the careful cultivation of  allies and economic interests, especially those of the trade unions that had benefitted from Glen Clark's policies. A Dix government could not help but be highly disicplined and centralized, subordinating policy to communications and skewing economic logic whenever it conflicts with the logic of interest group politics.

Could Adrian Dix morph into another Allan Blakeney, a provincial statesman? Equally strange things have happened, but I doubt it.  To repeat:  Blakeney was a thoughtful, substantial person who was never more of a politician than he needed to be.  Adrian Dix, like Christy Clark, represents the complete triumph of politics--overdetermination and overkill. No one could be more of a politician than either of them.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Negative Sum Game

If the United States has a corporate tax rate of up to 30%, and the average of G-20 trading partners is about 20%, is it really an urgent priority for Canada to reduce its  top rate from 16.5% to 15%?   My own limited  economics training leads me to an analysis something like the following: in a simple closed economic system, one might simply choose to integrate corporate and personal income taxes altogther, since the burden of such taxes would fall upon citizens anyway and by just folding them into the personal income tax system, we can tax every individual according to the politically determined canons of vertical (progressive or flat?) and horizontal (equals treated equally?) equity. At the opposite extreme of a completely open and perfectly competitive world system, corporate tax rates might also tend toward zero, since we would be caught in a "race to the bottom" for capital as well as labour.

But in the real world, we know that  many corporations can take income and resources out of the country, without paying for all of the physical and human infrastructure that have made their businesses profitable. We also know that it is difficult to apply the normal canons of of horizontal and vertical equity to foreign investors.  We also know that any big gains we achieve in terms of investment are likely to be competed away in the long-term--the more successful we are, the more pressure on our trading partners to do the same. This leads to another problem: if we get into a race to the bottom, Canada will be hard pressed to succeed, because it already has personal income taxes that are higher than the U.S. and  a  health care system the costs of which are growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy. In other words, we can't win a race to the bottom.

Here is an intersting discussion about corporate income taxes in this morning's Globe and Mail:

“Although modelling strategies and data sets vary from study to study, the consensus from the peer-reviewed academic literature is clear: lower CIT (corporate income tax) rates are associated with investment levels that are higher than what they would have otherwise been.”

So, let’s skin this cat another way.

Jeffrey Sachs is the director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. (He’s also committed to fighting poverty and hunger, but he’s still a real live professor.) Here’s what he told the BBC only yesterday:

“Of course, all of our countries are caught in what you could call a kind of tax arms race or what could be called a race to the bottom in fact, which is that each country is trying to get the tax rate lower than the neighbours or the competitors. The result is that everybody is cutting corporate tax rates around the board.

“It is only causing fiscal crisis everywhere and it's a kind of negative sum game, meaning that when both sides do it, neither gains the advantage relative to the other. In fact both lose by adding to the fiscal pressures and the need to then cut the education spending or the social expenditures that are crucial for making sure that the poor half of our societies can also participate and be productive members of our economies in the future.”

He pointed as an example to Ireland, the one-time Celtic Tiger that’s now a pussycat on life support and was once the envy of Europe because of its low-tax regime.

“So you sure can make a little bubble in the short term, but it's not really building the long-term platform for prosperity. Second, I wouldn't say it to Ireland alone, I would say to the European Union, the United States, Japan, other high income countries, indeed in the G20 as a whole. Let's stop this horrendous process where we are being gamed by global companies that are playing off our governments, one against the other and ending up by depriving ourselves of the productive base of our societies which after all are our skilled and educated work forces.”

And then there’s Peter Fisher, Professor Emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa and Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He’s got a PhD in economics, and has written a few books, one published by the Economic Policy Institute.

He studied corporate taxes and the impact on state economic growth. To make a long study short, here’s what he found, and he cited 23 references:

“Proponents of business tax breaks claim that taxes are a significant factor in the location choices of businesses, and that a state can tax-cut its way to economic growth and generate tax revenue in the process. As we will see, there are good reasons to be skeptical of such a claim, and several decades of research on the relation between state taxes and growth confirm that such claims are vastly overblown and sometimes completely misleading. Business tax breaks turn out to be an expensive and inefficient way to attempt to stimulate a state economy.

“Some have pushed the argument even further, proposing elimination of corporate income taxes altogether. There is a strong case, however, for state taxation of corporations. Corporations doing business in a state benefit from the investments that state government has made in education, infrastructure and public safety services. Government is responsible for educating workers and the children of those workers, and for building, maintaining and policing the roads that businesses rely upon.”

To once again paraphrase Clemenceau: "Economics is too Important to be Left to the Economists."

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Liberal Program Opens Door to $100 million Olympic Bursary Proposal for BC Students

Whenever I have spoken about the need for a $200 million bursary program to bring the cost of higher education in BC down to below  the national average, I have always been aware of  the obvious Achilles heel of my proposal: no BC government in the forseeable future is going to have $200 million to spend on such a program. I have always known that what I was really advocating was a kind of Federal Provincial shared cost program.   Not the kind of 50-cent dollar offers that effectively promoted inflationary spending, skewed provincial priorities and infringed provincial autonomy, but some kind of program in which both levels of government would pitch in.
That is what is exciting about the Liberal "Passport to Education" announced recently in the federal election campaign.  In effect, it would supply the federal half of the funding (roughly $1000 per annum for eligible students) --making the idea of a provincial plan big enough that typical student debt loads would be brought down below $20,000 --where they belong.

I have argued that a bursary (voucher) scheme is more intelligent than either (1)a tuition freeze or (2)simply giving bigger grants to universities.  That is because unlike the tuition freeze it would not starve universities of revenue, and unlike the larger university grant it would in effect empower students , not just by directly reducing their debt, but by giving them demand-side funding to influence university spending priorities. Having half of the money in RESPs  and half in the form of  "Olympic Bursary" vouchers (applicable to either university tuition or outstanding student loans) would give students a great deal of flexibility. 

Of course, the province could just add more money to the Liberal scheme, which would be administratively simpler.

Or  the provincial government could bring back tuition freezes, but only for a temporary one-year period while the new programs are put in place. A one-time supplemental grant to universities to make up for the tution freeze could also be employed.

The main point is: IT CAN BE DONE.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Irony of the Conservative Economic Message

Prime Minister Harper's message in this election campaign is that Canadians should fear  a minority Liberal government supported by the NDP and/or the Bloc Quebecois on the grounds that this would create financial instability and jeopardize economic recovery.  But this fear  is not only exaggerated; it is  profoundly ironic. 

That is because the primary reasons for Canada's relative economic stability are not anything in the Conservatives' rather tepid "Action Plan", but because of what both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper were prevented from doing in the years before the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2009.

During that period, the banking industry, business organizations and conservative think tanks were all gazing enviously  at the reforms of the financial sector that were happening in the United States, such as the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Stegal Act.  The Liberal Government of Paul Martin and the Conservative government of Stephen Harper were consequently quite interested in bank mergers so that Canadian mega-banks could compete internationally with the big international investment banks as well as the new global hedge funds. The quid pro quo for this, which would be needed to compensate Canadians for the reduced competition in the domestic banking industry, would be to let more American financial institutions into the Canadian market, along with all kinds of new and innovative financial products. The "financial innovation" that the Bush administration liked to brag about was set to come into Canada; and it was in a similar spirit that the Conservatives even included the encouragement of sub-prime mortgages in their first budget in 2006. (Luckily, this policy was reversed  the following year as home foreclosures started to become a crisis in the U.S.)

In other words, Canadians enjoy their superior financial stability in part because we did not have a Conservative government prior to 2006 and in part because we have only had minority governments since 2004. While we could not escape all of the effects of  collateralized debt obligations and securitized subprime mortgages in Canada, since our banks still traded in these securities, we nonetheless avoided the disaster of having to bail out a merged Royal Bank /Bank of Montreal or CIBC/TD to the tune of billions of dollars; and we only promoted subprime mortgages for a year or two.

It is doubtful that we would have been as safe from that danger if  Stephen Harper  had come to office sooner, or if either Martin or Harper had had the policy latitude afforded by a majority government. Thank God for small favours.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Grim Prospect

A ll I wanted for the New Year was:

1) Christy Clark not to become leader of the Liberals

2) Adrian Dix not to become leader of the NDP

3) Stephen Harper not to get a majority

Yet Clark wins over her simple minions by touting her light baggage; Dix surges to the fore by taking instant memberships and ethnic bloc-voting to a new level;  and the prime minister dismisses the Speakers' ruling  that the government flouted the rights of Parliament by refusing to provide parliamentarians with information about the cost of its key programs,  as mere "parliamentary procedure", stressing the importance of the "economy" instead.   Polls suggest that he might get away with it.

Our politics is drifting into shallow waters indeed.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Last Testament of Jim Travers

One of  last columns written by the late Jim Travers was also one of the most illuminating commentaries that I have read on the Harper Government. In "Harper's Changing the Country more than we realize" (Toronto Star, January 18). Mr.Travers documented the most important ways in which the Harper government has re-framed issues in this country. 

Wrong-footing rivals is the Prime Minister’s favourite dance step. Those who criticize building super-prisons, Canada’s laissez-faire environment record or Canada’s diminished international reputation are quickly forced to defend themselves against message track charges that they don’t share Conservative concerns about victims of crime, energy jobs or principled values.
Other examples abound. All are connected by two national capital realities. One is that Liberals, the one other party remotely capable of forming a government, either can’t conceive or articulate an alternative vision. The other is that the only time Harper’s opponents found the courage to unequivocally say “no” was during the 2008 Christmas constitutional crisis when the Prime Minister’s plan to end public funding for parties directly threatened their interests.
Blowing through such limp reeds is light work for a minority Prime Minister who more often than not is able to operate as if he won a majority. Just as significantly, it allows Conservatives to uncouple their actions from results.
Rarely has that disconnect been more obvious than in current pre-election positioning. Conservatives are taking a stand on corporate tax cuts while lunging a second time at party subsidies. They’re not documenting how more breaks for already lightly taxed big business will create jobs, stimulate productivity or boost international competitiveness. They’re not explaining why a feel-good promise to cut the purse strings to federal parties isn’t a slippery-slope step backwards to the bad old days of backroom bagmen, influence pedalling and tollgating federal contracts for political donations. ......................
.........Missing, too, from the national dialogue are looming challenges that dwarf the importance of topics Conservatives prefer discussing. Off the table and out of mind are, among many things, are the future of universal health care, the complex transition from hewing wood and drawing water to a post-industrial economy, and Canada’s changing place in a rapidly evolving, helter-skelter worldSome prime ministers are moulded by their times, others shape them. Harper is squarely in both categories.
 The ultimate cleverness of Harper's strategy lies in the way that he is wrong-footing the Canadian people. Even though upon assuming office he disowned his own frequently stated determination to do away with universal medicare, his determination to cut corporate taxes  and the GST  while building prisons and beefing up the military can only mean one thing--less money left over for health and social transfers. He is preparing the ground for his last, most important assault on Canada as we know it. Jim Travers warned us.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Leonard Krog for Premier

A lot of New Democrats will be tempted to fight fire with fire and elect media-savvy professional politico Adrian Dix to do battle with media-savvy premier Christy Clark. Since this is a TV world, and Clark and Dix have had the most media exposure, they were both likely to rise to the top.  The Hollow Man can beat the Shallow Woman, the reasoning goes, especially since her party has already been in office for a decade.

 Resistance to this logic is probably futile, but I shall keep on trying.

I beg to differ with the conventional wisdom: fight fire with water, shallowness with substance. Leonard Krog is an intelligent man who has both succesfully raised a family (I taught his daughter, who is a fine person, when I was an instructor at Malaspina) and had his own law practice in Nanaimo. He has the warmth of personality and subtle humour of someone who is real and has led a full life.  He is into his third term as a MLA, and  with that plus his legal background  I think that he could handle the transition to power as well as most people.

B.C. needs someone with the moderate temperment and balanced vision of Mike Harcourt, but with  a bit more gravitas and personality. David Vickers or Tom Berger would have been ideal, but are not available. Joy McPhail is deserving, but tired of the business and thus not a candidate; Gregor Robertson is not quite yet ready.  Leonard Krog fits the bill and should do fine.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Short Honeymoon for Christy Clark

1. Caucus didn't support her. Her first decision--does she keep her
promise and shove a snap election down her caucus's throat? Or does she break her first promise?

2. Pick another fight with the teachers, so she has something other than herself to campaign on? Does she keep another promise (lobby the feds to reverse Toseko Lake decision) and pick a fight with First Nations?

3. Does she borrow some plaid shirts from Gordon Campbell for when
ventures into the interior? Jeans and a Cowboy hat for the Williams Lake Stampede?

I still say: She will be a disaster.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Today's Leadership Contest--In a Nutshell

Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon are potentially polarizing figures who could split the Liberal anti-NDP coalition, with Clark encouraging the Conservative/Interior faction to think separation; and Falcon loosening up middle of the road liberals for the NDP.

Abbott and De Jong are a bit dull but will hold the centre.  As I said back on December 17, De Jong would probably make the best premier, but  (as I said back on November 28) Abbott is the best compromise choice.  Abbott is not only the 'insider' who is most distanced from Campbell and the HST, but is also the only candidate from the interior of the province, which held court under the Bennetts and has felt marginalized under the Liberals.

Clark is obviously the best (most colourful) media personality of the bunch, but you could have said the same of Bill Vander Zalm and Glen Clark.  She shares their automatic, egotistical quality--she cannot help being herself. And she lacks Campbell's business experience or industry and intellectual curiosity about policy, which means she wouldn't profit from the same long learning curve as Campbell, even if the electorate afforded her that opportunity (which it won't).

20 people in cabinet--not one supported Clark
12-13 women in caucus--not one supported Clark
47 people in the Liberal caucus--only one supported Clark (somebody named "Harry Bloy").

I still say, she will be a disaster as premier.  You read it here first.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The sad irony of Conservative personal attack ads

The early poll results from Globe-CTV News following the recent Conservative government blitz of negative personal attack ads have confirmed my worst fears: that audacious and disingenuous negative personal attack ads outside the confines of an election campaign have not been rejected as un-Canadian, but swallowed as completely as if we were a bunch of NASCAR-crazed FOX-TV addicts from Mississippi.

This is sad, not because Conservatives are again leading the Liberals, but because of why they are leading the Liberals.  It is because Mr. Igantieff's reputation has suffered, even though he has had no new scandals, and not because of the Tories' recent  policy announcements.

It is also ironic--because the message---that Mr. Ignatieff is somehow too American and too selfish for spending all that time at Harvard--- is too hypocritical to take seriously. Conservatives are not only succeeding in Americanizing our political discourse, they are painting the kettle black.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Adrian Dix Will be the next NDP Premier---Unfortunately

NDP leadership hopefuls were "surprised" when Adrian Dix caught them off guard by materializing a large number of ethnic block voters at the last minute before last week's deadline. Well I wasn't, because "surprsing" people is something of an Adrian Dix specialty. As I tried to warn people back on December 6 , Dix wasn't "mulling" a leadership bid, he was planning it. And one of the things he was planning was a secret block ethnic vote, to be sprung upon opponents at the last moment so that they could not respond in kind.

His tactics reminded me of a passage in Auditor General George Morfitt's Report on the Fast Ferries, which noted that Glen Clark's Ministerial Assistant was already lining up contractors whiile Clark was Minister of Employment and Investment in 1994-95. That Ministerial Assistant was, of course, Adrian Dix. What he and Clark were doing  was ensuring that potential opponents of the scheme would be presented with a fait accompli before they had a chance to properly assess the program's merits.  All in the interest of "jobs" and "getting things done" of course, but it wasn't good public policy. And in his daily modus operandi as Principal Secretary, he routinely preferred the element of surprise to the enlightenment of dialogue.

Dix may have scored a tactical victory with his latest stunt, but in so doing he may have also revealed how little he has really changed.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

What Will Become of Gordon Campbell's Progressive Policy Legacies on FIrst Nations and Climate Change?

Many observers of BC politics, myself included, were positively impressed by the two great policy U-turns of Gordon Campbell’s tenure in office. One was the New Relationship with First Nations peoples, in which the premier decisively put his failed opposition to the Nisga'a Treaty and the awkward and embarrassing experience of his much-criticized 2002 plebiscite on the Treaty process behind him, and instead, issued an official apology to First Nations in the 2003 Throne Speech , beefed up and renamed the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, accepted in principle shared decision-making and access to resources, championed the Kelowna Accord, and even concluded the second modern treaty, with the Tsawwassen people, in 2007.

The other great policy reversal, on climate change, was even more unexpected. The government's record on environmental issues in its first term was dismal, with its most noteworthy actions on the climate change file being its opposition to the federal government’s ratification of the Kyoto Accord and its planned construction of three coal-fired power plants. Premier Campbell then claimed to have had an epiphany in 2006 when he visited Beijing on a particularly smoggy day; as a result almost one-third of the February 2007 Throne Speech was devoted to stating the government's commitment to action on climate change and related initiatives. These included the creation of a Climate Action Team to develop sector targets and to make recommendations on how to make the government carbon neutral; establishment of a $25 million Clean Energy Fund; new legislation to capture methane emissions from landfills, and the creation of a new Citizens' Council to help raise public awareness. In place of his previous emphasis upon the costs of mitigation and adaptation , the premier now stressed that BC's actions to combat climate change were "right for the economy". Later in 2007, BC became the first province to join the Western Climate Initiative. These steps were followed in 2008 by an even more controversial step: a revenue-neutral carbon tax that was claimed to be "among the broadest and most comprehensive in the world", and the only carbon tax in Canada other than in Kyoto-loving Quebec. (Ironically, the government has done far more to combat climate change during the Great Recession than it did during its first term in office, which was ostensibly dedicated to economic recovery.)

In addition to having a similar timetable and authorship, these policy changes shared a shrewd underlying political strategy: to build support in two areas where the NDP's predominance had hitherto been taken for granted. The political risks of the carbon tax and lingering resistance to treaties were offset by the political advantages of a more divided opposition. (Unfortunately for Mr. Campbell, no such offset existed with respect to the HST).

Nevertheless, all of these parallels between the aboriginal and environmental files should not be allowed to obscure a fundamental difference between them. Although each of these policies depended upon the personal initiative and support of the premier, the strategy of reconciliation with native peoples has in fact much deeper roots in cabinet, party, and civil society, in particular the business community, which rightly sees the settlement of treaties as a prerequisite to more intensive economic development of the land base. The statement by a leading candidate to succeed Campbell, George Abbott, that he would include a question on the future of the carbon tax in a future referendum, indicates a desire to legitimate a reversal of this green policy while minimizing the environmental backlash. But returning to such a device in the context of treaties with First Nations would be unthinkable; it would no doubt prompt accusations of betrayal and create far more division and opposition than it would avoid.

Abbott's proposal in fact reflects a far shallower commitment to the climate change policies of Gordon Campbell within the Liberal Party and its supporters than there is to the New Relationship. Enlightened self-interest indicates that there can be no turning back on the Treaty process, and no desire to return the uncertainty and conflict of the past. The Liberal Party's key constituency, the business community, is far more ambivalent about carbon taxes and green regulations--its lukewarm support has come from the guarantee that carbon taxes would be offset by corporate and personal income tax reductions, but global revenue neutrality has not meant revenue neutrality for every sector. Transportation, agriculture and rural economies of every kind tend to be hit harder by fuel cost increases. Needless to say, the energy sector--which has recently surpassed forestry as the leading source of government revenues--is hit harder as well.

In short, expect the Cabinet Committee on Climate Action, chaired by the premier, to disappear some time after the Liberals anoint their new leader next spring; for the projected increases in the carbon tax to be reduced or eliminated altogether; and for British Columbia to sink to the middle rung of Canadian provinces when it comes to tackling climate change. But also expect the reconciliation between the province and First Nations to continue along its gradual but necessary historic path.