Sunday, December 22, 2013

Top 5 MPs of 2013

{Below is a version of column I submitted to several B.C. Interior newspapers in late December 2013.--MC}

Allow me to start the New Year  on a positive note by presenting my choices for the Top Five MPs thus far in Canada’s 41st Parliament. If  a majority of MPs were anything like these people, our democracy would be experiencing a renaissance.

1.      Michael Chong (Conservative – Wellington Halton Hills). Mr. Chong is not your typical Conservative backbencher.  In November, 2006 he resigned from the Harper Cabinet on a matter of principle—to  protest Prime minister Harper’s motion recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada. He sensibly supported  the Kyoto Protocol in 2004.  Since then, Chong has also been one of this country’s leading advocates of parliamentary reform: his Private Member’s Bill, entitled The Reform Act, 2013, would restore the historic role of MPs and bring Canada more into line with other parliamentary democracies   by enabling party caucuses  to trigger leadership reviews, make decisions about membership in caucus,   and choose the chairs of party caucuses. The bill would also take away the prime minister’s power to veto riding nominations. 

2.     Thomas Mulcair (NDP—Leader of the Opposition). As a McLean’s Magazine cover story once declared,  “ Stephen Harper has Met his Match”.  When Mulcair demanded answers about the de-regulatory and de-funding decisions taken by the federal government that led up to the Lac Megantic tragedy, the only people who complained were Liberal and Conservative politicians.  But it was his skillful skewering of the prime minister over the Senate Scandal that was his finest hour. According to  CBC’s At Issue panelist Bruce Anderson, “Tom Mulcair has owned Question Period”. Rex Murphy adds that compared to Justin Trudeau, “Mulcair looks like a man ready for a step up.”  I agree.

3.     Elizabeth May ( Leader—Green Party of Canada).  Ms. May has until recently had the  luxury of leading a caucus of one (herself), but she has long tried to facilitate cooperative behavior across party lines, for the sake not only of the environment and climate change, but for the sake of democratic reform as well.  Her MP newsletter makes good reading, because it is not simply toeing a party line or trashing opponents.  Mclean’s Magazine—which asks every MP to vote for their top picks—named her Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012, and Hardest Working MP in 2013. The Hill Times, which uses a survey of political pundits to pick its winners, recently named her runner –up as most Valuable MP.

4.     Craig Scott (NDP—Official Opposition Critic for Democratic and Party Reform).  I knew Mr. Scott when we were both Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University in the mid-1980s.  Since then I have watched him become one of the leading experts of  International Law in Canada, a professor at Osgoode Hall, and then step into Jack Layton’s shoes in Toronto-Danforth. He has been the perfect person to carry the file on parliamentary and electoral reform, which has become an urgent priority because of  the way that our current government has made evasive prorogations, omnibus budgets, suppression of science and taxpayer-funded propaganda all-too routine. 

5.     Stephane Dion (Liberal-St. Laurent Cartierville).  Respect for the Constitution and respect for the Environment  have been the twin hallmarks of Mr. Dion’s parliamentary career.  Like Michael  Chong, he has been a strong opponent of appeasing Quebec separatism, and like Mr. Chong, he has been working hard recently to make up for the democratic shortcomings of his leader. After  Justin Trudeau announced  that he favoured  an electoral reform that would do little to make everyone’s vote count and little to help national unity, Dion went to work behind the scenes to promote a more genuinely democratic alternative. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Development Centre of Yi Women and Children In Liangshan

I was deeply moved by a CBC news story about families affected by the AIDS epidemic in Liangshan, the home of the Yi  (or Norsu) people,  in rural villages of Sichuan province.  There are about 25,000 reported cases of AIDS among the Yi, although that is likely a gross understatement.  The problem arises from men migrating to the cities in search of work, getting involved in the drug trade,  sharing dirty needles (out of ignorance and poverty), then returning  to infect their wives and children. 

CBC reporter Andrew Lee interviewed Nui Nui and her grandmother Zi'er in a village in Liangshan, where 10% of the population has AIDS.  Nui Nui has lost both of her parents and lives with her aunt La Nui, who also has AIDS.  Although the problem of AIDS orphans of course exists on a more massive scale in Africa, the tragedy in Sichuan is magnified  by the comparative lack of penetration of the area by western aid agencies, the  greater apparent indifference on the part of the Chinese government, and the timing--in a world that has been aware of AIDS for 30 years , these poor people wandered into a trap that they couldn't see coming, but one that the rest of the world, including the Chinese government, could have seen coming.

I wish to support the work of the Development Centre of Yi Women and Children in Liangshan, who have provided some help to Nui Nui, Zi'er and La Nui , but who have not been able to keep them from being ostracized and bullied by other villagers. This NGO  appears to be virtually the only lifeline that they have.  If I could help to pay for their drug treatments, and to educate people into letting AIDS victims back into school, it would help to ease their misery and fill a big gap in the world's public health and development efforts.
the missing mother

"Nui Nui"

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Why the Conservative government Must Be Defeated in 2015

1.  The millions of taxpayers' money spent on partisan propaganda, the personal attack ads between elections, the "anything you can get away with"  attitude to parliamentary democracy, the avoidance of any press scrums or federal-provincial meetings that the prime minister cannot control, the awful Senate scandal, the first prime minister in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament--all of these are extreme examples of autocratic, ham-fisted rule that are without precedent in all of Canadian history, at least in peacetime.

2. Simple logic tells us that it is not necessary to degrade our democracy in order to improve our economy. Any government that appears to assume otherwise is behaving badly. And if this government is rewarded with back-to-back majorities, all politicians will learn the lesson, and the damage to our institutions will have become permanent.

3. Any advantage Canada has enjoyed economically in the past decade, other than commodity prices that are completely beyond anyone's control,  has derived from the fact that the Conservatives inherited a more stable financial industry and a more independent monetary policy than other G7 countries--a fact that the Conservatives themselves deserve no credit for, and  to which in fact the Conservatives presented the greatest existential threat of all the Canadian political parties.

4. In any event, simple math shows little or no actual growth or efficiency dividend clearly flowing from the government's "economy first" downgrading of social and environmental priorities.    In fact, the Conservative government's record is becoming a textbook example of  how such a simple minded "great leap forward" in building pipeline capacity  and reducing environmental and safety regulation is jeopardizing projects rather than facilitating them.

5Therefore, the Conservatives' game is not worth the candle.

{By way of further explication, here is my latest column for November issues of Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger, the 100 Mile Free Press, and a number of other interior B.C. newspapers.}

What can you say about a government that jeopardizes the Keystone XL pipeline because of its poor environmental record?  And delays the Northern Gateway because it antagonizes First Nations people and environmentalists? And talks about unbundling our cable channels, even as it bundles together controversial and  uncontroversial bills in order to evade accountability?  That deregulates railway safety at the same time that it quadruples the amount of oil and gas being transported? That appoints the most aggressively partisan people it can to the Senate and then acts shocked when they behave as expected?  That continually throws people under the bus without any notion of due process or respect for Parliament?

The Canada-EU Trade Agreement is starting to look better than it had once appeared, providing greater access to a huge market. But does it really outweigh all the contradictory and self –defeating political manoeuvres of this government? A last ditch effort to engage First Nations people on the issue of oil pipelines,  described by one representative of First Nations  as "too little too late," comes after after  20 months of aggressive campaigning to  vilify opponents  of the Northern Gateway Project as "radicals"  and "hijackers"  funded by "foreign interests;"   changes to the National Energy Board Act to limit public participation in hearings; and   repeatedly antagonizing First Nations with unilateral changes to the Indian Act and environmental regulations as part of an Omnibus Budget bill, sparking the Idle No More movement. 

Similarly,  Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's   recent overtures to the U.S.  indicating that the Government of Canada  is "ready to partner on tackling climate change" , including an un-typically rapid  acceptance by the government of the latest scientific meta-study from the University of Hawaii,  comes after six years of downplaying climate science, five Fossil of the Year Awards, pulling out of both the Kyoto and UN desertification treaties, and generally damaging Canada's international reputation in regards to the environment.

If the government were really serious about a "Consumers First" strategy, it would be opening the domestic market in airlines, agriculture and banking; It would reverse the recent decision to increase tariffs on  72 less developed countries, which will raise the cost of clothes and sports equipment. It would open the telecom market to everyone, not just a multinational corporation like Verizon that made $40 billion in profits last year in the U.S. while paying no taxes. 

Of course, the government will do  none of these things. Unbundling cable channels and tackling high cell roaming fees are popular moves and are safe politics. Aside from a few regulatory changes related to telecom, cable and credit cards, (mostly nicked from the NDP) this is just a shift in the propaganda winds.  We should  be keenly aware how much these initiatives represent public relations band-aids for self-inflicted wounds. 

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and now teaches political science at Athabasca University. He can be reached at

Monday, October 14, 2013

For Thanksgiving: Lots of Conservative Turkey

How much do we really have to be thankful for in the federal government's recent spate of policy announcements? All the good news is getting hard to digest.

 A last ditch effort to engage First Nations people on the issue of oil pipelines,  described by one representative of First Nations  as "too little too late," comes after after  20 months of aggressive campaigning to  vilify opponents  of the Northern Gateway Project as "radicals"  and "hijackers"  funded by "foreign interests;"   changes to the National Energy Board Act to limit public participation in hearings; and   repeatedly antagonizing First Nations with unilateral changes to the Indian Act and environmental regulations as part of an Omnibus Budget bill, sparking the Idle No More movement. 

Similarly,  Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's   recent overtures to the U.S.  indicating that the Government of Canada  is "ready to partner on tackling climate change" , including an un-typically rapid  acceptance by the government of the latest scientific meta-study from the University of Hawaii,  comes after six years of downplaying climate science, five Fossil of the Year Awards, pulling out of both the Kyoto and desertification treaties, and generally ruining Canada's international reputation in regards to the environment.

And then there is the  new centerpiece for Turkey Day: the government's sudden discovery that a "focus on the economy" means attending to consumer interests as well as producer ones. What an epiphany!  This  apparently springs from the good polling numbers that James Moore got when he made a consumer-oriented pitch for more competition in the telecom industry.   (Not to mention the low polling numbers that came from the prime minister's Senate scandal.)

 If the government were really serious about a "Consumers First" strategy, it would be opening the domestic market in airlines, agriculture and banking; it would scrap that Canada-EU trade agreement--a "producers first" document if there ever was one, which will probably boost the cost of drugs by $2 billion per year. It would reverse the recent decision to increase tariffs on less developed countries, which will raise the cost of clothes and sports equipment. It would open the telecom market to everyone, (not just a multinational corporation like Verizon that made $40 billion in profits last year in the U.S. while paying no taxes).  And if it really wanted to prove that it cared more about consumers than the NDP or Liberals, it would tackle the thorny issue of supply management for dairy and poultry products--a move that would likely scare many voters in farming districts into Opposition hands.

Of course, the government will do  none of these things. Unbundling cable channels and tackling high cell roaming fees are popular politics and are safe. Aside from a few regulatory changes related to telecom, cable and credit cards, (mostly nicked from the NDP) this is just a shift in the propaganda winds.  We should  be keenly aware how much these initiatives represent public relations band-aids for self-inflicted wounds.  Obviously, the past six years of aggressive, heavy handed privileging of corporate interests in the energy sector have been counter-productive. If anything, they have only resulted in further delaying the Northern Gateway pipeline, and  jeopardizing  the Keystone XL pipeline--to say nothing of the harm it has done by frightening First Nations people, setting back the environment,  hurting our seniors and giving Canada a global black eye.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, this government is offering nothing but  costly late  interventions to un-poison the well with First Nations, consumers, the United States, and the international community. Each of these departures contains a tacit admission of failure and recognition that the government has been anything but steady at the helm. That the government continues to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers  money on advertising to feed us an illusion -- that this is all part of Canada's continuing "Economic Action Plan", is an insult to our intelligence and requires a level of doublethink that is unprecedented in Canada, even on Parliament Hill.   

But doesn't Canada get credit for having one of the healthiest economies in the world since the Financial crisis hit in 2008?  Doesn't Canada have the best financial and fiscal conditions in the G-7?  Sure it does. But that is because the minority Liberal and Conservative governments between 2004 and 2008 were in no position politically to implement the bank mergers and financial deregulation being urged upon them by the largest banks and small-c  conservatives in several right-wing think tanks across the country.  (The "best" Jim Flaherty could do was to bring in sub-prime mortgages for a year, in his first budget in 2006).  I shudder to think what would have happened if the Conservatives had formed a majority government a decade earlier.  

That they did not is one thing that we can all be truly thankful for.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Adrian Dix Does It Again

{An edited version of the following post has also been submitted as a guest op-ed in the 100 Mile Free Press, Anahim-Nimpo Messenger, and the Omineca Free Press--MC}
Shortly after the NDP’s stunning defeat in last May’s provincial election,  former NDP MLA and political pundit David Schreck argued  that  “the party would be wise to change leaders in 2015 or 2016 to get a boost before the next election.”  UBC professor and  former federal NDP co-campaign chair Michael Byers added this thought on July 15: “Instead of a cosmetic paint job, the party needs to be knocked down to its foundations before rebuilding begins again. A leadership race is needed to turn the public memory away from the recent loss, to revitalize and grow the membership, and to get donations flowing again. .. [Dix] should step down in favour of an interim leader, who would serve until a new person is chosen to head the BC NDP.”   At the  end of  July,  long-time NDP MP Ian Waddell offered similar advice: “If Adrian Dix decides to step down as leader at its convention in November, the party should choose a respected interim leader who does not intend to run for the leadership. … Then, in 2015, the BC NDP should run a wide-open leadership race looking to a new generation of candidates.”

 Yet Dix announced on September 23 that he was going to hold the reins of the party leadership until a leadership vote could be taken “by mid-2014 at the latest.”  So why did he deliberately ignore the calls of so many prominent senior New Democrats and other commentators to allow for a longer lead-in under an interim leader and a more wide-open process?  Dix is nothing if not a consummate political insider.  He knows that  candidates who are currently MLAs—in particular his good friend (and best man at his wedding) John Horgan, will be most advantaged by the process he prefers.  He knows that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson  has more than a year left in his mandate and will have difficulty making a decision and pulling together a winning campaign in this time; as will other potential “outside” candidates such as  Victoria mayor Dean Fortin and federal MPs Nathan Cullen and Peter Julian.  Dix’s concerns about these outsiders  no doubt motivated his subsequent remark that “B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties”.  

Not that I find Dix’s attitude  to be extraordinarily selfish or evil. Rather, I find it to be all-too-typical.  When there is a range of reasonable-sounding arguments available to a politician, they usually choose the ones most congenial to their world view and their interests.  The difficulty in this case is that, in presuming that the existing caucus and party do not need to undergo an extensive renovation, the NDP  may fail to assuage the concerns that many marginal voters and taxpayers have about an aging, insular, and hidebound party representing an overly-entitled and   self-serving public sector .  If the NDP fails to grab the centre from the left,  as Vision Vancouver has successfully done in civic politics, it may concede too much of the middle ground to the Liberals. And if as a result the Liberals win in 2017, they may once again be able to thank Adrian Dix.   


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Who Killed Betty Belshaw?

It is impossible to reach the conclusion that Cyril Belshaw killed his wife ... One day the murderer will be known and you will be relieved and proud to have acquitted Cyril Belshaw."     ---Eric Stoudmann,  defence lawyer  for Cyril Belshaw, in his summation at  trial.

Back in the late 1970s Beryl Young suggested to her friend, Victoria writer Ellen Godfrey, that she write a book about the sensational murder  trial of celebrated UBC Anthropology professor, Cyril Belshaw. The result was By Reason of Doubt: The Belshaw Case (Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin, 1981).  I have just finished this book, and can heartily recommend it as an interesting treatment of how a mountain of apparently inculpatory evidence-- the supposed disappearance of a wife in Paris (though nobody  was found who could definitively swear that they saw her there) , the husband leaving for Vancouver  without searching for his wife in Switzerland, a deceased wife's mangled corpse turning up within driving distance of the husband's Swiss residence,  and the deliberate alteration of her dental records by the husband -- can, through resolute insistence by the defendant  concerning his own innocence, support from the accused's friends and relatives, re-consideration of facts through inter-cultural and Swiss legal lenses, and one or two arguably exculpatory facts -- lead to an acquittal.  Not the pure "not-guilty" verdict, however--which is provided for in Swiss law, though not in our own--but by reason of doubt.

Thirty years later, we can ask whether advances in forensics, such as DNA analysis, would have led to a different conclusion.  We can also ask whether, even by the standards of the day, a less well-heeled suspect would have escaped conviction under the same circumstances. And it is always interesting to ask whether the Swiss legal system, which initially looked stacked against the accused, ultimately worked in his favour.

But most of all, it is interesting to ask, after thirty years of this cold case, and advances in DNA testing, whether we can  ultimately answer the question once and for all: Who Killed Betty Belshaw?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Let's link future electoral reform and Citizens Assembly proposals to the Initiative Process

I can see another role for the initiative process--as a next stop for decisions made about electoral reform or other subjects bruited in a Citizens' Assembly. Going directly from an isolated island of deliberation into a referendum campaign didn't work in BC or Ontario, simply because reflective citizens chosen by lot are very different from unreflective citizens in the context of an election campaign. If the Citizens' Assembly had submitted its proposal to the Legislature, the Legislature either could have passed it, or proposed amendments to the Citizens' Assembly. If the Assembly didn't accept the amendments, then it could then have opted to go to a referendum.

The value of this to-and-fro of institutionalized dialogue between Citizens assembly and the BC Legislature would have been twofold. First, it would have dispensed with the fiction that our elected representatives were disinterested parties. The BC Liberal caucus prevailed upon Gordon Campbell to raise the threshold to 60%--which is what defeated BC-STV in 2005. The decision to eliminate the reference to the Assembly in the 2009, combined with the ability of politicians on both sides of the aisle to avoid discussion of the proposal, were critical factors in determining the outcome. Our politicians should have been put back in the deliberative hot seat, forced to defend their positions rather than simply being given a free pass to avoid doing so, while still influencing the outcome behind the scenes.

Second, the effect of this exchange between the Assembly and the Legislature would be to greatly increase the overall involvement of the population, raising the deliberative quality of the Legislative debate and (if it goes to referendum) the referendum debate as well. The controlling assumptions and procedural constraints that guide the Assembly to its (some would argue, overly perfectionistic and politically unrealistic) positions could then be relaxed as the Assembly and Legislature either hammer out a mutually acceptable compromise or (if the Legislature doesn't pass the initiative into law and the Citizens' Assembly doesn't accept any amendments put forward by the Legislature), the impasse necessitates a referendum on the question.  The original rationale for raising the referendum threshold to 60%--the insufficiently deliberative quality of referenda campaigns--would no longer apply, so the bar could be lowered once again to 50%.

It is not hard to imagine how this could have played out in 2009. The Legislature could have proposed a moderation of the BC-STV proposal in order to avoid monster ridings in the interior and monster ballots in the urban population centres--e.g. a STV lite or "Preferential vote" featuring single member constituencies in the Far north, dual ridings in the interior and 3-member ridings in the cities. The Assembly might well have accepted this as a clear improvement over the status quo. OR the Legislature might have chosen to defend the existing system. OR , the Legislature might propose a MMP party -list system, which the Assembly might well have argued went too far in terms of parties retaining control of the process. In the subsequent referendum, British Columbians would have been able to choose between the two main models for reform.

The crucial difference that such an institutionalized dialogue would have made was that the yawning gap between our three main "modes" of democratic decision-making --deliberative, representative, and plebiscitory--would have been greatly reduced.  Our democratic constitution would have been made much more coherent than it is now. and ,  I would add, much more democratic.

Monday, July 29, 2013

(Book Review) Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

This is an excellent bedtime book, because it consists of short pieces (typically 4-6 pages in length), many of which appeared in Vanity Fair, on a wide range of topics of current as well as historical interest.

On the negative side, iconoclastic contrarianism is a somewhat unsatisfactory vocation--as soon as the wind shifts and one's formerly outsider position is popular, one has to move on to bigger prey. At his worst, Hitchens typifies a blustering punditocracy that occasionally slips into inaccurate exaggerations--for example his piece about North Korea,entitled "A Nation of Racist Dwarves", was originally published in Slate in February 2010. In that piece he states that "a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean" (P.558). (The truth is closer to two inches.) And once Hitchens had torn Kissinger, Mother Teresa, and Bill Clinton, he naturally had to take on the ultimate target, God Himself.

On the positive side, I felt that Hitchens's biographical reflections upon many intellectuals and literary figures  filled some important lacunae in my own education. Examples include essays on Saki (H.H. Munro), Jessica Mitford, Somerset Maugham, Stephen Spender, Philip Larkin, Edward Upward, C.L.R. James, J.G. Ballard, George MacDonald Fraser, Anthony Powell, Stieg Larsson, Victor Klemperer and Hitchens contemporary and  friend Martin Amis. Even when writing about authors and historical figures that I had thought I knew well--Vidal, Updike, Pound, Rebecca West, Edward Said, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Waugh, Orwell--Hitchens never fails to make an astute observation about how their characters were shaped by events and vice-versa.   His 2005 account of his visit to Iran, titled "Iran's waiting game" , contains an account of his visit to the Museum of Omar Khayyam, a scholar and poet in the city of Neyshabur in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. "In his four-line stanzas, he praised wine, women, and song, found speculation on the afterlife pointless, and ridiculed the mullahs of his day"(463). Hitchens even writes out a particularly subversive quatrain of Khayyam in the visitors' book of the museum.

The bulk of the book, however, is reserved for the literary and political titans who  contended with the tumult of the mid-twentieth century. "Saki's great gift was being able to write about children and animals," (375)--P.G. Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by him, just as Saki (unhappily) repressed his own debt to, and affinity for, Oscar Wilde. Maugham was a young man during the Oscar Wilde scandal, and "he developed all of the habits of subterfuge that were necessary to his survival"(244). In fact, Maugham's greatest work of fiction was himself: Hitchens vividly describes his Mediterranean-villa milieu and exquisitely crafted and executed "mass wants class" literary style--worthy of his O.B.E. for "services to literature, rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world."

Stephen Spender's unique oddness also stems from having been a bullied schoolboy (this may be the most common thread that Hitchens, a graduate of Leys School, Cambridge and Balliol College, finds in his subjects). His article on Edward Upward's passing is in contrast a  respectful homage to the  "last survivor of his generation"; one almost senses that Upward's self -imposed isolation on the Isle of Wight was the key both to his longevity and his unwavering socialism. C.L.R. James, another great Marxist writer of the mid-twentieth century, had none of Upward's illusions about the Soviet Union. Hitchens appreciates him as a kind of Trinidadian Orwell, who was "disappointed by the place-seeking and frequent viciousness of his former comrades in Ghana, Trinidad, and Grenada" (351).

Throughout, Hitchens manages to keep faith with his hero Orwell, who subjected his own ideals and beliefs as unsparingly to the test of truth as he did the beliefs of others. Out of this affinity, at least five new 'must reads' emerge:

(1) Victor Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev--ironically described by HItchens this way: "In its remorseless emphasis on the ineluctable along with its insistence on the vitality of individual human nature, [it] is one of the most Marxist novels ever written--as it is also one of the least" (594).

(2) Martin Amis, Experience (2000), a "superb memoir" , which among other things interprets the current evolution of the world through the lens of his relationship with his father Kingsley Amis: "Be very choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are, and be careful not to confuse the state of the world with that of your family, or your own internal organs" (639).

(3) David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (2005) "Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people" (33).

(4) Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2010): Hitchens perceptively observes that the Vatican's 2009 overture toward Anglicans was "another salvo discharged in one of Europe's most enduring cultural and ideological wars: the one that began when the English Reformation first defied the divine rights of the papacy. On the origins of this once-world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty, Hilary Mantel has written a historical novel of quite astonishing power" (146).

(5) Victor Klemperer,  I shall bear witness: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41  and To the bitter end: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-1945. (1999). "Is there not something fabulously grotesque about a regime that in the midst of total war will pedantically insist that Jews and their spouses either euthanize their own pets or surrender them to the state for extermination? ... Never much interested in Marxism, [Klemperer] also manifests an abiding distrust of the Zionism to which so many of his fellows are drawn...There cannot have been many victims in 1942 who told their diaries that they planned an essay entitled 'Pro Germania, contra Zion' from the contemporary standpoint of the German Jew" (655-656).

I must add to this incomplete list at least two old must-reads as well: Homage to Catalonia and Darkness at Noon. The spirits of Orwell and Koestler are alive and well in these pages.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mr. Mulcair to Blame?

{The government has adopted a   "wait and see" attitude to the Transportation safety Board's recommendations, and the $3.1 million cut in its railway safety budget, at the same time that the amount of oil being transported by rail quadrupled over the past two years, and has gone up 28,000 per cent since the beginning of 2009. I want to know whether this was a gross failure of policy coordination , or whether it was a deliberate act of coordination (which would be even worse). And I don't mind if the Leader of the Opposition wastes no time trying to find out--especially since Mr. Harper is expected to (you guessed it) prorogue Parliament in the fall.}

Attempts by the Conservative government  (and even some Liberals),to deflect blame for the Lac Megantic disaster by attacking the Leader of the Opposition for "exploiting" the tragedy are simply mistaken, in my view, and in the view of many more responsible commentators.

Consider this excerpt from an editorial in the Globe and Mail written by Grant Bishop, a petro-chemical engineer and economist: 
"I part company with Thomas Mulcair on many policy issues. But his call to scrutinize the regulation of oil transportation by rail was entirely legitimate. ... The TSB has been on record with safety concerns about the tank cars in which oil can be transported. From Statistics Canada data , shipments of fuel oils and crude petroleum by rail accelerated from 68,000 carloads in 2011 to 113,000 in 2012 and 41,000 in just the first quarter of 2013.There were red flags about this increased volume of oil-by-rail even before the Lac-M├ęgantic tragedy. With the reality of increasing oil shipments passing through populated centres, the public has every right to know how the risks from these shipments are being managed on its behalf. ...
...The limited liability corporation is an effective mechanism for marshaling capital and efficiently organizing production. However, any belief that “corporate social responsibility” is an adequate substitute for rigorous regulation misapprehends the primacy of profit maximization in corporate decision-making. ...
Other federal parties may deride Mr. Mulcair’s calls for scrutiny of how we are regulating rail transport of oil as mere partisan maneuvers. But such dismissals show blindness to potential risks and, worse, abdicate the urgent responsibility to ensure the public is protected." 
 Or this passage from Elizabeth May's MP Website:
"Media pundits are busy saying what politicians should and shouldn’t say in times of crisis. I have a hard time faulting Tom Mulcair for saying what seems rather obvious. The legality of leaving that train, unattended, engine on, with 74 railcars full of light crude oil, perched in a spot where should brakes fail, gravity and momentum would send the train barrelling into the community below, was specifically approved by Transport Canada. It is far too early to know all the answers, but I think common sense dictates that some observations are obvious. The failure of the federal government under Stephen Harper’s watch is one of them.
Or this piece by Montreal journalist Ethan Cox:
"Mulcair drew fire for stating two points of fact. That rail transport of oil is becoming "more and more" common (an understatement if anything, as such shipments have increased by 28,000 per cent since 2009), and that the Harper government "is cutting transport safety in Canada." This latter statement based on the fact that the Harper government has cut the safety budget for railroads from $36.9 million in 2012-13 to $33.8 million in the 2013-14 estimate, a drop of $3.1 million. ...
Mulcair couched his remarks in repeated expressions of compassion for those affected, and insisted that questions needed to be answered, for no one as much as for those same victims and their families.
This was enough for many members of the national media to abandon any question of whether Harper or his cuts could have contributed to the accident, and spend the day waxing eloquent on the inappropriate, crass and politically motivated nature of the NDP leader's comments.
Former Liberal leader Bob Rae took the opportunity to make Mulcair's "politically motivated" questions a politically motivated story, tweeting: 'Tom Mulcair blaming Harper for the tragedy in Lac Megantic is a new low, and as you know, I'm no fan of Mr Harper's politics'."

Right now, I am no fan of Mr. Rae's politics, either.  Thomas Mulcair was simply doing his job, and doing it better than either the prime minister or  the Liberal leader were.  Although I do not necessarily believe that all DOT-111 tankers must be replaced (the cost would be exorbitant for temporary surge in oil traffic) obviating the requirement for second crew could be tied to the acquisition of safer cars or other technologies.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lac Megantic was a Disaster Waiting To Happen

About 8 years ago I was between teaching contracts, so I decided to work for a few months  as a labourer on a railway track maintenance and repair crew in the  Williams Lake and 100 Mile House area.  I learned how heavy a railway tie is, and how heavy the tools are that are needed to repair track failures.  I also learned something else that I had previously been unaware of: just how common train derailments are. In that brief period I had been called to maybe half a dozen repair jobs and one serious derailment that was something of an emergency. I heard about a man who had been killed in Williams Lake a few years earlier because a derailment had caused a railway car to fall on top of him.  Whenever a train went by, the entire crew stood well back. I thought about how many derailments and deadly accidents and potential accidents there must have been in the entire country, given the number of towns and cities that had grown up around railway lines in Canada—places like 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Prince George and Prince Rupert.  

What brings all of this to mind, of course, is the recent disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec.  Although this was technically not a case of track failure ( it was a runaway train, that probably failed to negotiate a curve or piece of track because of its excessive speed ), it is a reminder of the omnipresent risk posed by the transportation of large amounts of flammable materials through populated areas. We must ask: have recent changes in policy or technology contributed to this disaster? Should recent increases in the amount of oil and fuel being transported on Canada’s railways have prompted a revision of rail transportation and safety policy?

Fact:   The Harper government cut the safety budget for railroads from $36.9 million to  $33.8 million --  even though  the rail transport of oil has increased by 28,000 % since 2009.  To me, this looks like the government’s  fiscal left hand was not coordinating with its energy-obsessed right hand. If it was understandably frustrated by the slowness of action in pipeline oil construction, and authorized this huge increase  in rail oil transportation, then it should have revisited a 2007 report from the Canada Safety Council, which had  raised the alarm about the dangers of allowing railways to regulate themselves, and  which had called Canada's railway network a “disaster waiting to happen.”  After a Via Rail derailment in 2012 killed 3 engineers and injured dozens of passengers, the Transportation Safety Board also  called for a major safety overhaul, but all the government would do is “recommend” the installation of audio and video recorders.

Both Conservative and Liberal governments share some of the blame for this disaster. Although  I appreciate the general logic of moving away from heavy reliance on  prescriptive rules and toward  more economically efficient “results-based” regulation and “self-regulation”, it is plainly evident that this approach did not  automatically adjust safety standards to meet the added risk entailed by the huge recent increase in oil traffic.    As I see it, the government should have increased the safety budget  instead of cutting it by $3.1 million; and should have returned to Transport Canada the oversight of rail safety that the Liberals had removed in 1999. 


Saturday, July 06, 2013

Should We Be Boosting--even Subsidizing-- Bitumen Exports to China?

The attached link to the Munk Debate between Michael Byers and Brian Lee Crowley provides a good summary of the opposing views of  educated protaganists on the expansion of the tar sands.

A couple of years ago the government of Alberta ran fancy ads on TV showing schematically the operation of carbon sequestration in the tar sands. After a year or so they dropped the ads. Why?

Because critics had forced the government to admit that it didn't describe an operational reality, only a technology that wasn't yet economic. Crowley's proposed solution--export as much bitumen as possible and hope that the investment thereby generated will result in the technological improvements needed---is not sufficiently sensitive to the genuine crisis that is climate change. We are far too close to the tipping point of runaway climate change to allow such logic to govern our policy-making.

I suspect that the unspoken fear of conservatives is that cleaner energy alternatives WILL appear in the future--meaning that a window of opportunity to cash in on the trillion dollar bitumen bonanza will have been missed.  That is not an acceptable attitude.  We should limit bitumen exports until technology makes it as clean as conventional energy reserves. That is the only responsible path forward.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Stephen Harper's Impressive Math on CETA

While visiting  Britain and France this week, prime minister Stephen Harper pointed out that Canada and the European Union do approximately $8 billion worth of trade annually, and that the much -touted Canada -EU trade deal (CETA)  will expand this trade as much as 20%.  What could be better than that?

Well, excuse me if  I am not so easily impressed. As is increasingly the case in all so-called trade deals nowadays , market access  for Canadian beef and manufactures and services has to be purchased at the cost of things that having nothing to do with "free trade " as such.  In the case of CETA, that something else is higher drug prices. A group of large European  pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, Hoffmann La-Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, have successfully lobbied to make  stronger protection of drug patents a key deal-breaker.

The best estimates of the impact of higher drug prices stemming from the CETA deal  range between $1 billion and $3 billion--the best guess is about $2 billion per annum.  Is it worth paying $2 billion per year in higher drug prices in order to have a greater overall volume of trade worth $1.6 billion?  Aren't trade agreements supposed to be better for consumers as well as for  drug companies?

 For puzzled citizens , some historical perspective may be helpful.  For about three decades, trade agreements were actually trade agreements.  The standard pattern--the social contract, as it were--was  that tariffs (import duties) were imposed on commodities in order to protect domestic producers (usually manufacturers) from foreign competition.  Five successive rounds of negotiations conducted under the auspices of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) between 1947 and 1967 only involved about 60 countries, mostly in the developed capitalist world, but they did a great job of negotiating thousands of tariff reductions that had the effect of making products cheaper for consumers and forcing inefficient producers to become more competitive.  The basic deal was--consumers benefitted first, and foremost in a clear transparent fashion. Transition costs from inefficient industries going under would be offset by consumer gains and overall gains in employment and economic growth. 

But then  the trade agenda expanded , and the number of countries greatly expanded and then the process was slowed down, and then we began to see a proliferation of regional and bilateral trade deals that reflected the asymmetrical power relations of the parties and which contained provisions like the energy security provisions of NAFTA and stronger protection of  intellectual property rights, stronger protection of rights of capital, including even a right of those corporations to sue democratically elected governments if  social or environmental policies interfere with their business?

My question is: who are the real protectionists here? Am I to be criticized as a "protectionist" because I only want an agreement in which the earliest and clearest beneficiaries are ordinary consumers and the least advantaged among us?  Because I want a  CETA that either doesn't include pharmaceuticals or which does include pharmaceuticals but only if it has the effect of making drugs cheaper?   I say: the real protectionists are the ones who promote this corporate-driven agenda.

I'm all for increasing exports of Alberta beef, and it would be nice to create more wealth. But this is not an obviously great deal. We should follow the lead of the Ontario government and make the deletion of stronger drug patents a condition of our support for this highly questionable trade agreement.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Voter Turnout in British Columbia

{P.S. Since I first wrote this blog two interesting facts have come to light:
1. High turnout in the  absentee and advance polls: According to Elections BC, the number of absentee ballots cast (180,000) this election is double that of 2009, and 380,741 votes were cast in advance polls at the 85 constituencies around B.C. --a jump of 28% over 2009, despite an overall drop in voter turnout.

2. Intensive polling by the Liberals was missing in the NDP campaign --The tweeting by Alison Redford and others about "what do pollsters know" misses the point that in fact it was better inside polling that won the day--"Without polling in key swing ridings -- while the BC Liberals were reportedly canvassing 25 seats every day -- and with province-wide public polling showing a substantial if expected narrowing of their lead, the BC NDP was flying blind."--Bill Tieleman, The Tyee.}

The two biggest trends in elections in recent years have been increasing volatility of the electorate and declining voter turnout.  The real lesson of the B.C. election for all future campaigns is how the BC Liberals, through a combination of aggressive negative advertising,  carefully targeted polling, and a bit of luck, were able to make those two trends work to their advantage rather than to their disadvantage.   (In her victory speech on election night, premier Clark even mentioned the good people "who don't normally think about politics" --perhaps revealing something about who she had successfully targeted in the campaign. Very sobering for enthusiasts of deliberative democracy!)

The numbers from BC are quite underwhelming: Greens fell by 4,000; Libs lost 28,000 votes, and the NDP fell by 48,000. Clearly, people who actually vote are dying off rapidly:
The Green Party:
 2001 197,231 votes
2005 161,849
2009 134,570
2013 130,471

At this rate, the Greens should disappear completely by 2037.

2001 343,156 votes
2005 731,719
2009 691,564
2013 643,399
Thank you, Adrian , for an inspiring campaign.

2001 916,888 votes
2005 807,118
2009 751,661
2013 723,618

Great campaign, Christy. But was it really that great?

 All in all, NDP have lost about 88,000 since their high water mark in 2005 and the Liberals are down almost 200,000 since theirs in 2001.


Voter turnouts  in the vicinity of 50% ; constant electioneering and increasing resort to personal attack ads that are effective in gaining a share of the vote but have a dampening effect on turnout because they turn people off. Does this sound like another country that I could mention?  Partly it is a reflection of the personalities and ideologies of our national leaders in recent years, but it may also be an unintended consequence of fixed election dates, just as the increased centralization of power in the prime minister's office and in the leader's office was an unintended consequence of having leaders chosen by party members instead of MPs and MLAs.  Maybe we should consider a return to the first principles of parliamentary government?

I have been reluctant to endorse mandatory voting as a substitute for real electoral reform (i.e. partial proportional representation or an alternative ballot). It has been said that not voting makes a statement. Nevertheless, the citizens of B.C. should get out and vote, and a mandatory voting law would now get my support.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Synopsis of BC Election Result: We Should Have Known

{The following has been submitted for publication in the Omineca Express and Anahim-Nimpo Messenger--MC}

I accept my share of humble pie for not predicting the re- election of the B.C. Liberals on May 17, 2013.  While I saw the narrowing gap in the polls as the day of decision approached, I told myself that polls  often narrow at that moment, and that the NDP should still be able to hang on to a 5% lead and with that receive a healthy majority of seats in the Legislature. But we should have known: the Conservative vote had collapsed, and the Green vote hadn’t—a sure fire sign that the Free Enterprise coalition was back together again, and when truly united they have never fallen.

Ironically, the huge lead that the NDP  had  long enjoyed had the effect of dissolving Conservative support while encouraging Greens to demand more—splitting the progressive vote.  Meanwhile, Clark herself—rightly criticized for being more comfortable with the media spotlight than she is with the nuances of policy or the details of administration---came into her own during the campaign. She stayed "on message", always equating the Liberals with a good economy, and the NDP with the “bad economy” of the 90's.

This myth-making was silly and intentionally misleading, at best.  The truth is that the economy on the whole was not made worse by the NDP in the 1990s: if it was difficult to compensate for the effects of  the Asian financial crisis, it was because of softwood lumber quotas which made it difficult to switch production  to the US market, and not because of anything the NDP did wrong. Conversely, the economy was not made much better by the Liberals since 2001: if B.C.  was able to compensate for the bottom falling out of the U.S. housing market in 2007-2008, it was because of the huge surge in demand from a very different Asian economy, and not because Gordon Campbell shifted the tax burden away from business and wealthy people with his carbon tax and HST.

So why couldn’t the NDP effectively fight back?  Dix must have been blinded, as we all were, by the poll numbers.  But he  also made a clear mistake. Once he had unequivocally rejected the planned Northern Gateway pipeline and had endorsed the implementation of Justice Cohen’s Report on fish farming, he should have stopped trying to satisfy the greens and endorsed both Kinder Morgan and the idea of gaining revenue from Liquified Natural Gas.  The best policies of the 1990s came from just such a balancing act between environmental and economic interests: think of the CORE process, the Land Use Plans, Forest Renewal and the Treaty Process.  (Yes, Virginia, there were some good policies in the 1990s.)  When Dix lost that balance, thereby lending credence to his opponent, he lost the election.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Nigel Wright, Adrian Dix are this Week's Unexpected Losers

Nigel Wright and Adrian Dix are both people that I have written about, in a generally critical vein. But neither of them are people who I expected to flame out spectacularly in the ways that they did during this past week.

Never heard of Nigel Wright? I first wrote about him in an article that I did for The Mark News back in September 2010. (An abridged version of that article also appeared here, on this blog. ) That he represents a conduit between Stephen Harper and Gerry Schwartz was, and is, of utmost significance. While some people may think that it is amazing that somebody this smart and successful would be so foolish as to write a $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy, you have to remember that  he is wealthy for the same reason that Gerry Schwartz and Mitt Romney are--because of his role in a few successful leveraged buy-outs.  That $90,000 cheque was a classic private-sector solution to a public sector problem, and a classic illustration of why that doesn't always work.  (Besides,  was hired because of his connections as much as for his genius. )

As for Adrian Dix, I have frequently criticized him and strongly opposed his challenge for the leadership. Partly this was due to a personal preference on my part: I am suspicious of professional politicians and prefer people who have accomplished something else in life.  I saw his successes in Opposition as the flipside of a losing proposition:;postID=1004746570863285659;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=6;src=postname

I also reasoned that Carole James would have nearly as good a chance to win in 2013, and that there would be a further downside to Dix, win or lose: that he could prevent moderate and progressive forces from coalescing behind Gregor Robertson in 2017:;postID=6251725563572598562;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=11;src=postname

Now, I am more optimistic that Dix can be convinced to clear the way when Robertson's term of office in the Vancouver mayor's chair ends in the fall of 2014.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Pipelines and Politics

If the election of the B.C. Liberals leads to a doubling of the Kinder Morgan line, and maybe even the building of the Northern gateway, and Andrew Weaver is leading the fight in the Legislature, that could swell the ranks of the Greens, thereby once again splitting the vote. Remember, THE LIBERAL PARTY ACTUALLY TOOK OUT ADS FOR JANE STERK, because they were banking on a  split vote there.

Four Factors explain Declining Reliability of Election Polls

(1)Growing voter volatility means, other things equal, there is a greater margin of error; (2)lower turnout means you have to determine whether voters surveyed intend to vote; and (3) changing technology means that land lines are either harder to access or less representative as a sample when they are reached.

It is (4) the fourth factor, explained in this article in the Vancouver Sun by Jooan Bryden, that is perhaps least well known or understood; that is the discrepancy between more sophisticated and fine-tuned survey techniques and more standardized methodologies that public opinion conducted for media organizations tend to believe in.  What fooled me in last Tuesday's election was that I had been reassured because I had heard that pollsters were doing online surveys that were confirming their other data; Tom Barrett's article  in The Tyee explains the difficulty with online polling , in terms of self-selection and representativeness. 

What is needed is some kind of methodology for integrating online, cell  and land line so that they compensate for each others' weaknesses. Easier said than done.  But more to the point, media and NDP will need to match the more well-heeled Liberal and Conservative campaigns  in conducting intensive, non standardized interviews and other methods. The simple fact is that, like weather forecasting,  standard polling is becoming less accurate rather than more so, due to very large structural factors that are difficult to fully comprehend and manage. But that doesn't mean that we should stop polling any more than it means that we should stop watching weather forecasts.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Tilted Pendulum

After last week's speculation about an "ideal" election result, it is perhaps time to come down to Earth and realize that  after a week of Christy Clark doing what she does best (hysterical economic drum-beating and mugging in front of cameras) the polls have narrowed to single-digit numbers and that we are about to have a normal B.C. election after all.

That the NDP never wins landslide elections  was evident even in 1991, when the Vander Zalm Socred government's  torch was passed to a hapless Rita Johnston and a large group of alienated swing voters went to...the Liberals. 

The irony is that Adrian Dix's cautious image is actually a pretty good indication of what he will be like in government: a cautious, control-and-spin incrementalist in the Stephen Harper mold.  In this he largely represents  the cohort of people who came as youngsters to Victoria in 1991 and who now have a decade of government as well as a decade of opposition under their belts.

Recklessness was a product of Glen Clark's youth  and predisposition, reinforced by his early successes.  Hesitancy and myopia was a product of Harcourt's decency and lack of experience in non-municipal government. Dix is not especially prone to either one of these flaws. What remains to be seen is whether someone who is so purely a political animal can actually make good public policy that isn't overly subordinated to communications strategy. That would be a pleasant surprise.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Ideal BC Election Result

Last year's provincial election in Alberta, and the 2011 federal election, show that the science of election polling is a bit like weather forecasting: something that is being knocked backwards by structural changes beyond anyone's control.  In addition to growing voter volatility, technological and demographic change has made the land-line bias in traditional telephone surveys a real problem that major polling organizations have been scrambling to overcome.

But here's the thing: any remaining land line bias in opinion surveys tends to under-estimate the youth vote. And in B.C. the youth vote will tend to be at least as supportive of the NDP or the Greens as the general population. Therefore, I don't expect the "land line" argument to help the Liberals in a big way.  There are some indications of a tighter race in the closing week, but that is to be expected as people start to critically look at the prospective NDP government.

No doubt I am influenced by wishful thinking, but the result I am predicting is also an ideal result for British Columbia:  a strong, new government with a good blend of experience and fresh blood; a strong Liberal Opposition with enough seats to man all committees and hold the new government to account; and room for independents, third parties to add more to the quality of public debate.

 I belong to a generation that remembers a government that had a couple of intellectual bright lights (Pat McGeer and Jack Davis) as well as a Legislature that contained a couple of independent third party MLAs (Gordon Gibson and Scott Wallace) who often made Question Period worth watching and Hansard worth reading. I am hoping that next week's election will see a return of those elements to the main stage of  B.C. politics.

  Hopefully, the two Andrews (Weaver and Wilkinson) will add intellectual distinction and professional achievement to the mix, while Vicky Huntington and Bob Simpson will guarantee independence of opinion and continuing momentum in the legislature for democratic reform:

NDP: 58
Liberals 20
Conservatives  4
Independents 2
Green 1

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Conservative Pseudo-Scientific Economic B.S. is Exposed

I thought it was simply a stunning revelation last week that a mere graduate student, 28-year-old University of Massachusetts student Thomas Herndon,  could so easily un-cover the economteric failures of  blue-chip Ivy League and former IMF economists, which underpin the Paul Ryan budget and so many other Republican and Conservative debt-o-phobic and recession-exacerbating policies:  See "How a Student Took on Eminent Economists on the Debt Issue--And Won" (Reuters) It turns out that economic growth does not slow dramatically after debt-to GDP ratios rise above 90%, after all. 

Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has been arguing all along that debt fears are exaggerated (at least in the U.S., where the luxury of being able to borrow in one's own currency makes low interest rates even lower), appears to have been powerfully vindicated by the discovery of this "statistical error"(!)  His April 21, 2013 piece, "The Jobless Trap" picks up on the latest news to drive home the political and ideological causes of the sluggish, jobless recovery:

"And let’s be clear: this is a policy decision. The main reason our economic recovery has been so weak is that, spooked by fear-mongering over debt, we’ve been doing exactly what basic macroeconomics says you shouldn’t do — cutting government spending in the face of a depressed economy. 
It’s hard to overstate how self-destructive this policy is. Indeed, the shadow of long-term unemployment means that austerity policies are counterproductive even in purely fiscal terms. Workers, after all, are taxpayers too; if our debt obsession exiles millions of Americans from productive employment, it will cut into future revenues and raise future deficits. 
Our exaggerated fear of debt is, in short, creating a slow-motion catastrophe. It’s ruining many lives, and at the same time making us poorer and weaker in every way. And the longer we persist in this folly, the greater the damage will be."

Similar simple-minded obsessions with debt have threatened to undermine common sense in Canada, at both federal and provincial levels.  Let's make sure that they don't get away with it.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Last thoughts on Ralph Klein

I thought the prime minister gave an excellent speech in memoriam for Ralph. .  BUT I am still right to ask: Did  Martha and Henry completely pay off their mortgage before buying school supplies, music lessons and sports equipment for their kids?  Completely eliminating the debt was an ideological self-indulgence paid for with revenue from non-renewable resources. All  it did was create an infrastructure deficit in place of the fiscal one, increasing our unhealthy dependence upon resource revenue in the process.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Oh, the Irony

As recently as 2009 B.C. Liberals were voting 80% against electoral reform , because they had become convinced that the system worked well for them: It  is difficult to argue with a statistic as stark as this: Over 60% of Green and NDP voters supporting STV in both elections, while only 20% of Liberals supporting it in 2009 (down 30% from 2005!).

Well, the electoral system did work well for the Liberals--as long as it was exaggerating their popularity,  instead of their unpopularity. It will be interesting to see how attitudes change after May 14.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Was Ralph Klein a Great Premier?

 I have three questions for Ralph Klein's admirers in both of our major provincial parties.

First, wasn't it a good investment for federal and provincial governments
to lavish money upon the City of Calgary for the 1988 Olympics, even though
they were both up to their eyeballs in debt at the time? Should they really have waited until they had paid down their debts first, as Klein would later say about public infrastructure spending (though not when he was the Mayor of Calgary and gratefully accepting this money)?

Second, why is it wrong to mortgage our children's future through fiscal
means, but perfectly okay to mortgage our childrens' future by using up the
revenue from their non-renewable resources to subsidize current consumption
through lower taxes and paying off debts incurred in the past?

Third, do Martha and Henry wait until their mortgage is completely paid off
before buying things that will advantage their kids' health, education,
welfare and happiness? Do they even sell many of their most precious assets in order to do so?  If not, then why should our government?


Ralph Klein was one of those larger-than-life figures who emerges in politics from time to time, a populist politician with the common touch who respected everyone who was willing to do an honest day's work.  His strong personal conviction, his determination to do what he set out to accomplish and to brave  the political risks of doing so--and his deep personal humility, as when he confessed to his drinking problem after the unfortunate incident in an Edmonton homeless shelter--all point to the verdict that he was a great person.

But was he truly a great premier?  Preston Manning  and Danielle Smith certainly think so.  They point to his fiscal record and his willingness to cut services and experiment with health care in order to eliminate the debt without raising tax rates as a great achievement which "left  Alberta  stronger than when he found it".  (Did it?)They see him as second only to Ernest Manning as the greatest premier in Alberta history.  Premier Alison Redford also greatly admires Klein, both as a politician and as a human being, but has also implicitly criticized his  one-dimensional prioritizing  of deficit elimination in her references to the neglect of infrastructure spending during the past decade--a neglect that she is trying to remedy now, even at the cost of  once more going billions of dollars into debt.

Clearly then, the debate over Ralph's policies, and whether he was as good or better than Peter Lougheed as a model to follow, is more than just a parlour game for political junkies. For Alberta's choice of heroes lies at the very heart of what is currently at issue in Alberta public policy and politics.

My own view is that Klein's stress upon the single overarching goal of debt elimination, while impressive as an accomplishment and obviously beneficial in certain respects, was not the wisest strategy for the government, then or now. Debt reduction should be a predominant goal when debt-to-GDP is either comparatively or historically high. But once it is under control, other goals--such as building new infrastructure for Canada's richest and still fast-growing province, replenishing Alberta's Heritage Trust Fund for future generations, reducing dependence on energy revenue and investing in other potential sources of comparative advantage for the province--become relatively more important. Low taxes, low royalties, and low debt are important aspects of Ralph Klein's legacy. But so too are the depleted Heritage Fund,  half a billion dollars' worth of unrepaired and unrenovated schools in Edmonton; an un-twinned and potholed highway to Fort McMurray; and the current attack upon Alberta's universities.

Premier  Redford got off to a rocky start when she tried to combine a Klein-like dependence  upon energy revenues with a very un-Klein-like optimism about the price of oil.  Now she combines Klein-like flat income taxes along with no PST or medical premium, all the while insisting, pace Peter Lougheed, that billions must be spent on infrastructure  ("paying for schools without paying for teachers to work in them," as one friend of mine put it.) She cannot have it both ways, as Ralph Klein did when he was mayor and debt-ridden federal and provincial governments lavished infrastructure money upon his city for the 1988 Olympics; for the most part, she has to raise her own taxes.

She should realize that she cannot win the race with Danielle Smith to be a Ralph Klein -clone. Nor should she want to. Her task is to remind Albertans that it is Peter Lougheed, not Klein or Manning, who deserves to be remembered as its greatest premier.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Calculated Incoherence: the 2013 Federal Budget

I have seen several federal budgets cause more commotion than the one that came down in Ottawa last week.   Yet there are several things about it that I find deeply disturbing.  One is its determination to swim against the historical trend by imposing a new top-down shared cost program on the provinces: a “Canada Job Grant” that will not be introduced until the election year of 2014-2015 (though you can be sure it will be frequently referred to in government ads between now and then).   Add to that a feature that has been called workfare for First Nations.    
The self-contradictory and incoherent nature of this budget is most apparent when viewed in a larger context.   The government brags about “closing loop-holes” in the tax system. This may be a great way to claw back $4.4 billion in revenue, but it is ironic when you consider that for years this government was unusually guilty of putting loopholes in the tax code in the first place.  Indeed, Canada ‘s “Economic Action Plan”  added an additional $105 billion to the national debt not only  to build infrastructure, but in order to pay for things like GST cuts and tax expenditures for the middle-class on everything from children’s’ sports to daycare. Some of these expenditures were better than nothing, but they were not the most effective way to fight the recession, and they certainly did not create a very good national daycare system, as shown dramatically by a recent report from UNICEF, which placed Canada tied for last place among 25 developed countries for the quality of its early child care services.   And then there is the government’s breath-taking rush to sign so-called free trade deals, which will make drugs more expensive and even raise tariffs on imports from 72 developing countries--costing consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.  
But underlying each of these politically questionable policy judgments lies a simple, constant un-erring calculation: that this government will only need 37-38% of the popular vote in the next federal election in order to gain another majority government.  In other words, it knows that it can afford to offend the Quebec government, sell working class families short, and impose a job training scheme upon provinces and First Nations.   In that respect, at least, this government’s math is probably correct.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Justin Trudeau on Proportional Representation

I am afraid that this may be the most significant result of the Liberal leadership contest: a leader who is not committed to changing the electoral system. As a young man, he may well be content to just be Leader of the Opposition after the next election and then win a big majority-by-default when Conservative support is finally exhausted in 2017-2019.

This implies a comfort level with a whole established style of government, a different set of policies but played according to the same basic political rules of the game.


It may be that Trudeau and other Liberals are leaning toward the Alternative Vote because of the failure of  PR-List  (MMP) in the Ontario referendum, so they latched onto this idea in order to have a democratic reform idea to talk about.  But the Alternative Vote simply doesn't speak to the kind of national unity problems inherent to Canada's single-member plurality system.  Diffused preferences are still discriminated against under the AV.  It also doesn't speak to the principle of making every vote count equally.  Here's a quote from the Fair Vote website:

 "Our organization has been distracted lately by a conflict within our Toronto Chapter. Some of our members are also principals in a campaign promoting a preferential ballot in the current single-member wards for election of Toronto city council.

This would not be a proportional voting system, and would be an example of the system called Alternative Vote or Instant Runoff Voting, a winner-take-all system like our current first-past-the-post voting system.

Fair Vote Canada has always taken the position that this type of system, while appropriate for electing a single-holder office like mayor or party leader, is a false reform and unsuitable for electing any sort of deliberative assembly, where the purpose is not to pick winners and losers, but to ensure that every vote counts and all voters have a voice."

Friday, March 08, 2013

Has Alison Redford Lost Her Nerve?

Yesterday's awful Alberta budget, which pussyfoots around the deficit issue by dividing the budget into three separate accounts, avoided  both raising taxes and having massive across-the-board cuts by going  into debt. To be precise, $4.3 billion in infrastructure borrowing plus a $2 billion operating deficit.  Universities that had been  led to believe that there would be a  2% increase in their budgets this year instead face a 7.2% cut. Other non-health areas are basically frozen, although the threshold for achieving seniors benefits is being raised ( a move that Redford may end up regretting).

There is a consensus among economic experts  that we are overly dependent on energy royalties, and there is a near-consensus that the royalties themselves are too low.  We had already depleted our Heritage Trust Fund, and now we have drained the Sustainability Fund. And we need more revenue to build infrastructure for a province that is expected to add a million  to its population.  Redford knows this, and at various times has said as much. She has also been explicitly critical of Ralph Klein's neglect of infrastructure spending  and has invoked the memory of Peter Lougheed and the need to replenish the Heritage Trust Fund.  So why isn't she doing the right thing and raising some tax revenue?

The political calculation appears to be that the best way to minimize the political costs is to rack  up debt and put it in a separate capital account.  Perhaps this seems justified because  the Wildrose Alliance could score more points against the government in the short run if there were tax increases. But that does not address the real underlying problem.We won't wean ourselves off dependence on energy revenues through borrowing. Borrowing should be kept at a modest, manageable level by balancing them with revenue increases from a non-energy source. And I am willing to bet that Redford will do better politically if she does the opposite of this ridiculous tap-dance and  starts levelling with Alberta's citizens.

Redford should be able to effectively defend a progressive income tax, given that the flat tax is clearly a luxury that we can no longer afford, given that no other province has a flat tax, given that the majority of Albertans (those earning less than $70,000) would likely be better off, and given that there is such an impressive intellectual consensus from all corners of the ideological spectrum that either progressive  taxes or sales taxes should be re-instituted.

Of course, there is a problem caused by the messages sent by Redford during last spring's election campaign.  She may have painted herself into a political corner by predicting a balanced budget on the basis of only mildly conservative revenue estimates. This revealed  a flaw:  it doesn't make sense to have a Klein-like dependence on energy revenues without a Klein -like low-balling of revenues.  The resulting half-way house is an unstable structure, politically as well as economically.

This government still has time to get itself out of this unsightly mess. It may actually be politically wise to spend a year imposing restraint on the spending front so that Albertans can be made more aware  of the costs of cuts, before trying to persuade them of the need for a progressive income tax (or a medical care premium, higher corporate taxes, or higher royalties). So, perhaps this government will fully correct its course in next year's 2014 budget.

The premier should relish the thought of taking on Danielle Smith. The latter is more telegenic and possesses the more formidable personality, but she does not have the strongest arguments. The majority of Albertans can be made to rally behind Redford -- if she is willing to take a stand.   In my estimation, she has about a year to do this. At most, two years.

If she doesn't--and continues to send a mixed and confusing signal that pleases almost no one--she will almost certainly lose the next election to Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Party.  Alberta deserves a clear, fiscally lucid government that is as true to the legacy of Peter Lougheed as the Wildrose Party is to the legacy of Ralph Klein.