Saturday, November 29, 2014

Conservative Tax Policies are More Regressive and Less Accountable

Our federal government is addicted to tax expenditures—and the shell games that can be played  with them.  By “tax expenditures” economists mean government spending through the tax code. Some of the biggest and most popular examples of tax expenditures include RRSP deductions (currently about $33 billion/year), Pension Income Splitting ($10.8 billion); charitable donations ($8.5 billion) and Child Care Expense Deductions  or CCED ($4.1 billion).  Clearly, they have a role to play in a balanced system of taxation.   But in Canada, tax expenditures take almost as much out of the revenue pie as taxes do: in 2010, they cost $172 billion compared to $191.5 billion taken in tax revenue.
Spending through the tax system has a number of advantages, but they are mostly political. Since tax expenditures are regarded as “off budget” they are often seen as free benefits, especially to those who are best situated to take advantage of them.  At election time, it can seem like the government is giving something without taking anything.  That, of course, is highly misleading. What the government is taking is revenue that could be allocated to public services. Its income-splitting plan, for example, dispenses billions to middle –class families, but it does so at the expense of child care for the young, mental health spending for veterans, and home care for the aged.  For the cost of the government’s Family Tax Proposal, we could raise the CCED from $7,000 to $12,000.  Queen’s Law Professor Kathleen Lahey points out that  Canada is spending $20 billion to subsidize unpaid work in the household—that’s almost twice what an affordable national childcare program would cost.
One wonders whether this government, if it is re-elected, plans health care by tax credit as well. After all, it has been shown that in the United States the subsidization of private health insurance through the tax code made efforts to bring about a universal health care program more difficult (and we all know where our government gets most of its ideas from).  The same process can work in reverse: as Canada’s federal government caps health transfers to the provinces at what it knows is half the rate at which health costs are growing, and provinces are forced to either raise taxes or de-list services, the feds can ease that painful transition with tax credits for private healthcare.
Before we reach that point, two things must be done. First, we should try to replace tax expenditures with proper public programs, especially where basic needs of children and the poor are concerned. Second, where we do choose to keep tax expenditures, they should be integrated with departmental spending and therefore included in departmental reports and estimates.    We cannot expect progressive government from the Conservatives, but greater transparency and accountability is never too much to ask.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Laurie Hawn's Round-Up

Fear not this Halloween! Our Edmonton-Centre MP is at work! 

I find it truly remarkable:  in the aftermath of last week’s  tragic  attacks in Montreal and Ottawa,  Edmonton Centre MP Laurie Hawn  issued the statement  that we should “round up” everyone on the government’s watch list: .

Laurie’s  talk of “rounding up” people  is not just an unfortunate choice of words, in the light of Canada’s shameful “round-ups”  of Japanese Canadians under the auspices of the War Measures Act in 1942 and  of law-abiding separatists and student radicals during the October crisis in 1970. It is an actual reflection of the Conservative attitude that, in Stephen Harper’s words, “our laws and police powers in the areas of surveillance, detention and arrest ..need to be much strengthened …work which is already underway will be expedited. ” This is not the view of security experts , including the prime minister’s own former legal advisor, Prof. Benjamin Perrin, who stated on CBC radio on October 27  that government already has all of the tools it needs and simply needs to resource and implement them properly. But then, this is not a government that has shown a very high regard, either for expert opinion or for the CBC!

 I do see a need for greater preparedness on the part of uniformed soldiers and a need to beef up security at the Parliament Buildings; I also share  a sense of gratitude that the Sergeant -at-Arms proved to be more than a ceremonial position on this singular occasion.

In related news, I was glad to see that Justin Bourque will be serving an unusually harsh sentence for the premeditated murders of three RCMP officers in Moncton. (Even if  forcing judges to hand down a sentence of 75 years without parole gives him little incentive for rehabilitation.) But I have just one question: why is he not a “terrorist”? Because he is a right-wing survivalist who hates cops ( and not a Muslim),  and acts  alone, he gets treated as just a deranged individual.  But if he is channeling extreme Islamist propaganda instead of extreme American conservatism, and acts alone, like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, he attracts the terrorist label and is used to justify a more extensive surveillance state and increased police powers.  It makes you think….

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Needed: More Climate Change Honesty

Prime Minister Harper strikes a strong figure on the world stage these days, doesn’t he?  Swift in condemning the barbarity of Isis terrorists and the aggressive unilateralism of Russia; steadfast in defence of Arctic sovereignty; resolute in his uncritical support of  Israel; and determined not to attend the Meeting of Leaders at the U.N. Climate Summit.  But surely there is more to strength than simply a stubborn refusal to change one’s simple tune. Is a more balanced approach to Palestine and a little more genuine leadership on climate issues too much to ask for? From this government, apparently, it is.

The UN Climate Summit is intended to “galvanize and catalyze climate action” in advance of the Paris COP climate talks in 2015 where countries will form binding agreements to address global warming. The 400,000 demonstrators demanding climate action in New York were not rabble-rousers who had nothing better to do. They were concerned citizens responding to the growing emergency of runaway climate change.

Of course, Canada was represented by Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who announced that Canada would bring in the same higher vehicle emissions standards that the United States is bringing in. That has always been the Harper policy: do it if the Americans do it first, and then it won’t run the risk of a high economic cost.  I could find such a policy acceptable, if I didn’t feel that a G-7 country that calls itself an “energy superpower” has a responsibility to do more, and if I didn’t know that the global costs of adapting to climate change will run into many trillions of dollars, and if I didn’t know that there are economic benefits to be had in green power.  This government can, and should, do more.

After the cynical fakery of the Liberals’ non-implementation of the Kyoto Agreement, Mr. Harper replaced it with his own emission target for 2020, which he presented in his 2007 policy statement, “Turning the Corner.” Just like Mr. Chr├ętien, however, Mr. Harper failed to immediately implement the necessary policies. Canadian emissions have declined slightly, but that was because of  the 2008 recession, some decline of heavy industry, Ontario’s reduction of coal-fired power, and climate policies in British Columbia and Quebec. Mr. Harper’s adoption of U.S. vehicle regulations will have only a small effect by 2020.

So the Harper government won’t achieve the 2020 target, even though it still pretends that it will. And it won’t admit that one of the principal reasons that Environment Canada is predicting  that Canadian emissions in 2020 will exceed the target by at least 20 per cent is the government’s own promotion of oilsands development and pipelines in all directions. But then honesty in climate change policy has not been the forte of Canadian governments, whether Liberal or Conservative.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stephen Harper and the "S" Word

Uh oh. Prime Minister Harper is using the “s” word again. After the retrieval of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body from the Red River in Winnipeg, and the recent discovery of a decapitated body in Kamloops, calls for a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women were renewed. The Prime Minister’s response: no, there should not be an inquiry, because “ we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime.”  He is wrong: we should view it as both a crime and as a sociological phenomenon.

If viewing the 1,181 cases of killed or missing aboriginal women over the past 30 years as a societal or systemic failure and viewing them as crimes were mutually exclusive choices, Harper would have a good point.  But of course they are not mutually exclusive, and therefore he does not have a very good point.  Part of the rationale for a judicial inquiry is that aboriginals have good historical reasons for not trusting the government, but have reason to think that they can get a fair shake from the courts. Of course, this government doesn't want to recognize that.

Another point: If murderers were targeting Conservative politicians in wildly disproportionate numbers, would those politicians  be satisfied by the police saying that those crimes are being solved at the same rate as other murders?

British Columbians who have wondered about the slowness with which authorities responded to the disappearance of women on Vancouver’s East Side were not completely satisfied by the conviction of the man who killed them.  What weaknesses and biases within the justice system caused these disappearances to happen for so long?  The string of fatalities along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert—the “Highway of Tears” – also raises a number of questions: what factors place women at highest risk?  Are most victims prostitutes or drug addicts  engaged in high-risk occupations, or are they simply vulnerable and targeted because they are poor and female and aboriginal?  Is the dismal state of education on reserves to blame? Tina Fontaine liked math and science and was popular at school, but became emotionally troubled after her father died and was placed in foster care..  Loretta Saunders, an Inuit university student killed in Halifax in February, was working on a thesis about missing and murdered aboriginal women at the time she was killed.  

It is not just important to find out who dunnit and punish them – it is important to identify the risk factors for native women and take steps toward prevention that will hopefully stop the steady trickle of targeted killings that take place across this country at a rate of at least three per month. 

If the Native Women’s Association of Canada gathers 23,000 signatures calling for a national inquiry, do they deserve to be ignored?    A formal judicial inquiry would have badly-needed legitimacy in the eyes of both natives and non-natives alike.  It could be used to guide schools and social workers and policy makers about causes, risk factors, and prevention.  It could also be used to raise public awareness and support for education and drug treatment and economic opportunity for First Nations people.  Surely, it is time that this government showed native women more respect, swallowed its pride, and committed some sociology.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Robert Asselin's rather thin Canada 2020 paper on democratic reform

Robert Asselin is a reputable enough University of Ottawa political scientist, but his paper "An Agenda for Democratic Reform in Canada, " which  proposes mandatory voting and a majoritarian  Alternative Voting system (single member constituency plus preferential ballot) as the principal cures for what ails Canadian democracy, is not adequately defended.  Not discussed is the fact that diffuse interests would continue to be radically underrepresented and the exacerbation of regionalism would continue under AV.  Indeed, proportional representation is not even mentioned in the paper itself, and is given only two sentences in his video presentation,  in which PR is mentioned only to be dismissed as contributing to "instability"--without addressing Alan Cairn's discussion of the instability of the existing system, or the remarkable stability of Mixed-Member systems in Germany and New Zealand.

The track record of the AV system in Canada is that parties have adopted it either to prevent another party from coming to power (the Liberal-Conservative coalition adopted it in BC in 1952 to prevent the CCF from gaining power; Social Credit used it in rural Alberta where it was conducive to Socreds winning seats) or as a proposed cure for votes that are split (Thomas Flanagan advocated it when the conservative vote was split between PCs and Reform in the 1990s). But when the system starts to erode support for the party in power (because it affords the voter an easy alternative to the government to vote for) the system is abandoned.  Prediction: if a future Liberal government adopts this system it will be under increasing pressure to drop it after its first term in office.  Asselin does not address the historical track record of AV systems in Canada, and in particular its marked lack of durability.

More free votes in the House of Commons, consultation about Senate appointments, and a Prime Minister's Question Period at least once per week are all decent ideas that Asselin recommends and have been standard agenda items for years (PM's QP is the practice in the United Kingdom).  But the one thing that could make AV in the House of Commons acceptable to underrepresented minorities--pure PR in an elected Senate--is not discussed. Why not? If instability of the Government is an issue, why not have PR in a separate House, which is not the seat of government and therefore not a House of confidence?

Mandatory voting has much to commend it, but comparative political science suggests that PR would boost voter turnout by about 7% voluntarily because more voters feel that their votes count under PR.  Does mandatory voting cure the problem of political apathy, or does it just mask it?

Asselin's unexplained adoption of the Liberal nomenclature  instead of using the well-established categories of empirical political science ("Preferential Vote" is ambiguous, since both AV and STV  have preferential ballots), and the bold red type of the paper, have the look and feel of an in-house Liberal  partisan publication.  Most of these proposals are aimed against more radical reforms that would prevent a majority Liberal Government /Trudeau Restoration. This no doubt is what the Liberal leadership wanted to hear. But is it what we needed to hear?

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Letter to the Financial Post

William Watson is an economist who is right to be chagrined by the presence of only one professional economist on the 16-member Economic Advisory Council ("There’s a lot more to the economy than simply business,"--FP  July 17). He argues that Jack Mintz can't be expected to be the voice of labour and consumers as well as the whole economics profession, and I heartily concur.

 But Watson fails to ask a bigger question: does this government's repeated pattern of policy errors, such as stumbling too quickly into subprime mortgages, income trusts, expansion of foreign workers into services and manufacturing, and deregulation of railways, or moving too slowly on First Nations consultation, environmental regulation,rail safety  and food labelling, all stem from a blinkered,ideological confusion of business interests with good economic policy?   If that is true--or even partially true-- then shouldn't the Economic Advisory Council act as a corrective lens that provides more economic analysis and non-business input into the formative stages of policy-making?

 The government's stubborn refusal to do so amounts to willful blindness, motivated no doubt by an awareness that the nation's top economists are a continuing source of inconvenient truth.

Here is Watson's column, reproduced with permission from the Financial Post:

William Watson: There's a lot more to the economy than simply business



Friday, July 25, 2014

The Tsilhqot’in Decision

Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia , announced on June 26, 2014, is the most important case on native rights since the Delgamuukw  decision back in December of 1997.  Since it originates in a dispute about aboriginal title right in our own backyard, I decided to read the decision in its entirety, instead of just relying upon press and media reports. In 1983, the Government  of British Columbia granted a commercial logging licence  to Carrier Lumber on land that the Tsilhqot’in considered their traditional territory.  One of the six Tsilhqot’in bands (the Xeni Gwet’in)  sought a judicial declaration prohibiting commercial logging on the land.  Relying upon the 1973 Calder decision recognizing aboriginal title, and the then brand-new Section 35 of the Canada Act, 1982,  the band amended its original land claim to include a claim for Aboriginal title to the land on behalf of all the Tsilhqot’in people.  At trial, Supreme Court justice David Vickers found for the Tsilhqot’in, based  primarily on the ground that regular passage by semi-nomadic peoples through a given territory in search of food and sustenance in accordance with the seasons constituted "occupation" of the land. The federal and provincial governments both opposed the title claim, and the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s decision, using a narrower test for determining what constitutes “occupation” sufficient to ground Aboriginal title as “only specific, intensively occupied areas.”
The crux of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to grant a declaration of aboriginal title after all was an understanding of sufficient occupation that compares the requirements of common law “in a culturally sensitive way” to Aboriginal culture and practices. Thus “occupation”  was taken to mean not just specific sites of settlement but tracts of land regularly used for hunting, fishing, and so on. Once this threshold was held to have been reached, it remained to simply apply the “section 35 infringement and justification framework”  first elaborated in Delgamuukw to the case.  That framework permits “provincial legislative incursions on lands held under Aboriginal title,” including the Forest Act, but  “the level of consultation and accommodation required varies with the strength of the Aboriginal group’s claim to the land and the seriousness of the potentially adverse effect upon the interest claimed.” In this case the B.C. Government was found to have breached its duty to consult.
As I see it, Tsilhqot’in is a good decision from a legal perspective, because the Supreme Court found that the trial judge (B.C. Supreme Court Justice David Vickers) had “identified the correct legal test of aboriginal title and applied it appropriately to the evidence.” Tsilhqot’in is also a good decision from an economic perspective because the basic prerequisite of economic development is clarity concerning property rights. This case clarifies the notion of aboriginal title sufficiently to enable future parties to economic development to negotiate on the basis of commonly agreed terms. Tsilhqot’in is also a good decision from a political perspective, because it will force a recalcitrant government to consult First Nations meaningfully in all future economic development projects passing through their land, without giving every First Nation an absolute power of veto.

Of course, there is a down side: this decision makes litigation look more attractive than negotiation, and that could mean more bad news for the Treaty process and more native claims clogging the courts for years to come. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chilcotin Decision Underlines Need to change approach to development projects

Vaughn Palmer has written a good column about the legacy of David Vickers. I would like to add the remarkable parallels between David Vickers and Thomas Berger, politically, legally, and  specifically with respect to the aboriginal title file.

The Chief Justice concluded that Vickers had “identified the correct legal test of aboriginal title and applied it appropriately to the evidence.” The test being that the band in question had demonstrated occupancy of the claimed tract of land to a sufficient degree, continuously and exclusively.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Have the Conservatives Finally Learned Their Lesson?

The federal Conservative government has been pulling its horns in lately:  witness the low-key way the Enbridge pipeline approval was announced recently and how Conservative MPs ducked the media;  the better late-than-never overtures for environmental cooperation with U.S. in late 2013; and the opening of an office for First nations consultations surrounding the Enbridge proposal (“too little too late,” according to BC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip) in May of 2014. The great victory of the Chilcotin Nation announced by the Supreme Court on June 26, which recognizes their aboriginal title to over1,750 square km, should help to ensure that the federal government recognizes the futility of its ways.

Does this mean that the government has finally recognized the error of its ham-fisted, counter-productive ways,  and is turning a completely new leaf?  I wish I could say yes, but the evidence points to the contrary.  After having added these two sorry chapters to the book How Not to Get a Pipeline Built, the government has continued to chip away at the historical standards of acceptable conduct with one abuse of power after another.  The prostitution bill is written not in compliance with the Supreme Court’s attempt to protect prostitutes’ constitutional rights, but as a pretext for imposing new restrictions and making the sex trade even more dangerous by driving it further underground.   Similarly, the cyber-bullying bill sneaks a number of measures into the law that are unrelated to the root cause of bullying and teen suicide:  measures that would make it even easier for police and other political authorities to obtain your personal data from telephone and internet providers. The appointment of Daniel Therrien as the new privacy commissioner and the attempt to appoint Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court; the determination to proceed with the F-35 contract despite a rise in price from $9 billion to $45 billion, still without open competitive bidding.  The notorious Bill C-38 Omnibus Budget is still being implemented, gutting thousands of environmental assessments. The forced backtracking on the so-called Fair Elections Act and the Temporary Foreign Workers laws are hardly reassuring:  they still bear the marks of the chronic audacity that gave them birth.

Thus Harper continues to pursue the limits of what he can get away with, to the detriment of Canadian democracy. The current overtures to natives and to environmentalists are simply reluctant, tactical retreats.  At bottom, being a citizen is no more difficult , and no more easy, than training a pet, raising a child or being a wise consumer. You can either punish bad behavior, sending the signal to all political actors that standards of truth and parliamentary appropriateness must be raised, or you can reward bad behaviour, sending the message that standards are to be lowered.  That is the choice we face in 2015.

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


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Margaret Wente's "Takedown" of Thomas Piketty

Marget Wente’s purported “takedown” of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twentieth Century ( "Who Cares About Inequality? Wonks") Globe and Mail, May 3, p. F2), while anti-intellectual in tone, reminds me of  the philosophical arguments made against idealist theories of equality decades ago.  Friedrich Hayek railed against what he called the “mirage” of social justice, since  "the results of the individual's efforts are necessarily unpredictable, and the question as to whether the resulting distribution of incomes is just has no meaning" (The Constitution of Liberty, ch.6). Likewise, Robert Nozick pointed out that any attempt to build a just society around a preferred distribution would be intolerable, because   “liberty upsets patterns”. 
 Like Wente, both Hayek and Nozick  thought that inequality was a problem only in some people’s heads. Get rid of the egalitarians and their misplaced notions, and you get rid of the problem. But their arguments don’t address a more recent line of thinking about inequality, which gives it a different ontological status from simply being an expression of envy or of subjective notions about "justice".  Fred Hirsch's Social Limits to Growth (1977) analyzed society's declining ability to simply buy social peace and legitimacy through growth  in terms of the growing importance of inherently scarce positional goods.  Richard Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level (2009) was written by two social epidemiologists who found stronger correlations between the degree of inequality and various social ills than existed between those ills and any other social determinant. Their conclusion: "societies with more equal distribution of incomes have better health, fewer social problems such as violence, drug abuse, teenage births, mental illness, obesity, and others, and are more cohesive than ones in which the gap between the rich and poor is greater."  
Robert Frank (The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good , 2011) has found that it is indeed getting harder and harder to join the middle class. His views are supported by the researches and arguments of prominent economists like Tony Atkinson, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman.  Now, Thomas Piketty has tied a lot of this together and looked at several national economies over centuries and has demonstrated convincingly that there is an inherent tendency within capitalism for the return from wealth to grow faster than the return from work. This "rich-get-richer" dynamic is the norm in capitalism. America in the 18th and 19th centuries (which because of the abundance of land and higher productivity had much lower capital/income ratios)  and in the early-mid 20th century (because of Depression and war) was an aberration; it is now reaching capital/income ratios more like those that have been found historically in Europe. Piketty expects global capital/income ratios to reach about 6.5 in this century --barring another cataclysm.  That is why he argues for a global wealth tax as the best long-run solution, even if that is not practicable in the short term.
Even in societies where basic living standards and a full panoply of civil and political rights have  been achieved, much depends upon the assumptions of upward mobility  and equal opportunity. This is why Piketty threatens to turn conservative views upside down, because he shows once again that the problem may not be the virus of class consciousness or socialist attitudes coming from Europe, but the actual economic dynamic underpinning them. If that is true, then the baneful consequences of inequality will be felt here as well, whether we like to think about them or not.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Federal Government and Healthcare Reform

The future of health care may be the most important issue that Canada faces heading into the 2015 federal election year.  The 2003 First Ministers’ Accord on Health Care Renewal injected $36 billion in federal money into health spending and the 2004 10-Year Plan to Strengthen Health Care added a further $41 billion over that decade in order to, in then-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s words, have a “fix for a generation” that would “buy change”. On March 31 that Accord expired.
Unfortunately, all this  federal spending mostly did was to buy the avoidance of  change for about half a generation. Hardly a “fix”.   And by avoiding hard choices, progressives in the Liberal Party and the NDP have opened the door for Stephen Harper – a man who was once the President of the National Citizens Coalition (an organization founded by an insurance salesman who hated Tommy Douglas for getting in the way of profits)—to do things his way.  The really scary part is that Harper doesn’t have to commit political suicide to undermine medicare. As prime minister, all he has to do is cap funding (with reductions conveniently scheduled to commence after the next election), not enforce the Canada Health Act very vigorously, and let nature take its course.  
But if  throwing more money at the provinces won’t work, what should we do instead?  We need only go to the source: when he first implemented medicare, Tommy Douglas was against the fee-for-services approach as something that blunted the cost effectiveness and equity of the single-payer system. Half a century of experience with our healthcare system (not to mention the analysis of the world’s most reputable health economists and policy analysts) shows that Tommy was right.  We need a federal government that will use its spending power to accelerate  the creation of a strong primary care foundation that is more patient-centred, more focused on prevention and chronic care,  and less focused upon high-cost providers simply billing the government for their services. We need to stop using acute-care hospitals as long-term care facilities.    And we need a national drug strategy so that we can  use the power of the single-payer to lower drug prices.
That drug strategy could have been accomplished by now.  Every business person understands that the larger your bulk order, the greater your chance of lowering the price. Economists estimated in one study that for four major drugs the savings in Canada of a single national drug plan could be as high as 50 percent.  Premiers Lorne Calvert of Saskatchewan,  Ralph Klein of Alberta, and Gordon Campbell of British Columbia all  called for a national pharmacare program. But prime minister Martin was too busy, and  he dithered. As a consequence, the deal was killed in 2006 when we elected the Harper Conservative government.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Senator Frum and Minister Poilievre Have a Strange--and Suspicious--Set of Priorities When it comes to Electoral Reform

Senator Frum seems to think that the route to higher voter participation lies not only outside the offices of Elections Canada, but primarily through the mechanism of restoring "integrity and public confidence" by demanding higher "common sense"  requirements of voter identification, even though there is no evidence that low turnout has in in any way been caused by questionable vouching for students and otherwise marginal voters and its supposed impact upon voter confidence in, or perceptions of,  the integrity of  the electoral process.  She and Minister Poilievre rely heavily on the 42% error rate in vouching, but that error rate is not linked in any significant way to specific cases of voter fraud. 

She also relies explicitly upon pages 23 to 27 of Harry Neufeld's report, which stresses the need to reduce error rates and to move to a new services model -- but in those very pages Neufeld stresses improved training for officials and the need to reduce, not increase, barriers to voting, and then goes on to discuss the New Brunswick model for accomplishing just that.  In his testimony to the Senate Committee, Mr. Neufeld himself  stated that “[i]In its current form, Bill C-23 creates a fundamental imbalance between accessibility and integrity.”

Which raises the questions of why this government persists in its misplaced and unbalanced focus on integrity, which is formulated unnecessarily at the expense of access, and its misplaced focus upon reducing vouching (as opposed to reducing the need for  vouching and registration without discouraging turnout) as a means of achieving integrity.  Why not simply weigh the competing arguments of Mr. Neufeld's report  and the response to it by the Chief Electoral Officer and other experts, and make that the focus of "common sense" reforms?

Nothing in Senator  Frum's comments on CBC radio have satisfactorily answered those questions.

The onus is not upon the critics to show that the government is not being self-interested; the onus is upon the government to demonstrate that it is not being self-interested. One traditional way of doing that is simply by stating that the controversial elements of the Elections Act will only take effect after next year's election.

Monday, March 31, 2014

What War Means

When I worked as a university instructor in Kiev in the academic year of 1994-95, my students were mostly young adults in their late teens or early twenties,  who  were already  bracing themselves for the second great public trauma of their young lives.  The first had come suddenly in the spring of 1986 when as young children many of them had been rounded up with little or no warning and whisked away to the south, preferably to the countryside or to some city on the north coast of the Black Sea such as Sebastopol or Yalta.  Many were fortunate enough  to escape  levels of radiation from the Chernobyl catastrophe that would cause cancer, limit their longevity, or stunt their growth.   Others were not so lucky. 

The second crisis came  not as a result of a sudden accidental explosion, but rather as a surfacing of tensions with deep historical roots—specifically, a structural conflict between the twin forces of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism, exacerbated by divergent economic prospects and regional power struggles. I recall visiting a student’s home in Lviv in western Ukraine during the  Christmas holidays in 1994. She confided to me her family’s worry that her brother might have to be conscripted to fight the Russians in Crimea or in the East, where secessionist sentiments were brewing thanks to a lower-than-Russian average  wage in Ukraine and a raging inflation that was quickly making the Ukrainian currency next-to-worthless in world markets. 

Today’s crisis is a continuation of this ongoing conflict, but one sharpened by several changed conditions on the ground. One is the poisoning of relations between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions in the country’s Parliament (I am not just using the wording “poison” metaphorically—recall the attempted assassination of  the increasingly popular Viktor Yuschenko by dioxin poisoning  in 2004, which left him permanently disfigured, and which helped to precipitate the “Orange  Revolution” later that year).  Since then, the question of how best to balance the need for good relations with Ukraine’s major creditor and supplier of energy, Russia, with the growing desire for gaining membership in the European Union became increasingly difficult: the attempted impeachment of  Victor Yanukovych (and the release of his opponent from prison) show that like other fledgling democracies, Ukraine has not yet learned how to share power.

Meanwhile, another one of my students from 20 years ago reports  that “the number of victims of police and snipers in Kyiv is growing every day (people are dying in the hospitals) and is already 100 … My family is OK. I just need to explain to my nearly 6 year old girl why people are flying to the sky forever and what ‘war’ means.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Audacity of Audacity

When Stephen Harper writes his memoir, I suggest that he call it The Audacity of Audacity. ( I was originally going to suggest that title  for Christy Clark, but maybe it suits Stephen Harper better. )

The root cause of Conservative audacity and smugness is their knowledge that they need only approximately 38% (plus or minus one or two percent) of the vote to get another majority government. In addition to being indifferent to the views of the progressive majority , they are able to essentially write off the province of Quebec--currently governed by a minority PQ government and a ticking time bomb if there ever was one. Liberals, who benefitted from this system of dis-unity for many decades , should have known that one day the shoe would be on the other foot. That day has come, with deleterious, if not perilous, consequences.

When Lac Megantic followed deliberate deregulation of the railways and a quadrupling of oil being transported thereupon, Harper blamed MM&A Railway for a predictable disaster. When he appointed two high-powered media celebs to the Senate, they were expected to do aggressive campaigning and fund-raising in addition to their regular duties; he expressed anger at their expense accounts. When he appointed Gerry Schwartz's right hand man from the Onex Corporation to head his PMO, to bring his private sector-style "fixing" skills to the public sector , he expressed bewilderment and betrayal when the Boy Wonder actual used those skills. Now, when the Chief Electoral Officer threatens to actually do something about illicit Robocalls in 246 (mostly Conservative) ridings, and to do something to promote higher voter turnout, the Government accuses "the referee of wearing a team jersey" and rolls back his powers. Clearly, there is a pattern here:  Harper keeps creating the conditions that are more conducive to bad things happening, and when those bad things happen, Harper keeps shaking his head and expressing disappointment at how  Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, the Chief Electoral Officer, the private railway companies, keep letting him down.  But here is the critical point: the prime minister may have just created the conditions for these failures, but creating conditions is what governments do.  It is therefore perfectly reasonable to hold the prime minister responsible for the conditions he creates.

Polls show a clear majority of Canadians dislike the selfish waste of money and unprecedentedly partisan nature of the "Economic Action Plan" propaganda. Even the Calgary Sun--arguably the most pro-Conservative newspaper in the country--has pleaded with them to stop. No dice. Why? Because they don't care what the majority thinks--they don't need that majority to form a  government, they only need that majority  to continue to split its vote between three opposition parties. It's the Conservative plurality in a majority of ridings that the Conservatives care about, and very deeply at that.

Where does all this audacity come from? A devilishly simple place: the pure and simple knowledge that it only takes 37%-38% of the vote to get a parliamentary majority in this country, as long as the opposition vote is split, turnout is relatively low, and the Chief Electoral Officer is suitably muzzled. Here's why: this government deserves to be hated by the majority of Canadians, and the strange ironic truth is that it is.  But the government doesn't care, because it  knows that everything about the system as it is currently configured works in their favour anyways.

There you have it: Democracy, Conservative-style.

Three New Thoughts du Jour

Thoughts du jour:

1) Provincial Parti Quebecois and federal Conservatives seem to both be cruising toward majority governments. Harper makes the perfect foil for Quebec separatists, given his low popularity in that province. He contributes to their "winning conditions".

2) "It is essential to understand that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud  but voter participation" --Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.

3) If Russia successfully annexes Crimea and succeeds in violating international law and international treaties, three groups of actors will be encouraged and emboldened:

 First, China and Russia and some American conservatives will be encouraged to continue their traditional  "spheres of influence" thinking.

Second, Iran, North Korea and all rogue regimes will be encouraged to obtain and keep nuclear weapons, and not to foolishly surrender them as Ukraine did under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Treaty, to which Russia was a signatory.

Third, both prospective separatists in Quebec and actual occupiers in Israel will be encouraged by the trumping of international law by "facts on the ground".

Sunday, January 26, 2014

B.C. Needs a More Centrist NDP

“B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties.” With those words,  B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix  made the announcement last 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.” This was in stark contrast to the calls by Ian Waddell, Bill Tieleman, Michael Byers and others for a much longer and more wide–open contest that would  stimulate party renewal and give every competent candidate a fair shot.   Dix’s initial insistence on a shorter time frame, with himself in control in the meantime, along with a thinly veiled swipe at the more centrist and business friendly candidates (Gregor Robertson?) invited some observers –myself included—to speculate that Dix  was perhaps allowing his own biases to influence the process too much. It was difficult to resist such speculation as long as his longtime friend and colleague John Horgan was the frontrunner to replace him.           

I am happy to report that the situation has changed somewhat. Last month the date for the leadership vote was set for September, which will mean that nearly a full year will have been allowed for the leadership race  to unfold.  Mr. Horgan decided not to run, saying more fresh blood was needed (evidently not an endorsement of Mike Farnworth). Mr. Dix still points to members of his caucus as the best people to replace him, but to be fair,  several are strong candidates and they do represent  a fairly wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints. The new schedule  is still awkward for the federal MPs (who must choose whether to fight the 2015 election) and the mayors of Vancouver and Victoria( who need to complete their terms of office) but is more reasonable than it first appeared.  It also gives us more time to reflect on Dix’s comment that “B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties.”

The statement assumes, first of all, that the B.C. Liberal Party is a liberal party.  Is it a liberal party in the same sense that Gordon Gibson and David Anderson used to imply that it was—a distinctly centrist alternative to either the NDP on the left or the Socreds/Conservatives on the right? Remember that until the early 1990s Gordon Campbell was clearly grooming himself to be a future Social Credit premier. With the sudden collapse of  Social Credit in the 1991 election, Campbell turned his attention to a takeover of the Liberal Party, openly saying that labels didn’t matter very much, openly speaking of Bill Bennett as one of his role models. He succeeded in taking over the party in 1993, bringing many former Socred supporters on board with him. Swingeing 20% across-the-board tax cuts, and attempts to shift revenue from progressive taxation onto carbon and sales taxes, were hallmarks of his time in office, even if he did change direction on environmental and First Nations policies when he needed to. The current premier ran the last provincial election with none other than Brad Bennett at her side as  a special advisor, running a classic Socred-style campaign that preyed on the economic fears of marginal voters. When she lost her seat in Point Grey, she was welcomed with open arms  by the Bennetts in their traditional Social Credit  Kelowna stronghold. She hopes Liquid Natural Gas will help her to avoid difficult decisions, and help to obscure her bad ones, while trying to frighten voters away from " the socialists". Is that what a Liberal is?

In two –party systems everywhere, both parties compete for the centre vote; those that do so from the left typically have a distinctly different set of priorities and base of support from those that do so from the right. For the NDP to  concede the centre  to the Liberals is to consign itself to Opposition most of the time, and to rely only on split votes and occasional government collapse in order to win by default.  And with the decline of the blue collar constituency as a proportion of the electorate, New Democrats cannot assume that history is on their side, as they often did in the mid-twentieth century. In this century, at least, it is in the interest of both the NDP and the public as a whole that it strive to represent a true majority of the electorate.  That means bridging urban and rural, business and labour, green as well “development” oriented voters —better than the Liberals have.  If that means "moving to the centre,"  then so be it--especially if  B.C. 's so-called Liberal Party continues to leave the NDP so much room to manoeuvre in the middle of the political spectrum.

How Good Have the Conservatives Actually Been for Canadian Consumers?

While the Harper government's degradation of Canadian democracy has been scary, I find its economic policies to be by far the most disappointing aspect of its record. This fact was underscored for me last fall when I attended a conference of academics in Banff, Alberta. I happened to be seated at the same table as an economist from the University of  Calgary, and we got into a discussion of the so-called "Economic Action Plan". (The economist in question mentioned that Stephen Harper had been one of his students and that he had even been one of Harper's examiners for his Master's Thesis. While Harper succeeded in demonstrating the basic competence needed for the degree, it was plain that this was the work of a future politician, not a future economist. )  Even at the university with the reputation of being the most conservative in Canada, and Harper’s alma mater to boot, there was little to cheer about.

A major point of  conversation was the government’s belated discovery of “consumer interest” after some political polling revealed a warm voter response to  Communications Minister James Moore’s plan to have “more competition” in the telecom industry by allowing American corporate giant Verizon into Canada.  There are, it was pointed out to me, a couple of big problems with this. First, I was referred to a study by another economist  named Jeff Church at Calgary’s Institute of Public Policy, which indicated that lack of competition was not a problem , that three is the standard number of  local wireless providers  and the rate of return in the Canadian industry is actually fairly normal.  In fact, allowing Verizon in could conceivably threaten the competitiveness of the industry in the long run.  Second, if the government wished to have a genuine “Consumers First” orientation, it would have to not rush into trade policies that will have the effect of increasing the cost of clothing and sporting goods coming from 72 Less Developed Countries. It also would also have to not rush into the  Canada-EU trade deal, which will have the effect of raising drug prices by at least $1 billion per year. 

Of course, economists are also keenly aware that the biggest single source of  Canada’s relatively healthy performance during and after the financial crisis  was not any conservative policy since 2006, but rather our avoidance of conservative policies before 2006. In the first Conservative budget in May of that year, Jim Flaherty tipped his hand: "These changes [i.e. sub prime and 40-year mortgages] will result in greater choice and innovation in the market for mortgage insurance, benefiting consumers and promoting home ownership," Mr. Flaherty said. Luckily, he only got us ankle-deep in financial deregulation by the time the crisis hit, and the looser mortgage rules were subsequently reversed. But, we may well ask, how deeply in trouble would we have been if the Conservatives had been enjoying a majority government since, say, 2004? Canada's consumers should be grateful that we never had to learn the answer to that question.

Monday, January 13, 2014

History Lessons - The Commonwealth Fund

The Following link provides a pertinent perspective on Obamacare and the ridiculous treatment it has been receiving from right-wing media in the United States (and, I am sorry to say, in Canada as well).

History Lessons - The Commonwealth Fund