Sunday, November 22, 2015

Looking at Trudeau After the Paris Attacks


 The honeymoon is not over, but if you look closely, you can already see a tiny bit of egg on the face of our photogenic new prime minister.  Until Black Friday (November 13), it looked as though the Liberals’ first Throne Speech and Parliamentary session, and series of state visits and international conferences, would be just one triumphal procession after another. To be sure, there have been enthusiastic receptions by some journalists and photographers, who have pronounced him to be the newest “hottie” on the world stage, but all of that is being overshadowed by darker realities.

I am of course referring primarily to the fall-out from the Paris terror attacks, along with related events playing out in Belgium, Mali, and the Middle East.  These attacks put the politics of the recent federal election campaign in a new light, in particular the trifecta of security-related issues: Syrian refugees, Bill C-51 (the Anti-Terrorism Act), and the question of Canada’s military role in Syria and Iraq.  Comparing how the positions of the main parties looked then to how they look now is a deeply instructive reminder of just how fleeting the election frame is, even though it furnishes the mandate for the next four years of national government.

When Trudeau initially announced his target of 25,000 the House of Commons in March, he was acting in accordance with the Liberal strategy of  being bolder and more exuberant in its promises than the other guys. But he had no way of knowing how popular this plan would become  six weeks before the election, when the photo of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi started making headlines.  Nor could he know that just three weeks after the election we would be given so much reason for “pause”.  It proved a marked contrast to Harper, who preferred a smaller and much slower response  (10,000 over three years, although another 10,000 was added to the number in September). Trudeau also looked more generous than the NDP in the short-term, while still keeping most military options open:  The NDP would have granted the UN’s request to give 10,000 Syrians refugee status by the end of the year, with a total of at least 46,000 by 2019—alongside a vow to remove the cap on privately-sponsored refugees—and a complete end to Canadian military operations in Syria and Iraq .

So who looks better now?  After Paris, Mr. Mulcair’s decision to meet the UN’s request and settle 10,000 refugees by December 31 was proven to have been  perfectly responsible from a logistical and security standpoint, while still being twice as generous as the Conservatives. Mr. Trudeau looks rather less impressive on that score, and has been forced to back down on the 25,000 promise.  But  Bill C-51, and the Liberals’ qualified support for it, still seems a little less reprehensible in the minds of many Canadians. “Balance”, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and a professor of political science at Athabasca University.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cariboo-Prince George and Edmonton -Griesbach Illustrate the Difficulty--Even the Perversity--of so-called "Strategic Voting"

On the whole, the October 19 election was a good day for democracy. I had feared—more than once in these columns—what a re-elected Conservative Harper majority might mean in terms of creating a “new normal”. Instead, we had a 7% increase in national voter turnout, and a government with more women and aboriginal people than ever before. The Liberals won by having an optimistic and upbeat leader who  seemed to embody “Real Change” . The Opposition is strong, and , aside from the complete Liberal monopoly of Atlantic Canada,  each of the major political parties is well-represented throughout most of the country.
Of course, electing the country's first NDP government, with proportional representation, Senate Abolition and a million daycare spaces on the policy docket, looks more like "Real Change" to me. But elections are about politics, not policy.

Let's not forget that the Conservatives, the NDP and the Media all unwittingly conspired to give Mr. Trudeau his Golden Opportunity. The Conservatives, whose extra-long campaign made people forget about C-51 and the Senate Scandal , but which also made people forget about Trudeau's poor performance on those issues and Mulcair's strong performance; the NDP , by weakening its Quebec base and then taking its balanced-budget theme too far, creating more policy space for Trudeau; the media, in particular the Globe and Mail and the Munk Centre, who could have crowded the stage by adding Elizabeth May and GIlles Duceppe to the mix but instead gave Trudeau tons of visibility.

One sad feature of the election   was that,  all too often, so-called “strategic voting” just gave way to a  blind, convulsive bandwagon effect, of course amplified by our first past the post electoral system.  Cariboo-Prince George is a case in point. Voter turnout in 2015 was 53,590 or 68,9% of the electorate--- an increase of over 10,000 votes or nearly 11% higher than in  2011.  This was clearly a determined vote for “change” , since the Conservative share of the total  dropped from 24,324 to just 19, 668 votes—a loss of  nearly 20%.  So why weren’t the other 63.3% of local voters able to dislodge them?

A week before the election, LeadNow, a national organization dedicated to coordinating the efforts of all “progressives”, released a local Environics poll showing  the NDP’s  Trent Derrick was in the lead with 36% of the vote, the Conservatives’ Todd Doherty  well behind at 30% , the Liberals’ Tracy Calogheros running third at 29% and the Greens polling at 5%. Accordingly, LeadNow recommended to local progressives desiring a change to unite behind the NDP candidate. 

Edmonton - Griesbach was another perfect example. Janis Irwin of the NDP had long been in the lead locally and was seen as being the NDP's second-strongest riding in Alberta. A creditable survey of 509 people , considered accurate within 4 percentage points, was published on August 19. It showed Irwin to be in the lead with 48% of decided voters(!), Kerry Diotte of the Conservatives well behind at 32%, and Liberal Brian Gold third at only 15% of local voters.  Liberals were being urged to do their bit and hold their noses and vote NDP  in order to "heave Steve".  But a problem for the NDP was that 60% of those surveyed said they would be willing to vote differently in order to defeat the Conservatives. As the Liberal surge began to wash across the country in October , many of those ABC voters, either indifferent or ignorant of local circumstances and conditions,  began falling off the fence and voting Liberal (in effect, pinning their tail on the wrong donkey because it appeared to be the right donkey nationally). The final result: Irwin got an unexpectedly low 34.04%; Gold got an unexpectedly high 21.67%, and Diotte won with 39.91% of the vote. Conservatives deserve some credit for getting their vote out and perhaps for persuading a large chunk  of the 11% who were undecideds, but it was that vote-splitting defection from the NDP to the Liberals that sealed their victory.

The problem was that  a lot of people were watching what was happening  nationally and decided to climb on the Liberal bandwagon.  In those constituencies where the Liberal base was already big enough, (e.g Edmonton Centre, Vancouver Granville) that switch managed to elect a Liberal MP.  But in  several constituencies in western Canada,  the Liberal wave had the opposite, unintended effect: of splitting the vote and electing a Conservative MP instead.  In Cariboo-Prince George, Todd Doherty was the beneficiary of that vote-splitting.  In Edmonton-Griesbach, it was Kerry Diotte.

On the whole, however,  it was still a good day. I look forward to Canada presenting a fresh face to the world , at the U.N. and at the Paris Climate Conference. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when being introduced in Paris,  Justin Trudeau received an ovation…just for not being Stephen Harper.

But for me the big lesson to take away from this election was that given the difficulties of information sharing and voter coordination in the context of  increasing electoral volatility, in the end there is really no alternative to electoral reform, and despite what the prime minister seems to think, that means some degree or kind of proportional representation (PR). While many arguments can be marshaled against PR, nearly all can be met to a large extent through modifications of the PR formulae. So please, let's do it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Time for a Change

It’s the home stretch of the federal election campaign and two leaders’ debates and endless commercials may have done more to blur lines between the parties and leaders than to clarify them. The Liberals and NDP may have even switched places, with Justin Trudeau being anxious to corral the anti-Conservative vote with ambitious talk of redistributive tax adjustment and deficit spending on infrastructure, and Mr. Mulcair striving to reassure centrist voters and buttressing the NDP’s “balanced budget” record.  If it’s any help , here are three or four  observations about what I think  should happen both during and after the election.

First, the prime minister’s attempt to portray himself as a practical, sensible fellow who is only interested in being a good manager is highly misleading.  He is far more ideological than that, and if re-elected his American-style neoconservatism will have consequences for democracy and health care and the environment that are potentially far-reaching. It is difficult to discern a large economic dividend from the government’s attempts to privilege the corporate sector, and the oil & gas sector in particular. But we need  that dividend if we are to be persuaded that this government’s game is worth its candle.

Second, the NDP’s “balanced budget” mantra is genuine.  Mr. Mulcair has latched onto the fact that, according to the historical record, NDP governments balanced budgets more often than either Liberal or Conservative governments did on average between 1980 and 2010 (although some spectacular exceptions do tend to stick in voters’ minds). This is a basis for fiscal respectability and marks a return to the fiscal tradition of Tommy Douglas. Of course, several of the Conservatives’ tax loopholes will need to be closed in order to afford this, and the corporate tax rate will need to be raised to something closer to the OECD average. But when you balance the negative impacts of raising corporate taxes to the still-competitive rate of 17% against the positive benefits of lower small business rates, a lower proportion of tax burden being borne by ordinary Canadians, and the economic benefits of more infrastructure and a million child care spaces—that should be OK.

Third, I like what Justin Trudeau has said about the importance of infrastructure spending when the need is great, the debt-to GDP ratio is low, and interest rates continue to be rock-bottom.  Although Conservative infrastructure spending  is large in absolute terms and has risen sharply (to over 4 per cent of GDP), under the circumstances we should have had more,  especially  on transit and transportation of various kinds,  and less on advertising and political spending in Tory ridings. 

With any luck, the next Parliament will have a fresh approach to democratic reform, the environment, science, health, refugees and infrastructure, within a framework that is still fiscally responsible.

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and a professor of political science at Athabasca University.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Conservatism's Relativism about the Truth

Of course he rejects the Statistics Canada report concerning the definition of a recession. Just like he and other conservatives reject the ICPP reports on climate change, United Nations and Amnesty International reports on Palestine, unanimous verdicts of the Supreme Court of Canada concerning criminal justice and the rule of law, the concerns of Sheila Fraser and Marc Mayrand about the Fair Elections Act, the Parliamentary Budget Officer on C-35s, the leading legal experts on Bil C-51 and the leading trade experts on FIPPA, and scientists on just about anything...the scary thing about this government and the constellation of interests and ideas that it represents is that they do not respect any authority other than their own.…/harper-rejects-statscan-recession-rep…

Friday, August 21, 2015

Six Questions About Science and Technology

How government funds science and how it treats the information that scientists produce says much about the direction a society is taking and the vision that the government has for that society. Here are six questions that an engineer and researcher named Vallen Rezazadeh has been asking the candidates about science and technology. In response, I offer the best suggested answers that I can come up with.

1. What actions do you think the federal government should take to accelerate economic diversification in Canada?

A diversification strategy should emphasize (1) making strategic investments in infrastructure; (2) ensuring the availability of high quality labour (by investing in education and training, enhancing the quality of life, and improving the structure of opportunity for First Nations and immigrants); and (3) the encouragement of growth clusters through the funding of pure research at universities and the creation of generally hospitable environments for business.

2. Would you support measures such as Public-Private Partnerships and tax breaks to entice hi-tech companies to establish operations in Canada?

 As a general theoretical presumption, no. As a pragmatic response to what our competitors are doing, sometimes a qualified yes. Much of the research on P3s confirms that all too often government simply replaces an up-front capital expenditure with a series of recurring payments under a lease agreement that ends up costing even more. In return, private investor is too often shielded from competition.  As for tax breaks, if they are too targeted or discriminatory, they have economic effects that are not unlike those of business subsidies (which are supposed to be an economic no-no). But where such policies (1) are generally being promoted in our competitors' markets; and (2) there are no practical alternatives in terms of either direct public provision or regular private contracting , and (3) proposed projects have been vetted for moral hazard, they may be the best option.

3. What is your opinion on recent changes to the structure and mandate of the National Research Council of Canada by the Harper government?

I hate them. They are anti-science. Shifting the NRC away from funding pure science to supporting industry is ideological policy-making in the worst sense. It is also bad economics. The first role of government, economically speaking, is to supply those public goods that are under-supplied by the market--to do what markets cannot.  Pure research is such a public good.

4. As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the National Research Council of Canada?

Yes. I would look at what the world leaders in science are doing at the national level and look to at least match them, as part of our overall societal fitness and competitiveness. But that increase in funding is not as important as un-tying the funding from the ideological yoke of the Conservatives'  pro-business agenda, as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

5. As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency?

Yes. Canada spends less than 3/10th of 1 percent on its civil space program. Several nations with smaller GDPs spend more as a percentage than Canada does.

6.  As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada?

 Yes. In this envelope there is a little more room for "applied " research and for the funding of partnerships with business, and for the promotion of centres of excellence in science and engineering across the country.  But otherwise, what I said about the National Research Council applies to NSERC as well.

Mark Crawford  teaches political science at Athabasca University.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Debate About the Debates

“Pick your battles” is a wise adage for life, especially in the intensely competitive and adversarial arena that is politics. That is why we have a certain tolerance and even admiration for leaders who display this wisdom in their campaign strategies.

But what if that campaign seems never-ending,  and the battles avoided include major issues of the day and time- worn avenues of democratic accountability?  I am referring of course to the prime minister’s recent decision to not attend the traditional debates put on by the consortium of Canada’s major broadcasting networks.  These debates have become known as “the” debates and one the key focal points of the election campaign: in 2011 the first English-language debate drew 10 million viewers.  The only problem, from Mr. Harper’s perspective, is that he can’t control them. And that is why he prefers to have a Google/Globe and Mail debate on the economy in Calgary and a Munk debate on national security in Toronto instead. Smaller, more fragmented audiences looking at debates focusing on his preferred agenda, in his preferred context, suits him better.

By pulling out of the traditional consortium debates, the government has cleverly conflated two issues: one is that the idea of a broadcasting consortium effectively monopolizing and determining the debate format is no longer acceptable; the other is that it is acceptable for the government to unilaterally change the rules 5 months before an election. The government pretends that the former consideration legitimates the latter; it does not. All it suggests is that we should supplement the broadcasters’ debate with others, and then agree after the election to establish a Debates Commission to set the rules for the following election. 

Perhaps the prime minister’s audacity wouldn’t seem so bad if it weren’t part of an even larger pattern of audacity that has characterized his entire tenure in power. We don’t have First Ministers’ conferences anymore, even though healthcare reform and battling climate change are of immense concern to Canadians and require a very high level of federal-provincial coordination. We don’t have wide open press conferences anymore either.  Instead, we now have personal attack ads between elections, prorogations of parliament whenever a government is in danger of losing a vote of confidence, and omnibus budget implementation bills as the primary vehicle for unpopular measures that are neither budgetary nor about mere implementation.  All of this has become simply routine.

If Mr. Harper is rewarded with another majority and becomes the most successful Conservative PM of modern times, his behavior will become the template for Conservatives, the unspoken political playbook for all politicians, and the 'new normal' for all young and immigrant Canadians, and even for a large number of older Canadians who don't bother to remember the honour system that once was.  Is this the role model we want for politics in the future?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Why Are Drug Prices High?

Canadians now spend $34 billion per year on pharmaceuticals. That is almost a thousand dollars for every man, woman and child--- considerably more than most citizens of other OECD countries spend on comparable or better drug plans. In New Zealand, for example, a national drug formulary aggressively pursues the most cost effective drugs and negotiates the best obtainable prices.  Even countries such as France, Italy and Spain spend less than Canadians do for the same basket of drugs.  According to a recent study conducted by several experts on drug policy published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Canadians could save $8 billion dollars per year on prescription drugs  (well over 20% of our total costs) if we had a single–payer system of pharmacare.  More people would be covered—thereby making drug policy more consistent with the basic principle of universal medicare-- and administrative costs would be lower.  Economies would be realized through three different mechanisms: the benefits of bulk purchasing; the negotiation of lower prices; and the substitution of generic drugs for more expensive brands.  So why hasn’t it happened?

It almost did. In 2004, B.C. ‘s Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, Alberta’s Conservative premier Ralph Klein, and Saskatchewan NDP premier Lorne Calvert all agreed that the federal government was more able than the provinces to finance a national pharmaceutical plan. All of the other premiers readily agreed (with Quebec premier Jean Charest of course insisting on the right of Quebec to opt out and run its own parallel plan). Unfortunately,  the new Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin , had too much on his plate and too little time to deliver it. The death blow came when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was elected in 2006, and began its policy of implementing targeted tax cuts rather than “expensive” social programs. But what if the “expensive social program” actually saved billions per year by lowering drug costs? Let’s just say that Stephen Harper did not enter politics to save medicare, but rather something closer to the opposite.

The Conservatives’ role in driving up drug prices was not just due to this act of omission, but also to a considerable act of commission that came a few years later with the negotiation of the Canada-European Trade Agreement  (CETA).  Canada needs to encourage investment in research, development and manufacturing, but that neither explains nor justifies our history of higher prices.  Remember when Brian Mulroney first  angered seniors by improving patent protection for drugs and making generic drugs more expensive, way back in 1987? At that time, the pharmaceutical industry promised to spend 10% of sales revenues on R&D in exchange for higher prices. What happened? Research spending has been well below 10% since 2002.  How can we be confident that drug companies will serve consumers any better under CETA? 

Friday, April 03, 2015

The REAL Problem with Jim Prentice's 2015 Budget

The "historic" Prentice budget is an historic missed opportunity. Instead of simply and boldly correcting a regressive tax system that relied too much on nonrenewable resource revenue to subsidize current consumption (both public and private) -- something that could have been done simply by returning to the personal and income tax rates  that were in place before 2000-- the government nickel-and dimed the taxpayers with increased fees and minor tax increases. While a graduated approach was recommended by government economists (on account of the fragility of the provincial economy) -- even by 2018-2019 the income tax system will only generate about $730 million more in revenue.  When you take inflation, economic growth and population growth into account , that means that the goal of building up the Heritage Trust Fund will still be critically dependent upon a substantial rise in oil prices.

We should all welcome Premier Prentice's commitment to getting off the energy-revenue roller-coaster and his plans to replenish Alberta's savings. But two things bothered me about  the premier's pre-budget TV broadcast and Finance Minister's speech last week.  First, he gave sketch of Alberta political history that commended Premier Lougheed for creating the Alberta Heritage Trust and Premier Klein for his "financial rigour" and implied that Alberta's fiscal problems were created elsewhere by less responsible politicians. This does not accord with my observations. Ed Stelmach was committed to correcting the infrastructure deficit that was hugely evident in the mid 2000s. He also tried to correct the problem of royalty rates that were 20% too low according to several expert studies. These were problems he inherited from the Klein government and from nowhere else.  Alison Redford , like Stelmach suffered from a lack of support in caucus and a fear of the Wildrose Alliance; she was likewise incapable of following through on a corrective strategy because a proper corrective strategy means confronting the uncomfortable truth that "real"  fiscal conservatism (of the kind exemplified by Ralph Klein) is the problem.

The second thing that bothers me about the Prentice government's approach is that, when I look at the factors that made an energy revenue savings strategy work in Alaska and Norway , what really stands out is presence of bi-partisan support in the former and formal all-party agreement in the latter.  Could even the Wildrose Alliance sign a declaration committing to restoring the Alberta Heritage Trust, while agreeing to disagree about whether those savings should come from reduced spending  rather than increased taxes?  The Government should strive to get all parties in the Legislature to commit to such a proposition; but since this is Alberta (and there will always only be one party in power) it simply does not bother.

Instead of trying to pander to people like Lorne Gunter, Prentice should have the courage to point out why they are wrong.  Stelmach and Redford weren't the problem; they failed to correct the problem created by Ralph Klein and Stockwell Day. The latter increased our dependency on the nonrenewable energy-revenue roller-coaster and created an infrastructure deficit. Gunter focuses on the least-meaningful stats (total spending) and ignores the most meaningful ones (spending in relation to GDP, spending per-capita).  There should be an intelligent consensus that a substantial proportion of non-renewable energy revenue be saved -- then people on the left and right can argue about whether those savings should come from spending cuts or tax increases. Government economists advised Prentice that going too hard in either direction at this time  could push a fragile economy into recession, and he was wise to listen to them. Another thing to bear in mind is that counter-cyclical funding for infrastructure and for higher education is a smart thing to do, especially if you  happen to live in a province that has a below average participation rate in higher education and at a time when interest rates are historically low.

By catering to Klein's personal popularity, and  by failing to gain all-party consensus for the idea of committing at least half of energy revenue to replenishing the Heritage Trust Fund, Prentice may be failing to entrench Alberta's collective commitment to saving.  That means that the policy could change when some future leader decides that it is politically more expedient to offer tax cuts instead of collective savings and investment.  In other words, history may be doomed to repeat itself.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Why the NDP Has the Best Position on C-51


I cannot recall any  party ever getting  elected nationally by bragging about the number and quality of its lawyers.  Nevertheless, the record of our current government has been a perfect illustration of what the lack of legal knowledge and procedural values can lead to: the waste of time and money that went into legislation that was bound to be struck down, as evidenced by the  Supreme Court’s reversal of the Onsite Clinic closure; the Court’s unanimous rejection of several criminal justice reforms that obviously violated the Charter; and the incredible mess that was the Fair Elections Act (since when does a government respond to something like the Robo-Calls scandal  by going after the referee? Since Stephen Harper became prime minister, I guess). 

The latest example is Bill C-51, The Anti-Terrorism Act, which goes way beyond what is needed to update our existing security legislation. It has faced mounting criticism from former Supreme Court justices, law professors who have specialized in national security matters, and the Canadian Bar Association. The 8 days allotted to this bill for parliamentary scrutiny is totally inadequate for what is really an omnibus bill affecting every aspect national security. (And will the Government please let the Privacy Commissioner, Mr. Daniel Therrien, speak to the Parliamentary Committee on Bill C-51? Is that really too much to ask?)  And of course the recent exchange in Question Period, in which the Leader of the Opposition Thomas Mulcair simply asked whether the government had gone through the process of sending a letter to the U.N. justifying incursions into Syria under Article 51 of the UN Charter, caught the prime minister flat-footed. It is further evidence of government's lack of legal acumen.

The Liberals showed a lack of courage in not opposing this bill on principle, but just weakly saying they would amend it later.  Although the bill initially had 82% support in the polls, that was obviously because people had only seen  the  title of the bill and not its contents. After all, who isn’t against terrorism? It is revealing that the Liberals’ only distinguished jurist, MP and McGill Law Professor Irwin Cotler, has abstained from voting on this bill, just as he was missing in action last October when the Liberals voted against the ISIL mission.

If the NDP got C-51 right, it was primarily because of the lawyers in its caucus: Craig Scott (Osgoode Hall law professor), Murray Rankin (Q.C. for his courtroom work in B.C. in constitutional litigation), Thomas Mulcair, Linda Duncan, Eve Peclet, Romeo Saganash, Don Davies, and Justice critic Francoise Boivin.  I know, you don’t like lawyers. But when it comes to keeping government from enacting overly-broad laws that needlessly impinge upon our civil liberties, they are indispensable. This federal government has few accomplished lawyers, and it shows.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Alberta's Disadvantage

“Stop mortgaging our future” has been a catch-phrase for several decades. Usually, it has been directed by conservative fiscal hawks at the perceived excesses of the “tax and spend” liberal or social –democratic welfare state of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet in recent years, the worst culprits, in both the United States and Canada, have been on the right side of the political spectrum. And the worst of all may be right next door in the conservative paradise of Alberta.

Do you think I am kidding?  The much-touted “Alberta advantage” has consisted largely of using most of its resource wealth to subsidize both lower taxation and higher spending on services than found elsewhere in the country.   Since the first full year of the Alberta Heritage Trust Fund in 1977, $216 billion in revenue accrued from non-renewable energy went into the Fund;  but  of that amount less than 6% of it has actually been saved. The latest reported total for the Fund is just $17.4 billion—little more in real terms than it was when Peter Lougheed left office in 1985.

In 2011, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce calculated  that if Alberta had continued to save 37 per cent of resource revenue, as was the case under Peter Lougheed, the Fund  would be worth $128 billion.   A reasonable rate of return on that amount of money annually could fully cover even the current "crisis" deficit of $7 billion.  The left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the right-leaning Fraser Institute have both published reports arguing that Alberta should be saving more of its non-renewable resource revenues.  So has the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta . But governments over the past quarter-century have not listened.

Savings started to be reduced during the Getty government in 1987, after which  resource revenue was no longer added to the Heritage Fund.   “King Ralph”  did everything with oil revenue between 1992 and 2007 except use it  to build savings: eliminating public debt,  giving voters pre-election “Klein bucks” when revenues were high, and using the Fund to pay for  special projects for economic diversification (some of which took the form of loans to private companies that had to be forgiven);  the elimination of sales taxes,  the lowest corporate taxes in the country and the country’s only 10% flat income tax . The contrast with other jurisdictions is striking: Alaska for example continued to deposit 25 percent of its royalties from 1982-2011 and Norway contributed 100 percent. If Alberta had followed the Alaskan formula, by 2011 the Heritage Fund would have had $42.4 billion instead of $9.1 billion. By the Norway rules Alberta would have had $121.9 billion by 2011.

Now that the Alberta government is having to scramble because of low oil prices, premier Jim Prentice needs to show that he is another Peter Lougheed and not another Ralph Klein.  Future generations of Albertans are counting on it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Alberta's Tax Dis-Advantage

A recent poll showed that only 9% of Albertans want to have a  sales tax to help deal with the province's fiscal woes, preferring taxes that either others will pay or that they will only have to pay occasionally, like a medical premium ( See , for example, “Albertans Say no to Sales Tax ", Huffington Post, January 19).

Partly, this reflects a reasonable desire to ensure money is spent where they want it (i.e. on health care), but mostly it is just wishful or short-term thinking: the preferred options are not sufficient to wean the Alberta government off its unhealthy and short-sighted dependency on revenue from depleting conventional oil supplies.

I favour raising  $2 billion through moderately progressive income, corporate and royalty payments (all of these taxes would still be the lowest in Canada, by a considerable margin).  We might also wish to consider  raising an additional $2 billion through  temporary sales taxes (i.e. a 7% HST)    That way , the progressivity of one tax would balance out the regressivity of the others for a common cause:  the well-being of future generations whose oil we are selling.  Or perhaps a medical services premium and a gasoline surtax....

To help sell the sales tax idea, it could include a sunset clause --for example,  for five years. Or better yet that would see the tax disappear if/when the Heritage Trust Fund reaches $100 billion, or fall to  2% when the Fund reaches $50 billion, etc.

In that way, Albertans can be nudged, fairly and gradually, toward a more sensible and sustainable future.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Canada's Top 5 MPs of 2014

Allow me to start the New Year  on a positive note by presenting my choices for the Top Five MPs for  2014.

1. Craig Scott (NDP—Official Opposition Critic for Democratic and Party Reform).
Mr. Scott  did a great job of exposing the government’s Orwellian (Un)Fair Elections Act
for what it was –an attack upon democracy that tried to dampen voter participation and
limit the investigatory functions of the Chief Electoral Officer.    He has also been the
Parliament’s leading advocate of real electoral reform. On Dec 3 , 2014 the House of
Commons debated Scott’s motion:   that  “(a) the next federal election should be the last
conducted under the current first-past-the-post electoral system which has repeatedly
delivered a majority of seats to parties supported by a minority of voters, or under any
other winner-take-all electoral system; and (b) a form of mixed-member proportional
representation would be the best electoral system for Canada.”  In countries where
proportional representation has been introduced it has reduced partisanship, while
increasing voter turnout and the representation of women and other marginalized groups
in Parliament.

2. Elizabeth May (Green—Leader and MP for Saanich and Gulf Islands).      Mclean’s
Magazine—which asks every MP to vote for their top picks—named Ms. May the 
Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012, and Hardest Working MP in 2013. In 2014 , the same
poll named her Best Orator in the House of Commons, as well as the Hardest-Working MP
for the second year in a row.  She also introduced one of the more constructive Private
Members’ Bills of the year, “An Act Respecting a National Lyme Disease Strategy,” which
passed with all-party support.

3. Thomas Mulcair (NDP—Leader of the Opposition). Mulcair’s skillful skewering of
the prime minister over the Senate Scandal in 2013 was probably his finest hour. In 2014,
he has continued  to be a strong voice for both democratic reform and as an alternative
approach to foreign policy, trade, and the environment. This fall he received a strong
endorsement from an unlikely source when former PC prime minister Brian Mulroney
called him “the finest Opposition Leader since John Diefenbaker.”

4. Brent Rathgeber (Independent - Edmonton-St.Albert).  Rathgeber  was elected as a
Conservative in 2008 and 2011. But on June 5, 2013, he resigned from caucus to sit as an
Independent MP due to the Harper government’s   “lack of commitment to transparency
and open government.”  In September 2014, he published his book, Irresponsible
Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, which provides
several prescriptions for redressing the imbalance between elected parliamentarians and
the un-elected Prime Minister’s Office.  In November, he was named “the Member of
Parliament who best represents his constituents” by McLean’s Magazine, and in
December he voted for the NDP motion on proportional representation.

5. Michael Chong (Conservative – Wellington Halton Hills).  Mr. Chong’s  Private
Member’s Bill, entitled The Reform Act,  aimed at restoring the historic role of MPs  by
enabling party caucuses to trigger leadership reviews, make decisions about membership
in caucus,  and choose the chairs of party caucuses. The original bill also proposed to 
take away the prime minister’s power to veto riding nominations.  However, the version
of the Act that was finally passed  in 2014 was considerably watered down.  Final say
over nominations is to be given to “a person to be designated by each registered political
party,” rather than to individual riding associations. The revised bill will only give party
caucuses  the option after each general election to empower themselves.  Theoretically,
parties could remain as autocratic as ever. But it is reasonable to expect that , thanks to
the Reform Act, parties will evolve into something more democratic in the future.

Some Honourable Mentions: Frank Valeriote (Liberal) and Stephane Dion (Liberal) for their strong work on electoral reform and environmental issues; Meagan Leslie (NDP) and Nathan Cullen (NDP) for their reliability in getting up to speed quickly on a number of complex issues; Irwin Cotler (Liberal) and Murray Rankin (NDP ) for their legal expertise (notice the total lack of a redoubtable Conservative counterpart to these two);  and pediatric surgeon and MP Kellie Leitch (Conservative)  for adding some badly needed smarts and likeability to the Conservative caucus.