Sunday, April 22, 2012

Wildrose: What's new is still old - the Alberta Firewall Concept

Kim Campbell once said that an election is no time to debate serious issues. There is no better example of this axiom than the current Wildrose election campaign in Alberta. Frankly, the four main planks in the Danielle Smith's election platform raise more questions than the answer and set a new standard for vagueness and political double speak. And if you are one of the undecided voters in Alberta, then questioning what Smith and the Wildrose really stand for and what their promises mean is the most important thing you can do before you vote on Monday.

I reside in Alberta but have never voted for the Progressive Conservatives. Nor have I voted for the Conservative Party of Canada. What follows are a series of comments on Wildrose promises.

3. Alberta Firewall revisited

Throughout the Alberta Election campaign, the Wildrose have relied on several old ideas, erecting a firewall around Alberta to protect the province from interference from the federal government and other meddling forces like the Supreme Court of Canada. Others include "blowing up" Alberta Health Services and returning Alberta to the days when local hospital health boards ruled the day circa 1975.

The idea of a firewall was proposed following the 2001 election in a letter from several well-known academics in Alberta and Stephen Harper, then president of the National Citizens' Coalition. The other signatories include Ted Morton, current provincial finance minister and former professor of political science at the University of Calgary, Tom Flanagan, senior adviser to both Preston Manning and Stephen Harper during the Reform Party years and current professor of political science at the University of Calgary, among others. You can read the letter here, ironically, at

Essentially the authors sought to convince then Premier Ralph Klein that he needed to insulate Alberta from the machinations of Jean Chretien's meddling government. More specifically, the authors proposed that the time had come for the provincial government "to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction."

Ideally,  Harper, Morton and Flanagan et al wanted Alberta to opt out of the Canada Pension Plan and instead offer a specific Alberta Pension Plan in order to gain more control over how money was invested, and one would think, achieve better returns. In addition, Klein was urged to collect our own taxes rather than rely on Ottawa to collect and remit money back to the province, to replace the RCMP with a separate Alberta-based provincial police force, to opt out of Medicare and the Canada Health Act.

Today Harper is prime minister and Alberta no longer faces a hostile and powerful opponent in Ottawa. Just the opposite in fact. On healthcare and other matters Harper is deferring to the provinces, handing over fistfuls of cash without any required oversight or required outcomes. The Harper government is also changing how the federal government handles environmental reviews of major projects to hurry along the Northern Gateway pipeline which will carry Alberta crude to the West Coast.

So why does Alberta still need a firewall? We don't, unless you are a conspiracy theorist and see the day when a socialist prime minister from Quebec sits on the throne in Ottawa again. I can understand proposing a separate Alberta Pension Plan to augment the CPP but not replace it. Creating an APP will cost billions of dollars and take years to make self-sustaining.

There's no good reason to replace the RCMP with an Alberta Provincial Police force, unless you believe that the RCMP is a corrupt and hopeless institution? Alberta recently renewed its contract with the federal government for RCMP services in the province including an exorbitant increase in costs. This might be a key reason for an APP.

For an excellent review of healthcare systems in Canada and Europe see "Is Canada odd? A comparison of European and Canadian approaches to choice and regulation of the public/private divide in health care," by  Colleen M. Flood, and Amanda Haugan published in Health Economics, Policy and Law 01 July 2010 5 : pp 319-34. You can pay for a copy or find it free here.

It is an invaluable review of healthcare options in light of the Supreme Court's decision in its Chaoulli decision.

Smith: Iron Fist within a Velvet Glove or Wingnuts and Whackos?

Kim Campbell once said that an election is no time to debate serious issues. There is no better example of this axiom than the current Wildrose election campaign in Alberta. Frankly, the four main planks in the Danielle Smith's election platform raise more questions than the answer and set a new standard for vagueness and political double speak. And if you are one of the undecided voters in Alberta, then questioning what Smith and the Wildrose really stand for and what their promises mean is the most important thing you can do before you vote on Monday.

Why critique Smith and the Wildrose and not Redford and the Progressive Conservatives? Redford and the PCs are a known quantity; the Wildrose are not and the media have largely given Smith and her party a free ride.

I reside in Alberta but have never voted for the Progressive Conservatives. Nor have I voted for the Conservative Party of Canada. What follows are a series of comments on Wildrose promises.

2. Danielle Smith and Caucus Management 

Danielle Smith will tell anyone who listens that she will be a different type of premier for Alberta, one that listens to her caucus rather than a premier who runs roughshod over her MLA and party colleagues. In fact, Smith cites Ed Stelmach's poor treatment of caucus and his failure to take MLA interests into account as a key reason she joined the Wildrose Alliance.

According to a profile published in the Globe & Mail, Smith claims she decided to leave the Progressive Conservative party "after a meeting with PC MLA Rob Anderson in which he related how 55 members of Mr. Stelmach’s caucus had supported a particular policy position. Their unified voice was cut down when the premier overrode their decision." This is what Smith means when she says that she didn't leave the party, the party left her.

Smith and the Wildrose goes even further, promising to make every vote in the legislature a free vote. Specifically, Wildrose promises to "(r)estore the role of elected MLAs by mandating that all votes in the Legislature and caucus be free and reported to the public (emphasis added).

In short, Smith and Wildrose are serious about giving their MLA's a voice in government. Moreover, we can expect a Premier Smith to take her caucus seriously when she and her team craft policy. This is how it's supposed to work in a parliamentary democracy right?

Well, here's the rub.

Smith also claims that a Wildrose government will not reopen debates or introduce policy changes on contentious public issues like abortion, race or sexual orientation. She considers these questions settled.

But what if her caucus decides differently? Wildrose already has one candidate that has said he's the most logical choice for voters because he's white and can best represent all ethnic groups in the Legislature (the Whites for Wildrose campaign) and another who's published anti-gay sentiments online. Are these isolated events or will there be a push by some members of a Wildrose caucus to reopen debate on contentious issues?

 Every political party has its share of wingnuts and whackos and, in this regard, Wildrose is no different than the Progressive Conservatives or the Liberals. In fact, the current Liberal leader is former PC wingnut. What does make Smith and the Wildrose different is the party's roots in the Reform movement and social conservative politics.

Abortion, immigration, gay rights, women's rights and other social policy questions are important points of contention for social conservatives and it is ludicrous to believe that Smith will allow the social conservative members of her caucus to have free reign or to heavily influence her agenda and embroil her new government in open-ended debates. Free votes sound great in theory - and especially during elections - but they are not conducive to sound legislative management.

Smith can't have it both ways. She cannot pretend to allow for an open management system, more caucus input and free votes and NOT allow her MLA's to raise objections and policy changes highly contentious questions.

Here is where a direct comparison of Smith and Stephen Harper is most relevant. Like Smith, Harper's politics are Libertarian, not Social Conservative. On most issues, Harper believes individuals have the right to choose their own destinies. Yet Harper, as prime minister and as one of the most controlling political managers in Canadian history, has been unable to eliminate or fully control the influence of the social conservatives within his ranks. What Harper has done is vectored the social conservative agenda  to non-core policy areas, or at least areas that will not greatly affect electoral outcomes.

For example, Harper has allowed social conservatives to heavily influence Canadian  foreign policy in regards to Israel and how Canada funds maternal health (the federal Tories eliminated funding for International Planned Parenthood and other NGOs that assist women with abortions, for example). Historically, foreign policy is not a factor in voter decision making in Canada. Social conservatives have also influenced immigration and justice policies, but not to any significant extent.

In short, Harper has managed the social conservatives but not eliminated their demands.The one exception is the vote on gay marriage which Harper allowed as a means of silencing the issue once and for all.

If Smith becomes premier she will have two key management decisions to make, to either allow her collection of wingnuts and whackos and control over her agenda through free votes in caucus and the legislature or to wield an iron fist inside of a velvet glove and ensure a Wildrose government stays on track and remains electable in what is becoming a very progressive and very urban province.

The latter is more likely than the former.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Wildrose and the art of being vague

Kim Campbell once said that an election is no time to debate serious issues. There is no better example of this axiom than the current Wildrose election campaign in Alberta. Frankly, the four main planks in the Danielle Smith's election platform raise more questions than the answer and set a new standard for vagueness and political double speak. And if you are one of the undecided voters in Alberta, then questioning what Smith and the Wildrose really stand for and what their promises mean is the most important thing you can do before you vote on Monday.

I reside in Alberta but have never voted for the Progressive Conservatives. Nor have I voted for the Conservative Party of Canada. What follows are a series of comments on Wildrose promises.

1) Healthcare

A core Wildrose promise is to restructure healthcare in Alberta. They will do so in two key ways, first by dismantling Alberta Health Services (AHS) and second by allowing Albertans to seek health care outside of the public system if the public system is unable to deliver care in a timely matter.

Smith is on record saying she wants to "blow up" AHS and reinstate regional health boards across the province. Smith argues that AHS is dysfunctional and unaccountable and must be torn down. Yet just four years ago the Stelmach used the same arguments - that the regional health boards were government dysfunctional, unaccountable and unable to meet budget requirements - to do away with those same regional health boards and centralize health care management in a single board.

Specifically, Smith wants to fully decentralize health care management in the province. According to the Wildrose website, the party will "gradually decentralize the delivery of health care to locally managed and integrated hospitals, Primary Care Networks, family physicians, specialty centres, long-term care facilities and other health services....Solutions lie in empowering local decision-makers to determine the course of health care delivery based on the individual needs of local patients."

In short,  Wildrose will eliminate provincial management of health care resources and allow doctors and patients to manage it on a case by case basis. Each hospital and primary care centre will become self-managed.

First, healthcare management in Alberta has undergone major structural changes over the last four years. The Stelmach government destabilized healthcare with the elimination of regional health boards and the creation of Alberta Health Services. AHS certainly isn't perfect; it is still trying to find its way as an organization and requires time to do so. Would healthcare in Alberta be best served by fully dismantling AHS and introducing more instability and more uncertainty? To quote Andre Picard, health columnist at the Globe & Mail, "This kind of constant revamping of the management structure has interfered terribly with the stuff that matters: delivering quality care...Instead of fiddling with management structures, we need to fix our fundamental approach to delivering care – to put the emphasis on managing chronic disease and caring for people in the community and take it away from the outmoded approach of providing all acute care in institutions." (G&M, April 19, 2012).

AHS isn't perfect but blowing it up isn't the answer to improving stability, consistency and faith in Alberta's healthcare system. Smith hasn't proven that her proposal is any better than what we currently have and she has done little to expand on her ideas on healthcare.

A second Wildrose healthcare promise is to allow a mixture of public and private healthcare delivery. Alberta already has a mixed system. In fact, the vast majority of healthcare in Alberta is already delivered by private operators who work under a publicly managed system. Public healthcare is based on private operators billing and working under public management. More than 99% of doctors choose to work in this system.

So what exactly is Smith and the Wildrose promising? Or is Wildrose simply being disingenuous for promising something that already exists but few Albertans and Canadians are actually aware of?

In my opinion, the key to answering those questions is the Wildrose promise to allow patients to choose public, non-profit or private healthcare providers. In short, to encourage patient choice in the healthcare system. Decentralizing  and essentially eliminating public management of healthcare only makes sense if you plan to allow doctors to opt out of the current publicly-managed system entirely and operate with true independence. This is likely what Smith and the Wildrose really means by private healthcare providers. Like many of Wildrose's ideas this one isn't new or innovative; it is a return to healhcare circa 1960.

There are several problems with Smith's promises. First, as an economist Smith knows that demand for healthcare services is nearly unlimited yet supply of healthcare services is, for all intents, fixed in the short term. There is no way to quickly increase the supply of doctors, nurses, and technicians. It is not just a question of money or training but also of professional accreditation, which is tightly controlled. Thus, there is no way to increase the number of doctors working "privately" without decreasing the number that work in the "public" system, meaning they accept public healthcare management.

Smith's plan, assuming there is actually a well-thought out plan, is to pay for healthcare services in the private market out of the public purse. Exactly how is Smith going to control the cost of those services is unknown unless she also plans to introduce further price controls (this maybe what Smith means when she says she wants to emulate healthcare in Europe, which strictly controls what doctors can charge for services).  But she can't have it both ways. If Wildrose plans to allow doctors to opt out of Medicare they cannot simultaneously plan to control prices in the private market.

The Wildrose promise to pay for healthcare in the private market is more vapour than substance. What is likely to happen is that the Wildrose will cap what the public purse will pay for those services and allow doctors to extra bill patients. If a doctor who opts out of Medicare in Alberta, assuming Wildrose allows that, then Smith cannot limit what that doctor can demand for payment of services. Currently doctors really don't have a choice but to accept public management.

The other promise that Wildrose makes is to allow Alberta patients to seek timely healthcare in other provinces or in the United States. In essence, Smith is looking to reduce demand for healthcare services in Alberta by exporting that demand to BC, Saskatchewan and the US. This isn't a solution that BC or Saskatchewan will happily agree too.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The shantytown of physics and other sciences

Tony Rothman of Princeton University has written an insightful and must-read piece on the state of physics as a science and sacred cow. Rothman describes physics as being presented as a "shimmering cathedral" by its practitioners and textbooks but "often more closely resembles a hastily erected shantytown." Modern science can and engineers can produce complex gyroscopes to pilot ships into space, among other uses, but modern physics cannot describe what the gyroscope is pointing at.

Rothman writes, "(a)fter decades - indeed, centuries - of employing such tricks, physicists have forgotten that they are modeling phenomena, not necessarily uncovering "divine truth". For instance, we can easily write down the equations for a ball on a swinging spring, but if we stretch the spring enough and swing the ball hard enough, we can't solve those equations. The motion becomes chaotic, making an exact mathematical solution impossible."

"Even something as fundamental as Newton's law of gravity is ultimately an approximation."

But is Rothman's concern for differentiating between phenomenon and truth in physics also applicable to other sciences? Rothman points to hubris in physics and surely there is enough hubris in climate science to fill a black hole, and on both sides of the great climate debate divide. Admitting what we don't know if far more important than defending scared assumptions we are prepared to die for.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kai Nagata and the evils of Corporate News

At the end of the day Kai Nagata quit his job because he wanted his voice back, he wanted the freedom to express his opinions - and I stress the word opinion - without contractual, professional or, as he makes clear, factual restraints. Fair enough. Have fun. The adults will make do without your input. No doubt there's a blog in his future.

Nagata may be articulate but it's clear he doesn't have the courage of his convictions, giving up after only a year on the job. If Canadian journalism is worth saving - if indeed it's possible to save it - we will need more people like Nagata but ones willing to stay the course for more than a few months.

Unfortunately, this essay is little more than a rant about  the state of Canadian journalism, something that could easily be deduced by picking up a newspaper or watching the evening news, where Ken and Barbie dolls abound. Ironically, Nagata's lament is simply a longer, less concise version of Howard Beale's "I'm mad as hell and I"m not going to take it any more!" rant.

The truth is that news has always been a business first and a public good second and this fact belies Nagata's assertion that he took the job with his eyes wide open.

Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast television are in the business of information collection and distribution and the current, albeit dying, business models they operate under require a constant stream of new readers and viewers. The battle for readers and viewer is a source of great pressure on all newsrooms and this has always been true where there is competition for those same readers and viewers. In short, the race to the bottom in journalism has been going on for a long time.

To quote Thomas Jefferson,, "the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing, but newspapers." Or if you prefer, consider the term "yellow journalism", which was coined to describe the antics of newspapers in New York during the great circulation wars in the late 19th Century. It is a term long-associated with Joesph Pulitzer and I'm sure you know who he is and what he stands for. Rupert Murdoch and murdochism isn't new, it's just a variant on existing trends practiced with ruthless efficiency and determination along with the odd bribe or two or three.

The alternatives, however,  to private news or news-as-a-business are worse, news by government or news by blogosphere, which really isn't news.
Once a newspaper touches a story the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists. Norman Mailer

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The reliability of unreliable online reporting

Here is an example of how blogs posing as news and bloggers posing as reporters undermine online journalism and why we will miss newspapers in the near future.

Greg Mitchell, a blogger at, makes note of another blog which informs the world that it is Israel's official policy to keep Gaza on the brink of economic collapse and that the Israelis have kept the United States informed of this policy. The ostensible source for this information is a diplomatic cable given to Wikileaks.

Just another news story from Cablegate.

Well, not really.

If you wandered down the rabbit hole you'd find that Mitchell's link is just another blogger, Andrew Sullivan at, yammering about Israel's treatment of Gaza in a post about the evils of collective punishment. Sullivan's blog is based on a news story from Yahoo News, which in turn is just a re-post from Reuters News Service which itself is a story about story published in a Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten.

Aftenposten "claims" it has all 250,000 diplomatic cables that Jullian Assange and Wikileaks say they have but have not released. The Reuters' story notes the information about Israel's economic policy toward Gaza  comes from a cable dated November 3, 2008. This cable must be in Aftenposten's collection because it has not been released on Cablegate (there is nothing from November 3, 2008, assuming the date has been correctly reported by Reuters, which itself is a question mark).

In other words, the entire story is based on unsubstantiated information from one newspaper which claims to have original diplomatic cables but has not saw fit to share them with the world and a newspaper that was not among Wikileaks' chosen few of so-called reliable media partners. Moreover, Aftenposten no longer publishes a English edition of its online service so to read the original report one must know Norwegian or know of a Norwegian who can read it to you.

While the Reuters' story makes the connection between the source of the cable and Aftenposten abundantly clear, neither Mitchell nor Sullivan bothered to note that the source of their information is suspect and has not been corroborated by anyone outside of a few select Norwegians.

While I fully support Mitchell's and Sullivan's right to yammer on about anything they like or that their publishers will publish, they have a duty, as serious "bloggers" or "online journalists" to question the source of the information and tell their readers where the information is coming from, just like serious journalists do everywhere else.

The reason this is important should be self-evident: online journalism is the future and the co-ability to report information and have that information fed to massive audiences means getting the information right is even more important than it has ever been. Yet what we see is the proliferation of unreliable reporting and the failure of journalistic standards. It's not whether the cable is right or wrong or whether Sullivan's opinion is right or wrong, it's about ensuring audiences understand the nature of the information so they can judge for themselves.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Cory Doctorow and Copyright

I've been reading a lot of Cory Doctorow lately (see His genre is nominally science fiction but only generally so. Doctorow's books (Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, For the Win, Makers) channel the late Michael Crichton in that Doctorow is able to illuminate important social and scientific questions through characterization and situation. Where Crichton took an almost overly broad view of a subject/issue, Doctorow isn't afraid to get mired in the details. That said, Doctorow (who's Canadian by the way) still needs a better editor as his books tend to be repetitive - that is, he makes his point over and over again without need.

I've also read Doctorow's book Content which is ostensibly about copyright in the digital age. It's an informative book by a Canadian intellect working at the cutting edge of tech.  If there's a flaw in the book it's that while Doctorow is not shy about pointing out what's bad about current copyright law (including Canada's)  he never fully articulates his vision of what good copyright should be in the aftermath of the Naspster wars.

If I understand Doctorow's point, copyright laws need to be focused more on giving artists control over their own work rather than embedding the current, and by necessity, outdated business models of the sellers of artistic content. The technology shouldn't matter because the tech is only a means by which art reaches its audience. The restrictions  imposed by proprietary software and technology such as digital locks are therefore an anathema to artistic endeavour.  The Internet, like radio and TV before, has challenged the business models of the current art market by further democratizing art and art forms.

Where does this leave copyright, which attempts to balance property law, fair use and compensation for art? How should be Bill C-32 be changed?

good questions...not sure I know just yet

Another excellent source is Michael Geist's website.l Geist is a law professor at University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. See http://www.michaelgeist.

good blogs on Bill C-32..

been a while

been a while since I blogged....which is a cardinal sin in the blogsphere apparently where publish or perish is the way....

As always I've been commenting on the G&M and NP as AntiSpin and occasionally on Rabble/Babble, that bastion of leftist thought and general weirdness...

Most recently on the G&M I commented on the Pope's peace pray where I added a line to a quote from the went something like this...

And the pope prayed, "(g)rant that we many join with You in love more and more and thus become people of peace." He added, "and you'll find free condoms next to the fount on your way out."

The comment on the G&M was deemed abusive and removed shortly after it was posted (lol now Norman Spector and I have something in common!!) Abusive of whom the G&M didn't say. The pope's a forgiving guy and I've no doubt the vicar of christ would understand the message contained in the joke. He might have even chuckled a bit.

For the record my comment about the Pope and condoms by the fount was not abusive; it was apropos given the pope's recent declaration that condoms are formally approved to be used in the fight against HIV/Aids but not for you know, regular intercourse. Which is to say, the pope thinks it's okay for men, prostitutes, homosexuals, and other sinners to avail themselves of latex party hats but not good Catholics who, by inference and long-standing church canon, must reproduce freely and often.

I'm not surprised the comment was attacked and subsequently pulled by the G&M. I expected to be and was indeed spanked by the forces of knee-jerk reactionaries and their cousins among the religious zealots and orthodox dogmatics...nice to see how consistent they all are...

Hmmm dogmatics...sounds like a great rock'n roll band....

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Coalition logic

Dumb, dumb and dumber....this accurately describes Michael Ignatieff's Just Say No approach to a pre-election coalition with the NDP. Or does it? Perhaps the Mad Count is aware of something everyone else has overlooked.

Ignatieff, the current interim leader, and the Liberal brain trust believe that running on a Liberal party first and coalition second strategy is a winning ticket. The tarnished Liberal brand hasn't worked for more than six years but hey, if it ain't broke why fix it right?

However, the Liberal Party of Canada cannot win a majority because they have been rejected - over and over again - by Quebec voters in favour of the Bloc.
Politically, the Bloc sits to the left of the Liberals on most issues, a territory well mapped by the NDP. A recent Ekos poll suggested that a formal Liberal-NDP coalition that favoured NDP policies could win significant votes in Bloc held ridings. Thus establishing and running an election on a formal coalition could break the Bloc's stranglehold on Quebec ridings and give the coalition the numbers it needs to form a majority government.

From a practical perspective, establishing a coalition before the next election would allow the parties to coordinate and cooperate on the campaign trail rather than compete on every issue and in every riding.



Just Wait.

If there's a reason for the Mad Count and the Liberals to be concerned about establishing a coalition before hand, or at all, it's the numbers.

Even if the Liberals and NDP retain all of their current ridings and somehow managed to win 24 additional ridings in Quebec, it's still possible that the Conservatives could win another minority government. Recent polling suggests that an NDP-Liberal coalition would leave much if not all of the Conservative support intact. In other words, stealing seats from the Bloc does not dent the Tory seat count one iota, it just re-arranges deck chairs on the good ship parliament.

Winning 24 additional seats in Quebec would be nice but it's not plausible in the current state of things. Canada's electorate is far too Balkanized to allow for large shifts of support one way or the other. The best that could be hoped for is that a coalition or merged Liberal/NDP bleeds enough support from the Bloc and the Conservatives to allow for a strong minority government.

An analysis of the 2008 election suggests that it's more likely a Liberal/NDP coalition or merger would only wrest 10 seats from the Bloc in Quebec and possibly another 21 seats from the Conservatives in the rest of Canada, assuming the coalition maximized it's efforts to win seats by running only one candidate in key ridings. The analysis looked at ridings won by the either the Conservatives or the Bloc and where the combined vote of the Liberals and NDP were greater than the actual winner's total votes. This would result in a coalition minority (Liberal/NDP 144, Conservatives 123, Bloc 28). This straight-forward analysis doesn't take into account disgruntled Liberals who might vote Conservative in protest to a coalition or merger or disgruntled NDP supporters who might vote Green or not at all.

Thus a coalition or merger could benefit both parties but a majority government would be unlikely.

The upside to a coalition is that is more likely to work than the status quo and the longer Ignatieff waits the less he seems to resonate with voters. He has not proven very adept at parliamentary swordplay and it's doubtful he will improve on the campaign trail. In short, Ignatieff needs whatever help he can get.

If Ignatieff and the Liberals decide to stand alone then it's unlikely, at this juncture, that anything will change in Ottawa. And if the Conservatives eek out another minority government it will be too late for a coalition to be of much use. Unfortunately, the constitutional convention in Canada is that government's form coalitions not the opposition (see 1925 and 1975 for examples). Moreover, a sitting government that still has more seats than any one opposition party or a combination of two will not be asked to step aside by the Governor General in the aftermath of an election.

In this scenario, the only opportunity to change the status quo would be to engineer a non-confidence vote at earliest possible moment. Having run a recent election as a coalition would strengthen the Liberals and NDP claims to having a mandate from Canadians. The downside is that the Bloc, having lost seats to the Liberals and NDP could be hard pressed to support the coalition when push comes to shove.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Rae's About Face - Support's Continued role for Canada in Afghanistan

So Bob Rae now supports a continued role for Canada in Afghanistan, specifically training the police and security forces for corrupt government that routinely tortures its own people?

What a difference four years makes. Wasn't it Bob Rae complaining about Bush's War and that Canada has no business in Afghanistan just a few years ago?

The only way I would support any continued Canadian presence in Afghanistan, be it military, diplomatic or otherwise is IF the Karzai regime is abolished, an interim leadership group elected from among elected members of the Afghan assembly and the planning of fresh presidential elections.

Canada should not agree to provide one more soldier, or one more dime in support of a failed foreign policy or in support of Karzai's government.

I get that the Taliban are evil, killers, rapists and cutthroats to a man. But placing Canadians between the Taliban and one of the most corrupt regimes in the world and asking those same Canadians to improve the situation is futile.

Either Karzai goes or we go.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vicious circles and committees

Is the federal Conservative government defying Parliament again or does it have a valid point about ministerial responsibility in regards to the political staffers appearing before partisan committees?

The Opposition parties should stop whining and put the question to Speaker Peter Milliken and ask him rule whether the government can shield its political staff (or anyone) at its own discretion.

However, it seems relatively clear to me, after reading the House Rules and Procedures, that standing committees can call and/or summons whom they like with two exceptions. If I've read the R&P right, the only group that can say no to a summons absolutely are Senators (MPs can't compel a member of the opposing chamber to appear before a committee). MPs also have the right to refuse a request and/or summons but then, if the committee so decides, the MP must answer to the House why they refused (a little used tactic).

Even the most hardcore Conservative supporter must admit that this mess is the government's own making. A political staffer recalled a response to a FOIA request on how the government is managing Crown real estate. There would've been much less furor had the government simply released the information than they created by recalling it.

But there's a deeper issue here.

Had the Conservatives actually believed in ministerial responsibility and appeared at committees to defend the decisions of their ministries with regularity then the committees would not have been forced to call on political staffers, an ironic and vicious circle that goes around and around in today's Parliament.

But the Conservatives don't deserve all of the blame here.

Currently, the Opposition-controlled committees are more interested in scoring political points then revealing significant truths about government policy. This poisoned and partisan atmosphere help explain why many Conservative MPs and ministers are unwilling to appear before committees. Well that and the current governments shocking disdain for parliamentary rules and procedures.

But politics abhors a vacuum. When ministers refused to be held accountable for their subordinate's decisions, the committees went hunting for fresh game.

And the vicious circle of political life continues.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Politicis at the Core & Playing the Wedge

Lawrence Martin of the Globe&Mail argues today that the Conservatives are focused on their own core supporters and wedge politics. The Conservatives, he argues, are all about small tent politics.

Someone, anyone, give me an example of a wedge issue used by the Conservatives to drive the Left apart?

Jack Layton has said repeatedly he can't or won't trust Harper and the NDP is committed, long-term, to voting against every single Conservative initiative. There's no better or easier bet to make than NDP intransigence against Conservative plans or initiatives.

Ditto Giles Duceppe and the Bloc.

Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals alternate between support and revulsion. Every time a key vote occurs, the Liberals provide enough support to keep the government going be it the budget, omnibus bills or Afghanistan. The previous Conservative budgets have passed with nary a comment nor amendment from the Liberal bench. The Liberal rubber stamp in the House has gotten so bad that the Senate is taking a serious look at splitting apart government legislation and sending it back to the House for proper debate.

The Conservatives may be a party of many small tents governing with small ideas, but it's the Opposition, and especially the Liberals, that allow it to continue.

If the Left in Canada is fractured it's because Canadians have made it so. There are no wedge issues, aside from overt fear of an election and possible Conservative majority, driving the Left apart.

Take gun control and the firearms registry, for example. A Conservative private members bill received support from the Liberal and NDP at first reading and committee and forced both parties to promise to whip the vote to prevent it from passing Third Reading. Both parties, despite their Big Tent declarations, quickly closed ranks to ensure support from their core constituents.

I don't think Larry Martin is biased; I think he's being deliberately disingenuous by arguing that the Conservatives are playing to their core supporters on key issues. There has NEVER been a government that HASN'T played to their core supporters regardless of party name, ideology or affiliation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Politics of the Worst Kind - Electoral Redistribution

 According to news reports, the Quebec Liberal caucus is pushing a plan to increase the number of seats Quebec has in Parliament to ensure the province is not under represented when changes are made in 2014.

The proposed changes are outlined in Bill C-12, which would add 30 new seats to Parliament, 18 in Ontario, 5 in Alberta and 7 in BC. The Quebec Liberal caucus, along with the Bloc, see this as unfair because the additional seats would reduce the percentage of Quebec's seats in the House below it's percentage of population by a small margin.

Electoral and political math rarely make sense but the Liberal caucus and Bloc have little to complain about in the proposed changes.One Quebec Liberal has gone so far as to make the link between Quebec's distinct society and it's need for parity or better.
But let's do the math.

Under the current electoral map and using 2009 census figures from Statscan, Ontario has 34.4% of seats in Parliament while it has 38.74% of the population, meaning on a strictly Rep by Pop basis, the province is under represented by nearly 4.5%. Similarly, Alberta and BC are under represented in Parliament by 1.84% and 1.52% respectively. Quebec, meanwhile, is currently over represented, when comparing number of seats to population, by 1.15%, meaning it has approximately 4 seats too many.

No one in Quebec, be it the Bloc or the federal Liberal caucus, is demanding the government reduced its current allotment nor is the Bloc willing to give up seats out of electoral fairness. That would be silly.

Yet even under the proposed changes, Ontario would still be under-represented by 2% when compared to its population (124 seats divided by 338 = 36.7%). While Alberta and BC come closer to parity, the two provinces would still be under represented in absolute terms (-1.17% and -0.48% respectively). Quebec, under the new regime, would be under represented by just 1% or similar to Alberta.

In other words, Alberta, BC and Quebec would have very similar levels of representation based on 2009 population while Ontario still loses out of seven additional seats it deserves.

Yet this change is still unacceptable and patently unfair according to both the Bloc and the federal Liberals.

If the goal of the proposed changes is to try and balance out electoral misrepresentation by adding seats to Parliament, then clearly Quebec has no case beyond the narrow politics of self-interest and self-delusion (distinct society means more seats?? what kind of logic is that?).

Moreover, why should the Bloc care about the distribution of seats within the House since its raison d'etre is separation? Reducing Quebec's representation in the House plays into the Bloc's hand; the less Quebec is represented in federal politics the greater the need for separation.

This is just the usual small-town cheap politics we've come to know and love from Quebec politicians.

House of Commons Seat Distribution, 2010 and Proposed by  Bill C-12

Current % of Seats minus % Population

Bill C-12 Proposed Abs Diff % Current % Chg Proposed %  Pop % Diff Current % Diff Proposed
N.L.  7 7 0 2.3% 2.1% 1.5% 0.8% 0.6%
P.E.I.  4 4 0 1.3% 1.2% 0.4% 0.9% 0.8%
N.S.  11 11 0 3.6% 3.3% 2.8% 0.8% 0.5%
N.B.  10 10 0 3.2% 3.0% 2.2% 1.0% 0.7%
Que.  75 75 0 24.4% 22.2% 23.2% 1.1% -1.0%
Ont.  106 124 18 34.4% 36.7% 38.7% -4.3% -2.0%
Man.  14 14 0 4.5% 4.1% 3.6% 0.9% 0.5%
Sask.  14 14 0 4.5% 4.1% 3.1% 1.5% 1.1%
Alta.  28 33 5 9.1% 9.8% 10.9% -1.8% -1.2%
B.C.  36 43 7 11.7% 12.7% 13.2% -1.5% -0.5%
Nunavut  1 1 0 0.3% 0.3%
N.W.T.  1 1 0 0.3% 0.3%

Yukon  1 1 0 0.3% 0.3%

Canada  308 338 30 100.0% 109.7%

Source: CBC

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Lancet and Canada

From an Editorial in the Lancet:
“Although the country's decision only affects a small number of developing countries where abortion is legal, bans on the procedure, which are detrimental to public health, should be challenged by the G8, not tacitly supported,” the editorial says.
The 70,000 women who die annually from unsafe abortions or the consequences of unsafe abortion WILL NOT BENEFIT from any G8 initiative. They will not benefit because the the states these women live and die in DO NOT provide safe abortion and will likely NEVER support safe abortion. This means that international aid from any G8 initiative will not reach these women.

Canada, the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and now the US under Obama all financially support NGOs that in turn help provide safe abortions in those African states where abortion is legal. Therefore the claim that the Canadian government is acting "hypocritical" by allowing access to abortion in Canada while not including it in the G8 proposal is plain wrong.

There is no doubt that access to emergency obstetric care and and safe, legal abortions saves lives. No question. But this isn't a problem that will be solved through financial aid or new programs because the problem in Africa, like here, is social, religious and cultural. In order to save the lives of women dying from unsafe abortions there must first be social, cultural and most importantly, political reform.

Abortion in Africa is more contentious than it is in Canada. Abortion is illegal in the vast majority of African states except where the mother's life is at stake. By all means, the G8 should include a rallying cry regarding the backward health policies in much of Africa that do not support legal, safe abortions in it's final statement, for as little good as it will actually do.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Michael and Michelle

Michael Ignatieff has announced his support for extending Governor General Michelle Jean's term beyond five years. Stephen Harper has served notice that he will not extend Jean's term and is searching for a replacement. Ignatieff's intervention simply politicizes the situation unnecessarily. Don Martin of the National Post put it aptly:
With that move on his first anniversary as Liberal leader, Mr. Ignatieff performed a multi-tasking gaffe that should go into a record book somewhere. It makes him appear an untrustworthy blabbermouth, kills any (very) faint hope of Ms. Jean’s term actually being extended, makes Jack Layton appear discreet in handling a private consultation privately and gives Mr. Harper a dignified look for seeking outside input on the vice-regal appointment.
Canadians have warmed to Jean in a way that eluded her standoffish and somewhat arrogant predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson. The term for GGs is five years but can be extended by the Prime Minister. Clarkson's term was extended by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in September 2004 due to the uncertain political future and the need for stability. According to the CBC, "Observers said the PM wanted an experienced Governor General in office, amid concerns the current parliament – in which the Liberal party clings to power with a minority – could bring political instability to Canada." Harper, Opposition leader at the time, agreed with the extending Clarkson's term despite controversies over her budget and lavish expenditures on clothes, travel and her staff. Clarkson served as GG for six years.

One could argue that the political instability that existed in 2004 still exists in 2010. Like then, we have an experienced GG who was seen two elections and Parliament prorogued twice.

Politically, Ignatieff is playing off Jean's popularity with Canadians, hoping some of Jean's magic will rub off. The Liberal boffins may also believe that Jean may work better for them should Harper's government fall. The Liberals Derek Lee has sent a letter to Jean outlining the current problems in the House. It could be seen, as one constitutional expert said on CBC news Sunday, that the Liberals are looking to either gain influence with Jean or influence here future decisions should the PM change his mind and extend her term. It's subtle, but it's there.

It is unusual in Canadian politics for an Opposition Leader to do anything but agree with the selection of GG. The Opposition leader is "consulted" in a minimal way but the selection process and decision rests with the prime minister..

That said, Michelle Jean's departure could have political implications for the Conservatives, a group that seldom resonates with women. One way that Harper could prevent or douse any political backdraft would be to announce that he has offered Jean an ambassadorship, or similar role, to Haiti or the Caribbean.

Friday, April 30, 2010

I see your two Jacks and I raise you an Iacobbuci!

The NDP have rejected appointing an independent arbiter to oversee the release of classified documents relating to the abuse of Afghan detainees who were transferred from Canadian custody during the early years of Canada's mission in Kandahar. According to the G&M,

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said his party wants MPs to serve as the filter for what should be released or withheld.  “We want Parliamentary oversight, not a proxy.”
The NDP appears to favour a two-stage process where a select group of Parliamentarians screen the tens of thousands of pages of documents, deciding what censored passages can be released. Under this scenario any new freshly released information would be funneled to the Special Commons committee on Afghanistan."

This would be a workable solution if and only if the screening committee had top notch legal help in determining which document involved national security and which didn't. (The G&M quote unnamed "legal scholars" who agree that independent assessment is needed to to provided the process legitimacy.)  If Jack Layton or Jack Harris think that MPs alone could sort out the 10,000+ files without partisan politics interfering then the two 'Dippers are 'trippin. In this case, the only measure for deciding to release documents would be how politically damaging the documents would be to the government (assuming the committee reflects the current division of the House and the Opposition has the upper hand).

Since a lack of trust among MPs got us into this mess, a lack of trust won't get us out. Legitimate, independent help is required to re-establish trust between MPs and between Canadians and their Parliament on this matter.

The proper role for MPs is in creating the rules under which classified documents are vetted and who does the vetting and then reviewing the documents as they are released. This is a more sensible solution

To support this goal, Frank Iaccobuci's mandate ought to be changed so that he reports to Parliament through the non-partisan Privy Council Office. Giles Duceppe strenuously objects to Iaccobuci as being Harper's Man and therefore tainted. But if you can't trust a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who can you trust?

Iaccobuci, or suitable alternative, and his chosen legal experts could be fully vetted by Parliament before they began work. Iaccobuci would only rule on what documents should remain classified. The standard for determining what was and what wasn't "national security" could be created by MPs and applied to the process of reviewing documents to make it more transparent. Documents that remain classified would be passed to a group of select MPs who are sworn to secrecy and meet in camera while those documents that fail to meet the standard would be released to the House committee monitoring Afghanistan. In short, set up a legitimate third party to decided what remains classified and what doesn't and let MPs do the work of reviewing the results.

This solution is in keeping with the spirit of what the NDP has proposed but relies on trustworthy third parties who remain outside the grist mill of politics.It's also the solution that  comes closest to a judicial inquiry but still allows MPs to decide the rules and control the process.

MPs on both sides of the House created this mess, they ought to clean it up rather than pass it off. On this, the Two Jacks and I agree

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Politics of Communication

 The Hill Times is running a story on their website on how the Harper government has changed communication protocols and strategy within the federal bureaucracy. The story is about how the government introduced strict communication control over federal bureaucrats through Message Event Proposals, or MEPs. The Hill Times describes MEPs as,
...a three-page document. An exhaustive document, the Message Event Proposal amounts to a sort of media shadow play that attempts to predict how information will play out in the press. It asks for a "desired headline" and "desired sound bite," "web highlight caption," "desired picture," "key questions and answers," and "official talking points." It also asks for details on event backdrops, props, speech length and tone, and attire of the speaker.

Many front line communications bureaucrats say they fill out multiple MEPs on a busy workday, and that this paperwork process has become an essential part of their work.
The story quotes one anonymous source who complained, "You say 'MEP' and the bureaucracy just cringes, because they can't stand these things called message event proposals," said one former communications official. "Basically what it is is micromanaging the message right down to the ground."

While the Hill Times does question the "micromanaging" interpretation, quoting former PMO staffer Kory Teneycke who said that ALL governments tightly manage the message and communication, it's buried at the bottom of the story, literally in the last two paragraphs. For the Hill Times, the story is about Tory micromanagement and how the government is suffocating bureaucrats, a pseudo-fact that converts nicely into political theater.

However, there is a serious disconnect between what the anonymous sources said, how the MEP is described and other facts quoted in the story.

First, is a three-page document of anything "exhaustive" or "intensive"? My resume is three pages of information in 12 point Times Roman but it's hardly an exhaustive or intensive document. The T1 Basic Tax form is four pages and involves the government and my money and it's neither exhausting nor exhaustive. So is the Hill Times description of the MEP valid?

Second, the use of anonymous sources taints the entire story. This isn't Watergate so tell us who the sources are and if they are unwilling to be quoted publicly then their information cannot be validated.. Far too many anonymous sources seem to have specific axes to grind to be reliable and their complaints dovetail too neatly with the politics of the story. Further, those sources that are used to provided balance are almost always used much later int he story to reduce their effect.

Third, if  many communication bureaucrats fill out an MEP three times a day and it has become an essential, even routine, part of their work then it is hardly a draconian measure is it?

Fourth, this is old news. The last paragraphs state that bureaucrats admit that "political control"  has "started to relax" in the past 18 months. In other words, the story isn't about the Conservatives  micromanaging  the bureaucracy at all, it's about events that occurred three years ago. The story - at least from the perspective of the time line involved - is that the government has since relaxed or is in the process of relaxing control over communications. The author never asks the obvious question whether this is good or bad.

Fifth, this is a classic change-management story: a new  boss introduces new methods and new paper work and while the staff get upset and revolt initially, they soon learn to accept the changes. The timing confirms it - changes introduced in 2007 but are staff learn to live with it in 2009. But that story has no sex appeal and doesn't fit with the common view of the Harper government as control freaks.

Sixth, branding and communication require discipline and usually that comes from a centralized source. I recently worked for a media company where every detail of the company's marketing and communication was controlled, right down to the amount of kerning between letters in the company's logo and the type of expressions used to describe the company. In other words, welcome to the real world.

Ukraine parliament erupts in chaos after vote

The Ukraine parliament erupted into chaos, smoke bombs and fighting among elected members after a vote ratifying a 25-year extension of Russia's lease on a key naval base. Video below.

Question period in Canada would be much more entertaining if a fisticuffs broke out once in a while. Perhaps MPs could pose as colourful luchadores rather than dry suits and talking heads.


Monday, April 26, 2010

More on Graves and Xenophobic Tories

I reviewed data from the 2008 Canada Election Survey to substantiate Frank Graves' assertion that the Conservative Party of Canada attracts xenophobes and homophobes. Or to be more accurate, that xenophobes and homophobes are attracted to the CPC.

Using two variables - the first measuring respondent attitudes on various political parties and the second their attitudes toward racial minorities - I constructed the following tables for the CPC, LPC, NDP and Bloc as well as a final table showing general attitudes toward political parties. I also variables involving self-identification with political parties and attitudes toward gays and lesbians.*

According to data, 3% of the respondents that indicated they liked the Conservative Party of Canada also stated a dislike of racial minorities. This is a clear sign, a proverbial smoking gun, that the CPC harbours devout racists and xenophobes within their ranks!

But wait, there's more. Using the same variables and scale, 5% of those respondents who said they liked the Liberal Party also said they disliked racial minorities. Ditto for the NDP (see tables 1A to 1E below). The differences between the three main political parties is negligible and certainly within the statistical error rate for the survey. (The statistical correlation between these variables is 0.08).

Where there is a significant difference is among respondents who gave a preference for the Bloc Quebecois: 10% of respondents who like the party also disliked racial minorities.

The results are similar when the question is changed from asking respondents to rate political parties to which party they identify with.. In table 2.0 below, 12% of respondents who self-identified as Conservatives dislike minorities while 9% of who said they were Liberals dislike minorities. Respondents who self-identified as NDP had the lowest score at 6% while 15% of those identifying as Bloc stated they disliked minorities.

The results are more varied when the question is changed from how do you feel about racial minorities to gays and lesbians. As Table 3 shows, approximately 25% of those respondents identifying as Conservatives also stated a dislike of gays and lesbians while 14% of respondents self-identifying as Liberals said the same thing. The scores for the NDP and Bloc were 14% and 10.9% respectively. Clearly all parties have significant numbers of supporters that dislike gays and lesbians; the Tories simply have more of them. (The statistical correlation between party self-identification and attitudes towards gays and lesbians is 0.001).

Are the results surprising?

No, because, generally speaking, the institutions and conventions of federal politics force all political parties to excise or silence their wing nuts and wackos as they compete for votes at the national level. The vast majority of Canadian voters cluster around the center of the political spectrum and have moderate attitude toward most issues. This forces political parties to jettison extreme views in order to brighten their appeal. This is why a former Reform Party die hard like Stephen Harper can woo Quebec with money and distinct society motions and run huge deficit after he earlier vehemently claimed he would never do such things.

It's also not surprising that a higher percentage of respondents that like the Bloc Quebecois disliked racial minorities. The Bloc is not a national political party and only has to tailor it's message and platform to suit the separatist vote in Quebec and separatist voters in Quebec have historically had a low opinion of immigrants and refugees. Jacques Parizeau's condemnation of immigrants and minorities as being the proximate cause of the failure of the 1995 referendum is a testament to separatist thinking on racial minorities.

So what can be said about Graves' Xenophobic & Homophobic Tories? Pretty much the exact same thing as Xenophobic & Homophobic  Liberals and Dippers. All parties have their wingnuts and wackos.What matters is how parties neutralize the influence of such extreme views.

Source 2008 Canada Election Survey.
The tables are based on attitude assessments using a range of 0-100. I have excluded responses that fell along the median of 50 as neutral positions. Therefore, 0-49 are considered a response of "dislike" and 51-100 are considered "like".

Tables 1A-5A

Racial Minorities

Dislike Like
CPC   Dislike 3% 27% 30%
Like 4% 37% 41%

7% 64% 71%

Racial Minorities

Dislike Like
LPC Dislike 18% 5% 22%
Like 5% 73% 78%

22% 78% 100%

Racial Minorities

Dislike Like
NDP Dislike 11% 43% 54%
Like 3% 43% 46%

14% 86% 100%

Racial Minorities

Dislike Like
Bloc Dislike 13% 42% 55%
Like 10% 35% 45%

23% 77% 100%

Racial Minorities

Dislike Like
All Dislike 7% 21% 27%
Like 5% 68% 73%

11% 89% 100%

Table 2.0

In federal politics, do you think of yourself as Liberal, Conservative, ect vs. How do you feel about racial minorities?

Strongly Dislike Dislike Neutral Like Strongly Like
Other 0% 8% 8% 15% 69%
LPC 5% 4% 9% 27% 55%
CPC 7% 5% 13% 33% 42%
NDP 4% 2% 11% 24% 60%
Bloc 7% 8% 15% 36% 35%
Green 3% 2% 3% 26% 65%
Source: 2008 Canada Election Survey (

Table 3.0 Party self-identification and attitudes towards gays and lesbians.

Strongly Dislike       Dislike     Neutral        Like Strongly Like
























Source: 2008 Canada Election Survey (