Friday, February 26, 2010

Help Stéphane Dion retire his leadership campaign debt

Just received this letter asking for support in retiring Stéphane Dion's debt from the 2006 Liberal leadership campaign. Please try to help if you can. You can print the form and send it in or, if you prefer, donate online here. (To donate to one of the other former candidates still trying to retire their debts, click here, go down to "Former Leadership Candidate Donations" and select the candidate of your choice.

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Hurricane Helena and the taxing trials of travelling by air

First of all, if I had done what Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis did at that Charlottetown airport, particularly trying to break down a security door, I’d have been arrested. And there’s a better than decent chance her husband would have been tased by overzealous airport security. Her behaviour was unacceptable, full stop.

I think there will be plenty of commentary on her behaviour though, so I’d like to instead segue into airport security. It’s useful though that news of the incident came on the day her cabinet colleagues were announcing a hike of airport security fees – Stephen Harper calls it an “air tax” – because not only does it call attention to the plight of air travel in this country today, it also helps bring the stupidity home to folks at the cabinet table, like Guergis, who are in a position to do something about it.

One wonders if we grounded the Challenger fleet tomorrow and forced them all to fly commercial – heck, maybe in economy – and get a taste of what we plebes have to put up with, how long the cabinet would wait before bringing some sanity to our airport security regime.

I was amused, reading the anonymous letter from the Charlottetown Airport employees detailing Hurricane Helena’s behaviour, about her frustration with the trials of airport security. She refused to remove her blazer, or her shoes when told they might set off the detector. When she did set it off, she “huffily” removed her boots and “slammed” them in the bin, then complained about not wanting to walk around in “sock feet.”

She also tried to drag oversized suitcases onboard, and huffed when she was told they’d have to be checked. It’s rich because, flying to the U.S., the Harper government sharply limited carry-on baggage post-Christmas attack to the point where we were questioning if books were kosher, all because the government didn’t want to hire more security staff to do the hand-screening demanded by the over-reacting American government.

Welcome to Canada circa 2010. This, Ms. Guergis, is what the asinine security rules imposed by your government (and, to be fair, the previous Liberal administration post 9/11) have made of air travel in this country. It’s good that she got a dollop of what those abstract decisions at the cabinet table have become in implementation.

Showing-up 15 minutes before your flight is crazy, and, indeed, were it anyone else but a “VIP” they’d have turned her away from the check-in desk. Domestically, you need to be at the gate 20 minutes before departure, and with bags 30 minutes, or even if the plane is there still you’re not getting on. They recommend an hour, and I usually show up closer to two, just to be safe (and enjoy some lounge time).

But we shouldn’t need to allocate as much time for security now as we currently do. I haven’t flown to the U.S. since last year, my first work trip of 2010 is to Santa Monica in March and I’m dreading the heightened post-Christmas attack security already. I’ve already resigned myself that my days of not checking my rollaboard (and not having to wait for baggage claim) are over.

I flew domestically in January though, and it has gotten even more ridiculous. I fly regularly so I know the drill and have the procedure down to a grim science: coat and sweater off and in bin, belt off, laptop in separate bin, no metal in my pockets. No liquids or gels, I'll buy toothpaste there and expensive water post-security. I’m still four people back in line when I have everything off and ready for the bins. Yet still, both ways, I set off the metal detector, which meant sitting down, shoes off, full patdown and bag check. And what set the detector off? Literally the (small) button of my jeans.

Needless to say, everyone was pinging the detector. One has to ask, how is any of this making anyone safer? The answer is it’s not. I could go on at length but a recent Maclean’s article, “The scary truth about airport security” does it well enough.

And now, with a doubling of the airport security tax by the Conservatives (don’t tell me it’s not a tax, Stephen Harper agrees with me) we see John Biard, Harper and, yes, Guergis doubling-down on a stupid strategy that is designed only to make us feel safer, not to actually make us safer. Rather than trying to fix things, the government is giving us sound and fury, signifying nothing. Any system that makes a pilot surrender his nail clippers but doesn’t screen the baggage staff at all is asinine. The pilot doesn’t need nail clippers to cause serious damage, does he?

It’s time we got serious about reforming airline security in this country (at least for domestic travel, though we should pressure the U.S. to smarten the hell up for transborder traffic, because this is an international issue) and we can start by dumping the Harper security tax hike.

And if it takes Hurricane Helena to get the government to see what it hath wrought, then we’ll owe the good folks of PEI an ‘atta boy.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Guess who is speaking at Canada at 150...

The Liberal Party has posted the list of speakers for its thinkers conference Canada at 150 that's coming up in Montreal at the end of March (I hope to attend if my request for blogger accreditation is approved, fingers crossed).

There's some interesting names on the list. Former UBC president Martha Piper is one that caught my eye, as was former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy. Other notables include banker David Dodge and diplomat Robert Fowler, plus lots of other I'm sure very interesting people whose names I don't recognize.

The name that stood our for me the most was Derek Burney. I had to read the bio to confirm that it was indeed THAT Derek Burney:
Derek H. Burney is Senior Strategic Advisor to Ogilvy Renault LLP. He is Chairman of the Board of CanWest Global Communications Corp. and a Visiting Professor and Senior Distinguished Fellow at Carleton University.

Derek headed the transition team for Prime Minister Harper from January to March 2006. He was President and CEO of CAE Inc. from 1999 until 2004. Prior to joining CAE, Derek was Chairman and CEO of Bell Canada International Inc. from 1993 until 1999.
(Burney was also a chief of staff to PM Brian Mulroney back in the day.) Glad to see Burney there, as the event is intended to be somewhat non-partisan, or at least as non-partisan as a thinker's conference organized by a political party can be.

Should be an interesting event. The full list of speakers, and more on the agenda and themes of discussion, is available here.

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Crappy moments in journalism, questioning love of country edition

From the not so great moments in journalism files comes this entry from Jane "tell me about your cats" Taber, who offers regular proof that giving some members of the media the increased bandwidth of blogging isn't really a good thing.

Yesterday, Taber posted this insulting and groundless entry that, hold your breath, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would be cheering for Canada in last night's Canada/Russia Olympic men's hockey game:
Michael Ignatieff is not conflicted.

In fact he takes umbrage with any hint of a suggestion that he would feel the slightest bit of conflict watching the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team play the Russians in a sudden death quarter final.
I'd take umbrage too, for it's an incredibly stupid question. I'm 1/4 Irish, should I be conflicted when Canada and Ireland meet on the field of sporting battle? Should I have my patriotism questioned? This is reminiscent of the Conservative attacks on Ignatieff's heritage, just like they attacked Stephane Dion's loyalty because his mother came from France. I expect such nonsense from the Conservatives, but not from the national newspaper of a nation of immigrants.

Taber's piece also begs the question, just where is this issue coming from? Who is raising this as a legitimate and newsworthy issue? As Ignatieff said:
Even just asking the question leaves him "stupefied by the proposition." He added: "I mean that."
So, who raised this issue? Rewind two weeks and oh, look, it was actually Jane Taber:
While Mr. Ignatieff faces many dilemmas as a political leader, his biggest right now would be who to cheer for if the men’s gold medal hockey game is between Canada and Russia, given his Russian ancestry.
Yes, that's right, she creates the flawed and insulting premise out of thin-air, with no sourcing to back it up, then forces him to respond to her made-up malarkey that not so subtly questions, without basis, Ignatieff's patriotism and love for Canada.

Stay classy San Diego.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Conservative $286M boondoggle: Stimulus for the tobacco industry

As if the Conservative plan to bribe rich tobacco farmers with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to stop growing a deadly crop didn’t seem dumb enough in the first place, we now find out that it’s even dumber than thought: many (most?) took the taxpayer money and went right on growing tobacco:

When the federal government offered $286-million in buyouts to Ontario's tobacco growers last year, the vast majority took the payments, designed to usher them out of a fast-shrinking industry. Given an average of $275,000 each, they were supposed to plant another crop, or maybe even try a different line of work entirely, federal ministers said at the time.

The Tobacco Transition Program has not worked out that way. In the first season since the government issued those payments, just as much tobacco has been harvested as the year before, and as many as 100 of the farmers who took the buyout still seem involved in producing tobacco.
That’s because this Conservative boondoggle of a program has more loopholes that you can shake a stick at.
In fact, federal officials have indicated buyout recipients can legally rent their land and machinery -- or even hire themselves out as employees to holders of new tobacco-growing licences.

In many cases, sources say, the buyout recipients are farming the same land as always after relatives or acquaintances -- some of them with full-time jobs in other places -- obtained a licence to grow.
So what did this program end up being? Not having done much to stop people from farming tobacco, it seems nothing more than smoke and mirrors designed to funnel taxpayer cash to wealthy tobacco farmers who will go on continuing to produce a crop that is harmful to society, and costs our health care system untold hundreds of millions annually.

It seems likely this program has more to do with boosting Conservative fortunes in South-Western Ontario than anything else. Of course it had to be done stealthily; pitching it as stimulus for the tobacco industry isn’t exactly a public relations winner.

And it’s not like the government can say it didn’t see these problems coming. Last March, it was informed of the loopholes in the program and how they were being taken advantage of. And it did nothing.
However, industry insiders say many farmers are taking advantage of the fact they can transfer their quota to anyone who is not their spouse or dependent child, and then apply for a licence to produce tobacco under a new regime being developed by the Ontario government.

"Pretty much everybody's doing it," said one Ontario tobacco farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution within the farming community.

"I'll give you an example. You own tobacco quota. You want to continue to grow tobacco, so what you do is you transfer your quota to me, but I don't even grow tobacco. I take the buyout and give you the dollars back, so now you're eligible for a licence to grow tobacco, and plus you get all that money."
If the Conservatives are more concerned about proper management of taxpayer dollars than they are about shoveling money off the back of a truck in an attempt to safeguard Diane Finley’s seat in parliament, they will call in the Auditor General to audit this program immediately, and find some way of recovering taxpayer dollars that have gone to farms that are still harvesting tobacco.

It seems pretty clear where Conservative priorities lay, however, and it’s not with taxpayers.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What do Gerard Kennedy and The Fraser Institute have in common?

What do Gerard Kennedy and The Fraser Institute have in common? They both want to have a conversation about raising the GST.

To be fair, that’s probably about all they agree on. For example, I don’t think the PMO is preparing an attack piece against their think tank friends like they did on Kennedy. But they do both raise interesting points worth considering.

A couple of weeks ago Kennedy raised the issue in a press conference, saying that a growing chorus of experts say a sales tax increase to help tackle the deficit should be discussed:

Leading economists, former Finance officials and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page have all said sales tax increases are required to balance the books. It has not gone unnoticed among some Liberals that in Britain, the Conservative opposition is leading the polls and winning praise for "authenticity" after proposing specific deficit-fighting measures that include some tax increases.

"I think we do need to talk about it," Mr. Kennedy said yesterday in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

"I do think we need to talk about a fiscal plan. That debate is internal to the Liberal Party now and I'm not pronouncing on it."

Gerard appeared to be freelancing a little ahead of party policy here, as the Liberal powers that be quickly made clear. And the Conservatives wasted no time heading to the attack. They likely won’t be attacking their ideological cousins at the Fraser Institute, who came out in a recent National Post op/ed in favour of increasing the GST:

For the next several years Canada will be hamstrung by deficits that will hinder any improvement in Canada’s competitiveness, especially on the tax front. However, increasing the GST would create the revenue needed to reduce other, more damaging taxes (i.e. those on income and capital gains) that would dramatically improve Canada’s competitiveness.

I disagree with the Fraser Institute (probably Gerard does too) that we should use increased GST revenues to lower other taxes while making massive cuts to government spending. I don’t think the budget can be balanced on their rosy timeline (not without the massive structural cuts they want and I don’t) so we need that GST revenue to balance the books and preserve core programs. Still, we are agreed that a sales tax increase should be a legitimate topic of discussion for dealing with the current economic situation.

And were we in rosier times I’d actually find more agreement with the Fraser Institute on swapping income tax revenue for sales tax revenue. Long-term, cutting income tax makes sense. Heck, their op/ed is basically a validation of the Liberal taxation policy of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, who favoured income tax cuts once the budget was balanced and introduced the largest personal tax cuts in Canadian history. And the Fraser Institute op/ed is also a condemnation of Conservative economic policy, as it was the Harper Conservatives that raised income taxes (by cancelling planned Liberal cuts) to pay for their GST cut.

Anyway, we’re getting signals now that the Conservative budget coming in a few weeks, despite the vitally necessary prorogation, will largely stay the course with no major program spending cuts, no tax changes, basically nothing new. Basically they’re continuing with their “we’ll balance the budget by magic” plan.

That’s not good enough, and Canadians know it. Unfortunately, the Liberals have thus far opted for the magic approach to budgeting as well, wanting I suppose the Conservatives to show their cards first and also not wanting, I’d imagine, to set themselves up for easy attacks.

Well, it’s coming to put-up or shut-up time, and it may be time for one of those mythical “adult conversations.” It’s time to start having an honest conversation with Canadians about how we see the fiscal situation shaking-out in the next five to 10 years, how we’re going to get back to balance, and what the choices are going to be that we’ll have to make. And magic won’t be part of the equation.

Myself, I think we should consider a sales tax increase if we can tie it to preserving specific core services (or new ones, such as early learning and child care). Polling shows Canadians will support taxes if the revenue goes to services they value and think are important.

We need to lay-out a timeline for returning to surplus. And I don’t think it needs to be overnight. I want us balanced but we shouldn’t slash and burn to get there. We should chart a course that makes an argument for preserving important programs and even investing in new priorities (because we can’t afford to stand still and stop investing in the future), while outlining the measures that will need to be taken to return us to a surplus track.

It will be a challenging debate. The Conservatives will distort and attack any proposals made, while still refusing to admit to Canadians that hard choices will need to be made. We need to expose their empty rhetoric and the inadequacy of their projections.

And if this debate shapes up as one of interventionist government vs. small government that’d be just fine with me, and I know which side of that one I’d like to argue. And I think most Canadians would be with me too.

It’s starts, though, with adult conversations. Gerard and the Fraser Institute have gotten us started. Let’s all take it from there.

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Some inspiration for Steve Yzerman

A crucial battle tonight for Team Canada tonight against Germany with the winner going on to play the Russians and the loser out of the medal hunt. It's been an uneven tournament for the men this far, with the weight of an anxious nation and high expectations on their shoulders.

If Canadian GM Steve Yzerman is looking for inspiration for a press conference speech to take some of the pressure off the players and settle things down a little, here's some inspiration.

In 2002 during the Salt Lake games, Wayne Gretzky's emotional presser in a similar situation took some of the public pressure off the players before Canada went on to win gold:

And back in Vancouver in 1972 during the Summit Series, Phil Esposito's emotional speech after Canada went down in the series 3-1 before heading off to Russia is a classic:

Good luck to the boys tonight. As a Canucks fan I'm nervous for Roberto Luongo. I think he deserves the start, and that he'll do well. If he doesn't though, Canuck fans will be hunted for sport from sea to crying sea.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gordon Campbell is poised to gut B.C.'s funding for the arts

Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Victoria to address the non-prorogued BC Legislative Assembly. While there, you’d think he might have pulled BC Premier Gordon Campbell aside and told him the story of how Harper’s Conservatives lost their majority, in no small part, thanks to their short-sighted decision in the last election to gut funding for the arts.

Harper has somewhat learned his lesson; the feds have restored much of the funding or increased it in other areas, and Canadian Heritage minister James Moore has found the arts religion. Sadly, though, Campbell must not read the news, as his BC “Liberal” government is poised to table massive cuts of 90 per cent to arts funding in the next provincial funding that would decimate BC’s vibrant arts community.

The cuts actually began last fall, when citing the economic downturn the province moved to slash arts funding by 90 per cent over two years. In the face of public blowback, some of the funding was restored with gaming money, but the service plan going forward still shows 90 per cent cuts so it seems the cuts will be restored in the next budget. The cuts will take core BC provincial arts funding from $19.5 million in 2008/09 all the way down to just $2.25 million in 2010/11, according to the service plan.

While $20 million may not seem like a lot of money in government terms (and BC was already one of the lowest per capita arts spenders in the country), the cuts are devastating for BC arts groups. For them, government funding is a huge multiplier that allows them to leverage private sector donations. These groups also operate on very thin margins as it is; cutting government funding can be a death knell.

What’s more, government arts funding is an investment that pays dividends for the government. A report from the BC government itself showed that for every dollar invested, $1.36 comes back in taxes. And the Conference Board of Canada and City of Vancouver estimate every dollar spend on arts municipally generated $7 to $13 in economic spinoff.

These draconian cuts to arts funding by the Campbell Liberals just don’t make sense. That’s a view shared by the BC Legislature's Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, which, as part of its pre-budget consultations, in November unanimously called on the government to restore arts funding to 2008/09 levels. That committee recommendation was backed by all the Liberals on the committee including the MLA in my home riding in BC, the Comox Valley’s Don McRae.

Heck, even Conservative minister James Moore opposes these cuts:

…Moore made a forceful case that arts funding is an essential element in an economic stimulus program during difficult times. "This has to be a central component if we're going to deal with economic recovery," he said.

"There's a strong fiscally conservative argument for supporting the arts," Moore added, explaining that writers create things of social and economic value out of little more than their own knowledge and imagination. Moore said the cultural sector employs 650,000 people in Canada, twice the number employed in either forestry or agriculture, and he declared that infrastructure without the kind of activity that artists provide is "culturally and economically soulless."

The Harper government, Barrack Obama, Dalton McGuinty in Ontario, Jean Charest in Quebec – they’ve all actually increased arts funding as part of their economic stimulus packages. BC, sadly, appears to be the odd-province out unless Campbell listens to the growing chorus, including much of his caucus, and restores this arts funding in the next budget.

There is still time though to send a message to Campbell ( and finance minister Colin Hansen ( that they should change course and restore arts funding in the upcoming provincial budget.

If you want to know how you can get involved, check out the Facebook group: BC Hearts the Arts, and you can also visit Alliance for Arts and Culture, a Vancouver-based organization helping to rally support for overturning the cuts. Also check out Creativity Counts, a blogsite following the advocacy campaign.

Today, BC is welcoming the world for the Olympics. The arts will be a big part of the opening ceremonies tonight, and the cultural olympiad will run parallel to the sporting events. It would be a shame if the Olympic legacy was tarnished by short-sighted decisions.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kelly McParland and Conservatives: Missing the point on abortion

My conservative friend (small c) Kelly McParland over at the National Post has taken some issue with my post yesterday on the Conservative government’s decision to no longer include access to safe abortion (he doesn’t weigh-in on their also pulling contraceptives) from their otherwise laudable (and not at all political) push to improve maternal and fetal health in developing countries.

Here’s a taste from Kelly:

Even for Liberals, though, this is appalling stuff. The government proposes a program to help improve health care for impoverished women, and the Liberals try to turn it into a question of abortion politics.


So just what is the Liberal plan, then? If some impoverished country refuses to guarantee abortion rights, they get nothing? Jeez, way to go Michael Ignatieff! Cut off the needy unless they toe the line with Liberal party values. That's Harvard thinking all right. Or maybe it's Yale thinking, because didn't Bush go to Yale?

Yeah, what? No. It would seem what we have here is a failure to communicate. I only went to Carleton myself (the Harvard of Ottawa South), I don’t know where Kelly studied, but it needn’t have been Cambridge to see that’s not at all what we’re talking about. And I don’t know who is.

Let me break down what we are talking about -- slowly, with Carleton-level words, and bullets – so we can move the debate onto non-fictional grounds and carry on from there with a degree of rationality.

  • There are many factors that contribute to maternal and fetal health. Poverty. Access to medical services. Food and water. Education. Proper natal care.
  • Part of that is access to contraceptives. Contraception is an important part of family planning. Access to contraceptives is lacking in many poor and undeveloped countries, leading to larger families that are unable to care for them, prolonging the cycle of poverty. That’s why providing access to contraceptives to give these women options and choice is important to improving maternal health.
  • So is access to safe abortion services. The fact is, many women will seek access to abortion services, whether it is safely available or not. Forcing them into backalleys and unsafe environments leads to injuries and death, and is a major detriment to maternal health in developing countries. That’s why experts agree giving women the option and choice to access safe abortion services is important to improving maternal health.
  • No one is talking about forcing abortions or condoms on anyone. The law and regulations of the host country are obviously the final word. And no one is talking about denying funding to countries that don’t allow abortion. We’re saying it should (continue to) be part of our programs in those countries where it is permitted.

Back to the politics, there is one fundamental fact that Kelly seems to have overlooked, and it exposes his Liberal wedge argument as ridiculous: all Ignatieff and the Liberals are doing is calling for the current policy of the Government of Canada to be continued and respected.

That’s right. Today, as part of its development initiatives in developing countries around maternal and child health, Canada funds access to abortion and contraceptive services in those countries where it’s legally permissible. That’s a policy that predates the Liberal government by the way, because the experts in the field say it’s important and effective and necessary. We think that should be continued.

The wedge is coming from Stephen Harper, Bev Oda and the Conservatives. The Conservatives want to change that policy. Indeed, they have admitted that they are changing the policy, and will no longer include funding for abortion and contraception as part of our development policy and funding for maternal and child health.

I oppose that change. So does Michael Ignatieff, experts in maternal and child health, and millions of Canadians.

And that change isn’t some figment of our fevered Liberal imaginations. Just ask the anti-abortion groups claiming credit for reversing the government policy and raising donations for the Conservatives in gratitude.

It is a conscious decision by the Conservative government, an apparent sop to their socially conservative base, and one that has nothing to do with their stated goal of improving the lot of women in developing countries, and everything to do with their ideological and political views.

Now, you can argue abortion is wrong, and that’s a perfectly legitimate debate to have. My own view is I support a woman’s right to choose, up to a certain point in pregnancy or if her life is at risk, but I think we should all work to make abortion as rare and unnecessary as possible.

It is, however, the law of the land in Canada. And I have no indication the Conservatives want to change that law for Canadians. So I don’t think we should deny funding for something that is legal in Canada and legal in the host country and effective with the stated goal of the program, merely on ideological grounds.

That’s what we’re talking about here. Not invented bogeymen, or Ivy League potshots.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Harper’s “help" for women: no abortions, no contraceptives?

UPDATE: Hello to readers from Full Comment. You can find my reply to Kelly's post here:
Kelly McParland and Conservatives: Missing the point on abortion.

When Michael Ignatieff last week called on Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to pledge that access to safe abortion services will be part of the government’s ballyhooed G8 initiative to generate international support for improving maternal and child care in the developing world, he was attacked by the critics.

Even though he was calling for an affirmation of what has been longstanding Canadian development policy under both parties – not to follow the George W. Bush route of tying development funds to personal moral and religious beliefs – Ignatieff was attacked by the critics for raising irrelevancies, for playing politics and trying to politicize the initiative.

It turns out, however, that his fears were far from unfounded. In a story in Embassy Mag (behind a subscriber firewall, but I’ve pasted the relevant sections below) Canadian International Development Minister Bev Oda confirms safe abortions, and even contraception, will not be part of the Conservative push on maternal and child care:
Oda says no abortion, contraceptives support
But the WHO reports that lack of both contributes to unnecessary deaths.

CIDA Minister Bev Oda says the government's child and maternal health strategy will not address unsafe abortions in developing countries or support access to family planning and contraceptives. Rather, she said that to ensure the aid agency remains effective, "it's the lives of mothers and babies that we are focused on."

But with nearly 15 per cent of all maternal deaths being attributed to such abortions, and up to 40 per cent of maternal deaths preventable with access to family planning and contraception, experts and critics say support for these areas is essential.

On Jan. 28, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that rallying support for maternal and child health would be a major focus of Canada's G8 presidency. In developing countries, more than 500,000 women die each year in pregnancy and 9 million children die before the age of five.


When asked about support for contraceptives and family planning in an interview last week, Ms. Oda said: "In order to maintain our focus, again our focus is on maternal and child health and mortality rates.

"We want to make sure that mothers, pregnant women, are healthy and can have safe births, and that the birthing process is made safer because if you look at the number of births during the actual birthing process, that's where a number of maternal deaths happen," she added.

"We also want to make sure when babies are born, they are born as healthy as possible so that they can live through their early age, up to the age of five, with as strong and good health as possible."

The decision by the Harper Conservatives to not include addressing abortion safety as part of their effort would seem to question just how sincere their effort to address maternal and child care really is, not to mention how effective it would be, according to the experts:
A recent report from the New York-based Guttmacher Institute found that 20 million unsafe abortions are performed in developing countries each year, and World Health Organization spokeswoman Olivia Lawe-Davies said 68,000 women die because of unsafe abortions said.

"It is also estimated that up to 40 per cent of maternal deaths could be averted with access to family planning or modern contraception," Ms. Lawe-Davies wrote in an email last week.

A recent Amnesty International report said a lack of safe and confidential access to information and modern contraceptive methods in Burkina Faso, for example, has contributed to early and unwanted pregancies as well as life-threatening abortions.

"Family planning is severely underfunded," the report reads, "partly because, until recently, international donors and the government have concentrated on other public health priorities, notably the AIDS pandemic, polio and malaria."


Liberal CIDA critic Glen Pearson says a narrow focus on pregnant women doesn't address many of the root problems associated with high maternal death rates in developing countries.

"The whole problem for women in these countries is they have no access to condoms," said Liberal CIDA critic Glen Pearson. "It's a nightmare out there for a woman to be able to just protect herself from even getting pregnant, or once she's pregnant and complications develop, from her going through her own abortion procedure and other things they do. You can't make it about just once the child is in the womb."
The idea of a major push to address maternal and child care is a noble one. But ideology can’t be allowed to dictate the program and the help we’re going to give to women in need. We should listen to the experts on the ground about what is needed and what will be effective to meet the goals we’re trying to achieve and let them direct the resources accordingly.

That has always been the Canadian policy, and if the Conservatives desire to address this challenge is legitimate, it shouldn’t change it now. Sadly, though, it seems that the trend of the Harper Conservatives allowing ideology to guide development and aid decisions is ever expanding.

UPDATE: In this YouTube clip, Conservative backbencher Shelly Glover confirms that, in a reversal of longstanding Canadian policy, safe abortion will not be part of the government program. And conservative anti-abortion groups are claiming credit for the policy reversal, using the clip to encourage donations to the The Harper Party.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On Adam Giambrone, morality vs. privacy, and the media as gatekeeper

Reading the Toronto Star’s stunning tabloidesque story this morning that may doom Adam Giambrone’s Toronto mayoral bid in its infancy, a number of thoughts come to mind around just how much we have a right to know about the private lives of politicians, whether such considerations should be relevant to our voting decisions, and the powerful role the media plays in deciding what is “newsworthy” and what isn’t.

Myself, I wasn’t going to vote for Giambrone anyways, so these revelations don’t change that. His political experience, and inexperience, were enough for me to make that decision. Frankly, I’ve been underwhelmed, if not very disappointed, by what I’ve seen from all the mayoral candidates so far.

Still, academically-speaking, are the revelations in the Diebel story relevant, do we have a right to know? That’s a tough one. I think politicians are entitled to a private life. As long as it doesn’t impact or interfere with their jobs, as long as it’s between consenting adults and doesn’t break laws, then it’s not relevant.

Maxime Bernier and Julie Couillard was relevant because of a) her potential ties to organized crime, and b) he left confidential documents at his apartment. Elliott Spitzer was relevant because prostitution is illegal. Mark Sanford was relevant because he traveled on government funds, was absent from his job, and his staff lied to the media.

At first blush, the Giambrone story does appear to pass this relevancy test, if only barely: he shared confidential information with his mistress, Kristen Lucas, about the upcoming TTC fare hike. Absent that one minor breach (that we know about), I’d say this affair concerns only Giambrone and the two women involved, Lucas and his partner, Sarah McQuarrie.

The other question that speaks to relevancy is honesty. We have two very divergent descriptions of the relationship from Lucas and Giambrone. We’ll see in the fullness of time which one is being more honest here. But for Giambrone, full disclosure and honesty up front is the only way to get through this (if he even can). Get caught short later and it’s definitely over. But the two accounts do strain credulity. Lucas alleges a sexual affair. Giambrone alleges the relationship was only “text messages and conversations in public places only.” If that’s really the case, one wonders just what he’s apologizing for.

Whether such revelations are relevant or not though, and whether or not they should have gone public in the first place, the fact is voters will decide for themselves what they consider relevant, and what they will base their voting decision on. While I’d question whether we truly should know these sorts of things about politicians, the fact is once known they absolutely will impact my voting decision. It speaks to character and integrity. I don’t expect politicians to be perfect. But if someone is dishonest or duplicitous in their personal lives, it does make me question their fitness to make good decisions in the public interest.

Which brings me to the media. Despite the rising prominence of new media and blogging, by and large it’s still the mainstream media that act as gatekeepers, deciding what they feel we have a right to know about the public lives of politicians, and what we don’t.

And make no mistake, they are making these calls regularly. There’s one major affair in Ottawa that, although it’s widely known in political and media circles, the media has made a conscious decision not to report. It could well be career-ending but, although there could be incidents of the matter crossing into the job performance area, the media collectively have decided it’s a private matter that just isn’t news, so it goes unreported.

So when I read stories like the Giambrone one it makes me wonder just what criteria the media use to make these decisions to report or not. Is it better to just have everything out there and let the chips fall where they may, letting the people decide relevancy for themselves instead of the media? Or should we trust the media to continue making these calls on our behalf?

Certainty, the media has been trending more and more towards publish it all over the years. There was a time when private was decidedly private. The obvious example was the lack of coverage of John F. Kennedy’s many affairs back in the day. The media regularly turned a blind eye to that sort of thing here too for many years. Gradually, that began to change. I think the emergence of a less chummy, more professional relationship between the media and those they cover was one factor. The shortened news cycle probably another.

Myself, I think such stories often aren’t news and I don’t really need to know, as long as it doesn’t impact job performance, involve illegality or use of public resources. But I also don’t like the media picking and choosing what it thinks I should know about, and what I shouldn’t. Especially when its done without transparency, seemingly by arbitrary or unknown standards.

While such coverage may be tabloidesque, marginally relevant and have no bearing on my voting intention, frankly, I think I’d rather make that decision for myself.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

You don't need Admiral Ackbar to see through Stephen Harper

As I chuckled while reading reports of the “clever trap” that Stephen Harper had set for the opposition parties by daring them to deny unanimous consent for his sudden proposal to scrap parliamentary break week in March and April after shutting down Parliament to “recalibrate” I was reminded of the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar:

Of course, the opposition parties didn’t need Ackbar to see through this latest gambit from a Prime Minister whose the increasingly unearned reputation for strategic genius is but a faded memory:

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says he has no problem with the Conservative government's plan to cancel parliamentary breaks in March and April.

But he says he'd prefer if the Tories simply came back to work now.

Ignatieff, who has been holding meetings with his MPs in Ottawa since Jan. 25, says Harper's excuses for the shutdown have disappeared and now the PM is "in a scrambling act to ... catch up to the Liberal party."

"We've been at work for two weeks and we've had some great results," Ignatieff said during a break from party roundtables on community safety and en
ergy and the environment.

"Parliament should not have been shut down. Canadians are prepared to get Parliament back to work. Why is the prime minister not prepared to do that? And now, he wants us to work during the break weeks in March and April.

"We're perfectly prepared to do that but we're wondering why we couldn't have started working on the 25th of January" when the Commons was scheduled to reconvene after its Christmas recess.
And if you had any doubts that Harper’s supposed reputation for chess playing is proven a façade when he’s faced with an even marginally competent opponent, consider this latest brainwave from the PMO: he has invited himself to address the British Columbia Legislature on the eve of the Olympic Games:
The B.C. legislature is slightly agog over next week's pending visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Apparently, he intends to address the chamber Thursday.

Topic: the 2010 Winter Olympics, presumably, though more than a few observers have been joking along the lines suggested by the headline on this item.

No one has made an official announcement, but the news was broken earlier this week by Sean Holman on his Public Eye Online website.

Even lacking official confirmation, controversy abounds.

Apparently, the visit was not by invitation from the provincial government. Rather it was Ottawa's idea.

Nor is there any obvious precedent for a prime minister to speak to the provincial house, though Gov-Gen. Michaelle Jean did address the legislative chamber in March 2006.

Yes, that’s right. Harper is going to use this prorogation, this period when Parliament had to be shut down so he could focus on the budget, to go talk to B.C.’s Parliament. He’s using this prorogation, when Parliament had to be shut so we could all focus on the Olympics, to talk to B.C’s parliament about the Olympics. Funny too, isn’t it, that B.C.’s Parliament can sit so close to the Olympics, and Ottawa’s can’t, isn’t it?

I mean, who thought sending Harper to the BC leg was a good idea? The optics are bad for about a dozen reasons. He shuts down the national parliament, avoiding questioning and scrutiny, but goes to speak to another one? At a time he is supposed to be knee-deep in economy saving? Drawing attention to the fact that B.C.’s legislature will be sitting on the eve of the Olympics, but Canada’s won’t, making Harper’s Olympic prorogation excuse even more pathetic?

Just like moving to cancel the spring break weeks, far from an opposition trap, only served to further underscore the narrative that prorogation was wrong, that Parliament matters and has work to do, and that Harper now tacitly admits it. And it again raises the very valid question: If it’s so important to for Parliament to cancel those break weeks, why isn’t it sitting now?

Heck, even the media are starting to outright mock the government in news copy. This was filed on the CP wire this afternoon, emphasis mine:
The Harper government is scrambling to take back the political agenda after suffering a beating in the polls over its decision to suspend Parliament.

The Conservatives trotted out a pair of cabinet ministers Thursday to assure Canadians they're hard at work _ and that a new proposal to cancel parliamentary spring breaks is not just a cynical political ploy.

``The two break weeks need to be cancelled so we can work hard,''
Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis said. ``We want to sit as much as possible in order to get the measures passed that we think Canadians want to see passed.''

He didn't explain why Parliament couldn't be doing that work now.

Conservative whip Gordon O'Connor sent a memo to Tory MPs and senators on Wednesday, telling them to cancel their traditional spring breaks _ a change that would need unanimous approval by all parties.
When they’re laughing at you, Steve, it’s over. Forget strategic genius. Even Admiral Ackbar could have seen this train wreck coming.

Maybe he should lead the Conservatives?

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Will B.C. have a referendum on the HST?

They will if Bill Vander Zalm (yes, that Vander Zalm) gets his way. From Elections BC:

British Columbia’s Chief Electoral Officer, Harry Neufeld, has granted approval in principle on an initiative petition application. The petition will be issued to proponent William Vander Zalm on Tuesday, April 6, 2010. The title of the initiative is: An initiative to end the harmonized sales tax (HST).

“This is the seventh initiative petition application to be approved since the legislation came into force in 1995″, notes Neufeld.

Any registered voter can apply to have a petition issued to gather support for a legislative proposal. After the petition is issued, the proponent will have 90 days to canvass and collect signatures of at least 10% of the registered voters in each of the 85 electoral districts.

Individuals or organizations who intend to oppose the initiative, conduct initiative advertising, or canvass for signatures must be registered with Elections BC. The deadline to apply for registration as an initiative opponent is March 8, 2010.

Registered voters as of April 6, 2010 may sign the petition for the electoral district in which they are registered. Voters may only sign the petition once.

The release notes this is the seventh petition application to be attempted under the legislation since 1995. I don’t recall any of the others, so I’d guess they didn’t take off. Certainly they didn’t succeed. I know the similarly structured MLA recall ability has also regularly failed to come close to success. And that only requires voters in one district.

An HST referendum requires 10 per cent of voters in every riding to sign on, and they have to do it in 90 days. That’s a tough hill to climb. For sure, there is anger in the province over the HST and particularly, I think, around the fact it came just after an election in which Gordon Campbell made no mention of it. But does the Vander Zalm camp have the organizational moxie to pull this off? Perhaps, but I’m skeptical. It has a chance, though. It will be interesting to see if Carole James and the BC NDP sign on.

Here are the specifics of the Vander Zalm initiative:
The purpose of the initiative draft Bill is to declare that the agreement between the federal government and the British Columbia government to establish a harmonized sales tax (HST) is not in effect. The draft Bill would reinstate the 7% provincial sales tax (PST) with the same exemptions as were in effect as of June 30, 2010 and establish the provincial sales tax as the only sales tax in British Columbia for the purposes of raising provincial revenue. The draft Bill proposes that it be effective retroactively to June 30, 2010. The Bill also proposes that the provincial share of HST revenues received between June 30, 2010 and the date of Royal Assent of the Bill that exceeds what would be collected under the PST rules as of June 30, 2010 would be reimbursed to British Columbians on a per capita basis.

What happens if they get the necessary signatures? A quick perusal of the Elections BC guidelines outlines the process:
The Select Standing Committee on Legislative Initiatives must meet within 30 days of receipt of the initiative petition and draft Bill. The Select Standing Committee has 90 days to consider the legislative proposal. The Committee must either table a report recommending introduction of the draft Bill or refer the initiative petition and draft Bill to the Chief Electoral Officer for an initiative vote.

If an initiative vote is required, a vote will be held on September 24, 2011, and on the last Saturday of September in every third year after that date. If more than 50% of the total number of registered voters in the province vote in favour of an initiative, and more than 50% of the total number of registered voters in each of at least 2/3 of the electoral districts in the province vote in favour of an initiative, the Chief Electoral Officer must declare the initiative vote to be successful and the government must introduce the Bill at the earliest practicable opportunity.

After a Bill is introduced into the legislature, the requirements of the Recall and Initiative Act have been satisfied, and any subsequent reading, amendment, or passage of the Bill will proceed as with any other Bill, with no guarantee of passage.
So, by my read, the committee (on which I’d imagine the governing Campbell Liberals would have a majority) could either decide to introduce (and presumably support) the bill, ending the process with its passage (unlikely they’d flip-flop on the HST) or let it go to a referendum in a year-and-a-half. If it did get that far, the latter scenario would seem more likely. Even if the referendum succeeds, in theory in seems the government could still use its majority to kill the legislation, but with a clear verdict in a referendum that scenario seems highly unlikely.

It would be an interesting campaign and, as much as the anti-HST folks would like to think they’re on the side of the angels as anti-tax crusaders, the reality is far different and a referendum could allow some of those nuances to be examined. Still, the pro-HST campaign would be a challenging one to wage.

My question for Vander Zalm though, and it’s not a small one: would he give all that harmonization money ($1.6 billion) the Harper Conservatives gave the province back to the feds? That would leave a huge hole in the province’s budget. What cuts would he make to compensate for it? The fact is, as much as some opponents may wish, I don’t think the HST genie can be stuffed back into the bottle. I suspect the smarter among the opponents know this – they’re just playing the politics.

And while such practical considerations will likely pale next to the populism of this thing, I really fail to see how the HST genie can be gotten back into the bottle. Despite the obvious difficulties in selling it, and the expected difficulties in implementation, not to mention the poor timing of doing this during a downturn, the fact remains that the idea of harmonizing federal and provincial sales taxes is good policy. Tough politics, yes, but good policy. We can take issue with the nuts and bolts, and demand tinkering to reduce negative effects, but the overarching policy is sound. It will save businesses money and create jobs for citizens. It did in Atlantic Canada, and it will in Ontario and B.C.

While I’ll take issue with Campbell conveniently finding religion on this mere days after an election, and with the Conservatives running away from it despite actively encouraging it and writing huge cheques to grease the wheels, it is still the right policy and I think more people should give credit to politicians like Campbell and Dalton McGuinty that pursue the right policy, even if the politics are horrible. Certainly it makes me think less of those that know the policy is right, but oppose it solely for partisan advantage.

I’m doubtful this will ever come to a referendum vote. But I hope this doesn’t mark a move towards the ballot initiative craziness we see in the U.S. political system, a trend that has led in large part to California’s fiscal crisis. It may be easy to rally populist anger against a government decision. But governing isn’t black and white. Governing is a series of interlocking decisions and tough choices. Every decision has rippling consequences. Pull one string and the whole tapestry unravels pretty quickly. Kill the HST, what happens then? What other taxes change to compensate? What does it mean for businesses? What about the federal compensation money? What budget cuts need to be made to give that back?

It’s not as easy as voting on one item in isolation. That’s why I’m not supportive of this sort of initiative campaign. We elect our political leaders to govern on our behalf, using their best judgment to consider all the factors and make the best decisions they can. We trust in their judgment.

And if they don’t live up to that trust, if we disagree with their calls on these tough choices, the place to make our displeasure known is by voting them out on election day.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Thinking about: Early Learning and Childcare

I’m back from a week and a bit back in B.C. visiting family and what not, and have ended my temporary blogging prorogation. It’s good to take a break every once and awhile to recharge the blogging batteries. I certainly picked a busy time to prorogue too, with a bevy of on-target Liberal policy stories, some very positive polls, some interesting legal developments, and more channel-change attempts from Conservaland than you can shake a stick at.

It will take a little while to get caught-up and offer some perspective in what I’d say was a very good week for the Liberals, but I did first want to talk about Michael Ignatieff’s comments Monday on Early Learning and Childcare.

Michael Ignatieff won't let the biggest deficit in Canadian history stop him from promising that a Liberal government would make major investments in child care.

The Liberal Leader told reporters yesterday that there is no better way to increase productivity, social justice and equality across the country than by putting money into programs that give children a head start.

Mr. Ignatieff would not put a price tag on the kind of child-care program he envisions, saying that it would depend on the financial situation at the time his party took power.

But, he said, “we will find the money because it seems to me to be an excellent investment.

“[The Conservatives] are saying you can't invest in anything that makes this a fairer country because we have a $56-billion deficit,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “Well, who created it in the first place? I am not going to allow the deficit discussion to shut down the discussion in this country about social justice.”

As the Toronto Star notes, we need both details about the program proposed and pricing information, and I trust both will be forthcoming before we’re into an election campaign. But this is a welcome commitment from Ignatieff for a number of reasons: it reclaims strong Liberal ground, positions Ignatieff to the left of centre countering the traditional narrative on him, and it draws sharp contrasts between the Liberal and Conservatives on an important policy question.

Before getting into the substantive “why” of why a strong commitment to early learning and childcare is important, let’s dispense with the criticisms and the political angles.

The Politics

Sure, the Liberals have long been talking about early learning and childcare, and have been slow to deliver. Fair enough. Let’s not forget though that, before the opposition parties pulled the plug, Paul Martin and Ken Dryden were delivering. The last Liberal government had signed child care agreements with the majority of the provinces that saw hundreds of millions of dollars flow in long-term agreements that created thousands of spaces. The reverberations of the Conservatives allowing those agreements to expire are now being felt across the country, as most of those spaces disappear from a system already short of capacity.

We need to acknowledge our historical failings, but also talk about the impressive progress we have made on this file that these critics decide to ignore, and how we can, and will, do better, and do more. And even if some people are skeptical of our commitment, frankly, why should that deter us? It’s the right thing to do, and that’s enough. Let them doubt us, make the commitment and then, if we get the chance, follow through.

That’s from the left. On the right, the Conservatives will complain of a) the cost, and b) restricting choice. First of all, with few details available on the Liberal plan, to say (as Ryan Sparrow did) that it would restrict parental choices is pure speculation, if not outright fiction.

Indeed, since the Liberals say they won’t kill the Conservatives’ laughable (and taxable) $100 monthly child care cheques, the Liberal program would seem to be adding choice, not restricting it. And with the Conservatives having failed to even come close to creating the spaces they'd promised (actually, we're now further behind) thanks to Stephen Harper parents have less and less choice every day.

On price, mes amis over at the National Post raise an interesting objection:
Mr. Ignatieff hasn't indicated whether he intends his program to cover every family in Canada, regardless of income. If the Liberal leader does intend the plan to be universal, then he's peddling a bad idea: Most of the children who take part likely will not benefit in any statistically appreciable way, and the program will simply amount to a multi-billion dollar transfer payment from government to parents.
Makes me wonder if the Post editors would support a program for low-income families only were that proposed? I suspect they’d find objections too, complaining of all the middle-class families left out. But some people need something to be opposed to.

But assuming it is a universal program (which I’m inclined to favour) let me reframe the question: why would the Conservatives and the Post not favour what is akin to a targeted major tax cut to working Canadian families?

Because that, in essence, is what we’d be talking about. For many Canadian families, child care is a major expense. A government program would sharply reduce or even reduce that expense, potentially leaving families with hundreds of extra dollars in their pockets. The Conservatives are all about targeted tax relief. So change the framing: why would the Conservatives oppose saving Canadian families thousands of dollars a year?

And on the larger issue of balancing the cost of investment versus the budget situation, frankly, that’s going to be a consideration with any policy proposal of import by any party. And certainty the Conservatives have no credible claim to budgetary responsibility. Yes, prudence will be needed and choices will have to be made. But investment cannot stop and, if we’re setting priorities, I’d stack early learning and child care up against Conservative priorities any day of the week, and I think Canadians will too. Some things will always be important, and this is one.

The Policy

To segue more over to the policy side, there are strong arguments to be made for investments on early learning and childcare paying dividends to the treasury anyways. For those families unable to afford childcare today, a program will allow them to return to work, or work more, contributing more to the economy (and generating more tax revenue for the government.) For those parents already working, the money saved can be invested in other areas that can also create economic opportunity and generate tax revenue.

That’s short-term. Longer-term, as I talked about in my Thinking about: Education piece, a healthy and educated person gets a better job, lives longer, creates more economic opportunity and generates more tax revenue for the government. There’s no doubt that investments in education and in early childhood learning are returned in surplus. And it’s important to begin with early childhood learning: a child that gets a good start and gains a love of learning early will have greater success as they make their way through the education system, and have a greater chance of success in life.

Lastly, let me say that as the details of the Liberal proposal are decided, keeping an element of parental choice, and prominently acknowledging the importance of choice, is important. The system should be flexible, and that has been a failing of past Liberal proposals. I don’t propose a payment for opting-out, I wouldn’t go beyond leaving the $100/month cheque program in place there. Flexibility otherwise is important though.

Anyway, as I said more details must be forthcoming, but I like the positioning and the messaging from Ignatieff here.

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