Saturday, January 31, 2015

Canada's Elmer Gantry


There was a time in this country when those charged with enforcing the law broke it in the name of national security. Tom Walkom  reminds his readers why CSIS was created:

In 1984, CSIS was created specifically to get Canadian spooks out of the dirty-tricks business.
Before that time, security had been the purview of the RCMP which, as a 1981 royal commission found, routinely broke the law in its war against those it deemed dangerous radicals.
In one famous incident, the Mounties burned down a barn in order to prevent a planned meeting of Quebec separatists. In another, they circulated bogus medical information about a member of a small Toronto leftist group that they were trying to discredit.

The royal commission recommended that Canada’s spies stop trying to disrupt the activities of alleged subversives and concentrate instead on gathering and analyzing intelligence.

But Stephen Harper -- who looks at the world through a rear view mirror -- wants to return to those days of yesteryear. His new anti terror legislation, Bill  C51:

explicitly gives CSIS the right to contravene both the law and the Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The only requirement faced by the agency is that it obtain judicial warrants before acting — a condition that shouldn’t be too onerous.

The government would criminalize the communication of statements that promote and advocate terrorism. This section seems to be aimed primarily at the Internet and, subject to a judge’s warrant, would allow police to seize printed or electronic material that they believe to be terrorist propaganda.

The definition of propaganda in the bill includes any writing or “sign” that promotes terrorism.

The question we should be asking ourselves is whether or not this legislation is needed:

But on first reading, it’s hard to see the point of Bill C-51. In Canada, it’s already a crime to plan or support terrorist activity. The RCMP already uses legal methods to disrupt planned terror attacks. That’s what it did with the Toronto 18. 

Or is this all about getting re-elected? The economy shrunk by .02 percent in November and the Loonie is below 80 cents. The man who planned to be re-elected on his economic record needs something else to sing about. Before long, instead of reedy versions of old Beatles songs, he'll be leading lusty choruses of "Onward Christian Soldiers."

He's become Canada's Elmer Gantry -- who, at the opportune moment, gave up selling vacuum cleaners and started peddling Bibles.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The First Casualty


Truth is always the first casualty of war. And no one should be surprised that it is the first casualty of Stephen Harper's War. Michael Harris writes:

The resolution on the Iraq mission that passed the House of Commons explicitly ruled out ground-based combat operations. Now, Mr. Harper has deployed Canadian special forces in such a way that they have become involved in what the parliamentary resolution expressly forbade: ground combat.
The government’s defence against this egregious contempt of Parliament is fantasy fact-ball, a game in which the PM excels. Mr. Harper says that Canadians agree that our ground forces in Iraq should return fire if fired upon. That may or may not be true, but according to the latest Nanos poll, a majority of Canadians oppose involving ground troops in the fight against Islamic State.

Canada supposedly entered the war to support the United States. But American troops are not involved in firefights:

The Pentagon has expressly forbidden U.S. soldiers from doing what Canadian special forces are doing — because that would be a “combat” role, rather than “advise and assist”. In fact, Canada is the only coalition member whose ground forces have militarily engaged with IS — three times.

Not only are U.S. military personnel forbidden from any role that goes beyond the air campaign, planning ground operations and intelligence-sharing, their movements are carefully arranged to make sure that they are not even inadvertently put into combat situations. As Pentagon official Elissa Smith told the CBC, “We’ve been very clear that U.S. advisers are removed from actual or expected combat situations as part of our advise and assist mission in Iraq.”

Harper's response is that the mission has "evolved." If that is true, it's because Mr. Harper has approved of that evolution. It's the kind of decision an armchair general -- who has no experience of combat -- would make.

But that decision is entirely in keeping with Mr. Harper's character. Truth has always been the first casualty of any mission which Mr. Harper undertakes.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

An Unmitigated Disaster


Jim Stanford writes that the sound a fury about a balanced budget is about politics, not economics:

Running spending cuts since 2011 now total more than $14-billion a year. Canadians experience real consequences from those cuts every day: shuttered veterans’ offices, deteriorating statistical data, questionable railway and food safety, ridiculous waits for statutory benefits and more. Federal government employment has plunged by 47,000 jobs since 2011 – explaining much of Canada’s lousy job-market performance. These sacrifices were not necessary. Worse yet, the government is throwing away the savings with its tax-cut agenda.

Indeed, if the government truly believed that balancing the books was the most important priority, we could be back in the black right now, never mind next year. Before opening the cookie jar in October for income-splitting and other giveaways, Ottawa was headed for a $3.3-billion surplus for the fiscal year ending March 31. Falling oil prices knocked $1.2 billion off that balance, according to the PBO, leaving a $2.1-billion surplus. But the government spent $3.2-billion on the immediate first-year cost of the tax cuts – pushing itself back, incredibly, into deficit. Without the tax cuts, the budget would already be balanced, even with low oil prices.

Harper's claim that only he could provide prudent fiscal management of the nation's finances was -- and is -- just election hoopla. And it distracts the public from the real problem:

The bigger issue is how much was needlessly sacrificed in pursuit of that balanced budget – and how quickly the Conservatives squandered the results of those sacrifices when it politically suited them.

The government’s focus on eliminating the deficit at all costs was misguided and destructive, and undermined the economic recovery. We should stop worrying whether next year brings a small surplus or a small deficit. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is why so much was sacrificed in the single-minded pursuit of a supposedly overarching goal – that the government quickly threw away for short-term political benefit.

The Harper years have been an unmitigated disaster. Mr. Harper is doing everything he can to distract voters from reaching that conclusion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

When They Cower In Abject Fear


Tomorrow, we're told, the Harper government will introduce its new anti-terror legislation. Recent events have proved to be the undoing of the Harperian economy. So a diversion is in order. If they won't vote on your economic record, perhaps they'll vote for you out of fear. And if they do that, Clive Doucet and Joe Ingram write, the terrorists will have won:

The terrorists understand the power of the front page and are using it with apparent success – forcing their anger, rejection and violence to the top of the news, week after week, month after month. They want to provoke a “clash of civilizations.”

And Mr. Harper and his supporters appear to be walking right into their trap.
While no one disputes the need to deal effectively with terrorism and its causes, how we do so and the public resources we spend on them need to be proportional to their real importance for Canadians and for the world at large. The term “war on terror” was coined during the George W. Bush administration; his Presidency is long gone, his “mission accomplished” in Iraq. And terrorist actions have been multiplying ever since.

The "war on terror" response has only made things worse. But it focuses voters on the enemy without -- not the enemy within. And then enemy within is focused on destroying the state at home:

The glaring weakness of Mr. Harper’s decade of oil-first economic policies has been vividly exposed. Despite the warnings of some of the globe’s leading economists about the perils of the so-called “resource curse” (ie. an excessive reliance on a single commodity) the Harper government has failed to strategically diversify the structure of Canada’s economy. It has been as if we are blind to the longer term trends and to the particular threat reliance on fossil fuels has for the planet and to our economy. It’s only taken a few months for Alberta’s robust extraction economy to collapse and suddenly a national ‘balanced’ budget – even after years of unprecedented cuts to all public services – is receding into the distance.

Democracies depend on coherent, sustained and remembered public debate around complex issues such as – is there an alternative to oil? What is the best science telling us about climate change? And how can we best react to it? The Germans, for example, have just moved their economy into being powered 50 per cent by non-fossil fuels.

Last we checked, Germany had the strongest economy in Europe and they have no domestically produced oil. And the Danes are not far behind.

But the last thing the Harperites want is a debate about the wisdom of transforming Canada into an energy super power. So cue the alarm bells. Scare the hell out of them. And, when they cower in abject fear, you can get away with anything.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When He's Naked, He Looks Ridiculous


Yesterday, the opposition parties hammered the Harper government on what was supposed to be its signature issue going into the upcoming election. The NDP's Nathan Cullen observed that the prime minister had "painted himself into a corner:"

They spent the surplus before they had it, and they spent the surplus on an economic scheme in which only 15 per cent of Canadians receive any benefit, but 100 per cent of Canadians will have to pay for it.

Still, Joe Oliver insisted, the government would balance the budget and not cut services. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries write:

The PM has never liked budgets. He never saw them as a means to articulate a vision of the economy and the country. To Harper, a budget is a PR document — and a Trojan horse for pushing through legislative changes that have nothing at all to do with the budget.

Past governments, both Liberal and Conservative, saw the budget as their most important policy and political document. Budgets set out the government’s fiscal, tax, industrial, social, developmental, international and defense policy objectives and the policy initiatives the government intended to take to achieve them. They were visionary documents. You didn’t have to agree with the vision … but it was there.

No longer. Since 2006, major policy decisions have been made outside the budget, with no discussion or parliamentary debate. The change in the Canada Health Transfer escalator was made at a meeting of federal and provincial finance ministers in December 2011. Harper announced the change in eligibility for Old Age Security benefits in Davos, not Parliament. And he announced his “family tax package” in Vaughan, Ont., back in October — shortly before the oil market fell off a cliff.

At every turn, Harper has tried to cut Parliament and the budget process out of the equation. Once upon a time, governments had to table a Borrowing Authority Bill if they needed incremental borrowing. Parliament demanded that any Borrowing Authority Bill be accompanied by a budget in order to provide the proper economic and fiscal context to justify the borrowing.

In the 2007 budget, the Harper government eliminated the need for a Borrowing Authority Bill. Now the government can borrow through an Order-in-Council — no budget, or parliamentary approval, required. 

That's what happens when a man who claims to be a "trained economist" turns out to be utterly incompetent. He doesn't present a budget -- because he doesn't know how to budget. The trained economist has no clothes. And, when he's naked, he looks ridiculous.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Democracy? What Democracy?


Last week the Harper government awarded a ship building contract to the Irving family. Like the F-35 contract, it was awarded -- by a "bureaucrat" -- without a competition. Michael Harris writes:

Is there anyone in the country who believes the Harper government’s latest whopper that a $26 billion contract for new frigates was the work of a bureaucrat and that cabinet had nothing to do with it?

Is there anyone who believes that it was a wise move for the public to make this staggering purchase, the largest in Canadian history, as a sole source contract – i.e. an award with no competitive bidding process?

Is there anyone who doesn’t know from the catastrophic bungling of the F-35 stealth jet-fighter project, that sole source contracts add on average about 20 per cent to the overall acquisition costs – as procurement expert Alan Williams said repeatedly at the time? Williams now correctly says that no one really understands what the government is doing with the frigate program. That is, of course, Stephen Harper’s idea of political Nirvana.

The Harper government is following the model of other so called western "democracies:"

What is happening in Stephen Harper’s Canada — the hoarding, and choking off information, and outright lying — is going on in many of the aging, decrepit democracies in the West. The establishments of several countries have effectively decided that they are above the law and often argue national security issues to justify their anti-democratic, and in some cases, thoroughly illegal behaviours.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, the energizer bunny of post-politics money-grubbing, misled the British people on that country’s participation in the Iraq War. There was no proof of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands, and without that evidence, the invasion likely violated international law.

In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush repeatedly told Americans than the country did not torture detainees captured in the war on terror, and that its detention and interrogation program was “humane and legal.” More than that, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that intelligence gathered by the CIA was essential in thwarting terrorist plots.
Then just before Christmas last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee lowered the boom in a 6,000-page report based on thousands of classified CIA documents. The U.S. did indeed practise illegal and widespread torture during the Bush presidency, including medically unnecessary rectal feeding or hydration, a series of simulated drownings called water-boarding, and extreme sleep deprivation.

Finally in Australia last June, the courts declared an unprecedented censorship order concerning a corruption case that involved current and past heads of state, their relatives, and senior officials, and seven senior executives connected to the Reserve Bank of Australia. The court case deals with allegations of multi-million dollar bribes made by agents of the RBA to national leaders in Asia in order to secure contracts for the supply of Australian-made polymer bank notes.
The super-injunction argued “national security” concerns to justify the banning all reporting about the case, and even banning publication of the details of gag-order itself.

It's comforting to know that democracy is in such good hands.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Neo-Liberalism: The Undying Monster


Neo-Liberalism came to Canada long before Stephen Harper came to Ottawa. It was ushered into public policy by Brian Mulroney, who privatised crown corporations like Air Canada and Petro Canada. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin contributed to its juggernaut by signing NAFTA and by introducing fiscal restraint.

But Donald Gurstin argues in his book, Harperism: How Stephen Harper And His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, that neo-liberalism's entrenchment in this country is the result of the long hard work of organizations like the Fraser Institute, the Frontier Centre and the Macdoanld-Laurier Institute:

As of this writing in mid-2014, a tightly knit, smoothly operating neo-liberal propaganda system has been installed in Canada. The foundations of wealthy businessmen, corporations, and individuals are investing more than $26 million a year in neo-liberal think-tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations. (This figure doesn’t include Calgary’s School of Public Policy, whose financial statements are buried within the university’s accounts.) The long-term goal is to discredit government as a vital institution and to champion market alternatives.

As a result of the massing on the right, the political space is crowded with a seemingly endless flow of studies, reports and commentaries supporting neoliberal perspectives. Of course, people are not automatons who blindly internalize these messages. But gradually, and especially as a result of constant repetition, some ideas rise to prominence, while others fade away. People are presented with a changing set of ideas from which they must make selections to make sense of their world: economic freedom and school choice are unqualified good things; the tax burden is burdensome and requires relief; government is inefficient because it harbours bloated bureaucracies and overpaid public employees; the private sector is hobbled by red tape; and so on.

As a result of the constant drumbeat from the Right, neo-liberal ideas have assumed the status of axioms; and they made Stephen Harper's success appear inevitable. The damage has been catastrophic:

He’s hobbled government’s long-standing social-democratic obligations by slashing revenues to their lowest levels — in relation to the size of the economy — they’ve been at in fifty years, when the state first implemented its major social programs. One estimate pegs Harper’s tax cuts at $45 billion a year in foregone revenues. With total revenues at about $250 billion, that’s nearly a 20 per cent cut. Call it privatization by default. If there’s not enough money in the public coffers to finance health care, post-secondary education and rising old age security needs, they will have to be provided by the private or voluntary sectors or by individuals.

But Mr. Harper's success was never inevitable. It has only been possible because the Right has understood what Goebbels meant by the Big Lie. If you repeat a lie often enough, people will assume that it is true.

The Great Recession should have proven that neo-liberalism was a Big Lie. But, thanks to the think tanks, it keeps re-appearing -- like Frankenstein's monster in those old Universal sequels.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

That Grievance Mentality


Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address this week. Here are a few highlights:

  • We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions.”
  • “We still need … a higher minimum wage.”
  • “Free community college is possible.”
  • “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.”
  • “Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 per cent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.”
  • “No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

Jeffrey Simpson writes:

Could any Canadian imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying such things? If Mr. Harper were a U.S. legislator, he would have been sitting in the House of Representatives chamber with the sullen-looking Republicans. The Republicans might have chosen Senator or Congressman Harper to deliver their critical reply to the President’s address.

The speech made clear just how much distance there is between Harper and Obama. I suspect that Obama really has little use for Harper -- a suspicion that is bolstered by Harper's cancellation of the Three Amigos Conference:

With political optics defining almost everything in Ottawa, the Harper government dreaded a late-February meeting in Canada featuring Mr. Harper, Mr. Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Planning had been proceeding until the Harper government abruptly announced it was pushing back the meeting until some unspecified later date.

What Ottawa dreaded was the public airing, on Canadian soil, of disputes over Keystone XL and Canadian visa requirements on Mexicans. This would not have looked good, since it would have underscored how clumsily the Harper government has played both files.

What has sent Canadian-American relations south, Simpson writes, is Harper's "grievance mentality:"

A grievance mentality has settled over the Harper government because of Keystone XL, which Mr. Obama obviously opposes, although no final decision has been rendered.

The grievance mentality is deepened by the sense that the Americans have given nothing in return for Canadian participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the venue Canada provided for the U.S.-Cuba talks. Things have improved a bit, but they got so bad a while ago that the U.S. ambassador to Canada had to get Prime Minister’s Office’s approval for meetings with cabinet ministers.

That grievance mentality, however, does not confine itself to Canadian-American relations. It defines everything Stephen Harper does. It shows through in his dealings with Parliament, with the provinces, with evironmental groups -- with anyone who opposes his agenda.

Harper came into politics with a chip on his shoulder -- a chip which has only grown bigger over the years. The man is the walking definition of  "grievance mentality."

Friday, January 23, 2015

Going To War In His Armchair


Stephen Harper told us that there would be no boots on the ground. It turns out there are, and they're on the front lines. Michael Harris writes:

At some point, a Canadian soldier is going to be captured or killed in action. The prime minister will hold a sorrowful press conference — without taking any questions. The emotional dividend from these inevitable events will be used by his hawkish administration to justify a more “robust” response — i.e. more boots on the ground to protect our forces. And so on … until it’s Afghanistan Redux.

Those of us with longer memories might call it Vietnam Redux:

This, of course, is exactly how the Americans eased their way into the war in Vietnam after the French were whipped. That initial helping hand to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam turned into a military operation that dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than were dropped in the entire Second World War — and the Americans still lost.

It ended on April 29, 1975, with a desperate airlift of U.S. citizens from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, as the Viet Cong overran the city. It was a war that started with trainers and advisers. It ended with the deaths of more than fifty thousand U.S. soldiers — and 3.8 million Vietnamese. So forgive me if the “trainer” explanation rings a little hollow.

And, if anyone in the Harper government actually read history, they might have paid attention to the Russian experience in Afghanistan:

Before the Americans showed up with their army, the Russians were the occupiers. They tried to force changes on an ancient society which didn’t see the world through western eyes. The result was a bitter war that the Russians lost to an alliance of local forces — including the Mujahideen, which gave the world the CIA’s most famous trainee: Osama Bin Laden.

It is instructive to read through the dispatches from Russian generals trying to tell Moscow it was losing the war. The Politburo ignored the warnings, wanting only good news from the front — the kind of news that reinforces the idea that the war is “working.”

But Mr. Harper is an armchair general. He knows nothing of war -- and nothing of history.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tearing Away At The Nation's Core


The Harper government is busy preparing new anti-terror legislation. But, Colin Kenny writes in today's Toronto Star, we don't need new legislation. We need adequate funding of the institutions which apply the laws we already have:

No less than eight pieces of anti-terrorism legislation have successfully passed through Parliament since the Twin Towers fell. These laws made comprehensive changes to Canada’s legal landscape to ensure the country has the powers it needs to prevent terrorism.
Harper himself has acknowledged this, stating just recently to the press that, “the reality is that our security agencies are able, in the vast majority of cases, to identify threats that are out there and to prevent them from coming to fruition.”

So why the new legislation? The prime minister believes it is an all important a wedge issue:

Harper sees the passage of further counterterrorism legislation in Parliament, no matter how unnecessary, as a valuable wedge issue that will help with his re-election.
Last year, the prime minister’s handlers went to great lengths casting him as a reincarnated Ronald Reagan on the world stage, unafraid in staring down the Russian bear.

Now, they’re trying to burnish this tough guy image by having Harper pretend he’s making big strides in combating terrorists by passing superfluous laws.

It's all about votes at home. It's always been about votes at home.

Mr. Harper's economic strategy has also always been about votes at home. Yesterday, the Bank of Canada drove another nail into his economic strategy. While he has been buying votes, he has also been shredding the nation's core principles -- something he will continue to do with his new anti-terror legislation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

They Didn't Know What They Were Doing Or . . .


In last Sunday's New York Times, Paul Krugman tried to answer the question, "Why do conservatives hate good government?" His answer was pretty convincing:

Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.

What they seek to establish is a rigid, class society -- where everyone knows his or her place. In today's Toronto Star, Carol Goar argues that Stephen Harper is well on his way to establishing such a society, where movement between the classes is non-existent. A poll from Pollara suggests that:

A substantial chunk of the adult population — 45 per cent — is trapped below the middle class. They think they’re stuck there for life, no matter how hard they work.

“The key finding (of the poll) is that Canadians have very low confidence in their social mobility.They don’t think they can move up.”

Consider some of the poll's other numbers:

  • Half of Canadians (49 per cent) said they were worse off financially than their parents.

  • More than half (55 per cent) were pessimistic about the employment outlook for their adult children.

  • Eight out of 10 working Canadians said their salaries were not keeping pace with the cost of living.

  • More than three-quarters (79 per cent) were worried about being able to afford health care as they aged.

  • A sizeable majority (85 per cent) agreed that “income inequality is no longer about the gap between rich and poor; but between the very rich and everyone else.”

  • As Reformers, the Harperites sold themselves as the champions of the little man. But once in power, they became the little man's worst enemy. With everything they have touched, the Harperites have produced the opposite of what they promised.

    Either they didn't know what they were doing. Or they lied.

    Tuesday, January 20, 2015

    The Rooster's Mistake


    Since coming to office, Alan Freeman writes, Stephen Harper has had an incredible run of good luck:

    The Liberals had bequeathed the Tories a sound fiscal situation and a string of surpluses, so much so that in its early years, the Harperites could cut taxes and still boost spending on their favourite causes like the military, with seemingly no consequences. They also inherited a well-regulated banking system and an earlier ban on bank mergers that meant no Canadian bank was big enough to swagger on the world stage and do the kind of foolish things their U.S. and UK counterparts ended up doing. These factors, the consequence of Tory fortune rather than policy decisions, made a real difference when the financial crisis hit.

    But the Tories’ real stroke of luck was that resource prices, particularly oil but also coal, iron ore and other commodities, remained strong even after the financial crisis, reflecting China’s continued growth. As manufacturing in central Canada collapsed, the West surged, filling federal coffers and providing jobs to unemployed workers from Central and Eastern Canada.

    What’s more, real-estate prices not only didn’t dip, they kept roaring ahead. Again, luck was the major factor at play. Like other bubbles, Canada’s real-estate boom was powered by its own internal logic, as well as low interest rates. It didn’t really make any sense but the politicians weren’t about to complain. When it came time to vote, Canadians peered south of the border and saw devastation when it came to employment and house prices. Canada was doing pretty well so they held their noses and voted for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in 2008 and 2011.

    Perhaps appointing Jim Flaherty as Minister of Finance bestowed the Luck of the Irish on Harper. But that luck has run out:

    The collapse in the price of oil isn’t the fault of Harper or his hapless finance minister, Joe Oliver, but neither was the run-up in the price to their credit either. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of fortuitous circumstances. The problem occurs when you take that luck for granted, promising tax cuts and a return to surplus when prudence would have told you to hold off.

    Harper has made the rooster's mistake. He has assumed that, because he crows, the sun comes up every morning. He's still crowing -- but the sun is setting.

    Monday, January 19, 2015

    The Poisoned Well Of Information


    Will Colonel Sanders get the chickens to vote for him again? That, Michael Harris writes, is the question which the next federal election will turn on. And, given what has happened to the Canadian media, it's a lot easier to get the chickens to vote:

    The mainstream media could once be relied upon to distinguish the hot air from the facts. That is still partially true, and there are many fine journalists on the scene. But the media landscape is profoundly changed. You could be forgiven, for example, if you mistook CBC board meetings these days for Conservative party fundraisers. According to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, it is donor country, full stop, with eight of the eleven current members of the board having contributed to the CPC. It is transformation-by-patronage of a national institution, handing over the controls of a 767 to someone without a pilot’s license.
     Conflict of interest is everywhere these days:

    The truth is, the mainstream media outlets have ceded obscene tracts of their authority to people they should be covering, not covering up for. Why should Stephen Harper be writing editorials for the National Post? Why did the calamitous Fords get a radio show from CFRB, a news/talk station with a CRTC license? What was John Tory doing on his radio show, informing his listeners or setting the stage for a successful campaign for mayor of Toronto?

    Far too many of the facts that fill our newspapers and television broadcasts come from people with skin in the political game – either as representatives doing PR for the political parties, or former politicians embarking on post-political image-revision. If you had to choose, who would you rather listen to on one of those back-slapping panels that plague contemporary television – Andrew Mitrovica or Stockwell Day? What on earth is Stockwell Day doing on the CBC as a political commentator? Are we supposed to believe Day has suddenly rediscovered his honesty and cojones now that he only has to make his living as a “political consultant” (a.k.a. lobbyist)? He is still a partisan and he now stands to lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, if he is no longer part of the “in crowd” in Ottawa.

    There is one more question behind the next election. How many of those who didn't vote last time around will vote this time?

    There are a lot of theories floating around about why 9 million Canadians didn’t vote in the last election. I lean towards the view that the hellish cascade of agenda-driven, special interest, utterly poisoned communications has persuaded them that dropping out is better than engaging. They don’t know who to believe, they don’t trust anybody, and they don’t think they matter. And the less wealthy and more disenfranchised they are, the more likely they are to ‘fuggit.’

    They know the well of information has been poisoned. And they have elected to get nowhere near it.

    Sunday, January 18, 2015

    What He Says They Mean


    Watching the Harper government serve up a pre-election budget has become a drama in the Theatre of the Absurd. That's because -- as Tim Harper wrote last week in the Toronto Star -- for Stephen Harper, politics trumps math:

    The new Conservative math is political math.

    There’s another name for it. It’s a shell game.

    Finance Minister Joe Oliver appears ready to arbitrarily set a future oil price — one that neither he nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper can predict — that will allow him to proceed with voter-friendly promises in an election year.
    Even as he pushed the budget date into April, he told a Calgary audience Thursday that he will balance this budget, then run surpluses in the years to come, rising to over $13 billion by 2019-20.

    The Harperites find themselves in this predicament because they predicted a surplus based on $81a barrel oil. And they spent the surplus before it materialised. Moreover, they've based their whole re-election strategy on a balanced budget and tax cuts from their non-existent surplus:

    They have to balance the budget so they can make good on a promise Harper made on a chilly early April day in Vaughan almost four years ago — the doubling of the limit for Tax Free Savings Account contributions to $10,000, a vote-friendly initiative that was contingent on the deficit being eliminated.

    In the short term, there is a cost. The finance department has estimated that the existing TFSA program, introduced in 2009, cost the government more than $400 million in foregone revenue in 2013.

    But that figure will be in the tens of billions when accounts are drawn on in the years to come.
    Similarly, an adult tax fitness credit is tied to the balanced budget.
    Then there is the matter of other pre-election spending, such as money that should go to veterans and the ongoing costs of an air mission against Islamic State in northern Iraq.

    There is an old adage about not counting your chickens before they hatch. The same rule applies to surpluses.

    When former MP Bill Casey went to Mr. Harper to complain that he had altered the Atlantic Accord, the prime minister told him that the words in the accord "mean what I say they mean." The same rule seems to apply to budget numbers.

    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    Election Law? What Election Law?

    There has been lots of speculation recently about whether Stephen Harper will break his own fixed date election law -- for the second time. It's remarkable, Andrew Coyne writes, that a man who insisted on the law should have such little regard for it. What is even more remarkable is that Canadians -- in general -- also have little respect for the law:

    Not only does he not feel bound by it, but neither do the rest of us seem inclined to insist that he should. We have all somehow come to accept that it is perfectly normal, even acceptable, for the government — the government! — to disobey the law if it feels like it, as if the laws that are binding upon the rest of us were not binding upon the governments that pass them. This is surely an astonishing state of affairs, in a democracy, a measure not only of the corrupting effects of power but of how the rest of us have been corrupted along with it.

    It is, indeed, an astonishing state of affairs. But it's worth remembering that, for Stephen Harper, "contempt of Parliament" was merely a matter of being out voted. And, given the fact that he won the election that contempt triggered, Canadians seem to believe that contempt comes down to votes.

    Coyne correctly observes that:

    We should not have to wonder whether the laws Parliament passes are of any worth or meaning, or whether the government we elect will seek refuge in fine print and Clintonian wordplay to wriggle out of them. We should not have to worry that our government is trying to con us. We are entitled to some expectation of good faith, and if we have lost even that then the implications are a lot worse than an untimely election call.

    We are in deep trouble.

    Friday, January 16, 2015

    To The Showers


    An election is in the offing. And Stephen Harper has come to the plate swinging. But, Michael Harris writes, he already has three strikes against him.

    Strike One is his record on the environment:

    They have greedily championed oil and gas while doing nothing to protect air and water. Consider the piece of legislation with the Orwellian name — the Navigable Waters Protection Act. NDP house leader Nathan Cullen said it as well as anyone could:

    “It means the removal of almost every lake and river we know from the Navigable Waters Protection Act. From one day to the next, we went from 2.5 million protected lakes and rivers in Canada to 159 lakes and rivers protected.”

    Harper has done more than favour oil and gas companies. He's done nothing to reign in corporate corruption:

    Canada now has more corrupt companies on the World Bank’s blacklist than any other country in the world. A stunning 115 of those companies are comprised of disgraced engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and its subsidiaries — the same company that the Harper government supported with an $800 million loan guarantee to build the dubious Muskrat Falls power development in Newfoundland and Labrador.

    Strike Two is his failure to make government accountable to its citizens:

    That is, after all, what got him elected in 2006 (that and a little cheating during the campaign). So it was beyond hypocritical this past week for the PM to portray himself as a champion of democracy and free speech after the dreadful killings in Paris. He even politicizes tragedy.

    Here is the real man … the one who dedicated his entire communications effort to smothering free speech, who undermined access to information, the life-blood of any democracy, with endless delays in handing over government documents that belong to us. In some cases, his government has simply — and unconstitutionally — refused to fork them over. He has also mused about charging $200 per access request — which would certainly suppress the urge to ask.

    Strike Three is that real man is not anything like the people he claims to represent:

    Stephen Harper is not who we are.

    Canadians don’t want to see medicare slowly reduced to a ghost of its former self by a prime minister who once headed an organization created to destroy it.

    Despite the stunning selfishness of some of its stars, Canadians don’t want to see the CBC brought to its knees and “restructured” by a man who prefers public relations to journalism.

    Finally, Canadians don’t want to save money on the backs of veterans who didn’t take to the closet in the face of clear and present danger — especially when Harper has so egregiously used the military for political gain. There has to be more for our soldiers than bullets and beans.

    He claims that, this time out, he'll put one into the bleachers and cross home plate for the fourth time. If Canadians are wise, they'll send him to the showers.

    Thursday, January 15, 2015

    Now Is The Time, Justin


    Talk of proportional representation has been around for a long time. Linda McQuaig writes:

    The most widely-supported version of PR for Canada — called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) — is used in Germany, Scotland and New Zealand, and has the advantage of combining local representation with a seat count in the legislature based on the popular vote. MMP was recommended by the Law Commission of Canada in a 2004 report on Canadian electoral reform. It has the support of nonpartisan groups like Fair Vote Canada and the Canadian Electoral Alliance.

    And, last month, exactly such a proposal was presented to the House. It had the support of the NDP, the Green Party and 16 Liberal MP's. Curiously, Justin Trudeau voted against the proposal. The question is why? Stephen Harper is the incarnation of the argument for PR:

    The rise of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives — with their aggression, their willingness to flout democratic rules and traditions, their indifference to the interests of those who didn’t vote for them — has highlighted the danger of an over-empowered minority in an urgent new way.
    With only 39.5 per cent of the popular vote in the 2011 election (plus an unquantifiable amount of hubris), the Harper government has exercised 100 per cent control over Parliament, using that power to sabotage international efforts on climate change and implement a whole range of other policies at odds with the values of most Canadians.

    McQuaig suggests that a minority government may, indeed, be what we are left with after this year's election:

    A minority government is distinctly possible — and opposition parties undoubtedly would work together to ensure the end of the Harper government.

    That could involve some kind of deal between them, a deal which should require the implementation of proportional representation in order to ensure a permanent guarantee of greater democracy.

    If Trudeau the Younger is serious about democratic reform, he should be talking about proportional representation.

    Wednesday, January 14, 2015

    The Other Path


    Like a Puritan obsessed with sin, Stephen Harper is obsessed with austerity. He is not alone in his obsession. Most of Europe's leaders share it. And their obsession has led The Financial Times' Martin Wolfe to write that their economies suffer from "chronic demand deficiency syndrome." The OECD has also been trying to get those who mistake economics for theology to see the folly of their moralistic crusade.

    Not all countries take a moralistic approach to economics. Murray Dobbins writes that the Scandinavian countries -- particularly Norway -- have chosen another path:

    A recent study, "How Can Scandinavians Tax So Much?" on Norway, Sweden and Denmark, demonstrates how national governments can actually address underlying structural demand weaknesses -- or rather, in their cases, how to prevent such weaknesses from developing in the first place. The key is not just high government spending but a dedication to revenue collection that comes as close as possible to eliminating leakage in the tax system.

    The top marginal income tax rate in the three countries is between 60 per cent and 70 per cent compared to 43 per cent in the U.S. and about 50 per cent in Canada. Add in other taxes like consumption and payroll levies and the average Scandinavian worker gets to keep just 20 per cent of her paycheque. In the U.S. that same employee keeps 63 per cent. How can such high tax rates (which would be denounced as "punitive" here) result in some of the best economic outcomes on the planet -- high standards of living, high labour participation rates, highly profitable corporations and high placements (all higher than Canada) in the world competitiveness sweepstakes?

    With the governments pumping billions of dollars into the Scandinavian economies there is no "chronic demand deficiency syndrome." They do not rely on debt-financed consumer demand, and the reduction of private consumer spending makes for more rational economic decision-making overall. The U.S. has accomplished what appears to be a stable recovery by also rejecting the austerity obsession and engaging in repeated rounds of quantitative easing  -- artificially pumping money into the economy through bond purchases. Canada, meanwhile, is actually sucking billions out of the economy through tax cuts to sectors (corporations and the 1 per cent) who aren't spending it.

    Over the last thirty years, rather than injecting money into our economy, our governments have withdrawn billions of dollars:

    Of course we have withdrawn billions since 1985 -- over $60 billion a year in abandoned revenue at the federal level if you go back and count Paul Martin's huge tax cuts in 2000-2005. If we had that money back to spend, the vast majority of it ultimately ends up being spent in the private sector -- and might actually convince Canadian corporations to invest some of the $626 billion in idle cash they are now sitting on. (An IMF report recently chastised Canadians corporations for accumulating idle capital at a faster rate than any other country in the G7.)

    And, rather than taking in money from our petroleum wealth, we have sold that resource at fire sale prices. Norway took a different tact:

    In Canada we have virtually given away our energy heritage through criminally low royalty rates over a period of some 70 years. Norway bargained hard with oil companies to develop its relatively new found resource -- and kept ownership of it. The result, as reported in The Tyee last year, is a heritage fund of (as of a year ago) $909,364 billion (Canadian). That puts tiny Norway $1.5 trillion ahead of us and while each Canadian has a $17,000 share of our $600 billion debt national debt, each Norwegian has a $178,000 stake in their surplus. Norway puts aside a billion dollars a week from its oil resource.

    Clearly, there is another path. And austerity isn't it.

    Tuesday, January 13, 2015

    Counting On Oil

    Falling oil prices should stimulate the world's faltering economy. But they won't do the Harper government a lot of good. That's because the Harperites have nailed their political flag to eliminating the deficit. And that has become more difficult than they anticipated. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries write:

    In other words, cheaper oil will have a net positive effect on real economic growth in the oil-consuming provinces and on their budget balances — but it will have the reverse effect in the oil-producing provinces and in Mr. Oliver’s department.

    That growth forecast of 3.7 per cent for nominal GDP already included a downward adjustment for lower oil prices and an additional ‘risk adjustment’ factor — which, according to Finance, together lowered budgetary revenues by $5.5 billion in 2015-16. The drop in oil prices has burned up all of this fiscal ‘slack’ in the deficit forecast. In other words, the collapse of a single commodity has completely undermined the government’s commitment to a balanced budget in 2015-16.

    Count on it: Nominal GDP growth of only 2.5 per cent for 2015 means, in the absence of any offsetting cuts or other policy actions, a deficit in 2015-16.

    We won't know what the real numbers are until after the election. So you can also count on Mr. Harper selling the same old snake oil. But, remember, he didn't see the Great Recession coming, either.

    The Prime Minister has always been a one trick pony. He has always counted on oil to bring Canada prosperity. And, after nine years, it's painfully obvious that he can't count very well.

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    It's Come Back To Haunt Us

    After events such as those in France last week, it's natural for people to feel anger. But when anger turns to rage, and rage spawns ignorance, we are in dangerous territory. In Europe, the parties of the Far Right are counselling ignorance. Michael Harris writes:

    The leader of the Front National party, Marine Le Pen, is stoking the view that immigration is an “invasion” — a coinage of her father, the party’s founder, Jean-Marie LePen. Her ‘ban refugees’ message is aped by the leader of the United Kingdom Independent Party of Nigel Farage, and the Dutch Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders.

    Among other things, Le Pen wants to bring back capital punishment to protect what she calls the “countrymen.” Islam, she proclaims, is an evil ideology. Perhaps that’s why her father wanted Muslims expelled before they “took over” France.

    Predictably, the Harper Right is also counselling ignorance. Enter Michelle Rempel:

    Calling the opposition’s position “deeply ignorant,” (both the NDP and Liberals voted against the latest war in Iraq) Rempel went on to advise total ignorance in dealing with ISIL. Don’t bother trying to understand what happened, just experience the horror of it all. Channel the victims. Rempel’s advocacy comes down to this: kill the evil-doers before they kill us. Where have you heard that before?

    Stop, for a minute, and consider where ignorance has got us:

    After 13 years of the War on Terror, the Rempel Doctrine has given the world a fractured Iraq never far from civil war, a dysfunctional Afghanistan, chaos in Libya, horrendous civil war in Syria, excruciating pain in Gaza, and radicalized an even more vicious strain of fundamentalism that is so bad that it makes Al Qaida look moderate.

    That ignorance is most evident in our refusal to consider history and the context that it provides. Eric Margolis, Harris writes, provides both history and context:

    Starting with the premise that absolutely nothing justifies the savagery that took place in Paris last week – (and let me stress those words “absolutely nothing”), Margolis educates rather than incites. He points out that France has emerged as one of the most active interveners in the Muslim world, with military operations in Libya, Mali, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

    And behind all that, there is of course the bloody legacy of Algeria, where liberation fighters were tortured by electro-shock occasionally with the assistance of psychiatrists. The French military presence has been so pervasive, Margolis points out that critics have accused the country of a new era of Mideast and African colonialism.

    The old adage what goes around comes around applies now as it has always applied. Our problem is that we have forgotten what we sent around the first time. And we fail to understand why it has come back to haunt us.

    Sunday, January 11, 2015

    How Does He Get Away With It?

    That's the question Bob Hepburn asked in yesterday's Toronto Star. The record is stunning:

    How does Harper get away with dismantling the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, which promoted democracy and human rights around the world for 24 years?

    How does Harper get away with cutting funding for organizations such as Kairos, a coalition of church groups that advocated for human rights?

    How does Harper get away with introducing a fair elections act that was so unfair it should rightly have been called the anti-democratic elections act?

    How does Harper get away with slapping gag orders on public servants and scientists, preventing them from speaking to the public?

    How does Harper get away with letting cabinet ministers restrict freedom of speech and information tenets, withhold and alter documents, and launch personal attacks on whistleblowers?

    How does Harper get away with slamming the chief electoral officer for doing his job?

    How does Harper, who loves to tout federal-provincial relations, get away with openly snubbing the premier of Canada’s most populous province for more than a year?

    How does Harper get away with blissfully ignoring Conservative election scandals, from the infamous anti-democratic robocall affair to voter fraud and election spending violations?
    How does Harper get away with shutting down Parliament not once but twice for partisan political reasons?

    The reason is not hard  to find:

    While some pro-democracy groups have raised alarms in the past about Harper, most Canadians have just shrugged their shoulders, albeit in disgust. They are disengaged, discouraged by government scandals and believe politicians don’t listen to them and aren’t interested in the issues that are important to them.

    Harper thrives on the cynicism he creates. He has raised Canadian cynicism to new heights, knowing that cynicism -- when it becomes fatal -- causes paralysis. And paralyzed institutions will offer him no resistance.

    That's why this year's election is seminal. If Mr. Harper is re-elected, that paralysis will become permanent.

    Saturday, January 10, 2015

    His Own Worst Enemy


    From the beginning, Stephen Harper dreamed of transforming Canada into a petro-state. Many things have combined to kill his dream -- not the least of which is the falling price of oil. Carol Goar believes Canadians might have been willing to forgive Harper for things over which he had no control. Unfortunately, Harper has refused to do anything about the things he can control. Goar compiles a remarkable list of Harper's mistakes:

    The first impediment is his absolute refusal to admit he misjudged Canada’s prospects. Even now, with the bottom dropping out of his budgetary calculations, Harper insists he is a masterful economic manager, the only safe choice for prudent voters. His skewed self-image and his unwillingness to adjust to events stifle any fellow feeling.

    The second problem is that the prime minister is partly responsible for his own predicament. Although events conspired against him, he made matters worse. Discarding diplomacy, he publicly lectured the U.S. government that approving the Keystone XL pipeline designed to move bitumen from Hardisty, Alta., to the Gulf of Mexico should be a “complete no-brainer.” President Barack Obama didn’t take kindly to Harper’s needling. He still hasn’t given the project a green light. Similarly, Harper and his ministers lashed out at “radical groups” for hijacking the pipeline approval process and undermining the economy. Environmentalists dug in their heels.

    The third is Harper’s overt favouritism toward Alberta. His government subsidized the oilsands while dismissing Ontario’s efforts to develop green energy. He treated central Canada’s manufacturing woes as an unfortunate, but unpreventable, byproduct of globalization. His ministers hunted down employment insurance recipients in the job-scarce Maritimes to ensure they were actively looking for work. He changed Canada’s equalization formula when Ontario became a have-not province.

    The fourth is his obduracy on climate change. While other nations cleaned up their act, Harper broke Ottawa’s global commitments, ignored its emission-reduction targets and made no effort to put a price on pollution. The payback for sacrificing Canada’s reputation as a responsible member of the global community? A commodity the industry can’t sell in an oil-saturated world.
    The fifth is his attempt to smear and silence charities. No prime minister has ever resorted to auditing charities that don’t share the government’s ideology or objectives. Since 2012, the Canada Revenue Agency has targeted more than 50 environmental organizations, anti-poverty groups, foreign aid providers and left-leaning think-tanks. Even people who don’t belong to — or donate to — these charities are disturbed by the lengths to which Harper will go to get his way.

    There's more, but you get the idea. The bald truth is that -- other than his ability to get himself elected -- Harper has been a thoroughly incompetent prime minister.

    Historians  will be preoccupied with the question of how a man so devoid of people skills could be elected prime minister. Perhaps, they will conclude, it was the times. They will point south of the border to one of Harper's contemporaries -- who also liked to pose as a cowboy. He was, likewise, totally unfit for office.

    Who knows what their explanation will be? But one thing is certain. Each man, they will conclude, was his own worst enemy.

    Friday, January 09, 2015

    He Wants You To Be Very Afraid


    Yesterday, in British Columbia, Stephen Harper warned that the world is beset by Islamists:

    Harper drew the connection between the Paris attack and what he described as the "international jihadist movement," including the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.

    "They have declared war on anybody who does not think and act exactly as they wish they would think and act," said Harper.

    "They have declared war and are already executing it on a massive scale on a whole range of countries with which they are in contact, and they have declared war on any country, like ourselves, that values freedom, openness and tolerance. We may not like this and wish it would go away, but it is not going to go away."

    Never mind that Harper's description of jihadists sounded remarkably like his own acolytes. Statistics Canada reported that same day that there was no growth in the Canadian economy in December. The master economist has clearly failed in his economic crusade. So, with an election looming, he needs another kind of crusade. And a crusade against terrorism fits the bill. Michael Harris warns:

    When Parliament returns, Stephen Harper will be bringing forward new anti-terror legislation. Fear is Harper’s most powerful vote magnet; security is fear’s most reliable handmaiden.

    The new legislation will be a loyalty test administered by Harper on Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau — and on all of us, really. Are we tough or soft on terrorism?

    Harper will follow the lead of the Far Right in Europe:

    Just consider how the Far Right has pounced on this sickening crime to advance their political agenda. In France, Marine LePen of the Front National party has used the massacre at Charlie Hebdo to declare war on Islamism — without having the facts. That’s not a small consideration when you remember that France has five million Muslim citizens.

    In Great Britain, the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, has jumped from these wanton murders to pronouncing a fatwa of his own against multiculturalism — as if putting an end to cultural tolerance would be good for being British.

    We still don't have the facts about the attacks in Quebec and on Parliament Hill. But facts have never mattered to Harper. What matters is that there is an election to win and the line about "a steady hand on the economic tiller" won't work any more.

    That is why Harper wants you to be afraid -- very afraid.

    Thursday, January 08, 2015

    Swinging The Wrecking Ball


    Much has been said of late about the Harper dictatorship. However, Canadians have failed to notice that Stephen Harper is waging an unrelenting war on medicare. Linda McQuaig writes:

    Under Harper, taxes as a percentage of the economy are at their lowest level in 70 years. But 70 years ago, governments weren’t providing the extensive public benefits and services — in areas like health care, education, pensions, public transit — that we want and expect today.

    As a result of Harper’s cuts to the GST, personal and corporate taxes, Ottawa now collects about $45 billion less revenue per year. No wonder we’re told we can’t afford anything but austerity.

    That is why the prime minister has informed the provinces that, if they want to maintain medicare, they will have to keep it going:

    Harper has quietly put in place the mechanism for deep cuts to federal support for public health care. There was, of course, no proclamation pointing that out. His government simply announced, just before Christmas in 2011, that there would be no negotiations to renew the expiring health accord with the provinces.

    Instead, it unilaterally imposed a new formula — which will cut federal support for health care by an estimated $36 billion over the next decade, leaving the cash-strapped provinces scrambling to cover costs, with private, profit-seeking health entrepreneurs buzzing at their doorsteps.

    As a result, few Canadians seem to realize that, as things stand, our medicare system — an institution cherished by millions — faces serious spending cuts starting in 2017.

    Few Canadians seem to remember that Harper used to head the National Citizens Coalition -- an organization which came into being to fight public healthcare. He has swung a wrecking ball at the most cherished institutions in this country. And, McQuaig reminds us, we let him get away with it.

    Wednesday, January 07, 2015

    Back To Calgary


    Stephen Harper will tout his record in the next federal election. But Tim Harper writes in the Toronto Star that the record is pretty shoddy:

    Whether it is the Harper autocracy, his environmental record, his demonizing of opponents, Supreme Court spats, omnibus bills, back-of-the-hand treatment of natives, dictatorial treatment of the premiers, ethical stumbles, treatment of veterans or an unyielding lack of collaboration, the list of grievances against a government verging on 10 years in power adds up.

    And that's why Harper is hoping that his opponents don't climb over their own hurdles:

    For Tom Mulcair, it is the obvious — the NDP has never formed a national government.
    And for Justin Trudeau, the challenge is to turn around history in one electoral bound, taking a Liberal party from its all-time electoral nadir to victory.

    And Harper will have to do his best to keep turnout low:

    Harper lives in a narrow political lane of 10 percentage points, the 30-40 per cent vortex.
    At 30 per cent support he fails — anywhere close to 40 and he can replicate his 2011 majority, as long as the New Democrats and Liberals essentially split the anti-Harper vote.

    If the opposition parties can mobilize the anti-Harper vote, they'll send the Cowboy from Etobicoke back to Calgary.

    Tuesday, January 06, 2015

    Neutering Parliament


    If you want to know how irrelevant Parliament has become, Scott Clark and Peter Devries write, consider what has happened to the budget consultation process:

    In the past, pre-budget consultations took place outside the Finance Committee and the minister’s “public” pre-budget consultations. They were run by the Department of Finance as part of a normal process of policy development leading up to delivering recommendations to the minister.

    Under the previous government — the first one to ask the Finance Committee to seek the views of Canadians on the upcoming budget — the minister of Finance would appear before the committee in person, present updated economic and fiscal projections and lay out potential challenges for budget planning. The last time a minister presented such an update to the committee was … 2006.

    This year, the Harper government announced a surplus and then announced it had been spent on tax cuts -- primarily income splitting. Under Magna Charta, the chief function of Parliament was defined as reviewing and approving public expenditures. The Harper government has, quite simply, neutered Parliament. As Clark and Devries observe:

    It’s just another front in the Harper government’s campaign to turn Parliament into a machine for voting money — obediently, silently and blindly. After all, what’s the point of consulting on how to spend money you’ve already spent?

    Monday, January 05, 2015

    Losing Its Soul

    It's truly demoralizing to discover that a significant number of Canadians continue to believe in Stephen Harper. Michael Harris writes:

    And now we have an even bigger problem, according to an astonishing story in the Ottawa Citizen by Kathryn May. Nearly one-in-five Canadians believes that the prime minister could be justified in closing down Parliament in difficult times. A further 17 per cent believe that dissolving the Supreme Court would be okeydoke in the right circumstances. The question was asked and answered without providing any details about what sorts of crises would justify imposing a dictatorship.

    These alarming statistics are contained in a study by the Americas Society headed up by David Rockefeller in association with Vanderbilt University. The group surveyed attitudes towards democracy and governance in interviews with 50,000 people in 28 countries. It found that Canada was among those nations most likely to support shuttering its legislatures. In fact, the study found that only the citizens of Paraguay, Peru, and Haiti were more likely to put their democracies in mothballs than Canadians.

    And, so, the juggernaut continues. The Harper Express to One Man Rule rolls merrily along:

    He is the prime minister who refused to produce documents requested by a parliamentary committee. He is the leader who denounced omnibus legislation in opposition and vastly extended its use when he formed the government. He is the prime minister who muzzled MPs, misled parliament on the F-35 acquisition, and told more stories than Hans Christian Andersen on the Wright/Duffy Affair.

    Most people play by the rules; this prime minister plays with them.

    As long time Clerk of the House of Commons and former Information Commissioner Robert Marleau told me:

    “We operate under Westminster rules — an honourable understanding that you will play within the rules and by the rules. Mr. Harper has not played within the rules. Having attained absolute power, he has absolutely abused that power to the maximum.”

    The clearest sign that Marleau is right is Harper’s constant refrain that he is the only person qualified to run the country — not the best person, but the only one. He has said on more than one occasion that his job is to persuade Canadians not to choose the wrong person – i.e. anyone other than him. His long term goal is to do to Canada what the Progressive Conservative Party has done to Alberta for the last 40-plus years; turn it into a one-party petro-state where voting is the last priority on the to-do list. 

    Only Harper, the spin goes, is capable of running the country -- if you think that dictatorship is good for the soul. The price, of course, for that conviction is that Canada must lose its soul.

    Friday, January 02, 2015

    In Whose Pocket?


    We on the Left like to think that the Harper government is in the pocket of Big Business. But, Jim Stanford writes, recent decisions have caused business to re-evaluate its support for Harper and Co:

    More recently, however, the relationship between Ottawa and the corporate sector has become more complicated. Canada’s business leaders might be wondering whether Santa Claus was replaced by the Grinch – because on several issues, the Conservatives have come into direct conflict with business. With a tough election looming, and the government’s actions increasingly dictated by political optics rather than any consistent economic ideology, executives have been negatively surprised by several recent edicts from Ottawa.

    Stanford cites the following examples of political opportunism:

    A potent symbol of that tension was the legislation introduced at year’s end, requiring companies to “justify” price differentials between Canada and the U.S. The Competition Bureau is authorized to collect confidential corporate financial data to facilitate this comparison. Few believe the Bureau has either the desire or the resources to investigate prices in any meaningful way, and it will have no power to do anything about “unjustified” price gaps in any event. Moreover, the only reason such gaps exist – a substantially overvalued Canadian currency – is disappearing before our eyes. So the legislation is pure theatre.

    This silly but unprecedented intervention echoed another simmering confrontation between Ottawa and the telecommunications industry. The Harper government is actively aiding the creation of a fourth national wireless carrier, assuming that consumers would consequently enjoy a sea-change in quality and cost. (International evidence on that score is not encouraging.)

    More open conflict was sparked by the Conservatives’ sudden decision to restrict the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. It was the Harper government that threw this program wide open after 2007, but they soon faced growing (and understandable) popular anger – including from segments of their own base. So they dramatically rolled back the program. Business is still complaining, and loudly. The government was motivated more by polls than principle; they’d still like to expand the supply of low-wage labour through other means. But in the meantime, it’s another major irritant in its relations with business.

    When you add the evidence up, it becomes clear the only ideology that guides Stephen Harper is power -- getting it  and keeping it. Organized labour has known that for a long time. More recently, Canada's veterans have also learned that hard lesson. And now business is beginning to understand that -- when push comes to shove -- it'll be thrown under the bus.

    So, in the next election, where are the votes for Harper going to come from?