Category Archives: Government

No need to gild the finance minister’s good record

 

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They came not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. Boy, did they ever. 

Former federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s passing on Thursday – at 64, reportedly from a heart attack – dominated the front page of the Globe and Mail’s Friday edition. In fact, “dominated” might not be the right word; utterly blanketed would be a more accurate description. 

Apart from an ad announcing Toyota’s “red tag” days, nothing else appeared Page-One-worthy for “Canada’s National Newspaper”. 

Our “guiding force” was gone; the man who “shaped the Conservative Party, the nation and the world’s response to the Great Recession” was no more, tragically cut down in the late-middle-age of his life. It took eight reporters and editorialists to say so.

Political Affairs Correspondent John Ibbitson’s walk down memory lane was almost affecting: “In politics, you do what you gotta do. . .At the end he (Flaherty) was pretty happy with his record. . .But then, he was a pretty happy guy. Back when we were  both at Queen’s Park, he’d drop by the press lounge every now and then late on a Friday afternoon to mooch a beer and find out what the boys and girls were saying. He always greeted you with that impish grin, trolling for gossip, though he seldom offered up any of his own.”

At the back of the paper’s front section, the lead editorial continued the eulogy: “Goodbye to the little giant. . .Mr. Flaherty was a giant in the Harper cabinet, and not just because he ran the department whose control of the purse strings makes it, to some extent, the ministry of everything. He was one of the few Harper ministers who acted with considerable independent authority.”

Indeed, it’s difficult, even impossible, to recall another Canadian public official of Flaherty’s metier accorded such a fulsome tribute as this. Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Jack Layton, perhaps; still, they were all leaders of national parties and political movements. They weren’t finance ministers.

But, of course, therein lies the answer. 

One of the great foundational assumptions of the post-recession era – especially by the Ontario-centric national press gallery – is that Mr. Flaherty’s foresight and steady hand prevented the country’s Toronto-based financial institutions from circling the drain along with all the others in the wild, wild west during the financial collapse of ’08. For many media mavens, that “fact”, alone, makes the former finance minister’s track record a far more compelling story to tell than even the prime minister’s.   

Another key supposition of the modern age is that Mr. Flaherty’s fiscal stimulus program (Economic Action Plan) – all tallied, about $150 billion – was singularly responsible for preventing the economy from crashing and burning, given the private lending community’s terror of bad debt during the recession. Again, this “fact” has served the frequent press portrayals of the “little giant’s” rock-star status both at home and abroad.

There’s truth in both claims: Mr. Flaherty was a competent steward of the economy in tough times; had he been an inflexible ideologue with a fetish for balancing the nation’s accounts in a zero-growth environment, the road to recovery would have been much rockier than it was. 

But the real secret behind Canada’s relatively robust financial performance during the era of diminishing expectations – at least compared with those of the United Sates, and much of continental Europe – was, and is, its responsible and well-regulated banking system and monetary traditions. 

Mr. Flaherty deserves plaudits for not messing with these (the way former U.S. President Bill Clinton disastrously did with his nation’s laws when he repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had, for 66 years, successfully separated commercial from investment banking). But he doesn’t deserve credit for engineering a recovery with a system he merely inherited. 

Neither does he warrant much praise for using the Economic Action Plan creatively and to truly productive effect by making strategic investments in crucial infrastructure, higher education and training, advanced technology commercialization, and work-based poverty reduction programs. To have done so would have invited internecine warfare in his own party. 

Mr. Flaherty should be remembered in public circles as a bright, decent, effective, and tough cabinet minister. He was also that rarest of birds in the Harper government: he could both tell and take a joke. 

But he was not Caesar, and he never sought that company. 

Perhaps, that’s one reason he left Parliament a month ago: Too many little emperors running about, taking credit where credit is, most certainly, not due.

 

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Who vouches for real democratic reform?

 

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You have to hand it to him. When faced with utter, public repudiation the likes of which might send more seasoned political warriors running for cover, young Pierre Poilevre merely restocks his rhetorical ordnance and grins for the newsreel.

For more than a month, Canada’s minister for state for democratic reform (age 34, in case anyone is counting) has been thumping tables, insisting that the nation’s electoral system is grievously flawed and, so, requires an immediate and wholesale fix. He has even taken to penning editorials for major newspapers to ram his points home to “elites” about whose opinions he does not ordinarily care.

“Many of the government’s critics have reacted with predictable hyperbole to the Fair Elections Act. (Bill C-23, now in committee),” he wrote in a piece for The Globe and Mail last week. “Yet the bill is common sense. . .The bill requires voters to choose from 39 pieces of acceptable identification to prove identity and residence. Photo ID will not be required, but simply having someone vouch for a voter’s identity – without so much as a utility bill to back it up – will no longer suffice.”

To reinforce his arguments, Mr. Poilevre has relied heavily on the work of Harry Neufeld, the author of Elections Canada’s compliance report on the 2011 ballot. Quoting liberally from the report, the junior minister wrote: “‘Errors that involve a failure to properly administer these procedures are serious. The courts refer to such as irregularities which can result in votes being declared invalid,’ it reads on Page 5.” 

Moving on, chip appropriately balanced on shoulder, Mr. Poilevre, taunts, “If you don’t like that, try this, on Page 14. . .‘Too frequently, the errors are so serious that the courts would judge them to be irregularities that violate the legal provisions that establish an elector’s entitlement to vote.’ Further, Mr. Neufeld noted that the sorts of vouching errors that occurred in the riding of Etobicoke Centre ‘could contribute to a court overturning an election’.” 

The problem is that Mr. Neufeld, himself, isn’t buying anything Mr. Poilevre is selling and really wishes the young fellow would stop quoting him “selectively”. Even more damning, he told reporters following a parliamentary committee meeting last week that Bill C-23 should be either amended or killed outright, because “it appears like they’re (government) trying to tilt the playing field in one direction. . .theirs. It makes me wonder whether this process is really being administered in a completely neutral way.”

And what say you, Mr. Poilevre to this rather unequivocal rejection of your noble scheme by the very man on whose findings you base your entire case for reform? 

“Mr. Neufeld is entitled to author recommendations, he is not entitled to author he law,” the minister rejoined last week. “That (the law) is left to parliamentarians. And at no time did I ever claim to agree with his recommendations. I don’t agree with them, and that’s why they are not in the bill.”

Apparently, two public officials, like two physicians, can agree on a diagnosis; just not the course of treatment. This, of course, assumes that the two are equally qualified. In this case, however, they are not. Worse, one is carrying a gross weight of partisan baggage.

Mr. Neufeld is right to worry about the tens-of-thousands of people (possibly, as many as 500,000) the Fair Elections Act’s interdictions on vouching and voter registration cards will alienate from the democratic system. He’s also right to speculate about the minister’s motives for leaping to conclusions the evidence does not support.

According to a Globe story last week: “‘A large number of irregularities did occur, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any voters fraudulently misrepresented themselves in the vouching process,’ Mr. Neufeld said. The errors included mixing up the vouchee and voucher or failing to fill in the date, he said, adding of Mr. Poilievre: ‘I think he has been selectively reading and quoting from my report.’”

Of course he has. That’s what a loyal government member does. And the thicker his skin, the better the troops perform in the trenches where truth and ideology fight the eternal battle for supremacy. 

 

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Canadians chime in on ‘unfair’ Elections Act

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Those habitues of the Ivory Tower who have, from time to time, harboured serious misgivings about the average Canadian’s commitment to democracy in this country need worry no longer.

Thanks to his Fair Elections Act – which purports to reduce the risk of voter fraud by eliminating “vouching” (in which a voter vouches for another if the latter lacks sufficient ID) and rewriting much of the rulebook to render Elections Canada more accountable, but also less independent – Pierre Poilievre, the federal government’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform, has done more in one year to light a fire under his fellow citizens’ butts than an invading army could in 10.

Having passed its second reading, Bill C-23 (officially saddled with the cumbersome descriptor, “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts”) represents Mr. Poilievre’s earnest effort to fix what he and his political masters perceive is a seriously flawed system.

The problem is, the more time one spends examining the substance of the proposed legislation, the less one tends to agree with its sponsors and proponents. The most contentious issue is the attack on vouching, which would very likely undermine the democratic rights of First Nations citizens, students in transition and residents of old-folks homes, among others.

In fact, according to an Angus Reid Global poll last month, “Canadian support for changes to the Elections Act proposed by the Harper government is highest among those who aren’t aware of the issue. Among those who are familiar with the contents of the Fair Elections Act, 44 per cent say they support it and 56 per cent are opposed. However, among those who are only aware of the issue in passing or who are just not paying attention, that support rises to 53 per cent, while 47 per cent say they’re opposed.”

How this breaks down along party lines is instructive, of not especially unexpected. “When it comes to awareness and political affiliation,” the pollster reports, “awareness is highest among past Liberal and NDP voters (25 per cent and 24 per cent respectively) followed by past Conservative voters (18 per cent).”

Meanwhile, the survey indicates that Canadians, in general, are fed up with the Conservative government’s fetishistic tinkering with the cogs and gears of a system that is not, essentially, broken. Angus Reid Global interprets its poll results bluntly: “Canadians do not trust the motives of the Conservative government in introducing the proposed legislation, and do not feel the Harper government’s impact on the democratic process has been positive.”

Not that Mr. Poilievre hasn’t done his level best to knock some sense into our recalcitrant noodles. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail earlier this week, he decried his critics’ “hyperbolic” reaction to the Bill, which, he insists is “common sense. “Canadians instinctively understand that these changes are reasonable and fair. That is why they have not shared the critics’ hysteria.”

Again, though, that’s not entirely accurate.

Yes, a group of international scholars have grabbed headlines by claiming, in an open letter to national media, that “the governing party in Canada has proposed a set of wide-ranging changes, which if enacted, would. . .undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process.”

And, yes, an assemblage of Canadian academics recently echoed these sentiments when they publicly stated, “Beyond our specific concerns about the Bill’s provisions, we are alarmed at the lack of due process in drafting the Bill and in rushing it through Parliament.”

But, increasingly, what fills the letters and comment pages of print and online versions of major media are the grumblings of the the hoi polloi, i.e., the Great Unwashed. i.e., you and me.

“The Harper government’s latest assault on democratic ideals and practices with its proposed Fair Elections Act, while roundly criticized, is at least consistent in its semantic tactics with earlier attacks, notably in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act,” writes Neil Burk of Nepean, Ontario. “As the fair Elections Act has nothing to do with fairness principles, the Accountability Act is unaccountably silent on accountability principles.”

His screed appeared in the Globe’s letters section on one of two days this week during which the newspaper published nine archly critical, and well-written, letters from readers.

No, no, all you professor of political science, fear not.

From the recent evidence you may deduce that the condition of democracy in Canada is just fine, after all, thank you very much.

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And now for something completely different: good news for New Brunswick. . .sort of

 

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New Brunswick may be drowning in debt. In fact, practitioners of the wooly science of fiscal forensics may have already pronounced this province dead on arrival. But don’t we just do a bang-up job reporting our woes to the rest of the world?

The C.D. Howe Institute says we deserve a little praise for a change. Specifically, Colin Busby of The C.D. Howe Institute tells the Saint John Telegraph-Journal that, according to his annual study on government spending overruns in Canada (also known as “The Pinocchio Report”), this province does “reasonably well” predicting its financial condition. We are, in a phrase, “middle of the road”, which is better than road kill, I suppose.

What’s more, we’re brutally honest with ourselves and the rest of the country about the hobo clothes we’re forced to wear. “New Brunswick is one of the jurisdictions where you can clearly find comparable numbers,” Mr. Busby says. “You simply find what the budget promises were and then find the numbers in the public accounts and compare them. That’s a positive story for New Brunswick.”

Still, he adds, “When it comes to spending overruns and the ability to hit budget targets, either overshooting or undershooting (New Brunswick) is not in the range of Ontario and the federal government who have done a significantly better job in terms of holding to what they promised in their spring budgets.”

Here’s how the numbers shake out: Over the past 10 years, cumulative overruns, expressed as fractions of 2013/14 budgeted spending, were highest in Saskatchewan (36 per cent), Alberta (26 per cent) and Manitoba (22 per cent), lowest in Canada, overall (one per cent), Ontario (five per cent) and Nova Scotia (seven per cent).

New Brunswick overspent by $1.2 billion over the past decade, which is bad. On the other hand, averaged out over the period, we came in less than 15 per cent off our annual targeted goals, which is good. Sort of.

For a finance minister, there is, I’m guessing, a certain comfort in knowing, with any degree of accuracy, just how badly off your jurisdiction is in the scheme of things. It’s a little like being sentenced to an indeterminate jail term. At least you know you have a cot; let’s just hope your bunk buddies in the bond market aren’t complete psychos.

But, in the larger context, how instructive or useful are these sort of statistical parlour games?

That New Brunswick manages to “present well” is vastly less important than its moribund economy, the structural instability of which makes accurate budget forecasting a near impossibility (a fact which suggests that the province’s reasonably fair reporting record is more a function of good luck than good prognostication).

Meanwhile, the Conference Board of Canada forecasts continued stormy economic weather for the province. “Prospects for New Brunswick’s economy will remain dim for at least one more year,” it said in its revised winter outlook earlier this month. “Cuts in the potash industry, and the closing of the Maple Leaf Food plant in Moncton, will limit economic growth to 0.8 per cent in 2014.”

How will this affect the next round of budget promises?

An even more intriguing question is whether a fully functioning shale gas industry, which should make us all filthy rich, will also make our elected officials filthy liars, though through no fault of their own.

The C.D. Howe Report notes the paradox common to provinces rich in natural resources: Their budgets are even farther from target than are those of patently poor provinces, such as New Brunswick. Economic instability, it seems, cuts both ways.

“Jurisdictions that are more dependent on natural resources showed sizable positive revenue biases: Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and labrador and Alberta all had biases of eight to 10 per cent,” the Institute noted. The natural-resource dependent jurisdictions that more affected by commodity-price swings also had low accuracy scores.”

So, then, the more money a jurisdiction has sloshing around in oil and gas wells, the less veracious are its budget forecasts.

What a delicious irony.

Still, if I had to choose, I’d rather the province I call home be recognized for the power of its industry, than the accuracy of its numbers-crunchers.

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Will it be ‘icons and idols’ or ‘flesh and blood’ that we honour?

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There’s nothing wrong with erecting statues to commemorate soldiers killed in battle. In fact, many people think that a 100-foot-tall monument called “Mother Canada”, her arms  spread wide, her gaze fixed upon the eastern horizon, plunked smack-dab in the middle of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail at one of it finest promontories, is a terrific idea.

The chances are, of course, that those folks don’t live anywhere near the site for the planned memorial, a private-sector venture driven out of Toronto, which has already received Parks Canada approval and the enthusiastic endorsement of at least two federal cabinet ministers.

In fact, if those folks did live in or around the Green Cove cliff area of Cape Breton, they might wonder, as does Gordon Rideout, president of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in nearby Ingonish, if anyone has checked a map.

It’s not that he thinks the statue, itself, is a bad idea. It’s just that, he told the CBC in January, it’ll be in the wrong place.

“You’re in the middle of probably one of the most beautiful national parks in the country,” he said. “What’s going to happen here. . .is that the Cabot Trail. . .will have to be rerouted. There’s going to be an information centre there. There has to be, of course, washroom facilities and everything else put in there. And it’s just going to spoil one of the most overlooked places on the trail. . .I just don’t want to see a major reconstruction of that area. It’s going to turn it into a small Disney World.”

South Harbour resident Claudia Gahlinger goes farther. Though she’s all for remembering the sacrifices of Canada’s servicemen and women, she can’t help note the irony swirling about the project.

“We all know that we’ll be fined if we’re caught taking even a stick or stone from the park,” she told the CBC. “Yet this private foundation is going to be allowed to pave over, rearrange and, in effect, own an entire hectare.”

The foundation to which she refers is the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation, a charity established and run by Toronto business executive Tony Trigiani who got the idea while traveling through Canadian war memorials in Italy recently. “It’s going to be magnificent,” he told the Toronto Star late last year. “The views from the Cabot Trail are going to be spectacular.”

Indeed, Mr. Trigiani, they are already, and your massive, well-meant intention  – fully realized in granite or marble or limestone, or whatever they build statues out of these days – is not going to change the appearance of the North Atlantic ocean from the top of that cliff.

But it may help to speed unsettling changes that are already underway in the way we order our public priorities over the next few years.

Both Leona Aglukkaq, the federal minister responsible for Parks Canada, and Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice, have boarded Mr. Trigiani’s bandwagon, which is scheduled to arrive on the East Coast, toting a $30-million building fund, sometime in the next two years, or so.

Their support has, in no small measure, to do with the fact that neither they, nor any of their other colleagues in cabinet, will have to pay for it.

But more than this, the project comes at a time when the federal government’s devotion to military commemorations of every variety – icons and idols – seems to be achieving a sort of zenith that is perilously close to eclipsing the needs of military personnel – flesh and blood – who have not fallen, but have, rather, survived to endure the awful physical and emotional ramifications of their living sacrifices.

“The key message. . .is that improvements are required to specific New Veterans Charter programs to help Veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life,” Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent stipulated in a blunt and wide-ranging report last year. “The most urgent shortcomings to address are those that affect the economic financial support provided to Veterans, especially totally and permanently incapacitated veterans who are vulnerable financially. It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country – those who are totally and permanently incapacitated – live their lives with unmet financial needs.”

To be sure, statues are convincing and enduring ways to honour those who have fought and died in wars.

As for what to do with the living, starting a decent conversation usually avoids tragic misunderstandings on this earthly coil.

The feds might want to ask the bemused residents of Cape Breton about that.

Then again, statues don’t talk back.

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A two-step made for New Brunswick’s forests

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The twinned announcements last week of a new provincial forestry strategy and a massive series of plant upgrades at J.D. Irving (JDI) Limited’s flagship pulp mill is a textbook example of how government and industry should execute a minuet – with slow, metered steps calibrated to the economic rhythm of the times.

Of course, the dance Premier David Alward’s Progressive Conservatives and JDI are presently performing to generally enthusiastic and receptive audiences – who perceive the dawn of a new day for, arguably, the province’s most important commercial sector – is not without its critics.

Some conservationists in the province are outraged that the Department of Natural Resources’ new strategy boosts the size of the total allowable softwood harvest on Crown land to four million cubic feet a year (about a 20 per cent increase from the current allocation).

“I’m shocked,” Graham Forbes, a forestry professor at the University of New Brunswick, told the CBC last week following the government announcement. “The reduction of the amount of protected land to 23 per cent (from 28 per cent) is not what we could call sustainable forest management. It’s an abject fail. It’s not sustainable.”

Even some industry players have cast a slightly jaundiced eye over the plan.

“We are guardedly optimistic,” Mike O’Blenis, vice-president of the New Brunswick Forest Products Association, told the Telegraph-Journal last week. He had been hoping – vainly, it’s now clear – for an increase in the hardwood allocation. Still, he said, “the devil is in the details. . .There is a lot of detail that has to be worked through with government and with stakeholders to put this plan into place and it is going to take some time for all that detail to come out.”

Still, what’s clear is that JDI’s announced $450-million modernization program (part of a bigger $513-million investment program at the company) for its west Saint John pulp mill will crate hundreds of new and badly needed jobs in the province over the next two years.

What’s also indisputable is that the upgrades (all of them privately financed) are tied directly to the provincial government’s decision to increase the amount of wood available to commercial harvesting. This pledge, according to Jim Irving, co-CEO of JDI, is crucial because, as he said at the announcement, “our ability to to invest and grow jobs depends on the certainty of the competitive wood supply. . .Premier, you’ve got our commitment, and I can tell you the JDI team will deliver.”

This is no mean feat at a time when governments across the western world appear either unable or unwilling to leverage the public resources they control to generate durable, measurable and responsible regional industrial benefits for everyone.

According to the New Brunswick Forest Products Association’s web site, “forestry has been the cornerstone of the New Brunswick economy for decades. More than 20,000 families are supported by the. . .sector. With more than 11,600 people directly working in forestry related jobs, our people produce 30 per cent of total manufacturing output (in) the province.”

Other facts, courtesy of the Association, include the $1 billion in salaries forest sector employees earned in 2010. Moreover, “as of 2010, the sector directly contributed just over five percent to the provincial GDP. At 5.1 per cent, that makes the forest products industry in New Brunswick more important to the provincial economy than in all other provinces in Canada. Total direct GDP in 2010 for the forest products sector was an estimated $1.4 billion in current dollars. The industry has significant indirect GDP multipliers of between 0.5 and more than 1.0 depending on the area of activity. Including direct and indirect effects, the GDP in 2010 was between $2.2 billion and $2.5 billion.”

And yet, for all of this, the sector has endured exceptionally tough years. Over the past decade, the number of milling operations in the province has dropped by 60 per cent. Since 2008, the number of jobs have dropped by 50 per cent.

Apart from the predictable criticisms about the relationships between governments and industries – that they either go too far or not far enough – last week’s twinned announcements demonstrates that in New Brunswick, of all places, government and industry can face the music together as productive dance partners.

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Waiting for the end times in an Ottawa strip club

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Tomorrow is an auspicious day on the calendar for humanity, even for denizens of Fat City (a.k.a. Ottawa), for February 22nd is when the world literally goes straight to hell.

Or as the Daily Mail reports, “The wolf Fenrir is predicted to break out of his prison, the snake Jormungand will rise out of the sea and the dragon of the underworld will resurface on Earth to face the dead heroes of Valhalla – who, of course, have descended from heaven to fight them.”

Well, after all, why not? The Mayan apocalypse proved to be a big fat nothing last year, and we’re certainly overdue. Here, according to RationalWiki.org are a few other calamities, predicted but not (yet) delivered:

In March 2003, U.S. president George W. Bush “claimed that Operation Iraqi Freedom was necessary ‘to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible’s satanic agents of the Apocalypse.’ (Plan no longer in progress.)”

In 2008, American vice-presidential candidate Sarah “Mama Grizzly” Palin said she believed belong to the “Final Generation” who will “see the End Times during her lifetime. Thankfully, over 9 million Americans disagreed.”

That same year, the Large Hadron Collidor was supposed to produce a black hole that would swallow the planet in one gulp. Yeah. . .still waiting.

Under the circumstances, then, we might give the Vikings a crack at starting the world over. Says the Mail, “Ragnarok is a series of events including the final predicted battle that results in the death of a number of major gods, the occurrence of various natural disasters and the subsequent submersion of the world in water.”

In fact, “legend has it the sound of the horn will call the sons of the god Odin and the heroes to the battlefield, before Odin and other ‘creator gods’ will be killed by Fenrir.”

Spookily, the Norse “believe the Ragnarok is preceded by the ‘winter of winters’, where three freezing winters would follow each other with no summers in between.” Meanwhile, “all morality would disappear and fights would break out all over the world, signaling the beginning of the end.”

Now, that’s sounding almost familiar, and for reasons I can’t quite quantify, the Barefax Gentlemen’s Club suddenly springs to mind.

That’s the Ottawa nudie bar and strip joint where suspended Canadian Senator Patrick Brazeau now works as a day manager. Carmelina Bentivoglio, the daughter of the establishment’s owner, told the Toronto Star that the former Conservative appointee to the Upper Chamber aced his job interview a couple of weeks ago and now he’ll be spending his time,“scheduling, hiring, firing, inventory – just like any other job.”

Well, not quite like any other job. It’s nothing like the job he had at the Senate before he was suspended in November for allegedly bilking taxpayers for expenses to which he was not entitled. Even before his ouster, Red Chamber officials had dunned him nearly $50,000 to recover at least some of his seemingly ill-gotten booty.

Then came the cops who, earlier this month, charged both Mr. Brazeau and his former senatorial colleague Mac Harb with fraud and breach of trust. According to an item in the Star, “The Mounties allege that Brazeau fraudulently claimed his father’s home in Maniwaki, Que., as his primary residence, although he was rarely seen there and lived primarily just across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, Que.”

The Star also reported that media scuttlebutt indicates that “Brazeau and his estranged wife have been missing mortgage and loan payments and may now face losing their house in Gatineau. . .The disgraced senator is also facing charges of assault and sexual assault as a result of an incident last February.”

Still, apparently he’s not letting any that get him down. A nice piece by veteran CBC political correspondent Rosemary Barton, posted to Mother Corp.’s website, finds the disgraced politico in a philosophical frame of mind.

“Brazeau says he’s doing OK,” she writes. “His health is better, he’s learning the ropes on his second day. He doesn’t seem thrilled with his new job, but neither is he embarrassed. ‘It is what it is,’ Brazeau says, ‘I’ve got four mouths to feed,’ referring to his children. I ask how people are treating him so far. ‘Better than at my old job,’ he quips.”

Yes, indeed. Just another wintry day in Fat City before the world finally goes straight to hell.

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Inequities in the do-nothing budget of 2014

 

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For proof that George Orwell was right, look no further than the 2014 federal budget. There, indeed, all men are created equal, though some clearly appear to be more equal than others.

As, increasingly, modern legislatures confer “personhood” on multinational corporations, we may reasonably consider car and truck makers direct, if not actual flesh and blood, beneficiaries of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s munificence. How else would you characterize the $500-million top-up to the Automative Innovation Fund, created in 2008, the last time Chrysler and General Motors came poor-mouthing to Ottawa, caps in hand?

“The automotive industry is among Canada’s leading employers and exporters and is a key contributor to our economy,” the budget sonorously declared. “The sector also directly employs more than 115,000 Canadians in Southern Ontario and across Canada from automotive assembly to parts production.”

Never mind that successive Federal and Ontario governments have had to repeatedly bribe the major manufacturers into keeping their operations in Canada more or less intact. Or should we forget the $3 billion in loans and “non-repayable contributions” both levels of government arranged for the carmakers, courtesy of taxpayers, in 2009?

Back then, the companies complained bitterly about the financial meltdown and the great vanishing act of ready credit. But that was a smokescreen, and not a very thick one. North American automakers, then and now, wouldn’t know good productivity tools if they arrived at their front doors in a fleet of Nissan Sentras.

And, still, their temerity is breathtaking.

Apparently, an additional five-hundred-billion bucks might not be enough to satisfy the ravenous appetite some corporations have for found money. As the Globe and Mail reported this week. “Chrysler Group LLC is seeking a contribution of at least $700 million from the federal and Ontario governments in high-stakes negotiations about the future of its Canadian operation.”

Naturally, that’s a threat – the standing operating procedure of businesses that have grown too big and self-important to fail. They strap governments over barrels because, while they may enjoy legal status as people, they’re the sort of people we typically recognize as sociopaths who have no expectation of ever growing consciences. If they can get away with something, they will.

Alas, twas ever thus and ever thus shall be.

Not so, perhaps, for some of the pricier talent – the genuine humans – who actually occupy the upper management ranks at the car companies. Mr. Flaherty now seems less committed than several of his Cabinet colleagues, to the absurdly wrong-headed and patently unfair income-splitting device for rich folks, for which the budget was overtly paving the way.

“I’m not sure that overall it benefits our society,” he said to his eternal credit this week. “It benefits some parts of the Canadian population a lot, and other parts of the Canadian population virtually not at all. . .I think income splitting needs a long-hard analytical look.”

In fact, it’s already had at least one. Back in 2011, the C. D. Howe Institute concluded, in a special commentary on the subject, “The gains would be highly concentrated among high-income one-earner couples: 40 per cent of total benefits would go to families with incomes above $125,000, and the maximum annual gain from federal splitting would exceed $6,400. The maximum gains from provincial splitting would range from zero in Alberta to $5,750 in Ontario.”

What’s more, the Institute said most households wouldn’t see a dime, while the annual cost to the national accounts would likely exceed $2.5 billion. In other words, “income splitting would fail to achieve its ostensible horizontal equity goal.”

That’s economic-speak for “not fair”.

Still, Mr. Flaherty’s deathbed conversion on the issue (he is widely rumored to be drafting his exit strategy from federal politics) is not likely to convince many of his confreres. The ghosts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are far too comfortable haunting the Conservative corridors of Parliament Hill to brook any collective change of heart among the living.

For them, all men are not created equal.

They never have been and they never will be.

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Countdown to ‘debt-a-geddon’ in New Brunswick

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New Brunswick’s debt clock counts down, by the millisecond, to eternity, tallying a number so vast it beggars comprehension.

Still, there it is on one of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation’s (CTF) websites. Now $11,551,675,188.79; then $11,551,675, 204.44. In a few minutes, it’ll roll over at $11,551,676,000.00 and the nauseating cycle will begin again.

Granted, the CTF is not what you might call a fun bunch. In fact, among all the deeply earnest interest groups and think tanks in Canada (and there are a lot of these taking up office space in charming cold-war-era, cinder-block edifices along the Ottawa-Gatineau corridor), it has always seemed, to me at least, the one most likely to suffer whatever passes in the institutional world for a nervous breakdown.

But sometimes Chicken Little is right; the sky really is falling. Certainly, the CTF’s online presence is the stuff of waking nightmares for the fiscally prudent.

According to the press release that accompanied the organization’s debt-clock launch this week, “In December 2013, the Department of Finance predicted the net debt of the Province would grow by $587.2 million. That means the debt is growing by $1.6 million every day, $67,031 per hour, $1,117 per minute or $18.62 every second.”

In fact, the amount the provincial government allocates annually to service the the debt (interest payments) exceeds the budgets of all but three ministerial departments. That’s a whopping $660 million down the drain each and every year till deadbeat-a-geddon arrives with its four court-appointed officers of the apocalypse: accountant, lawyer, trustee, and bailiff.

Of course, New Brunswick isn’t the only province of Canada that sets the CTF’s tongue clucking.

“The (CTF) released new documents obtained through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that reveal some materials purchased for the Bluenose were sold to the (Nova Scotia) government at a whopping 43 per cent mark-up,” the organization announced last month. “These big mark-ups are just the latest in a series of questionable uses of taxpayers’ money.”

Meanwhile, in Ontario, the CTF wants the provincial government to give serious thought to its myriad recommendations for producing “new revenues and savings of over $13 billion, more than enough to balance the budget in 2014. The recommendations also include a legislated debt-repayment schedule to force the government to pay down Ontario’s $272.8 billion provincial debt.”

Yet, of all the provinces, New Brunswick always seems to earn the CTF’s sharpest opprobrium. Is that because, of all the provinces, New Brunswick has, for the moment, the least going for it, economically and industrially, and the most difficulty bridling its public spending? “You can only borrow so much before you go broke,” the Federation’s Atlantic director Kevin Lacey is fond of saying.

That’s certainly correct. But it is government’s enormous borrowing powers – the ones they grant to themselves and redeem in markets all over the world – that is precisely the problem. Unlike people, private enterprises and institutions, they don’t easily go broke, a structural protection that, paradoxically, deepens the injury and prolongs the misery until, hey presto, one day you wake up and it’s Greece. Gee, now how’d that happen?

New Brunswick road back to fiscal health is hard, but clear.

On the expense side of the ledger, cut program spending wherever costly duplications and redundancies are found; consolidate essential services wherever possible; and shrink the size of the civil service and of government, itself.

On the revenue side, the options are far more limited. Still, robust commercial activity is the only durable source of legal swag for public coffers. To thrive, the private sector needs reliable infrastructure, a skilled and educated labour force, a comprehensible regulatory environment, and, naturally, a reasonable tax climate.

Oddly, enough, as New Brunswick Finance Minister Blaine Higgs struggles with his debt burden, his federal counterpart Jim Flaherty is merrily on his way to balancing the nation’s books, and then some.

In fact, he’s so confident he’s politely ignoring the International Monetary Fund’s advice to loosen up the purse strings and start investing in strategic initiatives that might make the Canadian economy more competitive for the good times that surely follow.

Thanks, but no thanks, fellas. In a year or two, we’ll be sitting on a surplus of two or three billion bucks.

And you know how vast, incomprehensible numbers blind us, here in Canada, to everything else, especially practical common sense.

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How to build a just society in no easy lessons

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Unless we surrender to the increasingly strong suspicion that our North American democracies are shams – that the institutions we support to protect our rights and freedoms in Canada and the United States are hopelessly compromised by money and power – we must believe, somewhere in our souls, that the right men and women can still change the states of our respective unions for the better.

For me, and millions of others, one of those men was once Barack Obama, the 44th president of the stars and stripes. In fact, flickers of his former greatness were on display during his annual address earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

“What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

Candor, thy name was Barack:

“Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Finally, he said, “our job is to reverse these trends. . .But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still  – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bully for him. Now, if we could only believe him. And not just him; if we could only believe every messenger of prosperity and ambassador of hope who comes along in a great while to lift the polity’s flagging spirit.

Still, if we really think about it we must concede that, ultimately, the

the failure is not in them, but in us. After all, if we don’t expect excellence in ourselves, how can we expect it in our elected officials or even recognize it when we see it?

What we do expect, of course, is voluminous: our appetite for material things to be sated; our thirst for comfort and ease to be slaked; our opinions to be revered; our attitudes to be certified; our privacy to be protected even as our personal lives are publicly acknowledged as utterly, absorbingly fascinating.

That’s us in the peanut galleries of the continent: John and Jane Q. Public both having and eating their cakes

We demand a clean environment, but not if it means leaving the car in the driveway once in a while.

We require good health and long life, but not if it means laying off the sugar and  taking a little exercise from time to time.

If successful politicians pander to us, it’s only because, despite growing joblessness and social inequities, we in the new west remain eminently, adorably pander-able. (So do the Europeans, though their triggers are different).

On the other, if we are are genuinely interested in improving the condition of our respective democracies then we should begin by admitting that we are addicted to the short-term habits of mind bequeathed to us by several generations of rampant consumerism and disposable values, fungible for cash in any money market.

Fair and just societies endure when their citizens take the long view and embrace  qualities and virtues common to most, if not always all: compassion, courage, honesty, intelligence, discipline, and even erudition.

In every election we designate certain people to reflect our values in the public square. But more than this, we select a specific culture of service to democracy. In this respect, the right men and women do change our systems of government, for better or worse, every day.

And they are us.

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