Category Archives: Politics

All the pretty ironies in Canada’s ‘Unfair’ Elections Act

 

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But for Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre’s spiteful determination to ram his partisan conception of electoral freedom down his country’s throat, it’s getting hard to fathom what keeps his Bill C-23 – also known, with exquisitely unintended irony, as the Fair Elections Act – from perishing under the weight of public opprobrium.

Almost no one who has reviewed this monstrous abuse of voting rights and procedure in Canada has anything good to say about the unamended iteration awaiting passage. Not Marc Mayrand, the country’s chief electoral officer. Not Yves Côté, the commissioner of elections. Not Sheila Fraser, former auditor-general. Not a slew of jurists, educators and legislators from across Canada and all over the world.  

A month ago, Mr. Mayrand told the Ottawa Citizen he believed Minister Poilievre simply ignored his recommendation to enhance the elections commissioner’s investigative powers. “What worries me, I must say, is whether (he) will get the tool box he needs to do his job and I’m afraid that I don’t see it in the act that is currently written,” he said. “The commissioner doesn’t get the authority to compel witnesses.” 

Then, as recently as last week, Commissioner Côté told the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that the Bill’s measure to transfer the auspices of his duties from the Chief Electoral Officer to Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is “both unnecessary and problematic. . .Placing the Commissioner within the Office of the DPP is an attempt to respond to a problem that. . .does not exist.”

Throughout, the archest criticism has concerned the Bill’s perspective on what constitutes an authentic Canadian voter. (Specifically, it’s one who carries a photo ID. Period. A voter registration card will no longer be enough. Neither will a sufficiently identified fellow voter vouching for his buddy in the ballot queue).

“The prohibition against vouching is ostensibly to reduce voter fraud yet there is no evidence. . .that vouching results in voter fraud,” a letter signed and sent in March  by 19 international scholars and political scientists declared. “These changes to the voter eligibility rules will disproportionately impact seniors, students, the economically disadvantaged, and First Nations citizens, leading to an estimated disenfranchisement of over 120,000 citizens.”

In fact, the number is now thought to be closer to 500,000. Still, neither this nor any other criticism, no matter how reasonable, has managed to move Mr. Poilievre from the hard line in the sand he has drawn. He has viciously attacked those who have opposed him, most recently hurling mud at Mr. Mayrand, stipulating that the latter’s “recommendations really boil down to three broad requirements for him. He wants more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”

One can only wait in wonder for Mr. Poilievre’s response to his latest setback. This one’s a doozy, as Josh Wingrove reports this week for the Globe and Mail: “In a rare exercise of power, a Senate committee (on Legal and Constitutional Affairs) is pushing back against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government by unanimously recommending changes to the Fair Elections Act, an overhaul of electoral law that is fiercely opposed by other parties. The. . .report, which will be made public this week, amounts to a warning shot from the embattled Senate.”

It sure does. According to Mr. Wingrove’s research, the Upper Chamber, two-thirds of which is composed of Conservative members, wants to ensure that the Chief Electoral Officer and Commissioner of Elections have more, not less authority, to prosecute their roles and responsibilities. It’s also skeptical about the utility in separating the two. Altogether, the Senate makes nine recommendations, the essence of which slaps Mr. Poilievre’s hands, depending on which version of spin one is inclined to swallow.

“I think it’s a recognition by all senators that there is something seriously wrong with this bill, according to every single witness that has appeared before both committees in the House of Commons and the Senate,” Liberal Senator George Baker told the Globe. “It’s really an expression of the impartiality of members of the Senate.”

On the other hand, said Conservative Senator Linda Frum, “Minister Poilievre has repeatedly expressed a sincere interest in any recommendations the Senate may have to improve the bill.”

Whether he has or he hasn’t, democracy’s self-appointed attack dog might finally face opponents he can’t readily ignore. That many are members of his own party merely transforms the many ironies about Bill C-23 from exquisite to downright delicious.

 

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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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Facing down the music on democratic reform

 

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As the choir of experts sings ever more harmoniously about the perils of the federal government’s Fair Elections Act, its ardent champion continues to counter with his patented – and, by now, painfully familiar – version of white noise.

Simply and evidently, insists Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, critics of Bill C-23 are misguided, ill-informed, disingenuous, or politically motivated – maybe a toxic mixture of all ingredients. 

There’s nothing wrong with the bill, he says. In fact, there’s everything right with legislation that improves the accountability, transparency and impartiality of the election process, and prevents voter fraud from drowning the system. Those who say otherwise are doing themselves and their fellow Canadians a grievous disservice.

To every other Canadian than Mr. Poilievre, however, those who say otherwise are not so easily dismissed. 

There’s Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, and Yves Cote, commissioner of Canada Elections. There’s former Auditor-General Sheila Fraser and notable Elections Canada analyst Harry Neufeld. There’s even Preston Manning, former leader of the old Reform Party. 

Armed with impressive credentials, each trills the same melody: Any piece of legislation that curtails a citizen’s right to cast a ballot (in C-23’s case, by disallowing registration cards and voters “vouching” for one another as means of identification) is purely and self-evidently wrong.

What’s more, they argue, the measure to transfer the commissioner of elections into the Office of Public Prosecutions is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it could obstruct the collaborative relationship between the chief electoral officer (who is responsible for overseeing the vote) and the commissioner (who is responsible for enforcing the Elections Act) –  a development that would not be, in Mr. Cote’s estimation, a step in the right direction.

Indeed, says Paul Thomas, an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba and a well-known political scholar says, “This should not happen in Canada.” In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada last month, he noted, “(We have) one of the strongest reputations in the world for staging fair and free elections under the supervision of Elections Canada, the oldest independent and impartial national election body among established democracies.”

Earlier this month, Ms. Fraser appeared to concur, telling the Canadian Press that she had serious misgivings about the bill as it now stands. Not only would it deprive thousands of people their right to vote, she insisted, it would tip the playing field in favour of the government’s party, and hinder due process, generally. 

“Elections are the base of our democracy and if we do not have truly a fair electoral process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that,” Ms. Fraser said.

“When you look at the people who may not be able to vote, when you look at the limitations that are being put on the chief electoral officer, when you see the difficulties, just the operational difficulties that are going to be created in all this, I think it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”

Yet, for all these principled objections – not one at variance with any other, not one even obliquely self-serving or politically motivated  – Mr. Poilievre refuses to acknowledge that his bill’s critics might have a legitimate point or two to make.

Instead, he chooses to make partisan hay, launching bitter, personal attacks, especially against Mr. Maynard, about whom, he said in the Commons on Tuesday, “The reality is that regardless of amendments and improvements that the bill potentially will have included, the CEO (Mr. Mayrand) will not ultimately approve it. (His) recommendations really boil down to three broad requirements for him: he wants more power, a bigger budget, and less accountability.”

When called to apologize for such a clear display of intemperance, Mr. Poilievre replied calmly, “I stand by my testimony” – a posture that is all the more lamentable.

For many who spend their days and nights pondering the weighty subject of democratic reform in Canada, C-23 is an eminently flawed document. 

Their concurrence on this matter should give the nation’s duly elected government reason to, at least, pause and consider – not crank up the volume of their noise makers in Parliament.

 

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Heading for the hot seat of global warming

 

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It’s been four years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted the end of the world. In that interval, the doom-saying industry has grown to meet the rising demands of the self-flagellating, environmentally righteous among us. Still, no one does moral masochism better than the IPCC.

In a fat, new report, released Monday, the Nobel prize-winning body effectively declared that unless world leaders start taking global warming seriously, the rest of us can stick our heads between our legs and kiss our derrieres goodbye. In fact, we may already be too late.

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the report says. “Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide. . .Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high-latitude and high-elevation regions. . .Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions 

What’s more, “while only a few recent species extinctions have been attributed as yet to climate change, natural global climate change at rates slower than current anthropogenic climate change caused significant ecosystem shifts and species extinctions during the past millions of years.”

Said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri on Monday: “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Added report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh: “Things are worse than we had predicted (in the first report issued in 2007). . .We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

Indeed, observed Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, another of the report’s authors, in an interview with The Associated Press, “We’re all sitting ducks.”

Perhaps a better metaphor is: ostriches with our heads in the sand. It certainly seemed that way during Question Period this week when Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq staunchly defended her government’s record. “Since 2006 we have invested more than $10 billion in green infrastructure, energy efficiency, adaption, clean technology, and cleaner fuels,” she said.

It’s also true, however, that since 2006, the federal government has consistently failed to meet its greenhouse gas reduction objectives. (In fact, it hasn’t even come close). Today, Ottawa couldn’t care less about the environmental impact of new oil sands projects, just as long as it gets enough pipe built to transport the black gold to all points on the map 

“Government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada’s wildlife and natural spaces,” Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, declared last November.

“(There is a) wide and persistent gap between what the government commits to do and what it is achieving. . .the approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature,” he said, adding,“Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources. Canada’s success as a trading nation depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection.”

That, in fact, may be wishful thinking. If Stephen Harper evinces any concern for what his trading partners expect of him on the environmental front, it was’t readily evident last week. 

Speaking to a business crowd in Germany, he was asked for his opinion about that country’s decision to wean itself from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, in favour of renewables, such as wind and solar. Thusly replied our estimable prime minister, off-handedly, if not exactly derisively: “So this is a brave new world you’re attempting? We wish you well with it.”

Actually, he doesn’t. Over the past eight years, this country’s political establishment and accompanying officialdom have slipped backwards in all fields that require evidence and critical thinking to penetrate. Today, it seems, the only thing our leadership class respects more than oil and gas is its own high opinion of itself.  

Clearly, environmental doom-saying annoys those who are vested in regressive policies that contribute to our planet’s woes, but the science of global warming is irrefutable.

And the IPCC’s moral masochism is nothing compared with the real McCoy if we don’t start changing our minds before the climate changes them for us.

 

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The great undoing of Torytown is underway

 

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When the pugnacious in politics – especially those who specialize in knocking the noses of the national press gallery out of joint – finally get their comeuppance, that’s news. Or so the media mafia decrees.

How else do you explain yesterday’s near-blanket, front-page coverage of former Stephen Harper hit-man Dimitri Soudas’s ouster as executive director of the national Conservative Party?

Indeed, the reporting was almost gleeful, if not particularly nourishing.  

“Dimitri Soudas, a long-time Stephen Harper loyalist handpicked by the prime minister. . .was forced to resign after a series of incidents where he personally intervened in a tightly contested nomination race on behalf of fiancee and MP Eve Adams,” the Globe and Mail fairly crowed.

“The Conservative Party went so far as to conduct its own investigation, combining through emails and phone records, to determine whether Mr. Soudas had breached a provision in his contract as executive director of the Tories that stipulated that he must recuse himself from Ms. Adam’s efforts to secure a nomination.”

Plainly, he had and, so naturally, the pundits treated themselves to a field day. The Globe’s Campbell Clark opined that Mr. Soudas “lost his job for being the heavy for the wrong person. He was for years. . .willing to get tough with journalists, MPs and party officials, to fire blasts of venom and throw his weight around.”

Mr. Clark’s colleague Lawrence Martin observed in his column, “The young and extremely partisan Mr. Soudas, who had previously served in the Prime Minister’s Office as one of the so-called boys in short pants, was hired to be the party’s principal election organizer. But he meddled too much. . .”
Still, as low-hanging fruit in the well-fertilized orchard of Ottawa’s crimes against common dignity go, the Soudas affair is a relatively easy pick, just as was the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy-Pamela Wallin-Patrick Brazeau Senatorial Sincapades last year.

Alleged taxpayer-funded bad guys and their various misdemeanors, malapropisms and misdirections are always more fun to cover than are the creaky beams and girders that support the entire system. But, it is the failing apparatus, the crumbling infrastructure, of governance, itself, that contains the most important story. 

In fact, a great undoing in Torytown is underway – one for which the Harper government’s well-publicized gaffes and controversial policy directions are not singularly responsible. Little, almost banal, mischiefs are adding up and taking a toll.

The Canadian Press reports that a federal study, released last fall, on the advantages and disadvantages of expanding the Canada Pension Plan was actually far more nuanced than Department of Finance officials were prepared to admit publicly. 

The government line had been (and still is) that hiking CPP premiums and payouts would kill thousands of jobs. But, according to the CP story, “a summary of the study’s contents, prepared for then-finance minister Jim Flaherty, shows the job-loss claim was based on a misleading assumption.”

What’s more, according to a briefing note from which the CP quoted, “In the long run, expanding the CPP would bring economic benefits. Higher savings will lead to higher income in the future and higher consumption possibilities for seniors.”

Meanwhile, turning its attention to the Department of National Defence, The Canadian Press reports that the feds have effectively wasted more than six years of “research and planning” for new search and rescue aircraft. Says the news service: “A briefing prepared for the former associate defence minister, Kerry-Lynne Findlay, spells out in detail how the project, which has been grinding its way through the defence bureaucracy since 2004, was being further sidelined.”

The actual note, obtained through an access to information request by CP, stipulates “that the work completed on the project prior to 2011 is no longer valid and cannot be leveraged in the new procurement strategy.”

Finally, in a revelation the novelty of which ranks right up there with snow in Canadian winter (now, spring, perhaps), The Ottawa Citizen quotes the Public Policy Forum on the growing “lack of trust and understanding between bureaucrats and their political masters.”

Hmmm. You think?

Taken separately, these tidbits from the front lines of policy making might seem to appear as mere cracks in the foundation of otherwise responsible governance. 

Taken together, though, they form a troubling pattern of disingenuousness, buck-passing, waste, general incompetence, and mistrust.

Of course, it’s easier to make news of these qualities when we attach them to an individual or two, and not the system that affects them.

 

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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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How to punch below your pay grade

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From my attic perch, overlooking a handsome residential street in downtown Moncton where summer occasionally deigns to make an appearance, I am master of all I survey – at least within the four walls that contains this, my worldwide headquarters.

So, naturally, I – and I, alone – determine the conditions (the where, the when and, crucially, the amount) I pay myself for the good work I perform on behalf of various clients who still appreciate a well-wrought phrase, a bon mot, from time to time.

In fact, I did this just the other day when I awarded myself a $13.56 weekly raise, which was nearly enough to cover the cost of four liters of milk and plenty to score a bottle of plonk wine.

No bosses hovered at my shoulder to dispute my self-evaluation; no trustees in bankruptcy (knock wood) pestered me with questions about my moral ambiguities. It was just me and the cheque book, and in the memo field I wrote, “There you go chief, don’t spend it all in one place.”

Apparently, our esteemed servants of Canadian democracy operate in much the same way. The question is: Should they?

News comes down from The Hill Times that Members of Parliament and Senators of this great and forgiving nation will receive pay bumps of 2.2 and 2.5 per cent, respectively, effective April 1, despite the fact that these rates exceed both the country’s current annual GDP and inflation growth rates. Their reasoning: Well shucks, folks, this is the way things are done in Fat City.

Frankly, I don’t object to the amounts as much as I do to the process. And in this I am not alone. “We’d much prefer to see politician salaries set by a panel of everyday Canadians who don’t work for the government,” Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation told The Times. “We don’t agree that it is a good idea for politicians to set their own salaries because there is an evident conflict of interest.”

I’m not sure what he means when he says, “everyday Canadians.” But, I’m inclined to take his point anyway. On the other hand, the politicians are right about one thing: the practice is not without precedence.

Last year at around this time, Senators hiked their annual salaries and perks by nearly $3,000 to keep up with the Joneses in the House of Commons. That meant that, henceforth, Upper Chamber residents would pocket about $135,000, compared with about $160,000 for MPs. These boosts followed a three-year freeze on their compensations.

And, boy, some of those compensations were handsome.

For a Senator, the base salary was $135,200. But if you were fortunate enough to be the Speaker, you could expect an additional $56,000. If you were Deputy Speaker, you could count on pocketing an extra $26,000. The bonus for being the government’s leader in the senate was a whopping $76,800.

The government Whip earned $11,000 above base pay grade; the opposition Whip snagged $6,600. The bonuses for most committee chairs ranged from nearly $12,000 to $6,000.

Nice work, if you can get it. It’s little wonder that the notorious and nearly disgraced Mike Duffy had trained his keen eye on this particular prize for so long.

Again, though, the fee schedule is less troublesome than the specter of entitlement that always attends star chambers whose members think that other people’s money (namely, yours and mine) is their fair game.

According to The Times, “in the United Kingdom, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has been in control of MP salaries since the expense scandal in 2009, which uncovered MPs claiming inappropriate and at times exorbitant expenses, like the case of one MP who expensed the cost of building a moat to his office budget. Members of parliament in the U.K. had their salaries frozen for two years, starting in March 2011 at ($124,000 CDN) a year.”

Something like this is an obvious solution for Canada. Why not institute an independent review and approval committee, not unlike any public utilities board in the country, to set and monitor compensation packages for elected representatives?

Why must we tolerate the appearance of collusion at the general public’s expense?

After all, unlike me, MPs and senators in this country are not free agents. They are not the masters of all they survey.

According to our Constitution, we are.

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Farewell, Jim, and don’t let failure smack you on the way out

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First, the excellent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announces that the North Atlantic’s ice pack is (just barely) showing signs of (gasp, can it be true?) breaking up.

Then, intrepid scientists at NASA announce that they have identified, for all time, the point at which. . .well, time began.

And if that isn’t enough to tickle a polar witch’s fanny, Canada’s official trustee in bankruptcy, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, announces that he’s had it with politics and so shall, several dozen months before the next federal election, take his leave of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet and try to land himself a real job in the private sector.

Which is another way of saying that, in Canada, time can and does stand still, just when you least expect it.

“Yesterday, I informed the prime minister that I am resigning from cabinet,”Pal Jimmy (we can call him this, since he is, now, one of us again) wrote in in his official statement. “This was a decision I made with my family earlier this year, as I will be returning to the private sector.”

But not before issuing a few well chosen, nicely crafted words on his own behalf:

“I am grateful to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for providing me with the opportunity and responsibility to serve Canadians as their Minister of Finance since 2006, one of the longest serving Finance Ministers in Canadian history.

“As I reflect on my almost two decades in politics, I am proud of the accomplishments of the governments I was part of, provincial and federal. In my time as Finance Minister, I am proud of the work I have done to help manage the deepest economic challenge to face Canada since the depression of the 1930s and ensure Canada emerged stronger and as a recognized economic leader on the international stage.

“Along with managing Canada’s performance during the global economic crisis, I am pleased our government brought forward positive measures to make Canada one of the world’s best places to do business. . .I also made it a priority to help improve the well-being of people with disabilities.

“My goal was always to get Canada back on track to a balanced budget after the large deficit we agreed was necessary in Budget 2009 to combat the Great Recession and protect Canadian jobs. As outlined in Budget 2014, I followed through on that commitment. There is no doubt that Canada’s budget will be balanced in 2015.  Canada’s fiscal position is the envy of the developed world. All Canadians can be proud of the country’s performance.

“Now, I will focus on life beyond politics as I return to the private sector. I believe that I have served my country, province and constituents of Whitby-Oshawa to the best of my abilities and thank them for their continued trust and support for almost two decades. . .Thank you, Jim Flaherty.”

No, Jim, thank you.

Thanks to your determination to get the country “back on track” from whichever imaginary hell more powerful cabineteers than you spectrally raised to frighten the pajamas off taxpayers, Canada has become a mewling, paranoid simulacrum of its former self.

We no longer care about employment insurance recipients. We dismiss young people and educators as easily as we do environmental scientists. We can’t even care properly for our veterans of foreign wars.

Thanks to your fiscal leadership, Diamond Jim, Canada has become a meaner, tighter nation. Your policies may have saved the country from going down the road with Greece, but was that ever really the danger?

Wasn’t the real danger the encroaching degree of incivility and mistrust your buddies on the Hill did nothing to mitigate in the villages, towns and cities of a once-tolerant, open-minded, open-handed nation?

Forget the fact that Canada’s GDP has been handed over to natural resources industries. Forget the fact that public investments in science and technology serve only the status quo and, so, produce, no material or intellectual gain.

Forget all of it, Jim.

YER outta here!

Can’t say I blame you.

Can’t say I’ll miss you either, as the weather warms and the secrets of the big, wide universe are revealed just in time for your first Big-Bank interview in the corner office where black holes go to thrive.

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