Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can the Centre Hold?

The United States has centuries of discussion around the concept of states’ rights. It is one of the fundamental features of their politics. In Canada the notion of provinces’ rights, or provincial rights is comparatively limited and undeveloped, or at least it has been. I would argue the key reason for this is twofold. First, the smaller, poorer provinces have benefited from a powerful federal government in terms of equalization programmes etc. Greater provincial rights could turn into less federal funding. Second, provincial powers at the federal level typically devolves into a debate about Quebec separation/independence. Quebec politicians, particularly those in the Parti Quebecois have demanded greater autonomy from the federal government.

While the other provinces within Canada may have griped about the power of the central government they did exceedingly little about it. That, I believe, may be changing.

The recent Alberta election was a battle between conservative parties, the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives. There is some argument whether or not the Redford-led PCs should be thought of as conservative, but I think it’s fair to say they are an Alberta centrist party. Last night’s result would somewhat endorse that. That being said, the parallels between Redford’s Progressive Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario Liberals are... interesting.

I interpret the battle between the PCs and Wildrose not as a right between centre-right and right, but of a provincialist and federalist party. Redford and her supporters frequently pointed to cooperating with other provinces and federal government and winning them onside for tar sand development, as well as her experience advocating for Alberta in Washington D.C. It might be a bit of a simplification but Danielle Smith, leader of Wildrose, appeared to argue for ‘Alberta first’ policies. The connection between the Wildrose and the Firewall Letter also supports this argument. The Firewall idea was to erect barriers between the federal and provincial government to avoid interference and gain autonomy, much like Quebec.

I saw this angle barely discussed in the media, so I think it may have been overlooked to some degree. Alberta voters may have suggested that they wish to engage in confederation and not disengage. That, or simply thought the Wildrosers were not ready for government.

Ontario often argued it carried the weight of confederation. It made sacrifices to make confederation work. This is best demonstrated by equalization payments as Ontario supported social programmes across the country. During the constitutional debates of the 1980s Premier David Peterson made concessions not always in the best interest of Ontario to make a deal work. Peterson’s Liberal successor seems less committed to taking one for the Canadian Team. Premier McGuinty has expressed concerns that the equalization formula needs to be rethought. Given Ontario’s gigantic deficit and debt the notion of sending money off to other provinces likely irks the Premier.

The NDP, who swept Quebec, argue for asymmetric federalism, granting privileges to Quebec for its unique position within confederation. In general the Conservatives believe decentralization is a valuable concept. The party which has fought most consistently for a strong federal government, the Liberals, have been relegated to third and are politically adrift.

Immigration policy is being shifted to the provinces. The federal government is increasingly becoming a distribution centre for funds to support provincial initiatives. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it does weaken the purpose of the federal government. Other energy producing provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are likely chaffing under federal intervention, and the complaining about federal regulation not responding to local needs is legendary (discussions about the Newfoundland fishery comes to mind here). Ultimately the question is do Canadian want a strong federal government? Canada is a highly regional country. There are things appropriate for provinces and for the federal government to do, but power seems to be slipping more and more to the provinces. I believe we are poorly served by not having this conversation at all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Charter: An Imperfect Document

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Canada’s formal constitution, the Constitution of Canada and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The anniversary has triggered some stiff debate on how it should be marked. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has opted, essentially, not to celebrate the patriation of the constitution at all. Journalists, opinion makers, partisans and lovers of the law have all attacked Mr. Harper for failing to celebrate this document of national importance. Instead of piling on the Prime Minister I think it might be worthwhile to explore what he may be considering.

While many Canadians cherish the rights inside the Charter and value its role in shaping our country into a more equal place, there are those who have major, justified issues with our constitution. I hate to boil this down to simple partisanship so early in this post, but it seems to me that Liberals want the Constitution to be celebrated more than anyone else. It is only fitting given that the patriation of the constitution was Prime Minister Trudeau’s crowning achievement. When Craig Oliver interviewed Justin Trudeau (Liberal – Papineau, QC) on CTV’s April 15, 2012 episode of Question Period, he discussed the constitution in terms of his father’s legacy. Trudeau suggested that the government’s silence on the Charter was motivated by partisanship.

I feel that many who are cheering on the Charter forget the very recent controversies that surrounded it. Several major issues were ignored or overlooked. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried twice to address the issues of the Canadian constitution that Trudeau introduced. Both the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Accord failed, and after a decade of constitutional reform issues the Canadian government has run screaming from any talk of it.

The Province of Quebec never ratified the Canadian constitution. The centre of the Meech Lake Accord was to bring Quebec into the fold. The second attempt, Charlottetown Accord, included the voices from Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. The Accord would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society, increased the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples, reformed the Senate and entrenched key social program priorities. This Accord also failed. The appetite for Canadian constitutional debate quickly waned after much of the nation’s political capital had been spilled in the process.

The 1993 federal election saw the dissolution of the largest majority government in Canadian history and the fracturing of Canada into distinct regional power bases as the Reform and Bloc Quebecois rose from the ashes of constitutional reform. Mr. Harper and a generation of politicians came up with the mist of a deeply divisive constitutional debate; one they are not fond of recalling, nor celebrating.

Those limitations identified in the original constitution in 1987 and 1992 still exist. The patriation of constitution was a major opportunity to address concerns in Canada, and it was missed. I find our constitution to be ineffective for three key reasons. One, it fails to offer adequate provisions for Aboriginal Canadians. Two, the constitution has locked Canada in with an undemocratic Senate, and makes reform to the House of Commons difficult. Three, the amendment formula is so difficult to achieve that meaningful constitutional reform has only been attempted as large omnibus movements (like the Accords), or minor issues, like renaming Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, the government has tried to work around the constitution, rather than amending it!

Because our constitution is so difficult to amend the Parliament and Supreme Court have had to bend over backwards to make the constitution fit instead of simply amending it. I think the best example of this is Gay Rights and Section 15 of the Charter. The Charter does not provide for the constitutional protection of homosexuals. I think the Charter should simply be amended to include sexual orientation. Instead, given the difficulty, courts and legislatures have interpreted sex to mean sexuality, though the intent at the time was gender protection.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an important document, and as the New York Times recently reported, it is becominga model for the world. However, it is still deeply flawed. During the NDP leadership campaign Nathan Cullen (NDP – Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC) was fond of saying Canada is a nation that works bad in theory and good in practice. To me this suggests that Canada’s constitution has put in legal barriers that hinder our effective governance, that our politics and extralegal arrangements help overcome.

In general Canadians like their constitution, including, as Andrew Coyne recently pointed out, Quebecers. It is interesting to contrast American and Canadian attitudes to their respective constitutions. There are factions in both nations that fetishize their govern documents, and in fact it is a dominant ideology within the United States. I hope Canada never goes that route. Our governing document should be challenged and considered, and in my opinion, amended. It is not perfect. To be clear I am not advocated for dozens of amendments every year, but a few periodic changes that have broad consensus would be valuable.
So, here’s to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Constitution of Canada, and may it continue evolve in time to govern our country even better in the future. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The F-35 Scandal

It is safe to say that the Harper government is facing its biggest political crisis since 2006. I think it is fair to characterize the revelations about the problems surrounding the procurement of the F-35 fighter aircraft as a scandal.

Canada’s military is currently equipped with F-18s. They have come to the end of their service life, and must be replaced. Therefore the government began the process back a number of years, 2009 I believe, to purchase a fleet of F-35s. The government informed Parliament that the cost of the jets would be about $15 billion. Scott Brison (Liberal – King-Hants, NS) raised questions in the finance committee in 2010 in regards to a breakdown of the cost. The government restated the price despite mounting evidence that the quoted price was grossly inaccurate. The figures quoted by the Canadian government and her ministers began to show a growing gap between those provided by the American Pentagon.  

Skip to the present. Last week the Auditor-General, Michael Ferguson, released a report to the public stating that the public and parliament had been misled about the true cost of the F-35s. The Conservative government was immediately forced on to the defensive. What confuses the process is that the responsibility for the F-35 procurement program has shifted into a few different ministers’ hands. Defence Minister Peter McKay (Conservative – Central Nova, NS) originally had responsibility until passing it off to junior minister Julian Fantino (Conservative – Vaughan, ON). Fantino has awkwardly defended the purchase in the house in the weeks leading up to the A-G’s report. Now the file has been handed off to Rona Ambrose (Conservative – Edmonton-Spruce Grove, AB), the Minister of Public Works. So, who is responsible for these obvious mistakes

Andrew Coyne, columnist with the National Post, has assessed the number for himself. He is concerned that the $25-30 billion price tag is inaccurate. The true cost of the F-35s may exceed $40 billion. This is not a minor issue. The party slashing government programs and civil service positions cannot pose as the party of fiscal conservatism while a major procurement deal spirals out of control with no cabinet official truly bearing responsibility.

The government’s explanations are simply not satisfactory. Accusing the Auditor-General of accounting errors is laughable in the face of it. In any sensible government at least a minister responsible would resign. In any sensible caucus backbenchers would begin decrying this waste of federal tax dollars and the lack of transparency of the government. How many fiscal conservatives want to go back to their ridings in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario and explain to their constituents a “10 billion dollar accounting error.” Feeling political and media pressure the Prime Minister would be forced to shift policies.

This is not a sensible world, tragically.

Prime Minister Harper cannot cast out Peter McKay. He carries too much political weight as the symbolic other half of the party. Remember he was the leader of the Progressive Conservatives when they merged with the Canadian Alliance. McKay may be asked quietly to leave, but not now, maybe in a year or two, I imagine. The backbench will hold their tongue as they always do, cowed as they are, in all parties.

There is something important to remember that Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen reminded his followers of on Twitter.  The 2011 Federal election was called due to a contempt of Parliament decision. That decision was in response to the government refusing to provide cost estimates and other information in relation to legislation, including the F-35s. The election was called the Canadian public in their righteous anger returned Stephen Harper’s government with a majority... Now we have a scandal on our hands that was, in many ways, foreseen. The Conservative Party misled the public and won an election on the back of it, in some part.

Here’s a link to Mr. Gardner on CTV’s Question Period, which I think quite succinctly summarizes the nature of this scandal. Dan Gardner also provides great insight here on why transparency is the key togood government.

What bothers me is this will likely boil down into a political/partisan issue. By 2015 this will likely be a distant memory, and the parties will circle the wagons and the real scandal will be lost. I might be wrong though, but before the scandal really broke the NDP and Conservatives were tied in thepolls

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tale of Two Budgets

Last week both the provincial government of Ontario and the federal government of Canada revealed their budgets for fiscal year 2012. I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite displeased with the actions of my governments and their proposed plans. Strangely, my criticisms of these two governments are from opposite sides of the spectrum.

Beginning with Ontario, the provincial budget begins the task of wrestling the deficit and debt under control. Earlier this year Don Drummond released a report discussing his recommendations to fix the Ontario government. Despite appointing Mr. Drummond Mr. McGuinty has deemed it fit to ignore his recommendations for the most part. Love it or hate it the Drummond Report called on substantial reform and asked Ontarians and their leaders to rethink how the government carries out social services.

Take a look at this info-graphic. Here we see a visual break down of Ontario’s spending and revenues. Mr. McGuinty’s government has ignored the far-reaching reforms Mr. Drummond called for, and instead is doing in part the opposite of what he advised. The Ontario Liberals hope to cut spending by freezing civil servant salary and negotiating very toughly in a few years time when their contracts are due to be negotiated again. The province is targeting teacher’s benefits, such as the current system that their sick days work under.

The Drummond report proposed notions that would be unpopular, but have a structural impact on the deficit and debt, such as ending all-day kindergarten and increasing class sizes. As Adam Radwandski points outin the Globe and Mail the issue is not how many of Drummond’s initiatives the Liberals took up, it’s the short-term, limited thinking the government is using to balance the budget. A more holistic rethink of what the government is doing/spending would have been a far better measure than dooming Ontario to years of unnecessary labour strife.

There are positive changes in the Ontario budget, I’m not too partisan to see that. I found the pressure the Ministry of Education will be putting on school boards to shut down mostly empty schools to be well overdue. Capping spending growth is usually ineffective, but if it produces reforms that will be to the positive. Look again at that info-graphic. We must evaluate how we approach healthcare in Ontario. We are on an unsustainable path. I believe in the public system, but I fear if we do not make changes now we will lose the system forever in a catastrophic debt crisis years down the road.

Given that it is a minority government (barely) the NDP are being courted to help pass the budget. Today Ms. Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, released some conditions. She is asking for a 2% income tax increase on those making over $500,000 per year. These funds would be used to remove the HST from home heating and provide funding for childcare and assistance for those with disabilities. It is a modest change. Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives have stated they will vote down the budget regardless.

The federal budget concerns me for entirely different reasons. Here is a similar info-graphic explaining the federal budget. The cuts are worrying. Though the expenditures of the federal government has bloated in recent years I feel these cuts do not target where spending has increased. If the Conservatives were interested in balancing the budget I would have liked to see them start with all their pet tax credits, like the children’s fitness tax credit. Creating social policy through the tax code is, in my opinion, foolish. I am not expert in the federal budget, but reports seem to indicate that the Conservatives are not getting rid of programs that serve no purpose or wasteful subsidies. The Tories appear to be targeting the essentials of the Canadian federal government. The controversy over Atlantic search-and-rescue infrastructure is a symptom of this. The last thing I want is for the federal government to preside over equalization programmes, Old-Age Security and the military/foreign policy like our neighbours to the south.

The federal government has a role in regulating industries, and serving the public interest. The cuts to Elections Canada and MPs office budgets seem like petty slashes at the overall effectiveness of our system. The increase in OAS seems unnecessary, and many claim the program is solvent, unlike its American equivalent.

What really troubles me is the reduction in environmental regulations. The Harper Government appears to be banking on Canada’s natural resources to drive the economy through mining and fossil fuels. In short, Stephen Harper’s vision for Canada is for us to be the drawers of oil and the hewers of minerals. It is an incredibly limited perspective. My opinion is that the resource-oriented nature of the economy is already hurting the Canadian economy broadly and the Ontario economy in specific. How are towns like St. Catharines supposed to benefit from a resource boom hundreds of kilometers away? What about those who live down stream who have seen a spike in cancer in recent years? There are costs to this type of policy. The budget is passive enough that most Canadians will find it reasonable and move on, if they pay attention at all.

The federal budget will pass with virtually no amendments. The Ontario budget may see some changes to appease New Democrats into voting for it. Overall a sad state of affairs from my point of view. I must credit the federal Conservatives for taking a long-term view, I just happen to disagree with it.

In other news an election has been called in Alberta. I may mention it as time passes, but I offer no guarantees at this point.

Oh, and it’s about time we got rid of the penny.