Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Right’s Transit Illusions

A couple of weeks ago, before Premier McGuinty shut down the Legislative Assembly, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West – Glanbrook) introduced his party’s plan to address transportation problems in the Greater Toronto Area. First, I applaud Mr. Hudak for proposing substantial ideas on these matters. I hope NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre) will follow his lead and suggest hoe her party would govern.

Allow me to summarize Mr. Hudak’s proposal:

1.      The TTC’s light rail and subways should be transferred to a regional transit agency, like Go, and administered by the province.

2.      The major freeways that pass through Toronto would go to the same agency.

3.       Funding would be prioritized for subways, when available.

Karen Stintz, a City Councillor for Toronto and TTC Chair, has raised major objections to Hudak’s proposal. In case you are unfamiliar with Ms. Stintz she falls on the right side of the spectrum in Toronto city politics, but understands the critical need for infrastructure investment. As reported in the National Post, Stintz said that uploading the subways would damage the TTC. The subways are money-makers for the municipal transit agency. With their removal the city would be burdened with running a bus system without financial support

The transfer of power is also a terrible condemnation of the city of Toronto’s ability to govern itself. Perhaps it deserves the slur, but a technocratic, less accountable agency would manage a critical aspect of daily life in the city. I sincerely doubt Toronto is ungovernable, it just has suffered a severe lack of leadership in the past few years. I hope Rob Ford’s successor, whoever he or she is, can build a coalition and some consensus on this issue.

The freeway proposal is interesting and would be put to best use if tolls could be extracted.

Stintz’s big criticism, echoed elsewhere, is Hudak’s idea to support subways without a tangible plan to fund them. As a result Toronto would continue to not build desperately needed infrastructure that is already buckling. Toronto and the province need to hash out an effective way to fund major infrastructure/transit projects in the GTA. Toll roads on the major highways might be a start, as well as a penalized car zone like exists in the heart of London, England. Regardless, as Matt Elliot at Metro says, it’s time to end the TTC fairytales and start to figure this out

I do not know why so many prominent politicians on the right do not understand transit. Mayor Ford's intentions for Toronto's transit system are, if anything, less impractical than Tim Hudak's. John Lorinc, a Toronto journalist who often writes on city politics, urban planning and transit, recently offered some insight on Twitter. He made the argument that fiscal conservatives should support a transit program. The delays in construction dramatically escalate the cost and by putting it off it only exacerbates the problem.

It would be great if someone like Karen Stintz was the right-wing mayor of Toronto, but we’re not so lucky. With a provincial election looming in the not-too-distant future we may have a senseless conservative in Queen’s Park and City Hall running things. Transit should be a less partisan issue, but it is here in Ontario, and we all suffer because of it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Worth Reading – October 25, 2012

As I mentioned earlier this week, there was almost too much news. The same applied to all the interesting articles I put together. I segmented all the ones that fit under a common theme and hope to blog about it next week. So, if the world of Ontario, Toronto and Canadian politics could hold off for the next few days, I would really appreciate it.

Don Lenihan in iPolitics summarizes a lot of the veryharsh scrutiny journalists and columnists have applied to recent actions at the federal and provincial. If our democracy is in crisis I am glad the fourth estate is going to say something, for however little good it will do.

Scott Stinson at the National Post did the math. With a leadership contest set to resolve on January 25th Stinson estimates that the Ontario Legislature will not sit until February 18. This means Ontarians will be without active representation and the government will not be accountable for over four months.

The second part of the Toronto Standard’s series is up. This week focuses on the future of transportation in Toronto

If you love politics in Canada and you want a much more nitty gritty view, you must read Pundit’s Guide. A great example of this is Alice Funke’s recent work on the upcoming by-elections. By-elections have been called in Durham, Calgary Centre and Victoria for November 26.

Michael Harris’ piece argues that the Conservative backbench are getting restless. This is one of a series of articles on this theme in recent weeks. I cannot help but think that their authors are employing more than a little wishful thinking here. Despite a few instances there is very little evidence that the Conservatives are breaking ranks.

Chantal Hébert was one of the columnists who spoke out on the decline of Canadian democracy. She wrote a very interesting piece about the Parliament Hill she arrived at to report on thirty years ago and the state of the House of Commons today

And finally, something fun. The first Travers Debates took place recently. The first debate on whether or not Twitter was destroying journalism was exceptionally good. It featured Bob Rae, Chantal Hébert, Kady O’Malley, and Nathan Cullen. Very funny, yet oddly insightful. Allen Gregg and Dan Gardner had a more serious debate over who had a brighter future, Canada or the United States. I highly recommend watching

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Canada: A Strictly Ceremonial Democracy

It has only been a few weeks since I started posting twice a week. With the prorogation and Liberal leadership race in Ontario, the second omnibus budget bill in Ottawa, and some other minor issues that have popped up in recent weeks it feels like I don’t have enough time. I determined what I would write about a long while ago today before McGuinty resigned or the economic was introduced. Suddenly posting three times a week seems like a good idea. Luckily for me this is just a temporary problem and I am sure a slower news cycle will take hold soon enough.

The common thread of the two stories of the moment is the health of democracy in Canada. Watching The National’s At Issue panel on Thursday I was stunned by the force of the language used and unanimity of their condemnation of the federal government’s use of a second omnibus budget. To paraphrase Andrew Coyne, many international news items reporting from the developing world will refer to the ‘largely ceremonial’ legislature. Canada now has a largely ceremonial legislature.

In essence, in Canada, our House of Commons and provincial legislatures are more similar to the American Electoral College than the parliamentary democracies of our past. The leader of the party that receives the most seats gets to rule with limited checks or balances on his or her power. The only group that can threaten his/her control is the caucus of the governing party in a majority situation. But MPs in that caucus, so fearful of retribution from the leadership and the desire to climb the party ranks and perhaps secure (a now neutered) cabinet post, will not stand up to their leaders.

Bill C-45, the formal name of the second omnibus budget bill, is, as the Toronto Star calls it, an affront to our democracy. These omnibus bills fundamentally undermine the purpose of our representative parliamentary democracy. The job of a Member of Parliament is pretty straightforward. They must represent their constituents, hold the government to account and scrutinize laws. When a piece of legislation is over 400 pages, affecting dozens of pieces of legislation and the implications of the changes are not clear, how is a MP to do his/her job? In the space of a few short weeks, with limited debate, Bill C-45 will become law and our environmental laws and who knows what else.

Drip by drip the fundamental institution of democracy fades ever so slightly into something less than a democracy. No, I don’t suspect that one day jackbooted men will walk in our streets and cameras will carefully watch our every move and dissenters will be banished to camps in Kenora, but our democracy will start to feel a lot less real, and much less responsive until it resembles the ones found in countries like Singapore, or worse, Russia.

The recent prorogation in Ontario is a symptom of the same terrible disease. The province will be governed by the cabinet without public input until at least January 25th. At that time a new Liberal leader will be selected and Dalton McGuinty will resign. Still, the legislature will not be sitting. Ending the parliamentary session to undergo a leadership race is inexcusable. Constitutional expert Peter Russell slammed the McGuinty government for abusing its powers and shutting down the legislature http://ontarionewswatch.com/onw-news.html?id=410.

As ONDP leader Andrea Horwath (ONDP - Hamilton Centre) pointed out on The Agenda last week, governments have gone through leadership races without ending a legislative session. The government’s explanation is weak and as Martin Regg Cohn argued, it is a mismanaged retreat.

I fear our democracy is in decline. It has been in decline for decades but there has been a brief and rapid acceleration. Our constitution is dependent upon the respect of tradition as much as written rules. Governments increasingly abuse these unwritten rules. Even if voters punish the Ontario Liberals and the Conservatives it may not (and probably will not) reverse this trend. Governments do not abandon the power and concentration of authority, even if the parties switch.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Worth Reading – October 18, 2012

This week I had roughly twenty articles that I thought were worth reading. Unfortunately for my list I’ve decided to stick to my rigorous “No More Than 7!” rule. Therefore go to the major newspapers in Canada and check out some of the great reads they offer this week.

Carly Weeks’ article in the Globe and Mail on bullying received quite a bit of attention this week. Ms. Weeks describes growing up and being relentlessly bullied and how no one seemed to intervene. Her article, while not expressly doing it, calls out the Bystander Effect. Put another way, the only way for evil to succeed in this world is for good men and women to stand by and do nothing. Bullying is a pernicious and vile social disease, and while we may never get rid of it, we should shame it into a corner.

I have trimmed back how much I talk about global issues a lot on this blog, but this article really caught my attention. Recent elections in Russia were marred by fraud and abuse. Putin’s party won huge majorities, it appears, illegitimately. The details of the story are shocking.

It is hard not to draw a line from Premier McGuinty’s resignation and the overall health of the Liberal brand. There are currently leadership races in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia (probably), and the federal party. I have been looking for work, and the Liberals are hiring all over the country, but I would prefer a job with a future.

The Toronto Standard is doing an interesting series looking at the future of Toronto. The first in the five-part series looks at the city as a whole, particularly its skyline and the way people will live. There are really amazing images of what Toronto will look like in just a few years time. The Manhattanization of Toronto is well underway.

Mark Jarvis dismantles the Ontario prorogation story quite nicely here. Jarvis quotes Peter Russell, noted Canadian constitutional expert, on the prorogation. Russell’s full remarks can be found here

When pundits and journalists discuss Mr. McGuinty’s record and legacy they often point to education as one of the beacons of success. This article in the Globe and Mail examines how long-lasting that legacy might be.  McGuinty’s educational successes have come at great costs, and the need to curb the deficit might mean they will all disappear.

As a big nerd, lover of space, and person who deep down hopes to colonize another planet one day, this was the greatest news ever. Scientists have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting the nearest star to our sun. Earth-like is generous because it is a surface of burning rock, but it’s the right size!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Twilight of the McGuinty Era

I read about politics every day, or watch it on TV, yet yesterday’s announcement of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s future resignation was a total shock to me. Despite being embattled for years the Premier has always stuck it out, often stubbornly. He has fought mean and negative campaigns to stay in power and has done what it takes. His sudden resignation was totally out of character, at least in my estimation of the man.

Dalton McGuinty (OLP – Ottawa South) has been an MPP for twenty-two years, leader of the Liberals for sixteen, and Premier for nine. It is not shocking that he was ready for the end. When we look at the current state of his government it is also not surprising that he is choosing this time to leave politics and escape scrutiny of the Legislative Assembly. New contempt allegations were being laid against Minister Chris Bentley (OLP – London West) for suddenly revealing there were an additional 20,000 pages of documents he had failed to disclose. Whether or not it was a simple oversight, the perception has ruled that this was a partisan decision by the government and cover-up was underway.

The minority government has been struggling to tackle the looming debt and deficit. The solutions the McGuinty Liberals have been met with an opposition that either ardently disagrees or would rather them twist in the wind. The half-measures are both failing to win support in the Legislature and fix the problem. In an attempt to find savings the Liberals have alienated their old allies in the public sector unions – particularly teachers. If it were not for Ontarians unease with an ONDP government and their distaste for the Hudak PCs, it is likely Mr. McGuinty could have retired a year ago.

Say what you will about Mr. McGuinty’s record, he is leaving on a sour note. By proroguing parliament long enough for his party to select the next Premier the opposition will be mobilized against his government for the partisan move. In the interim the Liberals will continue to govern without the scrutiny of the legislature. More importantly, the other MPPs will be unable to do their work representing their constituents.

While yesterday the media was full of lamentations at his departure and salutes to his public service the race has already begun to replace him. The Ontario Liberals should be proud at such impressive bench strength. Nine years in government has produced a number of very capable cabinet ministers that will be able to rise to the challenge to replace McGuinty. Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West), Laurel Broten (OLP – Etobicoke Lakeshore), Deb Mathews (OLP – London North Centre), Chris Bentley (OLP – London West), Charles Sousa (OLP – Mississauga South), Yasir Naqvi (OLP – Ottawa Centre), and Brad Duguid (OLP – Scarborough Centre) are all names mentioned to succeed as Premier of the province of Ontario. Something I am curious about is whether or not any current or former federal MPs drop into the provincial party now that it looks like Justin Trudeau may be coronated. Someone like Bob Rae, or Martha Hall Findlay may be much more tempted to ply Ontario’s provincial waters than try to battle against Mulcair and Harper while sitting in third.

McGuinty may have viewed his mandate as reversing the damage of the Harris years, but it has come at a very real cost. The nanny state nature of the Liberal government has been tiresome, such as the ban on pitbulls. The way the Liberals ran against John Tory by demonizing faith schools was unconscionable. While there are definite parts of McGuinty’s record that are important I feel overall he has been a fairly average overall. His stewardship has been ‘steady as she goes’ when the province desperately needed real reforms in key areas. Post-secondary education, health, infrastructure, public transit – the failures to innovate there must be weighed against his successes in introducing the HST, and education.

I think the most important thing to remember is that Dalton McGuinty will resign, he has not yet resigned. For untold months Ontario will continue to be led by him and his ministers, unaccountable to the voting public while his party takes its time to select a new leader. Furthermore this new leader will be under tremendous pressure to call a late winter or early spring election. The prorogation killed 119 pieces of legislation that were moving through the Legislature. They will have to be reintroduced whenever the Premier calls the Assembly back.

When more than a day has passed I will have a better notion of our twenty-fourth premier’s historic legacy. Depending on how these next few months go, and the success or failure of his successor will determine how he is interpreted. In the meantime Ontarians have no democratic representatives in Queen’s Park and so must wait.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Worth Reading – October 11, 2012

Chantal Hebert follows a well trodden path and discusses how the federal Liberals can remake themselves. She proposes some interesting ideas. If the economic debate between right and left is cooling down issues of how we are governed become increasingly important. Whether or not this translates to votes is another question.

This great piece in the Star examines McGuinty’s approach to tackling the budget deficit. The Premier is ignoring the advice of Don Drummond and instead of taking an exacting look at the province’s finances, he is offering a series of quick-fixes. Sadly, this might be a product more of a minority government than the Liberals’ own aversion to reform.

Justin Trudeau. The name alone is enough to make me sigh. I am the first to admit that I am not at all unbiased when it comes to the “young” MP from Papineau. Maclean’s asks a simple eight questions that they believe Mr.Trudeau must answer. I could not agree more.

Kelly McParland offers a scathing commentary on Mr. Trudeau in the National Post. 

This is a somewhat unusual piece by Alex Himelfarb. Himelfarb, former Clerk to the Privy Council, suggests that our decline in democracy may be related to the supremacy of markets. The idea is quite to the left of most of our discourse, but the central notion is intriguing. The mentality of markets has definitely entered all aspects of life, and is it possible that it has produced negative results for our body politic?

Alberta successfully redrew its boundaries so that all of them fit within a 5% range of the ideal quota. The Edmonton Journal discusses this accomplishment and its importance

Last night TVO’s The Agenda had a program dedicated to the electoral boundary changes. I must admit I was disappointed in the coverage. The discussion seemed to get confused frequently between seat distribution within Canada and seat distribution within Ontario itself. Still, it was a good conversation and worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Power Plant Politics

It’s hard almost not to feel sorry for Chris Bentley (OLP – London West). Mr. Bentley is the Minister of Energy here in the province of Ontario and he is under incredible scrutiny of late. Mr. Bentley is in trouble because the Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty (OLP – Ottawa South) scrapped plans for two gas power plants in Oakville and Mississauga. The plants were unpopular in both communities and despite awarding contracts and construction being underway they were cancelled.

Fair enough, but there are two hiccups. The plants were incredibly expensive to close. The Oakville project cost the Ontario government $40 million to terminate. That amount seems paltry in comparison to the Mississauga plant, which has cost the taxpayer $190 million. It gets worse though. The Mississauga plant was cancelled at the end of the last election campaign. Observers have explained the cancellation as a crass effort by the McGuinty Liberals to win seats in Mississauga in the desperate last days of the campaign.

Skip forward a year to the present. The opposition parties have been pressing the government to produce documents related to this plant cancellation. Minister Bentley denied access to the documents which enraged the opposition and elements of the media. The Ontario Legislature has supremacy when dealing with the finances of the province and ministers must produce documents related to finance when asked (demanded).

Bentley was eventually forced to produce the documents, though the ONDP and PCs claim that key portions are redacted. To politically punish the McGuinty government and Bentley for resisting parliamentary privilege the PCs have introduced a censure motion against Mr. Bentley.

The censure is not finalized, but seems highly likely. The punishments against Mr. Bentley could be quite severe. He could be removed from the Legislature, disbarred from the Law Society of Upper Canada, or even jailed. It is unlikely a cabinet minister will go to jail, but it is hard to imagine Chris Bentley could remain Energy Minister if the censure passes the Legislature.

The cancellation of the plants plainly stinks. $240 million of taxpayers’ money was thrown away. The gas plants are badly needed to meet energy demand, and it is cheapest to build the plants where people live, like in the ever-growing Peel, or Halton. More worrying is that the closure of the Mississauga plant may have been directed by the Liberal campaign and not the government. Ultimately the Liberals and the Ontario government are both headed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, but the blurring of these lines is discomforting thought. Campaign managers should not be directing major public projects for the sake of electoral outcomes. Energy experts will tell you the cancellation of those plants was a foolish move and will simply be relocated.

Sadly for Mr. Bentley none of this, really, was his fault to begin with. He was not the Energy Minister during that campaign; it was Brad Duguid (OLP – Scarborough Centre) who held the portfolio. If you are feeling extra cynical (and I am) one could argue that Duguid, who is seen by many as a future leader of the party, was moved out so that the heat for this political mess wouldn’t tarnish him too badly. So, it’s Bentley falling on Duguid and McGuinty’s sword.

Worse still, Eric Grenier did some number crunching andconcluded that the gas plant closures did not really save the Mississauga seats for the Liberals. The OLP would have won the Mississauga ridings regardless of whether or not the plants remained in place.

As I said, it is hard to not feel a little sorry for Minister Bentley. I hope that he would resign as Minister, which may be enough to forestall the censure vote against him. Perhaps not though, the PCs smell blood in the water on this one. I watched some of the Question Period in the Legislature this week, and I must say, it is a pretty toxic environment these days. I think it would be fair to say it is worse than the House of Commons. In last week’s Worth Reading I shared an article stating that the Legislature is on borrowed time before it falls. I’m not sure an election is imminent, but if one is called it will be a brutal campaign, and I doubt the Liberals could squeak out another win.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Worth Reading – October 4, 2012

The Toronto Standard is one of my favourite sources of news for the GTA. They have a great culture and city section. The editorial voice is great, very dry and a good mix of humour and satire. That does not mean they hide from serious news. This week I read this interesting article stating that Canadian cities are among the least taxed in the world. In fact, Toronto is the fifth tax-friendliest city in the world by this research’s measure.

The big news earlier this week was MP Rob Anders (CPC –Calgary West, AB) alluding to the bizarre and insane notion that Mr. Mulcair(NDP – Outremont, QC) hastened Jack Layton’s death. This article provides a nice summary to this flare up of an “issue”. Anders is frequently the target of media and public scrutiny. Apparently his riding association has tried to dump him but the party establishment protected him. I heard on CBC that that will not be the case in the future, in light of these developments, I am sure.

This article does not fit within my usual topics on this blog, but I loved this article and decided to share it anyway. I love video games and find the discussion around them fascinating. Jeremy Parish from 1UP discusses the public’s perception of Japan and explains why some of these perceptions exist and persist. Parish rightly chastises the media for the portrayal, but also holds up a mirror to western culture that commonly dismisses Japanese culture as “weird”.

From the Globe and Mail, it looks like the Ontario Legislature is on its last legs again. It was assumed the Progressive Conservatives would work with the Liberals on the wage freeze legislation, but they have once again become hostile to the McGuinty government. The ONDP will not support a wage freeze so this legislation may die. Once again Premier McGuinty and the Liberals are without a governing partner.

Mayor Ford has rejected road tolls as a funding mechanism for transit. Road tolls have been implemented around the world and are considered a wise way to address traffic and support transit. When is the next Toronto election?

John Ivison wrote an interesting column this week suggesting that the Harper government is threatened by its backbench. A similar post appeared in The Hill Times. While on the surface this is true I am not sure I buy it. The piece claims that the backbenchers are feeling neglected and taken advantage of. Ivison suggests that we will see more disruption of the Prime Minister’s agenda from within his own caucus and leaks. I will believe it when I see it. The problem with brutal centralization is that it builds up pressure and anger against it. I hope the Conservative backbench is frustrated, and I hope they do something about it. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Politics After Economics

While channel surfing this past weekend I landed on TVO’s Big Ideas program and saw Andrew Coyne giving a talk about his notion that we are moving into an era post-economics. Here is the video below:

In case you chose not to watch I will summarize. Mr. Coyne suggests that we are approaching a common consensus on the key economic questions. The left and right in this and other countries have reached agreement on many of the big questions of the day. Market capitalism has triumphed, and since the end of the Cold War new notions of how it should be managed have taken root. Mr. Coyne provides a number of examples, such as, the left in Canada rarely proposes government ownership of industries or resources. Nationalization and central planning are dead tenants. Free trade, once a hotly contested issue is now accepted by the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Even parts of the NDP accept NAFTA and other trade agreements as positive developments. Even if the NDP win the next federal election it is highly unlikely they will cancel any trade agreements.

Likewise on the right the passion and drive for deregulation and liberation of markets has died down substantially. The 1980s cured the right of many of the most obvious examples of state involvement in the economy. The big battles are over for them. Now they trim around the edges. Andrew Coyne proposes that markets and government are now finding the proper respective places. Idealistically he sees that government will continue to do what it does best – tax and redistribute wealth in the economy, and the market will do what it does best – set prices and produce needed goods and services.

It is the conclusions of his thesis I find most interesting. From the mid-19th century to roughly the present there has been competition between right and left about the role of the state. Socialists, libertarians, liberals, conservatives, statists, and on and on have debated the proper relationship between the two (state and market). Emerging from this conflict we have arrived at some sort of conclusion. Policies such as price setting and quotas have disappeared, free trade is here to stay, and so forth.

The means that democratic politics in Canada (and other parts of the West) may pivot to be about other things. Mr. Coyne acknowledges he has no idea what the future will look like, but he postulates at some of the obvious, like social issues and foreign policy. Looking back at the British Parliamentary debates before 1850 discussion surrounded matters like governance of the Empire, democratic rights, and foreign relations. Perhaps in the near-future the House of Commons will have consensus on matters economic and the fight will turn to Canada’s relations with the developing world, and more philosophical questions stemming from debates about human life, and biotechnology and advanced computer technology. There may be more troubling problems to confront, like the impacts of climate change, or the continued fallout of globalization (i.e. rapid contagion of disease).

While I think I would enjoy less acrimony over economic issues I do not look forward to increasing debate on cultural and philosophical issues. The recent tussle over the abortion issue is a preview I would not like to relive on a frequent basis. In a world where New Democrats, Liberals, Greens and Conservatives all agree on economics it just means they would (and will) find something else to scream at each other about.