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Monday, July 14, 2014

I’m all for transparency when it comes to foreign lobbying

I see that Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, Ont.) has recently introduced Bill C-618, the Foreign Lobbying Transparency Act, in the House of Commons. This is timely indeed, considering multi-million dollar efforts by U.S.-based organizations to virtually embargo bitumen in Alberta’s oil sands.

Too often in Canada, environmental assessments have been exercises in promoting a particular political agenda. Objections to development sometimes have had little to do with real threats to the environment and far more to do with scuttling projects that seek to develop carbon-based energy resources.

For me, it is one thing to tolerate and respect the anti-resource-development sentiments of other Canadians, but quite another when you know the sentiments are financed and promoted by foreigners.

For those to whom Climate Change has become a religion (in the sense that Climate Change is an interest to which they ascribe supreme importance), no carbon-based energy resource project in Canada should ever be allowed to see the light of day. And, as soon as one undergoes an environmental assessment, foreign money flows in to finance lobbyists who line up to harangue and harass and otherwise clog up the process with repetitive and sometimes spurious objections.

Objectors even go so far as to bring in aging rock stars and foreign dignitaries to make speeches on cue to denigrate and discredit development of Alberta’s oil sands.

A case in point is the recent visit to Alberta by retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who called the oil sands “filth” and said Alberta’s bitumen production is the consequence of “negligence and greed.” And, earlier in the year, musician Neil Young claimed the oil sands area near Fort McMurray is like the World War II-ending devastation of Hiroshima.

This level of radical environmental rhetoric has no place in our political processes, and especially when it comes from the mouths of non-residents who won’t have to live with the consequences of the actions (or inaction) they promote.

Canada has the moral and legal right to develop its natural resources, whether or not they are carbon-based. Canada has the moral and legal obligation to do so in an environmentally responsible manner. Neither are such rights limited by what foreigners have to say nor are the obligations extended by them. Resource development within Canadian borders  is purely a domestic matter and we should expect foreigners to butt out and mind their own business.

It is of great importance that all Canadians are able to see whose interests are being represented and how much money is being spent to influence government policy decisions. Requiring organizations to disclose whether they receive significant amounts of foreign funding to impact advocacy and lobbying messages seems eminently sensible.

I wish the MP from Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke the best of luck with Bill C-618.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Let’s get rid of low-skilled temporary foreign workers program altogether

I’ve never been one to promote laissez-faire economics believing, as I do, in a mixed economy based on economic liberalism with limited, prudent state intervention and regulation—i.e., a largely free-market economy based on a free price system, free trade and private property.

I have to say, though, that I find our current government’s schizophrenic approach to our free-market economy maddening in its inconsistency.

Propping up a national broadcaster—the CBC, of course—to the tune of a $1-billion a year subsidy so it can compete against private companies that receive little or no government support is a case in point. Forcing consumers to pay outlandish prices for milk, cheese, poultry, eggs and related products—through supply management—is another egregious assault on our free-markets.

The most recent case to cause controversy is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which the federal government overhauled a week or so ago, concentrating on the low-skilled workers stream.

Time will tell how successful Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s revised program will be, but I’m one who believes the market—not the government—should decide whether a business needs to increase wages to attract workers.

Moreover, I am not heartened by a C.D. Howe Institute’s report published earlier this year. The non-partisan think-tank says the program actually increased unemployment rates in B.C. and Alberta, and claimed that a goal of the program is to keep wages from “rising precipitously” in response to a shortage of workers.

How often does this government act to prevent prices from “rising precipitously?” So why are they being so accommodating to businesses by keeping wages from rising?

Prices at the gas pumps rose at an alarming rate without governments acting to tamp them down. Furthermore, we pay substantially above world prices for dairy products and, in that case, with the collusion of the government.

But, heaven forbid, that we should stand back and watch businesses pay $20+ an hour to hamburger flippers at fast-food restaurants.

To his credit, Minister Kenney has announced that employers located in regions where the unemployment rate is above six per cent will be barred from hiring temporary foreign workers. Also, he has placed a 10 per cent cap on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers an employer can hire per work site.  That cap will be phased in, starting at 30 per cent, then 20 per cent on July 1, 2015, and 10 per cent a year later.

Justin Trudeau has condemned the phasing out of this anti-Canadian, low-wage program, describing it as “one of the most anti-Alberta federal policies we’ve seen in decades.” A policy more fitting of this description is, of course, his dad’s national energy program, a federal policy that sought to distribute Alberta’s oil wealth to poorer parts of the country, pretty much wiping out Liberal support throughout the province.

Now this lesser Trudeau seeks to curry favour with Fort McMurray employers who have to deal with low unemployment and a booming economy. Well, capitalism “cuts” both ways: employers get to set prices as high as the competition and consumers will bear and employees get to benefit from low unemployment. And this situation almost always plays out better when governments do not interfere.

If there is a genuine need for these workers, why not obtain them through permanent immigration channels? We allow in hundreds of thousands of permanent immigrants each year? Can we not change immigration strategies to accommodate regions with low unemployment and a booming economy? After all, in most of the situations I’ve read about, there seems to be more of a long-term aspect to the employment market than the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is intended to serve.

We fully expect that in 2016, after the phase-out period is complete, a Conservative government will decide to eliminate the low-skilled stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program altogether. I believe Canada is the only developed country that allows low-skilled temporary foreign workers, and it is not to our credit that we do. The government has no business subsidizing employers in this manner.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Peter MacKay’s comments: self-inflicted wounds, but over-the-top reaction by the media

The current justice minister, Peter MacKay, has been taking a public flogging for recent comments about female judges and for his Mother’s/Father’s Day messages. Although the criticism does seem to me to be over the top, MacKay has not done himself any favours by publicly expressing views that might have been more relevant in the 1950s.

It must be said that I am not a fan of Peter MacKay. My dislike, nay distrust, of the man goes back to the 2003 Progressive Conservative leadership convention when he made the “Orchard deal” to gain support for his leadership bid, then ignored it to merge the PCs with the Canadian Alliance.

The two right-wing parties had to merge, but MacKay didn’t have to make the secret deal with David Orchard. It was a crass political move on MacKay’s part and it cast doubt on how honourable a man he is.

The kindest thing I can say about Peter MacKay’s comments about female judges is that he could have given a more thoughtful answer, when the question was raised, according to the Toronto Star, at a private meeting with members of the Ontario Bar Association. If he couldn’t think of one or hadn’t the wit to know one was needed, he is yesterday’s man and has no place at Canada’s cabinet table.

And then there are MacKay’s Mother's Day and Father’s Day emails, which were reported on by The Canadian Press. Taken individually, I don’t find much to complain about—they each seem inoffensive enough. Read side by side, though, there seems to be a clear message that smells of patriarchy. They certainly beg questions about the minister’s view of the roles each gender plays in modern society.

Here’s what his office sent out on Mother’s Day:

By the time many of you have arrived at the office in the morning, you’ve already changed diapers, packed lunches, run after school buses, dropped kids off at the daycare, taken care of an aging loved one and maybe even thought about dinner.”

Now contrast that with his Father’s Day equivalent that opined that  men were “shaping the minds and futures of the next generation of leaders.”

I’ll let readers decide how they interpret the messages, but I find the contrast mildly offensive and would, frankly, have expected better from a senior cabinet minister.

The above being said, I find the media attention shown to MacKay’s comments to be excessive. Just as punishments are meant to fit crimes, media “ink” should be justified by the seriousness of the subject matter. For days now, MacKay has been the subject of a full-court press from newspapers, political TV shows and Internet media sites.

I find the coverage excessive, but there again, I find myself also writing about it, so I guess I’m as bad as the rest.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Canada: time for the paper tiger to carry a big stick

The famous words of American president Theodore Roosevelt—“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”—suits Canadian foreign policy perfectly, except in the reverse of their meaning.

Stephen Harper’s government’s version of our Canadian foreign policy seems to favour talking tough with nothing much to back up the words—i.e., Canada has become a paper tiger.

Under the Conservatives, attitudes towards our military have been inconsistent. Conservatives talk a lot about the being for the men and women of our armed forces, but, at times, act as though they hold our veterans in disdain. I say this regarding both our active forces and with our veterans.

Too often, veterans of Canada’s wars seem not to be treated with respect and dignity and seem not to be given the benefit of doubt when dealing with government agencies. This is especially so under Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, notwithstanding his much appreciated recent announcement of new funding for visitations to veterans in long-term care facilities.

Fantino’s announcement will not, however, dull the memories of the many veterans who complain that Veterans Affairs is spending an additional $4 million on advertising this year, while ignoring the unfortunate families who care for injured soldiers.

Also, many veterans are still angry that Jenifer Migneault—a sick veteran’s wife—had to chase after Fantino as she tried, unsuccessfully, to speak to him in the House of Commons. And, of course, the scene of Fantino’s rudeness to veterans earlier this year—he arrived late to a meeting and reportedly “left quickly rather than face the irate vets”—is still fresh in the minds of many.

One measure of a country’s worthiness must surely be how well it treats those who survived its wars. Canada, as a nation that expects its citizens to go to war when called upon, should know this better than most.

Many Canadians seem not to understand the important role our armed services have played in building our nation. Some cling to the myth that we were until recently a nation of honest brokers, implying we were neutral or unaligned. We hear this articulated in debates over our role in the Middle East and vis-à-vis Israel.

It’s a false notion, of course. We have never been an unaligned, or neutral country. It is revisionist history. We may love peace, but we have waged war—and waged it well—when we felt it was necessary.

For thousands of years there were inter-tribal conflicts between our Aboriginal peoples, then European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries fought several colonial wars spanning some seventy years. Furthermore, Canada, under the British, rebuffed American invasions in 1775 and 1812.

After Canadian Confederation in 1867, Canadian forces fought along with the British in the Second Boer War and the First and Second World Wars. At the end of the Second World War, Canada had the third-largest navy in the world (over 400 ships, including three aircraft carriers and two cruisers), the fourth largest air force and an army variously reported at five or six divisions, establishing Canada as a major force in world affairs.

From 1945 onwards, Canada has been continuously aligned militarily with the United States and Great Britain. In 1949, Canada became a founding member of NATO, stationing troops in Germany and Norway. During the 1950s, Canada was one of the largest military spenders in the alliance. Over 5,000 Canadian service personnel, at any given time, were stationed in Germany until 1993.

As part of our commitment to the UN and our alliance with the U.S.,  Canada again fought in a series of wars: the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, and the NATO-led Afghan war.

Since the mid-1950s, Canada also played an important role in international peacekeeping missions, committing more troops than any other country over that time. This is, perhaps, the source of the myth that Canada was a nation of peacekeepers and favoured neutrality until the Harper years.

Besides, Canada has been an ally of Israel since—as one of 33 countries on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine—it voted in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution, leading to the establishment of the State of Israel. And Canada did so in the face of heavy pressure to abstain from the U.K. Moreover, Canada granted de facto recognition to Israel in 1948 and official recognition in 1949.

That brings me back to Canada’s current foreign policy, and its lack of a “big stick.”

Rather than speaking softly and carrying a big stick, PM Harper seems to prefer to use tough talk without a military to back him up. Under successive governments of both Liberals and Conservatives, Canada’s “big stick,” its armed forces, has been allowed to atrophy to the point we’ve become less than a shadow of our former selves.

Our annual military spending is the lowest it’s been in this century and is about half of the 2 per cent of GDP we’re committed to spend as a member of NATO. Besides, Canada’s contribution to the defence of North America is far less than the U.S. should expect from a partner that is a member of the G-7.

Moreover, Canada’s military is woefully incapable of defending its resource-rich artic region. Russia, a military Goliath, is one of Canada’s rivals in that region, and recent events prove it only respects military might when dealing with its neighbours.

Russia has a GDP that is only about 11 per cent larger than Canada’s (or about the same as Italy’s GDP), yet Russia spends more than four times more than Canada does on its armed forces. Because of its giant-sized armed forces—and only because of it—Russia is a major actor on the world stage.

On the one hand, Russia—in most international crises—is able to stride boldly onto centre stage and make things happen. Canada, on the other hand, must stand in the wings and hope someone notices.

Sometimes Canada hits above its weight internationally and receives well deserved recognition for its efforts—as was done in Afghanistan and on various peacekeeping/policing operations—but only when it finds a way to flex its moderate military muscles.

Should, however, Canada want to play a consistent role like we’d expect from a G-7 nation, we’d better step up and modernize our forces with new ships and planes and increase our manpower.

Australia is a similar democracy with similar standard of living and two-thirds our population. But Australia has a navy and air force more capable and more powerful than ours.

Canada is not likely to be a major power in the foreseeable future, but it could move up to being a solid second-tier player.

Time to stop being a tough-talking paper tiger.

Monday, June 16, 2014

We get the government voters choose, let’s make the most of it

This is the first full week under the new Kathleen Wynne Liberal majority and the sun is still coming up on a pretty regular schedule. You’ve got to be thankful for that.

The Liberals won and won big. There really isn’t anything I can point to to ease the pain of the Tory defeat or stem the flush of Grit victory.

Except, perhaps, for this.

The Tories cannot deny that, with over 68 percent of voters repudiating their message, theirs was a thorough drubbing at the polls. At the same time, though, with over 61 per cent of voters rejecting the Liberals, they should not assume too much about voter support and the mandate they received. Popular support for the Liberals increased by a modest 1.1 per cent (from 37.6% to 38.7%) from 2011, hardly a resounding show of support for their record.

There’s no doubt, however, that the Grit campaign team made the best of their 1.1 per cent increase in popular support, converting it into six additional seats in the Legislature (59 seats vs. the 53 they won in 2011). In all, the Grits picked up 11 more seats than the 48 they held at the start of the provincial campaign last month.

It’s impressive really that the Liberals were able to win such a strong majority with just 38.7 per cent of the vote—this was an extraordinarily efficient result.

Here in the Burlington riding, Jane McKenna, the PC candidate got about 250 more votes than in 2011, yet lost by a significant margin to the Liberal candidate Eleanor McMahon. Another testament to the Liberal get-out-the-vote efforts. So no joy on the home front either for us Tories.

Personally, I wish Premier Kathleen Wynne’s caucus the best of luck. The better they run the province, they better off we’ll all be.

New MPP Eleanor McMahon will be hard-pressed, though, to fill the shoes of Jane McKenna. Contrary to some of the criticism of McKenna I’ve seen on social media lately, she was a hard worker for the residents of Burlington and can leave office with her head held high.

McMahon has a decent résumé, but did not sparkle during her campaign—she seemed too easily flustered. I hope that I’m wrong for it’ll be a very long four years at Queen’s Park for her if I’m right.

I was also unimpressed with McMahon’s campaign tactic of pretending to earn the endorsement of our local newspaper, Burlington Post, by buying a fake front page of the newspaper to trick voters into believing the Liberals were getting positive local press.

In the end, though, McMahon won handily. Voters chose her and voters are always right. I mean that. So McMahon deserves the chance to prove herself. It does me no good whatsoever if she turns out to be a dud. I wish her well.

Once again, negative ads by union-backed third-parties took their toll on Tim Hudak’s campaign. According to one source, his campaign was outspent 5 to 1 on ads by a combination of Liberals, NDP and the above mentioned third parties. Unions are not going to spend millions on attacks against Hudak if they don’t think the attack ads work—obviously they do.

The PCs, though, hurt themselves by handing their adversaries targets at which to shoot.

The million jobs plan was a failure because most voters were never convinced the math worked.

As to the 100,000 cuts in the broader public service? A reasonable policy poorly presented and sold to voters. The campaign message should have stressed the benefits of the reduced government size and should have had a ready explanation of how small at 1% the cuts were when 5% left the public service each year through attrition alone. Also, most would have retired with handsome pensions or had jobs with outsourcing services and not ended up on welfare like some Grits claimed. Put the benefits in the foreground and deemphasize or explain away the costs.

But all that’s just so much water under the bridge. We’ve got to move on now and chose another leader so we can try again in 2019.

Just a brief word about leadership before we close.

There is this thing called, “authenticity,” whereby a politician seems to say what he believes and believes what he says. In some cases it’s accompanied by a warmth a politician shows towards others. In other cases you see it when a politician speaks from the heart and not from notes. Or when he speaks as he would in a conversation and not in an overly rehearsed way.

Whatever authenticity is, Hudak did not seem to have it. He was much improved over the 2011 campaign, but still seemed to be trying to be someone he wasn’t.

Hudak clung to his million job message like it was a life-raft in shark-infested waters. The answer to every question does not have to end with a repeat of the same message. Why? Because it doesn’t sound authentic. Watch Question Period in Ottawa to see just how phoney this tactic comes across.

On the night of his defeat Hudak stood on the stage with his wife and they laughed and chatted to each other like they had not a care in the world. How phoney was that? It was perhaps the biggest setback of his life and he was smiling as though he had won a great victory. Why pretend? Why not be authentic at that moment and show some of how he was feeling? Good grief!