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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bill C-23, Fair Elections Act seems now on solid ground

Now that a Senate committee  has recommended nine changes to Bill C-23, Fair Elections Act, the legislation seems pretty solid. And, since Pierre Poilievre has, apparently, indicated privately that he’s open to changes, an amended version of the bill will likely become law by this summer.

We would probably have gotten to this point earlier had not the minister responsible for the bill been MP Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton), Minister of State for Democratic Reform.

Opposition to Bill C-23—according to an April 14-15 poll by Angus Reid Global—is growing. Apparently, 59 per cent of Canadians who claimed to be very or fairly familiar with the bill were opposed to it. This represents a three-point increase since Angus Reid’s similar survey in February.

More disturbing are these findings: 65 per cent of those polled say they don’t trust the Conservative government to ensure the best possible elections oversight. Moreover, among those aware of the issue, 72 per cent claim “government’s changes are motivated by politics and a dislike of Elections Canada,” with a mere 28 per cent of all respondents saying “the Conservatives are making a genuine attempt to improve … Canada’s elections.”

Isolating the controversial issue of “vouching” at a polling station, nearly 75 per cent of all respondents support elimination of the option.

In my view, the trust issue is largely a reflection of the style Minister Poilievre has brought to this debate. The minister comes across as hyperpartisan, combative and rigid, and he’s the last member of parliament I’d expect to be charged with responsibility for something as sensitive as reforms to election legislation.

Recoil from Minister Poilievre’s style has been intensified by unseemly ad hominem attacks he’s led against Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer and Sheila Fraser, the popular and much respected former auditor general.

In fairness, I do have doubts about Mayrand’s impartiality. For example, the chief electoral officer does seem to have been rather generous to the Liberal party’s leadership contenders by grossly extending the time period for their campaign loan repayments, while being overly rigid when dealing with issues relating to members of the Conservative party.

Payback of this kind, though—if this is indeed what we’re seeing—seems petty and unbecoming of Canada’s preeminent political party.

But Sheila Fraser? How many times in the past have the Tories praised this woman and acknowledged her credibility? And, in her many years of public service, when was she ever found to be self-serving or partisan? It was Ms. Fraser’s report, after all, which revealed details of the multi-million-dollar Liberal sponsorship scandal, while the Liberals were still in office.

It must be said, however, that despite the way the bill has been mishandled in the House and broadly in the public sphere, the strategy—intended or not—of having Conservative Senators come to its rescue has been inspired.

In closing, let me say that the amended legislation deserves a better response than it has so far received from the opposition. Before the amendments, they may have had a legitimate case to make; post-amendments, their objections are mainly partisan and not substantive.

The way I see it, we’re set to go for 2015.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Fiscal conservatism seems alive and well in Ottawa: 8,900 public service jobs to be cut

When Conservatives under Stephen Harper took office in 2006, I was disappointed at how much they resembled their predecessors when it came to their penchant for increasing the size of government.

In the first five years of Harper’s Conservatives, federal spending increased an appalling 22 per cent. Much of that was, of course, due to stimulus spending to counteract effects of the 2008-09 global financial crisis—$24.9-billion in 2009-10 and $20-billion in 2010-11. According to a government performance report tabled in the House of Commons in late November 2011, federal expenditures in 2010-11 totalled $270.5-billion, compared with $222.2-billion in 2006-07.

Far more worrying, though, was the fact that during those years the Conservatives grew the public service more than any government in the prior 20 years. They added about 45,000 jobs from 2006 to 2011.

Fortunately for overburdened taxpayers, the Harper team launched a program in 2012 to reverse the trend and reduce the public service. The plan—currently on track—includes eliminating 30,000 federal jobs by 2016-17, returning the public service to the size it was in 2006 when the Conservative party came to power. To meet that objective, the public service will be reduced by another 8,900 jobs.

There’s a lot more to be done, of course. Performance management is a huge issue. As Treasury Board President Tony Clement recently remarked, “…there are more public servants dying at their desks than being dismissed for underperforming.” He said the dismissal rate in the public service was only 0.06 per-cent compared to a five to 10 per cent rate in the private sector.

Moreover, government employees move up one step on a five-step pay grid every year and automatically receive an increase in pay until they hit the maximum rate, regardless of performance on the job. There’re also issues with sick pay.

Public sector wages and benefits outpace that of the private sector by a wide margin and are the government’s largest annual cost. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, demands close financial control in this area. Apparently, our federal government is trying to do just that.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Canada sending six CF-18s to assist NATO operations in Eastern Europe

The situation in eastern Ukraine is grave and deteriorating, causing concern in NATO capitals in Europe and North America. Not since the end of the Cold War has there been a comparable crisis in Europe.

In reaction to Russian aggression there, NATO has requested Canadian military assets be deployed in Europe, and today Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada is sending six CF-18s and military personnel in response.

CBC News reports that the PM said earlier today:

I believe this to be a long-term serious threat to global peace and security and we’re always prepared to work with our allies in NATO and elsewhere to try and bring whatever stability we can to the situation.”

Along with the fighter aircraft, there will be a small number of support staff to fly and maintain them.  Canada will also provide up to 20 officers to NATO headquarters in Brussels where they are expected to take part in that body’s security planning. The planes and ground crew will be based in Poland.

According to Canadian Press:

The fighter jets will join warplanes from the United States, Britain, Denmark, Poland, Portugal and Germany, which will be deploying in waves between now and the fall.

“Canada is also slated to take part in July in a long-planned, U.S.-led military exercise in Ukraine, known as Rapid Trident 2014, but the government has been not forthcoming about the size and scope of the country’s involvement.”

Meanwhile, several government buildings in eastern Ukraine have been attacked and seized by what have been described as armed pro-Russian protesters in much the same manner as that which preceded Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.

As well, there is a report that three of the pro-Russian militants have been killed and 13 others injured when Ukrainian troops repelled an attack on their National Guard base in the Black Sea port of Mariupol. Reportedly, around 300 armed men attacked the base in the south-east part of the country with stun grenades and Molotov cocktails before being driven off.

Many of the pro-Russian “protesters” wear masks and are, apparently, disciplined, battle-ready militia who carry sophisticated firearms and many in Ukraine suspect they are, in fact, Russian special forces. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted, “It’s all nonsense, there are no Russian units, special forces or instructors in the east of Ukraine.”

Paradoxically, while still trying to maintain that fiction, Vladimir Putin has finally admitted that Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms had invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Russia.

Moreover, the Russian leader continues to build his case, repeating—in a televised question-and-answer show—his rationale for claiming a national interest in eastern Ukraine. He said regions there have historically been part of the Russian empire and were what he called “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” before they were handed over to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. Putin said that Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in Czarist times.

It is unclear whether Putin wants to annex this section of “New Russia” outright or to merely intimidate Ukraine officials into transforming their country into a loose federation that would remain weak and easily influenced by Russia. But there has to be a reason Russia still has 40,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s border.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has described the Russian government as “clearly aggressive, militaristic and imperialistic,” and “a significant threat to peace and stability in the world.” Strong words indeed.

On a more positive note, diplomats from Ukraine, the United States, the European Union and Russia met today and  have agreed on a series of steps aimed at de-escalating violence in Ukraine.

It will, however, take more than strong words and diplomatic meetings to deter Vladimir Putin from his goal of reclaiming regions of Eastern Europe that were historically part of the old Russian empire—his “New Russia.” We know what his end game is.

Wasn’t Alaska once part of Russia?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Will the Liberals target Burlington in the next general election?

I recently spoke with some Burlington political types who told me they are assuming Burlington will be targeted by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in the next Ontario general election. In other words, the Liberals plan to run a strong candidate against MPP Jane McKenna, with all the union support they can muster.

I was not surprised as this was the impression I got during the 2011 general election campaign. Back then, Liberal Party candidate Karmel Sakran, between taking cheap shots at the Progressive Conservatives, took credit for funding that was clearly election “goodies” that opposition parties, by definition, could not match.

One of the 2011 election “goodies” was a Liberal promise to halt consideration of an unpopular highway, which was being contemplated to run through Burlington’s portion of the Niagara Escarpment—an ecologically sensitive area.

Another came a month before the general election. It was a government promise to increase its funding by an additional $320,000 for Carpenter Hospice’s nursing and personal support services.

The biggest 2011 commitment, by far, came in the form of a perfectly timed decision to approve a $312-million expansion plan for Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital, a plan that the hospital first unveiled in 2009.

Sakran also unveiled a laundry list of other Liberal campaign promises. I won’t bore you with them, though, since the Liberals had a sorry record of not keeping pre-election promises, and I doubt Kathleen Wynne is any better at that. To start with, Premier Dalton McGuinty bolted about a year after that election, leaving behind over $1.1-billion in expected costs for the infamous cancellation of two gas plants. He left Ontario’s finances in a terrible mess and, yes, he cancelled the plants to save a couple of seats in the 2011 election.

But I digress.

It feels nice for our community to be liked and for its votes to be courted by a ruling party. It is hard to forget, however, that the Liberals were no where in sight in 2007 when Burlington’s hospital had an overall rate of C. difficile of 2 infections per 200 patients, twice the rate of other Canadian hospitals. And the Liberals were conspicuous by their absence in 2006–2008 while the bacteria was killing 30 patients and contributing to the deaths of 46 others.

Additionally, during a decade-plus of Liberal and NDP governments—before Mike Harris’s PC governments—we saw the highest spending in Ontario’s history up until that time, but we didn’t see Liberals funding Burlington’s hospital that had a “demonstrated need,” to use Sakran’s own words. So much for empty Liberal boasts like, “We build hospitals—not close them like the PCs.”

Ontario Liberals may not have closed Burlington’s hospital, but they did neglect it until they decided they had a chance to win the riding and targeted it for campaign promises.

Burlington has not had a Liberal MPP since about 1943 and not much in the way of specific Liberal government support, yet somehow we have managed to become the best damn community of our size in Ontario. For all but the most recent general election, successive Liberal provincial governments have ignored us, presumably because we vote conservative. Moreover, during the C. difficile crisis of 2006–2008, the Liberal government abandoned us.

Liberals were not there for us then, why should we be there for them now? I plan to stick with our current MPP, Jane McKenna.

Will Trudeau’s party pay for his ill-chosen words?

[UPDATE Apr. 17, 2014: Toronto MP Chrystia Freeland has been acclaimed as the Liberal candidate in the new riding of University-Rosedale for the 2015 election.]

Justin Trudeau has talked himself into a defamation lawsuit that is likely to leave his party quite a bit lighter in the wallet. The shoot-from-the-lip Liberal leader and his Ontario campaign co-chair David MacNaughton are named in a $1.5-million libel suit filed on behalf of Christine Innes, a candidate who was barred from running for the Liberal party.

Innes had wanted to contest the Liberal nomination for the pending by-election in Trinity-Spadina, the seat vacated when New Democrat MP Olivia Chow resigned to run for mayor of Toronto. Trinity-Spadina and Toronto Centre ridings will cease to exist in 2015 when redistribution comes into effect. As a result,  three new Toronto ridings will be created from the two current ones.

As far as I can make out, Trudeau was quite prepared to let Innes seek the Liberal nomination for the Trinity-Spadina by-election, but only if she agreed not to contest the 2015 nomination of the newly created University-Rosedale riding. Apparently, Trudeau—who had promised “open” nominations in all ridings—wants to reserve that riding for his star candidate, MP Chrystia Freeland.

Freeland, a former business journalist and co-chair of the Grits’ Council of Economic Advisors, won the Toronto Centre by-election in November. But she will have to run in another riding in 2015 after Toronto Centre is carved up.

Evidently, when Innes refused a deal that would have seen her contest Spadina-Fort York, another of the new downtown ridings, the Grit bosses attacked her personally and publicly. According to media reports, Innes’s libel action claims:

They accused her [Christine Innes] and her campaign team in the national media of ‘bullying,’ ‘intimidation,’ and other unethical conduct … The defendants deliberately sacrificed Innes’ reputation in order to create a smokescreen to shield Trudeau from public outcry for breaching his public vow of non-interference in local riding nominations.”

Pretty heavy stuff. And, perhaps, most curious and to many onlookers most distasteful is that Innes was allegedly blocked from running—at least in part—for something her husband did. Really. In this day and age are wives to be held to account for the actions or words of their husbands? Apparently, in Trudeau’s world they are.

By the way, Innes’s husband is Tony Ianno, Liberal MP for Trinity-Spadina for 13 years and former Minister of Families and Caregivers. Innes herself is a long-time Liberal and an aide to Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan. She’s been a Liberal candidate twice before, running unsuccessfully against Olivia Chow. Innes also served as co-chair of the committee that oversaw the Liberal leadership race that Trudeau won.

So these are Liberal party insiders, not loose cannons like those who are, unfortunately, present in all political parties. Ianno did, however, seem to lose favour with some of his Liberal colleagues, apparently, because of an accusation of stock manipulation from the Ontario Securities Commission that resulted in a $100,000 fine and a five-year trading ban. He was, I might add, absolved of all other allegations.

Trudeau and David MacNaughton will not, in all probability, have to pay personally for any of this—unless one counts hurt pride—because the Liberal party will presumably pay whatever dollar damages they settle for and the related legal fees that could be substantial. The party shouldn’t have to pay for this sordid bit of poor personal judgement, of course, but it almost certainly will. Moreover, it’ll pay damages and costs out of hard-earned donations from party members.

So what does this say about Justin Trudeau’s pledge of being open and democratic? This is repeated so often it’s almost reached the status of a mantra. But now his words have a hollow ring to them. As I see it—other than some grandstanding when he unceremoniously dumped his Senate caucus—Trudeau’s way is the same old way of a long line of Liberal leaders.

Moreover, slander can now be added to Trudeau’s accumulating gaffes and indiscretions. There’ll be more to come.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Military threat is essential to effective diplomacy

President Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” His idea was to negotiate peacefully, but with the ever-present threat of the “big stick,” military action. Perhaps in this proverb lies is a valuable lesson for leaders of the Western democracies, and especially for President Obama.

On the weekend, well coordinated and armed militants attacked government buildings in six cities in eastern Ukraine.  Echoing the Russian takeover of Crimea last month, many attackers reportedly carried Russian-origin weapons and were outfitted in bulletproof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed.

Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times,

The United States ambassador, Samantha Power, said: ‘You don’t have to take my word for it, or even those of the Ukrainian government. You need only witness yourself the videos of professional military shepherding thugs into a building in Kramatorsk, the photographs showing the so-called concerned citizens taking over Slovyansk equipped exactly like the elite troops that took Crimea, or the video of a military operation in Krasny Liman by armed men with the same equipment’.”

Russia’s intensions, while not totally clear, do seem to be bad news for Ukraine. For a start, I believe Russia intends to use their Crimea-like tactics to create a land corridor through Ukraine to the Crimean peninsular, which Russia can then supply by land—Crimea is currently dependent on the Ukrainian mainland for basics such as food.

Next, depending on the level of resistance it receives, Russia will either back away from further direct military action or it will continue its aggression. We could see, for example, Vladimir Putin creating a further corridor through Ukraine that would create a link between Crimea and the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria, which is already under Russian control.

Putin could then turn his attention to the annexation of the entire eastern region of Ukraine—he seems to have some 40,000 troops massed on the border ready for his order to cross over into Ukrainian territory.

As Russia practices its brinkmanship, Ukraine must prepare for its May 25 elections, a crucial step in legitimizing its national government—an interim administration is currently in place, led by acting President Olexander Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The interim government faces a dilemma: It is hard to imagine Ukraine holding elections during a declared state of emergency so their actions in eastern Ukraine seem limited. Should they not act quickly and decisively, however, eastern Ukraine could slip from Kiev’s control and into Putin’s hands.

Of course, there’s the wider threat to world peace. How likely is it that Putin, emboldened by success in Ukraine, will not explore other opportunities to snatch back more former Russian controlled territories—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, or even parts of Poland?

So my question is: Shouldn’t NATO countries draw a line now and respond militarily to the real and present danger of a Russian invitation of Ukraine? If there is going to be a fight, why not in Ukraine rather than in the Baltic where those countries are members of NATO and would surely invoke Article Five, which commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one state to be an armed attack against all states.

Let’s be clear. Diplomacy should absolutely be the West’s first choice, but not its only choice. Perhaps if Putin could be convinced that NATO would act to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, he would call off his attack. And, if he won’t, then military action will likely be inevitable within the next year or so. Will NATO be any readier to act then?

I don’t want to see war any more than anyone else, but a year from now I don’t want to hear our leaders lamenting: I wish we’d acted earlier.