Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The not so private lives of our politicians

Over the years, I’ve heard many politicians complain that their private lives should be left private and not become the subject of public discussion. And, of course, for decades the news media has respected those wishes, leaving out of their reports MP’s and MPP’s various indiscretions.

Recently, along with NDP allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of two former Liberal MPs, we’ve heard reports from members of the Press Gallery in Ottawa that there is a widespread problem of inappropriate sexual activity on the Hill.

We are told that many MPs are away from home and they have above-average access to parties and other gatherings at which there is a free flow of alcoholic beverages. Loneliness and opportunity then combine to lead astray too many of our parliamentarians, it is said. Moreover, their resulting indiscretions are not always played out in private and, therefore, become the subject of gossip among politicians, their staffs and media representatives.

The general public, though, are not privy to such shenanigans—politicians’ private lives being off-limits to us, the very ones who sent them to Ottawa and the very ones who would benefit from the information so we can make a more informed decision when next we have the opportunity to express our will at the polls.

What a politician does in her or his private time, we are assured, has no bearing on their jobs and are, therefore, to be kept private from the general public. And, I suppose, we are expected to believe that politicians who abuse alcohol, cheat on their spouses or sexually harass their staff or peers are still fit to represent us and hold the highest offices in the land.

I believe it is high time that we voters disabuse ourselves of the distinction between our political representatives’ public and private lives.

Politicians have for decades included members of their families—especially spouses and children—in their political activities. Spouses often canvas voters, for instance. And certainly, pols giving victory speeches are more often than not accompanied by their spouses. Moreover, the current practice during Christmas season seems to be to distribute pictures of politicians and their families as greeting cards.

All of which tells me that politicians consider their spouses, at least, to be an integral part of their political team. (“Couldn’t have done it without her/him,” don’t you know.) Which, in my view, makes spouses a part—however small it may be—of my assessment when choosing my MP/MPP. And, to help me make an informed choice, I expect a reasonably open approach on the part of the news media to reporting on incidents of politicians’ misbehaviour—especially where alcohol/drug abuse and harassment or assault is concerned.

I’m outraged that a politician would cheat on his wife, yet use a family photograph that includes her to promote himself. It’s a shameful, dishonourable practice.

Let’s hope that the NDP allegations against MP Scott Andrews are never proven, because he engages in the practice of using his wife and family to promote his political career.

Regardless of how things turn out for Mr. Andrews, I’m pretty sure there are others at Ottawa and Queen’s Park who are guilty of this shabby practice. Let’s hope they see the writing on the wall and smarten up.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why is Industry Minister James Moore offering cheaper toys, but not cheaper food?

The federal government has announced plans to narrow the gap between prices in Canada and those charged in the United States, for the same items.

Federal Industry Minister James Moore, today at a Toronto toy store, proposed a new price transparency act he hopes will end the practice of what he called “geographic price discrimination” or “price gouging of Canadian consumers.” Moore said the bill takes aim at the practice called “country pricing,” which prices goods differently depending on the country in which they are sold.

The government acknowledged in the past that there are legitimate reasons for higher prices in Canada, including labour costs, duties and shipping/transportation fees. Moore also acknowledged another obvious contribution to the unfavourable price difference: the declining value of the Canadian dollar vis-à-vis the United States’ currency.

Canadian consumers will likely welcome the industry minister’s announcement, but I remain sceptical that it’ll have much impact. Undoubtedly, there a some goods that are priced higher when destined for Canadian markets. Having an even greater impact on higher prices here, though, are governments themselves.

Canada, for the most part, has higher minimum wages than American states do. The minimum wage in New York State is, for instance, $8.00 an hour and many other states are less.

And, despite PM Stephen Harper’s free trade emphasis, many goods sold in Canada still carry hefty import duties, some of which are protecting non-existing domestic industries, and are a little more than a government cash grab.

Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada cited, to www.thestar.com, the example of woollen mills. “There have been no woolen mills in Canada for 20 years. All of those things have gone to Asian countries. But we still pay a tariff of 20 per cent to protect them,” Cran said. Curious, eh?

As well, Canadians pay higher prices for gasoline, in part, because of higher taxes. It seems to me that Canadians pay about 33 per cent in combined taxes at the pump while Americans pay about 11 per cent, ouch! Higher gasoline prices also make transportation of goods more costly—and we pay higher prices at retail stores as a result.

Bilingual labeling, packaging and displays also have a negative impact on retail prices in Canada. This represents a hidden tax on commercial activity forced on businesses by governments. And, of course, consumers get hit in the pocket book.

And don’t get me started on the shameful price gouging and excessive taxation governments in Canada engage in when it comes to alcoholic beverages.

But perhaps most egregious of all is Canada’s supply management system, which controls how dairy, eggs and chicken are priced and produced in Canada, including onerous tariffs charged on imports to protect domestic dairy producers.

When it comes to supply management, many MPs talk out of both sides of their mouths. They complain privately, but when on the record, the hypocrites voted unanimously to “respect its [the federal government’s] promise” to shield the dairy industry from any fallout from the pending free-trade deal with the EU.

The net result? Higher prices for Canadian consumers, including those with lower incomes. According to Michael Bloom, Vice-President, Industry and Business Strategy for The Conference Board of Canada, “Canadians … pay about $276 per family more for dairy products than consumers in other countries.”

Given that Industry Minister James Moore announced his new legislation at a toy shop, and given that he said nothing of the shamefully high prices of dairy, eggs and chicken, I feel compelled to conclude he sees cheaper toys as more important to Canadian families than cheaper food.

I see gasoline and food as far more important—essential perhaps—to Canadian families who can far easier do without cheaper toys, TVs and sneakers, so forgive me if I’m not cheering for this new legislation.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

PC Ontario: “Progressive” need not be a dirty word

Iattended the Annual General Meeting of the Progressive Conservative Riding Association of Burlington Ontario earlier today. It was in some ways a sombre occasion being as it was the first AGM in several decades without a sitting PC member of the legislature representing Burlington at Queen’s Park.

The Riding is now Liberal red, Eleanor McMahon having won in the Jun. 12 general election. Former incumbent Jane McKenna, who attended the luncheon and AGM, lost her seat to McMahon even though McKenna got 258 more votes in June than she got in her successful 2011 general election campaign. More voters turned out in 2014 and they all seemed to vote Liberal.

AGM attendees had the pleasure of hearing first hand from three of the PC leadership candidates: MPPs Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa), MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) and federal MP Patrick Brown (Barrie). Each of the three gave a short address, which were all enthusiastically received. I also thought the candidates handled the questions from the floor adeptly and never once did any of them read from prepared notes.

My takeaways from the meeting were:

Confirmation that the apparent front runner Christine Elliott is my choice for leader. Elliott has impressed me over the years, though I didn’t support her 2009 bid for the leadership. Back then, I supported Tim Hudak because I thought he had more political seasoning. Elliott also did a fine job in the recent leaders’ debate in Northern Ontario, so her performance today was to be expected.

The Party has some serious challenges ahead if it intends to form a government in 2018. To start, it has a seriously challenging membership recruiting campaign ahead. To get back to membership levels it enjoyed in the Mike Harris era it must increase membership numbers by a factor of nine or ten. Not insurmountable, perhaps, but nearly so.

The Party has what might be described as an identity crisis. By that I mean it needs to decide where exactly on the political left-right continuum it wants to reside. In recent elections, the Ontario PCs have run on a right-wing platform, not even giving lip service to policies that would be consistent with the “progressive” part of its name. And this I believe will be the critical decision for the new leader to make.

There are far more small “c” conservative voters in Ontario than the past four general elections would imply. Many of these reside in the rural areas, but many more live in the 905 region and in ethnic areas of the GTA including Toronto proper—as demonstrated by the two Mike Harris majorities, the support the Ford brothers have received in municipal elections and the success the Harper Conservatives have had among ethnic communities in the GTA.

For the most part, however, the sweet-spot seems to be somewhere just right of centre—and just about where one might expect to find a progressive conservative party—think Bill Davis conservatives.

Progressive conservatism is more than a political party name—it’s a distinct ideology that first arose in the United Kingdom as then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s “One Nation” Toryism. It is one of the many recognized forms of conservatism. An article in Wikipedia describes it thus:

Progressive conservatism incorporates progressive policies alongside conservative policies. It stresses the importance of a social safety net to deal with poverty, support of limited redistribution of wealth along with government regulation to regulate markets in the interests of both consumers and producers.”

Many famous statesmen—dare I say conservative statesmen—have been proud to have their names associated with progressive conservatism, including Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, David Cameron, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many federal PC prime ministers who represented Canada’s conservative movement prior to Stephen Harper.

“Progressive” need not be a dirty word. Nor is—as is claimed by some hard-right conservatives—progressive conservatism an oxymoron. Progressivism may very well be corrosive when deployed by left-wing parties, but that need not be an automatic consequence.

To be a progressive conservative one needs not toady up to union leaders, but certainly a successful political party in Ontario needs to attract votes from union members and those sympathetic to the union movement. (Many union members and sympathisers in the private sector are as upset as PCs are about overly-generous wages and benefits of their public sector counterparts and want to see some common sense applied.) Nor need one succumb to the corrupt, spendthrift ways of the Kathleen Wynne/Dalton McGuinty left-wing Liberals.

Furthermore, this is an opportune time to claim the natural ideological position of a progressive conservative, for the Grits have vacated the middle—both left and right sides—in favour of the mid-left of the spectrum. In the June election, the Liberal campaign platform was noticeably to the left of the socialist NDP—I never thought I’d see that day.

This leaves the centre open to the PCs and I believe leadership candidate Christine Elliott is the most likely to reclaim that winning position. PCs have been there before and brought prosperity to Ontario. Our party under Elliott could do so again, or so I believe.

As I said before, “progressive” need not be a dirty word.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Julian Fantino: from hero to zero

Veterans Affairs was supposed to be a strong point for the pro-military Harper Conservatives. It has, instead, become somewhat of a weak link under Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.

Fantino was supposed to be a star candidate when first recruited by PM Stephen Harper, and he proved himself by getting elected to Parliament in November 2010 after a tight race. The Globe and Mail noted at the time that Fantino had “beat the Liberals [candidate Tony Genco] out of one of their safest seats in Ontario, one they had held for 22 years.”

In early January 2011, Fantino was appointed minister of state for seniors. At that time, I wrote, “It is too early to assess Fantino’s parliamentary abilities and a cabinet post of any kind seems premature.”

Back then, I was concerned that Fantino’s inept performance as Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner during the Caledonia land dispute in the mid-2000s, which I saw as a stain on his public record that should have precluded him from receiving any position higher than parliamentary secretary for, at least, a couple of years while he proved himself worthy of a full seat at the cabinet table.

In fairness to Fantino, though, he seemed to do a decent job in the seniors portfolio and later as Associate Minister of National Defence after the 2011 federal election and as Minister for International Cooperation in 2012.

It was in his current position that Fantino seemed to become especially politically tone deaf and gaffe prone. Fantino did little to endear himself to veterans when he showed up “very late” for a scheduled appointment with a group of them who had gone to Ottawa to discuss their concerns with the minister. And when he did show up, his attitude was one of take-it-or-leave-it.

The minister also botched and clumsily handled an attempt by a veteran’s spouse to speak with him following his appearance at the House committee on veterans’ affairs in May 2014. By early June 2014, Tim Harper of thestar.com was moved to note that Fantino “appears to have had his empathy surgically removed.” And there were calls for his resignation from the opposition and some in the media.

The hapless minister has lost what credibility he may have once had. He has been unable to adequately explain why his department was unable to spend its appropriation within the budget year, which meant Veterans Affairs was required to return $1.1-billion dollars in unused funding to the treasury. There is a reasonable explanation, of course, but he seems incapable of getting his point across.

This seeming lack of critical communication skill comes at a time when critics blame inadequate funding for many of the challenges facing our veterans. And especially when auditor general Michael Ferguson has just released a damaging report of the hurdles many veterans face while trying to access mental health services.

The federal government’s other recently botched and confusing announcement of $200-million over six years—or is it 50 years—to support mental health needs of military members, veterans and their families has done little to ease the pressure on Fantino.

All this is like chumming shark infested waters as, smelling blood, opposition party members and political pundits now harass Fantino daily with demands for his resignation.

As reported in the National Post, “Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair called Fantino’s recent absence from the Commons an act of “cowardice,” and wondered aloud why he continues to have the confidence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.” (For the record, Fantino had been in Italy to help mark the 70th anniversary of the Second World War’s Italian campaign. He was not hiding from anyone. Had he missed this symbolic event, he’d have been equally criticised.)

I have zero confidence in this minister, however. As far as I’m concerned he has shown neither an once of respect to veterans—men more worthy than he, I suspect—nor compassion for those who served their country and proved they were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Apparently, there have been recent changes to Veteran Affairs, with its chief of staff leaving, and retired general Walter Natynczyk becoming the department’s top bureaucrat. Fantino’s parliamentary secretary, Parm Gill, has also been taking more of a role in question period.

Fantino, though, is clearly the wrong man for this particular job. Harper’s Conservatives talk the talk when it comes to veteran affairs, it’s high time they walk the walk. And, for this to be clear to all, this minister should be replaced.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Kathleen Wynne: a progressive ideologue who lacks common sense

Time and again I read and hear accusations from progressives that conservatives, and especially members of the Conservative Party of Canada, ignore scientific evidence in favour of blindly following dogma or in an effort to please commercial interests.

And I cannot deny that there are times when I worry about motivations behind some policy pronouncements of politicians, of all stripes. Tribalism of the political kind is alive and well in our land and progressive politicians make progressive policies most of the time and Conservative politicians make conservative policies most of the time. I wouldn’t expect them to do otherwise.

There are issues, though, that transcend party politics—or, at least, they should. And I suggest Canada’s economic welfare is one of those issues. Traditional East-West rivalries notwithstanding, when our economic future is at stake, I expect all regions to stand together. When one region prospers, we all derive some benefit, even if its only through the federal government’s equalization payments.

What I find galling, though, is Ontario—a beneficiary of  equalization payments financed primarily by Alberta and Saskatchewan—sucking up to the environmentalists by raising gratuitous concerns over TransCanada Pipelines Ltd.’s proposed Energy East project.

Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s list of seven “principles” for the much needed pipeline to gain her support is a shameless political play aimed at gaining credit with those Canadians who believe that anything connected to fossil fuels—and especially those derived from Canada’s oil sands—is inherently evil.

As Margaret Wente recently noted in The Globe and Mail, “It’s not just global warming—it’s that they are thought to be inherently dangerous. They leak, spill, kill birds, devastate natural spaces and poison our earth, water and air.”

The federal National Energy Board as the appropriate body to review a pipeline project that crosses provincial boundaries. It is that agency which is charged with the responsibility to conduct environmental assessments during its review of applications for pipelines.

Dwight Newman, a professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan writes in The Globe and Mail today:

These premiers [Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Wynne] have no constitutional basis to be making conditions, demands or anything else on this pipeline, and they play a dangerous game in attempting to do so.”

I agree, and Premier Wynne is very aware of the NEB’s function. She was recently quoted by The Canadian Press as saying, “We are not going to preempt the National Energy Board’s process. We are going to feed into it.” But, of course, when it comes to the oil sands, one of the environmentalists’ hot-buttons, ideology trumps legal process, good science and, yes, even common sense.

How much common sense does it take to understand the incongruity of insisting that the “upstream” carbon emissions of the proposed pipeline be weighed when we have never heard Wynne express her concerns about “upstream” carbon emissions from the oil currently being imported, refined and consumed in Eastern Canada?

How much common sense does it take to understand the incongruity of insisting on extra “principles”, which are little more than added roadblocks, to be met before endorsing the pipeline when Canada currently imports oil from countries with much more serious human rights and environmental issues than have ever existed in Alberta or Saskatchewan? Oil that is targeted to be displaced by that which the pipeline will deliver seems to arrive in Canada free from any of Wynne’s environmental or ethical concerns.

How much common sense does it take to understand the incongruity of insisting on extra “principles” beyond the normal criteria the NEB will consider, when Lac-Mégantic should be reminder enough why we need more pipeline capacity? Everyone seems to agree: Oil is going to move one way or another, and pipelines are safest.

As to carbon emissions attributed to any oil or gas production or transportation in Canada, it seems sensible to me that we develop plans to limit emissions and protect the country’s international reputation, but as the Premier of Saskatchewan Brad Wall stated recently, the regulatory process for this pipeline isn’t the place to do that.

But Wynne doesn’t seem to care much about common sense or being consistent, she seems to care far more about appealing to the noisiest elements of her base. That is all too apparent.

When it comes to Canada’s oilsands, progressives seem to be at war with science and oblivious to Canada’s economic welfare. As is neatly summed up in a Nov. 26 editorial in The Globe and Mail, “The bottom line is that this country is an oil exporter, and it needs pipelines. It also needs a GHG [green house gas] reduction strategy. The two are not mutually exclusive.”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sexual harassment allegations: media hypocrisy at play here?

Some four weeks have passed since two unnamed NDP MPs made sexual harassment allegations against then Liberal MPs, Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews and little progress has been made to resolve the issue.

Throughout that time, the leaders of both opposition parties have appeared to be at a loss to know how to handle the sexual misconduct allegations. Moreover, there’s scant evidence of a resolution in the near future leaving one to wonder how adept either Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair would be at solving the problems of this great nation if either man were to become prime minister.

One of the unnamed NDP MPs who made the sexual harassment allegations granted interviews to several news media organizations on condition that her name be withheld. She reportedly said that she had sex with Mr. Pacetti, but never gave “explicit consent.” She also, apparently, told The Globe and Mail that she provided a condom to Mr. Pacetti, but did not say yes or no to his advances.

According to the Globe and Mail, the NDP MP said “she wants an apology from him, and for him to have counselling, but not prosecution.”

Meanwhile Messrs. Pacetti and Andrews, who Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suspended from caucus back on Nov. 5, are left to swing in the proverbial wind pending some sort of an investigation. Both MPs are also suspended as Liberal party candidates for the 2015 election. And it should be noted that both men have denied the allegations, none of which, of course, have been proven in court.

What a mess!

One troublesome detail is the part where the NDP MP provides a condom, yet suggests sexual harassment occurred. The act of providing a condom does seem to strongly imply consent. Though, even that is not conclusive.

If this MP felt she was being coerced into having sex, she might very well seek to mitigate her predicament by protecting herself with a contraceptive. So the act of producing the condom per se should not be considered consent.

We live in a modern world where men cannot take the absence of no to imply yes. This may seem unfair to some, but it is the reality with which we are faced—yes, and only yes, means yes in sexual encounters. And this is especially so in first-time encounters.

Only the unnamed NDP MP really knows whether or not she gave her consent to Mr. Pacetti, and she says she did not. That’s good enough for me.

The NDP MP’s sexual harassment allegations require an investigation and, if allegations are shown to be true, the guilty party needs to be censured by the House of Commons and, perhaps, be prosecuted. This should happen quickly and in a confidential manner.

In fact, this should have already happened and the leadership of the Grits and the Dippers should be held to account for the inordinate length of time they have taken with this mess.

Accountability in this affair, however, does not stop at the door of the political parties. What of the news media’s role? How is it that they published the story in the first place and freely named the former Liberal MPs and yet continue to protect the anonymity of the female NDP MPs?

The name of the MP that first approached Justin Trudeau is, apparently, widely known to journalists in Ottawa and by now to many others across the land, but yet they continue to avoid public identification while the names (no to mention reputations) of the former Liberal MPs are dragged through the mud.

Double standard? In my opinion, yes. Either four names should have been made public in the first place or none at all. By naming only the males we have made them victims of another kind.