Thursday, October 5, 2006

Harper humiliated on Kyoto; shows true colours on NWT

A couple of things this morning on my mind. First, in what can only be called an embarrassment, the three opposition parties ganged up and forced second reading (i.e. approval in principle) of Bill C-288, a resolution which if passed would force the federal government to uphold the Kyoto Agreement and immediately beginning setting targets to reduce levels of greenhouse gases through to 2013. Rona Ambrose, in charge of trying to put in "voluntary" standards that will make air quality even worse -- just as similar tactics proved in Texas when Duyba was Governor there -- was going to talk about her version of a new Clean Air Act to the House Environment Committee today, but instead is now on the defensive.

The fact remains, despite its problems, Kyoto is a moral imperative and the only way to reduce pollution emissions is to have compulsory targets, not voluntary ones. Even "The Terminator" recognizes this; in a break from most of the rest of the GOP, he signed a law in California last week calling for a reduction of pollution by 25 percent. The state, which already has the toughest air quality laws in the United States, will now set them even higher, closer to the standards in the European Union. I read once that a few years back -- I think it was 2000, during the controversial Bush-Gore battle -- Los Angeles did not have a single air quality warning all year, despite being right next to the Coast Mountains. Houston had a smog warning about once every other week, despite not being near any feature that would other wise make the air even worse.

That's what voluntary standards do for you.

Second, in a totally bizarre move, the Harper Government announced it is starting --from scratch -- negotiations with the Northwest Territories on the issue of "devolution." This is not devolution in the sense of how it has played out in places like the UK or Spain, where regions are granted autonomy in certain fields of power. In those cases, former unitary states have become something close to semi-federal. Instead, it's about giving our "colonies," which are what they really are, powers close to or equal to that of the provinces whose status is entrenched in the Constitution. In theory, the three territories have a wide range of powers but they can be taken away by Parliament at any time and they can revert to being police states ruled directly from the PMO, which is what the NWT was from 1905 to 1967.

The Yukon, which already had a high degree of autonomy from its inception in 1898, managed to obtain this "devolved" status in 2002, and the NWT wants it as well because $400 million in resource royalties that are supposed to come from the diamond mines there instead flows through directly to Ottawa. This would be unthinkable in the provinces, which have directly control over their resources, forests and electric power under Article 91A of the 1867 Constitution. When one considers the entire budget of the NWT is $1.1 billion and collects only about a third of this from its residents, getting access to the money that Ottawa in fact steals would be a jackpot for the territorial government. For one thing, it could pay off its entire debt right away, roughly $270 million dollars.

Three years ago it entered negotiations with the former Liberal government, and managed to initial a deal with the feds, whose negotiator was no less than former Ontario Premier David Peterson. A deal was actually reached, which gave Yellowknife almost everything it has asked for. All it needed was formal ratification by Parliament and the territorial legislature (which unlike the Yukon has no parties but runs on the basis of consensus).

This morning, CBC Radio One reported that the new Indian Affairs minister, Jim Prentice, has decided to force everyone back to the drawing board, from scratch, and has appointed Harvey André as chief negotiator.

Why? Could it be that Harper's still pissed about last year's side deals with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and thinks those set a bad precedent? Or the fact it was David Peterson, and his not so insignificant role in the defection of Belinda Stronach last year? Perhaps, there's a element of racism involved? (After all, the Yukon is mostly white; while 2/3 of the population in the NWT is Native Canadian.) Whatever it is, it strikes me as grossly unfair, and I say this from my post in the land of plenty -- Ontario.

For heaven's sake, the territory wants to get off equalization (in the case of the three territories it's called Territorial Formula Financing, or TFF). In the case of Yellowknife, its allocation this year is $739 million, over and above transfers for health and social services. A fair deal would not get the NWT off equalization entirely, at least not at first (it would cut the transfer roughly in half). However, allowing the NWT to be more self-reliant would free up money that could go back into health care and education in the have not provinces.

It's fair, it's right, and it should be done. The opposition parties should demand the original agreement be stuck to, or at least sent to the House of Commons for a binding ratification vote. Up or down, no amendments.

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