Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The buck stops here -- except for Harper

Years ago, the US President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said, "The buck stops here." The sign was still on the Oval Office desk right through to the Jimmy Carter era. The principle: You may delegate responsibility to others, but the final decision is yours and you have to be accountable and responsible for it. Note that it was apparently removed when Reagan came to Washington -- imagine that.

A few years back, when it turned out the intelligence case for the Iraq War turned out to be fraudulent, Dubya vacillated for weeks on end as to who should take the blame -- and in the meantime, a top secret agent who was investigating the case for war in Iran was betrayed in the worst possible way (anyone remember the name Valerie Plame?).

Tony Blair, on the other hand, took it to the chin. He stood up in the British Parliament and said that while he was misled by his advisors, that did not excuse his misleading his fellow Commons and the people of Britain and that he was sorry. While he said he still would have taken his country to war but for the falsified info -- the "sexed-up" Downing Street Memo, as it's come to be known -- he actually had the guts to say that on that key count he was wrong to take the information at face value.

So what does Harper do when it turns out one of his most important speeches -- in fact, his first key policy address in Parliament as leader of what was then the Canadian Alliance? He lets someone take the fall for it, the person who wrote the speech. But Harper himself? No remorse. No regrets. No having the buck stop with him.

I ask this, not as a card-carrying Liberal but just as an ordinary Canadian: Do we really want four more years of this? If my fellow Canadians decide that they do, then of course I'll respect that as most of us will. However, a little remorse now and then is a good thing and of the five leaders Harper seems the most incapable of showing anyway or even knowing what that is.

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Harper's sacrificial lamb

Harper aide Owen Lippert admitted he was overeager in lifting John Howard's Iraq speech, claiming he was "pressed for time" in writing it in time for a BQ "supply day" that just happened to be scheduled when the Iraq War started, and has resigned from the Conservative campaign.

Not good enough. Lippert may have walked the plank on this one, but it was Harper who gave the speech -- and in Parliament no less. A leader takes responsibility for his own actions and doesn't blame it on a speechwriter.

Steve Harper is not a leader.

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Rae: Harper plagarized Howard's Iraq speech

Woot! Huge HT to Jason Cherniak (BTW, Jason, Shana Tov!).

I always thought Steve Harper's speech in favour of the Iraq war on March 20, 2003, sounded convoluted and full of stuff that he couldn't possibly come up on his own. In this day and age, all politicians need speechwriters; but I thought Canadians should use Canadian speechwriters -- not writers from other countries.

This morning, Bob Rae revealed a potentially embarrassing fact: That Harper's address was almost identical to the one given just two days earlier by then Australian PM John Howard in the Aussie House of Representatives.

Watch and judge for yourself if Harper plagarized Howard or if it was just a huge coincidence:

Not surprisingly, a Con spokesperson calls the issue irrelevant. No, it's not.

If Steve can't come up with an original thought on his own, can't come up with something on his own on a crucial matter of foreign policy, especially on something as crucial as the Second Gulf War, then Steve has proven that he is not a leader. This should be on the next free time availability that the Liberals have ... and it needs to be repeated.

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If Ratzinger can go green, why can't Harper?

As Steve Harper continues to refuse to do anything to even support green industries, one country is taking the pollution problem into its own hands -- Vatican City.

Some time ago, it became the first carbon neutral country, when it added trees to a tract of forest in Hungary to offset its greenhouse gases. Now, it's going one step further by installing 2700 solar panels on top of the papal audience hall. When completed, it will generate 300 kW of energy, enough to power the hall as well as other parts of the compound and reduce the Holy See's footprint by about another 200 tonnes per year.

Say what you will about Benedict XVI (Joe Ratzinger), that's leadership. Steve Harper is not a leader. For the record, Harper's religion has nothing to do with it; many evangelicals fully understand just how serious global warming is and the actions required. I'd be criticizing Harper no matter what faith he professed.

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All debts contracted

At 7:45 am EDT (1145 GMT) Dubya will give yet another address on the economic crisis and yesterday's failed vote on the bailout in the House of Representatives.

Hard to believe this guy and how far things have fallen for him. Four years ago, Bush pulled off a narrow win over John Kerry. The President, having finally gotten a win that could be seen as clean by most and moreover the first majority win since 1988, claimed he had gained "political capital." He certainly burned it quickly not only by continuing a deeply unpopular war but by bungling the federal response to the Katrina hurricane.

And the worst part was that he, with Congress' acquiescence, plunged the US deeper and deeper into debt. Rather than trying for a balanced budget, annual deficits were run on purpose. While Clinton set the US on a path to pay off the debt in only 10 years, Bush not only wiped out Clinton's efforts but essentially doubled the debt.

There are a whole bunch of reasons why America is in the mess it's in right now -- subprime mortgages, the war, no restraints on "golden parachutes." But imagine if America had actually balanced its budget. Would an emergency $700 billion bailout have then been more palatable? Sure, because there would at least be the perception that it could be paid back.

Not so much now, with the debt ceiling scheduled to go up to $11 trillion when some version is finally passed. The US Constitution may be the supreme law in the US but it is also not self-enforcing, and the least of these is the first clause of Article VI which requires the US to live up to its debts.

I never thought I'd live to see the day when the IMF and / or the World Bank might actually have to give the US a loan to avoid going bankrupt, as they did in the mid 1970s with the UK which in part contributed to the fall of Callaghan and the rise of Thatcher. But it could be that day is almost here.

If the winner on November 4 winds up being Obama, expect an almost seige mentality for at least the first two years and forget anything he may have said about the audacity of hope. So far, the bank for the Eurozone and eight other countries including Canada have had to coordinate with the Federal Reserve to stop a meltdown as I wrote about yesterday.

Now imagine the humiliation when Mainland China, Russia and Saudi Arabia start dictating the terms of a loan. Most likely, the US will have to give up its long standing veto within the banks of last resort.

As BTO used to sing, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

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Monday, September 29, 2008

No more bailouts! Not even from the Bank of Canada!

Finally, Congress does somthing right ... and rejects the Wall Street bailout, even though both McCain and Obama supported it.

Meanwhile, Wachovia is sold to Citibank. (This one is really serious but also a bit funny for me -- until recently, I thought the stock ticker WB stood for Warner Brothers!)

Also the swap facility announced just 11 days ago has gotten even larger, from $290 billion to a whopping $620 billion, with the Bank of Canada alone tripling its committment to $30 billion until April 30, 2009. Several more central banks -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Australia -- are dipping into their reserves for the first time; along with the other five of the "big six" centrals in the UK, Japan, Switzerland, the EU and the US which began coordinating their actions some time ago. (Sweden is an interesting one -- I though that central bank is busy right now getting ready to pick this year's winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.)

The reserve banks do need to act every so often to tighten or loosen the money supply to avoid a catastrophe, but this makes it number six in just the last nine months. I know full well the B of C is independent, but he still answers to the Prime Minister.

Isn't it time our opposition leaders stood up to Harper and said, enough of the bailouts? Enough of the golden parachutes? Isn't it time we made this an election issue? I would not have an issue with it if good debt was being swapped for bad (as is supposed to happen under the rules); but inevitably we're throwing more bad money, reserve money in greenbacks and Euros, into the system to award rogue traders and punish ordinary lenders even more.

What say ye, gentlemen -- and madame? Canadians await your answer and we want it before the debates on Wednesday and Thursday.

UPDATE (5:55 pm EDT, 2155 GMT): As per Femme Verte's request, here's a link to the B of C announcement.

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For Steve, $500 is the new $75 -- again

In one of the biggest surprises of the campaign so far, Steve Harper said he would extend the physical fitness tax credit to those parents who instead choose to enroll their kids in the performing and visual arts.

The good news is that it's nice to see that Steve has actually listened to ordinary Canadians on this one -- the bad news of course, is that because it's a tax credit the imputed amount is much greater than the actual savings. $500 works out to only $75; and with the average music or dance lesson at about $20 per week, that money will go very quickly. Like the fitness credit, it's peanuts.

How about instead using the approach Québec uses for its provincial taxes -- a real and refundable tax credit for fitness or arts based on one's demonstrated potential? It's little wonder why a plurality of performers and athletes hail from the province, or that many Canadians reaching for the stars decide to hang their shingle there.

And of course there's the obvious problem with Harper's plan: If you cut funding to the current performing arts, then why fund its education for its future bright lights?

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Harper no-show for anti-poverty video

Steve Harper refused to take part in a series of videos being promoted by the non-partisan Make Poverty History group. After some back and forth, his office finally said the questions being asked were "too specific" but would have answered more general questions.

The other leaders actually took the time to say something, incidentally.

Elections aren't about generalities or broad principles. They are about specifics. That's why parties put out platforms and backgrounders. The best the Conservatives seem to be able to offer is that they'll offer a "steady hand" during difficult times. That is an almost complete carbon copy of Bush's re-election line in 2004: "Steady leadership in a time of change," which says a lot about his originality. The best he can come up with is the other side is too risky. We tried it Harper's way and he took us from a $12 billion annual surplus to a near deficit.

And Harper's definition of steady leadership when it comes to poverty issues: Throwing the bare minimum amount of money rather than actual programs that would make it more valuable to work than to stay at home and collect welfare; abolishing the Kelowna Accord; and cutting foreign aid rather than increasing it to 0.5% of GDP as he promised in 2006 (to the point where we're now outspent in this department by Australia -- and it reached that target during the last right-wing administration under John Howard before he was defeated by Paul Rudd).

Perhaps Harper takes the Bible literally where it says, "You will always have the poor among you," at the expense of ignoring the part where the same person also refers to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc.

I'm definitely not saying money for nothing. I'm saying there should be a real hand up rather than the brush off Harper is so willing to provide.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Steve Harper says (#795)

On Global National tonight, Steve Harper was quoted as saying he doesn't watch Canadian news and doesn't read Canadian newspapers; but that he does watch the US newscasts and reads American papers to see how the US Presidential race is going -- and that, by the way, he thinks it's Obama's race to lose.

Very nice of Steve to inform us about that. But don't we remember that a certain US president didn't watch the news at all, didn't care about anyone's opinions other than a very close group of advisors, and the choices he made sent America and the world into a tailspin?

Do we really want an ignorant man to continue to be our Prime Minister? Especially one who won't support our media -- even the media outlets who blatantly support him?

One other thing: He turned his high school reunion into a political rally. A reunion is one of the places I would want to talk about anything but politics, even if one of the regathered class was head of government.

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Does Harper know how to handle a $20?

Another thing: In his continuing war against the performing, visual and literary arts, I get the impression that Steve Harper doesn't even use real money. Why do I say this?

Maybe Steve should check the back of the Canadian $20 note. On it is inscribed a line from the Canadian author Gabrielle Roy and her 1961 novel, The Hidden Mountain: "Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?"

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Political ads abroad?

I was under the presumption that it was illegal to advertise in foreign markets for Canadian elections -- the exception being Elections Canada to ensure Canadians living abroad can exercise their right to vote absentee. Perhaps this prohibition only applies to foreign broadcasters and not print media.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a web ad for the NDP at the NYT this morning. I'm sure all the other parties have done this as well. Now, as some of you commented previously on my beef about CBC Radio 2 putting up a web ad on a British web site, the host server treats likely siphons offshore readers through country-specific "channels" so they get customized content.

Still, isn't this something that needs clarifying, especially when one or more web ads could sway undecided voters? My opinion is that the Internet, like the phone company, is a common carrier and therefore not subject to normal broadcasting rules -- that's how many routinely get around publication bans that apply to the old school press. However, some could rightfully accuse participating parties of cheating -- and a court challenge is almost likely to ensue.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Another poll call; morning thoughts (Sept 27)

First things first: I got another call from Ekos last night -- guess they're tracking prior subjects and seeing if we've changed our minds. I haven't, of course. But an interesting question came up as to who would be a stronger leader for the Liberals right now -- Dion, Bob Rae, or Michael Ignatieff? I have to concede, I said Iggy (he was my first choice at the delegate selection vote) -- but when asked who among the current leaders running was the strongest, I still said Dion.

Second: Can I take a moment to say something that's been on my mind?

The way things have been going the last few weeks, we've seen a campaign in Canada where the incumbent is high on style and short on substance; his opponents the exact opposite. And through it all, a very subtle hint from Steve Harper that he is the only one to "defend" Canada's interests and to vote against his ticket is un-Canadian. Of course, he'll never say it out loud but he knows exactly what he's trying to do and his core supporters do as well.

The most interesting thing is his implying that he stands the most for individual freedom while his opponents would stymie it. That Canadians should be free to make their own decisions and the marketplace left to its own vices to ensure food safety, a clean enviornment and so forth.

Interesting plan, except for a major hitch. The first three words in our Constitution are not "We the people." They are "Whereas the provinces." The underlying principle in our Constitution is not "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," it is "Peace, order and good government." While our Basic Law does contain the phrase "life, liberty and security of the person" it is well understood that personal freedom does not ensure good government as in the States, it is good government that ensures personal freedom -- and that no one party has the monopoly on this.

Even before we had a Charter of Rights, it was all three parties that sought to ensure that free religion, free press, free speech was a matter of course if not absolutely guaranteed -- and the way it was done was to ensure government was part of the solution where the private sector failed. That's why we have universal health care. We consider good health a right, not something to be purchased only if the sellers wanted to sell to us -- and it's our general better health than Americans that helps ensure our personal security and freedom.

I have nothing against Steve personally, although I'm sure by this time he'd like to take it out on me personally as well as many of my fellow progressives. But it's just the feeling I have that unless we have an activist government we will wind up less free, perhaps even less so than our American cousins. We pay higher taxes for a reason -- we want to make sure the least of us and the best of us have the same chance in life. Harper is committed to essentially turning everything over to the provinces -- give them a block grant and let them deal with social programs. And to hell with the poor. We saw Clinton and Gingrich team up to do that back in 1995. And the consequences have been a calamity and have made the current financial situation even worse.

When we consider many EU states and their even more comprehensive social programs, something is to be observed. They have generally greater peace of mind, stronger families and -- interestingly -- they still have a free marketplace for goods as well as ideas. And, funny thing, they're also actually happier than we are on this side of the pond. Then, there is the United States. Do we really want to be like our American allies? Or do we want a system based on practical ideas and practical solutions, and perhaps setting a best standards practice that Americans might want to follow?

Do we want a foreign policy that is a carbon copy of the US State Department? Or do we chart our own course and reclaim the honest broker status that Harper destroyed two years ago?

It wouldn't really matter if I was a Liberal or an independent. The fact remains, Harper's Canada is not the Canada I believe in, nor that many others would believe in. Under him the true north, strong and free, would be way less so.

As Kim Campbell said once, "Charisma without substance can be a dangerous thing." Dion may be totally uncharismatic, but I'll pick his substance over Harper's slickness any day.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Tolerance for intolerance?

When a Liberal candidate gets caught saying so outlandish it doesn't fit the most basic sense of reality, that candidate is rightfully asked to step down. Such was the case with Lesley Hughes of the Kildonan-St. Paul section of Winnipeg, who was caught saying that Jewish people knew the 9/11 attacks were coming so they vacated the Twin Towers in time. This lie continues to persist in the Middle East but it's amazing that some still believe it to be true here even though dozens of the victims were Jewish, including 5 citizens of Israel. Stéphane Dion was absolutely right to kick her off the ticket, although of course it is now too late to name a replacement.

Yet Gerry Ritz wishes Wayne Easter dead and a guy from Calgary blames crime on immigrants, and Steve Harper says they're welcome to stay in the race.

Again ... doesn't this tolerance for intolerance show the kind of person Harper is?

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WaMu Bye-Bye; one of the Big Six next?

Late last night, Seattle-based Washington Mutual, the largest savings and loan in America (setup not unlike a credit union) was seized by federal authorities and some of its core assets then immediately sold to JP Morgan, the parent of Chase Manhattan Bank. The move now makes Chase the largest bank in the US, surpassing Bank of America.

In so seizing then flipping, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was saved from having to bail out customers to the tune of $31 billion -- the FDIC will cover depositors' first $100,000 and Morgan has promised to cover the rest. The trust fund had been at $45.2 billion before IndyMac collapsed in June then a series of other bank failures or fire sales followed.

This collapse is way bigger than the 1984 collapse of Chicago-based Continental, which Canadians will probably remember since its sudden emergence and then disappearance of a branch plant here around that time was seen at the time as a challenge -- then vindication -- to the Big Six here.

It also sends a sobering sign to both investors and ordinary depositors. WaMu is bank # 13 to fail in the US this year. One report I read not too long ago suggested that as many as 1000 banks could either be seized or sold to bigger banks as part of an industry-wide consolidation. A good opportunity for people looking for values but bad news for investors who had bonds or stocks and will now be wiped out.

We tend to be smug about the whole thing in Canada given the relative strength of our banking system. However, the old saying is true, when America sneezes, Canada catches the cold sooner or later.

But it's entirely possible for one of the Big Six, or Desjardins Credit Union, to run into major trouble in the near future. Most if not all have had to write off some assets related to bad mortgages in both Canada and the US. What affect will that have on the trust fund of our deposit insurance system? Consider this: While the CDIC insures $466 billion in deposits, it only has $1.55 billion cash on hand. That's up from about a billion a couple of years ago but that's it. If one of the smaller member banks -- about 80 in total -- wound up, no problem. One of the big guys -- huge problem. Provincially chartered banks don't have that much back up either from provincial bodies. Neither do the 500 or so member institutions that make up Desjardins, also backed by the small funds in the provincial deposit trusts.

The CDIC makes it clear that where it acts jointly with its provincial counterparts to save someone's deposits, the combined total is $100,000 per person -- period. That might unnerve some investors who think they've got their butts covered twice and for twice that total.

And keep in mind, too, that on the other hand banks often split themselves up into several dummy companies so depositors can get around the $100,000 per institution rule -- often the insured amount can be a half million or more. In the end deposit insurance is merely a safety cushion. We're really being set up for a huge crisis when the shoe finally drops. Not if, but when.

Also, silence about this from all party leaders here. Why? The silence from Harper, who keeps insisting that our fundamentals are "strong" is especially telling. We've heard that lie in the States, many a time before.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Again with the non-apology apologies

Maybe it's me, but what is it with these Conservative candidates who don't know when to start talking -- except at the prompting or instructions of head office? Then again, there are the loose lips. Such as Lee Richardson from Calgary Centre, who blamed the "increase" in crime on "immigrants."

The GOP and the racist local media in the US have been getting away with that trick for decades. Not that all the Con candidates are racist or even misinformed, of course, but too many loose lips ... you know the saying. We can't let the Con artists get away with it here. There may be two and a half weeks left but there's still time to stop Harper.

From CanWest News:

Opposition parties are demanding Calgary Conservative incumbent Lee Richardson immediately resign for controversial comments that suggested immigrants are to blame for much of the crime in Canada.

In an interview with a Calgary weekly newspaper published Thursday, Richardson is quoted as saying many crimes aren't committed by people who "grew up next door" and immigrants aren't as law-abiding.

"Particularly in big cities, we've got people that have grown up in a different culture, and they don't have the same background in terms of the stable communities we had 20, 30 years ago in our cities. . . and don't have the same respect for authority or people's person or property," Richardson told Fast Forward Weekly, when asked about recent gun violence in Calgary.

"Talk to the police. Look at who's committing these crimes," added Richardson, the Tory candidate in Calgary Centre. "They're not the kid that grew up next door."

Richardson later said he regretted the comments and that he misspoke.

Uh, yeah. Regret the comment. Again, the classic non-apology apology. If a Liberal or NDP or Green Party candidate said something xenophobic like that, they'd be off the ticket faster than you can say Jumping Jack Flash. Harper however seems content to keep Richardson on his team. That says more about Harper than it does abour Richardson.

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There's no BUSINESS like show business, STEVE

Steve Harper's contempt for the arts is so great that he somehow needs a huge reminder that a large group of Canadians are directly employed by the business or keep their employment through direct spin-off benefits. By the estimate of the actors and singers themselves, 1.3 million Canadians earn their bread thanks to the entertainment business. That works out to 7.2% of our GDP.

If Steve needs proof that this is not a minor complaint, he only has to look at one obvious example: the Stratford Festival. The première showcase for drama in Canada is much more than the acting company we see on stage in repertory. 800 people work behind the scenes, from costume and set design to security and working the call centre that sells tickets and books accomodations for guests. The spin-offs for other jobs in Stratford and Perth County, from dentists and physicians to boutiques, auto sales and everyday sundry items cannot be measured except to say it's in the tens if not hundreds of millions.

And here's a newsflash for Steve: People pay income taxes on those jobs! Much more than if they were on EI (taxed) or on welfare (not but affecting entitlement to entitlements).

The subsidy the Festival gets from the federal and provincial governments is very small compared to its overall budget -- about 4%. The payback in income and sales taxes is many-fold. It's that subsidy that in part prices tickets at a level that makes it available to a greater part of the population and not just the "elite" to which Harper, ironically, is actually a part of.

Now, imagine all the community theatres across Canada. The nightclubs. The public and private art galleries and photo studios. And the benefits they create. And of course, radio and television. The spinoff effect for Ontario alone is $20 billion. It's even higher in Québec which actually has a real film industry and a festival of some kind of other going on in Montréal and other cities every week. Every province, every territory, gets a tax windfall from providing seed money to the arts. Get rid of them, then there's no need for CanCon rules -- we may as well be Hollywood North for real.

No ... I don't think it's the arts that's his problem. It's that the direct employment is mostly union labour and he has nothing but contempt for organized labour. One of his most ardent supporters, Mario Dumont of the ADQ, wants to get rid of the Rand Formula that guarantees union security and equal treatment of employees who want in the union and those who want out.

You want to throw away over a million jobs when we're in the start of a recession? Then you don't deserve to be PM, Steve. Because entertainment is a business, and there's no business like show business.

$45 million that has been cut out by Steve works out to about a buck thirty for each and every Canadian -- about double what it takes to run the Governor General's office. The total arts subsidy, including the CBC and the Canada Council, is about $25 to $30 per capita. That's a subsidy I and many others are more than happy to pay to send our message to the world. It's certainly way less than the mandatory license fee that nearly every household in the EU has to pay -- in the UK it's £139.50, and in the Eurozone it can be as high as €300 depending on the country you're in.

Gee, Steve, what's next? Closing rural post offices which for many people in forests, farmland and the outports is the only place to meet people on a regular basis -- as well as be connected to the outside world?

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Banned Books Week 2008

It's that time of year again -- Banned Books Week. It actually starts on September 27th and runs to October 4th. According to the American Library Association, more than 400 books were declared morally objectionable by various interests, some from the left (to be fair) but the vast majority from the right. here are the top ten most challenged books for the last year, 2007:

10: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.
9: It's Perfectly Normal, by Robert Harris.
8: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.
7: TTYL, by Lauren Maracle.
6: The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
5: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.
4: The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
3: Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes.
2: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier.
1: And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.

When we ban books, we suppress the imagination. We tell children they don't need an imagination, just their Bibles and their preachers who misinterpret them. It's time to say enough is enough and to vote out politicians who are against books and the arts and stop lining the pockets of those who support censorship in all its forms.

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"Gulag Archipelago"? We have one in Canada: It's called Childrens' "Aid"

I have been very reluctant to write this post. I've been sitting on it for months. But I can wait no longer.

What would you say to a government agency that has powers the police could only dream of -- that Steve Harper and others wish the police had? Of virtually unlimited and warrantless search and seizure? Except what was being seized wasn't money, or drugs or even paperwork, but children.

An agency that operates not on probable cause but mere rumour, even false leads given on a snitch line. An agency dedicated to ripping families apart, not bringing them together. An agency that does everything to discredit innocent parents no matter what they try to prove their innocence and no matter how much they try to work with the authorities, such authorities view attempts to get one's children back as being insubordinate and they make the parents' lives even more miserable.

That, in a nutshell, describes the child protection system. While in 99% of cases it does its job, there is always the 1% -- and I am right now trying to make sense of a case where a friend of mine, a single mom who's never hurt a fly and is owed thousands in alimony and child support by a father who has the means to pay up, had her children taken from her. And rather than the children getting better, they have gotten worse and less healthy in foster care while this mess is sorted out. And get this: The authorities think the deadbeat would be a better parent. Seriously.

The mother has never wanted to cut the father out of the children's lives, by the way. She just has asked for supervised access for him at least until he pays up.

For obvious reasons I can't name names. Due to some twists in circumstances, the odds are very good that things will eventually work out and that some will have to eat humble pie

That's not to say everyone who works in the system is bad. I personally know a few good ones, who were doing their jobs and continue to do so before and during this situation although to the best of my knowledge they are not involved in this particular file. I believe if they had been, they would have cut through the crap and this would have ended on day one and the children back where they belong -- with their mother, the rightful custodial parent.

But the fact is that too many families have been wrongly ripped apart, too many children have either died in foster care because of inadequate background checks or home studies and a lack of meaningful followup. Or the children have become so manipulated and conditioned to inconsistency that they become criminals, much more likely to become delinquents than those in stable households.

Do you hear Steve Harper addressing this -- or any other leaders? No. Because it's seen as a provincial responsibility. Do you hear any leaders discussing that foster care might explain some of why youth crime is allegedly so high? No, because it's "bleeding heart" to say that.

I'm no bleeding heart. I'm someone who wants to see things work better.

This is a national crisis, happening again and again in every province and territory. We need national leadership on this. We can't keep going on like this because it's driving people who don't deserve the grief crazy. We need the principles of due process and habeas corpus to apply to child protective services as it does to the criminal law system. In cases where parents are proven truly unreconstructable, deal with them appropriately, but where the parents have done nothing wrong they should get their children back and their legal expenses compensated by the Society in question.

We need a national adoption registry, not 13 separate ones -- and the red tape that makes it harder to adopt domestically rather than overseas must be eliminated once and for all.

And those who work in the system and only choose to see the worst in people rather than the best (as the majority of their colleagues do) need to work in other lines of employment. Given how much they're dedicated to destroying people's morale and sanity, they're much better suited to, say, the waterboarding team at Gitmo.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Poll numbers (Sept 23)

Today's numbers from Nanos (and change from yesterday)

Conservatives 38 (+3)
Liberals 27 (-3)
NDP 21 (-1)
Bloc 8 (+1)
Green 6 (0)

Margin of error ±3.1% nationally.

A bit surprising is the almost complete switch in support from Liberal to Conservative in Atlantic Canada (+9 Conservative, -8 Liberals), as well as the two parties now being tied in Ontario at 36 each. Mind you, today's news about a Conservative candidate having been cited three times by the real estate authorities in B.C. isn't going to help Harper much either ... and it's too late to drop and add now.

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Secret of Mr Nano's success?

One of the commenters yesterday wondered out loud why we Liberals are so enthused about the polling numbers from Nanos Research. To be clear, I'm not one to be enthusiastic. There's still three weeks to go from today and fortunes turn on a dime. Remember last time out, Nanos was showing trend lines against the Liberals but was consistently showing results that were much closer to reality -- I think the final numbers showed them 0.2% off.

Last night on CPAC, Nik Nanos explained part of his methodology. He said when his people ask poll subjects for polling preferences they are not usually prompted with a list of choices, even one that is shuffled up for the next caller. If you don't know who the parties are, Nanos said, you're not going to make a reasoned choice; whereas if you are given a prompt you might say, "Oh yeah, I like them."

If this explains why the Liberals are doing much better in the Nanos poll and the Greens worse than all the other tracking firms, it actually does sound a bit like hot air. There has to be a bigger reason why there's a gap between 5 in one poll and 16 in another. But Canadians are reasonable people who actually have the ability to think issues through. Who knows where it will end up -- heck, Nanos could be totally wrong this time around -- but if this guy gets it right again then you might see the networks give their preferred pollsters their walking papers.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Liberal platform: Game changer?

HT to Jan from the Bruce on the latest poll numbers from Nanos:

Conservative 35 (-1)
Liberal 30 (-1)
NDP 22 (+2)
Bloc 7 (0)
Green 6 (-1)

(margin of error ± 3.1%)

The most interest shift is in Ontario, where the Liberals are now in the lead 39-31 with Dion picking up three points from yesterday. With the economy continuing to slump, Jim Flaherty's announcement to the world that my home province is not a good place to invest may finally be starting to bite. Ontarians are a normally tolerant people but there's only so much we'll tolerate especially when it involves our pocketbooks.

On to today's major policy announcements. First, Steve Harper says he wants the identities of violent offenders as young as 14 who are convicted to have their names revealed. I actually agree on this in principle, but cannot say that it would have compelled me to change my vote. That's because Harper has offered absolutely nothing to fund rehabilitation programs or has cut back funding for them severely. You can't deal with youth crime unless you deal with the root causes and they are far too many to enumerate. He offers nothing other than $100 a month not indexed and taxed back at rates of 15 - 45% -- which stops being paid anyway once a kid turns six, way too young for the juvenile delinquent system to be involved anyway. That's not leadership.

Second, Stéphane Dion released his platform today, called Richer, Fairer, Greener and it reminds me a fair bit about the original Red Book back in 1993, except this time there is much more emphasis on everywhere we've regressed over just the last two and a half years under the Harper Administration and how we have to get out of it. That I think should be the first focus for the Liberals these final weeks -- hammer often what's happened under Harper. The second should be just how much more we'll be under the American sphere of influence if John McCain pulls off an upset in November; and that the Liberals will be just as tough against the Democrats as they were during the 1990s while Harper will continue to roll over for Big Lumber, Big Oil, and Big Finance no matter who's in charge in the White House.

In short, get in the face of the media (including the columnists) and the corporate interests who want Harper to win, day after day -- and don't give them the chance to hit the kill button. It ain't over until it's over.

UPDATE (4:44 pm EDT, 2044 GMT): Some of you pointed out the NDs are at 22, not 26. Duly noted, and corrected.

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Quick morning notes (2008-09-22)

The Canadian election has gotten some notice this morning at HuffPo. Jeremy Jacquot notes the stark policy differences between Harper and Dion and how a carbon tax would work (putting emphasis on the fact the gasoline tax would not go up and diesel would not go up for at least a year); as well as the fact that the environment is getting almost no notice at all in the US campaign.

I also note Scott Tribe's referral to the daily tracking poll being done by Nanos. Yesterday's results showed that the lead the Conservatives have over the Liberals dropped from 11 to 5 in just two days. Since a tracking poll only interviews 300 per day and the announced totals show a four day rolling average of 1200 one does have to be careful. But I note that even out West, the heartland of Harper support, the Cons are being eroded at.

This weekend's past events, including the withdrawal of a Conservative candidate (BigCityLib deserves some credit for that!) at the last minute may not be a good sign either. There are still three weeks to go ... but there is reason to be optimistic now.

Last quick note, we know at least one element of the Dion platform: The Liberals are vowing to eliminate the tax on income trusts that the Cons vowed not to do then broke their promise. For seniors, many of whom were using the trusts to derive a low to no tax income, this will be a huge consideration. The Conservatives are proposing to increase the exemption on pensions to $3000 from $2000 which would mean a $150 tax cut; and many seniors got hit with a tax assessment much greater than that. Seniors also vote in greater numbers than us younger folk -- something pollsters often miss as well when they determine "likely voters."

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A boy named Sioux: Election rant week two

Yesterday, my father and I went to the returning office and voted by "special ballot" to get our civic duty out of the way. You simply don't know what could happen between now and October 14th ... and we felt it important that our voices were heard. I think you all know who I voted for; as for my father -- I didn't ask, it is after all a secret ballot.

Now to my thoughts about this past week.

Conservatives: Gerry Ritz. Doesn't he know that even in the secret society that Stephen Harper created, everything is recorded? This isn't about Wayne Easter, as repulsive as that death wish was. It's about the now 18 people who have died from listeriosis and the dozens more that could die in the coming weeks -- as one who commented in this blog earlier in the week pointed out, listeria can stay in a person's system for up to seventy days. While those who have weaker immune systems are at greatest risk, even people in their prime (20-50) who are relatively healthy could wind up dead.

It is true that some of the moves towards self-regulation began under the Liberals, not the Conservatives. It is also true, however, that the Cons want to go all the way with absolutely no oversight and no way to review results. No standards, either. Furthermore, the public health officer the Liberals set up as an independent agent who gives impartial advice was under the Conservatives made an employee of the Minister of Health serving at pleasure and dismissible without cause. (This is a similar situation in the States where the once independent Surgeon General's office -- who made waves in the 1960s when talking about the dangers of tobacco and in the 1980s by promoting condoms to reduce HIV infection rates -- has become a pawn of the Executive under the Bush Administration.)

Too, when Harper went to Welland earlier in the week, just as the city is reeling from the closure of the John Deere plant, he set up a photo op to talk about -- flavoured cigarettes. Is there some kind of disconnect here, or what?

Finally, about the tax credit for first time home buyers' closing costs: $5000 is actually $750. It would be useful if the actual tax cut was announced, not the unrealized amount.

Liberals: Stéphane Dion appeared to back away somewhat from the Green Shift, although he insists that it's still very much part of his platform, to be released as early as tomorrow. He also announced more money for infrastructure, farm subsidies and the performing arts -- the last one is very important in Québec, particularly Montréal and area where he absolutely does need to hang on to what he has and pick up a few more districts.

My concern is why he hasn't put out his team earlier to spread the word? Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff are outstanding voices, as is Ralph Goodale. My question is, where is Gerard Kennedy? Carolyn Bennett was nowhere to be seen until this morning on CBC-TV. Elections aren't stretched out as in the States, they're only five weeks here. Dion is going to need more than more verbal gaffes and leaks if he wants to go over the top.

The commercial about listeria that was released on Friday is a good start ... but they have to keep hitting it hard and often. Just stick to the basics. KISS -- keep it short and simple -- and ask Canadians to think what it would be like if the Cons had a second chance, majority or minority.

NDP: Layton stayed on message and continues to make his focus Harper, not Dion. But here's the thing: Last time out, he was literally begging people to vote for his party so he could act as a counterweight to the Conservatives. He was just a couple seats short of what he needed to get the balance of power. Now, he's not just fighting both the Liberals and the Greens but also the Bloc in Québec who have become the social democratic voice in that province, however increasingly irrelevant. Jack comes off as a really nice guy, but if we had proportional representation or a single transferable vote (i.e. a preferential ballot) his party would no longer be my second choice -- it would be the Green Party.

And another thing -- Layton may be truthful when he says there was no deal with the Marijuana Party, but a lot of Canadians won't believe it no matter how many times he says it. Losing two members from your ticket just before the nomination deadline isn't exactly an indication of a strong campaign.

As for the polls saying the NDP is gaining ground against the Liberals -- well, keep in mind it's a rolling poll. 300 people is hardly a reliable sample size.

Bloc: Hasn't the joke gone on long enough? Seriously, when the Bloc ran the first time, didn't Lucien Bouchard run under the slogan, "Let's give ourselves real power?" I have to admit, I remember their free time ads in English back in 1993, which was just white text on a black background scrolling upwards, but Bouchard was asking the questions the other leaders weren't -- about the deficit, the moribund economy, high unemployment. For the next five elections including this one, their leader has been Gilles Duceppe. Has Québec gotten any closer to independence? No. Have the provinces gained more powers? Well, on immigration perhaps, but immigration has always been a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments and the updated agreements deal more with provinces' role in immigrant selection and settlement money. There's also more money for shared cost programs, but there haven't been any special deals for Québec I can see other than the province setting up its own blood bank agency.

Duceppe is now fighting a battle for relevance. The Cons are picking up a lot of votes in rural Québec, once the bastion of the Union Nationale. The NDP has broken through in Montréal and I think could peel some seats from both the Bloc and Liberals. For him, anything less than 40 districts and he's toast.

Green Party: Elizabeth May apologized this week for not smoking pot, as she revealed her platform which calls for its decriminalization among other things. I don't know why she apologized, there was no need to.

On a more serious note, May does continue to get my respect. I think a lot depends on how well she does in the debates; but she's very feisty. And let's face it, about the THC thing -- if weed was taxed the same as tobacco, it could generate about a billion per year in revenue just for Ottawa. Now why hasn't anyone else thought about that? (Well, actually it has been said, but no one has taken it seriously until now.)

And one last thing, about all parties: Nothing about Aboriginals. Nothing. Aren't our native population Canadians too?

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Deal or no deal?

With apologies to fellow Canadian Howie Mandel -- but this is serious. If the accord between the Liberal and Green Parties is fair game, then Canadians also have the right to know if the NDP had a deal with the Marijuana Party, now or in the past. With not one but two NDP candidates having to withdraw from the election, Jack Layton needs to clear the air on this and fast -- especially with the deadline to register candidates coming up this Monday.

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Hotel bombing in Pakistan

We cannot forget that the so-called War Against Terror is still very much on, after today's bombing of a hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. The very definition of terrorism is to create fear in those who would fight against evil. While we can disagree about who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter, we must all agree that targeting innocent civilians and tourists is completely unacceptable. They are not legitimate targets -- never have been, and never will be.

We must love one another, or we must all die. Those who would not treat brother as brother or sister as sister must be tracked and hunted down. It's as simple as that. If creating fear is their goal, it will not work because we will not be afraid.

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Harper suppresses the press buses

The pattern set in the early days of his government -- by not announcing when Cabinet meetings were scheduled and only dropping in on provincial and territorial premiers on twenty-four hours notice -- Harper is now repeating on the trail. As Skinny Dipper notes, and as shown last night on the very pro Conservative CTV News, the press was not allowed off the bus for a scheduled media appearance in Montréal then were told they could talk to protestors who were waiting for the PM if they got permission from the PMO first.

Permission of course which was not coming, just as it wasn't coming for protestors who wanted to complain about human rights abuses during the Beijing Olympics last month and were instead rounded up and sent off to the gulag for "re-education" (i.e. torture).

An enemy of the press is an enemy of the Constitution. The PM is supposed to be the guardian of the Constitution and the rights within it; and like in the States with Bush 43 for the US Constitution, Harper has shown nothing but contempt for our Basic Law. He does not deserve a majority government. He does not deserve a minority government. He does not, in fact, even deserve to be re-elected in his home district of Calgary Southwest.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Harper gags military

In a continuing pattern of secrecy, the Cons have put a gag order on the military from discussing with the media various issues until after October 14th. While National Defence claims they don't want to influence the election, it's quite the opposite. This didn't happen, far as I can tell, during the last election.

This is clearly an attempt to limit free discussion of what's going on in Afghanistan. What's happened to require a gag order? Did some massacre happen that Harper is afraid to let Canadians know about? Or have some of our Afghan allies abandoned us and the Americans after getting fed up with us?

That kind of suppression simply is not healthy for a democracy, and fits clearly with the pattern of running a government on a need to know basis, rather than giving the people as much information as needed to make a rational decision.

Who do they think we are? Stupid? Even in Britain there's much more open discussion about what's going on in both Afghanistan and Iraq -- sometimes too much, but at least it's the kind of engagement and dialogue one expects in a Parliamentary democracy. This is not the United States. This is Canada.

The Fathers of Confederation chose a Parliamentary system for a reason. If Harper wants a separation of powers like in the States, he should put forward a constitutional amendment and have the people vote on it under the 7/50 rule. If he wants to gag discussion, then he should get Parliament to invoke the notwithstanding clause (which of course can't be done right now since the House of Commons stands dissolved during the election).

Otherwise, let the reporters do their job, and the public relations arm of DND do their job in a non-partisan fashion like they have done for decades.

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Politically responsive, or politically independent?

Steve Harper not only refused to fire Gerry Ritz yesterday, he make the insult even worse by questioning the motivation of bureaucrats who leaked the story of Ritz' remarks.

If you want to do that Steve, then please answer this question: Do you want a bureaucracy that is professional and independent; or do you want one that is not free to offer policy advice even before you make a final decision? We expect cowering public servants in places like Mainland China and Libya -- not in Canada.

This, and the news that the Cons wants to kill meat inspection in Manitoba with the hopes of carrying the policy nationwide. (HT to Femme Verte.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Food inspection is too important to contract out or privatize. We need our federal inspectors, in fact we need more to make sure the job gets done everywhere. This is for the benefit of both the farmers who provide the food and people in both city and country that eat the food.

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All politics local -- except for Mr Harper

Are the wheels falling off the Harper Express? Too early to say at this point but there were a few more sputters on the rails that threatened to derail the train to a majority government. Now two more Conservatives have gotten in hot water. First, Gerry Labelle actually questioned some of the more hardline elements of the party's platform -- in particular criticizing the meekness of the Cons' environmental policies and cuts to arts programs, and asking if it was wise for Slim Jim ™ Flaherty to say Ontario was the last place to do business. (The link is to a story in French.)

Second, Lawrence Cannon had to apologize for very indelicate remarks an aide of his made about Aboriginals that implied that all Natives are alcoholics. Cannon is trying to drum up votes for Harper in Québec where race relations can be a touchy subject even at the best of times.

The problems when you have a single leader controlling a message and making sure your lieutenants stick on mesage are twofold.

First: Some of your people are bound to step out of line. And when that happens, havoc can ensue. I remain convinced that the reason why people like Newt Gingrich and Mike Harris were possible is that media appearances were strictly controlled except for the "top of ticket." It worked very effectively. In the States, the "Contract With America" became a reality because many voters who hated Bill and Hillary Clinton didn't care which Republican was running in their district, they just pulled the switch for whatever Republican it was. Same here in Ontario, where people were just fed up with the ND's Bob Rae (who's since moved to the Liberals) as well as Lyn McLeod who came off as too timid They too didn't care which Conservative it was, they just marked an X beside that candidate.

Second: Even managing to keep people in line, a national platform doesn't necessarily allow for local circumstances. This is the case for all parties, but it's become a particular problem for the Conservatives. This is especially true in a case where a sitting MP or a prospective one running for office has to defend competing interests in a urban / rural district rather than a constitutency that is primarily one or the other. In an all or nothing platform like the Cons', there is no flexibility and one is bound to tick off one group or the other rather than seeking consensus.

To illustrate: Both urban and rural people want to fight crime, but people in the cities tend to eschew guns in the home while those in the country and the outports see guns as a vital part of their lives. For another, farmers understand the need to protect their land for future years and generations but their understanding of helping to clean the environment may very well be different than those in ciites who have to deal with smog; furthermore those same farmers may not care that much about cutbacks to the arts as much as city folk do.

(Jim Travers had a good column earlier this week about this in one battleground district, Perth-Wellington, where relations between Stratford and the surrounding countryside have never been that great. Stratford, beyond the Festival and related arts activities, also has an auto parts industry that is currently struggling with the current economic downturn; meanwhile the farmland beyond is right in the middle of Ontario's Bible Belt with Stratford a small-l liberal anomaly in an otherwise socially conservative part of the world.. At present things are coming to a head about the desire for federal funding of a satellite campus for the University of Waterloo. The area is represented by a Conservative at present who might get re-elected on the basis of a socon majority.)

There's only so much deviation that should be expected, otherwise why has one committed to a platform? But to expect complete subscription to orthodoxy will lead to problems. Candidates should be free to say how they'll help both town and country and not have to pit the two against each other because head office tells them to.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Now it gets ugly

First it was seniors. Then Generation X. Now it's children -- small children.

An infant in Manitoba has died from listeriosis. It's too early to say whether the death is linked to the problems at Maple Leaf, but it does make you wonder how much worse it is going to get before it gets better.

Almost amazingly, Harper continues to stand by his man Gerry Ritz, saying that while the remarks were "completely inappropriate" the apology was enough.

17 people dying is enough? Hundreds getting sick is enough?

Enough of the crap. Ritz has got to go even if Harper isn't.

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Bailout III -- uh, IV

Six of the major central banks -- those of Canada, the US, the UK, Switzerland, the Eurozone and Japan -- are extending another $180 billion US in cash reserves they've been sitting on to shore up a very shaky credit market. This is the third time facilities for debt swaps have been offered and increase the total credit line available to banks, to $247 billion.

All fair and well for the commercial banks. It is giving the markets a bit of a sigh of relief and gives some troubled institutions such as Wachovia and Washington Mutual some needed breathing space.

But at what point do ordinary people stand up and say, no more bailouts? It's not average investors' faults that their money was put into risky ventures such as subprime mortgages or commercial paper that had no assets to back them. This may calm down markets for a short time but the system needs major structural reforms to ensure risky lending becomes next to impossible for the future.

Foot-in-mouth -- um, hoof-in -- no, stupidity (and notes from the Dion trail)

Three really, really bad cases of poor judgment. First, the ruling Conservatives. Gerry Ritz, the Agriculture Minister, apologized late last night for some comments about the listeriosis outbreak a little while ago during a conference call with about thirty people including the press, Agriculture officials and the PM's Communications Office. Ritz mused about the political fallout then said it was "like a death from a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts." Then when reporters told him about a new death possibly linked to the bacterium and that it happened in Prince Edward Island, Ritz replied "Please tell me it's Wayne Easter." Easter is of course the former Ag Minister and currently the Liberals' critic on the file.

Easter accepted the apology but was nevertheless livid and demanded Ritz' resignation for showing a lack of sensitivity. I think it goes beyond that. Reporters were asking serious questions about whether the food inspectors may have dropped the ball. To then turn a deadly crisis into a political statement shows just how out of touch the Conservatives are. The food companies involved are among the biggest customers of farmers, and they're getting hit too. There's insurance and stabilization for crop failures, but not so much for public health disasters. From source to destination Canadians deserve respect throughout.

If someone can truly hate someone that much, just because he or she is from a different political party, then he or she should resign. I doubt Trudeau would have stood by Eugene Whelan if he made an idiotic remark like that of Mr Ritz.

The second faux pas from the Cons: Stephen Harper was in Welland yesterday. People there want to know what the PM wants to do in the fallout from the closure of the John Deere plant as well as an auto parts plant. Together they account for about 1000 jobs. Instead, he announced a crackdown on flavoured cigarettes. Right message, wrong location and timing.

The other oops comes from the NDP. Their candidate for West Vancouver - Sunshine Coast withdrew from the ticket after it was alleged that Dana Larsen may have been supplying seeds for manufacturing coca and marijuana; both illegal activities even though the party supports decriminalization of "soft" drugs like THC.

On this one, I have to question the wisdom of Jack Layton. Why did he sign off on the nomination papers of a co-founder of the BC Marijuana Party? If he's trying to peel off votes from a small but vital line of social conservatives who oppose drug use but oppose Stephen Harper even more, this isn't exactly an ideal way to do that.

But you also to wonder about the CBC's choice of headline: "Up in smoke." Can't they come up with a better line than a Cheech and Chong movie title?


I was at a local rally for Stéphane Dion here in Hamilton last night. It felt like there were way more than the 250 the local paper claims were there. Also there were quite a few local Liberal candidates from here in Hamilton as well as Niagara, Halton and Peel regions. I had the pleasure of talking to Garth Turner -- a really articulate and smart guy who we need back in the Cabinet.

Dion is a very smart guy. He may not be as articulate in English as in French, but he has a vision and he knows how to engage a crowd. His biggest line of the night: "It's true that Stephen Harper speaks better English than me, but I speak the truth better than him." If Dion's as worried as the press claims he is, he certainly wasn't showing it last night.

On a sidenote, I applaud the security. In a rather small union hall he packed it in, and the undercover Mounties were able to escort him and out without too much difficulty even with most of us just inches away from an invisible cordon. You could never get that close in America with their candidates no matter what the office.

UPDATE (8:47 am EDT, 1247 GMT): Minor corrections.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What's the CBC doing advertising on the BBC?

I'm not kidding, folks. I think we're all used to going to websites in other countries and seeing links all over the page advertising sites back home. I guess the host figures out where we are based on our IP address and spits out addresses to give the page a more custom look. I'm used to seeing this for such varied places as TPM, the NYT and even social networking sites -- the links we see come up are to the Canadian version, not the American one, when you come in from a Canadian location.

But I wasn't expecting to see CBC Radio 2 have an in-page web ad at the website of the BBC in a shameless attempt to attract Canadian listeners to its new format which dumped classical music and jazz, two perfectly legitimate forms of entertainment, for a music mix so confusing that it's turning off a discerning audio public.

We keep hearing the Centre of the Universe has a cash crunch. Obviously they don't if they can afford to advertise overseas.

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Tainted infant formula in China; lessons (not) for Harper

It's been nearly a month since the listeriosis outbreak hit the Canadian food supply chain. Yet somehow it has conveniently, for "Steve" Harper anyway, dropped off the media's radar screen. I find it amazing that the opposition parties are not hammering away enough at this issue, nor are they making hay of Harper's plans to deregulate the food inspection business even more.

To prove the point of how lack of regulations can cause serious damage, look at the tainted infant formula scandal in Mainland China. Here, at least three children have died and 6200 more fallen ill from drinking formula tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer. It also has fire retardant properties. Melamine was added to formula apparently to make the milk look like it was higher in protein. Worse still some batches may have been exported to such countries as Bangladesh, Burundi, Burma, Gabon, Yemen, -- not surprisingly, countries with less than stellar human rights records of their own. What if some of that formula made its way to Canada?

Kids shouldn't get kidney stones, or die from kidney and bladder failure. It's happened.

Clearly, people's confidence in the food supply system in China has been undermined. In response, Beijing is ordering a "full investigation," which includes (surprise) suppressing chat forums discussing the tragedy.

At least here in Canada, the business involved is taking full responsibility even though it knows its reputation for quality has been sullied. But part of the problem may turn out to be inspection procedures that were not followed and a "who cares" attitude at the agency's head office in Ottawa. Who's in charge of inspections, then? Is it possible that one or more ministers dropped the ball on regulation inspections in general, and Harper called a snap election among other reasons to prevent discussion of this?

What can we expect when we have laissez-faire in Canada like we used to, i.e. no regulations at all? How many babies dying will be satisfactory before Harper then says he was wrong? Or will he resort to invoking the notwithstanding clause he loves so much to suppress dissent here, too?

Kiss all the babies you want, Steve. Your contempt for necessary regulation proves the only children you care about are the two you sired. We're not going to fall for it.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's Patrick ... he got bailed out!

Late tonight, AIG was given an $85 billion emergency loan. It also looks like the US government will effectively nationalize the insurance company, taking an 80% stake.

This would really make Adam Smith ticked off. Loan guarantees in the past for corporate giants didn't involve a federal takeover -- the Chrysler situation in 1979, for instance. And this isn't like auto insurance which is nationalized in BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba; and to a lesser extent Québec (for personal injury benefits); and where a co-operative approach, like public health insurance, benefits everyone. The life insurance market relies on a competitive market which ensures lower prices across the board; and giving the world's biggest government a stake creates an unfair advantage.

AIG may be "too big to fail," but this sets a really dangerous precedent, and it will be Obama or McCain that will take the flack if this backfires.

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"It's Patrick. He's dead!"

That, of course, was a classic spoof done by Air Farce a few years back of those silly Norwich Union ™ commericals. You know, "It’s Patrick, he got life insurance ..." then they went into a spiel for "guaranteed" life insurance for older people -- guaranteed because everyone was placed in the highest risk group when a term life plan, based on medical risk and age, could be obtained for much lower.

The North American operations were sold some years ago to AIG ™, American International Group, best known as the sponsor of Manchester United.

Late today, it was revealed that unless it somehow manages to raise upwards of $90 billion by the end of the day (more than double what was thought earlier), AIG will go bankrupt as well. Once again, it’s a case of a company investing innocent policyholders' money in subprime mortgages. Amazingly even though they're bleeding money, they still can afford to put on commercials for those same old people insurance policies on cable tv around the clock -- even today!

Wow, on top of the bad news over the weekend with Lehman and Merrill, who’s next?

So let’s try this commercial: "It’s Patrick. He says we’re screwed even though we got life insurance!"

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The full (carbon) monty, courtesy the Green Party

Following up on my post yesterday on the issue, I noticed that Senator Elaine McCoy of Alberta (who I had the pleasure of meeting last weekend, and who presently sits as a Progressive Conservative) has now posted on the subject of charging pollution sources more and lowering income taxes. My previous commentary linked only to an executive summary, here is the full report from the Green Party website about carbon tax cost that Harper was and is so determined to bury (but was available through a FOIA request).

One may think based on what the media says that all Conservatives oppose a carbon tax. Not necessarily. It's easy to forget that Joe Clark had the right idea back in 1979 when he tried to raise the gas tax 3.5 cents per litre. That was an early form of a carbon tax and was designed deliberately to encourage energy efficiency in an era when the price of gas was around 29 cents (yes I remember that!). People revolted, Clark's government fell.

In those days, unfortunately, many people didn't think about the fact we couldn't keep drilling forever. After all Hibernia had just been discovered as well and there was hope other bonanzas were looming too. In the era of peak oil, however, I think most of us have gotten it. To prove the point, just look at Hummer -- which GM is officially putting up for sale in the next few weeks.

It's time for Harper to admit he knew the truth all along: That the future is encouraging more efficient consumption and creating the technologies that will make Canada a huge player in the world in the future. Harper can keep burying his head in the sand like many on the hard right do, or he can watch idly by as yet another ice shelf breaks off Ellesmere or Baffin Islands.

Harper is not a leader.

(Sidebar: Ms McCoy is one of only three left in the Senate that are Progressive Conservatives -- the others are both from Ontario: Lowell Murray and Norman Atkins. Three of the sanest voices left in the Senate. That tells you something about the huge gap left when the right was allegedly "united.")

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Against it now, for it later (perhaps)

Some time ago, a report meant only for the consumption of the Cabinet -- the Harper government mind you -- leaked out. (The Green Party has actually had it up on their site for nearly three months; here's how the federal department of Natural Resources estimated a potential carbon tax cost). It shows clearly that the economy wouldn't be hit that hard if we moved to a fifty dollar per tonne carbon tax -- on average, five cents per litre or the BTU equivalent for other forms of energy consumption -- with a corresponding cut in income taxes.

Yet now the Harper government is slamming both the Green and Liberal parties for saying it will be the end of the world as we know it if we go that way. The main difference between his two mortal enemies is that Elizabeth May would implement the full whammy right now while Stéphane Dion would phase in the shift over four or five years.

Something tells me that the Conservatives are hoping to get a majority because when the floor falls out bigtime -- as it is today with a major drop in the markets -- they will shock Canadians with, surprise, a carbon tax of some kind. They are against it now but they'll be for it later on. It may be a couple months, it may be even be a couple of years. But it will happen.

Don't believe it? Remember Pierre Trudeau's flip-flop on wage and price controls in the 1970s? When he vowed he would never do it again, he did it again in the 1980s and even most provinces (of all political stripes) followed suit, including Ontario PC Premier Bill Davis. (The link refers to a classic article by Leo Panitch the first time Trudeau pulled a fast one on all of us.)

People in Ontario, even Liberals, are still furious at McGuinty for opposing tax cuts before putting in a health tax starting at $20,000 of taxable income and tops out at about $900 around $200,000.

A tax that shows no signs of being removed -- a health tax which in its basic form is actually quite similar to the one proposed by Mike Harris in 1994 a year before he was elected, except what Harris proposed had a $50,000 exemption and called for a 2% health tax on income top out for incomes at $150,000 with a cap of $3,000 after that. He was stonewalled by the feds who didn't allow tax-on-income regimes for the provinces (other than Québec) until 2000 so he instead had to come up with a provincial surtax that would have some kind of a health "premium" while preserving his promise to cut income taxes across the board by ⅓.

McGuinty comes in, renames the "fair share health care premium" a surtax and then puts in the health tax for everyone. He's not kidding anyone. He got the idea from Iron Mike! The only difference is that richer people actually get a much better deal under it than they would have if it was implemented the way it was supposed to have been under the Common Sense Revolution, whilst less well off get screwed.

And in the interests of equal time: Read My Lips: No New Taxes.

Bottom line folks: Never trust a politican who says that he or she will cut taxes. They are raised somewhere else, such as with user fees. Or they'll claim a fiscal crisis (often one they themselves created) and come up with a new way of taxing someone usually by stealing an idea from someone else.

Harper may be against it. But he'll be for it eventually. Remember that.

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Thirty-six candles ...

And what news greets me on this day?

I predicted something huge would happen to the financial markets and I was right! To stave off further huge losses on top of the $40 billion already written down , Merrill Lynch agreed to an all-stock sale to Bank of America. Interestingly, however, this purchase became possible after B of A walked away from a possible purchase of another company that turned out to be far worse on the balance sheet. This morning, Lehman Brothers will file for bankruptcy protection.

The markets are reeling over this. As I write these words, share prices for blue chips in London are down about 3 ¾%, Paris nearly 4 ½%. Oil has dropped below $100 (finally!) but there's no trickle down for the economy. Don't forget, our pension contributions are played on the market -- by the CPP's Investment Board and by the Caisse de dépôt for those who live in Québec. It is possible for the slush fund to be hammered even during the best of times, as people in La Belle Province found out a couple of years back. And these are hardly the best of times.

Reassuring words from politicians in both the US and Canada, as we are both in election campaigns, are not reassuring enough. There have been major job losses, in all sectors. We need bold action to avoid something like the Great Depression. If guys as big as Lehman and Merrill can go, what's next?

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Election 2008 week one rant

After one week of the election here in Canada, I can't help but notice a rather disturbing pattern. The parties did what they had to do out of the gate, and some of the nastiness was to be expected. What I didn't expect was the press to do was claim it had been a bad week for the Liberals and a good one for the Conservatives. It was really the opposite but the press is only concerned with the opinion polls and personalities. And that says so much about a dying medium that chooses to rely on tracking polls that sample only 300 people a day -- way too small a sample to track the mood of 20 million plus voters.

Time was, and I'm young enough to remember that time, that elections were about issues and personalities took a back seat. Certainly you had the odd character who engaged citizens but the voters were usually able to look past a person's flaws or flamboyance and consider the issues at stake. If an incumbent or rather the incumbent party's candidate was in trouble it was over the issues and not personality.

Up until the 1988 election which was fought over free trade with the United States, this continued to be the case. The leaders of the then three main parties (the Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives) may have profoundly disagreed with each other on policies but they left their disagreements there. They were quite civil with each other, friends even. Compared to some other countries debate was calm and reasoned.

So what changed? Well, a few things which fit in rather comfortably with each other. The first was the arrival of 24 hour news in Canada. It was actually supposed to begin that fall of 1988 but the election pushed the arrival of CBC Newsworld to the following summer. Before, news came in two waves, the morning and evening broadcasts. Party leaders had the time to mull things over before putting out reasoned responses to their opponents. With around the clock coverage came the need to respond quickly, often times within the hour. To pack that much news in for a short attention span, leaders were often quoted out of context. The average soundbite which had been about 30 to 40 seconds was chopped down to about 5 to 7, and lately 3 seconds or less. Just as one example, a news editor would rather put someone on that says "tough on crime" rather than "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." (So I'm not accused of plagiarism, that was Tony Blair.) The reason is those editors don't want crime to go down. They want it to go up so that news that sheds blood is the lede of a broadcast and people are driven to make irrational decisions at the polls.

(Americans had three election cycles starting in 1980 to get used to this concept thanks to CNN so it was old hat to them. Reagan was the first master manipulator of this short quote phenomenon but would by no means be the last -- in fact Clinton would have been impossible without Reagan. And it's gotten worse. Crime overall has gone down, but reportage on crime has sky-rocketed and people think things are getting worse. This is anything but a noble lie -- it's a mean spirited one.)

The second was the leaving from the scene of passionate but reasoned party leaders with ideologically driven ones mixed with strong personal characters. That's not to say a leader shouldn't have an ideology -- of course they should. And it's not necessarily a bad thing to have charisma, it's just how one uses it. But even if the leader has fine personal ethics and remains pragmatic overall he or she is bound to attract people who have even harder ideologies and is less open to hear alternative viewpoints.

You only have to consider the following election, 1993, to prove the point. By that time the Progressive Conservatives were in major trouble despite a strong new leader in Kim Campbell. Many still wonder if the choice had been the younger Jean Charest if the election that year may have been closer or if the PCs would have avoided the humiliation of losing official party status in the Commons. I do think it would have been closer and the Liberals held to a much tighter majority or even a minority government. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway because thanks largely to constant bombardment by Newsworld there were only two leaders that mattered -- Preston Manning and Jean Chrétien. The former a lay evangelical leader who assumed the mantle of a western protest movement then went national, the latter a battle-worn warrior of the Pearson and Trudeau eras and not ready to give up by any means. While on the surface they both targeted Campbell in reality they were fighting each other and starkly different visions of Canada.

For me, the nastiness in Parliament didn't begin with the Darrel Stinson incident (his being called a racist by Liberal John Cannis was uncalled for but Stinson's angry reaction -- the SOB epithet -- was just as much also) but rather a few weeks before the 1995 referendum in Québec. When Manning asked if fifty percent plus one was the margin needed to win one way or the other, Chrétien fired back with a negative response then accused Manning of wanting to give up on Canada without a fight. He ended by saying, "You might. I will not, Mr. Manning." The correct answer generally -- except that Chrétien referred to Manning by name, an absolute no-no in a parliamentary debate (unless a member is retiring and being paid tribute to, one never refers to a member by name, only by his or her district). Making it personal didn't answer the main issue -- how to address Québec's concerns about the Constitution and overall its place in Canada.

It was around that time that the Internet -- the third Factor -- started to become a force. Originally the domain of the US military then a virtual hangout site for university professors and students, the development of the Web by CERN in 1994 (the same people running the Large Hadron Collider that went online last week) gave anybody with a computer a chance to vent on virtually anything. This included political parties. Now it wasn't a question of replying within the hour but often by the minute.

It's a good thing that the press is finally catching onto the fact that there is a world beyond the rarefied atmosphere of the Fourth Estate. But we've moved beyond them and that's bad news for them. While some may still rely on the traditional sources of newspapers, radio and television and have their opinions shaped maybe by one of each (and often times owned by the same company) those of us who are "tech savvy" can find a variety of traditional and alternate sources instantly. More importantly, some of us (not me, at least not yet) are original news sources and can get ahead of the press.

Thus don't rely too much on polls. Many people only have cell phones nowadays which don't show up on polling companies' auto dial lists. They're also more engaged in the process than the "conventional wisdom" may have the masses "believe." While not a big issue in the past missing such a huge part of the population in the sampling game could be disastrous in the future.

Remember that way back in 1936 a magazine called Literary Digest conducted a mass poll that predicted that Alf Landon would beat Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. The sample size was unreal even for that era: 10 million were contacted and 2.3 million responded. (Here's a link to the article that made this opinion poll failure). Nowadays, a sample approaching a census would be a real snapshot of reality. Not back then. The magazine's mistakes: First, they relied on their subscription list which was already more affluent than most because they were able to keep affording magazine subscriptions. Second, they searched automobile registration records and phone book directories. Also, people with automobiles and telephones were better off and they tended to vote for the GOP. This process had worked for the elections in 1916 through 1932. By 1936, however, with most people just scraping by, the magazine just didn't get it.

Humiliated, Funk and Wagnalls eventually sold the magazine to Time which incorporated it and had the effect of turning the latter into a more general interest publication. Meanwhile, a tiny little company called Gallup sampled just a few thousand and corrected predicted a Roosevelt landslide.

What does it say though that a whole group of people are being missed now? It says the polling companies and the press don't get that we live in a new world too. It's not the world of the 1930s or even the 1980s. Many of us are tuned out. Those of us who are tuned in have issues and concerns the press don't care about.

What does it say that we're looking for God in a proton accelerator on the French-Swiss border but can't be bothered to look for the souls of people who have something to say but are not listened to?

If the press wants to believe that the Conservatives are headed for a majority, four weeks out, that's fine. But there's an undercurrent of people who don't like the nastiness, who don't much care for the press or politicians period, and will vote how they want; even outright lie to a pollster if phoned. Watch for the little guy that the MSM misses. They make the choices, not the media. To prove the press doesn't get it and keeps making the same mistakes, don't look to Dewey Defeats Truman but rather the 1945 election in Britain.

Nearly all the pollsters predicted Churchill would win off the coattails of victory in Europe. Only one (oddly enough, also Gallup) looked for what the others were deliberately missing and nailed down the real issue: The people on the home front were war weary, and as it turns out so were the soldiers who voted absentee (as they still had not come home from the battlefronts). Battered by the Great Depression and then a horrifying war, the people wanted a new social consensus. The win of Clement Attlee of Labour was a shock to the press but not to the people who knew better.

It's a brave new world nowadays, and I think what happens on October 14th may be a huge surprise. Frankly, I don't think any of the major firms here -- even the venerable Gallup -- understands the undercurrents going on. So if the mainstream media wants to redeem itself, they need to cover the issues and not the personalities. They also need to say what a party's actual stance is on an issue, not let their opponents get away with repeated lies and misrepresentations. This applies across the board. The press also needs to drop their bias and let the people decide. Elections would be so much more substantive if they were based on what the people want and offering solutions for them.

The polling companies also need to look beyond the preconceived notions of what we believe and look for what we actually believe. If they did that, that would also help shape the debate in positive ways. "Accentuating the Positive" is actually cool for most of us.

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