Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reform the Senate but do it constitutionally

As reported this morning by the Canadian Press and posted at HuffPo, Québec is serving notice that if Harper continues with his plans to unilaterally "reform" the Senate, it will seek to have such a bill declared unconstitutional.   The province argues that under the current amending formula (which, oddly enough, it has objected to for 29 years) it takes seven provinces with at least fifty percent of the population to change the way Senators are selected.

That is absolutely correct, and it shouldn't even have to go to a court challenge -- all it would take is for the House of Commons Speaker to declare the bill out of order, just as the Chair has on so many occasions when it has tossed out appropriations or tax bills introduced in the Senate (they must be introduced in the House).

One thing Québec might consider, however, is agreeing to changing its Senate boundaries.   In the other provinces and the territories, a Senator can declare he or she represents a certain geographic area but in reality they do represent that province at large.   However, Québec has 24 Senate districts based on the old Legislative Council seats of Lower Canada pre Confederation, meaning large portions of the province (the near and far north), annexed after the federation was formed are not even represented.   And the population shifts from rural to urban means the periphery of the North and South Shores have more power than Senators from Montréal and Québec City.  It's worth pointing out too, the Salle Rouge was abolished in 1968.  So there's really no need for this anachronism of an anachronism to continue.

Don't abolish the Chamber.   Make it elected, but ensure fairer regional balance.   And have fixed, six year terms so it's not subject to the whims of the election cycle of the lower chamber.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

Germany says auf weidersehen to nuke plants

Germany's centre-right coalition announced this morning that it is getting out of the nuclear power business entirely.   All seventeen of its plants will be closed by 2022 at the latest.   This has been a long held plank of the "Red-Green" alliance on the left in the FRG although never seriously implemented; but it is a huge relief to those concerned not just with the huge cost overruns of new projects but also the finickiness of existing installations.   It's also a huge step in trying to put the genie back in the bottle, such that it is, with countries that are nuclear weapons capable but don't have arms of their own.   Canada being one.   The lower one can reduce the terrorist threat so much the better.

The closure announcement may be partly due to the Fukushima disaster back in March, but I think it's also due to the surge in support for the Green Party.   In one state in particular, Baden-Wurttemburg, the Greens now actually are in firm control, the first time the environmentalists have controlled a sub-national legislature anywhere in the EU.

Here in Ontario we're faced with an increased dilemma of what to replace coal thermal plants with.   "Green power" has already become way too expensive with well meaning but ridiculously high feed in tariffs.

And nuclear?   I'm personally not against the concept but I'm young enough to remember the huge cost overruns of Darlington and that was a quarter century ago.   And yes I do remember Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.   It's no comfort to know that even with our very good containment systems, a TMI style "incident" (Level 5 of 7) is still possible in Canada -- it happened at Chalk River in 1952 and could happen again.

Germany's move is a sign we should take notice, that the world really isn't ours for the taking.   What they plan to do with the waste is another thing though -- I won't feel really safe until it's totally disposed of, properly, and permanently out of the hands of would be evil doers.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

When is a scholarship a "forgiveable loan" (or vice versa)?

A very interesting class action lawsuit has been launched here in The Hammer.   It involves students of Redeemer University College and their parents who claim they were ripped off by an enticing "forgiveable loan" scheme to offset the costs of the tuition at the private university.   The "found class" of 500 or so people is demanding $6 million in damages.

This is a case I have been reading about the last few years and it makes me wonder who's regulating private institutions.   Of course it's no one.

The concept behind the program was basically was that students would solicit donations to the university's fund raising arm.   In turn the foundation would hand out loans and as long as the student who received such loan finished out the year and wasn't cited for academic dishonesty, the loans would be "forgiven."  At the same time, the donor would get a tax break for charitable donations over and above the student tax credit.

So say tuition was $10,000.   The student would "pay" the tuition knowing it would be paid off at the back end.   At the same time the parent would make an equal donation of $10,000.   The combined federal and provincial credit was 40% dropping the tuition to $6000.  Then on top of this the student would also get a tuition tax receipt for $10,000 of which $5,000 could be transferred to a parent and the tax credit there was 21% or $1,050.   Net tuition:  $4,950, only a few hundred bucks more than one would pay at a public university.

The problem was that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) investigated and found the only reason the foundation existed was to pay for tuition.  That's potentially illegal under the law.   The feds backed off slightly, but did demand the "foundation" prove it could trace donations from the donor directly to the intended recipient.   After several attempts over a few years to get the records, the school still couldn't provide them and the CRA shut the scheme down.

So it was the parents who were hit with audits, often in the thousands of dollars.   The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2008 which ruled in favour of the feds and told the parents if they had a problem with getting reassessed, even if they made the donation in good faith, they had to sue the CRA in Tax Court.   (This could be either by the "informal" process if the amount is under $12,000, a form of small claims court; or through the "general" process if the disputed amount is over, which appears to be the case for quite a few parents, which means a full blown civil trial.)

I'll admit Redeemer was scrupulous in one respect:  As I understand the situation, they didn't exactly treat these as scholarships, where a few thousand more each year could have been written off and the potential tax bill could have been even higher if caught.   But wasn't this what it really was?   A way to hand out scholarships for a lot of students even if they weren't really called that?

I'll leave it to the courts to decide whether the plaintiffs have a case.   But keep in mind this is an accredited university.   There are quite a few "diploma mills" now operating in Ontario, all claiming to be "Christian" as well and I would not be surprised if they are playing fancy with tax avoidance rules as well.   As for those running the operation, if the feds said there was a problem they should have fixed it.  If they didn't as alleged they should not only be responsible for the tax bills of the unwitting donors, they should go to prison as well.

UPDATE (9:18 am EDT 05-30-2011, 1318 GMT):   In my calculations I neglected to include the "education" amount of $400 per month, or $3200 per year, which results in an imputed tax credit of $704 and thus reduced the tuition at Redeemer to just under $4150.   It still doesn't explain however how the so-called foundation thought they could get away with it without an explanation.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

HuffPo takes on the Great White North

What a pleasant surprise when I saw the other day that Arianna Huffington launched a Canadian version of the Huffington Post.   I was annoyed, as were other users, that for some reason the US pages were blocked -- fortunately the webmeisters at AOL fixed that problem and you can now "toggle" between the two editions on the "front page" link.

With too much right wing media in this country, which is becoming more US like in their demagogic and "every story is an editorial" approach to covering what they think is important and not (lessons learned well from the Western Standard and even crazier Bible-thumping white supremacist "magazines"), we need more alternative voices and this is going to be a huge one.   The really big surprise is Heather Reisman, owner of Indigo Books, will be the Canadian editor.   With both women's gravitas, getting other columnists will be no problem.

So a huge thank you to Ms Huffington.   She has also indicated she looks forward to having other foreign editions of HuffPo soon (the UK version is due for release July 6th) and this too will be helpful.  Progressives everywhere need to know what we're doing in each other's turf to fight The Man.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mladić arrested

The bid of Serbia to join the European Union, perhaps as early as 2014, may finally be on track with today's news that Ratko Mladić has been arrested -- in Serbia.   It's taken far too long, 16 years, but maybe at long last the healing the Balkan region so desperately needs can finally begin.   With EU membership almost guaranteed now, both Serbia and Croatia (due to join most likely at the same time, 2014, although maybe sooner) should understand that membership comes responsibilities -- including due process and making sure another genocide never happens again.   Too much blood goes around on this one and no one is truly innocent, but if Germany could shake off its darkest past maybe these two countries can.   Progress can only come with peace and respect for human rights.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Democrats pull another one out of the hat

A big surprise in last night's by-election in New York 26 -- the north and eastern suburbs of Buffalo, most of the "southern tier" and the western edge of Rochester.   If you live in the Hamilton - Toronto area and therefore get the Buffalo affiliates of the US nets, you couldn't avoid the overly negative commercials.   The surprise -- a district traditionally held by the GOP largely due to the huge rural tract it covers (it was once the base of popular Republican the late Jack Kemp), fell to the Democrats.

Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, easily trounced Jane Corwin,  best known for running a very competitive -- um, "other book" -- 48 to 42.  The preferred candidate of the Tea Party didn't even factor with less than 10 percent while the Greens got one.

The issue that put Ms Hochul over the top?   Medicare.   Ms Corwin came out in favour of a proposal pending before Congress to largely privatize health care for seniors, and that is of course a very touchy issue.   Naturally Hochul pounced and it worked.

Certainly, any entitlement program that is over four decades old is going to need a major refresh, just as our Medicare for All in Canada does.   But even dare to do away with the general principle that there should be care for all, and you're playing with fire.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SCOTUS: California prisons overcrowded -- duh

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court said that California is in violation of its own consent decree regarding prison conditions related to overcrowding -- an unfortunate result of the well intentioned but totally misguided three strikes law that applies to even petty thieves -- and ordered the release of 40,000 inmates.   As it is right now, the Golden State incarcerates 148,000 people in spaces for only 80,000 (the consent decree allows a max of 110,000 and the order would bring the number of inmates to just about 2000 under that limit).   The swing vote as usual was the always unpredictable Justice Anthony Kennedy who indeed wrote the 5-4 judgment in Edmund Brown v. Marciano Plata, 09-1233.

Yet this road (more people in prisons, that are overcrowded, unhealthy and potentially lethal to some inmates) is precisely the path that PMS wants to take Canada on.   The only difference is that those doing two years less become the responsibility of the provinces and territories -- stiffing the jurisdictions with an unfunded mandate.   It won't be long before the courts have to intervene and then you'll hear the Cons scream to high heaven about "activist" judges rather than doing what is the correct course:   Fighting crime as well as its causes. 

Which seems to be the approach Kennedy favours.   It's worth pointing out the US Supremes are still dominated by the GOP although its huge dominance just a few years ago has dropped from 8-1 down to 5-4; but while still essentially conservative is only willing to tolerate so much.

As PMS gets ready to name two appointees to our high court this summer my hope is that he should be scrupulous in choosing judges who look at the broad picture and not limited special interests, as Mulroney and prior to him Clark wisely did in their selections.   If we can get wise gals and guys like Beverley McLachlin and the late Julien Chouinard, then there's no reason why we shouldn't settle than for the very best.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama: 1967 borders, please

It's quite the provocation in the minds of many, but Barack Obama has done an almost complete reversal of what he said when campaigning in 2008.

At a meeting of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, then Senator Obama said that he supported the Jerusalem Law that Israel's Knesset passed in 1980 that states that the Holy City is "complete and united" -- that is, the eastern half of the city, including the Old City and its holy sites to the monotheistic God, are part of Israel.   This is contrary to the international consensus that Jerusalem's status (both East and West) is still undetermined -- which is why most countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv and the rest have theirs just outside of the city limits.

Yesterday, however, now President Obama said that it's the pre 1967 borders, with some land swaps to account for the presently illegal Israeli "settlements" (which the country presently treats as exclaves of its sovereign territory), that should be the starting point for talks.   At first glance, one wants to just say duh.   But Israel has always been a third rail issue in the States as much as Social Security is.   Although it's a developed country, Congress consistently passes an exemption for it so it qualifies for foreign aid.   And many both inside and outside Washington want nothing less than annexation of the territories accompanied by expulsion of all Palestinians.

As an ally of Israel, of course Canada should be concerned -- after all we know well that parts of Israel are less than 20 km from the Mediterranean to the Green Line, and terrorist incursions are still quite frequent.

Certainly we need to ask what position Obama truly supports -- what he did in 2008, or what he said this week.   I think he needs to prove he deserves his Nobel Prize and try to negotiate a long term and lasting solution for the region.   But he just opened up the proverbial hornet's nest.   Getting rid of Bin Laden will have been a walk in the park compared to this.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

When settlement groups go astray

Several months back, there was a huge storm when PMS cut off funding for Hamilton based SISO, the Settlement and Integration Services Organization effectively forcing it to close down.   At first many felt it was a vendetta that Team Harper had against groups who opposed the Cons' specific immigration policies.   But over the last few months a much darker picture has emerged.   Documents obtained through a FOIA request by the Hamilton Spectator show that about $1.4 million in "improper or invalid expenses" were charged to the feds.

Now the organization's officials claim that's because the Immigration Department and the government's auditor (not to be confused with the Auditor General who works for Parliament, an important distinction) have different ways of calculating what expenses should accrue and when.   To that I say bogus.   Two reasons:  First, my training in accounting showed me that the correct method of tracking transactions is accrual.  It is illegal to expense on a "when cash changes" basis unless you're a farmer or fisherman (and most in those industries use accrual anyway).   Second, there are very clear rules within accural accounting of what exactly can be expended or charged, when and how much.   You can't for example claim mugs with your corporate logo as office furniture -- you have to put it in the correct sub-ledger (kitchen supplies, for instance) or it will be disallowed.   Even if the claim is legal, you must credit or debit it at the time of the transaction, not when cash or the equivalent changes hands (what accrual means).

Some of the examples cited in the audits including putting two serial numbers on the same cheque, multiple formats for pay stubs, no way to determine how much each employee got paid and if the money was even deposited at all (or if the correcting withholding income and social security taxes were withheld), and invoices that were mimeographed so poorly that it was impossible to determine who the payee or payer was.

This is truly sad, because many here saw SISO as one of the most innovative and successful non-religious integrating organizations of its type in all of Canada.   It helped about 8000 "regular" immigrants and 400 refugees each and every year.   If something nefarious was going on (and I'm not suggesting necessarily that there were -- the Mounties are investigating that possibility though and the allegations in the article are quite serious), none of us were the wiser.

Now many of the services they used to provide have been dispersed to a number of groups, including the local Y and local branches of faith-based groups.   And this is taxpayer's money, yours and mine.   How an agency of this nature can go from $6 million in assets (including $1 million liquid) and a profit of $2 million, to owing $600,000 in just one year, is bizarre -- especially in 2010, a year when the economy was actually getting back on track for many.

Where were the Board of Directors?   Why wasn't its accountant asking more questions?

We're not talking about your average organization folks.   Settlement services is a serious business because we need immigrants to power and grow our economy, just as my parents and uncles and aunts did and so many more have over the decades.   We need accountability more than ever.   I would suggest that notwithstanding the AG having enough on her plate already (she audits the feds, Schedule III Crown Corps and the three territories) that she should have powers to investigate groups that use taxpayers' money and have the ability to report improprities or allegations thereof to Parliament and to the Mounties.

It would have helped, though, if Team Harper had released the internal audit at the same time they pulled the funding ... it would have answered a lot of questions sooner and would have made the union organizing vote at the agency moot which it was anyway when the agency made its bankruptcy filing.   A FOIA request should be unnecessary, this is public information that we have a right to know about.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Splitsville for Ahnold, Shriver

Divorce is never a simple matter.   Especially when it involves Arnold Schwarzenegger and his soon to be ex wife Maria Shriver.   It is just possible if the truth above his love child came out during the 2003 recall, he might have never been elected?   How much better would California be in if someone with real gravitas had been selected?   No, not Arianna Huffington (conscientious but maybe a bit too pretentious as well) ...but maybe it would have been better if Moonbeam had been allowed to have his second go at Sacramento rather than now when the state is in even greater dire straits.

(I do give Muscles credit for pushing forward high speed rail and improving local public transit across the state, but that's no excuse to cheat.    Similarly, maybe the Moonbeam epithet is harsh -- Jerry Brown was actually proposing launching satellites to act as a backup for emergency services communications as well as the Emergency Alert System, an idea which was eventually adopted nationwide, so he was actually just a bit ahead of his time on that one.)

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Strauss-Kahn arrested

When I heard the news late Saturday night after work that IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn had been arrested for an alleged sexual assault in NYC just as his flight to Paris was getting ready to take off -- presumably, the flight that would take him on the start to his being the almost certain Socialist challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's French Presidential -- I thought, this is really crazy.   It's been well known that the banker, who's had a big role in preventing a meltdown in the Eurozone, was a cad -- remember the scandal when he got cheating on his wife a couple of years ago?   But this takes it to a whole new level.

All I can say is, how stupid can an alleged sexual attacker be?  Even someone who got a partner to consent to sex would remember to take his or her cell phone and wallet with him.

This leaves Obama to appoint a new IMF chief, almost certainly.   This is a unique opportunity to end the practice of only having someone from the EU run the IMF while an American runs the parallel World Bank.   How about someone from Africa or South Asia for a change?

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Flooding on purpose

I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures, hence today's forced flood in rural Manitoba to destroy a hundred or so homes in order to save another 1000 or more.   Still one has to wonder why more preventative measures aren't being taken beforehand.   PMS may continue to deny it but the chances are we're going to continue to have more and more of these "300 year" floods on a much more regular basis.   Just like we here in Hamilton are now getting "50 year" rainstorms twice a year.

Isn't it time the feds and provinces sort out the areas most at risk and build more diversion channels like Duff's Ditch?   Why should urban folk not have to pay the price for nature's fury but rural folk always should?

It's the farmers that feed the cities, not the other way around.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Day after ...

Results (unofficial):

  • Conservatives 162
  • NDP 102
  • Liberals 34
  • Bloc 4
  • Green 1

Mr Harper may well have his long sought majority now, but he needs to understand that while he has the power the majority of Canadians who did not vote for him have the pen and the streets.  No more complacency, no more willing submission to que sera sera, we will not be silent.   As long as there is even one lone voice crying out in the wilderness, Harper will always need to keep one eye behind his shoulder.

Anyways, congratulations to all those who were elected and those who weren't but ran ... standing up for what you believe in is what counts.   A big shout out in particular to Jack Layton who has finally made democratic socialism a viable option for Canadians (and finally did what Mulroney, Chrétien, Martin and Harper could not do -- decimate the Bloc) and to Elizabeth May who did the same for environmentalism.

It's no time for commiseration, but the fact is 60% of us didn't want Harper ... we need to replace the archaic first past the post system and the sooner the better.  At the very least I'd like the option to rank candidates rather than pick the least worst out of an undesirable pack of local nominees.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Vote 2011, and "that guy"

It's all over but the voting and please make sure you do vote today.   Remember it's "ass-a-hole-as" like Osama Bin Laden who believe that democracy is a sin against God.   More on him in just a second ... but here's my prediction for tonight (remember there are 308 districts so the magic number is 155):

  • Conservatives 130
  • New Democrats 115
  • Liberal 46
  • Bloc Quebecois 17
I'll be so bold as to say Jack Layton will win the popular vote.   It's happened before -- Trudeau actually beat out Joe "Who" Clark in 1979 by raw numbers (by 800,000 votes in fact) but lost the seat count.

If the numbers add up so the NDs and Grits -- in either order -- can coalesce and defeat the Cons without the Bloc -- then all the better.

Far as OBL goes, good riddance.   I would have preferred him to see him stand trial for his misdeeds -- and we're in for a very lengthy shakedown before we can ever really go back to "normal" -- but I predicted his downfall after the London bombing.    There's only so much the peace loving world can take.   We should have gotten him when we had the chance in October of 2001, but better late than never I suppose.

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