Thursday, February 28, 2013

One Book

Although it has been many years since I read it, I was very pleased to see that the Toronto Public Library has chosen Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 for its One Book annual community reading event. Although first published in 1953, this eerily prescient novel tells the story of a world where people are globally deterred from thinking by the banning of books, the addictive use of 'seashells' that whisper sweet nothings in their ears (read IPods), and the constant diversion of omnipresent large-screen televisions that broadcast the most empty forms of diversion imaginable. Sound familiar?

Without question, Fahrenheit 451 puts to the lie the fashionable notion that fiction has little to offer for the mind. And if that whets your appetite, give Aldous Huxley's Brave New World a try. Again, the parallels to today's world are stunning.

On Child Poverty

Late last year I wrote a post expressing my discomfort with the proliferation of foodbanks. Despite the fact that I volunteer at one, I can't escape the notion that it has become an enabler of government inaction on poverty in this country. As well, the fare available from foodbanks is generally of the canned and processed variety, high in salt and preservatives, hardly the basis of a healthy diet.

Over the years I have volunteered there, I have noticed that more and more of the clientele is not the chronically unemployed, but rather the chronically under compensated, those who are working at minimum-wage jobs that are wholly inadequate to meet their and their families' needs. I especially feel for the children who often accompany their moms on their monthly visits to our establishment.

While Ontario has made some progress in reducing child poverty, austerity measures and corporate tax reductions that have yielded few jobs have halted that progress. A story in this morning's Star paints a rather grim picture of what life is like for the 383,000 Ontario children still ensnared in rather dire living conditions:

In 1989, 240,000 Ontario kids lived in poverty, when the child poverty rate was 9.9 per cent. The rate in 2010 was 14.2 per cent, representing 383,000 kids.

One in 10 Ontario children in 2010 lived in households that couldn’t afford things like dental care, daily fruit and vegetables and “appropriate clothes for job interviews,” up 15 per cent from 2009.

35.6 per cent of kids in a household with a single mom lived in poverty in 2010.

92,500 Ontario kids living in poverty still have one parent who works full time, year-round.

In 2010, 7.1 per cent of children in the province lived in “deep poverty,” where household earnings amounted to less than Ontario’s median family income.

You can read the entire sad story here.

This One Isn't Much of a Challenge

But apparently our Prime Minister heartily disagrees, constitutional requirements notwithstanding (BNA Act 23:5).

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Villagers With Pitchforks

Looks like these folks need some direction:

I suspect young Tim Hudak would like to provide it for them.

Tim Speaketh Again

The only trouble is, everytime he does, he affirms his incompetence. Yes, young Tim Hudak, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, has weighed in on yet another 'obstruction' that he believes can be remediated through his simplistic prism. This time it is that pesky perennial problem of those darned endangered species, or more specifically, [g]overnment regulations protecting endangered species [which] are throttling business:

In a speech Tuesday to the Rural Ontario Municipalities’ Association (ROMA) conference at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, ... Hudak told 700 rural municipal politicians he would slash “the more than 300,000 regulations, outdated rules, and runaround that you have to cope with just to get something done.”

To drive home his point for those listeners whose thoughts might have wandered away from the prattling stripling in their midst, the lad who would be Ontario premier pronounced:

“The problem is that these rules are ... not allowing our agriculture and business sectors to grow.”

As an illustration of the evil obstructionism of government, Hudak tartly observed: In 2003, there were exactly 19 species listed — today, well over 121” - clearly a sign of government regulation run amok, and surely not an indication of a deteriorating ecosystem, a concept I doubt that young Tim subscribes to.

Unaware of his irony, he vowed to use “verifiable science not political science” to determine what animals to protect. This, despite the fact that, as pointed out by Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti, the assessment and classification of endangered species is conducted by experts on the arms-length Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario.

But then again, I doubt that the hapless Hudak ever lets facts get in the way of a good ideological rant, and would seem to prefer this as the only sign of real progress:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Precariously Employed

The other day I made reference in a post to a study showing that half of the workers in the GTA are precariously employed, meaning they have unstable and unreliable employment with no benefits, a reality sharply at odds with the triumphalism of the right over the putative unalloyed good achieved by free trade.

This morning's Star editorial calls for changes in social assistance programs to ease the plight of these workers. Among the ideas being bandied about are more flexible child care, reforms to pensions, and new insurance models “that could create more economic certainty for people in precarious employment.”

While these ideas undoubtedly have merit, I think it would be a profound mistake to exclude corporations from the solution; despite the fact that it has become conventional wisdom that governments cannot consider increasing taxes, direct and indirect, on large businesses, that is one of the many reforms that needs to be included. Otherwise, of course, the rest of us will be alone in picking up the tab.

Canada in general, and Ontario in particular, offers a host of advantages to business ranging from a well-developed infrastructure to an enviable health-care system and a very educated workforce. Being able to shrink its permanent work force while exploiting these advantages has added tremendously to the corporate bottom line. It is time they started paying a larger portion of their lavish profits for those privileges.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Does Mike Duffy Have 'Pump Head'? - UPDATED

Well, in the tried and true tradition of governments announcing embarrassing news on Fridays, 'P.E.I. Senator' Mike Duffy kinda sorta admitted to maybe an error, thanks to 'confusing senate forms' asking for his primary residence. Not that he did anything wrong, of course, but after 80 days of what Tim Harper calls a sideshow, the rotund representative of the island province told CBC that the issue has become a "major distraction" from the work he's trying to do for Prince Edward Island, the province he represents in the Senate.

"We are going to pay it back, and until the rules are clear — and they're not clear now, the forms are not clear, and I hope the Senate will redo the forms to make them clear — I will not claim the housing allowance."

The following video offers some analysis from Terry Milewski:

How complex or confusing is the form? For a person of normal intellect, not very, as The Rabble points out:

The form Duffy found so confusing asks first of all if a Senator's primary residence is within 100 kilometres or more than 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill. You don't need an advanced degree in geography to figure that out.

For instance, if you live, as Senator Duffy now admits he does, in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata you are about 20 kilometres from Parliament Hill, maybe less.

The form then asks for the address of the Senator's primary residence in the province or territory he or she represents.

Given the good senator's confusion, I also can't help but wonder if there is a story here that the media are missing out on. Mr. Duffy has made much of the fact that he had open-heart surgery in 2006, hence the need for an OHIP card, granted only to those who spend at least 153 days a year physically present in Ontario. As he told CBC,

"I had open heart surgery, ... I'm being intensively followed. The other day I counted up, I have six different doctors … so I have a lot of health problems, and the advice of my doctors was not to make a switch, to stay with them at the Heart Institute in Ottawa. And that's what I've done."

Open-heart surgery, with which I have some familiarity within my own family, entails the heart being stopped and the patient placed on a heart-lung bypass machine for varying lengths of time. An unfortunate byproduct of the procedure can be cognitive imnpairment, known colloquially as 'pump head', with a wide range of cognitive impairments and deficits that can persist and worsen for years. And while I realize that such dysfunction may go largely unnoticed for a long time in our senate as attested to by recent events, it does seem to be a legitimate question to raise in Mr. Duffy's case.

Of course, another legitimate and related question to raise is that if he indeed found the senate forms too confusing to correctly and honestly complete, can he really be competent to discharge his senatorial duties, given that one of them is exposure to excruciating legislative minutia that demands a clear mind to read, understand, and make informed decisions on?

Just wondering, is all.

UPDATE: Here is more analysis by the CBC's Terry Milewski on the issue.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Free Trade - Part 2

Continuing with the theme of yesterday's post, I am taking the liberty of reproducing some letters that appear in today's Star on free trade. They nicely puncture the myth, propagated and perpetuated by the right, of its unalloyed benefits to Canada:

Brian Mulroney and the harsh reality of Canada-U.S. free trade: Hepburn, Feb. 21

For many years before and after Brian Mulroney's free trade agreement I worked as a mechanical engineer with consulting firms. During those years I was involved in the design of a number of food processing plants. At least four of the plants were “grassroots” operations and were setting up in Canada because of the sales advantages offered.

All of those plants were closed down shortly after the FTA came into being and all were employers of large numbers of people who lost their jobs. Many of the other plants that I was involved with, mostly expansions of existing operations, also shut down their Canadian operations after the FTA.

When the FTA came into being, not only did plants shut down but the market for design of plants tapered off considerably and many engineering consulting firms laid off a number of engineers and architects. Some even closed completely and I am sure the domino effect came into play in many industries that relied on Canadian building for business.

I should probably add that because of the interest for companies to build in Canada, a great deal of new technology and advances in older technology was developed here and thus with the FTA a great deal was lost to other countries, mostly to the U.S.

Dean Ross, Port Hope

I agree and empathize fully with Bob Hepburn 's comments on the real effect of free trade on ordinary people: people who have lost their jobs and the fact that almost all of these factory jobs are gone forever. It is a sad fact that real truths like this are covered up and never acknowledged by those responsible. This article is front page material in my opinion.

Another effect that I personally observe is the loss of basic manufacturing skills in our country. All but gone are the machine shops, factories and the businesses that served them. A simple example of my own was my recent inability to purchase a round threading die. It seems that these replacement dies are no longer sold by the likes of Home Depot, Lowes, Canadian Tire, Busy Bee, Princess Auto, etc. The only possible reason is no demand. As little as three years ago, they were available. (I note that some of the above do offer sets with many dies of different sizes, but they are all aimed at the hobbyist and not suited for manufacture.)

We have indeed sold our souls to the Asian manufacturers. It is beyond sad and we will experience the effects for years to come.

Don Dorward, Pickering

How refreshing , if unusual, to read a mainstream piece that actually talks turkey about the disastrous free trade deal. In Canada, we've been living in a kind of opium dream since the late ’80s, with the usual suspects — quick-buck artists and ideological hobbyists — insisting ever since that we've never had it so good.

Just as there was a conspiracy by business elites in '88 to foist free trade on the country, there's been a de facto conspiracy ever since to push the line that it's been some kind of boon for us all, even despite the overwhelming contrary evidence. Remember, more than 60 per cent of us sensibly rejected the deal when it was an election issue, even if our disgraceful electoral system gave Brian Mulroney a “mandate” to saddle us with it.

Brian Mulroney and his patrons obviously think we're stupid, and they might well have a case, based on almost 30 years of our allowing their nonsensical economic analyses to float.

But watch and enjoy nevertheless the inevitable unravelling in our lifetime of the doublespeak concept of “free” trade, as unaffordable energy costs and other factors begin to make the shipping of goods thousands of miles to market look merely old-fashioned and quaint.

George Higton, Toronto

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Legend of Brian Mulroney

Actually, our former Prime Minister is more a legend in his own mind, but then, confronting harsh reality has never been one of Mr. Mulroney's strong suits. His litigious past serves as ample testament to that fact.

But myth is always much more exciting than truth, and what better myth could Mulroney propagate than the one about the free-trade agreement his government negotiated 25 years ago with the United States? Last week, he made an appearance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman business school, where more than 700 guests gathered to commemorate his government's 'great' achievement. In his usual hyperbolic and self-congratulatory tone, in an hour-long chat with Rotman professor Joseph Martin, Canada's erstwhile 'leader' asserted that his accomplishments will stand among the greatest in Canada’s history, one of his proudest being the free-trade agreement. Indeed, he even went so far as to describe the pact as “the greatest in the history of the world.”

It is an assessment with which many would strongly disagree. One of the dissenters is The Star's Bob Hepburn who, on February 21, wrote a piece entitled Brian Mulroney and the harsh reality of Canada-U.S. free trade. He begins by reminding readers of some harsh truths that Mulroney seems unwilling to confront:

One morning 10 years ago, my brother lost his long-time job when the owners of the Scarborough electronic parts factory where he worked announced it was closing the plant and moving its operations to Chicago.

Soon after, his company shut down two other factories in Oakville, tossing 400 employees out of work. The jobs were shifted to the U.S. and Mexico. A bit later, the Markham electronics company where my niece had worked also closed its doors. It, too, moved its jobs outside of Canada.

The owners never admitted it, but workers were convinced a major reason why the companies closed the Ontario plants was the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement reached in 1987 under former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The deal, which was the focal point of the 1988 federal election, eliminated import tariffs on most products, resulting in many profit-hungry companies closing plants here and moving the jobs to cheap-labour areas.

And Hepburn is not alone. Economist Jim Stanford, quoted in Hepburn's piece, wrote an article for he Progressive Economics Forum, replete with empirical date that shows those who extol the agreement are living in a world of fantasy and faith, a world typical of right-wing ideology, one fueld by the tactic of repeating something enough times so that its veracity is rarely called into question.

Citing government statistics, Stamford observes that our exports to the U.S. are at the same percentage level as in the mid-1980s, that our trade deficit is the highest ever, that our productivity has fallen in comparison with the U.S and that income levels of most Canadians in real terms are unchanged.

Then there are those who believe, using both anecdotal and empirical evidence, that people are decidedly worse off since the free trade deal was concluded. Youth unemployment hovers somewhere between 14 and 15%. People's lives are on hold. A study released today, conducted by McMaster University and the United Way, finds that the rate of insecure or precarious work has increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years and is impacting everything from people’s decision to form relationships, have children and volunteer in their community.

Indeed, the statistic are grim:

- Barely half of working adults in the GTA and Hamilton have full-time jobs with benefits and expect to be working for their current employer a year from now;

- The other half are working either full- or part-time with no benefits or no job security, or in temporary, contract or casual positions.

And while statistic may seem dull and unevocative, the accompanying profiles are anything but, ranging as they do from a 27 year-old university lecturer struggling to cobble together a career that could take him far from his wife and young son to a 60-year-old home-care nurse whose working conditions and hours are anything but stable.

Just don't expect Mr. Mulroney, in his present and persistent self-congratulatory mood, to be moved by their plight.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

An Insane Country, Or An Insane Government?

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that standard, we can perhaps infer that Canada is insane.

As we are reminded in a very interesting column by Thomas Walkom in this morning's Star, Canada has a long history of staking its economic well-being on the export of its resources. Citing political economist Harold Innis,

... Canada’s history was dominated by natural resource exports, which he called staples. That Canada has exported raw materials is hardly novel. What Innis grasped, however, was that these staple exports created a pattern of development, both political and economic, that over time was hard to escape. To use the language of one of his students, the Canada that Innis described kept enmeshing itself in a “staple trap.”

Whether the resource was wood or beaver pelts, the government would spend substantial sums building up the infrastructure to cultivate its exports, only, of course, to have any given staple ultimately fall out of favour. The same thing is happening today with our almost total dependency on the tarsands as the country's economic driver, to the exclusion of any real diversification or environmental oversight.

Walkom calls attention to a new study called The Bitumen Cliff which observes that our dirty oil requires vast quantities of money... not just to extract...but to transport it by rail, pipeline or ship.

There are other causalities of this insanity as well:

Again, other economic activities are given short shrift. In this case, the high dollar created by Canada’s soaring oil exports has eaten into the ability of manufacturers to compete abroad.

And again, the political system wraps itself around the staple, with Ottawa’s Conservative government gutting environmental laws for fear that they might interfere with pipelines and resource extraction. (For an example of the latter, take a look at this story about how the pipeline industry essentially dictated the changes to Navigable Waters Protection Act included in last year's omnibus bill which will result in far less protection than existed beforehand, all in the name of pipeline expediency.)

The folly of this approach is that, like our staples of the past, our oil will fall out of favour:

Suddenly, the politics of climate change have made Alberta’s carbon-emitting bitumen less welcome in the United States. More to the point, technological changes that favour the production of cheaper shale oil and gas, are transforming the U.S. from an energy pauper into one of the world’s big petroleum players.

To put it another way, Canada’s biggest export market no longer needs the tarsands quite as much as it did.

So the damage will have been done, and all we will be left with is a fractured economy and environmental despoliation, only to await the cycle to begin all over again.

Come to think of it, perhaps it is not our country that is insane, only our political 'visionaries'. Yet one more aspect of what will be Stephen Harper's sad and dishonourable legacy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fathoming The Reactionary Mind

I readily admit that I find it difficult, if not impossible, to fathom the extreme right-wing mind. To me, it is a mind mired in a world of fantasy, willful ignorance, and intractable denial. Magical thinking seems to be a substitute for cogitation. Name-calling in lieu of discussion. Denunciation instead of deliberation. And I would be quite content to leave such minds alone, content as they are in delusions of grandeur and superiority, except for the fact that they bother and disrupt the business of the adults in society.

The above, I'm afraid, is an all too apt description of the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, young Tim Hudak.

Yesterday, Kathleen Wynne brought down her throne speech in the Ontario legislature. As reported in the Globe, with nods to both the NDP and the Conservatives, the speech trod a fine line between fiscal responsibility and social spending in its effort to garner support from both parties.

Despite the reasonable and conciliatory tone of the speech, young Hudak, as is his wont, immediately rejected any possibility of support. The Star's Martin Regg Cohn notes the following:

Tory Leader Tim Hudak followed Wynne at the microphone to say his party would vote against the speech, instantly marginalizing himself just as he did last year for the Liberal budget (allowing the New Democrats to dictate the agenda).

He went on to reject any possibility of countenancing road tolls or congestion fees to address the problem of gridlock in the GTA until government waste [is] first eliminated. As Cohn tartly observes: Hmmm. Now there’s a Tory inaction plan: foster more political gridlock so that traffic gridlock festers for another generation.

I have no idea whether Kathleen Wynne has either the capacity or the political capital to reverse the significant damage done by her predecessor. I do know, however, that for Hudak to reject out of hand even the possibility of working collaboratively for a time, insisting instead on an imminent election, is the mark of an untutored and immature mind, wholly consistent with the extreme right-wing mentality described at the start of this post.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Perhaps He Should Try Thinking Before Speaking?

Last week I wrote a post on two inane ideas uttered by young Tim Hudak, the hapless leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party. He proposed tying post-secondary funding to rates of employment upon graduation, along with the idea that only those who achieve a certain mark shuld be elegible for student financial assistance.

Two letters in today's Star help to put his 'ideas' into the perspective they deserve:

Re: Hudak cracks whip on students, Feb. 13

Once again, Tim Hudak is turning into the greatest boon for the Ontario Liberals. His policy paper on post-secondary education will benefit absolutely no one and will negatively affect students who are in most need of financial aid.

I was once an undergraduate student and needed OSAP to fund my education. I was also working two jobs to provide for other expenses during the school year. In the process, my academic performance wasn’t the greatest, but the learning experience was unparalleled. I eventually earned two degrees from my alma mater, worked for a few years and went back to school to get a graduate degree on scholarship.

If Hudak had his way, people like me would never get a degree. His proposal is also redundant as there are already scholarships, grants, bursaries and loan-forgiveness tied to various prerequisites including academic performance.

During the 2011 provincial elections, the Hudak PCs managed to fumble a double digit lead over the Liberals. It doesn’t look like they have learnt their lesson.

Aditya Iyer, Ottawa

Let’s grade Tim Hudak’s efforts with this plan: as a retired college professor and dean, I’m aware, as are thousands of students, of the continuing efforts to link college and university programs.

A three-year degree? Reminds me of an old joke where a conservative emperor standing on his balcony proclaims to this constituents, “Everyone in my kingdom shall be educated. To that end I give each of you a degree.”

What is missing here is a little item called relevant curriculum.

I’m certainly interested in Mr. Hudak’s thinking about how his plan addresses the TBSB survey about student stress and anxiety about the future. But let’s find the kernel of wisdom in this proposal: what about grading the quality of political ideas to the money we pay our politicians? A six-month trial on that one could well erase the provincial debt.

Don Graves, Burlington

My mother always taught me to think before I spoke. Apparently Tim Hudak did not have the benefit of such maternal counsel.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On Corporate Propaganda and Tax Avoidance

It is the fashion among our corporate overlords and their rabid right-wing courtesans to utter a trite phrase that, because it is repeated so frequently, is taken as truth by many: We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. Like the magician who relies upon misdirection to perform the seemingly miraculous, the corporate cabal purports to prove, through both its rhetoric and 'studies' done by its think tanks (think The Fraser Institute in Canada, The Cato Institute in the U.S. as examples), that taxes are 'job killers' and that the key to robust economies and solid employment numbers is low taxation.

Of course, the falsity of such assertions has been amply demonstrated, most recently by Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, who has weighed in on more than one occasion about the abysmal rate of business investment in new machinery and equipment — considered vital to boosting growth, creating jobs and making the economy perform more efficiently. This sad state despite the fact that Canada has one of the lowest corporate tax regimes in the world.

While there will always be the true believers who subscribe to the myth of the efficacy of marketplace discipline and an ultra-low tax regime, I suspect more and more are starting to realize that the corporate agenda has nothing to do with the betterment of society or the support of democracy, and everything to do with its own self-aggrandizement. As reported last week in The Toronto Star, The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), consisting of 34 countries, issued a report condemning the practice of corporation, including giants such as Google, who are shifting profits to places where they pay little or no tax, places such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and Barbados.

As the report points out, not only is this costing the countries in which these corporations do business billions of dollars in lost revenue, it is also encouraging a perception that the domestic and international rules on the taxation of cross-border profits are now broken and that taxes are only paid by the naive, and if nothing is done about the situation ordinary taxpayers might refuse to pay their share of taxes on the grounds that the system is unfair.

So there you have it: corporations with a patent disdain for the countries who make their businesses both possible and viable, without conscience or concern for the massive damage their schemes do to the social and economic fabric of those countries, beholden only to their own bottom lines and their shareholders.

If such misbehaviour is not an indictment of unfettered capitalism, then I don't know what is.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Synchronous Decline of Peter Mansbridge and The CBC

I admit that I stopped being a regular viewer of the CBC years ago; I think the catalyst for my disaffection was its transparent policy of appeasement (under the pretext of balanced reporting) of the Harper regime which, of course, holds its funding strings. Especially evident in its flagship news program, The National, hosted by that one-time icon of journalistic integrity, Peter Mansbridge, the Corporation has become a parody of itself. And as I have written in past posts, Mansbridge himself has to take the bulk of the blame for its sad decline.

On February 8, The Star's Rick Salutin wrote a piece entitled CBC’s Peter Mansbridge coulda bin a contender. Somewhat dirgelike in tone, Salutin asserts that Mansbridge just seems to have given up on doing any substantive journalism, contrasting him with the redoubtable Walter Cronkite, who he describes as ... ready to stand up against the state and the flow and was solid as the bronze statue of the American revolutionary minuteman who stood “by the rude bridge that spanned the flood/ His flag to April’s breeze unfurled.”

Mansbridge, on the other hand, has happily gone with the flow — and the pressure. CBC has become numero uno for crime stories, weather coverage (today’s snow), product launches, celebrities and awards gossip. None of this is new, or news, and CBC itself doesn’t contest the point.

In this morning's Star, the majority of readers appear to agree with Salutin's assessment. I am taking the liberty of reproducing some of them below:

Leave Mansbridge alone. After his last interview with Stephen Harper, it seems obvious he’s angling for a Senate appointment a la Mike Duffy. Calling attention to his soft-shoe journalism will only make his task that much harder.

Mike Sampat, Toronto

I watch CBC’s The National mostly for entertainment. For real news I watch Aljazeera English and BBC World.

Entertainment, news.

Raja Khouri, Toronto

.... How can one explain that in every half-hour broadcast the “weather person” comes on three times. I suppose it is easier to kill time having the weather person on than to go out an find some news. If we want to dwell on weather there is always the Weather Channel. We can surely do better.

Bob Joakim, Oakville

.... Yes, he is rather apolitical and borderline fawning at times, such as his interview with Stephen Harper before the last federal election, but I can forgive him for that. At least he hasn’t pulled a Mike Duffy and obtained a sinecure in the seniors club we call the Senate. He could have gone to New York a few years ago, but decided to stay, to his and our benefit.

Sigmund Roseth, Mississauga

Expect nothing to change in the near future.

Friday, February 15, 2013


... I just couldn't resist reposting this morning's Star editorial cartoon.

"His Most Preposterous Policy Statement Yet"

As noted here the other day, young Tim Hudak, in another move that shows the caliber of his leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, announced that student loans should be tied to student marks. This morning's Star describes his proposal as silly and his most preposterous policy statement yet (although I do suspect there will be some more headshakers coming from his office down the road.)

You can read the full editorial below, although I suspect its position will fork little lightning with Hudak, who tends to think only in very broad strokes:

American president Harry S. Truman once observed that “the C students run the world.” If Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak gets his way, they won’t even obtain a post-secondary education — at least one funded by government loans.

In his most preposterous policy position yet, Hudak says university and college students should receive loans only if they reach a certain — undefined — level of academic success.

It’s an absurd idea, tucked into an otherwise innocuous 27-page plan detailing Hudak’s vision for higher learning. As Truman (a Democrat) noted, it’s not just academic marks that propel people to success: character, drive and ingenuity are even better predictors of future triumph. But Hudak wants bureaucrats to create an academic cut-off point, blocking students with middling grades from getting student loans. “We feel it prudent to inject the student financial aide system with more market discipline,” his report says.

It’s worth noting that a political leader who preaches the merits of smaller government now wants bureaucrats to decide the academic future of our youth. Did he give any thought to this?

Many middle- or lower middle-class students rely on loans — which they pay back, with interest — to get an education. Curiously, wealthy students who don’t need to borrow will be free to explore academic mediocrity with no government slap-down.

It is true that many graduates struggle to find jobs in these challenging economic times. But the new reality is that most need more than one degree to find a viable career. Blocking education will not create economic growth.

While it’s not a new idea, Hudak’s plan rightly focuses attention on Ontario’s desperate need to train youth in the skilled trades. But not all young people should, or even could, become electricians or plumbers.

It’s already hard enough for young people to get ahead, and the government should not add more restrictions. Before an Ontario election is called, Hudak should drop this silly plan.

Perhaps Hudak needs inspiration from the words of Republican President George W. Bush in a speech to the 2001 graduating class at his alma mater, Yale: “To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students, I say, you, too, can be President of the United States.” In other words — with a little financial help — you never know what a student might become.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Scourge of the Undead

While there was much talk in the House of Commons yesterday about how to prevent a 'zombie apocalypse,' in Canada, Bob Hepburn has his own solution on how to deal with the scourge of the undead: hold a referendum on abolishing the Senate.

Noting that it costs well over $100 million a year to operate the Senate, including the $132,000 annual salary for the 105 senators, their staffs and expenses and the fact that senators need to show up for work barely 70 days a year, Hepburn suggests that Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne include a sentence in her throne speech calling for the referendum.

Given the unholy and voracious appetites of Senators Duffy, Brazeau, Harb and Wallin, dealing with the living dead in a decisive manner would unquestionably make Canada a safer place for that much-threatened ideal known as democracy and finally bury the careers of the party hacks who currently inhabit the upper chamber.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mike Harris Redux

In his ongoing attempt to resurrect the 'glory' days of his close friend and mentor, former Ontario Premier Mike 'the knife' Harris, young Ontario Conservative Tim Hudak has a not-so-new-idea. A man, I deduce, not given to a great deal of introspection or critical thought, young Tim has apparently come to the conclusion it is time to recycle an idea first proposed by Harris when he led the province, an idea even that ruthless leader somehow realized was going too far: tying funding of post-secondary programmes to the rate of employment after graduation. That, of course, is not to downplay the damage he did to post-secondary education, which saw funding fall by 21% during his regime.

But Harris' acolyte seems intent now to pick up where his idol left off and go him one better. In concert with the above-mentioned funding model, another part of Hudak's vision to 'improve' education is to tie student loans to the marks learners achieve in their course:

Financial aid for students should be tied to how well they do in their courses as a way of instilling “market discipline” and incentives to succeed, said Tory MPP Rob Leone (Cambridge), his party’s higher education critic and a former university professor with a doctorate in political science.

“We want a return on our investment,” Leone said, proposing that individual colleges and universities would be encouraged to decide how to structure student aid rules.

Market discipline and return on investment. Principles that have done so much for (to) our economy. And of course, with such a utilitarian approach to policy-making, the fact that the cultivation of critical thinking skills will be a casualty works all to the advantage of the reactionary right-wing that Mr. Hudak embraces and cultivates so fiercely.

A Dire Warning!

Could this emergency broadcast really have been about unusual activity in our Senate?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Timely Reminder From Linda McQuaig

Fanned by a corporate-dominated media, it is hardly a surprise that anti-union sentiment seems to be rampant today. Everywhere we look, there are articles decrying the 'unchecked power' of union 'bosses' and strident rallying for more 'workplace democracy' and 'right-to-work legislation,' thinly veiled euphemisms for the ultimate dismantling of unions, and standard fare from politicians like Ontario's Tim Hudak.

In today's Star, Linda McQuaig offers timely reminders of both the nature of the attacks and why unions are still vital components of our society today:

In the 19th century, workers typically toiled 10 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week. Unions fought to change that. In the decades that followed the Great Depression, unions won higher wages and better working conditions for their members, setting a standard with ripple effects that led to a better deal for all workers.

But in recent decades, many of the precious, hard-fought union gains — job security, workplace pensions, as well as broader social goals like public pensions and unemployment insurance — have been under fierce attack by the corporate world (where workers really are under the thumb of unelected “bosses”).

She goes on to discuss the right-wing strategy that promotes the politics of resentment, pitting workers against each other as people without the benefits of a unionized environment try to tear down those who enjoy them. The results of course, are destructive to the things that make for a passably contented life: a decent wage, leisure time, and social progress.

As is almost always the case, McQuiag offers some much-needed perspective in these difficult times.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"...a bombastic partisan apologist for the prime minister " UPDATED

The above is one of the descriptions offered of the much beleaguered 'PEI' Senator Mike Duffy in a trenchant assessment written by the Star's Tim Harper in today's edition.

Harper reminds us of the ease with which the Puffster abandoned whatever journalistic integrity he might have once possessed as soon as his senatorial seat on the gravy train was confirmed:

When Duffy was offered the Senate post, he told his old colleagues at CTV, he informed Harper the Senate had to be killed or cured because it was dysfunctional.

“I said, ‘I’m not much of a partisan,’ ” Duffy said. “He (Harper) said, ‘We’ve got lots of partisans, we don’t need any more partisans, what we need is people who believe in Senate reform. You believe in Senate reform and therefore that’s what I’m looking for and I said, ‘Okay.’ ”

Shortly after his appointment, that was Duffy helping to turn an economic update from the government into a game show in Cambridge, Ont., — not the House of Commons — coaxing voters through a series of adoring lob ball questions for the prime minister, a role he has reprised many times.

If you have the stomach for this sordid tale of prostitution, be sure to check out Tim Harper's entire evaluation of the man who has perhaps achieved the dubious distinction of fomenting even more public odium and cynicism about a government arm that has long ceased to be anything other than a repository for the party faithful.

UPDATE: It would seem that the people in his 'home' province also have Mr. Duffy's number.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why Is This Man Smiling?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that he has made a successful career out of masquerades?

First, of course, Mike Duffy donned the mask of a political reporter, pretending to be an objective seeker of the truth, initially for CBC and then later for CTV, all the while moving closer and closer to the people he was supposed to be investigating and reporting on until even the thin veneer of impartiality vanished whenever he was in the vicinity of Conservative politicians.

Next, he masqueraded as a Senator who brought value to the 'chamber of sober second thought' while at the same time indulging in the kind of rabid Conservative partisanship that made a mockery of any such notion.

Compounding his clever disguise was the claim that he represents P.E.I., which he asserts is his principal residence, despite the fact that he has lived in Ottawa for many years, holds an Ontario Health Insurance Plan card (which requires that one be a permanent resident of Ontario), thereby rendering the over $30,000 in living expense claims he has claimed since 2010 an instance of egregious and probably criminal fraud.

Maybe the picture of the affable Duffy was shot when he had an amusing exchange with one of his 'constituents' visiting from P.E.I.; most islanders have never seen the rotund politico on their shores.

Or perhaps his good cheer has nothing to do with the above; perhaps he is just richly amused by this video:

Even though I care deeply for the environment and all that thrives within it, I can only hope The Eastern Bald Senator is now on the endangered list and quickly headed for extinction.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Exploiting Mandela

In an age when everyone feels entitled to their own reality series because, well, because they are 'special' and entitled, I suppose I shouldn't be appalled that that icon of integrity and reconciliation, Nelson Mandela, a man I revere, is now in the unfortunate position of seeing two of his granddaughters trading on that integrity.

A story in the Hamilton Spectator today reports the following:

Being Mandela, a new series premiering Sunday on COZI TV, invites U.S. audiences into the lives of Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini, the fashionable, 30-something granddaughters of Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The sisters, along with two brothers, also become the latest famous names to launch a fashion line, called “Long Walk to Freedom” in honour of their grandfather’s autobiography. Their lives are special and glamorous and they know it. They hope that U.S. audiences — COZI TV is a new network launched by NBC Owned Television Stations — will see a vibrant and modern side of South Africa through their eyes.

No doubt this shameless ploy to make a buck will, as they say, be done 'tastefully.' One can only hope that potential viewers show some discretion in their channel choices.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Timely Reminder

Young Tim Hudak, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, probably commands much more press coverage than he deserves. He certainly has been the object of more than one of my own blog posts, in part because of the fascinating window he opens into the mind of that segment of the electorate which believes his retrograde polices have merit. Indeed, it is never wise to underestimate people's capacity to buy into disproven bromides as they indulge in that peculiar form of magical thinking that suggests taxes can be cut, jobs created, and society advanced through no personal pain or sacrifice.

Recently, The Star's Bob Hepburn wrote a piece entitled Is Tim Hudak on the far-right road to victory? In it, he made the following observation about the far-right agenda Hudak is embracing:

His simple message: slash taxes, cut public service jobs, crack down on welfare recipients, beat up on labour unions, privatize government agencies, get tough on crime and create thousands of new jobs.

Hudak calls his proposals “bold, transformative ideas to fire up job creation and balance the books.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, Hudak is now fully embracing the controversial 1994 policies of Mike Harris, his old boss.

By doing so, though, he is gambling his entire political future on his belief that the Harris era is now just a faded memory for many Ontario voters and that the time is once again perfect to champion far-right policies.

The lead letter in today's Star suggests that Hudak's hopes for collective amnesia about the Harris era's depradations may be misplaced, as Steve McCahon of Toronto writes:

Bob Hepburn’s column was both well-reasoned, and insightful. However, several other points should be considered when analyzing the Progressive Conservative Party’s far-right shift in Ontario and the next provincial election.

The success of Ford Nation in Toronto, and the “breakthrough” of the federal Conservative party in the Greater Toronto Area, which gave Stephen Harper a majority government, should serve to concern political parties with more moderate, middle to left-leaning perspectives.

The “Red” Tory party led by Premier William Davis no longer exists. Michael Harris helped to redefine the party in the 1990s. The Common Sense Revolution was neither common sensie, nor revolutionary. It featured slash and burn politics. It took a funding of school boards out of the hands of local municipalities through the property tax-mill rate system.

The government saddled municipalities with funding of general welfare, ambulance services and subsidized housing. It introduced education policy that gutted arts funding, library and guidance functions in the local schools, and a system that has led to the closure of hundreds of local schools over the past 15 years.

I mention these specific changes brought about by Harris with regard to the effect upon the poor and middle class as a cautionary note. The Great Blue Wave that swept over Ontario in the 1990s threatens to re-emerge.

Mr. Hepburn’s comparison to the recent American election is appropriate; however, it fails to take into consideration how Ontarians have tended to vote in response to more recent provincial electoral campaigns.

Premier David Peterson’s snap election resulted in “political suicide.” The electorate punished the perceived arrogance of the Liberal party. During Premier Dalton McGuinty’s second election campaign, which led to a majority government, it was the issue of extending public funding to faith-based schools that destroyed John Tory’s campaign.

The next provincial election is likely to be fought on the basis of a single lightning-rod issue rather than on a broad policy platform. Ontarians are not likely to forget the vilification of “beer drinking single moms on welfare,” and huge slashes to the public service: primarily in the areas of the amalgamation of Toronto and health care leading to the reduction of 6,000 nurses and 11,000 hospital beds.

Premier Mike Harris came to power with the promise of fiscal responsibility and left as an ideologue who was out of touch with Ontarians. Similarly, is Tim Hudak the leader of the Tea Party of Ontario, the promoter of the Common Sense Revolution Part Deux, or Stephen Harper’s lapdog?

One can only speculate as to the “issue” that will dominate the next provincial election. Mr. Hudak has been touting his law and order agenda, while, he is promoting liberalization of the distribution of alcohol in Ontario. Teen smoking, drinking and driving, and gas station attendant violence are all serious criminal and societal matters.

Privatizing the LCBO and introducing the distribution of wine, beer, and/or alcohol at local convenience stores with the potential of “liquor store” holdups and further under-age drinking may very well be one issue that is worthy of focus.

Ontario does not require a hard-right political shift to create jobs, manage its fiscal house, reduce crime, and create better government. Ontarians should reject Tea Party politics, and its inherent divisiveness, despite the pretty packaging and bow in which Tim Hudak wraps it.

One can only hope that Steve McCahon's timely reminder finds purchase amongst the Ontario electorate.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

'Paying' For Their Crimes?

It doesn't take a cynic to realize that justice can be anything other than even-handed. We all know, for example, that there is a disproportionate percentage of people populating North American jails who are from the underclass, both white and non-white. The ability to 'buy' justice by engaging high-priced counsel is reserved for only a certain segment of our civilian population.

In his column today, The Star's Richard Gwyn turns his sights on a segment of our society, our corporate overlords, who have often been described as both 'too big to fail' and 'too big to jail.' Amongst those who fit that bill, predictably are the big banks:

- Just a month ago, Bank of America agreed to pay $11.6 billion (all figures U.S.) for making mortgage loans it knew its clients could never repay and for breaking the foreclosure rules so it could seize the houses of clients behind in their payments.

- That same month, Standard Chartered paid out $327 million after admitting it had broken American sanction laws against Iran, Burma, Sudan and Libya.

- By no means are the culprits only American institutions. Germany’s Deutsche Bank is trying to deal with charges that it hid $12 billion in paper losses to avoid a government bailout.

- The Swiss bank, Wegelin, small but with 272 years of history behind it, has just shut down after admitting it helped American customers escape taxes on $1.2 billion in assets.

- The truly humungous case is that of some 20 banks — American, British, German, Swiss, French — that for years have been fiddling a key international interest rate known as Libor to suit their corporate interests. The first to take the hit, Britain’s Barclays, has settled for $450 million. It all looks encouraging. The villains are being called to account.

True, many have had to pay substantial financial penalties for their crimes, but Gwyn places a couple of huge asterisks beside those 'penalties':

No one has done time for any of these misdeeds. No one has even had to endure the humiliation of a court appearance.

But it gets worse, as the very penalties these corporate malefactors pay are in fact heavily subsidized by the taxpayer:

Most of these grandiose settlements are a lot smaller than they seem because the institution can write off the costs as a business expense. The best, and worst, example is not a bank but British Petroleum, which earned a $10 billion tax windfall by writing off all its cleanup costs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not in an entirely pessimistic frame of mind, Gwy points to a faint light in the distance:

At present, when banks pay penalties, a key part of their settlements is that they are not required to admit to any wrongdoing. A New York state attorney, Preet Bharara, though, now requires an admission of past guilt as part of any settlement. “We have a responsibility to speak the truth, to get at what actually happened,” he says.

Principle and integrity finding its way into the public arena? Only an inveterate cynic could question the prospect.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hooray for Free Speech!

Unless, of course, that freedom is used to criticize Israel.

Medical Marijuana - Part 2

The other day I wrote a post suggesting that policy formulation in the Harper government is conducted not in the measured and studied way most governments employ, but rather more than anything else from a knee-jerk ideological orientation. This is apparent most recently in Health Canada's decision to license private farms to grow medical marijuana, thereby ending the legal right of current licensed users to grow and buy their own. It turns out that the cost of purchasing the product from these private farms, beginning in March of next year, will be more than many can afford.

A discerning reader, Glenda Allard Barr, from Lantzville, B.C., writes the following in this morning's Star:

New pot rules sting ailing users, Column, Feb. 1

Thank you for printing this outstanding glimpse into the world of ailing Canadians who are terrified that they will lose the quality of life they have gained by having access to an extremely effective plant medicine. Serious health problems often result in an inability to earn a good living, and the new medical cannabis program proposed by Health Canada would serve to line the pockets of business people while depriving the sick of their medicine.

Anyone with a heart should be able to see the difficulties faced by these patients, and the benefits they gain from using a plant that is safer than most, if not all, pharmaceuticals. The ability to grow one's own medicine or to find a compassionate person to grow for them can be a life saver for some seriously ill individuals.

The black market also stands to gain from this proposal as purchasing cannabis from commercial sources is beyond the financial reach of patients, and will introduce new problems, such as having to wait for an order, delivery problems, specific strain availability, possible chemical contamination and irradiation. Some patients may turn to crime to fund their medicine.

Health Canada needs to fulfill its mandate to protect the health of Canadians. It is time to trash this preposterous proposal, take another look at past commissions studying cannabis use, and approach the issue in an enlightened and compassionate manner. In my mind, that solution is legalizing and regulating this useful plant.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

I have a confession to make: I am a lifelong Beach Boys' fan. Their harmonies and their idyllic representation of the West Coast lifestyle captivated me as a youth, and still have a hold on me today. One of their signature songs, and certainly one of my favorites, is Wouldn't It Be Nice. Composed by Brian Wilson, it tells the story of a hoped-for future in which young love works out, and they live 'happily ever after.' As such, of course, it bears little relation to reality.

And yet, even so many years later, I cling to the hope that things can get better, that a measure of harmony can be established in our social, economic, and political systems so that we recognize common goals and common humanity and that we work together for the greater good. Wouldn't it be nice?

Such seems to be the theme of two pieces I recently read in The Toronto Star. One, a letter from reader Tina Agrell of Oakville, makes the following observations:

In Ontario we have a chance to do something new in politics and be trendsetters for Canada.

She points out that the last Ontario election did not return a majority government:

We voted for all of those MPPs and we wanted them all to work in Parliament and represent us — expressing their different views but coming to a consensus on how to run the province.

Urging an end to the poisonous partisanship that renders the public deeply cynical, she implores our legislators to work together in the upcoming session, and ends her missive with the following indisputable truth and plea:

Ontario is faced with massive debt, economic decline and labour unrest. No political party wants to face those problems alone while fighting off other parties engaged in savagely attacking their flanks.

The only way forward is by collaborating, by working as a united team. What a role model Ontario could be for Canada if our MPPs could achieve that.

In a similar vein, Martin Regg Cohn writes today about the prospects of co-operation between Kathleen Wynne's Liberals and Andrea Horwath's NDP:

They have much in common. Both come across as authentic, progressive politicians — direct, disarming, dismissive of testosterone tactics, with longtime friends in the union movement and among NGO activists.

Yet for all their commonality, they seem reluctant to make common cause just yet — for fear of undermining their rival power bases. Liberals and New Democrats both want to change the world, they just want to remake it in their own image, on their own terms.

Ever the realist, Cohn is, at best, only guardedly optimistic about the chances, always aware that the thirst for power is the greatest impediment to collaborative government. And young Tim Hudak, Leader of the Progressive Conservatives, seems to be left out of the equation entirely:

At a news conference last week, he seemed out of step with his own rhetoric — railing repeatedly against McGuinty’s abuse prorogation as a delaying tactic, but then insisting it be left intact. Hmmm.

Will Hudak once again find himself the odd man out?

It has often been posited that having more women in positions of political power increases the chances of co-operation and collaboration. Ontario politics in the next little while will certainly be the appropriate crucible in which to test that thesis.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Harper and Medical Marijuana

As my policy-analyst son has made abundantly clear to me, government policy formulation does not take place in a vacuum. Much time and deliberation goes into the devising of new policies or the revising of old ones. Like the butterfly effect, every change or innovation brings with it both anticipated and unanticipated results. The job of government bureaucrats is to minimize the latter.

However, I do have to wonder how much deliberation and due diligence comprise policy-making in the Harper government. We are told, for example, in pronouncements that smack more of ideology than of measured cogitation, that 'get tough on crime' legislation is both demanded by and essential for the Canadian populace. We are told of the necessity of building new superprisons. We are told that danger lurks everywhere within our midst, all of this within the larger context of falling crime rates and an aging populations. But, as journalist H.L Menken once observed.

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Unfortunately, the scant attention to pesky details and the preoccupation with demagogic manipulation characteristic of our current federal regime do have some unfortunate consequences, most especially experienced by those with the least power in our society. In his column today, The Star's Joe Fiorito, a man of uncommon empathy, profiles three people, all of whom are licensed to use medical marijuana for their rather dire conditions but who, thanks to pending changes in federal regulations, will no longer be able to grow the drug nor access it except through a series of big private farms to grow and sell weed to all those Canadians who require it for medical reasons.

While those of a puritanical mindset may be dubious of medical marijuana claims, there is much anecdotal evidence attesting to its efficacy. Fiorito profiles three such beneficiaries:

- Erin broke her back twice in separate injuries and she lives in constant pain; she is licensed to possess and to grow; she uses marijuana as a pain reliever.

- Stu — he has significant arthritis, and has banged himself up pretty badly over the years on his motorcycle, or rather, off it — is a designated grower and a medical marijuana user.

- Jim has AIDS. He was diagnosed 30 years ago and takes the modern daily cocktail of pills and drugs to stay alive; the only way he can keep his appetite up is with marijuana; he, too, is a licensed user.

Each of the above uses very a high daily dose of the herb to treat their conditions, and none of the above will be able to afford the much higher costs that will be incurred through the purchase of their product from the private farms slated to come on stream in March 2014, the same time the previous permissions attending those who currently hold licenses are rendered invalid.

Just another example, I suspect, of people falling through the cracks owing to a government concerned more with the pursuit of ideology than it is with the well-being of the public it claims to serve.