Not-so-Full House

A while back I wrote about the importance of the Parliamentary watchdogs that we have in Canada and why they need to be defended. These officers of Parliament do very important work, work that Canadians depend on. For my money, the officer that probably rises to the top of that list in importance these days is the Parliamentary Budget Officer. This position is relatively new, created at the beginning of the Harper government, that basically studies anything and everything that’s asked of them or they wish to investigate. The first Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page became somewhat legendary in Ottawa for his persistence and enlightening reports on the very government that appointed him.

The PBO brings great transparency to our politics and will continue to do so this Fall as they will actually report on party platforms for the first time ever, which will be fascinating to see from the outside. But around official Ottawa, PBO releases have become something to watch. Today the PBO made one release, looking specifically at “Federal Program Spending on Housing Affordability”. And the results? Not very good:

“It is not clear that the National Housing Strategy will reduce the prevalence of housing need relative to 2017 levels”…. “Canada’s National Housing Strategy largely maintains current funding levels for current activities and slightly reduces targeted funding for households in core housing need”….. Ouch, that’s not a good report for the government, especially going into an election where affordability of housing is going to be a key issue in many parts of the country, but especially in Ontario and British Columbia, places where the Liberals need to hold seats.

What makes this worse is what the report says about how the Liberals are following through on their spending promises to fund this strategy. The report points out they have spent only $16 billion on this program, versus the $55 billion that the Liberals say they have spent. For some quick math folks, that’s less than a third of what they claimed to be spending on housing. 33%. Yikes, that’s very bad and raises a lot of realistic questions that need to be answered.

This is the kind of report that shows the importance of this kind of position. In the past, this is the kind of research and information that would have been buried or torqued in all kinds of ways. But thanks to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, we get an unbiased, fact-based analysis of these questions and issues, leaving it to the Canadian public to decide for themselves. What more could we ask for, right?

In the meantime, this report will serve as fodder for some of the Opposition parties as they go at the government for their failures on this important topic. The issue of housing and affordability is one that has big potential to impact the upcoming campaign, and to find out that the Liberals are failing on this account is sure to feed into the potential of that issue. We’ll see how this develops but thanks to the work of the PBO, we all have more information to determine what is happening and what is not.


Last Minute Decisions

It was way back at the beginning of May I wrote a piece talking about the state of the Liberal Party, but specifically about the number of Liberal MPs who were decided not to run again. The resignation of Andrew Leslie in particular stood out, not just because of his stature but because of the timing. That made me ask aloud what that said about their position, and I wrote the following to that point:

“But then I have to come back to that timing thing. How does the announcement of an MP walking away on May 1st compare to someone who decided long before this? You could easily argue is speaks more loudly. And I will say that while I didn’t agree with the chatter and narrative that formed for a while around Singh and MPs not re-offering, I do agree when you hit a certain threshold it becomes harder and harder to ignore. For the governing Liberals, the resignation of Andrew Leslie feels like that threshold being hit, and there are rumours floating around that he won’t be the last to make a similar announcement. So maybe now is the time to ask the question about why so many solid, hard working MPs are walking away. Hey, at least the timing would demand it because MPs don’t tend to make these decisions this late in the game if things are all hunky dory.”

This comment was true when I wrote it back on May 1st and is one that only gets truer as we get closer to the campaign. That’s what made these two pieces of news from the Red Team jump out at me today, Monday on the last scheduled sitting week of the House of Commons:

Okay, this is an interesting turn of events folks. First of all, announcing on June 17th that you’re not running is odd by itself. Having two MPs announce the same thing on that same day? Also, quite odd. But when you add to that the fact that both are already nominated to run for re-election in the Fall? This all goes beyond “odd” and starts to send up some warning flares that draw attention. How is it that both of these MPs decided to do this now, of all times?

Both Mr. Tan and Mr. Baylis are rookie MPs and both represent ridings (in the GTA and Montreal) that are relatively safe, especially when compared to other members of their caucus. While the news of Mr. Baylis’ decision is just coming out with no details, Mr. Tan said on Facebook that he had “come to conclusion that time has now come to spend more time with family and pursue other careers.” I don’t doubt Mr. Tan’s sincerity, as I got to know him a bit while working in the Natural Resources committee of the House of Commons, where he was a member. But I do believe that the timing of this decision, combined with the fact that was already nominated to run again, do make it fair to ask “what is going on here?”

Regardless of the reasons, I will come back to that quote from the piece I wrote back in May: MPs don’t tend to make these decisions this late in the game if things are all hunky dory. So what gives? Things had seemed to have settled for the Liberals and they seemed to be rebounding from the whole SNC/PMO Scandal. Things seemed to be better, but these two resignations are not signs of better; they are signs of quite the opposite actually. Losing two incumbents in seats that the Liberals will be counting on holding is not a good thing. Having to have new names on those ballots will make it harder to hold onto those seats, especially given the late timing. Anyway, we’ll see if anything more comes out about these decisions but if anything, these two resignations do force us to pay more attention to the state of the government and ask more questions. We thought maybe the rough time had passed, but maybe this is a sign that they aren’t done yet. Time will tell.

The New Deal for People

This week marks the final official sitting week of the 42nd Parliament of Canada, the end of four years of Liberal governance. And while the House may come back for what amounts to Parliamentary overtime in a couple of weeks to tie up some loose ends, this week still marks an interesting point of the calendar before the 43rd General Election in the Fall.

We’re about to head into the summer, one that will be full of campaigning, door knocking and really, the election will be already on, just not officially. Every party has their strategy and approaches that they are taking into this campaign, each coming from the positions they find themselves in. So it was with that in mind that I noted what took place in Hamilton on Sunday morning:

Jagmeet Singh and the NDP launched their election platform. Using the friendly backdrop of the Ontario NDP convention, Singh released details of what the party will be running on in the 43rd election. But not all details where on hand; the full costing of the platform will not come until later, something I will come back to. The Orange Team has put together a platform full of promises, including:

  • Commit to fully and equitably fund health education and other services in Indigenous communities.
  • Create an action plan to prevent suicide.
  • Cap and reduce tuition fees and student loan interest, with an eventual goal of free post-secondary education.
  • Ban unpaid internships.
  • Introduce federal incentives for zero-emissions automobiles and prioritize cars made in Canada.
  • Invest $1 billion in affordable childcare in 2020.
  • Focus on revitalizing industries like forestry, fisheries and agriculture.
  • Put a price cap on cellphone and internet bills and introduce a telecommunications bill of rights.
  • Close tax loopholes and introduce a one per cent “wealth tax” on personal earnings over $20 million.
  • Increase access to public transit, including along rural routes cut off by Greyhound service discontinuation.
  • Power Canada with net carbon-free electricity by 2030.
  • Ban single-use plastics.
  • End veteran homelessness.
  • Launch a basic income pilot project.
  • Strengthen the air passenger bill of rights.
  • Create an affordable housing plan that includes construction of more low-cost and co-operative housing across the country.

That is a very comprehensive list of promises and there’s nothing there that I could disagree with; if you’ve been watching the NDP in this Parliament, many of these items have been front and centre so there isn’t a whole lot that is new there. And when it comes to the fiscal changes piece, the proposed measures to bring balance and progressivity back into the taxation system are welcomed overall.

But I have to admit I didn’t come away from reading this platform, the “New Deal for People”, feeling very confident or even enthused for that matter. My honest reaction to this release was “Meh” with a smattering of “D’Oh!”. When I see this platform, I see a major problem with it; this is simply not a platform of a party seriously seeking government. By not releasing the full costing of this platform yet, and even in some parts admitting that they can’t be costed for, any credibility of these promises is stripped away. Also looking at the cursory promises in there regarding new revenue, there is no way that will all cover some of the massive new expenses promised. Does that mean never balancing a budget again? If that’s not what they meant to say, that’s the message they are sending. That’s very antithetical to the memory of Tommy Douglas, who ran balanced budgets for over a decade and a half while still offering the better social services, programs and Medicare.

And for me, this is where this platform leaves me feeling cold. Some are trying to paint this as a “return to our roots”, but that’s only half-true. The NDP is rooted just as much in good fiscal management as it is in social progress, and this platform flat out ignores the first part of that legacy that helps to pay for the second part. This is a reaction to what happened in the last campaign, or more precisely, an over-reaction. This is an attempt to re-run the 2015 campaign in 2019, and that strategy never works out for the party trying to do it.

The ideas that the NDP is putting forward in this platform are not controversial or bad ideas. They are good policies that deserve to be talked about and see the light of day. But folks, in the real world none of that matters if you can’t get elected and prove that you have a plan to actually pay for those promises. We live in the real world, and that is where elections are held too. By putting this half-baked platform out and wilfully ignoring the fiscal piece of it, I can’t take it seriously. To take it seriously, you need to show how you’ll make it happen, not just leave huge voids of empty spots for your opponents to fill with the potential worst case scenarios, as the NDP has done with this. And given that the Parliamentary Budget Officer will review this platform too, I can just imagine the coup de grâce that report will be.

This platform release might be the lowest moment for the NDP in a decade in my mind. It’s sad because this platform presented a chance to strike out in some new directions, stake out some new ground and be bold. This platform is none of the above; there is nothing there that you wouldn’t expect to see in an NDP platform. This platform marks the end of the time when the NDP was serious about trying to form government and is the end of an era. This platform may make some people feel better inside but that’s all it will do. It won’t change policy, it won’t improve peoples lives and it won’t reverse the problems that these ideas are meant to improve. It won’t because it will never become government policy, because it won’t elect an NDP government and others won’t pick it up. This is a lost opportunity for the NDP, to add to the many others we’ve seen over the past two years. The saddest thing of all is that this might be the last one, because eventually you run out of chances to blow before they stop coming at all. I pray that I’m wrong on all of these counts when it comes to this platform, but I can’t ignore what I see with my eyes, hear with my ears and know inside. I haven’t come away from such a launch in over a decade feeling so down about what I saw, and that speaks volumes that I can’t ignore.

More Disrespect on a Solemn Day: An Update

Last week I wrote about the galling and tone deaf move that came from the city council in Victoria, British Columbia on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasions. The moves by councillor Ben Isitt just blew my mind, not just because of what he did, but because he doubled-down on it and started with wild smears all over the place. It was shameful, but sadly the kind of thing we’ve seen before from people can never accept, let alone admit, their mistakes.

So it was with interests that I came across an update on this story in my Twitter feed today. Yesterday the Victoria City Council sat and we saw some developments on Mr. Isitt’s motion:

CHEK News out of Victoria goes into the details of what happened, but it seems that the majority of councillors came to their collective senses. Mayor Lisa Helps made a point of apologizing to everyone for what happened, the kind of thing that a true political leader does, despite the fact that she was in the right at the very beginning when she voted against Isitt’s motion. But that’s where the humility and “learning of lessons” seems to have stopped, as Mr. Isitt couldn’t let this moment pass without throwing more ugly elbows around:

The councillor at the centre of the firestorm used the opportunity to attack what he calls the “toxic political culture encouraged by some corporate media organizations and conservative political organizations.”
“To be frank, I think this agenda is dangerous and undermines our democratic institutions,” said Ben Isitt.
“It distorts city council’s deliberations in order to stir up emotional reactions.”

Christ councillor, stop it. Stop it. STOP IT!!!! You were wrong, you admitted as much in that very same statement. There is no true apology that means a damn thing that involved qualifying it and adding a tone of “yeah but” statements. Stop digging your own hole!!!

Elected people like this seriously bother me, and I have no problem saying that “progressive” politicians like Mr. Isitt do far more damage to advancing progressive values and ideas than help. He seriously doesn’t get it, or refuses to accept, that not only conservative-minded people were and are offended by the very idea that he put out there. There are thousands and thousands of progressive and non-conservative people out there who either served in the military or have family that are veterans. We love and respect their service to our country and those sentiments don’t have a partisan colour or attachment to it.

To try to paint the reaction of outrage to his terrible motion as something ginned up by “corporate media and conservative political organizations” is beyond insulting to we progressives who were offended by his original idea. By doing this, he’s trying to smear those of us who are insulted by his words as some kind of political enemy, somehow as “the other”. That kind of language from him is ugly, divisive, beneath the dignity of the office that he was elected to and only serves to undermine progressive politicians and ideas overall.

Mr. Isitt seriously doesn’t get it. I’m going to leave it to the words of veteran Keith Rosenberg, who spoke at this city council meeting. He said the following words, words that highlight the bigger point that Mr. Isitt is ignorant to:

The motion is an incredible injustice to the men and women that risked their all for Canadian values and freedoms, and should now have to stand before their council to remind them of the concept of duty before self

The concept of duty before self. The concept of sacrifice. The concept of putting others above oneself for the greater good. These are ideas that Mr. Isitt has proved, through his words and actions, he clearly doesn’t understand at all. It’s clear through his past history and his words in this whole episode, that his most important concern is himself and his own views. To Hell with the thoughts and views of others, those must be secondary to his own and his own ego. Someone who understood these concepts that Mr. Rosenberg spoke to would have done what I suggested a week ago; withdraw the motion and apologize unequivocally. He didn’t do any of that, and that does speak volumes about him.

People like Mr. Isitt who get elected as progressives are exactly the kind of people who cause trouble for progressive causes and values. Their self interest and inability to put that aside for the greater good holds us back and hurts us. When I saw that we progressives need to be self-critical and look at ourselves to see how we can be better, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Progressives movements are not perfect and we all have room for improvement. Every episode like this from a self-absorbed individual takes away from the chance to talk about things that we truly want to advance. Mr. Isitt can try to blame the media and conservatives for their attention to this, but it was his lack of self-awareness that brought this bad motion forward, and it was his lack of humility and refusal to give a proper apology that gave it more oxygen. I pray that he learns from this and does better from now on, but I private hoped for the same last week and look at what happened yesterday. If Mr. Isitt isn’t going to learn from this, I hope that other progressives learn from this episode and take proper heed of the lesson here.

A Preview of Life Under a Scheer Government?

Over the past year we’ve seen a bit of a blue wave wash over parts of Canada, as conservative governments have gotten elected in various places. This has made Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer very happy, as he feels this will help him in the Fall. Mind you, he’s been accused of basically following some of these provincial Conservative leaders like Ontario’s Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney. It’s an accusation that seems to be sticking, as they have tried to keep the Ford government out of the spotlight, seemingly because of their effect on Scheer’s poll numbers.

And when you look at the policy pronouncements that have come out of the Scheer Conservatives so far, a lot of them seem to be mirrors of policies coming from those provinces. That can easily lead one to look at what is happening in those provinces led by Conservative Premiers and get a bit of a glimpse into what the Federal future could be if they won Federally.

With at in mind, lets look at a few stories from those places that might be a preview of a future under a Prime Minister Scheer. We’ll start in Ontario, where for a year now the Ford Conservatives have been cutting and slashing spending at will. Many of those cuts are starting to cause serious pain, along with serious consequences. We saw two stories with prime examples of just that yesterday that speak to the consequences of those Conservative cuts:

The Conservatives cuts to legal aide funding have been extreme, to the point where it was reported on Tuesday that these cuts would actually cost taxpayers in Ontario much more than the cuts themselves. Then yesterday though we saw this story about how now legal aide will not pay lawyers to do bail hearings. Think about that everyone and the impacts of this. Think about the impact of people not being able to get legal help at the very beginning of the legal process, which will likely lead to more people being held in detention simply because they cannot afford a lawyer for a basic process. Of course, we know that will affect certain groups of people more than others, which throws more inequity into a system that already has major issues in that way. This seems destined for a legal challenge of it’s own, but even on it’s face its just cruelty that didn’t need to happen, nor should.

The other story was one that also bothered me deeply. Thanks to the cuts from the Ford Conservatives, school boards are trying to figure out ways to make up for lost revenue. The potential solution? Charging teachers for parking at schools. The board is saying that all the revenue will be put back in the classroom, but I find it very distasteful to basically force teachers to pay $200 a month out of their own pockets to fund these cuts. And that’s on top of the thousands most teachers spend every year out of their own pockets to fund classroom resources that boards won’t and can’t already. This would basically amount to a near $2,000 pay cut for all teachers, and that’s on top of the fact that the Ford Conservatives want to freeze their wages already.

It’s insulting, but for me this idea also points to another big problem with these cuts. A big city board like Toronto Catholic is located in a place where those parking spaces are very valuable, especially when you consider what people pay to park in the city everyday. For this board, that might be an asset they can use to offset those costs, but most boards don’t have that luxury. Boards in places like Kingston, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Windsor can’t charge their teachers $10 a day for parking because there simply isn’t the market for such a thing. Also look at the basic math: Toronto Catholic believes they can raise $6 million a year with this, which can help offset over $32 million in cuts. But that’s because Toronto Catholic is a massive board, with lots of schools and staff. Smaller board simply don’t have that scale and those amounts, so there is no way that those boards could look to similar methods to offset cuts. That puts those smaller, rural and Northern boards at a huge disadvantage compared to big city boards, meaning that those boards will have to make deeper cuts. That will ensure that those students in those boards will be hurt more and will have their education affected more. In a public school system that’s supposed to ensure equity across the province, this is having the polar opposite effect. But’s that’s life in Doug Ford’s Ontario in 2019. How are things going in Jason Kenney’s Alberta? Well it was just Monday that he was celebrating Public Service Week:

Yep, that’s the Premier thanking public servants for their hard work and dedication to Albertans. I’m sure they really appreciated the warm wishes and such. So how long did that appreciation and those warm feelings last? Well less than two days it seems:

Yes folks, Jason Kenney’s Conservatives are moving legislation “allowing” them to unilaterally the collective agreements of Alberta’s civil servants. What a way to say thanks, hey? Wow, what nerve. What makes this worse is that you know this is going to court and you know that the courts are going to strike this down. How do we know this? Because this has happened before, seemingly always with conservative parties instigating it. The most famous recent case of this was British Columbia trying this with their teachers. That went to the Supreme Court where the justices smacked the BC government around, forcing them to undo everything, hire back teachers and pay them all back pay. Since then, BC has had a chronic teacher shortage because, shockingly, lots of teachers weren’t so ready to go work in BC. Hmmm, I wonder how that would be the case? But here we see Jason Kenney running full on into this same action, guaranteeing that somewhere down the line they will be smack around too. But in the meantime, he’ll get to look “tough” as he fights against unions who are only asking that the Government of Alberta keep it’s work and honour their contracts. That seems like a reasonable request, but hey, this is now Jason Kenney’s Alberta.

These three examples of what the leading lights of the Conservative party are doing are all the kinds of things that you can easily see Andrew Scheer doing himself. You can easily picture that kind of fall out from Conservative cuts in Ottawa because we’ve seen that play before. And you can easily picture a Scheer Conservative government trying to break public sector contracts because it suits their political ends. What is happening in those two provinces serve as very good previews for what we might see if Mr. Scheer managed to become Prime Minister in the Fall, a preview that people should heed. At this point, I think that both Mr. Ford and Mr. Scheer would tone it down and just law low, but as we’ve seen, it’s Doug and Jason that are the alphas in this relationship, not Andrew. As we get closer to the election we’ll see more examples of stories like these and each one will serve as a potential preview and a cautionary tale, one that might make people think twice before they elected a Conservative in their riding. Those previews are all around us, it’s now just a matter of if Canadians will pay attention to them.