Aboriginal Rights

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This week the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against Aboriginal children by under-funding child welfare services compared to funding that provinces provide their non-aboriginal citizens. The Finance Minister is meeting this week with indigenous leaders to see what can be done to rectify the situation.

Anyone who has spent even a brief time working on aboriginal issues will not find this surprising unless – like members of the Fraser Institute or the previous government (which stalked and harassed the woman who brought the complaint) – they are in complete denial. Ever since Paul Martin put a 2% cap on growth in transfers to First Nations as a (supposedly temporary) budget restraint measure back in 1997, things have been growing worse and worse for aboriginal programs and services.

While populations have grown at the fastest rate of any group in the country and other cost factors have often risen faster than the cap, already underfunded communities have fallen farther and farther behind. According to an Auditor General’s report, funding for education is more than $2000 per student less for on-reserve schools than are received by provincial counterparts. To put that in perspective, First Nation schools – who generally don’t have the advantages of the shared services of a larger school district – receive 15-20% less funding than a provincial school a few miles down the road. It makes it difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers let alone offer the full range of programs kids need in a modern world.

Some commentators have said that the problems of aboriginal people will not be solved simply by opening our collective wallet and throwing money at them. This may be true – but opening our wallet is probably an excellent and necessary first step.

Real solutions are more complex but aren’t hard to envision. Aboriginal people need – first and foremost – to be funded at similar levels as other Canadians for core services but they also need to have the ability to take control of their own destinies by having full access to economic development opportunities and by establishing their own systems of governance.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the Mi’kmaw took control of education nearly twenty years ago through a formal self-government agreement with the federal and provincial governments. Their students now perform and graduate at rates higher than their provincial counterparts, meeting provincial curriculum standards and, at the same time, giving their children the opportunity to learn their own language and culture as part of the local school programming.

Solving the problems caused by over a century of deliberate and systemic discrimination under the paternalistic control of the Indian Act and the department it spawned will take more than a few extra dollars in the budget – it will require an entirely different approach based on the aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in our constitution.

And that barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said but that’s ten minutes.

Mandates

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Parliament resumes today in Ottawa. The media has been full of stories about what the government will be doing as well as what they should be doing. The former is more significant than the latter. The agenda of the new Liberal government is crystal clear – set out in their platform document and repeated in the Throne Speech. It is unlikely to be swayed much by the demands of the opposition or the opinions of pundits. Neither – according to the polls – will the general public.

And that’s exactly how it should be. I say this, not because I agree with everything they promised (I most certainly don’t) or because I think the Trudeau Cabinet is anything special (other than the gender balance which is long overdue).  Rather, the government should be provided with the leeway to implement the program that the electorate voted for. One can make the case that only 40% of the voters supported them – just as the case was made about the Harper government – but that is the system we have. Fortunately one of the main planks in the new government’s platform was a change to that system.

The opposition will oppose, of course. One might hope they will offer some credible alternatives (and not simply repeat the elements of their own defeated government or platform). The second biggest mistake that the opposition parties could make is to be too vociferous in their attacks – which will make them look excessively partisan at a time when people have grown tired of that. The biggest mistake would be to use parliamentary tricks (or the Senate) to actually block key elements of that platform. That would make them look undemocratic – a charge from the past one might think the Conservatives would like to slide away from.

Things will change as time goes by. The government will make mistakes (and that is another reason not to be obstructionist – opposition parties need to give governments enough rope to hang themselves) and eventually, in 18 or 24 months, they will have implemented most if not all aspects of their platform. Indeed, anything not done in two years will probably have been given up on.

It is then that Parliament – hopefully a more open and active legislature than it’s been for the last ten years – will really come into its own. The government will be facing new challenges and will propose new solutions. The opposition should be doing the same – focusing on where the government went wrong or might soon go wrong and making the case for why they should be selected to govern Canada the next time around.

Because until the next election, the government will be the government. If it is a good government, they will listen to what the opposition has to say and will – to the opposition’s distress – incorporate the best of their ideas into their programs and policies.

I don’t expect that Ambrose and Mulcair will temper their remarks or limit their criticisms; this is politics after all. But maybe the media and the party partisans shouldn’t be so breathless in covering what they have to say. Because right now, nobody else really cares.

And that’s ten minutes.

Trump-lite

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There is nothing better on a cold winter day than a good belly laugh. That’s why I was so happy to hear the news: Kevin O’Leary wants to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party. For my American readers, Mr. O’Leary is a kind of Trump-like figure – Canadian style. Or is that Trump-lite?

I should explain that some Canadians want nothing more than to be Americans but they are not very good at it. Oh, some of them manage to pass – mostly comedians and other entertainment figures. A few baseball players manage to get by too, once they remember not to say they’re sorry for tagging someone out at second.

Mr. O’Leary is a pale version of Donald Trump – if it is possible to be paler than The Donald already is. He isn’t actually a billionaire – he just plays one on TV. And, unlike Trump, he isn’t burdened with bad hair. In fact, he has no hair at all. And I haven’t heard him make overtly racist statements – though I wouldn’t put it past him.

But there the dissimilarities end. Mr. O’Leary loves the limelight. He was one of the first members of CBC’s The Dragon Den, a reality show where rich people decide whether to fund business ideas of start-up entrepreneurs. Turns out that show was mostly, well, a show, a lot of the deals promised on air don’t actually get made when the cameras are turned off. Mr. O. is famously known for ducking one commitment to a venture that eventually made a lot of money. The entrepreneur says Kevin probably missed out on making $500,000 a year. Oh, well. Donald Trump has had his share of failures, too. Four bankrupt companies and counting.

Turns out that is something else Mr. O. has in common with The Donald. They are both successful business men, just not quite as successful as their claim to be. Donald has been claiming to have twice as much cash as most analysts say is true; Kevin seems to suffer from the same desire to overinflate his importance.

Then there is the mouth. Kevin O’Leary likes to say the most outrageous things. And he does it with gusto. It hardly matters that he is frequently proven wrong. The facts are a mere inconvenience and can be brushed aside simply by saying it louder. Never mind that some of the things he says border on illegal (sound familiar Trump fans) such as offering money to a politician if they will quit politics. Well, he didn’t actually say that – since it would be considered an attempt at bribery – he said he would invest it in the oil industry in Alberta if the Premier would quit.

That’s right. He offered… wait for it… ONE MILLION DOLLARS! Who would have thought of it? A self-important bald guy thinking a million dollars was real money. I just want to know when mini-Kevin will show up.

A million dollars in the oil patch won’t even pay for a single job to be created. Hell, it barely covers the budget for most companies’ Stampede pavilion (well, during the boom years anyway).

Chump change from a chump. I can hardly see what he rolls out for his leadership campaign.

And that’s ten minutes.

Winter

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Winter has arrived and once again it appears that no one was expecting it. The City of Ottawa, having saved a million dollars in snow removal charges by our mild December, seemed reluctant to spend a little of the savings to get all the plows on the road in a timely manner. Maybe they had hoped no-one would notice. I believe they noticed.

There were over 80 traffic accidents in the last 24 hours – after a month of one or two a day. Once again, drivers have suffered from seasonally affected amnesia and forgotten that snow and ice are slippery and you can’t travel so fast or follow so close. Well, actually you can but there are consequences.

My wife’s office declared a snow day and sent all the workers home at 2 pm. The snow stopped falling about 15 minutes later – but it is the thought that counts. Most people probably didn’t get home until well after their usual commute. Liz wasn’t affected; her bus – several of them in fact – didn’t bother to come by so she worked from home. I can attest she really did work, too, despite my best efforts to distract her. Some people are way too dedicated.

It was pretty though – all that falling white stuff and the light glinting off the ice. I particularly like it when the big fluffy flakes get blown sideways. Of course, I haven’t been outside since Tuesday so it is easy for me to talk.

Winter is a lovely season of the year, especially if you know you are going to get to Mexico for a week or so in the middle of it. Not that this matters a lot – there will be plenty of winter left over when we come back –probably two months. Winter is a great time for sitting inside and drinking mulled wine, listening to music by candle light, drawing the drapes and pretending you are living in a bio-dome. Now that one can get groceries (and wine) delivered to your condo door, winter is perfectly fine.

Go out? Why would anyone do that? Skiing? Skating? Well, sure I’ve heard of those – even watched them on TV from time to time but actually do them – you must be joking.

I might have to go out this afternoon though. I need a haircut – my semi-annual trim is overdue. I’d do it myself but I’m already starting to sound like Howard Hughes (he didn’t go out in winter – nor any other season of the year either) and I wouldn’t want to start to look like him, too. Well, there must be a parka and boots in here somewhere. And I wonder where I put my glove warmers, five foot long scarf and insulated toque.

Well, I better go look because that’s ten minutes.

Promises

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Promises are the lifeblood of politics. People want to hear them; politicians want to make them. Political platforms are full of both specifics and aspirational goals. We will do this and we want to do that as well. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between them. Parties out of power can only guess what the financial and legal situation will be after election day; the incumbent party closely guards the bad news while still trying to present an attractive platform.

Some promises are simple and easy to keep (or break). For example, in his first election, Stephen Harper promised to reduce the GST from 7% to 6%. Doing that took a single line amendment in the tax code. Of course, the consequences for public finance were huge and ultimately quite complex but fulfilling the promise was dead simple. Harper also promised massive increases in accountability. He even passed a complex and substantial bill to that effect – called the Accountability Act. However, when faced with opposition to his chosen public appointments Commissioner – an oil company executive with strong Conservative ties, Harper threw up his hands and refused to appoint an alternative. The implementation of the Act suffered and, gradually, his government became the most secretive we ever had.

You can see a similar set of promises in the current government. One of their promises was simple – cut middle class taxes and raise those on people making more than $200,000 in taxable income. Again, it was quite simple to do – a few lines of amendments to the tax code and voila, mission accomplished. The tax changes will come into effect this Friday, despite grumblings from those in higher tax brackets.

The more complicated promise was that to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of December. While some – including many in the Liberal party – may have believed this was feasible, few experts thought it was more than aspirational. When the Liberals reduced the goal to 10,000 by year’s end, the experts said maybe. As it turns out, even that goal will be difficult to make – though the government is going all out to move the process along as expeditiously as possible. Recognizing that it may be difficult to reach 25000 even by the end of March, the government has upped the ante to 50000 over the next few years. Some might say the Liberals have reneged on their promise but, at least, when faced with difficulties and opposition, they didn’t’ throw up their hands and give up. And, I suspect, most Canadians recognize that the promise was too ambitious and more complicated than most elements of the short term election platform. And in any case, the main opposition party has little really to say on the refugee issue – whatever numbers the Liberals achieve by December 31 they will exceed in 6 weeks what the previous government managed in the last twelve months or more.

Of course, the ambition of Trudeau and his cabinet are high and time will tell whether the more complicated parts of the platform – such as improved relations with indigenous people, tackling climate change in a real and substantive way and managing the fiscal framework to provide stimulus without letting debt loads rise faster than the growth of the economy – can be achieved. Plus there are a whole bunch of economic issues and social justice matters, barely mentioned in the platform, that require urgent attention.

I like to be optimistic but I expect there will be bigger stumbles ahead than the trivial issues the media is currently focusing on.

And that’s ten minutes.

Reading the Entrails

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The Throne Speech has been given and now it is time to read the entrails – if that’s not too violent an abuse of a metaphor. Opposition politicians have been quick to point out the Speech’s flaws while journalists have tried to parse what was and was not made a priority by the government.

The Conservatives seem particularly outraged that the Speech doesn’t contain planks from the platform they ran and were defeated on – notably tax cuts for everyone and a militaristic response to ISIS. Don’t they know that it’s not even called that anymore? It’s Daesh. Those Tories – they are so 2014.

The NDP at least are being more judicious – focusing on elements of the Liberal platform that were not mentioned in the Speech, such as rolling back the retirement age from 67 to 65.

Journalists have been reduced to parsing language, like old time theologians counting the angels on the head of a pin. What does this phrase mean and why was this word left out? Focusing on things that are not there is a strange approach to policy analysis – since really anything might not be there.

To put it in perspective, this speech was under 1800 words long and still covered a lot of ground. The first Harper Throne Speech in 2006 only mentioned the five priorities they had run their campaign on and still managed to drag on for over 2400 words. It had a lot more flowery language, however, so maybe it was in essence even shorter than yesterday’s effort.

A Throne Speech is hardly definitive. Its purpose is not to list every single thing the government plans to do but rather give a general view of the new direction the government intends to take and the largest priorities they plan to address in the next two years. For those who are worried about the lack of specific timelines, it should be understood that this is not the only Throne Speech we will hear during the life of this government. In about two years, the government will take a break.

Parliament will be prorogued, not to avoid scrutiny, but so the government can fine tune its course and message. This is a natural event in the life of every Parliament. At that time, matters left undone may be given new focus and emphasis and new issues that will inevitably arise in the next few years will be considered. The Cabinet will likely be shuffled at the same time as the government begins the inevitable progress towards the next election.

Speeches from the Throne have never included everything the government intends to do or ultimately does. What it tells you is what is likely to be top of mind for the next 6 to 12 months and what the government already knows how to accomplish. Details may be vague – because frankly they haven’t been worked out yet.

Writing actual legislation and preparing a budget is a far more onerous and complex task. Those will emerge – after suitable consultation it is promised – in February, March and the months that follow. Writing a throne speech is a simple task and, really, shouldn’t occupy too much of our analytical thoughts. What comes next is the important stuff.

And that’s ten minutes.

Sunny Days

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Today is the real first day for the new Liberal government. Everything until now has been a prologue – an important one but none the less simply a precursor to the important work ahead. A number of milestones have been reached, it is true. The appointment of a gender equal Cabinet – because it is 2015 – was of great symbolic and practical importance. The symbolism is obvious; the practicality will be displayed in the types of decisions such a group is likely to make.

The promise to bring in 25000 Syrian refugees has been modified in terms of timing but not intent. Of course, the Conservative opposition (and some on the left) have been quick to call this an abandonment of an election promise – after insisting vociferously that the timing should be extended for security purposes. But this, my friends, is what a rational government does; modify their commitments – without abandoning them – when evidence shows a change is required. Governments who stick to promises for purely ideological purposes are soon turned into failures and are eventually defeated. Just ask Steve.

Speeches have been made – at COP 21, APEC and the Commonwealth meetings – and processes have been put in place for consultations with the provinces and for starting a national inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women. Yesterday, some questions were answered as to the future of the Senate. While Claude Carignan – the Conservative leader in the Senate – called it weird, my own boss (also a Senator) thought it was brilliant. It makes a clear break with the former partisan obsession of some Senators on both sides of the aisle and makes sure that Canadians understand that real reform – as much as possible within the limits of the Constitution and the Supreme Court allows.

It doesn’t surprise me that Christy Clark has said she won’t play along. I expect Brad Wall will follow suit. Both – despite party labels – are Harper-like Conservatives who would rather use the Senate as a political football rather than try any real reform. If either of them had the courage of their convictions – they don’t – they would introduce a constitutional amendment into their legislature and get the reform process started. Provinces have that power, you know.

In any case, all that – along with the appointment/election of new Speakers has simply brought the government to the starting line. The real work of governing will come with a Throne Speech today (it will be short and to the point) and a ways and means motion next week to implement tax changes effective January 1st. In January, the first of the new independent Senators – including a government representative – will be appointed, a budget will be brought down and a raft of new legislation to enact Liberal campaign promises (and undo the worst of the Harper era) will be tabled and debated in the House and Senate.

As for Trudeau, the honeymoon seems to be continuing – despite the phony scandal of nannygate – and I expect that the government will be given a year before real criticism, as opposed to partisan whining, will begin to reveal any weaknesses in the Liberal plan.

And that’s ten minutes.