Crawl Across the Ocean

Friday, October 28, 2005

How Exciting

Today's giant headline in 'The Province': 'One Missing Number Costs Them Millions'.

It's bad enough when we get headilnes about people who won the big jackpot. But now we get headlines about the people who didn't win? I can see tomorrow's headline: "Local man was totally going to pick up Eric Staal in hockey pool - One bad pick costs him hundreds".

I have to stop reading the papers.

The Lying Globe and Mail and the Lying Liars it Lies on Behalf Of

Update: I changed the link on the legality of downloading in Canada to one more up to date with the July Supreme Court decision on the topic, and changed the sentence around that link to be more clear.

The Globe and Mail took the interesting (and positive) step a while back of allowing comments on their news stories, much like a blog.

Unlike a blog, however, they don't actually seem to read any of the comments.

Here's a quote from a Globe 'story' (sub. only) from September 29, by Terry Pedwell. I put 'story' in quotes because the article, (headlined 'What's with them young whippersnappers?' which I suppose should have been fair warning that it wasn't worth reading) is not so much a story as a free public service announcement for the recording industry disguised as a newspaper story.

Here's how it starts:
"Canadians illegally download 14 music CDs or other files from the Internet for every file they take from the web legally, a new recording-industry poll suggests.

The illegal downloading has cost retail music stores more than half a billion dollars in lost sales since 1999, a study by Pollara for the recording industry estimates."

And it goes on from there, basically just reciting industry talking points. But the interesting part is the comments. It doesn't take long before someone points out that downloading music from the internet has not been declared illegal in Canada. An early comment on the Globe article:
"Michael Mac Neil from Ottawa, Canada writes: I am amazed that the newspaper so blithely reports on the issue of downloading as an illegal activity. That has not been established by any court decision in this country, and there are considerable doubts about its illegality, given that Canada has a system of levies to compensate copyright owners for personal copying."

and more...

"chris topher from Toronto, Canada writes: Illegal downloads? Downloading copyrighted music from peer-to-peer networks is legal in Canada, although uploading files is not. s. 80.(1) of the Copyright Act allows anyone to copy music for the private use of the person making the copy. The Copyright Board has found that the Copyright Act does not require that the source or target medium be lawfully owned, e.g. using a stolen prerecorded CD to make a private copy on a stolen CD-R involves two instances of theft but no copyright infringement. Okay!"

Other commenters also take the article to task for its (typical for the media) inane misuse of statistics to either mislead or point out the obvious as if it is significant (young people download more music than old people!!), and commenters also make the important, if subtle distinction, between copyright infringement and theft which the article/industry press release fails to do.

So the article is terrible, but at least with the open comments section thorough readers can get a clearer view of the situation.

OK, so fast forward to October 26, "Recording Industry sings the blues: Statscan" by Terry Webber. "Canada's recording industry reported its worst financial showing in six years in 2003 with illegal downloading - never exactly music to the sector's ears - the likely culprit for plunging sales and dropping profits, Statistics Canada said Wednesday."

Let's leave aside for now the question of why the media feels that every story needs a tired cliche/pun in the headline and let's also leave aside that the online Globe and Mail still hasn't figured out that if you have a whole story about some report which is posted online, you might as well link to it.

Instead, consider. The last time the Globe wrote about this topic, their readers pointed out a clear factual error in that they inaccurately stated that downloading music was illegal, when this has not been established. Here we are a month later and have they learned anything? No. Once again they are misleading the public and once again the online comments to their story are filled with people pointing out that downloading is not illegal and the Globe is misleading the public. Do they not read the comments? Do they not care that they are routinely printing the same uncorrected industry lie over and over again?

Ok, enough about the Globe, what about Statcan? Apparently my tax dollars which support Statcan are not enough for them to be able to let me read most of their studies and reports without paying extra for them, but it *is* enough for me to pay for someone to add editorial comment to their statistical reports,
"This overall decline in sales raises questions about factors such as illegal file downloads and swapping song files. Other possible factors in the decline include competition for the consumer's entertainment dollar from an array of media, ranging from computer games to movies to cell phones."

Yes, and other *possible* factors are the decline in the number of recordings actually released, the aging of the CD medium, the performance of the economy, the quality of the music released, and on and on, raising the question of why and on what basis Statscan picked the possible factors causing the decline to mention in it's report. How about Statscan sticks to reporting the stats and leaves the groundless speculation on why the stats are how they are to the media?

Back to the Globe and Mail, one last thought. How did "This overall decline in sales raises questions about factors such as illegal file downloads and swapping song files." in the Statcan report become, "illegal downloading - never exactly music to the sector's ears - [is] the likely culprit1 for plunging sales and dropping profits, Statistics Canada said."

Would it be too much to ask that we get a balanced informed article on the Statcan findings? OK, perhaps, but the Canadian Press at least manages to quote Statcan accurately and provide a little bit of balance, showing that it is not impossible.

Surely it at least isn't too much to ask that the Globe could stop printing factual errors that their own readers have already corrected them on time and time again?

Where's Atrios to convene a panel on blogger ethics when you need him?

Correction: Over the course of a series of articles presenting only one side of the music downloading debate, the Globe and Mail has repeatedly stated and implied that such downloads are illegal when in fact this has not been established. The Globe apologizes for the repeated errors.

See that's not so hard, is it?

Update 2: Via I Solipsist, this Michael Geist article on the same report is more enlightening.

1 Culprit: Noun, 1 : one accused of or charged with a crime
2 : one guilty of a crime or a fault
3 : the source or cause of a problem

Nice choice of words to imply that not buying a company's products (and thus causing them lower sales) is some kind of crime. True, I'm nitpicking, but don't try to tell me that changing something from a 'factor' to a 'culprit' is neutral writing.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And They Call it Democracy

Have you ever had one of those experiences where when you first encounter something, it doesn't strike you as being too odd or unreasonable, but the more you think about it, the more absurd and irritating you think it is?

Well, that's me on the topic of referendums and supermajorities. At first when Gordon Campbell mandated that, in order for his government to go ahead with electoral reform, it would have to get the support of 60% of voters, I thought that this was high, but perhaps a reasonable precaution for a big change like changing the electoral system. After all, weren't supermajorities (more than 50%) required to pass other fundamental changes, like changing the constitution?

But what I eventually realized was that supermajorities are only ever required of votes of politicians, never for votes of the citizens, i.e. referendums. And when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. How can a government deny the wishes of a majority of the population, when the whole point of representative government is that the government should reflect the wishes of the people?

True, we have some protection for minority rights, but this is protection from discrimination and oppression, enshrined in the charter of rights and freedoms, not protection from having the electoral system changed, which is hardly a question of minority rights!

I invite readers to enlighten me, but I can't think of (or find using google) any question ever put to referendum anywhere which required a super-majority in order for politicians to consider it passed. Countries joining the European Union, adopting a new constitution, amending the existing constitution, changing their electoral systems, provinces joining the country, provinces leaving the country, conscription, daylight savings time, 50% majority required for every last one.

I've said all this before, I know, so why do I bring it up again now? Because P.E.I. Premier Pat Binns has just arbitrarily decided, one month before a referendum on a new voting system is to be held, that the threshold for it to pass should be 60%, not 50% as recommended by the Commission of P.E.I.'s electoral future, which Binns himself appointed.

This excellent blog post on the topic quotes Binns as saying,
"Government is not comfortable with 50 per cent plus one in a low turnout situation. If we were to have a very low turnout for some reason, and only 50 per cent plus one supported change, I would hardly think that that would be enough cause to change the system."

Binns is so concerned about the turnout that he is pinching pennies by cutting down the number of polling places! I don't know if they have a media in P.E.I. that is allowed to ask questions (the coverage I've seen from the CBC and the 'Guardian' is unclear on this point) but if they do muster up the gumption to ask a question, they might want to ask what happens if the vote is similar to what happened in B.C. That is, what happens if a clear majority (say 58%) of P.E.I. residents vote in favour of changing the system, but the government doesn't want to 'change the rules' by allowing a change to go through when the vote didn't meet their arbitrary 60% threshold.

In B.C. the government basically decided they would re-do the referendum four years later using the same threshold and hope that the result is 'clearer' this time, hardly an ideal solution - what happens if the vote is the same? Wait 4 more years and do it again?

Historically, politicians have changed the electoral system (and changed it back) without even consulting the electorate at all, something which is perfectly within their powers as granted by the constitution. But now, not only does it require a referendum (which I support), but it needs a supermajority to prevent - what exactly - the rights of the 40-50% minority from being trampled by the 50-60% majority? Or more likely, to prevent politicians having to deal with a system which gives more power to voters and less to them.

It seems like politicians are trying to take credit for 'doing something about electoral reform' while at the same time throwing up procedural barriers that make it near impossible for any reform to actually happen. Then they can say that they tried and 'the people have spoken'. But when politicians ask the people to speak and then conclude that the appropriate course is to act as if the losing side was in reality the victor, this is not democracy - and in some ways, it is worse than a politician just ignoring the whole question of electoral reform altogether.

I've never even been to P.E.I., but if I lived there I'd be embarrassed by the actions of my Premier on this issue. But, you might say, my own Premier in B.C. has done (pretty much1) the same thing. To which I can only say, good point.

Update: 1 I say pretty much, because, at least in the B.C. case, the 60% threshold was specified from the outset, rather than being tacked on last minute when the Premier got cold feet.

Just Like The Founding Fathers Would Have Wanted

So Harriet Miers has 'voluntarily' withdrawn her nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Josh Marshall had this one pegged pretty good, I think. It just goes to show that a Supreme Court judge in the United States can be completely unqualified, and they can be someone who isn't a religious extremist but they can't be both at the same time. It's nice to see that the system is working.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Follow-Up on Mauritania

A few months ago, I posted on the military coup in Mauritania. Since it has been a few months, and you hear little about Mauritania on the news, I thought I'd look around for an update on the situation. The best summary I found was by Jonathan at The Head Heeb,
"There is a great deal that can go wrong between now and the elections, but the military, which has already handed day-to-day authority to a civilian cabinet, seems thus far to be taking its self-imposed democratization mandate seriously."

Like Jonathan says, so far, the military junta in control of the country is continuing to say and do the right things to reassure people that they are serious about their intent to try and bring true democracy to Mauritania, but as any Canadian (or Iraqi) can attest, a country with longstanding ethnic divisions and newly discovered oil isn't always the easiest place to hold together. And of course, there is no shortage of past examples of military coup victors who promised democracy but got cold feet when the time came to hand over real power.

Still, I wish them luck, and I'll try to keep an eye out for future developments: the current schedule is a constitutional referendum in June-July 2006, municipal elections in October 2006, elections for a new a parliament in April 2007, a vote for the senate in May 2007 and presidential elections in June 2007.

So You Wanna Be a Republican?

Here's how, in 10 easy steps (via Andrew Sullivan).


So, via Voice in the Wilderness, it looks like there wasn't much wrong with Dingwall's scandalous!! expenses while he was running the Mint.

But not to worry, scandal!!-lovers, via Bound by Gravity,
I see that the Angry guy is already hard at work on the next scandal!!

Here's a couple of quick questions for right-wing scandal!!-lovers:

1) What do U.S. terror alerts, Conservative cries of scandal!! and the annoying kid next door who's always warning me about the wolf prowling our neighbourhood have in common?

2) Now that we've dealt with the pressing issues (scandals!!) of pizza, altered tapes and gum, is it time yet to actually talk about some policy? You know, the future of the country? Am I asking too much?

Public Service Announcement

Robert is accepting nominations for the 2005 Canadian Blog Awards. Nominations are open until November 20.

The categories are:
Best Blog
Best Liberal Blog: for blogs that are politically left.
Best Conservative Blog: for blogs that are politically right.
Best New Blog: for blogs that started in 2005.
Best Group Blog
Best Humour Blog
Best Photo Blog
Best Culture Blog: for blogs about art, literature, movies, music, etc.
Best Personal Blog
Best Media Blog: for blogs by professionals in the media.
Best Business Blog
Best Religious Blog
Best Sports Blog
Best Blog Post
Best Blog Post Series

The results of the 2004 awards can be seen here.

No More Ties

No, this is not a post about my clothing preferences (although it could be), it's time to continue the alternating hockey-sausage posting pattern.

So the NHL has declared a new era in which there will be no more ties, only wins and losses.

As I see it, for any given team, there are only two important outcomes of the NHL regular season:
1) Does the team make the playoffs?
2) If yes, what is their seed in the playoffs?

Both of these are in turn determined by how many points a team gets during the season. So the only thing that really matters in the season is how many points a team gets. So the only important outcome of a regular season game is how many points the team got in that game.

There are 3 possible outcomes of this variable in any given game.
1) The team gets 2 points, either by outscoring the opposition in regulation, scoring in sudden death overtime, or outscoring the opposition in a shootout
2) The team gets 1 point, by scoring the same number of goals as their opponent in regulation and then either being scored on in overtime or being outscored in a shootout.
3) The team gets 0 points, because it is outscored in regulation play.

All this is understood, but where I hold a radical opinion is that I think, given that the most important result of a game is which of these three outcomes occurred, that we should have a unique word to describe each possibility.

Currently, the 2 point scenario is described as a 'win', while *both* the 1 point and 0 point scenarios are described as a 'loss'. So one team could play 5 games and get 5 points and another team could play 5 games and get 0 points and both teams could be described as having 'lost 5 in a row'. Clearly, this is unacceptable.

So, the first decision is whether we should use the word 'loss' to describe the scenario when a team gets 1 point or 0 points. There are any number of both sports and countries in the world and there are precious few things that they almost all agree on. But one thing that *is* pretty universal is the idea that losses are for losers and when you lose you get nothing. Furthermore, I'd say that the concept that the worst possible outcome from a match is described as a 'loss' has fairly wide acceptance as well. So from now on, I will use the word 'loss' to describe situations where the team got 0 points.

The tricky question is, of course, what to call the outcome when the team gets one point. Clearly, we need a new word. One which indicates that the team scored the same number of goals as their opponent in regulation play and that they got one point out of the game. Well, I can think of one obvious candidate...

What's in the Grinder?

I thought for this post, I'd look at a part of the sausage factory I don't usually pay much attention to, the bills which are actually in the House of Commons (or the Senate), potentially on their way to becoming legislation.

Here is a summary of bills introduced by the government and their current status. If you don't like that summary, here is another one. Don't like that summary, this one (scroll down a little), from Politics Watch, is pretty good. Finally, this list from 'How'd They Vote' is good as well. The lists from Politics Watch and How'd They Vote are more user friendly, but the government summaries are good because they link to the text of the bill itself and they are regularly updated.

Since it came up, I should mention that How'd they vote is an interesting site. As you might expect it tracks the votes in federal parliament so you can see who voted in favour of or against a particular bill and also look at the voting record of individual MP's.

For a more partisan summary of what's been going on, check out this this NDP session report, where they review the last sausage-grinding session to highlight areas where the NDP chefs added spice and seasoning to various sausages. It's a little vague, but it's still a good summary of what was going on last session of parliament.

Anyway, some of the highlights of what is in progress:

C-11 An Act to establish a procedure for the disclosure of wrongdoings in the public sector, including the protection of persons who disclose the wrongdoings.

This bill has been passed by the House of Commons, but hasn't received royal assent yet because it is still in the Senate.

Here, the Hill Times reports on how when the bill was first released, the NDP and Bloc felt it was so bad it might have been 'set up to fail' because it needed so many revisions to be considered tough enough.

Here, from Hansard, everyone's favourite attempted whistle-blower, Gurmant Grewal speaks (in typical long winded parliamentary fashion) about the Conservative party's position on the bill,
"I do not want anyone to get me wrong. The bill is still far from perfect but thanks to the pressure applied by the Conservative Party, the government has relented and tabled amendments to create an independent commissioner to hear and investigate disclosures of wrongdoing. This was an essential change to the proposed legislation.

Other amendments have not been forthcoming, including: having the commissioner report directly to Parliament instead of to a minister; prohibitions of reprisals against those who make disclosures of wrongdoing to the public, media, police or anyone outside the narrow process prescribed in the bill; elimination of provisions to change the Access to Information Act to allow departments to refuse to release information about internal disclosures of wrongdoing for five years; and, the bill would still allow cabinet to arbitrarily remove government bodies from protection under Bill C-11.

The bill represents an improvement over the status quo but it remains clear that the government is more interested in managing whistleblowing than protecting and encouraging public servants who uncover evidence of wrongdoing.

It would be interesting to know if there could have been a better way to protect whistleblowers. Like the members for New Brunswick Southwest and Winnipeg Centre, as well as Senator Kinsella, I have for years been lobbying for a strong whistleblower protection. In October 2000, I introduced Bill C-508, the whistleblower human rights act, which was probably the first bill introduced in that session about whistleblowing protection.

My legislation, drafted with the help of actual whistleblowers, including Joanna Gualtieri, Brian McAdam, Robert Reid and many others, would have given people the confidence to come forward but the Liberals could not muster up the courage to support an opposition member's bill.

When the bill finally came to a vote in February 2003 as Bill C-201, because I had reintroduced the same bill, government members refused to lend their support to my initiative. If the government had been sincere about whistleblowing, Liberal members would have voted differently that day. We know the government did not want to pass the bill at that time. Instead, it revealed how phoney its promise had been.

The last time I participated in the debate on Bill C-11, I highlighted a good comparison of my bill, which was drafted by whistleblowers, to Bill C-11 at that stage. There was a big contrast. Many members on the Liberal side were nodding their heads in favour of some of the things that I was proposing in my bill.

The government needs to do more to encourage the reporting of wrongdoing and should stress that it is an important civic responsibility. In fact, it should be the stated duty of every employee to disclose any wrongdoing that comes to their attention.

Based on the experiences of the whistleblowers I have met, their careers and personal lives have been devastated. I believe an employee who has alleged wrongdoing and suffers from retaliatory action as a consequence should have a right to bring a civil action before a court. As well, allegations of wrongdoing should be rewarded like in California where whistleblowers are entitled to 10% of the money government saves as a result of their vigilance.

It is vital that the threat of employer retaliation be eliminated to encourage government employees to speak up. This will assist in curtailing the misuse of taxpayer dollars. Every day there seems to be new reports of corruption and scandal with the government that could be eliminated.

When I blew the whistle on whistleblowing, the Liberals had their ears plugged. Four years ago, in the face of government opposition, I introduced legislation which the Liberals refused to support at that time. Now is the time they should be serious about making this bill effective. Since it was first introduced some important amendments have been made but it is still flawed. I think we will let it pass so that a Conservative government will have the opportunity to make it stronger."

From How'd they vote, we can see that in the end, for Bill C-11 (Whistleblower legislation), voting was strictly along party lines with all parties voted in favour except the Conservative party, who decided not to support it after all.


C-37 An Act to amend the Telecommunications Act. This is the 'do not call list' to provide some relief from telemarketers. It was passed by the House of Commons yesterday with all party support. Let's just hope it gets through the Senate before we have an election!


C-50 An Act to amend the Criminal Code in respect of cruelty to animals.

I've talked about the long history of this overdue bill before, so I won't get into it again. I'll just say I'd be surprised to see it get passed before the next election call. The Liberals have shown that they don't really care enough about this bill to get it passed.


C-55 An Act to establish the Wage Earner Protection Program Act, to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies Creditors Arrangement Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts

This bill was pushed on the Liberals by the NDP and it's a good example of how a combination of Liberal legislation and NDP motivation can yield positive results. The main purpose of the bill is to ensure that workers wages are protected in the case that their employer declares bankruptcy (basically the government pays the workers and then tries to recoup its payment by going after the company's assets). Other benefits would be a slight easing of restrictive rules on students declaring bankruptcy (they only have to wait 7 years after graduating instead of (I believe) the current 10). I get the impression the opposition parties (especially the Bloc and the NDP) are going to try and whittle this number down further in committee.

The bill also contains some streamlining of the CCAA program (a restructuring program many companies (especially big ones) use as opposed to declaring bankruptcy and the Liberals tacked on some measures to allow them to go after people who declare bankruptcy just to avoid paying large tax bills. The government's summary of the bill (in bureaucratese) is here.


C-60 An Act to amend the Copyright Act

This is probably one of the most controversial pieces of legislation kicking around at the moment and the 'background' section of the bill describes (in detail) the (typically) long and winding road that brought us to our current position. The main point is that many years ago (in 1997), Canada signed the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties but we can't ratify the treaties (which are generally tilted in favour of copyright holders and against users of copyright (i.e. the general public)) without modifying 'The Copyright Act', hence, legislation. Plus, the government generally needs to update it's laws to keep up with the changing digital times.

The best resource on this issue is Michael Geist, especially this column he wrote for the Toronto Star. Says Geist,
"The most disheartening aspect of Bill C-60 is that there is so little in it that unifies technology with culture and education to the benefit of all. Rather, the potential of the Internet is viewed as a threat, leading to legislative provisions that will leave Canada looking on enviously at other countries that courageously put the public interest first.

After introducing Bill C-60 in the House of Commons last week, Canadian Heritage Minister Liza Frulla proceeded to conduct an interview at the venue she undoubtedly thought best reflected the priorities of the legislation -- a nearby HMV music store. While music is important, it is only when government leaders conduct such interviews at schools, libraries, and research labs that we will know that Canadian copyright policy is headed in the right direction."


C-67 An Act respecting the allocation of unanticipated surpluses and to amend the Income Tax Act

Or as I like to call it, an Act respecting the intellectual bankruptcy of the current government. This is the Liberals pre-election ploy of pre-allocating any future surplusses to be distributed 1/3 refund, 1/3 new spending, 1/3 debt relief. Here is the government press-release on the topic for a favourable viewpoint. It will be interesting to see what the opposition parties do with this legislation.


C-68 An Act to support development of Canada's Pacific Gateway. As Ian noted over at Tilting at Windmills, Paul Martin is moving to expand Canada's trade with Asia, which is a good idea, both because increased trade is generally good for prosperity and also because it is important for Canada to diversify its trade away from the U.S. and increased trade with Asia is best way to do that. This act is a first step in this process, and does little in itself other than set up a "Canada Pacific Gateway Council" whose role will be to oversee the whole process of trying to increase trade.


There's a lot more going on, but this post was long enough and I only wanted to cover some highlights. I didn't really have a point, but I did find in looking at some of the laws and reading some of the debates that when you take a closer look at what is going on, without it being filtered through blogs and the media, you get a much more positive impression of what our politicians are up to. Of course, that could be misleading!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Good Old Days

Just a quick break from sausages to find myself in rare agreement with Toronto Star sports(Leafs)writer Damien Cox. Says Cox,
"Everywhere, except on the set of grouchy Hockey Night in Canada, where the political agenda of glorifying enforcers, limiting penalties to two per game and reverting back to the one-referee system has been more soundly defeated than was the NHL Players Association in the lockout, people are loving the thrills and spills the NHL is delivering most nights."

I may be skeptical that the 'new NHL' is going to last, but don't get me wrong, it's far superior to what was on display two years ago (especially when Minnesota isn't playing). So I was pretty mystified when I watched Hockey Night in Canada last week and Don and Ron (and also Harry and Bob in the broadcast booth) were going on and on about how the new NHL is lousy and they miss the good old days when men were men, the scores were 2-1, goalies didn't have to put up with all these people shooting pucks at them, and you could knock a guys teeth out with your stick and not have to worry about going to the penalty box.

Seriously, what kind of weird groupthink have these guys been subjected to?

While I'm on the topic, I have to say that Jim Hughson and Greg Millen have been pretty good doing the late games, although perhaps they just sound good coming after the increasingly past their prime Harry and Bob (who seem to be struggling just to keep up with the play these days, never mind offering insight). A typical snippet of Bob and Harry commentary from the Leafs-Flyers game on Saturday:

Bob: The Leaf player behind the net, being watched by big Primeau.
Lindros lost it along the boards, no, he's got it back again.
Cross-ice pass.
No shots on goal for either team so far. The Leafs almost had a shot on that last rush but Kilger fired high.
Oh, Belfour had to be sharp to stop that shot from close range by big Keith Primeau.

Harry: The defenders have no idea what to do in this new NHL. They can't hold or slash or cross-check anymore which means it's pretty much impossible to defend. Hopefully they can learn to adapt before we have to watch any more of this disgusting river hockey.

Bob: Still no shots for either team

Harry: Except for that last one by big Primeau

Bob: Yes, Belfour had to be sharp to stop that one.
Deflected over the glass and there will be a face-off to the left of the flyers netminder, Robert Esche.

...and on it went.

Sausage Factory

As promised, an over-complicated flowchart of the influences on policy formation. You may need to click on the image and expand it (click on the the little expander icon in the bottom right corner of the image if your browser doesn't automatically show the full size (readable) image) to be able to read all the details.

The blue indicates official government channels, the orange indicates 'academic' work and the green indicates the media. Cross-hatching indicates those components which play a dual role of providing non-partisan analysis in the public interest and providing partisan talking points for political gain.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Making Sausages

Maybe it's a sign that not much interesting has happened lately, or maybe it's just my INTP Myers-Briggs profile asserting itself, but I've found myself thinking broadly about the idea of policy lately, and everything that goes into the formation of policy in Canada.

So this is going to be a dry poli-sci-textbook type post which sort of re-invents the wheel of how ideas become policy which becomes law in Canada, but I find that I only really understand wheels that I've personally re-invented so I'm going to slog through it anyway. I'm guessing this will have marginal usefulness for myself and even less for the average reader.

You've been warned.

Starting at the end of he process, policy is turned into law in Canada when it is passed by the government of the day. For example, today (Oct 24, 2005) the government is debating C-50, 'An Act to amend the Criminal Code in respect of cruelty to animals'. As an aside (reader: asides already? He just started, we're doomed!) you can tell that a potential piece of new law (known as a bill) was introduced by the government (i.e. by the party in power) because it is denoted C-##, where C tells you it was introduced in the House of Commons, and ## is a number less than or equal to 200.

Generally, the decision of which bills to introduce is made by 'the cabinet' which is in turn selected (and de-selected) at the whim of the Prime Minister who can (within the fairly slack bounds of tradition - for example, tradition suggests that you usually have one Minister of Finance, but it places no limits on how many Ministers responsible for Democratic Renewal you can have) create whichever cabinet posts they like, and then appoint whoever they like, whenever they like to fill those posts. The one limitation is that ministers have to be chosen from the ranks of either the House of Commons or the Senate - generally the Prime Minister picks people from their own party, from the House of Commons to be ministers.

Most of the bills which become law are those introduced by the government, but on occasion a private member's bill gets passed into law. From the Wikipedia article on the Prime Minister of Canada
"Although any elected member of the House of Commons may introduce new legislation of their own, referred to as a "Private Members' Bill," it is an infrequent occurrence that one is ever enacted. In the 37th Parliament 2nd Session, of the 471 Private Members' bills tabled, only four received royal assent (although some others were passed by the House of Commons). None of these were significant changes to socio/economic matters affecting the country and each of these were dramatically modified in the process. Private Member's Bills require considerable amount of time, energy, research and other resources needed just to prepare a bill for introduction into Parliament. However, few of these receive the time and Government support needed to pass them. Often, though, popular private members' bills are adopted by the government and become part of a government bill."

As you may have guessed, you can tell that a bill is a private members bill because it will be labelled C-### (where ### is a number greater than 200). For more details on the Kafkaesque process of getting a private member's bill passed, see this excellent guide (especially this flow-chart which doesn't really do the full process justice).

In addition, both the government and private member's can introduce bills into the Senate. These bills are labelled S-#, where the S stands for Senate, but there is no particular numbering scheme and private members' and government bills are all mixed together (consistency is overrated, I guess). In order for a bill to become law it has to be passed by both houses so even if a bill is introduced in the Senate someone has to introduce it in the House of Commons as well.

Because it is appointed, not elected, and is thus lacking in legitimacy, the Senate is generally a rubber stamp of government legislation but it can be a bit of a roadblock on occasion, and has forced the sitting Prime Minister to appoint more senators to tip the balance of power in the house in their favour a couple of times (most notably with Brian Mulroney appointing more Senators to get the Free Trade agreement with the U.S. passed). More prosaically, the Senate can refer a bill back to the House of Commons for amendment, which can have the effect of delaying a bill.

Delaying can be an effective tactic because when an election is called all bills in progress are scrapped. If there is still a desire for this legislation to be passed after the election it has to be reintroduced (getting a new number) and start back at the beginning of the process. The history of legislation to increase the penalties for cruelty to animals illustrates all this nicely.

While the Senators are appointed by the prime minister, the (House of) Commoners (generally known as Members of Parliament (or MP's for short)) are elected using our outdated and archaic first past the post electoral system (but that's a topic for another day).

So that pretty much sums up the mechanics of law creation in Canada, but it leaves open the question of how the government of the day decides which bills to introduce into parliament (and also the less important question of how the private members decide which bills they want to introduce).

At the most naive level, parties have conventions where they decide on their policies ('their platform') and on their leader, and these choices then guide their message in an election, and if they are elected as the government then they implement what they have put in their 'platform'. In this sense, policy is decided by the members of the various political parties. In most jurisdictions, party platforms will also be influenced by those who make significant financial contributions to the party, although in Canada, this effect is likely to be mitigated by campaign finance reform which limits individual and corporate contributions and provides for public funding to political parties (based on the # of votes received in the previous general election).

More broadly, parties try to adopt policies which they feel will get them elected (and implement policies which will get them re-elected). This means that policy formation is actually driven by what is perceived to be the generally held preferences of the population.

Of course, to the extent that the public is perceived to vote for candidates with pretty/popular faces as opposed to voting for policies they think are preferable, parties will also choose pretty faces to lead and represent their party. In this instance, policy can be set with little regard for the public interest as long as the face representing that policy is pretty enough.

Leaving aside the politics of 'leadership' there is still a generally held belief that many Canadians cast their vote on the basis of policy and it is therefore important for a party to propose and implement policies which will be popular. For this reason, those who seek to influence policy will often attempt to convince the public that what they advocate is the right course. For example, they might start a blog and post cute cat pictures to influence people into thinking that anyone who abuses such a creature should be subject to serious penalties, not a 'slap on the wrist'. Alternatively, someone might write a letter to the editor of a paper, or call in to a radio talk show to express their opinion.

In politics, there generally seems to be more power in the group than in the individual. So like minded people might form a group dedicated to ending cruelty to animals (SPCA). Similarly, pre-existing groups involved with animals might make their views known by issuing press releases, doing interviews or buying advertisements. For example, humane societies, hunting associations, etc.

In addition to trying to influence the public itself, either by addressing it directly or (more commonly) through the media, people and/or groups will take their message directly to the legislators. This can take the form of writing letters to members of parliament, making political contributions (within the limits of the new legislation), making submissions to any forums for public input in the process (hearings, requests for submissions, town hall discussions, etc.), and in the form of more organized/funded groups, hiring lobbyists to work the issue on their behalf on parliament hill.

Again, legislation on animal cruelty provides a good example as lobbyists opposed to the bill have managed to first convince Senators that the original legislation needed amendments (causing them to delay and thus prevent it's passage) and more recently Senator John Bryden to introduce a private member's bill which is a watered down version of the government legislation.

More remotely, many people/groups will work on doing research into various areas to determine what the best policy is. This work may be done simply out of academic interest, or with a view towards influencing the public directly or indirectly (through the media) and is generally either done through universities, through public agencies (such as the OECD, world bank, civil service, etc.) or through private organizations set up for this purpose (generally referred to as think-tanks by outsiders as 'institutes' by members).

For example, The Observatory on Media and Public Policy, based out of McGill University did a study (note: I linked to my own post on the topic since they seem to have pulled down their data from their website) of media bias in the leadup to the last federal election. In addition to open-minded research, partisan groups will fund similar looking agencies which do research for the purpose of providing politically effective ammunition to support already held positions. As an example, the Fraser Institute, a zero credibility right wing 'institute', might decide that they think the media is biased against the Conservative Party (or that it is politically advantageous to make this claim) and commission a study designed to 'prove' this.

There is a similar duality of intent with respect to polling. Parties generally seek to implement policies that the public supports but it is not always clear what exactly it is that the public supports. For this reason, many parties and media outlets commission polls which ask a question to a number of (randomly selected) members of the public in order to ascertain just what the public wants. Of course, most people want their favourite policy to seem popular, so polls (especially when not conducted by a reputable company) are often constructed in such a manner as to artificially inflate the stated (and thus perceived) support for a policy. These are generally known as 'push' polls.

So that's about it. No dry 'systems' post is really complete without a flowchart, so I'll try to come up with one and post it, maybe tomorrow (Tuesday).

A final note, the achilles heel of any true 'INTP' is overlooking details, so if you see any details of the policy making process that I overlooked, let me know. If it's good enough it might even make it into the flowchart (no promises).

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Saddest Headline I've Seen in a While

Nigerian cyber scammers still snare gullible

It's actually a pretty good article. You gotta love globalization.

Why are they Laughing?

I was flipping channels the other day, and paused on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'.

The question being asked was whose music was used as part of interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military prison located in Cuba. There was much amusement and laughter from the contestant, the host and the audience, as the contestant correctly deduced that, out of the 4 options presented, Christina Aguilera...

(Tight hip huggers (low for ho)
Shake a little somethin' (on the floor)
I need that, uh, to get me off
Sweat'n til my clothes come off)

... was likely the most offensive to devout Muslims and therefore the correct choice.

Just in case the producers of 'Millionaire' are looking for some more material for funny questions about U.S. interrogation tactics, here are some thoughts from Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday Times,
"we now know a great deal about what has gone on in US detention facilities under the Bush administration. Several government and Red Cross reports detail the way many detainees have been treated.

We know for certain that the US has tortured five inmates to death. We know that 23 others have died in US custody in suspicious circumstances. We know that torture has been practised by almost every branch of the US military in sites all over the world - from Abu Ghraib to Tikrit, Mosul, Basra, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

We know that no incidents of abuse have been reported in regular internment facilities and that hundreds have occurred in prisons geared to getting intelligence. We know that thousands of men, women and children were grabbed almost at random from their homes in Baghdad, taken to Saddam's former torture palace and subjected to abuse, murder, beatings, semi-crucifixions and rape.

All of this is detailed in the official reports. What has been perpetrated in secret prisons to 'ghost detainees' hidden from Red Cross inspection we do not know. We may never know."

Funny stuff.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Metal Prongs Might Poke Out My Eyes, But Water Will Never Hurt Me

It's ark-building season again in Vancouver. Eventually the lack of light will probably start to get me down, but for now the rain doesn't bother me as much as the umbrellas. It doesn't help that Vancouver is a city of crowded sidewalks filled with short people whose umbrellas are always waving about at (my) eye level.

I've never been a huge fan of water. I'm a lousy swimmer, I was never keen on baths or showers as a kid, and I can certainly appreciate that a cold rain is not the most pleasant thing in the world. Having said all that, I still find the idea that I should carry around my own personal shield to protect me from falling water to be a tad excessive. My favourite is the people who can't take in their umbrella until they have poked their head inside the bus and who start opening their umbrellas on the steps of the bus as they are getting off. They can't wait one extra step?

Who knows, perhaps Vancouver has seen a lot of immigration from the land of Oz and the city is filled with wicked witches who just got tired of the long winters or the dangerous job market back there, and this umbrella obsession is actually a necessary life saving measure, but it's still annoying.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Scott Reid on electoral reform

I know next to nothing about Conservative MP Scott Reid and, based on his website, I see that he opposed same-sex marriage and supports cutting gas taxes, which is two strikes in my book, although I imagine that both of those stances reflect the majority view in his small-c conservative riding of 'the eastern Ontario government-hating boonies' (officially known as Lanark-Frontenac, Lennox and Addington).

Still, if this article (found via the Idealistic Pragmatist) about electoral reform (available in Canadian Parliamentary Review) is any indication, he's a pretty sharp guy (and a pretty good writer as well).

Reid talks about the difficulties in achieving electoral reform because the power to reform the system is generally in the hands of the people who were elected by the unreformed version of the system. He points out how even those jurisdictions which have achieved a better electoral system, generally didn't get it because the ruling party decided to do what was in the best interests of their country,
"The depressing truth, which became clear as the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs undertook its study of different roads to electoral reform earlier this year, is that electoral reform in the countries we examined had rarely been achieved by means that Canadians could - or would want to - emulate. In practice, electoral reform has typically been imposed in three different ways - imposition by outside forces, unilaterally by the majority party or by accident.

Ireland's much-admired STV system was imposed by the departing British in the early 1920s as a way of ensuring that the Protestant minority would not be frozen out of the Irish parliament, as they might have been under British-style FPTP system. Germany's much-admired MMP system was imposed by the victorious Allies in the late 1940s as a way of ensuring that no marginal party could ever again elbow its way into a position of power, as the Nazis had done in 1933. Scotland's MMP system was imposed by London. The innovative STV model now being used for the legislature of the Australian Capital Territory was imposed by Australia's federal parliament. Clearly, this method of achieving electoral reform is not open to Canadians.

In a number of other jurisdictions, perfectly good electoral reforms have been imposed for overtly partisan reasons....

Reid also does a good job summarizing how electoral reform came about in New Zealand (almost by accident) and describing some of the mistakes that were made in British Columbia (although he praises B.C. as the "world's most successful effort, to date, for building a popular mandate for electoral reform.")

Most impressively, he concludes with some well crafted recommendations for how electoralshouldrm shold proceed at the Federal level,
"I am advocating that Canada should use a preferential referendum whereby voters would place a '1' on the ballot beside their preferred option, a '2' beside the option that they like second-best, and so on. If no single option won a majority of the votes, the least-favoured option would be dropped from the ballot, and the ballots of voters who had chosen this option as their first preference would be redistributed to the options that had been their respective second choices. This process would continue until a single option achieves a clear majority.

Under a preferential referendum, voters would have the option of indicating their preference for the option of which they most approve, without having to make FPTP the default option. Advocates of all options could aggressively campaign in favour of their preferred option without having to become de facto champions of the status quo, as occurred in British Columbia.

Preferential balloting is the best way of arriving at consensus outcomes, when no obvious majority exists; this is why it is used by many political parties, including my own, for selecting their leaders."

This is pretty much the same conclusion I came to at the end of being fairly closely involved with the referendum in B.C. and I certainly agree with Reid that this is the best approach to take federally.

Alas, the prospects for electoral reform don't look too good right now at the federal level. Jack Layton has demonstrated fairly clearly in this minority government that the NDP's top priority is not proportional representation (as he claimed a couple of times while trying to lure Green party voters to vote NDP) but is instead the increased social spending which is the NDP's core issue. Meanwhile, the Liberals are pursuing an almost comical policy of trying to say the right things while doing nothing - just read this skewering of their latest shenanigans (a Scott Reid press release). The Bloc claims to support electoral reform, but I'm skeptical about their level of interest in pursuing a policy which would only serve to marginalize them.

Finally the Conservatives, despite the presence of Scott Reid, have said and done little on the electoral reform front. Personally, I think there are too many Conservative party members and backers who dream of someday forming a majority government and being able to run the country without compromise for them to support any real action on electoral reform. I hope I am wrong, but in the end, I think we're back to Reid's basic point, which is that if Canadians want an improved electoral system, it will be up to us to force it on the politicians.

Note: The Pragmatist's post also links to a couple of other articles in the last issue of Canadian Parliamentary Review on electoral reform which are also interesting, but if you're only going to read one, read the one by Scott Reid.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

I Guess That's William of Kristol, not William of Ockham

Via Crooked Timber, I ran across this article by Jeffrey Bell and William Kristol which asks the question why it seems that so many high level Republicans have been getting indicted lately. Their implicit conclusion is that it must be some conspiracy by the 'liberal' justice system. It never seems to occur to them that it might just be because so many high level Republicans are criminals.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Ignorance is Not Always Bliss

Dear Christopher Hume,

Generally, I am a fan of your column, but I found your recent column on privatization of infrastructure quite disappointing.

The primary trouble is that you are running different concepts together. For example, you say,
"the assistant deputy minister of public infrastructure, Paul Evans, made clear to the visitors from Down Under, Ontario simply doesn't have the money to keep itself in good working order.

Then came James Cowan, managing director of Macquarie Bank, to sing the praises of the private sector.

"We've got our cheque books and we're looking for projects," he told the room."

Here you are suggesting that we face a choice between whether projects will be funded by the government or by the private sector and that, since the private sector has money and the public sector doesn't, we need to turn to the private sector.

But further down, when you say, "Inevitably, we end up paying for services once covered by taxes" you acknowledge that the projects are actually funded by Ontario residents - either through taxes or through service fees (e.g. tolls).

In truth there are two separate issues here:
1) Should infrastructure be funded by taxes or through user fees (tolls)
2) Should the project be 'owned' by the public sector or the private sector. That is, who should receive the profit (and loss) from infrastructure projects.

Your initial concern about who has money to spend, the public sector or the private sector, is actually a red herring. Nobody wants to, or is planning to spend any of their own money. If the private sector is involved they will simply borrow the money (private infrastructure projects generally have a 10-20% equity stake, but even this is borrowed) and there is nothing stopping the government from doing the same thing. Over the long term, as the infrastructure provides benefits, the initial borrowing will be repaid (by taxpayers or users).

Let's sort through your confusion with an example. You say:
"When we finally decide to bury the Gardiner, for example, the private sector can do the work in return for tolls. Once tolls are introduced, we can afford whatever we want."

Do you see how you are confusing the two questions?
Question 1: Pay with tolls or taxes?
Question 2: Profit and loss stays public or is given to the private sector.

You say, the private sector can take the profit and loss, and we can pay with tolls.

Alternatively, the private sector could take the profit or loss and we could pay with taxes (see B.C., Sea-to-Sky Highway for an example of this approach, generally called 'Shadow Tolling').

Alternatively, the public sector could take the profit and loss, and could pay for it with tolls (see B.C., the Coquihalla highway, for an example of this).

Alternatively, the public sector could take the profit or loss and pay for it with taxes.

Your column doesn't really contain an argument in favour of one of these 4 approaches, just a lot of confusion of the different options.

The question of where wealth is located (private vs. public) is irrelevant. The size of Toronto's need for infrastructure is also irrelevant. The British experience with similar deals is relevant, but your statement "by all accounts, the new partnership [in Britain] works well" is inaccurate. I did a 10 second google search for "British experience with public private partnerships". Here is a quote from the number #1 result,
"The case against handing over public health services to the private sector has been strengthened with a British expert strongly warning against them.

Professor Jean Shaoul said the British experience showed that the Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) ended up costing taxpayers more and delivered vastly inferior services to the public.

"Don't touch PPPs with surgical gloves," she said during an Australian visit this week.

Professor Shaoul, who is the professor of accounting and finance at Manchester University in England said that the payments to the private sector ended up much higher than expected in many cases.

In addition the hospitals built by as PPPs were 30 percent smaller because it cost more for the private sector to raise finance than it did for the government.

As an example of the problems that can occur she said the private operators of the 800 bed South Manchester University Hospital refused to move the body of a mental health patient who had died of natural causes because they claimed they were only contracted to care for patients not bodies.

She also re-iterated the concerns raised by the British trade union Unison about poor cleaning standards in hospitals run by the private sector.

The rise of superbugs - infections that were resistant to antibiotics - is being blamed on the decline in cleaning standards."

Or consider the abstract from the paper, "Public private partnerships: lessons from the British approach" published in 'Economic Systems',
"Compared to conventionally financed procurement, the PFI [Private partnership] approach has brought both benefits and costs. The balance of advantage is often unclear, and at the strategic level the main drivers appear still to be ideology and accounting."

I didn't cherry pick these two quotes, they are the first two assessments I found, after 5 minutes of 'research', but it's enough to disprove your claim that the British experience has been a success by all accounts.

One more thing I wanted to say. You mention highway #407 a couple of times in your article, to point out that the privatization/sale of the highway was politically unpopular and to point out that 'experts' (who clearly had never driven acrosss Toronto in their lives) who predicted that people wouldn't want to pay a toll on the #407 were wrong.

However, given that your article is about why we should undertake more similar deals in the future, and that the #407 is one of the only examples of such a deal being done in Ontario, I was surprised that you failed to offer an assessment of how the #407 deal is working out for Ontario. In looking for some historical information on the #407, I came across the minutes of a session of the IPAC Toronto Regional Group, discussing the book, "If You Build It: Business, Government and Ontario's Electronic Toll Highway" by Sandford Borins and Chandran Mylvaganam.

Here are some quotes:
"The authors, in looking back on the deal struck by the Harris government, came to the conclusion that it does not serve the public interest."

From George Davies, President, Acres Management Consulting, and former Deputy Minister of Transportation:
"The privatization of Highway 407 is the worst public policy decision that any provincial government has made in the last 50 years.
Over the next 99 years, the 'right to tax' monopoly position of 407 International will only get stronger and stronger (a license to print money) and this will have a constraining effect on the Ontario economy."

From John Barber, Urban Affairs columnist, The Globe and Mail,
"To this day we are still dealing with these errors that will impede Ontario's economic growth and increase taxes for the public."

If anything, I think the panelists are understating the problems of the 407. Can you imagine if in 1906 the provincial government had given a private company the right to charge whatever the market would bear for people to travel up and down Yonge St. for the next 99 years? That deal would just be ending this year. Remember that the decision in question is who should get the profits from the infrastructure. Well, you can imagine that the profits from having a monopoly on access to one of only two routes across Toronto (for 99 years!) are pretty substantial.

Now, the authors (Borins and Mylvaganam) seem to think that the problem wasn't privatization per se, it was just that particular deal (most deals aren't for 99 years and most put some kind of ceiling on either rates or the potential monopoly profits of the private partner), and they worry that it will make people opposed to privatization in the future, but I think this is a very naive approach. It's a bit like saying, "Yeah it's a shame about that kid who got his leg chewed off swimming in those shark infested waters, but the real tragedy is that now the other kids will all be scared to swim there."

It's true that, in the global history of privatization deals, few (perhaps none) have been as bad as the #407 deal (thanks Mike Harris!) but it's also true that privatization opens up an element of long term 'bad contract risk' that wouldn't otherwise exist. The Harris government made any number of terrible decisions but only one of them will be haunting (and costing) Ontarians until the year 2098.

A final comment. You take a patronizing tone with Ontario citizens a couple of times in your article, saying at one point, "Just don't call it privatization. The mere word is enough to strike fear into the hearts of Ontarians." as if the people of Ontario were simpletons with an irrational fear of the word itself and didn't understand the concepts involved. What's clear to me is that, if anyone is lacking understanding here, it is you. Both you and your readers would be better served if you spent less time on the condescension and more time doing some actual research rather than spouting industry/government talking points.

There is a case to be made in favour of privatization deals - you haven't made it. There is a case to be made against privatization deals - you haven't made that either. All you've done is to ignore our shark bite which is going to take another 93 years to heal, insisting that we should go on back into the water because all those worries about there being an undertow are overstated.

One of the biggest drags on the prosperity of Ontario looking forward is the #407 millstone. Your column serves only to increase the likelihood of more millstones being placed around our necks. We need better reporting.

Declan Dunne.

(hat tip: Sinister Thoughts)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

It Was Nice While it Lasted

Two comments on the Canucks 6-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild tonight.

1) That was one of the worst performances I've ever seen from a hockey team. Only a handful of players looked interested and even they were merely adequate. Big party last night? Team has the flu? Minnesota poisons the visiting team's water supply?

2) The 'new nhl' and the crackdown on obstruction isn't going to last. In fact, it's already not lasting. You could actually see, as the game progressed, the Vancouver players catching on that if Minnesota was getting away with hooking and holding and obstructing them, they might as well do it in return, and they did. And, by and large, they got away with it too.

True, the Canucks were awful, but from what I saw, the Wild strategy was to sit back, play a boring defensive game and rely on goaltending, clutching and grabbing and counter-attacking to succeed and their plan worked perfectly. In other words, I hope you liked the 2003-04 NHL because it's going to be back real soon.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

On your knees where you belong, Canada

If you don't pay for access to the online version of the Globe and Mail, you're not missing much with John Ibbitson's column today which is just another iteration of his, 'the Canadian government should never say or do anything mean to the U.S. because then they might do something really mean to us in retaliation and then wouldn't be sorry' theme.

I mention it only because of the following passage which I had to read a couple of times to make sure I had read it right:
"For any Canadian government to offer a warning, however veiled, that it might favour other countries over the United States in the awarding of gas and oil contracts is, as Big Daddy might say, mendacity, sheer mendacity.

Such favouritism would be impossible, unless the Canadian government were to formally withdraw from NAFTA, and then adopt an energy policy that favoured petroleum exports to other nations while imposing restrictions on exports to the United States. At which point, U.S. officials would either complain to the World Trade Organization or simply invade. In either case, who could blame them?"

Apologists for U.S. economic domination of Canada don't get much more point blank than this: if Canada were to charge the U.S. a higher rate for oil than they charge some other countries, the U.S. would be justified in dropping bombs on the city you live on, potentially killing you and you family in your sleep. So says John Ibbitson, Globe columnist. Presumably, he came out in support of Pat Robertson's recent call to assassinate Hugo Chavez, since the U.S. would clearly (by the Ibbitson doctrine) be justified in invading Venezuela.

Now, given the poor construction of the sentence, it's possible he simply meant that U.S. officials should invade, but I'm not sure that really helps his case.

OK, maybe he just went a little further than he meant to and I'm picking on a careless phrasing, but I think the fact that someone could write that sentence at all speaks to their view on the proper relationship between Canada and the U.S., one where we do what they want, or else.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Reading Material

Time to give thanks to the internet, which provides lots of good reading material, no matter what your interest is.

For example, via Atrios, a fascinating speech by Al Gore on the evolution of the media in the United States,
"It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

The speech pulls together a lot of seemingly common sense propositions into a pretty powerful critique of the state of the media in the United States (and we're not so different here in Canada). Gore's solution seems to be to try and work within the medium of television to try and create a TV station which can facilitate a genuine conversation. Personally, I think he needs to re-read Marshall McLuhan and accept that TV is what it is - a medium suitable for entertainment only and accept that the intentions behind the station's owners, or even the content itself, matter little. Still, even if I disagree with his solution, the diagnosis of the problem is eloquent and worth reading in full.


Pogge and friends have been trying to raise awareness of the pending and growing threat from Avian flu. Accordingly, last week was 'Pandemic Flu Awareness Week' ('better late than never' is my motto) and the virus itself co-operated with awareness efforts by spreading to Europe for the first time. If, like me, you know little about Avian Flu or why people are [more] concerned [than before], check out this Flu Wiki which has more information.


I probably pay more attention to politics than the average person, but one thing I've never done is vote in a municipal election. Part of that is having moved over 20 times in the last 10 years, but part of it is also just laziness and lack of interest/awareness in what's going on at the municipal level. Apparently, Vancouver is planning to hold a municipal election, and Ainge does us the favour of recapping the Green Party's platform here.


Ian's had lots of interesting posts on economics recently at Tilting at Windmills. Recent favourites include this one on the challenges high oil prices present to the Canadian economy, and this one on corporations.

Ian also links to an interesting chart on equalization at Bouquets of Gray.

Speaking of equalization, Andrew Spicer did his own analysis not too long ago. Must be something in the air. While I'm linking to Andrew Spicer, he in turn linked to a couple of interesting blogs a little further back, this one by Rebel Sell co-author Andrew Potter, and this one, which talks about lots of interesting topics, and where I found this nice chart of federal government spending.

That should keep you busy for a while...

Friday, October 07, 2005

Not for Sale

I was a little slow in reacting to this news, but I'm ahead of the game in that I have my response letter already written.

Dear Paul Martin,

It has come to my attention that you are planning to introduce legislation (the Surplus Allocation Act) which will return a third of any future surplus directly to Canadian taxpayers.

The only logical reason I could see for doing this would be because none of the federal spending priorities for which the money was collected are actually in need of the money. However, I find this somewhat implausible.

For example, consider child poverty. In 1989, all parties in the house of commons passed a resolution to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. But here we are in 2005 and Canada's child poverty rate is one of the highest among all developed countries.

Alternatively, consider foreign aid. Perhaps the next time you meet your friend Bono, you can explain to him why, if our publicly stated justification for not meeting the 0.7% of GDP target for foreign aid is that it is irresponsible, might create a deficit / is unaffordable, you have now introduced legislation to return money to Canadians rather than spending it on foreign aid, with the condition being that this is done when it clearly is affordable?

Or consider immigration. Rumour has it your government is planningto significantly increase the number of immigrants to the country. But the system is already unable to handle the current flow of immigrants and is crippled by life and economy disrupting backlogs and delays. The funding announced to deal with the problem so far pales in comparison to what is needed, especially if the goal is to increase the immigration rate.

Finally, consider global warming and Canada's energy situation. What impact might this money have if devoted to an expansion of the Renewable Power Production Initiative or if used to foster the development of a national electricity grid?

I could go on, (I haven't even touched on the underfunded military, Canada's emergency preparedness, or unconstitutionally long waiting times for health service) but I think the point is clear, which is that there is no shortage of areas of federal involvement which are crying out for more money.

Now I don't mean to suggest that the government should always collect more money and spend more money or that the only priority is more spending. I recognize and appreciate the reductions in tax rates the federal government has made since 2000. But in my mind there is a clear distinction between setting the level of taxation ahead of time and deciding, once the government has a surplus in hand, to then return this money back to the population. Are you also planning to introduce legislation to mandate that Canadian taxpayers will be immediately tapped for contributions to make up one third of the shortfall in the case of any future deficits? I doubt it. Aside from the inefficiency of collecting and then returning money (and I understand that it is structured as a tax credit in the year following the surplus, but my point stands), the principle is what I find offensive.

Given that I think we both agree that a competent government could put the money to effective use, it seems clear that the purpose of this surplus 'rebate' is political rather than policy related. To be more blunt, it strikes me as an attempt to buy my vote with my own money.

Looking around the world, one of the key distinctions between regions with successful government and those with corrupt government is that areas with successful government are characterized by civic engagement and people who vote with the public interest in mind. Areas where government is corrupt are areas where people see government as a means of achieving personal gain and adopt a "what's in it for me" attitude towards politics.

This is why I cannot countenance your government pandering to our basest political impulses and why I am enclosing a cheque for the amount of the 'rebate'. Given that your government has, by this action, publicly declared that it has no idea how this money might be put to good use, I ask you to put it against our national debt, which stood, in case you had forgotten, at roughly $524 billion as at the end of 2004.

In this way, if we manage to someday vote in a government which has the will and the inclination to take on some of the pressing problems this country faces, they will have a little bit more money to put into that effort, instead of merely paying interest on your short sighted politics of surplus-rebate vote buying schemes.

Declan Dunne.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

We come and we go / That's a thing that I keep in the back of my head

Now that George Bush has nominated the woman who used to be his personal lawyer to the highest court in the land (what great judgement he must have had in selecting Miers - one of the best judges in the country, apparently - to be his personal lawyer!), I figured I would open up the floor so that people could predict future Bush nominations.

Let me get you started with some possibilities:
"Bush nominates his former dog-sitter to head the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare"
"Bush nominates his mortgage broker to head the Federal Housing Finance Board"
"Bush nominates his former math teacher to head the Bureau of the Census"

To get you started, the full list of U.S. government agencies is here.

I know what I know / I'll ding what I said

I have always been amuses by the story that our 'qwerty' keyboard receives it's non-intuitive layout ad part of a scheme to slow typists sown do that they wouldn't overload the typewriters of the say. Inspires by my own comment on this post over at 'On the Fence', it occurred to me that - in this era of spell-checkers - if I has been allocates the task of redesigning the keyboard, the best thing to so would be to come up with a layout which minimized the chanced of mid-typing something but still creating a valid word at the dame time. I wouldn't put the 's' and the 'd' beside each other, that id for sure.

He Moved So Easily All I Could Think of was Sunlight / I said "Aren't you the player who was recently promoted to the first line?"

Over at the 'Battle of Alberta' there is some hockey predicting going on. It seems like the consensus pick for a breakout player is Jason Spezza - except for Colby Cosh, who says,
"Well, jeez. Now I feel stupid for not picking Spezza merely because as far as I'm concerned he "broke out" a couple years ago--Ottawa just refused to let the guy play. I was looking for somebody who wasn't already obviously a terrific player."

Here are two stat lines from the 2003-04 season:
78GP, 55pts, +22, average time on ice: 14:37
82GP, 54pts, +18, average time on ice: 13:32

One of these is Spezza. Can you tell which? More to the point, do you know who the other player is?

The first one is Spezza and the second is Daniel Sedin, about whom everyone wonders when 'he is going to finally realize his potential'.

Incidentally, I'm not sure Cosh is standing on solid quibbling ground, given that his choice of breakout player was Adrien Aucoin, who was 11th in defense scoring last year - how much more can a guy break out - is he going to lead the league this year? It seems like Cosh was predicting a player who was going to have breakout recognition, rather than breakout point totals, but I digress.

She said there's something about you that really reminds me of money / She was the kind of girl who could say things that weren't that funny

Over at the always worth reading, How to Save the World, Dave Pollard had a post up recently linking people's reactions to the grim state of our society/ecology to the 5 stages of grief which people are said to pass through when dealing with a personal tragedy. Dave argued that it is not a straight path of things getting better as we move from one stage to another in a linear fashion and he got some interesting, serious reactions in the comments - but I was reminded of his post the other day in somewhat less serious circumstances when I had the following conversation with my girlfriend:

Me: "Check out my new driver's license photo, what do you think?"
Girlfriend (grimacing): "Well, in your last picture you looked like you wanted to kill somebody. Now you look like you want to kill yourself."
Me: "Is that progress?"
Girlfriend: "No."

She said "Don't I know you from the newspaper-editor's party?" / He said, "Who am I, to blow against the wind"

Over at Azerbic, Antonia gives Peter Kent a well deserved smack upside the head. The part about Peter's media-bias bleating which amuses/irritates (it's a fine line) me the most, is how he keep calling for an 'independent' analysis of media bias, yet at the same time he seems to want to direct how that analysis is done, seeming to aim for a survey of the political leanings of beat reporters. Of course, out of all the types of analysis you could do, this is one of the less relevant ones (wouldn't looking at story selection and content be more revealing?), but it has the virtue of being the most likely to make his point that the poor poor Conservatives could win an election if only the media would tell Canadians what great people they are and how smart all their ideas are.

As Zerbisias notes, even on this count (looking at the voting habits of reporters) the preliminary data doesn't look good for Peter Boo-Hoo, but that's not the point. The point is that he is calling for a study to prove his theory about media bias, but his own call is biased, probably far more so than the media could ever be. It's all a bit sad, really.

I looked it over and I guess I thought it was all right / All right in a sort of a limited way, for an off night

Alas, the writing course I was going to take was cancelled at the last minute due to lack of (last minute) interest, but just in case you thought that meant you (the reader of this blog) would be spared having to read a bunch of unpleasant, pretentious, faux artistic posts, let me prove you wrong with the following series which is (very loosely) based on a Paul Simon song.

Cue the diabolical laughter...

(I wonder if you searched through all the written English language for where 'laughter' was preceded by an adjective, how high 'diabolical' would rank? It's gotta be top ten. Maniacal, hysterical, evil, infectious, am I missing anything obvious? I guess it's not really that important)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Or Something Like That

I see that George Bush, acting president of the Texas Rangers, has appointed a new pitcher to the team's rotation for next year, with Harriet 'Wild Thing' Miers replacing the ineffective Chan Ho Park.

While Rangers fans had been braced for the appointment of someone with a lousy minor league record, Bush has surprised the pundits by appointing someone with no pitching experience whatsoever. "Having never worked as a pitcher, Miers has no paper trail of poor control or a high HR/9IP rate, and prospective opponents thus will have a hard time identifying weaknesses to protest or complain about," Ranger fan club president Billy Barrow said.

President Bush declared it to be a good pick, saying, "She has devoted her life to both watching baseball and playing the occasional pickup game. She will strictly interpret baseball's constitution and laws. She will not pitch from the bench. Not to mention, she used to be my babysitter for a number of years. She will be an outstanding addition to the rotation of the Texas Rangers."

Reaction from the baseball community was more cautious. "We know even less about Harriet Miers than we did about Kameron Loe, and because there are a lot of deep fantasy pools out there, Americans will need to know a lot more about Mier's stuff and velocity before taking her in next year's draft," said Senator-fan Charlie Schmidt, fantasy columnist for The Sporting News.


Or something like that, anyway. To be fair, judges and pitchers are not strictly comparable: we have fairly accurate, reliable measures of whether a pitcher is good or not.