Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, April 17, 2006

Paying Attention

That's the title of Paul Willcocks' blog1, and it's a good one. One thing I've learned from blogging is that paying attention isn't easy. Even when I think I'm paying attention, I often find I end up looking the wrong way only to have events end up pulling a quarter out of my ear when I could have sworn it was in the other hand.

For example, I spent a lot of time following and trying to influence the outcome of the referendum held in B.C. on electoral reform last year. But in the end, the deciding factors behind the fact that we are still stuck with the inferior first-past-the-post system (for now, anyway) is down to decisions which were made very early in the whole process - before I was really paying attention. Those decisions were the ones to require an abnormally high (60%) vote in favour in order for the vote to be binding and to not provide any funding for an education campaign. So I was paying attention to the wrong things or maybe to the right things but at the wrong time.

Back in the present, this post by Chris Lawson put into words something I had been thinking but hadn't put into words yet,
"They [the Conservatives] know their days are numbered, so in Parliament, they're all hugs and working together. But at the ministerial level they're all axes and firing squads.

I'm sure, in addition to ordering his minions to stick to the five "feel good" planks of accountability, tax cuts, and money in your pocket, Harper likely said: "anything you can do to dismantle the state that doesn't require a vote in the house, do it. Just don't write a press release."

(snip)

"They're yapping on in Parliament about laws which may or may not get passed, may or may not be implemented or enforced (the Accountability Act) meanwhile real change (for the worse) is happening over at Environment Canada that will get not a mention in Hansard"


My natural inclination in an election campaign is to examine all the available platforms and make a decision weighing the pros and cons of all the policies within, including an assessment of how likely they are to be carried out (e.g. anyone promising to cut taxes, raise spending, and pay down the debt always makes me nervous). Based on this rational analysis, and considering the quality of my local candidates, I make a decision.

I never thought much of the idea of voting for a party because the leader seemed trustworthy (I usually take this to mean that they are tall and have a symmetrical face), but over the years I've come to realize that simply basing a vote on the platform presented is a naive way to do things.

I'm still not much for the idea of basing a vote on how someone looked during a debate, but the question of trust does play a significant role. People talked a lot about the Conservative government's 'secret agenda' in the last few election campaigns. And while the phrase is meant by some to indicate a big legislative agenda that is planned but not admitted to in the platform, I think there is a more fundamental sense in which every party's agenda is largely secret. As Chris notes above, so much of what a government does falls outside the scope of the House of Commons and legislation and party platforms.

Take the Kyoto Accord, for example. If the Conservatives wanted to pass a bill directly aimed at reducing action taken by the government towards solving global warming, they would likely face opposition from all parties and face defeat over the issue. But there is no need for them to do this.

The government is still young and already we see that there are plans to cut funding for climate change programs at Environment Canada by 80%. On top of that the Ministry has taken action to prevent an Environment Canada scientist from speaking publicly about his novel on climate change. When columnist Terry Glavin contacted the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation and Research Network (C-CIARN - a federal agency), this is the response he got, "I'm not supposed to talk to you." Furthermore, the government has announced that Canada will not meet its emissions targets under Kyoto, calling them unrealistic.

None of this, as Chris pointed out, will get recorded in Hansard and none of it was mentioned in the Conservative platform.

So what's my point? A couple of things. Generally, we (I) need to take care to pay attention to what is really important and not get distracted by the magician's patter and waving hands. Specifically, the Conservative Party (like all parties) does have a hidden agenda and anyone who doesn't trust them (which should be everybody in a healthy democracy with a new party in power) needs to pay attention to what is going on and hold them accountable not just for those things they do that everyone notices, but also for all the things they do that are intended to pass without notice, and perhaps even more importantly for the things about which they do nothing, hoping that nobody will notice...

The climate is getting hotter, Canadian children are still being born and raised in poverty despite our collective wealth, we still owe, through our governments and personally as well, billions upon billions of dollars, living conditions for many First Nations remain an embarrassment and that is just a few of our most pressing concerns. While the legislative agenda is important we can't get caught up focussing entirely on some arbitrary list of 5 policies which don't address the country's most important issues (or on the Liberal leadership race). Simply put, even though it is difficult, we need to pay attention.



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1 Willcocks is a fairly well known columnist in B.C. His Vancouver Sun bio is here. I added the blog to the bottom of the Canadian political blogroll for easy reference.

6 Comments:

  • This news needs to be reported more inside and outside of Canada. People in Canada may not realize how important the country's participation in international climate policy is to the rest of the world. It is a message to Europe and Japan that it is possible to convince some of North America to take action. Canada is seen as link to the reluctant US. The rest of the Kyoto parties would likely be forgiving if Canada failed to meet the commitments BUT made a concerted effort, because they know Canada is in a difficult position due to the reluctance of the large neighbour and trading partner.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 6:16 AM  

  • "Take the Kyoto Accord, for example. If the Conservatives wanted to pass a bill directly aimed at reducing action taken by the government towards solving global warming, they would likely face opposition from all parties and face defeat over the issue. But there is no need for them to do this."

    Sorry, Declan; could you summarize the progress made on this file in the last thirteen years? Maybe some of the programs weren't achieving anything - so cutting them isn't quite the unmitigated bad news story that those wailing and moaning would have us believe. Unless, of course, you think that squandering resources while proclaiming our inherent goodness is justified, "so long as it sends the right message" - and even better if it plays into anti-US rhetoric.

    "It is a message to Europe and Japan that it is possible to convince some of North America to take action..."

    Mmmm... seems more like a message to Japan, et al, that no one in North America sees Kyoto as a priority, but the northern section can't be bothered to tell them that. Or, maybe, the assertion is part of the recent Candian tradition of patting ourselves on the back for being simply wonderful, no matter the actual results we obtain.

    "The rest of the Kyoto parties would likely be forgiving if Canada failed to meet the commitments BUT made a concerted effort..."

    I doubt it, although given that there are no enforcement mechanisms in Kyoto (the punishment is that you cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die that you will do better in the next round; boy, that's compelling) it doesn't matter even if it were true. Even if so, since our only concerted effort to date is to ignore the problem, I doubt that we'll actually get the 'Miss Congeniality' award in any event.

    By Blogger deaner, at 10:31 AM  

  • Simon - I agree

    Dean - Maybe some of the programs weren't achieving anything, although this post says that, "The global-warming programs are being eliminated even though a Treasury Board review of government spending found that the vast majority of 166 such programs run by Ottawa were considered cost effective."

    But my point is that, effective or not, it doesn't require legislation to make these kinds of big changes (or if it does they are buried in the budget).

    I do think our credibility in the next round of negotiations will be influenced by whether other countries judge us to have made a good faith effort.

    I don't think the Liberal efforts qualify in this regard, and so far it seems like the Conservatives will be worse rather than better, although the jury is still out, to some extent, on that.

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:45 PM  

  • "...even though a Treasury Board review of government spending found that the vast majority of 166 such programs run by Ottawa were considered cost effective."

    Yes - I saw that. Given the actual outcome, one wonders what results a program has to achieve in order to be considered ineffective. The US actively, stridently, and deliberately oppossed the Kyoto Protocol: they refused to ratify it; they didn't talk about it; and they won't admit there is a problem - yet they had greater relative success than we did, despite all our "effective" programs. I am sure the Treasury Board is well-intentioned; I just question their ability to make that assessement.

    By Blogger deaner, at 7:12 PM  

  • Well we don't really know what the objectives of the programs were. Some may have been studying adaptation strategies, some may have been planning political strategies, some may have been research programs with longer term goals.

    From what I know of the civil service, I suspect the treasury board review was procedural in nature. Most likely all of the programs were required to create some kind of 'service plan' and then they were evaluated based on how they were following the plan set out, and meeting the goals within the plan - but that is all just guesswork on my part.

    The difference between Canada and the U.S. over the period is likely down to the commodity boom which has driven up Canadian industrial activity, especially in the tarsands. Without some analysis we don't know if things would have been worse without the efforts of some of these government programs.

    We don't really know much at all, but I am suspicious that the Conservatives were able to decide so quickly that 80% of the programs at environment Canada were ineffective. It seems more likely to me that this was pre-planned in order to pay for tax cuts, with the Conservatives notknowing or caring what the programs were doing or how they were working.

    But then, I can be a bit of a cynic about these things sometimes.

    By Blogger Declan, at 12:18 AM  

  • Declan - there is certainly an argument that Canada's Kyoto performance (such as it was) was hampered by the increase in oil prices, since it encouraged gas consumption in the Tar Sands. The more fundamental problem, though, was the Liberal government's refusal to admit that CO2 reduction was going to cost a non-trivial amount of money. The result was a wave of feel-good programs and hand waving, accompanied by no change to the economic structure of the country or energy or CO2 intensity: if you are trying to reduce GHGs, and one of the prime sources (aside from everyday automobile drivers) is recording historic record profits, don't you think that is the best time to introduce the change? Put it another way - if not now, when did the Liberals think that CO2 emmissions would best be addressed in the energy sector?

    We had the usual bleating and finger-pointing at the "evil oil industry" and dickheads like Dan McTeague glowering about Parliamentary hearings into anti-competitve behaviour when gas first passed $1/litre; not one of those economic and environmental illiterates was willing to allow the market to do their job for them. Until the government accepts that they can't (and shouldn't) protect every consumer and every industry from change, we will get no change. If cancelling some programs and ruffling some bureaucratic feathers is the price to get there then it is a price worth paying.

    As for the Treasury Board evaluation: gee, "government department investigates government programs: finds they are effective." C'mon; we are hardly in 'Man bites Dog' territory here - we are barely past 'Man pets Dog; Throws a Stick.' While it is quite possible that cancelling these programs was decided in advance, I doubt that the cost savings were the deciding factor - surpluses anticipated by the Liberals would have easily paid for the tax cuts to date.

    By Blogger deaner, at 9:08 AM  

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