Friday, October 18, 2013

Speech From The Throne

As expected, yesterday's Speech From The Throne was a mixed bag of feel good items and attempts to set political traps for future governments.

As expected Harper starts off by trying to brag about his economic record:

  • Last year’s deficit was less than forecast. Our Government will balance the budget by 2015. 
    §  And it will go further. Our Government will enshrine in law its successful and prudent approach. Our Government will introduce balanced-budget legislation. It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis.

    §  Our Government has already set an ambitious debt-to-GDP target of 25 per cent by 2021. And it will reduce that ratio to pre-recession levels by 2017. 

Oh ... the deficit was smaller than anticipated?  For those who had forgotten, Harper came to power in 2006 with the Federal Government in a budget surplus position (we were paying debt off in 2006).  By 2008, he had already spent Canada into a deficit position ... and that was before the financial crisis happened!  For Harper to claim a "reduced deficit" as some kind of an achievement is damning himself with faint praise.  

Now, the whole idea of "balanced budget laws" are at best populist politics and fundamentally meaningless.  Alberta has had one since Ralph Klein instituted a balanced budget law sometime in the 1990s.  The blunt reality is that those laws have essentially no teeth.  What do you do?  Throw the cabinet in prison?  Like Harper's "Fixed Election Dates" law, it's mostly for show.  Fortunately, such laws are an act of parliament, and as such can be repealed by an act of parliament.  Harper can hardly call himself "successful and prudent" on budgetary matters - every major purchase he has initiated is stalled.

No doubt, this is part of a series of "legislative booby traps" that Harper is laying out for future use in case that he loses the next election.

Just as our Government manages debt, so too is it tackling spending. Every day, Canadian families make tough choices about how to spend their hard-earned money. Guided by this example, our Government will continue reducing the size and cost of government to ensure that taxpayers get value for money. 
§  Our Government will freeze the overall federal operating budget, which will continue to restrain hiring.
§  Our Government will make further targeted reductions to internal government spending.
§  Our Government will reform the way the federal system manages spending.
§  Our Government will review federal assets; when it is in the best interest of Canadians,
they will be sold. 
This is where things start to get ugly.

Freezing the federal operating budget will do a lot more than restrain hiring in the civil service.  If this doesn't have some kind of indexing with inflation, it actually turns into a long run budget cut to the civil service.  Combined with ambiguous "further targeted reductions to internal government spending" (read:  the same kind of mean-spirited and hostile cuts they started doing in 2006 and have continued to do behind the scenes ever since), this will continue Harper's program of turning Canada into a police state.

Selling off government assets is a right-wing trope.  The assertion is that the government possesses too many assets and doesn't need them.  The fact is that the government owns buildings - lots of them.  Should we sell those off so taxpayer dollars can be used to enrich building owners with lease revenues?  Or is this Harper signalling yet another attempt to sell off or dismantle the CBC.

Again, what Harper looks to be doing is setting up another legislative trap for a subsequent government.  If he pushes this through as legislation rather than as policy, the Conservatives can use their overwhelming majority in the Senate to hamstring any future government that attempts to undo the most destructive aspects of these proposals.

We must seize this moment. The window for gaining access to new markets will not remain open indefinitely. Now more than ever, our future prosperity depends on responsible development of these resources. At the same time, our Government has taken action to ensure that Canada’s resources do not fall under foreign government control. 
§  Our Government will continue to ensure that our natural resource sectors remain open to foreign investment when it is market-oriented and in the long-term interests of Canadians. 
§  Canada’s natural wealth is our national inheritance and our Government will ensure that the jobs and opportunities it brings are available to all Canadians. In particular, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples must have every opportunity to benefit. 
I think my brain melted when I read this one.  It is one gigantic non-sequitur.  Frankly, when it comes to the Oil and Gas sector in Alberta, it is already dominated by foreign interests.  Anyone who takes a look at the ownership of the major players, they sure as heck aren't dominated by Canadians.  In the last year or so, Harper has authorized major buy-outs of Canadian-based firms by China and Malaysia state companies.

As for their stated position with respect to Canada's Aboriginal peoples "benefiting" from the resources, it is hard to say just what such a vague statement actually means.  If the Harperites are thinking in terms of jobs building pipelines or working on the rigs, I suspect that the Aboriginal peoples might just have a somewhat different role in mind.  Given what Harper has done to Aboriginal peoples in the last couple of budget omnibus bills, I am very suspicious that this is an empty platitude rather than a meaningful move to address the issues where Canada's First Nations are concerned.

But it gets better:

Our Government’s plan for responsible resource development includes measures to protect against spills and other risks to the environment and local communities. Our Government will: 
§  Enshrine the polluter-pay system into law;§  Set higher safety standards for companies operating offshore as well as those operatingpipelines, and increase the required liability insurance;§  Re-introduce the Safeguarding Canada’s Seas and Skies Act, to protect our oceans and coasts; and§  Act on advice from the Expert Panel on Tanker Safety, to create a world-class tanker safety system in Canada. 
So, after gutting Canada's environmental protections in the last couple of budgets, they are going to institute a "polluter pay" system?  Give me a break.  Better to prevent the pollution in the first place - an ounce of prevention ...

As for a "world-class" tanker safety system, that isn't going to address the fundamental problem of navigating tankers in and out of Kitimat, B.C.  which is rife with navigational hazards between the port and the open ocean.

Shipbuilding and Manufacturing
§  Our Government will work in partnership with industry to ensure that all major military purchases create high-quality jobs for Canadian workers. Our Government’s National Shipbuilding Plan will create 15,000 well-paying, skilled jobs over 30 years for Canadians and produce much-needed new ships for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard. 
Seriously?  Every one of those contracts is hung up right now in the political disaster zone of military procurements.  Harper has initiated billions in purchases across the board with the military, and every last one of them is years off schedule and mired in problems.  I'm surprised that this government can purchase its own underwear.
  1. Canada now leads G-7 countries in post-secondary research investment. 
    §  Transformation of the National Research Council, doubling the Industrial Research Assistance Program, and the new Venture Capital Action Plan are all helping to promote greater commercialization of research and development.
    §  Building on this strong foundation, our Government will release an updated Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy.
    §  Our Government will continue making targeted investments in science and innovation chains from laboratory to market in order to position Canada as a leader in the knowledge economy.
    §  And our Government will continue to promote Canada as a world-class destination for international students. 
 Oh yes, the gutting of the NRC.  Essentially what Harper has done is turn the NRC into an engineering product centre, rather than a research support institution.  The problem with focusing the NRC on "productive" research (which is a code phrase for "it has to be commercial work") is that it basically ignores that commercially viable research results depend on an enormous amount of fundamental research to support it.  A lot of the research produces impractical results, or in many cases fails to produce the anticipated results altogether.  By insisting that all NRC research must be "commercially viable", Harper has forced Canadian scientists to hollow out the foundational research that supports it in order to produce "useful" results.  The consequences of this will be disastrous for Canadian science within a decade, as many of the researchers who do foundational work will move where there is a more hospitable climate for their efforts.

The problem with "commercializable" research as a focus is simple.  It allows no room for research to fail - everything is expected to produce a concrete result.  I have worked in commercial research environments.  The expectations are always unrealistic, and when something fails to produce the "desired" results, the executives go looking for someone to punish.

  1. Our Government has reduced the red tape burden on small and medium-sized businesses. There are now fewer regulations and the cost of red tape has been reduced by nearly 20 million dollars annually.
    §  Our Government will introduce legislation to enshrine the One-for-One Rule in law: for every new regulation added, one must be removed.

This is absolutely ridiculous.  While I acknowledge that regulation can get out of hand, taking a "one for one" approach and insisting that it has to be done that way across the board hamstrings the ability of the government to respond to new situations.

In truth this is nothing more than the Conservatives playing their "smaller government" card, but doing so in a manner that is so blatantly brain damaged that it hurts.  Again, the only purpose that this can serve is to create another legislative landmine for a future non-Con government.

I'm going to be somewhat dismissive of the Conservative's grab bag of "consumer benefits".  Frankly 98% of it is fluff in the first place, second it has little if any meaningful benefit for average Canadians.  I've commented on what I think this really is already.  If any of that batch of promises actually gets implemented, I'll be surprised.

Next up is a grab bag of "criminal justice" reforms - all of which adds up to imprisoning more people for even longer periods of time, at ever increasing cost to the taxpayers.

  1. Supporting Victims and Punishing Criminals
    Our Government believes that the justice system exists to protect law-abiding citizens and our communities. For too long, the voices of victims have been silenced, while the system coddled criminals. Our Government has worked to re-establish Canada as a country where those who break the law are punished for their actions; where penalties match the severity of crimes committed; where the rights of victims come before the rights of criminals. 
    § Our Government will introduce a Victims Bill of Rights to restore victims to their rightful place at the heart of our justice system. 
    §  Our Government will focus on protecting the most vulnerable of all victims, our children. Recent tragic deaths, including those of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, and Todd Loik, have shocked Canadians. Our Government will introduce legislation giving police and prosecutors new tools to effectively address cyberbullying that involves criminal invasion of privacy, intimidation and personal abuse. This legislation would create a new criminal offence prohibiting the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. 
    §  Canadians are rightfully alarmed when violent offenders found not criminally responsible for their actions are released into our communities. Our Government will re-introduce legislation to ensure that public safety comes first. 
    §  But we must do even more to protect our children. Child predators should never be let off with only a single sentence for multiple crimes against children. Canadians demand that those who prey on our children pay the full price for every devastated life. Our Government will end sentencing discounts for child sex offenders. 
    §  It is also unacceptable that dangerous and violent offenders are released into our communities before serving their full sentences. Our Government will end the practice of automatic early release for serious repeat offenders. 
    §  But for the worst of all criminals, even this is not enough. Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. For them, our Government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life. 
    §  Aboriginal women are disproportionately the victims of violent crime. Our Government will renew its efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. 
    §  Canadians also know that prostitution victimizes women and threatens the safety of our communities. Our Government will vigorously defend the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws. 
    §  Finally, our Government recognizes the daily risks taken by police officers and their service animals. It will bring forward Quanto’s law in honour of them. 

Ah yes, the "victims bill of rights".  A classic piece of populist Conservatripe.  Any time I have seen such a thing proposed in the past it boils down to confusing retribution with justice.  Usually, I hear agitation around these things when some particularly notorious criminal is up for parole, and then we get the victims and their families bleating about "being revictimized" by the mere fact that parole is even being considered.  I'll reserve judgment on the particulars of this proposal for when the actual legislation is put forward, but I don't expect it to be anything that I can support.

Of course, the Con$ continue to confuse punishing criminals and punishing the mentally ill who commit crimes as a result of their illness.  The great irony is that a "Not Criminally Responsible" finding usually means the offender is effectively indefinitely sentenced to being held in a secure psychiatric institution.  If their condition is remediated to a point where they no longer are suffering from the symptoms which brought on the psychotic episode when their offence took place then they might be released.  This doesn't sound like a public hazard to me.  However, the HarperCon$ have always argued that EVERYBODY who commits a crime should rot in jail.  They are just continuing their mantra of punish, punish some more and when that fails, punish again.

Then we have Harper wanting to extend lengthy prison sentences for child sex offenders, repeat offenders and the most serious of criminals such as Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo in various ways.  The US has already followed that path, and the net result is that the US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.  Canada would do far better to follow the example of Norway when it comes to criminal justice.  Longer, harsher prison terms merely put inmates in a place where they have nothing to lose, and when they are released, it is almost guaranteed that they will not be able to integrate with society effectively.

Fundamentally, this is red meat to be thrown at the base.  It's easy to think that throwing people in prison for longer sentences is going to make a difference.  It is much harder, but far more mature, to look to the example that Norway has set, and work to make prisoners productive members of society.

Our Government will also support hard-working Canadian families in other ways. 
§  Every day, parents make choices about what goes on the dinner table. Our Safe Food for Canadians Act was a significant milestone in strengthening Canada’s world-class food safety system. Our Government will work with the provinces and territories to further strengthen food inspection regimes.
§  Our Government will consult with Canadian parents to improve the way nutritional information is presented on food labels.
§  Our Government is also committed to ensuring that drug labels are written in plain language, and that the potential side effects of medication are accurately indicated. To help identify potentially dangerous drugs, and ensure the quick recall of unsafe drugs, it will introduce new patient safety legislation. This will include new powers to require reporting of adverse drug reactions. 
Oh yes, after cutting CFIA back to the point that we have had some of the worst food-borne illness outbreaks in Canada's history, Harper wants to create a piece of populist propaganda which will - at best - start to return things to where they were before he came to power in 2006.

Our Government will:
§  Re-introduce and pass the Respect for Communities Act to ensure that parents have a say before drug injection sites open in their communities;
§  Expand its National Anti-Drug Strategy to address the growing problem of prescription drug abuse;
§  Close loopholes that allow for the feeding of addiction under the guise of treatment; 
Really?  In short, the Harperites are going to escalate the failed "War on Drugs" strategy that the US has been carrying out - and failing at - for the last thirty odd years.  Yeah, that will end well.

There are nearly two pages of the Throne Speech dedicated to things military.  Given Harper's track record to date on such matters as purchasing new aircraft, or ships, I don't have a lot of confidence that any of this is more than window dressing.  Harper has used the military as a propaganda tool, and that is all.  His "support" for the troops has put veterans in a position where those who have long term injuries from service are in danger of living out their lives in abject poverty.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is this gem resting in the midst of the plans for 2017 - the 150th Anniversary of Confederation:

  • Building a Memorial to the Victims of Communism, to remember the millions who suffered under tyranny; 
 The first thought that goes through my head with that is "what?".  Seriously.  Why on earth is Harper playing that old Cold War era violin?  More seriously, this appears to be a piece of ideological propaganda on Harper's part - an attempt to cement the notion that anything "socialist" is somehow evil.  A certain Senator McCarthy tried that in the states back in the 1960s.  Its child is the Tea Party today.

All in all, this is a pretty limp throne speech.  It is obviously designed for primarily political purposes.  Looking towards the next election, Harper has thrown a bunch of candy promises out to the mainstream electorate, a piece or two of red meat for his base and has tried to plot a series of legislative landmines to be engaged should the Con$ lose the next election.  For garnish, he has thrown in a bunch of propaganda pieces which play into his neo-liberal fascism.


Anonymous said...

The biggest trap with the forced balanced budgets is the way this is used ideologically. One of the first things that Harper did when he had the ability to was to put through an enormous slate of corporate tax cuts, and that did a lot to create the deficit situation. Since then, he's repeatedly used the deficit to justify cuts to health care, transforming the shape of government, cutting the numbers of and wages of public employees, defunding ideologically incompatible social organizations, broadening the ways that people can be ejected from EI coverage, and scaring people into submission on the argument of whether the CPP is sustainable.

Budget games are the means by which the systematic transfer of wealth to the corporate sector is justified, and it's all sleight-of-hand.

You wrote:
"As for their stated position with respect to Canada's Aboriginal peoples "benefiting" from the resources..."

It means "we will access the resources on Aboriginal lands, and we'll throw them some pennies and tell them they're benefiting."

Did you like how Harper stuck the missing & murdered women reference beside the prostitution reference, almost intertwining them, as though the solution to one was to push the other?

MgS said...

Oh yes. Harper's really just drawing from Klein's playbook on the budget thing. It is, as you point out, primarily an ideological tool for fostering a pseudo crisis.

Given yesterday's events in New Brunswick, I have a feeling that those throne speech tidbits are going to be fuel on the fire. (but that's a subject for another blog post entirely)