The Sausage Factory
with Dan Lett
05/7/2013 12:48 PM
The debate in Manitoba over infrastructure funding is still pretty heated, two weeks after the NDP government announced it was raising the sales tax by one-point to essentially double the annual cash contribution to capital projects. When fully implemented, and combined with current cash-to-capital contributions, in theory the proposal will generate about $560 million annually for infrastructure (based on current PST yields).
The debate over the PST hike has been, as could be expected, pretty shrill stuff. Citizens, special interests, lobbyists and opposition politicians are all jockeying for position. There is no consensus yet, but it's fair to say there aren't a lot of people outside the government proper who like Premier Greg Selinger's plan to implement the tax, and do it without holding a referendum.
Of course, Manitoba is not the only province involved in a debate about politics, tax increases and infrastructure. Our neighbors to the east have their own debate going, and it's a doozy.
Newly-minted Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne last week introduced a provincial budget which calls for, among many things, a new array of surcharges, levies and taxes to help pay for 'the Big Move,' the name given to her ambitious $50-billion transit improvement strategy. The Big Move would see $2 billion spent in each of the next 25 years on new highways, bus rapid transitways, and extensions to the Go Train and Toronto Transit Commission subway systems.
No specific revenue-generating measures have been unleashed, but they are expected soon. Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa has specifically discussed a plan to create more HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes on 400-series highways, and then offer motorists the option of buying a pass to use the lanes even if they are do not have at least two people in the vehicle.
A report from Metrolinx, the provincial transportation authority that oversees transit in Greater Toronto and Hamilton, is expected to table a report in June that will include specific revenue-generating tools. These are expected to include new highway tolls, gas taxes, development fees and property taxes. There has even been a suggestion that drivers start paying for each kilometre travelled on high-volume highways. Although Metrolinx only has authority for Toronto and Hamilton, Wynne has promised that similar measures are adopted by municipalities across the province.
Ontario's need for improved highway and transit infrastructure is hardly debatable. The most heavily populated region in the country is currently unable to move its people around in any effective manner. Heavy residential development in downtown Toronto has ensured that there is a gridlocked rush hour both into and out of the core of the city every day. Other highways, notably Highway 427, are virtually unusable for most of each day because of volume. This, and the Go Train and TTC Subway are running at capacity.
The debate in Ontario, much like the debate in Manitoba, centres on the tension between need and capacity to pay. The infrastructure deficit in most provinces is now measured in the tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars. The capacity of local and provincial governments to even keep up with the pace of degrading infrastructure is very much in doubt. In Manitoba, even with the additional PST revenue, we will only be slowing the growth in the infrastructure deficit. That's right, even with half-a-billion dollars of provincial money each year, the value of the work that needs to be done on our roads, bridges and amenities will continue to grow.
Wynne's Big Move could be a moot point, if opposition parties conspire to bring down her minority government by voting against the recently tabled budget. Right now, the Ontario NDP hold the balance of power and aren't making any promises one way or the other. If the Big Move is defeated, it's unlikely it will be replaced. It might not even make its way into a Liberal re-election campaign.
And therein lies the real danger in this debate. Time is money in the infrastructure debate. Selinger made that point in trying, rather feebly, to explain why he was introducing the PST hike this year without any meaningful discussion or debate. Wynne has expressed the same sentiment, although she has been much better about starting the debate on transit fees well before last week's budget.
One of the more poignant comments on the Big Move came from Mississauga's hereditary mayor, Hazel McCallion. Ontario's big-city mayors support the Big Move in principle because they know that without additional revenue, the province will eventually succumb to a permanent gridlock. When someone suggested the Liberals were losing faith in the Big Move, McCallion told the Globe and Mail: "We’ve had too much delay already. Action is what’s required."
Action indeed. However, if opposition politicians and (in the event of a snap election) voters lose faith in the Big Move, there will likely be no action. And the costs of fixing Ontario's transportation system will only go up.
In Manitoba, we're going to live with an eight-per-cent PST for two years before voters get a chance to punish Selinger for having temerity to raise taxes. By then the NDP government will have either proven the value of its tax hike or, as seems a distinct possibility now, a new government of different stripe will come in with a mandate to repeal the PST hike.
The question here isn't which party gets to govern here in Manitoba. The NDP have had a long run and their inability to make a compelling case for a PST hike may be evidence it has reached the end of its shelf life.
However, the real issue here is not which party wins the next election, but whether we, like Ontario, will ever get our minds around the cost of fixing infrastructure.
03/15/2013 8:20 AM
Score another direct hit for the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. Our friends at the CTF grabbed headlines this week by revealing, through an access to information request, a personal expense scandal involving Red River College President Stephanie Forsyth. CTF chief prairie sleuth Colin Craig, acting on a tip from a "whistleblower," revealed several questionable expenses claimed by Forsyth over the past two years. These included $200 for golf shoes, $130 for a duffle bag and automobile expenses, including her driver's licence fee.
Let it be said that Forsyth should have known better. The golf shoes in particular are one of those expenses whose symbolic value far exceeds its monetary value. Forsyth said she needed the shoes to attend a golf tournament as a representative of RRC. Most golfers know that a) you can get a decent pair of golf shoes for less than two C-notes, and b) a lot of non-golfers (which she admits to being) have been known to get through a round of golf in a pair of trainers. Either way, it was a silly expense that a highly paid civil servant should have known was a lightning rod for axe-grinders and dissidents.
As for the other expenses, you could make a strong case that they are rather mundane. Perhaps there were explanations for why Forsyth claimed a duffel bag or her licence fee. We'll never know because the CTF, as is its style, did not call the president for clarification before posting the expenses online.
This publish-first-ask-questions-later-style is well practised by bloggers and other self-proclaimed, Internet-fuelled watchdogs. Get your shot in, worry about whether you were on the mark later. The CTF, like a lot of bloggers, would argue that it is not part of their job to call the people they skewer for comment; that's the work of hack journalists like me. However, not calling and getting clarification or reaction means that you don't really care if what you're saying is accurate, fair or even worthy of publication.
That strategy allows the CTF to revel in its own glory for a day or two. In the long run, however, it hurts the organization's credibility. More importantly, it is hurting the overall cause of accountability and transparency.
Consider that the CTF, for example, has been one of the strongest and clearest voices on the very real need to have our provincial and federal politicians post all of their expenses online. They are 110 per cent correct in their assertion that it is the only fair and objective way to ensure that elected officials are using our money wisely. Recent controversies surrounding MP and Senate living expenses, and refusal of Parliament to release full details of those expenses, is evidence of the practical sanity of the CTF campaign.
But here's the rub. Not putting those expenses online enjoys almost complete multi-partisan support. That is to say, all parties are resisting the move to full transparency. Why would the gross, gross majority of MPs and their parties resist this much-needed tribute to accountability? Stories like the one detailed above are likely to blame.
I've talked to politicians from all parties on this issue, and although they do not oppose the idea of full transparency for expenses, they genuinely fear the cheap shots they would suffer at the hands of the CTF. Yes, there are politicians who generally abuse their expense accounts, claim things they should not claim, and they should be brought to justice. However, the overwhelming majority of politicians do not abuse their expense accounts. The CTF doesn't really care much about that.
In fact, it's not a stretch to say that the CTF is offended politicians get paid at all. It's not hard to imagine that in the CTF's ideal world, politicians would be wealthy volunteers who sat in Parliament as $1-a-year executives and brown-bagged lunch every day.
With that overarching philosophy, the CTF sets the bar quite low for what it considers to be an outrage. Forsyth's golf shoes were pretty silly, and I suppose we should thank the CTF for the fact that she is repaying the money. As for the other expenses, we really don't know if they were justified or not. Those expenses are not out of whack with what a chief executive of a large post-secondary institution would collect. Especially when you consider that universities and colleges have to pay private-sector-level salaries and benefits to attract top people to lead their institutions. You won't hear that context in the CTF rant.
Undoubtedly, many readers will find no sympathy with politicians who resist something as important as transparency because of something as trivial as being embarrassed by the CTF. However, with each Forsythian "scandal" revealed by the CTF, that resistance becomes more entrenched.
I'm just spit-balling here, but while we're making demands of our elected officials to demonstrate more propriety, perhaps the CTF could pick its fights more carefully while campaigning on our behalf.
If the CTF limited its whip to those politicians who genuinely abused expenses, perhaps it would become the champion of accountability it has always aspired to be. And we would know that we're not only getting justice, but displaying a sense of justice as well.
03/5/2013 9:31 AM
She's running way behind in the polls, is mired in debt and deficit and facing a provincial election in just 10 weeks time. Could things get any worse for BC Premier Christy Clark?
Apparently, they can. Last week, the opposition NDP, frontrunners in the pre-election polls, released exerpts of an internal memo from B.C.'s Liberal government that outlined its strategy to woo ethnic voters in the upcoming election. The 17-page document, prepared by Clark's chief of staff, described ways of earning "quick wins" among ethnic voters by unleashing a wave of apologies for historic wrongs and creating a team of partisans to flood open-line radio shows catering to ethnic audiences with pro-Liberal callers.
Ethnic-gate, as it's been dubbed, prompted a tidal wave of protest, both from within and without the party. Not surprisingly, the NDP were morally offended by the cynical strategy, and that government resources would be used to facilitate it. More surprising was the fact that a group of 89 Liberals who claimed to be of "ethnic background" met last weekend and voted to ask Clark to step down as premier.
Perhaps I've spent too much time breathing the same air as political operatives, but I had trouble figuring out where the scandal part comes in here. I spent the weekend reading everything I could on ethnic-gate, and found some interesting other facts of the story. It serves, I hope, as a bit of a reality check.
B.C. media seized upon ethnic-gate story mid way through last week, but it really peaked over the weekend when the widely quoted dissident leader, Vikram Bajwa, claimed that similar anti-Clark meetings had taken place in five Sikh temples across the lower mainland. Headlines screamed out that BC's Indo community was "deeply divided" over ethnic-gate. One newspaper proclaimed that Clark's re-election chances were "dashed" as a result of the scandal.
Unfortunately, it took two daily news cycles for some fact checking. Several prominent Sikh leaders denied any involvement in the dissident motion, and disputed the existence of any other meetings. And then, there was issue of the Bollywood film awards.
Last year, Clark announced that B.C. was bidding to host the 2013 International Indian Film Award (IIFA) ceremony in Vancouver. The oldest and most prestigious Bollywood film awards, the IIFA held its 2011 ceremony in Toronto to great accolades. Clark, perhaps as part of her woo-the-ethnic-vote strategy, put on a full court press to get the event in Vancouver. Unfortunately, the IIFA did not accept Vancouver's bid. Clark responded by striking a deal to host the less prestigious Time of India (TOI) film awards.
For reasons not entirely clear, the dissidents seeking Clark's ouster also passed a resolution asking that B.C. withdraw all support for the TOI film awards. Was anger about not getting the IIFA an underlying issue at the heart of the dissident anger? Is there some sectarian battle involving the rival film awards playing out in BC? To date, it has not been a well-explored angle, but in the rough-and-tumble world of Indo-politics, it's possible this was a seminal event. The dissidents certainly connected the two issues in their announcement.
So, that leaves us once again with the question of exactly what is it that the B.C. Liberals have done to justify all this grief. Accusing a governing party of working tirelessly to build support among ethnic voters as a way winning an election is like accusing a vegetarian of being anti-meat. Harnessing the ethnic vote, for better or worse, has been a staple of Canadian politics for as long as non-white people have been allowed to vote.
Where then do you draw the line between government policy and electoral strategy, or between responsiveness and pandering? To be honest, no one really knows. When Premier Greg Selinger brings greetings to a Sikh festival, is that government work or partisan, pre-election work? If Mayor Sam Katz dons an ethnic tunic while attending a Folklorama pavilion, is that a mayoral or an electoral strategy? The only thing we know for sure is that it's very difficult to get re-elected to anything if you do not put in face-time at ethnic and religious holidays and festivals.
And you can can be sure that when a government makes a decision to apologize to an ethnic community for a historic wrong, there is a calculation of the political benefits and blowback. Just about every ethnic community advocate knows as well that the period right before an election is the best time to find traction on a pet issue. It's simply unfair to ask politicians to be unconcerned about who may or may not vote for them when they issue policy.
Consider that federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is widely viewed as a political genius for helping the Conservative party build a huge base of support in ethnic communities. He travels widely, and frequently, to meet face-to-face with ethnic voters. He listens to their concerns. Occasionally, he is able to affect policy important to some of those communities. And he encourages them to vote for his party.
Honestly, where does Kenney's duties as immigration minister end, and where does his partisan, support-building duties begin? His frequent trips across the country to meet with ethnic groups are no doubt charged to his ministerial expense account. And if there is a little partisan organizing served on the side, well, that's okay too. It's a practice that's as old as federal politics in this country.
Kenney is, in reality, serving both a government and a partisan purpose with these trips. Now, the fact that everyone is doing it does not necessarily make it right. However, given the nature of the work, and the demands that ethnic communities make on politicians, it's very hard to say that it's wrong.
At some level, it is the work of a governing party to get re-elected. Not at any cost, to be sure. But governments spend a lot of taxpayer money convincing people their programs and policies are worthy of electoral support. Anyone remember the tens of millions of dollars spent by Ottawa advertising Canada's Economic Action Plan, the nifty label given to our recession stimulus program? That was taxpayer money, promoting a policy that is destined to be a central feature of a Tory re-election campaign in advertisements that had dubious value as public service announcements.
In B.C., Clark's principle crime may well be allowing the raw effluent of that internal document out into the open. There is nothing particularly offensive about the language; premiers and their parties govern, but they also spend a lot of time and effort worrying about how to ensure they continue governing after the next election. That means political staff, as their title suggests, are working on government policy and partisan strategy in constant lockstep. Again, that doesn't necessarily make it right. But given it's wide practice, one must proceed carefully before deciding how wrong it is.
Clark is a lame duck, and ethnic-gate was just the latest coal to be added to a fire that has been roasting her party for some years. Her party had very little chance of re-election before this latest scandal, and she has little chance following it.
However, the details of that memo and - perhaps more importantly - our reaction to it speak volumes about politics. Or how little we know about its inner workings.
PS - For a hilarious look at the politics of wooing ethnic or minority voters, please take a look at Stephen Colbert's interview last week with Democratic Party operative Jeremy Byrd on his campaign to woo Hispanic and African American voters in Texas. It's in the second segment.
02/25/2013 10:47 AM
We laid down a challenge to all hockey fans: test your knowledge of the rules of the game. You responded in remarkable fashion.
Last week, the Free Press posted the Great Canadian Hockey Quiz to test the average fan's knowledge of the rules of hockey. There were 14 questions on everything from offsides and icings to more complex queries on specific infractions. Hockey Canada, the guardians of the rules of the game, get a big assist for helping us compose the questions and answers.
So, how did you fare? More than 3,000 readers have taken the quiz so far. The average score was slighly more than eight right answers out of 14, or about 60 per cent. That's a solid 'C' grade. Only 120 people got a perfect score; that was about four per cent of the total number who took the quiz.
For those who self-identified as referees, the results were, perhaps not surprisingly, better. Referees scored 83 per cent on the quiz, a solid 'A.' That's important to remember next time you're hounding a zebra at the rink.
The results are hardly scientific. There was nothing preventing someone from taking the quiz more than once. And it was possible to cheat by looking at the rule book while taking the quiz. After looking at the results so far, however, it's difficult to believe many people took the time to cheat.
The results do beg a question: if our knowledge of the rules is passable at best, shouldn't we be a bit more respectful when a referee makes a call during a hockey game? Makes you think.
The quiz was not a random make work project. The question of how much we actually know about the rules of hockey was front and centre following a well-publicized incident two weeks ago - captured on video for the world to see - involving the father of a 15-year-old hockey player.
The man erupted at a hockey game after his son had been penalized for making contact to the head of an opposing player while delivering a body check. The hitter was much larger than the hittee, and the father would not believe that you could earn a penalty just because the victim of the check was, in his own words, "a midget." He was, of course, very wrong about his interpretation of the head-shot rule in minor hockey.
The theory put forward in my column was that a more informed hockey fan would be less likely to make a fool of him or herself at a minor hockey game. Some readers agreed with this position, while others felt strongly that no measure of education would prevent an arse from being an arse. There were good points made on both sides.
The Free Press is not alone in promoting the idea of a better-educated fan. The National Hockey League is involved in its own education campaign to inform fans on the league's interpretation of specific infractions. The NHL Video Rulebook shows actual game footage to explain when and why referees call penalties. In addition, the league just launched Evolution of a Suspension, a video series explaining when and why players are suspended for certain infractions.
It's important to note, however, that the NHL rules are NOT the same rules used for minor hockey. Certain key rules are much different in the professional game, and it's not appropriate to apply those standards to minor hockey.
Let's face it: the pro game is much faster and more violent; minor hockey is meant to be played in a more civil, less violent context. Still, the videos are a valuable resource for any fan of the game.
If you haven't already, take the quiz. It does a hockey fan good.
About Dan Lett
Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.
Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.
In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.
He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.
In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.
Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.
Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.
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