Wednesday, January 30, 2008

TDSB approves 'Afrocentric' School

Less than 6 months ago Premier McGuinty declared that non-Catholic religous schools posed a threat to society. His position was endorsed across the board by the public school board system, from unions to school boards.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has approved the opening of an 'Afrocentric' school. The high school drop out rate amongst black students is around 40%. It is believed that by making school more relevant, students will stay in school and have hope for a better future.

The cookie cutter approach to education does not work. Students have different learning styles and interests. The schools need to be flexible enough to adapt the curriculum. In some cases this does require alternative schools based on a special interest.

The Black community does have problems with poverty, violence, single parent families, teenage pregnancy that severely hamper a students ability to be successful in school. These problems need to be dealt with head on. Setting up a school based on skin colour will not make these issues go away.

The City of Toronto offers a healthy lunch program. This highly subsidized program allows a child to have a hot healthy lunch at school a number of days per week for a very reasonable cost. Children are given a head start on learning about nutrition and healthy eating habits. This program is so important that it is even offered in the non-Catholic religious schools.

The problems in 'disadvantaged' communities need to be faced head on. More programs need to be developed to help kids succeed in school and not be lured by gang culture. These programs can range from sports to arts to any number of after school programs. Parents need to be encouraged to get involved in their kids education. The funding formula needs to be fixed so schools have enough councillors and other support staff the kids can turn to for help. University needs to be accessible to students coming from impoverished homes to give hope of a post secondary education. A school focused on skin colour does not address any of these issues.

The sad thing is that the 3 year pilot project is going to be a success. Not because they are fundamentally sound but because they will get the best students, extra funding plus extra parent and community volunteer support. These are all key ingredients for a successful school, irrelevant of the colour of the students skin.

While expressing discomfort for the proposal Premier McGuinty said he would allow the TDSB to make their own decision. Education Minister Kathleen Wynn has expressed her support for this project. These are the same people who argued against funding non-Catholic religious schools because it would create 'segregation'.

City of Toronto Balances Budget

Yesterday, Mayor Miller announced that for the first time since amalgamation in 1998 the City of Toronto has a balanced budget for the 2008 year. The budget still needs to go to council for approval and amendments. No extra money can be added to the budget.

This is a landmark accomplishment. After last year's tax revolt the city managed to find $116 million inefficiencies. They also received some handout money from the Provincial government for transportation and some social programming costs were uploaded. Miller has been ignoring the significant contribution of the average tax payer.

Miller announced that they there will be 'modest' property tax increase of 3.75%. He claims that he has kept his promise to keep property tax increases in line with the rate of inflation. Stats Can reports that the current rate of inflation is 2.2%. Plus the same tax payers are on the hook for the vehicle registration tax and land transfer tax. The city has also upped the fees for various services, including the recent TTC fare hike.

The freeze on market value assessment for real estate has been lifted. Over the next 4 years the property value used to determine property taxes will rise until it reaches true market value. With a booming real estate market, residents who have lived in their homes for decades may no longer afford to keep them. If the city uses the balanced budget to reduce property taxes in the future they can offset some of the hardship from MVA. If the city continues on their previous path and decides to spend the extra money the city will once again create their own financial crisis.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Liberals reconsider toppling government

Last year Stephane Dion made the mistake of deciding to vote against the budget before reviewing it's contents. MP Joe Comuzzi declared that he would consider voting in favour of the budget because it benefited his constituents. Commuzzi was thrown out of caucus for his insubordination. After sitting as an independent for three months, he eventually crossed the floor to the Conservative party.

Stephane Dion has declared that he will not try to topple the government before seeing what the budget has to offer. In general it is good politics not to oppose legislation before you know what the contents are. On the surface it would appear that Dion has learned a valuable lesson from his blunder from last year.

Last month Dion predicted that the government would be toppled in the early part of the year. He even pondered the possibility of introducing a non-confidence motion of his own. Since his declaration the Liberals have put the government under heavy scrutiny for Chalk River, Bali, a tanking economy, reaction to Bhutto Assassination and the government not being critical enough of Israel's position on settlement expansion. All of the issues the Liberals could hope for aligned against the government. Once again Dion is backing down.

The Liberals need to either follow through with their declared strategy or keep their options open. Declaring outrage for the government taking Canada in the wrong direction and then backing down when it counts, will only further erode their creditability. Canadians will not resent the Liberals for forcing an election if and only if they offer a clear alternative to the current government. The only fear the Liberals should have about facing the electorate is that they are too similar to the Conservatives on centre of the spectrum and will be crowded out on the left by the NDP and Green Party.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Return of Slushgate too little too late

In the late spring a scandal broke where the Ontario government had awarded $32 million in grants to ethnic groups without any kind of application process. The scandal really caught public's attention when a cricket club that received twice as much money as they requested. A $15 million grant to the UJA went mostly unnoticed in the media.

The decision to shutdown parliament 3 weeks early avoided the government having to defend themselves during question period. The Auditor General was eventually called in to investigate and confirmed the government acted improperly but that the funds did not go to friends of the Liberal party. Citizenship Minister Michael Colle resigned his cabinet position. The scandal was completely overshadowed in the October election by the faith based school funding issue. The government did promise that they would make every effort to recoup the money that was handed out.

A letter has been released from Larry Tanenbaum, thanking the Premier as well as Michael Colle, Monte Kwinter, David Caplan and Greg Sorbara for their support in obtaining the $15 million grant. The money went to the improvement projects for (3) Jewish Communities Centres in or on the outskirts of Toronto. The NDP and Conservatives have renewed calls for an RCMP investigation to determine if any criminal acts were committed.

The opposition response is too little too late. They had the opportunity to make this scandal a central issue in the election campaign and blew it. Even Michael Colle was able to retain his seat (with a significantly smaller margin of victory then past elections). The thank you letter just demonstrates that those who normally lobby the government had the opportunity to obtain these funds. This is should not be a surprise as it demonstrates that the lobbying industry works.

What is surprising is that every media outlet with the exception of the Toronto Sun is referring the grant as going to "a Jewish group" Why is the media choosing not to name the UJA as the recipient of this money? The public is better served when relevant information is made available to the public. Creating the impression that the UJA will not fall under the same scrutiny as the cricket club is a disservice to the Jewish community.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cat and mouse; the Schreiber games continues

The demand for a full public inquiry was seeded in the notion that if enough mud was kicked around some of it would stick. The Liberals and NDP were looking to connect the scandal to Stephen Harper and the 1983 Conservative Leadership Convention that brought Mulroney to power. The NDP wanted to take it further by connecting the scandal to the former Liberal government. This would not be a huge stretch considering most of the current scandal revolves around the actions of Mulroney after the Liberals took power.

Out of fear that Schreiber would be deported before a public inquiry the Parliament Ethics committee (one of only four chaired by the Liberals) decided to launch an investigation of their own. Their ability to control their investigation and remain focused on the interests of Canadians has been embarrassing.

On Friday, David Johnston submitted his report about the terms of reference for a public inquiry. He noted that the RCMP had examined the evidence and decided not to reopen their investigation. The purpose of a public inquiry is for fact finding. Considering there are more than 100,000 documents of evidence, there is very little new information that an inquiry could uncover. The questions that are still up in the air have been asked (or could still be handled) by the parliament ethics committee. Mulroney has already paid taxes on the money in question. A lawsuit by Schreiber to recoup the money given to Mulroney for failing to provide any services has been thrown out of an Ontario court for lack of juristicion. There must be cost/benefit analysis on the value of the information the inquiry will produce. As a result he recommended having a limited inquiry focused only on the scandal at hand.

Mr. Johnston has hit the nail on the head. Outside of political opportunity there is very little benefit to a public inquiry. There are no criminal charges that will be laid against Mulroney. Schreiber is set to spend the rest of his life behind bars in Germany once this scandal blows over. At most the government might be able to recover the $2.1 million paid to Mulroney to settle the liable suit over the airbus scandal. Such an inquiry will cost significantly more. The laws on ethical standards for politicians and lobbyists have been strengthened over the past 15 years. It is unlikely any substantial new recommendations will come out of the inquiry.

Canadians want a government who is able to deal with the challenges Canada is facing both now and in the future. While history is very important part of the future, there are no practical implications going forward for dragging out events of 15 to 25 years ago. The worst thing that could happen is having the next government chosen based on this relatively unimportant election issue.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Remember Outremont

The time for Stephane Dion's one shot at taking up residence at 24 Sussex Drive is quickly approaching. The NDP are ready to take down the government. The Bouchard/Taylor report on reasonable accommodation is due on March 31. This will be used as a rallying cry for the Bloc. The Liberals will not be able to sit out a budget vote in order to force an election at a more convenient time.

The writ has been dropped for by elections on March 17th in four ridings. Vancouver, Saskatchewan and two Toronto ridings have all been left vacant by Liberals. It is still too early to guess if the government will be toppled before the by elections are held. The Liberals should easily maintain control of all four ridings. Losing a single seat will spell the same disaster as the loss of Outremont except there will not be time to regroup before a general election.

Vancouver Quadra

This riding has been Liberal since John Turner took over in 1984. Some experts have predicted this is the Conservatives best shot at winning a seat. The chances of a change are very slim.

Desneth√©–Missinippi–Churchill River
Rookie MP Gary Merasty won this riding by a mere 67 votes. This party has traditionally bounced around between different parties. Dion has hand picked NDP MPP Joan Beatty to run.

The optics of this appointment are bad. Beatty was reelected to the Saskatchewan legislature just over a month ago. She had been approached to run federally before the provincial election. She declined because she thought the NDP were going to be returned to office. Not only is she a turncoat but she is willing to turn her backs on her constituents when her party has been sent to the opposition benches. If her nomination had not been guaranteed the decision to contest for the Liberal party nomination after being elected would have been more palatable.

The decision also shafted David Orchard who had declared he wanted to run. He was a big supporter of getting Dion chosen leader. Overriding the nomination process is an effective way to alienate Liberal supporters. In some cases people spend lots of time and money trying to land the nomination. In the long run this hurts the parties ability to fund raise and generate volunteers at a time when help is needed the most. The Conservatives have come under fire recently for refusing to sign nomination papers. This decision weakens the Liberals ability to launch their standard criticism of Harper for being too controlling and micromanaging his party members. The Liberal justification that wanted a female candidate is an insult to women across the country.

Toronto Centre
This riding has been Liberal since Bill Graham took office in 1993. With the Conservatives unable to break through in Toronto, Bob Rae should have no problem taking this riding. Rae has learned from his failings as NDP Premier and has gone on to build a successful political career. His position as Foreign Affairs critic will help him as the discussion turns to Canada's role in Afghanistan. There are some who will never forgive or forget his record as Premier. This should not stop him from winning the riding.

Martha Hall-Findlay is the Liberal candidate. Her federal political career includes losing an election to Belinda Stronach. She than lost her Liberal nomination when Stronach crossed the floor to join the Liberals. She was one of the non-contender candidates in the Liberal leadership convention. Running in a Toronto riding should give her the bump to finally get elected. She is in tough competition against Conservative Maureen Harquail. Harquail is a former environment lawyer who has military training. She should be able to keep things interesting.

Dion is shifting the Liberal party to the already crowded left side of the political spectrum. This gives him a tough ride against the NDP and Green Party while leaving the centre open for the Conservatives to retain votes from Red Tories and gain support form right leaning Liberals. Anything but a clean sweep of the by elections will create further rifts in the Liberal party that will be costly at election time. Under Dion's leadership even the safest riding have become a source of concern.