Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Federal Budget Day

The Conservative government tabled their 3rd budget today. As the economy is started to sour and previous budgets have lowered the budget surplus there was not a lot of room for new big commitments. Their was a sprinkle of money for infrastructure, mass transit, manufacturing sector, middle income earners, green projects.

The government has introduced a tax free saving account of up to $5000. This account provides a type of tax shelter for people who want to invest their savings but cannot wait until retirement before they may need to cash out. This will also help encourage some people to invest in savings, which are important for future economic growth. Keeping the contribution value low will prevent high end income earners from being able to take advantage of the program. This is a small way to try to repay the middle class that shares a disporportional amount of the tax burden.

The most disappointing aspect of the budget is the end to the rebate of fuel efficient cars. The goal of the program was to make the purchase of green cars more affordable. The Canadian car makers were against this plan because they did not have vehicles available on the market to meet the rebates. Hopefully the help being offered to the auto sector will allow for the development of more affordable green technology vehicles.

The Liberals have declared this to be a watered down Liberal budget. They don't love it but it is not worth having an election over. With the economy heading towards a down turn and the days of double digit budget surpluses in the past, it may be hard for the Liberals to put their vision of Canada in place without new sources of government revenue or reversal of 3 years of Conservative programs.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Afghanistan The Canadian Solution

It looks like the Liberals and Conservatives have finally worked together to come up with a clear and consistent policy for the rest of the mandate in Afghanistan. Under the current plan Canadian troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011. NATO will send an additional 1000 troops to supplement the Canadian forces already fighting in Kandahar. Additional equipment such as helicopters and surveillance vehicles will be provided to protect soldiers from IEDs. Troops will try to focus on rebuilding and helping the Afghan people. When fighting is required they will defend civilians and themselves from enemy attacks.

This compromise narrows down the choices on what can be a very confusing issue. There are two clear Canadian approaches to Afghanistan. There is the Liberal/Conservative approach. One of these parties will be in power in 2009 when the current mandate ends. There is the NDP/BQ/Green Party position of bringing our troops home as soon as possible. This will leave the next government with a clear mandate on how to proceed.

It also bolds well for both parties when the writ is finally dropped. The Conservatives will be less hampered by claims that their policy on Afghanistan is simply following George W. Bush foreign policy. The Liberals will get to trumpet that they have finally acted like the Official Opposition in a minority government and helped shape government policy. The Liberals have already begun to demand that the government bring back the Clean Air Act. Both parties can focus their campaigns on domestic policy that is more important to the day to day life of the average Canadian.

The biggest winner is the Canadian military. They will be receiving much needed resourcing to effectively continue rebuilding efforts. Keeping soldiers safe will help increase public support for the mission they are carrying out.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tory stays on for now

This weekend was the first time John Tory had to formally face his party since the embarrassing election loss in October. Normally having your party blown out in an election and losing your own seat is an automatic sign step down. After a long campaign and a promise to never, ever bring up the faith based school funding issue again, Tory managed to garner 66.9% support to stay on.

The Conservative Party is split between the 'Progressive' and 'Conservative' fragments. Not having an overwhelming majority of support will cause the campaign to force Tory to resign to continue. Uniting the party will be a difficult task. Tory must deal with asking an MPP to step down to allow him to take a seat in Queen's Park.

The fact he has not been knocked out yet is a testament to his character. He has the character traits that people like to see in their politicians. He fought a campaign based on his convictions and payed the ultimate price. He was willing to take a risk by avoiding running in a safe seat. While Premier McGuinty was proud of the fact that he did not knock on any doors and was kept away from unscripted meetings with people who were not pre-cleared as Liberal supporters. Tory went door to door on the campaign trail often followed by the media ready to pounce on him if someone asked him a tough question. He is also known for his strong work ethic at Queen's Park.

Tory took a risk and lost. His reputation in Ontario is severely tarnished, which could put him at a serious disadvantage in the 2011 election. Repairing the split in the party is going to be too big of a task without a change at the top. The best move for him would be to move on as party leader and find another way to apply his skills at serving the public.

The real loser in all this politicking is the 53,000 students in faith based schools. The government funds sports, arts, Catholic, Aboriginal, Gay and Lesbian and coming soon Afrocentric schools. Intentionally ignoring Jewish, Muslim, Protestant etc... schools is a tragedy to the multicultural mosaic of Ontario. Ontario has been condemned by the United Nations for this arrangement. The election proved that it is easier to ignore these human rights issues than try to find an appropriate solution.

In order to move forward the Conservatives need a new face and a new direction. Failing to do so could leave the Liberals in office until 2015 without a serious challenge. Just as it took the federal Conservatives a decade to recover from the Kim Campbell loss (which Tory was part of the campaign team), losing in 2011 could be just as devastating for the Conservatives in Ontario.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Where to put the snow

The normal plan for snow removal in Toronto involves plowing streets then waiting for it to melt within a few days. This year has resulted then larger then usual snow falls. The weather has also been colder resulting in large, icy accumulations everywhere. The city spent the early part of the week blaming residents for the poor snow removal efforts. Joe Mihevc called on immediately ticketing those unable to clear snow even though the same residents needed to wait 3 to 4 days to have their street plowed. Some city employees blamed the snow accumulation on residents, shovelling snow back onto the streets. Travelling through the streets shows this excuse was unfounded.

A city has finally abandoned their plan of simply waiting for spring for the snow to go away. On Friday a plan was announced for actual snow removal. Over a 10 to 14 day period the city would truck away snow that is blocking streets and making the city difficult to navigate. Citizens are being asked to cooperate and is some circumstances 'friendly tows' will be done to make the job easier for work crews. Parking officers are to be lenient in some cases and Green P lots will be made available to help crews clear the snow. While a little late, it seems like a well thought out plan to deal with this problem.

The city is only clearing out a very small portion of the city. There will be no snow removal anywhere north of the 401. Either residents of these areas are not entitled to the same snow clearing as the rest of the city or their snow clearing is better in the first the first. Either scenario begs the question of why the cities snow removal services is not equal across the city. At least according to all the Canadian groundhogs, spring is not that far away.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shaking up Queen's Park

One method for judging the importance of a government is by counting the days they are in session. In June, Queen's Park broke for the summer 3 weeks early to help bury the 'slushgate' scandal. The excuse at the time was that parliament had accomplished everything they needed to do. Since that time, there has been an election and the legislature sat for a total of 2.5 weeks before going on winter break. The break is officially scheduled to end on March 17th. Sources have indicated that parliament will be called back early and resume sitting on February 25th.

Today the government announced that they will be form a comitee to look into replacing "The Lord's Prayer" which is recited everyday to open parliament. It no longer reflects the multicultural demographics of the province. While having some merits for a review it is ironic this change is being introduced by the same government that blasted funding faith based schools, while supporting the status quo of funding Catholic Schools.

On Sunday, the government indicated that they are interested in making Parliament more appealing to parents with small children. They plan to eliminate night sittings and start having sessions on Friday. They also want to address the problem of time being cut short on question period due to procedural matters and allow more debate time for private members bills.

They have proposed moving question period to first thing in the morning. Currently MPPs have staff who's job it is to brief them on issues that may come up in question period. By being prepared both the government and opposition are able to serve the public interest with intelligent debate. Using the full time allocated for question period helps serve this purpose. If parliament is unprepared to ask or answer questions properly it is of very little value. Hopefully, they will move question period to the early afternoon with the other details worked out, so that this time can be used effectively.

The government has had essentially 10 months to prepare for a full session of parliament. Hopefully they will use the time to focus on the addressing the needs of the province and not tinkering with parliamentary procedures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Budget Magic Show

A month ago a rumour began to circulate that their would be huge user fee increases for rent of recreational facilities, especially hockey rinks. Councillor Joe Mihevc was sent out to reassure the public. He promised that hockey rinks in particular would be subjected at most to a cost increase directly related to inflation.

Last week it was uncovered that the budget included a 21.5% fee increase across the board for recreational activities including hockey arenas. This fee was on top of the built in 3% increase due to inflation. Mayor Miller claimed he did not know about the hike and promised to come to the rescue. The city has settled for a 5% increase on top of the 3% inflationary rate hike. It is unclear how many more user fee hikes have been buried deep into the budget.

This move left the city with a challenge of finding the $2 million they would have made from the fee hike. They have suspended the program of raising user fees to help subsidize those that are less fortunate. They have also reduced the projected number of welfare recipients per month from 79,000 to 77,000. Even with fears of a recession looming they have managed to reduce the poverty rate by 2.6% by simply declaring it so. If only the rest of the cities problems could be solved so easily.

Liberals stand up to confidence motion (sort of)

During the fall session the Liberals choose to show their opposition to confidence motions by showing up and sitting out the vote. While ineffective as the official opposition it has given the Liberals time to help prepare for an eventual election.

The confidence vote on instructing the Senate to pass the government crime bill by March 1st was held today. This bill was really a do nothing, go nowhere bill as parliament does not have the authority to interfere with the activities of the Senate. Some believe that when the Senate fails to meet the deadline Stephen Harper will go to the Governor General and ask to dissolve parliament. The Prime Minister no longer has the power to call elections. The Senate's ability or inability to act on any issue is by no means a sign of confidence in the government. It is unlikely the Governor General would grant such a request.

This vote was designed to embarrass the Liberals. No matter how they reacted to it would have brought heavy criticism. They decided to walk out of the Legislature in protest when the vote was called. The Bloc supported the motion. The Liberals could have opposed the motion in the parliamentary tradition by voting and the government would still not have been toppled. The Liberals would not have been perceived much better by opposing the motion and being accused of not being tough on crime.

Things still look like the government will be toppled on the budget. The only thing that could change that course is if the vote is after the March 17th by elections and the Liberals don't sweep all four ridings.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Swimming, Swimming, who will pay for the swimming pool?

Once upon a time conventional wisdom was that swimming pools should be built in schools. This trend has stopped as pools are now part of the new trend towards multi purpose community centres. There are currently 78 swimming pools in schools in Toronto run by TDSB. The pools carry an annual operation budget of $45 million. The city currently pitches in $5 million and TDSB has been skimming money off of the funding formula that is supposed to be directed to ESL students to help keep the pools open.

With TDSB facing another cash crunch they are once again threatening to close down the pools. Education Minister Kathleen Wynn has said it is not her departments problem because Toronto is the only jurisdiction where schools operate swimming pools. The city is proposing increasing the budget for the swimming pools by a mere $300, 000. They don't want to take over the responsibility for operating cost of a TDSB (Provincial) asset.

The bottom line is that swimming pools provide a valuable service to the city. Child obesity and lack of physical activity is a big concern. They also provide a place for people to cool off during heat alerts without the high costs of air conditioning.

The fact the pools happen to be located in schools does not reduce their importance. Building new pools when perfectly good ones are already in use, is a waste of taxpayers money. Someone, anyone needs to step to the plate and recognize that these are valuable assets for the city and must remain open. Failure to do so, would be just another example of how out of touch our politicians are.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Extending the Afhghanistan mission

Polls have shown that there is a correlation between the body bag count and the support for the mission in Afghanistan. The Conservatives have used the Manley report to justify extending the mission to 2011. They are calling for NATO forces to provide an additional 1000 troops and they will provide the necessary military equipment (such as helicopters) to reduce the risk to soldiers. This seems to meet the Liberals demand for other countries to pull their fair share at the same time providing a realistic plan for keeping soldiers out of harms way as much as possible.

The Liberals have outright objected to this plan. They feel Canada has contributed enough to this war. They don't want to abandon the people of Afghanistan but it is time for someone else to do the fighting. The military is to continue to help in a non-combat role. Questions remain as to what the military would actually be doing and how they would be safer as sitting duck targets. Currently most of the Canadian deaths are from road side bombs which do not distinguish between soldiers that are fighting or on non-combat missions such as training security personal. The Liberals will be releasing their vision for Afghanistan this week.

The Conservatives seem to have struck a solid compromise to reaching the goals of helping to rebuild Afghanistan and keeping soldiers safe. Countries such as France have already indicated a willingness to bring in reinforcements. If the reinforcements are not available the government would be entirly justified in ending the mission. The Liberals will have a tough time carving out a middle ground that is both effective and realistic. It should be an interesting week.

Pushing the Senate to fight crime

In 2005, as leader of the opposition Stephen Harper tried a number of different confidence motions in order to try to topple the government. The first one to pass in the house was a call for the finance committee to instruct the Prime Minister to resign. The government immediately declared that the motion could not topple the government. The speaker agreed. Last year the opposition parties pushed through a private members bill declaring that the government had to abide by the Kyoto Protocol. As the legislation had no teeth the government shrugged their shoulders and have basically ignored the bill.

On Thursday the Government introduced a motion directing the Senate to pass the long delayed crime bill by March 1st. Failure to pass the legislation will be a vote of confidence and if the Senate does not comply the Government may try to declare a loss of confidence from the house.

This motion is designed to embarrass the Liberal party. The Liberals took a knee on the crime bill when it was put forth as a confidence motion in the fall, knowing full well it would never make it through the Senate. The motion in itself is relatively meaningless as the house has no authority to put time restrictions on the Senate. Should the motion be passed and the Senate not comply or the motion be defeated the Liberals could argue that this motion does not really do anything so it should have no affect on the Government confidence in the house. Taking that risk and losing the argument would start an election campaign off really badly.

The Conservatives have been trying to be tough on crime since they were elected. They have not been able to get the Senate to agree with their plan, especially on raising the age of sexual consent to 16. This motion is to simply announce that the Liberals do not want to be tough on crime. It will be interesting to see how the public sees through this round of smoke and mirrors.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Conservatives set-up election triggers

The Conservative Government spent the past week laying out election triggers for the Liberals. They moved ahead with confidence motion designed to embarrass the Liberals, to put pressure on the senate to pass the government crime bill. They put forth a proposal for extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. This is a defining issue that the Liberals would rather not be the centre of an election campaign. The budget will also be released at the end of the month. The Liberals have been waiting for this opportunity to topple the government.

Polls are still showing that Canadians would prefer not to have an election. They are also showing lots of electoral volatility without any party having a clear shot at a majority government. There are also (4) by elections in March that could be insightful to how election ready the Liberals really are.

The Conservatives may feel that this is their best shot so they need to go for it despite the risk. They may also feel that their is going to be an election anyway so they might as well set-up Dion with as many stumbling blocks as possible form which to choose to topple the government. There is a very fine line drawn in the sand between the two parties positions in Afghanistan. The Conservatives will probably make the next budget difficult for the Liberals to object to.

The political games of the next few weeks will be desigened to focus an election on Afghanistan, being tough on crime & the goodies offered in the budget. Dion could have a tough time establishing his own set of priorities as the important election issues.