Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Reflection on This Past Year

Well, with the holiday season in more or less full swing, I think this will be my last post for the year. It's been an interesting one politically, both provincially and Federally, and I'm not really going to spend my time reflecting too much on individual events that popped up during the year.

We all know about the PotashCorp deal; we all know about the death of the long form census; and so on and so forth, to simply rehash them and re-debate them seems like a bit of a waste of time at this point. Not that these issues aren't important, it's just we all know the facts as they lay and there's no need to wake those sleeping dogs at the moment.

What I would like to talk about is current state of the Canadian Political System. For those of you hoping for a provincial post to wrap up the year, I'm sad to say you aren't going to see one. As a compromise, I'll be sure to open next year with a look at a major provincial issue.

As this political year comes to a close, as Parliament will be closing this session down on Thursday, I can't help but think of the events that brought us to where we are now and what Canadians have wrought in their Federal Political System.

I did say I wasn't going to reopen old arguments, but I do need to do a bit of reflection.

In 2006, Canadians voted for change in their Federal Government by voting out the 'corruption-plagued' Liberal Party of Paul Martin. Despite having more than two choices, Canadians turned to the united Conservative Party of Stephen Harper to fix the problems created by the Liberals.

Harper promised transparency; he promised protection for government whistle-blowers; he promised to change the political system in Ottawa for the better.

Now, as we approach 2011, we must ask ourselves what has Stephen Harper delivered on?

Despite promises of transparency, the Harper Government has been one of the most secretive governments in Canadian history. Every month, it seems that news of improper denials of Access to Information requests comes to head, as Canadians find their government refusing to release information or released documents so heavily redacted that they leave the person requesting information with less information than when they'd made the request.

Case in point (CTV News: Two Tory Staffers tried to Block Access to Info: CP)

Of course, this is nothing new. Statistics show that numerous Access to Information requests have been flat out denied or heavily redacted by this Conservative Government, especially request that have to do with Afghanistan.

So it would seem that Harper is only talk when it comes to government transparency, as it seems every other month a 'staffer' is blamed for problems within a ministry, while the Minister blissfully claims ignorance and sometimes indignation about what is going on with that particular issue.

As such, transparency doesn't seem to be a priority for the Harper Government. But surely they followed through on the other promises they made to prevent another 'sponsorship scandal' from occurring again.

So, how about protecting whistle-blowers? Well, the Harper Government did pass legislation to protect whistle-blowers, but what has it really done?

Well, the person in charge of being Ottawa's 'Integrity Watchdog' resigned in disgrace after news broke that she was not only berating and bullying her staff, but also failing to do her job. Despite receiving 170 complaints since her office was created, Christiane Ouimet launched only 3 investigations and found no cases of wrong-doing.

Furthermore, she failed to establish procedures for her office to follow and regularly dismissed complaints without an investigation even taking place. Then there were complaints about Ouimet's personal interactions with staff; given that apparently she was prone to 'swearing' and belittling staff members, including one she singled out after believing that the staffer had filed a complaint about her to the Auditor General.

So, here we have a person who is supposed to be protecting whistle-blowers, who apparently went out of her way to sabotage and personally attack staffers who left her office or were suspected of filing complaints about her to her superiors.

Glad to see that Whistle-Blowers Protection Act is working in Ottawa...

So, the Harper Government has failed on transparency and protecting whistle-blowers; and as Meatloaf would say, two out of three ain't bad, but what about the third one? What about changing politics as usual in Ottawa?

Well, the Harper Government has only made things worse there as well...

A.) The Harper Government attempt to remove public financing for political parties. While this may not be popular among some citizens, it's important to know that political parties should start on an attempt equal footing in a democracy, otherwise one party is always going to have an advantage over another simply because they can put out more of their message or more negative ads.

This polarized the opposition and helped lead towards the failed and much derided coalition attempt, which also helped contribute to the destruction of Stephane Dion's leadership of the Liberal Party.

For a moment, I'd like you to keep the idea of election financing somewhere as I'm going to return to it later.

B.) The Harper Government talked about 'working with Parliament' and the opposition parties; but has turned their back on this ideal as well. Given the current lack of a Liberal backbone, the Conservatives know they can pass any bill through Parliament they want, as the Liberals will not step up to defeat it.

Furthermore, the Harper Government has done more 'out of cabinet' motions than I can remember in recent history. Perhaps the better term is Act of Cabinet, in which certain things can be determined by the government and it's ministers, as opposed to Parliament. The scrapping of the long form census was one of these acts, as it did not require a vote in Parliament and simply happened under recommendation by the Minister; and of course, the $17 billion dollar purchase of stealth fighter jets, which was not a tendered or competitive contract, yet awarded to Lockheed Martin without the approval of Parliament...

The list goes on...

C.) Harper has attacked the Senate since he was leader of the Canadian Alliance. Yet, at every opportunity the Harper Government has used the Senate as an arm of the Conservative Party.

Despite opposing appointed life-long senators, Harper has appointed Senator after Senator to help push his own legislative agenda through the Upper House. And for the record, other Prime Ministers have appointed numerous Senators, but they also appointed Senators of differing political stripes.

For example, Paul Martin actually appointed a Conservative Senator during his brief time as Prime Minister. Whereas Harper has never appointed a non-conservative Senator.

On top of that, Harper's ministers and backbenchers have been manipulating the Senate in the House of Commons. It came out months ago that Conservative Members of Parliament were rushing to become sponsors of Senate Bills in the House of Commons, even though many of the bills they were sponsoring ran contrary to Conservative ideology.

Of course, this was because the Conservatives were killing Senate Bills without debate. By the sponsor of a bill not being present in the Commons for first reading, the bill is considered defeated. And that's what many of the Conservatives were doing to destroy legislation that they didn't want to discuss or debate.

Some Conservatives defended and denied the practice, but most steered clear of it.

D.) The Harper Government can also be described as the folly of the staffers, as evidenced above, as numerous staffers have been investigated, resigned, or fired over events that happened within certain ministries or departments.

On top of staffers finding blame for refusing and wrongfully editing access to information requests, it's come out that Saskatchewan (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar) MP Kelly Block had staffer problems of her own.

A staffer from Block's office forwarded confidential budget information to several lobbying firms, and it's now come out that said staffer was seeking employment with the firms he sent the information to, despite the information not being ready to release to the public, given the impact it could have on personal finances.

Some Conservatives, such as fellow Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski, have condemned the lobbyists and the staffer for their actions, but not much more than that has happened.

Furthermore, in regards to staffers, the Harper Government has forbidden staffers from responding to requests to appear in front of Parliamentary Committees, even if they've been summoned to appear before the committee.

E.) And we also have the problem of renovations. Parliament is an old building, as such, it's going to need some work done in order to keep it safe and beautiful for decades to come...As such, renovations are regular occurrences on Parliament Hill.

So, imagine the surprise when a contractor makes a bold claim that his contributions to the Conservative Party and spending money to a well connected Conservative lobbyist, helped him win the contract to renovate an area of the West Block.

Add to this some workers walking off the job and filing complaints with the RCMP over backpay, and you have to ask yourselves some questions about how renovation contracts are being rewarded in Ottawa...

And finally, we come back to election financing, as promised.

Elections Canada has had a long standing feud with the Conservative Party of Canada, over whether or not the party participated in an 'in and out' scheme during the 2006 Federal Election.

Effectively, an in and out scheme means that the party collected funds on a regional level (say for the riding of Saskatoon-Humboldt) and then proceeded to use those funds to organize the national campaign as a means of getting around national spending limits.

Let's try to make that clearer.

Take a riding like Calgary-Southwest (Harper's riding) where a Conservative victory is all but assured. Let's say that the Conservative Party raises $45,000 in Calgary-Southwest from supporters.

Obviously, given the Conservative bend in the riding as well as Conservative notoriety in the riding, there isn't a need to spend $45,000 within the riding.

So, the Conservatives could set up a campaign office within Calgary-Southwest which claims to operate for the riding, but actually does work for the national campaign instead. So, instead of spending that money in Calgary-Southwest, they use it to run ads throughout Canada instead of just within Calgary-Southwest.

It's a basic explanation, but I think it explains it well.

Well, Elections Canada is claiming that that is exactly what the Conservative Party did in Quebec during the 2006 Election, where $170,000 dollars was used as a national campaign expense but listed as a regional expense in order to get around the spending limit on national campaigns.

Of course, the Conservatives are denying the claim and appealing it, while Elections Canada continues to suggest that by doing this the Conservative Party of Canada broke Canadian Election Law.

So, with all of this in mind, has the Harper Government really changed the way things work in Ottawa?

The answer is a clear and resounding no. The Harper Government continues to be a force for the betterment of the Harper Government and the Conservative Party, not a force for the betterment of the Canadian People.

Despite promises of cleaning up Canadian politics and ensuring that the 'corruption' that existed under the previous Liberal Governments never occurs again; that the patronage and the favouritism that plagued departments and contracts would not occur, the Harper Government has failed on all fronts.

So, it would seem that the Harper Government is all talk and no action when it comes to improving the way things are run in Parliament.

And the reasoning for this is simple: The Harper Government simply doesn't care.

They are a party of populism, much like the Tea Party movement in the United States, that placate the people of Canada by telling them what they want to hear, by promising action on issues important to us, and by playing up problems the other side has created while promising to fix them...

But of course, once elected, they do nothing about the issues that helped sweep them into office. As stated, the only thing they care about is bettering their own poll numbers and ensuring that the next election will be the election that finally gets them the majority government they've been pandering for.

After all, would a government that really cared about getting things done trot out the Prime Minister to do a song and dance when their poll numbers start to dip, or would they get to work on an issue that would help them during an election?

Obviously, I hope, we all know the answer to that question.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rethinking the Senate

Well, one of the more interesting pieces of news coming out of Ottawa this month, is the news that the Senate has killed a major piece of climate change legislation. Of course, the Conservatives have blamed the Liberals for the defeat of the bill; while the Liberals have blamed the Conservatives. I have talked about the Senate before on this blog, so I think it might be time to re-examine some of the issues I brought up from that last post, as it has been awhile.

Now, I've made no denial of my own political identification; I'm a proud New Democrat, however, abolishing the Senate is an issue where the NDP and I don't exactly see eye to eye. It is true, that in it's current form, the Senate is a breeding den of patronage and wasteful spending, but there are benefits to keeping the Second Chamber alive and well in Canada.

For starters, the idea of the Senate was originally founded to ensure that the provinces would have a strong voice in the federal government. That idea has fallen to the way side, as Senators identify more with their political party than with the province they are supposedly representing. This is also a problem in the House of Commons, but we don't quite have the time to deal with that as well in this post...Though, I have talked about it before as well.

In addition, the Senate is strange in it's permitting of absences for Senators. Effectively, a Senator can attend Senate committees and sitting at their own discretion, provided that they don't miss a certain consecutive number in a row. It's pretty much a recipe for absenteeism.

It is this lax policy on attendance that some are blaming for the climate change bill defeat; as when the vote was called, many Liberal Senators were missing from the Senate.

The other problem, which has been reported, is that some Senators moved for the bill to be pushed ahead and called for a vote immediately, as opposed to allowing debate on the bill to take place. This, combined with the small number of Liberal Senators present, more or less spelled doom for the bill.

So, the question becomes, what is to be done with the Senate?

An elected senate, while a popular idea, is not the route to go. I believe, quite strongly, that the Senate would become too partisan if Senators were directly elected. Furthermore, we would see a breakdown of the traditional party system and see a rise of provincial parties running for the Senate.

For example, think of the Bloc Quebecois or the Saskatchewan Party. Imagine them running as candidates for Senate, as opposed to candidates for the House of Commons or the Legislative Assembly.

If provincial parties became the norm for Senate election, the process of the Senate would become compromised, as these provincial parties would become bullheaded entities that would refuse to pass legislation that did not have a benefit for their province; after all, that would be the only way to get re-elected in the next election.

As mentioned before, this would result in a 'voting-bloc' within the Senate; where provinces like Alberta, Ontario, and the Maritimes could agree to support legislation together as they alone would have more votes than the other provinces combined within the Senate. As such, these provinces would benefit and be able to block bills which they considered disadvantageous to their provinces, which could in turn increase the amount of unfavourable legislation that impacts the rest of Canada.

As such, the idea of an elected Senate (if based on either a party system or a series of independents) just doesn't bode well for co-operation.

So, if we don't want to elect Senators, what should be done?

My solution, is found below.

1.) Put term limits in place on Senators; as opposed to serving until the age of 75, Senators should be replaced at the same time as a national election; as such, Senators would be replaced or reappointed after a Federal Election.

2.) Remove the appointment process from the Prime Minister, and instead, grant all party leaders who won seats in Parliament to appoint Senators.

3.) Senators should be appointed based on a provincial vote total; for example, let's say the Conservatives win 45% of the vote in Saskatchewan. As such, they would be allowed to appoint 45% of Saskatchewan's 6 senators. So, 3 seats rounding up. The remaining seats would be divided amongst those parties which received votes in that province, but again, could only be awarded seats if their party leader or a member of their party were elected anywhere nationally.

4.) Change the attendance system in the Senate, which would effectively replace the consecutive absences rule with a total absences rule; as opposed to Senators being removed after missing 6 or so sessions in a row, Senators would be allowed a total yearly allowed amount of missed sittings, which if they go over (without extenuating circumstances), would see them removed from the Senate.

I think that's more or less the best way to fix the Senate. Who knows, it just might work.

Monday, November 15, 2010

They Just Don't Get It

Source: CBC News: Sask. Goes National with $2M Campaign

Well, here we are back to the old format after my last long-winded essay format. Should the mood strike me, you could very well see another one of those treatise-like posts on this blog. But for now, let's get back to some of the issues at hand.

So, whilst on my daily surfing of the news websites I happened across this article. Effectively, to sum it down, it talks about a recent campaign instituted by the Wall Government to advertise Saskatchewan to other parts of Canada. It makes the argument about what a great place Saskatchewan is to live, and compares some statistics (such as unemployment level) between our province and the rest of Canada.

I will fully agree, Saskatchewan is a great place to live. But, that being said, there's a few things the Wall Government has kept out of this advertisement of theirs.

In their drive to recruit foreign, be it Canadian or otherwise, workers to our province the Wall Government is showing a great deal of short-sightedness. For the past couple of years, Regina has held vacancy rates for rents around or under 1%. I don't have a statistic for Saskatoon's numbers, but I'd imagine that we're not much better off.

(For more information on Regina's vacancy rate, and to prove that I just didn't pull a number out of the air, please visit this link: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation)

On top of that, Saskatoon and Regina both experienced increases in rental rates. Regina saw rental rates increase by 7.1% while Saskatoon had increases of 5.3%. Despite the dwindling number of vacancies, and the staggering increase in rental cost, the Wall Government has been mostly silent on this issue.

They have not proposed any ideas that would bring rental rates under control, and ensure that the people of Saskatchewan are being charged fairly for the condition of the unit they call home. On top of that, they have done nothing to help those who have been unable to find a place at all to call home. There has been no push to build affordable housing and no push to increase the overall number of homes within Saskatchewan.

Obviously, this is a problem. If Saskatchewan is facing a housing crisis now, how will it fare when more people flock to our province?

The answer, of course, is not encouraging. Given the Wall Government's inclination to favour the free market (unless of course public opinion is sharply opposed and news becomes leaked that a deal would cost Saskatchewan $3 billion dollars) the housing crisis would only get worse. With fewer units, the demand for housing in Saskatchewan would increase. This demand would result in one of two things:

1.) Either the people coming here, are semi-professionals who can either afford to purchase a home or build one in the town or city of their choosing; which of course has little impact on those already without homes.

2.) The people coming here are skilled labourers, but not well enough off to build a new home or indeed purchase a home; as such, the demand for rental units increases. This increase in demand dictates that landlords will react accordingly and increase rent on the units they control, regardless of the state of said unit, knowing that if the current occupant cannot pay, there are dozens of people willing to take their place.

You can see how this becomes a problem.

Of course, there are more problems with a massive influx of new residents to our province. The Wall Government talks about how Saskatchewan's unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Canada; and how we're beating the national average. But, the Wall Government doesn't mention the true statistics behind these numbers.

Saskatchewan has been losing skilled-jobs; also known as the high-paying, benefit driven jobs. While we've been gaining part-time jobs, which often force people to work outside of their trained vocations and also rarely come with benefits such as prescription, dental, and vision coverage.

I have said many times before on this blog that the future of Saskatchewan's industry does not rest within the service industry. I do not mean to belittle or cast judgment on those types of jobs, however. They do play a vital role in employing people across our province, and they also provide to our economic health, but a province cannot be based on a service based economy alone.

Saskatchewan cannot afford to lose those skilled-jobs, the so called 'jobs of tomorrow', that focus on innovation and infrastructure. That impact our province in more ways than just economically, but socially and scientifically. And the Wall Government seems to be trying to have it's cake and eat it too.

These commercials seem geared to drawing these skilled workers to our province, while leaving out the fact that many of the Saskatchewan people trained in these vocations are unable to find work in their field here, and are instead forced to rely on a full-time or part-time job outside of their field.

After all, the Wall Government seems only to attract skilled workers when they woo them from other provinces with a job already lined up for them that will pay up to six-figures a year...And of course, it's always coincidental when those lined up workers turn into Saskatchewan Party candidates a few months later, but we won't dwell to long on that...

The fact of the matter is, that the Wall Government seems to be believing their own PR machine rather than understanding the reality of our situation.

Saskatchewan is a great place to live, there's no denying that, but we have underlying issues that affect current residents of our province that the Wall Government has ignored since their election. And bringing more people into Saskatchewan in a vain attempt to foster their own political image, is only going to have a further negative impact on these problems.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to share Saskatchewan with the rest of Canada, but we need to make sure that we can take care of those who come here to share in our province. And the best way to do that, is to make sure we fix the problems that exist for those who already live here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Construct of Democracy

I've been thinking about this topic for awhile, and for the moment, it will serve as the first launching pad away from 'topical issue' posting on the blog. I've toyed with the idea of taking the blog from a retrospective on current events and turning it into a pure reflection of political thought instead...

Granted, at 23 years old, I have a lot left to learn in the school of political thought; so perhaps, I have resisted as I was worried that such an undertaking would be an act of hubris on my part. Despite that concern, I think I will indeed give a shot to the exploration of deeper political thought. If I think it is a format that works, I shall keep it.

If it doesn't work, then at least I can say that I tried. Effectively, what will likely happen, is an amalgamation of the blog as it currently exists and the addition of these occasional 'op-ed' pieces that do not focus on political news, but rather reflections of political thought and philosophy. Hopefully, these little segments actually make sense.

I would like to start this little adventure, with a reflection on the notion of democracy. It was Winston Churchill who famously opined that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms which have been tried from time to time." This is a quote that has stuck with me all my life, and in a sense, haunts me to this day.

As such, I have struggled to understand what Churchill meant in this quote. After the fall of Berlin, the people of Britain began to feel the need for change in governance. Churchill had served well as a war-time Prime Minister, but there were some doubts about his ability to rebuild the country after the damage done to Britain during the war; chief amongst those doubts were his resistance to social program spending and taking Britain towards establishing a 'welfare state'.

As such, the British people turned to the Labour Government under Clement Attlee to form the next government in Britain; a move Churchill also opined when he refused the Order of the Garter by saying '..the British people have given me the Order of the Boot."

It was during his time in opposition that Churchill made his remark about democracy. To some, this could be seen as a lamentation of a bitter politician. A man with an inflated ego, who saw himself as the Saviour of Britain, who now considered himself betrayed by the people he protected. To others, the remark could also be seen as just way in which Churchill was being Churchill.

After all, Churchill didn't stop at saying democracy was the worst form of government. He stopped by saying that compared to everything else that was tried, democracy won out. But Churchill, ever so subtly, was touching on a very important issue. Democracy is a system that is not without flaws, but the question we must all ask is do the flaws of democracy outweigh the benefits?

This is the question I wish to focus on in this posting, an examination of the flaws of the democratic system and the benefits that come with it. I do not know whether or not I will be able to present a final thought, on whether democracy is worth the flaws, but we shall see when we get to that point.

The first thing that we have to ask is what constitutes a flaw? For the purposes of this political reflection, we shall consider a flaw to be anything which diminishes the overall effectiveness of a political system. To break that down into simpler terms, a flaw is anything which overcomplicates, restricts, or inhibits the ability of a political system to be effective.

In order to identify flaws, we must first identify the systems of democracy. After all, like any political ideal, there are numerous ways to implement democracy. In no particular order, you have systems of Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy, and Consensus Democracy.

We'll examine Direct Democracy first, then move onto Consensus Democracy, and wrap things up with Representative Democracy.

Direct Democracy, is arguably, the oldest form of democracy. The idea behind Direct Democracy is that there are no politicians, just citizens. Under this system, which could be seen in Ancient Greece, voting was restricted to male citizens of a specific city; as such, slaves and non-citizens and women, were not able to have a voice in this system.

Democracy grew over time within the Greek city states, first under Solon around 584 B.C.E. in which citizen rules were expanded and power was taken away from the Areopagus (effectively a council which contained only Noble families) to be shared with a Council of Four Hundred and a popular assembly.

Despite a tyrant taking power in Athens and reversing the changes made by Solon, the tyranny in Athens was overthrown in 510 B.C.E and more reforms were spearheaded by Clisthenes. Clisthenes established the idea of 'deme', which are reflective of modern day ridings or constituencies, and made these the basis of citizenship, which expanded citizenship to those outside of wealthy families and tradespeople.

Clisthenes' major change however, was giving authority over issues to a public assembly which consisted of all male citizens in Athens. As such, all male Athenians could introduce ideas to be debated and could debate proposed legislation. Despite these changes, Clisthenes furthered the Council of Four Hundred to Five Hundred sitting members, which were chosen by lottery and debated issues of foreign policy and finance. The assembly was given further power by Pericles, who allowed them final authority over all issues.

Effectively, direct democracy refers to the idea that it is left to the citizens themselves to make decisions. While Athens had a council of 'elected' representatives that also debated issues, eventually it was left to the people themselves to make the final decision on an issue. As such, in ancient times, it was left to the people to gather when a call was made.

Today, there are areas that still use a form of direct democracy. Small towns in countries like Switzerland use direct democracy to determine municipal issues, as opposed to having an elected council and mayor. And of course, most of the restrictions on direct democracy have been removed; allowing women to vote.

We will return to direct democracy when we take a closer look at the flaws of democracy later on. So, that brings us to the idea of Consensus Democracy, which sadly I don't have a lot to say about, as it is rather straight forward.

Consensus Democracy is nothing new to Canada, after all, the territories use a consensus system in regards to territorial governance. In the territories, the consensus system is also non-partisan, which means that no political parties exist. Instead, people are elected as independents who then select among themselves as leader and cabinet to serve as the Executive in Government.

However, there are places that keep political parties in place yet operate on a consensus system. Switzerland, to cite them again, also use a form of consensus democracy on a Federal level.

Effectively, consensus democracy seeks to make the best decision possible by forcing elected officials to look at an issue in a variety of ways. This is done by setting quotas needed to pass legislation.

For example, in the Canadian House of Commons, a plurality of members is all that is needed to pass a piece of legislation. So, for example, a vote of 51 - 50, would be passed. Under a consensus model, however, this become a bit more complex.

Consensus democracy requires either a clear majority (50% + 1) of the voting members; super majorities (60 - 90% support); or complete support (100%). There are also systems that call for complete support for legislation, but allow for one or two dissenting votes.

Effectively, consensus democracy is still the rule of many, but actively commands that the many have the support of the few at the same time.

And that brings us to representative democracy, the form most of us are familiar with. Representative Democracy builds upon the idea of Direct Democracy, in that people should be given a voice to debate the issues that fall upon a country or city. But, it acknowledges that people at the same time are busy with other things.

As such, the people lay aside their own interest and entrust their voice to a representative, who is chosen through an election.

In most representative democracies, those elected often are identified under a certain political banner which is united in a political party. These parties are designed to guide similar principals and ideas towards fruition; and in a representative democracy, the party which garners the most seats in the legislative body often form government.

But, of course, there are different forms of representative democracy.

In Canada, we do not elect a Head of State; as our head of state is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, who is represented in Canada by the Governor General who as of this writing is David Johnston. The Queen also has representatives in each province, in the form of Lieutenant Governors, all of which are non-elected positions.

By contrast, in America, the Head of State is the President, who is directly elected by the people. (Slightly.) I add that comment, because in reality the President of the United States is not directly elected by the people. Under the Electoral College, each state is given a certain number of 'electors' based on generalized population and some other random figures. That number is the number of people in that state who are allowed to vote for President.

For example, California has 55 Electoral Votes. That means 55 representatives for the State of California declare their intention to cast their vote for one of the candidates. Historically, and probably quite rightly, the electors always select the candidate that all American citizens of legal age voted for.

Effectively, after the main election, a smaller election is held with the electors where they all cast their ballots to determine the allocation of the state's electoral votes. It is these people who actually determine the President of the United States; although, as noted, they do (and in some states are legally required) to adhere to the popular vote.

Now that we have a bit of an understanding of the systems of democracy, we can explore whether or not there are problems with the system, and whether or not Churchill was correct.

The problems with direct democracy are fairly obvious.

On a small scale, civic-level, direct democracy could be a workable system. But on a national level, it would become impossible to coordinate a way for all citizens of a nation who are able to vote come together to do such. Add to that the growing levels of voter apathy across Canada, and in other democracies that do not require mandatory voting, and you would run into the problem of quorum.

Quorum, for those not aware, is the minimum amount of people present for a vote to occur. For example, if Canada operated on a system of direct democracy we would require a quorum of people to attend meetings for a vote to occur or to be considered valid. If areas existed, where quorum was not met, it would have a profound impact on whether or not the vote was valid on a national level.

Let's say that a vote was called under a direct democracy system in Canada. Canada's population is roughly about 34,600,000 people. Half of that would be 17,300,000 people, which effectively is usually the standard for quorum, that being half of the body being called to vote.

Already, that's a rather staggering number to consider. In the 2008 Federal Election, 13,929,093 people cast ballots nation wide. Already, that number is 3,370,907 people short of the half required to constitute quorum. Now, these numbers clearly will be off a bit since it hasn't separated out people who are not eligible to vote. But, these numbers are clearly just an aid to help us understand the problem, and should not be considered binding.

So, if we consider that looking through past electoral results, that voter turnout has consistently been dropping since 1993, we can see the biggest problem with direct democracy. Some people are either just too busy, or sadly just don't care enough, to be bothered with helping determine how a nation should be run.

Now, we find ourselves asking what the problem is with consensus democracy. To be honest, the problems of consensus democracy rest solely with the quota needed to reach consensus. If the consensus level is too high, then you run the risk of not finding the support needed to pass legislation. For example, under the Martin Government, same-sex marriage had broad support from the NDP, Bloc, and Liberals. While it was strongly opposed by most Conservatives, and even a few Liberals and Bloc members.

Under a consensus system where a 60% voting bloc would be needed to pass the legislation, same-sex marriage would not have passed through the House of Commons. This would be even more true if the consensus quota was higher than 60%; such as requiring 70% or even unanimous support.

I will touch more on this in my reflection on representative democracy, but in a political system with political parties, consensus democracy would result in a grinding halt to most legislation. This is due primarily to the conflict between political parties, and to a degree the level of animosity that sometimes exists towards one party from another.

In a world where you're trying to stand out from the other political parties, working together to better the nation becomes less of an option. As such, in a system with political parties, consensus democracy becomes less and less appealing; this is because the only answer to this problem would be to elect an overwhelming majority of representatives from one party. A party which had by itself 50 - 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, could work issue to issue to form consensus with other parties, but at the same time still be able to mostly pass legislation on without fostering full cooperation.

And that brings us to representative democracy. I have touched slightly on the problem, which I consider to be the main problem in a representative democracy, above in the problem of political parties.

In a system where political parties exist, democracy becomes less about achieving a mass benefit for the people you represent, and more about winning. Not winning for the people, but winning for your party.

As such, representative democracy breeds a culture of competition and animosity. It creates an "us or them" mentality amongst politicians, and spreads that ideal to the voting public. Political debate and ideas become stagnant, if not die out all together, as parties become less and less interested in forming meaningful political thoughts and instead become more and more obsessed with painting the other parties in a bad light. Political discourse goes from furthering our nation and it's best interests, to simply trying to make the other parties sound like boogymen.

In the past, representative democracy worked. Despite election outcomes, government and opposition could come together to work on issues of great importance to the nation. I've mentioned the Pearson Government before on this blog; and how under Pearson we saw cooperation in government and opposition that we haven't seen since, and will likely never see again. Australia and Great Britain are good examples; their recent elections resulted in coalition governments. Whereas in Canada, despite no party reaching a majority, there is a natural assumption that the party with the most seats either way is entitled to form a government.

As such, that brings us back to Winston. Is democracy the worst form of government?

The short answer, is no. The long answer, is that until we find ways to reform our system and foster a degree of cooperation between political parties, then yes, democracy is indeed the worst form of government.

We have silently allowed a system to hijack our democracy; a system which does not award political thought and new ideas; a system which suggests that he who can cast the most stones during an election, is the better choice because of it; a system which forces politicians to radicalize and attack and demonize their fellow politicians of different political stripes, simply because it 'polls' better.

I say it's high time we break our silence and demand better. It's time for the people of Canada to wake up and challenge the system that we've allowed to become complacent. We need to buck the system and force change if we ever want to see a system which truly works towards the best interest of all Canadians.

We need to become involved. We need to become informed. We need to look into issues, and not just rely on those 'in the loop' to come back from Ottawa or Regina or Toronto and tell us what the issues are and why they're on the right side of it and the 'other' politicians are in the wrong. We have become complacent. I cannot stress that enough. We have become a nation that finds it easier to not look into the issues. A nation which finds it easier to just not go to the polls at all. A nation which feels we may as well keep elect incumbents over and over and over again, simply because they've been there once and they must know what they're doing...

I can assure you, not all incumbents know what they're doing, and not all of them deserve to be re-elected.

Canada deserves better. And the only way we can do this, is by coming together, reflecting on the system that has failed us, and demanding better of those we chose to represent us. The task may seem daunting, and to some it may seem impossible, but to borrow a phrase that has also stuck with me since my childhood, and was said by a politician who's like we're not apt to see again in the current system:

"Courage my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world."
-Tommy Douglas

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Importance of Protecting Potash

Well, after awhile of a break, here is my much long overdue post.

In Saskatchewan, and growing on a national stage, the talk everywhere today revolves around the issue of potash. As many of you are aware, there is an offer on the table by BPH to buy a controlling interest in PotashCorp. Now, when this deal first came to light months ago, there seemed to be a sense of "we'll go along with it" from the Wall Government.

Now, after reflection on the potential massive tax loss that will come from BPH owning PotashCorp (to the tune of a few billion dollars) and the increased resistance from Saskatchewan residents, the Wall Government now seems to have changed their mind. Instead of continuing their record of putting the needs and wants of business and foreign investment ahead of their own residents, the Wall Government now seems to want to be seen as actually caring about the province they're governing.

So, just to recap, the Wall Government basically was mum on the issue and effectively seemed ready to sign off on the sale to BPH; until a review announced that the province could potentially lose billions in tax revenue because of the deal. After all, it's hard to pretend you have the best interests of the province in mind when you willingly jumped on board a deal that cost our province billions of dollars. As such, it was not the discontent or the resistance of the people of Saskatchewan that changed the mind of the Wall Government.

I've spoken before about how this attitude does not allow anyone to properly govern; and how a government should be looking at the demands of the people who elected them as opposed to outside interests that produce short-term benefits for a select few while having a massive cost on the many years later. And yet, this is how the Wall Government has consistently acted.

So, why the sudden about face?

Perhaps it does have to do with the potential tax benefit loss, which makes a compelling argument, however, I would suggest something a bit more...nefarious.

Ultimately, the Wall Government has no say over whether or not this deal can go ahead. That decision rests with Industry Minister Tony Clement on the Federal level. So, if I'm Brad Wall and there's a potentially dangerous political 'hot potato' being passed around, chances are I'm going to look for the best way to get on the right side of the issue before it becomes to politically toxic.

And given the discontent of Saskatchewan people over this sale, the Wall Government now has an opening thanks to the issue resting with the Federal Government. In 2011, come the next election, the Wall Government can now have a 'feather in their cap' by talking about how they were against the sale of PotashCorp (should the sale be approved) and how they openly spoke out against it...

At the same time, they'll leave out the part where they dragged their feet for months on whether or not to support the deal, while the Saskatchewan New Democrats spoke out against the deal the moment people became aware of it. It's a dastardly political trick, and sadly, it's one that will work unless the majority of people in Saskatchewan were paying enough attention.

Ultimately, the Wall Government has found a way out of this issue. They are free to speak against it, and gain popular support for being against the sale, while also being free of any actual responsibility in regards to the sale.

The fact of the matter is this: The potash of Saskatchewan belongs to the people of Saskatchewan. As such, the development of this resource should be done in a manner which will ensure that the people of Saskatchewan benefit more than a company's bottom line. We should be bringing jobs into Saskatchewan, as opposed to worrying that many of the top jobs would be exported to Australia or the United States.

The people of Saskatchewan deserve to have a say in how our resources are developed, refined, and used. And sadly, that seems to be a sensible idea that the Wall Government has simply chosen to ignore.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Upcoming Posts

First things first, I'd like to extend my congratulations to Naveed Anwar for his victory in the Saskatoon-Sutherland constituency.

Secondly, I have a few things to talk about in the coming days. There's some past issues we'll dig up and take a look at, and the present issues that are also making the news. Also, I'm toying with the idea of drafting up something different for the site. As it stands now, I most report and reflect and offer opinions on issues that are making the news.

Part of me wonders if we shouldn't switch over to a more generalized, but more specific, presentation of political thought on issues that are necessarily making news. This would lead to the blog posts becoming a bit longer, and a bit more detailed and researched, but might also lead to the site becoming more of a posting of 'small essays'.

As such, I think that we'll try to keep the site as it is, with the occasional essay slipping through and taking precedence over issues making the news.

More to come in the days ahead.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Overdue Post

Hello everyone,

I suppose this posting is a little overdue, given the long length of time that has gone between this one and the last. Surely, I can ask a bit of forgiveness given my involvement in the Saskatoon-Sutherland NDP nomination.

For those of you who don't already know, I have bowed out of the nomination and thrown my support behind fellow candidate, Ryan Meili. There were a myriad of reasons as to why I ultimately decided to step out of the nomination, the top being that if we wish to win in Saskatoon-Sutherland, we need to ensure that we are putting our strongest possible candidate forward in a general election.

As such, we need a candidate with connections throughout the constituency and with the ability to organize those connections into an effective and winning campaign in 2011. Sadly, I felt that I was not able to do this personally, despite believing I could when I entered the race, and as such I did the best thing for our party, and deferred in favour of someone who was capable of achieving this.

Though, I shall still be active and visible in Saskatoon-Sutherland (as well as in other Saskatoon ridings), and have volunteered my time and effort into ensuring that Ryan Meili is our candidate and our MLA.

For now, that's all I have to say...Even though issues, such as the potential sale of PotashCorp, deserve to be talked about and examined. Those conversations will have to wait for the days ahead.

Until then.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Saskatchewan's Human Rights Under Fire

No sources today, as I will be mostly talking about the issues rather than referencing and surmising them.

Since the election of the Wall Government in 2007, our province has seen some troubling things. We've seen plans of the NDP Government cut, such as Station 20 West, to have money earmarked for them transferred elsewhere. We've seen programs like the Children's Hospital stalled and delayed, while the Saskatchewan Party has the audacity to blame the NDP for it being in limbo.

We've seen our province's profits go down, with billion-dollar-boondoggles in our potash industry. We've seen our Crown Corporations losing 100% of their profits to the government, simply because they needed more money to falsely balance their budgets, and appear not to be running a deficit.

We've seen environmentally protected land fall under threat of being sold off to the highest bidder. We've seen constant attacks on workers and their rights, with bills 5, 6, and 80; and we've seen record level incompetence from this government.

But all of that pales, in my humble opinion, to what we are seeing from the Wall Government now. Which is pure, and simply, a fundamental attack on basic human rights within our province.

As many of you are aware, the Wall Government has done two things on this front.

First, and foremost, they are moving to dismantle Saskatchewan's Human Rights Tribunals. I've mentioned this before on the blog, and I feel that it needs to be mentioned again.

The Wall Government is going to restrict the ways individuals can report rights violations, and furthermore, limit the ability of those who have had their rights violated to see that justice is served and the violators punished.

This will be done if the Tribunal's cases are forced into Saskatchewan's court system. The backlog of cases already exists, and adding more weight to this stressed system will only ensure that human rights violators can act with impunity because the case will take years to come before the bench.

And yet, there has been little outrage over this issue.

Saskatchewan cannot afford to be set back in regards to human rights; the world only spins forward, rightfully so, and we cannot sit back and watch as our so-called government attempts to spin the clock backward. We must stand up, and we must demand that these tribunals be protected, and that they are allowed to continue to protect the rights of the minority in our province.

Secondly, and perhaps more publicly, we come to the current legal case on Brad Wall's legislation to allow marriage commissioners to opt out of performing weddings based on their personal religious beliefs.

I would like, if I may, to talk about human rights for a moment.

Is it true that religious freedom is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms? Yes, it is.

Is it not also true that the same document prevents discrimination of any individual, while at the same time directly stating that all individuals will be treated equally with recognition of the law? Yes, it does.

The Saskatchewan Party would have people believe that is legislation is a fundamental human rights question. That there are two protected rights; the right to religious freedom and the right to equality for all under the law, in direct conflict with one another.

However, this is clearly not the case.

Religious freedom allows a person to practice their religion openly, without fear of reprisal. To me, practice of religion refers to the ability to attend religious services, have access to religious objects and buildings, and be able to openly speak about one's religious beliefs.

It does not, however, allow a person in a civil service position to cloud their legal obligation with their own beliefs.

Marriage has existed in Canada in two forms for a long time; religious and civil marriage. Religious marriage is not under attack, as there is no law that forces the clergy to marry a couple which goes against their religious beliefs. Similarly, civil marriage is protected in that marriage commissioners are government appointed civil servants who are in place to uphold the laws of Saskatchewan.

And of course, same-sex marriage is a law of Saskatchewan. As many of you may remember, Saskatchewan was among the provinces who legalized same-sex marriage before the Federal Government passed a law enshrining same-sex marriage throughout Canada.

So, now we have another question: If a marriage commissioner refuses to marry a couple, while citing their own religious beliefs, have they broken the law?

In my humble, non-law learned opinion, they have.

This is not a question of one right vs another. If a person objects to a same-sex marriage religiously, then they probably shouldn't be a marriage commissioner in a province where same-sex marriage is the law of the land.

There is always a perception that religion and the state are supposed to co-exist with one another, but not interfere with one another. That they can exist together, but must remain separate.

If this legislation is approved by the court, this separation will cease to exist and open a floodgate for numerous religious vs other right cases.

How long until we have a haematologist who refuses to do blood transfusions based on their religious beliefs? How long until we have an OBGYN who refuses to prescribe birth control based on their religious beliefs?

You can see the problems this could potentially create by having a court decide that it is within the power of a civil servant to refuse to uphold Saskatchewan, and Canadian, law simply because they're religious beliefs do not match.

Once again, Saskatchewan cannot afford to turn the clock back on human rights in our province. Today, it's the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered community that is under attack. Tomorrow, it could be women or people who have immigrated to Saskatchewan. An attack against one group, which is constantly marginalized and assaulted, is a strike against us all.

And if we don't stand up now against this fundamental attack on basic human rights, there's no telling who will find themselves in the Wall Government's sights next.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This Land Is Our Land...

Source: CBC News: Sask. Habitat Protection Proposal Raises Furor

The Wall Government announced today that 1.2 million hectares, that's 2,965,264 acres, of government owned land is going to be sold off. Now, the only issue is that the land is currently under wildlife and environmental protection.

The Wall Government has said that of that land only 10% of it can be sold without requiring wildlife and environmental protections to remain in place; the remaining 90% will be divided in to lands that cannot be resold and land which can be sold but still be protected.

The reason for this move, as announced by the Government, is to allow ranchers who have leased these lands for generations, in some cases, to finally own the land. However, it may not be as cut and dry as all that.

The NDP Opposition suggests that this deal is nothing more than a 'cash-grab' by the Wall Government, a charge that Environmental Minister Nancy Heppner denies. It should be noted, that as of today, no announcement of how much the government stands to make from these land sales has been made.

So, which is more likely?

Is the Saskatchewan Party Government really concerned about ranchers and farmers being able to own the land that they are currently leasing? Or is the NDP right, in that this is just an attempt by the government to put more money into the coffers after their two disastrous years as economic stewards?

Why don't we ask James Ripplinger? In February, a story came out (link) that stated that James Ripplinger, was unhappy with the Wall Government's decision to expropriate his land. The land was seized by the government, with the price still being negotiated to the best of my knowledge, so that a private company could establish a 'Global Transportation Hub' in the area.

So, what we have here, is a past instance of the Wall Government seizing land from a farmer to hand that land over to private enterprise.

Now, the Wall Government is saying that it is their compassion for farmers and ranchers to own their land that is driving this decision to sell off this government owned and protected land.

Somehow, I don't think Mr. Ripplinger would agree with that assessment, given his treatment by the government.

So, either the Government is being hypocritical; by suggesting that they are in favour of farmers and ranchers owning their land, but have historically seized land from individuals for their own ends in the past...

Or, the Government is attempting to reconnect with their rural base, and hoping that they've all forgotten about the expropriation in the past.

Either way, with this record, it seems painfully clear that the Wall Government does not care about these lands, and their excuse for wanting to see them is indeed nothing more than a parlour game to entice rural voters to keep supporting a party which is quickly turning their back on them.

Saskatchewan will lose these lands, and in perhaps a decade's time, we'll see real environmental degradation, both in the land and the wildlife that populate our province. And the only reason it happened, was so that the Saskatchewan Party could attempt to make a quick buck.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Kidney Transplants, Human Rights, and Tuition Increases

Source: CBC News: Transplant Solution Ignored: Opposition Says
Source: CBC News: U of S Hikes Tuition Fees
Source: CBC News: Sask. Considers Moving Rights Cases to Court

Well, as usual, there's quite a lot to talk about here in Saskatchewan.

I'm going to start with perhaps the most serious issue to come to light in the past few days. I had first heard of this issue through a conference call, and was absolutely shocked and dismayed with what I was hearing.

I'm speaking of course of the sad state of kidney transplant surgeries here in Saskatchewan. In 2009, kidney transplant surgeries were put on hold in Saskatchewan, citing the illness of one of the surgeons in the Saskatoon Health Region. To compensate, the Saskatchewan Party arranged a deal with Edmonton to send patients in need of a transplant there.

Despite the surgeon now being recovered, the Saskatchewan Party has not done anything to reinstate the transplant program here. There have been a few reports on this issue, with suggestions as to why this has occurred.

One report (CBC News) suggests that it's the doctors who are to blame, as they are demanding a better payment system in regards to their workload. The Saskatchewan Party's response to this was that they were presently looking to hire more transplant surgeons in the health region.

Then today, information was brought to light that suggests the Head of Transplant Surgery at the UofS's medical school, Ahmed Shoker, had identified two potential candidates to be brought into Saskatchewan, as far back as August 2009, and that he had passed these recommendations onto the Ministry of Health.

Shoker then suggests that since his previous talks with the government, he was told on numerous occasions, to leave the issue in the government's hands; which apparently, meant not pursuing anything.

To date, around 12 transplant surgeries have been performed for Saskatchewan residents in Edmonton; despite a waiting list of 106 people, who are in need of receiving a transplant.

As it stands, the Wall Government seems to have no plan in place to get transplant surgeries resuming in Saskatchewan.

Now, obviously, this is a very important issue. And if Dr. Shoker's allegations are true, it raises serious questions over the Wall Government's actions. I'm sure we all remember when the Saskatchewan Party was elected, and their pledges to shorten waiting lists in our province for various surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, and their grand plans to lure more doctors and health professionals to Saskatchewan.

And after they were elected, what have we seen? I'll give credit for nurse recruitment, but our doctor numbers seem to remain stagnate. And as for our wait lists, the only thing the Wall Government has done is hammer out agreements with other provinces to send Saskatchewan residents out of province to get the treatment they need.

And in a case like this, where a program existed in Saskatoon, the Wall Government seems happy enough to allow the program to stay in purgatory, while they send Saskatchewan residents off to Edmonton.

The Wall Government has a lot to answer for on this issue, and we need to ask our Premier why all our health care solutions seem to revolve around shipping our residents off to different health regions, instead of ensuring that Saskatchewan residents can get the treatments they need where they live.

Moving along. Anyone who knows me, knows that one of the thing I've always supported is equal rights. Which is why when I saw a headline today announcing that the Wall Government is considering scrapping Saskatchewan's Human Rights Tribunal and instead wants to move human rights cases into the provincial courts.

The Saskatchewan Party has not given a single valid reason as to why they want to removal the tribunal.

Frank Quennell, who gave a very passionate response to a question based around human rights at last month's NDP Convention, suggests that it is because the Wall Government does not like the past findings of the tribunal on a few cases.

Enter again, Orville Nichols, for example.

You may remember my former posts around Mr. Nichols, a marriage commissioner who refused to marry a same-sex couple based on his own religious beliefs and opposition to same-sex marriage. The couple filed a complaint against Mr. Nichols, which was eventually heard by the tribunal and found in favour of the couple; which then levied a fine against Mr. Nichols.

In response to the Nichols' case, Brad Wall jumped to the rescue by announcing the government's intention to create a law which would protect the religious beliefs of marriage commissioners and allow them to decline to perform services based on those beliefs.

As such, the Wall Government has referred the question to the Saskatchewan Courts, by two versions: One which would allow a religious opt out for all commissioners in Saskatchewan; and the second which would instead allow commissioners who were made commissioners before 1994 allowed to opt out.

Now, the problem with this proposal, is the wording of that was presented to the court. Due to the nature of allowing an 'opt out' in the first option, the Wall Government effectively established a means of opting out of more than just same-sex marriages.

If the commissioner has a problem, say, against interracial couples, this proposal would allow a commissioner to refuse to wed the couple. The same case could be made against an interfaith couple.

So, now that we have some background, you could see why the Wall Government has it's eyes on the human rights tribunal.

Now, I'm sure some of you might be thinking, what's the problem with putting human rights complaints through the courts we already have in place?

I can answer that in one word: backlog.

Anyone who knows anything about the justice system knows that courts often suffer from a bit of a backlog. Cases pile up, dates are pushed back, as people wait to get their day in front of the judge. Right now, our courts are just clogged up with criminal and civil cases; imagine what happens when we had human rights complaints.

I would imagine, for the most part, that criminal and civil cases would take precedence over human rights complaints. What this effectively does, is ensure that these cases are dragged on as long as possible, increasing costs to the complainant and possibly forcing them to drop the case before it is heard in court.

The Wall Government is trying to destroy access to have a case heard, by removing a tribunal with full legal authority to hear cases, and forcing these cases into a justice system which is already overloaded in some places. And I can't be the only one thinking that it's coincidental that the Wall Government is looking to remove the tribunals before the courts return the province's decision on their marriage commissioner legislation.

After all, imagine all the human rights complaints the tribunal would get if and when that legislation is introduced. And the best way to avoid that, if you're Brad Wall, seems to be just to get rid of the tribunal and put the complainants in judicial limbo.

Finally, we come to tuition.

When the Saskatchewan Party came to power, Saskatchewan was under a tuition freeze which prevented the costs of university from rising. Needless to say, the Saskatchewan Party didn't really like the tuition freeze, and allowed it to expire without renewing it.

And now, students at the University of Saskatchewan are going to be facing a higher cost.

Students in arts programs, agriculture, education, computer science and nursing programs are going to see a 4.4% increase in their tuition. Law students will see a 9.8% increase in tuition, while medicine students will see a 8% increase.

Does anyone else see the problem?

In a post where we've already discussed a judicial backlog and the need for more doctors and nurses in Saskatchewan, we see the University of Saskatchewan raising tuition on these programs.

The University defends the increase by saying that the programs offered are already among the lowest cost in Canada; and the outgoing USSU President also defended the increase as 'modest.'

So, if the Vice-President of Finance for the U of S and the outgoing USSU President don't think the increase is a big deal, there's no problem, right?

Wrong.

As a former U of S student, I like to think I have a fairly good idea of how I was charged for the classes I took over my time there. I want to preface this by saying that I enjoyed my time at the U of S, and still miss attending there.

The fact of the matter is, during my time there with the tuition freeze in place, the University didn't seem to be exactly hurting for money. There were construction projects almost daily throughout the University as you walked from class to class and building to building.

The on campus businesses, especially the Tim Horton's in the Chemistry Building and the Arts Tunnel, were flourishing.

And classes were usually filled with students, the largest class I had was around 137 people, each of them paying likely around $500 to be there. That's $68,500 in revenue for just one class.

So, considering that, why is the University moving to raise tuition to $4,900 for a full semester of classes?

I'll admit, I don't know the inner workings of the University. Their budget, how much they take in from tuition, donations, grants awarded to faculty, renting of the facilities, access charges to the Synchrotron, etc, etc, etc...

Not to mention operating budgets provided by the government.

So, is a tuition increase necessary?

Probably not.

In fact, according to the U of S website (link), tuition accounts for only 22% of the overall budget of the University. That means 78% of the University's budget comes from other sources.

A tuition increase on students is not a measure that is productive in the long run, as the increased cost of tuition will chose more secondary school graduates to enter the workforce upon graduation, as opposed to seeking higher education.

Like I mentioned, in a province where we're lacking professionals, can we really afford to increase the costs?

Effectively, this increase in tuition is going to further prevent students from attending post-secondary education. As the costs start to increase, enrollment rates will drop. Furthermore, I've known personally a dozen students who have taken years off of their education because of the costs associated with university.

A tuition increase is only going to keep lower income students out, as well as force students who are already struggling with the cost of living and tuition to reconsider their decision to pursue a college education.

And that is not something that we should allow to happen in Saskatchewan; as our demands for an educated work force increase, we should be facilitating those who want to seek higher education, not placing more barriers in the way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sasktel's Profits Disappear

Source: CBC News: SaskTel Profit Hits $129M in 2009

This year, was a good year to be Saskatchewan's telecommunications provider. The company saw a 7% increase in their overall profit from last year, showing that the Crown Corporation was doing well within the province.

Enter Brad Wall.

The Wall Government announced that 80% of that $129 million dollar profit ($1,032,000 if my math is correct) will be taken by the Government and put into the Crown Investments Corporation. Wall further compounded this problem by announcing that in 2010, 100% of SaskTel's profits will be taken by the government.

That right, SaskTel a profitable crown corporation, will see no benefit of being able to grow in Saskatchewan, and will instead be forced to borrow money in order to have financing for the year.

This move will add $50 million dollars worth of debt onto SaskTel's books, but yet the government is not backing down, with Don Morgan (The Minister responsible for SaskTel) simply saying that SaskTel has a "good capacity to borrow...that's an acceptable thing to do."

SaskTel has said that it would have to have borrowed money this year regardless of how much of the profits the government was taking. This is understandable, in that my understanding of business states that companies with good profits usually do need some extra funding to do all the things they need to do within the next year, so that part alone is fine.

An example of this is the $90 million dollar investment SaskTel was planning to upgrade cellular service within the province. The Wall Government has since deferred half of these payments to an unknown date. So, despite a $129 million dollar profit, which could have helped pay towards this upgrade, SaskTel will barely see half of the $90 million dollars needed.

SaskTel has said that they believe the government is only taking 100% of their profits for a year, but the government has indicated that this 100% share could go on for much longer.

So, why is the government taking money from SaskTel?

It's true, that some percentage of the Crown Corporation's profit always goes to the government. That's the purpose of a Crown Corporation, to have some of the wealth generated by the corporation to return into the province. But 80% is a bit of an excessive number, while 100% is completely uncalled for.

The reason, we all know, is two-fold for why the Wall Government is taking such an exorbitant amount from the Crown Corporation.

The first reason, is purely financial. Since being elected, the Wall Government has enjoyed the years of good planning and surplus left behind by the NDP Governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. Programs which these two men put in place were starting to reap benefits for the people of Saskatchewan, and we truly were in a boom.

Wall, of course, took credit for the boom in Saskatchewan and proceeded to spend money like a person with poor budgeting skills who just won the lottery. Wall and his government quickly burned through the almost $2 billion dollar surplus left behind by the NDP, and the Government of Saskatchewan started to run a deficit...

Although, Wall and Finance Minister Rob Gantefoer, have done everything in their power not to admit to running a deficit, even though the provincial auditor has implicitly said that Saskatchewan is indeed running a deficit.

To cover this deficit problem, the Wall Government has been pulling funding from the 'Rainy Day Fund' and from the Crown Corporations to make their budgets appear balanced. Quite simply, the Wall Government is taking these profits to shore up their budget numbers and make it look as though Saskatchewan is still in the black as opposed to the red.

Grant Devine used a similar tactic, shuffling debts and expenses to different areas of Saskatchewan's economy so that they didn't have to be reported as compound debt within the budget. It was only when the Romanow Government was elected that we saw just how much trouble Saskatchewan was in; and I fear we're going to see the same thing when the Wall Government is voted out.

As I mentioned, there are two reasons why the Wall Government would be taking 100% of SaskTel's profits. The first, as stated, is financial. The second, is ideological.

There is no doubt that the Wall Government has a disdain for our Crown Corporations. The Wall Government has always been the 'government of free enterprise', yet they introduced a Saskatchewan First Policy which took away the ability of our Crown Corporations to invest outside of Saskatchewan, selling off profitable assets which in turn stripped away profits from the Crowns.

Despite this Saskatchewan First Policy, the Wall Government has spent a lot of money outside of Saskatchewan themselves; just like the $8 million dollars spent in Vancouver for the Saskatchewan Olympic Pavilion. So, while it's alright for the Wall Government to spend money outside of the province, apparently it's not alright for our Crowns.

The Wall Government has taken profits from numerous Crowns, like SaskPower and SaskEnergy, which coincidentally have increased their rates on Saskatchewan residents by the way.

So, where's the benefit in stripping the Crowns of profitable services outside of Saskatchewan? Where's the benefit in forcing the Crowns to increase rates on residents?

The benefit, in the eyes of the Wall Government, is the destruction of our Crown Corporations. By making the Crowns unprofitable, and by forcing higher rates onto the residents of Saskatchewan, the Wall Government is undoubtedly hoping to push Saskatchewan residents away from the Crowns and open the province to outside competition.

Once the floodgates are open, the Crowns are no longer needed and will eventually be shut down; meaning that whatever free enterprise businesses replaced them will in turn have a stranglehold on our province and be able to charge whatever they want.

The Wall Government is attempting to privatize our province by stealth; despite campaigning on leaving the Crowns alone. Just like they campaigned on the idea of sound financial management; just like they campaigned on having no need for essential services legislation; just like they campaigned on maintaining the boom Saskatchewan was starting to experience.

Obviously, none of those campaign promises were kept.

Saskatchewan residents to need to wake up to the tactics Brad Wall is using to destroy the Crown Corporations in our province, simply in a misguided ideal that private investment is better suited to these areas then the Crowns.

Saskatchewan residents need to stand up, and to borrow a phrase from the Save Our Saskatchewan Crowns movement, tell Brad Wall that 'This isn't Alberta, buddy."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Politics of Privilege

Source: CTV News: PMO Denies Jaffer has Influence with Tories
Source: CBC News: Jaffer's Alleged Boast About Access 'Absurd': PMO

To no one's surprise, or perhaps maybe a few people, Rahim Jaffer is back in the news. For that matter, his wife, Cabinet Minister Helena Guergis has also continued to pop up periodically. As such, I'd like to share my thoughts on this entire affair, ranging back to Jaffer's arrest to Guergis' airport freak out.

I'd like to first just spend some time exploring the problems that Mr. Jaffer and Mrs. Guergis have found themselves in. In September, Rahim Jaffer was pulled over in Palgrave, Ontario after he was caught going 93 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. Mr. Jaffer, initially, was charged with drunk driving and cocaine possession; these higher charges were dropped through a plea agreement which saw him pay a $500 fine for careless driving.

Despite failing a breathalyzer test, as initially reported by the media, and being in possession of cocaine; the judge involved in Mr. Jaffer's case effectively said that there was not enough evidence to convict Mr. Jaffer on these charges anyways. I don't know about you, but if I failed a breathalyzer and was caught with drugs on my person, I think I'd be looking at no possibility of getting the court to settle on just careless driving charges...But, I'll come back to that.

Now, reports are coming out suggesting that Jaffer's arrest came after a business meeting with potential clients; a meeting which resulted in one of those client's to send an e-mail suggesting that Mr. Jaffer had 'opened up the Prime Minister's office to us.'

On the other side of the road, no pun intended, is Helena Guergis. Mrs. Guergis made national headlines after it was reported that the Cabinet Minister suffered a bit of breakdown in Charlottetown's airport. Needless to say, Mrs. Guergis made quite a few disparaging remarks towards the city, the airport staff, etc...And is rumoured to have gotten slightly physical, such as throwing a boot, while there.

While the public outcry over this incident was still on the minds of Canadians, many letters began to flood newspapers about Mrs. Guergis great performance in cabinet, and praising her as a parliamentarian. However, it was later discovered, that many of these letters were written by staff in Guergis' office; and that there letters were published under 'false names' or the writers omitted the fact that they worked for the Minister.

Add to that, the recent claim that Guergis' $880,000 mortgage was provided to her in full without a down payment; which if true, could indicate preferential treatment and a breach of ethics on her part.

Needless to say, the couple has found themselves in much more of the spotlight than they could have possibly wanted.

So, how did it come to this?

I think we can look towards the sense of arrogance and entitlement that is present within not only the Conservative Party, but in some cases, our political system.

In the last election, who remembers Rahim Jaffer's 'acceptance' speech? Conservatives in Alberta, and in the West in general, have a sense of entitlement and arrogance. They know, or think, that they can do anything they want because Westerners aren't going to throw them out of office. Early on election day, Jaffer was confident that he was going to be returned to the House of Commons, so much to the point that he was already thanking supporters and claiming victory before the results were in.

So, imagine the ego crash associated with being a Conservative loosing your seat in Alberta, to a member of the NDP. Now, this is not sufficient reason for Mr. Jaffer's problems; as not everyone who loses their seat in the House of Commons develops the problems Mr. Jaffer has in his post-Parliament career.

However, as I said, this is not reason enough for Mr. Jaffer's problems. When you look at his problems, in addition to Mrs. Guergis', it is obvious that the problem rests in the culture of arrogance and privilege, that unfortunately, we as citizens have helped to create.

I say that we citizens have helped create it, because in a way, we have. Arrogance comes from a place where a person is convinced that they can do no wrong; that no matter what happens, they will stay in their place in life and nothing will ever change that. When it come to politics, that's where we have failed as citizens.

In the West, Conservatives have been developing a stranglehold on elections for quite sometime. We know it, and they know it. The problem with this, is that it creates a sense of entitlement. The Conservatives know that they are going to win in certain areas, like Alberta, regardless of what they say or do, because they're 100 time better than those 'Eastern Liberal Types'. With this mindset, the Conservatives expect to win here and know they are going to win. As such, where's the need to do anything for your constituents? Where's the incentive to actually do a good job? Where's the incentive to make connections in your community and get to know the people who elected you?

The answer, is that it isn't there. As such, politicians in these 'safe' ridings are able to develop this sense of privilege and arrogance. Brad Trost, here in Saskatoon-Humboldt, is a good example. I've heard numerous examples of Mr. Trost being quoted as saying that 'No one can beat me'. Garry Breitkreuz, from Yorkton-Melville, has also said similar things in that 'if they didn't agree with me, they wouldn't have voted for me.' (When asked if he would change a position if a poll indicated the majority of his electors disagreed with a position he held)

This arrogance is staggering. But we, as voting citizens, help these politicians to develop it. It's because we won't vote these people out; that we draw our political allegiance by province so clearly, that politicians are starting to realize that they can do the bare minimum, or even nothing are all, and still get re-elected just because they have the 'Conservative C' or 'Liberal L' next to their name in a ballot booth.

We, as Canadians, must demand better.

But, Mr. Jaffer's problems are not to be blamed on us. Granted, we average citizens do play a role in creating this arrogance, but we alone do not sustain it.

We've all heard the phrase of 'buying into the hype', and in a way, that's what Mr. Jaffer and Mrs. Guergis have done. They already felt bulletproof, although Jaffer learned he was not, and as such they felt that they could act in ways that others could not. Guergis' flaunting of airport regulations, and her subsequent meltdown, are a good example of this.

I've flown twice in my life; and I know I don't care for the airport experience. The waiting, the lines, the boredom. It gets to everyone, I know. But not many of us lose our calm, and those who do, definitely should not be a Government Official. Not only does it reflect poorly on them, but it reflects poorly on our Government. Which in turn, reflects poorly on us as Canadians, for choosing them as a representative.

The fact of the matter is, that Guergis and Jaffer started to buy into their own hype and the arrogance that our political culture instills in them. And that is where they're problems began to start.

The problem is, in Jaffer and Guergis' case, the arrogance is not being rebuked. As mentioned, Jaffer's arrest was swept under the rug with a $500 fine. The charges of drunk driving and drug possession were dropped, with the judge explicitly telling Jaffer that he was getting a 'break'. Again, any other Canadian in this situation, would be looking at jail time for possession and drunk driving, but not Jaffer.

As for Guergis, she's still in cabinet. Despite the problems that have surrounded her, the Prime Minister has not asked for her resignation, nor has she offered it to him. Much like the maligned Gerry 'Death by a thousand cold cuts' Ritz, and Lisa 'Cancer's Sexy' Raitt, the Prime Minister has done nothing to rebuke these Ministers for their mistakes...

And by doing nothing, the Prime Minister has continued this circle of political arrogance. By letting these Ministers keep their positions, even going so far as to refuse Raitt's resignation, Harper is reinforcing the idea that these Members of Parliament are entitled to their positions, their prestige, and the arrogance they have in their minds.

Even if Guergis is quietly shuffled to a different position in the next Cabinet Shuffle, or dropped completely, it is not a rebuke for her actions; as the Prime Minister will not call it that if that is the method he uses to get rid of her in Cabinet.

And as such, the arrogance continues.

As Canadians, it's our job to take action where our political leadership will not. And the only way to do that, is to make sure that we do not continually elect the same politicians over and over. We can vote for the same people, but let's make sure that they're people who deserve our vote. Who deserve to hold a seat in Parliament, and who will do everything in their power to work with and for their constituents, and not for their own sense of self-entitlement.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Political Games, A Lacking Budget, Attacks on Medicare, and the Audacity of Rob Norris

Source: CBC News: Opposition Accused of 'Double-Dipping'
Source: CBC News: Budget Increase to Schools Too Slight: Critics
Source: CBC News: Province Plans to Reduce Surgery Backlog
Source: NewsTalk 650: Province Will Ignore International Labour Ruling

Another day, and a whole bunch of new provincial events to talk about.

I would be remiss, if I did not talk about the first source issue I have mentioned. The Saskatchewan Party Government, through MLA Bill Boyd, announced today that Provincial NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter was 'double-dipping'. Double-dipping refers to the process of collecting a provincial pension, while at the same time collecting a salary from the Saskatchewan taxpayers.

Mr. Lingenfelter has said that he talked to administrators about what could be done in regards to the pension payments, but was told that there was no system in place for stopping the payments. As such, Mr. Lingenfelter went on to say that his pension comes from both his own contributions to the pension plan and the taxpayer purse; and furthermore that he has been dividing his pension payments, keeping the amount which he paid into the system while turning over the taxpayer amount to charity.

Of course, the Saskatchewan Party has said that this solution is not good enough, and that the opposition should be working with them to draft and pass legislation which would prevent MLAs from double-dipping in the future.

Now, I suppose this deserves some exploration.

Obviously, as a former MLA and Cabinet Minister, Mr. Lingenfelter was paying into a provincial pension plan. When Mr. Lingenfelter retired from provincial politics, he became able to draw from his pension plan. Then of course, he re-entered politics nine years later.

Now, as Mr. Lingenfelter has said, there is no program in place for pension payments to stop being paid out to an individual. After all, if another pensioner re-enters the workforce after retiring, they still receive their pension payment as well as a paycheque from their current employer. So, where is the problem here?

Mr. Lingenfelter is entitled to his pension benefits, as he paid into the system when he first served in politics. He is also entitled to his salary as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, given that he was elected by the people of Regina-Douglas Park to represent them in the Legislature. So, we have two payments which are entitled to Mr. Lingenfelter because of his service to province.

So, the problem becomes one of whether or not there really is a problem? Legally, there isn't, since both payments are entitled to Mr. Lingenfelter. But, the Saskatchewan Party is obviously attempting to draw some attention away from their recent troubles and mistakes (Such as Finance Minister Gantefoer talking about a possible HST debate coming soon, before quickly saying he was taken out of context) and making this seem like something that shouldn't be occurring.

As such, if a bill is drafted to prevent 'double-dipping' as it is called, it needs to address a number of issues. Mr. Lingenfelter, as I've said, is entitled to both his pension and his salary. So, if a bill is drafted that prevents him and future MLAs from collecting pensions while serving in the Legislative Assembly, it needs to address what happens to payments that should have been made while the MLA is serving. Does their pension stop? Do payments accrue while they are serving as a MLA, which effectively means any missed payment they were not given would simply be paid out after they are no longer a MLA?

Obviously, since there is entitlement to this system (given that the MLA paid into the system) they would have to be given the payments they were supposed to receive. As such, a MLA will still be paid out the pension funds they were supposed to receive, but didn't because they were serving as an MLA. As such, this simply doesn't prevent 'double-dipping' but basically puts it off until the MLA is no longer an MLA.

Effectively, this is a non-issue that the Saskatchewan Party is hoping will become a major issue. If this was not about the Leader of the Opposition, but say average pensioners going back to work and receiving their benefits and a paycheque, the Saskatchewan Party wouldn't have even bothered to mention it. This is a simple political game the Saskatchewan Party is hoping to use to rally some support against the NDP while taking the focus off of them for awhile. Hopefully, Saskatchewan residents realize that there is no real issue here.

Moving along, Saskatchewan School Boards have come forward and announced that the recent Saskatchewan budget does not provide enough funding for primary and secondary education in the province.

In the budget, the Saskatchewan Party Government earmarked $33 million dollars for education within the province; while the number sounds initially impressive, the total increase in education spending is effectively a 1% increase in budgeting from last year, a figure School Boards are saying does not account for inflation and increases in spending.

The President of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association has stated that this lack of a significant increase will likely mean that Saskatchewan Schools will have to either put off the purchase of new buses, or decrease their staff; possibly both.

Of course, this new development is nothing new in the Saskatchewan Party's mishandling of the education portfolio. Since the Saskatchewan Party came to power, we've heard of numerous issues in education that have been troubling. The lack of adequate infrastructure in schools (such as the shortage of rooms in communities like Warman); the difference in funding between the public and separate school divisions; the rumours of massive cuts to Educational Assistants in classrooms; the removal of funding for schools by decreasing the Education Property Tax; and numerous other issues which have come up in regards to education.

It is pretty obvious that the Saskatchewan Party really has no sound plan for education in this province. The mounting problems have shown that the Sask Party is doing nothing to secure the future of our province, by ensuring that our young people have access to the facilities and help needed in primary and secondary education to ensure that an individual is given access to a well-rounded education.

Obviously, this is not acceptable. Our schools, public and separate, need our help to ensure that our children have access to not only facilities which can accommodate, but to teachers and educational assistants and other educational specialists that ensure our children are being well taught and looked after while in the education system. The Wall Government has failed on this front, and shows no sign of planning to reverse the trend.

And now, surprisingly, we're seeing the Wall Government threaten our medicare system. The Saskatchewan Party announced that they're willing to pay for 3,000 surgeries and 2,500 extra CT scans this year; but they will provide that funding to have the procedures performed through private clinics.

Don McMorris, the health minister, has attempted to explain this by saying the recommendation comes from a panel of doctors and patients, who were formed with the purpose of finding ways to reduce medical wait times in the province.

The NDP has responded, quite rightly, by saying that these extra procedures should not be performed in a secondary system, but rather the budgets $10.5 million for the program should be used within the existing system.

Obviously, this is a better answer. An investment of $10.5 million into our existing system could go towards numerous programs which could also reduce wait times with the province. For example, the money could be spent on upgrading equipment within the province in key health regions; such as the purchase of new MRI machines and other equipment. The money could also be spent on health initiatives at a University level; to provide a funding grant that would help medical students with their high tuition costs, at the exchange of a commitment of time within our province.

There are numerous other solutions that the Wall Government could explore, all while keeping this $10.5 million dollar investment within the current public system. So, if there are all these answers, why would they be so dead set on exploring a second, private option?

The answer is very simple: This "one time" exploration is a litmus test for the province. If Saskatchewan residents do not get outraged at the idea of private medical investment, then it is carte blanche for the Wall Government to attempt further investment in the future; and investment which might be further detrimental to Saskatchewan's public medicare system.

This is the first step towards a two-tier system. While we're still paying as taxpayers, how long will it be until these private clinics accept payments from individuals in exchange for their services? How long will it be until these private clinics allow these individuals to jump ahead in the queue according to who opens their chequebooks with the largest amount? The answer, is not very long.

We must stand up as Saskatchewan residents and insist that the Wall Government back down on this plan, and instead invest in Saskatchewan's existing public health care system.

And finally for today, our 'illustrious' Minister of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour Rob Norris announced today that recommendations made by the United Nations' International Labour Office towards Saskatchewan's Bills 5 and 6 are non-binding and will not force a change in Saskatchewan's labour laws.

The text on the ILO's recommendations and the case made by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (as well as the National Union of Public and General Employees, Canadian Labour Congress, and Public Services International) can be found here.

Effectively, the ILO ruled that Saskatchewan's Bill 5 and Bill 6 violated the Charter Rights of Workers. Bill 5, which enacted Essential Services Legislation and Bill 6, amended the Trade Unions Act which sought to weaken the ability of unions/workers to have collective bargaining with their employer and the ability of workers to join unions.

When the bills were introduced, there was local and global complaints about the heavy-handed nature of the bills, which led to a Charter of Rights & Freedom challenge and a complaint filed to the ILO. Despite these bills being attacked and examined on a national and international level, the Wall Government is continuing with their anti-worker/union based legislation with Bill 80; another bill which will likely be challenged should it pass through the legislature.

The ILO has supported the challenges presented, and proposed six recommendations that Saskatchewan should undertake to ensure that the bills no longer violate the rights of workers. However, Minister Norris has taken a page from the 'Harper Handbook' and declared that the ILO's decision is not legally binding, and that the government has no obligation to follow through on the recommendations.

This has led Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich, to warn Minister Norris that previous violation of workers rights (which occurred in British Columbia) led to a Supreme Court case which saw the B.C. Government have to pay out $100 million dollars in penalties. Norris has dismissed Hubich's statement as nothing more than 'fear-mongering', which is surprising.

Given the Sask Party's history of condemning people who speak the truth, it's surprising he didn't accuse Mr. Hubich of being 'down on Saskatchewan'. The fact of the matter is, that Mr. Hubich is speaking the truth. Gordon Campbell's Liberal Government was found in violation of worker's rights in and had to pay out a penalty for their violation. For a government who is talking about belt-tightening, it seems odd that they'd be willing to risk having to pay out a massive penalty rather than amend or repeal legislation, which would save taxpayers millions.

Given that the suit has already been filed, with the SFL waiting to hear from the Attorney General on where to go next, Minister Norris should know that he is playing with fire. But of course, in another stolen play, Minister Norris has said that he and the Wall Government are ready to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Seems Minister Norris stopped just short of telling the SFL to 'Bring it on'. Given that the ILO has already found against the government and proposed changes, it seems highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would find merit in the Saskatchewan Government's case.

So, the belt-tightening in Saskatchewan has begun...Given that taxpayers are about to foot the bill on legal costs for the Wall Government's refusal to back down on legislation which is violating the rights of workers and individuals; not to mention the penalties the Saskatchewan Government will have to pay out when the Supreme Court finds against them.

The Wall Government is fighting a losing battle, but in the end, it's the average Saskatchewan worker and taxpayer that will suffer from the Wall Government, and Minister Norris', stubborn and bullheaded approach to politics.