Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday night music...

Coldplay were here last night, didn't see 'em but heard good things. New video which is kind of mesmerizing.

$10 million bill for Quebec hospitals from isotope shortage

"Crise des isotopes: facture possible de 10 millions." The $10 million in increased costs represents an increase of 25% in unanticipated expense to the budgets of nuclear medicine departments in Quebec. Premier McGuinty has been writing to the federal government about the increasing costs as well although there's been no dollar figure placed on Ontario's costs thus far. You'd have to think it's equal to or more than the figure reported here for Quebec which was arrived at after a conference call with a dozen CEO's of Quebec hospitals. These are tens of millions in additional costs for hospitals that were foreseeable should a Chalk River shutdown occur yet prompted no substantial back-up planning at the federal level for isotopes.

Where's the federal support for these increased costs? Where's the response?

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

More seemingly random news items

More than 27,000 Quebecers have faced delays in getting cancer and heart tests since the end of May because of the continuing shortage of medical isotopes.

“We are in a state of crisis,” François Lamoureux, president of the Association des médecins spécialistes en médecine nucléaire du Québec, told The Gazette Thursday.

“At least 40 per cent of isotope exams have been postponed.”
“It’s very difficult and it seems that the federal government doesn’t consider this to be a serious problem,” he added.

Hoping to raise awareness about the isotope shortage, the Coalition Priorité Cancer au Québec launched an email-writing campaign on Thursday aimed at Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The coalition is accusing Harper of “negligence toward the population” by failing to address the isotope crisis. The emails are also directed to Governor General Michaëlle Jean.

“The more there are delays, the more the cancer will spread in some patients and the lower the chances of remission,” said Nathalie Rodrigue, a spokesperson for the coalition. (emphasis added)
MDS Nordion, a leading provider of medical
isotopes and radiopharmaceuticals, has submitted a Proposal to the Government
of Canada's Expert Review Panel on Medical Isotope and Technetium-99m (Tc-99m)
Generator Production. MDS Nordion believes that the best answer to the
shortage of medical radioisotopes is the completion and bringing into service
of the MAPLE project. The MDS Nordion Proposal outlines technical and
regulatory requirements needed for the provision of a secure supply of medical
isotopes for the health care system in Canada and around the world.

With no domestic or international sources of supply that can fully
mitigate the current global shortage of medical isotopes, MDS Nordion urges
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to complete the MAPLE project to
address this shortage. With expertise and guidance from the South African
Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), owner and operator of the SAFARI-1
reactor, and working with AECL, MDS Nordion believes a solution could be
achieved in an estimated 24 months.
As a reminder, it's been 20 months since the December 2007 shutdown of Chalk River. In the wake of that shutdown, the Harper government made its decision to mothball the Maples, contrary to those such as MDS above, who believe they can fix it, as they set out today.

(More on the MDS offer in a future post)

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.

Random news items

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says there is no need for another federal election in times of economic instability.

Harper insists the priority for Canadians is to have Parliament take care of the economy.

The prime minister says the current economic recovery is fragile and would be undermined by another election and more political instability.
And two:
Canada's opposition Liberals have regained a slight lead in public opinion over the ruling Conservatives, but neither party has enough support to be sure of winning an election if one were held now, a weekly poll showed on Thursday.

The Ekos survey for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp put the Liberals at 34.1 percent support, up from 32.5 percent last week. The Conservatives were at 32.5 percent, down from 32.8 percent.
"The (Conservatives) would probably narrowly lose an election if it were held right now," Ekos President Frank Graves said in a statement.
To be fair, this is not a major breakaway or anything like that and these things have been seesawing...but we do enjoy a little juxtaposition here and there...

Conservative political staff quietly making significant foreign policy changes

Embassy Magazine is reporting that the Conservatives are quietly making significant changes to longstanding Canadian foreign policies: "Leaked DFAIT Memo Documents Struggle Between Conservative Political Staff and Foreign Service." Here's an example of a major change that's been made that has significant implications for Canada's position on seeking legal punishment for the worst kind of violence against women overseas:
In the email, the departmental adviser outlines a number of significant changes made to policy language by political staffers recently. Among them are changes to the "standard docket response" of Canada's position on the violence in Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Suggested changes to this letter include removing the term "impunity" in every instance," he writes. "E.g. "Canada urges the Government of the DRC to take concerted measures to do whatever in necessary to put and end to impunity for sexual violence..." is changed to "Canada urges the government of the DRC to take concerted measures to prevent sexual violence.""

These type of linguistic alterations have become commonplace, the message says.

"Furthermore, the word 'humanitarian' is excised from every reference to 'international humanitarian law.' References to gender-based violence are removed. And in every phrase 'child soldiers' is replaced by 'children in armed conflict.'"

These changes, the adviser implies in the email, have major policy ramifications.

"For example, sentence cited above changes the focus from justice for victims of sexual violence to prevention."

He adds that he doubts whether the political staffers fully understand the significance of their language changes.

"It is often not entirely clear to us why [the minister's] advisers are making such changes and whether they have a full grasp of the potential impact on Canadian policy in asking for some changes to phrases and concepts that have been accepted internationally and used for some time."(emphasis added)
The formalization of the new death penalty policy by Conservatives after it had been struck down by the Federal Court (they created a handbook and a nifty website) suggests that they know what they're doing when making such changes. They want to put their own policy stamp on foreign affairs and apparently one of the things they wish to change is no longer seeking "justice for victims of sexual violence" in nations such as the DRC. That is an important and shocking lessening of the severity of Canada's policy on this issue. As suggested by the staffers at DFAIT, it likely takes us offside of international agreement on the issue.

In terms of what this change addresses, a quick search will turn up information such as this report in the Washington Post: "Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World."
The prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo are "almost unimaginable," the top U.N. humanitarian official said Saturday after visiting the country's most fragile region, where militia groups have preyed on the civilian population for years.

John Holmes, who coordinates U.N. emergency relief operations, said 4,500 cases of sexual violence have been reported in just one eastern province since January, though the actual number is surely much higher. Rape has become "almost a cultural phenomenon," he said.

"Violence and rape at the hands of these armed groups has become all too common," said Holmes, who spent four days in eastern Congo. "The intensity and frequency is worse than anywhere else in the world."
More, "Churches Support Victims of Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo:"
"We saw the first case of a woman who had been raped and her organs mutilated in 1999. We had never seen anything like this before. Other cases started coming in soon after," explains Bishop Jean-Luc Kuye Ndondo, the South Kivu president of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC).
Within 10 years, there have been over 500,000 such cases, according to Dr Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which specializes in treating women and girls who have become victims of sexual violence.
More here. Our own government website also recognizes such threats.

Why on earth would the Conservative government want to ease its stance on sexual violence against women in the DRC by dropping language in our policy that seeks legal redress? What a terrible signal to be sending to that government and others in the world that see Canada stepping back here. Perhaps Minister Cannon might wish to explain this one.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gaming the Games

L. Ian MacDonald's latest election analysis column today, "Harper has good reasons not to want an election this fall," included reasons why Harper should do everything to put the election off until 2010. Among them, this harbinger of things to come:
"The Vancouver Games loom as a feel-good moment for the country, with an impressive harvest of medals in the offing. Harper and his ministers should spend a good part of those 17 days in Vancouver and Whistler, basking in the reflected glow of that good feeling. Harper could even do some on-site research for his forthcoming book on hockey, a work in progress that has been delayed by his current job."
Set aside the commentary that could very well be made about the hockey book that's much talked about yet never gets written for the moment...

This is a germinating piece of conventional wisdom, that the Games can be used by the Harper government for political advantage. But they have to be very careful with that. It's not clear at all that such "reflected glow" will accrue to the Conservatives. Mr. Harper's negatives are pretty entrenched at this point. After a fall parliamentary session, if they survive, who knows how much further that impression will have fallen. Will they be running more negative ads through the fall? Will there be more Nixonian remarks in the Commons? They've already floated their "wedge issue" strategy for the fall. The "in-and-out" hearings are scheduled for November. Turning on a dime from a fall session that is likely to be much the same as they all go for the Conservatives, i.e., partisan slug fests, toward a halcyon Games-Harper seems a bit of a stretch. Canadians fell for Sweater Vest I. Fool me twice...well, you know the rest.

If the games are overtly politicized by Harper and his crew, it will be noticed. They should be very careful in not making that event about them.

The Nortel fight breaks out

Tony Clement, grappling with the big issues, playing statesman on Nortel (and more below):
Since winning the bid, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has been demanding the federal government step in to prevent the sale. Duncan says it would cripple Canada's competitive advantage in the telecommunications business to lose Nortel's assets to a foreign company.

Yesterday federal Industry Minister Tony Clement fired back.

"I find it very curious, actually, Dwight Duncan's intervention on this," said Clement. "It could have something to do with the fact that (Ontario is) on the hook for the pension issue and they are trying to offload the pension issue to us."

But Duncan says Nortel has not made any request to Ontario's Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund for assistance and the issue of pensions for former Nortel employees is "completely unrelated" to what will happen to the patents and wireless technology up for sale in the bankruptcy auction.

"It's just a cheap shot," said Duncan. "I suspect (Clement) is just lashing out because he has nothing else to do to explain the fact that their government has failed to protect the Canadian interest here."
Bit of a head shaking moment there. Sounds like the advocacy from Duncan, Ignatieff and various opinion is starting to rile Clement. He may be realizing that he and his government may have to step in or risk looking asleep at the switch and that's not sitting well. But there is indeed a pension issue to be dealt with here and instead of pointing at Ontario as if the Ontario government exists in a different country, he might be a little more sensitive to the fact that having gone through the GM bailout, the provincial fund in Ontario is hurting. The us versus them approach to Ontario rears its head once again here in Clement's remarks.

The public debate is broadening now as those opposed to a government review are starting to get in on the public relations battle. As this CTV report from last night outlines, Nortel is characterizing the transaction as involving Nortel's LTE wireless technology being licensed to Ericsson, not sold. Which might sound like a legally significant difference but depending on the terms of a license, can practically accomplish the same thing as a sale. More on the Nortel position here, "Nortel drops the gloves to go after RIM." John Ivison throws in all the ideological stuff: "Intervention argument is as bankrupt as Nortel."

And then there are some bare politics of the dispute that Thomas Walkom injects:
Every fibre of Harper's free-enterprise being will recoil at the idea of government intervening in the Ericsson sale. But two other factors are at play.

First, while the ruling Conservatives won all three Kitchener-Waterloo ridings in the last federal election, it took two of them by the very slimmest of margins. Second, many voters in that region consider Jim Balsillie a god.

If these facts don't justify government intervention on the grounds of national security, what does?

Asked with a bit of irony given the overall tone of Walkom's bemused column but also with a hint of truth given this government. Amazing how this issue has developed so many political tentacles so quickly.

'Obama is too cool for jogging'

Audio found on BBC that may be of interest to the running politicos out there:
"Does French President Nicolas Sarkozy's collapse after 45 minutes of "intense physical activity" in hot weather in Versailles suggest that jogging is more dangerous than previously thought?

Reporter Jack Izzard visits Canary Wharf in London to discuss the benefits and risks of running on your lunch break and Andy Dixon, editor of Runner's World magazine, and comedian Arthur Smith, discuss whether jogging is a suitable activity for top ranking politicians."
A light post with politics, running and humour...what more could you want?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Teneycke departs

Update (5:30 p.m.) below. And (8:50 p.m.).

CTV reports, we analyze:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications, Kory Teneycke, has confirmed that he is planning to step down from his post, just as speculation ratchets up about a possible fall election.

It is not clear exactly when Teneycke will vacate his post, but it will be "very soon," according to CTV News Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife.
Fife said Teneycke has a young family and so would like to find a job that is less demanding on his time.
He's been the director of communications for just over a year, which would seem like not very long for a young tyke. This must surely have been the uber-job for someone who came from the wilds of ethanol industry-spokesdom. So do we buy the family explanation? Ummmm....let's Nor do others. Here's some recent goings on that it may have to do with...

Recall this headline: "Tories call AECL '$30 billion sinkhole,' no more cash for new reactor." Who was doing the "calling?" Teneycke, and loudly so:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief spokesman says Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., is a "dysfunctional," $30-billion "sinkhole" that will not get any more funding for a new research reactor.
"The government has put $30 billion into AECL over its history and it's been one of the largest sinkholes of government money probably in the history of the government of Canada," Teneycke told The Canadian Press.

"So I don't think describing it as an unmitigated success is accurate."

Teneycke added there's been "some pretty well-founded, sharp criticism of the history of AECL . . . . I don't think we're going out on a limb to say it has been a fairly dysfunctional place."
These statements from the PM's chief spokesperson came at the same time that the Harper government, as we know, is trying to sell AECL. So it was all very strange. The comments were likely motivated by the growing backlash in the scientific community about the government's announcement that it was getting out of the isotope business and the stories about the brain drain that this would likely cause for Canada, the decimation of the nuclear research industry and all that other nice stuff that we've been hearing. So Teneycke, in attempting to address those concerns, overshot and in the end, withdrew his remarks.

A few weeks after Teneycke's remarks on AECL, Premier McGuinty halted the Ontario government's reactor purchases from AECL. McGuinty's team did so due to uncertainty over the future of AECL.

So, make of all that what you will. Just the facts, as reported this summer.

Also interesting, this move comes on the heels of the "great summer chief of staff shake-up of 2009" going on all over Ottawa too. Apparently in the Harper government, a minister can't choose their own chief of staff. One of the most important working relationships you'd think that a minister would want some say in. But such human considerations apparently not operative in controlling PMO land. Can't let the ministers get too comfortable, I guess.

Oh well, no more spokesthingy to kick around

Update (5:30 p.m.): Family, family, family...and did he mention, family?

Update (8:50 p.m.): Dave at Galloping Beaver thinks Kory's seen the electoral writing on the wall...also quite plausible.

Further (8:55 p.m.): And in case it wasn't crystal clear in the post, once McGuinty halted the purchase from AECL, AECL's resale value went *poof.* Spokesthingy opened the door, Dalton walked right on thru.

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.

Government report undermines Kenney's Czech visa policy

Recall the recent visa requirements imposed on Czech citizens? News last night that undercuts the rationale they first offered for the visas: "Czech Roma being persecuted: Canadian government study." The move was said to be aimed at bogus refugee claims from Roma persons in the Czech republic that have attempted to move to Canada. The Conservatives relied upon a study at the time to justify the change:
A recent study by the Immigration Refugee Board found no evidence of state-sponsored persecution against the Roma and documented the steps the Czech government was taking to improve their living conditions.

The study was seen as a way to bolster Canada's decision to try and stem the flow of asylum seekers into the country.
But yesterday a second report was released which contradicted the first:
Incidents of members of the Roma minority in the Czech Republic being firebombed, turned away from restaurants and refused housing by landlords are contained in a fact-finding report released in Ottawa on Monday.

The report by the Immigration and Refugee Board also noted that in May, the Czech government was considering a ban on two extremist political parties after the broadcast of a National Party video on Czech television which called for "the final solution" to the Roma "question."

The report was released two weeks after the Canadian government re-imposed a visa requirement on Czech citizens to reduce the flow of Roma - once known as gypsies - claiming refugee status in Canada. It was the second of two reports from the March 23-31 fact-finding mission.
Immigration and Refugee Board members consult such fact-finding reports to help them determine the credibility and objective basis for individual refugee claims of a "well-founded fear of persecution" or a threat to their life in their home country.(emphasis added)
The second report contradicts the first one, yes, and it also contradicts Jason Kenney's recent statements such as this one:
In June, Mr. Kenney referred to a report on the Czech Republic, conducted by IRB researchers, as proof the Czech government was committed to improving the legal and economic opportunities for Roma, and suggested this was evidence that Czech Roma face no real risk.

"If someone comes in and says the police have been beating the crap out of them, the IRB panelists can then go to their report and say, 'Well, actually, there's been no evidence of police brutality,'" Mr. Kenney told the Toronto Star on June 24.
Well, now there is compelling evidence of persecution produced by his own department. Raising the question of why the visa changes were brought in before this second report could be considered. The Minister must have known it was in the pipeline, undermining the credibility of the visa policy change that was put in place. It reinforces the visa move as a hasty decision that was not based on all the relevant facts. This second departmental report could be grounds for changing the Czech visa policy.

And by the way, on the visa "incident" front with the EU, they are presently considering a reciprocal visa requirement for Canada, a decision to come in September.

AECL comes out in favour AECL decision

There's an op-ed in the National Post today, "Don't count on MAPLE to deliver medical isotopes," that was to be expected given the number of experts who have in fact said the Maples reactors, the planned backups to the Chalk River NRU, can work. This op-ed comes from Jean-Pierre Labrie, "...the manager of reactor physics and systems behaviour, office of the chief engineer, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL)." Labrie is a long-time employee of AECL, the body that decided to shut down the Maples, with the approval of the Harper government in spring of 2008.

As you can read, he's clearly knowledgeable and offers his take on the challenges with the reactors. It must also be pointed out that as an AECL employee, he has a vested interest in defending the AECL position of having shut down the Maples and perhaps his own role in that decision. AECL is also being sued at present by MDS Nordion for having stopped the Maples reactors, so his "no we can't open them" op-ed should be read with that consideration in mind as well. Not to say that his view should be ignored, but these reasons must be factored in and this view certainly should not eclipse the views of the many others who argue for the reactors to be pursued (for e.g., Linda Keen; MDS Nordion's expert; Dr. Harold J. Smith, ex Manager, MAPLE Nuclear Commissioning who said "The Maple reactor operated like a dream and was/is fully capable of meeting all objectives. All you have to do is finish the last test or put Hanaro-design fuel in it;" and, independent expert John Waddington who said: "The MAPLE reactors were safe throughout their operating history in terms of the commissioning tests. If they were not, they would not have been licensed and they would not have been allowed to operate.")

The crux of the argument offered here is that the Maples "fix" involves a "power coefficient of reactivity (PCR) issue" that Labrie suggests may be insurmountable, in contrast to the above views. He also says it would be a long-term fix and that there are hurdles such as regulatory approvals from U.S. & Canada for Maple-produced isotopes along with the issue of post-9/11 use of highly enriched uranium (but this seems to be capitalizing on the U.S. using this rationale in their own recent decision to pursue their own isotope solution now, an issue that did not crystallize until Chalk River shut down, combined with the Maples mothballing).

What would be eminently preferable would be a scientific decision made by unaffected experts who could assess all the competing opinions. But with Minister Raitt's long-term solutions panel an unknown factor and in light of this government's obvious preferences, to get out of this business in the long run, there's no reason to have any confidence at the moment that competing views will be reconciled in an impartial manner.

One other thing to keep in mind when you read about AECL coming out swinging on the non-feasibility of the Maples in such an op-ed, it should be pointed out that Cassie J. Doyle, Lisa Raitt's Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada sits on the board of directors of AECL. That's a conflict of interest undermining what should be independence between the AECL board and the Harper government in AECL's decision-making. At a time when AECL is sought to be privatized - the other big "high tech" privatization the Harper Conservatives are overseeing - there are all kinds of issues that will require non-conflicted decisions by that board (see this op-ed raising some of the questions that privatization presents). And at a time when the isotope issue's handling presents obvious political difficulties for the Harper government, the conflict of having a deputy minister sitting on AECL's board, the entity that manages the isotope production, is clear. Crown corporations operate at arm's length from the government, usually, and you don't see deputy ministers sitting on the boards of other major Canadian crown corporations. Why does the PM think such conflicts are acceptable for AECL?

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.

Seeds of a problem on H1N1

If it is the intention of the federal government to make a constitutional argument that health care is a provincial responsibility as a feature of their leadership on the H1N1/swine flu issue, on key issues such as access to vaccines, requests from municipalities for emergency preparedness, etc., it's not likely to impress many. Doesn't seem to be satisfying the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at the moment. I'm sure the public won't be very reassured by division of powers arguments from the Health Minister on swine flu either.

But it's early going, right? Maybe we'll try to stay optimistic on this one, at least for now.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Conservative "in-and-out" election spending scheme still kicking around

This hangover from the 2006 federal election campaign is still with us. A few weeks ago, the Conservatives sought to move up the November court dates to August or September: "Judge refuses Tories' request to expedite 'in-out' hearings." This is the Conservative civil lawsuit against Elections Canada, going on two plus years and that has likely cost the taxpayer at least $1.5 million now in legal fees, probably closer to the $2 million mark by now (they were at $1.4 million 8 months ago).

As a refresher here...the Conservatives are disputing Elections Canada's ruling against them which effectively held that the Conservatives had overspent beyond their national election spending limit of $18.3 million in the 2006 federal campaign by about $1.2 million. The Conservatives, however, allege that they were entitled to shift $1.2 million in national ad expenses to various local candidates who had budget room, i.e., that money went "in-and-out" of local campaign accounts usually within the same day to purchase national tv ads. The upshot of the Conservative position is an end-run around national spending limits. A cash rich federal party, once it reaches its federal spending limit, can just start transferring national ad expenses down to the local candidates. In this way, they can gain millions of dollars in advantage over other parties when we are supposed to have national (and local) election spending limits. (The local candidates also get to claim refunds from the taxpayer for that "in-and-out" money which they didn't properly raise, a suspect claim as well.)

So, the Conservatives were seeking to move up the November court dates to August or September. Arguing that if they won, they could implement their in-and-out scheme once again for a possible fall 2009 federal election:
Last week, the Conservatives' lawyer Michel Decary asked that the court move the four-day hearing to August or September so the party could use the same advertising strategy in a possible fall election, should it be deemed legal, that was used in 2006.
And if they lost, then they would at least have the hearings out of the way of that possible fall federal election:

While Decary said he had no special knowledge of election timing from his client, he told Lutfy that the Nov. 23 to 26 sitting would likely fall "right dead-centre" in the campaign.

Decary made the remarks during a conference call with Lutfy and Elections Canada's lawyer, Barbara McIsaac. In a previous letter to Lutfy, Decary noted the minority government could fall at any time and said Conservatives were concerned the case would be heard at a time when party officials were busy campaigning. (emphasis added)

That's the risk that has always been present in the Conservative pursuit of this litigation against Elections Canada. Yet the Conservatives apparently view the court system as one more item to seek to manipulate for maximum electoral advantage. Very glad the judge said no to this request, in contrast to the successful scheduling manipulation that was permitted last fall during the Cadman litigation/fall election concurrence.

While this news was a small procedural defeat for the Conservatives, it's a reminder that the Conservatives are still intent on pushing the limits of the election spending regime. And, of course, that there may be a resolution of this civil case one way or another in the next six months.

Influential call for government to review Nortel wireless sale

Update (4:00 p.m.): The Ontario government weighs in too:
Ontario is calling on the federal government to stop the transfer of the next generation of wireless technology developed by troubled Nortel in its sale to LM Ericsson.
Ontario's finance minister, Dwight Duncan, says Canadian taxpayers helped fund research that led to Nortel's creation of LTE, or long-term evolution, technology and it shouldn't go to a foreign company.
Mr. Duncan says he wants Ottawa to block the Nortel sale to Ericsson and to help broker a deal with Research In Motion Ltd.

Morning post: A former Progressive Conservative deputy prime minister, Don Mazankowski, comes out for a Nortel Investment Canada review: "Ottawa must use all the tools at its disposal to protect the national interest." Pretty significant political pressure embodied in this op-ed that will be difficult for current members of the Conservative family to ignore:
I have always felt that an open investment policy is essential for Canada. However, I have always also believed that there are certain circumstances where the government must look very carefully at the effect of proposed foreign acquisitions on the long-term national interest. How the assets of Nortel are disposed of is one of those circumstances. Nortel, supported by the Canadian taxpayer, played a critical role in putting Canada on the map as a leader in the knowledge-based economy and it has been a very important part of Canada's high-tech economy for many decades. It is the biggest investor in R&D and the source of many successful spin-off businesses. Even more important, the wireless industry is a critical industry and a country like Canada is best served economically, and even in terms of national security, if it is home to a global leader in that industry The government, therefore, has a responsibility to use all the tools at its disposal to satisfy itself not only that the acquisition of Nortel's assets does not prejudice Canada's economic and security interests, but also to do everything it can to bring about a meaningful positive Canadian solution.

When strategic assets like Nortel's are at stake, the government needs to take the time required to consider the impact carefully. Canada's national interest should not be held hostage to artificial deadlines established by private interests. In this case, the process was dictated by Nortel and its mostly non-Canadian creditors through Nortel's application to the U.S. bankruptcy court that conducted the auction. For whatever reasons, RIM, a relatively new player in the telecommunications sector that has become a household brand around the world, claims unambiguously that it has been prevented from even getting out of the starting block. Nortel is understandably looking to fulfill its obligations to creditors and others. However, the federal government has a much broader national responsibility.

While an auction for the assets of Nortel took place in New York on Friday, there is much more to be played out. RIM has stated publicly that it is ready to bid for key technology assets from Nortel in the course of its bankruptcy proceedings. If successful, it would mean RIM's position as a global leader in this critical industry would be significantly enhanced.

In the current circumstances, it is incumbent upon the government to exercise its leadership in seeking a resolution that is in the national interest, and that includes using all the tools at its disposal to ensure Nortel and RIM thoroughly explore all options. I am encouraged that both Industry Minister Tony Clement and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have given strong signals that the government is prepared to use both its regulatory power, if necessary, and its persuasive powers to promote a “Canadian” solution.
Combine that persuasive piece with this view from the weekend, "Nortel a sweet deal for the Swedes." It suggests that the $1.13 billion offering by Ericsson was a steal and that the Nortel board may start to feel some pressure to reconsider as a result:
In the proposed deal, subject to regulatory and bankruptcy court approval in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, Nortel will be paid only $1.13 billion (U.S.) for its most valuable business. That's about half what Nortel was expecting the unit to fetch when it filed for bankruptcy protection in January and began a rapid dismantling of Canada's long-time R&D flagship in fire-sale deals with foreign buyers.

Ericsson may just have struck one of the best deals in the industry's recent history. It will almost double the Stockholm-based firm's sales in North America, which will become its biggest wireless market. Over the next two to five years, Ericsson's North American market share will soar by almost 30 per cent, and its global share by more than 5 per cent.
Ericsson by no means has a lock on the prize. Its deal with Nortel is not set to close until later this year, plenty of time for Nokia Siemens to trump Ericsson's offer. Or for Waterloo-based Research in Motion Ltd., the BlackBerry smartphone maker, to launch a formal bid. RIM last week expressed a willingness to pay roughly the same $1.1 billion (U.S.) with which Ericsson won yesterday's auction.

The near giveaway price Ericsson is offering for Nortel's prized CDMA and LTE technology and patents, which alone are expected to generate an effortless revenue stream of $2.9 billion (U.S.) over the next 15 years, is likely to bring pressure on Nortel's board from creditors anxious to see more generous proceeds from Nortel's fire sale of assets.
It all seems to be adding up to an unfinished story to any objective observer.

It's been pretty remarkable to watch this situation catch fire in the past week as the consequences of the government's inaction have come quickly to fruition. The hypothetical consequences of letting foreign companies raid the best of Nortel's assets have become that much closer to reality. Now the government finds itself in somewhat of a catch-up position, of having to deal with an auction process that's produced a foreign winning bid. Steps they take now may fuel those who would cry foul about interfering with an established legal process that to date the Conservatives had indicated no hesitation about. So if they do act now, they'll have to manage that predictable fallout.

It'll also be interesting in coming days to watch Clement et al. try to recover their footing. They've really left themselves open to the charge of being asleep at the switch and on an issue that has raised a lot of nationalistic passion. That's what's so ironic about how events have turned out. For all their efforts to act as the most pro-Canada party and wrap themselves in the flag and all our national symbols ("Canada's back," flags at military events, red t-shirt days, hockey, etc.), they really didn't get the national interest here at all.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Economic deconstructionism

Oh, looky at who's in the Globe today:
As important as rail was to the founding of Canada, telecommunications is to holding Canada together today (The Fight For Nortel - Report on Business, July 24). The federal government must intervene to ensure that Nortel’s assets continue to serve Canada’s strategic interest. A bailout does not make sense but ensuring the assets remain under Canadian oversight is in our interest.

Unfortunately, this government has willingly sacrificed the public interest before (the lumber industry, medical isotopes, wheat marketing). Stephen Harper’s economic deconstructionism is making John Diefenbaker’s sacrifice of our aerospace industry look trivial in comparison.

Eugene Parks, Victoria
Nice term that's been christened here, fitting. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue for electoral sloganeering or anything, but it certainly captures a big story that needs to be told.

Friday, July 24, 2009

All aboard the RIM bandwagon...

Update (late Friday p.m.): Ericsson has won the Nortel auction. Now we'll see what, if anything, the Harper government decides to do:
(Friday 5:00 p.m. post) Sounds like Deficit Jim's a bit nervous. A week of devastating publicity over your government's inaction will do that to a fella' I suppose. As the Nortel asset action gets underway in New York, Deficit Jim gets on the RIM bandwagon, chucking Clement over the side in the process:

On Friday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty vouched for RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie's quest to acquire Nortel assets.

“I think he's a great Canadian and I think he's entirely right to ask for the government to be concerned about the issue,” Mr. Flaherty said in Toronto, where he was attending a public event.

“What we want to see is a level playing field, we don't want to see anyone excluded from the process with respect to the sale of the assets of Nortel.”

However, Mr. Flaherty said it's up to Industry Minister Tony Clement to make any ultimate decisions.

Mr. Clement said this week that he wouldn't intervene in Nortel's auction, but that he hoped Nortel would meet with RIM executives to discuss a compromise.

Flying by the seat of their pants, ladies and gentlemen...

Letter of the day

These aren't your grandma's Progressive Conservatives:
The purchase of Nortel assets is yet another example of a firmly held belief being acted upon. Better Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland handle the sale of Western Wheat than the Canadian Wheat Board. Better the sales end of AECL be placed in private hands. Better self-regulation than government inspectors.

Nothing wrong in loaning a foreign company 45 per cent of the cost price of buying part of Nortel, formerly a Canadian "icon." There's to be no government interference in the market place, even though the price is above what was set in the budget omnibus bill as the point in which government would become interested in ensuring business dealings had some benefit for Canada.

It will be most interesting to follow what response will come from the Harper Conservatives to a Canadian firm like Research in Motion arguing it is wrong "that Nortel's world leading technology, funded in part by Canadian taxpayers, seems destined to leave Canada." Not only arguing but backing its words with offers to purchase Nortel technology and keep it Canadian, a matter of no concern to the Prime Minister.

Joe Hueglin, Former Progressive Conservative MP, Niagara Falls
(think that was actually from yesterday, but missed it, is equally relevant today and is well said)

See also...more great reporting in the Globe today on the RIM/Nortel saga, "RIM dangles prospects of joint bid for Nortel assets," and a Star editorial as well, "Ottawa MIA on Nortel."

Impact of Chalk River shutdown/isotope shortage in NY Times today

The New York Times has a report today on the medical isotope shortage, bringing Americans who haven't been paying attention (and the world) up to speed on the crisis situation that's unfolding due to the Chalk River shutdown. A lot of it is background that we in Canada know, but there are a few points worth a look. First, there's the speed at which the Americans are acting to replace our production of the isotopes. That's clear and there is significant bipartisan effort going into it:
On Tuesday, Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is one of the House’s fiercest critics of the nuclear industry, declared that the United States was facing “a crisis in nuclear medicine.”

Mr. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy, called for establishing new production facilities in the United States. He joined the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, to introduce a bill to authorize $163 million over five years to assure new production.

The White House is coordinating an interagency effort to find new sources of supply, involving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and the Energy Department, but officials said the process would take months.
Second, the report omits, in its description of the Maples replacement reactors, any of the recent expert testimony to the effect that the reactors can work. It leaves the situation at this:
But when the new reactors were started up, both showed a problem: as the power level increased, the reactors had a tendency to run faster and faster, a condition called positive coefficient of reactivity. That is a highly undesirable characteristic in a reactor, one that contributed heavily to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. So Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which is owned by the Canadian government, said it would not open them.
Giving the impression that Canada has been forced to walk away from this replacement option out of necessity when it was a Harper government choice. And an ideologically motivated one at that which seeks to privatize and have government exit this long-standing role. There's a big difference and perhaps those reading the Times article might like to know that.

Third, there is a flip quote by a doctor there to the effect that the market is small, that it's more lucrative for a "big pharmaceutical" company to manufacture Viagra, since they can make more in two days than with these nuclear medicine isotopes in a year. This is offered as a partial explanation as to why no American source has sprung up over the years. But with Chalk River servicing the majority of the U.S. market, it likely wasn't viewed as a priority. Canada was a nice, stable supplier. Plus, as long as we, Canada, were building backups, the Americans were content to rely on us (as explained by the Economist). So why would anyone disrupt a long established supply? They wouldn't, and didn't, until Mr. Harper gave them a reason to act. And for Canada, which has been a leader in a $4 billion a year market for these products, and which has benefited from the research and development byproducts as well, it's been more important an undertaking than that unfortunate comparison the doctor offers. But I'm sure he'd get along well with the Harper Conservatives...

An end note, here's another U.S. doctor, on the medical state of affairs as a result of the shortage:
Without the tool, Dr. Graham said, the quality of medical care is “dropping back into the 1960s.”
You're welcome!

With love,

Stephen Harper's Canada

(h/t adamgoldenberg on twitter last night)

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.

Heckuva job, Ritzie

A follow-up to the release of the Weatherill listeriosis report the other day. Here's a view:
In her report, Ms. Weatherill pointed repeatedly to the “void in leadership” within the federal government. She was referring specifically to the lack of co-ordination among various governmental and quasi-governmental agencies including the CFIA, the PHAC, Health Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

But she could well have pointed up the political food chain. Let's not forget that Prime Minister Stephen Harper called this inquiry as the last order of business before an election, no doubt as a means of avoiding serious discussion of the issue. Then-Minister of Health Tony Clement and Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz both heaped praise on their officials, yet this report makes clear that there were massive, patently obvious failings.

Is it too much to expect the public service to serve the public, for ministers to minister, for governments to govern?

No. These too are obligations.

The real lesson from listeriosis is not to be found strictly within the report of the independent investigator but rather in the larger principles that guided Ms. Weatherill's recommendations: You need to invest in public-health infrastructure, particularly in good people; you need to value prevention, not just pay lip service; voluntary measures need to be complemented with strong sanctions for failure; and when threats to public health occur, you need to act forcefully and communicate well.

Above all, you need to take responsibility – in business and government alike, and in everything from policy to everyday actions.

There is a leadership void, one that is a much bigger threat to the health of Canadians than a bacterium such as listeria.

How the government responds to this report will be a test of leadership, so the Prime Minister's Office needs to underline three words: “Actions, not words.”
And here's another that was expressed in the midst of the crisis (latter half):

More: "Listeriosis report slams leadership," "Listeriosis crisis a leadership crisis,"Company, government faulted in listeria deaths,""Public protection."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

More on teh Parliamentary Budget Officer

A quick follow-up on a recent development with the PBO and the unfinished story of this office's "independence."

As reported over the last week or so, the Library Committee of Parliament recently agreed upon funding of the PBO's office to its full budgetary level by virtue of a unanimous all-party decision of that committee. A political compromise was reached on that vote and the independence issue was put on hold until it will be reviewed in two years. As Tom Mulcair put it:
"It's a condition sine qua non: without the budget he couldn't have done his job, we know that, so we got the first and most important job done, which is the budget for him to allow to keep the good staff that he's got and to hire more good staff and we're going to continue to supervise it very closely to make sure that there is no interference and I think that half the battle has been won. The other half of the battle is going to be to supervise, with him, his ability to do his job independently as he's always done," said Mr. Mulcair. (emphasis added)
Political compromise reached. Paul Dewar, quoted in the same Hill Times report sounded as if the rug was pulled out from under him, having introduced a bill on independence of that office recently. (Could be some interesting dynamics at play there as between Mulcair and Dewar, but, for another occasion;))

While the Liberals on that committee were in favour of keeping the PBO under the Library of Parliament's jurisdiction,which would practically neuter the PBO's independence, it's worth pointing out that not all Liberals are of the same view. Here's a letter by Martha Hall Findlay from early May which strongly argues for the independence of that office. I suspect Paul Dewar will have an ally (and perhaps more) down the road across the benches. It suggests that for some Liberals, the independence issue is not over at all.

(h/t pogge)

Critics questioning Harper government's handling of Nortel sell-off

Updates (4:30 p.m.) below and (6:00 p.m.)...

Very interesting read on the RIM/Nortel issue today in the Globe, "Why Nortel failed to win a bailout." For those not following the situation, there's a frenzied auction bidding process for Nortel's valuable wireless technology assets set for Friday. RIM has made a late bid but outside of the formal rules and is essentially making a play for the Harper government to assist by reviewing the sale of the assets on "national security" grounds under the Investment Canada Act. The Globe piece has to do with a bit of the politics and the decision-making surrounding the Harper government's rejection of Nortel's pitch for a bailout in the period of October through January.

The timing of the discussions referenced is very interesting. During the election, Nortel met with "senior bureaucrats from the Industry and Finance Departments and the Privy Council Office, the central government department that reports to the Prime Minister." After the fall election, Clement and Flaherty met with Nortel executives in November. Follow-up meetings were held with officials and then in January another meeting occurred, attended by Clement, Day and Baird as well. Over the course of these many meetings, business plans were presented and "hundreds of millions" were requested. The Harper government decided to reject the funding request and Nortel proceeded on to bankruptcy.

You have to wonder about the obvious political backdrop on the timing, a government that held an election that wasn't needed in October, that almost self-destructed in November and was totally preoccupied with its political survival throughout November, December, January, coincident with these Nortel discussions. Distracted by politics to say the least, not to mention the auto industry situation. And clearly the key Harper players were involved, the decision to do nothing was a bona fide Harper government team effort.

Now that RIM is trying to prevent the loss of these valuable IP assets to foreign ownership, the Harper government's inaction to date is coming into focus. News last night that Ericsson, another foreign telecommunications giant, wants in on the "bidding war," joining Nokia and a N.Y. investment firm, in addition to RIM. The assets seem kind of important to them. And another individual weighs in as well:
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the government is allowing important Canadian assets to fall into foreign hands, something European governments would never allow to happen to companies such as Nokia and Ericsson.

“At a time when they were rescuing GM and Chrysler, they didn't ask the simple question: Could we restructure Nortel to preserve the enormous intellectual property and research capacity in Canada,” Mr. Ignatieff said Wednesday. “It's a huge loss, and it means a leading Canadian player – RIM – is going to be faced with competition from intellectual property that was originated in Canada and is now being sold to foreign companies.”
No "vision thing" present among the Harper Conservatives to enable them to consider the scenario presently playing out for Canada's high tech industry.

And by the way, for your "fun headlines" file, from the Financial Post yesterday: "Tony Clement has people befuddled, and worried." That was in connection with the RIM/Nortel situation too. And you know, it all makes one think...maybe the Industry Minister should give the tourism file back to Ablonczy for a while. He seems to need a little more time to properly assess the big matters in front of him.

Update (4:30 p.m.): From op-ed in the Star (h/t BCer):
Soon, about five billion of us will be connected by wireless networks, the technology for which was largely funded by Canadian taxpayers who subsidized Nortel during most of its 127 years, and are now being made to subsidize its sale to foreigners. Stephen Harper, with not much by way of a track record as PM, will have to think hard on whether he wants to be remembered as the man who killed Nortel or another Canadian firm's prospects of becoming the global leader in a technology that will define the 21st century.
Update II (6:00 p.m.): Travers:
What the federal government needs to decide – and Canadians should stop barbecuing long enough to consider carefully – is whether or not it's in the national interest to let Nortel's bits, pieces or valuable patents slip offshore.

Industry experts and high-tech gurus are unusually consistent in their response. Whatever its past mistakes, and many were doozies, Nortel remains an asset too vital for the country to lose. It's a symbol of what Canadians can achieve out on the leading edge.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should Chalk River’s medical program be treated as a private or public resource?

Interesting take on the Chalk River developments in this letter to the editor (also appearing here). Raising the question of what Canadian assets are properly private versus public when they have a significant impact on the Canadian health care system.
What does the shutdown of Chalk River’s medical isotope program have in common with the 17th-century battle between feudalism and democracy? Tragically, far too much.

Modern democratic economies work on the principle that raw resources, consumed by either companies or individuals, are public assets used by all (such as water, air, land, public infrastructure). Normally, you are required to pay the public back for what you consume; and then the profit you create by adding value is yours. Modern democracies assure there is a public benefit from the use of common resources. That’s our democratic-economic system.

In the 17th century, kings and feudal lords claimed ownership of both resources and government for their own control and benefit. Then, humanity debated whether private enterprise belonged under feudal-individual management or democratic-public administration.

In the case of Chalk River’s public medical program, the Harper government has cancelled it in order to make room for private control — distancing a Canadian medical program from democratic administration. At issue, should Chalk River’s medical program be treated as a strictly private resource under the control of its individual owners; or is it fundamentally a public resource run for common public benefit?

No matter the answer, Harper is clear that he believes the feudal approach of strictly private control justifies his decision to cancel the Chalk River program — the public interest be damned.

Eugene Parks
The "Chalk River medical program" encompasses isotope production at the NRU reactor and it was contemplated to include the Maples reactors, as backups to accomplish the same production. I think this letter fairly characterizes these significant research assets as health care assets as well, all of which the Harper government has decided to divest Canadian control of, over the coming years.

Update: If it's not clear from the above, the present categorization of Chalk River and its assets is a public one. It's Mr. Harper's government that seeks to privatize AECL (Candu reactor division + management of Chalk River), perhaps flip the Maples reactors to private industry and ultimately walk away from isotope production out of the NRU. That's the path they've put us on, walking from public control to private. What's interesting about the above letter is framing this Chalk River debate as one about the privatization of a key element of the Canadian health care system. As we watch the Canada versus U.S. health care system debate play out in the American media, and great pride being displayed by Canadians in the public nature of our system, it's worth wondering why the privatization aspect of the Chalk River situation does not warrant similar attention.

RIM asks the Harper Conservatives to stand up for Canada

Interesting little drama playing out in our high tech industry given the auction of Nortel assets that's going on. RIM is making a bid for some of the more valuable Nortel intellectual property assets now and the bid is hampered by questions of whether they complied with the court run bidding process. So they are making a political play, essentially asking the government to invoke the Investment Canada Act provisions for their benefit, as the sole Canadian purchaser in the mix. Nortel's technology should not end up in the hands of foreign players, they argue. What's interesting about this is how it plays into a growing story line of the Harper government being asleep at the switch while valuable Canadian industrial assets are slip sliding away to foreign interests.

We've seen on the medical isotope file how this government has evidenced little concern about the loss of that high tech industry that Canada's been a world leader in for half a decade. They are prepared to privatize Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., signal that Chalk River will be shutting down within about five years and move Canada entirely out of the isotope business. The Americans have consequently decided to stop relying on us and build their own isotope capability, thereby destroying a large part of the Canadian isotope market. This is all to the detriment of Canadian patients who will be dependent on foreign suppliers, Canada's research and development capabilities, Canadian jobs in the nuclear medicine industry, etc.

Now we have RIM essentially goading the Harper government into keeping Canadian high tech assets here in Canada in the Nortel process, arguing that "economic and national security considerations justify further review" of the bidding process that they feel they are being kept out of. This move by RIM is finding some allies, see this Toronto Star editorial today which gives a good overview of the dynamics:

RIM issued a press release Monday evening saying that the loss of Canadian ownership of Nortel's wireless division may "significantly, adversely affect national interests" and calling on the government to "review the situation closely."

In Ottawa, everyone was running for cover yesterday in the wake of RIM's press release. Industry Minister Tony Clement wiped his hands of the matter in a press release: "The government of Canada does not have a say how the (bankruptcy) judge rules on any proposed sale of Nortel assets." Subsequently, Clement told reporters that he hopes Nortel will call a meeting to clear the air "perception-wise" on why RIM's bid wasn't considered.

The government should use every means at its disposal to ensure that RIM's bid is given due consideration so that at least a piece of Nortel might remain in Canadian hands.
Jeffrey Simpson is also sympathetic in his presentation of RIM's argument as it tries to keep this potentially valuable wireless technology IP in Canada:
Mr. Clement, active on the auto bailout file, had been missing in action on the Nortel front, perhaps because he and his fellow Conservatives figured nothing should be done to interrupt the flow of the market. Mr. Balsillie begs to differ.
Will be interesting to see how this plays out from now until Friday when the auction takes place.

"A lot of this research and development has been paid for by Canadian taxpayers," said Richard Powers, associate dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"This is something that the government will have to take a look at now because the issue has been raised."

Tony Clement's bad week just seems to have gotten so much worse...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Listeriosis report recommendations reveal mistakes made by Harper government

The Weatherill listeriosis report was leaked to CTV last night and it will be publicly released later today. Here are a few of the leaked recommendations that I think are notable (*starred, bolded) and why. The recommendations from Weatherill become a little more interesting when you have a bit more of the context in hand.

First: * Meat plants must report any public safety threats to the government, not just those stemming from positive bacteria tests.

Here is why that is important:
Four months before the Maple Leaf outbreak started claiming lives, Canada's food safety agency quietly dropped its rule requiring meat-processing companies to alert the agency about listeria-tainted meat, a Toronto Star/CBC investigation has found.

Twenty people died as a result of the outbreak this past summer, and federal meat inspectors and their union say this rule change likely made the country's listeria outbreak far worse than it had to be.

Before April 1, if a company preparing meat for sale to the public had a positive test showing listeria it "would have had to have been, not only brought to the (federal) inspector's attention, but the inspector would have been involved in overseeing the cleanup," says Bob Kingston, head of the union that represents Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspectors.
The CFIA, under Ritz's oversight, had dropped the reporting requirements. In the wake of the above report, the government moved to restore mandatory testing and government notification.

Second: * Canada's chief public health officer must take the lead in any future cases of food-borne illness, lessening any potential political diversions.

Here is why that recommendation has likely been made, public health was stripped of its independence by the Conservatives:
Following the 2003 SARS epidemic and subsequent recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health,7 the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was created and given its own minister in government — a direct line to the prime minister. But in 2006, among Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first acts was to eliminate the PHAC minister and public health's seat at the Cabinet table. His government also left the chief medical officer of health within the ranks of the civil service, working under the minister of health. In so doing, it left our country without a national independent voice to speak out on public health issues, including providing visible leadership during this crisis.
Third: * Ottawa should review the training of federal inspectors, in addition to reviewing inspection resources.

This recommendation speaks to perhaps one of the most important regulatory changes that was made under the Conservatives, the shift from full-time meat inspection to industry self-inspection:
Last November the Canadian government instituted a strategic review of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Among its outcomes was to transfer inspection duties for ready-to-eat meats from the government inspectors to the meat industry. Cabinet decided to "shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, [thereby] allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks."1

In practice, the new policy meant that CFIA inspectors would rarely enter meat plants to test for bacteria and testing was left mostly to companies. Self-inspection came largely to substitute for, and not just to supplement, government inspection. Self-inspection mechanisms have worked effectively in other countries, but in Canada something went very wrong.
A second source on the point of those inspection regulatory changes made under Gerry Ritz and the Harper crew:
A confidential cabinet document, obtained last month by Canwest News Service, outlines a plan to have the inspection of meat and meat products "shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks."
If you just hear these recommendations without context, they're likely to fly right over the heads of most people. Generic, boring news of a government report in the middle of the summer. But if you dig down, the real story is there. While the report doesn't point any fingers, it's clear that regulatory changes made by the Harper government factor significantly into the story of the listeriosis outbreak.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The measure of a government: not trusted to disclose major report on health crisis

Updated (5:00 p.m.) due to government hijinks...already! See below. (And two more...)

How bad is it when a major government report is about to be released and major media in the country focus on the angle of whether or not the government can be trusted not to tamper with it prior to its release? That's the case today as Sheila Weatherill hands her listeriosis report over to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. Check out the Globe headline on the CP reporting, "Will keep hands off listeriosis report, PMO says."
The Harper government says it won't tinker with an independent investigator's report into last year's deadly listeriosis crisis before releasing it to the public.

Sheila Weatherill has handed in her report to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. She was expected to hold a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa to discuss her findings.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the report won't be edited or altered in any way before it is released on Tuesday.

“We're looking at the report right now and she'll present it to the public tomorrow,” Kory Teneycke said Monday.
The circumstances of Weatherill's investigation into the listeriosis outbreak, characterized by "closed door meetings," "secrecy" and a lack of any public commentary by Weatherill during the process have not exactly inspired confidence in her investigation. Questions about the release of the report and its findings follow naturally along.

Beyond this specific report, this government's hallmark is non-disclosure, clamping down on access to information and media control. There is little reason on such occasions to provide them with the benefit of the doubt.

Updated (5:00 p.m.): Aaaaand....on cue...Kady O'Malley points out changes from the government's initial media advisory on the report to the second. The first included this paragraph:
I have been able to conduct my investigation independently and impartially. There has been no interference from any party whatsoever. Overall my experience was positive in that people wanted to help and be part of the solution. All those who were asked to participate agreed to be interviewed and were open with their information and advice.
The second omits that profession.

The government clearly does not want to give any credence to the notion that Weatherill's independence is an issue. Too late.

Update II (5:25 p.m.): And let's face it, the prior update does not help us in feelin' the non-tinkering promise from Teneycke. But maybe that's just me.

Update III (5:30 p.m.): A reminder of the Conservative minority's position (Food Safety sub-ctte) on the release of the listeriosis report, just for fun:

The Government of Canada should review all findings of the Independent Investigator’s report.


The Government of Canada should release the Independent Investigator’s report to the public.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Ritz to get some mid-summer reading

Tomorrow, the Sheila Weatherill report on last summer's listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 Canadians is handed to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz: "Investigator to present report on deadly listeriosis outbreak." It's going to be reviewed carefully by those with a stake in Canadian food safety (really, all of us!) and it will be interesting to see how far her recommendations and analysis go. Will Weatherill stick to a discreet analysis of the goings on at the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto, as the Conservatives surely hope, or will she broaden her recommendations in view of last summer's failings and their root causes. Specifically, will there be any uncomfortable measures for this Conservative government to swallow?

The "factions" on the Agriculture sub-committee on Food Safety have already staked out their positions. The Conservative minority on the committee filed their own dissenting report, here. They provide a series of 22 recommendations, in their totality arguing for systemic responsibility, many actors at play, don't ya know. Notably, regarding last summer's outbreak, the Conservatives emphasize that essentially no one foresaw the risk of "buildup of organic material deep inside the meat slicers." There is testimony to that effect noted in the majority report too although there is some disagreement over whether a better inspection and equipment audit regime would have enabled such risks to be detected. It does seem like a remarkable statement for risk in the food industry and it's not surprising to read the Conservative position highlighting it as being a determinative point. Here's their concluding paragraph that gives you a sense of the Conservative food safety philosophy:
Food safety is the responsibility of all Canadians. The listeria outbreak has shown that even with the most sophisticated risk-based approach to food safety, sometimes things can literally fall between the cracks and grow into large problems. The emphasis needs to be put onto all levels of government to ensure that the food they inspect is safe for consumption and that when a health incident does occur; cooperation takes precedence over turf wars. It is equally incumbent upon industry to ensure that the food they grow, process, transport, sell, and cook for Canadians is safe. Finally, it is up to the consumer to ensure that the food they eat is handled and prepared properly. It is when all of these groups work together, we can all be sure that our food is safe. (emphasis added)
It literally fell between the cracks, Canadians.

The recommendations of the majority on the committee are a little more pointed in some respects. Recommending for example, a public inquiry, right off the top (#1). A recommendation that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency work "cooperatively with the union" on inspector resources (#5), a reflection of the obvious friction that was in evidence throughout last summer's outbreak, with the union frequently "whistle blowing," for lack of a better term, about the changes to the inspection regime that Minister Ritz ushered in. Here's another (#13) that clearly speaks to a perception from last summer's outbreak as well:
The Subcommittee recommends that the government review the legislative basis for the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Chief Public Health Officer with a view to ensuring independence from government departments and ministerial influence, so as to protect and restore faith and confidence in Canada’s public health system.
So, all eyes on the Weatherill report this week to see how far she goes.

Key recommendations from Health Experts Working Group report of May 2008 ignored

Some interesting reading in this May 2008 government report: "Lessons learned from the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor: A Report Submitted to the Minister of Health. " This is the report that was done by health and nuclear medicine experts, all respected professionals in the nuclear medicine field, on the December 2007 shutdown of the National Research Universal (NRU) nuclear reactor at Chalk River. As you will see below, a number of key recommendations have been ignored by the Harper government.

First, a reminder of how central the Chalk River facility's role is for the world supply:
Fewer than 10 reactors in the world are capable of making medical isotopes; approximately 50% of the world's supply of raw material comes from Chalk River. Many of these, like the NRU reactor, are old and aging. No one reactor, and probably not even all of them in combination, can replace the production of Chalk River. Clearly, seeking international sources and cooperation may mitigate supply disruptions but, overall, the global market is limited and cannot compensate for the loss of the NRU reactor. In addition, any new replacement options will require significant lead time and financing to implement.
It's clear to anyone reading that information that failing to ensure backup options to that reactor would be in place would be devastating, particularly in light of the hardship from the brief 2007 shutdown that is relayed in this report ("the ability to provide service was teetering on the brink of disaster"). And one would think, wrongly it turns out, given the reliance of the international community upon Canada's production that there would be some sense of duty to attempt to ensure continued production.

Seized of such implications and of the fallout in their industry, the health experts made recommendations to encourage action to prevent future interruptions of isotope production in the event of another NRU shutdown. Notably, a "made-in-Canada" solution was key, contrary to what the Harper government is presently pursuing, i.e., getting out of the business, seeking a long-term supply for Canada from international reactors and essentially walking away from the Canadian industry:
3.1 A made-in-Canada solution is the preferred option for addressing Canadian shortages. To this end, the federal government should

* undertake a review of the risks and benefits of sourcing raw materials from outside Canada
* plan for the timely replacement of the NRU reactor and consider expeditious commissioning of Maple I and II reactors (5) .

3.2 CNSC and other relevent agencies should

* plan for the timely replacement of the NRU reactor for Mo-99 production
* extend the license of the NRU reactor to operate until other supply sources are online
* ensure the collaboration of Health Canada and others to ensure that the health care needs of Canadians are addressed.

3.3 The federal government should explore opportunities to use other nuclear reactors in Canada. To this end

* a survey should be conducted to evaluate the feasibility of other Canadian reactor facilities producing Mo-99
* if other facilities are capable, evaluate the feasibility of providing the necessary enhancements to their infrastructure.

3.4 Canada should promote formal cooperation agreements within Canada among the current reactor facilities to

* supply key medical isotopes (including Mo-99, I-131 and I-125) in the event of an emergency
* secure a domestic supply against future shortages of medical isotopes
* actively engage in developing new production methods and medical applications for emerging isotopes as a means of strengthening the industry in Canada
* offer a program for training scientists, engineers and regulatory officers in isotope production and safety.

3.5 Canada should work with its international partners to review global capacity to produce medical isotopes, encourage the development of international protocols, remove current barriers or obstacles to international movement of radioisotopes during periods of shortages.
Despite such recommendations, we know that the Harper government, concurrent to the release of this May 2008 report, announced on May 16 2008 that they were mothballing the Maple reactors that were planned backups to the NRU facility. So it's quite the thing to read the above recommendation that the Maples reactors be expeditiously commissioned yet see the recommendation simultaneously footnoted with information that essentially obliterates it. It's almost as if the experts were taken totally off guard that the government would ditch the Maples, which Canada has invested more than $500 million (some say $600 million) in building and which many experts say can work. This group of health experts and nuclear medicine specialists certainly didn't find it out of the ordinary to be including the Maples as an option in their report.

Further, we know that the government did not take any other steps to "secure a domestic supply." They did not pursue the funding of other university reactors that might have capacity, such as the McMaster facility, until May 29, 2009, i.e., after the most recent shutdown. Even with that initial funding of McMaster, it's still not enough to ramp up that facility. They need $30 million more.

And now we sit with the Chalk River facility down, the Dutch reactor down as of Saturday with all the health care impacts that will have. There really needs to be accountability for the lack of action over the last 18 months in respect of domestic isotope production.

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The academics are revolting

A little summer activism from the academic crowd of note today. Got to love that commitment to the public interest.

First we see Arthur Haberman, historian, with a lament for the loss of the "Progressive Conservative" element in Canadian politics. His op-ed reviews what in his view the elements of "progressive conservatism" were but then bluntly turns to the party that has swallowed them whole:
The Conservative party self-consciously dropped the progressive part of the program and substituted a kind of American Republican doctrine. They don't like parliaments very much and their leaders – Stephen Harper, Mike Harris – behave like presidents rather than prime ministers and premiers.

Conservatives are driven hard by ideology rather than pragmatism and tradition. When the financial crisis occurred last fall, they put forward a budget that had no stimulus because they believe that government should get out of the way. Faced with a defeat in Parliament, they prorogued the House of Commons and returned with something resembling their opponents' position. But they are implementing it very slowly or not at all because they don't really believe in it, even though it is now the law of the land.

These new Conservatives like to be tough, or at least appear to be so. Canada now fights wars instead of keeping the peace. When the United States invaded Iraq, both Harper and Peter MacKay supported sending Canadian troops. In Ontario, Mike Harris decided that he would penalize those on welfare and in the education system – in his years in power, Ontario had the lowest per capita support of higher education of any province. They talk about law and order a lot and like to believe that the way to prevent crime is to fill up our prisons and have a higher rate of incarceration, possibly hoping to emulate the land with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the United States.
We are "all the losers" due to this development, the new "rigidity of the right," he concludes. With that, some of us would absolutely agree.

Elsewhere, the economists are revolting. You know, the ones with the PhD's, unlike a certain someone who just plays one on TV. They're coming out in support of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, who was tackily and plainly dissed by the PM last week. That display was followed up by Deficit Jim's put down of the PBO report as too "pessimistic." There's a website, "Support the OPBO," which demonstrates the support of 134 economists and counting. There are three specific requests, directed not only at Conservatives, to be fair. But then again, let's be real, the loudest critics of the PBO are in fact those just mentioned:
We call on Parliamentarians of every party to pursue the following actions in support of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer:
Ensure adequate funding to carry out its mandate
Independence by making the PBO a full Officer of Parliament
Public reporting of all analysis.
Additionally, there was another influential economist, Dale Orr, publicly supporting the Budget Officer this week and getting some significant media attention over the past day.

So what does all this mean? The academics-against-Harper crowd grows. And put simply, the "thinkers" are not too impressed by the present state of affairs and they're making themselves heard.