Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reimagine CBC

A new effort that coincides with the Conservatives' renewed attack on the public broadcaster as Parliament has resumed: "Reimagine CBC." Leadnow.ca is driving the idea:
From the digital revolution to political pressure and potential budget cuts, the CBC is under enormous stress and journalism in Canada is in crisis. (Just yesterday, four Conservative MPs tabled petitions in the House of Commons calling for an end to all public funding for the CBC.) [1]

The CBC is changing, and we all have a stake in the outcome. Good public media is good for our democracy and culture, and right now you have a chance to make it yours.

The CBC is unique. It’s the only major media network that is independent from the handful of private companies that control more and more of the content we see and hear. And, since the CBC receives public funding to meet its social mandate, we have a real opportunity to shape its future.

That’s why today we’re launching a new project to ask Canadians from across the country to “reimagine the CBC.” We’ll bring the best ideas to the CBC, and together we’ll work with decision-makers to turn your ideas into reality.
Go check both sites out. Instead of just complaining and reacting to the Conservative plans, this seems like an interesting way to create support for positive alternatives.

Juxtaposing Harper: OAS version

Harper to the House of Commons, yesterday, when questioned on his proposed cuts to Old Age Security:
“Everybody understands that there are demographic realities that do threaten the viability of these programs over the longer term. We will ensure that these programs are funded and viable for the future generations that will need them,” Harper told the Commons.
Expert advice commissioned by the federal government contradicts Stephen Harper’s warnings that Canada can’t afford the looming bill for Old Age Security payments.
But research prepared at Ottawa’s request argues Canada’s pension system is in far better shape than the Europeans’, and there’s no need to raise the retirement age. Edward Whitehouse – who researches pension policy on behalf of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank – was asked by Ottawa to study and report on how Canada stacks up internationally when it comes to pensions.

His conclusion: “The analysis suggests that Canada does not face major challenges of financial sustainability with its public pension schemes,” and “there is no pressing financial or fiscal need to increase pension ages in the foreseeable future.”
The government’s claims leave experts baffled. Thomas Klassen, a York University political science professor who co-authored a 2010 report on Canada’s pension system, said his own research concluded that the OAS program is sustainable.

“I haven’t heard any academic argue that there’s a crisis with OAS, which is why I was surprised a few days ago when the Prime Minister seemed to say there was a crisis,” he said. “Because I don’t know where that came from.”
Kevin Milligan, a University of British Columbia economics professor who co-authored another of the supporting research papers prepared for Ottawa, is also of the view that there is no OAS crisis. He says the government’s use of statistics showing the cost of OAS will climb from $36.5-billion in 2010 to $108-billion in 2030 is not very meaningful because of the impact of inflation. He notes the rise is less alarming when measured as a percentage of economic growth.

“As an economist, I would never characterize things in terms of nominal dollars in the future because it’s hard to put those in context,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll be paying for a litre of milk then.”
Ignoring experts on an issue like OAS may not be the run of the mill ignoring-of-the-experts thing that Harper typically does. Making cuts to OAS is not axing the census. Pensions are real pocketbook attention getters of the first order with electoral consequences.

Pensions are an issue that Canadians instinctively understand, an issue that goes to the hearts of Canadians. Our pension programs speak to our national values, what kind of country we are, the things we do indeed value. It's not all logic and numbers. How you go about dealing with changes to such national programs matters.

That is why a smart leader would try to rally the nation and build consensus support for transformational changes to such things as our pension system, including OAS. And not pull a Gordon Campbell no-HST election promise when it comes to pension reform. The HST was nuked, despite its policy advantages, not for the logic of it. It was a pocketbook attention getter of the first order that was nuked mainly because its implementation was viewed as a betrayal to the electorate. You can see that element here in Harper's OAS move as well.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday night

Haven't been listening to anything new this week so we go with a fave from the past year. This is kind of like two songs in one but sewn together so awesomely. New widget from SoundCloud too, fun!

The Scottish secession referendum question

Isn't this a light Friday afternoon blog post? Well, we can't help what we are interested in and when.

Yes, the Scots are having one, in case you have missed this development. It's a few years away, incredibly, but things are taking shape now. Polly Curtis at the Guardian does a blog post checking in with various experts on the Scottish National Party's favoured wording for the referendum question on independence. Here is what they propose to ask:
Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
While it may appear straightforward on first glance, what possible harm could there be in that, etc., there is much more to it. There is the presumptive framing, done by the Scottish National Party, that leads to a yes vote of agreement with the statement, for starters. People generally are predisposed to be agreeable so there is an issue of the yes side being favoured. That's what self-interested framers of referendum questions tend to do.

A second issue is that people may want a degree of greater independence but not necessarily full independence from the UK, so there is an issue of vagueness with what the term "independent country" means. Yet they must say "yes" or "no" in response to the question. There are other procedural issues too, in terms of whether an independent electoral body will have a final say over the choice of question. The Scottish National Party leader is playing nice, at this point, but we know how heated these things can get.

While secession rumblings in Canada have significantly waned, such a referendum is still something of interest to Canadians given the familiarity of the issues as a result of our own experience. Thankfully though, in contrast to the developing Scottish process, we have a Clarity Act that addresses how a secession referendum would be treated by the federal government. So while it's a compelling comparative exercise, the comparison only goes so far.

The Scots have a lot of time to deal with the procedure and wrangle over referendum details, the referendum is being held in the fall of 2014. Which is novel timing. The movement could dissipate or become old hat by then. Or, it could allow for a sustained building of support. I find this two year period interesting and, separate and apart from secession referendums, possibly a useful way to focus a country on a single major constitutional issue. Maybe a partial remedy for the complaint here.

Referendum fans, there you go, one to watch.

More on raising the Old Age Security age eligibility

Update below.

A brief follow-up to yesterday's post on the possibility of a hike in OAS age eligibility here. Here is the first of many analyses likely to come along now that Harper has raised the issue of "major" reforms to Canada's pension system, namely the OAS: "Does Harper really need to raise the retirement age?" The upshot of the piece is that no, he does not.
On the other hand, Canada is different because, unlike most other countries, our public pension commitments are not a substantial threat to our public finances. The Canada Pension Plan is in long-run balance. Old Age Security currently takes only 2.41 per cent of GDP. Very few OECD countries have lower levels of public pension spending as a share of GDP than Canada. To take the extreme example, Italy spends more than 14 per cent of GDP on public pensions -- up from 10 per cent only a few years ago.

How will spending in Canada grow as the baby boomers age? By 2031 -- at the peak of the baby-boom retirement wave -- the share of GDP spent on Old Age Security will rise to 3.14 per cent, for an increase of 0.73 per cent over today’s level. Now, an increase of 0.73 per cent of GDP cannot be ignored, but neither is it disastrous. To provide some scale, David Dodge and Richard Dion project that spending on health will grow from 12 per cent to 18.7 per cent of GDP by 2031, for an increase of 6.7 percentage points. In the fight for government spending dollars in 2031, health is the elephant and the Old Age Security pension is the mouse.
Worth a read.

To be continued.

Update (4:20 p.m.): The PMO's talking points. Don't worry, we're going to phase it in, they say, to stave off criticism. Not dealing with substantive criticisms such as the above though. Yet.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Harper is talking pension reform in Davos and one big change could be coming:
In the wake of Harper's speech, it now appears that the Conservative government could be poised to gradually change the Old Age Security system so that the age of eligibility is raised to 67 from 65.
More from Canadian Press:
On pensions, the government will move to ensure that demands on the Old Age Security benefit don't bankrupt the system.

"Our demographics also constitute a threat to the social programs and services that Canadians cherish," he said. The Canada Pension Plan "does not need to be changed" because it is fully funded, but officials point to an OAS bill that will soar as the population ages.

Current recipients of CPP and OAS won't be affected by the changes, Harper added.

OAS is a cornerstone of the retirement security system and, together with the Guaranteed Income Supplement, has been the main reason poverty among seniors in Canada is so low.

But since the population is aging and the number of taxpayers is dwindling, the program is seen as unsustainable in its current form.

Officials noted that the cost of OAS is pegged to rise to $108 billion a year in 2030 from $36 billion in 2010. That's because the number of Canadians over 65 will rise to 9.3 million in 2030 from 4.7 million in 2010.

The government has been contemplating changes to the retirement security system for years. One option could be to raise the age at which people can claim benefits.
There's been no ground laid, politically, for such a change to the pension system. So they're going to have a hard sell on it if this is indeed the plan. The Conservative priorities will once again come under serious scrutiny. These are core government services being eyed for dialing back.

And given that we have done so well during the financial crisis, weathered the storm and are relatively strong on the international financial scene, as we are constantly told by this government, it would be surprising to learn that we apparently have to take similar measures to an Italy - who are on a financial precipice - and who grappled with raising their pension age eligibility to 67 in the last few months. Granted, the Harper proposal would be to raise OAS age eligibility, not CPP, so there is a big difference. But given the tenuous savings situations for many Canadians these days, this change, if it were to be brought forth in the budget, would be significant.

Maybe Canadians will now start to wake up to the choices this government is making, a possible upside to this news.

Update (6:00 p.m.): Harper's words in Davos are vague. But they are being interpreted as having implications for OAS:
Our demographics also constitute a threat to the social programs and services that Canadians cherish.

For this reason, we will be taking measures in the coming months.

Not just to return to a balanced budget in the medium term, but also to ensure the sustainability of our social programs and fiscal position over the next generation.

We have already taken steps to limit the growth of our health care spending over that period.

We must do the same for our retirement income system.

Fortunately, the centrepiece of that system, the Canada Pension Plan, is fully funded, actuarially sound and does not need to be changed.

For those elements of the system that are not funded, we will make the changes necessary to ensure sustainability for the next generation while not affecting current recipients.

So Newt wants to build a moon base

I don't know, these things never seem to end well. Always too many hatches and lasers and super villains around.

Where to start with Newt's big announcement yesterday? It is a very serious announcement made during a presidential nomination contest, after all, it deserves some kind of attention, at least.

So let's start here at this fun thread in the Guardian. Check out the 6 pm entry and others around that time for example. Wink, wink, we know why Newt's big on space travel. Seriously. Tourism to the moon for honeymooners. Come on.

As those items in the Guardian demonstrate, Newt's been lunar obsessed for over twenty years now. Some might even call him a lunatic, pardon the pun. So this is not exactly original stuff from him. Hard to imagine it didn't catch fire over all that time. And now, as Americans are still in recovery mode from their great financial crisis that impacted the world, we'll see how in touch with the electorate Newt is with his "let's build a moon base by 2020." Sounds kind of expensive.

Besides, if Newt really wanted to do splashy visionary things with science, it's not so hard to find more pressing issues on earth that could do with much more U.S. government public investment and attention. Climate change is this generation's JFK moon shot and it's right under Newt's nose. Promise to solve that and the world would take note. But that kind of thinking is just not on with today's anti-science Grand Old Party.

P.S. Newt-Harper 2012.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Let's not be arresting bloggers in Canada

Updated below.

There's a case going on in Fredericton, New Brunswick that deserves some attention: "Fredericton blogger's arrest attack on civil liberties." This blogger, Charles LeBlanc, who blogs here, was arrested last week on charges of criminal libel. His computer was seized in the course of a search warrant execution. Here's a good overview of the entire mess:

Note the legalities as described near the end of the video. I don't know how many online defamation suits there are in Canada at the moment but it is an extraordinary thing to be charged criminally for it and to have one's computer seized.

The Fredericton police and Crown deserve every scrutiny they get here.

P.S. Dude, lose the jacket.


Update: More on the law of criminal defamation, furthering the point on how rare the charge is.

Update II: Dr. Dawg had a post on this in September, writing about another recent charge of criminal libel emanating out of the G20. He sets out the principal criminal libel provision in the Criminal Code, section 298.

Note that in the case Dawg links to, the LeBlanc case above, and one other pointed out to me on Twitter this afternoon, there is a common thread. These rare cases where criminal libel charges have been issued all involve alleged defamation against police officers.

The coming public service job losses

There's a new study out by the CCPA on federal public service job cuts. The study suggests between 11,000 to 22,000 jobs could be lost in the Ottawa area and between 60,000 to 70,000 jobs across the country. This would be done in the next few years and up to 2015. David Pugliese reviews a colleague's report on the study and notes this point: "Canadian Forces and RCMP Rank-and-File Spared the Job Losses That Will Affect Thousands of Government Workers, New Study Notes." Additionally, Correctional Service Canada is unscathed and is going to be adding jobs. Clearly, it looks like the government is picking and choosing winners and losers with these cuts, based on their political priorities. That suggests that the cuts are not all about austerity and budgeting.

There is a bigger picture to consider as well. Conservatives philosophically distrust government. They don't believe in government the way that progressives do. It's not that far fetched with this government to speculate that these cuts are likely part of a dismantling agenda, making it that much harder for a future non-Conservative government to have an effective public service in place in order to help achieve progressive goals.

The cuts will no doubt be carefully messaged and massaged as sensible cutbacks following strategic operating reviews. But the alternative view should be considered as well.

Monday, January 23, 2012

All the action is in Quebec

If you're like me these days, when you see a story involving the Bloc, you might yawn a little bit and gloss over it. Is it more infighting in the sovereignty movement, things not moving fast enough, yadda yadda. But this one from the weekend could make waves: "Fonds publics: Gilles Duceppe dans l'embarras." (Translation) La Presse ran a blockbuster of a story, pardon the pun, which could prove serious.

Apparently party personnel were paid, over many years, with parliamentary funds that were not to be used for partisan purposes. The sum involved is said to be about $1,000,000. If the Bloc (or Duceppe) has to repay that sum, it's not going to be that easy. There is legal advice being sought at the internal Commons committee that governs these issues. It should also be noted that Duceppe states that everything was done properly, on advice.

Nevertheless, Duceppe has been forced to back away from any intention of moving in on the PQ leadership of Pauline Marois, something he had just stepped up in recent weeks. So what incredible timing that La Presse story on Saturday had. Can you say intrigue with a capital i?

What does this mean in Quebec? The Bloc might be in more trouble than they already are, financially. They take a real credibility hit due to the severity of these allegations. They always seem to have made a strong moral appeal to their cause and that is punctured. Further, there seems to be a rift in the party. Daniel Paille fired the Duceppe holdover staff at issue on becoming leader in early December and the La Presse report became public a month later at a very well timed moment.

This is more fuel for the anti-politician mood in Quebec. In the wake of the Charest difficulties, it will likely add to public cynicism.

Pauline Marois is probably left to solidify her PQ leadership now, but given how weakened she's become, her principal rival Duceppe exiting in this manner might not make a difference to her fortunes. Charest might benefit if the PQ continue to reel, particularly if it truly becomes a two way race toward a 2013 election now. The ADQ has just folded itself into the CAQ, showing that the forces of change are still on the move in the province, manifesting themselves in the form of the CAQ.

Federally in Quebec, we see these continued troubles for the Bloc, we saw the floor crosser from the NDP. Then, this week, we see the Conservatives doing a bit of a circular firing squad thing where a Conservative organizer decried the lack of attention by the party in the province and noted "...there is an opportunity for the Liberals to retake a fair bit of ground in the province,particularly if the party goes through with the democratic renewal measures under consideration at its convention." Well, Liberals have taken some of those steps, i.e., the supporters resolution and possibly with a few policy measures that will be of interest to Quebecers (marijuana legalization, preferential balloting).

So many moving pieces! Lots going on in that province, no easy answers or conclusions. Situation: fluid.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Wow, what can you say about Giffords' spirit and recovery. She is truly inspirational.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dr. Doom on Canada

Nouriel Roubini in the Globe today:
What's your assessment of how well Canada is doing in the current global environment?

It's a mixed picture. The overall fundamentals are better than many advanced economies. The fiscal situation, the balance sheet, is better. The banks have been better regulated. But now, with weakness in U.S. and Europe, growth will be below trend. Household debt is rising. There is some frothiness in the housing market. I don't see a bust as in the U.S., but I would not rule out a 10-per-cent correction.
And at that point the Globe interviewer proceeds to ask Roubini about how many Twitter followers he has. I would have thought there would be a follow-up question on Canada's economy given what he said on the housing market but that's just me I guess. Plus this interview style just seems whack and a little off given the interview subject. For example, "Why have you never married?" Um, excuse me? Anyway, read on for Roubini's take that the European austerity push is wrong and for more dire economic predictions for 2013 and beyond.

All of which would have consequences for Canada's economy in the next few years and the political dynamics. Which parties are going to be the ones who speak credibly on economic issues in view of these uncertain times is a question for Canada's opposition political parties to step up and answer. We know that the Conservatives claim to occupy this space but it can't be ceded to them (and won't be, of course).

It's a tough road for parties of the center and left. In Britain, Ed Miliband is struggling to provide a credible alternative position to the coalition. Here, see Caplan today urging the NDP to start ramping up (last paragraph, although the CCPA doesn't align itself with partisans, come now). There's been little in the way of economic policy making a splash in the NDP campaign, not eye catching to the broader public that is.

And of course the Liberals will be conscious of this too and will need to develop economic policies as a party in the next few years, policies that were non-existent at the just concluded policy convention. It may be a prominent feature of the coming leadership race as well, at least, you'd think the smart candidates would speak to economic issues with a view to this backdrop.

Roubini's that guy who called the U.S. housing collapse so he's always a noteworthy commentator to take in and colour our worlds, doom and all. Happy Saturday!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A new Liberal MP from the NDP?

That is what Le Devoir is reporting is the subject of a Bob Rae press conference this morning. If so, it's big news:
Le caucus du Parti libéral (PLC), relégué au rang de troisième parti aux Communes par la vague orange qui a déferlé aux dernières élections, pourrait bien avoir volé un député à ses rivaux, selon ce qu'a appris Le Devoir.

Un membre du Nouveau Parti démocratique (NPD) s'apprêterait à annoncer qu'il se rallie aux libéraux. Le vétéran libéral Denis Coderre a convoqué la presse ce matin à Ottawa, en compagnie de son chef intérimaire, Bob Rae. Et les deux hommes pourraient signaler la venue d'un néodémocrate dans leurs rangs, indiquent les informations colligées par Le Devoir. (translation)
It would also kind of explain the hullabaloo recently about the New Democrats and their floor crossing bill.

We shall see what the morning holds...

Update: It happened, as we all know by now. Lise St.-Denis is the new Liberal MP for Saint-Maurice-Champlain.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Friday night

That's a free download. Nice. Recommend this one too.

Have a good night!

Update: Sorry, the song above reached its download limit of 1000!

Helmets to hard hats vs. battlefields to the boardroom

I am just getting home from downtown where I had a quick meeting in an office building on University Avenue. In the elevator, there was one one of those mini-tv screens that gives you the latest headlines. This appeared on the screen: "Helmets to hard hats: Harper outlines job program for military veterans." So, me being me, I naturally had a spontaneous reaction in the elevator to the effect of who is he to say what kind of jobs the military should enter on transitioning, who says they want to be construction workers, etc. Needless to say, I was incredulous to put it mildly. A woman listening was smiling in reaction, so I was in good company. To her, at the end of the ride I said, "Not a fan," to which she replied, "Agreed."

Anyway, having a transition plan for military members reentering civilian life, if that's what they choose to do, is not a bad thing. But why is the government steering them into construction? No offence intended to construction workers, at all. Infrastructure is needed as an investment in this country, no question. But our military members are not, I'm sure if you ask them, necessarily interested in construction. Indeed, they are well trained and have leadership skills that might be better applied elsewhere.

Why not pay for their education or at least help in paying for it? Apprenticeships in building trades might appeal to some but why not broaden the scope of the educational offerings so that they can have more of a choice? We have a productivity problem in this country, so we are told, why not think about such situations in a more creative way?

If you scan the American scene, you will see how their transitioning of military to civilian life is framed. It's in the blog post title, from the battlefields to the boardroom. Here's an excerpt from an HBR item that gives you a sense of the possible contributions that ex-military can make based on their skills acquired in conflict:
So, what can the rest of us learn from our sober band of top military men and women? In this month’s Spotlight package we revisit a question that has fascinated generations of thinkers: What are the wartime leadership lessons that can be broadly applied to the world of management?

Once upon a time the takeaways might have focused on discipline, sacrifice, and team building. But our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have inspired fresh thinking. The lessons from them concern skills like adaptive leadership and navigating uncertain, high-risk situations. Here the military provides a model for business in several ways. Leaders in both spheres must deal with a world of 24/7 information and public scrutiny, cope with perpetual ambiguity, and adjust to ever-changing goals.

One might think that a standoff in Kandahar would have little relevance for a CEO in Omaha or Oman. But in our lead Spotlight piece, “Extreme Negotiations,” Jeff Weiss, Aram Donigian, and Jonathan Hughes show that the talents needed to pacify a war-zone neighborhood are ones all managers would do well to deploy. Even in a life-or-death situation, the authors argue, the only way to negotiate successfully is to use a reasoned, patient, empathetic style. The same is true in any high-stakes business situation.

Can former members of the military translate what they’ve learned to a business environment? Perfectly well, say Boris Groysberg, Andrew Hill, and Toby Johnson, the authors of “Which of These People Is Your Future CEO?” They find intriguing differences in style and effectiveness, though, depending on which branch of the armed forces those leaders served in.
Now granted, we're not talking about placing military members in boardrooms across the nation, that's not the point. The point is that there are skills our military have learned in theatre that could be amplified and applied usefully in our economy in many industries, beyond just the one, construction. So on first glance at this program, it seems to be giving short-shrift to our military, a missed opportunity.

Is this all there is is in terms of a Canadian government's vision in response to this transition? A catchy slogan with accompanying photo-op (see link above) does not a vision or optimal policy make.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Do the Harper wave

Stephen Harper waves goodbye to the jobs in London, Ontario, pictured above. That's a nice shot. Really captures the sentiment well as an accompaniment to this article: "Tories mum on lockout at plant Harper used to tout corporate tax cuts." He's happy to show up for the glory and highly choreographed photo-ops, not so much when it comes to sticking up for the workers and jobs.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

U.S. military to shrink

The lead story in the New York Times today is about the U.S. reducing its military budget by at least $450 billion over a decade, part of the agreement reached at the time of the debt ceiling extension. Leon Panetta, the Defence Secretary is to outline plans this week on how they propose to go about shrinking the U.S. military. Among the possible cuts, you guessed it F-35 fans:
The chief target for weapons cuts is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one of the most expensive weapons program in history. The Pentagon has plans to spend nearly $400 billion to buy 2,500 of the stealth jets through 2035, but reductions are expected.

The debate centers on how necessary the advanced stealth fighter really is and whether missions could be carried out with the less expensive F-16s. The main advantage of the F-35 is its ability to evade radar systems, making it difficult to shoot down — an attribute that is important only if the United States anticipates a war with another technologically advanced military.

“It would matter some with Iran, it would matter a lot with China,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution and the author of a recent book, “The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity.”
See that, the "debate"is American-centred, focused on what they need, whether they can make do with less expensive jets, what kinds of wars they anticipate. Or, if you're Canada under the Harper government, those are your acquisition considerations too.

So, "reductions are expected," and that may impact us in terms of cost and maybe how many we buy. Possibly why Julian Fantino's talking point lines were changing in December.

Panetta's announcement one to watch this week, along with all the other U.S. craziness.