Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, I suppose this deserves some exploration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Budget Day, Part 2

Source: CBC News: Sask. Cuts $121M from $10B Budget

Well, as promised, here's my two cents on the budget that was introduced today by the Saskatchewan Party Government.

As expected, there were a number of cuts announced by Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer, and we'll be taking a closer look at those cuts and what they're likely to mean to Saskatchewan.

First, we have the confirmation of the civil service cuts that we've been expecting for the past few weeks. The number falls a bit short of the 4% reduction every four years, but still will eliminate 1,800 jobs from the Saskatchewan Civil Service. Gantefoer has defended these cuts by saying they will mostly come from programs which are winding down or by leaving unnecessary jobs vacant. However, this comes on the heel of 100 civil servants being handed pink slips today as the budget was brought down. I assure you, these are the first of many lay offs, as these 1,800 jobs we're about to lose cannot be all vacant and in winding down programs. Furthermore, expectations for this year are around 529 positions being lost.

I've defended the civil service before on this blog, and will continue to do so, because we all know the important role the civil service plays in government, and we all know how in dire times they quickly become the first of many targets by right-wing governments. Gantefoer and Wall can say that these cuts will not impact services, or that they will only come from 'non-important' departments, but we all know the fewer people doing something the longer that something takes; by which I mean, we will see a decrease in services somewhere because of these jobs not being filled, and these jobs being taken away.

Perhaps the strangest announcement is the decrease in spending towards capital projects; roads, infrastructure development, etc...A subject which the Saskatchewan Party often carried as a rallying cry for their supporters. While in opposition, the Saskatchewan Party often condemned the state of Saskatchewan's roads, and vowed that if they were ever elected, they would invest in fixing these conditions. Well, after getting elected, all we've seen from the Saskatchewan Party is their taking credit for road improvements started and funded by Lorne Calvert's NDP Government, with little real improvement from their own caucus towards this issue. Now, they've scaled back funding to the issue all together.

In addition to this, Saskatchewan's overall revenue for the year is down $711 million dollars from last year. Add to that the fact that government spending has only been reduced by 1.2% from last year, and we begin to see that this type of spending is not sustainable.

The Sask Party has not included income tax or provincial sale tax increases in this budget, because everyone knows what a bad omen that is for a party come the next election; but they continue to spend recklessly. After all, this budget only cuts 1.2% of last year's spending, which is hardly the 'belt tightening' Minister Gantefoer seemed to talk about prior to the budget being introduced.

All this budget has done is paved the way to decrease the civil service, without actually saving any money for Saskatchewan taxpayers in the long run. As I've said before, the last time the Sask Party Government laid off civil servants, we paid a generous severance package of $4 million dollars and change. With 100 laid off today, 529 in the year to come, and 1,171 over the next four years, we're going to see large severance pay outs that in the long run will cost Saskatchewan more than keeping those civil servants working.

In other money saving efforts, the Wall Government has dropped programs to help finding staffing for hospitals. With the exception of finding new doctors, programs helped to find R.N's and L.P.N's, as well as other hospital staff, have been cut. Despite all their grand standing about wanting to cut wait times and make sure our hospitals are well staffed, this seems like a confusing message to send out to Saskatchewan residents. Furthermore, the Wall Government has removed government subsidies to allow citizens to visit chiropractic services, instead replacing it with a system that restricts low-income citizens to 12 paid for chiropractic visits a year.

Of course, all of this is going to have an effect on health care delivery in our province. The division with the chiropractic delivery is structuring a sort of two-tier system; where those who can't pay for the service are restricted by how often they can see a professional, while those who can pay for it are now welcome to do so. There's numerous ways to say that in the province that was instrumental for creating medicare, that this system is wrong. And my only concern is that if we as citizens abide by this, how long will it be until we see an Alberta system of health care premiums? How long until we have private paid for clinics, where the rich are able to jump ahead in line, simply because they have an extra few thousand dollars? This could very well be a litmus test for our province, and I hope, it is not one that we fail.

And of course, everyone's favourite topic: The budget's increase on 'sin tax'. Sin tax generally refers to levying a higher tax on things that usually aren't good for a person. As such, the budget has introduced a motion to add an extra 2.7 cents per cigarette per pack; while at the same time adding an extra cost on alcohol, roughly 75 cents more for a dozen beer.

Now, this may be where the Sask Party and I can share some ground. Cigarette smoking is a very harmful activity for a person, and the increased costs that a smoker can put on our medicare system can be staggering. So, in principle, I have to say I can at least agree with a higher tax on cigarettes; even if smokers will already tell you that cigarettes are taxed enough.

So, ultimately, what has come from today's budget?

Pretty much nothing. The problem with this budget, as expressed by NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter, is that we cannot really trust the Saskatchewan Party's numbers. They've said that their cuts, to chiropractic services for example, will save Saskatchewan $10 million dollars. They've also said they expect to make $220 million from potash this year, which barely pays back what we ended up repaying to the companies because of the royalty rate of $1.9 billion; and we can expect to see $1 billion from oil revenue.

The problem, as with most budgets, is that most of these numbers are based on guesses. Educated guesses, perhaps, but guesses none the least. Sometimes we'll take in more, sometimes we'll take in less. The biggest problem is that the Saskatchewan Party is really doing nothing substantial in reeling back spending, other than placing the blame of the inflated civil service. so, our guaranteed income, from things like taxes, remains low while our speculative income, from resources, seems to be the driving bet of our budget.

And of course, given how accurately they predicted last year's budget numbers...I'm hoping, to borrow a phrase from The Who, that we don't get fool again.

Budget Day & An Announcement

Well, today is budget day in Saskatchewan, and once the details are released you can expect an update from me here at the blog.

Secondly, I wish to make an announcement for everyone who reads the blog. I have decided to seek the NDP Nomination in the provincial riding of Saskatoon-Sutherland. The nomination is likely a few months away, but you can expect to see me getting ready and hitting the streets once I've gotten the go ahead.

So, if you're a NDP member who reads the blog and lives in the Saskatoon-Sutherland riding, you may have a chance to meet with me face to face in the months to come.

I'll be back either later tonight, or tomorrow at the latest, with my two cents on the provincial budget.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

So Many Things, So Little Time...

Source: CTV News: Despite Vote, PMO Against '10-Percenter' Flyers
Source: CBC News: Motion to Limit PM's Prorogation Power Passes
Source: CBC News: Union Head Furious with Proposed Civil Service Cut
Source: CBC News: Sask. Civil Service Cuts Planned: Opposition

Well, another week, and another rapid fire amount of news stories that deserve talking about. I'll get the Federal things out of the way, then come back around to focus on the Provincial news stories.

Two very important things happened in Ottawa today, both of which the Conservative Government have quickly announced were 'non-binding' motions and that the Government of Canada was not obligated to follow through on the passed motions.

Those two motions were the banning of 'ten-percenter' flyers, and a motion which would remove the ability of the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament for more than seven days without Parliamentary approval. And as I already mentioned, the Harper Government has stated that these motions are non-binding and that they do not have a responsibility to live up to them.

However, the Harper Government is trying to have it both ways. At least on the issue of the ten-percenters. Despite the Conservatives voting against the motion in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has come out and said that they support the 'notion' contained in the bill. Claiming that they would support the removal of out-of-riding ten-percenters, provided that it applied to all the parties.

Then of course, they added the caveat that they do not have a majority on the Board/Committee which would decide such a thing, and that it was more or less up to the opposition. So, we have Conservatives voting against a motion which they actually support, as they try to make it look like their decision doesn't matter anyways because the opposition are the parties that have to make it work...Despite the opposition parties voting in favour of the motion.

As for the prorogation motion, the Conservatives are not rushing forward to defend the 'notion' of that. Oddly enough.

And now we look towards Saskatchewan; where our illustrious Premier and Finance Minister seem to be backing a plan to cut Saskatchewan's civil service by 4% each year for the next four years, so that's 16% after four years, a total which adds up to 1,800 jobs.

When asked for specifics on how much money the government would be saving, Finance Minister Gantefoer simply said the savings would be significant, and that a smaller government is part of the Saskatchewan Party's platform, and this would be a means of helping to achieve that.

Furthermore, Gantefoer has taken the 'Federal Approach' by attempting to say that most of these job losses will simply come from not filling vacant jobs, but that some will indeed be lay offs.

I think we all remember when the Saskatchewan Party came to power and laid off a little over 100 civil servants as their first order of house cleaning. Do we remember how much severance was paid out to those who were laid off? The reported number, was $4.1 million dollars. So, in a year when Saskatchewan has paid $220 million to potash companies for the optimistic royalty rates which they predicted would give our province $2.2 billion in revenue; and a year where we've seen crowns having to apply for major rate increases after the 'Saskatchewan First' policy; we need to ask ourselves what the lay off of 1,800 civil servants is going to cost us.

Even if we believe Gantefoer and say that only 800 of the jobs are going to be lay offs, or even 1,000, or even 500...That's more civil servants than were laid off in 2008, and they will cost our province more than $4.1 million dollars in a severance package. So, really, how much will Saskatchewan save by cutting these jobs?

In the long run, not enough to make it worth the loss of 1,800 jobs, filled or unfilled as they may be.

And if we're to take Bob Bymoen, President of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU) at his word, then a lot of these vacant jobs are being subcontracted out by the provincial government at a higher cost than what it would be to fill the job permanently. As such, if the empty jobs are already being performed, we will see a reduction in services in whatever department finds themselves under the razor.

And if these jobs are being performed by the private sector, despite being government positions which could be filled, then it is safe to say that any jobs lost in the public sector are going to directly benefit the private sector. By which, of course I mean, that our tax dollars will go towards continuing subcontracting to private companies at inflated prices, meaning that we will see no savings from the elimination of these jobs.

I think Finance Minister Gantefoer showed his true colours when he talked about this reduction. This reduction is not about the economy, even though the Sask Party has done nothing but make it worse since coming to office; but about ideology: This is the Sask Party gutting the civil service because of their believe in small government, disguised as a means of tightening the provincial budget.

Hopefully, Saskatchewan residents are able to see through the smoke and notice the real fire.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Defense of the Civil Service

Source: CTV News: Day says Ottawa Will cut 245 Patronage Positions

As I follow news sources here in Canada, as well as the 'comments' that many Canadians leave on these stories, I'm seeing a disturbing trend. That trend, which some of you might be aware of, is a bullying of the public service. Every time I read comments on news stories involving the public service, I see comments that suggest ALL civil servant workers be laid off and their 'gold-plated pensions' taken away.

And of course, with two Conservative Governments (Federal & Provincial) we're not going to see the government do anything to change this perception of the civil service, because they serve as a great scapegoat. After all, when a government needs to tighten the budget, they go to the public service.

Well, I figured it was about time someone stood up for the public service and tried to counter some of the spin that is out there.

According to a paper by Ian Green & Katherine Baird, entitled Canada's Public Service in the 21st Century: Destination Excellence, Canada's public service consists of 200 entities that employ 250,000 people; a number which jumps up to 400,000 if the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP, among others, are added into consideration.

And just how much are these people being paid? For the most part, they don't match the level our elected Members of Parliament are paid.

For example, you can find the wages of numerous civil service job here: link

And compare it with wages paid to Parliament here: link

Keep in mind that the salary for Prime Minister, Minister, etc. is added to the base payment for being a Member of Parliament. Which, of course, means that the Prime Minister actually makes $315, 462 a year. Compare that to some of the civil service jobs on that list, most of which top out a little over $100,000, a level which takes a civil servant YEARS to reach, as opposed to the Prime Minister is who instantly entitled to his salary his first year as PM.

And what about those 'gold-plated' pensions? Well, that can be explained. For example, we all know that when you work a certain percentage of your paycheque is taken by the government and paid into the Canadian Pension Plan. That percentage that you pay later helps determine your maximum payment from the CPP.

Well, civil servants make the same contribution we average Canadians do, but they make a greater one. According to this link, the average civil servant pays 8.4% of their pay into their pension plan. That's nearly DOUBLE the 4.95% average Canadians pay into their CPP benefits.

So, when I see people rant and rave about 'gold-plated pensions', I can help but ask, do they know that the civil service pays into CPP at a higher rate? That they don't pay the same percentage the rest of us do, and as such, that is why they get a higher return when they retire? I could understand anger at civil service pensions if they paid the 4.95% we all did, yet received greater benefits. But given that they are paying more into the system, it seems only natural that they get a better return from it.

And no doubt, these people who rant against civil service pensions, would rant against having the same pension plan if it meant they had to pay the same 8.4% into the CPP as the civil servants do.

Now, let's consider what the civil service actually does.

The Civil Service, believe it or not, are probably more important than our elected officials. Let's look at the Government as a Navy Ship. The Captain determines where the ship goes, but it's navigators and pilots and numerous other positions that actually get the ship to where it needs to go. In this way, elected officials are the Captain, while the civil service is the crew.

The Government sets the course they want to take the nation in, while the civil service is responsible for finding the way to get there. And when they do, the Government manages to take the credit. After all, we always see Ministers being praised for their handling of a portfolio, but we never see the Deputy Minister or Department workers being praised.

As such, the civil service likely performs the most important role in government; and that's the role of taking policy off the paper and making it happen. Government would be nothing without the civil service, and the civil service would be nothing without the government. Call it a mutually beneficial relationship.

Which is why it's always strange to see the government turn on the civil service; to hold it up as an example of government waste and patronage. Ministers could not function without the civil service; after all, it's more important (at least painfully so in the Harper Government) to be seen in public and doing things that will get the party more votes; as such, the Minister can't be bothered to REALLY be in charge of a department.

Sure, they represent the government's vision in the department and help make sure that the civil service is moving the policy towards where they want it to go, but a Minister needs to be seen as a public figure; they can't waste all their time in their department buildings debating the finer points of the policy.

After all, if Ministers really had to run their departments from the top down, we'd never see them in Parliament, as they'd be way too busy. As such, the civil service really drives policy and management of the country in regards to government policy. Again, because it needs to be repeated, the government cannot operate without the civil service.

When the budget came out, I said that the Conservatives had cannibalized the Civil Service in Ottawa; and that we could expect lay offs, either coming down from Department Deputy Ministers, or the Government itself. And now, that's what we've seen.

Now, I'll Stockwell Day credit for saying the government was getting rid of 'patronage appointments'. After all, we all know how the word patronage continues to haunt Brian Mulroney, and the bitter taste it leaves in the mouths of Canadians. But, consider a few things.

EVERY GOVERNMENT, regardless of the political stripe, as done some patronage appointments. It's one of those natural cycles of politics, we all hate it but it's part of the process. Eventually, someone is going to get a cushy job just because they donated a lot of money to the party or they used to be room-mates with a minister, or any other connection.

But by calling the positions being eliminated 'patronage' appointments, Mr. Day has attempted to defuse the bomb planted by letting Canadians know the civil service was about the get a trim. After all, we'd question the sudden firing of civil servants...But you announce that they were 'patronage' appointments, and suddenly it's alright to let those people go.

But like it or not, patronage runs deeper than we all likely know.

After all, here in Saskatchewan we saw a good example of it when the Saskatchewan Party came to power. Quite a few civil servants were fired, with a million dollar severance package paid out to them, simply so the party could replace them. Now, everyone announces that these people were fired for various reasons, but we all know the main reason they were let go was because they were too closely connected to the previous party in power...

And dollars to doughnuts (which is a bit of a strange expression), the people who replaced those let go were closely connected to the party who had just come to power. Now, again, this is typical behaviour. Every new government is going to do some house cleaning and get people 'friendly' to their agenda on side; after all, it would be difficult to say get a left-leaning policy through a massively right-leaning civil service.

So, by coming out and saying that the Treasury Board is getting rid of 245 patronage appointments, it sounds like a good idea to most Canadians. But in reality, it is not the end of patronage.

Just ask Lawrence Cannon who is fighting to appoint Gérard Latulippe, a former Reform Candidate, as the new President of Rights & Democracy. Or ask Mike Duffy or Pamela Wallin; who were appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who often denounced Senate Appointments.

So, the end of patronage appointments is far from here, as you can see...But by saying we're fighting it by destroying civil service jobs, the Conservatives are hoping to stir up that anti-public service sentiment and draw attention away from their other transgressions.

Again, I will repeat, that the government cannot function without the civil service. And we as Canadians need to realize this, before our government rips apart the departments and services that actually keep this country running, just for the sake of fixing the problems they created. Not to mention, we all need to put aside this civil service bashing, and realize that civil servants are PAID fair wages and given a fair pension package based on the work they do and the payments they make into our systems.

We need to look beyond the talking points of politicians who think they can save their own skin by martyring the civil service by allowing lies and deceit and misconceptions to continue in the public consciousness. We need to protect our civil service, before we find ourselves looking at a bleak future without it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Budget Day

Source: CTV News: Budget Fights Deficit with Freeze on Future Spending
Source: CTV News: Text of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's Speech
Source: CTV News: Tory Deficit-Slashing Plan Needs a lot of Luck
Source: CBC News: Kenney Responsible for Removing Gay Reference

Alright, before we move on to the bulk of Budget Day 2010, there's a small update to yesterday's blog post. After I posted the post, a CTV News story came out with Kenney saying that he was not personally responsible for the editing of the Immigration Handbook, as such, he denied any responsibility for it. Today, Minister Kenney has stepped forward and taken 'full responsibility' for the content of the handbook. Although, Kenney has refused to answer whether he personally ordered the edit (as has been reported) or if a senior aide in his office did. So, take this new information as you will in conjunction with the information from yesterday's post.

And now, for something completely different...Which is to say, something completely the same. Since we knew the Budget was coming, there has been numerous little snippets coming out of the Finance Ministry about what Canadians could expect in the Budget; and of course, it was a budget with no real surprises.

And I say no real surprises, because the budget falls in to true Harper Conservative nature: Try to please everyone, don't step on too many toes, and hope to God we sway some voters with it. The Harper Government avoided tax increases and spending cuts, instead favouring 'spending freezes' and allowing one-shot programs, like the Renovation Home Tax Credit, to expire as opposed to being renewed.

And of course, like any true Conservative Government, the budget is mostly symbolic as the target dates are well down in the future. Furthermore, most of the target dates exist outside of the election window, which means, if the Conservatives are not re-elected, they have created a means of automatically attacking the next government.
Example: We had planned for this with out 2010 budget, but the government, blah blah blah blah...

So, let's take a bit of a closer look at this budget.

The first issue, is something near and dear to my heart, departmental budgets. The Budget calls for the departments to have their budgets frozen, as well as having mandated pay increases financed from the departmental budget.

Allow me to explain the problem with this. Currently, departments operate under a type of quota system. A department is given so much money for their fiscal year, and at the end of the year, any money not spent is returned to the government at large and their budget for next year is reduced, because they had money left over.

So, departments that manage their money well are penalized next year for coming in under budget. There was an article in Maclean's a few months back, explaining how an independent contract was able to bilk a department out of $100,000+ for little to no work, simply because no one asked enough questions and was happy to simply be spending their budget.

So, there's problem number one. Freezing a department's budget will prevent increases in spending and should promote wiser spending, but if departments are still running a risk of having their departmental budget reduced for coming in under budget, we are still going to see a large increase of wasteful spending. As such, if our finance minister was really concerned with departmental waste, he would push to reform the budget system of the departments by removing the taking back of a surplus from departments and instead allowing those departments to carry over any remainder into their next fiscal year.

Furthermore, by freezing pay increases in the department from the Federal Coffers and instead making these increases come directly from the department's operating budget, a number of things are going to happen. One, we're going to see numerous lay offs in many smaller departments who cannot afford to keep their present staff and maintain wage increases. Two, we're going to see departments scale back funding to programs in order to ensure that they can support their staff.

If one happens, the Conservatives are happy because they get to appeal to 'Small-Government Conservatives' who see a shrinking bureaucracy as a good thing. If number two happens, the Conservatives are happy because they will be able to accuse the bureaucracy of not doing their jobs and prompting lay off on their own, again appeasing small-government conservatives. Effectively, the Conservatives have cannibalized the bureaucracy through this departmental freeze, and either way, they will be able to shrink the civil service to appease their party base.

Then of course, comes tax cuts. That's right, a record deficit and growing, yet the Finance Minister announces, proudly, that the government will continue offering tax cuts to businesses, and announces the goal is to have the lowest corporate tax rate of all the G7 countries by 2012. While this may help smaller businesses launch themselves and have a better chance of succeeding, larger companies are getting away with paying less than their fair share.

So, despite these companies (who since the Martin Liberals) have been getting tax cut after tax cut, and our country having a growing deficit, our Finance Minister announces that rather than freeze tax levels at their current level or roll back some of the tax levels on business; the Government of Canada will instead continue to decrease the corporate tax rate and further reduce government income.

Also announced in the Budget were freezes to Defense spending, the freezing of Member of Parliament salaries (as well as Ministers, the Prime Minister and Senators), and the production of most cost-efficient Canadian currency.

And of course, after our performance, $22 million to the "Own the Podium" program that helps athletes in winter sports. I would, however, like to point out the small problem with this. While it's true that Canada did have it's best performance in a Winter Olympics this year, the so-called "Own the Podium" program, was indeed a failure.

After all, the stated goal of the program was for Canada to have the HIGHEST MEDAL count overall, not just the most gold medals. Also, take into account that their was extra motivation for our athletes as they were competing on 'home territory'. While the program may have made a difference, there are numerous other factors that also help explain Canadian athlete's performances. As such, since "Own the Podium" did not achieve the program's goal, it seems odd that we're willing to increase funding to it anyways, especially doubling the funding.

Not that I'm being down on our athletes, or our need to help support them, it's just that the program itself did not work as intended, and we should explore other options as opposed to just increasing funding to a program that did not meet its objective.

Now, as for the rest of the budget, it's a bit of a mystery. There's a lot of talk from the government, but the budget does not really provide any details as to how the government plans to achieve most of the goals set out; especially the lofty goal of conquering the growing deficit. Add to that that Kevin Page, the thorn in Harper's side...I mean, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, keeps insisting that this budget cannot scale back the deficit without raising taxes or executive massive spending cuts.

And let's all remember, Mr. Page has a better economic track record at the moment than Jim 'I will not produce a deficit' Flaherty and Stephen 'Canada is not on track to a recession' Harper. Add to that, the fact that if inflation rates rise by more than the projected 2% accounted for in the budget, all of these numbers are instantly wrong.

So, in a time of economic uncertainty, when we have two 'leaders' who have constantly shown how inept they are at managing an economy, despite calling themselves the 'best option for financial stewardship', can we really trust them to accurately predict what is going to happen in 2015; when in 2009, they couldn't see the writing on the wall over the growing economic uncertainty?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Another Day...

Source: CBC News: Montreal - Rights Group Chief 'Hyperpartisan':" Ignatieff
Source: CBC News: Saskatchewan Refunding More than $200M
Source: CBC News: Gay Rights Section Nixed for Immigrant's Guide

Well, another day and a whole bunch of political news topics to talk about. Obviously, most people are concerned with the Federal Budget, but there are some smaller stories (but equally important) that I'd like to talk about. As such, I will make a separate post (tomorrow) in regards to the Federal Budget.

We'll start with the problems at Rights & Democracy. The group was established by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, as a watchdog for human rights and a promoter of democracy across the world. The group was led by Rémy Beauregard, until he passed away in January, at which time the Harper Government appointed former Canadian Alliance Candidate Gérard Latulippe.

Since that time, it is reported that pretty much all the employees working for Rights & Democracy have signed letters of non-confidence in the interim president and two of the board members; with three staffers being dismissed and then fired when they when public with their concerns over recent Conservative appointments to the organization.

So, how did this problem get started? After the Harper Government appointed new board members to the organization, they began to challenge the payment of grants to groups who were 'critical of Israel's human rights record.' As we all know, Prime Minister Harper has been trying to portray himself as the 'champion' of Israel here in Canada, attacking opposition leaders who are as verbally supportive as himself, and practically labeling them as anti-Israel.

Now, the question of Israel and it's human rights record falls outside of this blog. It is a complicated issue and it is not something I want to discuss here; for a variety of reasons, the strongest one being that this is a Canadian political blog, not an international one. As such, anyone who wants a debate on Israel will not find it here, and I encourage those interested about finding out more about the situation in Israel to consult academic and news sources.

So, back on topic. With the group challenging grants that were previously given the go ahead by the former President and old Board, concerns began to flare up within the organization. Then came the announcement that Lawrence Cannon had nominated Mr. Latulippe; as mentioned a former Canadian Alliance hopeful, as well as a controversial figure for comments over immigration of Muslims, the death penalty, same-sex marriage, and the list goes on.

Needless to say, the Opposition Parties have been challenging Cannon's decision to nominate Latulippe. With the Liberals saying his nomination is 'hyperpartisan'; while the NDP seems to suggest that Latulippe's nomination shows that the Conservatives are not committed to rehabilitating the now crumbling organization.

So, why bring this up? I mention this, because it is a perfect example of the way our Federal Conservative Government operates. They were elected saying things like 'Oh, we want an American nomination system where candidates must be approved by the House of Commons.' Then in that time, they've dismissed that notion, placed the blame on the opposition parties, and appointed whoever they wanted.

They were elected saying they wanted an elected Senate; then they turned around and filled the Senate, by appointment, with Conservatives anyways; again, blaming the opposition parties (This time the Liberals in the Senate) for the course of action they had to take.

Anyone else seeing the pattern here? Say we're going to do one thing, then do something else, and try and make it look like everyone but ourselves are responsible. Reminds me of watching a child break something in the house, then turn to you with doe eyes and promptly announce that they didn't break it, their other sibling did. It's time Canadians stopped taking Conservative pronouncements of innocence, and put this child in the corner, before we find ourselves with an out of control teenager in a few years who's going to wreck more than just the family car.

I forgot how much I hate talking in metaphors, so let me put that in plain speech. The Conservatives are going to continue this pattern under Stephen Harper, and we need to rebuke it as electors. We need to show them that this is not the way we want politicians to behave in Canada, that we want parties that can work together. And the only way you can get that message across, is to vote the Harper Conservatives out of office. If we keep them around or, I shutter to think, give them a majority...Then this behaviour is going to get worse, and they will destroy the Canada we know and replace it with the version they think we should have.

Well, moving away from Rights & Democracy, but keeping the ball in the Federal court, let's talk about Canada's much approved Immigration Handbook. The Conservatives revamped the handbook months ago, to various approval, and for a time were riding high on what a good job they had seemed to do on it...Until, someone noticed a glaring omission, and then someone else found out that omission was done on purpose.

I'm speaking of course of references to Canada's support of same-sex marriage and other benefits that homosexual persons in Canada are privy to; such as relations between two consenting same-sex adults being decriminalized in 1969, or that sexual orientation is protected under the Charter of Rights & Freedoms. All of this, was seemingly missing from the Immigration Handbook.

At first glance, it might just be possible that it didn't cross anyone's mind to put such information in. After all, we wouldn't say when alcohol was decriminalized or when so-and-so was legalized, so perhaps it was just people figured the decriminalization of something didn't need to be put in. That is until you find out that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, personally redacted the entry on those subjects before the handbook was to be printed.

That's right, Minister Kenney; who has been a vocal opponent to same-sex marriage when brought before the House of Commons in the past, was given a handbook which included this section on homosexual rights and freedoms in Canada, but personally ordered the section to be removed from the book. Furthermore, it's reported that officials in the Department of Immigration, attempted to plead with Kenney to put the section back in before the handbook was printed, but that Kenney refused.

In fact, the entire book seems to be missing reference to gays & lesbians in Canada, with one exception: A photograph of Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who won a gold medal, and has a subtitle saying that he is an activist for gay and lesbian rights. Which Kenney held up as his example that the handbook did indeed make mention to gays & lesbians. Homosexual activist group EGALE has said they're in talks with Kenney to get gays & lesbians mentioned in the next printing of the book, which should be around next year...

But, how much can we really trust Kenney? When it was first noted that the draft version contained the missing references, Kenney pleaded ignorance and acted surprised, as if he didn't know that they did and as if he wasn't the one who ordered the passages taken out. Keep in mind, this comes from a Minister who is on record of saying 'gays have every right to marry, provided it's not someone of the same sex.' On top of that, Kenney appointed a fellow conservative opposed to same-sex marriage to the Immigration and Refugee Board; a board which can determined whether or not a gay person could seek refugee status in Canada.

Now, some of you likely know of what is happening in Uganda. There is presently a bill before the Uganda Government that would effectively criminalize homosexuality in the African country, and make the maximum penalty for homosexuality death. That's right, Uganda could start executing people just for being gay. Keep that in mind with Iran, who hanged two teenagers caught having same-sex relations almost two years ago. And numerous other nations who have, and will continue, to execute persons who identify themselves as homosexual.

Homosexuals in various nations must worry about state sanction execution, not just the fear of their fellow citizens potentially beating them to death, and because of this are legally entitled to seek refuge status in Canada. So, with a anti-gay Conservative Immigration Board, how much blood is going to be on Canada's hands if we turn away Ugandan homosexuals, and their anti-gay law passes?

This is just further examples of the partisan nature of the Federal Conservative Government. If they can't get their agenda passed through the House of Commons, they will fill the bureaucracy with numerous minions and cronies who will ensure that the 'political neutral bureaucracy' becomes nothing more than a stool pigeon of the Conservative Party; just like we've seen with Rights & Democracy.

Canadians need to wake up to the underhanded nature this government is using, not to mention the seeds of division they are planting. Same-sex marriage, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and equal protection under the law are on the books of Canadian law and are not going to go away, no matter how much this government tries. We know that the Conservative Party is filled with anti-homosexual members; Brad Trost, Maurice Vellacott, Garry Breitkreuz (and those are three from Saskatchewan!) and numerous others who want to see this sort of anti-gay agenda pursued. Harper can distance himself all he wants, in his attempt to woo moderate voters, but we all know the truth and actions like Kenney's only show that Harper has given his Ministers "carte blanche" to enact their hateful policies.

Obviously, Minister Kenney should resign. As I noted, Immigration is an important issue in regards to homosexual rights, when you consider that homosexuals often are threatened in other nations, up to the point of their lives, and we cannot afford to have a homophobic Minister, appointing homophobic Immigration Board Members, who will turn someone away from Canada and effectively sign their death warrant.

Canadians expect better from their politicians and their public servants, and we need to demand better, or we're going to find ourselves with blood on our hands in the years to come, simply because we stood by while a Minister allowed his own biases and ignorance to influence how he did his job.

Moving along, and looking provincially for a moment. Remember when our Finance Minister tabled his budget and said that Saskatchewan could expect potash revenues of $1.8 billion dollars in the year to come. Well, all the Sask Party boys and girls started patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves over how much money they would have in the year to come. And of course, like any good financial manager, they started to spend that money before the cheque came in.

All of this, despite numerous voices saying that the projection was 'unrealistic' and 'over-optimistic'. The Sask Party MLAs ignored these warnings, and probably accused the people saying it of 'being down on Saskatchewan'. Then, as we all know, the bubble burst. Our Finance Minister had to return to the Legislature and announce that potash revenues would likely be closer to $109 million dollars...

So, either someone missed some decimal points while the budget was being written...Or our government should have listened. Either way, it's bad news for them. Bring us forward to today, and you'll see that the news is getting worse. The government announced that it will be paying $200 million dollars to the potash industry, meaning that instead of even getting the $109 million dollars they later adjusted, we're actually getting nothing.

This is because of transfer payments made from the potash companies to the provincial government based on the original projection of $1.9 billion dollars. This is money that has to be paid back to the potash companies and totals more than the revenue earned by the sales of potash this year.

Despite being out $200 million dollars, our Finance Minister has said:
"This is the first time we have seen potash drop to a negative figure, but I'm pleased our diverse economy has managed to lessen the impact,"

So, no mention of the initial mistake that led to this problem...Furthermore, does anyone else think that last part sounds almost surprised? In that our Finance Minister did not expect the other areas of our economy to lessen the blow the potash revenues had? And if he is surprised, we should all be concerned. After all, if our Finance Minister is surprised that other areas performed better and made up some of the loss, it clearly shows that our finance department is in serious need of reorganization.

Despite this, the government continues to be optimistic. After all, oil and other resources provided $154 million dollars this year...Despite government spending totaling $100 million dollars. So, now the government won't have to reach as deeply into the 'Rainy Day Fund' as they had planned in an attempt to balance their budget which is scheduled for March 24th, although they still plan to take a whopping $510 million from the fund.

All of this, at a time when SaskPower and most recently SaskWater, have announced that they need to raise rates on Saskatchewan residents. Did I mention that the Sask Party Government has taken money from the Crown Corporations since coming to power? That their 'Saskatchewan First' initiative as made Crowns unable to invest outside of Saskatchewan, restricting their income and forcing them to raise rates here in an attempt to be able to stay economically viable? I guess I didn't, but that's all true.

But, I hear you say, that sounds like a recipe that would destroy the Crown Corporations; and Saskatchewan loves its Crown Corporations, not to mention the Wall Government pledged not to touch the Crowns...

But think back to the 80's and the Grant Devine Government. One of the excuses Devine used to use when it came to dismantling and selling off the Crowns, was their lack of being economically viable. And of course, Premier Devine did everything in his power to MAKE the Crowns non-economically viable so he could justify selling them off and dismantling them. And yes, Brad Wall was a political protege of Premier Devine, so when it comes to busting up the Crowns and making it look like the Crowns' fault, he learned from the master.

Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it, as the old saying goes. And right now, I think I see, as Shirley Bassey would say, a little bit of history repeating.

Monday, March 1, 2010

We're Domed!

Source: CBC News: Domed Stadium Feasible for Regina: Report

First of all, let me apologize for the bad pun in the title of this post.

So, a report has come out which has stated that Regina is capable of supporting a Domed Stadium to replace Mosaic Stadium and Taylor Field. The estimated cost of the facility is $386.2 million dollars, a cost which goes up to $431.2 million if you factor in a retractable $45 million dollar roof, which Saskatchewan Roughriders representatives seem to favour.

The report suggests that the stadium stands to make a profit of $1.1 million to $1.4 million a year, and would be capable of hosting numerous events all year.

Does anyone else see the problem?

I'm not great at math, I'll be the first to admit that, but it seems to me that $1.1 - 1.4 million a year is a pretty small profit margin for the initial cost of either $386.2 or $431.2 million dollars. I mean, we already know, that construction efforts usually tend to suffer from various problems which cause the cost of the project to go up. For example, look to the Gallagher Centre in Yorkton. The costs of the project skyrocketed as demand for steel went up in China, causing the price of building materials to rise here and force the project to come in over budget. As such, it seems, that construction estimates are bound to be off, either under or over, due to factors that are beyond control of the construction company and the provincial government. So, let's accept that a sticker price of $431.2 million is going to likely rise, regardless of our best efforts.

On top of that, at what point does the project become profitable? If our initial cost is going to be $431.2 million dollars, or more, and the stadium is only likely to make $1.1 - 1.4 million dollars a year, how long is it going to take for the stadium to be paid off and able to actually reinvest their profits into the province? I'd assume that any private sector funding would come in the way of a loan, which of course has those interest payments on top of the principle loan, as everyone knows. So, how long is this stadium going to be paying?

Then factor in that with these payments, the $1.1 - 1.4 million dollar profit is not going to go towards solely paying back what is owed. After all, there's paying workers at the stadium, paying for maintenance as required, and other costs that will cut into the profit margins. As such, it is likely that this stadium is going to be paying off the initial costs for quite a few years to come. And then comes the real question, where exactly are the funds for this stadium going to come from?

Now, our Premier Brad Wall has come out and said that taxpayer dollars going to fund this project are out of the question...Yet to actually get the stadium build, there will need to be a contribution from the Federal, Provincial, and City governments combined with private sector interests. After all, if you've ever seen those large road signs outside of Saskatoon near the Sid Buckwold Bridge, you know that this road is being repaired through Federal-Provincial Co-operation, with each contributing money. I think it's rare when, and if, the Federal Government ever contributes money to a provincial project, without the provincial government adding something to the pot as well.

So, if we take that into consideration, the Saskatchewan Government is going to have to contribute something to the project...And the last time I checked, the Saskatchewan Government raises the bulk of it's revenue through tax dollars; granted, there are some investments and profits from the Crown Corporations, etc...But again, most of that money to make those investments and profits from the Crowns come from Saskatchewan taxpayers. So, one way or another, it seems highly unlikely that Saskatchewan taxpayers aren't going to contribute something to this program.

And even if Brad Wall and his government does offer direct funding to the project, the stadium is likely to see massive tax breaks within the province instead. In which case, the province loses tax revenue from the building. And since we have a Conservative Government, who sees raising taxes as a fate worse than death, that is revenue that we'll never get back. We may get tax revenue from the stadium when it opens and begins selling tickets and other things, but that would be a pittance compared to the initial taxable investment from the construction. Leaving Saskatchewan taxpayers effectively holding the bill anyways, even though we didn't pay money into it, we'll suffer from decreased income from the project.

Given that Saskatchewan is running in a deficit, why is our Premier and our Government so focused on seeing a domed stadium come to Regina? Well, as always with Conservative Governments, the stadium is a vanity project. Conservatives are fans of the 'big motions', the things they think the average voter cares about. And more importantly, if it's something they can tell the public they did, and it's simple and easy, it's all the better. After all, it is easier to explain to the public how you were able to rearrange government spending to minimize wasteful spending (which is VERY important, but not interesting to many people) or simply say 'Look, we build a domed stadium.' Guess which one tends to be one most people would hear about?

This is nothing more than a political ploy by the Saskatchewan Party Government and Brad Wall, and Saskatchewan residents deserve better.

Why should we have a government who is more concerned with getting a domed stadium than contributing a small amount of $8 million (a cost they spent for the Saskatchewan Pavilion in Vancouver, by the way) instead of keeping that funding in Station 20 West? Or a government who backs out of previous commitments to see a Children's Hospital build within the province? Much like their maligned quest for nuclear power, this is a project that is being done to create 'buzz' for the government and give them a legacy, and hopefully, a reason to be re-elected in the future.

We need a government who is concerned with helping those in need, not a government who is only concerned with helping themselves look better to the electorate.