Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This Land Is Our Land...

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

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

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

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

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

So, which is more likely?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, April 16, 2010

Kidney Transplants, Human Rights, and Tuition Increases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter again, Orville Nichols, for example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can answer that in one word: backlog.

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

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

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

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

Finally, we come to tuition.

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

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

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

Does anyone else see the problem?

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to mention operating budgets provided by the government.

So, is a tuition increase necessary?

Probably not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sasktel's Profits Disappear

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

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

Enter Brad Wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why is the government taking money from SaskTel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, none of those campaign promises were kept.

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

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

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Politics of Privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how did it come to this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We, as Canadians, must demand better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as such, the arrogance continues.

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