Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Saskatchewan Round-Up

Source: Star Phoenix: Contract Was to Produce Spin, NDP Says
Source: CBC News: Sask. Government Pays to Study Film Tax Credit After it was Cut
Source: Leader Post: Sask. Party Not Straight on IPAC-CO2

There's a few things to talk about, so let's move on and get to talking.

We'll start with the recent development on the Saskatchewan Film Tax Credit front. One year after the government cut the tax credit, the debate over why the credit was cut and the demand for it to return continues to hound the government. With numerous production companies and industry professionals leaving the province as a result of the cut, there is a good reason why this debate continues to remain in the spotlight.

And now it came out today that the government commissioned a study on the tax credit after the decision was made to cut the tax credit. The contract was made public through an Access to Information request by NDP MLA Danielle Chartier. The contract was signed on March 11th, just ten days before the budget was released, and was signed off on by the Deputy Minister on the 28th, seven days after the budget.

The $5,000 price tag attached the study may not sound like a lot of money at first, but one has to look at the way in which the money was spent. Undoubtedly, the decision to cancel the tax credit was made prior to the signing of a study to look into the tax credit, which means the study was nothing more than an exercise in government propaganda.

Chartier is right to say that the government's actions result in nothing more than public relations and spin produced on the taxpayer's dime. If this study had been done, and seen by the ministry, prior to the budget bringing in the cut then one could make the case that there was a reason for the study. However, given the timing, there's no doubt that this study was nothing more than an attempt to bring some credence for the government's decision.

We now need to try and talk about the IPAC-CO2 issue, which may be complicated due to the distance between the issue first coming to light and now, but we'll give it a try. To sum it up in a nutshell, IPAC-CO2 was a public-private independent project that focused on carbon capture technology and development. Run on the University of Regina campus, IPAC-CO2 came into the spotlight a few weeks ago when a massive conflict of interest accusation was levelled at the organization.

Two members of the board were accused of having ties to organizations and companies that received contracts from IPAC-CO2 and of signing deals with other organizations and companies that favoured these companies while creating questionable spending inside IPAC.

Now, the NDP is raising questions about what the government knew and when it knew it about the questionable dealings that occurred. Trent Wotherspoon has been leading the charge on keeping the government's feet to the fire on this issue, and trying to cut through the spin and non-answers that the government has provided thus far.

Murray Mandryk is right to point out that the government has shown a complete lack of concern on this issue, in trying to dismiss it as a non-government issue, and has spent the bulk of the time since this came to light obscuring the role government played in the developments at IPAC. After all, the government did have board members on IPAC, all of whom should have been able to see some of the shady dealings that were going on and report it to the government.

But rather than use the Harper approach of throwing at least one former adviser under the bus, the government has simply shrugged and tried to blame everyone from those at IPAC, to the University, to the NDP itself.

There is a lot of questions here, especially considering what the government knew and when and just how much tax dollars went into this program and were misspent, and until the government stands up and answers those questions the song and dance of obfuscation won't fool anyone for long.

I had meant to include a section on health care here, but I think we'll save that for a separate post for now.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Saskatchewan Budget Day

Well, it was Budget Day here in Saskatchewan and everyone is stopping to take a moment and examine the budget and the details that it contained. I've said before on the blog that financial policy isn't one of my strong suits, so hopefully I've managed to examine this information correctly.

There were some silver linings to the budget, including a bit of a swell into health care spending (though there is room to debate whether spending on reducing surgical wait times and rural doctor recruitment will pay off) but the bulk of the budget was mostly on the disappointing side.

There's a few things to highlight here, so let's get to it.

We'll start with education. Although there is a modest increase in direct funds, and the promise of $17 million to school boards that are seeing student increases, the budget fails spectacularly on the subject of education. One massively under reported aspect of the budget has been the massive change to Education Property Tax Mill Rates. The agricultural rate is dropping from a little over 3.91 to around 2.67; while the residential rate is dropping from 9.51 to 5.03. The biggest decrease comes in the industrial/commercial rate and resource rate, which is collapsing from three categories into a single rate of 8.25 and 11.04 respectively.

The budget document says that this cut is intended to be revenue neutral, but I just can't understand how that is possible given the major decrease in the two commercial based rates. And while it may actually manage to be revenue neutral for taxpayers for the 2013 year, it doesn't address the cost impact it will have on schools, both for 2013 and the years to come.

On the subject of post-secondary education, the picture is a little more grim. Both the University of Regina and University of Saskatchewan received less than half of the 5% increase they were hoping this budget would deliver. This further guarantees that these institutions will have to continue with program cuts, staff layoffs, and major increases in tuition rates.

The silver lining here is that SIAST is lined up to receive some increased funding, but one does wonder whether or not it will create a positive impact and generate more seats for programs across the province.

The other issues with regards to education revolve around the floating notion of P3 (Public-Private Partnerships) being used to build new schools. The thought stops short of proclaiming that Saskatchewan will be populate with private schools/academies/word of choice; effectively creating a two-tiered education system in the province, but one does have to wonder what a P3 would accomplish in terms of education.

Either way, in the long term, the use of P3's would put all of the risk and debt onto the public books while allowing the private side to prosper (much like the AMICUS agreement in Saskatoon),

The other thing we need to talk about is the way our totals have been calculated. At first, we had a $150 million shortfall in this budget. Then $180 million from the Crowns later and we have a balanced budget.

Now, I can't deny that the NDP did the same thing in office. They used the Crowns and the Rainy Day Fund to balance out a little (though the NDP never really were too far off the mark, and definitely didn't misread oil/gas and potash revenues). I'd also point out that the NDP didnt ravage the Crowns as much as we've seen from this government; can anyone else remember a time when a Crown had 100% of their revenue taken in a single year? The government also used GRF (General Revenue Fund) totals instead of SF (Summary Financials) in order to paint a rosier picture. Of course, everyone is pointing out how the NDP did the same when in power.

Though, I would also note on that front that GRF reporting was still the norm in Canada when he NDP was last in power and now Saskatchewan is the only province still using GRF reporting. Simply saying we're doing it the way the other government used to doesn't fly as an answer, or a justification, since times and methods have changed since then.

So, ultimately, we continue to not have a balanced budget under this government. Not to mention the fact that this is a government, like all right of centre parties, that extols the virtue of buying now and paying much later (in fact, leaving the cheque for the next generation.)

One positive was that we didn't see the 2% corporate tax rate reduction that was touted prior to the budget, though we did see changes in the uranium royalty system that will likely result in lower profits for the province in regards to uranium; the budget says the steps being taken will result in increase production and quotes $5 billion over 14 years with potential new investment (key word on 'potential' as the number could be significantly lower if investment does not meet expectations).

As stated, the budget fails on a number of levels, and despite a few silver linings it ultimately does nothing to ensure long term financial prosperity for the province. When the Saskatchewan Party was first elected, there was billions left by the Calvert Government. From the looks of things, the next government will have to start completely from scratch.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Those Who Can't Do...

Source: CBC News: Province Won't Limit Classroom Sizes, Minister Says

There certainly is no shortage of things to talk about; from SGI motorcycle rates, to unanimous approval to move forward with "Howard's Law" on asbestos, it was hard to decide what should be the first thing to move on to.

But, as you've no doubt guessed from the title, I'm going to focus on education. Education is one of those questions that almost rivals the "chicken or the egg" in terms of complexity, if only because it seems we all have a desire to improve our education system, but few know the best way of achieving that. So far, the Saskatchewan Party government has taken some dumbfounding moves in their desire to improve education.

We all remember how they robbed school boards of the ability to set their own mill rates, denying them the ability to have stable and regular funding. We all remember how they slashed Educational Assistant programs, laying off hundreds of EAs across the province.

In another move of shortsightedness, they pushed back the start of the school dates to correspond with holidays; and now are forcing schools to shove extra time into their schedules now as a result. And we now hear that standardized testing is going to become a norm across the province, though the ministry and Minister Russ Marchuk have yet to determine when, who, what, and how to administer such testing.

It comes to this moment where we should discuss Finland. (LINK) The link is a nice infographic that shows some details about the Finnish Education System, which has become a sort of idealized system as people begin to learn more and more about it. I highly recommend clicking on the link and reading through it, but I will also use some of the facts they incorporate here.

For starters, let's look at some of the Canadian-Finnish comparisons; Finnish high school graduation rates are 93%, where Canada's is 78% (that number, much to our shame, would drop considerably if we compared it to Aboriginal graduation rates). Finnish students outperform other nations by a considerable margin on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), scoring an around 560 while Canada lags behind at the 530 mark.

On the issue of standardized testing, Finnish students take only ONE standardized test in their entire school career at the age of 16. Whereas an American student in New York will take TEN standardized tests before even entering high school, with American students collectively taking ONE HUNDRED MILLION standardized tests a year.

Considering the proof in the pudding, given Finland's lead when compared to other nations, it seems quite odd that Saskatchewan would consider adopting a new system that revolves around standardized testing.

Then there are the other flaws. We have long known that standardized tests often have a bias, usually around first languages, which inherently sets up some students to fail regardless of their actual intelligence level. Furthermore, these sort of general exams do not actually encourage actual learning. It restricts the curriculum, narrowing a teacher's focus on a few subjects at the sacrifice of others.

It also does nothing to help foster rational thinking and independent thought.

Then there is the concern of where standardized testing can lead. We all remember George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, which uses the idea of standardized testing to not only grade students but to grade teacher performance and school performance. In the end, rather than improve education this move diminished it as schools lowered passing scores on these tests in order to avoid funding cuts.

Is this Brad Wall's prelude to a new school funding formula based on standardized testing performance?

Let us hope not, but I wouldn't put it past him; given that we've seen school budgets cut, and his government has once again refused to pump any more money into the system (as they have announced they will not be reviewing the educational tax rate in the upcoming budget.)

Now, let's get to one other difference between Finland and the rest of the world: Class size. NDP Education critic David Forbes talked about how he's heard of a kindergarten class that will have 94 students in Saskatoon, and called on the government to introduce measures to control class sizes. The government has come forward and said that such measures are not on the table, and that they leave it up to the school boards to allocate resources as needed for large classes (resources, which as we've mentioned have been significantly clawed back).

Again, using our handy link, we see that in New York there is ONE teacher for every TWENTY-FOUR students. In Finland, the rate is ONE teacher to every TWELVE students. On top of this, children in the Finnish system don't experience heavy homework loads until they are in teens; which in turn, produces less work for the teacher to mark allowing them to spend more time TEACHING.

Growing classes are not a new thing and not going away, they are a new normal. When I graduated from high school in 2005, we had a class size of about 90 or so students. The next year, that number swelled to over 120; and from keeping in touch with teachers from high school, it is my understanding that there always seems to be more and more students than the year before.

Cutting EAs, and forcing teachers to adhere to standardized testing is not going to enhance education; especially not when it's a ratio of ONE to NINETY and UP.

The fact of the matter is that we need to be increasing our resources to teachers, not tying their hands in one area and then expecting them to pick up slack at the same time. All the moves taken by this government seem incredibly shortsighted and unlikely to enhance childhood education, if anything they are increasing the odds of stunting childhood education and putting more strain onto the system.

There is a need for educational reform and a change to the status quo, but let's focus on changes on emulating a system that works better than ours (like the one in Finland) rather than one that already in worse shape than our own (like the USA's).

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Coming Down the Pipeline

*This post has been amended from it's original content, due to SK NDP Leader Cam Broten coming out in favour of Keystone; the ** denotes the area where the editing begins.
Source: Star Phoenix: Broten Clarifies Stance on Pipeline

Source: Huffington Post: Brad Wall Accuses Thomas Mulcair Of 'Betraying' Keystone, Oilsands

Now, getting back into the swing of things with the leadership race over. I think we're going to keep the labels, as they should make the blog a bit more easy to move through, but other than that there shouldn't be any other major changes.

While the provincial NDP was busy preparing for its leadership race, Premier Brad Wall was on a major media push in the USA (along with Alberta Premier Alison Redford) to convince US lawmakers to give the final approval to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Both Premiers have also been vocally critical of Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, believing that Mulcair has been misrepresenting facts when talking to US lawmakers.

Keep in mind, Wall and Redford were in the US to tout Canada's environmental record as a means of trying to show Canada's commitment to the environment. At no point do I remember either Premier mentioning that Saskatchewan and Alberta have seen their greenhouse gas emissions on the rise steadily since 2009 (LINK); or reports that tailing ponds for the oil sands in Alberta were leaking into adjacent ground and water (LINK) (LINK). Certainly, those two things would be things that would have to be discussed when touting a glowing environmental record...

Wall has gone so far as to claim that Mulcair is 'betraying' national interests through his accusations of Canada's abandonment of environmental concerns.

We've talked above about the provinces failing to live up to environmental standards; and we all know the federal record on this issue as well (omnibus bills to roll back water protection, 'single stamp' approval of projects that can have a major environmental impact, etc, etc, etc), and so far it would seems the facts have abandoned Premiers Wall and Redford.

But, these are two parties that have never let truth get in the way of a talking point. The facts, at least as far is science is concerned, clearly show that Canada's environmental record has been slipping and is not this sterling image that Wall and Redford were attempting to sell to US lawmakers.

Wall has even taken his attacks to new Saskatchewan NDP Leader Cam Broten, in an second attempt to tie Broten as being too close to Mulcair. Yet Wall has been more than willing to abandon Saskatchewan and stand with Stephen Harper when it serves him, so if any of our provincial party leaders is tied too closely to a federal party I think the crown goes to Wall.

** Broten's response to Wall had been to defer the decision to the idea of a triple bottom line; which referred to the idea that the NDP could support Keystone if it was environmentally viable, economically viable, and sustainable. At first, there was some ambiguity to Broten's comments (given that the argument over whether Keystone meets those conditions, regardless of National Energy Board [NEB] stamping, is still open for debate), though Broten did clarify his comments and commit to Keystone.

Given the concern that many people have over the Keystone pipeline, I'm not sure that this was the correct step to take at this moment. I get the feeling that there is a desire to define Cam as his own man (especially so close after his selection as leader) but I'd be more worried that using Keystone as that issue to prove that is a misstep.

Personally, and I caution to say this, I think this is a no-win situation that we've been cornered into. Wall has done a good job in trying to spin Keystone as necessary to Saskatchewan (again, a debatable topic) and the goal was to get the NDP to oppose it. Furthermore, I think this is an issue that could cause further trouble if brought before the NDP members in convention (given that I think many would vote down a resolution to support Keystone) and in the long run it might come back to bite Broten should the party split on this issue and vote against their leader.

Don't get me wrong, I think I understand the reasoning behind Broten's support for Keystone. The NDP is often painted by the right as being the "stunters" of business and resource development, and a rejection of Keystone would have given them more fuel for that argument. At the same time, with Wall trying to paint Broten as too close to Mulcair, there was a double-edged sword in rejecting Keystone and endorsing Mulcair's calls for an east-west pipeline instead for development.

However, even if it increased cries of closeness to Mulcair, I think the right path to take would have been the endorsement of an east-west pipeline instead. There was the chance that Wall would use that as further ammo to show Broten is too close to the Federal NDP; but at the same time, it will generate an opportunity to Broten to talk about how an east-west pipeline would create more jobs in Saskatchewan than the Keystone pipeline would (in both construction, and in the goal to create more refinery options in Canada which produces further long term job opportunities in oil rich provinces, like Saskatchewan).

By framing the argument around the creation of jobs, Broten would have been able to make a sound case for opposing Keystone; while highlighting the fact that Keystone would benefit Alberta and the US more than Saskatchewan. It's a good policy issue to challenge Wall on, and if played right, it should at least make Wall look out of touch and more concerned with helping Alberta than his own province. Not only that, but it would have shown that the NDP strongly supports developing Saskatchewan's resources in a manner that would truly increase jobs in the province.

As it stands, the entire Keystone issue seems designed as a poison pill that had consequences either way the NDP decided to go with it in the province. I'm still not sure Broten could convince the party to support Keystone, and do worry that if it came down to a vote for party policy it would be rejected by the membership. In the long run, it would have been better to be accused of being too close to Mulcair than to risk looking out of control of the party.

Of course, if the Obama Administration rejects Keystone (which could still happen), then it becomes a zero sum issue for Broten and he'll get to avoid any tricky problems of party members not seeing eye-to-eye on this issue.

Though, that makes this sound as though it was a calculated political gamble than an actual decision. I can't speak one way or the other as to whether that is the case, as I'm not involved in those sort of decision making processes, but I would certainly hope that it isn't just a throw of the dice on opens that the Americans will shoot down Keystone.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Campaign Wrap Up: There's Got To Be A Morning After

The post is a little later than expected, but I found myself wanting to take a little bit of extra time to digest the events of the weekend, and wrap up the blog's campaign coverage in the best possible way.

Firstly, as mentioned in the previous post, I once again want to extend my thanks to all the candidates who stepped forward in this race. I, like many members, spent a long time doing some soul searching and struggled with ultimately deciding which candidate to support. This was due to the high quality of the four candidates, all of whom I am glad to stand with as a New Democrat, and they have all made a lasting impact on the party for years to come.

To borrow an analogy we heard a lot during the campaign, while only one of them has been selected to be Captain, all of them together will make a great team. So to Cam, Ryan, Trent and Erin; thanks again for all the ideas, passion, thought, and vision that you brought to this leadership race. I look forward to working with all of you as we move our party forward and work towards making a stronger, better, and more equal province.

Now, we do need to address the elephant in the room...With Cam's come from behind victory, the speculation has already been rampant of a clear divide in the party; fuelled mostly by mainstream media members, we do need to address the issue, even if the entire thing is a bit of a non-starter. I think there is a concern for such a divide to exist, leadership races can sometimes create such problems, but I don't think we've seen any clear signs of such a divide.

While there has been some surprised reactions on social media, as well as some comments from some downtrodden members, I would say the bulk has been mostly positive reaction to the leadership race. As such, while there are some members who obviously feel a bit disappointed that their candidate (be it Ryan or Trent) wasn't selected as leader, I think this is just a temporary situation.

After all, we all know what it's like to volunteer time and effort and to put our heart into something only to come up a little short at the end. It's a horrible feeling, and it tends to linger, but I think members who are experiencing this will get to see Cam in action in the Legislature and see the steps that he is taking to restore the party, and will eventually find themselves back onside.

Again, I wouldn't say this is indicative of a divide; rather, I'd say it's a natural reaction and one that will eventually subside.

Not to say that there isn't work that needs to be done; some of these members will heal themselves over time, while others will need to see positive steps taken by the party leadership to heal some of the larger wounds that exist. With that note, I think Cam has gotten off to a great start in taking those first steps. He was quick to reach out to Erin and Ryan and encourage them to seek a seat in the next election, even suggesting that they have a future in Cabinet in the next NDP Government.

And of course, he's reached out substantially to Trent by making him the new Deputy Leader. In turn, we've seen the other candidates return this call for unity; and I think this will go a long way.

In Ryan's case, however, actions will speak louder than words. Dan Tan has pointed out on his blog (LINK) that Ryan has a major role in ensuring that members who signed up to support his campaign stay within the party with Cam at the helm. A show of a truly united front, with Cam and Ryan campaigning together in the next election, would be the best image to show that the party is united.

The debate has even spread to Greg's blog (LINK) in the comments section, and effectively the only consensus that seems to be reached is that Ryan has a role to play in the party in the years ahead. Of course, as Greg points out, we're years away from the next election and Ryan has plenty of time to consider the potential roles ahead of him.

However, I would also say that it's foolhardy to suggest that all of Ryan's supporters will run from the party if he's not at the helm, or if he takes on a role that isn't as active as an MLA or "policy wonk" in the party. As mentioned above, I think anyone still harbouring some conflicted feelings will have the opportunity to watch what evolves from the Broten NDP and see that the party is in good hands and moving in a direction that they can be proud to support.

But, I'm worried that I'm endorsing the idea of the divide I've been denying (which is far from my intention), so we'll move on and wrap up this post before I start to ramble.

Moving on, today was the first chance for Cam to sit as Leader of the Opposition in the Legislature. Cam's first day included some great questions regarding classroom/educational cuts, the carbon capture fiasco at the University of Regina, and the odd topic of being an "old guard" politician at the ripe old age of 34.

Cam and the team performed admirably, and the government's answers during Question Period fell noticeably short. It's a great start for Cam, and we'll really see a good chance for our new leadership to shine come Budget Day. There's a lot of political points to be scored at the moment by keeping the government's feet to the fire over some of the actions they've taken, and it would seem the party is well prepared to earn them.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Convention Update: And The Leader Is...

By a very tight margin, of 44 votes, the new leader of the Saskatchewan NDP is Saskatoon-Massey Place MLA. Cam Broten.

Broten edged out first ballot leader, Ryan Meili, as mentioned by a mere 44 votes; which shows that the bulk of Trent's supporters found their way into Cam's camp. Cam's speech thanked his fellow candidates, emphasizing the roles he hopes all of them will play in the next election and the hopes of seeing them all in the front bench in the next NDP caucus and government.

Cam also appealed to non-supporters, calling on the need for their vision in shaping the future of the party.

And so wraps up the 2013 NDP Leadership campaign, which truly did prove to be a nail biter of a race up until the very end.

I'll have some full thoughts on what this means for the future on Sunday, and then the blog will shift back to covering mor than just the leadership race in the days to follow. But for now, a hearty congratulations to Cam Broten on his victory; and a huge thank you to all the candidates who made this race what is was, and who contributed their ideals, dreams and vision for Saskatchewan's future.

Convention Update: First Ballot Results

And now for something completely different, we go from talking about the campaign to talking about the convention.

As of 1:30pm, the first ballot results are in and are posted as follows:
Results: 8,719 ballots cast
Cam Broten: 2942
Ryan Meili: 3384
Trent Wotherspoon: 2120

The 279 vote discrepancy is dependent on either Erin Weir votes since he still appeared on the first ballot; or by your various "spoiled" or other such errors that occur.

Erin was able to take to the stage as the first candidate to withdraw; and had one final chance to showcase his wit with a few clever lines; ranging from the missed opportunity to have the four candidates' fathers have a debate, and likening the race to the Hotel California " you can check out, but you can never leave."

Erin was followed by Trent, who also used a lot of humour as he announced his withdrawal from the second ballot. He mused that had another Wotherspoon been on the ballot, the result may have been different. (A reference to a very well received speech given by his wife Stephanie on Friday night.) Either way, Trent left the race with wit and with a lot of gravitas, pledging his support to the next leader.

As such, the race is now down to two: Ryan Meili and Cam Broten.

Ryan has a 442 vote lead going into the second ballot, though I would venture to say that the ace is still a dead heat. With Trent not encouraging his followers to vote a certain way, it is anyone's guess which way his 2120 supporters will go. As numerous others have said over the course of the race, it has come down to the outsider vs the establishment candidate. If Trent's supporters fall into the majority of the establishment, we could very well see a Cam Broten win at the end of the day.

However, if Trent's supporters weren't skewing towards an establishment candidate...Then it could very well go the other way, with Ryan Meili walking away as leader at the end. Essentially, there is a potential of victory for each candidate and there's no real way to determine which way Trent's delegates will go.

And that is where we stand. Much like at the start of the race, we continue to have a race that will come down to the wire and that has a very real possibility of victory for the remaining candidates.

With voting beginning at 2:30, and results expected by 3:30 or so, we will know soon enough who will be leading the Saskatchewan NDP into the next election.