Column: Malice would take more smarts

Published February 28, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
    — Napoleon Bonaparte
    The French emperor knew a thing or two about incompetence. He reportedly died after doctors gave him too many enemas to deal with stomach cancer; the treatment being worse than the disease.
    Are we seeing this kind of political incompetence in the gas plant scandal? NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak are alleging a cover-up, but evidence does leave open the explanation that the quest to release documents could indeed just be a confused mess.
    Which wouldn’t let the Liberals off the hook, but it might mean Hudak’s promise of a judicial inquiry into the gas plant scandal would be nothing more than an expensive attempt to turn the screws on Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was in cabinet when key decisions were made and now is carrying this cancerous condition as a holdover from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
    But the method in which the issue is being addressed by the Liberals looks suspiciously like the treatment administered by Napoleon’s doctors. In order to save seats in Mississauga and Oakville, the Liberals cancelled construction of two gas power plants prior to the last election — one in Mississauga shortly before the vote and one in Oakville eight months earlier. The Liberals say the cost of cancelling these gas plants, which are needed to replace coal-fired plants that are being shut down, and moving them elsewhere is $230 million. The Opposition smells a much higher number, so they’re seeking documents to prove it.
    After the Liberals were forced to hand over documents in a ruling by Speaker Dave Levac, the Ontario Power Authority, which handles the contracts for the gas plants, went looking through its files. The OPA released 30,000 pages of documents last September and 26,000 more the next month. But last week, after assuring that all the documents had been released and facing a contempt motion from the Opposition, the Liberals announced that 600 more pages had been found. It sounds like a cover-up, but let’s look at the incompetence angle.
    It seems that when the OPA went looking for documents to release last year, it didn’t know all the goofy government code words to describe the cancellation: Project Vapour, Project Apple, Project Banana and Project Fruit Salad.
    So last week, the week the legislature resumed, there was Wynne explaining that the OPA, using these secret code words, found the new documents.
    All of this defies the time-tested technique for getting past an issue that comes with thousands of pages of evidence — the document dump.
    It was used to good effect by the Bill Clinton administration and it’s been used many times since. The idea is to be seen to acquiesce to demands for documents by handing over so much information, with some of it redacted and most of it a disorganized mess, compounded with much more irrelevant information, that your pursuers don’t have the resources or time to go through it while the issue is hot. By the time they get at it, the world has moved on, and the damage is mitigated.
    Deliberately releasing documents in three batches, and ultimately thinking they could hide them, would be folly. It makes it easier for the Opposition to go through the evidence and it generates the torturous drip of bad news that is the nemesis of any government.
    Surely no such decision was made to do this. It sounds more like a series of unhealthy, self-administered enemas.

Column: Will trial balloon rise, or burst?

Published February 21, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

Throne speeches, especially in a minority government, serve as a trial balloon. Minority governments know they can’t do anything they want, so the agenda is suggested, not insisted. It allows them to take the measure of the public’s mood.
    Do Ontarians want their government to put deficit reduction above all else, as Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak asserts? Are voters willing to accept significant service cuts to reduce spending? Do they want their government to give a little to make up with teachers?
    Tuesday’s throne speech tells us what Premier Kathleen Wynne thinks.
    It shows us she believes there is plenty of room in the middle of the political spectrum for the Liberals to continue governing, because that’s where they still believe the public wants them to be.
    In doing so, Wynne seems to have made several assumptions about their government:
    * Ontarians are content with classic, big-tent, compromise liberalism.
    * Despite the $11.9 billion deficit, voters are in no mood to embark on a European-style austerity agenda.
    * Wynne can shake off most of the effects of the scandals of the McGuinty government.
    * The Liberals’ damaged relationship with rural and northern areas can be repaired.
    The throne speech is filled with centrist concepts: End coal-fired power generation, create a “sustainable model” for wage negotiations, improving transportation infrastructure, more public consultation, recognizing the “unique” aspects of rural and northern residents, “empower” those on social assistance rather than punishing them with clawbacks, expand key health services to seniors and access to mental health, push ahead with all-day kindergarten, create a youth advisory council, work with aboriginals, maintain the 30% tuition rebate for post-secondary education and more transparency in government.
    Note the spending commitments to all-day kindergarten, health care and education — all Liberal mainstays. Yet try to find an economist who will tell you that government can keep spending more in these areas and balance the budget by 2017-18. That would mean about $2.4 billion would need to be cut from the deficit every year, without — as the speech says — “impacting the services on which people rely.”
    Wynne and her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, were always counting on faster economic growth than economists are predicting. That would bring in more tax revenue and provide an opportunity avoid cuts to services.
    She plans to set up a committee to look into the $230 million cancellation of two gas plants in southern Ontario and restart the public accounts committee looking into the Ornge air ambulance scandal. Wynne must get clear of these, because she was in cabinet.
    In appealing to rural and northern voters, where the Liberals have lost a lot of ground in the past two elections, Wynne plans to consult about wind farms, casinos and other projects. But it may be too late. And there was no word on the decision to kill the horse-racing industry by ending the OLG revenue-sharing agreement that could cost tens of thousands of jobs and thousands of horses their lives.
    In polls taken before the throne speech, Ontarians liked what they saw in Wynne. The Liberals, Tories and NDP are in a virtual tie, which is a major improvement for the Liberals.
    We’ll get the first glance at whether Wynne, a trained conciliator, can move the needle during the next few days, when meetings with teachers unions take place. Labour peace with teachers would be the beginnings of a new path for the Liberal government.

Column: Right-to-work laws no help to economy

Published February 14, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

There is no reason for Ontario to emasculate its workforce to compete with the dregs of the U.S. economy.
    Yet that’s what Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak would do if he got a majority government. He wants to turn Ontario into a province with a so-called right-to-work law, like many of the poorest U.S. states, under the guise of freedom of association.
    Montreal Economic Institute president Michel Kelly-Gagnon made the case on Saturday in many QMI Agency papers. Union rates decline when workers are not forced to join them, he said, referring to the right-to-work states in the U.S.
    “… When labour laws are set up in such a way that allows workers real freedom of choice, union membership tends to decline,” he wrote.
    There are many reasons people leave unions. Politics is one. Paying dues is another.
    But if you asked taxpayers if they had the choice not to pay taxes, you’d see many taking advantage of it, without a thought about how that would affect the health-care system, or education. Pocketbooks come first.
    And not everyone agrees with how unions operate and the political causes they support.
    The Rand formula, which was enacted in 1946 in Canada, forces mandatory payment of union dues, which employers collect. This means those who benefit from union activity with higher wages and benefits must pay union dues, although they don’t have to join the union. Many economists will argue that organized labour resulted in the creation of the middle class, which in turn gave rise to the most powerful economies in the world.
    Still, some call automatic checkoff, as the Rand formula is known, undemocratic. Well, Canada works that way. Ontario works that way.
    Your town or city works that way. Mayors, premiers and prime ministers are often elected with less than 50% of the vote, yet all citizens are subject to their rules. And our governments can spend money and take unpopular stands that are not representative of all of us.
    Kelly-Gagnon also laments that some unions spend their members’ money on causes they might not like. “Without having to earn workers’ adherence or dues, unions have little incentive to represent their interests and end up spending collected dues on political and ideological activities,” he wrote.
    But just like shareholders and investors in companies — or taxpayers in towns and cities, for that matter — it’s up to union members to challenge the leadership, hold them accountable and change things from within.
    The reality of right-to-work states is that most have poor economies. There are 24 such states in the U.S., almost all in the south and Midwest. Five of the bottom six states by per-capita income are right-to-work states. Five of the top six states by per capita income are not.
    That’s what I mean when I said Hudak would have Ontario, which has a well-educated workforce, competing with the dregs. (I’m not talking about people, just economies.)
    Then there is the freedom of association argument. Kelly-Gagnon argues, “The right to join a union is guaranteed by the principle of freedom of association, but freedom of association must include the freedom not to associate.”
    Yet the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the Rand formula does not violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association. This isn’t a moral decision; it’s a political one.
    I’m not arguing for any organized labour organization. I am a manager in a unionized workplace. But what Hudak wants — and in referring to right-to-work states as the model — is a simplistic argument based on ideology, while ignoring the practical reality.

Column: Partisan friction likely spells election

Published February 7, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

 We may be destined for an election sooner than Ontarians would want.
    Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne has been reaching out to the opposition, but NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and PC Leader Tim Hudak are not reaching back.
    Wynne needs some support from the opposition, since she’ll be governing from a minority when she’s sworn in as premier on Monday and reconvening the legislature Feb. 19.
    Much has been made of Wynne’s interpersonal skills and her Harvard-trained background as a conciliator. But in any conciliation, the parties have to want to come together.
    There isn’t much indication of that. Hudak responded to Wynne’s overtures by
    handing her his white papers, a series of policies, many of which are the antithesis of what the Liberal government has stood for, and will continue to sand for, if Wynne’s promise to “build on the legacy of Dalton (McGuinty)” is for real. Hudak wants to turn Ontario into a right-to-work province by removing the requirement to belong to a union and pay dues in closed shops, he wants to cut welfare rates and eliminate the Local Health Integration Networks that the Liberals plan to expand.
    He also wants a legislated wage freeze for government workers. Since the Liberals just repealed Bill 115, which imposes contracts on teachers with wage freezes, it’s unlikely she’s going to bridge any gaps with Hudak.
    Wynne gave a press conference after she won the leadership saying, “We absolutely have to work out our disagreements. I believe there are ways to find common ground.”
    Strike out Hudak. He outright refused to support last year’s budget from the outset, and if he sticks to these positions, that’s what he’s doing again. Horwath, meanwhile, repeated her tactics from the first time she was asked to prop up a minority government last spring by outlining a list of priorities for the legislature, though she did not say they were conditions for her support of a budget. Last spring, she struck a deal with McGuinty that saw the NDP abstain, allowing the budget that contained a tax increase on wealthy income earners to pass, but things went south when Horwath changed the rules of the deal during the committee stage, leaving McGuinty fuming.
    This time, Horwath wants the government to enforce a 15% reduction in auto insurance premiums, which she says would save drivers $226 a year. She wants guaranteed access to home care within five days, an inquiry into the cancelled gas-plant scandal and “a commitment to find savings within the current fiscal framework while protecting the quality of services Ontarians rely on.” If that means like it reads, Horwath wants to eliminate the $11.9 billion deficit without making service cuts, which would likely mean no meaningful reductions in the public sector, since wages are 50% of government spending.
    As for the gas-plant inquiry and the insurance rate cuts, Wynne has rejected both, saying an inquiry would be too expensive and she wants to concentrate on insurance fraud, which the industry says costs it $1.6 billion a year.
    Wynne might be amenable to addressing wait times for home care. But Auditor General Jim McCarter has said 11 of 14 Community Care Access Centres report wait times for home care, so that’s a big project. Horwath says her five-day guarantee would only cost $30 million. No word yet on what Wynne thinks of that one.
    The only common ground is likely Horwath’s plan to introduce a motion that the legislature will never again be prorogued without public debate. All three leaders can likely support this. But after they agree to talk about shutting down the legislature, all bets are off.

Column: Convention deal-making has benefits

Published January 31, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

Political parties might want to rethink giving up on delegate conventions to move to the one-member, one-vote system.
    The latter is considered to be more democratic, and thus, more in tune with the thinking on how political leaders should be chosen, but recent results give pause for thought.
    Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was chosen from a four-member field by the one-member, one-vote system in June 2009. More than 25,000 Tory party members voted. But the convention itself didn’t provide the oomph that we saw with the Liberal convention last weekend.
    As Sun Media’s Jonathan Jenkins wrote in 2009: “Party officials were dribbling the results out over the day at the Markham convention centre to provide a little tension and excitement for the crowd.”
    Contrast that with the dramatic events last weekend at 50 Carlton St. in Toronto– home of Maple Leaf Gardens — and what party members take away from these conventions can be quite different. Speeches at conventions where votes are already in the mail matter not. But during the Liberal convention, delegates hung on every word as candidates were forced to give the speech of their lives. It’s possible Kathleen Wynne’s candid, bold and affecting speech impressed delegates enough to set the stage for later ballots.
    About 2,000 delegates were chosen by Liberals in their ridings through a democratic process. They were bound to vote for whoever their ridings supported in the first ballot. After that, they could vote for who they wished.
    The first-ballot results stunned the convention centre crowd. While Sandra Pupatello had been polling in front for the entire race, she was ahead by only two votes. She had the most MPPs behind her, but the ex-officio members — some 400 former candidates and party officials — had obviously leaned toward Wynne.
    That set the stage for the improbable to become the possible. The drama unfolded throughout the day, as Eric Hoskins moved to Wynne when he was eliminated and Harinder Takhar moved to Pupatello. The thinking was that Gerard Kennedy would drop out and support Wynne, while Charles Sousa, a former bank executive, would support Pupatello.
    But as Sousa moved across the floor, Wynne’s camp became euphoric, screaming and crushing towards him.
    From then on, it was Wynne’s night. The point here is that such a convention can
    allow several things to happen. The energy and enthusiasm generated can be exciting and motivating. Many delegates will go back to their ridings and work hard for their parties. Perhaps hard-working party organizers juiced up from conventions can deliver as much support during elections in their riding as those whose voters register their votes through the mail.
    It also allows deal-making. Bad thing, you say?
    Perhaps. But whatever motivated Sousa to join the Hoskins-Kennedy-Wynne alliance allowed him to take the measure of support in a fluid situation.
    Backroom dealing, it’s called, but they had to declare their support in front of a huge, throbbing crowd. No such thing happens at mail-in leadership conventions.
    We don’t yet know what will become of Wynne, but the convention showed she is a politician with considerable heft.
    It is worth noting that Premier Dalton McGuinty was also elected in an exciting delegate convention in 1996, coming from fourth place to win in the fifth ballot at four in the morning.
    The score since then: Liberals 3, PCs 1.

Column: Unlike Occupy, Idle No More won’t fade

Published January 24, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

Those who dismiss the Idle No More movement as a mere copy of the Occupy protests, with the hopes it will eventually disappear into irrelevance, are not paying attention.
    There is hope among those who the movement has inconvenienced through protests and road and rail blockades that Idle No More will follow the path of the Occupy movement, which pulled up stakes — literally — as a result of legal rulings, police enforcement and cold weather.
    There is no indication that the INM movement will succumb to these pressures.
    The Occupy movement was spurred by a single, albeit large, event: The collapse of the economy brought on by the avarice of Wall Street. It brought together a disparate group of people and it refused, by its mandate, to allow leadership to form, leading to stagnation and lack of focus on what it wanted to achieve — though hang the rich was an overlying theme. The Occupiers’ modus operandi was to put up tents on public land and squat. Many people knew, eventually, that the Occupiers had to re-assimilate themselves back into society.
    None of this applies to the INM movement.
    Those taking part are indeed disparate in that they are from different regions of the country, with different experiences, depending on their own traditions and geography, but they have a common purpose: They want their treaty rights honoured and they oppose the federal government’s omnibus bill, which they believe undermines their way of life.
    Although many in INM may not have had contact with each other previously, their history as Aboriginals provides a shared cultural foundation that wasn’t there in the Occupy protests.
    As for leadership, INM organizer Pam Palmater describes the movement as “an organic people’s movement without any bureaucracy.” There are no elected leaders or paid politicians, just “a series of organizers and spokespeoples across the country.”
    That sounds much like the Occupiers, but there are, in fact, many layers of leadership of First Nations in place — perhaps too much — resulting in a lack of agreement on how things should proceed. Still, just because INM shuns political leadership, it doesn’t mean its goals won’t be championed by established political means. The Occupiers staked their success on their ability to remain on public land. That was their symbol. But INM protests do not take land from the public. They use many of the same methods as other protesters, from ethic groups to farmers: They march, they blockade for a short time and they move on. These are easier to organize and harder to stop than the Occupiers’ methods.
    One could argue the INM movement has done Canadians a favour by showing how to motivate people into real protest. They rallied against the federal omnibus bills, which many people agree is anti-democratic because they pack too much legislation together, preventing full parliamentary debate.
    Prime Minister Stephen Harper argued against omnibus bills when he was in opposition in 1994, but when his government passed two massive bills that are a combined 900 pages and alter dozens of laws, he went too far, at least in the minds of many First Nations groups.
    No one should advocate the civil disobedience with the purpose that some have threatened — to wreck the economy. If protesters break the law they should face arrest and punishment. But while many Canadians who shook their heads at the omnibus bills never left their seats, the INM movement took root in Saskatchewan and grew.
    INM is not Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. It is not the Assembly of First Nations’ tool. But neither is it necessarily without a future.

Column: New coalition could destroy Hudak’s future

Published January 17, 2013

By Brian MacLeod

 “I’m very worried about that notion of the NDP and the Liberals getting together.”
    That’s Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak responding to the possibility of a coalition government — and yes, he should be worried. It could finish him.
    Hudak explained that what he is worried about is taxes and spending will go up, but a coalition could see him on the sidelines for another two years, or possibly permanently.
    NDP Leader Andrea Horwath jump-started the debate this week with her answer on whether she would rule out a coalition.
    “My preference is to sit down with whomever it is that’s elected and get some things done for Ontarians,” she said. “I’m not overly interested in the details of what that looks like in terms of structure, but certainly I’m interested in getting some things done. I don’t think you have to have necessarily a structure to do that … you just need goodwill.”
    When a politician doesn’t categorically rule out a scenario, it’s a possibility, and Horwath would know that. The two leading candidates for the Liberal leadership — Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello — have used muddled wording that also doesn’t categorically rule out a coalition, although Pupatello appears to be less inclined.
    Coalitions can include members of the opposition in the larger party’s cabinet, or they can jointly set a legislative agenda and agree not to pull the trigger on an election for a certain amount of time.
    The latter is what happened in 1985, when David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP teamed up to end 40 years of Tory rule. They did not form a coalition, but they did sign an accord that saw several NDP policies passed, while both parties agreed not to force an election for two years. That minority government worked fairly well, and Peterson won a majority government in the election that followed in 1987.
    Debate about the virtue of a coalition stirred in the spring after a vitriolic legislative session and a disputed budget agreement between Horwath and Premier Dalton McGuinty that left the province teetering on the edge of an election just months after the Liberals won their minority. But the atmosphere became embittered — even between McGuinty and Horwath — so a coalition was a no-go. A new Liberal leader may change that.
    Ontario’s history is one of left-wing support. The combined popular vote for the Liberals and the NDP was 60% in 2011, 59% in 2007 and 61% in 2003. Even in the Mike Harris years, the combined opposition won 51.7% of the vote in 1995 and 52.5% in 1999.
    Typically, a party that wins about 40% picks up a majority of seats, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen if there’s an election in the spring, as many predict.
    A Forum Research poll released in late December had Hudak’s Tories in the lead at 33%, despite a leaderless and unpopular Liberal government. The NDP was at 31% and the Liberals were at 27%.
    Hudak may well have moved too far right with his proposal to essentially turn Ontario into a right-to-work province that would crush unions.
    Whoever wins the Liberal leadership might not even go to the polls. The new leader could strike a deal with the NDP, as McGuinty did, or a more formal deal as Peterson did, and govern for a couple of more years, arguing that Hudak’s policies are too extreme. They could try to ride it out until the economy turns around and the debt is trending downward — granted, that’s a leap of faith with a Liberal-NDP coalition — leaving Hudak and his party frustrated.
    So expect him to attack the coalition scenario with a vengeance.