Northern Reflections

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"There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent." Leo Tolstoy
Updated: 21 min 54 sec ago

Just What The World Needs

2 hours 19 min ago

Bob Fife reports, in the Globe and Mail, that Stephen Harper will resign his seat before Parliament resumes in September:

“He is not going to be there when the House returns in September,” one close associate said. “He has had some good conversations about what is next for him. … He has some board discussions happening and he’s looking at some options about setting up his own institute.”
Apparently, the institute will focus on foreign policy:

The institute is in its early stages of discussion, but friends say it won’t be academic or domestic-policy focused, such as the conservative think tank founded by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning. Mr. Harper’s interests will be directed largely at global “big picture” issues that he has espoused over the years.

His former policy director, Rachel Curran, said once Mr. Harper leaves politics, he will want to champion global free trade, building on his success in negotiating deals with South Korea and the European Union, as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“He spent tremendous time and energy really concluding these trade agreements and opening up trade corridors,” Ms. Curran said. “He has got a really recognized expertise and a lot of respect internationally in terms of his kind of knowledge.”
She said Mr. Harper will also want to promote his geopolitical thinking – whether it’s on human rights, the promotion of democracy or standing up to authoritarian regimes.
Mr. Harper knows something about authoritarian regimes. He'll need money to fund the institute. Word has it that he has been spending time lately with Las Vegas casino magnet Sheldon Adelson. His base might be a little concerned about where the money comes from. But one suspects the base is not on Harper's mind these days.
No, he's thinking about the world. And that's just what the world needs -- more Stephen Harper.

Is The TPP Dead?

Tue, 05/24/2016 - 05:20
Michael Geist thinks it might be. He writes:

First, the TPP may not have sufficient support to take effect, since under the terms of agreement both Japan and the United States must be among the ratifying countries. Implementation has been delayed in Japan where politicians fear a political backlash and seems increasingly unlikely in the U.S., where the remaining presidential candidates have tried to outdo one another in their opposition to the deal.
Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been outspoken critics of the TPP from start of their campaigns. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has shifted her position from supporter to critic, recently unequivocally stating that “I oppose the TPP agreement and that means before and after the election.” 
If the deal goes down, that's good news -- because new models are emerging for international trade agreements:
Canada already has an alternate blueprint for a trade strategy to open up key markets throughout Asia. By the government’s own admission, the Canada-EU Trade Agreement offers a better investor-state dispute settlement system than the TPP, while the Canada-South Korea free trade agreement, which was concluded in 2014, eliminates tariffs without requiring an overhaul of Canadian or South Korean laws.
There are criticisms of both of those deals, but they offer better models than the TPP.
And a recent analysis by the C.D. Howe Institute claims that the proposed agreement offers Canada  few incentives:
For example, a recent C.D. Howe study found that the Canadian gains may be very modest, with some gains offset by losses on issues such as copyright and an outflow of royalties. Given the limited effect of staying out (the study describes the initial impact as “negligible”), some have suggested that killing the agreement might be a good thing for the country.
The C.D. Howe study, which is consistent with several other reports that found that TPP benefits to Canada are among the lowest of the 12 countries, should not come as a surprise. Canada already has free trade deals with several key agreement partners, including the U.S., Mexico, Chile and Peru. Moreover, some Canadian business sectors have told the government they would be better off removing inter-provincial trade barriers before working to open markets like Vietnam and Malaysia.
The government is currently holding cross-country hearings on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It will be interesting -- and critical -- to see what Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau decide to do with another piece of Stephen Harper's legacy.

Kagan On Trump

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 04:55

Robert Kagan has been a consistent neo-conservative voice for the last twenty-five years. From his desk at the Brookings Institution, he has advocated for a tougher, more militaristic American foreign policy. Successive Republican administrations have adopted his suggestions. That is why his take on Donald Trump is so interesting. In a recent column, "This Is How Fascism Comes To America," he writes:

The entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.
Neo-conservatives fear government. But Trump is what the American Founding Fathers feared most -- rule of the mob:

But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.
And when a nation chooses one man who will run roughshod over its system of government, the result is fascism:

This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.” Fascist movements, too, had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. “National socialism” was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Fuhrer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who singlehandedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.
Kagan warns his readers that:

Once in power, Trump will owe politicians and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, less than 5 percent of eligible voters have voted for Trump. But if he wins the election imagine the power he would wield: at his command would be the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today? Does vast power uncorrupt?
This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.
Kagan used to be a Republican. He now claims that he is an Independent.


Will He Pay?

Sun, 05/22/2016 - 02:54

Some people are convinced that Justin Trudeau will pay a price for his less than sunny behaviour in the House last week. Tom Walkom isn't so sure. Canadians, he writes like to have "chippy" prime ministers:

Trudeau broke all the rules Wednesday when he marched across the Commons floor, grabbed Conservative whip Gord Brown by the arm and hustled him to his seat, all in order to get a projected vote underway.
In the melee, the prime minister also inadvertently elbowed Quebec New Democrat MP Ruth-Ellen Brousseau in the chest.
New Democrats standing nearby said Trudeau used a vulgar synonym for fornication as he urged MPs to get out of his way.
But this kind of behaviour isn't new to prime ministers:
Voters often like it when a prime minister gets tough or rude. Jean Chrétien suffered no political penalty when, as prime minister, he grabbed a peaceful protester by the throat and forced him to the ground.
Pierre Trudeau, in what became known as the fuddle-duddle incident, famously told opposition MPs to fornicate with themselves. Voters elected his Liberals to government three more times after that.
Was it polite behaviour? Certainly not. It showed that Trudeau can be impetuous and far from sunny. More importantly, his actions caused proceedings to ground to a halt. But Trudeau apologized more than once. Other than his apology for residential schools, when was the last time you heard Stephen Harper apologize?
Will he pay? We'll see.

Trump-Clinton Syndrome

Sat, 05/21/2016 - 05:06

 When Alan Freeman was the Globe and Mail correspondent in Washington, nobody paid attention to Canada. Suddenly, he writes, that has all changed:

Over the past week, major U.S. news outlets like The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post haven’t been able to get enough of Canada. And that was before Thursday’s meltdown on the Commons floor.

In recent weeks, major American media outlets have run stories on the Fort McMurray wildfire, Canada’s transgender anti-discrimination legislation, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau’s plea for more staff help, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to South Asian immigrants turned away on the Komagata Maru in 1914 — and, of course, the elbows-out fracas involving Trudeau and several other MPs in the Commons.
Why the change? Call it the Trump-Clinton Syndrome:

Instead of any sense of excitement over a new kind of leadership, Americans are brooding over the prospect of six more months of a nasty election campaign — between a reality TV star who seldom mentions a rival or a foreign leader without resorting to crude insults, and a political veteran who has trouble shaking her image of arrogance and entitlement.

The personal weaknesses of Trump and Clinton normally would be enough to sink either one of them in a presidential election campaign — if it weren’t for the fact that they’re running against each other. So many Americans are stuck with a choice between two people they don’t like.
Some Canadians -- people like Conrad Black -- used to look with envy on the United States. Black's envy seems to have disappeared after his acquaintance with American Justice. And it appears that a significant number of Americans are now envying us.


Word, Words, Words

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 05:13

Young Mr.Trudeau is starting to get under my skin. It isn't the Kabuki Theatre the other day in the House that bothers me. It's the announcement that the Liberals plan to contest the class action lawsuit which veterans brought against the Harper government. Tasha Kheiriddin writes:

The vets claimed the Tories were discriminating against combatants in modern-day conflicts, such as Afghanistan, by offering them lump-sum payments, rather than the life-long pensions paid to veterans of older conflicts, such as the Korean War. The issue cost the Conservatives support among veterans’ groups — a traditional base of support — and became a black eye for a government that loved to play up the importance of Canada’s military.
 During the election campaign, Mr. Trudeau promised that veterans would not be treated so cavalierly:

“We will demonstrate the respect and appreciation for our veterans that Canadians rightly expect, and ensure that no veteran has to fight the government for the support and compensation they have earned.”
The Liberals went farther than that:

The Liberal platform further stated that the federal government has “a social covenant with all veterans and their families that we must meet with both respect and gratitude.”
Words meant nothing to Stephen Harper. It's beginning to look like they mean nothing to Justin Trudeau.


Entertainment And Politics

Thu, 05/19/2016 - 04:45

So you think Canada would never elect a Donald Trump? Think again. Debra Van Brenk writes:

Conservative voters would be more more likely to choose outspoken TV personality Kevin O'Leary as their party leader among a field of seven declared and potential candidates for Stephen Harper's old job, a Forum Research poll suggests.

But among voters generally, not just those likely to vote Tory if an election were held today, former cabinet minister Peter MacKay leads the pack. 
All it would take would be a party of crazies -- people who are seething with resentment and not very bright -- to make it happen. And a culture that confuses entertainment and politics. Consider the field of potential Conservative leaders:

Forum asked more than 1,500 randomly-chosen adult Canadians who would be the best Conservative leader from among a field of seven that includes party stalwart Jason Kenney, the already-declared Maxime Bernier, interim party leader Rona Ambrose and former cabinet ministers Lisa Raitt and Kelly Leitch, the latter of which was a children's orthopedic surgeon in London before entering federal poltiics.
 O'Leary is as prepared as Trump to change his positions:

And just as Donald Trump's actual political leanings confound some in the U.S. Republican party, O'Leary's take on politics has to be decidedly unsettling to established Conservative candidates. O'Leary has said his main aim is advocating for tax-paying Canadians and he hasn't even ruled out running for the Liberals for the next election.

Something to think about.


Bitumen's Days Are Over

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 04:51

These are hard days for Fort McMurray. But, Andrew Nikiforuk writes, there is another fire burning -- a slow burning one -- that will eventually bring the place to its knees. And Murray Edwards, the head of Canadian Natural Resources, has seen the future:

Murray Edwards, the billionaire tycoon behind Canadian Natural Resources, one of the largest bitumen extractors, has decamped from Alberta to London, England.

Edwards and company slashed $2.4-billion from CNRL's budget in 2015.
Since the oil price crash, by some accounts, Murray's company has lost 50 per cent of its market value.

(Cenovus, another oilsands player, got cursed with junk bond status.)
Edwards likely has read the tea leaves and understands that bitumen might not play a significant role in the secular age of stagnation.
Former CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin has also seen the future:
Last but not least comes a pithy analysis by Jeff Rubin, CIBC's former chief economist. Rubin warns that contraction is the only future for the oilsands unless Canada wishes its economy to become "obsolete and non-competitive."

He correctly notes that 80 per cent of the increase in new global oil did not come from OPEC but from high cost bitumen mines and fracked U.S. shale deposits.
North American corporations, in other words, engineered the global oil glut.

Encouraged by easy credit, Big Oil flooded the market with difficult and largely uneconomic hydrocarbons.

The Saudis, the world's number one and cheapest producers, refused to scale back production or give up market share. Instead they precipitated a price free-fall.

When oil prices stood at $100, rash bitumen development made some sense. But when prices fell below $45 the gamble turned into Russian roulette.
Most of our movers and shakers haven't figured it out yet. But bitumen's days are over.


Do The Right Thing, Justin

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 05:01

Back in the 1960's, an estimated 100,000 Americans fled to Canada, rather than being drafted into the armed forces of the United States. Former CBC broadcaster Andy Barrie was one of them. He writes:

In Vietnam, it’s called the American War. Not, mind you, the North American War, because this country, blessedly, refused to be part of it. Just as we refused to join George Bush’s so-called “Coalition of the Willing” to stop the spread of those non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.
At the time, Stephen Harper, as Leader of the Official Opposition, actually apologized to the American people, making it clear he would have said “ready-aye-ready” to Bush. Years later Harper would reverse himself, calling the Iraq war “absolutely an error.” But that didn’t stop him from going after those young soldiers who made the mistake of equating our country with its government and sought sanctuary in Canada.
A lot fewer Americans fled to Canada. And Stephen Harper deported six of them to face court martials. There are still 15 Americans facing the same fate. It's time to put an end to another part of Harper's legacy:
There are currently 15 known active cases of conscientious objectors in Canada. There were once estimates of 200 American Iraq War resisters in Canada, many of them underground waiting for those who went public to win status before coming forward.
Sad, nasty business, just one among many pieces of nastiness Justin Trudeau promised to undo if he was elected. Well, he was, and with a majority. But he’s yet to tell government lawyers to call it quits to Harper’s deportations.
Harper's justification for sending the six objectors back to the United States was as porous as the thirty-one charges against Mike Duffy:
Harper, in his time, claimed that since military desertion was a crime, Canada would be granting sanctuary to criminals. This is patent nonsense. These people broke no laws in Canada and we have no business enforcing American law. Follow this logic and it would have meant deporting every escaped slave who reached freedom in Canada on the Underground Railroad, as they were considered property in the U.S. and allowing them to stay would have made us recipients of stolen goods.
It's time to step up and do the right thing, Justin.

Still Indispensable

Mon, 05/16/2016 - 04:51

Paul Godfrey appeared before the Heritage Committee last week to ask the government for a hand. It was more than a little ironic that the publisher who would prefer to get government out of our lives was coming to it cap in hand. But, Tom Walkom writes, Canadian governments have been giving publishers hand outs for a long time:

In his book Making National News, Ryerson University historian Gene Allen details the agonizing debates among publishers over the federal government’s handsome subsidy to their wire service co-operative, Canadian Press.

The subsidy was required in part because some Canadian publishers were unwilling or unable to pay the high rates charged by telegraph companies for transmitting news over the wire.
During the First World War, publishers also convinced Ottawa that a government-subsidized Canadian wire service would act as a pro-British antidote to news routed through the U.S.-based Associated Press.
At one point, Canada’s wire service was subsidized by both the British and Canadian governments.
In the early years, Ottawa rewarded friendly newspapers by contracting out government printing to them. Later, publishers lobbied for and won reduced rate postage for newspapers. At a time when many readers received their papers through the mail, this was a significant bonus.
Still later, publishers persuaded Ottawa to change the income tax system to favour domestic publications. Those businesses that advertised in Canadian newspapers and magazines could write the cost off. Those that advertised in foreign publications could not.
Known informally as the Maclean’s law, this rule proved of particular benefit to the newsmagazine of that name.
Surprisingly, Walkom believes Godfrey's proposal has merit -- perhaps not just because Postmedia is drowning in debt, but because Walkom's own publisher,  Torstar, lost $53.5 million in the first quarter of this year.
These are tough days for newspapers. But they're still indispensable.

It Takes More Than Rhyme To Make Poetry

Sun, 05/15/2016 - 03:25

There are some ghostly similarities, Michael Winship writes, between the American election of 1968 and this year's election. 1968 was the year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. It was the year there were riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention. And it marked the ascension of Richard Nixon at the Republican convention. It was also the year that George Wallace ran as a third party candidate.

New York Times columnist Russell Baker described Wallace's campaign:

Wallace’s crude animal reaction to the complexities of American society found a sympathetic hearing that summer among millions baffled by the speed at which the future was hurtling upon them and frustrated by their individual impotence against the tyranny of vast computerized organizations spreading through American life. With his snake-oil miracle cures, Wallace satisfied a deep public yearning to be deluded with promises of easy solutions.

Wallace's daughter recently pulled no punches when she compared Donald Trump to her father:

George Wallace’s own daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, recently told National Public Radio that both men have played to our basest instincts. “Trump and my father say out loud what people are thinking but don’t have the courage to say,” she said. “They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government.”
Winship reminds his readers of Mark Twain's notion of history. " History," Twain wrote, "doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

However, it takes more than rhyme to make poetry.


The Ball Is In Trudeau's Court

Sat, 05/14/2016 - 04:46

Justin Trudeau has done an admirable job of tending to his image, Murray Dobbin writes. But his real test as prime minister will be how he deals with the Isle of Man Tax Dodgers:

By now most people are familiar with the KPMG tax "sham" uncovered by CBC News. The scheme involved at least 26 wealthy clients (minimum contribution, $5 million) for whom KPMG set up shell companies in the Isle of Man, one of many tax havens for the rich and large corporations.

The Canada Revenue Agency initially said the scheme was "grossly negligent" and "intended to deceive."

But 15 of the 26 participants would end up getting special treatment. Some of the first ones caught were assessed huge penalties, but later KPMG clients were offered a secret deal. The "amnesty" agreement granted rich KPMG clients immunity from civil and criminal prosecution and freedom from any penalties, fines or interest as long as they paid the taxes they had dodged. Secrecy was written into the agreement: "The taxpayer agrees to ensure the confidentiality of the offer and will not inform any person of the conditions of the offer..."
It's interesting that this story came to light just as the Panama Papers fiasco was surfacing. The root of the problem, Dobbins writes is the cozy relationship which exists between top executives at the CRA and Canada's major Accounting firms:

The practice of making deals and providing amnesty for the biggest offenders seem rooted in the cozy relationship between senior CRA officials and senior management figures from the accounting firms that facilitate the scams. The CBC uncovered five years of expensive receptions hosted by KPMG and other accounting and law firms for senior agency executives -- including those involved in overseas compliance.

"Senior enforcement officials from the Canada Revenue Agency were treated to private receptions at an exclusive Ottawa club, hosted by a small group of influential tax accountants that included personnel from KPMG -- even as the firm was facing a CRA probe for running a $130-million tax dodge in the Isle of Man," the CBC reported.

Despite strict rules stating employees must "not accept gifts, hospitality, or other benefits that will, or could, have a real, apparent or potential influence on your objectivity and neutrality in performing your CRA duties," these unseemly get-togethers became routine. One that took place at the exclusive Rideau Club in June 2014 saw more than 20 "high-ranking CRA executives" wined and dined by accountancy and law firms including KPMG. CRA executives were actually "required" to attend by the agency. The same day they had been treated to a luncheon followed by a session where they were lobbied by KPMG and other firms.

Little folk pay penalties. But the big fish continue to swim unimpeded. The ball is in Trudeau's Court.


They're Perseverating

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 05:14
Just before Mike Duffy's acquital,  the leader of the Conservative caucus in the Senate, Leo Housakas, released the following statement:

“In the event Senator Duffy is acquitted on all counts, he will immediately be reinstated to the Senate as a member in full standing with full pay and access to all office resources. Senator Duffy will be allowed to take his seat in the Chamber at the next scheduled sitting.”
Now he's changed his tune. Even though Justice Viallancourt found his expenses legitimate, Housakas wants to review them. Michael Harris writes:

Instead of turning the page, Housakos is trying to turn the page back. Here’s what is on the table: Out of the $124,000 in travel expenses and contracts examined by the RCMP — the spending that provided the foundation for its charges against Duffy — Housakos wants his committee to review $56,546 in travel and $16,995 in contracts.
Why? Harris speculates that:

The operative idea here seems to be that if Conservatives in the Senate can find Duffy guilty of something — anything — it will have a restorative effect on Harper’s soiled reputation, and take the sting out of Judge Vaillancourt’s otherwise devastating verdict.
The Conservatives are perseverating -- which, by the way, is one of the indicators of brain injury.


Who Should They Serve?

Thu, 05/12/2016 - 04:42

Your local post office used to be a bank -- until 1968. That's when Canada Post got out of the banking business. But, Linda McQuaig writes, there are good reasons for restoring banking services to Canada Post's mandate:

As they’ve turned their attention to catering to the wealthy, Canada’s six big banks have shut down more than 1,700 branches across the country in recent years. In many rural communities today, you’re no more likely to see a bank than a buffalo.
This has left hundreds of thousands of Canadians without bank accounts, including many low-income city dwellers – notably young people with poor credit ratings and lack of identification – who now rely on pay-day loan companies charging annualized interest rates well above 300 per cent. 
As email cut into its profits, the executives at Canada Post suggested to the Harper government that getting back into banking could solve Canada Post's woes:
But if the idea seemed like a sure winner, it ran into a major roadblock – the fierce ideological objections of Stephen Harper’s Conservative cabinet. After all, postal banking would be public banking, and the Harperites were hell-bent on shrinking government, not expanding it.
So instead of opting for a win-win strategy, the Harper cabinet came up with a lose-lose strategy for the post office: dramatic increases in the cost of postage stamps and the elimination of home delivery.
But the proposal is back on the table. And it offers distinct advantages -- not just to the post office, but to all Canadians:
A postal banking system could even inject some competition into Canada’s highly concentrated banking sector, one of the least competitive in the world. According to a 2014 IMF report, Canada is among a handful of countries where the three largest banks control as much as 60 per cent of banking assets.
This uncompetitive situation has left Canadian bank customers – even those lucky enough to locate a branch – facing some of the world’s highest banking fees.
If postal offices throughout the country offered a range of banking services – savings accounts, low-fee chequing accounts, low-interest credit cards, small business loans – the big banks might be forced to compete, novel as that sounds.
The CEO's of the five major banks will howl. After all, "even in last year’s sluggish economy, they collectively enjoyed $35 billion in profits – about $4 million per hour per day – with bank CEOs among Canada’s top-paid executives." 
 But who should the banks serve?