Monday, August 22, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Layton.

Jack Layton was a fine man and a fine public servant. I disagreed with him on many of the issues, but his voice was always a valued contribution to our public domain.

We are all poorer for his loss. His friends and loved ones have my sympathy for their bereavement. A lifetime of memories to treasure is today a very poor substitute for the man himself, I am sure.

Goodbye Mr. Layton, and thank you for a life well lived.

If you haven't already read his final letter you can do so here:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Volunteerism as a Tax Strategy?

The idea of rewarding volunteer hours with a tax break has been bruited around recently, and has caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

The first issue with this as an incentive to volunteerism of course is that the incentive has nothing to do with the reasons Albertans volunteer so extensively. There is no tax reason to do so now, and Albertans apparently volunteer as much as any population in the country. Clearly we have good reasons to do so that have nothing to do with our annual tax bill. We choose to become involved in sports leagues, drop-in centres, food banks, choral societies and even political parties because they allow us to realize our dreams or reach out to others. Given what we, as a society, are prepared to pay for convenience in food or parking, among a myriad of other things, it hardly seems likely that people will exert themselves to do something they wouldn't have done before just because of a small tax rebate.

In addition there are a great many opportunities for tax breaks as it is, ranging from business investment to home improvement. Those who would most benefit from a relief of their tax burden are those in lower income brackets, and there are far more efficient ways of delivering that relief than a credit for volunteer hours. A simple raising of the basic income tax exemption by $10-15,000 would be a far more effective tool in this instance. Coincidentally this idea, like so many others, would benefit from an open discussion of our province's ends and means with all options on the table, as is being called for by Doug Griffiths of the PCs and by the Alberta Party.

More important than the vague connection being asserted between volunteerism and tax relief are the administrative issues this proposed reform would create. In order to manage and administer this new tax break a burden of increased administrative costs and government red tape would be imposed on charities and non-profit groups. In essence one of the unintended side effects of this proposal would be an increase in the 'administrative slice' of every dollar donated to charity. In short increased administrative costs would eat into the percentage of donations that would actually be used to deliver service.

The idea of rewarding community involvement with a tax break seems to me rather fuzzy in its goals. If the goal is to reduce the tax burden then actually lowering taxes would seem to be the way to go. If the goal is to increase community involvement then there are all kinds of other inducements, from community project grants on the positive side to cutting funding for community services on the negative side, that will further that goal without increasing the burdens borne by our not-for-profit sector. In short this proposal amounts to a small and poorly aimed tax cut for a group that will continue being involved in these organizations without it. We won't stop organizing our children's hockey leagues or helping at Brown Bagging it For Kids if no tax credit for volunteerism is introduced. Those organizations will, on the other hand, potentially be disrupted if such a change is made.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Busy week in Alberta Politics!

Following the move by Dave Taylor to the Alberta Party yesterday Premier Ed Stelmach has just announced that he will not be seeking re-election, and will be stepping aside as Alberta's Premier. The move by Mr. Taylor was already something of a tremor in Alberta politics, giving as it did the rapidly growing Alberta Party its first MLA. Mr. Stelmach's decision is an earthquake, however.


The Premier's remarks -

The Enlightened Savage's Comments -

The Premier's decision is a game-changer. First and foremost it means that the PC party will be having a leadership race. That race will be a chance for the PCs to focus and define themselves in preparation for the next election. How that race turns out, and the direction the PC party chooses to move, will have a profound impact on the province's political landscape. Will the party choose Morton and go head to head with the Wild Rose? Will the progressive wing of the party prevail with a candidate like Redford or even Doug Griffiths? The latter would place enormous pressure of the Liberal and Alberta parties, where the former would likely serve to put a large part of the existing PC voters up for grabs. Mr. Stelmach's decision is also likely to mean that the next election, expected in March or so of 2012, will be delayed. A leadership race, candidate nomination etc. will all take time.

Personally I would also like to add that Mr. Stelmach has always been an upright and classy human being, and a fine representative. I disagree with many of the decisions and priorities of the governments he has been a member of and latterly led, but that doesn't impact my high regard for him as a man. Thank you for your service Mr. Stelmach.

Alberta politics just gets more and more interesting these days!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Purchasing Fighter Jets, Yes. F-35s, Maybe.

The prospective purchase of 65 F-35 fighter aircraft for the Canadian Forces has become, perhaps unsurprisingly, a political football. What is little in evidence, however, is discussion of the role the aircraft are intended to fill in our national defence policy, and the reasons for making this specific purchase.

As background it is worth reminding ourselves that the Canadian CF-18 fleet, originally over 120 strong, has been reduced to some 60 operational aircraft by unit retirement and changing priorities. These last 60 aircraft are approaching the final decade of their design life, and they cannot be kept flying forever. Any replacement aircraft, however, will not appear in the budget until 2016 or so, and the price will be spread over a decade for their delivery. Maintenance costs, an enormous percentage of the total lifetime cost of these assets, would continue over their 25-40 year useful life. A fleet of fighter jets is a big-ticket item, with the current conversation of the F-35 purchase including $9 billion for the planes and $7 billion for the maintenance over their lifespan. This is a lot of money, but on a national scale over a period of decades it is also not really that large. Our government is looking at spending several billion dollars on additional prison buildings in the near future, not to mention what the operation and maintenance expenses of those buildings will turn out to be.

In considering the purchase, then, we have a national defence asset that provides a series of unique capabilities that we are losing in the near future to old age. Those capabilities include:
1 - Air superiority/combat air patrol
2 - Air strikes on surface targets
3 – Aerial Reconnaissance & surveillance
4 - A rapidly deployable force with enormous range
5 - A force element highly interoperable with our allies
The fundamental question underlying the purchase of any replacement fighter aircraft is whether or not we require these capabilities, and if so whether or not new aircraft are the only way to maintain them.

In the case of the original raison d’ĂȘtre of fighter aircraft, the ability to control airspace, they are still an unrivalled tool. Ground-based defences can protect specific sites, but Canada’s capabilities in that area are starkly limited and our airspace is vast. There are now drone aircraft, including the American Predator, with a limited anti-aircraft capability. Given their relatively slow speed, limited sensor capabilities and very limited armament these drones also do not approach the capacity offered by manned aircraft.

The story in terms of surface support is much the same. Army artillery can provide support only within its own range, as is the case with our Navy’s ships and submarines. The aircraft are able to provide support over great distances, and are also capable of using a vast array of munitions, from the most powerful to the most precise. Drones as yet carry only a very limited array of weapons, and are far less survivable to boot.

In terms of surveillance fighter aircraft are essentially never the first option. Dedicated long-range reconnaissance aircraft like the Orion or Nimrod are superior for maritime work and drones are better for tactical work. Where the fighter aircraft do offer a unique strength in this area is in their ability to actually engage a target if required, but for the scouting work itself they are a second option.

The range issue has already been mentioned. Canada is vast, our maritime frontiers even more so, and we have friends and potential commitments all over the world. In that respect this type of aircraft is an excellent asset for foreign deployments for two reasons. First, it is relatively easy to get the planes there. Second, so long as we maintain our tradition of NATO interoperability we can act with our allies without awkward and expensive barriers to overcome.

In my view these are capabilities we should have, both for our own protection and for the aid of our allies. It is also worth noting that these are not capabilities that can be recreated in less than a decade should we decide to eliminate them. To buy the planes, get them delivered, train pilots and re-create an infrastructure would be enormously expensive and time-consuming. To a large extent we shelter under the American aerial umbrella (they operate thousands of fighter aircraft), but their interests are not ours and there will be frictions around northern waters and sovereignty for example where their aid may not be forthcoming, or it may not be available even if they want to help.

This brings me to the question of whether or not the F-35 is the right aircraft for Canada’s needs. There are a variety of aircraft currently in production. Some, like China’s domestically-produced military aircraft are easily ruled out. I put Russian-made MIG aircraft in this category, both due to their inferior performance and more importantly the highly unsafe and unreliable supplier. Given our highly limited influence in Russia, and the difficulties around relying on contracts with Russian organization (i.e.: Shell’s experience with Gazprom) there are far too many red lights to make this practicable. What does that leave us with?

Essentially there are 5 aircraft being produced by Canada’s allies for us to choose from, including the F-35. In Europe the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale also are in production, and thus likely available. In the United States there are the F-16, the F-15E and the F-18 E/F model (the linear descendant of Canada’s CF-18s, which are largely a variant of the F-18D). The Americans are also producing the F-22, but this aircraft is both more expensive than the F-35 and less well-rounded, being focused more on air-to-air combat. Currently it is also restricted from export sale by Congress, just in case anyone here still wanted it…

So why the F-35? The F-15, F-16 and F-18 models are old designs, with the advantages and drawbacks that implies. They are proven performers, but they lack some of the capabilities provided by the newer aircraft. The Eurofighter and Rafale are largely equivalent to their American counterparts, with the exception of the F-35, which stands out from the group as the only option from the very latest design generation; incorporating a variety of stealth characteristics and sensor and computer upgrades.

The question is what capabilities the plane is required to deliver, and the threats it is intended to meet. Fighter aircraft to replace the CF-18s seem like a reasonable defence purchase to me, given the variety and importance of the roles these aircraft perform. What is less clear to me is whether or not we need the F-35. Any of the models mentioned here is an upgrade over our current CF-18s, even if the latter were not at the very end of their useful life. An open tender based on clearly published requirements would seem like an obvious way to allow the field to price itself, and to comparison shop. I am disappointed that this approach was not taken by the government several years ago, but I am hoping that public interest drives a conversation about the topic now. I am also hoping that this conversation does not long delay a selection and a purchase, since such aircraft are an important part of our national defence framework and the timelines on acquisition is long.

While I am on the subject of said framework it is worth pointing out that a full white paper national defence review would seem to be called for as a way of adjudicating priorities on such issues.

Here are the Operational Requirements from the DND website:

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Wee Shuffle

Today's Cabinet Shuffle, necessitated by the retirement of Jim Prentice to move on to a job at CIBC, was as minor as it could have been. A replacement had to be found for Mr. Prentice, and while there were no other important changes the strategy of wooing Greater Toronto prior to the next election continued.

Mr. Prentice's replacement at Environment is Mr. Peter Kent, whose experience in the media will undoubtedly be very useful in a position which this government uses primarily as a heat shield for criticism of the government's environmental policy. I don't envy Mr. Kent the role, though a seat at the Cabinet table is certainly a prize. In addition Mr. Julian Fantino, recent winner of the close Vaughn by-election, was appointed as Minister of State for Seniors. Mr. Kent and Mr. Fantino, a former Chief of both the Toronto and Ontario Provincial Police, are highly visible parts of the Conservative strategy of targeting Toronto seats for the next election. Putting them both in Cabinet, however minor Mr. Fantino's role, will be intended to raise their profile.

Alberta sees Mr. Prentice replaced in Cabinet, at least in theory, by the promotion of Mr. Ted Menzies from Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of State for finance. Ms. Diane Ablonczy moves sideways from the post now occupied by Mr. Fantino to Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs). With a cabinet whose major figures aside from the Prime Minister are all from outside of Alberta it will be interesting to see if there will be any repercussions here in the Conservative Party's heartland.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alberta Politics Overview - December 2010

If you are a blogger interested in Alberta politics recent months, and this past month in particular, have been filled with an embarrassment of riches. I am finding it difficult to actually finish posts, as there are so many topics worth writing about that even the low-hanging fruit is overwhelming. If only I got paid for writing here, eh? However, one of the more common conversations I've been having recently is about the 'state of the game' in Alberta politics. How badly have the Progressive Conservatives been hurt by recent events? Has the Wild Rose Alliance stalled or is it making up ground? Are the Liberals in trouble? Can the Alberta Party actually become relevant? This is my brief overview of the current state of play.

The governing Progressive Conservatives have had a very bad few weeks. Alternatively one could refer to the fall session of the Legislature as a train wreck for the governing party. From a communications point of view 'Cookiegate' and the subsequent, and much more harmful, loss of MLA Raj Sherman are the only memorable images of the session for most Albertans. From a branding point of view the damage done to the PC party may have legs, if the opposition parties can continue the identification of the PCs with long wait times and erratic management. That said the PCs have escaped the fall session, and they still have the largest political infrastructure in the province. While bloodied they have the time and resources to fight back, especially with an election still most likely over a year away and at a time of their choosing.

The Wild Rose have had both good and bad news in the past month. The latest polls put them within 5% of the PCs in popular support province wide, and while it is far too early for that to be vital it is certainly good news for the party. They have, however, had some problems of their own at the grassroots level, with problems around the nomination process in Little Bow and other internal frictions in Medicine Hat. In the legislature the WAP MLAs have been very insistent in their attacks on the government, as is their role, but occasionally have strayed beyond the bounds of decorum and relevance. Sadly they are far from alone, and the debate between Hancock and Anderson over the former's point of order was not an edifying parliamentary spectacle. While I'm sure the heated language and personalization of issues will play well with elements of the Wild Rose's base support, they haven't made as much out of the opportunity the government has presented them with as I would have expected.

The WAP push to continue nominating candidates for the next election continues despite the difficulties in Little Bow. They have, as of this writing, settled on candidates in 26 ridings, far more than anyone else. This is slightly misleading of course, as the PCs will be running many of their 67 incumbent MLAs again, but it does put them far ahead of the other opposition parties. The challenge they will have to overcome moving forward involves fundraising, as they managed to match the Liberals last year while falling far short of the PCs. They need to close that gap to make themselves look like the government in waiting, and to provide the resources they'll need for a winning campaign.

The Alberta Liberals have, despite feeling very good about their work in the fall session, fallen to 19% support in recent polling. This indicates that, despite their efforts, they are not connecting with the imagination of the voters. Again, this polling is a snapshot, and one taken a long way from an election, but I think it points to an issue that has troubled me about the Alberta Liberals for a long time. While they have managed to consistently attract the support of 1/4 of voters, give or take, I have long felt that this support was 'soft'. As the only serious opposition party over the past 20 years, since there was no realistic chance of the NDP winning an election, the Liberals became a parking place for voters opposed to the PCs. With the rise of the Wild Rose, and at least potentially the Alberta Party, this 'soft' support will no longer be necessarily available to the Liberals.

The NDP, with its tiny caucus of two MLAs, continues to punch well above its weight in the legislature. I continue to be impressed with the work of Rachel Notely - I may not agree with her on many of the issues, but she has proven to be a fine MLA. Long term it is hard to see how the NDP can move much beyond the half-dozen or so ridings in which they possess significant support, however.

Finally there is the Alberta Party. While only a participant in the ongoing drama in the legislature via its committed online partisans, it is starting to stand itself up as a viable political organization. I emphasize starting, but the appointment of Sue Huff as its interim leader provides a charismatic and articulate face for the organization. At least as important constituency associations, the real groundwork of any political party, are coming online at a rate of 2-4 per week. I'm also told that fundraising is moving forward and should the party maintain this momentum for a couple of months then by spring it will be in a position to act as a full participant in the political arena; with people, money and a leader to provide the voice. That said it is worth remembering that the party was left off the recent poll for a reason - it has a long way to go yet.

According to Premier Stelmach the next election is likely to he held in the spring of 2012. There is no realistic scenario in which the PC party could lose control of the house before that, and it is hard at this point to imagine a situation in which the Premier and cabinet want to rush into an election. Thus, we have a year and a half to go - a long enough time for a great deal to change in politics.

To count to PCs out because of the battering they took last week would be foolish - they have a lot of time, and the experienced personnel, to right the ship. The Wild Rose may have stalled, but they have time. Their biggest issues are the internal frictions that have been surfacing between the party's central bodies and its constituencies. The Liberals are working hard to change their methods and messaging, and depending on the results of those efforts their position may improve by election time. The fundamental question they will face is whether the 25% of voters they have been attracting consistently are supporting the Liberals or just opposing the PCs. The NDP seems content to remain what it is, and they possess a committed base of support. The Alberta Party has generated some energy and is transitioning into the real business of politics, and at its current rate of progress will be able to take its place as a full participant in the political scene with a year left to go before the likely election call.

Anyone still bored with Alberta politics? I think we're in for a very interesting year and a half.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Representative Independence versus Caucus Control

Behind all the Sturm und Drang engendered by Dr. Raj Sherman's letter, comments and subsequent removal from the PC caucus there are several stories. The specifics of what happened and why are known only to those involved, and I won't speculate. There is a good post at the Enlightened Savage about which line Dr. Sherman crossed:
The basic outlines can be found here:

It is important to note that Dr. Sherman has been suspended, as opposed to Mr. Boutillier who was simply expelled. What requirements have been communicated to Dr. Sherman for his return, if any at this early stage, I certainly do not know. It is, however, clear that the PC caucus and the PC party both want Dr. Sherman as a member, something that was not the case with Mr. Boutillier.

Dr. Sherman's suspension from caucus is part of an ongoing conversation in Canada about the role and independence of our elected representatives vis a vis their parties.

Dr. Sherman was an emergency physician before he became an MLA, and continues to practice while he sits in the legislature. His sincerity and passion on the issue of emergency medicine are not questioned by anyone so far as I am aware, and he possesses a professional's knowledge of the systems strengths and faults. Dr. Sherman was entirely right to act as he did in order to bring the greatest possible profile to an issue he felt was vital. Conversely the government caucus was entirely within their rights to suspend him. This is the creative tension between the individual representative and the discipline of the group, and the latter is essential in order to make the system work.

The problem is that the individual representative has been pushed into the background by group discipline. Both Federally and here in Alberta the governing party keeps all conversations behind the closed doors of caucus far too often. Party discipline for votes on the floor is an essential element of a representative system, don't get me wrong. Without the ability to whip votes you wind up needing the kind of earmark system which has so bedeviled the American Congress in order to deliver enough votes to pass legislation and do the basic business of government. The tendency, however, to follow the logic of control past the point of necessary and into the realm of convenience.

Avoiding the presentation by your MLAs of alternative views to that of the government makes communications and messaging easier, avoids some public frictions; fundamentally it is easier to manage than diversity. The problem is that the diversity exists anyway - in a caucus of 68 members does anyone believe that the PC MLAs all agree on anything? Behind the closed doors of government caucus the debates and alternative views are guaranteed to be lively, but we the public don't get to see it. This disconnect is worsened by the lows to which question period has sunk, shortened legislative sessions and the steady reduction in the independence of committees in the legislature. As a result there are fewer and fewer arenas in which the individual MLA can be relevant outside of caucus, which we can't see, and constituency work, which is profoundly local. The latter is important, and many of our MLAs do it very well and build important and useful two-way relationships with their communities. Our public dialogue would be greatly enriched, however, if individual MLAs were more engaged and engaging on the provincial stage.

This does not require a revolution in political procedure - here in Canada we have a tradition of ministerial responsibility and representative independence. Even in this age of tight party control there are individual MLAs (and MPs) who, by force of personality or sheer competence, have carved out independent voices for themselves. Does this mean that Doug Griffiths or Jim Prentice don't vote with their party on matters of confidence? Of course not. We as citizens need to demand more from our representatives, however.

Equally important party organizations and party leaders need to examine what they lose by keeping the reins short, as well as what they gain. Simplifying the messaging has to be balanced against the separation created between party and citizens. Openness has the advantage of creating conversation and engagement, which can be harnessed and directed in positive ways. True discipline doesn't mean there is no debate on what to do, it just means that when the time comes to act everyone supports making the decision work. We need to work on a parliamentary culture that embraces the diversity of views expressed publicly for examination and debate. The biggest gainers will be the parties, in the end.