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.