Friday, January 14, 2011

10 Questions - Conservative Cuts

To the credit of Minister Higgs, the Conservative government has released some details about the 1% spending cut that departments were asked to find, shaving about $40million off of this year's budget.

There is nothing wrong --at all-- with putting the call out for departments to look at everything they are doing and to find efficiencies. Many of the cuts where we have details are not at all controversial; things like not filling vacant positions, delaying information technology purchases, reducing conference attendance are all the things we expect managers to do, and our civil service generally manages well.

(Having been around the cabinet table, the one reality check I might offer here is that no one should pretend that this is new or even the result of the Finance Minister's edict. In fact, when you remember that this is in the context of an $8billion budget, managers are always making these adjustments, taking savings from unexpected vacancies or programs where the payouts are lower than projected. What has changed is that these things used to go back into social programs, and now they're simply being put back into government coffers. For example, the Bernard Lord government once had a year when due to one less pay period in the fiscal year, the Education Department saved over $8million. They let Education use the money to buy laptops for teachers. Social Development had many programs that came in under budget, after all, most budgets are based on a guess as to how many people will need a given program. Ditto with Justice and restoring some family mediation services.

Liberals tended to let the department keep that money, and that's how we funded new programs like expanded dental services or more infant care spaces or nursing home repairs. What the Alward 1% cut order changed wasn't that these efficiencies appeared, it is that they weren't spent on new social programs. That's not illegitimate, I just point it out to set the record straight that "efficiencies" of around $14million -and that's the amount that aren't program cuts- in a budget of this size exist every year. What changed is that they weren't used to solve social problems, which agree or disagree is a conservative approach.)

However, if you look closer, the volume of little tiny cuts hides the fact that, financially, the big chunks came out of Health, Education and Social Development. I expect there's a little spin here, after all, you can list each one-month staff vacancy borne by tiny secretariats individually, but they don't add up to as much as the $9million taken from school boards which are not described in any detail. (They repeat Minister Carr's order that they not affect classroom services, but they don't list what was actually cut. A bit of history, 2009, DECs said that any cut over $2million would require a reduction in the number of teaching assistants.). The fact is that the big cuts are ones that reduce the support to teachers in the classroom, leave more people in poverty without repairs to their home, and cut drug coverage to some New Brunswickers. Those are the big cuts. If you doubt which departments took the hit, look at which ministers are in the budget cutting picture the government released.

Let's be clear -- when Tories raged against a deficit, they said cutting health and education would be a last resort. This list makes it clear that social program cuts were a first resort. If the government is already starting to cut these things in what is a very light round of cuts, then it suggests they didn't have a whole lot of other ideas.

Keeping that in mind, here are ten questions that should be asked about what we have just seen that I haven't heard much from the political and journalist classes yet (although the Twitter community has raised them)

Premier Alward, with respect, I would ask the following....

You have reduced the budget for family mediation services, claiming that referrals for mediation in family law cases are lower than expected. Given that you are cleaning that this is a reduction in the deficit, the year-over-year spending in New Brunswick, that would imply that this is an ongoing reduction (because if funding goes up next year, then it is not a deficit reducing-cut). If you are cutting the Justice Department's family mediation budget to match the current demand, does that mean that you believe there is enough use of mediation services in our family courts? If so, does that mean you reject the findings of the Family Law Task Force that said that more mediation will lead to better outcome for children whose parents split up?

In the 2010 election campaign, you stated that you would restore the Beginning Teacher Induction Program "essential". Yet in these cuts, you define the professional development of teachers and ongoing teacher training as a "non-classroom" expense. Is it the position of your government that professional development is, or is not, an investment that affects classroom learning? (And if only the Induction Program is good for classroom learning and not the areas you cut, on what basis are you making that distinction?)

You have cut repairs and upkeep budget for public housing for families living in poverty. Does this mean that you believe that current wait times for repairs to the homes of people living in poverty is acceptable, and what is the benchmark you are setting for how long our citizens should wait?

The largest single cut is a reduction of over $9million to school districts. Will you commit to ensuring that each DEC releases a list as detailed as this one, so that New Brunswickers can evaluate your claim that these are not classroom cuts?

The next largest are of cuts are in Health, yet many have not yet been detailed but are dependent upon consultations to occur on delisting health services and prescription drug coverage. Given that these are very serious decisions for New Brunswickers that count on funding for their health needs, will these consultations really be done by the end of the fiscal year as you claim (since your Finance Minister is claiming to have cut the deficit this year with the cuts). Will these consultations only involve doctors, or will patients also have a say in what health services you deem non-essential?

In the are of post-secondary education, programs assisting students with repayment of high student loans have been cut, citing that there has been lower demand for what is a new program. Does this mean that you do not anticipate more graduates with high debt loads seeking help from these new programs? If greater awareness of the program does lead to growth (which is usually the case with new application-based programs), will the cut be reversed or will there be restrictions put on who can apply?

A $2million cut has been identified in the energy efficiency grants given to low-income citizens. This is important, because it allows families who most need to lower power bills help doing that (and saves government money from home heating subsidies later). Yet the savings is done by "deferring" these grants - does that mean the money will be spent anyway, in the next fiscal year (which means this is not a savings), or has government decided that low-income New Brunswickers saving money on heat is a non-essential program?

In the 2010 election campaign, you made a commitment that you would work to find every New Brunswicker a family doctor. Yet your first round of cuts suspended incentive programs for doctors and nurse practitioners. Is your government's position that current levels of doctors will be acceptable, and have you consulted with the medical community on how to communicate these cuts to doctor recruitment in a way that will not discourage new doctors from considering New Brunswick?

Your government promised to freeze property taxes for seniors, and has famously delayed that commitment. Now, municipalities will see their funding cut, and you have repealed the previous legislation placing conditions upon property tax increases While Minister Fitch consults with seniors on the new version of your campaign promise, does your government have any mechanisms which will guarantee that seniors will not see property tax increases this year? Given the message you communicated to seniors who expected a freeze on property taxes, are you prepared to guarantee that seniors will not pay more in property taxes in the coming fiscal year?

In his 2010 budget reply, your Finance Critic said that it was "nonsense" that the Conservative Party would support cuts to health, education and anti-poverty programs and such cuts would be a "last resort". In the very first $38million in cuts, over $22million have already come from schools, early childhood programs, services to people living in poverty and health services. Do you believe that finding only $16million in cuts before turning to health and education is consistent with your contract to make health and education cuts a last resort?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

For Students, Deja Vu All Over Again

In the 1990s, the deficit fighting era saw record tuition fee hikes and debt load increases for students -- a trend some governments began to reverse in the more generous first decade of the 2000s. In a dilemma provincial finance ministers will be watching closely, Nova Scotia has to decide whether or not to find new money to avoid really big tuition fee hikes. This one could rekindle the old debate about whether or not high sticker prices for degrees keep students from applying for university or college,and could put the NDP government in unfamiliar ideological terrain if they have to defend a decision not to spend millions subsidizing tuition fees.

Oh, Never Mind

As provincial premiers and finance ministers begin to issue dire, dire warnings about painful, horrible budgets to come, it is worth noting that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who was expected by friend and foe alike to unleash barbarian fury on Toronto's city budget, has just proposed cutting....not very much. Sometimes governments warn of deep cuts to prepare you for deep cuts. More often, it's a way to make you grateful for getting nothing new.

Marriage Politics In Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan's Attorney-General says he won't recommend appealing an Appeal Court ruling gnat says pretty much what courts have said in other provinces -- that marriage commissioners can't refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies. Since it is an election year and the ruling party does have a large conservative base, A-G Morgan says the government may still look at a central model, which is likely a way to underscore for Saskatchewan Party voters that the government has been dragged kicking and screaming to this conclusion, without taking any actual action that might anger the more centrist, urban members of the coalition.

BC NDP Gets A Race, Too

Pundits in BC think that if the NDP is going to avoid having its recent infighting snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, John Horgan's announcement that he'll run to succeed Carole James may be the best news yet. If he wins, it will be a sign again in politics that the crown will never fall to anyone perceived as having plunged the knife in the former leader.

A Chance At History

It is entirely plausible that Canada will soon have not one but two, female premiers, at opposite ends of the country. This would be the first time that Canada has had more than one female premier...trail blazers Rita Johnston of B.C. and Catherine Callbeck of P.E.I. having missed each other by months.

The clear win appears to be in Newfoundland and Labrador, where Kathy Dunderdale already has the job, having been named acting Premier when Danny Williams left. She has since been urged to run by what seems to be the entire PC Party of Newfoundland, and the St. John's Telegram reports that her only obstacle is a quixotic candidacy by a CFA (come from away) named Brad Cabana, who may not even fill out forms properly.

Though if his middle name is "Copa", one might be tempted to vote for him. All together now..."His name was Bradley, he was a Tory......"

The tougher race to call is in B.C., where Christy Clark seems to be the most popular candidate among the public, but has almost no caucus support. The BC Liberals use, as most parties now do, a pretty open leadership process, and veteran political watcher Michael Smyth thinks Clark has a good shot.

Whether the lack of caucus support haunts Clark in trying to reunite a gang left fractious by Gordon Campbell's final days is a different issue. Polls show Clark has the best chance to win, which is probably why parties like open leadership formats. After all, if you have to hide from the public to win the leadership, you probably aren't the best candidate to win an election.

Monday, January 10, 2011

After Tuscon, Making Gentle The Life Of This World


This blog is going to be focused on Canadian politics and public policy, and in these early days I really wanted to stick with that theme. However, the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others in Arizona strikes so many chords, on a human level and a political one, that it would seem wrong not to address it in some way.

The story is deeply compelling in a human level. A public servant who was, by all accounts, a talented and sincere public servant has had the life she and her family knew torn apart. A mom and dad are grieving the loss of a beautiful nine-year old girl who died because she wanted to meet her congresswoman and learn more about government. Four other families are grieving huge holes in their lives, others are still holding grim, awful vigils in hospital waiting rooms where their loved ones' lives still hang in the balance. The enormity of that pain calls every one of us to remember that tis is, first and foremost, a moment to care about the victims.

It is also, undeniably, a story about the health of democracy, a story about remembering how fragile democracy can be in an era of rather coarse debate. It is a moment when everyone of us has to be called to examine our words and our hearts as we debate issues in a crucible of tweets and sound bites.

As others have noted, every political assassination is, by definition, political. Jared Houghner, the sick and hate-filled young man who pulled the trigger, targeted Gabby Giffords because she was a politician, and whether reasons emerge that make sense to anyone but Houghner itself, his act was significant to him for that reason.

On cable news and social media, a sad debate has already emerged between right and left, each attempting to define Houghner's emerging ramblings in ways that might mean that he is "owned" by the other side; his anti-government rants being used to push him onto the lap of the nascent Tea Party movement, his anti-religious views being defined in some strange, defensive way as signs of liberalism. Sarah Palin's awful graphic showing crosshairs over districts where representatives voted for President Obama's health care bill has been brought forward for special attention, although the debates have taken irrelevant turns over whether it in fact "caused" Loughner's murderous spree or whether it is any worse than President Obama's invocation of Capone's maxim that his followers should bring a gun to a fight if their opponents bring knives.

Not only should no one rush to define the evil acts of a hate-filled killer in ideological terms, we need to accept that there will likely never be an explanation that fits some logical category of political statement. Crazy acts are, by definition again, crazy. They do not flow rationally from a premise. Loughner may well turn out to be a constitutional purist or a dope-smoking libertarian, but the path from those or any belief to hurling a hail of bullets into innocent children has leaps that are irrational and are his responsibility alone. Even if he was on Sarah Palin's email list, the journey from that to murder is his moral responsibility, and will never be one that flows in a way that makes sense to decent people anywhere.

And yet, that isn't the end.

There are certain terrible moments that sear themselves into our public consciousness because they do hold a mirror up to us, and force us to confront what our world is becoming. I still remember the moment we learned in the student union offices that Marc Lepine had targeted female engineering students for death in Montreal, and the collective shiver it caused for students everywhere. There was debate then, too, with one side arguing that Lepine's rampage reminded us of the misogyny in society and others insisting that crude beer ads did not suddenly cause a sane man to snap and shoot students.

Both sides were right, because they were arguing different points, too often not hearing each other in their haste to make their points.

Violent, murderous acts do not happen because somebody said or did any one thing, and individuals who commit violent acts must be held uniquely responsible for that final, terrible step. Yet even irrationally angry acts are often chosen within an environment that shapes what people do when they are irrational and angry. Suicide bombings and honor killings are irrational and evil acts, yet they occur within one cultural milieu and not within others because there is rhetoric and propaganda that defines what angry people may do if they are beyond reason. The drunken Browns' fan who attacked an 8 year old wearing a Jets jersey after the game was not turned into an obnoxious, violent jerk by the law-abiding fans around him -he was all that before the game started - but the fact he was at a football game is hardly irrelevant, either. Deviant people always go beyond what most would do, yes, but their sense of what they may do is defined by the moment happening around them. When we move the boundaries of what is acceptable, we also shape what lies just beyond those boundaries, even if decent people had every intention of staying within them.

It is no accident that the 1960s saw the United States suffer a series of gut wrenching political assassinations, losing a president and a brother on the cusp of the presidency; seeing the violent death of a civil rights leader committed to peace and an angrier one more willing to confront. It was an era when the nation had a toxic mix of racial change, clashing cultural values and an inability of each side to define the others in human terms. A consequence of this was that politicians were often revered or reviled not because of the stands they took but of the cultural symbols they became. Kennedy was a wealthy Cold Warrior who would be a centrist Democrat; Nixon's environmentalism and tax policy would likely make him the pinkest of Republicans today. Yet the clashing social issues of civil rights, law and order, peace and war made a toxic stew where people with different views weren't just opponents, they were enemies.

That is happening in America today. The debate over the health care bill isn't just about whether I should have to pay taxes and buy health insurance so my neighbor can have it, too. The bad economy, the social change heralded by President Obama's election, all of it is starting to create an environment where the greatest victory is proving you hate your opponent more than they other guy.

A congressman yells at the President during the State of the Union and raises more money because of it. In response, a congressman says that anti-health bill Republicans want people to "die quickly", and also raises more money from his partisans. Crosshairs - the sights used to target and kill- are used to identify political opponents. Candidates for Congress speak of gathering militias to deal with an out -of-control government, and the Glenn Becks of the world casually describe links between Obama and Hitler.

Increasingly in a world of 30 second ads and 140 character tweets, our opponents in politics are not mistaken or have the wrong priorities. They don't care, or are corrupt, or "pal around with terrorists". People who we disagree with have become socialists, fascists or Nazis so often that it seems impossible these unpopular ideologies could have so many adherents. Pumping a bullet into your congresswoman's head is easier for a sick person to view as a heroic act than it has ever been, because the distance to travel is so much shorter. After all, suicide bombers and honor killing family members do not see themselves as sick, violent cowards, but only more committed than those who share their views but not their willingness to act.

The ability to attack people and not ideas, to attribute dark motives to opponents rather than seek to understand, is not any more prevalent among the right than the left. Yet there is a narrative to American conservatism which is being misused by the shock troops of the right today.

America was born in revolution, the result of citizens taking up arms against a distant king who demanded the right to take from people without their consent. Their Constitution is written in this environment, and the emotional attachment to the rights to speak, assemble and bear arms flow from the view that citizens must always have this power of resistance. This is not a violent or evil ideology. Conservatives believe that, while individuals acting freely in their own interest may lead to certain evils (like Donald Trump having billions while kids can't afford to see doctors), greater evils result when governments get too powerful. An evil individual can harm those around him, but an evil government can do far more harm. We Canadians often wonder why American conservatives are not moved by millions without health care, and the answer is that they believe a government powerful enough to fix that problem is a government powerful enough to do far worse.

The right of citizens to take back their government is an important ideological flourish in the Constitution, yet we also have years of experience the Founders didn't to know the danger that can come when we romanticize this ideology to the point where we cry "tyranny" at things with which we simply disagree. If we do this, if we hint that disagreements are actually struggles which require revolution, we can plunge a country into a chaos where violence becomes the way we settle differences. (I have been to nations in Africa where they know just how hard it is to change that mind set, and how fragile a democracy can be when we forget the price of violence as a way to settle disagreements).

Republicans who want to invoke the honorable tradition of limited government must be very careful not to romanticize the revolution that gave birth to the country. Obama is not Hitler, nor is he a tyrant (just as such a charge against George W. bush would be preposterous). Yet when candidates for high office speak, as Sharron Angle did, of "Second Amendment remedies" if Obama could not be stopped at the ballot box, when leaders like Palin speak of "reloading" and "bulls eyes", when Republican ads show Founders returning to life and commanding a gathering of armies, they must be repudiated. The Founders may well have spoken of the right of citizens to resist a government of tyrants. Remember, too, that they knew the horrible, violent price of that resistance and how carefully the label of tyranny should be treated. Republicans and Tea Partiers who forget that warning dishonour their country.

When Martin Luther King was shot and killed, Bobby Kennedy when right to the impromptu vigils in the African-American neighborhoods of Indianapolis, ignoring warnings of his own safety, because something needed to be done to build bridges and avoid a spiral of violence. His unscripted remarks stand as one of the great speeches of modern politics. It is worth listening for yourself here.

Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black - considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.

Of course, RFK himself was dead two months later, shot through the head by an assassin whose motives seemed just as crazy, just as twisted as this awful man in Tuscon. The murder of Kennedy was not an act of left or right, but it was undeniably of its time. I pray that in America, a nation rightly proud of its democratic tradition, there are politicians who can move from seeking plausible deniability for their words and can instead call citizens to common ground. The shooting of Gabby Giffords is the first sign on a road that descends to a very dark place. I wish them Godspeed as they debate whether they will treat that sign as a warning to pull back, or an excuse to descend further.

On a final note -- I know that in New Brunswick it will be easy to parse this post for some local political point. Please don't. Politics is a clash of ideas, and too often these sorts of warnings against dark political rhetoric create a kind of Puritanism where every snarky remark about an opponent gets lumped in with the worst remarks until everything goes. Let me say that I saw nothing in the last election, from my party or directed at it, which was the kind of violent imagery that is seeping into American politics. I may have labelled some tactics as helpful or unhelpful, and all of us including me have made cracks we regret, but no one did anything like call for Second Amendment remedies. We can disagree, as long as we remember that we are all citizens and called to see the humanity in each other.

What we can do is take pride in that. We are a province where haters on blogs are ignored or called to order, where attacking a Speaker or loosing your cool in the House are seen as shameful acts (even if done by generally decent people), where overly personal tactics seem to cost votes. Let's each rededicate ourselves to targeting our debate at ideas, not people, and remembering what a fragile gift it is to live in a world where power can be taken from one and given to another peacefully.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

From The Department of Nothing's Straightforward

Heritage Minister James Moore's life may get more interesting, as the Ottawa Citizen has a piece on the groups lining up to push funding governments to shape the content of exhibits in the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

Follow The 401 Until You See A Majority, Then Turn Right

Now that the politics of Peter Kent's elevation to cabinet have been chewed over, the Winnipeg Free Press looks at a unique challenge for the new Environment Minister. How challenging is tbe policy of co-ordinating climate change policies with the continent become when your prime minister is actually less bullish on the environment than the Americans. The tension has made Kent's job the most shuffled portfolio in Harper's tenure.

Finding The Battlegrounds

The Toronto Star tries to figure out where the Conservatives will be on offense, if they target the GTA for gains. Holland, Szabo and Dryden are singled out, although those may not be the best targets.

B.C. NDP Gets A Plan B, Kind Of

Nearly two months after putsching out the leader who was 20 points up in the polls, the NDP caucus in British Columbia gets its first leadership candidate from caucus. Harry Lali joins the race.

Deficits and Perspective

The morning papers greet me with stories about deficits in capital cities everywhere. Today there are tales of imminent debt walls in Quebec, in Ontario (terribly inconvenient in an election year), and in Nova Scotia. Even the Harper government, gang of fiscal conservatives that they are, get noted for high deficits and no plan to deal with them.

The universal nature of the problem should, in some ways, be comforting. First, in every province, people should know that thief is not some horrible black cloud following your province around like poor Schleprock, about to do you in. It should also make it clear that the problem wasn't caused by a rash of politicians' perks, civil servant largesse, or that old whipping boy, bilingualism. None of these saw a multibillion dollar splurge that transcended jurisdictions.

Governments made a rational, and universal decision to spend through a recession. This is true across party lines, and across borders. After all, businesses once shuttered do not magically reopen once recessions end, nor do schools and hospitals reopen. If we lay off thousands of public servants, nurses, teachers, social workers, (and usually young workers go out first), they do not sit in blissful suspended animation until we are ready to rehire them, they leave.

Just as one doesn't greet the first week of a layoff by selling the house, scrapping the car and pulling the kids out of school so they can work, neither do we slash social programs based on temporary revenue slowdowns. Deficits didn't happen to us, they were a deliberate choice As the best of a tough lot of options.

If you read the rather judgmental words of the Adam Radwanskis and Donald Savoies, feeing off on politicians, you would swear only they have the courage to tell it like it is. Yet look closer....besides calling for vague "tough choices", what do they call for? What tough choice are these oracles of tough love actually brave enough to put their name to? Haven't we had enough of puffed up editorialists claiming that they are saving us by issuing a call for someone to save us by, y'know, doing something?

Deficit reduction is now needed to pay for what we borrowed to keep people working during the economic slowdown. We don't need hysteria. Let's define our fiscal goal, yes, but also our needs from the school system, the health care system, and other public services. Let's have a summit, not to awfulize, but to figure out how to slow the fastest growing expenditures and protect what should be protected.

They both begin with H, but honesty and hysterics aren't the same word.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Stop. Just Stop It

Donald Trump unveils his awesome strategy to become President. Because this worked so well for LeBron.

The Big Deal In Harper's Cabinet Shuffle

One wouldn't expect the Toronto Star to show much love for the Prime Minister's new ministers, and they don't. Yet the addition of Julian Fantino and Peter Kent in social portfolios are striking for one big reason.

It is essentially a clear declaration that the HarperCons now believe the next 15 seats...the seats that deliver a MAJORITY...lie in the GTA. Just as strikingly on the national unity file, it is an admission that those seats will not be found in Quebec. After years of promoting every Quebec MP who might meet the criteria for a Harper cabinet ( Can you shut up? Now can you read this text without improvising?), now it is Toronto's turn. It seems Quebec's social liberalism finally did in the Harper dreams, and that arts cuts and locking up kids ticked Quebeckers off more than Harper's decentralist tendencies drew them in.

Clearly, Harper is serious about going after Toronto hearts in the wake of the Ford boomlet. He even allowed Kent to acknowledge that global warming is real. Of course, the demographic ministers (as we call those elevated to cabinet because they represent a group targeted for HarperCon growth) haven't always had a long shelf life, from Bernier to Raitt to Guergis. We shall see, as we inevitably do.

In the meantime, federal Liberals may want to try something new with Harper making a play for their bastion and his attempt to move to the center. Some would try developing policies which are clearly and distinctly liberal, however, they may have something else in mind.

An Old Dilemma In Saskatchewan

One of the more interesting stories in Canadian politics this year will be how Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall handles his success, defined here as having a 28 point lead heading into an election year.

No doubt Wall has been buoyed by a relatively good economy, but no one should discount his success in an environment that has been brutal on incumbents across North America. For a guy who had to run ads telling voters he wasn't an extremist last time, he has consolidated his new party's government very well.

Now here is the test of political scruples. Will Wall use the big lead as a chance to get a clear mandate for some policies he will want to bring in over the next four years, or will he go unto a prevent defense and play it safe? My guess is that premiers with tougher hands to play will be watching Brad Wall, Canada's Most Popular Premier (Post-Danny Williams edition)

A Real Leadership Race In B.C.

Far too often, leadership races serve as beauty contests, where parties look at rather vague concepts such as "electability" instead of having a real debate about issues and values.

For my part, I've always agreed with something Paul Wells wrote after Stock Day's spectacular crash 'n' burn 'n' jet ski as Canadian Alliance leader. Wells reviewed a whole score of past columns predicting a return of Trudeaumania with a neocon twist, including his own, and then suggested a good lesson to be learned.

The column ended with a warning that there is no magical quality called "electability" that could be separated from wisdom, judgement, intellect or ability to govern well. It was a sensible warning to political parties from a journalist whose first rule of politics....that when everyone in Ottawa knows something, it is invariably wrong....has been vindicated again and again.

That's why it is a good thing, for their members, that the B.C. Liberals are using their leadership race to have a debate on ideas which, whatever one's view, deserve a full debate. It may also be a good thing for voters to see something party discipline tends to obscure, which is that members of the same government can still have very real debates internally.

It was the former health minister Kevin Falcon who first launched the debate on merit pay for teachers, linking their salaries to standardized tests. Two former education ministers running, Christy Clark and George Abbott, have suggested that this is a solution that will drain more goodwill through a fight with teachers that it will benefit kids. (And, indeed, B.C. already has world class test scores)

As a former education minister myself, I tend to agree with the Harvard professor who calls for governments to work with teachers unions on a common framework for professional development and giving to teachers the resources to lift their school up, saying....

That’s because merit pay is too one-dimensional a solution to have an effect on student performance, said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a merit pay researcher.

“It’s an odd thing, because individual merit pay comes up with political campaigns. It seems so simple and gets a lot of play,” Prof. Johnson said. But when teachers don’t succeed, “it’s for a lot of complex reasons – the most important being that they probably don’t know how to do any better than they’re doing.”

In fact, in New Brunswick, even though it wasn't a sexy sort of announcement, the Liberal government increased teacher training budgets by over $4million and gave innovation grants to be spent on classroom resources by leading teachers...the result was the biggest jump in literacy scores ever. Sadly, teacher professional development was the first thing cut by the new government, and the results will soon be seen.

But the important thing is that B.C. Liberals are actually having a real debate on ideas. While they are one of the biggest tents out there (the "Liberal" label is an accident of history, that having simply been the party that served as a vehicle for the broad, anti-NDP coalition of the old Social Credit Party), their ability to allow members to debate and even disagree publicly is a model that the rest of the country should watch.

link here.