Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the Ontario PCs' platform

[Sorry for the double-post. Had some unfixable errors in the previous version.]

So, here we go with the Ontario PC Platform, the Changebook (warning: PDF). Or is that the Change Book? ChangeBook? I don't know, and I don't think they do, either.

According to this, Tim Hudak was a Customs Officer at the Peace Bridge. I knew there was a good reason to hate him.

Change: To Put More Money in Your Pocket

Unless you're already rich, in which case we'll buy you some bigger pockets first.

Tax cuts

Shocking, right? Hudak wants us all to pay less income tax. I don't really care one way or the other about the income tax as such. I'm not sure that the middle classes really need an income tax reduction so much as some sort of reasonable assurance that their jobs won't vanish and their wages won't stagnate. (See: Unions, Joining A.)

Cancel the ecotaxes

McGuinty doomed this initiative by not being particularly open about it. I'm not sure it was well conceived in any event -- if you want to put a tax on items to represent the currently externalized environmental impacts, you have to do so at a level that actually internalizes the costs. Otherwise, it's a (fairly weak) attempt to manipulate consumption through punitive incentives.

Double the caregiver tax credit

Yeah, the NDP platform blows this idea out of the water. The tax credit is meaningless, as the problem caregivers face is a lack of income while providing care. A tax credit works by (potentially) giving you a refund cheque at the end of the tax year -- which helps with all those monthly bills you've racked up in the interim.

Remove the HST from hydro and heating

Yeah, I've talked about this with the NDP platform already.

Remove the Debt Retirement Charge from hydro bills

This one does make sense to me, assuming the PCs are correct in saying that the full debt has already been collected. But it's a pretty minor point.

Unplug smart meters

No, no, no. Bad, bad idea. Horrible, for so many reasons. First, most utilities have already installed them and aren't going to be happy with the notion that they've laid out all this money for nothing.

Second, time-of-use billing actually does make a certain amount of sense. If you don't do either that or invest in increasing capacity of the grid, then you're guaranteeing brown- or blackouts, particularly in the summer months during the day. (Which is when time-of-use billing makes electricity most expensive, IIRC.)

Third, the idea that anyone would choose time-of-use over flat-rate billing is absurd.

Eliminate the Ontario Power Authority (OPA)

The mighty Wikipedia tells us that the OPA is responsible for the following:
  • Assessing the long-term adequacy of electricity resources
  • Forecasting future demand and the potential for conservation and renewable energy
  • Preparing an integrated system plan for conservation, generation, transmission
  • Procuring new supply, transmission and demand management either by competition or by contract, when necessary
  • Achieving the targets set by government for conservation and renewable energy.
To my eye, none of these functions is eliminable. Which means that eliminating the OPA will put these functions somewhere else, presumably within the Ministry of Energy. So, is the PC plan to eliminate the OPA bureaucracy, and replace it with an expanded Ministry of Energy bureaucracy? Or what?

New generation

They want to build hydro -- I'm not sure where -- natural gas -- despite emissions concerns -- and nuclear -- despite cost concerns. None of these objections, which are common and well-established, are mentioned anywhere in the platform.

There's some handwaving at solar, wind and other alternative sources, but without some sort of government investment strategy, this is really quite meaningless.

End feed-in tariff program and the Samsung deal

Dealing with these in reverse order.

The "Samsung deal" was a contract signed by the government and Samsung to build several clusters of wind and solar energy production across the province over the next 20 years. So, by my count, that's big investment in renewable energy, minimal exposure for the government (Samsung must deliver to get paid), and job creation.

The number the PCs are throwing around is bullshit, BTW. Samsung is spending $7 billion. They make money through a premium on all energy generated through their installations, plus money from the feed-in tariff program. Samsung also must meet investment, manufacturing and job creation milestones in order to get the full value of the contract. (Here's Samsung's take on the deal.)

The PCs' principal objection seems to be that the deal was signed in secret -- which is a weird reason to try to rip it up.

That said, it's not clear to me that the PCs could end the Samsung deal. It's quite likely that Samsung, not being run by idiots, has early termination penalties in the contract which could be quite hefty. Unless the PCs have some legal loophole they can exploit -- perhaps the contract isn't, in some technical sense, actually binding yet -- they may have to honour at least part of it.

There's also reason to be concerned about whether an Ontario government could sign a deal in future with a large company like Samsung, if the Samsung deal gets terminated. Who, exactly, would want to do business with us if an opposition party might show up after election day and terminate the deal?

The feed-in tariff program, for those not in the know, is a government endeavour that pays smaller producers for producing energy which is fed back into the grid. The idea is to incentivize private power generation by offering long-term contracts at fixed-rate prices. The PCs' objection seems to be that the rates are too high. Which is fine, but then one would think the solution is to lower the rates, not kill the whole program.

Yet kill the whole program they will, which winds back to my earlier concern about whether a PC government will be even remotely serious about investing in green energy sources.

Establish a Consumer Advocate at the Ontario Energy Board (OEB)

Didn't the PCs say they didn't like bloated bureaucracies?

More to the point, what can this "Consumer Advocate" actually do? It's not at all clear. Does Hudak want to turn the OEB into some sort of energy PTA? (Seriously.)

Reducing job-killing red tape

Okay, I see the logic behind wanting to minimize the amount of paperwork that has to be done to get a business off the ground, but is there really all that much? Is it really all that unreasonable? This sounds a lot like Rob Ford's promise to eliminate unnecessary spending -- as Toronto City Council will eventually have to acknowledge, there really isn't much. The same seems to apply here.

Corporate tax cuts

Shocking, right? This is standard right-wing dogma. Tell me something, Tories: if low corporate taxes create jobs, why is the US unemployment rate so bad?

Improve the apprenticeship system

This policy is almost entirely aspirational. The one concrete idea is to delegate more responsibility for signing up apprentices to colleges. I'm not clear on what that's supposed to accomplish, beyond passing the responsibility off onto someone else.

Reform labour laws

Warning, left-wingers: this is where we need to be really, really concerned.

Hudak wants to either do away with or severely limit card-check unionization, replacing it with secret ballot -- which is known to be an employer-friendly process.

He also wants to introduce "paycheque protection" to prevent unions from spending membership money towards political causes they don't support -- which is not matched by anything on the business/corporate side. If Hudak were at all interested in fairness, then there would be similar rights involved in preventing businesses/corporations from endorsing political causes their employees don't endorse.

Finally, he wants to make financial information for unions "transparent", just as it is for businesses and charities. This is an obvious bait-and-switch. Private businesses only make their financial information fully available to shareholders and (I believe) relevant regulatory bodies. Not the general public. Who wants to bet on whether unions will be allowed to only open up their books to their membership?

Farm policy

Guess who's gunning for rural votes?

There's a vague reference here to the "business risk management program", which requires some Googling. Here's the program as it stands. On my reading, this is protectionist, which is odd from a "conservative" party. I've objected to the NDP's protectionist policies yesterday; the same arguments apply here.

Oh, and there's a "Buy Ontario" food policy, which is similarly protectionist nonsense.

Transport

Lumping transit and roadway expansion together is not a good way to develop a transport plan which will allegedly balance transit and cars. The platform vaguely handwaves at $35 billion in investment, which, if it includes roadway construction as well as transit, is peanuts. It's hard to say whether this is a good idea without more details, but I don't really expect a Harris Tory to do anything serious to help improve transit.

He might give us another tolled highway, though.

Creating opportunities for newcomers

This is all vague handwaving nonsense.

Balancing the budget

Boy, right-wingers have a fetish for balancing the budget, don't they? One wonders if they've ever had mortgages or held a balance on their credit cards.

They want 2% savings, per year, on government spending, excepting healthcare and education. The real way they want to achieve this is buried, but at least stated explicitly: Hudak wants to sell off government property in order to balance the budget.

Which has worked out so well in the past.

Reduce Cabinet and the bureaucracy

Hudak wants to reduce the Cabinet -- not sure why, but okay -- and wants to reduce the bureaucracy through attrition. Which, again, sounds suspiciously Ford-ish -- improve service while having less service-providers.

Reduce number of agencies, commissions, etc.

Again, this sound suspiciously Ford-ish. What if, after reviewing, it turns out that we really need pretty much all the agencies we've got? What will Hudak do then? Probably what I expect Ford to do: cut anyway, consequences be damned.

Change how services are delivered

Oh, dear. The PCs have bought the nonsensical line that public sector unions should "compete" for government contracts.

Legally, unions can't do this. They're not the right sort of entity to compete for a contract. Economically, this is a way to eliminate good jobs while doing diddly-squat to create newones. Politically, it should play well to the stupid, who don't realize that most government contractors are themselves unionized.

Reduce public sector compensation to the level of private sector compensation

This policy amounts to the PCs trying to tell arbitrators how to write contracts. This is not something arbitrators have, historically, been in favour of. Furthermore, there's a basic legal problem in that any law which tries to constrain how arbitrators arbitrate might count as substantial interference under the BC Health Services decision -- which would make such laws unconstitutional.

No more corporate subsidies

Hahahahahahaha.... right.

Change: To Guarantee the Services You Need

And to convince you you don't really need any services.

$6 billion more for healthcare

Um... okay? I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but where will this be spent?

Performance measures on quality of healthcare services

While this might sound good, I'm not sure what the point is. We don't have enough doctors to go around. We don't, really, have enough resources across the healthcare sector. So, what is a quality measure going to help with, exactly? Quality measures are only useful when you have a choice of going somewhere else.

ER wait-time guarantees

Pie in the sky.

More long term care beds

Sounds good. I would like some details, though.

Home care choice

The policy is that homecare users should be able to pick whichever home care provider they want. Which sounds good, except it runs back into the scarce resources problem: choice is only relevant if you have another option.

Bringing doctors to underserviced areas

This is quite vague. The one positive note here is that the platform recognizes the physicians aren't the only ones who can help in underserved communities.

Eliminate fraud and wastein healthcare and reduce administration

Rob Ford wrote this. Except it's not in crayon....

Increase education spending

Another $2 billion for K-12 education. Spent where? Who knows.

Schools to be given flexibility in meeting students' needs

This is vague as hell. It's an intriguing suggestion, but without details, it means nothing.

Full-day kindergarten for all schools

Ah, there goes that $2 billion. Or did you not realize that going to full-day kindergarten across the province will require more classrooms to put students in, and more teachers to teach them?

Free teachers to teach

I had to keep that phrase because it's so meaningless and stupid. No school board is going to let teachers run the class as they see fit. The platform suggests that teachers can write report cards in the way they see fit, can teach phonics if they want to (despite serious questions about whether teaching phonics is a good idea), and so on.

Folks, no individual teacher is ever going to have that kind of power in the public system. Ever. The school boards will not allow it.

Furthermore, if the Ministry of Education is getting out of the directive business, and letting individual boards do as they choose, this is going to create a pretty broad spectrum of education across Ontario -- broadening in both directions, that is. Some boards will experiment with methods that lead to kids learning less. The ripple effects will be significant and irreversible.

Expand the use of technology

Hey, there's that $2 billion again.

I've heard that technology is going to revolutionize teaching for, literally, decades. It hasn't. It can't. Technology is just a process; it's a set of tools. What matter is what you do with them. You can go out and buy yourself thousands of shiny computers, but if they don't help communicate the material to the students, whatis the point?

Put the needs of students and the economy at the centre of Ontario's post-secondary system

Oh good god. I don't know what that means, but it's scary. Yet more nonsense about post-secondary education being little more than a program for developing good little worker bees, plus the standard disregard for the ongoing labour crisis in higher education.

He promises to create 60,000 ne post-secondary spaces, and have colleges and universities "compete" for them -- which, given past history, is probably going to mean that the cheapest option will win, regardless of quality and regardless of consequences for everyone trying to work in higher ed.

Give cities and towns back some power

Okay, this sounds like a good idea. I'm not sure exactly what power, though.

Give more cities and towns access to gas tax revenue

I'm not sure why it's just the gas tax revenue. Why not pick up some responsibilities from the municipalities instead, hmmm? Say, transit?

Give Northerners a stronger voice at Queen's Park

Oh, dear. There's going to be a part 2 of the platform -- Changebook North. I don't like this sort of arbitrary dividing up of provinces into various areas in order to avoid having to get other parts of the province on-side. On the other hand, if you're going to do it, do it for real, not in this half-assed kind of way. Why is there a special set of policies for the North, yet nothing special for the GTA?

Also, I'm not sure Hudak realizes that the North is mostly NDP -- the federal party cleaned up, and the 2007 provincial election saw some Libs barely hold their seats. Of course, maybe that's the game -- strengthen the NDP at the expense of the Liberals by siphoning votes off to the Tories?

Protecting the air and water

The PCs want to close the coal-fired plants and replace them with renewable sources. This after saying that they wanted to invest in hydro, natural gas, and nuclear??

Reference to water is a hand-wave.

Protecting parks and conservation

It's rather vague. The concrete points are another $10 million for parks -- which is nice, but minimal -- and devoting 100% of hunting and fishing license fees to conservation -- which makes sense to me.

Change: To Clean Up Government

By sweeping everything under the rug.

Accountability for Cabinet and civil servants

The PCs are going to dock Ministerial pay if they miss financial or regulatory goals? I'll believe that when I see the goals.

The Truth in Government Act

The PCs want to post all contrast, grant, travel costs, expenses, etc. information online. Which is fine, except I'm not sure that this is going to accomplish anything useful, except enhance the usual game lazy reporters play, of culling through expense reports for anything that sounds "weird" and breathlessly splashing on the front page of the Sun.

A law that governments can't raise taxes without a clear mandate

Well, we'd have to see the law to be sure, but, really, this is total horseshit. You can't bind the government's ability to levy taxes with legislation passed by that very government.

An Open Government initiative

The PCs want to solicit public input on policy improvements. This is a positive idea, but we'll see if the PCs will actually follow through on it.

Making government transactions easier and faster

Again, a good idea. I've said for a while that many services should be online, but aren't, or aren't easily available. And it doesn't really make sense for government offices to be only open standard business hours.

Modernize the welfare system

The concrete suggestion is to allow folks who work part-time receive more of their benefits so the transition from welfare to work is easier. That sounds like a good idea.

The PCs also want to make it impossible to collect welfare benefits without living in Ontario for a year. That sounds okay, but I'm not sure why a year is the cut-off.

Getting tough on crime

Ah, here we go again. As soon as the PCs start saying things that make some sense, they have to go off the deep end with some right-wing lunacy.

Manual labour for prisoners! GPS tracking of registered sex offenders! Collecting unpaid fines!

The first two are simply vicious. The third does make some sense, to be fair.

Some nonsense about victims' rights

I have no idea what this policy is about. It seems to be about making it easier for people who have been victims of crimes to collect compensation. Which sounds reasonable, but the devil is in the details here.

Speeding up prosecution

Which can't possibly go wrong.

A provincial registry of houses used as grow ops and meth labs

Which also can't possibly go wrong.

Tougher laws on illegal occupation

Which couldn't ever go wrong. Again.

Fighting fraud

This is an odd grabbag of policies. First, there's a reference to auto insurance rates being high due to fraud. That may be what the industry wants the government to believe, but it's not supported by the evidence. The real problem is how bureaucratic the process of settling a claim has become. Ontario has the highest per-claim cost in Canada because of the expenses racked up by each side during a claims dispute. Fraud is really not the issue.

Second, there's a quick reference to banning people from welfare, for life, for fraud. This is Reaganesque, and still ridiculous.

Cracking down on illegal tobacco

I can't imagine this is the biggest criminal problem in Ontario. But, hey: if it avoids having to admit that the controlled substance laws really don't work, whatever.

Overall

Holy hell, we're in for a bad four years if Hudak gets in. Jesus. There's a few good ideas, scattered here and there. But this is mostly a cruel and mean-spirited document, which won't do anything to reverse the errors of the McGuinty government. If anything, it'll make them worse.

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