Saturday, July 30, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

On small parties.

Short one today, as I'm trying to work through dissertation revisions. But I thought it was worth noting how few of Ontario's registered political parties have bothered to put together a platform as yet. It's kind of sad, given that we have fixed election dates. You'd think parties would be ready to go months in advance -- apparently not.

The NDP's platform is incomplete, which they admit, and I'll get back to the rest of it when they bother to release it. I'm not sure if this is strategy or carelessness -- I'm guessing strategy, but it's reading like the latter.

The PCs have a complete platform, but are promising a supplement dealing with Northern Ontario issues. So, at least they're ready to go.

The Libs have nothing whatsoever, but are promising something in early September. You'd think after all these years in power they'd have at least a sketch of what they wanted with another mandate -- again, apparently not.

Of the parties that hold no seats, only the Greens have anything approaching a full and serious platform.

The Ontario Libertarian Party has... something. It's called the 2010 platform, which doesn't make any sense, so I'm assuming it's an error. And the platform itself is appropriately insane. My favourite part is where they parrot Locke's "life, liberty and property" and try to apply it to healthcare -- omitting that Locke's actual line is "life, health, liberty and property", which rather changes things. It's not particularly thoughtful libertarianism, just cartoon libertarianism -- what has come to be called "glibertarianism". Serious libertarians have interesting things to say, but this ain't serious.

The Freedom Party of Ontario has the beginnings of a platform but -- well, see for yourself; it's a bit of a mess. Releasing the platform one plank at a time looks to me like they're making it up as they go along -- not the best way to earn votes and get attention when you're a minor party.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Party -- and Northern Ontario seems to be getting a lot of play from the major parties -- has a sketch of what could be a platform. However, it's all nebulous and highly aspirational.

The Communists have nothing whatsoever. I think they're are still focused on the past federal election; documents relating to it are still on the site.

The Party for People with Special Needs doesn't appear to have anything ready for the election. One wonders if they're going to bother trying to field candidates.

The Family Coalition Party has only a set of general principles, and nothing approaching a platform.

The Reform Party of Ontario is promising a platform in July. Since it's almost August, one hopes they're getting right on that. Although, a blatant typo on the front page of their website doesn't inspire confidence.

The Ontario Provincial Confederation of Regions Party has no webpresence, except for that linked Facebook page, which only refers to their Wikipedia entry. IPU knows if they're still really a political party.

The same applies to the Republican Party of Ontario.

This is a little depressing, isn't it? The largest province in Canada and we can't get more than four parties to take an election seriously?

Friday, July 22, 2011

On the Green Party platform.

Finally -- for now, at least, until the Tories and NDP release the rest of their platforms, and the Libs release anything at all -- I'm going to take a quick look at the Green Party of Ontario's platform. It's the shortest, and the slimmest when it comes to significant detail. Then again, if the GPO has any serious ambitions for this election, they involve being taken seriously. Much as with the GPC in the election prior to the most recent, the GPO is really insignificant, electorally speaking. (Quick -- without looking, who knows who the GPO's leader is?) So, this platform has to be an attempt to get themselves situated as significant and worth taking seriously.

I'm not sure they've succeeded.

Oh, and, this platform seems to be called "It's Time". I don't think that the focus groups got their hands on that one -- which is a plus, I suppose -- but shouldn't there be some more words there? It's time for... jobs? Environmental responsibility? Mike Schreiner (that's the GPO's leader, BTW)?

Creating jobs for a 21st century economy

Tax cuts and balanced budgets. Reducing "red tape". Investing in research and development. Improving high-speed internet access (what?). Freezing tuition and spending more money to maintain university and college budgets. Expanding training and certification in green jobs areas. Spending on apprenticeships and similar.

This is a weird mix of left-wing and right-wing thinking. On the one hand, we've got some investment in research, education, and (some) infrastructure. On the other hand, we've got tax cuts, elimination of regs, and balancing the budget. I've never gotten how that tightrope can be walked successfully, and I don't see that the Greens are really engaging with that problem here.

If you're cutting taxes and spending lots of money, you're increasing the deficit dramatically. Given that, how can the budget be balance, as the platform promises, by 2015? Similarly, if you're cutting regulations on small and medium-sized businesses, as the platform promises, how are you going to be able to ensure that Ontario improves in green buildings, renewable energy, and other clean technologies?

Harnessing safe, affordable energy to power our communities

Expand home energy savings program. Capture waste heat and convert to electricity. Cut regulations to promote innovative energy technologies (what?). Support micro-generation. Increase hydro generation in Ontario and purchase hydro from other provinces. Oppose nuclear plants and other expensive investments. Promote efficient communities with safe streets and roads. Support transit and commuter benefits, including tax credits and more HOV lanes. Increase incentives for green vehicles.

Again, note that this is an odd mix of right-wing and left-wing thinking. It seems a little more comfortable here, as the GPO is largely assuming that there's a vast market of untapped potential for green energy generation, transit improvements, and so on, and all government needs to do is step back and let it run free.

If this reminds you of Rob Ford's magic Sheppard subway, it should. I have no idea why the GPO believes that there's all this interest in micro-generation which just requires a little nudge to go over the top. I really don't see why a few incentives here and there would be enough to get private enterprise to reach out and produce solar panels, etc., nor why this would encourage most homeowners to buy the damn things.

Some of this is also wishful thinking. The idea that we can institute some sort of reform at the provincial level to make communities greener, by being "safe" and "efficient" is lunacy. The bedroom communities surrounding Toronto, for example, don't work as cities or towns in their own right. (I have lived in Newmarket, BTW.) Large open fields filled with quickly-built developments, separated by long roads leading to strip malls populated by big box stores is not the sort of thing the GPO has in mind, I'm sure, but that's the reality of these sorts of towns. The cost to convert them into something livable -- with most services and resources within walking distance, or serviced by reliable transit -- is, I'd suspect, in the trillions.

Similarly for increasing hydro capacity in Ontario. There just isn't that much to dam, particularly if we're not going to be building nukes and are going to be hoping that individuals will invest their own money into microgeneration schemes.

The sorts of energy policies that one would expect from the Greens will need a lot of government investment, and that money will have to come from somewhere. Cutting taxes and regs and hoping the private sector will step in is Rob Ford logic. (I of course use that last word loosely.)

Promoting access to quality, sustainable health care close to home

Support the development of healthy, liveable communities. Reduce pollution, improve water quality/sewage treatment, pay landowners for producing healthy goods and services (what?). Provide incentives for people to pursue healthy lifestyles and support nutrition, outdoor education and athletic programs. Support doctors, nurse practitioners and other health professionals for family/community care clinics. Create an electronic health records system. Improve home care, and other senior services. Create case managers in the family clinics for coordinate seniro care. Support all long-term care facilities to ensure good services.

Much of this is actually good policy. The first point about liveable communities is still, as said above, aspirational. It'd be nice, but short of tearing down the suburbs and starting from scratch, it ain't gonna happen in our lifetimes. The rest is quite reasonable, as far as I can tell.

However, it's going to cost a lot of money. In this instance, at least, the Greens aren't pretending that the taxcut fairy will make their budget numbers work out. But I see a lot of spending, a lot of new regulation, and no real explanation of how it's going to be paid for. If it's really time for the Green Party, perhaps they should tell us how this is all supposed to work?

Feeding our communities by championing stronger local farms

Coordinate a healthy school food program. Investing in community food programs. Set Ontario food purchasing targets for all public institutions. Establish a council to coordinate planning for local food systems. Reward farmers for providing environmentl and community benefits. Invest in rural infrastructure, etc., to support local farms. Eliminate regulations for family farms. Eliminate tax penalties for farms. Improve income stablization for farms.

Apparently, this is the year of buying local and currying favour with rural voters. That's all I got out of this section. There's nothing here defending the idea that local farms are a good thing -- which they aren't, at least not necessarily -- and no discussion of how we're supposed to get to enough farms, on enough land, to support Ontario's population.

The unthinking and reflexive support for local farms reminds me of the movement in the (if memory serves) 18th century, in France, where the nobility would have these little faux farms constructed, so they could swan about by the riverside dressed as shepherds and recite bad poetry, while sheep gamboled all around. (Of course, there were a bunch of peasants behind the scenes whose jobs involved making damn sure those sheep gamboled on command, or else there would be mutton for dinner.) I suspect that these sorts of policies are laid down by urbanites who haven't done any of the legwork to figure out (a) what rural voters would actually like (hint: not all rural voters really want to be farmers), and (b) whether it's economically or environmentally sound to try to fence Ontario's food system.

I had the same problem with the NDP's policies on the "buy Ontario" thing. I'm not going to say I'm in love with free markets, but I do know it's dangerous to screw with them with protectionism. So, unless you've got some really important goal -- and "keeping family farms open" doesn't seem to cut it -- it's a policy choice to be avoided.

Delivering government that works for people

End backroom deals and no-bid contracts. Post public contracts online. Streamline FOI requests. Implement community engagement process. Ensure residents have a say in community health care decisions. Give citizens a greater say in public consultations. Strengthen conflict of interest rules. Disclose public officials' expenses. Eliminate corporate and union donations to political parties.

Some of this is completely insane. Putting contracts out there, in full detail, for the public to go over is a recipe for dual disaster. First, I'm not sure how many corporate entities would be comfortable with having their contracts with the government displayed for public perusal -- so, some may simply opt not to do business with the government of Ontario.

Second, we're likely going to get a hyped-up version of the periodic feeding frenzy over politicians' expense reports. Without context or explanation, some big numbers will be trotted out in headlines in newspapers and on TV, and everyone will get all agitated that someone, somewhere spent $100K on towels or something. Not saying that all public spending is justifiable, but we're not in a political culture that allows for that kind of justification to be offered. Without a mechanism to ensure that the frenzy doesn't get going, this is just asking for it.

Allow a greater role for citizens to get involved is a weird issue for me. On the one hand, I can see the appeal of listening to members of communities. On the other hand, our MPPs are supposed to be our representatives, not our delegates. That is, once we've sent them off to Queen's Park, they're supposed to get on with doing the job of governing, not coming back every week asking what it is they were supposed to do again. Not to mention that the process the Greens seem to be proposing runs a serious risk of being hijacked by monied interests and professional lobbyists.

Budget projections

The Greens include some budget projections in the back. Like the NDP, it's basically chart porn. I notice, though, that the Greens' numbers seem entirely detached from reality. They're projecting greater increased revenues than under the (I presume) Liberal budget, despite the fact that their platform doesn't call for any tax increases that I saw. They're also projecting less program spending, despite the fact that their platform seems to call for a bunch of new spending.

I don't take charts like this seriously, as a rule. It's weird to note that the Greens didn't seem to take it seriously, either.

Overall

The only part of this that's got some decent ideas is the healthcare section. The jobs section is mostly fantasy. The energy section is fantasy. The farms/food section looks dangerous. And the transparency/governance section is just... weird. I really don't think they thought that one through and just chucked it in as an "and another thing". Also, am I the only one who thinks it's weird there's no crime policy and no education policy?

So far, if you can't bring yourself to vote NDP for some reason, you may as well vote Green rather than Tory. the NDP's platform, as incomplete as it is, is still the best of the ones out there. But it's not shaping up to be an election about many good ideas.

Will the Liberals come through with a magical plan of wonderment and delight? I've yet to be convinced that a plan even exists. So, as far as I'm concerned, at this point in time, voting Liberal in October would be a matter of tribal loyalty rather than sensible reflection.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Weekend metal-blogging.

Chthonic, "Broken Jade". Ridiculously good vids coming off this album.

(Sorry, had to disable it, as it was screwing up Blogger for some reason. Vid is here)

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the Ontario NDP's 2011 platform.

Okay. The Ontario NDP's platform. The Plan for Affordable Change (warning: PDF). Jeez, focus-group that name much? I'm splitting this into the four areas that the ONDP did in the platform, for ease of reference.

1. Making life affordable

You mean it's not? I kid, I kid. Seriously, though: the focus groups are all over this thing.

HST off home heating, gas, electricity

One worry I've heard here is that this will encourage over-consumption of gasoline, in particular, but energy as well. I don't think that worry is particularly well-founded, though. Suppose that the combined cost of these items is $250 a month for a single-family home with one car, driven to and from work every weekday. HST is 13%, so, over the tax year, this promise amounts to $390 back in this family's pocket. It's such a tiddly amount that I can't see it altering people's buying/spending habits in any significant way.

So, why do it? I can see this as accomplishing two things. One, making people feel good about the NDP because they're cutting taxes, and everyone loves tax cuts. (Well, everyone stupid loves tax cuts; and many people are stupid, unfortunately.) Two, depriving the government of revenues -- 13 million people in Ontario, assume 3 persons per family, works out to ~44,000 familes, so about $17 million in revenue.

In other words, it's just like cutting the vehicle registration tax in Toronto. Andrea Horwath has taken a page from Rob Ford's book!

Okay, not really, but it's just pandering, not significant one way or the other.

A gas price ceiling

Urg. Price ceilings are often dangerous. While the desire to produce some stability in the gas price market is admirable, a binding price ceiling is probably bad policy. Price ceilings set below the market price produce shortages, by some combination of two mechanisms -- some suppliers drop out, and consumer demand increases. Unlike the HST thing, then, this is something to worry about, environmentally, in terms of its impact on gasoline consumption. Since the price ceiling is going to float -- the platform says the price will be reviewed every week -- it's possible that these consequences will be avoided, and the goal of stability will be achieved. But I'm really not sure about it.

Freeze transit fares (for four years), in exchange for share cost of operating transit equally with the municipalities

This I like. It might serve to mitigate the above worries about the environmental impacts of a gas price ceiling. A fare freeze should serve to get people using transit -- in this case, a price ceiling will only increase customer demand, as the supplier (being a public monopoly) isn't going anywhere. Sharing the cost of operation should help municipalities to invest in improved customer service initiatives (a long-standing problem in Toronto, for example)as well as improved service generally. Thumbs up.

Vague promise to invest in new transit projects

This is meaningless without details. It sounds nice, but the last time there was an NDP government in Ontario, we in Torontowere supposed to get three subway lines. We got Downsview station and the Sheppard stubway. (Yes, I know, the mean ol' Harris government tossed them out, and McGuinty hasn't built squat. I'm not defending the other two parties here, folks.)

We're now, about 15 years on, finally getting the extension past Downsview to York U.

Look, we know Rob Ford and his cronies want all-subway, all the time. We also know that's pie-in-the-sky. The cost of subway is insane; unless you've got a pretty hefty rider base, it's just not feasible. This is where the Transit City project actually made a lot of sense, until McGuinty caved and let Ford have his way. We'll at least get light rail east on Eglinton, but it's not really needed there -- what we need, desperately, is another downtown subway line (the ridership is there, I believe), and some sort of rapid transit to the west of the city, preferably in the north end.

As said, without details, this is meaningless. It's easy to promise transit expansion, but very difficult to execute it -- ask Rob Ford about his Sheppard subway extension, funded by rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust, and built by private-sector pixies.

Improving pensions

This is also impossible to evaluate without any details, but the idea of a provincial retirement plan may have some merit. Particularly if it encourages people to come live and work in Ontario. (Hey, I like the other provinces fine, but we're talking Ontario politics here!)

Consolidate electricity bureaucracies to eliminate duplication

I'm a big fan of public power. I don't agree with the idea of a public monopoly on power generation, transmission or distribution, but the platform seems to leave the door open for private ownership of generation, at least. (Protip: transmission and distribution are not the same. "Transmission" refers to sending power from power plants to substations; "distribution" refers to sending power from substations to (eventually) customers.) But there's an obvious public interest in reliable, safe, clean power.

And right now, we do have a lot of duplication -- which is natural enough, given that there is some sort of a market for all three aspects of electricity in Ontario. It's not clear that this competition has been beneficial; it's also not clear that it could be beneficial, given how few people are going to turn their noses up at electricity, and how you don't really have much competition in terms of selecting your service provider.

So, probably best to do as the NDP is suggesting, and provide a public power system as a backstop, while allowing private enterprise to get involved within that context, if it so chooses. (Blind guess: it won't so choose.)

Cap CEO compensation in those bureaucracies

I love salary caps on high-level bureaucrats, in the private and public sector. I'm also a big maximum wage fan, so this is right up my alley.

The usual counterargument against this sort of policy that these folks won't want to work in the public sector if their salaries are sufficiently below the private sector. For one, if the private sector wants people who are primarily motivated by greed, good luck to 'em. I don't buy the line that you have to be a saint to go into public service, but if you're really all about the money, the public service is clearly not for you. For two, the private sector isn't exactly brimming over with talent these days. These are the same bright sparks who drove the US banking and housing markets over a cliff. Do we necessarily want to be encouraging those folks to go messing around with our infrastructure? And should we really care if they don't want to?

No more nuclear power stations; study other environmentally sound options, as well as provide tax credits for retrofits

I don't like the "no more nukes" line, in that it's partially based on some really weird quasi-environmental concerns. ("Quasi" because nuclear, when done right, is not very polluting.) However, it's also based on costs, which is a fair cop, particularly with the feds washing their hands of AECL.

I've defended, a few years back, the idea that other non-fossil fuel-based power options should be provided with some government investment to see if they can make a good run at succeeding. I still stand by that, and the NDP seems to have a similar idea.

As for tax support for retrofits, that's a "WTF" from me. I know tax credits are the latest incentivizing craze, but wouldn't it make more sense to internalize the costs of non-environmentally-sound construction methods, through tax increases, rather than reduce the cost of the environmentally sound ones?

The difference? Instead of everyone subsidizing environmentally-sound construction, individuals who build in a non-environmentally-sound fashion will have to subsidize themselves. Which seems fairer.

2. Creating and protecting jobs

Because the other parties want to destroy jobs, like an economic Mothra.

Corporate tax rates will stay below US levels -- but not as far below as they are

I like it. How could you not? The only possible objection is that our corporate tax rates might be higher than those in other provinces; but what evidence is there of an exodus of Ontario businesses to other parts of Canada?

10% tax credit for companies that invest in budilings, machinery, equipment in Ontario
A credit for training staff

Combining these two because I'm going to make the same point.

Again with the tax credits. I see the logic here, on both points, which is that the party wants to incentivize spending money on things -- infrastructure, manufactured goods, skills -- which will tend to benefit Ontario economically. I'm not sure why we're giving tax credits rather than, say, taxing monies that are held at a higher level than those that are spent.

Again, it's a matter of how you're incentivizing the behaviour. The proposed policy is to reduce public revenues in order to subsidize companies doing things they should already be doing as good business practices. (Business has no independent reason to exist; its justification is purely instrumental. One of the things it's supposed to produce is economic benefit to the surrounding society.) My alternative is to increase public revenues when companies don't do things they should already be doing. Again: this seems fairer to me.

Ontario's money will be spent in Ontario for jobs
Foreign takeovers will be limited, e.g., the (now failed) takeover of the TSX
Resources mined in Ontario must be processed in Ontario

Combined because they are variants on a (Red Ensign) flag-waving theme. And they're all equally bad policy.

Sorry, Dippers, but it's true. These are very appealing ideas, in a semi-patriotic sort of way ("Go Ontario Go!"), but it hamstrings the government's ability to spend public money wisely, while simultaneously protecting Ontario industries against external competition. If Ontario has industries that can't survive against foreign -- and, for that matter, elsewhere in Canada -- competition, then those industries probably shouldn't survive. If the idea is to ensure Ontario's economic stability and growth long-term, then we need to develop industries that can thrive on their own, without government creating an artificial barrier around them.

I would much rather see a set of policies aimed at encouraging the development of new indsutries, as well as improving current ones, in order to ensure Ontario's economic future.

Minimum wage will be $11, indexed to the cost of living

Also bad policy, but probably the best policy that's politically viable.

The best policy is a guaranteed minimum income. A minimum wage punishes marginal employers, mostly in service industries, and encourages off-the-books employment, mostly in agriculture and construction. They can't pay the wage, so they either get by with fewer workers, or they underpay them -- or both. Large employers will probably have no difficulty paying the higher wage -- Wal-Mart can pay people more; it just doesn't want to -- and thus they have leverage to force smaller employers out of the market.

A minimum income, by contrast, pools the cost across the population, so larger employers don't get to throw their weight against smaller (any more than they do, of course). Couple it with a progressive tax system and you have something which provides everyone with enough money to live on, subsidized most heavily by those most able to do so. The minimum wage can then be eliminated, allowing those who work to earn above their minimum income, and allowing those who employ them to pay something they can afford. That might also serve to do some serious damage to the Wal-Marts of the world: if you don't have to work for them full-time in order to pay your bills, would you bother?

As said, though, you probably can't get a minimum income off the ground, politically, in this province right now. So, this is bad, but better than the status quo.

Improve Employment Standards enforcement

Vague, but necessary. I'm not sure most people know what the Employment Standards Act (ESA) says, let alone whether it's being violated in their workplace. It would be nice to have some strengthened language in the ESA itself, but, baby steps.

And there's some stuff on disability issues and the workplace which is too vague to be evaluated.

3. Building healthcare that works for you

But not really. See below; but this section of the platform is really disappointing. It's bad, folks. It's really bad. If this is what the consultants and the focus groups came up with, maybe the ONDP should've spent some time talking to the membership. One wonders if this sort of thing was what set Michael Laxer off on this this quixotic mission.

Cut ER wait times in half

I have no idea how the NDP plans to do this. It's not in the platform. That's dangerous. Half is a pretty strong target to meet, and without some idea of how to get there, this could easily blow up.

Cap hospital CEO compensation at twice the Premier's salary

Of course, I like this, as with the previous point about the electricity bureaucracy.

Limit use of and cost of consultants

This is arbitrary finagling. Why limit this? Are consultants necessary, unnecessary, overpaid? What's the measure in play? What's the point this is supposed to serve, except finding an expedient way to cut the costs of the healthcare system?

Give the Ombudsman oversight over hospital expenditures

This is reasonable -- I'm honestly surprised this doesn't already exist. But it points to a bigger problem: why is there nothing in here about publicizing Ontario hospitals? I mean in the sense of making them publicly-owned and -operated. That'd certainly make it easier to do things like cap CEO compensation and limit consultants.

I wouldn't support a public monopoly, but surely part of the problem here is like the problem in the electricity market -- we've got a public good that we're trying to distribute through a competitive market, and the market is failing badly because a lot of the resources are getting spent on duplicating administrative functions rather than providing that very public good.

Scrap the LHIN system and improve local oversight

Vague, thus meaningless.

Eliminate ambulance fees

Sounds reasonable; but how are the ambulances going to be paid for? OHIP? Should we hope that paramedics will work for free?

Okay, that's unfair; I'm sure that there'll be some mechanism for paying the fee. But it's more than a little frustrating to see the ONDP engaging in what is basically an accounting shell game. Instead of the patient being handed a bill for the ambulance, the ambulance will hand a bill to the hospital, who hands it to the government, who takes it out of general revenues.

If you really want to reduce overuse of the healthcare system, it might make sense to give people some sense of exactly how much money is being spent on their care. (It might make more sense to not rely on an insurance system for everything, but that's an issue I've covered previously.)

Eliminate other costs as possible

Vague, thus meaningless.

Prioritize costs in upcoming negotiations on national healthcare accord

Vague, thus meaningless.

Eliminate waiting lists for long-term care

Vague, thus meaningless.

Help fund healthcare services at home

Vague, thus meaningless.

Create a publicly owned and accountable home care system to reduce mgt and admin costs by 20%

Ah, a silver lining to this very dark cloud of weirdly vague and half-formed healthcare policy suggestions. this is reasonable, although I have no idea where the 20% figure comes from.

Again, though: if we've going to have a publicly-owned and -operated home care system, why not something analogous to the British NHS, with hospitals run by the government, and physicians publicly employed? Why not go all the way and just own the whole damn system, rather than little pieces here and there?

Daily support for seniors at home

Vague, thus meaningless.

Forgive student loans for MDs in underserved communities

A reasonable point, although I would like a definition of "underserved community". Depending on how you divide the province into "communities", this would be easy to game.

Fund 50 new 24hr healthcare centres with physicians and/or nurse practitioners

A good idea, but doesn't go nearly far enough. Why do we still rely on physicians to provide so much of our healthcare? There is reference to nurse practitioners here, which is a start, but really. The legal profession has a battalion of supporting professions who do the day-to-day and routine stuff -- secretaries, paralegals, and so on. What about garden-variety nurses? And others in the allied healthcare fields (pharmacists, for example)? Baby steps, maybe, but including more than just physicians in the system would be an easy way to (a) improve access to healthcare services while (b) reducing costs significantly.

Mandatory physed in high school

I'd need to see the proposed curriculum here. But if it ends up forcing bookish shy kids into team sports, this is a recipe for disaster. You think bullying in schools is bad now? On the other hand, if it's simply that some sort of regular physical activity is required -- school-provided or not -- it seems reasonable. If I could've gotten away with weekly visits to the pool, that would've worked out for me, for example.

Banning junk food advertising at children

Because children can't see all the junk food advertising targeted at adults? This reminds me of the whole Joe Camel thing -- you might get junk food companies to stop ads with characters that are specifically child-centred, but the notion that this will do anything to improve child health is nuts.

If you want to do that, you need to make it as easy for parents -- if not easier -- to provide healthy meals for their children rather than unhealthy ones. As long as it remains quicker and cheaper to grab something from McDonald's rather than provide a homecooked meal, parents will do it -- welcome to the world of single parents and two working parents -- and children will continue to develop a taste for junk food.

Calorie labelling on menus at large chain restaurants

Why stop at large chains? And why just calories? Seriously.

One of the things that I've never gotten about food labelling laws is how arbitrary it all is. (I'm sure industry lobbying is the culprit.) Restaurant food doesn't have to have any nutritional information attached, although the information must be available, upon request -- although I recall that scene in Super Size Me where Morgan Spurlock tested that (and it didn't often work out). Food from a grocery store must bear labels, except fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh meats and store-prepared bakery products, and probably some other things I'm forgetting.

Worse, when you do have the information, it's a huge mishmash of stuff that is either misleadingly phrased -- where a "single serving" from a bag of chips is equivalent to four chips -- or simply confusing -- does anyone really know what thiamin is and how much you should have in a day? Not to mention the issues involved in figuring out how to derive individual nutritional recommendations from statistical generalizations.

Informed choice is indeedkey here, and the policy is good insofar as it recognizes that, but choice can't be informed if the information we're given is compiled in a way to obscure its meaning.

A better idea is to compel everyone who sells food to provide information on that food to the customer at point of purchase (with some exceptions for cases where that would be crazily onerous, e.g., hot dog carts), as well as have a central web database which could be searched for that same information. That information should be provided in a way that communicates effectively and clearly what the nutritional pluses and minuses of the food are. As well, in addition to the physed component, all children should be educated in the basics necessary to understand the information provided on food lables.

Then if you're eating crap, you can't excuse it by saying you "didn't know" it was bad for you.

4. Living within our means

God, I hate titles like that. This promulgates the "government = family" myth, where principles that could sensibly guide financial decisions at the family level are erroneously applied to the government level.

Basically, it's chart porn. If you like to pore over charts and get giddy over numbers, knock yourself out. I suspect it's probably optimistic as hell, but all the platforms will have that problem.

Overall

The transit policy is good. The electricity policy is good. The tax and wage policy is not great, but mostly harmless. The "buy Ontario" and protectionist stuff is bad. The health policy is quite bad -- I dislike that section the more I read it. There is nothing about education, the environment, housing, culture, agriculture, or research.

Not good, NDP. Not good.

Of course, we'll see if anyone else does any better.