Sunday, February 21, 2010

Corrections, Public Safety and Policing violate provincial law; request by Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner ignored

In October 2009, the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) posted a news bulletin on its website indicating that the provincial government was considering turning over its responsibility to inspect, license and monitor mechanical equipment -- such as elevators, amusement rides, boilers and other pressure vessels -- to private interests.

SGEU subsequently launched a public awareness campaign to let the people of Saskatchewan know what was happening and what was at stake.

The Ministry of Corrections, Public Safety and Policing “is proposing to move safety inspections from the public service to a Delegated Authority. This new authority would be governed by a board of directors that would include industry representation,” the SGEU said.

“The public has not been made aware of any plans to shift responsibility for safety inspections from public to private hands. Industry has been consulted, but the people of the province have been left in the dark.”

The CPSP’s licensing and inspections services unit is responsible for administering a wide range of regulatory, enforcement, and advisory services which provide safety standards to industry and the general public in the areas of:

▪ boiler and pressure vessel installations
▪ elevator and amusement ride installations
▪ licensing of persons who install gas and electrical equipment

The registration, inspection, certification, and licensing programs are operated on a fee-for-service, cost-recovery basis. Related costs are directed at those sectors which are directly involved in the manufacture, installation, and operation of potentially hazardous equipment; however, the safety benefits derived from these programs affect all Saskatchewan residents, the ministry’s website states.

The SGEU says that industry self-regulation too often means lower standards, inadequate reporting, limited monitoring and reduced compliance. It would like to know if the provincial auditor and ombudsman will have powers to oversee operations and address problems, and whether freedom of information and privacy protection rules that apply to government ministries will apply to the Delegated Authority. Good questions.

However, if recent events are any indication the Saskatchewan Party government appears to have little interest in being open and transparent on the subject.

On October 16, 2009, a freedom of information request was submitted to CPSP for copies of any briefing notes or memorandums since July 1, 2009, regarding or relating to the regulation, licensing, inspection and enforcement of boilers, pressure vessels, elevators and amusement rides in the province.

The request was neither onerous nor frivolous. It did not include emails, which can be time consuming to search for, and the time period involved is short.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requires government institutions to give written notice to the applicant within 30 days after the application is made stating whether access to record or part of it will be granted or refused. CPSP failed to do this.

On January 12, 2010, an email was sent to the ministry’s access and privacy consultant, Jim Bingaman, inquiring about the status of the request. He never responded.

A week later, on January 19, 2010, an email was sent to CPSP deputy minister Alan Hilton asking the same question. Hilton was also advised of the previous attempt to contact Mr. Bingaman. He didn’t respond either.

The matter was then turned over to the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) for follow-up action. In a letter dated February 9, 2010, the OIPC advised that a review would be undertaken.

“Based on your letter and enclosures, it appears CPSP has not provided you with a response pursuant to section 7(2) of The Freedom of Information of Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP). We have requested that they send a response to you. As such, you should receive a response no later than Thursday, February 18, 2010,” the OIPC said.

The deadline came and went without any word from the ministry. So not only is CPSP in contempt of provincial law it also appears to be disregarding a direct request from the information commissioner to comply with legislation.

The Saskatchewan Party government is secretive to begin with. Ministries frequently use the Act to block access to records but to blatantly disregard the law and ignore the information commissioner, an independent officer of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly, is arrogant and disturbing.

Sadly, the OIPC has no order-making power. It cannot level fines and penalties or force government institutions to do anything. The best it can do is issue a report and make recommendations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Conservative MP Kelly Block pre-budget 2010 survey: hypocrisy, tax cuts, spending cuts, voter profiling and little hope for the unemployed

During the week of February 1, 2010, constituents in the federal riding of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar received a pre-budget 2010 survey from Conservative MP Kelly Block.

Titled Your views matter the mail-out contains a healthy dose of hypocrisy and engages in what appears to be a form voter profiling to weed out non-supporters.

“The most important task of a Member of Parliament is to represent constituents, so it is important for me to know your views. I will be taking the results of this survey to the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance for consideration in the upcoming budget,” Block states in the preamble.

This is pretty rich coming from an MP whose sole purpose since being elected in October 2008 seems to be to inundate constituents with an endless stream of partisan flyers paid for by taxpayers or read prepared statements at cheap photo-ops; and, who was completely silent when Prime Minister Stephen Harper robbed her constituents of a voice in the House of Commons when he shamefully decided to prorogue Parliament on December 30, 2009, to thwart an investigation by a House of Commons committee of the Afghan detainee affair.

The survey includes 13 simplistic, multiple-choice questions designed to appeal to conservative voters and drum up support for more tax cuts and possible spending cuts.

The survey begins on a disturbing note when Block asks respondents to identify whether they’re gun owners or churchgoers. How this information will help the prime minister and finance minister prepare the federal budget is a mystery.

The same applies to the next section of the survey where respondents are asked to pick their top priority from of a list of pre-determined topics, one of which is ‘Preserving Family Values (Moral Issues)’.

One explanation for including these hot button topics is that it could help Block and party strategists distinguish between conservatives and non-conservatives in the riding.

People filling out the survey are asked to provide their name, address, phone number and email address. Come election time voters suspected of being conservative friendly could very well be targeted for further contact.

In question #2, Block says that many people lost their jobs because of the recession. “What is the best way to help the employed,” she asks.

Respondents are given four options: Increase employment insurance, more training programs, neither, or don’t know. Not much to choose from. Then again, that’s not surprising since the Harper Conservatives have shown little interest in doing anything meaningful for the unemployed.

Shortly after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled Budget 2009 in the House of Commons on January 27, 2009, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) issued a statement calling the government’s action on Employment Insurance (EI) the “biggest single failure of the budget.”

In its post-budget analysis on January 30, 2009, the CCPA noted the following:

• Budget 2009 allocates over $2.6 billion in spending each year on additional EI and retraining programs in 2009 but does nothing to ease qualification restrictions.

• Most of the focus on unemployment is around retraining rather than income support. This includes $1 billion over 2 years through the EI program, another $500 million over 2 years for those who do not qualify for EI training, and another $200 million over 2 years for smattering of other programs.

• An extra five weeks of eligibility will be added to all claims, taking the maximum outside very high unemployment re­gions to 50 weeks. But only for the next two years, at a cost of just over $500 million per year (or one fifth the amount spent on personal income tax cuts).

• Nothing is done to equalize entry to the system across Canada or to make more of the unemployed eligible for benefits.

• For the next two years, work-sharing agreements can run for another 14 weeks to a new maximum of 52 weeks. This may bring about a reduction in benefits.

• The duration for receiving benefits has been increased from 45 to 50 weeks, for a period of two years but there is no increase in benefit rates.

The cruel joke continued on September 16, 2009, when Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley introduced Bill C-50, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, in the House of Commons. The bill gives laid-off “long-tenure” workers an extra five to 20 weeks of EI benefits, depending on their employment record. The change is retroactive to January 4, 2009, and is expected to affect about 190,000 unemployed people.

It took CCPA senior economist, Armine Yalnizyan, all of twenty-four hours to expose the shortcomings of the Harper government’s plan in an op-ed to the Ottawa Citizen published September 23, 2009.

“Bill C-50 is a resounding bust for those whose benefits are due to run out just about now,” Yalnizyan said.

“No Canadian who was laid off before January 2009 will be helped by these measures. This despite the fact that the financial crisis hit in October 2008, and many Canadians in the forestry and manufacturing industries were laid off before that.

“Most Canadians won’t get anywhere near 20 weeks of extra help. They could get as little as two weeks extra help tacked on at the back end of the duration of benefits -- the amount of time that was proposed, a year ago, to be eliminated.

“To qualify for the full extension of benefits, Canadians must be employed and paying 30 per cent of the maximum annual contribution for 12 of the last 15 years.

“Even Canadians who have been steadily employed for a long time and not in need of EI for the past five or more years may not qualify for the maximum duration of help. If they worked part-time or casual hours (the plight of many Canadians who are just waiting for that opening in the full-time job department) they haven't paid enough into the kitty and will be ignored in this recession.

“Canadians working in sectors that have regular layoffs for purposes of retooling, maintenance, or inventory rebalancing are deemed responsible for their reliance on EI, and not worthy of additional help. There is a strange and cruel imbalance at play in Canada today. The crime of being found guilty of unemployment comes with a hefty financial penalty -- and no help from the national unemployment insurance system -- but if you almost collapse the financial sector you get a government bailout.”
[New EI measures won't help most unemployed (Ottawa Citizen, September 23, 2009)]

According to Statistics Canada the national unemployment rate in January 2010 was 8.3%, 280,000 below the level of October 2008. With friends like Block and the Conservative Party the unemployed and working poor don’t need enemies.

In question #5 of her survey, Block asks, ‘Should Canada be investing more into clean energy technology?” Unfortunately, she doesn’t give any examples of what she means by clean energy technology.

Chapter 3 of Budget 2009 shows that the Conservative Party’s primary focus in this area is on two things: carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear. Both technologies require large amounts of energy and are prohibitively expensive, requiring taxpayers to pay to reduce the pollution created by industry. The budget does not mention pursuing green alternatives like solar or wind power. So when Block talks about clean energy she likely means CCS and nuclear.

In question #6 constituents are asked, ‘How should we reduce the debt after the economy recovers?’ The options presented are: Raise taxes, cut spending, or not sure.

The good thing here is that Block confirms what most economists have been saying, which is that the Harper government has only two choices. But it contradicts the prime minister who stubbornly insists that his plan better, and that the deficit (currently $56 billion) can be erased with restraint in Ottawa, and without tax increases.

“The government’s approach will be clear. We won’t be raising taxes, but we will be constraining growth, making sure that growth is very much contained in the future, and that the tax base of the country can gradually recover,” Harper said in a year-end interview for CTV’s A Conversation with the Prime Minister, taped on December 21, 2009, for a Boxing Day broadcast.

“And within four to five years, if we follow that path, we should be back to a balanced budget.”

Harper added: “The way to do it is to exercise sustained discipline, not engage in radical approaches of program cuts or tax increases, but simply to try and do it within a disciplined, constrained spending growth pattern.” [Harper’s stimulus exit plan: Get ready for five frugal years (Globe and Mail, December 21, 2009)]

The prime minister’s comments are consistent with what he said in Calgary in September 2009, during a radio interview with host David Rutherford: “We’re confident that if we restrain spending growth as we have laid out once the recession is over, without tax increases, in the next four to five years we should move back into surplus position.”

According to the Toronto Star, Rutherford pressed Harper to say “categorically” he won’t raise taxes. This was the prime minister’s response:

“No, we’re not, well, let me say this. We will not – obviously this government has been lowering taxes. That’s one of our objectives in terms of being in a good long-term economic position. We’re going to have some of the lowest tax rates coming out of this recession of any country in the world. So if we can keep our long-term spending under control, we will have a very strong investment advantage position for that. Now, in terms of raising taxes, I will just say this, just to qualify, we have no – we are not going to raise taxes – this government is philosophically opposed to raising taxes.” [Leaders dance around debt and taxes (Toronto Star, September 7, 2009)]

Should Harper’s plan fail – and with his government being philosophically opposed to raising taxes – that leaves only spending cuts, which takes us to question #10 of Block’s survey that asks, ‘Do you think the Federal Government should conduct a detailed review of all of its spending on social programs, Federal Grants, Federal Loans and Federal services provided to Canadians?’

Block doesn’t say why she’s asking the question or what the goal of such a review would be. It can only mean one thing – slashing costs (or in government-speak “finding efficiencies”).

With a staggering debt and a public worried about how to pay for it, Block still has the nerve to broach the subject of tax cuts. In questions #11 & 12 she asks, ‘How important is REDUCING taxes to you and/or your family?’ and ‘Do you think tax cuts should focus on: Families, Individuals [or] Businesses?’

Block doesn’t seem to have learned from past mistakes.

In an editorial published December 28, 2009, the Toronto Star said “a big chunk” of the record high deficit can be attributed to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s “previous tax cuts, including the ill-advised reduction of the GST by two percentage points, at a cost of about $13 billion a year to the treasury.”

“Although he has been urged – by former deputy ministers of finance, among others – to reverse the GST cuts, Flaherty is having none of it. Indeed, he has vowed not to raise any taxes at all,” the Star said. [Flaherty boxed in by own choices (Toronto Star, December 28, 2009)]

It’s incredible that Block would appear to favour more reckless tax cuts while at the same time float the idea of cutting social programs and other federal services under the guise of a spending review.

The worst of the recession might be over but the worst of the Harper government is just around the corner.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hides from public; RCMP bar peaceful demonstrators from entering Delta Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon

Demonstrators near Delta Bessborough Hotel, Feb. 5, 2010

For the second time in ten days members of the Saskatoon Chapter of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament braved cold temperatures to greet a federal Conservative politician, only to be snubbed.

More than 70 people gathered outside the Delta Bessborough Hotel over the lunch hour on February 5, 2010, to meet the person responsible for proroguing Parliament on December 30, 2009, to thwart an investigation by a House of Commons committee of the Afghan detainee affair: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper was in Saskatoon to meet with one of his closest provincial allies, Premier Brad Wall, at 1:15 p.m. before heading to a regional caucus meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wall and Harper met briefly with reporters – just long enough to stage a cheesy photo-op in front of a portrait of the late Tory premier John Diefenbaker.

At 2:45 p.m. the prime minister was to attend a business roundtable meeting accompanied by Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification. The names of the other meeting participants were not disclosed.

The media notice issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said Harper’s visit was a “public” event but unless you were a guest at the hotel or had business being there you weren’t allowed near the place.

Plainclothes RCMP guarding the main doors ordered demonstrators to assemble on the sidewalk across the street. Saskatoon police patrolled the front of the hotel checking out parked cars and telling anyone trying to park close to the entrance to keep moving.

At least one demonstrator taking pictures was asked by the RCMP for their full name, whether they lived in Saskatoon, and if they were “a fan” of the prime minister.

Harper and his entourage arrived from the south under police escort in a convoy of dark blue sedans that parked at the rear of the building. A city police cruiser and an unmarked car blocked the north entrance, presumably to keep traffic away.

At 1:30 p.m. about 40 protestors walked across the street and made a peaceful attempt to enter the hotel but were barred from doing so by the RCMP. Rally organizer Peter Garden asked to speak with the prime minister but his request was ignored. A Saskatoon police officer, pointing to the ground, told another demonstrator that they were on hotel property and had to leave. Police told the crowd they were blocking the door and were asked to disperse, which they did.

In the evening, Harper – trying to frame himself as just a regular hockey guy – attended a charity event, the $300 per plate Kinsmen Annual Celebrity Sports Dinner held in the safe confines of TCU Place, where he participated in a publicity stunt portraying an interviewer quizzing NHL greats Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, both of whom live in the United States. [Harper hosts a hockey hotstove in Saskatoon (CBC News, February 6, 2010)]

Little time was wasted capitalizing on the event. Photos of Harper with Howe and Gretzky are already on the prime minister’s website.

On January 27, 2010, Industry Minister Tony Clement was in Saskatoon to give the keynote address at a Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at the Radisson Hotel. He, too, managed to avoid protestors by slipping in through a back entrance.

Harper and his ministers seem to have lots of free time to fly around the country attending cheap photo-ops and hobnobbing with the business elite at taxpayers’ expense, yet when ordinary Canadians ask for a few minutes of their time to answer some tough questions they hide like cowards.

Demonstrators make peaceful attempt to enter hotel

RCMP and city police bar demonstrators from entering

City police cruiser and unmarked car block north entrance

Premier Brad Wall and PM Stephen Harper stage cheap photo-op at Delta Bessborough Hotel, Feb. 5, 2010, SP photo by Gord Waldner