Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Government Backlash Against Fake News

This week the Trudeau government came out with a Digital Charter which has one objective of holding social media companies accountable for allowing misinformation to propogate through their websites.  Other governments are looking at ways of doing the same thing and some countries such as Singapore have actually passed laws to meet that objective.

This has lead to something of a backlash from some circles that the governments are attempting to criminalize free speech and political dissent.

To which I ask what do you expect?  As I mentioned here propaganda, of which fake news is the latest manifestation, is a direct threat to democracy.  In the past we could always count on the Main Stream Media to fact check the assertions of propogandists but they have completely shirked that role in the last couple of decades and in some cases have become the source of the propoganda.

Someone has to look out for our democracies.  Governments have been extremely patient, asking the social media companies to clean up their act for many years.  They have not listened and the media are not doing their job so it falls upon the government to try to at least reduce the amount of acidic misinformation out there.

Of course, having governments do this is problematic.  The opportunities for abuse and a further reduction of our democratic rights are apparent.  However, while propaganda and misinformation is a long-term danger to our democracy it is becoming a much more immediate threat to governments so it should surprise no one that they are beginning to take action.

I really do not blame the social media companies.  They are in the business to make money and the more traffic they have on their sites the more money they make.  I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the MSM.  They have been in the position to counter all of the misinformation that has been circulating out there for quite some time but they have not attempted to do so.  It was only a matter of time before something gave.

It remains to be seen where all of this ends up.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The SNC Lavalin "Scandal"

I generally ignore political "scandal" as I find them frightfully boring.  As well, I also find the coverage of this "scandal" to be yet another example of just how out-of-touch the political classes of the Western world really are with ordinary citizens.  As a result, I was not going to bother commenting on the current controversy swirling around the Trudeau government.  Then Ms. Philpott resigned her cabinet position and the media lost what was left of their collective minds.  Reading the reaction today I could only think "Holy Hyperbole Batman".

So I decided to give in a make a comment.  I would suggest you prepare yourself because this post is going to be a long one even by my standards.

To listen to the media you would think that this "scandal" is the end of the Liberal government.  What rubbish.  Although the media would love to believe otherwise it will probably not register with most voters.  It will certainly register with those already opposed to the Liberals.  Those who support the Liberals will not let it change their minds and swing voters will probably not care either for the simple reason that the cause of the "scandal" really does not make sense to them.  Really, if you are going to push a scandal then push one that does not involve such esoteric concepts as Deferred Prosecution Agreements and whether a certain company should receive one.  No one cares.  Ordinary people have ordinary problems to deal with.  Hearing about how and when DPA's should be used and whether they should have been used in this case is not something ordinary people are going to become too worked up about.

Some would say that it is not just about DPA's that it is about judicial independance.  Fine, but that still will not impact most people at a visceral level and that is the level you must find in order for a "scandal" to have any lasting impact.  Some would say that the governments of Paul Martin and Stephen Harper were brought down by scandal.  They would be right but those scandals involved money, something everybody can relate to and understand.  

I would point out that Stephen Harper in particular had to deal with many scandals, while governing as a minority government, including being found in contempt of Parliament and that did not prevent him from winning a majority government in 2011.  Only after it was revealed that one of his staff gave $90,000 to a Senator did a scandal do lasting damage.  Money talks and so far no one has made any allegations that the current "scandal" involves money.

Some would also argue that this "scandal" has lead to the resignations of two government ministers.  So what, alot of scandals lead to the resignation of ministers.  It is not an uncommon occurence when controversy begins to swirl around a government.  But wait, the resignations implicate the Prime Minister himself.  Again, that is not uncommon.  Most of the time when a Minister resigns it is after the PM has been defending him/her for some time, making whatever wrong the Minister did a problem for the PM.  The fact that these two ministers stated they do not have confidence in Mr. Trudeau is a different twist but it does not take away from the basic reality.

Some would further argue that the polls are stating the exact opposite of what I am saying.  The problem with that argument is two fold.  First if polls were predictive a Clinton would be sitting in the White House.  Second, the media does not use polls to inform people of what is really happening in country.  They use them to advance or reinforce a narrative.  The current narrative is the Liberals are in big trouble so they are going to use the polls the "prove" that.

In actual fact the Liberals are not in big trouble.  For certain they have had a tough month but the Liberals are still the prohibitive favourate to win the election in October and the most probably outcome is a Liberal majority government.  There are three reason for this.

Reason One, historical voting patterns:  Since 1919, one hundred years ago, there have only been two occasions when a first term majority government was not reelected in the subsequent election.  They would be the Conservative governments of RB Bennet and John Diefenbaker.  In all other cases a first term majority government has been reelected, most of the time to another majority government.

Further in that same time period the Liberals have tended to govern for extended periods of time. Once they governed for almost 25 straight years and the last time we had a Liberal government they governed for 13 years.

Some would guffaw at this assertion but this pattern has endured for 4 generations and a profound change in the demographics of the country.  It has shown no signs, in any of the most recent Federal elections, of changing.  It would appear Canadians tend to give new governments the benefit of the doubt during their second election, most of the time.  The Harper Conservatives benefitted from it so the Liberals probably will as well.

Finally, there is a 50 year voting pattern in Ontario where the voters of that province vote opposite to the government sitting in Queens Park.  If there is a Liberal government in Queens Park, Ontario voters tend to vote Conservative at the Federal level.  If the provincial government is Conservative they tend to elect Federal Liberals.  

Just on that alone the Liberals would be in good shape but there is couple of other reasons.

Reason Two, the Liberals are opposed by four parties, five in Quebec.   Having a fractured opposition is always a big advantage to the imcumbant party and the opposition is very fractured at the moment.

Further their two main opponents have their own very serious problems.  As I have indicated in this space before the conservatives in the country suffer from a profound weakness even when they are only represented by one party.  If you add another conservative party to the mix that weakness is increased.  I, of course, speak of Mr. Bernier.  Some have argued that Mr. Bernier is not a threat to the Conservatives because he has no hope of winning the election.  The problem with that argument is Mr. Bernier does not want win the election he wants electoral credibility.  He wants to be the right wing version of the Green Party.  If he can win his own seat, maybe win a couple more and garner around 5% of the vote he will gain that credibility.  He is not going to get that from the Liberals or the NDP.  His policies and political instincts will drive them away.  His only hope is to target Conservative voters.  Most of the time the Conservative Party does not have to worry about its right flank.  Mr. Harper won the 2008 and 2011 elections by starting the campaigns throwing red meat at his base to keep them happy and then pivoting to appealing to centrist voters.  Mr. Scheer may not have that luxury.  If he follows the same strategy the pivot will be noticed and exploited by Mr. Bernier.  That is the reason why Mr. Scheer has been consorting with alt-right types.  They make up a small part of his base but if the Conservative have any chance of winning an election they have to keep their base intact.  If is splits, even a little bit, they lose and perhaps lose big.

The NDP are not in any better shape.  They went all in during the 2015 election spending to the limit without having the funds to do so.  As a result they accrued a very large debt, which has not yet been paid off.  Their fundraising has lagged significantly behind the other two parties so they will have even less cash on hand going into the next election than they did in 2015.  Mr. Singh will have a choice. Spend to the limit with the faint hope that they can win the election and risk bankrupting the Party.  Or he can conduct a much more subdued save the furniture campaign, saving his money up for 2023, when the desire for change may be high enough for the NDP go get more bang for its buck.

Since the creation of the CCF another historical voting pattern has been the Conservatives only win an election when the NDP does well.  The NDP will probably not do very well this time which means the Conservatives will probably not do very well either.  And that is before taking into account any impact Mr. Bernier might have on the Conservative vote.

Reason three, despite all of the fireworks of the past month the Liberals have not looked uncomfortable.  Indeed, they have not looked uncomfortable since the beginning of the 2015 election.  Some would say I am wrong, based on what the media is telling us but look deeper.  Have the Liberals tried to change the channel on this "scandal"?  Have they done anything differently that what they have done in the past?

I will give you an example of what I mean.  When the Senate Expense Scandal broke the Harper government did the usual things that governments do when a scandal breaks.  We have been seeing it the past few weeks with the Liberals.  As the scandal continued to unfold the Liberals started gaining in the public polls.  I dismissed them at that time but then the Conservatives began to act differently.  Before long they did the following in no particular order

  • Prorogued Parliament
  • brought down not one but two "election" budgets in a row.
  • launched yet another series of attack ads against Mr. Trudeau, focusing on his hair for some reason.
  • launched the Canada Action Plan advertizing campaign, which was extremely partisan, using $750 million in government money between 2013 and the 2015 election.
  • Stephen Harper went around the country announcing spending on a whole host of projects.  I read one analysis where, in a two year span, he made the same spending announcement 6 times, although the promised money never made it into a government budget and the spending never actually took place.
Political parties have units within them that have the job of continually taking the pulse of the electorate.  They use polling, but for gaining actual information, as well as other data sources to accurately assess their level of support down to the riding level.  From 2013 to the 2015 election I would bet a fair amount of money that the Conservatives were seeing that the Liberals were advancing into areas that were then held by Conservatives.  That was why took all of the above steps.  Mr. Harper used every tool in the government tool box to try to reverse that trend.  They never did which is why Mr. Harper never pivoted to appealing to centrists during the 2015 election.

We are not seeing the same thing from the Liberal during this "scandal", probably because their internal data is not showing a significant erosion of their support.  Except for the expected short term crisis management efforts it has been business as usual for them.  Heck, Mr. Butts is going to speak.  I would have expected that after the testimony of Ms. Wilson-Raybould they would have taken steps to move on.  After all, once her testimony was done there was not much else for the media to talk about and after a two week Parliamentary break the "scandal" would be in the rear view mirror.  Mr. Butts might have resigned his government job but I would bet that he has been in regular contact with the Prime Minister. If the Liberals were really feeling threatened by the "scandal" Mr. Butts would not be testifying tomorrow.

The media should be ignored when it comes to whether a government is in trouble.  They will only look at what is in front of them and they will not look at the big picture.  They will focus on a knot in a tree, shaped like the Virgin Mary, while ignoring Scarlett Johannson making out with Sasquach two trees over and completely ignoring the sun shining down on the forest as a whole.  

I am certain that many people in the PMO have had a rather stressful February but there is minimal danger of the Liberals being defeated in October at this time.  That could change in the next eight months but I would not count on it if you happen to dislike the current government.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

I Bet the National Energy Program is Looking Pretty Good Right Now

The National Energy Program or NEP is a four letter word in Alberta.  It was an attempt by the government of Pierre Trudeau to make certain the exploitation of Alberta's oil wealth benefitted the largest number of Canadians.

This all came to my mind when it was announced last week that the government of Alberta was imposing mandatory production cuts on the oil industry as a result of the exceedingly low price for bitumen. It is causing all sorts of problems for the companies that produce it.  The blame for this situation is the glut of easier to exploit and cleaner oil on the market.  This has forced down the price of all oil, not just bitumen.  But with bitumen not really being oil, requiring a very expensive process to convert it into something that can actually be refined into a finished petroleum product, it took a particularly big hit in the world markets.  The blame also lies at the feet of a succession of Alberta governments, including the current one, who did not plan for the inevitable busts that always happen after booms.  They did not save for a rainy day or attempt to diversify their economy when oil was selling at a high price so when the price of oil collapsed they were left holding an empty bag.

Of course, no one in Alberta is going to take any responsibility for their situation.  Instead they are going to blame everybody but themselves.  The Federal government is a handy scapegoat because it has always been a handy scapegoat for provincial governments that have shit the bed.  The conventional wisdom is if the Federal government would have done what was needed, earlier, to have a pipeline built to the BC coast all of this would have been prevented.  That is wrong of course.  Bitumen is not in high demand because there are cheaper alternatives out there.  Having an additional pipeline would not change that fact.

This brings me back to the NEP.  Essentially the NEP was designed to assist Alberta to exploit its oil wealth, including its vast reserves of Tar Sands oil, process and refine it and then get it to market.  The Federal government put together a program that provided Federal funds to develop the technology to develop Tar Sands oil and convert it into something that could be refined.  It included funds and fast track approvals for refineries so that the processed bitumen could be refined in Canada.  It included funds and fast track approvals for pipelines heading East, South and WEST so that the refined products could be sent to market.  Canada being what it is all of this would have started in Alberta but eventually other provinces would get their cut, which would have made the oil industry in this country a national industry instead of just a provincial one.  That would have given Canadians in all regions of the country a stake in the health of the industry, which could only have benefitted Albertans.

The only catch for all of this was the program required oil companies to sell to Canadians at a price lower than the market price.  Not so low that they could not make a profit and not so low that Alberta would not be able to make money on the exploitation of their resources but low enough to make certain that all Canadians could catch a break on the price of the petroleum products that they consumed.  And this only applied to oil being sold to fellow Canadians.  Any oil being exported could be sold at the world price.

The response of Albertans.  "Let those f$%*&!#g Easteners freeze to death in the dark".  They went crazy, voted out Mr. Trudeau Sr. and voted in Brian Mulroney who immediately canceled the NEP when he attained power.  They then went on to squander two opportunities to leverage their oil wealth into improving and diversifying their economy.

Looking at the current troubles in the Alberta oil industry and the causes of it has to be said that if the NEP would have been implemented as envisioned the Alberta government probably would not have had to interfere in the oil market last week.

But they did and now I am an Easterner who is nice and warm typing away in a well lit room, watching the troubles of Albertans, who just cannot find any sympathy for their troubles, no matter how much a try to find it.  This all could have been prevented by Albertans over 30 years ago but for their continuing shortsightedness and greed.  They gave into both and are now paying the price and I am fine with that.

Friday, November 30, 2018

First Rate Country with a Fourth Rate Business Class

A few times in this space I have made the statement in the title of this post when describing Canada.  I go into detail of what I mean here.

This was brought back to my mind again in the past couple of weeks because of the ongoing "crisis" in Alberta and the announced closure of GM plant in Oshawa.  Both are situations that demonstrate the lack of vision, courage and business acumen of the Canadian business class.

The situation in both places has been well documented in other spaces so I will not go into great detail about them here.

The business community and many conservative commentators in this country look longingly at the dynamic US economy and would like to be able to create such an economy here.  They point to the low personal and business taxes and less regulation in the US and state that if Canada were to follow that path Canada could have an economy like theirs.

The situation in Alberta and Oshawa puts paid to that assertion.

First, the Tar Sands were only developed because the Federal government of Pierre Trudeau spent a tremendous amount of federal money to move the development along.  No private business in Canada would take the risk in attempting to develop it themselves.  Contrast that with the US.  The rise of shale oil in the US market, which has contributed to the depression of the price of Alberta oil, was exploited by private businesses with private money.  Little or no public funds were used.  I dare say that if the Tar Sands had been located just a couple of hundred kilometres below the 49th parallel they would have been exploited by private industry, without any public funds, and the companies that exploited it would be pulling the stuff from the ground and shipping it for processing at processing plants and refineries that they owned, not to establishments in another country that they did not own.

Second, it is more than even money that nothing developed in Canada will replace the GM plant after it closes.  Maybe another car company, from another foreign country will decide it is a good space to build their cars, but if that does not happen that site will be largely abandoned.  No Canadian company will have the vision or the courage to take advantage of that space. 

The US economy is the way it is because entrepeneurs who are not adverse to taking risks are pervasive in the economy.  Many more fail than succeed but enough succeed to sustain that economy and help it grow.  Contrast that with the Canada, where the business class is the exact opposite of their American counterparts.  Canada could eliminate all taxes and regulations and the Canadian economy would still not be as dynamic as the US economy because the Canadian business class would not have the courage and motivation to take advantage of it to leverage the windfall into increased economic activity and greater wealth.

As I have stated in this state before if the Canadian business class had any kind of business acumen Canada would be punching well above its weight in the international economy.  We are blessed with a tremendous bounty of natural resources and an educated and capable work force.  A business class that could actually live up to that name would have taken full advantage of these two facts long ago to make themselves and Canada much wealthier than they already are.  They would have allowed the Canadian economy to realize its full potential and we would all be much better off as a result.

Alberta and Oshawa further proves that this is a pipe dream.  

Sunday, November 25, 2018

We have not seen as much progress as we thought

I few nights ago I watched the movie "Selma" on TV.  I originally saw it when it came out in theatres a few years ago but this second watching made realize something.

In the movie the open depiction of racism and bigotry is prevalent, as it was in many parts of the United States in the 1960s.  So it seemed to accurately depict that period in time.

Since then it has been accepted wisdom that the level of racism and bigotry that we saw during that period has been greatly reduced.  We have come along way from then and only a few pockets of the US still hold those views and most of them are in the most backward parts of the South.  The rest of the people in the US have become much more tolerant of people of colour.

Watching the US, and Canada for that matter, it would seem that the accepted wisdom is wrong.  Racism and bigotry has raised its ugly head again with a vengeance.  For almost 50 years social convention has forced those who are racist and bigoted to keep their opinions to themselves.  However, with an openly racist and bigoted President these people have been released to spout their hate and vitriol again.  As well, if you look where this is coming from it is much more widespread than just a few pockets in the most backward parts of the South.

Although the situation in Canada is not a extreme is in the US the same forces are at work.  If anybody thinks that the general acceptance of Faith Goldy running for mayor of Toronto, using an opening racist election platform, is not similar to what we are seeing in the US they are not paying attention.

Fifty years ago governments made great efforts to suppress the black vote and blacks were in great danger of being killed because of the colour of their skin.  Fast forward to 2018 and several state governments in the US enacted harsh election laws which were designed to suppress the black vote and it is almost a weekly occurrence that a black man is killed by a white police officer.

The so called progress that we have seen since the 1960s, with regard to race relations in North America, is a mirage, a fantasy.  It does not exist.  The same attitudes that plagued that sad decade never went away.  They were just hidden and they are now coming out of hiding.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

It is not really about the Carbon Tax

In a previous post I wrote about the breakdown of the current economic orthodoxy that has informed economic and political debate in the Western world for over three decades.  I call it the Conservative Consensus.

In Canada that Consensus was set in stone in 1993 when the Progressive Conservative government of Kim Campbell/Brian Mulroney was destroyed at the polls.  One of the contributing factors to that destruction was the introduction of the GST.  Ironically, the Liberals would be the greatest benefactor to this but it had a lasting chilling effect on effective fiscal policy until 2015.

In Canada, I would say that election was the one that cemented the Conservative Consensus in place.  From that point conservatives framed the debate on what were the acceptable fiscal tools and their position that lowering taxes and decreasing government spending become the default and only suitable position of all governments, regardless of their political stripe.

As I stated in that previous post conservative elements of our societies took full advantage of this situation to eventually land at the position that tax cuts for the wealthy and big business, at the expense of ordinary people, was the best fiscal policy.  Their position was essentially that ordinary people needed to make these sacrifices for the greater good.  And these ordinary people at it up.

Then along came Mr. Trudeau who campaigned in the last election on a platform that included increasing taxes for the wealthy and the introduction of a Carbon Tax.  He won that election and he kept both of those promises.

So for the first time in three decades a political party has strayed from the Conservative economic orthodoxy and they have been rewarded for it.  That will not do for conservatives who desperately want to maintain the Conservative Consensus.

People ask what the Conservatives would do about climate change.  They point out that they do not have a plan.  They point out that a Carbon Tax is a conservative idea and a market based solution to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

These same people miss the point.  It is not about Climate Change.  It is about maintaining the current economic orthodoxy.  It is about maintaining the Conservative Consensus.  I stated in a previous post that there are signs of the Conservative Consensus beginning to break down.  Conservatives see it and they know that in order to maintain it they need to stop any progress away from the Consensus, now, before it develops a momentum that will make it unstoppable.

That is the overarching goal of Conservatives in this country right now.  Everything else is secondary.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Why the Sudden Rush Mr. Singh?

It made the news last week that the leader of the Federal NDP is now ready to run for a seat in Parliament, after more than a year of being the leader and after passing on four by-elections since he won the NDP leadership.  The seat he has chosen is in Burnaby BC, which is available and for which a by-election has to be called by March 2019.

The Prime Minister has decided to wait to call that by-election and the NDP in general and Mr. Singh in particular are up in arms about it.

I have been watching Mr. Singh for the past few months and it strikes me that he is not enjoying his job.  It strikes me that maybe he would like to leave it.  Unfortunately, a whole host of reasons would prevent him from resigning at the moment so he is stuck.

However, if he were to lose the by-election, which would be very possible since the Burnaby seat is by no means a safe NDP riding, he would have his excuse.  Unfortunately, in order for that excuse to work he would have to lose that by-election sooner rather than later.  His resignation as a result of that loss would have to be early enough to allow the NDP some time to pick up the pieces.  

Losing in March would be bad for both him and the NDP.  If he sticks around the NDP would be saddled with a wounded leader, perhaps a mortally wounded leader and the 2019 election would be an NDP bloodbath.  If he left then the NDP would only have about six months to find a new leader and develop an election platform.  Again, that would be a recipe for an electoral bloodbath for the NDP.

This is all speculation of course and I could be completely wrong in my assessment of what I am seeing.  However, my political gut is telling me that there is more to Mr. Singh's sudden urgency to win a seat in the House of Commons than what we are hearing from him and the NDP.