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Hill Dispatches: The 2012 policy agenda, part two

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If you want to have an idea of what the Canadian policy agenda for 2012 will look like, just consider Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's recent open letter. It is typical of the kind of attack-dog tactics, wild accusations, ad hominem arguments and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that have been a hallmark of this Conservative government.

The letter makes the wild accusation that unnamed, ideologically-motivated, "foreign" "special interest groups" are threatening Canada's capacity to increase its trade with the Asia-Pacific region.

Who are these groups?

What is their ideology?

Like Joe McCarthy, Joe Oliver is not interested in such petty details.

Suffice it to know that the goal of these "radicals" is " ... to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams."

And to achieve that treasonous goal these unnamed villains "attract jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world to lecture Canadians not to develop our natural resources."

Further, if those celebrities don't do the trick, "they will take a quintessential American approach: sue everyone and anyone to delay the project even further."

We have seen the enemy, and it is...

OK. We get it. The Harper government has finally discovered our true enemy, and it is -- who knew? -- the Americans!

But hold on a second, on the same day as Minister Oliver's open letter so scornful of the "quintessential American approach" was making news, the Defence Department issued a press release with this headline:

"Minister MacKay Congratulates Lieutenant-General Bouchard Upon his Receipt of the U.S. Legion of Merit."

The release then goes on to explain that the Canadian military officer received this American honour for his part in the recent Libya operation, and explains, in detail, that:

"the U.S. Legion of Merit is the sixth highest in order of precedence in the U.S., and may be awarded to individuals who distinguish themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in performing outstanding service to the United States."

Americans who contribute financially to environmental groups in Canada are bad, it seems, even if they do so with no conditions and no hope of seeing any profit.

American military awards given to Canadian officers for their "outstanding service to the United States" -- well, those are good.

While this controversy was churning in Canada, would-be Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was engaging in a bit of xenophobia of his own.

In his New Hampshire victory speech, Romney accused President Obama of wanting to turn the U.S. into some kind of European-style social welfare state. In fact, that contrast between his patriotic, American approach and Obama's foreign and suspect "European" agenda was the recurring theme of Romney's speech.

As the next presidential campaign gets underway we can expect to hear a lot more of this breast-beating, American patriotism stuff. A great many American politicians are pretty proud of, to use Canada's Natural Resources Minister's words,  their "quintessential American approach" to all things. And they are quite happy to pillory those (such as President Obama) who stray from the American Way.

Well, Joe Oliver could set Mitt Romney straight. He could tell him all about those nasty, litigious, Americans -- including, apparently, some "billionaire socialists" -- who are ideologically bent on destroying the Canadian economy.

The crime and prisons agenda for 2012

The current Conservatives are very comfortable with the tactic of attacking people for who they are. It beats having to confront real evidence and engage in frank and honest policy debate.

During the Parliamentary debate on the omnibus crime bill, C-10, Public Security Minister Vic Toews jumped on the fact that the NDP's Joe Comartin is a criminal defence lawyer. That is why the NDP does not want to "get tough on crime" the Minister said, "but we see things differently."

Well, what will they say about Howard Sapers, the federal Correctional Investigator?

Sapers is a professional, qualified and dedicated public servant. His role is to act as something between ombudsman and auditor general for the federal prison system. The Office of the Correctional Investigator was created in the 1970s in response to a number of major violent incidents in Canadian penitentiaries. Its role is to ensure that "Canada's correctional system operates in a fair, transparent and accountable manner."

Sapers' 2011 report to the Minister of Public Security should be essential reading for every member of Parliament.

Among the issues he tackles in the report are: the over-reliance on segregation, physical restraints and seclusion to manage self-injurious offenders; non-compliance with voluntary treatment and informed consent principles; impacts and indicators of prison crowding; the widening gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal offender outcomes; and the lack of specialized treatment services for women who self-injure.

Overall, he paints a dismal picture of an already overcrowded system, where many lives are, literally, sacrificed and where there is scant interest in rehabilitation, or even, all too frequently, basic human rights.

Now, the government plans to, in effect, expand the prison population and increase the length of sentences.

In the New Year, will Parliament look at the new criminal code provisions of Bill C-10 in light of Sapers' findings and recommendations? If it's up to the government, we should not hold our breath. Nearly half of the members of Parliament sit on the opposition side, however. The challenge will be for them to get this undisputed, fact-based analysis onto the agenda.

If Bill C-10 is simply enacted and allowed to exacerbate an already difficult situation in the prison system, the ultimate results could be very frightening.

The public sector is the problem (except when it isn't)

When it comes to other pressing issues on the public agenda, it is going to be equally difficult to engage with this all-partisan-politics-all-the-time government.

The Conservatives have signalled, for instance, that public sector unions are an enemy, end of story. They will try to play up the narrative that federal employees are better rewarded, have more job security and "produce" less than their counterparts in the private sector.

That has proven to be an effective divide-and-conquer strategy in the past. In order to take away a focus on bloated corporate profits that sit idle and un-invested and obscene executive compensation, Conservative polemicists and politicians will try to demonize unionized workers in the public sector.

There is a current fantasy view of the market economy that portrays a world in which the private sector produces all the wealth while a parasitic public sector taxes in order to feed itself.

The fact that the private sector could not exist without the services and infrastructure provided by the public sector is beside the point.

Can you have "free enterprise" without public infrastructure and services?

How successful would businesses in Canada be without roads, bridges, airports, an education system that trains the workforce, a health-care system that keeps workers in functioning good health, a legal system to resolve disputes, police to protect the rights of private property... and we could go on and on... ?

Those who advocate for the rights of the "free-enterprise system" were not always so self-deluded. John George Lambton, the First Earl of Durham, was considered a "liberal" or even "radical" in his time, the early 19th century. He was dispatched to the British North American colonies after the rebellions of 1837-38 to see what was up, and report on ways to appease the colonials and avoid further trouble.

Today, Durham is most remembered for recommending the union of the "two Canadas" (Upper and Lower) and for some rather insulting things he said about French Canadians.

But in discussing the challenges the colonies faced, Durham also expressed the widespread "liberal" "capitalist" view of the time that business could not thrive without rigorous taxation and significant investment in public infrastructure.

Durham observed that one factor holding back economic development in Lower Canada was the refusal of the "habitants" to pay taxes. This meant there was inadequate money to invest in ports, roads and other facilities necessary for trade and commerce, Durham wrote. In other words, a vigorous public sector was a precondition to -- not a parasite on -- a vigorous private sector.

When it suits the current crop of Conservatives, they are all for public investment -- in the military, for instance. But when they start "demagoguing" the public sector and trying to make it the scapegoat for Canada's economic woes,someone will have to remind Canadians of the actual value that public services provide to the economy.

Corporate-focused pensions and see-no-evil on climate change

On pension reform, we face a similar challenge. The government has already ruled out expansion of the Canada (and parallel Quebec) Pensions Plans (CPP-QPP), even though there is much evidence showing that to be the most effective and equitable way to assure all Canadians a reasonable retirement. The government's choice is to further enrich the financial sector with a kind of über-RRSP plan.

Members of Parliament might want to take a good look at the government's proposals in the coming session, and be prepared to counter with a fully-costed proposal to expand the CPP-QPP.

And when it comes to climate change, well, the Conservatives would just as soon not talk about it any further. We're out of Kyoto, they say. Get used to it, and let's get on with the nation's real business of filling government office buildings with portraits of the Queen and affixing the adjective "Royal" to anything that moves.

There is a federal Environment Commissioner, however, and he does have to, legally, report to Parliament on Canada's fulfillment of the objectives outlined in the federal Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act. When he reported late in 2011, the Commissioner said he was not sure what his obligation in that regard was, in light of the government's intention to withdraw from Kyoto. He was having lawyers analyze the conundrum, the Commissioner said.

But the Canadian people, and their members of Parliament, should not forget the Commissioner's obligation under the Kyoto Act, which is -- still -- the law of the land.

The current Conservatives claim they are not the climate-change deniers they once were. And they claim that they are ready to do something about greenhous gas emissions -- if not the something required by Kyoto. It is quite legitimate to ask what that something might be!

If the government tries to head the Environment Commissioner off at the pass, there are still 140-plus opposition members sitting in Parliament to take on the task!

As Rodgers and Hammerstein might have put it: those are "just a few of our favourite things" for 2012.

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