February 2014 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Budget 2014: universal health care under attack

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I guess we’ve all learned our lesson by now—some pretty unpleasant things lurk in the dark corners of Harper government budget statements and omnibus bills. But few such nasty discoveries could rival one found on page 270 of Jim Flaherty’s budget this year—a plan to dismantle Canadian universal health care.

One of the key aspects of universal health care in this country is national standards, which in plain language means you get access to the same quality of basic medical services no matter where you happen to live in Canada. Although health services are under provincial/territorial jurisdiction, national standards are enforced by the federal government by means of the Canada Health Transfer (CHT). These are funds that are provided to the provinces and territories on condition that these standards are met.

Our health care system is part of what makes us Canadian. According to Health Canada, “the principles governing our health care system are symbols of the underlying Canadian values of equity and solidarity.”

But all that is going to change.

To pay for the rising costs of health case, the federal government has been adding 6% a year to its CHT payments, based upon a formula that provides more to the poorer provinces and territories. But, as long ago as 2011, Finance Minister Flaherty told a group of premiers that the current funding method would be replaced by one that tied funding to the rate of economic growth plus inflation—a likely 2% drop in CHT support, estimated to be a $36 billion cut over the next decade. He was warned then about the effects of this move, but chose not to listen. And now, as revealed in the 2014 budget, funding will also be placed on a simple per capita basis.

Again in plain language, this means that the provinces and territories will be hit by a double whammy in 2017: when the economy is slow, which tends to be tied to rising health problems, health funds will be cut; and the poorer provinces and territories where, with their scattered and remote populations, delivery of health services are more expensive, will effectively face further cuts. Provinces with a higher proportion of seniors, whose health needs are greater, will likewise be affected.

Meanwhile, under the new per capita rule, Ontario will receive a 3.4% increase rather than a 6% one in 2014-15. Alberta, on the other hand, will be getting a whopping 38% increase—more than half of the new CHT amount.

Bye-bye national standards. The new funding formula will make them impossible to maintain. How long before the Health Canada website drops that pesky reference to Canadian values?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Politicization of the CRA?

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Should the Canada Revenue Agency be used for partisan political purposes?

Revenue Canada became part of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency in 1999, and it took its current form as the Canada Revenue Agency in December 2003. Its unique culture and type of work suited it for separate employer status, or so the government of the day said: but more recently, it lost a considerable amount of its independence when it came under the direct control of Treasury Board for the purposes of collective bargaining.

Almost needless to say, the PSAC and its Component, the Union of Taxation Employees, were not consulted about this major change. It was simply imposed in 2012 through one of those omnibus bills the government is so fond of.

But this loss of independence now seems to be showing itself in other ways. I have already blogged about the growing politicization of the public service by the Harper administration. That reach seems to be extending into the day-to-day work of the CRA, as several organizations promoting environmental responsibility are at this moment being audited for allegedly spending more than the allowed 10% of their budgets on activities deemed to be “political.” And they aren’t alone: the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a well-respected progressive think-tank, is being audited as well. As people familiar with the auditing process know, it’s a long, cumbersome one that takes up much time and energy.

It really doesn’t pay, it appears, to defend the environment against Alberta oil sands development, or to take other stands that the government doesn’t like. Information control is a priority for the Harper administration. If you are a scientist in today’s public service, for example, you are effectively silenced: red tape has become duct tape. Meanwhile, the government avoids its environmental responsibilities to the point of breaking the law.

There is evidence that some of the current audits are being carried out after complaints received from a pro-tar sands organization called Ethical Oil, whose own funding sources are a closely-guarded secret. Note that the founder of Ethical Oil, Alykhan Velshi, is now employed in the Prime Minister’s office as director of issues management.

This kind of political targeting is everybody’s problem. I, for one, object to public agencies like the CRA being used to bully government critics. The public service is supposed to be fair and impartial, not a political weapon used to intimidate and subdue Canadians who have policy differences with the Harper administration. And how downright irresponsible of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in the midst of these auditing revelations, to suggest that the charities involved might be involved in “terrorism”. This is pure McCarthyism. Charities should be forgiven at this point for feeling terrorized themselves.

Speaking of “political,” though, what exactly is “political activity” by charities and non-profit organizations (which are targeted in the new budget)? We do have CRA language on the subject, but political interference is threatening its ability to be objective on that score. As noted, environmental charities and at least one progressive non-profit organization are now under the gun, but we’ve heard nothing to suggest that (for example) the highly political Fraser Institute is undergoing the same kind of scrutiny.

Obviously what’s going on isn’t a case of random spot-checking, but what certainly appears to be politically determined. Private charities are forbidden from engaging in partisan politics: surely it’s even more important that the government stop using the public service for partisan ends.

[Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Fair elections, Conservative style (part 2)

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Following on from yesterday’s post, here are some further major problems with the so-called Fair Elections Act:

4. Spending limits have been increased.

This will benefit the Conservatives: they received 10,780 donations worth $200 or more in the first nine months of 2013. The Liberals got 7,133, and the NDP, 3,492.

But other kinds of spending have been restricted. The NDP, for some reason, has received considerable financial support in the past from bequests, more than any other party. Unsurprisingly, the new legislation will put an end to that.

New language on third-party election advertising has also been proposed. The current spending cap of $150,000 no longer applies just to an actual election period, but to anything “in relation to a general election.” That provision is dangerously loose. Legitimate day-to-day communications by unions and environmental groups, for example, could be deemed to be “related” to an election, restricting their ability to participate in the democratic process when an election is called.

5. The Chief Electoral Officer will be forbidden from encouraging people to vote.

In the past, outreach by Elections Canada was conducted to encourage low-turnout sectors to vote—youth and Aboriginals. Turnout in Canadian federal elections has dropped significantly over the years, and this was seen as one way of addressing that. But low turnout also tends to favour incumbents, in this case the Conservatives. So the familiar Harper muzzle has now been applied. Further restrictions: no public comments will be allowed about fraud complaints. Reports from Elections Canada and the Commissioner of Canada Elections will no longer be published.

In a nutshell, this is a deeply flawed Bill that strikes at the heart of our most basic democratic rights. It was pretty clearly designed to tip the scale for the Conservatives as we head into the 2015 election. The government has moved with lightning speed to cut off debate in the House: the Bill could become law quickly, without a comma being altered. A proposal by the NDP to have public hearings on the Bill across Canada was opposed by the Conservatives.

With the cards being rapidly stacked against us, how can we make the next election fair? In the short term, by doing our best to force changes to this Bill as it proceeds through the House of Commons and the Senate—lobbying MPs and Senators, for example, and participating in organized public campaigns (such as the current one by the Council of Canadians) to fight for elections that are honest and above board.

If the Conservatives insist on ramming this legislation through unchanged, however, as they show every intention of doing, their anti-democratic intentions will become ever more obvious to ordinary Canadians. Ultimately it will be up to all of us to take back our democracy—by voting in such numbers next year that we restore the balance. That’s our challenge, and, as we can see, it’s no small one. Here’s hoping we’re up to it.

[Photo credit: Sokwanele]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

"Fair" elections, Conservative style (part 1)

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Our electoral system is about to be “reformed” by Pierre Poilievre’s so-called “Fair Elections Act.” Once again, the Harper government is bringing forward legislation that will impact negatively on the fundamental democratic rights of Canadians. And, once again, it is doing so without any prior public discussion. In fact, not even Elections Canada was consulted on the proposed changes.

Here’s a partial list of what’s wrong with the Bill:

1. New ID requirements will disenfranchise the poor, students and Aboriginal people.

In the US, this legal tactic is called “voter suppression.” In recent months, both Texas and North Carolina have put stringent new voter requirements into place. Voter fraud in the US is rare—a grand total of 2,068 cases from 2000-2012. The real reason for such legislation is obvious: to take votes away from the opposition.

In Canada, new photo ID requirements are likely to have a similar effect. The “vouching” system, in which an elector can affirm that another elector without proper ID is legitimate, will be abolished. Poilievre says there have been a lot of “irregularities.” On closer inspection, though, these have been largely technicalities, such as boxes not ticked on a form—not fraud. But if the new rules had been in place in 2011, 120,000 voters would have been disenfranchised. (Note that Harper won his majority with a bare 6,000 voters in 13 close ridings.)

2. Real fraud will be practically impossible to investigate.

Was there fraud in 2011? Oh, you betcha—but not by voters at the polls. How does the new legislation address that?

It takes away powers from Elections Canada, moving the investigation of fraud into the Department of Justice, which reports, not to Parliament, but to the government. It does not allow the Commissioner of Canada Elections, which does the investigations, to compel testimony from witnesses, so they can simply refuse to cooperate. And, unbelievably, it forces the Commissioner to give a heads-up to people under investigation—rev up those paper-shredders!

It’s 2014, and we still don’t have anything like the full story about the 2011 election, during which complaints of fraud were received from 247 of the country’s 308 ridings. Thanks to the Fair Elections Act, we’ll be a lot less likely to learn about any fraud in the future.

3. Central poll supervisors will be selected by the winning party.

This means that the Conservatives, with their majority, will be able to select the largest share of these officials, who are supposed to be neutral. At present, they are chosen by the returning officer, with the approval of the Chief Electoral Officer. This process will now be politicized.

[Part 2 will appear tomorrow]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The 2014 budget and Canadian priorities

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As I predicted, today’s budget had nothing much in it for ordinary Canadians, and I was on Parliament Hill last evening to say so. It’s a shamefully short-sighted political document that fails to address poverty, inequality, and the steady erosion of public services under the Harper government.

There’s some flashy stuff that looks positive enough, but much of it has little substance. $20 million a year for two years to buy a handful of paid internships for first-time job seekers—while youth unemployment remains in the double digits and students stagger under increasing debt loads. $2.9 million a year for four years to purchase some vocational training for people with autism. Want a yardstick? From 2009 until last October, $113 million was squandered on wasteful Economic Action Plan propaganda—$21 million in 2011-2012 alone. That would have bought a heckuva lot more internships and training opportunities.

Given the government’s appalling treatment of our veterans that’s made headlines recently, including the closure of nine badly-needed Veterans Affairs service offices across the country, the pledge of $2.1 million to improve online access to Veterans Affairs comes across as insulting and hollow. Our older vets are not all computer-savvy by any means: they’ve depended upon real people to get the services they need. But the ratio of Veterans’ Affairs workers to veterans is now the lowest it’s ever been. Building more online capacity won’t come close to restoring what’s been snatched away.

What’s particularly striking, in fact, are the band-aids now offered by the same government that has just finished inflicting deep wounds across the public service. Layoffs of food inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, for example, has likely jeopardized food safety—so a little money has been allocated to hiring some new ones. (One has to wonder what problems with our food supply have caused this minor reversal of course.) After closing vital search and rescue stations in BC and Newfoundland, the government is now offering a tax credit for search and rescue volunteers.

But a continued freeze on the public service means the loss of still more positions and programs—a further net loss, in other words, of public services, although the government won’t say which ones.

Hardly surprising, then, that there’s nothing in this budget to improve access to EI for the unemployed. Nothing to address rail safety, in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, and more recent ones. Nothing to open up access to child care, or to improve retirement security for Canadians: it’s all austerity, from the cradle to the grave.

The overall aim of this budget, we are told, is to keep the country “on track” for a balanced budget in 2015, when an expected surplus will no doubt generate a sprinkling of election-year goodies. But continued austerity isn’t what Canada needs: at least, that’s what more than a few economists are saying. We badly need the opposite, in fact, bold public investment in Canada to spur growth, benefiting all Canadians. Budget 2014, with its narrow focus on winning the next election for the Conservatives, was a missed opportunity—and our country will pay the price.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Sick leave abuse

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…and by “abuse,” I mean using the issue as a club to beat public service workers with. Tony Clement, the President of Treasury Board, has been fond of making the claim that public workers take much more sick time than their private-sector equivalents. He has vowed to root out this “abuse”—which, as it turns out, doesn’t exist.

We’ve known this all along, of course, and Statistics Canada backed us up last Fall, noting that the public and private sector rates are in fact comparable. The Ottawa Citizen article that contained this information is no longer available on-line, but not to worry: a new study has landed on the government’s doorstep with a thud, and it says the exact-same thing. (Here’s the full text.)

The source? None other than the Parliamentary Budget Office.

Recall the previous Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, a thorn in the side of the Harper government for some time as he battled to hold it to account. He was replaced a few months ago by Jean-Denis Frechette, who many thought would be a tamer sort of fellow. Wrong: he turned out to be every bit as tough as his predecessor. On alleged runaway public service wage increases, for example, he quickly set the record straight. And now his office has turned its attention to frankly wild claims of absenteeism and sick-leave abuse by public workers, the message is equally firm:

The average sick leave of 18.26 days reported by Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) includes time missed due to workplace injuries and unpaid sick leave. The average number of paid sick days taken by public servants in the core public administration (CPA) was reported at 11.52 days per year in 2011-2012.

So much for Clement’s figure of 18 days. That never made any sense from the start, as I pointed out yesterday in the Toronto Star: “We have time and time again said that Mr. Clement is incorrect. Our members do not abuse sick leave….Mr. Clement has said we use upwards of 18 days a year when we only actually earn 15.”

Sick leave is to be a key issue in collective bargaining this year, and it means a lot to our members. It’s cheering to see the government’s case for “reform” evaporate before we even sit down.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Budget 2014

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This year’s Harper government budget day will arrive on February 11, in the midst of the Sochi Winter Olympics, ensuring that the media’s attention is divided. Safe prediction? There won’t be much in it for ordinary Canadians—it’s not an election year. Another safe prediction? It will be implemented in another one of those omnibus bills, rolled up with a sackful of non-budgetary legislation.

There will be more “austerity,” that word used by the fortunate to describe tightening everybody else’s belts. Even the International Monetary Fund says the government could ease up on this, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says, No way. He’s set on eliminating the deficit by 2015, which is an election year—a deficit that the Conservatives created in the first place. There will be no serious measures to reduce poverty and inequality, or even to strengthen the economy.

Why don’t we start looking at these budgets the way you and I put our own together? Must-have: decent public services, accessible to all Canadians who need them—including, most certainly, our veterans, deprived just last week of eight badly-needed service offices. Good to have, and affordable: the Experimental Lakes Area, doing world-class work on environmental pollution. Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, storing valuable scientific materials. (The Harper government scrubbed the first to save $1.3 million, and junked the second, to save less than $0.5 million—a classic case of being penny wise and dollar foolish.)

Luxury items we can’t really afford: well, take your pick.

There’s the $1 million we spent transporting Stephen Harper’s limousine to India in 2012.

Given what was just done to our veterans (the Conservatives voted unanimously on Monday to keep those offices shut), it’s probably rubbing salt in the wounds to point out that this government spent $28 million to commemorate the War of 1812. Old wars, worth spending money on. Old warriors? Not so much.

Then there’s Conservative Party propaganda thinly disguised as government announcements. Take the Economic Action Plan stuff—please. Everyone’s bored silly by it, but we’re paying for it all the same. At last count, $21 million of our tax dollars have gone on this. Expect more. Then there’s $2.5 million to promote the Canada Job Grant initiative—a program that doesn’t even exist.

And let’s not forget that recent junket to Israel. Yes, we expect the Prime Minister to travel internationally: it’s part of his job, no matter how well or poorly he does it. But bringing along 200 people, many of them Conservative Party donors? No doubt Access to Information will reveal the costs of that sometime. It won’t be a small amount.

Here’s the thing: a budget isn’t just dollars and cents, and a bunch of line items. Budgets reflect priorities. One budget may be all about people: what can be done to address their needs, to improve their lives, to preserve the environment they live and work in—here’s an excellent example. Another may be all about appearances: costly memorials, for instance, favours for friends, the expensive communication of empty words. With Budget 2014, I think we’re about to see one like that instead.

I’ll have more detailed comments once the budget comes down. But I do expect my predictions to hold.

[Photo credit]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Pesky red tape

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The terrible fire in L’Isle-Verte a few days ago raises once again the importance of sound government regulations. In some parts of the country, seniors’ residences needn’t be built with fireproof materials, or even have sprinkler systems—and the results can be tragic. In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster (pictured above), Transport Canada was forced to impose additional railway safety regulations. Food safety in Canada, once well-regulated, was weakened under the government of Brian Mulroney, and an inadequate number of inspectors still continues to leave us vulnerable to catastrophes like the deadly 2008 listeriosis outbreak.

See a pattern here? Regulations, and their proper enforcement, can literally save lives. But sometimes only a horrific mishap will make the point—and even then, not always.

It’s been fashionable for some time, however, for businesses and business-friendly governments to complain about regulations on principle. Regulations make things difficult. They get in the way of profit. Regulations, therefore, are bad.

So last week was the fifth so-called Red Tape Awareness Week, sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. And there was Treasury Board president Tony Clement, on-side as one might expect. His government is about to legislate a bizarre new rule: for every new regulation, an old one has to go.

Think about the logic of that for a moment. Old regulations do become obsolete after a time. Meanwhile, new technologies, and our increasing awareness of environmental pollution—to name but two examples—require new measures to protect the public. But these things don’t happen at the same rate. The public interest can only be harmed by such a rigid and simplistic approach.

Surprisingly, given our recent history, the CFIB is particularly critical of food safety regulations. And of new controls over the infamous Temporary Foreign Workers program, too. (After a series of abuses came to public attention, the Harper government tightened the regulations for the TFW program—sort of.)

Needless to say, the media fell into line. Knocking government has always been a popular pastime, after all. Down with red tape! Too much government! But some of the very same commentators blame the government for being too small at the same time:

Governments certainly could do a better job on customer service by addressing long lines for services and forcing civil servants to put anything to be read by the public in plain language.

It also should be possible to connect with a real person by telephone rather than requiring callers to interminably press phone digits and listen to often-irrelevant recordings.

I couldn’t agree more. As members still live with “affected” notices, the threat of layoff hanging over their heads, it would be nice if the media were to make the obvious connection between public workers and the services we provide. Not to mention that other link: between those oh-so-annoying regulations—and the welfare of the public they are in place to protect.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from February 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

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