Public Service campaign defends future of professionals and vital services to Canadians

April 28, 2011 4:07 pm
Parliament-Ottawa

Come election time, ballots turn into wagers as every Canadian’s vested interest in what will happen with their tax dollars is left in the hands of the future, undetermined government. The stakes are high for one particular group of professionals who create a large proportion of Ottawa’s population and who also deliver vital services to the rest of the people. In every election, they are not only voting for their country, but also determining their employer. They are public servants and under the Professional Institute for the Public Service (PIPSC), they have launched a successful media campaign this election to generate awareness of their contributions to Canada’s prosperity through all sectors of science, research, health and IT. Called ‘forthepublicgood.ca,’ the campaign serves as a resource tool for voters to read latest news updates from all national media, profiles of professionals in their work environments and analyze contentious election issues including budget cuts to services affecting all Canadians.

“Professionalism, like the public good, is founded on a few simple values: integrity, independence, accountability. For public service professionals, like the rest of Canadians, failure to uphold these values can affect not only people but the public good itself,” states PIPSC president Gary Corbett on the campaign’s website. “That’s what’s happening today in the federal public service, where years of mismanagement of resources and the wrong decisions are threatening to undermine the capacity of Canada’s public scientists, engineers, auditors, health, IT and many other professionals to serve Canadians and the public good.”

PIPSC President Gary Corbett

Aside from budget cuts, outsourcing or externally contracting services, pose a threat to public service jobs. Millions of dollars each year are spent on contracting temporary work for services that can be done by public servants inexpensively. Actual costs from hiring temporary workers through agencies are costly as they must make a profit and charge additional fees. In a recent report titled The Shadow Public Service: the swelling ranks of federal government outsourced workers, outsourcing costs have skyrocketed by 80%, costing approximately $5.5 billion in the last five years.

“On top of a shameful waste of taxpayers dollars, there is the incalculable cost and potential risk to Canadians when critical knowledge goes out the door with private contractors,” said Corbett in a press release last month. “In the wake of a serious cyber attack against critical federal departments, our government should be all the more alert to the importance of data security and the privacy of Canadians’ information.”

To bring attention to challenges faced by public servants, PIPSC, in partnership with the University of Ottawa, held a successful debate on April 26 with Richard Nadeau, MP for Gatineau, Pierre Poilievre, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Harper and MP for Nepean-Carleton, Mauril Bélanger, Vice-Chair of the National Policy and Platform Committee of the Liberal Party of Canada and MP for Ottawa-Vanier, Paul Dewar, Foreign Affairs Critic and MP for Ottawa Centre, and Green Party by Jean-Luc Cooke, candidate for Nepean-Carleton. Under the topic of the Future of the Public Service, candidates voiced their opinions in accordance with their party platforms on scientific research and evidence-based policy, government transparency and accountability, outsourcing and attracting young professionals to serve.

As voting day approaches, PIPSC has elevated their campaign with an impressive following on Twitter and facebook. Founded in 1920 and currently boasting over 59,000 members across Canada’s public sector, PIPSC has made their presence on the national scale known as well as informed voters of the importance of public service to everyday Canadians, especially those residing in Ottawa.

Visit www.forthepublicgood.ca. Connect on Twitter: @4publicgood and facebook.

Greener days are not ahead: Where is Elizabeth May and the Green Party in this campaign?

April 20, 2011 3:34 pm
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Today is the first anniversary of the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig located in the U.S. Gulf coast that killed twelve men and initiated the worst oil spill in history. But even the memory of that tragic episode will not prevent similar endeavors in Canada’s Arctic. On the contrary, the combination of melting Arctic ice and the pressing need for economic opportunity among many northern communities has rendered off shore drilling in the Beaufort Sea inevitable. Companies aggressively bidding on mining leases promise to have learned from BP’s experience this past year. But even in the absence of another oil spill, deepwater drilling will surely contribute to the ongoing process of average temperature increases, melting ice and rising sealevels in the Arctic region. Meanwhile both the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that together devastated Japan last month has reminded the world of the ongoing risks associated with nuclear power.  For all of their protective features, nuclear power plants can still leak radiation into the atmosphere, particularly in the wake of catastrophic weather events. And there remains the unresolved issue of how to safely store nuclear waste. Abstaining from going nuclear would be easy if the alternatives weren’t also damaging to the environment.  But energy sources such as coal and oil are responsible for unsustainably high carbon emissions going into the atmosphere. The question then of how we fuel our economies in an environmentally sustainable manner is fraught with challenges. Indeed how we address energy issues and the emerging impacts of climate change will assume a central role in the country’s evolution in the coming decades. Yet more than half way through this campaign, the environment merits nary a word from the major parties.

Their silence on most matters environmental could have presented an opportunity for Elizabeth May and the Greens to raise their shared voice.  Yet more than three weeks into the campaign, the Green Party’s momentum strikes me as utterly stalled. Elizabeth May’s absence from the English and French leaders’ debates accounts in large part for her party’s apparent invisibility.  Her protests over the media consortium’s decision generated sympathy and served to keep her and the party in the public eye; but once May’s exclusion was confirmed, any focus on her and the Greens also ceased.  And now, despite the scattering of Green party candidate signs across the landscape, May and the Greens are more an afterthought than a viable alternative to any of the other major parties. She and a few other party candidates could win their respective riding, but if the election were held tomorrow it is hard to imagine the Greens getting as much of the popular vote as they did in 2008.

Beyond May’s exclusion from the debates, how do we account for the Green’s sagging fortunes? One obvious explanation is that all parties incorporate the environment into their platforms. People may thus not feel the need to vote Green in order to feel as though they are advancing an environmental agenda. To be sure, all parties do make at least vague references to promoting economic growth without compromising the environment. But all parties also have an interest in avoiding the environment as a key campaign issue. Stephen Harper will not publicly acknowledge the reality of climate change, in part because he is suspicious of the science and in part because the conservative’s core constituency remains in Alberta. The province’s tar sands remain the country’s biggest source of carbon emissions. To confirm the legitimacy of the science behind climate change would thus be to implicitly acknowledge the need to more aggressively reduce those emissions. Both the liberals and NDP better appreciate the scale of our environmental issues and advance some noteworthy initiatives in their respective platforms. Nevertheless both parties fear any perceived connection between their plans for environmental security and increased taxes.  The Greens thus remain in a position to distinguish themselves from the other parties.

A related possibility is that the Greens are paying too high a price in voter support for potentially compromising Canada’s economy as a way of advancing a radical environmental agenda. The perception may persist in some quarters that the Green Party is comprised of a bunch of aging hippies and young idealists whose ideas would only sabotage the economy if they were ever put into practice. In truth, however, to judge by the Green’s election platform, their declared agenda is more vague than radical. The few concrete policy initiatives include a transition from our first past the post to a proportional-based electoral system, increased corporate taxes and less money spent on making war in Afghanistan. These ideas are all worthy of consideration and debate, but where are the initiatives that stem more directly from the environmental crisis? For example, why is there no national urban sustainability strategy when more than three quarters of Canada’s population resides in cities and it is to cities where most new immigrants migrate? How do the Greens propose to realistically shed Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels, especially given their opposition to nuclear power? How does the Green Party propose to manage the Arctic’s looming economic development in a way that is environmentally sustainable? The party’s platform provides no answers to such questions. It’s as though in being deliberately vague, the Greens were hoping not to alienate moderate Canadians considering voting for them.  If so, the strategy is shortsighted and bound to fail.

It is of course understandable that May’s priority is to win a seat in the House of Commons. But she should not be attempting to do so on the strength of her personality alone or on the basis of vague promises. Such a strategy would be at the expense of her party’s modus operandi. The Green Party should aspire to be the country’s authority on ways of directing Canada’s economy in a more environmentally sustainable direction. In the end, such an approach will build a more secure foundation and more popular support than the Greens appear to have now.

Ottawa’s new kid on the icon block

April 15, 2011 9:43 am
Convention cntr

Rising out of the east bank of the Rideau canal, just a shadow’s cast from The Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa – like a giant B-movie, gently marauding clam – ballooning like the croaking of an amphibious swollen throat and jowl – wedged in like a ‘Day The World Stood Still’, out of this world, invasion saucer crash jammed into the side near to the base of the Westin Ottawa Hotel – It is audaciously wonderful, brash, attention demanding and not a bird or a plane but you must look up! It is the spanking new, crystal geodesic-like, giant jewel of a façade of the new Ottawa Convention Centre. I have heard it described as a snow globe but really, when you think of winter in Ottawa – any reminder of snow, even shaken around is enough to make you want to hide your ears low below your coat collar. All the same it is a fitting description.

Who knew it landed smack in the middle of the Capital with a Culture Creed? That creed boasts, “Ottawa Convention Centre Culture is defined by a singular focus on realizing our Vision of “Inspired People Creating Extraordinary Events”… and by living our Shared Commitments whereby the full potential and ambitions of our Colleagues and Guests are achieved. The hallmarks of our Culture are strong and responsible leaders, empowered Colleagues and loyal Guests.” Now that is impressive. Makes me want to just race around the spaces to feel that energy and meet those wonderful expressions of fresh existence. This includes a much sought after LEED Silver certification and meeting the requirements of the AODA’s (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) Accessible Customer Service Standard. This is part of the steps toward universal inclusion as implemented by the Ontario government which came into force in January 2008. This is an ongoing commitment to inclusion of all individuals with disabilities throughout the province by the year 2025.

The stunning statistics aside Ottawa is a city that is simply does not have to go begging for breathtaking natural and urban vistas. There is no need for a spectacular skyscraper filled skyline. The views from the inside of the seven story high interior will more than impress any visitor even if for thee few moments out in the atrium they might be afforded on breaks from the ever important itineraries of thee all important conventions that will regularly populate the centre. It would be to the advantage of the centre if the general public were allowed to enjoy the open area for other activities like concerts or a snack or some other such distraction from the urban (Well it is Ottawa but…) hustle and bustle. That would be so neat. Imagine sipping a favorite fancy coffee and enjoying a light snack and looking out on the city lights at night on and evening out or stopping in at lunch for a noon hour concert? Facilities like the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto offer concerts in the upper lobby with great views of the city; just a muse of a thought.

In that great big city just down the road, near the lake there juts out into the asphalt divide that is Bloor Street a geometric set of inspiring shards protruding as part of the new addition and entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum. Whatever your thought may be about this set of errant, sharp points they do command attention as you look down the canyon of that street. Now Ottawa has a similar attention grabbing and daring assault not only on one of its streets but also on the architectural scene in a city that can already boast a myriad of great architectural adventures by its own architectural daredevils. This thanks to the centre’s architectural explorer Ritchard Brisbin, director of BBB Architects and the manifestation of the adventure by PCL Constructor’s Graham Bird.

Once upon a time Ottawa entertained conferences in its former Congress Centre, bland, flat and effortlessly dull. It barely affected a blink of an eye and was far from pedestrian friendly or inviting, all that concrete and no relationship to its natural surroundings. It was more related to the concrete mass it was lodged in than the beauty of the area of the Rideau Canal that sits immediately to the west.

The expanse of glass that is the façade of the new centre is a perfect venue for a spectacular lighting display. A future Nuit Blanche like projection, (or some other similar festival) or installation, could illuminate that glass structure in an unforgettable show of artistry and appreciation. What a focal point that could be. Why stop there? – illuminate the brash thing all year round like the CN Tower or the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls. Ready for the rest of this twenty first century my question is is Ottawa as ready? A city often seen as barely ready for prime time audacity like the new centre may be just the wake up alarm of, ‘it’s okay to let’em know your there’! Only time can tell.

This building is a grand gesture and will no doubt be the talk as one of the city’s new faces for many years to come. Like the bravery and bravado of the many spectacular buildings of Montreal’s, once so grand Expo67 buildings (later Man And His World) similar bold and swaggering structures have lead to much kind, and not so kind, chatter in other great cities. The new Ottawa Convention Centre seems to have all that is needed to stand the test of time and become just as much bragged about, shown off and visited as any stand out architecture anywhere in the world. If you’ve been in the centre of town you have seen it, it won’t let you miss it! If you are planning to visit step inside and try it on for size.  See the city from one of its best new berths. Like views from the London Eye (albeit on a much smaller scale) and those enjoyed from Mount Royal, The Circle Line cruise in New York City and from the Toronto Islands there is a new noisy kid in your town playing with the big dogs and demanding your attention. Check it out!

Assessing the English Debate: Who won? Call it a draw.

April 13, 2011 12:49 pm
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How should we assess the only English language debate in this year’s election campaign? My first impression is that Harper won, although not decisively. If it was a boxing match and Stephen Harper was the defending champion, he would win by virtue of it being declared a draw.  The other leaders presented themselves coolly and competently for the most part. But no one was able to pose a question for which Harper didn’t have a ready answer. No one was able to decisively shape a debate that exposed Harper as uncaring, undemocratic, corrupt or incompetent. Gilles Duceppe came closest to doing so when he reminded Harper of the letter he was prepared to sign in 2004 to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson of his readiness to form a coalition with he and Jack Layton to defeat the Martin Liberal government. Duceppe’s question was too direct and the subject matter too specific for Harper to answer with vague generalities. So instead, he insisted that he never considered forming such a coalition. Although both Duceppe and Layton both repeatedly claimed this simply wasn’t true, there was nothing definitive to which they could point. Within minutes the topic seemed exhausted and Harper emerged unscathed from the exchange.

Indeed Harper’s ability to deflect questions and fend off the attempted knock-out blows from the other leaders was one of the debate’s defining outcomes. His strategy was simple, but effective: appear prime ministerial, all the while preaching a familiar formula. Economic growth is fueled by lower taxes.  Important social programs can only be sustainably funded through steady economic growth. Establishing the causal connection between the two priorities met Harper’s twin objectives in the debate. He wanted to convince Canadians that he is at once the country’s most responsible economic manager and protector of our most cherished social programs. Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton may be equally committed to protecting social programs but they want to fund them through increased taxation. Increasing taxes is a strategy for job losses and economic stagnation. It made no difference that he was misleading at almost every turn. Harper still managed to convey the calm demeanor and authority that voters associate with prime ministerial power. In doing so the viewer rarely saw glimpses of Harper’s less appealing side. Instead of paranoid and control seeking, he appeared almost conciliatory. Instead of hot tempered, he appeared patient and content to stay above the fray. Towards this end, he took seemingly every opportunity to calmly look into the camera and insist that the other leaders were interested in pointless “bickering” that only served to stall the important work of parliament. This is why, Harper reminded everyone, the conservatives are seeking a majority in the House of Commons. Another minority government would only fuel the sort of instability that puts Canada’s economic recovery at risk.  Ignatieff rightly rebuked him for repeatedly referring to a debate as a “bickering” session, but to little effect.

This is not to say Ignatieff performed poorly. To be sure, he stumbled in the early going: he sometimes was momentarily tongue tied and occasionally appeared uncertain as to what point he was trying to make. Such moments stalled his momentum. Moreover, his challenge was in some respects greater than that of Harper’s. Ignatieff had to at once act aggressively and prime ministerial. Negotiating the two objectives is a formidable task, even for a seasoned public speaker. Eventually, however, he spoke with greater confidence and authority. His strategy was also clear, but only reasonably effective.  Expose at every opportunity Harper’s authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies. Ignatieff repeatedly referenced Harper’s readiness to act in contempt of parliament. He reminded viewers and listeners that Harper and the conservatives forcibly remove from their rallies those thought not to be party supporters. An authoritarian prime minister is hardly in keeping with Canada’s history of democratic governance. Nor are Harper’s priorities of “corporate tax cuts, billion dollar fighter jets and bigger prisons.”

In relentlessly attempting to expose Harper’s weaknesses, however, Ignatieff failed to adequately distinguish himself and the Liberals. He likely had to do so in order to more effectively advance liberal chances come May 2nd. For the truth is, most of those who follow Canadian politics know already that Stephen Harper is authoritarian and as prickly as a cactus. Those limitations have resonated with enough Canadians to prevent a Conservative majority, but not enough to propel the Liberals (or for that matter the New Democrats or the Green Party) beyond their oppositional status. This is one of the lingering effects of the Sponsorship scandal under the Chretien government. The Liberal name has not yet been effectively restored, particularly inside Quebec. His references to the Liberal plan for student passports and other family oriented initiatives were useful, but hardly groundbreaking. The debate may thus constitute somewhat of a missed opportunity for Michael Ignatieff and the liberals.

The moment in the debate that for me was at once the most disappointing and hopeful came in the form of a question from the B.C. resident about crime. Not so much the question but the way it was asked was a gift to Stephen Harper. The gentleman prefaced his question with an impression masquerading as fact. Communities are not safe and too many criminals are given lenient sentences: what is Stephen Harper planning to do about it?  Framing the question in this way begged for the type of response Stephen Harper was all too prepared to give. It is true, he reminded everyone, that too often the punishment does not fit the crime. Criminal sentences are often reduced and the gun registry unfairly targets law abiding citizens who assume no role in gun related crimes. The response was as predictable as it was misleading.

All three opposition leaders were wise enough to at least challenge the received wisdom on the state of criminal justice in Canada. Ignatieff may have been at his most effective when he insisted that Harper is following America’s failed approaches to criminal justice. Mega-prisons and mandatory minimum sentences have done nothing to reduce crime. He reminded Harper and those watching and listening that police forces across the country use the gun registry every day. Duceppe’s defense of the registry was even more effective. Why, he asked Harper, was it so pointless or wasteful to ask gun owners to register their guns when people must register their cars and boats? The analogy is useful, especially given how opponents of the registry regularly depict it as an unlawful infringement on individual rights. Layton pointed to the connections between crumbling infrastructure and overcrowded housing on native reserves and the “temptations” of joining a gang and a life of crime for native youth. The exchanges were heartfelt and insightful. Given how important the question of criminal justice remains, it was refreshing to witness this sort of candor. For this exchange alone, the debate was a useful exercise worth watching.

Fear Factor: What is Stephen Harper so afraid of?

April 11, 2011 3:56 pm
harper12

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party strike me as relatively unprepared for this election. Or if they are prepared, they certainly seem complacent. This may account for the recycling of a tired old strategy in the early weeks of the campaign. Every policy announcement is framed within the context of a “choice” for Canadians between the conservatives and a coalition featuring “separatists, socialists and the Liberal Party.” Harper’s strategy is clear: fuel fear among Canadians of a coalition among parties driven by their own narrowly defined agendas, all of which put Canada at risk. It makes no difference that Harper himself attempted to orchestrate the formation of such a coalition in 2004. Nor apparently does it matter that Michael Ignatieff has repeatedly denied interest in any such agreement with other parties or that many liberal democracies function just fine with coalition governments. The truth is of no consequence when the point is to sow fear among voters of any alternative to another conservative government.

Of course, manufacturing fear as a way of justifying policy initiatives is what the conservatives do best. Consider their law and order agenda. Harper’s priority since assuming office has been to “get tough on crime.” The implication almost always is that Canada is becoming increasingly dangerous and that citizens are right to feel unsafe while walking the streets or sitting in their home alone. The underlying reason for our increased susceptibility to crime is a justice system that is simply too lax and that gives priority to the rights of criminals at the expense of victims of crime.

Here too, it makes no difference that criminal statistics in Canada tell a much different story indeed.  All of the most important statistics suggest crime rates remain on a steady decline. Violent crime is down. Canada’s murder rate is down. Nor is it true that judges hand out lenient sentences or that higher rates of incarceration do anything to mitigate crime. Criminologists attempt to remind Harper and citizens alike that rehabilitation must remain a critical component of our justice system if we truly want the country to be safer. But as Ian Brown demonstrated in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, conservatives act as though they don’t believe in rehabilitation. Better to simply lock people up and throw away the key.  In this spirit, the Harper government recently eliminated the Automatic Parole Review, one consequence of which is predictable. Prison terms will be longer for most offenders. He’s also promising to combine 11 crime bills introduced in the last parliament into an omnibus bill.

Fear’s central role in the conservative campaign is perhaps not surprising. For much of what the conservatives do and say is itself seemingly motivated by fear. How else do we explain Harper’s insistence that MPs or candidates refuse to answer more than a few questions from the media or that he himself will only answer five questions per day. They’re clearly reluctant to engage with the media under any terms over which they have little control.  The problem, of course, is that elections are supposed to be about engagement.

More worrisome still, is Harper’s fear that some of those attending conservative rallies may not actually be party supporters. A 19 year old university student who placed a photo of herself with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on her facebook page attempted to attend a Conservative Rally in London, Ontario last week. Due to her apparent ties with the Liberal Party, she was told she was not welcome and forced to leave by security.  The sordid episode raises troubling questions: How did security or the rally organizers know the woman in question had a picture of herself with Michael Ignatieff on her facebook page? Why did the RCMP assume an active role in having her removed from a Conservative Party rally? What is Stephen Harper so afraid of?  Does he think party secrets are at risk of being exposed to the public? It truly is hard to fathom what type of organizational principle would dictate the forcible removal of a university student from such an event.  Although Harper eventually apologized for the incident, he did so only after days of questioning by the media and only reluctantly. The apology conveyed no sense that any lesson was actually learned.

This election could have represented an opportunity for Harper and the conservatives to shed these troubling tendencies. Instead invoking fear appears like a nasty habit that Harper just can’t break. Nevertheless he’d be wise to try if he hopes to ever win what to this point has remained elusive under his leadership: a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. But for that to happen, he has to overcome his own fear of treating Canadian voters as adults worthy of being spoken to honestly and openly.

donaldm@magma.ca

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