Good riddance to B.C. LNG

There were lots of things wrong with former Premier Christy Clark’s plan to produce liquefied natural gas but let me start with the good.

image: the Tyee

At least it was a plan that labour and business could agree to. It was a provincial strategy that had workers and industry pulling together in the same direction.

It was an ambitious plan but unrealistic from the start. Markets for were weak and no one wanted to develop the plants. Now one of the last players, Petronas, has pulled the plug.

I can only speculate why they bailed out only one week after the BC Liberals were defeated. Was there some deal with the Clark government to provide concessions such that the LNG plant would be built regardless of whether it was viable? It’s not inconceivable considering how much political capital Clark had invested in the project.

Or was it because of Canada’s so-called anti-business climate, including high taxes, environmental reviews, and Indigenous land claims? Instead of recriminations, let’s celebrate the passage of Petronas says economist Jim Stanford.

Stanford has a unique perspective of LNG projects in B.C. and Australia. He’s a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and lives in Sydney, Australia.

“In fact,” says Stanford, “far from blaming government red tape for the collapse of this misguided project, we should be collectively grateful. Those rules likely saved us from wasting tens of billions of dollars on the biggest white elephant in Canadian history.”

Stanford’s analysis shoots down an impression I had. I wrote that Australia was a LNG success story and that Australia’s early entry into the market was why B.C.’s plants were doomed. I now realize that Australia’s experience was not as rosy as I thought.

When Asian gas prices started to surge in 2009, Australia decided to chase after those markets. Unlike Canada, Australian developers faced few environmental hurdles and Australia’s Indigenous people had little negotiating power.

What followed was a spectacular construction boom in which $200 billion Australian was spent on LNG plants.

The boom had a dramatic effect on Australia’s economy. Their dollar, now at par with Canada, spiked up to $1.30, resulting in what economists call the “Dutch disease.” When Australia’s currency rose dramatically, the price other countries paid for Australia’s products rose. As well, imports were cheaper. Exports fell, imports rose and Australian factories could no longer compete. Australia became deindustrialized including the shutdown of their auto industry.

With the drop in gas prices, Australia’s LNG online plants are marginal. Boom towns that sprung up during the construction years are becoming ghost towns. Housing prices have collapsed.

Gas plants are selling into markets at discounted prices. Unlike Canada, Australian plants don’t have to supply the country first and so, ironically, there is a shortage of gas in Australia and a glut of gas on world markets. Domestic prices have doubled because of diversion to export markets.

B.C. has no economic strategy. Only one per cent of our GDP comes from mining, oil and gas and most from finance and real estate.

Our new NDP government faces a challenge. In our polarized political climate, unifying strategies are rare. Just ask former Premier Clark.

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TPP rises from the ashes

Rumours of the death of the TPP are greatly exaggerated. After President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I congratulated him: “Thank you, Mr. Trump, for killing the TPP.”

 image: WMAL radio

I now realize that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was not an indicator of leadership, but a sign of retreat from the international community. It’s just another indication of the degree of U.S. marginalization. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is yet another indicator that we must carry on without him.

Where the original TPP had a number of flaws, the new TPP can be negotiated to Canada’s advantage. Canada was disadvantaged in the first round because we were latecomers: we had to accept what had already been negotiated.

Canada is a trading nation and as such, we depend on fair trade agreements. As politicians like to do, I’ll list my five conditions for acceptance of the new TPP -dubbed TPP11 after the number of countries left to pick up the pieces.

Investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) should not be part of TPP11. This allows companies to seek damages from governments when local regulations interfere with profit-making.

When disputes arise, as they are bound to do, they should be settled in a transparent manner by judges, similar to the International Court, not in private between arbitrators as is now done with NAFTA.

Environmental standards should not be part of TPP11. Environmental damage is seen by industry as a cost of doing business -a price which indigenous peoples and future generations will pay. Environmental standards need to be negotiated by separate accords like the Paris Agreement.

Intellectual property and should be excluded as well. Artists and small software companies need protection, but too often concern for intellectual property masks large corporate interests such as Disney.

Exclude health regulations as well. They are an excuse for Big Pharma to extend the patent life of drugs that could be made cheaper with generics.

TPP11 will be a meeting of middle powers now that the U.S. is out, and China and Europe were never in. Canada can then negotiate from a position of strength when it comes to superpowers. Trump favours individual bilateral deals because he imagines an advantage over smaller countries. But if those smaller countries can form a block where there is an alternative to the bully-tactics of Trump.

The TTP11 would give Canada access to markets not previously available, says Hugh Stephens of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. It will jump-start bilateral talks that were going nowhere, like those between Japan and Canada. With Japan in the TTP11, negotiations can proceed. And trade agreements under the umbrella of TPP11 can take place with other countries where Canada has no bilateral agreements such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam and Malaysia.

And in countries where Canada does have bilateral agreements, such as Mexico, Chile and Peru, the TTP11 can tie up loose ends.

Whereas Canada was a follower in the original TTP, we can be a leader in fair trade under TTP11. With the U.S. retreating into a fog of befuddlement, Canada needs to step up on the world stage.

 

 

Government powers are reduced during an election

The prime minister to likes to act prime-ministerial but his powers are reduced by a little-known convention. You won’t find the Caretaker Convention on any government website but I found a source.

caretaker-conventions

Caretaker conventions are like precedents in law: they determine how government functions.

Powers are reduced because the government has essentially lost the confidence of the house and is at the end of its term says parliamentary expert John Wilson in the Canadian Parliamentary Review.

“The fundamental significance of this observation – when it comes to the importance of maintaining responsible government in our system – is hardly removed by the distinction which is made between a government which has lost the confidence of the House of Commons and one which has merely dissolved parliament in the ordinary course of approaching the legal end of its term in office.”

Canada is in limbo during an election. Once parliament resumes, the Governor General will appoint a party leader most likely to command a majority in legislature. The rules are set down by the Library of Parliament’s instructions to parliamentarians called Constitutional Conventions.

“The Governor General may dismiss a government if (1) an opposition party has won a majority in an election and the existing government refuses to resign, or (2) a government has been defeated on a clear vote of confidence and neither calls an election nor resigns.”

Since this government seems to have a poor grip on the law, Canadians should watch for excesses. The government suspiciously keeps the convention hidden. Mark Jarvis wonders why in his National Post article: Why does Canada not disclose its rules concerning ‘caretaker’ governments (April 4)?

Other countries such as Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand make their Caretaker Conventions public. “By virtue of it not being a public document, it is impossible for the opposition, observers or the public to determine whether its rules have been followed or breached,” complains Jarvis.

Following Jarvis’ complaint, Blogger James Bowden decided to do a little digging and through a freedom-of-information request was sent an unredacted copy of Canada’s Caretaker Convention which he posted on his blog.

Looking at it, I see no reason for secrecy. It spells out the limitations established by experts and agreed to by governments. “Most of these directives serve as common-sense reminders to separate government and partisan activity,” says Bowden.

Failing to make the document publically available creates a sense that the government can do what it wants.

That seems to be the case when the Justice department warned its employees against social media: activity critical of the federal government. The department  thinks that civil servants have a duty of loyalty to the government and must refrain from criticism. That’s contrary to the Convention:

“Those who remain in their position and to become involved on a part-time basis may participate in campaign activities on their own time, outside normal working hours, while not carrying out official duties.”

Or maybe Prime Minister Harper doesn’t want us to know that his government is a caretaker only, just filling in, a nominal administration that will last only until the next government is declared.

Fear Dr. Day

Supporters of health care held their collective breath last month as the votes were counted in the election for the president of Doctors of BC. This was a runoff vote; the first one ended in a tie.

dr-alan-ruddiman

Dr. Alan Ruddiman, OPD Newsfeed

The candidates for president couldn’t have been more different in their vision for healthcare. Dr. Ruddiman wants to preserve our universal system in which patients are treated regardless of their ability to pay. His opponent, Dr. Day wants to set up a two-tier system in which wealthy patients buy treatment.

To the relief of everyone, Dr. Ruddiman won by a substantial margin although the turnout was only 50 per cent. Shortly after winning the physician from Oliver urged his colleagues to take a stand in defence of public health care. “It is fundamental that the medical profession take a firm stand for our publicly funded health care system (Globe and Mail, June 23, 2015)”

However, it’s too early to break out the champagne just yet. Dr. Day is determined undermine publicly funded health care and he doesn’t have to be president of Doctors of BC to do it. The B.C. Ministry of Health found that Dr. Day had been illegally charging patients. In one month alone, his Cambie Surgery Centre had billed patients $500,000.

Billing patients is illegal. The Medicare Protection Act of B.C., which parallels the Canada Health Act, states that the goals are to “preserve a publicly managed and fiscally sustainable health care system for British Columbia in which access to necessary medical care is based on need and not an individual’s ability to pay.

In retaliation to the audit from the B.C. Ministry of Health, Dr. Day launched a court case against the provincial government alleging that the Medical Protection Act violated his rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a warped sense of justice, Dr. Day sees himself a victim of a single-payer system. Wait times could be reduced, he argues, if patients were allowed to pay for treatment.

On first consideration, Dr. Day’s argument seems to make sense say Drs. Duncan Etches and Michael Klein. “At first glance, it might seem logical that allowing patients to pay privately at for-profit clinics would take paying patients off public wait lists, allowing others to move up the list faster (Monitor, a magazine from the Centre for Canadian Policy Alternatives, March, 2015).”

If it weren’t illegal, if there were an unlimited number of doctors, the argument might make sense. But there is a limited number of doctors. Because some surgeons work in both the private and public systems, for-profit clinics make surgeons unavailable in the public clinics; a phenomenon known as “crowding out” that can be seen in Quebec and Australia that have two-tier systems.

Also, private clinics skim off easier cases leaving difficult ones to the now underserved public system.

Even without the threat from Dr. Day, insidious corporate growth eats away at our healthcare says Dr. Ruddiman. “The threats of the corporatization of medicine and the barriers of layered administration that now exist in delivering efficient health care are a threat to the very ethos of medicine and indeed the profession.”

 Governor General fulfills important role, performs it well.  

After their success in bringing down privacy commissioner George Radwanski, the House of Commons Committee on Spending is looking for its next target.  Their attention is now shifted to Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.  But the committee will soon find out that the governor general is good value.

  Crest of the Governor General

Spending on Clarkson’s office is modest and in line with other countries.  We spend about 59 cents a year each on Clarkson’s budget.  Australia spends 56 cents, and Ireland 92 cents.

If it does its job, the Commons Committee will also find out that the role of the governor general should be strengthened, not weakened through self-serving witch hunts.  The governor general is an important ambassador of Canada’s  arts industry.

It wasn’t always so.

Former Canadian ambassador Fred Bild explains.  “It used to be that I had to dutifully attend visits by the Queen to foreign countries where I served.  We were expected to pay our respects to the Queen as Canada’s head of state.  What shocked me was that she was quite clearly traveling as the head of state of Great Britain.  She was promoting British projects, not Canadian.  After that realization, changes were made in the role of the governor general in which he or she became a quasi-head of state,” Bild told CBC radio.

Out of necessity, the governor general is evolving into Canada’s head of state on occasions when the Queen can’t or won’t.

Adrienne Clarkson is doing a good job.  Ex-ambassador Bild considers her to be the best.  Paul Wells, reporter for Macleans Magazine, became a believer after he saw Clarkson in action.  He used to think that the governor general and her entourage were a lot of snobs swilling at the public trough.  After Wells covered her trip to Germany in 2001, he was impressed by her intellect, stamina, and the quality of people that surrounded  her. “Foreign audiences are blown away that something this intellectual intense can come from Canada,” said Wells.

Russian President Vladimir Putin considered Clarkson to be an important representative of Canada.  He rolled out the red carpet when Clarkson came to call in Moscow.  It was the kind of reception that the president of the U.S. would get.  Putin and Clarkson discussed federalism, aboriginal issues and terrorism.  The meeting was “a landmark in the development of co-operation between Russia and Canada,” Putin said.

Unlike Australians, Canadians have an attachment to the governor general.  Professor David E. Smith of the University of Saskatchewan studied that attachment in his book, The Republican Option in Canada.  He found that the office of the governor general is connected to the people, our cultural mosaic, and bilingualism.  The g-g’s role is connected the land -Canada’s vast landscape and our north.  Australia has more republican sentiments because they were badly treated by Great Britain as a penal colony.  Canada was settled by immigrants who never looked at our monarch as part of a colonizing power.

The popularity of the g-g has even rubbed off on the provinces.  Provincial Lieutenants Governor have gaining  popularity as a vital connection to common people in a way that politicians can’t.  The only Canadians not happy with the governor general are those minority who prefer a republic, where the head of state and the head of government are one.  However, when you look for a good examples of  a republic, they are hard to find.  The U.S. is a republic but few American presidents exemplify the dignity and values that Canadians would want in a head of state.

The Commons Committee will back off from the governor general.  Not just because she is doing a good job, or because the good publicity that she generates worth much more than what she costs us.  Not just because the promotion of our arts industry abroad create jobs at home, or because the office of the governor general is a constitutional fact of Canada’s parliamentary monarchy.

The Commons Committee will back off because they could stir up discord in their respective parties.  Some federal Liberals would like the governor general to be the head of state instead of the Queen.  Some in the Alliance party would like Canada to be a republic like the U.S.  Monarchists in both parties support the governor general as representative of the Queen.  For their own sake, committee members will let sleeping dogs lie.