Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The hard part is coming for Campbell on climate change

This whole climate-change issue will be tricky for the Liberals, practically and politically.
The controversy about a new carbon tax on gasoline is a good illustration of how complex the issues will get.
It's one thing for Premier Gordon Campbell to declare global warming a threat to the Earth and commit the province to a major effort to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
Actually doing something about it is trickier. Since Campbell's conversion a year ago, there hasn't been a lot of action. The government knows that without some concrete measures in the budget, it faces a credibility problem. If you've declared war on a global warming, you better follow through.
So the government needs to show something significant - beyond targets plucked from the air and a plan to buy carbon credits to offset ministers' plane travel - in the budget.
But there is a cost to most of the measures that would help. An affordable, reasonable cost, I'd say. But not everyone sees it that way.
The gas tax expected in the budget is a good example. The plan is apparently to introduce the tax at 3.5 cents a litre and raise it progressively in coming years.
It's a sensible measure that works in two ways. Higher gasoline prices would encourage people and companies to use less. That's a basic law of economics. People might cut travel or bus or buy fuel-efficient cars when the time comes. Companies would look for ways to deliver goods twice a week, instead of daily.
And the money from a gas tax could fund efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions - for transit or research or green power production.
But a lot of people think of this as a tax grab, especially the people more likely to vote Liberal than NDP. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation - which, in B.C, has become a credible voice - is opposed.
It's a balancing act for the Liberals. This week, Campbell announced a 12-year, $14-billion transit plan. You might have expected that to be the kind of thing that could be funded by a gas tax. But the premier was emphatic that there was no connection.
One reason could be found in criticism from Maureen Bader of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation. Almost all of the transit money will be spent in the Lower Mainland; the gas tax will hit all British Columbians.
It's an interesting challenge for a politician like Campbell, who after a reckless first term seems intent on staking a solid claim to the political centre. It has worked; despite some big problems last year the Liberals still have a comfortable lead in the polls.
Given good judgment and reasonable luck Campbell can steer a course that leaves the NDP with almost no room to make gains. Unless the worst happens, from the Liberals' perspective, and there's some sort of splinter party on the right.
There's no sign of that. But Campbell's careful separation of the transit plan and the gas tax suggests an effort to manage this all very closely.
That makes the handling of the gas tax revenues - assuming the tax is introduced with the budget - interesting. Financed Minister Carole Taylor has been unclear what would happen to the money, expected to start at $200 million and rise to $2 billion a year.
One option would be to make the tax truly revenue neutral, with offsetting cuts elsewhere. The government could impose a 3.5-cent a litre gas tax and take in about $200 million in revenue and cut the sales tax by one-half per cent, returning the same amount to taxpayers.
Taylor is leaving the door to a sort-of neutrality, where the money would go to new climate-change measures.
It's all going to be interesting. Campbell has made a major commitment, an important one. But delivering remains a big challenge. The first real test will come Feb. 19, with the budget.
Footnote: Campbell got caught in wildly misleading spin on the transit announcement. The $14-billion plan would result in a cumulative reduction of 4.7 million tonnes of emissions, he said. But that's the total over the next 12 years. By 2020 the transit plan will reduce emissions by 650,000 tonnes a year - 1.6 per cent of the reductions needed to meet the province's commitment.

Monday, January 14, 2008

No need for Harper to delay on Mulroney inquiry

Let's get on with the inquiry into those fat envelopes of $1,000 bills Brian Mulroney took from shady German businessman and fixer Karlheinz Schreiber.
And into why Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't act on allegations and documents Schreiber sent to him in March - more than six months before the scandal re-erupted.
Harper has accepted the need for an inquiry. And he says he'll accept the framework set our in recommendations by special advisor David Johnston last week.
But he wants to wait until a Parliamentary committee completes its hearings into the affair, which could drag out over months.
If the issue was just about Mulroney's dealings with Schreiber between 1992 and 1996 - the $225,000 in cash the former PM admits taking in hotel rooms - you could make a case for waiting. The committee might discover information that would help the inquiry. And there's no need for haste. Mulroney is long out of politics and there are few implications for anybody in public life today.
But while those dealings are Johnston main issue, he also believes the inquiry should answer questions about the role of Harper and his senior staff.
It's riskier to wait for answers to those questions. The minority government could fall at any time and Canadians would be asked to choose whether to continue Harper's time as prime minister.
There's been much speculation about when that might happen. Commentators disagree on who would benefit from an early election. The poll results aren't encouraging the Liberals or Conservatives to take risks.
But an election could still happen. It would be better for both Harper and Canadians if the inquiry were done by then.
Johnston ruled out a wide-ranging inquiry into all the allegations stretching over a 15-year period.
That's reasonable. While there are disturbing issues, any inquiry would become unwieldy, costly and probably inconclusive.
Instead, Johnston decided 17 questions needed answering. The first 14 all related to Mulroney's business dealings with Schreiber in the 1990s. The last three are about Harper's inaction after Schreiber sent hundreds of pages of evidence to his office last March.
It's worth going through Johnston's questions.
What were the business and financial dealings between Schreiber and Mulroney?
Was there an agreement reached by Mulroney while still a sitting prime minister? If so, what was that agreement, when and where was it made?
Was there an agreement reached by Mulroney while still sitting as a Member of Parliament or during the limitation periods prescribed by the 1985 ethics code? If so, what was that agreement, when and where was it made?
What payments were made, when and how and why? What was the source of the funds? What services, if any, were rendered in return for the payments?
Why were the payments made and accepted in cash? What happened to the cash; in particular, if a significant amount of cash was received in the U.S., what happened to that cash?
Were these business and financial dealings appropriate considering the position of Mulroney as a current or former prime minister and Member of Parliament?
Was there appropriate disclosure and reporting of the dealings and payments?
Were there ethical rules or guidelines which related to these business and financial dealings? Were they followed?
Are there ethical rules or guidelines which currently would have covered these business and financial dealings? Are they sufficient or should there be additional ethical rules or guidelines concerning the activities of politicians as they transition from office or after they leave office?
What steps were taken in processing Schreiber's correspondence to Prime Minister Stephen Harper of March 29, 2007?
Why was the correspondence not passed on to Harper?
Should the Privy Council Office have adopted any different procedures in this case?
The entire cases raises troubling questions about way politics and money interact in our system. Failing to seek answers would signal our acceptance of dubious practices.
And failing to seek them as quickly as possible raises a whole new set of questions.
Footnote: No one knows how long the Commons committee could take to complete its investigations. The chair said he'd expected work to continue at least until the end of February, but there's no certainty given the potential for new evidence and political wrangling. It could Harper hopes to influence the committee to cut its inquiries short.