Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Manitoba PC's present moderate budget with a few changes from NDP

The first budget introduced by the new Progressive Conservative government of Brian Pallister introduces only minor changes after the recent defeat of the former New Democratic Party (NDP).

The budget does not try to avoid a deficit. Instead is plans for a $890 million deficit at the end of its first fiscal year. Although the budget is called "Correcting the Course" it only makes modest changes. Rather than any drastic cut in government spending and austerity measures, all but two government departments will actually see their budgets rise this year. Health and social services will receive the greatest increases:
 What's now known as Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living will receive an additional $300 million as its budget increases to $6 billion from $5.7 billion. The budget for the new Families Department will rise $100 million, to $1.9 billion from $1.8 billion
The Conservatives, or Tories as they are called, claimed only they would balance the budget during their next term. This would be some time after 2020 if they are re-elected.
The government deficit will actually be more than twice that the NDP Greg Selinger government envisioned for 2015-16. However, the actual deficit was predicted to be around one billion. The new budget gives some tax relief to low income earners and claws back a senior's school-tax rebate brought in by the NDP but only for higher income seniors. Finance Minister Friesen said: "Tax policy must be principled Those seniors who actually need the support will continue to receive it." Friesen also promised to reduce the fees for ambulance service. The opposition NDP said that it expects the Conservatives to bring in deep cuts and an austerity program next year as they did not have time to plan for such policies as yet.
While Manitoba has balanced budget legislation, Finance Minister, Cameron Friesen, plans to suspend it in 2017 and replace it with "legislation that provides Manitoba taxpayers with enforceable protection, including the restoration of their right to vote on major tax increases". There was much opposition to NDP premier Greg Selinger increasing the provincial sales tax after promising not to do so during the election campaign. Friesen said: "This is practical. There's nothing hidden here. We are relying on the advice of experts."
One of the departments to have its budget cut is Manitoba Agriculture. The rural areas were among those most strongly supporting the Progressive Conservatives. The budget drops from $181 million to 180 million. Friesen suggested the drop was actually good news because he said commodity prices are strong and there is an expected drop in crop insurance payments.
Chris Adams, of St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba said that the budget was "steady as she goes" with no major surprises. He said: "This wasn't a Mike Harris 'Common Sense Revolution' budget, as some people worried about. It's more in tune with what we saw from Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party when they defeated the Saskatchewan NDP in 2007.Also, the premier didn't have a lot of time to get this budget together, so he's really taken what was happening over the past number of years and fine-tuned it. I think next year we'll see some bigger changes."The Harris Ontario provincial budget was very right-wing and ideological whereas the Wall government has been careful not to alter popular social programs associated with the left and NDP. As a result, it has high popularity ratings. However, Adams did note that the budget did not highlight child care, Indigenous issues, or labor issues as the previous NDP government had one.
The Conservatives managed to break with the tradition of showing off a new pair of shoes when they introduce their first budget. Finance Minister, Cameron Friesen, said: "We thought in our first budget as Manitoba government, rather than do something empty to satisfy a tradition, we would instead follow the Manitoba values of inclusiveness and generosity." Friesen gave new pairs of sneakers to the Teweldes, an Eritrean family of five, who recently relocated to Winnipeg via Sudan. Friesen said that as a father of three he understood how little costs add up:"It's tough for families to make those ends meet, Today we're helping this family in one small way." He said that the government would save families money by not raising taxes. 3,000 refugees are expected to be brought to Manitoba over the next year.

Federal Liberal Party adopts a new constitution at convention

In his speech Saturday afternoon at the federal Liberal convention in Winnipeg party leader, Justin Trudeau emphasized the new open and accessible movement that the amended constitution would provide for the Liberal Party.

The new constitution does away with any fees for joining the party. Under the new constitution there is no charge for registering as a Liberal. Concerns had been raised that the new constitution would concentrate power around the party's leadership. Party officials amended some parts of the constitution in response to concerns of critics. The final vote adopted the constitution with 1,988 in favour and 68 opposed. There were still a few complaints about how the constitution was drafted as it was done without consultation with local officials or members.
Trudeau not only concentrated on the constitution in his speech but moved it when it came to the convention floor. He directly addressed the issue of concentrating power: “If I believed for a second that the new constitution was about taking power away from the grassroots, I would be right there with you, shoulder to shoulder, speaking out against it. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t.”What looked to be a divisive battle within the party turned out to be an overwhelming victory for Trudeau. The new constitution is the first major federal party with no fee for membership. As the National Post claims: " It also streamlines the party’s bureaucracy, which promises to make it into a leaner, more efficient machine able to perpetuate a new trend in Canadian politics: the permanent campaign." The draft un-amended version of the constitution can be found here.
Opponents of the new constitution had complained about the way the new constitution was unveiled, alleging there had been no consultation and that the party was trying to strong-arm delegates into voting for it. An attempt to have a secret ballot on the issue was defeated. The critics said that the party was not living up to the ideals of openness, transparency , and consultation that Trudeau had campaigned on. Trudeau promised there would be no repurcussions against anyone who voted against the constitution. He said: “It takes courage to speak out against something your party leadership believes in, and I want you to know that I admire and thank you for doing it.”
Some delegates still objected to the constitution. Liane Doucet, president of the Liberal riding association in Toronto-Danforth was still going to vote against the constitution because she felt manipulated by the lack of communication and the attempts of the party to force support. However, Tom Addison, president of the Liberal Association for Kingston and the Islands — who was one of the main organizers of a movement to oppose the constitution and also said he was still upset "by how opposing voices were treated" — said:“However, my first duty is to my members. I feel the changes that the party has offered its members in the past 24 hours address the issues that my members expressed, and therefore I will be voting yes.”
As an article Rabble notes the new constitution gives PM Justin Trudeau unilateral power to appoint a new national election campaign committee, and additional powers in other areas as well. Rabble reports:The document, obtained by The Hill Times, also shows that Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and his top backroom advisers, party brass and legal advisers are proposing a potentially controversial change that would discontinue the historic tradition of developing party policy positions for election campaigns through national convention debate and votes on resolutions from grassroots party members across the country.
Instead platforms would be developed through policy consultations that are not defined, and continual contact and discussion with members. This may include online surveys. Trudeau's team used such techniques in developing the platform for last year's federal election. The rules for becoming a Registered Liberal will be developed by the Liberal National Board after the convention.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

US malls bordering Canada offering specials to lure Canadians as loonie dives

The low loonie or Canadian dollar began to fall against the U.S. dollar last fall. Before its fall Canadians often went on shopping trips across the border to buy many items at lower prices.

Although the loonie has recovered slightly to around 76 cents U.S., it is still too low to entice Canadian shoppers to travel to the US. The loss of Canadian shoppers has had a detrimental effect on malls that previously had made extra profits from the Canadian trade. Stephen Fine, president of the resource site CrossBorderShopping, said: "They're really noticing the decrease in Canadian Shoppers now." Some malls are using special deals to lure Canadian customers back. The deals range from gifts, to at-par exchange. Some start this Victoria Day weekend.
Statistics Canada reports that 977,686 Canadian autos made same day trips to the U.S. this March, a decline of 15 percent from last year. Overnight trips declined by almost as much at 13 percent.
Bells Fair, a Mall in Bellingham, Washington, just south of Vancouver B.C., has 18 retailers including the Gap, JCPenny and Macy's that are accepting the loonie at par until Remembrance Day in November during Canadian long weekends, including Victoria Day weekend. General manager of the mall,Rene Morris, said: "I just thought, how can we help our Canadian shoppers?They want to come, but the loonie is low." Morris estimates that she has lost about 25 percent of her Canadian customers compared to about two years ago when the loonie was above 90 cents U.S. She said the whole community is feeling the decline. Parking lots are no longer full of the blue and white B.C. licence plates. She said she had to do a lot of convincing to get retailers to accept the plan but once she got Macy's to sign up, many more joined. Hotels are also joining in, offering special rates for Canadians. The Sheraton Four Points will offer room rates at par on the weekend.
In other areas of Canada near the U.S. border are offering deals. Walden Galleria in Buffalo has joined with a nearby Hampton Inn to offer shoppers rooms at par plus a $20 gift certificate. The offer will continue until the end of June. Other retailers in the Galleria are offering Canadians discounts of up to 25 percent. Shoppers in Toronto and other southern Ontario cities near the border will probably be lured by the offers. A retail outlet in Niagara Falls NY, right on the border is offering a $20 Visa gift card with every $200 spent up to a maximum of $100 in gift cards. Marketing manager Meghan Ayers said: "There's a direct correlation to Canadian traffic when the loonie declines. We're incentivizing Canadians to cross the border." Fine of CrossBorderShopping thinks that the deals and warm summer weather will entice more Canadians to shop in the U.S.
The diving loonie is also having a negative effect on snowbirds. Snowbirds are Canadians, many of them retired, who travel south, mostly to the southern U.S., in order to avoid harsh Canadian winters. Grace Tenhoeve, 71, used to be a regular snowbird, escaping Canadian winter's in Waterdown, Ontario, every year and staying in Florida. This year she has decided she just cannot afford to go:"When the dollar dropped I said, You know what, I'm not going,...I'm not that rich." She lives alone on a fixed income.
As with retailers on the borders, those in other areas of the U.S. who earn a considerable amount of their income from Canadians are giving big discounts to attract them back..Scottsdale, Arizona, is one of the cities trying to entice Canadians to return. Rachel Pearson of the city's visitors bureau brags: "Scottsdale loves Canadians, so come on down." Canadians are the biggest group of international visitors. Some businesses are accepting the loonie at par. The city even has catchy ads running in Canada such as: "Get some loonie love in Scottsdale." The ads also appear on line. Deals include meal vouchers, up to 25 percent off accommodation, and discounts on boat tours, shopping and spas.
Last November and October car trips to the U.S. declined by 23 percent compared to the year before. Plane trips were down 6.3 percent The higher US dollar has had the result that sales of all-inclusive trips to Mexico and the Caribbean have jumped more than ten percent.
Places such as Kissimmee, Florida, are trying to counteract the decline in Canadian visitors. On the website of Alexander Holiday Homes we hear; "The Canadian exchange rate being so low is causing many to hesitate traveling to Florida this year. We have the solution!" The solution is a 30 percent discount. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina has a number of hotels and tourist attractions that offer Canadians discounts of up to 65 percent. Nearly a million Canadians visit Myrtle Beach each year. The director of marketing with Vacation Myrtle Beach Resorts running 14 resorts notes the chain offers discounts of 25 percent for Canadians staying at hotels for at least a week. He said that the chain did not want to weaken any ties to people who had been returning for years.
Tenhoeve has decided to stay put. She a community indoor pool where the water temperature is 88 degrees Fahrenheit. She claims she does not need to go to Florida. As the appended video shows, some Canadians are taking advantage of the high U.S. dollar by selling off homes they bought when the U.S. housing market dropped drastically.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sale of Manitoba's MTS to Bell could reduce wireless competition in Canada

Bell Canada (BCE) has agreed to buy Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) in a friendly takeover valued at $3.9 billion. BCE is already the largest telecom company in Canada.

The purchase price breaks down into $3.1 billion for the company and $800 million of debt. In a separate transaction BCE will sell a third of the MTS postpaid subscribers and also retail locations to Telus.
MTS is now the largest wireless provider in Manitoba with 491,017 subscribers at the end of its last fiscal year. When the deal goes through BCE will have 400,000 subscribers and Telus 140,000. The deal will need the approval of Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Burea, the Competition Bureau, and Industry Canada. It is expected to be finalized by later this year or early 2017.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan have among the cheapest cellular plans in Canada, thanks to Sasktel in Saskatchewan and MTS in Manitoba. Some experts think that the merger will result in less competition and higher fees. Sasktel is a crown corporation which the new Saskatchewan Party government could possibly put it up for sale, but may be wary of the negative political reaction if it did so. MTS was sold to private shareholders by the Conservative government of Gary Filmon in 1996. With the sale of MTS to BCE, some experts expect consumers may have to pay more for their services.
An article in the Globe and Mail by Dwayne Winseck, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, and Ben Klass, a PhD candidate at the same university, claims the deal could have negative consequences.The article notes:A transaction of this magnitude deserves careful consideration. Some pundits and think tanks have been quick to support the deal, but a more rational review of the situation is needed. Our research suggests that the takeover would not be in the best interest of Manitobans, and that it could set a harmful precedent for the rest of the country.
Winseck points out that MTS acts as an independent competitor to the national carriers. Manitobans are able to obtain some of the lowest price wireless services in Canada. In provinces such as B.C, Alberta, and Ontario, where there are no strong competitors for Bell, Rogers and Telus, rates per month for popular voice and data plans are $30 to $70 higher. The plans also include meager monthly data caps that MTS does not have.
The supports claim that "ruinous competition" has left MTS in dire financial straits. Supporters argue that BCE will help bring Manitoba into the future. BCE promises to invest $1 billion over five years to build more modern infrastructure. However, Wensock claims their data show MTS is more profitable and invests relatively more money in its networks than BCE. The services offered by MTS already compare favorably with what BCE has to offer in other provinces.
Wensock points out that with the buy out, the number of wireless carriers in Manitoba will be reduced from four to three. The US blocked a merger that would have had this result as did European regulators. For almost a decade the Canadian government has been attempting to increase competition in the wireless area. She notes that supporters play down the importance of independent competition and play also the negative effects of having less competition.
As of now, MTS is the only operator to offer unlimited data plans both for mobile and home broadband. These plans will likely disappear. Telecom consultancy company Rewheel has found that wireless markets that go from four to three carriers usually see a steep rise in prices along with restrictive data caps. Both the CRTC and the Competition Bureau has found the mobile wireless industry is not sufficiently competitive. The three firms BCE, Rogers, and Telus are found by the two bodies to have "market power". The merger would give BCE and the rest even more. Wensock recommends that regulators say no to the BCE buyout of MTS.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Canada finally to sign optional UN protocol on torture

On Tuesday a number of activists, several of them wearing black blindfolds around their eyes, held a demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa demanding that Canada sign on to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).

OPCAT is an optional protocol added to the UN Convention Against Torture. OPCAT establishes an international inspection system for places of detention. The system is modeled on that used in the EU since 1987. OPCAT was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December of 2002 and entered into force as of June 2006. There are 75 signatories as of April 2016. Neither the United States, Russia, or China have signed the protocol.
Alex Neve, director of Amnesty International in Canada, said that signing the protocol was only a first step in ending torture and degrading treatment. Neve said: “Having expert UN investigators poke and prod in jails in those countries is an absolutely essential step in helping to end torture. Once Canada is on board, we can at long last push those other countries to follow suit.”Stephane Dione announced this week that Canada would sign on to OPCAT. Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, says the Trudeau government plans to make good on the commitment.
OPCAT establishes independent bodies who are charged with regularly visiting detention facilities. The aim is to prevent torture and other abusive treatment. Those who sign must commit to allowing inspections of facilities under its control, and to establish a body to prevent torture within the country. The previous Harper government promised twice that it would sign the protocol but never did.
Kuwaiti-born Canadian Naser al-Raas welcomed the announcement by the government saying it was crucial and involved preventing torture rather than "healing the wounds." He said: “I was surprised because it came after 13 years of continuous calls … for Canada to join the optional protocol. It’s great news for everyone.” Al-Raas had been detained for a year in Bahrain after he had attended pro-democracy protests there. He claimed he was tortured for 31 days, including beatings and mock executions. He was not allowed medications. He claims his present health problems result from his torture. He has to use a wheelchair and requires constant oxygen. He will undergo heart surgery and lung transplants in the near future. Electric shocks during his torture have damaged his muscles.
Another Canadian victim of torture Abdullah al-Maliki a Syrian-Canadian also welcomed the move. At present, al-Maliki is suing the government for $100 million for its role in his arrest and detention in Syria. A commission of inquiry into the treatment of al-Maliki and two others, the Iacobucci Inquiry,found that Canadian officials had indirectly contributed to his mistreatment. He was held for 2 years and subject to torture and other mistreatment. In 2009 a parliamentary commission advised the Canadian government to apologize to all three all three Canadians whose treatment the Iacobucci Inquiry investigated. They also urged that the government correct any misinformation related to their detention, and pay compensation "for the suffering they endured and the difficulties they encountered." Al-Maki said: “Canada must demand other countries open up their detention facilities for regular inspection visits. Canada can be a new dawn to the elimination of torture around the world.”
Another well-known Canadian, Mohamed Fahmy, tweeted that the signing was "history in the making." Fahmy was bureau chief of Al Jazeera English. He was arrested with 2 colleagues in 2013. He ended up spending more than 400 days in prison on the basis of what were widely regarded as fabricated charges. He only returned to Canada last December after being pardoned by Egyptian president Abdel al-Sisi. Ensaf Haidar the wife of the jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi along with her son were also at the Parliament Hill protest.
Canada did little to help or object to the treatment of Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was charged with killing an American paramedic in Afghanistan. Khadr was badly injured. He was sent to Guantanamo, infamous for its torture of many held there. Canadian officials visited him and interrogated him without his lawyers being present. The Supreme Court of Canada held his rights were violated.
Another famous Canadian case is that of Maher Arar. Arar has dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship. Many consider his case as one of many extraordinary renditions in which the US rendered terrorist suspects to foreign countries where they would often be tortured during interrogation. Syria was one among several countries favored. In 2002 Arar was returning from a family vacation in Tunisia. He was detained at John F Kennedy airport in September of 2002 when he was on his way home to Canada. He was held in solitary confinement in the US for almost two weeks. He was interrogated while being denied meaningful access to a lawyer. The US thought he was an Al Qaeda member. They ended up not sending him to Canada where he pleaded to be sent but deported him to Syria where he was immediately jailed. He was detained for almost a year during which time he claimed to be tortured. This claim was substantiated by the subsequent O'Connor Inquiry. Even the Syrian government said that Arar was completely innocent. Arar eventually received a $10.5 million dollar settlement and a formal apology for Canada's role in his torture by then PM Stephen Harper. He is still on the US no-fly list. Little has been said about the case in the US under Obama but US courts have refused to let lawsuits filed by Arar to go forward because it might reveal official secrets.