Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics


Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Full-Timers (Saturday December 30, 2006 at 11:12 pm)

There are many reasons to oppose or support the gun registry, but one stands above all the rest: that constitutional fiat, good governance.

Those who portray much of political history as a transition from absolutism to freedom have a tendency to ignore this point, but a government can only ever act in accordance with the popular will. As easy as it is to understand that people will only take so much before rebelling, most folks continue to entertain the happy fables of absolute monarchy which made the rounds of the 17th century.

What history teaches is that a government which defies reality isn’t likely to last very long. And one which continually passes laws which it can’t enforce isn’t far removed from the boy who cried wolf, only more laughable.

This point was an essential part of James Madison’s 18th century condemnation of a Virginia proposal to fund religious education:

13. Because attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to go great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case, where it is deemed invalid and dangerous? And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government, on its general authority?

Whatever else might be said of the gun registry, this much is true. From the outset the government was confronted with the real possibility of mass civil disobedience:

. . .even the most fervent gun control supporter could not have anticipated the level of resistance to Bill C-68. . .six provinces and two territories backed a constitutional challenge to the firearms legislation. . .all four western provinces as well as Newfoundland opted out of administering the firearms program, meaning Ottawa had to directly incur the costs of doing so. Individual gun owners also proved obstinate, waiting until the last minute to apply for a licence or register their firearms and creating backlogs that were costly to unclog.

Confronted with uncooperative behaviour, the government began to bend:

In an attempt to placate critics, the Justice Department reduced registration fees and offered refunds, forcing the government to foot a bigger portion of the bill.

No wonder the program ran from a few millions into the billions of dollars, sparking a profoundly negative audit.

These are not the marks of mere disapproval. Some degree of controversy has been raised even over the registry’s completeness. The refusal of half the provinces to enforce federal law; the acknowledgement that registration would not take place without cutting or refunding the registration fees; the possibility that many millions of firearms possessed by otherwise law-abiding citizens have not been registered — these are the marks of rebellion; and only force or government acquiescence can quell that.

Whether, then, you believe in maintaining a registry or not, it should be clear that this registry is too ill-omened to live. If you’re keen to have guns registered, destroy the present registry and create a new one which does more to respect legal owners (read the last few letters). You eliminate what has become a twin symbol of mismanagement and authoritarianism and simultaneously make an effort to co-opt some current detractors. If you’re keen to eliminate the registry, there’s a more profound reason than being pro-gun ownership.

And that reason is the principle of parsimony in government: the ability to control anything else depends, first and foremost, on the ability to control oneself.

Doobie or not Doobie?0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Full-Timers, Brass Tacks (Saturday November 11, 2006 at 12:05 pm)

While various groups recommend legalizing marijuana, the Canadian government steams ahead with legislation to more effectively target those who drive while under the influence of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

The Frosty Wonk’s not suggesting folks toke up before hitting the road — that’s just stupid. But apart from showing a clear tendency to rely on public prejudice over multiple governments’ recommendations to legalize responsible adult use of the substance, there’s a contradiction abrewin’ to make you stop and think. Consider:

  • Canadian Government: Marijuana use dulls the senses and reflexes, so driving under its influence is a dangerous risk.
  • World Anti-Doping Agency: Marijuana use dulls the senses and reflexes, so its use in competitive sports is an unfair advantage.

Truly a wonder drug.

Misplaced Priorities0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks, Full-Timers (Friday November 10, 2006 at 11:40 pm)

While hackles are raised over government musings, government action goes ignored.

Fierce reaction to the possiblity that the Harper government would seek to preclude federal spending in certain areas is overkill for several reasons. First, federal spending on social programs (the contentious sectors) is a relatively minor contribution. The previous government’s daycare proposal would have been a drop in the bucket had it been for a national program (it was little more than that in Quebec). On health care, the federal government wants credit for lowering its own taxes to “allow” the provinces to increase their spending through higher rates of their own. While that’s a fair explanation for the complained-of decline in federal contributions to health spending, the claim that the federal government continues to support healthcare on an annual basis by not raising taxes rings a bit hollow. Based on the government’s figures for 2004-2005, the federal contribution, with $17 Billion in tax points is $27.2 Billion. Less the tax points, that comes to $10.2 Billion of $83 Billion in spending, or just over 12% of funds (the exact proportion varies by province).

Second, unlike the government’s Senate reform proposals, there wouldn’t likely be a public backlash if the Liberal majority in the Senate blocks a constitutional bar on federal spending. Therefore, even if the possibility being discussed materializes into legislation and is passed through the House of Commons with the aid of the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberals would have no reason to fear killing it in the Senate.

It’s the second reason that explains attention to the issue. The idea of Constitution-wrangling is inherently dangerous (if not psychotic); and the same threat of public unease which has dimmed Michael Ignatieff’s hopes in the Liberal leadership contest will surely afflict the already-beleaguered Tories.

So can blogger attention to the issue be faulted? It’s a pure political ploy, after all — drawing attention to the foibles of your opponent.

The Cold Hard Wonk loves politics, but there is good and bad. Full points to the bloggers for calling the Prime Minister out on a dumb-as-dishwasher proposal, but minus several times as many for ignoring the far more serious problem.

Unlike the fearsome Constitutional amendment, the government’s plan to place police representatives on the boards which approve judicial candidates is more than possible. That makes it a clear and present danger.

Someone arrested and brought before the court suffers from a problematic bias. Police arrest can create an unfair presumption of guilt — a matter that can’t be left for the police to determine for one simple reason: it’s their job to find guilty people. The only thing that stands between an accused and conviction is the premise that their guilt must be proven, and the judge is the guardian of that narrow premise.

To properly guard against false convictions a judge must be as neutral as possible. That means in particular that a judge must avoid the understandable urge to believe that once the police do their duty the arrested party is likely to be guilty. It’s a hard thing to do in a society where people are raised to respect the police. It must also be a hard thing for a dutiful officer to cope with — that after all their effort and care, their word counts for nothing more than any other person’s. That’s why it’s essential that the two be rigidly separated. Police must have no role in judging and judges no role in investigating. By maintaining that separation, neither can be unduly influenced.

What happens, then, when the police, as an organization, are given the power to vet judges? Could a candidate’s just indifference be mistaken for hostility? Could the police representative, acting faithfully and in what she believes to be good faith, weed out the very candidates whose balanced views burden justice? Is that a temptation too great to be risked?

Without question. That’s why the Canadian Judicial Council is seriously concerned. It’s an issue which should be of real significance to Canadians, though it is undoubtedly harder to present than the simple gut reaction to Constitutional debate. In choosing to talk about the unimportant but volatile issue over the dangerous while ignoring the dangerous but subtle one, they’re playing easy politics at public expense.

There is another option — cover both; and politicians claiming to stand up for Canada should be asked why they didn’t.

The Kindness of Strangers0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, All Politics, Full-Timers (Thursday July 13, 2006 at 6:37 pm)

We all depend on others. No more foolish phrase was ever uttered than “self-made man”. Others are responsible for nearly everything around us; and even if we don’t like to be reminded of it often, there are times when we dearly ache for their help. The guilt of that dependency can be crushing, no matter how slight, because it carries with it a force of obligation, often from one least able to oblige. This is why, in one man’s opinion, it is better for the giver to know the recipient than the other way around. Any way you choose to put it, reminding people of their dependency can shame them.

Many things can be debated about the Guardian Angels, an anti-crime citizen’s group that’s become more of a movement since its origins in 1970’s New York; but what can’t be disputed is that they give. They give their time, their energy, and their efforts; and apparently, some people believe in what they’re giving.

This week, seniors at the William Denison Seniors’ Residence, a complex managed by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, had offered to host a graduation ceremony for the first Guardian Angels group to come to their neighbourhood. It was an initiative of the residence’s security committee, which hoped that it might improve local safety. Perhaps it would, perhaps it wouldn’t. The Angels will definitely be patrolling the area; but the ceremony was stopped. Representatives of the TCHC, getting wind of the event, which had been reserved as a “security meeting”, refused to allow it to proceed. The patrol was asked to wait by security guards, then asked to leave by police, when the latter arrived.

In explanation of which, the TCHC’s chief operating officer offered the following:

“It was not transparent what the space was going to be used for,” Nakamura said, adding it violates the use of space policy. “TCHC does not sanction the Guardian Angels.”

It was a bit non-transparent, it’s true. And seniors, you know, are just like children. If you don’t keep firm boundaries, anything could happen. Why, if you don’t punish them today for misdescribing a ceremony on a booking form, tomorrow they’ll be offering you a rock music that’s really rock’n'roll. The use of space policy, incidentally, suffers from a similar lack of transparency. Although it’s frequently referenced and its name turns up many times in searches of the TCHC website, it just doesn’t seem to be there.

But at the last, Ms Nakamura comes to the point: the TCHC won’t sanction the Guardian Angels. Neither will the City — the mayor has refused to meet with them. And that might be politically astute. After all, if they’ll be there anyway, he can step back from opposing them and still please their detractors with a public snub. But who pays the shameful price of a public snubbing? Why should the TCHC believe that allowing its tenants to endorse the group would be seen as an endorsement of its own? Maybe if it tends not to think of them as independent people.

Which is the real problem laid bare. It’s in the nature of the response — the way it’s been expressed, that’s most distressing. It’s condescending, paternalistic, and demeaning to rely on the technicality of room-booking forms when the obvious reason for shutting down the meeting is the City’s distaste for its tenants’ activity, expressed by proxy. Sending the police to do what a manager could have done is equally ham-fisted. The response robbed the tenants who so eagerly acted together as a community of any illusion of control over their own lives and home; and reminded them that they live at someone else’s sufferance.

That to make a petty and political statement. We should hope that the TCHC’s board reconsiders this style of management at their next meeting and affirms that people’s homes and pride aren’t to be used as extensions of municipal policy.

Inchworm, Inchworm0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, Trillium, Full-Timers (Tuesday April 11, 2006 at 10:03 am)

What do you get when newspapers and opposition politicians alike have poorer math skills than your garden-variety invertebrate?

This report from the National Post.

Hoping to seize on public anxiety after the recent case of multiple murders in Ontario, the aptly named Leader of the Opposition, John Tory, has questioned the provincial Government’s plans to add police officers to the provincial force.

The GTA, Mr. Tory suggests, is getting more than its fair share of the 1,000 new officers to be funded by the Government. While the area around Toronto will receive 25% of the new officers, OPP detachments outside the GTA will receive only 5% of the new officers.

Wondering why that only adds up to 30%? It’s because of a few clever distinctions. Tory is counting all officers going to the GTA, but only officers going to OPP detachments outside the GTA. The comparison is as pointless as apple consumption to fruit consumption, and given that, according to the government, most of the officers will be going to community police services, it utterly fails to reflect the real distribution of officers.

Consider that, according to this announcement, 51 of the 1,000 officers (that’s 5% for the journalists and opposition politicians) will be stationed in the Northern Ontario region. Since that still leaves a considerable area outside the GTA, it’s hard to believe that the region outside will be underserviced.

But take a look at things another way. In the last Canadian Census, the GTA was stated to contain 44.5% of the population of Ontario.

Reviewing the numbers, then:

  • Population of GTA: 44.5% of provincial total
  • Share of new officers: 25% of provincial total
  • Population of non-GTA: 55.5% of provincial total
  • Share of new officers: 75% of provincial total

So what, you might ask, is Mr. Tory complaining about? Equally questionable is the media’s presentation of his claims without any context whatsoever. The statement is clearly designed to mislead the public — does’t the press, that valiant defender of the public’s right and need for knowledge, have any duty to inform the public, or is that entirely at their discretion? Is there really no standard to hold them both to, or will we inch along to the truth instead of getting it in full measure?