Toxin Toxout by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith: review

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Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith are the authors of a previous bestseller called Slow Death By Rubber Duck. In that book, they detailed a shocking list of toxic chemicals that are present in almost everything surrounding us; the air we breathe, the water we drink, our food, the containers we package it in, the toys we buy our children, and even the personal-care products we use to keep ourselves clean, fresh and healthy. They bravely experimented on themselves to determine whether purposeful exposure to harmful chemicals could measurably increase the levels of toxins in their own bodies. 

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As job crisis deepens, a do-nothing budget looms large

The job numbers for the end of 2013 could not have been much worse than this. But don't expect the Harper Conservatives to do anything about it in a February federal Budget which will be all about 2015 pre-election politics.

In December, the Canadian economy lost 60,000 full-time jobs, and the national unemployment rate rose sharply from 6.9 per cent to 7.2 per cent. The youth unemployment rate jumped from 13.4 per cent to 14 per cent.

While the Conservatives have bragged about the strength of the recovery, the proportion of Canadians with jobs was down in December from a year earlier, and the unemployment rate was up, from 7.1 per cent to 7.2 per cent.

In short, no progress was made in 2013.

The prospects for 2014 are not rosy. Most forecasters expect little improvement on the jobs front as the housing boom slows and households, now with record-high levels of debt, slow down their spending. The hard-hit manufacturing sector continues to shed jobs as new plant closure announcements multiply.

There is a lot that the federal government could do to help sustain and create jobs, especially for hard-hit young people and recent immigrants.

We could take advantage of still very low interest rates to finance major new investments in public and environmental infrastructure, including public transit, which would both create jobs and reduce carbon emissions.

We could invest in innovation, skills, and research and development to transition from our overreliance on resources to a more sophisticated Canadian economy.

We could lighten up on cuts to public services which kill jobs even as they harm Canadian families.

But the federal budget will do close to nothing along these lines since the Harper Conservatives have only one goal: to set the stage for pre-election tax cuts in the 2015 budget.

They can't cut taxes till they have balanced the budget. So this year, the order of the day will be no new programs, and even more cuts to jobs and services. Watch for new austerity measures on top of already announced cuts which will see federal direct program spending (program spending minus transfers to persons and minus transfers to provinces) fall by $5.3 billion from 2013-14 to 2014-15.

These deep cuts are being imposed in spite of the fact that the federal debt is already falling as a share of the economy. Even bank economists say that there is no particular hurry to eliminate our remaining modest deficit.

The race to balance the federal budget is motivated not by economics but by the political determination of the Conservatives to deliver a big personal tax cut just before the 2015 election in the form of income-splitting for families with children.

No one is against a break for hard-working families, or measures that would allow parents to spend more time with children – but is income splitting the way forward? We could, for example, expand parental leave benefits under the Employment Insurance program so more parents could afford to take up to a year off work after the arrival of a child.

But the Conservative proposal to allow a shift of up to $50,000 between partners in a family with children up to age 18 is deeply flawed.

There would be no benefit at all to the one in four children who live in single parent families, nor would there be much (if any) benefit to lower-income families with two earners where neither earns above the $50,000 needed to move out of the lowest tax bracket. Stephen Harper is essentially proposing that we transfer more of the tax burden onto single-parent and lower- and middle-income families.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: bcgovphotos. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

Parliament finally shines a light on the politics of inequality

Apart from scandal, Parliament didn’t produce much in the just completed fall session – a grand total of three bills. But there was one ray of light, a Finance Committee report last week on one of our most serious problems, the growth of income inequality. The Committee was mandated to study the problem and propose solutions, paying particular attention to the federal tax and income support system.

The Committee heard from dozens of academic experts and public interest groups, and I was pleased to present a brief on behalf of the Broadbent Institute. This built on our own major report on inequality on what I believe to be one of the defining political issues of our time.

The Committee's report falls well short of being ideal. But it does represent a step forward, and provides some interesting insight into how the issue of inequality may play out in terms of partisan and public debate leading up to the 2015 election.

The report lays out the evidence of the growth in economic inequality in Canada, confirming the sustained rise of the income share of the top 1 per cent, and describes some of the key underlying causes, including changes in the labour market. But most experts cited seemed to agree that government policies have also worked to exacerbate the problem.

A major disappointment in the report, reflecting the views of the Conservative majority, is that it fails to underline why the rise in income inequality should be of pressing concern to all Canadians. Almost everyone else on the planet, from the World Health Organization to the OECD and the IMF, stress this reality: high levels of inequality have negative social and economic consequences for everyone, rich and poor alike.

The opposition parties were much better. The NDP supplementary report states that “high levels of income inequality slow growth, destroy communities, and prevent millions of Canadians from reaching their full potential.” The Liberal Party states that “if Canada does not address its growing levels of inequality, it faces costly economic and social consequences, from decreased productivity to poor health outcomes.”

In a more encouraging vein, the majority report cautiously endorses some positive proposals. Given stated support from both of the opposition parties, these could, and should, move to the top of the government agenda as we approach the 2014 federal Budget and the 2015 federal election.

The Broadbent Institute and other witnesses highlighted the need to increase the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) which supplements the incomes of working poor families, thus raising earned income from low wage jobs and helping offset unnecessary barriers to moving from welfare to work.

The majority report calls on the federal government to “formally review the WITB to determine how it could be expanded or modified to further benefit Canadians.”

The majority report, again accompanied by stronger statements from the opposition parties, further calls on the federal government “to make early childhood education and child care more accessible and affordable in all areas of the country, including through increased support for affordable early childhood and education and care programs.”

Such programs are key to removing barriers to work by single parents, mainly women, and are also important to expanding lifetime opportunities for low income children. However, the key question to ask of the Conservatives is whether they are actually prepared to fund income supports for the working poor and early childhood programs. After all, their stated priorities, following elimination of the deficit, are to cut income taxes by introducing family income splitting and by raising contribution limits for Tax Free Savings Accounts.

It is encouraging that both of the opposition parties, with only guarded support from the Conservatives, place a strong emphasis upon importance of addressing the needs of Aboriginal Peoples, especially in the area of education.

The NDP also stressed the importance role of collective bargaining in achieving more equality and opposed recent changes in EI that compel workers to take jobs at much lower wages.

Both of the opposition parties call for some limited measures to make the tax system more fair, but neither endorses higher income tax rates for the very affluent, one source of funding new social investments.

The NDP alone condemns the Conservative proposal to extend income splitting to families with children, a measure that would cost some $2.7-billion per year in lost revenues, provide no extra support at all for single parents and lower income working families with children. It would primarily benefit the most affluent. The question for the Liberals is how can they support new social initiatives if they also support the loss of funding brought about by this income splitting proposal and oppose new tax increases.

While the issue of the growth in income inequality has now been put on the table by all parties in this report, it is clear that there will be plenty to debate about possible policy solutions leading up to the next election.

This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail.

Photo: mcdemoura. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

Canada’s left importing U.S. campaign tactics

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Nine years ago this month, U.S. Republicans were rolling. George W. Bush had just been re-elected and the party was boasting of a permanent Republican majority in the United States.

Jeremy Bird, who had worked on John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign, remembers the Democrat despair that November.

There was no one left to blame but themselves, he said.

“It woke up the progressive movement in the country.’’

Bird, a political organizer and voter data analyst and the 2012 field director of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, is a man much in demand today for his work in the hybrid merging of community organizing and data mining.

As we spoke, Bird was in Toronto, working with Canadian progressives who feel their wake-up call is at hand.

Two years after the left began an institute of its own, named after longtime NDP leader Ed Broadbent, their members are learning how to tell their story and change the deeply embedded conservative narrative in this country. They have begun programs to properly train and indoctrinate campaign volunteers, strategists and candidates.

They are importing veterans of back-to-back Obama victories to help them learn how to do it, but, unlike Democrats in the U.S., they began their efforts while in the ascendancy, after the NDP formed the official opposition for the first time, albeit in a Stephen Harper majority government.

More than just importing the players, however, Canadians are now seeing the importation of a key element of American political culture.

Whether sustaining one political view through a changing political terrain is possible is questionable — Obama has sunk to new lows in popularity, while Bird is already working on the undeclared candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Whether it can work here, where at least two centre-left parties compete for votes, is an open question.

The back-to-back Bush victories helped give birth to the Centre for American Progress, the first large, left-leaning American think tank and advocacy group, born to counter the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which had successfully promoted the Republican message.

Here, the Broadbent Institute seeks to do battle with the Calgary-based Manning Centre, named for its founder, former Reform party leader Preston Manning.

Manning’s institute is older, richer, more deeply entrenched and more influential. It includes a new training centre for conservatives who are schooled in the art of campaigning, political messaging and political management.

Its annual conference is the most important conservative gathering on the year’s political calendar, but a month after next year’s event, the Broadbent Institute will counter with their own Progressive Summit, featuring former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Last Thursday, the inaugural Broadbent Progressive Gala sold out at the Art Gallery of Ontario where attendees heard from another Obama alumnus, Robert Gibbs, the president’s former communications guru.

By video, attendees heard from former prime ministers Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, who stressed the need for big ideas to be debated in this country.

In two years, the Broadbent Institute now has a staff of 10, double the Twitter following of the Manning Centre and a 700 per cent jump in traffic on its website in the past year.

Its blog site PressProgress.ca is modeled after The Progress Report, the newsletter of the Centre for American Progress.

The money donated by benefactors and sponsors for right-leaning advocacy in this country through the Manning Centre and the Fraser Institute and others is likely 10 times that available to progressives such as the Broadbent Institute, trade union political arms or environmental groups.

It is why messages revolving around law and order, balanced budgets, low taxes and family values become embedded in the Canadian political jargon.

The challenge is for progressives to make protection of our public health care system, income inequality, environmental safeguards, the green economy, democratic renewal and protection of the CBC just as much of the daily political discourse.

“You have to arm everyday citizens with a message,’’ Gibbs said. “It is not just happening in the public square and on TV or newspapers. It happens in everyday life.

“You need an army of truth tellers out there, spreading the word.’’

And for those who have been out of power, Gibbs stresses that you “have to tell your story, not just why you are opposed to something.’’

Beyond the battle of big ideas, however, expect an NDP that increasingly plays with its elbows up, creates an enduring “war room’’ mentality and is not shy about engaging opponents.

Conservative convention bodes badly for Canada

The Conservative Party will kick off its biennial convention Thursday. With the media microscope focused squarely on the Senate scandal and the frayed integrity of the Prime Minister’s Office, Canadians aren’t likely to pay much attention to what transpires on the convention floor.

They ought to. The policy resolutions that pass provide as good an indication as any of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper will go about deflecting the heat and shoring up support for his government among the party’s base.

There is a persistent view that Mr. Harper has pragmatically governed in the centre, in a way that, if anything, has alienated the hard-right of the party. Under this interpretation, Mr. Harper has moderated his Reform ways and largely kept his “base” in check. Wacky resolutions at Conservative conventions are therefore so much meaningless hot air.

The Conservative's record, however, tells a different story.

Though the list of right-wing “accomplishments” is long, several demonstrate how out of touch Mr. Harper is with mainstream Canadian values: brazen attacks on labour groups and collective bargaining rights; tax cuts that benefit the wealthy; the erosion of public programs and cuts to services; the dismantling of environmental regulations for resource extraction; evidence-averse “tough on crime” policies such as building more prisons and instituting mandatory minimum sentences.

Mr. Harper has incrementally but methodically shifted Canada’s politics towards the hard-right of his party, breaking with Canada’s strong and cross-partisan tradition of progressivism in the process.

Little wonder many former Progressive Conservatives deplore this government's record on the environment, its attack on evidence-based policy making, and as former prime minister Joe Clark recently argued in the Star, its near complete disregard for the norms of international co-operation.

For clues about Harper’s next steps, let’s look at some of the policy proposals and amendments up for debate at the convention:

Guns

One resolution calls on the government to “resist any domestic or international pressure” that threatens the “legitimacy of private ownership of firearms.”

History suggests we ought to take this resolution seriously. During the 2005 convention, the Tories voted to repeal the long-gun registry should they ever be able to do so. Seven years later, the program is dead. Meanwhile, the government has still yet to sign a UN Arms Trade Treaty even the gun-loving Americans have endorsed. All of this reflects the disturbing and growing influence of the gun lobby on party policy.

CBC

Another resolution calls for the “elimination of all public funding” from the CBC. Full stop.

We’ve already seen this government impose substantial cuts to the public broadcaster and introduce new and unprecedented policies to directly control its internal management. It’s not a trend that inspires trust for those worried about further cuts and censorship, let alone the end of the CBC.

Pensions

A third resolution calls for a commitment to “bring public sector pensions in-line with Canadian norms by switching to a defined contribution pension model.” Defined contribution models, preferred by the private sector, tend to yield less for retirees than do defined benefit plans. It seems it wasn’t enough for the government to cut public pensions by stealth in the 2012 budget — party activists now want to further erode Canadians’ retirement income security.

Taxes

Incredibly, one proposal states explicitly that the Conservative party should advocate for a “less progressive tax system.” The rich, in other words, should pay less of their share. This is precisely what the Conservatives’ proposed income-splitting tax scheme will do: transfer more of the tax burden onto single-parent, and lower- and middle-income families.

Further eroding the tax base would mean less money for new federal programs or for critical investments in infrastructure, health care, jobs training or clean energy research and development. Should the government make the tax system less progressive, one wonders what current programs Harper will put on the chopping block to cover for the lost revenue.

The notion that Mr. Harper has governed in the centre simply doesn’t hold up. Instead, his government has steadily dismantled the progressive state Canadians of diverse political leanings proudly built.

You only need look at the Conservative record to date, combined with the party’s current political need to fire up its most ardent supporters, to be concerned with where Harper might take Canada from now until 2015.

A version of this article was published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: primeministergr Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA-2.0 license

PressProgress launches

The Broadbent Institute today announced the launch of PressProgress, a new project to advance progressive solutions for Canada with hard-hitting news and analysis.

Pressprogress.ca cuts through the day’s political spin with facts and an informed point of view. From punchy blog posts to a daily web roundup of progressive news and views, PressProgress is a must-read to spur positive change.

“As the policy debate heats up in advance of the 2015 federal election, PressProgress will be one of the ways the Institute contributes to that debate,” said Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith.

The launch of PressProgress continues to build on the Institute’s work, including the rapidly expanding training and leadership program.

“PressProgress is another avenue for the Institute to press for progressive change,” said Smith. “With a strong voice and blunt analysis, people can count on PressProgress to be hard-hitting, progressive, and always focused on the facts -- whether talking about the economy, the environment, or democratic renewal.”

Visit PressProgress: www.pressprogress.caFollow PressProgress on Facebook and on Twitter. 

Stephen Harper's bogus 'consumers first' agenda

Let me get this straight.

The Conservative government is looking to pivot from growing corruption and scandals with a Throne Speech later this month that talks about a “consumers first” agenda, including the latest proposal for an airline passenger bill of rights. At least that’s what Conservative sources are telling reporters about what to expect from the Parliamentary reboot on Oct. 16. Aside from some improvements to product safety brought about during their minority rule, the Conservatives boast a consumer-protection record that only partisans would try to laud. Guided by the idea that Ottawa needs to get out of the way of business, Harper has been trumpeting the mantra of red-tape cutting since first elected in 2006.

What this has really meant are cuts to safety inspections and costly adherence to the wisdom of deregulation. Hardly the building blocks of a “consumers first” agenda.

Take food safety. Who could forget Canada’s largest-ever beef recall last fall. People across the country became sick from the E. coli outbreak after consuming tainted meat produced at a federally regulated facility in Brooks, Alberta. The government’s own post-mortem of the XL Foods Ltd. recall shone the light on a food-safety system that had failed.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency failed to notice during routine inspections that the plant had not properly implemented or regularly updated its own plan to control risks. The massive facility — 430,000 square feet in total — slaughtered between 3,800 and 4,000 cattle daily.

The beef recall came months after the Conservative government tabled a budget that cut $56 million from the food agency’s operating resources over a three-year period. The union representing food inspectors estimates this will mean as many as 100 fewer inspectors, effectively reversing staffing measures put in place in response to the deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2008.

Remember that one? Twenty-two Canadians died after eating tainted meat from a Maple Leaf Foods facility in Toronto. In the wake of this massive outbreak, an independent investigation found multiple safety gaps in the food-safety system and a “void of leadership”

This same line could describe Ottawa’s approach to rail safety. Though more the inheritors than the architects of Canada's reckless rail-safety deregulation, the Harper Conservatives ignored repeated warnings about the folly of allowing the railway industry to police itself.

A Canada Safety Council report issued in 2007 called the deregulated industry "a disaster waiting to happen" and criticized the government's abrogation of its responsibility to public safety and the environment. And disaster did strike, when aging rail cars with inaccurately labeled hazardous materials exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec claiming 47 lives, eviscerating the core of the town at immeasurable cost to the community and at a monetary cost of close to a billion dollars.

With their single-minded focus on getting oil to market, Canada has seen massive increases in the amount of oil being shipped by rail — from 500 carloads in 2009, to a projected 140,000 this year. The Harper government is apparently content to continue to expose Canadians and our environment to unnecessary risk.

In the wake of the horrendous disaster in Quebec, we don’t know if the Conservatives will try to trumpet rail safety in the Throne Speech. But we do know from partisan leaks that they want to push an airline passenger bill of rights, which would protect flyers in cases of arbitrary delays or lost baggage.

This takes nerve.

Since winning power in 2006, the Conservative caucus has opposed the introduction of similar charters not once — but twice. In a minority government, Conservatives banded together with enough Bloc Québécois MPs in 2009 to kill an NDP plan. The Opposition tried again after the 2011 election, but the Conservative majority torpedoed that initiative earlier this year.

In fact, the Conservatives have tried to have it both ways. Back in 2008, they publicly supported a Liberal motion to entrench in law an airline passenger bill of rights. Behind the scenes, though, a senior policy adviser to the Transport Minister privately pressed Canada’s big airlines to step up their lobby campaign to make sure the motion failed.

“I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues,” the Conservative advisor wrote in an email released to the media under Canada’s access to information law.

Consumers first? Sure – when it’s politically convenient.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP.

Ed Broadbent: are the dreams of social democracy still affordable?

This post originally appeared on Rabble.ca.

On September 24th, 2013, Broadbent Institute Chair Ed Broadbent gave the 2nd annual Jack Layton Lecture at Ryerson University. In this speech, Ed Broadbent connects the philosophy and historical successes of social democracy with today's social and political challenges.

Over the past fifty years, social democrats  both in government and out  have achieved great progress. The creation of the middle class, the extension of new rights to previously disadvantaged groups like women and gays and lesbians, and an openness to new movements like environmentalism are some of the many advances that social democracy can claim credit for.

But what now? Are the dreams of social democracy and the cherished social programmes of Canadians still affordable? Broadbent's answer is yes. And he urges a confident reassertion of the social democratic values cherished by Canadians and a political leadership that will take us beyond indifference and cynicism to build a better Canada for us all.

//www.youtube.com/embed/Z9MRw919SMU

Broadbent Institute announces green economy initiative

The Broadbent Institute today announced the launch of its Green Economy initiative, an ongoing project focused on tackling the increasingly-urgent need to build a sustainable economy that offers Canadians good jobs.


Accompanying the launch of this new initiative is an expanded online home for the Institute's training and leadership program and a new brand identity that reflects the organization’s expanding role as a catalyst for progressive social change.

"Canadians are rightly concerned about the daunting challenges that threaten our long-term health and prosperity," said Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith. "Unfortunately, successive Canadian governments have spurned pressing ecological concerns and focused instead on narrow, short-term growth policies and the dismantling of the laws and regulations created to protect the environment."

Instead of making policies as though economic imperatives and environmental sustainability are at odds, the Broadbent Institute is calling for a better focus on the development of new green industries to create good jobs and globally competitive companies that can fuel Canada’s long-term economic growth.

"The creation of a sustainable, productive economy will necessitate investments in renewable energy and clean technologies and the regulation of harmful pollutants -- including and beyond carbon," said Smith. "We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to show sustainable economic leadership."

Yahoo! News: left-leaning Broadbent Institute mocks Harper’s ‘enemies list’ with ‘frenemies list’

Andy Radia, Canada Politics, Yahoo! News

Earlier this week, media outlets reported that government staffers were directed — by the PMO — to compile "enemy lists" of bureaucrats and stakeholders to be included in transition documents for incoming cabinet minsters.

The reports — and particularly the use of the term 'enemy' — have a created a media frenzy with some evoking the memory of Richard Nixon.

In an interview with Postmedia News, even Environment Minister Peter Kent called the use of the word enemy "juvenile."

Well, the left-wing Broadbent Institute is jumping on the bandwagon with a new social media campaign:

HELP US FILL HARPER'S 'BINDER FULL OF ENEMIES'!

As Stephen Harper rolled out his 'sort-of-new' Cabinet on Monday (http://bit.ly/13msuBW) with a little help from his frenemies, his office asked staff to include lists of "friend and enemy stakeholders" in each Minister's transition binders (http://bit.ly/13qwp0L). That's right, the PMO wants 'binders full of enemies'.

With so many adversaries out there (scientists, statisticians, environmental radicals, perhaps kittens – wait, he likes those:http://bit.ly/bhppiR) the Broadbent Institute is convening a contest to help the PMO's office come up with a robust short list of frenemies.

Who do you think should be added to Ministers' frenemy binders? Leave your ideas in the comments. We'll pick from the best posts and create a 'frenemy wall' in our head office. We'll also create a binder of your top frenemies on tumblr.

The enemies' list controversy — which it has now become — is an embarrassment for the Harper government which was hoping for some good news stories following their major cabinet shuffle.

Read the entire article on Yahoo! News.