Friday, July 28, 2006

Waiting for The Wait-Times Guarantee

Paul Wells was the first (as far as I know) to write about Stephen Harper's missing priority. One of his five key priorities from the election campaign has been sent down the memory hole. It's the wait-times guarantee, and here's a letter to the Globe and Mail by the Canadian Medical Association about it:

The CMA has their own suggestions about how Harper can remember and fulfill his promise.

I have a plan that's simpler, because it doesn't complicated federal-provincial negotiations.

It's not entirely fair to call it "my" plan, because it's the plan I thought Stephen Harper had promised to legislate. But maybe I misinterpreted his promise... I would be the only one and this wouldn't be the only case.

My Wait Times Guarantee is a simple program. The federal government Wait Times Office will step in to help any patient who has waited too long. If you have reached the medically-recommended wait-time target, and you still aren't being served by your province, then the federal government will ensure you are served somewhere, somehow, immediately and without cost to you. Instead, the federal government subtracts their expenses from your province's health transfer.

First of all, I believe that a wait-times guarantee is necessary. The Supreme Court has said so. Without medical services delivered on time, the ban on private health insurance is a violation of our rights. If the feds ensure everyone gets treated within the medically-recommended time window, then it's all good.

Second, the approach I outlined above seems to me to provide a healthy feedback system to the provinces. They will quickly feel an urgent need to deliver medically-necessary services within biologically-defined time periods. I have more faith in the monetary penalty described here for motivating provinces to get their service levels up than I do in the blood-and-tears penalty that is already been paid in some cases.

Paying the high price of having a resident get served by the federal wait-times office will be painful enough to the provinces that they will eagerly resolve these issues on their own.

Hey, it may be simple but it works. People get care within the deadlines. The provinces are motivated to deliver within the necessary standard. The Canada Health Act is protected from the constitutional argument. No further inter-government negotiations are necessary.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Accountants' Reputation On The Line

Wanda Liczyk is the former City of Toronto treasurer who was found by the Bellamy inquiry to have contributed to the MFP leasing fiasco through her irresponsible behaviour. As summarized by the Toronto Star:

While Liczyk was treasurer and chief financial officer, the city awarded a contract for $43 million to MFP Financial Services for the lease of computer equipment. The city ended up spending more than double that without council authorization or clear reports that the contract was out of control.

Bellamy said it was Liczyk's responsibility to inform council of the ballooning spending, but "she didn't."

Liczyk also failed to reveal that she'd had a sexual relationship with a consultant who built a new tax billing system for the city.

Liczyk's "wrongdoing was perfectly clear when measured against the terms of her contract and the code of ethics that governed her," Bellamy concluded in her report. The choice of the tax system was "a story of arrogance, deceit and abuse of power, all rooted in a conflict of interest."

Bellamy also said Liczyk had "blinders firmly in place... after years of mixing public service and private intimacy."

On Monday, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario announced they had decided she did not need to face disciplinary charges:

Peter Varley, vice-president of the institute, said in an interview [with the Toronto Star] yesterday that its professional conduct committee "concluded that a charge of professional misconduct is not warranted in this case."

Someone needed to remind Mr. Varley that it is the professional and ethical review process that is supposed to elevate his members from mere conmen with calculators.

Luckily, it didn't take him long to get a clue. He was suddenly singing a different tune in today's Star:

The complainants, who include the City of Toronto, had 30 days to apply to the institute's reviewer of complaints to conduct an independent investigation. ...

"We ourselves as the institute are in the process of forwarding that application to the reviewer of complaints," said Peter Varley, the institute's vice-president of public affairs.

"The fact remains that there is no need, given the public interest consideration here, for us to wait 30 days for any one of the complainants to refer this matter," Varley said. "We've undertaken to do that ourselves as the institute today."

You'd think that a profession that has been marred by the scandals we've seen recently would have the sense to take a multi-million-dollar rip-off seriously without having to be shamed into it by the media.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Derivative Nature of Blogging


I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's occasional blog posts and been surprised by how frequently I've disagreed with him. I read most of his articles in the New Yorker and generally think they're great.

Anyway, his latest post is a good one in which he supports his argument made elsewhere that blogging -- especially political blogging -- would be nothing without the mainstream media. Of course he's right and he's also right when he says there's nothing wrong with this at all.

Blogging is a discussion that builds out of our exposure to current events on a broad scale. Of course it's the mainstream media that makes the investment in bringing us the news, and that's essential. But what we do with it afterwards is nevertheless adding another layer of understanding and analysis through conversation and critique.

Anyhow, perhaps the area of political blogging that gets closest to standing alone is municipal politics. I've covered many events where there was no mainstream media present, and offered both news and commentary on my blog. Nevertheless, the vast majority of my local writings have relied on things I've read in the (online) newspaper.

If there were no news media, I'm sure we'd have individual bloggers going off and telling us what happened here and there. But we would get tired of some events being missed. We'd get tired of not knowing whose view was accurate. We'd get tired of sloppy work. Eventually new systems would evolve and trusted organizations would emerge. If there weren't professional journalists, we'd have to create them.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

World Cup 2006 Review

Through this World Cup season, I've gone through a number of phases.

First was the initial interest I showed when I watched my first game and realized that soccer can be an entertaining sport after all. This, combined with the nationalistic drama made me look forward to the rest of the tournament.

Second came severe disillusionment. The more I watched, the more I saw that outcomes were frequently determined by chance events. Teams seemed to be at a skill level such that they could generally prevent scoring. The problem with this isn't boredom with low-scoring matches. Actually, they were quite tense. The problem was that the winning goal more often turned out to be fluke. Or worse, we ended up with the arbitrariness of the penalty shoot-out.

Then, of course, there's the diving. Please!

I can't stand the thought of a tournament that seems to be determined more by fate than performance, nor a league that is impotent in the face of such manipulation by the players. Most North American sports fans I know simply aren't able to tolerate such a dynamic.

Anyway, it was in this context that I sat down to watch the final on Sunday. I didn't care much for either Italy or France before the game, but that certainly changed.

Throughout the game I saw the Italian players falling to the ground and writhing dramatically at the slightest touch. At the same time, I came to see the French team as somewhat above these low theatrics. I won't claim that they were entirely pure. Yet, I felt that they generally seemed more interested in putting the ball in the net than going for a ride on a stretcher. France was the better team and the more sportsmanlike team, despite Zidane's breakdown (with which I empathize).

Hopefully FIFA will look into making some improvements, such as continuous overtime until a winning goal is scored (at least in the elimination round), more referees to cover the entire field, and serious penalties for diving.

Fiscal Imbalance in a Nutshell

Andrew Potter has pointed out an article in Macleans on a recent report that seems to be simply perfect on the issue of the so-called fiscal imbalance...

  • The provinces' fiscal problems began when they cut taxes deeply in the 1990s

  • You can't entirely blame the provinces for these tax cuts as they are competing with each other

  • This is why the provinces need to complain about a federal "fiscal imbalance" instead of simply raising taxes to meet their needs

  • And it's why a freeing-up of tax room by Ottawa wouldn't be accompanied by the provinces stepping in to fill the void... (see any provinces raise their sales tax 1% this past July 1?)

  • The provinces, however, insulated themselves somewhat from their fiscal problems by downloading onto the municipalities. This is a real fiscal imbalance as the municipalities don't have the fiscal tools to pay these costs

  • As the provincial fiscal crunches have eased, they've haven't done much to reverse the municipal fiscal imbalance

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Mayor's New Powers

On the surface, it's easy to see how extended powers for the Mayor of Toronto could be interpreted as a consolidation in favour of top-down control, and therefore an anti-democratic reform.

On the other hand, when one considers the reality of how municipal elections take place in Toronto, it's possible to see this as a pro-democratic move.

Presently, decisions in Toronto are made by 44 councillors and the mayor -- with one vote each. The councillors represent wards across the city with populations about half what you'd find in a federal or provincial riding. This sounds like it should represent an opportunity for representative democracy bubbling up from the citizens, but it doesn't work out that way in my view.

Torontonians are fairly apathetic when it comes to municipal government, and the result is that City Council seats get filled not on the basis of candidates' stands on the issues but rather name recognition and momentum. Get elected, get your name on signs, and help your constituents once every five years when they phone to say their garbage wasn't picked up. Do this and you're all set.

There are a variety of reasons that things are this way, but the bottom line is that too many people don't care enough to produce council election results that are truly meaningful.

The exception is the occasional mayoral election that (somewhat) captivates the public imagination through city-wide media. This happened in 2003, when David Miller, John Tory, Barbara Hall, John Nunziata and Tom Jakobek squared off in a battle people actually cared about. We conveniently ignored the facts that mayors have little power and the City has little money and engaged in debate over what Toronto should be.

This -- unlike the race for council -- is a real democratic test and is a sound basis for charting our municipal government's course. For this reason, there's some sense to giving the mayor more power to implement whatever he or she was elected to do.

The only other way I can think of to bring some real debate and decision making to Toronto elections is to break our councillors into political parties. I have traditionally been opposed to this measure for what I feel may be sentimental reasons. But I can better imagine Torontonians being engaged in council elections when they can relate to a city-wide slate of candidates with a well-defined election platform.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Coyne: Don't tax property

Andrew Coyne has his most recent column online, which has a rather simple suggestion.

Since property taxes are neither simple nor fair, why not just get rid of them? He explains this with some detail here:

Municipalities could make up the difference with user fees and sales tax, he says.

I think he's on to something but it might need some refinement. After all, commercial entities would not be paying sales taxes sufficient to pick up their share -- or at all, if it is a GST-style tax. But at the moment I can't think of a single good reason to keep property taxes in Ontario.