The myth of Conservative debt management

Newspaper editor turned civil servant turned citizen journalist Bill Turpin scraped data from the CBC website on the history of Canada’s federal debt and produced the following summary:

Conservative Debt Management

In nine years, Harper ran up $131 million billion in new debt, while Martin and Chretien took half again as along to run up just $60 million billion. (Martin’s contribution to this total was $17 million billion in debt reduction.) Yes, Harper had a historic recession to manage, but the history of debt accumulation under Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, and Kim Campbell vs. John Turner and Pierre Trudeau would show a similar pattern—as does the history of federal debt growth in the US. Large deficits rung up by right wing governments; smaller deficits when the left is in charge.

This is not a new story. As the first socialist premier of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas introduced medicare, then a radical notion in North America, without incurring a deficit, because he didn’t believe he could govern progressively while in hock to bankers. Writing in the Globe and Mail, the late Neil Reynolds summarized this record:

When Mr. Douglas took office in 1944, Saskatchewan had a debt of $218-million – 38 per cent of provincial GDP. By 1949, he had reduced the debt to $70-million. By 1953, he had eliminated it. By 1961, when he left office, he had produced 17 successive budget surpluses. By reducing the debt, and thereby reducing interest costs, he was able to spend more on public services – without raising taxes.

The dirty secret is that right wing governments love accumulating debt because, as Douglas intuited, debt servicing charges crowd out social spending. So how, exactly, have conservative parties succeeded in maintaining their reputations for fiscal rectitude in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

Dal’s take on accessibility: equivocation and defensiveness

Last summer, disability rights activist Gus Reed, a member of the Minister’s Advisory Panel on Accessibility, helped draft a provincial discussion paper on proposed accessibility legislation [pdf]]. Last December, Reed reviewed all the submissions the government received in response to the paper, including a disappointing one from Dalhousie University.

Written by University Provost and Academic Vice-President Academic Carolyn Watters, Dal’s submission followed what might be called the HRM model of accessibility policy: earnest declarations of fealty to the principle of inclusion, followed by myriad excuses why the university can’t possibly be expected to do anything that advances accessibility on campus.

Dalhousie's Hart Hall (1864)

Dalhousie’s Hart Hall (1864)

Reed was particularly sensitive to Dalhousie’s response because he spent most of his career as an administrator of Harvard University. Harvard’s oldest buildings are more than a century older than Dalhousie’s, and presumably that much harder to render accessible, but the famous school somehow manages to comply with the rigorous Americans With Disabilities Act, which enforces, on pain of prosecution, accessibility standards Dal students and teachers can only dream of.

Among other achievements, Reed is co-founder of the James McGregor Stewart Society, which advocates for people with disabilities. As he explained in a letter to Dal President Richard Florizone, Stewart was one of the university’s most storied graduates.

Stewart, who walked with a limp, was a Dalhousie student denied the opportunity to be a Rhodes Scholar in 1910 by an act of pure prejudice by Dean Richard Weldon, who said “Serious physical defects should be considered as rendering a candidate ineligible for the Rhodes Scholarship.”

Stewart, as you may know, went on to lead his Law School class, shaped Eastern Canada’s leading corporate law firm, was Chairman of Dalhousie’s Board of Governors, and was an authority on Rudyard Kipling. He met Kipling and left his extensive literary collection to Dalhousie. Ironically, the Kipling collection remains in an inaccessible location.

Reed’s letter went on to catalog the shortcomings of Dalhousie’s formal submission on accessibility legislation:

I anticipated an uplifting account of Dalhousie’s achievements and commitment, but found only equivocation, legalistic language and defensiveness….

This legislation presents an opportunity for institutions to affect values, social change and principle, to reaffirm Dalhousie’s commitment to higher education for all Nova Scotians. People with disabilities willingly pay taxes to support Dalhousie and are entitled to equal benefit of higher education they pay for.

Harvard's Massachusetts Hall (1818)

Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall (1818)

Consider the number of people with physical disabilities enrolled at the Schulich School of Law. Two of five hundred ten. There is no acceptable explanation for this categorical failure: of diversity policy, of leadership, of recruitment, of admission, of procedure, of education. No wonder people with disabilities face discrimination at every turn and access to justice is so limited.I think Dalhousie has a special obligation to welcome this effort. As Dr. Watters has said, speaking about academic innovation, “[it] is an opportunity for us, as a community, to think broadly about credentials, programs and pedagogy in the context of known and, as yet, unknown disruptions, technological and societal.”

Here is a societal disruption headed your way with technology already playing a large role. Yet the issues raised are simply more barriers to be faced and overcome by those who only seek access and fairness. Dalhousie’s response has the potential to do considerable harm.

[Law School founder] Richard Weldon talked about “the duty which every university owes to the state, the duty which Aristotle saw and emphasized so long ago—of teaching young men the science of government.” Good words, but he meant “men” and white men at that. He was a man of his time. Maybe this is a chance to update the Weldon Tradition.

Please revisit your submission, valuing principle over implementation. I think the Minister deserves a thoughtful response, explaining how this effort aligns with Dalhousie’s purpose and ideals. Feel free to invoke caution, but embrace the change that is coming. This is as important for Dalhousie as for people who need access.

I hope to hear from you.

One month later, he’s still hoping. Florizone has not responded.

The last Orangedale Whistle

Genesee & Wyoming, owner of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, has been fighting two levels of government and Cape Breton’s business community for the right to shut down the Point Tupper-to-Sydney end of the line — virtually all of the railway in Cape Breton.

Speculation is G&W wants to pull up the CB track, much of which is in good shape, and use it to replace crappy, worn out rails on the Truro-to-Pt. Tupper end of the line. The company has been gradually hauling cars and engines from depots and sidings in Cape Breton, so they won’t be stranded when the track comes up.

About two p.m. today, what’s rumoured to be the last of those evacuees passed through Orangedale, sounding its evocative whistle for the last time. Here’s a link to the beautiful Rankin Family song that made it famous.

Residents of Orangedale gathered to witness The Last Train. One of them, my son Silas, caught the last mournful blast in his iPhone.


Several brave Cape Bretoners talk about the impact of opiate addiction on their lives and their families.

The video is the work of The Lighthouse Church and Undercurrent Youth Centre in Glace Bay. They are seeking more emphasis on addiction prevention in the form of greater support for youth centres.

H/T:  Stacey Pineau

The NDP is not dead; Jamie Baillie may be

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 11.35.04 PM

On the surface, it looks like a great evening for Stephen McNeil’s governing Liberals: Decisive wins in two Cape Breton seats previously held by the NDP against a squeaker loss in Dartmouth South, a seat they won last time. Liberals took 44.3 percent of the combined vote in the three ridings, down just slightly from the 45.7 percent that swept them to power two years ago.

In fact, it’s the NDP who should be celebrating.

The party has been leaderless for two years, its caucus reduced to a five-seat rump, its base smarting from the ineptitude of its rookie turn at the helm. That the party was able to take 35 percent of yesterday’s combined vote puts paid to the triumphalist obituaries so many were writing after its 2013 humiliation.


The NDP’s Cape Breton losses were entirely predictable; the wonder is they hadn’t slipped away earlier. Cape Breton exercised its well-known preference for representation on the government side of the house.

In the bygone days of steel and coal, Cape Breton was the NDP’s base. But it only ever won four Cape Breton seats—and that happened once, 37 years ago.

Redistricting created the Sydney-Whitney Pier seat as a mashup of Liberal downtown Sydney, NDP Whitney Pier, and battleground Ashby. In 2013, by dint of indefatigable constituent service and his courageous battle against cancer, Gordy Gosse unexpectedly held the seat against Derek Mombourquette, a credible, young municipal councillor. With Gosse out, it was Mombourquette’s turn.

Cape Breton Centre is traditionally the strongest NDP seat in the province, but it’s a long-ago tradition. Bone-lazy Frank Corbett, a miserable failure as Cape Breton’s political minister during the Dexter Disappointment, barely held it last time; no one was surprised to see fall to the Liberals this time.

These results should be seen as quirks of geography, history, and personality, with limited application to future elections in other parts of the province.

The NDP win in Dartmouth, on the other hand, shows the party remains competitive in the part of the province that packs the greatest electoral punch. A dismal turnout enhanced the voting power of citizens irked by the Film Credit debacle and McNeil’s shameful cuts to organizations that serve the poorest, most disadvantaged among us.


Jamie Baillie is the only current provincial party leader I count as a personal friend, but he has not clicked with the electorate. Making matters worse, he tacked hard right in a province with strong allegiance to the centre. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to shore up the party’s base. The results have been disastrous.

None of the ridings that went to the polls yesterday were fertile ground for the Tories, but a combined 18.3% is a dismal outcome for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Jamie needs to consider his future, and his party’s.

When Phil Marlowe met MoCan


From the brilliant Bill Turpin, via Facebook:

The life of a PI isn’t supposed to be easy. Still, late on a Friday afternoon it’s nice to go across the street for drink.

No such luck. I was reaching across my desk for my fedora when she sashayed in. Mother Canada. The famous MoCan herself. I gave her the once-over but couldn’t see what all the excitement was about. She was a cross between the Virgin Mary and a plastic Jesus.

“What can I do for you, doll-face?” I asked.

“I want to set up shop on your land. You know, to support the troops. Green Cove, I think you call it.”

“Sorry, MoCan. No sale.”

She looked me straight in the eye. Her voice was even, full of menace.

“How would you like me to send you to war and then ignore you when you come home wounded?”

“I can handle that, sweet-chops.”

“What if I grabbed your children and put them in my residential schools? You wouldn’t recognize them when you got them back.”

She had me there. Being a neglected vet was one thing. Losing my kids to an indoctrination camp was another.

“You win, sweetheart,” I said. “Whatever you want.”

And then she was gone.

But that’s MoCan for you. Soft and sexy on the outside, but not so much on the inside. Inside, she’s mean as an angry grizzly and hard as the Canadian Shield.

Bill Turpin is a former editor of the late, lamented Halifax Daily News, and one of the architects of the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, the high water mark in legislative action to protect the Nova Scotia’s environment.

Reckless fear-mongering about Cape Breton health

The only daily in Cape Breton and the largest daily in Nova Scotia devoted half their front pages Wednesday to error-riddled stories alleging steel plant slag spread on abandoned Devco Railway beds may be causing cancer.

The stories are wrong.

There is no evidence slag causes cancer. There is abundant evidence—right here in Cape Breton—that intensive processing of steel plant slag and its widespread application in the construction of gravel roads does not cause air pollution or give rise to health concerns.

None of those incontrovertible facts stayed the Cape Breton Post or the Halifax Chronicle Herald from recklessly fanning false fears of cancer in our community.

The stories don’t quote a single scientist, oncologist, toxicologist, public health specialist, or risk assessor. They rely entirely on the unsupported claims of a single, distraught 66-year-old Glace Bay man, recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, whose home lies roughly 100 feet from a rail bed where four to six inches of slag was applied two years ago, in March 2013.

Steel plant slag is the inert, stony, greyish material left over when molten iron is extracted from iron ore, or mixed with limestone in steel production. It consists of various oxides—mainly calcium, silicon, and iron—with lesser amounts of magnesium and manganese. It may have trace amounts—trace amounts—of chromium or vanadium.

One hundred years of steelmaking produced a small mountain of slag on the steel plant. It’s the hill bordering the north section of Open Hearth Park. Over the last 15 years, the slag heap has been shrinking as a private company mined and processed it for use in concrete production and road construction.

Except for the last year or two, this period of intense slag extraction and processing in the middle of Sydney coincided with the Tar Ponds cleanup, which also made extensive use of slag for temporary worksite roads. Throughout the same period, Sydney’s air was subject to one of the most intensive air monitoring campaigns ever conducted in Canada. Half a dozen monitoring stations, scattered throughout the community and equipped with advanced detection devices, probed for upwards of 100 contaminants at levels as low as a few parts per billion. (The Tar Ponds cleanup was subjected to special, site-specific air quality standards more stringent than normal Canadian environmental guidelines.)

How many times were any of the elements found in slag detected at levels exceeding these ultra-cautious standards?


As a health concern, slag is a non-starter.

To be diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at any age is a terrible blow, and we can only feel sympathy for the gentleman who raised the alarm in Wednesday’s papers. We can even sympathize with his desire to find some external factor he can blame for his terrible misfortune.

As I understand it, however, lung cancer is a long time in the making. Absent some horrific exposure akin to Chernobyl, it doesn’t appear and rise to the level of stage four in less than two years, the period of time since slag was applied to the rail bed near this gentleman’s home.

As to other, more plausible factors—smoking, diet, stress, occupational exposures—the Herald and Post are silent.

How about checking for reports of health problems among workers who’ve been processing slag at the steel plant for the last 15 years? Again, the papers are silent.

There is no question Cape Breton coal miners and coke oven workers suffered serious occupational health effects throughout the 20th Century. It is equally true that, more recently, Sydney suffered years of paralyzing anxiety over broader environmental health fears—such as lead and arsenic contamination—that stringent testing by public health authorities, toxicologists, and risk assessors eventually showed to be groundless.

Unreasoning fear is itself a public health risk.

Given this history, any journalist reporting claims of environmental health risks in industrial Cape Breton owes the public a special duty of care. The slipshod reporting of a false association between slag and cancer, in an already troubled community, without the slightest attempt at fact checking, amounts to journalistic malpractice.

The strange compulsion to mow

I think I’ll mow the lawn tomorrow, because who wants to live with an untidy mess like this…


Or this…


Or this…


Or this…


…when you could have unbroken ranks of equally sized, monochrome spikes?


(Each of these pictures, except the last, was snapped today, within 20 feet of my back door.)

What is this strange compulsion (from which I am by no means immune) to tame the wildness and colour that would otherwise enliven our yards?

The writer and gardener Katherine S. White described the lawn as, “a soft mattress for a creeping baby” that adds, “restful green perspectives” to the land, but she was being generous to a fault. None of the grasses in a typical lawn is native to North America. The cost, waste, and environmental destruction caused by the fertilizers, pesticides, gasoline, and water consumed in their cultivation are well documented.

Something deeper in the brainstem is afoot with our love of lawns. Is it a psychological vestige of the moat?

Lawn historian (!) Virginia Scott Jenkins does indeed trace the lawn’s origins to aristocratic mansions of Old Europe. Before the industrial revolution, maintaining vast expanses of uniform grassy carpets required conspicuous expenditure of money and labour. The invention of the lawnmower, combined with US Department of Agriculture research and arduous promotion by the US Golf Association, brought this symbol of conspicuous consumption to the post-war North America suburb, where it flourished to the point of compulsion.

But enough social history. I got an able new Husqvarna mower last year. It’s a humdinger—just the thing to make short work of those unsightly weeds.


Man bites dog

From our South Shore bureau:

Hah, that’s nothing. I found three candy corns hidden inside a pack of Mach III blades.

Stealth rationing in NS health care

After months of quietude, our curmudgeonly friend has emerged from winter hibernation with a few tart observations about health care management in Nova Scotia:

For 40 years, health care has floated on revenue generated by the biggest demographic bubble in Canadian history. Now, just as those same people need more medical services, the system responds with stealth rationing.

Take hip and knee replacements, routine procedures that offer much-improved quality of life for many years. Joint replacement is so effective, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) ranks its as a priority procedure.

CIHI set a national waittime benchmark for both hips and knees of 182 days. Ninety percent of patients should be operated on within that time. In Nova Scotia last year, we hit that benchmark only 58 percent of the time for hips; 44 percent for knees. Ten percent waited more than 700 days.

The numbers put Nova Scotia dead last among Canadian provinces. Newfoundland manages to hit CIHI’s benchmark numbers 96 percent of the time for hips, 92 percent for knees.

Nova Scotia health ministers can get away with this because, unlike bypasses, a delayed joint replacement doesn’t produce deaths. Only pain. Nova Scotians waiting for joint replacement are in severe pain around the clock—whether sitting, walking, or trying to sleep.

(The government shows far more interest in controlling pain medication than controlling pain. If you’ve received a physician’s prescription for a narcotic pain reliever, the NS Prescription Monitoring Board is monitoring you and your doctor.)

Imagine if Nova Scotia managed gasoline sales the way it manages joint replacements.

“Fill her up with regular, please.”
“Ah, I can put you on the waiting list.”
“The waiting list? Is gasoline rationed?”
“Absolutely not. But there is a waiting list for a fill-up.”
“How long a wait?”
“It depends, sir. It can be up to 700 days.”
“Depends on what? How is my waittime determined?”
“I can’t say, sir. They don’t tell us that.”

Just how bad is Nova Scotia’s performance on joint replacement? The worst in Canada. The chart below compares Nova Scotia’s CIHI data with the other provinces. The red field represents Nova Scotia’s bush-league performance last year. Green cells denote the top performers. Check out the dismal discrepancies.

wait times

Source: Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2014 Waittimes,

The 50th percentile means half of all patients had to wait longer than the number shown. The 90th percentile means 10% had to wait longer than the number shown. CIHI defines waittime as “the number of days a patient waited, from the booking date to the date the patient received a planned total (joint) replacement. Booking date is when the patient and the appropriate physician agree to a service, and the patient is ready to receive it. But that’s not the only wait. It can take months to reach that doctor-patient agreement—the average for Halifax is 140 days.

CIHI created benchmarks to improve performance, but Nova Scotia has had a death grip on last place since at least 2008. In the intervening seven years, we ranked dead last in 35 of 42 performance data points. In other words, we’ve had 42 opportunities to be the worst in the country, and accomplished that distinction 35 times. [I’ll include a detailed chart after the jump.]

The Nova Scotia Government website lists 22 surgeons who did joint replacements last year, along with their average waittimes. The numbers show they performed a total of 1,446 joint replacements of both types in 2014. That breaks down to an average 1.4 per week, assuming a minimum of four weeks’ vacation. They also did 388 emergencies, which brings the number to 1.7 per week.

You have to wonder what they’re doing the rest of the week.

OK, obviously, surgeons assess patients before surgery, and follow up with patients afterwards. They may be doing other procedures. No one expects them to operate four times a day, five days a week, but given their extraordinary skill set and our cruel waittimes, surely orthopedic surgeons ought to be performing more than 1.7 joint replacements per week.

Health Department flacks will surely have an explanation. “The issue is complex… We’re working hard to acquire more resources… We are developing a strategy…” etc. But here’s a curious excerpt from an outfit called Timely Medical Alternatives, which books operations for Canadians in the U.S. (hip replacement = circa $20k CAD).

By the way, many Canadian surgeons have told us how they envy their colleagues in the U.S. who are able to operate several days per week rather than only one day, as in Canada. The more a surgeon operates, the better able the surgeon is to hone his/her skills.

Call the statement self-serving if you will, but it’s odd how the claim lines up with my back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Last year, Health Minister Leo Glavine promised $4.2 million to begin addressing the problem. But that year’s Auditor-General’s report [pdf] says:

Recent estimates note approximately $35 million is needed to start completing 90% of hip and knee replacements within the six-month benchmark reported by [CIHI]. Once this benchmark is achieved, an estimated $7.7 million is needed annually to maintain a six-month wait moving forward.

So Glavine is providing barely 10 percent of the funds needed to achieve the 90 percent benchmark.

There are a lot of bright people in NS. We should be able to manage this. If we can’t, then it’s time to start firing managers and forcing unions to re-certify. And don’t blame the rank and file; these things always come down to the people who get the big bucks.

Newfoundland has had a strategy [pdf] in place since 2012. Maybe that’s the key. But read this related excerpt from the A-G’s report and then estimate the odds of Nova Scotia pulling off something similar:

Operating room coordination: Historically, operating room utilization was considered the responsibility of the district health authorities. In 2012, the Department recognized it has a Provincial role in trying to coordinate clinical services planning (including surgery) and the Provincial Clinical Services Planning Steering Committee was formed. Clinical services planning involves designing a Provincial approach to care including where people can access services, such as surgical procedures. Management decided to focus on orthopaedic surgeries initially since the Orthopaedic Working Group had been formed and was developing a five-year plan. However, there is still no overall framework for surgical clinical services planning. Clinical services planning will be fundamental for ensuring operating room resources are optimized with a focus on surgical priorities Province-wide.

Recommendation 4.9:  The Department of Health and Wellness should develop a clinical services planning framework for surgery that determines which services will be offered in each location.

Department of Health and Wellness Response: The Department of Health and Wellness agrees with this recommendation. The Perioperative Advisory Committee will assist in providing leadership and will work with the new provincial health authority structure to determine a clinical plan for surgical services. [Source: Nova Scotia Office of the Auditor General: December 2014 Report, Chapter 4: Health and Wellness — Surgical Waitlist and Operating Room Utilization [pdf]; Weasel word emphasis: mine.]

Once again, the system is protecting the status quo. Don’t believe me? Have a look below at the “progress” the department made in knee replacement over the last two years:

Knee Replacement


Hip replacements can be obtained in the U.S. for between $10k and $20k. Why doesn’t Nova Scotia negotiate with nearby U.S. states to take our overflow? Why doesn’t the province allow Dartmouth’s famously efficient Scotia Surgery Inc. to expand its services? Medicare is about having a single-payer, not who receives the payment.

I expect many retired Nova Scotians are already borrowing or dipping into savings to pay for surgery in the U.S, which can take as little as two weeks.

Not much of a reward for a lifetime of paying taxes.

Data-lovers, see more after the jump.

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