Archives for category: Politics

Robert Prichard — Image: Toronto Star

You want to know why so many people don’t trust politicians and the political class? Because of cases like Robert Prichard.

Since July of last year, Mr. Prichard, who is the Chair of GTA regional transit agency Metrolinx, has been a registered lobbyist for MGM in its efforts to build a casino in Toronto.

Prichard is also the Chair of Onyx, which is also fronting a casino proposal.

MGM hired Torys, the law firm Prichard chairs, to lobby relevant provincial ministries and agencies. He is not lobbying Toronto City Councillors, who will decide if there is to be a casino in the city. Prichard says there will be no lobbying if Toronto turns down a casino. Still, is this not a perceived conflict of interest?

Prichard went to Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, Mr. Justice Sidney Linden, who said there’s no problem if Prichard leaves the room when Metrolinx discusses the casino issue and its impact on public transit.

Here’s what I wish the Integrity Commissioner had said: “Sure, Bob – there is no law against this, but consider how this looks to Ontarians. Wouldn’t it be better to sit on the sidelines on the casino issue? Do you really have to do both? Surely it’s more important to build public confidence and trust than it is to wear your lobbyist hat and your Metrolinx hat?”

Later, Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray predictably said that Prichard did the right thing by going to the Integrity Commissioner. Sigh.

Prichard is a very qualified and experienced guy – former Dean of University of Toronto’s Law School, President of UofT and CEO of TorStar. But is it too much to ask that people choose between their private and professional interests and their duty to the province? Is it more important that Prichard have the opportunity to both head Metrolinx and lobby the province on a casino, or that Ontarians have unshakable trust in their public institutions and those who lead them? Is this a naïve and unrealistic perspective?

I don’t think so. The perception, for me, is that there is a conflict – and I don’t understand why this isn’t more apparent to Prichard, Linden and Murray.

Here’s the thing: this is all about trust. Most people aren’t going to trust someone who intuitively thinks that it’s acceptable to resolve this conflict simply by leaving the room when the word “casino” gets mentioned. Political and policy influence is a more complex and nuanced process than that.

In the end, this story confirms the widespread perception that public sector appointees, politicians and the circles around them are not really in it to make Ontario better – but to enrich themselves and protect their web of influence. The result is less trust in the people who appointed Prichard, less trust in the Integrity Commissioner and less trust in the political class.

That’s why the story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail, and that’s why this issue will further erode confidence in public oversight.

Globe and Mail image

I am getting used to hearing a familiar refrain about the idea of a carbon tax in Canada: “It’s a tax! It’ll kill jobs!”

It’s proof of the success Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have shown in communicating and framing the issue to Canadians. Tories, though, use the description “job-killing tax on everything”.

His government is under no real political pressure to do anything more than tinkering around the edges on climate change – and why should it? A poll  done by environment Canada earlier this year suggests that there is a lot of public hostility to a carbon tax. Most of us see a carbon tax primarily through the lens of personal economic security.

The relevant question in that poll, however, seems to suggest the issue is fundamentally one of “What will it cost me?” It reads (the underline is mine):

I’d like to know how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements. Please use a 10-point scale, where 10 means you strongly agree, and 1, means you strongly disagree.  Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.

The results indicated that 43.5 per cent of respondents were on the “strongly disagree” part of the scale, while only 19.1 per cent were on the “strongly agree” side.

I wonder what the response would have been if the key part of the question was more like this:

Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to help replace the energy generated by fossil fuels with cleaner energy and reduce the impact of global warming and also to help Canada to adjust to the inevitable low-carbon economy.

Ok, this is slightly exaggerated, but I hope you get the point. When you contextualise issues not as transformational, but instead as a raid on your pocketbook for some intangible benefit (“Sure, we want to protect the environment, but not if it makes gas and groceries more expensive.”) you can see why more than 43 per cent are strongly opposed.

What if those who are actively involved in debates on climate change and reducing fossil fuel emissions consider the former approach; you can tax carbon and use it to support and develop the technologies that will provide us with clean energy. But that’s just the tree-hugger take on a carbon tax; even growing numbers of companies in the oil and gas sector think it’s sensible policy.

I was reminded of this when recently reading a Jeffrey Simpson column, where he examines Australia’s carbon tax and its lack of catastrophic economic impact. In the column, Simpson suggests – and this is hardly a new idea – that a carbon tax is the most efficient market mechanism to shift behaviour and reduce emissions.

But when so many people see a carbon tax as a bottom-line pocketbook issue, it’s no wonder that it seems a long shot – no matter how appropriate it is as public policy, and no matter how many in the oil patch think it’s an idea whose time has come.  Unless, of course, those who support a carbon tax, including the oil and gas sector, start contributing more actively to the public debate and challenging the misperception of a carbon tax. Yes, it’s a complex issue, but some voices carry a lot of weight. I think they should be talking more about this, and they should be doing it loudly.