May 26th, 2010

[LINK] "MPs sing new tune on audit as poll suggests deep suspicion of expense fiddling"

This news story, presented by the Canadian Press' Bruce Cheadle, makes me wonder if Canada will soon see its own version of the United Kingdom's Parliamentary expenses scandal. Certainly the fact that the political parties have been resisting calls for an audit looks bad,l and makes me wonder.

There's no expense scandal on Parliament Hill, MPs insist, but they're finally acknowledging they have a huge, collective, public-relations problem.

Both Conservatives and Liberals are revisiting a controversial decision to bar the auditor general from looking at MP spending.

The change of heart comes after MPs of all stripes got an earful from people back home during last week's House of Commons break.

"Canadians need to know more detail, and they're going to get more detail," Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said Wednesday following a Conservative caucus meeting.

"Mostly we've done a poor job of communicating what we already do, and that's why most MPs are maybe genuinely puzzled — because they haven't explained to constituents what they already do."

A new Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey simply drove home the message.

The poll suggests four out of five Canadians believe MPs are likely breaking the rules on expense claims. Only 12 per cent think it unlikely.

"That cynicism is so disappointing," said Liberal MP Martha Hall-Findlay, looking genuinely defeated by the poll results.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says his party has written to Commons Speaker Peter Milliken asking that Fraser be given a new opportunity to explain her proposed audit of half a billion dollars in annual spending.

"I think there has been some misunderstanding . . . of what she intended," said Ignatieff. "She clarified that quite a lot."

In a series of media interviews this week, Fraser said she has "better things to do than look for $4 cups of coffee."

MPs have repeatedly stressed there are effective rules, systems and audits already in place. "If that's the case, I would be very happy to report that," Fraser told CBC.

But Fraser also told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, which has recently covered Nova Scotia's own legislature expense scandal, that the provincial auditor general there "did a sampling and then found that while there were rules and procedures in place, they weren’t being followed."

[LINK] "Commuting snapshots across the Spacing map"

Spacing's Emily Richardson wrote an analysis of commuting of four Canadian cities using Statistics Canada data: Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal, and Halifax. The results are quite interesting. 70% or more of commuters in those cities use cars; increasing population density reduces the number of single-occupant vehicles but doesn't have much effect on the number of non-drivers, save in Halifax where the population density is so low that any growth; and, the availability of other means of commuting doesn't necessarily mean that they will be taken up. A great example of this is in Montréal, where despite having nearly ten times as many metres of bike lane per square kilometre as Toronto, the increase in the number of cyclists is marginal. Richardson's concludes, despite the fairly simple and not especially rigourous data she used in her study, something interesting is going on.

I would have loved to write about the kilometres of bike lanes per square-km; sadly only Montreal would have been greater than one. And to be fair, although Halifax and Toronto have somewhat comparable total areas (5,495.62 and 5,903.63 square-km, respectively), Toronto has vastly more bike-lane-suitable stretches of road, suggesting that its 90 km of bike lanes lags disproportionately to Halifax’s 70. Montreal’s bike network is far and away the most extensive of the four cities, but Montreal also has the greatest number of drivers of the four cities (by a 0.25% margin over Toronto). And even though a demarcated lane is a victory for most advocates of multi-modal transportation, in and of themselves, they do not appear make cycling easier. Ottawa, for example, with its 150 km of bike lanes, laments a number of concerns with on-road lanes, such as lanes ending in the middle of two merging roads.

This raises the question not whether lanes are worthwhile in encouraging cycling, but what programs and policies (e.g. bike-sharing, mandatory shower facilities in new commercial buildings), infrastructure (e.g. divided bike lanes and covered racks), incentives (corporate tax breaks based on percentage of employees who commute by foot or bicycle), and disincentives (gas and congestion taxes) ought to be coupled with lanes to encourage commuting by bicycle.

And more broadly, perhaps the question is not why we take the bus, walk, or cycle so little, but rather
why we drive so much. Each of these cities is served by a transit system, and although progress may be slower than many prefer, each is making efforts to increase bike-friendliness. Is it because transit planning can’t keep up with sprawl? Or is it because these cities are just too big to serve widely through alternate transportation? Is it because we would only change when we had to start paying for road congestion and air pollution? Or in the end, could it be that despite the rhetoric for more bike lanes and bus routes, we really do love to drive?

Commenters make great observations about the statistics she uses, most arguing that she needs to use data which go into greater detail on districts within cities. Links are included.

[BRIEF NOTE] Why do pro-lifers not consider women who have had abortions criminals?

There was recently a fairly large scandal when Quebec City Archbishop Marc Ouellet reiterated the Roman Catholic Church's dogma that abortion is always unacceptable, even in the case of women who have been raped.

One of Canada's leading Catholic officials, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, is calling for a reopening of the debate over abortion and legislation guaranteeing legal rights for fetuses.

Ouellet, the primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, sought to clarify his position on the issue in a news conference Wednesday in Quebec City, where he is archbishop.

Earlier this month, Ouellet prompted a firestorm of criticism from politicians and women's groups when he called abortion a "moral crime" as serious as murder — even in cases where the pregnancy was the result of rape.

On Wednesday, Ouellet told reporters he was "a bit surprised by the magnitude of the reaction" to his comments, which he said had been "twisted" and taken out of context.

"They took one small phrase and created a weapon … to discredit me," Ouellet said.

But Ouellet, accompanied by Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, took only a small step back from his controversial position.

He called abortion a "moral disorder," but said the circumstances must be taken into account.

"I am not making a judgment on the woman ... because the woman has to take her decision in light of her personal circumstance," Ouellet said. "Only God knows all the elements of her final judgment of conscience.

"And if she goes to abortion, I will help her afterwards and even more because she will need lots of support because of the consequences of the fact."

While Ouellet's statements are, I think, morally repellent--I disagree very strongly with ideologies which legitimate sociopathy as a mechanism for sexual reproduction--no one should pretend to be surprised by them. One thing that has always surprised me about pro-lifers is their refusal to treat women who have had abortions as criminals. If fetuses are in fact fully-fledged human beings, and the decision of a woman to set an appointment at a clinic for an abortion is surely as much a premeditated act as the decision of a woman to murder her children, why should a woman who has had an abortion not be brought up on charges of manslaughter?