U.S. water ruling bodes ill for Manitoba

(August 18, 2017)

I have grown up with the story of the Garrison Diversion Project.

Since the 1970s, everyone this side of the border who understands ecosystems — and anyone with a shred of common sense — knows this project is a disaster for the waterways in Manitoba that are fed by the Red River.

Junior high-school biology students still have no trouble understanding the science — I was one, when construction first began, and nothing has changed since. We have even more evidence of the problems of invasive species, along with the northward migration of new species of flora and fauna, thanks to a warming climate. (Check out the pictures of flying Asian carp in the Mississippi River, for example.)

Without environmental approvals or acceptance by the International Joint Commission that resulted from the Boundary Waters Act of 1909, it has been built in fits and starts over the past 50 years anyway. The Garrison Diversion Project/Northwest Area Water Supply is as much of a monument to self-serving American pork-barrel politics as the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan is a monument to Soviet economic planning from the same time period. Avoidable ecological catastrophes, both.

Budget after budget, representatives from North Dakota managed to get money for this (unapproved) project to supply water to Minot and other communities by tacking some funding onto whatever federal legislation they could, as the price of their support for tightly contested bills.

Which brings us to today, as all that was needed for the metaphorical switch to be flicked and the diversion opened is the kind of legal decision finally delivered in Washington, D.C., by an American judge last Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the Northwest Area Water Supply project complies with federal environmental law, dismissing the objections of Manitoba and the State of Missouri.

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Opinion surveys a moot point in climate discussion

(July 11, 2017)

And the survey says… or does it?

Comments on “what Manitobans want” about a carbon tax sound like an episode of Family Feud. The answers depend on the questions asked and who happened to be in the crowd that was surveyed on the day.

Moreover, expecting Todd MacKay of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF) to say something good about a carbon tax (“Manitobans should resist carbon tax,” July 5) would be like expecting the Dairy Farmers Association to say nice things about margarine.

The lesson to be learned here is never to use opinion surveys to direct government policy one way or the other. Surveys tend to yield the results desired by the people who commission them. From the questions themselves (where a loaded question gets you a loaded answer) to the selection of contributors, surveys have become tools of propaganda more than social analysis.

To use the poorly designed, badly administered, self-selected survey on carbon tax offered by the Manitoba government as anything more than an illustration of how to do things wrong is, therefore, simply absurd.

Further, it’s not just about what you ask, but what instrument you use for the survey. I have queried classes of university students for several years now and found that most of them only have cellphones. Want to know what Manitobans under 30 think about anything? Don’t expect to find out by calling their grandparents on the family landline at 2 p.m.

Nor will even that survey necessarily yield the wisdom we expect from our elders. As Britons found out to their chagrin in the Brexit vote, older people do not always have the interests of the younger ones in mind. Overwhelmingly, the younger voters (at least those who got out of bed to vote) wanted to stay in the European Union — by the same margins older people voted to leave it. Those who had no future of their own apparently did not care much about anyone else’s, either. That’s a disturbing prospect for any society, including our own.

I would thus rather listen to what the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has to say about implementing a carbon tax than have supposedly random surveys or public referenda guide the development of government policy on ecological issues. Nor would I easily accept the conclusions of think-tanks like the CTF, which boasts such former leaders as Jason Kenney in its “non-partisan” work.

Frankly, the term “think-tank” tends to be an oxymoron. Too often think-tanks merely parrot the ideology of their founders/funders, cloaking their bias in little more than a dollar-store disguise — something (ironically) that actually tanks critical thinking and undermines the credibility of any conclusions they reach.

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Budget a Titanic undertaking

(April 24, 2017)

It is a measure of how bad things have gotten elsewhere that the Pallister government’s recent budget was received by many with relief.

In comparison to Twitter tirades and missile launches, it was measured and thoughtful.

Yet, in comparison to what the province needs at a pivotal point in its economic and environmental history, it accomplished little that was positive and confused inefficiency with problems in systems design.

To use a well-worn Titanic analogy, it sorted out the dinner menu in first-class, reorganized the schedule for shoveling coal, ensured the people in steerage had access to some fresh air and polished the brass. It did nothing to deal with icebergs ahead or ongoing misjudgments about speed, course and design.

Trimming expenditures is a poor way of increasing efficiency. Expectations are never reduced, just the resources for accomplishing them, according to the mantra of “doing more with less.” Reducing program budgets leaves staff nothing to do, which then justifies eliminating staff for not doing anything — undermining the morale that might inspire people to find creative new ways of doing things.

Of course, these cuts also tend to be made by people who are measuring only bottom lines, following through on mandates to cut expenditures or staff such as “by 15 per cent.”

Is there inefficiency in government? Absolutely. Could we get more done by spending less? Certainly. Can it be done by just cutting things? Not a chance — inefficiency is the consequence of poor system design.

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