Even in the heat of summer the Ottawa rumour mill is still continuing to churn out reports on events that may or may not be occurring in our nation’s capital. The latest media speculation circulating is that the writ for our upcoming federal election may be dropped as early as this Sunday. For the record I have no idea if this is accurate or not however this does present a good opportunity to explain what the writ dropping means to citizens in Okanagan-Coquihalla and elsewhere.
A writ is “dropped” when the Prime Minister presents the Governor General with an instrument of advice recommending the House of Commons be dissolved. In turn the Governor General then issues a proclamation dissolving what in this case will be the 41st Parliament. The Prime Minister will then present an order in council to the Chief Electoral Officer requesting the writ of an election that is also issued from the Governor General. At this point the Chief Electoral Officer will then send a writ of election notice to each returning officer across Canada. From this point on the writ period has begun and by Canadian law must be a minimum campaign length of thirty six days. There is technically no maximum length for a writ period although the House of Commons, much like a Provincial legislature, is required to sit at least once every twelve months.
What is different about a writ period? There are a number of rules that apply within a writ period that do not apply outside of a writ period including full disclosure and limits on how much political parties and 3rd party advertisers can spend within the writ period. In addition any staff working on a campaign must be disclosed as must in kind donations at fair market value. These strict rules are in addition to existing rules regarding Members of Parliament constituency offices which prohibit their use for partisan purposes in any way, a restriction that also applies to all House of Commons taxpayer provided resources.
Locally Okanagan-Coquihalla will also cease to be an electoral district as a result of new federal boundary redistribution process that occurs every ten years. In our case there have been some significant changes to Okanagan-Coquihalla. The new riding most closely resembling the old riding is now called Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola. Communities such as Summerland, Peachland, West Kelowna, Merritt, and Logan Lake remain in this riding however Penticton will now join a new riding called South Okanagan–West Kootenay. Making up for the loss of the Penticton population in Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola results in adding communities such as Princeton, Keremeos and surrounding areas and part of the city of Kelowna. If you are looking to confirm what federal riding you are located in please visit www.elections.ca for further information.
When is the election? The fixed election date calls for a federal election on Monday, October 19th. Who to vote for? Currently there are a number of candidates already declared to be running in the 2015 election with possibly more on the way. Elections Canada will have a list of declared candidates available and I encourage all members of the public to contact candidates directly to ask questions and share concerns.
Only a final note many have asked recently about new rules that prevent expat Canadians from voting. In reality there are no new rules related to this topic as it was in 1993 that the Parliament of the day passed legislation that prevented Canadian citizens living outside of Canada for 5 or more years from voting. What did occur recently is a court challenge where last week the Ontario Appeals Court upheld the rule that citizens living outside of Canada for five or more years cannot vote in Canadian elections. If you have other questions comments or concerns I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
It is hard to believe this will be my fourth annual accountability report as time has gone by quickly since being first elected in 2011. Like my previous accountability reports this is a summary of my expenditures over the past fiscal year as the Member of Parliament for Okanagan-Coquihalla. As with previous reports I will follow the format using information from the most recent fiscal period of April 1st of 2014 up to March 31st of 2015 in accordance with the Board of Internal Economy reporting periods. While some of this information is publicly available, it can be difficult to find and often exists at several different locations online or not at all. As stated in previous years, I believe it is important for citizens to have an annual summary on the activities of elected officials in public office including the related costs.
Office expenses and travel are typically the most scrutinized areas of spending for elected officials at any level of government. For Members of Parliament from British Columbia, our travel expenses are typically higher than those of MP’s from other areas in Canada as a result of the fact that we fly further distances between B.C. and Ottawa. My personal travel expense during this time frame was just over $ 52,000; this is an increase of $3,000 over the $49,000 spent last year but still down from $55,000 spent in 2013. In my case this works out to roughly 420 hours in an airplane, the vast majority spent flying regular coach class.
Total spending for my two offices here in Okanagan-Coquihalla and one in Ottawa including all staff, leases, advertising and the above mentioned travel was $371,517. Like previous years this is within the top three lowest expenses for a BC based MP. As a comparison closer to home, NDP MP Alex Atamanenko from B.C. Southern Interior has posted spending of $441,536 as a comparison.
Sponsored travel falls into a different category as Members of Parliament are invited from time to time to travel to other destinations both within and outside of Canada for a variety of different reasons. These invitations often include airfare and accommodations being paid for by the host and not taxpayers. When Members of Parliament accept these special trips they are required to disclose and report such travel to The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. I can confirm that while I did receive invitations of this nature I did not accept any complimentary trips or travel during the last fiscal period nor have I accepted any since being elected.
The information included in this week’s report is intended to provide a brief summary of some of the more commonly scrutinized expenses. If there is other information that you are interested in, please do not hesitate to contact me with your request. I can be reached via email at email@example.com or at 1-800-665-8711.
This year we have seen a number of forest fires in Okanagan-Coquihalla. These situations can be particularly demanding in interface areas for those who are evacuated as well as those that are often the last line of protection. While some fires like we saw at Hamilton Hill near Merritt can be quickly and effectively extinguished, we must remain mindful that despite advances in technology and techniques, this work is inherently dangerous and requires amazing amounts of work, coordination and ingenuity. For many of us we can only imagine the sacrifice and perseverance that it takes to contain such fires.
I was glad to join Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Christy Clark with other elected officials at Shelter Cove- Westside Road fire near West Kelowna to hear firsthand the experiences of those who are courageously fighting this fire. One gentleman who led the crew spoke of his years of dedication to firefighting and sense of service that he and his crew drew upon on daily to tackle such gruelling work. It was very gratifying to hear both leaders on behalf of British Columbia and Canada respectively, publicly praise the crew and the multitudes of other Canadians who also are working to keep their communities and areas safe. I would encourage all citizens of Okanagan-Coquihalla who have the opportunity to do so to also extend their thanks.
One subject that sometimes arises that I have not covered in detail previously is transfers from the federal government to provincial governments and territories. The Federal Government has different transfer programs such as the CHT “the Canada Health Transfer”, CST “the Canada Social Transfer” and lastly the Equalization program. What are these transfers programs intended to help fund?
The Canada Health Transfer is the largest transfer program to Canadian provinces and territories. The intent is to provide long term defined funding to assist with the delivery of health care. Recently some claims (including TV commercials) have been made that the Canadian Health Transfer funding has been cut or otherwise reduced by our Government. In reality these claims are false and misleading. Funding in real dollars for the Canada Health Transfer increases every year. From 2011 up until 2016/17 the annual increase in funding is set by legislation at 6% per year. In 2017-2018 the formula for increasing this health transfer funding is set to change in that it will increase at a rate based on a three year moving average of nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However at a minimum provinces and territories will be guaranteed an increase of at least 3% per year or greater, depending upon the formula. In other words, every year Canadian Provinces & Territories will receive a larger Canada Health Transfer than the year previously – there is no year when a province or territory would receive anything but an increased health transfer. Worthy of note is that the CHT monies and its scheduled increases are independent of whether the province or territory in question increases or reduces its overall spending in health care; also as provinces have jurisdiction in their delivery of health care, it is provincial elected officials that decide their own priorities and how the CHT is to be utilized.
The Canada Social Transfer is intended to assist provinces and territories in providing post-secondary education, social assistance programs as well as early childhood development, learning and daycare. These funds are calculated on an equal per capita basis and in 2014-15 are set in legislation announced by our Government to increase annual by 3% each year. This way Provinces & Territories have certainty that Federal transfer dollars for social transfers, like the health transfer, will increase each yearly at a predictable rate. Likewise how these dollars are spent is decided by the Province or Territory.
The Equalization program is perhaps the best known transfer program that is intended for “addressing fiscal disparities among provinces”. While it is sometimes suggested this program be eliminated as it can be viewed as financially rewarding poor provincial governance, it should be noted that the equalization program was entrenched in our Canadian Constitution by the Trudeau Liberal Government in 1982. Although equalization payments are intended to provide comparable services between Provinces these transfers are unconditional and a Provincial Government can spend these funds in any manner they desire. Equalization transfers are based on a provinces ability to raise revenue, a terms described as “fiscal capacity”. Each province will have its fiscal capacity compared to the average fiscal capacity of all Canadian provinces to determine if they are below this average or not. Provinces have two options: get the greater of the amount they would receive by fully excluding natural resource revenues, or by excluding 50 per cent of natural resource revenues. Equalization transfers increases are also based on a three year moving average of GDP growth. Again, provinces decide how best to utilize these funds.
In terms of actual dollars Canada wide over the past decade the Canada Health Transfer has increased from $20.3 billion up to $34 billion while the Canada Social Transfer has increased from $8.4 billion up to just under $13 billion. The Equalization program has gone from $10.9 billion up to $17.3 billion. It should also be noted that in 2015 Newfoundland & Labrador, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan did not receive equalization as they are in effect “have” Provinces under the equalization formula. A rough breakdown of $17 billion in equalization funding includes Quebec received $9.5 billion, Ontario $2.3 billion, Manitoba $1.7 billion, Nova Scotia $1.69 billion, New Brunswick $1.66 billion and PEI $53 million.
In total Canada wide transfers for all Provinces and Territories has risen from $ 41.9 billion in 2005 up to $68 billion in 2015. As these are your tax dollars it is important for citizens to have a clear understanding that despite false claims of federal transfers being reduced in reality each year federal transfer payments are increasing to Canadian Provinces and Territories to help fund critical services that Canadians depend upon. Your comments and questions are welcome firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
In early June the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a judgement with respect to how medical marijuana may be consumed. A brief summary of this ruling is that the Supreme Court decided that medical marijuana, including extracts and derivatives, could be consumed in a variety of different methods beyond the previously defined means of being dried. In essence this ruling opens the door for oral ingestion that does not require “smoking” and allows marijuana laced baked goods, pills and other methods. Also included are cannabis oils along with both dried and now fresh marijuana buds and leaves.
As a result of this ruling Health Canada this week has responded to the Supreme Court decision by announcing a section 56 exemption that will allow licensed producers to produce and sell cannabis oil and fresh marijuana buds and leaves in addition to dried marijuana. It should also be noted that the current regulations related to Doctors in authorizing marijuana for medical use does not change as a result of this week’s Health Canada changes. The new exemption, in place immediately, will continue to require licensed producers to ship in a safe and secure manner, with child-resistant packaging. From a technical standpoint the THC content in Cannabis oils cannot exceed 30mg per ml. A label will also be required to disclose the THC content of the supplied product. There are also a number of administrative and transaction related requirements that will continue to apply. Currently in Canada there are 25 licensed producers in various regions across the country. Health Canada also reminds all Canadians that medical marijuana is not an approved drug or medicine in Canada and has not gone through the necessary rigorous scientific trials for efficacy or safety.
Recently I have had a few questions regarding the ongoing financial crises in Greece. As many citizens are likely aware Greece has voted against the European Union's loan extension requirements. This is a serious situation as one in four in Greece are unemployed and the country cannot pay its bills as the banking system is in near collapse. The question I have been asked is did Canada have money loaned to Greece as part of a bailout package. The answer is no, as our Government declined to loan money to Greece, a decision made by our Prime Minister that was criticized by the leader of the official opposition who supported loaning Canadian tax dollars for the Greek bail out. While the current Greek financial crisis remains a serious concern it is also important to recognize the importance of all Governments to live within its means. While not widely reported, late last week the Ontario Government had its credit rating downgraded– that in turn can lead to increased interest on borrowing costs that can be problematic for a Government not running a balanced budget. Fortunately closer to home the BC Provincial Government has worked aggressively to ensure that BC’s well respected credit rating remains unchanged. On the same theme, the Federal Government has also maintained its AAA credit rating, which is important to ensure that more funds can be spent in areas such as infrastructure as opposed to paying higher levels of interest.
As Parliament is not in session, I am continuing my office’s fourth annual summer listening tour where I formally and informally meet with various constituents and organizations throughout our area. Previous tours have resulted in a number of items for me to take forward that were well received in Ottawa. If you would like to schedule a meeting please contact me via email at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or call toll free at 1-800-665-8711. Concerns, questions and suggestions are always welcome.
One of my favourite days of the year is Canada Day. For an elected official it provides a unique opportunity to engage with many citizens from many corners of Okanagan-Coquihalla and hear about the many things most loved about our country and also to receive questions and concerns. One question that I heard from many citizens this year is “Why don’t we abolish the Senate?”. It is an excellent question.
The short answer to this question is in large part because the Senate is part of our Constitution and a constitution, by its design, is inherently difficult to change. In fact one well respected constitutional law professor recently observed that Canada’s constitution may be one of the most challenging to amend in the world. Fortunately, one of the roles of our Supreme Court is to respond to questions of law or fact concerning the interpretation of our Constitution. In February of 2013 our Government posed a number of questions to the Supreme Court including how the Senate might be lawfully reformed or abolished. In 2014 the Supreme Court responded to these questions.
How did the Supreme Court rule? In essence the Senate cannot be reformed or abolished without unanimous support by both chambers of Parliament, as well as all Provincial and Territorial Legislative Assemblies giving their consent to do so. This is obviously a much higher threshold than the general amendment formula sometimes referred in constitutional circles as 7/50- requiring at least the approval of seven Provinces representing at least half of the Canadian population. Unanimous support may seem to some to be an achievable outcome, more so here in Western Canada where the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have recently stated support for Senate abolishment and it is likely the new Alberta government may take a similar position. The BC Government has also indicated it is open to exploring all options. However further east Quebec has firmly opposed Senate abolition as have some of the Maritime Provinces including PEI and Nova Scotia. This is not surprising given that east of Quebec there are a total of 30 Senators compared to 24 Senators for all of Western Canada.
The challenge in abolishing the Senate is that it will require a full Canadian constitutional debate involving Parliament and all of the Provinces and Territories that will also run the risk of being divisive as it would pit different regions of the country against each other. This would also come at a time where Canada has many other important priorities that cannot be ignored. Closing the gap that exists in many first nations communities, continuing to build infrastructure, supporting jobs and our local economies are a few topics that come to mind of national importance. My intent is by no means to defend the Senate but rather to provide context as to some of the constitutional challenges that exist with respect to abolition or reform.
While on the topic of the Senate last week the Red Chamber (as it is sometimes referred to) was in session to debate and pass a number of Bills that have now received Royal Assent. However as mentioned in my May 13th MP report a number of Bills between the House of Commons and the Senate were not passed. One of these bills was C-518 from my Conservative colleague MP John Williamson. Bill C-518 proposed a mechanism that Members of Parliament and Senators convicted of serious crimes would no longer be entitled to collect a generous taxpayer provided Parliamentary pension and related benefits. This bill was supported by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and all local citizens that I heard from. This was a bill I voted for and spoke in support of and was disappointed it did not pass in this 41st Parliament. As the House is now adjourned I encourage citizens to contact me via email at email@example.com or call toll-free at 1-800-665-8711.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.