Saturday, April 01, 2006

A race that may have everything

On the list of stories coming out today that have to be taken with a grain of salt due to the date, the potential return to politics of Preston Manning has to be at the top of the list:
A few hours (after Klein's statement today) another well-known Alberta politician said he's "leaving the door open" for a bid to replace Klein if he should resign.

Preston Manning, founder and former leader of the federal Reform party, said he'd need to be persuaded that entering a Progressive Conservative leadership race would be best for the party, the province and him.

Manning also said he would have to be convinced there would be enough people willing to do the "heavy lifting" required to sell enough memberships for him to win.
Mind you, if it proves to be true, that may make for a significantly better joke than a mere April Fool's prank. If nothing else, the Alberta PC leadership race won't fail to be an interesting one...though that interest may be somewhat overshadowed by the sense of dread that comes from knowing that one of the candidates will eventually be named the winner.

A new definition of "standing up"

Meanwhile, it should come as no surprise to anybody that Harper's idea of standing up for Canada on softwood lumber appears to be to cave in on every conceivable issue. Not only does the currently-anticipated deal include a complete concession of any ability for Canadian provinces to make their own forestry policy, but it also includes protection money to the American producers who have kept the issue tangled up with their stream of baseless complaints:
Ottawa is demanding the duties be returned before there is any negotiated settlement, although sources on both sides of the border are now suggesting up to half the money could stay with the U.S. industry if it pledges not to launch any more complaints for at least five years.

Key, too, is whether B.C. and Quebec industries can agree on a system of quotas or an export tax during a temporary settlement while the provincial governments change their timber management systems to more resemble a U.S.-style auction system.
As James Travers points out, Harper's first summit seems to have produced nothing but a string of concessions in exchange for a modicum of approval from Bush - and it looks like the follow-up may be even worse for Canada.

Environmental destruction

The good news is that the Cons still haven't explicitly overturned their supposed commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. The bad news is that they're apparently trying to outdo even in the Libs in avoiding any substantive action, as the Cons have cut all funding for the One Tonne Challenge without explanation or consultation:
The new Conservative government in Ottawa has abruptly stopped funding groups across the country that have been promoting the One Tonne Challenge, the quirky program to persuade Canadians to do their bit to help the environment by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions...

Environmental groups that received contracts to urge people in local communities to participate in the challenge were hastily contacted by Environment Canada officials earlier this week, and told that as of this morning, their efforts were no longer being funded...

The story was similar in Quebec. “We got clear indications from the Ministry of Environment that we cannot publicize the One Tonne Challenge, so all the material we had printed, all the advertisements we had, had to be put on hold,” said Hugo S├ęguin, a member of Equiterre, an environmental group overseeing the program in Quebec.
The closest anybody has provided to an explanation is one Ambrose spokesman who claims the Cons are "reviewing" the current climate-change programs and haven't made any funding decisions yet. But there's no explanation as to why funding can't be continued on an interim basis while the study takes place - or indeed as to why Ambrose and her underlings haven't bothered to review the programs under their file in time for budgeting.

If we've learned anything from the Libs' woeful record on Kyoto, it's that the surest way to avoid making any progress is to study the issue to death. And that strategy looks even worse when it means a sudden end to existing structures, rather than merely a delay in building new ones.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Painting by numbers

A couple of observations from the first poll on the Lib leadership race.

First, it's surprising that while Brison does relatively well among current Con voters, Stronach fares the worst of the lot when it comes to current Con votes. Considering that she'll presumably need to be able to speak to the right wing of the party to get anywhere, that'll have to change for her to get anywhere near the top of the pile.

Second, note that for all four potential leaders polled, the number of voters who won't consider voting Lib is between 48 and 53 per cent, while the number committed to voting Lib is between 6 and 9 per cent for each. Then remember that during the campaign, the "committed Lib" number was in the range of 20%. Obviously a lot of current Lib voters are at best reserving judgment on the new crop of leaders - and if the NDP can win enough positive coverage while the leadership race reflects poorly on the Libs, there may be an awful lot of soft support to be won.

Rice: Bush is "brain-dead"

Condi Rice today:
The U.S. diplomat met loud anti-war protests in the streets and skeptical questions about U.S. involvement in Iraq at a foreign policy salon Friday, including one about whether Washington had learned from its "mistakes over the past three years."

Rice replied that leaders would be "brain-dead" if they did not absorb the lessons of their times.

"I know we've made tactical errors, thousands of them I'm sure," Rice told an audience gathered by the British foreign policy think tank Chatham House.
So who does Bush think should bear the responsibility of learning from one's tactical mistakes?
I have made a lot of decisions, and some of them little, like appointments to boards you never heard of, and some of them big.

And in a war, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back and say: He shouldn't have done that. He shouldn't have made that decision.
Note the similar language between the two in talking about the difference between tactical and strategic decisions: clearly both are referring to precisely the same types of mistakes from which one can learn. There's thus no need to argue as to what type of mistakes should be included, or whether Bush's strategic decisions were themselves flawed; the disagreement plainly refers to the same terms.

In Rice's view as stated, a leader is wrong not to learn from his own mistakes; in Bush's, it's better to stay the course with no regard for one's own mistakes, and let history figure out what could have been done better. And it's tough to disagree that the latter position is a rather brain-dead view of the world.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A true Klein disciple

Shorter Iris Evans: "We don't have any idea what exactly we're doing on health care. But damned if we're going to be talked out of whatever it is."

Same old story

While the Cons' new revolving-door lobbying system is definitely deserving of criticism, Pat Martin points out the absurdity of the Libs trying to criticize a continuation of their own behaviour:
Martin...questioned the credibility of Liberal MPs who criticized the Conservative PMO this week: "The hypocrisy is overwhelming. The Liberals built the revolving door linking up the PMO and the lobbyists, and under the Liberals it never stopped spinning.”...

"I call on the Conservative government to stop acting like a bunch of Liberals. We must adopt serious measures, as Ed Broadbent proposed last year, to close loopholes, ban performance fees and end political cronyism and unregulated lobbying.”
It's great to see Martin pointing out the mirror images of the Lib/Con belief that accountability is something that happens to someone else. Hopefully Martin's message will reach through to enough members of both the Libs and the Cons to shame them into pushing for real reform rather than the habitual finger-pointing.

True colours

Garth Turner rightly received some praise for having more principles than other Cons in the wake of Emerson fiasco. But for those thinking he might generally be a voice of sanity within the Con government, his biggest criticism of the Cons' "child-care plan" is that it doesn't go far enough in favouring wealthier, one-income families:
Turner, who was in trouble with his own party last month for publicly criticizing the government, argued Wednesday that many Canadians are not satisfied with a pledge to offer a $1,200 annual allowance to families for every child under six...

“You’re in the highest income tax bracket. You got two people living across the street who are both working, and maybe their family makes exactly the same as your family, but you pay more tax,” said Turner who represents the Halton riding, outside of Toronto. “People say: ‘That’s not fair. And if I were able to split income with my wife or my husband and average between the two of us, we’d end up paying the same taxes as those guys across the street. So why penalize me for caring for my children?’”
While obviously a tax break (without discussing the associated costs in service) would seem to be a plus for all involved, it's amazing that Turner is able to believe the biggest need for child care is that faced by high-income families who can already afford to have one parent stay home full-time. And it surely says something about Harper that he's willing to listen to Turner's full presentation on how to be even more regressive, but not to give a moment's attention to the national movement to build a real solution for those who need it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On green policy

Several environmental groups are taking a fiscally-conservative approach in trying to win a less damaging budget:
The Green Budget Coalition of 20 leading environment groups made cost-cutting the theme Wednesday as they delivered their annual pre-budget recommendations...

"The federal government's intention to cut wasteful spending can, in fact, play an important role in creating healthier lives for current and future generations of Canadians," said coalition chair Julie Gelfand.

The coalition says cutting subsidies to the petroleum sector would save Ottawa $1.4 billion annually, ending support for nuclear power would save $150 million annually, and the mining sector would yield $80 million annually.

"We're trying to help the Harper government deliver on its commitment to cut spending," said Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club. "There are billions of dollars to be saved."
It doesn't appear all that likely that Harper will go against his Alberta backers by forcing the oil industry to survive without the current degree of subsidization. But at the very least, due credit to the coalition for showing how environmentally-responsible policy can be as helpful for Canada's balance sheet as for its environment...and for forcing the Cons to try to defend some of the most wasteful spending currently on the ledger.

Well said

John at Dymaxion World has Michael Ignatieff and his place in the Lib leadership race pegged perfectly:
(Y)es, the Iraq War needs to be a litmus test for a Liberal leader. Not because other issues are unimportant, but because this was, quite simply, a no-brainer. Before the war began, it was clear that this would end badly. I keep banging away at this, and I understand that some people refuse to see it, but all the same: The anti-war crowd didn't turn out correct by accident. We saw the same evidence as everyone else, we were just smarter. We were right. Ignatieff - and everyone who backed this war - was wrong. Period. Full stop. Give it up already.

If I can't expect Ignatieff to make the right decision in a case as morally and practically simple as the Iraq War, why on Earth should I expect him to make the right choice about taxes? Welfare? Daycare? Health care? Nevermind laws and security. The choice before the war began was simple - either you were for an aggressive war sold on lies, or you were against it.

Ignatieff was for it. If he wants a future in politics, let him run for the Conservatives.
If Ignatieff does manage to emerge victorious in the leadership race, that will represent a fundamental shift away from any pretense of reality-based politics within either of Canada's largest political parties. And while that could well present a great opportunity for the NDP, even I don't want to see the Dippers as the lone voice willing to so much as consider rational decision-making in Parliament.

On quickly-broken promises

Predictably, the Cons are splitting hairs in an effort to allow their former staffers to lobby the new government. And one of the groups which backed the Cons during the election campaign is less than happy with the semantics:
Mr. Harper came to power promising to enact strict ethics rules, including a five-year cooling-off period before ministers, ministerial staffers and senior officials can start lobbying the government. Last November, he pledged that a new Accountability Act will be his government's first legislation.

"If there are Hill staffers who dream of making it rich trying to lobby a future Conservative government, if that's true of any of you, you had better make different plans, or leave," Mr. Harper said then.

Those restrictions apply only to minister's aides, however, and not to aides to backbench MPs, so those who worked for the Tories in opposition are not hampered by them...

Duff Conacher, co-ordinator for the ethics watchdog Democracy Watch, said the cooling-off period should apply to a minister's parliamentary staff -- and one should be added for aides to all MPs.

"It's a gaping loophole. There are no rules for MPs' staff, and there should be, because of this phenomena of governments changing," he said.
Note that part of the confusion comes from Harper distorting his party's policy in the first place, as any plausible interpretation of "Hill staffers" would refer to parliamentary rather than departmental involvement. And for that matter, it's awfully hard to see why Lib departmental staff (who are apparently the only ones affected by the ban as now interpreted by the Cons) would expect to get rich based on their connections to a future Con government.

But having implied that their accountability legislation went further than it actually did, the Cons are now using their first taste of power to defend the actions of ex-staffers who are violating at least the spirit, if not the letter, of any attempt to end the revolving-door lobbying system. And they're choosing to do so unnecessarily, as the Cons could quite legitimately claim that they simply don't have any means to stop the current actions when Parliament hasn't yet had a chance to pass accountability legislation.

Instead, the Cons have shown after just a couple of months that they're willing and determined to publicly fight for their own culture of entitlement. And it's not hard to anticipate that turning the ethics-in-government vote (without which Harper would likely still be in opposition) squarely against the Cons next time out.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Excellent suggestion

For once, it's tough to disagree with Harper, as he calls for Canadians to tell their MPs what they want to see done in the new Parliament. Which is a great idea - as long as Harper is also willing to listen to the voices of Canadians who see building child care, ethical government and improving living conditions for First Nations as more important priorities than trying to impersonate George W. Bush. Go to it.

Issue misidentification

Harper wades into the firestorm about his refusal to let the media know when his Cabinet will meet. But any response to the actual issue will have to wait for another day, as Harper has apparently adopted the Bush tactic of arguing against a claim that nobody had made:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says there's no right for people to know when his cabinet is meeting.

While previous governments kept cabinet agendas and discussions secret, they gave advance notice of meetings so that reporters could ask questions afterward. But Harper suggested Tuesday that the very fact ministers are meeting could be kept confidential.

"Meetings of cabinet are private, this is a constitutional issue," said the prime minister, who has been limiting media access to ministers.

Traditionally, reporters gather outside the cabinet room to buttonhole ministers after the meetings. Harper has now banned journalists from the floor where the meetings are held, saying reporters can wait downstairs for ministers who may have something to say.
Now, if anybody had tried to make the case that there's a constitutional right on the media's part to attend Cabinet meetings, then Harper's response would be a strong one. But regardless of what Harper seems to think, there's a massive difference between whether the PM is legally entitled to do something, and whether he actually ought to do that thing. And while that type of attitude is dangerous enough in a private actor, it's doubly so when it comes from the same cabinet which has the ability to set the laws under which it functions.

Mind you, this is far from the first time that Harper's government has taken the view that anything which isn't clearly illegal must be above reproach. And I'm not optimistic that it'll be anywhere near the last.

That said, in addition to being a sign of bad faith, Harper's effort to save face by misstating the issue is utterly futile in this context. While the media doesn't have the right to the accomodations it's accustomed to receiving, it most certainly has the constitutional right to criticize Harper for trying to shut his government out of the public eye. And if Harper doesn't recognize the public appearance that results from his efforts to hide, he won't have any of the rights associated with the PM's office for long.

Taking the debate elsewhere

The NDP points out that while claiming to want a debate on broadcast deregulation, the Cons appear set to force Canada's hand by backing a treaty preventing states from maintaining domestic-ownership requirements in telecom and other related industries:
A document obtained by the NDP shows the Conservatives are pushing ahead with plans to strip foreign ownership limitations on broadcast and telecom. Such moves would break Industry Minister Maxime Bernier’s promise to “take weeks and months to consider all recommendations” before considering deregulation.

The document will be tabled as Canada’s official position at General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) discussions opening in Geneva today. It commits Canada to strip foreign ownership limitations in telecom — with profound implications for telephone, cable and ultimately broadcast services. This position also runs counter to present Canadian law...

In the document, Canada joins a group of GATS signatories asking that foreign ownership rules over the telecommunications industry be eliminated in countries governed by the international agreement. (Charlie) Angus says that stripping these restrictions will threaten the viability of domestic content quotas for music and television...

“The convergence of the telecom and broadcast has made it impossible to relax the ownership rules for cable without having serious implications for the broadcast elements of these corporations,” said (Brian) Masse. “Before any moves are made to pursue such an agenda, this issue must be brought forward to Parliament and the Canadian public.”
The Cons claim to continue to want an open debate. But it's hard to see how such a debate can happen if the result is predetermined by GATS...meaning that the best result Canadians may be able to hope for from the GATS talks would be a lack of consensus which will leave the issue live for further discussion in Canada.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Kingmaking and bookmaking

Apparently David Orchard hasn't had quite enough of the powerless king-maker role, and is considering a run at the Lib leadership. Which leads to the inevitable question: what will be promised by the eventual winner (and then later ignored) in exchange for Orchard's support?

My odds at this point...

- no merger with the Marijuana Party: 2-1
- no merger with the Conservative Party: 3-1
- no merger with Magna International: 15-1

- new ban on GMOs: 7-1
- continued ban on HMOs: 17-2
- interstellar ban on UFOs (Orchard's promise in order to win the crucial Hellyer delegation): 2^35-3

- re-nationalize Air Canada: 10-1
- re-nationalize Petro-Canada: 15-1
- nationalize the Canadian Blog Exchange: 25-1

- withdraw from NAFTA: 12-1
- withdraw from BMD: 17-1
- build our own BMD: 25-1
- build our own WMD: 500-1

Upon winning government,
- never offer Peter MacKay a cabinet post for crossing the floor: 30-1
- offer Peter MacKay a cabinet post, then conveniently ignore the deal after he crosses the floor: 100-1

Perception and reality

Linda McQuaig unloads on Dalton McGuinty for raking in federal money at the expense of Ontario's poorest citizens:
McGuinty hasn't even allowed the extremely low welfare rates set by Harris to rise with inflation. As a result, the buying power of the poor — if you want to call it that — has declined significantly.

Here's how truly mean-spirited the McGuinty government is: It effectively intercepts federal child benefit cheques that are sent to Ontario welfare recipients. It does this by “clawing back” the value of the cheque from the recipient's welfare payment.

This clawback deprives the single mother and her two children of $2,700 a year — an amount that would make a significant difference in their struggling lives.

In the budget, the government proudly announced that it won't “claw back” recent increases in the federal child benefit. But the government has no business taking any part of this federal benefit, which would otherwise go to the poorest children in the province. So it's absurd for McGuinty to pat himself on the back for letting the poor keep a portion of it.
As on the federal scene, the only difference between Con and Lib government for Ontario's poor is that the Libs claim to care while continuing to cut their effective benefits. But that fact doesn't go a long way in paying for the necessities which are sliding further and further out of reach due to reduced purchasing power. And if McQuaig's message (particularly that relating to McGuinty's broken promise) is able to resonate heading into the next provincial election, it may not be long before a party which is interested in actually improving matters, rather than merely claiming to have improved them, gets the chance to do so.

Counterproductive

Tom Axworthy sums up a good chunk of the Libs' weaknesses over the last decade...but highlights the party's continuing problems in the process:
The man the Liberals have assigned to assemble their blueprint for party renewal says the defeated government's national daycare program was "a deathbed repentance," the gun registry was "an administrative disaster" and the response to the sponsorship scandal was "bizarre."

The blunt-talking Tom Axworthy, a former aide to Pierre Trudeau who teaches at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., also says the former government's Kyoto policy was not only difficult to understand, "it wasn't real anyway."

"On file after file, we haven't had bad ideas, but the implementation process has been abysmal," he said in an interview with CanWest News Service. "A press release is not a policy."
It's always a plus to see somebody willing to point out a good chunk of his own party's problems. But then, there's a danger to comments like Axworthy's as well.

After all, the statement appears highly likely to put supporters of Martin at least (and presumably Chretien as well) on the defensive - and thus looking to impugn character rather than dealing with substantive issues. And moreover, it seems to suggest that there's no need for a policy debate, only a debate as to how to better implement whatever vision one is supposed to draw from the current party.

Axworthy's comment may be a fairly accurate diagnosis of some of the Libs' past problems. But the effect of even acknowledging the truth seems to be a continuation of the infighting, back-stabbing and politics by press release that have become the face of the Libs, rather than a blueprint for change within the party.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Old age and old stories

The CP reports on the difficulties now faced by many Canadian pension plans - and the question of what to do in response to those difficulties:
There were 84 troubled pension plans on (OSFI watchlist) at the end of last year, up from 75 plans listed in September 2005.

"Unless significant positive changes occur in the environment, we expect the financial strength of pension plans to deteriorate further and the number of plans on the watchlist to continue rising during 2006," say the documents...

The briefing material warns that 72 per cent of private pension plans were less than fully funded as of June 2005 - a dramatic jump over the 53 per cent of plans in the same fix just six months previously.
Keep in mind that June 2005 was in the middle of a continuous rise in corporate profits. But apparently those profits neither did much to help pension investments, nor caused private-sector employers to take the opportunity to keep their pension funds topped up.

And who will bear the brunt of the problems with existing pension plans? That depends on what the federal government decides. But judging from the article, it looks like the most likely targets are pensioners themselves, either through reduced benefits ordered by the OSFI, or through more lax funding standards which would put the pensions in even more jeopardy. Meanwhile, the idea of having employers account for the shortfall in their own investments by paying into an insurance fund appears to be a non-starter.

Which, as happens so often, seems likely to leave workers with the negative consequences of fault corporate planning. And unfortunately, it's tough to be optimistic that the parties with the ability to shape government policy will see such an outcome as a bad one.

On unnecessary secrets

Cowboys for Social Reponsibility discusses Harper's latest plan to avoid any press scrutiny of his Cabinet. But the most interesting aspect of the story may be in the source which made the information available online:
Regrettably, the story is not available online.

Fortunately, however, a Conservative MP's office (that of Garry Breitkreuz) routinely breaks copyright to provide full text articles to the public, anti-gun control, Canadian Firearms Digest.
It's hard to see any motivation for Breitkreuz to promulgate the story other than frustration at seeing Harper becoming far more secretive than his predecessor now that he holds power. And it wouldn't be surprising to see him frustrated, since Breitkreuz has been rather critical of government secrecy with respect to the gun registry, and introduced his own bill to try to ensure some oversight of matters which previously fell under Cabinet confidence. Indeed, it would be the height of hypocrisy for him to now try to promote Cabinet secrecy now that his party is in power. Which leads to the conclusion that Breitkreuz is not just unhappy with Harper, but sufficiently so to spread stories which will undermine Harper's public standing.

Now, if there's another explanation for Breitkreuz making the article public, I'm curious to hear it. But it appears to me that even the most die-hard Con can't believe that an attempt to silence Cabinet ministers represents something worth publicizing as a positive step...particularly from somebody who's rightfully criticized excessive secrecy in the past.

This story may thus be one more indication of a widening fissure between Harper and the Reformist elements which form a huge chunk of his core support. And if Harper is indeed losing the base (in large enough numbers to include sitting MPs) in his effort to keep on message, that could be a far larger story in the long run than a mere continuation of the policy of keeping his Cabinet quiet.

On continued attention

Broadcast News reports that while David Emerson won't face any punishment from the Ethics Commissioner, his constituents are only getting all the more eager for action:
Many more lawn signs calling for embattled Vancouver-Kingsway MP David Emerson to resign will soon be gracing Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Emerson joined the Tory cabinet only weeks after being re-elected as a Liberal -- prompting many Liberal voters to demand he resign and run in a by-election as a Tory.

Ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro recently cleared Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Emerson of any wrong doing.

But Kevin Chalmers says requests for de-elect Emerson signs have increased five fold since Shapiro's ruling.
While I'm not surprised that the backlash hasn't gone away yet, it's still impressive to see it continuing to grow even as media coverage has been lessened over the past couple of weeks. And while it doesn't seem likely that Emerson will care any more about what his constituents think than he has over the past couple of months, it's looking all the more certain that Emerson will be in for an unpleasant surprise next time Vancouver-Kingsway goes to the polls.