Saturday, January 13, 2007

The costs of poverty

As already noted by April Reign, the Star has started a series on poverty. And while the far more important damage done by poverty is in human terms, even the economic costs alone should be enough to justify far more attention than the problem currently receives:
(NDP MP Peggy) Nash also regards poverty as an economic crisis, not only a social one – a crisis of lost opportunity for a nation failing to make the best use of its existing and potential workforce.

"In the short term, a boost in the minimum wage is a stimulus for the entire economy, because poor people spend what little they have right away on food and clothing and books for their kids that they've been postponing in order to pay the rent," Nash says. By contrast, affluent recipients of windfalls tend to park them in the bank or a mutual fund.

And in the longer run, "the working poor are better able – with modestly higher incomes, decent shelter and affordable child care – to upgrade their job skills and obtain certification for better-paying work.

They become more social, they become more engaged citizens, and of course they start paying substantial taxes."

(OCAP organizer John) Clarke marvels that politicians with a laggard approach to poverty reform ignore the evidence that "poverty is simply not cost-efficient for the economy. Working people denied a decent living wage put extraordinary demands on the system.

"They turn to emergency wards because they can't afford preventive care. They help raise the costs of incarceration among poorly supervised kids whose parents are collectively working three or four jobs.

And they are a tax drain on the treasury in welfare payments to folks who could be paying taxes if they were provided some help in climbing out of poverty."
Of course, none of this should come as particularly new information. And the same knowledge hasn't been enough to spur substantial reductions in Canada's poverty rate over the past couple of decades.

But while far too many Canadians have been left to deal with the effects of poverty in the recent past despite the lack of any plausible excuse for inaction, it's not too late to start making sure that future generations won't be pushed into more of the same. And a real investment in reducing poverty now could pay off many times over in the future - both for the people who benefit directly, and for Canadian society at large.

Not to be trusted

David Akin follows up on the Alan Riddell case, pointing out that the Cons conceded in court the existence of an agreement that they vehemently denied publicly during the campaign:
I remember clear as if it was yesterday standing in a scrum with Stephen Harper on Dec. 4, 2005 -- in the middle of the election campaign Harper would eventually win -- asking him if the party had agreed to pay Riddell off as part of a backroom deal -- a confidential agreement -- to clear the way for Riddell.
"In fact there is no agreement and he hasn't been paid anything," Harper told reporters on Dec. 4, 2005.

"The party does not have an agreement to pay Mr. Riddell these expenses, and Mr. Riddell has not been paid anything to date," Harper told us said when asked again on the same day...

Among those who negotiated directly with Riddell or his representatives in late 2005 were Ian Brodie, who was then and is now Harper's Chief of Staff; Mike Donison, then and now the executive director of the Conservative Party; and Don Plett, who was, then and now, the president of party. Brodie and Donison had, like Harper, rejected the idea that there was any backroom deal with Riddell when asked about this in late 2005.
What's even more interesting in a look at the decision is that the Cons manage to have twisted their public denials that any agreement existed into an attempt to claim they gave notice to Riddell that they were repudiating the agreement (treating their own responsibilities as being done with due to an alleged breach by Riddell). But this new effort at spin met with about as much success as the Cons' attempt to deny the agreement in the first place. From para. 79 of the judgment:
The C.P.C.'s position is that its statements made to the news media following its becoming aware of Mr. Riddell's press releases and communications to third parties to the agreement that "there is no agreement to pay Alan Riddell ..." should be interpreted as an act of repudiation. I cannot and do not accept this argument as reasonable in light of the facts.
It's significant enough that so much of Harper's inner circle was flat-out lying to the public during the course of the campaign - but it shows the Cons' sheer contempt for reality that after admitting the lie to the court, they'd then try to read those words as meaning the exact opposite of what they said in an effort to avoid being held to their own contract.

Fortunately, Power J. didn't see fit to play along. And in light of yet another admitted incident of lying to the public by the Cons' inner circle, there's no reason at all for anybody within that group to be seen as remotely credible in the future.

A strategic tradeoff

A couple of blogs have already weighed in on Pierre Ducasse's decision to seek the NDP nomination in Hull-Aylmer rather than Manicouagan. While the move certainly seems to put the NDP's Quebec lieutenant on a stronger footing going into the next federal election, it's worth noting that the incumbent NDP candidate who managed to run a strong fourth in the riding was no slouch himself. Which means that the NDP's chances of taking Hull-Aylmer may not increase by much with Ducasse - and that the likely loss of votes in Manicouagan could easily outweigh any gains in Hull-Aylmer.

Mind you, it's an understandable tradeoff for a party which won a decent number of votes in Quebec without taking any seats last time out. But the downside is worth keeping in mind as well - and this seems like the kind of move that will be ripe for second-guessing if Ducasse can't buck the odds to win Hull-Aylmer.

Selective review

The Cons are reviewing Canada's prison system to determine whether some types of spending result in value for money. Which would be well and good if taken in isolation.

But if the Cons really are interested in making sure money put into prisons is spent well, wouldn't it have made far more sense both to avoid cutting off programs before their results were in, and to apply the same value-for-cost principle to the sentencing regime which stands to send prison costs through the roof rather than ignoring the complete lack of benefits?

Friday, January 12, 2007

A noteworthy finding

The Cons' efforts to break a contract with former candidate Alan Riddell then stonewall against his resulting claim have apparently come to an end, as Riddell has won his lawsuit against the party:
The Conservative party has been ordered to pay up to $50,000 to a former candidate who agreed to step aside for a star recruit in the last election.

A judge has ruled that the party had no right to renege on agreement struck with Alan Riddell, who stepped aside as the candidate in Ottawa South so that Allan Cutler, the bureaucrat who blew the whistle on the sponsorship scandal, could carry the party banner in the riding.

The party had argued that the agreement was void because Riddell broke a confidentiality clause, telling the media the party had agreed to pay him up to $50,000 to cover expenses he'd incurred in running for the nomination.
For all the justified concerns about the Cons' consistent effort to shoot the messengers of any undesired statements both within their party and in the public service, the decision should offer a hint that such a strategy isn't going to be met with any better reception in the courts than in the wider public. Which leaves only the question of whether PMS and company will learn that it might be worth changing that pattern - or whether they'll instead choose to deal with far larger consequences down the road.

Time to meet

Steve V suggests that Jack Layton and Stephane Dion put together a "high-profile, extensive meeting" to work on the environmental issues which figure to dominate the upcoming sitting of Parliament. And in principle, the idea is definitely worth putting into practice, or even expanding if possible. After all, an opposition summit - either between Layton and Dion alone, or including Duceppe and/or May as well - could both facilitate the development of a consensus policy, and ensure that the Cons then can't get away with anything less.

That said, I'm far from sure that such a meeting is likely to happen. After all, Layton and Dion have already met to discuss the subject among others - which was followed by Dion calling the review of the Clean Air Act a "game" and resolving to "denounce" it. Which unfortunately signals that it'll take somewhat of a loss of face for Dion to now agree to work with Layton...and creates a real risk that contrary to Dion's own admonition that the issue of climate change shouldn't be a partisan one, politics will win out over the upside of cooperation.

Lacking value

Apparently the Cons are roughly sticking to their first excuse when it comes to their refusal to disclose any report by Wajid Khan. But their reasons for doing so are only getting less plausible and more hypocritical:
The government has insisted that Mr. Khan did submit a report, but that it is based on private meetings and provides confidential advice to the Prime Minister. A spokesman for Mr. Harper, Dimitri Soudas, rebuffed Mr. Dion's call for the report to be made public.

"If this is a way for Mr. Dion to see this report in order to figure out what his policies will be, then he has a lot of work to do," Mr. Soudas said.
Remember that much of the Cons' criticism of the Libs this past election was based on a rightful concern about paying large sums of money for oral reports which would give rise to no documentation or accountability. Given that background, it's remarkable that the Cons are now eager to defend exactly the same practice without even seeming to be aware of the turnaround.

Not that the move necessarily conflicts with the Cons' values since they took office, as PMS has clearly demonstrated his view that accountability doesn't apply to him personally. But the conflict with the Cons' self-proclaimed values seems like it should be a far bigger potential problem for Harper than the contents of the report itself. Which can only lead Canadians to wonder just how little Khan delivered for the money - and what other "confidential advice" might be serving as an excuse to funnel money to the Cons' political ends.

An impending battle

Nathan Cullen has reported back on the NDP's talks with John Baird. And while Baird seems to be relying on an easily-debunked excuse to avoid action on climate change, it looks like Baird himself may be entirely willing to work on the NDP's terms:
Canada's rookie environment minister says he will face a tough fight with some Tory colleagues on green issues, according to an NDP MP who met with John Baird this week.

MP Nathan Cullen says Baird conceded to the concerns during a get-acquainted meeting in Vancouver with Cullen and federal NDP Leader Jack Layton.

"He expressed there's reluctance within some parts of his caucus," Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C., said Thursday, referring to NDP demands for dramatic action to counter climate change.

"He acknowledged that some of the suggestions we have made, some of the policy suggestions are difficult for his members to accept."

Pressed for more details, Cullen noted: "(Baird) just said he'll have a fight on his hands when it comes to some issues."...

"(The Tories) have painted themselves into a corner on this," said Cullen.

"(Baird's) the guy that's supposedly going to get them out of this and he's got a lot of work to do."

Cullen said Baird did not detail specific plans though he agreed to help smooth the progress of committee hearings on the Tory's widely criticized clean air act.
Given PMS' well-known control over his caucus, it's surprising that Baird would use internal dissent as a reason for not taking action. And it's entirely entirely likely that the real problem comes from the PMO's own lack of will to take effective action, not from "reluctant" backbenchers.

That said, it's striking that Baird himself seems to have implied a willingness to take the other side. After all, it wouldn't make much sense to talk about a fight if Baird wasn't willing to try to convince the rest of the Cons to accept real action. Which means that if enough public pressure can wear down the remaining resistance (whether it's at the top or at the bottom of the Cons' power structure), there appears to be a real chance to put an effective environmental plan in place.

Update: John Ivison points out some more reason for hope:
But it is clear that change is in the air. Responding to a suggestion that the government's Clean Air Act might be watered down by the freshly struck legislative committee that is taking a look at the legislation, (Baird) looks quizzical. "Watered down? Beefed up, maybe," he said.

He is keen to get the legislation into committee later this month. "The immediacy of this challenge is not lost on me. We have got to move the ball forward. We don't need any more studies. What we do need is to begin to take action."
Given the Cons' general refusal to admit errors, it's doubtful that we'll see any stronger condemnation of its strategy to date than an implication that it could stand to be "beefed up"...and the determination to take action rather than consulting the environment to death also looks like a plus. Though it's of course still an open question whether Baird's actions will match his positive language so far.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pharma logic

The CCPA released a study this week on Canadian prescription drug prices, reaching a few less-than-surprising conclusions about the country's fastest-growing health care expense.

The first important conclusion is that brand-name drugs simply aren't subject to competitive pricing. Current legislation sets a maximum price for new drugs equal to the highest price currently charged for equivalent medication - and the actual price of new drugs tends to be extremely close to the upper limit even where multiple drugs (at varying prices) are available. And even after generic alternatives are available, brand-name companies don't drop their prices to competitive levels.

Those high prices lead naturally to unusually high profits, as brand-name pharmaceutical companies make a higher rate of return on investment than other manufacturers.

So why does all that matter? Well, it signals that there's no reason to think that increased market forces will do anything but drive prices even further up: there's no indication that the current unwillingness to compete is hurting big pharma's bottom line, and every reason to think that any scope to raise prices further will come directly out of the pockets of Canadians. And at the same time, the currently-strong return on investment suggests that the industry is far from struggling at the moment, and may well be able to absorb the effect of some further price restraint.

As for the public policy implications, even relatively strict price controls (compared to other countries) haven't been able to keep drugs from being the most rapidly-increasing medical expense in Canada. Meanwhile, a national pharmacare plan isn't likely to be a magic bullet against increasing costs either, though a combination of such a plan with a more effective price-management regime would likely help to bring Canada's costs under control.

Of course, the current government has been failing miserably on both counts, combining complete disinterest in the provinces' consensus on a pharmacare plan with gratuitous giveaways to brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers. But even if the present regime isn't interested in moving in the right direction, it's still useful to know where Canada should be aiming in the future - both in hopes of getting there before too long, and to highlight just how far removed the Cons are from the kind of policy which can help to make health-care costs more affordable.

On giveaways

Geoff Matthews highlights a CTF report criticizing the amount of money some corporations have raked in through federal government assistance. While it's too simplistic to assume that none of the payments had some good reason behind them, the all-too-rare attention to corporate subsidies should play nicely to the NDP's current effort to put people back at the front of the line over big business interests...that is, as long as it isn't long forgotten by the time Canadians again decide which party should be put in charge of deciding how to handle Canada's public money.

On calculations

There's been lots of talk today about Jean Lapierre's resignation from his Outremont seat, with most of the discussion focusing on either the slight addition to the Cons' stability, or the prospect of Justin Trudeau as a successor. But I have to wonder whether the ramifications are far greater - as it seems entirely possible that the strategic value of the riding might make the Cons significantly more likely to want a spring election than they would otherwise.

Based on Outremont's past results, the riding looks to be a highly unpredictable one in a general election (even if it's primarily been held by the Libs). The Bloc, NDP and Cons were all within striking distance of Lapierre in 2006, and the seat looks to have at least been in play every election since 1980. Which makes Outremont a fairly plausible pickup opportunity for the Cons (as well as the NDP and the Bloc) in a general election.

But if the seat becomes the focus of a by-election, the equation changes dramatically. Then, the stronger Quebec party structures of the Libs and the Bloc would be turned toward the riding in full. This would likely lead to much more of a two-party race, and do nothing but harm the Cons' claim to be competitive in Quebec. And just in case that wasn't a bad enough outcome for the Cons, if Justin Trudeau does win a by-election for the Libs, then he'd be able to start building his own reputation in the riding and in Ottawa before the next federal election - making Outremont a more difficult battlefield, and potentially giving the Libs an extremely prominent face to sway other Quebec races as well.

Now, I'm sure Harper does place a very high value on staying in power, and it's far from clear that he'll want to give it up lightly. But with an Outremont by-election having so much downside, PMS may well conclude that he's best off taking his chances in a general election sooner rather than dealing with the fallout from a by-election later.

Update: Macleans points out yet another downside to a separate by-election, as it would once again highlight Michael Fortier's reluctance to face any voters.

Promise broken

The issue seems to have largely faded away with the recent focus on the environment. But the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada points out that the Cons not only haven't yet created a single child care space, they haven't even come up with a plan to try to meet their commitment of 25,000 spaces a year:
The Conservative government has not produced any new child-care spaces despite promising before the election a year ago to create 25,000 spots within 12 months, critics say.

In a report to be released Thursday, the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada calls on the government to abandon its plan, which it describes as piecemeal. The non-profit group demands the government come up with a more comprehensive strategy...

Harper (had) said a Conservative government would create 125,000 spaces over five years with the help of the private sector and non-profit organizations which would get a $10,000 tax credit for every space created.

"We figure we'll reasonably create about 25,000 spaces a year," Harper said then.

A year later, no spaces have been created and the plan for more spaces hasn't been completed yet...

Monte Solberg, who became minister of human resources and social development in the cabinet shuffle on Jan. 4, was not available to comment. His office said he was still learning the file.
It's worth comparing the Cons' action to that on the environment to see just how PMS plans to treat progressive issues in the future.

The Cons' recent willingness to at least talk and posture about the environment signals that Harper isn't completely immune to shifting political sands. But at the same time, it appears that it takes a push from every other party, the media, and a strong set of public interest groups all at once to force the Cons to take an issue (relatively) seriously. Meanwhile, the experience with child care suggests that any break in that type of pressure is taken by the Cons as an opportunity to ignore an issue no matter what they've promised.

Which means that for anything good to come of the Cons' stay in power, the opposition strategy going forward has to be to deal with the most urgent issue which the Cons politically can't afford to ignore, then let the Cons fall on their wider program. Fortunately, that appears to be exactly what Layton plans to do - and if the other opposition parties join in the task, then PMS may not have any choice as to whether he wants to play along.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Speaking to the pocketbook

It remains to be seen how the NDP will follow up on its Net presence in light of last month's brouhaha. But Layton and company at least look to be providing an answer to the main messaging question that's come up online, setting out a message focusing on pocketbook issues and leading-edge progressive policies in the coming session:
In his opening address at his caucus' winter retreat, NDP leader Jack Layton blasted both the Conservatives and the Liberals for failing on the environment and in protecting hardworking middle-class families...

“While CEOs, banks and oil companies are enjoying record windfalls, working and middle-class families are feeling squeezed, finding it harder to make ends meet,” said Layton. “It's time that hardworking, everyday people in this country were put first, not last.”

When Parliament resumes, the NDP will target lowering bank charges and credit card interest rates, expanding access for training and post-secondary education, and strengthening health services for families, seniors and people with disabilities.
Based on Layton's full speech, the focus on health services should be a particularly interesting one with an emphasis on long-term care and home care - which while perhaps not areas where the Cons are likely to act, are undoubtedly programs where the NDP's groundwork now should be able to help set out the path for future progress.

Again, it'll be all the better if the NDP starts highlighting some more progressive economic policies as well. But those concerned about the NDP's earlier focus on Afghanistan and other issues should find the message to be going in the right direction - and hopefully there's be more policy to follow.

See also the CP's coverage.

On bridge-building

Sheila Copps has an interesting theory about NDP MPs:
Once elected, NDP members of parliament usually are harder to dislodge than your garden variety MP. With more freedom to freelance, they share with the Bloc the benefits of a parliamentary platform with no government responsibilities. Socialists usually are good constituency members who work hard in the riding and build bridges with community groups.
While "good constituency members who work hard in the riding and build bridges with community groups" sounds like an entirely fair description of the NDP's members, I have to wonder about the theory that Dippers are actually harder to dislodge. Maybe it's just my recent memory of Nystrom, Proctor, Nystrom (again), etc. in the time I've been watching Saskatchewan ridings which raises some doubts. Or maybe the phenomenon is different in the Ontario ridings more familiar to Copps - which would bode well for the Dippers in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek among others.

But it's worth asking whether there's anything to Copps' theory. Do NDP MPs in fact tend toward a higher re-election rate than other MPs? And if indeed the NDP does tend to do well in re-electing its members, have the Dippers' new additions since January 2006 developed strong enough roots in their ridings to continue the trend?


There's good news today in the fight for effective public health care, as Alberta Health Minister Dave Hancock says that the Stelmach government will focus on improving the public system rather than continuing Ralph Klein's efforts to undermine it:
The days of Alberta igniting controversies over health care privatization are done, said Dave Hancock.

"As far as I'm concerned the whole public/private delivery question has had more heat than light," Mr. Hancock said. "Public/private was about choice but didn't really help with the sustainability. Sustainability has got to be the focus."

Under former premier Ralph Klein, Mr. Hancock said, the province's Conservative government had been led "astray" by proposals such as Mr. Klein's "Third Way" -- a European-style mixture of private and public health care delivery...

(T)he damage inflicted by Mr. Klein's bumbling public relations strategy has left Alberta less prepared to modernize its health care system than other provinces, said Faron Ellis, a political science professor at Lethbridge Community College.

"Not only are we falling behind on innovation and reforms," he said, "we seem to have completely stalled the process."
This being a National Post article, the rest of the text consists of efforts to pressure Hancock away from his sensible decision, as well as predictions that provinces won't have any choice but to privatize. But while the Post may want to claim that there's no room for debate with future moves toward privatization, Hancock's message signals that the debate may be close to resolved in the other direction. If Alberta is now looking to put its efforts behind innovation and improvement within a public structure, that will have two major effects which could prove decisive.

First, it will remove the loudest pro-privatization voice from the ongoing health care discussion. And once other provinces lose the excuse that their own privatization pushes aren't as bad as Klein's, it'll be far more difficult for them to privatize quietly.

Second, the announcement presumably signals that Alberta will be removing resources from its past privatization efforts, and putting them into public-system improvements instead. Which should both make Alberta's own system more effective, and result in the development of better practices which can be applied in other provinces as well. And those improvements in turn should undermine the case for privatization as being the only way in which health care can evolve.

Of course, one can't take Hancock's devotion to the public system for granted, and it may be that he simply sees some positive PR now as more likely to enable his department to make its own quiet changes later on. But for the moment, Canada no longer has a single provincial government willing to explicitly defend a plan to move health care into private hands. And that can only help the cause of preserving and improving the public system.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Continued political difficulty

Prince Albert Con MP Brian Fitzpatrick is retiring from politics, potentially putting in play a seat in what's been relatively fertile NDP territory in the past. We may find out before too long how much of his support was personal and how much was partisan - but Fitzpatrick's departure figures at least to open up the field in PA, and the more that happens in Western Canada, the tougher time the Cons will have putting resources into Ontario and Quebec seats where they're already facing an uphill battle.

PR tactics

When Scott asked a couple of days ago whether there was any chance of proportional representation being the NDP's price for cooperation with the Cons, my response was that any process to get to PR would likely last longer than the NDP would be able to stand propping up Harper. Today, the Cons seem to have put forward a shorter process to evaluate PR and other democratic reforms - but also shown signs of rigging it against PR as an outcome.

The (relatively) good news is a tender for a consultation process which would ask for Canadians' input into their electoral system:
Canadians will be given a chance this spring to weigh in on the latest floor-crossing MP or any other matter relating to the country's democratic peculiarities.

No, a federal election has not yet been called.

The Conservative government indicated Tuesday it wants to begin public consultations by March 9 on "the challenges facing Canada's electoral system and democratic institutions" and have a draft report completed before the end of May.
Which is well and good as a starting point. And indeed, it could potentially make for fairly fertile ground for cooperation between the NDP and the Cons: if Harper publicly agreed to implement the result of a fair consultation in favour of PR, that might well make it worth the NDP's while to ensure the government lasted through the spring session as long as the Cons' budget wasn't too toxic.

But then, there are the terms of reference for the project - which appear to clearly signal the Cons' determination to push against any PR system:
The tender calls for a private think-tank to join forces with a polling firm to canvass a cross-section of Canadians on five specific topics:
-"political parties (e.g., their role in policy development);"
-"the electoral system (e.g., particular characteristics that are important for citizens, such as the link between elected representatives and a particular geographical area);"
-"the House of Commons (e.g., decorum);"
-"the Senate (e.g., the role it should play and the powers it should possess); and"
-"the role of the citizen (e.g., civic engagement)"
While the survey is supposed to be "open-ended", it surely can't speak well to Cons' openness to PR that the lone piece of editorializing within the terms of reference is to judge as "important" a connection between geography and representation. And anybody bidding for the contract will presumably be able to pick up on that signal, meaning that even MMP-style proposals will likely be DOA.

Of course, there's always the possibility that the Cons are seeking to bury the report and be done with it. And in that respect, it's worth noting that the Cons apparently include Canadians as a whole in the class of adviser whose advice they won't commit to making public:
Federal officials did not respond to questions about whether the report will be made public.
Now, it's not beyond possibility that Layton could seize on the current outline and push Harper in the right direction - both by making sure that the results are made public, and by pushing for party representation to at least be put on equal footing with geographic representation in the terms of reference. But for now, the plan looks to be aimed solely at glossing over the Cons' past commitments to democratic reform with as little change as possible to the system which put them in power. Which could result in both a waste of money, and a missed opportunity for real democratic improvement.

(Edit: fixed link.)

On track records

The serious concerns about Stephane Dion's economic vision for the federal government continue to pile up, as Murray Dobbin highlights the governing record of Dion's "principal secretary" Marcel Massé:
More than any single individual, Massé was responsible for designing the systematic gutting of the role of the federal government between 1995 and 1997, when Paul Martin's unprecedented budget cuts took place. He was chair of the Program Review Committee, which, despite its benign name, struck fear into the hearts of every Liberal cabinet minister and was referred to throughout the government as the Star Chamber. Cabinet ministers, even the most senior, were invited to the committee to receive -- not to discuss or debate -- their single piece of paper revealing the size of the cut to their departments. Paul Martin, Massé and Martin's deputy minister David Dodge (now head of the Bank of Canada) designed and implemented the most radical restructuring of the Canadian state in history.

Massé opposed across the board cuts -- he wanted, as did Paul Martin, to rewrite the role of government. So he saved the largest cuts of all for what we might call nation-building departments: transportation, natural resources, industrial and regional development, the environment, agriculture and fisheries. Then he delivered a savage, if not fatal, blow to the guiding principal (sic) of social program universality, killing the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), which had provided national guidelines for social assistance since the era of Lester Pearson, and the long-standing (1977) Established Programs Financing, the method by which Ottawa provided targeted, accountable funding for health and post-secondary education to the provinces. These two programs were now to be delivered in a single lump sum to the provinces with no strings attached.

It was massive decentralization beyond anything Brian Mulroney had ever contemplated and greater than even Preston Manning had publicly called for. With the stroke of a pen, the three men reversed 40 years of federal leadership in social policy.
Dobbin also notes some additional points of concern in Dion's own background, including his links to Tom Flanagan (yes, that Tom Flanagan) and his past anti-labour votes.

But the bigger question isn't so much where Dion has been as where he's going. And based on Dion's choice to build his inner circle around the likes of Massé, it appears that Dobbin is right in retreating from his earlier hope that Dion would have any interest at all in trying to stand up to the pressures of corporatism and decentralization. Which leaves only the question of whether other Canadians who recognize the need for nation-building by the federal government will see through Dion before it's too late.

Hidden from sight

The latest embarrassing round of Con spin seems to have started, as Harper's inner circle tries to explain why Wajid Khan's report on the Middle East will apparently be suppressed rather than going public as was originally promised.

The first obvious problem with the newly-announced suppression of the report is that it was never part of the discussion when Khan was first assigned the task. As noted in the article, Khan himself made perfectly clear that the report was to be available at least to politicians from all parties:
But Mr. Khan, the MP for Mississauga-Streetsville, insisted at that time that his work was not partisan, that his report would be made available to politicians of every stripe, and that he would brief former interim Liberal leader Bill Graham.

"I want to make sure that the Prime Minister gets it and all parliamentarians get it, because my work is not limited only for the Prime Minister. I'll be talking to Bill Graham. The critics will have information.

"The idea is to educate everybody with the best information that I can get and then they can go from there," Mr. Khan said in an interview last August with The Globe and Mail.

When asked specifically if his report would be made available to all political parties, Mr. Khan replied: "Oh yeah."
It's not entirely clear whether the Cons planned all along to suppress any report while telling Khan the opposite, or whether the position changed (perhaps as Khan took his walk across the floor?). But there's plainly no reason why a publicly-available report would have been valuable then but would be useless now.

Leaving that change of position aside, though, there's an even bigger story based on the Cons' response, as the wider view on information in general only confirms the worst suspicions about PMS:
(T)he Conservative government will not release the report, said Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Mr. Harper. He argued that Mr. Khan's advice would become less valuable if his report is made public.

"It defeats the purpose of Mr. Khan being an adviser to the Prime Minister. He would then be a pundit rather than an adviser, on such an important issue," Mr. Soudas wrote in an e-mail replying to The Globe's request for a copy of the report.
Apparently the Cons have no shame at all about claiming that information is worthless to them if it's publicly available. Which can only indicate that Harper sees himself as a Bush-like "decider", with neither Parliament nor the public at large playing any role in measuring his actions against the information on which they were based.

In effect, Soudas' statement has the ring of Kim Campbell's greatest gaffe writ even larger: "the public is no place to discuss serious issues". And unlike in the case of Campbell's statement, the context only aggravates the comment, as it's clearly expansive enough to apply to any "important issue" at any time with no advance warning. Meaning that Khan's reversal can only be seen as the tip of the iceberg when it comes to information that's being hidden from the public view.

Not that the Cons' attitude is particularly new given the haste with which they ensured that the Accountability Act would leave the executive untouched. But Soudas has now said publicly what the Cons were only willing to imply with their previous actions. And that position once again begs the question of why Canadians in general should put any trust in Harper when he has nothing but contempt for them.

Update: Paul Wells points out a few of the well-known documents which would qualify as mere "punditry" under the Cons' definition. Can it be long before the Wheel of Excuses gets another spin?

Monday, January 08, 2007

On little-known powers

With the kind of media attention that the NDP received today inevitably comes increased notice from the blogosphere as well. And for reasons unknown, Dylan at Right of Centre Ice took the opportunity to propagate the Lib myth that a little-known constitutional provision gives Jack Layton the sole authority to determine the timing of each election:
Jack says he'll be "tough" with the CPC on the environment and won't let them off the hook easily. In the end, I believe the New Democratized Clean Air Act will be just as idealistic and useless as the CPC version when all is said and done and the writ is dropped by Jack's hand.
Needless to say, it must have been a particularly clever trick for Layton to use his writ-control techniques to force the Libs and Bloc to each decline to vote down the Cons on confidence matters last year while the NDP never had to do so. And PMS must not relish the possibility that any attempt to approach the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament could be stopped by a Dipper-controlled force field.

But at least those of us in the NDP can be happy to have total control over election timing. And we can only hope Layton uses the power as a chip to bargain for the "tough" environmental legislation which Dylan seems to think the NDP can't win.

(As an added bonus, not that it was only in writing his next post that Dylan was willing to acknowledge putting on his tin-foil hat.)

Edit: cleaned up wording.

On selective coverage

It's certainly a plus that the NDP has been receiving headline press from multiple sources today - for Jack Layton's CBC interview, the resulting CP coverage which received prominent placement on numerous news sites, and the National Post's own story (despite its apocalyptic headline and opening paragraph). But it's worth noting how weak an impetus there was for the coverage compared to some more significant NDP stories which were largely ignored over the last year.

Much of the newfound focus seems to be based on the erroneous view (surprisingly bought into by at least some Dipper supporters) that the NDP is more "relevant" based on Wajid Khan's floor-crossing, which allows for the prospect that the NDP and the Cons could pass any agreed legislation with no support from a single Lib, Bloc or independent MP.

Now, it's problematic enough that the coverage being given to the NDP is arising more out of an external event than out of the Dippers' own activities. But it's not clear why the new arithmetic would matter at all on the main issue where there's talk of cooperation.

After all, it was always possible for legislation to pass with the support of only the NDP, the Cons and one or both of the current independents. And given that one of those independents is a former Con who has criticized the Cons' lack of environmental action, was there ever much risk that an environment plan which managed to bridge the gap between the NDP and the Cons would fail to pick up that extra vote?

In other words, the only real impact of Khan's crossing the floor is to ensure that if the NDP and the Cons can agree on an environmental bill, there's a slightly lower incremental risk of such a bill failing to pass. And it's far from certain that it'll even be possible to agree on legislation to begin with given PMS' refusal to work toward Canada's Kyoto commitments.

In contrast, the NDP has received precious little press attention for its important contributions to Canadian politics over the last year, including its Kyoto plan, its Early Learning and Child Care Act, its call for a national pharmacare program, and its successes in helping to reverse some of the Cons' most damaging cuts. And it shouldn't be difficult to see that more coverage of the Dippers' action on those issues would have led to a much different storyline than one now being put forward.

For now, hopefully the current position in the limelight will help the NDP to push its poll numbers back in the right direction. But that's only the first step in ensuring that the NDP is able to help push for progressive policies which can lead to real improvement in the lives of Canadians. And contrary to how the media has covered the NDP over the past year, those policies should make for a far more important story than the political fallout from a single floor crossing.

No logo, no slogan, no clue

The Globe and Mail reports on the results of the Cons' attempts to find a winning environmental message last summer. And if PMS does believe the environment to be more an issue of perception than reality, that may be because the Cons weren't even close to getting the perception side right:
A federal ad campaign promoting "Canada's New Green Plan" was abandoned last year after focus groups panned nine logos and several slogans, documents show.

The various images of trees and water were derided as "bush league" and "childlike" by some of the Canadians invited to review them, though some praised one particular logo as "tattoo worthy."...

The focus groups were conducted for Environment Canada by the Strategic Counsel, a Toronto-based public opinion research firm that also provides polling services to The Globe and Mail.

Six logos and slogans were tested by 12 focus groups in July...

The logos were narrowed and revised down to three new ones that were tested in August, but the reaction appears to have been only slightly more positive.

Among the many critiques, participants criticized some logos for depicting a yellow sky, giving "the appearance of smog or a polluted skyline." One was rejected because it was "overwhelmingly" seen as a political party logo.
Sadly, it doesn't look like the Cons have learned much in the meantime, as their current "let's see how little we can get away with" position doesn't figure to be a winner either.

Instead, it seems all too likely that PMS and company simply don't believe the environment to be an important enough issue to be able to develop either policies or messages which sound even remotely plausible to Canadians who actually are concerned about it. And if that's true, then it's long past time for the opposition parties to team up both to show the Cons what real environmental action looks like, and to make sure that the Cons' childlike conception of the environment is left in the rear-view mirror.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Content choices

Has anybody else noticed that Canoe's main news page has apparently eliminated its "Politics" heading in favour of a "War On Terror" link consisting (predictably) mostly of cheerleading for the status quo in Afghanistan?

So far the only cache I've been able to find is one from 2005. But as recently as last week I recall seeing the Politics heading, although it had been poorly updated for quite some time. And the Politics link still appears to be online, though Canoe's main news page no longer links to it.

While there's a minor loss of convenience now that Canoe is no longer doing anything to highlight political news, that's not too much of a problem for somebody who's willing to look elsewhere for the stories (particularly given that Macleans has separated out politics stories from its CP feed for some time). But when that move is coupled with a conscious choice to add a new category whose very title is pure Bush/Harper spin, Canoe can only be seen as trying to push public attention away from everything else going on in Canada toward the Cons' favoured turf.

May day - Kyoto in trouble

In case Elizabeth May's past misrepresentations about Jack Layton haven't affected some observers' belief that May can be considered a credible alternative to political as usual, May showed today that she'd rather be embarrassed in a climate change debate than say anything positive about the NDP or other parties:
If he's serious, May said, Baird will push the government to meet the Kyoto targets.

"We have an international treaty to which we are legally bound. And so far, since the Harper government came to power, we have become an international pariah. ... We are the only Kyoto party at this point that said we are not going to try. Now that's really a stunning thing for a country like Canada to do.

"We can meet Kyoto targets but it will be very difficult," she said.

May didn't give details about what concrete steps Canada could take to meet the targets, however.
Now, it speaks poorly enough for May that neither she nor her party has anything approaching a plan to deal with their signature issue. And that sadly doesn't seem to be anything new, as the Greens' 2006 platform was embarrassingly light on details.

But let's leave aside the question of whether the Greens have a plan of their own to offer. In the interest of defending Canada's ability to meet the Kyoto commitments she continues to tout, wouldn't May be far better off pointing to the NDP's Kyoto plan and other emission-reduction plans past and present (even for their ideas even if May doesn't agree with all the means), rather than simply leaving unanswered the question of what Canada could do to reach the goal which May sees as so important?

It remains to be seen whether the Cons can weasel their way out of any concrete action on global warming and other environmental issues. But that task becomes far easier for them when Canada's supposed environmental party refuses to offer any suggestions as to how to reach essential targets. And if May really thinks that she's helping anybody by neglecting to mention the work that's already been done to move Canada toward its Kyoto commitments, then both her party and Canada's environment may be in trouble going forward.

Update: Eugene has more. Meanwhile, the Greens are also calling for support to biofuels to be detached from any talk about wider emissions legislation - which seems to hint at a lack of interest in participating in any negotiations, as it hardly seems a good idea to start detaching parts of the whole if a complete strategy is actually in the works.

Freedom of exploitation

The CP points out that the likely effects of dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board are already well known. And for all the Cons' talk about "freedom", the only real freedom which would result from gutting the CWB is that of corporate giants to profiteer at the expense of any independent producers who dare to try to continue in that role:
Alberta's beef producers already know what happens when multinational food giants dominate the market. Now, with the future of the Canadian Wheat Board in doubt, there are fears of diminished profits if U.S. grain buyers are left to do the same thing.

"If the federal government is able to kill the only real Canadian, farmer-owned marketing arm, which is the wheat board, then we would be faced with the same situation that the beef producers are now," says Stewart Wells, president of the National Farmers Union.

Canada's beef packing industry is dominated by two huge U.S.-based companies, Cargill and Tyson Foods, both with slaughterhouses in southern Alberta. Cargill also has one of the largest cattle herds in the country.

This allows the company to buy from itself to guarantee a steady supply of beef. Farm groups and producers say this tactic gives Cargill an advantage over ranchers trying to get the best price for their cattle.

In 2004, several farm groups pushed unsuccessfully for a law to forbid major meat packers from owning cattle to prevent them from using their own herds to manipulate prices...

The grain industry has rarely experienced the wild price swings that have occurred in the beef industry as a result of the mad cow crisis.

But profiteering in the beef industry has been widely publicized. Cattle ownership by Cargill and Tyson resulted in the firms getting $45 million of the $400 million in mad cow compensation from the Alberta government a few years ago.

Alberta Auditor General Fred Dunn said this drove down cattle prices and helped the companies triple their profits.

Art Macklin, a former wheat board director, cites recent examples of what could happen with grain prices if private buyers are left to dominate the market.

"We had a surplus in durum for the last two or three years," says Macklin, who operates a mixed farm in northern Alberta. "If the wheat board had not regulated the supply into that market, we would have driven down prices.

"That's exactly what will happen if the big companies control the market and we have a surplus," he said. "They will not manage supply for the benefit of producers. The weakest seller will then set the price."
Needless to say, that kind of outcome can only be disastrous for the producers involved - even those who may be able to make a few extra bucks at the beginning before the power disparity between purchasers and producers becomes entrenched.

But for the Cons, mere price manipulation and profiteering is apparently a small cost to pay for the opportunity to put producers at the mercy of big agribusiness. And that view regarding the Wheat Board should lead to nothing but justified suspicion about where they plan to take the rest of the economy as well.

On propagandists

It's always a plus to carefully expose the flaws in an individual piece of bought-and-paid-for pseudo-research. And it helps all the more to remember the institutional structures in which propaganda is able to flourish - which you'll be able to do thanks to Cliff's overview of the Fraser Institute's recent attempts to scare government out of existence, for the greater profit and glory of its corporate donors.

That said, I wonder whether there's room for an even more thorough effort. While a blog post, backgrounder or single-issue dismantling every now and then always helps to put things back in focus, it seems that the right-wing propaganda machine gets enough media attention to justify an interest-group watchdog to respond systematically. Which leads to a couple of questions: has this been done yet? And if not, how much interest is there among other Blogging Dippers, Progressive Bloggers and other readers in setting up such an organization?